Ex Post Facto Prophecies and Gospel Dating

The 30th sura of the Qur’an, near its beginning, says, “The Romans have been defeated in the nearest land, but they, after their defeat, will conquer in a few years” (Q 30:2-4).  Late medieval Muslims believed that this prophecy was fulfilled by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, although I could see a case being made for “the nearest land” being Palestine, in which the Romans were defeated in 638.  The Romans’ subsequent victory, in the latter case, could be taken to refer to the Byzantine conquests of the 960s, in which they recaptured Antioch for 120 years.  In any event, we have Qur’an manuscripts which contain these verses from before the 960s.

It amazes me how frequently Bible scholars insist that a prophecy can only have been written down after the events which are alleged to be its fulfillment.  Thus many Old Testament scholars maintain that Daniel must have been written in the Maccabean period, while experts on the Gospels (even many Christians) assert that because Jesus is portrayed as foretelling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (usually dated to 70 CE), therefore the Gospels were first written down at least forty years after the events they claim to record.  But the example of the Qur’an shows that this need not be the case.It will surprise no regular readers of this blog that I am not a Muslim, and therefore I do not ascribe religious significance to Qur’anic prophecies.  To the degree that prophecies in the Qur’an can be said to have been fulfilled, I explain those events through other explanations than divine revelation, much as a non-Christian would look to non-divine explanations for New Testament prophecies.  Ex post facto prophecies, i.e. prophecies composed after their alleged fulfillment, are only one means of explaining apparently correct predictions of the future.  (Incorrect predictions of the future need far less explanation.)  I can think of three other varieties of correct but insignificant prophecies, all of which may precede their fulfillment: lucky guesses, reasonable forecasting, and vague allusions.

The lucky guess model of correct but insignificant prophecy points out that in the ancient world there were many people making prophecies all the time.  When emperors and generals went on campaign, they frequently engaged in divination about which direction, or which mode of attack, would give them the best success (e.g. Ezekiel 21:21-22).  Many such predictions turned out to be false, and therefore were not considered worthy of recording.  In some cases, the prophecy was so bad that the recipient perished as a result of following it, and therefore the fortune-teller went unpunished.  In other cases, the person receiving the advice turned out to be successful, and the diviner was credited with their portion of the achievement.  Sometimes, among all the bad prophecies and failed predictions of the ancient world (and one might compare the failed predictions of foreign policy experts today), one of them guessed right.  A “true prophecy” had happened.

But in other cases, it wasn’t a guess.  The weather forecasters today use sophisticated models to predict the weather.  While they are sometimes more correct than others, they are right far more frequently than blind guesses alone.  That is because they know something about weather patterns, and they have many observation stations.  Similarly, people make predictions continually about things they know about, and the people who really understand what is going on are in a better position to predict aspects of the future accurately.  It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that if a Christian leader is having an extra-marital affair, there will be a scandal when the news breaks and said leader will resign his ministry positions.  So someone who happens to know a Christian leader and learns of an affair that leader is having may accurately predict the scandal and resignation before they happen.  That’s not super-natural, just reasonable.  And it need not follow the event predicted.

A third category of correct prophecy that precedes its fulfillment is the vague allusion.  Something is foretold, but what exactly?  It can be hard to say.  The Qur’anic prophecy predicts that the Byzantines will be defeated; but where, when, and by whom?  It’s left unclear.  As long as the details are vague enough, fulfillment in some shape or other may even be likely.  It is likely that any empire will experience defeat at some point, eventually.  Such prophecies can easily be written down centuries before their first “fulfillment,” because not much detail is foretold.

(Of course, I also believe in the fourth, and most interesting, category of correct prophecy: the omniscient God in his grace reveals the future course of events before they happen.  But the existence of this category is controversial, and not necessary for my argument here about the dating of the Gospels.)

The existence of at least three categories of prophecies which are written down before the events which fulfilled them demonstrate the falsity of the reasoning which requires the Gospels to be written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.


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