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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Isaiah vs. Nostradamus

Does the Old Testament prophecy the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?  Blaise Pascal, inventor of the probability calculus and therefore an expert judge of odds, considered prophecy a very strong argument for the truth of Christianity.  (He did not simply tell people to gamble on God because the payback is better if you're right, as he is often represented by critics who have not read Pensees for themselves.) 

But it is often claimed that in fact, the Gospel writers, Matthew being most guilty, projected prophecies of Christ onto the ancients.  Isaiah was taken out of context.  He didn't really mean to say anything about a coming Messiah.  He had something (Israel?) or someone (Jeremiah?) else in mind, when he wrote those great and mysterious passages about the "Suffering Servant" (Isaiah 52-53). 


How the question came up.  A philosopher named Richard Field, who teaches at Northwest Missouri State University, made such an argument to me some time ago on Amazon.com.  Dr. Field challenged Christians to point to an OT passage that clearly speaks of Jesus.  I mentioned the "Suffering Servant" song.  Field, a genial (if stubborn!) atheist (to paraphrase Mike Huckabee, "atheist but not angry about it"), offered the popular response that Isaiah was referring to Israel.  Field argued that OT prophecies are too general to be convincing as genuine predictions about Jesus.  Isaiah is like Nostradamus.  What Isaiah says about the "Suffering Servant" is so vague it could apply to lots of people, and probably did apply (in the thinking of the original author) to someone else.

Not having read Nostradamus myself, I asked Field to give a quote or two from the man by way of comparison. He offered three.

What I'll do in my first response, is to focus on the best of those three (the other two were simply awful), and compare it to Isaiah. I will also add insights from Isaiah commentators to argue that in fact, the analogy between Isaiah and Nostradamus fails dramatically, and helps show that far from being "vague" and "unclear," Isaiah pinpoints Jesus (not Israel) with great specificity.  

Field responded to my initial argument, and we went back and forth a few rounds.  I include most of the conversation, because I think it helps elicidate the power of the Isaiah passage, and the nature of the challenge it presents skeptics. 

I'll let Field have the final comments in this post, since I think the case for Isaiah, on Jesus, has been made, by that point. 

Please bare in mind, as you read the conversation, that two questions are at issue here: (1) Whether or not Isaiah describes a person who much resembles Jesus, and (2) If he does, whether or not the best explanation for that is divine prophecy. In this post, we address (1) almost exclusively.

Marshall: It looks (not knowing Nostradamus independently) that the third of your examples is the best:

"The blood of the just will be demanded of London burnt by fire in three times twenty plus six. The ancient lady will fall from her high position, and many of the same denomination will be killed."

You explain:

"This is thought to be a prediction of the fire of London in 1666. Superficially it might be striking because of the number 66 and mention of fire. But the number could mean 1566, 1766, etc. It could also be interpreted as London being burned in 66 places . . ." As for the blood of the just, we can only guess. The "ancient lady" is interpreted as the Cathedral of St. Paul, which burned down. Why so? Even in cryptease, one would think the text should be "the ancient saint." And in fact historical records show that there were few human casualities attributed to this fire, so "many . . . will be killed" doesn't fit."

"This well illustrates the general problems I find with texts thought to be prophetic. First, inevitably they are vague, so that many meanings can be read into them, although believers always wish to read into them precisely the meaning that they want. Phrases or single words are thought to be significant, but other aspects of the text that are not consistent with the preferred reading are ignored. (You place, for example, all too much weight on "piercings" in the Isaiah text, IMO.) And of course, the text is claimed as true prophecy only after the events, which makes the prophecy worthless."

Let's first consider these comments about Nostradamus, then address the specifics of the "Suffering Servant" passage afterwards.

The parallels in this case seem to be: (1) The number "66;" (2) a fire; (3) in London; (4) an "ancient lady;" whatever that means, "falling;" and (5) those "of the same denomination" dying.

Given the number of fires in those days, and the number of deaths over the following several centuries, not to mention burnings in London -- 40, 41, 42, 43, 44 are years in the 20th century when lots of fires broke out in London! -- the "coincidence" is superficially arresting, but as you say, not so convincing. If he's right about the dissimilarities, then the odds against (1) and (2) coinciding in (3) some time over the ensuring 4 1/2 centuries are probably no more than about 5 to 1, maybe even odds. (4) sounds good, but as Field says, involves gender confusion; and (5) detracts from rather than adding to the coincidence.  No great religious inquisition seems to have occurred in London in 1666. 

So honestly, if that's the best a whole book full of "prophecies" can provide us, looking at more than four centuries of subsequent history, I agree in not being at all impressed by it. By the very law of averages, one would expect a few "prophecies" to do much better than this. 

Two other points stand out if we compare this text with Isaiah. First, this stuff is not well-written. Pig-men in the sky? Deutero-Isaiah is, by contrast, brilliant poetry. For whatever it's worth -- and it may or may not be relevant -- Isaiah was a genius, while Nostradamus sounds (at first exposure) like a crank, not even Dan Brown material.

Second, and more importantly, there's the question of coherence. What was Nostradamus' point? As Field says, one can't really do anything with his prophecies. Where are they supposed to come from? Why Nostradamus? What story do they help us make sense of? Why should he care about a church in London? What were church people in London supposed to do, stop going to church, or go to a different church?  What are were people of his time supposed to do?  It all seems very arbitrary -- an "insipid mess of inspiration," as Mark Twain said of the Book of Mormon.

If these impressions are accurate, this is very different from Isaiah. Isaiah is telling the story of his people Israel, and their redemption by God. Either from a Jewish or a Christian perspective, the Suffering Servant is part of a coherent, meaningful story that fits within a larger story -- the redemption of all creation.

In other words, there is some sense to God revealing himself to Isaiah. It is important. It mattered to Handel, it mattered to Pascal, it mattered to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. For that reason, the general idea of Isaiah as prophecy makes more sense than Nostradamus' random walk.

I'll analyze the details of the Isaiah prophecy (as I had done previously in the conversation), in response to your critique, and bring in comments from experts on Isaiah, to argue that Isaiah is not vague at all, below. 
Field: I'm not sure that the relative merits of the quality of writing are significant here. We might lose some of the merits of Nostradamus' writing in translation, since in the original he wrote in poetic quatrains, and for all I know they might have been quite skillfully done. But in any case, the point seems irrelevant. One might speculate that God would only reveal himself to the most gifted of writers, but that would be a rather extraordinary speculation.

Again, with your second point, it is not clear to me what the relevance of the point is. You're right, of course, that Nostradamus offers unconnected visions of the future. But if I were to concede the reality of prophecy, I don't see any reason to believe on some a priori basis that prophecy must come in the form of a story rather than simply unconnected visions. The ancient Greeks very much believed in prophecy--thus their various oracles. But the prophecies of the oracles were unconnected visions (again expressed in vague or ambiguous language typically), but this fact did not in the least dissuade the Greeks that these prophecies were real.

In your upcoming defense of Isaiah, I hope you include some response to my recent alternative interpretation of Isaiah, viz., that the suffering servant is a personification of the nation of Israel itself. Personification is a quite old literary technique. Indeed one might say that it is the most ancient. Polytheistic religions would take various human abstractions and personify them into the figures of their gods. Apollo was light, but also truth, clarity, etc. The interpretation, I would suggest, fits much better into the context, which celebrates the release of the nation of Israel from bondage.

And the various allusions in the passage can be interpreted in this way. Israel grew up "among us" without beauty or majesty. Israel was a small and rather powerless nation compared to the great empires: Egypt, Babylonia, etc. The world took "no account" of Israel. Israel was "pierced through" by "our faults," that is Israel's faults. There's no lack in the OT of references to these. Yahweh struck him down, that is Israel down, for the atonement of sins. Quite a few references to Yahweh's vengeance as well in the OT, against his own people. But then the suffering servant will suffer no longer. "He shall see his heirs" in my translation. If the servant is dead as an individual, in what sense could he possibly see his heirs? An after death aschetology, if I recall righly, was not prominent among the Jews of this period, The nation of Israel, I would suggest, will see their heirs, and their heirs will prosper. Did Jesus have heirs?

I offer this as an alternative interpretation as a scientist can question the results of another scientist by reinterpreting the data. I believe the task for you is (1) explain why a story about a supposed individual would appear in the midst of a celebration of the freeing of Israel as a people, and (2) how your interpretation is any less sufficient than mine given the text.

Marshall: I. I think both differences between Isaiah and Nostradamus are relevant.

The first is that Nostradamus seems poor reading, at least in English, while Deteuro-Isaiah is brilliant poetry. It seems natural to give more credibility to someone who writes well and coherently, than to someone who seems to string random words together. 

The second is that Nostradamus seems to offer no explanation for the phenomena, while Isaiah does. Surely this is important. What is the mechanism by which Nostradamus allegedly knows the future? Why did the mechanism work through Nostradamus instead of, say, William Blake? Is that mechanism credible? Is it internally consistent? Without answers to those questions, there is an apriori weakness to the hypothesis that Nostradamus really did know the future.

With Isaiah things are clearly quite different. The mechanism is, "God revealed the future to or through Isaiah." Isaiah adds to his credibility by saying things that make great sense, in other parts of the work. There is a great deal of consistency to the hypothesis -- if God exists, why shouldn't he fortell the future? If he fortells the future, why not through an admirable man like Isaiah? It also makes sense that so important an event as the death of God's son for the sins of the world, and his resurrection, would be revealed in such a prophecy. From the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts to Pascal and to modern Christians, such prophecies point people to a system of truth, rather than just one or two random facts about some church in London.

So even a priori, Isaiah is much more credible than Nostradamus. Add in the details of the respective "prophecies," and he becomes much more so.

II. We've agreed that Nostradamus' "prophecy" about the fire in London, while eye-catching, does not defy long odds at all. I put the number at, at most, 5 to 1. Given that Nostradamus made thousands of prophecies, it would defy huge odds if he never achieved that much.

Now let's look again at the "Suffering Servant" in Isaiah. Bare in mind, again, that we keep questions (1) and (2) separate for the moment -- the issue is whether there are coincidences, not how to explain them, at the moment. I'll follow the same scheme as before:

1. The Suffering Servant was a "man of sorrows." We've agreed that this appears pretty vague. At least one commentator thought there was more to it than that, but let's agree to take this item as neutral in terms of probability.

2. The Suffering Servant was badly disfigured: "His appearance was disfigured beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of the sons of men." (52:14) Allowing for normal Jewish hyperbole, we can take this to mean he was beaten to a bloody pulp. To some extent, we can take this as a function of later items, and assign it no added improbability independent of his manner of death, described below.

3. The Suffering Servant was thought to have been punished by God. "We regarded him as a stricken one, smitten of God, and afflicted." (53: 4) This was, of course, true of Jesus. Not many people are seen in this light, though of course in the ancient world suffering in general was often taken to be from God. Perhaps we can assign this a specificity or probability of one in ten.

4. "Pierced," "bruised," and "stripes." (53:5)  

Westermann: "In whatever way they are taken, the words speak of violent action by others against the servant within the context of a court of law."

5. Silent before accusers. (53:7) It is true, as you point out, that Jesus did ultimately speak during his trial. However, the Gospel writers make it clear that he refused to speak at some time during his trial before Pilate, and that Pilate was amazed and commented on this silence. Let's assign this a specificity of one in four.

6.  Redemptive meaning to death. "He shall sprinkle many nations;" this appears to be a phrase from the act of sprinkling blood on the people as a sign of redemption. This is confirmed in 53:4: "Surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our sorrows . . . He was pierced for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the punishment which procured our peace fell upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed."

These and later passages that echo these ones should not be quickly shunted aside. It is hard to know what Nostradamus' point was, but Isaiah's point is clear: redemptive sacrifice.

It is true, as you say, that the redemption of God is unverifiable. What is verifiable is that that redemption is ascribed to Jesus more than any other human being in history. (Ali, in Shiite Islam, might be second.) It is also verifiable that this goes back to the gospels, and even earlier Christian writings, and almost certainly to Jesus himself.

This is, then, a highly specific claim. If a hundred billion human beings have walked the earth at some point in time, and this characteristic is applied to one more than any other, I think it is fair to count, in the abstract -- not considering  issue (2) yet -- the probability or specificity here as one in 100 billion. These verses seem to apply to Jesus better than anyone else who has ever lived.

7. "Grave with criminals, with rich in death." The juxtaposition of these two phrases -- which is traditional Jewish poetic parallelism -- surprised one skeptical scholar so much he ascribed this to a scribal error. "That the burial places of rich men and criminals should have been identical is highly improbable, and makes the lines meaningless." (Whybray, the New Century Bible Commentary)

Of course, the Gospel accounts place Jesus with criminals at death, and have him buried in a rich man's tomb. Whybray in effect concedes the immense improbability of the combination. Let us conservatively put it at one in 100.

8. The Suffering Servant is innocent. To some extent, this is assumed in his role as redeemer and sacrifice for the sins of others. Still, the innocence of Jesus goes beyond the mere fact that he has not committed a capital crime. Let's not assign this item a number, for now. 

This also completely elliminates the possibility, remote to begin with (especially in light of 7), of applying this passage to Israel. Blocher:

"No other prophecy attributes even a relative innocence to Israel or to the remnant. Isaiah certainly does not do so. Much less do the prophets attribute sinlessness to the nation! Isiah says that the son will die 'for the transgressions of my people,' the prophet includes himself . . . The Servant, therefore, is not Israel."

9. The Suffering Servant would be "Cut off" but would "see the light of life." Here the idea is that the Suffering Servant would BOTH die AND (apparently) come to life again.

Whybray: "It is held by most commentators that the passage refers to the Servant as one who had been put to death by his enemies, but who will, astonishingly, be restored to life by Yahweh, who accepts his suffering and death as vicariously attoning for the sins of others."

Blocher: "A miscarriage of justice -- and yet the fulfillment of God's plan! The servant's death will be a sin offering. It will involve the glorious vindication of the Servant, whose fruitful life beyond the grave will prove him to be the Righteous One. It centers on the justification or acquittal of those many transgressors among whom the servant will be numbered, and for whom the whole intervention is to take place."

There is a better case for the death and resurrection of no person in history than for Jesus. In this case, it is not merely that the claim is most commonly believed, but that there is evidence it is true.

Again, that's an apparent specificity of one in 100 billion.  Nor is there any fixed and necessary connection between dying redemptively, and being resurrected. 

10. Would "make many righteous." ("By knowledge of Him, shall my Righteous Servant make many righteous." (53:12)

Here the question is what it means to "make righteous." It could mean the same as 6, redemptive suffering, in which case it adds no specificity. On the other hand, if it means, "to make into better people," it would add much more specificity to the prophecy, and also be best fulfilled by Jesus, in all of human history.  (As I have in effect argued in several books.)  But for simplicity sake, again, I'll set this one aside for the moment.

Summary:  Far from being a "vague" prophecy, Isaiah 52-3 is highly specific, and applies only to Jesus of all human beings who have ever lived, with a specificity that appears (as far as we've taken this) astronomical. (One hundred billion is also about the number of stars in a galaxy, and galaxies in the universe!) There is obviously no real comparison to Nostradamus here, except by way of contrast. Anyway, question (1) -- which was our original question -- is, I think, answered. (Even leaving some of the supporting evidence to the side, for simplicity's sake.)  Clearly, Isaiah's prophecy could not have applied to Israel, but it most clearly applies to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as described in the gospels, of all human beings who have ever lived.  The only reasonable option for a skeptic, I think, is to fall back on (2), and argue that the gospel writers invented these qualities to fit the prophesy.  (Well, the most reasonable option would be to believe in Jesus.) 
Field: I. I simply don't see any relevance in these issues. I don't know how brilliant Nostradamus's poetry was compared to Isaiah's. But what's the point. What is the evidentiary value in making this point?

As for Nostradamus's lack of explanation of his prophecy, again I see no issue. He might have explained it as revelations from God, to himself at least. But raising the issue reverses the order of questions. First one must establish on independent grounds that a text is prophetic. It is only after this has been established that the issue of the source of prophecy has any significance. There are many who believe in the prophecies of Nostradamus. Let them make there case, and then if they do, which I seriously doubt they can, we can argue over the source.

Quite honestly I think you beg the question. The notion that the Scriptures are revealed by God cannot be used as evidence of prophecy by Isaiah, since the presumption of believers is this revelation. One cannot use the claim that the scriptures are revealed by God as a basis for claiming that they are prophetic, and then argue that some supposed parallels between the OT and the NT are evidence of revelation. You have to decide where the basis of your argument lies. If it is the supposed parallels, then you need to leave supposed revelation for later.

II. First, I doubt your method of assigning numerical probabilities. This ignores the variant interpretations that are possible.

As for your points, the following.

1. Yes certainly this is neutral.

2. The fact is that there is no reference to the disfigurement as being a result of a beating. Indeed it says that the servant grew up among us "without beauty" and that the people "screened their faces" from him, and all of this before any reference to physical abuse. This could be any sort of disfigurement.

3. You seem to contradict yourself here. I would stress the point that suffering generally was attributed to supernatural forces, in ancient Israel as in so many other ancient nations.

4. Here's what my translation says.

"Yet he was pierced through for our faults
crushed for our sins.
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed."

No reference to "bruising" or "stripes." Again, here we would have to consult an expert in ancient Hebrew.

5. Yes, Jesus didn't have much to say, but then how many accused people have much to say. I don't know, but I hardly think this is good evidence. And again, this gets back to an issue with prophetic texts.

Discrepancies are ignored. Why doesn't Isaiah say "He said little before his accusors." Let's not simply put aside that this is a discrepancy.

6. The point I would make here, which I've made before, is that all sacrifice in the ancient world was regarded as redemptive. One can hardly speak of sacrifice with any meaning without redemption as a correlative theme. The text clearly applies the theme of sacrifice to the Suffering Servant, so naturally redemption is going to be the other side of the equation. Killing someone is not itself a sacrifice without this theme. I think the only thing here you might point out is that a human being is being represented as a sacrifice. But I don't find this as any telling evidence either way. At what point was Christ regarded as a sacrifice? Certainly by the Gospels, but by that time OT influences could easily have made their mark.

7. My translation says

"They gave him a grave with the wicked,
a tomb with the rich."

Again, we'll need an expert in ancient Hebrew to sort this out. But I've commented on this before. This seems to refer simply to the change of viewpoint with respect to the Suffering Servant, from despised to honored. I don't find this terribly significant. Jesus was not honored by receiving a tomb. And he never shared a grave with the wicked.

8. I agree, because the innocence of the sacrifice is again simply a part of the theme of sacrifice. I don't agree that it eliminates the personification interpretation. We have no reason to discount the idea that Israel saw the exile in particular as due to sin. In any case, the question isn't about what Israel in general believed, but what Isaiah himself believed. In any case, to portray the sacrifice as guilty would ruin a beautiful literary motif. Can Isaiah have a bit of poetic license?

9. Your calculation here just assumes as a fact that the resurrection of Jesus is historical fact, something that I would deny. But futhermore, the Zoroastrians were the first, to my understanding, to hold a belief in resurrection of the body, and it is further my understanding that the notion entered Israel or Judaic culture only after the exile, after they were exposed to such beliefs. So there's a perfectly good historical explanation for this reference. The notion of resurrection did not begin with the Gospels.

10. Again my translation makes no reference to making "many righteous." Here is my translation of 53:12.

"Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners."

Perhaps you'll find grist for the mill in my translation. But "dividing the spoil with the mighty" doesn't sound like Jesus. Wasn't he all for the meek? Again, let's not discount material that is disconfirming.

So indeed, I think the meaning of the passage is far more vague than you believe, and admits of other interpretations. And there's the other huge issue that I think you must grapple with, and I haven't found you doing it. How much did the Gospel writers know of the OT, and how much did they incorporate the themes of Isaiah into their telling of the story of Jesus?
MarshallI. The question is whether there is good reason to believe Nostradamus or Isaiah trasmitted genuine intelligence about the future. Surely the internal coherence of a claim is highly relevant to its plausibility. I am saying that the prophecies of Isaiah have this internal coherence, thus gaining plausibility, as compared to Nostradamus.

Why is the divine inspiration of Isaiah more plausible than that of Nostradamus? Several reasons: 1. Isaiah gives us a plausible mechanism for that inspiration -- "thus says the Lord." 2. Isaiah's prophecy fits within a "salvation narrative" that stretches from God's promises to Abraham, to the work of (say) Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Nostradamus, by contrast, is arbitrary. Here Occam is at work on Isaiah's behalf: there is a plausibility structure that embraces Isaiah 52-3.

3. It is plausible on other grounds to believe God speaks through Deutero-Isaiah. Our prophet writes like this: "I dwell in a high and holy place; I also dwell with him who is lowly and contrite in spirit, to restore th spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend forever, nor will I be angry forever . . . " "The wicked are like the troubled sea; it cannot rest and its waters cast up mire and dirt . . . There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked."

Billions of people have found it credible that God is speaking through these writings. I think it is obvious why. I could tell you how passages in these chapters have changed MY life for the better, encouraging me to do good things for other people.

Nostradamus' weird meanderings about "pig-men" in the sky do not earn such a priori plausibility.

4. There is internal theological consistency to the hypothesis that God speaks through Isaiah. Again:

"If God exists, why shouldn't he foretell the future? If he foretells the future, why not through an admirable man like Isaiah? It also makes sense that so important an event as the death of God's son for the sins of the world, and his resurrection, would be revealed in such a prophecy. From the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts to Pascal and to modern Christians, such prophecies point people to a system of truth."

All these issues go directly to a common skeptical complaint about miracles -- that they are "arbitrary." That is a reasonable complaint -- I think you've brought it up yourself! Well isn't it to the issue if some miracles are far more arbitrary than others? Notradamus seems totally arbitrary. Isaiah does not. If you deny the importance of the difference, at least in theory, then it seems to me you're flying in the face of one of the key intuitions of modern science.

II.All right, let's see what if anything we agree on about my ten points:

"First, I doubt your method of assigning numerical probabilities. This ignores the variant interpretations that are possible."

I think the two main points are pretty clear. But we'll see. Skipping (1), on which little disagreement:

"(3) You seem to contradict yourself here. I would stress the point that suffering generally was attributed to supernatural forces, in ancient Israel as in so many other ancient nations."

No contradiction. "Often" does not mean "always," and only a minority of people in any culture are thought to be especially afflicted by God. (If everyone was, why would the prophet bother to say it?) So there is certainly SOME specificity built into this item. One in ten seems conservative to me.

We agree to wave (4) until we figure out the Hebrew better.

"(5) Yes, Jesus didn't have much to say, but then how many accused people have much to say."

Are you kidding?  The normal procedure, especially for an innocent person, is to talk the judge's head off. Nowadays the accused are told to keep quiet and let the lawyer do the talking, but Jesus didn't have a lawyer.

I think one in four is also conservative. The prophet is clearly pointing to something that he believes stands out from the norm.

"(6) The point I would make here, which I've made before, is that all sacrifice in the ancient world was regarded as redemptive. One can hardly speak of sacrifice with any meaning without redemption as a correlative theme."

True to some extent, but the commentators make a point of saying this was something unusual in Hebrew culture.

"At what point was Christ regarded as a sacrifice? Certainly by the Gospels, but by that time OT influences could easily have made their mark."

You're getting the cart before the horse, here. First, we need to establish what degree of coincidence there is between Isaiah and the Gospels. We can argue about its cause later. And I think my basic point stands -- that no human being in history fits this part of the text -- which is its main theme -- better than what is ascribed to Jesus.

"(7) My translation says They gave him a grave with the wicked, a tomb with the rich. Again, we'll need an expert in ancient Hebrew to sort this out. But I've commented on this before. This seems to refer simply to the change of viewpoint with respect to the Suffering Servant, from despised to honored. I don't find this terribly significant. Jesus was not honored by receiving a tomb. And he never shared a grave with the wicked."

I might cede you some ground on this one, but only some. Your interpretation here is highly improbable. What Isaiah is doing is classic Hebrew parallelism -- the two phrases are meant to be restatements of a single theme, encapsulations of the same larger episode, not consecutive occurances, IMO. In any case, the issue is not necessarily what Isaiah had in mind -- you forget the concept of "appropriated discourse." God can be saying something, of which Isaiah is unconscious. And note again the very telling quote from the skeptical commentator, who interprets the verse as I do, then tries to sweep it under the rug because he can't make sense of it, from a skeptical POV.

This is still a very striking coincidence. Out of consideration for other possible, though unlikely, interpretations, and inperfect coincidence, maybe we can reasonably lower this one into one in dozens rather than one in a hundred. Personally, I still see it as quite strong.

"(8) I agree, because the innocence of the sacrifice is again simply a part of the theme of sacrifice. I don't agree that it eliminates the personification interpretation. We have no reason to discount the idea that Israel saw the exile in particular as due to sin. In any case, the question isn't about what Israel in general believed, but what Isaiah himself believed. In any case, to portray the sacrifice as guilty would ruin a beautiful literary motif. Can Isaiah have a bit of poetic license?"

You're not conceding anything here, are you? You take what I concede, but fight tooth and nail to avoid admitting even obvious parallels, it seems.

Sorry, most of the commentators, the whole prophetic tradition, the grammar, the logic, and the precedence of Isaiah's comments are all solidly on my side in this case. The "Israel" interpretation doesn't make any sense. How can a country be buried with the rich and with criminals? "The iniquity of us all" was "laid on him." "Done no violence?" "No deceit in his mouth?" That flies in the face of the whole prophetic tradition, Isaiah in particular. Sorry, that interpretation is impossible. Isaiah is plainly talking about an individual.

"(9) Your calculation here just assumes as a fact that the resurrection of Jesus is historical fact, something that I would deny."

No, we're talking about whether or not the Suffering Servant of Isaiah coincides with Jesus in the gospels. Your claim was that the resemblance was too "vague." We haven't gone on to our second question yet.

"But futhermore, the Zoroastrians were the first, to my understanding, to hold a belief in resurrection of the body, and it is further my understanding that the notion entered Israel or Judaic culture only after the exile, after they were exposed to such beliefs. So there's a perfectly good historical explanation for this reference. The notion of resurrection did not begin with the Gospels."

But Jesus is the best-known person who is thought to have done this. Furthermore, his resurrection is the most significant in history -- and surely prophets care about significance. The coincidence is undiminished by any Zoroastrian influence.

(10) "Perhaps you'll find grist for the mill in my translation. But "dividing the spoil with the mighty" doesn't sound like Jesus. Wasn't he all for the meek? Again, let's not discount material that is disconfirming."

True. Although Jesus is said to do that, too, in a spiritual sense. If human beings are the most valuable things on planet earth -- and they are -- then we may be the "spoil" referred to, here.  There is even prophetic precedence for that metaphor.

"So indeed, I think the meaning of the passage is far more vague than you believe, and admits of other interpretations."

Again, if you can point to any historical figure who fits this text better than Jesus, your objection will be greatly strengthened.

"And there's the other huge issue that I think you must grapple with, and I haven't found you doing it. How much did the Gospel writers know of the OT, and how much did they incorporate the themes of Isaiah into their telling of the story of Jesus?"

Again, that's the second question, which should wait until we get at least some resolution on (1), I think. Are you willing to concede anything, here? While it's helpful to be challenged on details, it seems to me Jesus is written all over this text, and more the closer I look at it, and consult commentaries, the clearer Jesus seems to emerge from the text. Question (2) will be a more complex and challenging problem, and will be much harder for an atheist and a Christian to resolve, without one or the other giving up his beliefs! 
Field: 1. The mechanism is only plausible if one is a theist. You can't expect me to find this at all plausible. And this gets back to a point I made ages ago in an earlier iteration on this issue: belief in miracles in the religious context presupposes theism.

2. You're right that the prophecy fits in with a salvation narrative. But so do those of other religions. I don't see this as probative. The Zoroastrians have been quite consistent with their prophecy of salvation for thousands of years. This doesn't lead me to an acceptance of their prophecies either.

3. I need some more commentary from you as to why you think these passages are significant. But again, the plausibility that God spoke to Isaiah hinges on the plausibility of theism. The fact that Biblical passages have provided comfort to billions is not impressive either. Of course I am aware that religions all provide comfort, what Nietzsche called "metaphysical comfort." But this is not a sign of truth.

4. I take Isaiah has been regarded as admirable at least in part because he has been regarded as a prophet. There is circular reasoning here.

In sum, I can easily see how many of your points would be convincing to a theist. But to a person such as myself, who regards theism as quite implausible, they lack cogency.

Marshall:  Let me try again to make my points clear.

Any hypothesis is stronger if it can claim three things: (1) inclusion of data without distortion; (2) internal consistency (simplicity); and (3) ability to shed light on other facts.

I think Isaiah is far superior to Nostradamus in all three ways. The data is vastly more detailed, as I showed. (Though I still need to respond to your last post on that.) My hypothesis about Isaiah is internally consistent, and sheds light on other facts.

Internal consistency doesn't depend on you agreeing with the body of theory from which the hypothesis arises! The question between us is whether God exists or not; I am not begging the question to point out that the prophetic character of Isaiah 52-3 fits well with the larger body of theory in which this text is embedded, or that it illuminates later salvation history, which supports God's existence.

The claim that God inspired Deutero-Isaiah, in some sense or by some means, is reinforced by the character of the work as a whole, and by its obviously "inspired" (in the secular sense) qualities. This is not just a matter of subjective "comfort." What's relevant is that D-I is, as any reasonable person can see, full of deep truths, eloquently stated. That makes him more credible; and Nostradamus' hocus-pocus less credible by contrast.

4. "I take Isaiah has been regarded as admirable at least in part because he has been regarded as a prophet. There is circular reasoning here."

There is indeed -- yours. I didn't say that, you did, and then built an argument upon it. Isaiah has been admired for thousands of years for the same intrinsic reasons that Shakespeare and Mozart have been admired. The fact that great minds have recognized those admirable qualities, is evidence that they are not just a private interpolation of my own -- though they struck me independently, about the age of 22, in Hong Kong, and changed my life, in some ways. 

I don't see any need to bring in the Zoroastrians at this point; if you feel there is a case to be made for the inspiration of one of their texts, please do so later! Obviously, the claim that Isaiah was inspired does not entail the claim that no Iranian was ever inspired; maybe he was, for all I know. But the text you chose for comparison was Nostradamus, and I'd rather stick with that comparison for the moment.
Field (final comments): I. I'll agree with (1) up to a point, although the term "data" I don't think is the right term. Perhaps inclusion of "detail" might be better. And here I would say yes Nostradamus's quatrains do not tell a story, as the passage from Isaiah does. But I would stress "up to a point." Certainly the narratives of the Gospels are clearer and more detailed than Isaiah. And there's a fundamental ambiguity in Isaiah that I've pointed out before. "Piercings" can mean many things. "Disfigurement" could be from a beating, or from congenital disease. Or this could be metaphor. On my alternative reading, disfigurement could refer to the straying of Israel from their path. They were disfigured and unrecognizable to their god Yahweh.

As for (2), I might point out in passing that consistency and simplicity are two different criteria, at least as they are understood in philosophy and the sciences. An hypothesis is consistent if does not involve a contradiction. Simplicity is a measure of how many facts an hypothesis can explain.

But as for the more important question, I find consistency to be a very low bar to reach. Any claim of prophecy by divine inspiration would be consistent, unless the prophecy itself is that there is no God or other divine being to inspire it. As for illuminating "later salvation history," that's really the point in contention, isn't it?

Perhaps in a literary contest, Isaiah should indeed win over Nostradamus. And there are plenty of texts historically that reveal, or have at least been thought to reveal, deep truths, but which have never been claimed to be divinely inspired. I don't see this as evidence. But there is a deeper question here: What should a divinely inspired text look like? Is there any basis here to set some a priori criterion? Should it look like Isaiah, or Hesiod, or the Rig Veda, or Plotinus? You seem to favor a sort of poetic eloquence (thus, your reference to Shakespeare). But why so? There are many historically who have written in straightforward and manner-of-fact styles. Philosophers are known for their turgid prose. Why shouldn't God chose someone who writes is this vein to communicate prophetic truth? Why wouldn't God wish to do away with poetic license and the ambiguities of poetic metaphor and choose someone who mimics Friday's line on the old Dragnet series--"Just the facts mame," or in this case "Just the facts God." I'm not trying to get into the mind of God here (clearly since I don't believe in him), but I'm suggesting that you seem to be attempting this. Personally, I have no idea how one could set out criteria of what divinely inspired writings should look like.

As for (3), I don't find in your post much of anything that suggests that Isaiah sheds light on other facts. If you are thinking of the Gospels here, I would reverse this: if one believes that Isaiah is prophetic, then the Gospels shed considerably more light on Isaiah then the reverse. But perhaps you could comment further on this.

Ok, I'll keep the Zoroastrians out of it. I just find a personal interest in their religion. Perhaps too much personal enthusiasm. :) 
II. Ok let me respond to each and see where we get.

(1) and (2) are waived. That's fine.

With (3), I would still stress my original point. We have a text in Isaiah that is embedded in the context of a celebratory text concerning the release of Israel from foreign bondage. The nation of Israel did suffer as a collective. There is precedent in the OT for the punishment of the whole nation: 40 years in the desert. The notion of collective punishment in this case is perfectly plausible.

Perhaps you have a point with (5), although I would not trust present practices to be a guide to ancient practices. And by my interpretation, the suffering servent is enslaved Israel. How many slaves would speak back to their master accusers? Admit everything, and you are whipped. Complain that you are innocent, and you might just get executed.

With (6) you might be right, but only if the suffering servent was a person, and not the nation of Israel.

With (7) you take it as parallelism, and thus some sort of metaphor I take it. But I thought earlier you took it as an account of sequential events--dying with criminals, then buried in a tomb, which only the rich could afford. But if we take it as metaphor, and referring to Jesus, what does the metaphor mean? Metaphor to be meaningful must be capable of translation into some literal language.

With (8) you need to explain whether the passage at issue in (7) is literal or metaphoric. If it is metaphor, then my interpretation is still possible, since I take the whole passage as metaphor. And again, whenever sacrifice is invoked, redemption is the meaning.

Concerning (9), you seem not to see this from my perspective. I don't won't argue about the historicity of Jesus or his crucifixion. But at that point history ends, for me. It is not a point of history that Jesus's crucifixion was a redemption for sin. This is a religious interpretation of an historical fact. I take it that no one saw sins (what would sins look like if you could see them :) floating away from people when Jesus died on the cross. I don't know when this interpretation was placed on the event. Obviously before the Gospels. Do you have any evidence in Acts or Paul of this? But no matter. I'm not going take religious interpretation as probative with respect to reputed prophecy. How many people in the ancient world were executed? How many were executed by Rome alone. Anyone could put some redemptive interpretation on any such execution.

As for (10), if we are the spoil, who is the mighty? There's a real issue here, since to make a case for your interpretation, you seem to switch between literal and metaphorical interpretation. This seems to me to be rather convenient, too convenient in fact. My interpretation takes the story as simply metaphoric. Why would a writer who knows their craft switch between literalism and metaphor? If metaphor, carry the metaphor through.

I find this interesting, even if you can't convince me (as I'm sure you realize), and I won't convince you (as I realize).

For my part there are two problems that are crucial in evaluating any claimed prophetic text (I'm venturing into Q2 here, but allow me the summary). The first is lack of specificity (and this was the point of my Nostradamus reference). Instead of simply a vague reference to "piercing" I would at least wish a reference to "piercing by nails." Instead of some vague reference to disfigurement, I would wish a reference at least to disfigurement by lashing (after all, there a numerous avenues to human disfigurement). Perhaps you think I'm putting to many demands on prophets. But if they are prophets, from my point of view, why shouldn't they get some details? The second issue, where I enter into Q2, is again the influence of NT writers by OT authors. It seems to me a formidable challenge. You have to claim that the writers of the Gospels, clearly literate men and no doubt men who understood Jewish traditions and treasured Jewish texts, were not influenced in their interpretations of Jesus by OT texts such as Isaiah. I don't envy you that task.

In any case, I understand more of your position and through you more of the Christian understanding in these postings. So it is productive, in my view.

13 comments:

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Very interesting post. I know ths wasn't the point, but I thought the bit in the beginning about Pascal was interesting. I didn't know he considered prophesy to be good evidence. I'm going to want to read more on that.

David B Marshall said...

Cristofer: By all means, please to read Pensees. Note, however, that Pascal distinguishes between some prophesy that is strong evidence, and some other that he admits is pretty subjective and weaker.

Brian Barrington said...

Let’s face it – Isaiah said a lot of things, and most of them haven’t happened, thankfully. If Isaiah was receiving messages from God it was a pretty hit and miss affair. “Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate.” Are some people actually looking forward to the arrival of this psychopathic maniac? “The LORD will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts.” Slightly creepy, but thankfully the Lord has neglected to carry this one out, as yet. Or how about this: “The anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them ... and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." Do you think Isaiah also received a message from God here, David, or just in the case of the Man of Sorrows? “Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.” Charming! “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.” And so on, ad nauseum. “Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it”. Not quite yet but maybe someday, eh?

As regards the actual passage in question, it is much more likely that this passage refers to Israel, than that Isaiah actually received a message from a supernatural being about Jesus. That is because the “Israel explanation” does not require any supernatural intervention. It is also much more likely that Isaiah had no particular person or thing in mind when he wrote this, than that he actually received a message from a supernatural being specifically about Jesus. It is also much more likely that that writers of the gospels edited their stories in order to make them appear to comply with Isaiah’s passage, than that Isaiah actually receieved a message from a supernatural being about Jesus. The cumulative probablity of all these possible alternative explanations (and others) for the passage in Isaiah, far exceeds the probability that the explanation is that Isaiah ACTUALLY received a message from a supernatural being about Jesus.

But you really believe, David, as a grown man, that Isaiah actually received a message from a supernatural being about Jesus? That is what you actually, really and truly believe? Really? I mean, if Isaiah had received a message about Jesus from God that was meant to be persuasive then it should have been something like “Somebody called Jesus, who will be a carpenter, will come along and he will be crucified by someone called Pontius Pilot and then three days later he will rise from the dead”. That would have been impressive. But, of course, nothing as remotely as impressive as this DID occur – instead, we have a passage that is vague and, frankly, all over the place (it could be referring to many things or even to nothing in particular) in a book that contains so much deranged ranting and raving that you have to question the mental stability of the person who wrote it.

Crude said...

The cumulative probablity of all these possible alternative explanations (and others) for the passage in Isaiah, far exceeds the probability that the explanation is that Isaiah ACTUALLY received a message from a supernatural being about Jesus.

No, the actual passage in question is vastly more likely to be about Jesus than about Israel, and the cumulative probability is such that the BEST explanation is that Isaiah was a prophet.

Hey, it turns out just boldly asserting things like that is easy! I can see why you do it. Engaging in David's method - laying out a case, explaining how and why you're setting out the probabilities you are, acknowledging the subjective nature of such things while at the same time making reference to scholars and historical study - that's more difficult.

Simply saying "But your explanation involves the supernatural*, whatever that is, therefore no!" ain't doing much.

I mean, if Isaiah had received a message about Jesus from God that was meant to be persuasive

Then clearly God made quite a good choice, considering the number of people who were so persuaded, eh? This is a common gambit ("This isn't persuasive. After all, I'm not persuaded!") that has a glaring flaw ("Persuasiveness isn't measured by the single audience member.")

in a book that contains so much deranged ranting and raving that you have to question the mental stability of the person who wrote it.

Your standard for "deranged" is "do I disagree strongly with what they're saying? If so, deranged!" Yes, we know, you think any God who would judge or - how terrifying - punish, is horrible and mean and, therefore, not likely to exist. It doesn't persuade.

David lays out a great, detailed, and supported - insofar as you can support communication claims - case for his view. You've responded by informing us you don't like "supernatural" explanations and think them unlikely, saying this is a supernatural explanation, and also Isaiah is scary. Not persuasive. (Oops, that's just me. ;)

Thanks for the detailed post, David. I like how you communicate.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: At least Richard managed to stick to the point!

Do we really need to get into a full-blown discussion of the different parts of Isaiah, or how God's judgement is thought to work in the world, the Problem of Pain, war and divine provinance, and Internet Aids For Cherry-Picking Skeptics?

One quality Richard was good at, was focus.

As for your last two paragraphs, what is most likely of all, seems to be that Brian Barrington takes his cosmology for granted.

Personally, I find what Isaiah actually said, exponentially more interesting, and impressive, than the lame alternative you suggest. If Isaiah HAD given that boring, prosaic birth announcement, I know exactly what you would say:

"Yeah, right. Of course the Gospel writers claim Jesus was a carpenter -- just like the prophets predicted, nudge, wink, wink. And Pilate's mother probably read Isaiah, too, or maybe the Jews just gave him that pseudonym, eh?"

Isaiah 52-3 is, as I show, a highly effective response to Richard's original challenge. Of course atheists have fall-back positions. I assume that throughout.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Crude. Maybe I should have waited another thirty seconds, and let you have the first response.

David B Marshall said...

Oh, I guess you did.

Brian Barrington said...

According to the Book of Isaiah, your omnibenevolent, infinitely loving God will come down to earth and wreak some serious havoc ... "I will destroy and devour at once. I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs". Furthermore, this blood-thirsty sadist "will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, as with sweet wine”. Even the fish are going to get it. No one escapes from the unquenchable wrath of this horrendous maniac: "I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a wilderness: their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst”. LOL! 

Do you believe that Isaiah received a message from God saying that God was going to do this? Do you believe that God is ACTUALLY going to do ANY of this? Well, I do NOT believe it. How could anyone take this demented gibberish seriously? Putting the passage in the context of Isaiah's other remarks and predictions actually helps to give some real perspective on what is actually going on here i.e. not very much.

David B Marshall said...

Get a grip, Brian. If you're going to read the whole book as a whole book -- which most modern scholars don't -- then take it as a whole book, not snatches here and there, take into account the real history of human sacrifice and conquest and famine that ancient ME civilizations endured, and often made other people endured, include the promises and well as the dooms, post your thoughts where interpretting the whole book is the actual topic of discussion, and -- do stop all the cackling. It makes those taunts about being grown-up a little, shall we say, projectionist?

Brian Barrington said...

The quotes in my last post are actually from Deutero-Isaiah i.e.  from the same section of the book that contains the Songs of the Suffering Servant. Anyway, I'm sure you don't believe God is actually going to do what is predicted in the Book of Isaiah. The book is full of prophecies that, to your credit, you don't believe. So where does that leave us?

David B Marshall said...

It leaves you distracting us from the questions at hand, with cherry-picked verses on another subject, and me, wondering whether to follow you down this rabbit hole. If you bring up soccer riots in Argentina, and why God allows them, do I need to fly to South America and learn Spanish, or should I just ignore you?

Right away, it sure does look like you took the verse badly out of context. Here's the prior verse:

"Surely, thus says the Lord, even the captives of the mighty will be taken away. And the prey of the tyrant will be rescued; for I will contend with the one who contends with you." (49:25)

So it's not about God just suddenly killing a bunch of people for no reason. You know, it's a little deceptive to quote the punishment, without mentioning the crime -- or the fact that God here is rescuing the innocent oppressed.

Personally, I hope God WILL bring justice to slave-traders. I am VERY inspired by the signs, in D-E, that that is exactly God's intention -- read the story I tell in Part IV of "How Jesus Liberates Women," which involves just these passages.

Obviously, verse 26 involves some hyperbole. Even in times of extreme famine, people don't usually eat their OWN flesh. And I doubt anyone has ever "gotten drunk on their own blood." Let a great poet be a poet, please -- it isn't a pretty image, but then, neither are some images in Homer, Virgil, Milton, or even in The Simpsons.

Brian Barrington said...

There are so many rabbit holes here I don't really blame you for not wanting to go down them ... You'll never be seen again :-)

But I don't see how you can claim that Isaiah's prophecies are off-topic. Isn't that what we are discussing? His amazing prophetic powers? How about Isaiah  45.1: "Thus saith the LORD to his ANOINTED, to Cyrus”. Huh? Is Cyrus the Great the Messiah?!? Well, I suppose he DID free the Jews from Babylonian captivity, which is more than Jesus did for them. This reference is certainly an awful lot less ambiguous that the putative references to Jesus in the so-called Songs of the Suffering Servant. In 45.1, Isaiah goes to the trouble of actually NAMING the Messiah. According to tradition, the Book of Isaiah was written over one hundred years before the Liberation from Babylonian captivity, so this reference to Cyrus the Messiah really IS a mind-blowingly impressive  prophecy from our friend Isaiah  :-)

David B Marshall said...

Brian: My first reaction was to reply, "Talk about rabbits! Now you're hopping away to yet another passage?"

But then I thought about it a bit, on a run, and realized that what we have is a failure to communicate. You, naturally, suppose I'm defending Isaiah, with the idea of "the Holy Bible" in the back of my mind.

Actually, this post is about (a) God, (b) Jesus, and (c) Christianity, it's not about Isaiah, or innerancy, or even the Bible in general.

The concept behind my thinking is what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls "appropriated discourse," the idea that God "takes up" Isaiah's sermon into His revelation.

To illustrate, let me refer to Yuan Zhiming's treatment of Mencius. Like some other Chinese, he thinks the final passage in the Mencius, which speaks of sages coming in 500 year implements, refers to Jesus, who (he claims) appeared exactly 500 years after Confucius' death, and thus fulfills this prophecy.

But in other places, Yuan is critical of some of Mencius' ideas. He doesn't think Mencius is generally inspired, though God revealed something to him in this case.

This may sound like an excuse to cherry-pick, and it may be. But I am answering Richard's challenge quite closely, notice -- I am following his own criteria, so you can't blame me for that.