Revision of Prophecies

Contents


Introduction

In the 1990s, a Christian preacher named Harold Camping began teaching the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. As the time approached, he used Family Radio, a station he helped create, to promote his predictions. He spent millions of dollars in donations to fund billboards and other advertisements to warn America about the coming judgment. On May 22 he emerged from his home, baffled that nothing had happened. In the face of his failed predictions, Camping was met with two choices: admit that within his own religious tradition he was a failed prophet, or double down and move the goalpost. He ended up inventing the previously undisclosed claim that May 21 was a ‘spiritual’ judgment, and then delayed his original prediction so that the rapture would happen on October 21, 2011. When that date came and went, Camping admitted the failure of his predictions and hid away from the world until he passed away.

Camping was not unique for his prophetic revisionism. Another minister, Ronald Weinland, also prophesied the return of Jesus for 2011 amid global catastrophe and destruction. Weinland acknowledged in radio interviews that if his predictions failed to materialize it meant he was a false prophet and he would publicly recant. Instead, he has stubbornly refused to do so, and as of 2021 has revised his failed predictions numerous times (including from prison for a time, after being convicted on charges of tax evasion), deleting any outdated material from his website.

Preachers and authors John Hagee and Mark Biltz made predictions that major end-times events would begin in 2014 and 2015, based around a sequence of total lunar eclipses, which they called the ‘four blood moons’, based on errant historical claims. The International House of Prayer spiritualized their end-times prophecies that failed in the 90s. Several Christian authors and speakers prophesied that Jesus would return in 1988 — including one selling a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988 — relying on the dubious argument that it was one ‘generation’ after Israel became a nation in 1948. (This argument is still in use, though the date of the rapture is ever-changing.)

Going back further, the Millerite sect predicted the second coming of Jesus for October 1844, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end-times would conclude in September 1914. The Millerites were met with the Great Disappointment, as many abandoned the group, while others revised the prediction, and yet others insisted the prediction was ‘spiritually’ fulfilled. The Jehovah’s Witnesses revised their predictions, claiming they accurately predicted all along that 1914 was only the beginning of the end-times.

Cognitive dissonance — the mental gymnastics of preserving an idea or belief despite overwhelming evidence of its falsehood — is an incredibly powerful defense mechanism humans engage in, often unwittingly. Their emotional investment in such things makes it difficult to accept they were wrong, and they seek out ways to preserve the integrity of their belief. In revealed religions, the revision of failed predictions is a common tactic even within large communities. This can happen by delaying the prophecies’ fulfillment, or by disclosing after-the-fact they were fulfilled ‘spiritually’ — invisible, inaudible, and therefore unverifiable except by taking the otherwise-failed prophet on their word.


Apocalypses

The emblematic literature of revealed religions is the genre called ‘apocalypse’ (the very name means ‘revelation’ or ‘revealing’). It is this genre which claims to transcribe divinely revealed information, often about the future.

Nearly all of the apocalyptic books from the Second Temple period and the decades soon after were written pseudonymously. This pseudonymity wasn’t necessarily meant to deceive readers (it was so common in the genre, that I suggest it was an ‘open secret’). The author, living during a time of crisis, would step into character as a revered patriarch or folkhero of the distant past — Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, etc. — in order to reveal previously hidden knowledge about the crisis before it concluded. These revelations would often be encoded through symbolism, depicted as dreams or visions given to the author.

The intention was to assure readers that the outcome of the crisis would be favorable to those who were devoutly suffering for God. This is contrary to older modes of Israelite prophecy, where the future was not absolute. Instead, prophecy was intended to provoke change, to avert the disasters the people might face. The apocalypses differed because the very nature of their predictions required that the future was set in stone, which God could show to individuals years in advance, even thousands. However, since it would only be natural for the author’s contemporaries to wonder why these ‘ancient’ revelations were being ‘discovered’ during the very crisis they happened to predict, the author would explain that he was told to hide his revelations, to seal them away, until the crisis had arrived.

For people who had devoted their lives to the eschatological vision of these apocalypses, what would happen when the elaborate prophecies failed? Would they accept it and move on, or would they seek out some way to preserve the prophecy’s integrity?


Daniel

Let’s use the apocalypse called the Book of Daniel as our initial example.

Around 167 BCE, a skilled Aramaic writer gathered and edited stories about a folkhero named Daniel to have a linear narrative, which followed the sage as he and a few comrades peacefully lived among their foreign rulers. The author was responding to the Syrian occupation of Israel in the early second century BCE, which was quickly turning to violence, called the Maccabean Revolt. An apocalyptic vision was appended, based on a prophetic dream from one of the folktales, and was used to predict the outcome of the emerging war. In Dan 7, the folkhero has a vision about the crisis, and an angelic guide explains the vision’s symbolism. Not much later, around 165 BCE, a new Hebrew writer added more apocalyptic visions, each one accompanied by an explanation provided by an angel. (In Dan 8 and 9, the angel is identified as Gabriel.) These new visions repeat the original vision from Daniel 7 while also expanding upon it.

The result was a book predicting the end of the Maccebean Revolt would happen within a matter of months. But it was not just the end of the war the author prophesied. He insisted it would be immediately followed by the arrival of God’s kingdom upon the world, amid the resurrection of those who had died during the revolution.

Daniel does something later apocalypses avoid: the author tries to pin down the precise day when God will end the conflict and raise the dead. He expected Israel’s enemy to outlaw the Torah for about three and a half years (Dan 7.25). This original prediction was then made more specific, defining the time period as ‘two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings’ (or one thousand one hundred fifty days), just under 3.25 years (8.14). When the war continued after this deadline, the author moved the goalpost and extended the deadline to ‘one thousand two hundred ninety days’, just over 3.5 years (12.11). And when this second deadline also passed, the book was revised yet again to predict the end as coming after ‘one thousand three hundred thirty-five days’, nearly 3.75 years (12.12).

The book gave hope to the community that produced it, but each time a failed prediction left people scratching their heads, someone came along and attempted to ‘correct’ the prophecy. When the crisis ended without the arrival of God’s kingdom or the resurrection of the dead, readers began reinterpreting the visions. The enemy of Israel was identified not as the Syrian kingdom, but the Roman Empire. This interpretation continues in some circles even today, despite the Roman Empire ceasing to exist centuries ago.


Fourth Ezra

Nearly three centuries later another apocalypse was written. This book, called 4 Ezra, relied on this reinterpretation of the Book of Daniel.

The author, wearing the historical ‘Ezra’ as his mask, suggested he was writing thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. This is long before the historical Ezra was active; the anonymous author was writing after the second fall of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 CE. He picked Ezra because he was a community leader for Israel after Babylon conquered Jerusalem; the author saw himself as a new equivalent in the aftermath of Rome conquering Jerusalem.

‘Ezra’ employs a trope now common in these apocalypses, seen before in Daniel: the writer describes a prophecy symbolizing the present crisis, but then presents himself as ignorant of the symbolism’s meaning, and so inserts an angelic guide (in this case, the angel Uriel) who can explain the symbols. The visions overlap to various degrees, but a careful reading of 4 Ezra reveals a fairly structured eschatology that revolves around one chief event: the arrival of the Messiah to conquer the Roman Empire during (or shortly after) the rule of Emperor Domitian.

  • The fourth kingdom of Daniel 7 is coming soon to conquer the world. This is the Roman Empire, when the author was writing. (12.11; 14.18).
  • The Roman Empire will have twelve emperors. The second emperor, Augustus, will rule longer than any of the others. (12.13–16)
  • Signs that the end is near: Injustice will increase. The ruling kingdom will become waste. The sun and moon and stars will go dark. There will be an unexpected ruler. Birds will flee. The Dead Sea will produce fish. There will be chaos, rampant fires, wild animal attacks, and menstruating women will give birth to monsters. Fresh water will become salt water. (5.1–13)
  • More signs that the end is near: There will be talking babies, and premature births. Crops and food will fail. Springs will run dry. Allies will war with each other. (6.18–24)
  • More signs that the end is near: There will be earthquakes, national intrigue, and failing leaders. (9.1–8)
  • More signs that the end is near: The people of the earth will become bewildered and disruptive, threatening violence against one another. Wars will be planned. (13.29–31)
  • In the days of the twelfth emperor, Domitian, the Messiah will come and bring an end to the empire. (12.31–34)
  • The people of the world will gather to war against the Messiah, but he will ascend Mount Zion, and the people will be overcome with fear and will be unable to fight him. The Messiah will conquer not with weapons, but with rebukes and the Law, freeing the oppressed people of the world. The lost tribes of Israel will be restored. (13.29–50)
  • The new Jerusalem and restored paradise will appear. The Messiah will rule for four centuries, then all will die. After seven days of silence, the dead will be raised to face the final judgment. (7.26–44)
  • The righteous will be rewarded with eternal life and peace in paradise. The wicked will be punished with torment in Gehenna, and will disappear. The righteous will become like the sun, like stars. (7, especially 7.36,61,97)

The author’s awareness of history up to his time is steady, but the moment he begins to predict even his immediate future he gets everything wrong. The Messiah didn’t rise up during Domitian’s reign, let alone destroy Rome; the new Jerusalem didn’t appear, let alone in time for four centuries of Messianic rule; the resurrection didn’t happen, let alone the final judgment. The prophecy failed.

However, the book was not discarded. Instead, it underwent revisions to maintain its prophetic integrity. Chapters 11–12 suffered interpolations: the original vision of an eagle (Rome) with twelve wings (the twelve emperors) was updated to give the eagle eight more wings as well as three heads, adding eleven emperors to the original count, placing the redaction during the rule of Septimius Severus. This means someone was trying to adjust the book a full century after its predictions failed.


Jesus

Jesus was also among those who interpreted Daniel as pertaining to events under the Roman Empire. The eschatology of Jesus is not laid out in an orderly way in any of the canonical Gospels, except for one passage found in Mark 13 (parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21), known as the Olivet Discourse. Using this as our baseline, we can reasonably piece together his eschatology from the Synoptics. Like 4 Ezra, Jesus describes a series of ‘signs’ to watch for that will precede the eschaton.

  • Signs that the end is near: There will be false messiahs. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nations and kingdoms will fight one another. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. (Mark 13.5–8)
  • More signs that the end is near: The followers of Jesus will be persecuted by councils, synagogues, governors, and kings. Family members will betray one another. (Mark 13.6–13)
  • The abomination of desolation from the Book of Daniel will be set up. The Judeans must escape their homeland if they hope to survive. There will be more false prophets and false messiahs. (Mark 13.14–23)
  • The temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. (Mark 13.1–4)
  • Jerusalem and the temple will be punished before that generation has passed away. (Matt 23.32–39)
  • The sun and moon and stars will go dark. (Mark 13.24–25)
  • The dead will be raised. (Mark 12.18–27)
  • The son of man will arrive:
    • before Jesus’ followers are able to proclaim the Gospel to every town in Israel. (Matt 10.23)
    • on the clouds, gathering the chosen of Israel together from the Diaspora. (Mark 13.26–27)
    • with the angels to establish God’s kingdom while Jesus’ generation is still alive. (Mark 8.38–9.1)
    • with the angels to send them to separate the righteous from the wicked to cast judgment. The righteous will be made like the sun. (Matt 13.36–43)
    • and sit on his throne. The twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones to judge the tribes of Israel. All thing will be renewed. (Matt 19.27–30)
    • and sit on his throne. All nations of the world will be judged. The righteous will be rewarded with eternal life. The evildoers will be punished with the eternal fire. (Matt 25.31–46)
  • All of this will happen before Jesus’ generation has passed away. (Mark 13.28–31)

Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse centers on something called the ‘abomination of desolation’. Originally, this was the desecration of Jerusalem’s temple by the Syrians in 167 BCE. For Jesus, this would happen during a war between Rome and Judea.

Fourth Ezra did not actually predict the twelve emperors. It was written during the time of the twelfth. Likewise, Daniel did not actually predict the coming of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, it was written while he was in power. This is called prophecy ex eventu, prophecy after-the-fact. The accuracy of both 4 Ezra and Daniel drops to zero after their prophecies catch up to their respective time periods.

A similar problem exists within Jesus’ eschatology: we don’t know how much of it is from Jesus himself, or how much of his prophecies were shaped by the authors around their knowledge of events after-the-fact. Jesus very well could have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple four decades ahead of time. Yet once we reach the destruction of the temple in the timeline of his eschatology, the accuracy drops to zero. After Jerusalem fell, the son of man did not come with the angels, the dead were not raised, the kingdom of Israel was not restored, the son of man did not judge the nations of the world, and the apostles did not become judges over the twelve tribes of Israel.

There are now thousands of competing interpretations trying to make sense of Jesus’ prophecies about the future, generally falling under three schools of thought: one which stretches his predictions across all history, one which delays the entire thing for our future (both contrary to his restriction on the lifetime of his own generation as the deadline for fulfillment), and one which coincidentally finds a ‘spiritual’ first century fulfillment for the parts of his prophecy which didn’t literally happen.

Mark was the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written. When Matthew and Luke were written, they each took Mark and built on his narrative by adding information from other sources about Jesus, while reworking other parts. When we read the Olivet Discourse in either Matthew 24 or Luke 21, both of those texts are expansions upon, and revisions of, Jesus’ prophecy as originally found in Mark 13. The Olivet Discourse shows Jesus predicting that the son of man will arrive soon after Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 CE, but Matthew and Luke were each written about two decades after Jerusalem’s destruction.

Matthew’s solution was twofold. He first inserts a previously unmentioned ‘sign of the son of man’ as a buffer between the fall of Jerusalem and the son of man’s arrival. What this ‘sign’ was, or when the author expected it to happen, is left ambiguous, but it succeeded in padding out the timeline of Jesus’ prophecy for at least a little while. Then, where Mark 13 ends with Jesus imploring his followers to ‘stay awake’ because his return would happen imminently, Matthew continues with a parable which contrasts the way two servants behave while their master is away. The dutiful slave completes the tasks he was assigned. But the other slave? He disobeys the orders he was given, because ‘my master is delayed’. The idea had set in that the son of man’s arrival was ‘delayed’, an idea the author tries to refute.

Luke came up with a different solution. As seen throughout Luke, this author was partial to the inclusion of non-Judeans into the Jesus movement. By the time this third gospel was being written, the Judean followers were vastly outnumbered by followers from non-Judean nations. Thus, Luke invented the ‘age of the nations’, a time period that would take place between the fall of Jerusalem and the son of man’s arrival. He didn’t need to worry about defining its length, for it was an ‘age’; it could last for decades, even centuries.


Conclusion

Integral to the Book of Daniel’s eschatology is the theme of exile. In 597 BCE, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and deported some of the nobility. They attacked again in 587 BCE, deporting more of the upper class and royal family, in addition to razing Jerusalem and destroying the temple. Amid this destruction, the prophet Jeremiah predicted this exile would persist for seventy years. Although the exile ended in 538 BCE (just fifty or sixty years later, depending on which year we begin counting), the Judeans didn’t regain national independence, remaining under Persian rule. By the late third century BCE different students of the Book of Jeremiah were trying to make sense of the seventy-year exile predicted there. A short text called the Letter of Jeremiah changed the Book of Jeremiah’s prophecy; instead of seventy years, the exile would last seven generations. The Book of Daniel offers a different solution.

Dan 9.2 I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.
Dan 9.24 [The angel Gabriel] came and said to me, ‘Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. […] Seventy sevens are decreed for your people and your holy city’

Cognitive dissonance compelled the author to invent a way to preserve a failed prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah, septupling the seventy years. Fourth Ezra and Jesus each reinterpreted Daniel when that book’s prophecies did not succeed. And two thousand years later, religious students of the New Testament seek interpretations which avoid identifying Jesus’ prophecies as having failed. We have, quite literally, three layers of cognitive dissonance: ours upon Jesus’ upon Daniel’s upon the Book of Jeremiah’s predictions about the Babylonian exile.

The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in religious traditions is widely attested in modern apocalyptic movements, as the examples in the introduction demonstrate. It is taken for granted by many members of a revealed religion that, although cognitive dissonance influences the development of ‘those’ other religious groups, ‘this’ one is unaffected. Uncomfortable though it may be, cognitive dissonance is engrained into Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

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