“Fulfilled Prophecy and Dating the Gospels”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
Fulfilled prophecies play a central role in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke use passages from Isaiah and Micah to explain the events of Jesus’ birth narrative. All four gospel writers take predictions from Isaiah and other prophets and employ them to define His ministry. In John 12, John explains the unbelief of the crowds by claiming that Isaiah predicted it. So too, the stories of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are studded with citations of prophecies that Jesus and His enemies fulfilled.
To Christians both 2000 years ago and today, these prophecies are powerful evidence in support of our faith. As meteorologists prove on a regular basis, it’s very difficult for human beings to predict what is going to happen even next week. When, however, a man foretells an event that happens centuries in the future, it shows both that God has intervened in history and that the man is speaking for God.
Not surprisingly, then, the authors of the New Testament are at pains to indicate when a prophecy by Jesus or one of His followers is fulfilled. In John 2:19-22, John explains Jesus’ facially bizarre claim that He would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days as a prediction of His death and resurrection. In Acts 11:28, Luke notes that Agabus’ prediction of a worldwide famine was fulfilled.
More subtly, there are many instances in the gospels when prophecies are confirmed by subsequent events. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts His death, burial, and resurrection three times during the last part of His ministry, then dies, is buried, and is resurrected. In Acts, Paul is told by Agabus that he will be imprisoned, then is imprisoned. Again, examples abound.
It makes perfect sense for Christian authors to do this at every opportunity. Every time they can write that Jesus predicted something and it happened, it confirms that Jesus is the Son of God. Every time Luke can establish that Paul, Agabus, and all the rest did the same thing, it shows Jesus’ authenticity and theirs.
However, there is one fascinating exception to this rule. In the gospels, Jesus probably spends more time predicting the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans than any other event. Some of the prophecies are cloaked in apocalyptic language, but others are quite plain. In Luke 19:43, for instance, Jesus says to Jerusalem, “For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side.” Pretty straightforward!
The prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem were indeed fulfilled, 40 years after His death. This is a huge piece of evidence confirming that Jesus was a genuine prophet. Thus, we would expect Luke, for instance, to point out that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled as he pointed out that Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled. This opportunity was not lost on the ante-Nicene Fathers, several of whom noted in the second and succeeding centuries that Jerusalem was destroyed according to the word of Jesus.
However, Luke never says a word about it. Neither does Matthew, Mark, or John. There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the Scriptures that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.
I see two possible explanations for this. The first is that the Evangelists are idiots. After painstakingly highlighting all these other fulfilled prophecies, they simply missed their chance to confirm Jesus’ divine origin by pointing to His correct predictions of Jerusalem’s fall. I find this hard to credit. Whatever else one may think about the Gospels and Acts, they clearly are not the work of idiots.
The second is that the Evangelists failed to make this rhetorical point because they did not have opportunity to make it. They couldn’t write about Jerusalem’s destruction as a fait accompli because when they were writing, that destruction hadn’t happened yet. Like the general resurrection that Jesus predicts in John 5, it was an event they anticipated, not one they celebrated.
If so, the dates for at least the Synoptic Gospels, and probably John as well, are all very early, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. If this in turn is true, all of the Evangelists are writing within 40 years of the bulk of the events they record—well within living memory. The gospels, then, are not the accretion of decades or centuries of folkloric tradition about Jesus. They are nearly contemporaneous records that deserve to be treated as reliable historical accounts, and that has a host of implications.