Age and Probability

The Old Testament records Messianic prophecies long before Jesus walked the earth.  The Jews believed that God inspired these scriptures over a period of one thousand years, stretching from approximately 1,400 – 400 B.C.  Josephus, a well-known, first century, Jewish historian testified:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.8, page 776).

According to Josephus, the collection of books known among Christians as the Old Testament had been around for about 400 years by the time Jesus was born.

Josephus also notes that inspiration ceased around the time of Persian Emperor Artaxerxes Longiminus (465-424 B.C).  During this “period of silence,” we have two further witnesses to the antiquity of Messianic prophecies.  Ptolemy II (309-246 B.C.) commissioned the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  Known as the Septuagint, this translation precedes the arrival of Jesus by over two hundred years.  The Dead Sea Scrolls offer an additional witness to the antiquity of the Messianic prophecies.  In this collection is a copy of Isaiah that dates from 125 B.C.  Isaiah prophesied during the 8th century B.C., 600 years before this copy and more than 700 years before Christ.  Remarkably, the Isaiah scroll is nearly identical to the Masoretic manuscripts from which we translate the Old Testament.  Take Isaiah 53, a widely acknowledged Messianic prophecy.  Comparing the Dead Sea Scroll copy with the Masoretic manuscripts, we find the following:

Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question.  Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense.  Four more letters are minor stylistic changes such as conjunctions.  The remaining three letters comprise the word “light”, which is added in verse 11 and does not affect the meaning greatly…Thus  in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission – and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage (Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 263).

When we read Isaiah 53, we know we are reading the text as it was at least 125 years before Jesus was born.  If events in Jesus’s life match up with Isaiah 53’s predictions that the prophesies are of sufficient antiquity to prove His Messiahship.

Some wonder if these fulfillments were merely coincidental.  Maybe the life events of Jesus of Nazareth “accidentally” fulfilled Messianic prophecies.  Peter Stoner, author of the book, Science Speaks, selected eight Messianic prophecies.  The statistical probability that Jesus “accidentally” fulfilled the eight prophecies Stoner selected is 1 in 1017 (Stoner, pp. 46-50).  To illustrate how statistically improbable eight coincidental fulfillments would be, Stoner offered this analogy:

Suppose that we take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas.  They will cover all of the state two feet deep.  Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state.  Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one.  What chance would he have of getting the right one?  Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom (Stoner, p. 50).

As one would expect, the statistical improbability increases with each prophecy added.  The chance that Jesus would coincidentally fulfill sixteen prophecies is 1 in 1045 (Stoner, p. 51).  Successfully fulfilling forty-eight prophecies by accident is possible only once in 10157 opportunities (Stoner, p. 51).  Considering the gospel accounts claim that Christ fulfilled more than sixty Old Testament prophecies, coincidence is an improbable explanation.

The age of the prophecies favors identifying Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.  The volume of prophecies He fulfilled rules out any sort of coincidental fulfillment.  This leaves us with the credibility of the eyewitnesses.  Twelve men claimed with absolute certainty that Jesus is the Christ on the Day of Pentecost following His crucifixion.  A thirteenth man was convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, to the extent that he abandoned his life of privilege and esteem to “turn the world upside down.”  Are these men reliable witnesses?  I’ll tackle that question in the next post, Lord willing.

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