Wednesday, June 09, 2021

After the Fact

The Latin term vaticinium ex eventu is used by liberal scholars and critics of the Bible to describe a prophecy they believe was made “from the event”, or literally after the fact. For example, German scholar Ferdinand Hitzig objected to prophecies about the king of Egypt made in Jeremiah 44:29-30, calling them vaticinium ex eventu. The argument of men like Hitzig is that later writers forged one or more prophecies in Jeremiah’s name based on events which had already occurred, and grafted them into the existing text of Jeremiah, presumably in order to make his writings appear more credible.

Hitzig died in 1875, by the way, so obviously this is not a new issue. And he’s far from the only expert to make such claims.

Claims of Backdated Scripture

For some, accusations of vaticinium ex eventu are good reason to abandon the faith entirely. For others, the presumption that parts of the text may be backdated does not diminish their religious utility. (For example, the apocryphal Book of Wisdom contains an internal claim to have been written by King Solomon, though it is universally believed to have been written in Greek by an Alexandrian Jew hundreds of years after Solomon died. To date this has been insufficient cause for Catholic scholars to exclude it from their version of the Bible.)

Obviously, for those of us who believe in the inspiration of scripture, the concept of vaticinium ex eventu is a non-starter, and a great number of credible defenses of the historicity of books like Daniel and Jeremiah have been written by conservative scholars. So the “When were they written and by whom?” argument rages on with no end in sight. I do not imagine for a moment that the musings of laymen like me will do much to resolve the dispute.

Has that ever stopped me before? You must be joking.

A Whimsical Relationship

The nations of Israel and Judah had what we might call a whimsical relationship with their prophets, who in their day were frequently reviled, persecuted and killed over the very same statements for which they were venerated after their deaths; their writings fastidiously preserved, studied, believed and used as theological proof texts by the children of their murderers. From the distance of millennia, we might imagine that these revilers and venerators were two completely different groups of Jews, but often they were the very same people. Jesus points out in Matthew that, given opportunity, the religious leaders who built the tombs of the prophets would go on to gleefully murder their prophetic contemporaries.

What may help to account for these otherwise inexplicable changes of heart within the Israelite and Jewish religious establishment is the content of the prophetic message. Nobody wants to hear that the judgment of God is coming; that almost everything about your society and your religious practices is offensive to God; that your enemies are about to enjoy the blessings you have taken for granted all your life while you and your family are about to die of hunger or pestilence, be killed or forced into servitude for the rest of your lives; and that your foreign servants are destined to end up living in your house and eating from the vines you made them cultivate for you. Yet this was often precisely the sort of thing the prophets were foretelling for their audience, and the reaction they got was generally as you might expect. Jeremiah, for example, was ignored, publicly humiliated by being beaten and put in stocks, called a liar, left to die in a cistern and dragged to Egypt against his will.

Nevertheless, whether you like it or not, bad things happen when God has ordained it. And once they have happened, you start to rethink your previously vitriolic opinion about guys like Jeremiah, especially when they also prophesied a restoration for Jews who would repent of their evil deeds.

So then, only a few years later, Jeremiah’s prophecies were considered the gold standard by the same nation which had rejected and abused him for making them.

One for the Books

How did that happen? Well, it seems his short-term predictions of Babylonian invasion and empiric dominance of not just Israel but its neighbors turned out to be exceedingly reliable, which made Jeremiah’s peers much more interested in what he had to say about the longer term and even the distant future, even if they didn’t necessarily like everything they heard. How seriously was he taken? Well, his prophecies were “in the books”, which is to say they had already been written down, preserved and circulated, such that an exile like Daniel appears to have had his own copy only a few years later.

How many years did it take for the Judean establishment to revise its view of Jeremiah? Not very many. Jeremiah prophesied seventy years of Judean servitude in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah, which was 604 BC. Daniel read Jeremiah and regarded him as authoritative in the first year of Darius the Mede, probably 538 BC. That makes sixty-six years for poor old Jeremiah to go from pariah and public menace to a respected prophet whose writings were regarded as the word of God. Less actually, because those books had to already exist in order to be transported to Daniel in Babylon at some point prior to him consulting them. Unfortunately, Jeremiah didn’t live to see his prophetic career completely re‑evaluated; he is thought to have died in Egypt around 570 BC.

But my point is this: scripture itself insists that in less than a single generation, one despised prophet’s word, initially completely rejected, became generally accepted among the religious leaders of Israel. Got that? Now, we can believe that or we can refuse to believe it; the choice is up to us. But there is no argument the Bible teaches it.

From Despised to Revered in a Single Generation

Now, it is certainly possible that the final form of the book of Jeremiah as we have it today was quite different from the version Daniel read. Jeremiah contains history as well as prophecy, and odds are those portions written in the third person, such as the stories of Jeremiah’s incarceration and conversations with the king of Judah, were added by his amanuensis Baruch or by some other Judean historian in order to supply context for the prophecies. It may even be true, as some claim, that the entire project was heavily edited and commented upon by devout Jewish scribes for centuries after Daniel saw Baruch’s early draft. Nothing about such an explanation should trouble serious Bible students and believers in the sufficiency and finality of the word of God; the versions we have of books like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles were surely assembled in much the same way.

The point is that Jeremiah’s words were accepted as scripture not hundreds of years later, as if they suddenly appeared out of the blue and could not possibly be authenticated or compared to versions of the same events told by others, but in their own generation, when people who had heard the prophet speak were still around to comment on the veracity of the manuscripts. And they were preserved by people who treated them as the word of God himself, with the greatest of respect, until the coming of Christ, who himself testified to their authority and accuracy.

Late Dates and Earlier Versions

Even if we leave aside the Lord’s multiple quotations from and allusions to Jeremiah (and why would we?), I have considerably more confidence in the opinions of the ancients about Jeremiah than those of modern scholars and text analysts, whose speculations are as substantial as cobwebs and as variable as the media narrative about the origins of COVID‑19. Ferdinand Hitzig’s claim of vaticinium ex eventu in Jeremiah, and similar claims by other critics about Daniel, Isaiah, and every OT prophet who ever got anything they predicted correct, all take for granted that a late date for the final version of an Old Testament book implies that no earlier versions were ever considered authoritative by the people of God.

That is simply not the case, and the Bible says so plainly.

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