Does the Bible actually forecast the future? The answers are surprisingly varied among Christians. ‘Preterists’ say ‘no’ – that Biblical ‘prophecies’ refer to events that had already happened or were in the process of happening at the time the prophecy was made. There are varying levels of preterism – partial and full being the best catch all descriptions. The opposite of preterism is ‘futurism’ – that Biblical prophecies refer to events still in the future at the time the prophecy was made. A full preterist rendering of the book of revelation (and other New Testament apocalyptic material) will insist that it all relates to AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. A futurist reading will insist that most of what is described in New Testament apocalyptic passages still waits to be fulfilled. If you recall a previous blog of mine, you know that I think both things are true in a sense. Historicism (of which there are also varying degrees) sees the same material as a description of ongoing historical processes – the beast is a description of the Satan inspired actions of earthly governments – active at the time – still active now and ramping up for one last rampage to come.
The fact is – the Bible is a uniquely layered book. Certainly, the prophets were dealing with the unjust behavior of kings, nations, and the citizens of Israel AT THE TIME. And yet – they, at least on the face of it, forecasted the Babylonian Captivity to come as a result of present behaviors persisting into the future. Even Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were mentioned by name – presumably before either man was born. Presumably? Enter another area of Biblical scholarship – Historical/Textual Criticism. Each book of the Bible as we have it is a compilation of multiple authors strung out over time and in addition to the major authors, there are no end to scribal additions, addendums, and editorial notes that, either purposely or accidentally in the process of generations of copying by hand, became part of the text. In this view, the book of Genesis has at least four major authors spread out over the centuries and the book of Isaiah at least three. If this view is true, then obviously material concerning the Babylonian Captivity, including the names of the major pagan kings, are to be viewed as later additions to the older prophetic works.
Just to make my own position clear, HOGWASH! If this makes me a simpleton, so be it. But let us consider something about the aforementioned ‘beast’ – a feature of both Old and New Testament Apocalyptic. In the Old Testament, the main source of material concerning ‘the beast’ is found in the visions of Daniel. (Don’t even ask me how many authors Daniel is supposed to have had!) The first time the idea crops up, the ‘beast’ terminology is not used. In chapter two, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a gigantic statue as representing a series of four earthly kingdoms and some climactic event (a stone cut from the mountain but not by human hands rolling into and smashing the whole statue in the days of the fourth kingdom) It is nearly impossible NOT to understand the four kingdoms as Babylon, the Medo/Persians, the Greeks (Alexander the Great) and Rome – the big thing that God is going to do with the stone not cut by human hands then, happening in the days of Rome’s rule. The material is revisited and expanded upon in Daniel’s own vision of the beasts and the interpretation of that vision in chapters seven and eight. To this must be added Daniel’s extremely precise and accurate recitation of (presumably) future events in chapter eleven. If the Historical Critical view is to be held concerning Daniel then the bulk of this information must have been added much later than the ministry of Daniel. After all, we can hardly expect a man 500+ years BC to know the succession of kingdoms and events that will lead to the advent of Christ. That would be – humanly impossible. Exactly!
So, here’s the thing, Copies of Daniel (from small fragments to nearly whole manuscripts) were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The physical inscription of these copies date from as recent as 60 AD to as early as 125 B.C. Analysis of the vocabulary and grammar of the older copies indicates a scribe in 125 BC reproducing much older copies – probably with Hebrew originals – indicating MUCH older copies. If this is not clear – whoever copied the book of Daniel in 125 BC used letter forms, spellings, etc. not from his own time – evidence of copying something that came from an earlier era. And the specifics of that earlier Aramaic version of Daniel suggest that it was translated from an even earlier Hebrew version. But even if we only back up to 125 BC – the date of the copying of the oldest DSS Manuscript of Daniel – we are half a century before Rome Seizes the quarreling fragments of Alexander’s Empire AND – over the nearly 200 years of hand copying we have, despite the superficial differences in the structure of the letters and the spelling of words – no material is added. It’s all there as far back as we can go – at least 125 BC with solid evidence of much earlier iterations. If the Hebrew original is correctly inferred, we are essentially back to the time of Daniel himself.
So, I ask again – does the Bible actually forecast the future? Unless everyone screams ‘NO!’ I will write a second installment on prophecy soon.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church