Crystal-Ball Theology

…or imaginary prophecies: take your pick 

Caravaggio brilliantly captured the moment when the Risen Jesus invited his disciple Thomas to touch the sword wound in his side. But what’s wrong with this picture? Certainly nothing is wrong with the painting; it is one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, and I chose it for the cover of my book because it helps expose some of the theological nonsense in the New Testament. There is so much to unpack here, but let’s give it a shot.



The Doubting Thomas incident—with him fingering the wound in Jesus’ side—is found only in John’s gospel (20:24-29), because Jesus getting stabbed—on the cross, after he died—is found only in John’s gospel, 19:33-37:

“But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”

John’s author has dropped too many clues that he was not a historian; his agenda was entirely theological. 


(1) New Testament scholars—at least those outside fundamentalist circles—believe that this gospel was written 70 to 80 years after the supposed events. Hence this line, verse 35: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe…” is posturing. It’s a giveaway that this author has written a theological tract, i.e., propaganda: he wants people to believe. There is no contemporaneous documentation to back up the claim that this text was written by an eyewitness. And why the urgency to believe that water and blood came out of a sword wound in a dead body? Christians: please consider how weird this is!


(2) The apostle Paul would have been alarmed by the Doubting Thomas scene, i.e., a resurrected body with a sword wound. Paul argued that “spiritual” bodies without blemishes of any kind would be resurrected. 


(3)  “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled…” This is industrial-strength theobabble. The texts referenced are Exodus 12:46 (more on this later), Numbers 9:12 and Psalm 34:20, and we can be confident that no one reading these texts—at the time they were written—would have taken them as prophecies.

(4) Verse 37, “And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced,’” is an even more obscure reference to a text in Zechariah 12:10 about compassion for someone who has been pierced—this written in the sixth century BCE. 


The habit of the gospel writers was to hunt for texts in the Old Testament for which they could write fulfillments in the story of Jesus. These examples in John 19 are especially farfetched. 


While these concocted stories play an important role in the falsification of Christianity, it turns out that such texts were actually a key to the success of Christianity; it got high marks as a prophecy-based, prophecy-verified religion, as R. G. Price points out in his essay, “Why the Romans Believed the Gospels,” in John Loftus’ anthology, The Case Against Miracles.


A companion essay to this one follows in the Loftus anthology, Robert J. Miller’s, “How New Testament Writers Helped Jesus Fulfill Prophecy.” My comment on that essay is found here. 

Superstition was rampant in the ancient world —even more so than today —and Price sets the stage for the success of the gospels in a 12-page survey of various forms of belief in prophecies; this is extremely important context for understanding Christian origins. Price begins: 

“One of the great magic tricks of the ancient world wasn’t something that was performed in front of an audience, it was a trick performed by storytellers. The trick was writing stories about prophets who predicted things that had already occurred. This simple trick was actually extremely effective and had profound impacts on how people viewed the world—indeed on the course of civilization.” (p. 231)


Then, as now, professional apologists took charge:


“The evaluation of prophetic legitimacy was carried out by individuals known as the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, “the fifteen men in charge of sacred rituals.” The quindecimviri were a special group of Roman priests who were charged with the study and stewardship of prophetic literature, primarily the Sibylline oracles. The quindecimviriwere regarded as authorities on the evaluation of prophets and prophecies to determine which prophecies were legitimate and which were false.


“So, what exactly were the methods used to determine the ‘authenticity’ of oracles? They were surprisingly crude and unsophisticated. Indeed, when we look at examples of prophetic assessment, they seem almost juvenile in their credulity…Overall, the evaluation of literary oracles was highly subjective and naïve…”  (p. 237)


And here is a major factor that accounts for the success of the gospels:


“…it was common practice in Hellenistic times to reinterpret older writings as hidden prophecies about recent or future events. It is likely this was one of the major ways that the Sibylline works were used. According to this practice, diviners would scour works that were thought to contain prophetic material and look for passages that seemed to correspond to various known events. They would then identify these passages as having hidden prophecies that confirmed the divine nature of various events…” (p. 240)


It turns out that the author of John’s gospel was an expert at scouring, outdoing the other gospel writers. John alone tells that the soldiers didn’t break Jesus’ legs. He alone had discovered a hidden prophecy. We can’t imagine one more hidden than this one! Exodus 12:43-46: 


“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; no bound or hired servant may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones.”


For John, who specialized in magical thinking, Jesus was the Passover Lamb, “…the lamb that takes away the sins of the world.” So the rule given to Moses and Aaron had to be observed explicitly: Jesus’ legs couldn’t be broken. For us to take this seriously as history, we would need contemporaneous documentation—say, a report written by the soldiers—that they left the dead body of Jesus untouched. Without that, we’re left with John’s fantasy literature; he wrote theology, not history.


Price explains why such writings were taken seriously:


“The way that Gospels were written led many Roman scholars to view them as among the most credible accounts of the strongest examples of prophecy ever seen…Roman scholars were impressed by the fact that not only did the Gospels contain a multitude of ‘confirmed’ prophecies, but that these prophecies were attested to in what they believed to be four separate, independently written, eyewitness accounts that corroborated each other.” (p. 243)


When we pick up biographies written in modern times, we appreciate the rigorous discipline required to authenticate the past, to separate fact from fantasy. In the ancient past, this rigorous discipline was not so common; the gospels escaped careful scrutiny, as Price points out:


“The Gospels were four writings that were just different enough that it appeared they were independent works, and they were just similar enough that they appeared to corroborate each other. The Gospels employed many of the prophetic tropes that were widely believed in other forms of prophetic literature. The many layers of prophecy within the stories were seen as confirmation of the ‘truth’ of the accounts and the claims of divinity.


“The scenes based on scriptural references appeared to be wonderous hidden messages of divine prophetic confirmation. Yet, of course, none of these so-called ‘prophecies’ were real, they were just literary fabrications.” (p. 253)


Price points out that Lactantius, an advisor to Constantine, in a work titled, The Divine Institutes, fully bought into the gospel positioning of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy—and the consequences:


“It was likely Lactantius who convinced Constantine of the merits of Christianity, leading Constantine to embrace the religion—setting in motion events that would lead to the adoption of Christianity as the exclusive religion of the Roman empire.” (pp.248-249)


Modern defenders of the faith must somehow make the case that the massive use of literary fabrications is any more believable—and more defensible—than believing that Christian truth can discovered through crystal ball gazing. Both are examples of magical thinking. 


What a dilemma that Christianity is stuck with the gospels, documents that were created decades after the time of Jesus by authors who had no access to contemporaneous documents. The stark fact is that verifiable informationabout Jesus does not exist. And what a lot of trouble that has caused ever since, as Price illustrates:


“When Christian scholars began debating the doctrines of Christianity in the second century, there were many sects who claimed that Jesus was not a man, rather he was purely spiritual, or that he came to earth only in an immaterial form, and never ‘took the form of flesh’—never became incarnate. Those who believed that Jesus had in fact been born and ‘become flesh’ relied entirely on the Gospels and the interpretation of Jewish scriptures to support their position. No real evidence was ever put forward.” (p. 251)


No real evidence. The gospels simply do no qualify, any more than do imagined prophecies buried in ancient texts. Christian theology is based on fantasy literature—all the way down. Apologists might as well try to convince us that they could do just as well with crystal balls.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.



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