Why Should We Believe the Bible?
Part 2 of 2
In Part One of this article, I walked through the two criteria outlined in the book of Deuteronomy that helped the Israelites to distinguish between true and false prophets. According to Dt 13:1-5, those who claim to speak for God — even if they end up performing miracles — were to be utterly rejected if they led the people to worship foreign gods. The second criteria, found in Dt 18:15-22, states that if a potential prophet declares things that don’t end up coming true, this provides another reason to completely disregard his words.
Now, let’s step back for a moment and examine how these two criteria were applied in the course of Israel’s history. Think for example about a prophet like Isaiah, who lived at a time of great unfaithfulness and idolatry. In fact, according to Is 9:15, there were many false prophets in the land during his day. So how was the average Israelite able to know which of these men, if any, were actually commissioned by Yahweh? Another way of getting at this question would be to ask how and why later Israelites came to believe that Isaiah was a true prophet whose writings were to be collected and added to the Hebrew canon? The answer is that, like Moses, Isaiah promoted the exclusive worship of Yahweh (Is 43:9-11, 45:5-6, 21-22) and declared numerous things well before they ever came to pass. Notice the way, for example, how the God of Israel challenges the false gods of his day in this passage from Isaiah 41:21-24:
Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.
In the very next chapter, God ends up confirming the supernatural character of Isaiah’s prophecy by making unmistakably clear announcements related to the coming of his messianic servant who “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42:1). In fact, this is the beginning of what scholars refer to as Isaiah’s Servant Songs which declare, among other things, that Israel’s messiah will be “despised and rejected” by his own people (Is 53:3), and that his death (Is 53:8-9) will provide atonement for sin (Is 53:4-6) which will also end up bringing salvation to the ends of the earth (Is 49:6). All this was written some 700 years before the birth of Jesus, and because of the amazing correspondence between these Servant Songs and the life of Jesus, at the very least we should consider these things to be significant signs worthy of further investigation.
But this doesn’t answer the question as to what motivated the Jewish people to add Isaiah’s writings to the Hebrew Bible before the time of Jesus. As it turns out, a close examination of his prophecy shows that he accurately predicted many things that came to pass within the span of his own lifetime and beyond. For example, in Is 37:21-38, the prophet foretold the Assyrian invasion, which later occurred around 701 BC. More specifically, Isaiah reassured king Hezekiah that Sennacherib would return to Assyria without ever entering the city of Jerusalem, an event which was later confirmed by the famous Sennacherib Prism, as well as in a few lines written by the historian Herodotus (Histories 2.141).
Isaiah also went on to announce the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (cf. Is 39:5-8) which later occurred around 586 BC under king Nebuchadnezzar. And in Is 13:17-22, the prophet announced that Babylon fall to the Medes, which ended up taking place around 539 BC, the account of which is recorded in Daniel chapter 5.
In chapters 44 and 45 of Isaiah, the prophet writes of a time well beyond the Babylonian captivity in which the Jewish exiles would be allowed to return to their homeland, an event which took place around 501 BC under the Cyrus the Great. What’s really curious is the fact that in this section of his prophecy, Isaiah specifically mentions Cyrus by name: “Thus says the LORD…who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins’…who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” (Is 44:24-28).
These prophecies are so clear, in fact, that naturalistic historians who refuse to admit the possibility of anything “supernatural” have been compelled to argue that there must have been other writers who added to Isaiah’s original work well after the events described had already taken place. Basically, they wrote history in the guise of prophecy. The problem with this approach, however, is that it ignores the numerous prophecies throughout Isaiah’s work related to the coming messiah and the international scope of his future kingdom. In other words, the explanation that others writers later added material to Isaiah’s prophecy in order to make it appear predictive, fails to account for the way the prophet was able to correctly describe events in the life of Jesus Christ in such clear and amazing detail.
Think about this for a minute. The oldest complete copy of Isaiah (pictured above) dates to sometime around 200 BC, and is part of the Dead Sea Scroll collection. No one disputes either the age or authenticity of this particular scroll. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that the book of Isaiah took its final form sometime just before this period. In this case, nothing supernatural at all would be required to explain Isaiah’s predictions concerning the activities of Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus, since there would have been plenty of time for later writers and editors to insert references to those leaders as if they had been written well in advance. But this theory doesn’t even begin to address the most amazing prophecies of all. Earlier I mentioned some of the parallels between the life of Jesus and the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Here are some additional examples from the final Servant Song found in chapters 52 and 53:
The coming messianic servant will be both exalted and despised (52:13-14, 53:3).
He will attract the attention of kings around the world (52:15, 53:2).
He will be a man of sorrows who is stricken, smitten and afflicted (53:3-4).
He will be pierced for our transgressions (53:5, cf. Ps. 22:16, Zec. 12:10, 13:7).
He will be cut off from the land of the living and laid in the grave (53:8-9).
A rich man will be involved in his burial (53:9, cf. Mt 27:57-58).
He will bear the iniquities of many, and account them as righteous (53:11).
After his suffering and death, he will “see light,” and his days will be prolonged. He will then divide spoils in a victory celebration (53:11-12).
Many scholars argue that this final Servant Song is actually the primary text Paul alluded to when he famously wrote to the Corinthians reminding them of the thing of “first importance,” namely that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4).
In my experience, when most apologists unpack the arguments that Paul makes in 1Cor. 15, they tend to focus on his appeal to eyewitness testimony — that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection was seen by witnesses such as Peter and the twelve, and later by “more than five hundred brothers at one time.” But what really gave power to the early Christian proclamation was the fact that the events that were seen and described by reliable eyewitnesses, had also been foreseen centuries in advance by prophets such as Isaiah. As you read through the epistles and all the sermons recorded throughout the book of Acts, again and again you’ll discover that the primary emphasis of the early church was on Jesus’ fulfillment of these messianic prophecies, particularly those that related to his death for sin, and his resurrection from the dead (cf. Acts 2:22-31, 4:1-2, 10:36-43, 17:18-32, 2Tim 2:8, 1Pet 1:3).
As we find these themes outlined in Isaiah’s Servant Songs, we must begin to ask whether the naturalistic theory concerning the origin of this prophecy really is the best explanation. Since this theory is unable to explain the accuracy of its detailed prophecies related to Jesus and the rise of Christianity, why should it be considered the most reasonable hypothesis to explain some of the earlier examples of fulfilled prophecy relating to Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, or Cyrus? In fact, if you think about it, the naturalistic hypothesis is unable to account for why Isaiah’s writings were added to the Hebrew canon in the first place. If later events were added to his book in order to make it look like he fulfilled prophecy, this would mean that he never did end up fulfilling any of the criteria laid in the book of Deuteronomy. And if that’s true then we need to ask how it was that Isaiah began to be regarded as a holy prophet in the first place?
Because our oldest copy of Isaiah dates to around two hundred years before Christ, we know that the countless parallels to events in the life of Jesus could not have been written after the fact. Furthermore, Isaiah 49:6 reveals that Israel’s messiah would become “a light to the nations,” and that his salvation would “reach to the ends of the earth.” How would anyone involved in writing or redacting this document be able to know in advance that men throughout the world would begin to embrace Israel’s messiah? How could they have known that “of him the nations [would] inquire” (Is 11:10)? The fact is, this mysterious text cannot be accounted for by any naturalistic theory, which then suggests that perhaps something supernatural really is going on here.
As I mentioned above, this connection between Old Testament prophecy and the life of Jesus ended up being the primary focus of early Christian proclamation. Along those lines, think about the way Paul commended the Bereans in Acts 17:11 as they examined the Scriptures to see whether the things he taught about Jesus really were written in the ancient scrolls just as he claimed. What’s fascinating about this passage is that Paul didn’t ask to be believed simply because he was an Apostle, nor did he encourage “blind faith” in any of the claims he was making about Jesus. Rather, he praised the Bereans for seeking to confirm his message by examining what had already been revealed centuries in advance through Moses and all the other prophets. In a sense, these Bereans were fulfilling both criteria from Deuteronomy 13 and 18, since they were seeking to verify a) that Paul’s gospel was consistent with earlier revelation, and b) that the things spoken in advance by the prophets had now been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In his second epistle, Peter writes that “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…[and]…we ourselves heard God’s voice borne from heaven [while we] were with him on the mountain.” As a result of this, Peter went on to say that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place…” (2Pet 1:16-19). Basically, his point is that the things foreseen so long ago by the ancient prophets have now been confirmed by credible eyewitnesses. Can you think of any other “holy book” that has been confirmed in a similar way?
In this article, we’ve spent most of our time considering various prophecies from the pen of Isaiah. But if you step back and look at the entire tapestry of the Hebrew Bible, you quickly discover that Jesus was indeed correct when he said that all the Scriptures testify of him (Jn 5:39). For example, in Gen. 22:17 Abraham was told that in his seed, “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” In Psalm 22, David wrote of a forsaken man who’s hands and feet were pierced, and whose garments were divided by those who cast lots. And how does this psalm end? According to verse 27, “All the ends of the earth shall…turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before [him].” Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah wrote that one day, “nations shall come from the ends of the earth and will learn of Yahweh’s power and might” (Jer 16:19). And the prophet Micah records the following:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days…And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace (Mic 5:2-5)
All these things have now been confirmed. Jesus is the one born in Bethlehem; he is the good shepherd who today is worshipped by men and women around the world — he is the prince of peace. Before I conclude this article, I’d like to share a few lines from a 3rd and 4th century Christian writer named Eusebius of Caesarea. Some of you may be familiar with his history of the early church, but Eusebius also wrote an important book titled The Proof of the Gospel in which he argued that fulfilled prophecy provides convincing evidence of the supernatural origin of our faith, and for the inspiration of the Bible. In this classic volume, Eusebius writes this:
If so many things were proclaimed by the Hebrew divines, and if their fulfillment is so clear to us all today, who would not marvel at their inspiration? Who will not agree that their…teaching and beliefs must be sure and true, since their proof is to be found not in artificial arguments [or] clever words…but in simple and straightforward teaching, whose genuine and sincere character is attested by the virtue and knowledge of God evident in these inspired men? Men who were enabled not by human but by divine inspiration to see from a myriad ages back what was to happen long years after, make sure they claim our confidence for [their beliefs]…Because of the extraordinary foreknowledge shown in the prophetic writers, and of the actual events that occurred in agreement with their prophecies…[all men should be convinced] of the inspired and certain nature of the truth we hold. [This] should silence the tongues of false accusers [who slander us by saying] that we…are unable logically to present a clear demonstration of the truth we hold, and think it enough to retain those who come to us by faith alone, and as they say that we only teach our followers like irrational animals to shut their eyes and staunchly obey what we say without examining it at all, and call them therefore ‘the faithful’ because of their faith as distinct from reason…Our conversion was due not to emotional and unexamined impulse, but to judgment and sober reasoning.
(Demonstratio Evangelica, 1.1.7-11)
Why should we believe the Bible? Because the words recorded throughout this amazing library of 66 books have been confirmed. At many times and in many ways, the God of Israel promised to one day send a messiah who would redeem, not just one nation, but the entire world. And in the fullness of time, all this eventually was accomplished through the person and work of Jesus Christ. That which had been foreseen and written down centuries in advance by Moses and the all the Hebrew prophets was seen and reported by trustworthy and reliable eyewitnesses. Therefore, the Bible does not merely claim to be an inspired book, but also provides for its readers “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3).
Shane Rosenthal is the host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the co-founders of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, and served as the host of that program from 2019 - 2021. Shane is a graduate of Cal-State Fullerton (BA, Humanities) and Westminster Seminary California (MA, Historical Theology).
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