Can you comment on the material about the "historical Jesus" at commonsenseatheism.com? The featured video clips claim that many of the messianic prophesies were taken out of context to apply to Jesus. Can you respond to particularly the claim that Psalm 22:16 is mistranslated particularly the word "pierced"? Also, Matthew 27:9-10, a prophesy from Zechariah, is said to come from Jeremiah by the author; even if I don’t hold to Biblical inerrancy this seems odd. I want to look deeper into the history of the 1st Century Roman Empire through secular historians like Tacitus and Josephus. Is there are
particular translation of their writings that you would recommend?
Skeptics of Christianity find themselves having to respond to the messianic prophecies as these are some of the very strongest evidence for the inspiration of the Bible. Be aware that these people study the messianic prophecies with the intent to find a reason to excuse them or to dismiss them. Generally they will either claim that the prophecy is not in fact messianic or that it is mistranslated, which is exactly what you found at this site. Such claims should be taked for what they are worth given the rather obvious bias, but they should be addressed one at a time.
So, let us start with Psalms 22:16. Skeptics are and should be nervous about this prophecy. The psalmist says, "A gang of evildoers has surrounded me; they pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves and they cast lots for my clothing." This seemingly rather obvious reference to the events of the crucifixion which happened about 1000 years after David (assuming it was David) wrote this psalm is striking evidence for the inspiration. The psalmist appears to prophetically know that someone was going to be crucified (pierced at hands and feet), that he was going to not have his bones broken (which happened to Jesus because he had died, while the thieves had their bones broken) and that they would both divide and gamble over his garments.
Now, imagine you are a skeptic of Christianity and one thing you are absolutely sure of. Obviously this cannot be an actual, legitimate prophecy. What are you going to do? You cannot claim this was written after the events. You cannot claim that this is not a messianic prophecy because if it is in fact a reference to crucifixion, your explanation will seem like special pleading? So, what will you do? What about checking into the Hebrew to see if there is any chance that is where the problem lies. OK, are there any words about which the meaning is uncertain? It turns out that the Hebrew word translated as "pierced" can also be translated as lion. There you go. Now we know that this is not a prophecy. The psalmist was not talking about a crucifixion but about a lion.
Let us look at this argument. It is a fact that this Hebrew word can have more than one meaning. Which is the more likely meaning. They have lion my hands and my feet or they have pierced my hands and my feet? I do not think that the translators had any problem here. Is it because they are believers and are trying to make it look like the Bible is inspired by God? This scenario is not out of the question, but given the two choices, the translators had no choice. Besides, look at the context. This prophecy also mentions the counting of the bones and the being surrounded by enemies and the dividing of the clothing. This skeptical argument is a rather blatant example, not of reasonable interpretation but of an attempt to explain away the rather obvious meaning. You can dismiss this rather blatant biased treatment of Psalms 22.
This example is fairly easy to dismiss as biased. Some other examples of skeptic’s attempt to explain away the messianic prophecies are not so blatantly bogus. For example there are a couple of important messianic prophecies in Isaiah. One is Isaiah 9:1-7 and the other is Isaiah 7:13-17. The first is a prophecy of the Messiah being from Galilee in the region around Nazareth. The other is a prophecy of a "virgin" birth. In both cases the context allows for the possibility that these prophecies refer to events in the immediate time frame of Isaiah. In fact, it is not completely out of the question that the original recipients of the book of Isaiah may have seen these prophecies in this way. Nevertheless, I believe that despite this reasonable argument, the fact remains that almost without a doubt these are still messianic prophecies, with principle fulfillment in the life of Jesus. It is not impossible that God uses a prophecy to have both an immediate partial fulfillment and a much later complete fulfillment. If you look at the two passages in question, Isaiah 7:13-17 talks about a "sign" which is that a virgin will be pregnant. It is true that the Hebrew word here can refer to a young woman or a virgin/maiden, but it is really not a big miracle is a young married woman gets pregnant. It is also true that if one looks at this passage in context it is not unreasonable to think of it as being fulfilled, at least in a limited way at the time of Isaiah. However, the miracle–the "sign" is something supernatural. The application of this to the virgin birth of Jesus is fairly obvious. Nevertheless, I do not consider this particular messianic prophecy fantastically strong evidence. It is not in my "A list" of prophecies to prove Jesus is the Messiah.
The case with Isaiah 9:1-7 is quite a bit stronger. That this is a messianic prophecy is extremely strongly indicated by the phrases Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. It is inconceivable that a political leader of Judah in the 8th century BC is what God has in mind here. The prophecy is of one from the land of Naphtali and Zebulun. Nazareth is right on the border of these two tribal territories. I believe that unlike Isaiah 7:13-17 which is most likely messianic, but debatable, Isaiah 9:1-7 is rather obviously messianic and it is a big stretch to apply this to the immediate circumstances of Isaiah.
About Matthew 27:9-10, to be honest, this does present a reasonable question. Is it possible that both Jeremiah and Zechariah prophesied this, but we only have that from Zechariah? Is it possible that both Jeremiah 32:6-9 and Zechariah 11:12-13 are prophecies of the events which unfolded in Matthew 27? Commentators differ on this, but to be honest, this does raise a reasonable "doubt" about Matthew. What is not in doubt, at least in my opinion, is that Zechariah 11:12-13 is a prophecy about God being sold for 30 pieces of silver and the money being thrown to the potter. What seems to be rather well established is that Zechariah 11:12-13 is a clear messianic prophecy which, as far as I know of, no one has ever been able to explain away as having been fufilled at the time Zechariah wrote.
So, skeptics can raise issues with regard to messianic prophecies. Some are at least somewhat valid in that they cause us to ask how strong the evidence is. In the case of Isaiah 7:13-17 the skeptic’s questions might cause us to not put a huge amount of weight of faith behind this as a messianic prophecy, although on balance it is a reasonably good interpretation. In the case of Psalm 22 my analysis of the facts are that this is a rather blatantly biased criticsim which is easily dismissed. I believe the case for this messianic prophecy is very strong. So, in summary, we ought to at least give the skeptics a listen. Who knows, they might even have a good point here and there. Besides the fact is that there are at least some examples in which Christian apologists have overstated their case. However, on balance when we have given the critic his or her due, in the end there remain a good number of very clearly messianic prophecies which were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. The evidence from the messianic prophecies in support, both of the Messiah claims of Jesus and of the inspiration of the Bible remains very strong even if we listen carefully and respectfully to criticism coming from folks like those you found at commonsenseatheism.com.
About the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, Seutonius, Pliny and others, the relevant passages in these historians are rather short. You do not need to worry all that much about the quality of the translations. You can find quite a bit about this in the outline and power point at the web site titled "Jesus and Christian Apologetics" as well as in my book "Reasons for Belief (www.ipibooks.com). In the power point you will find translations of all the important non-Christian sources on Jesus. I do not believe that translation issues are particularly important to the historical sources on Jesus.
John Oakes, PhD