Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PROPHECIES.

§ I.

This word, in its ordinary acceptation, signifies prediction of the future. It is in this sense that Jesus declared to His disciples: “All things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me. Then opened He their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures.”

We shall feel the indispensable necessity of having our minds opened to comprehend the prophecies, if we reflect that the Jews, who were the depositories of them, could never recognize Jesus for the Messiah, and that for eighteen centuries our theologians have disputed with them to fix the sense of some which they endeavor to apply to Jesus. Such is that of Jacob —“The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come.” That of Moses —“The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet like unto me from the nations and from thy brethren; unto Him shall ye hearken.” That of Isaiah —“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” That of Daniel —“Seventy weeks have been determined in favor of thy people,” etc. But our object here is not to enter into theological detail.

Let us merely observe what is said in the Acts of the Apostles, that in giving a successor to Judas, and on other occasions, they acted expressly to accomplish prophecies; but the apostles themselves sometimes quote such as are not found in the Jewish writings; such is that alleged by St. Matthew: “And He came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.”

St. Jude, in his epistle, also quotes a prophecy from the book of “Enoch,” which is apocryphal; and the author of the imperfect work on St. Matthew, speaking of the star seen in the East by the Magi, expresses himself in these terms: “It is related to me on the evidence of I know not what writing, which is not authentic, but which far from destroying faith encourages it, that there was a nation on the borders of the eastern ocean which possessed a book that bears the name of Seth, in which the star that appeared to the Magi is spoken of, and the presents which these Magi offered to the Son of God. This nation, instructed by the book in question, chose twelve of the most religious persons amongst them, and charged them with the care of observing whenever this star should appear. When any of them died, they substituted one of their sons or relations. They were called magi in their tongue, because they served God in silence and with a low voice.

“These Magi went every year, after the corn harvest, to a mountain in their country, which they called the Mount of Victory, and which is very agreeable on account of the fountains that water and the trees which cover it. There is also a cistern dug in the rock, and after having there washed and purified themselves, they offered sacrifices and prayed to God in silence for three days.

“They had not continued this pious practice for many generations, when the happy star descended on their mountain. They saw in it the figure of a little child, on which there appeared that of the cross. It spoke to them and told them to go to Judæa. They immediately departed, the star always going before them, and were two days on the road.”

This prophecy of the book of Seth resembles that of Zorodascht or Zoroaster, except that the figure seen in his star was that of a young virgin, and Zoroaster says not that there was a cross on her. This prophecy, quoted in the “Gospel of the Infancy,” is thus related by Abulpharagius: “Zoroaster, the master of the Magi, instructed the Persians of the future manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and commanded them to offer Him presents when He was born. He warned them that in future times a virgin should conceive without the operation of any man, and that when she brought her Son into the world, a star should appear which would shine at noonday, in the midst of which they would see the figure of a young virgin. ‘You, my children,’ adds Zoroaster, ‘will see it before all nations. When, therefore, you see this star appear, go where it will conduct you. Adore this dawning child; offer it presents, for it is the word which created heaven.’ ”

The accomplishment of this prophecy is related in Pliny’s “Natural History”; but besides that the appearance of the star should have preceded the birth of Jesus by about forty years, this passage seems very suspicious to scholars, and is not the first nor only one which might have been interpolated in favor of Christianity. This is the exact account of it: “There appeared at Rome for seven days a comet so brilliant that the sight of it could scarcely be supported; in the middle of it a god was perceived under the human form; they took it for the soul of Julius Cæsar, who had just died, and adored it in a particular temple.”

M. Assermany, in his “Eastern Library,” also speaks of a book of Solomon, archbishop of Bassora, entitled “The Bee,” in which there is a chapter on this prediction of Zoroaster. Hornius, who doubted not its authenticity, has pretended that Zoroaster was Balaam, and that was very likely, because Origen, in his first book against Celsus, says that the Magi had no doubt of the prophecies of Balaam, of which these words are found in Numbers: “There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” But Balaam was no more a Jew than Zoroaster, since he said himself that he came from Aram — from the mountains of the East.

Besides, St. Paul speaks expressly to Titus of a Cretan prophet, and St. Clement of Alexandria acknowledged that God, wishing to save the Jews, gave them prophets; with the same motive, He ever created the most excellent men of Greece; those who were the most proper to receive His grace, He separated from the vulgar, to be prophets of the Greeks, in order to instruct them in their own tongue. “Has not Plato,” he further says, “in some manner predicted the plan of salvation, when in the second book of his ‘Republic,’ he has imitated this expression of Scripture: ‘Let us separate ourselves from the Just, for he incommodes us’; and he expresses himself in these terms: ‘The Just shall be beaten with rods, His eyes shall be put out, and after suffering all sorts of evils, He shall at last be crucified.’ ”

St. Clement might have added, that if Jesus Christ’s eyes were not put out, notwithstanding the prophecy, neither were His bones broken, though it is said in a psalm: “While they break My bones, My enemies who persecute Me overwhelm Me with their reproaches.” On the contrary, St. John says positively that the soldiers broke the legs of two others who were crucified with Him, but they broke not those of Jesus, that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “A bone of Him shall not be broken.”

This Scripture, quoted by St. John, extended to the letter of the paschal lamb, which ought to be eaten by the Israelites; but John the Baptist having called Jesus the Lamb of God, not only was the application of it given to Him, but it is even pretended that His death was predicted by Confucius. Spizeli quotes the history of China by Maitinus, in which it is related that in the thirty-ninth year of the reign of King-hi, some hunters outside the gates of the town killed a rare animal which the Chinese called kilin, that is to say, the Lamb of God. At this news, Confucius struck his breast, sighed profoundly, and exclaimed more than once: “Kilin, who has said that thou art come?” He added: “My doctrine draws to an end; it will no longer be of use, since you will appear.”

Another prophecy of the same Confucius is also found in his second book, which is applied equally to Jesus, though He is not designated under the name of the Lamb of God. This is it: We need not fear but that when the expected Holy One shall come, all the honor will be rendered to His virtue which is due to it. His works will be conformable to the laws of heaven and earth.

These contradictory prophecies found in the Jewish books seem to excuse their obstinacy, and give good reason for the embarrassment of our theologians in their controversy with them. Further, those which we are about to relate of other people, prove that the author of Numbers, the apostles and fathers, recognized prophets in all nations. The Arabs also pretend this, who reckon a hundred and eighty thousand prophets from the creation of the world to Mahomet, and believe that each of them was sent to a particular nation. We shall speak of prophetesses in the article on “Sibyls.”

§ II.

Prophets still exist: we had two at the Bicêtre in 1723, both calling themselves Elias. They were whipped; which put it out of all doubt. Before the prophets of Cévennes, who fired off their guns from behind hedges in the name of the Lord in 1704, Holland had the famous Peter Jurieu, who published the “Accomplishment of the Prophecies.” But that Holland may not be too proud, he was born in France, in a little town called Mer, near Orleans. However, it must be confessed that it was at Rotterdam alone that God called him to prophesy.

This Jurieu, like many others, saw clearly that the pope was the beast in the “Apocalypse,” that he held “poculum aureum plenum abominationum,” the golden cup full of abominations; that the four first letters of these four Latin words formed the word papa; that consequently his reign was about to finish; that the Jews would re-enter Jerusalem; that they would reign over the whole world during a thousand years; after which would come the Antichrist; finally, Jesus seated on a cloud would judge the quick and the dead.

Jurieu prophesies expressly that the time of the great revolution and the entire fall of papistry “will fall justly in the year 1689, which I hold,” says he, “to be the time of the apocalyptic vintage, for the two witnesses will revive at this time; after which, France will break with the pope before the end of this century, or at the commencement of the next, and the rest of the anti-Christian empire will be everywhere abolished.”

The disjunctive particle “or,” that sign of doubt, is not in the manner of an adroit man. A prophet should not hesitate; he may be obscure, but he ought to be sure of his fact.

The revolution in papistry not happening in 1689, as Peter Jurieu predicted, he quickly published a new edition, in which he assured the public that it would be in 1690; and, what is more astonishing, this edition was immediately followed by another. It would have been very beneficial if Bayle’s “Dictionary” had had such a run in the first instance; the works of the latter have, however, remained, while those of Peter Jurieu are not even to be found by the side of Nostradamus.

All was not left to a single prophet. An English Presbyterian, who studied at Utrecht, combated all which Jurieu said on the seven vials and seven trumpets of the Apocalypse, on the reign of a thousand years, the conversion of the Jews, and even on Antichrist. Each supported himself by the authority of Cocceius, Coterus, Drabicius, and Commenius, great preceding prophets, and by the prophetess Christina. The two champions confined themselves to writing; we hoped they would give each other blows, as Zedekiah smacked the face of Micaiah, saying: “Which way went the spirit of the Lord from my hand to thy cheek?” or literally: “How has the spirit passed from thee to me?” The public had not this satisfaction, which is a great pity.

§ III.

It belongs to the infallible church alone to fix the true sense of prophecies, for the Jews have always maintained, with their usual obstinacy, that no prophecy could regard Jesus Christ; and the Fathers of the Church could not dispute with them with advantage, since, except St. Ephrem, the great Origen, and St. Jerome, there was never any Father of the Church who knew a word of Hebrew.

It is not until the ninth century that Raban the Moor, afterwards bishop of Mayence, learned the Jewish language. His example was followed by some others, and then they began disputing with the rabbi on the sense of the prophecies.

Raban was astonished at the blasphemies which they uttered against our Saviour; calling Him a bastard, impious son of Panther, and saying that it is not permitted them to pray to God without cursing Jesus: “Quod nulla oratio posset apud Deum accepta esse nisi in ea Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum maledicant. Confitentes eum esse impium et filium impii, id est, nescio cujus œthnici quem nominant Panthera, a quo dicunt matrem Domini adulteratam.”

These horrible profanations are found in several places in the “Talmud,” in the books of Nizachon, in the dispute of Rittangel, in those of Jechiel and Nachmanides, entitled the “Bulwark of Faith,” and above all in the abominable work of the Toldos Jeschut. It is particularly in the “Bulwark of Faith” of the Rabbin Isaac, that they interpret all the prophecies which announce Jesus Christ by applying them to other persons.

We are there assured that the Trinity is not alluded to in any Hebrew book, and that there is not found in them the slightest trace of our holy religion. On the contrary, they point out a hundred passages, which, according to them, assert that the Mosaic law should eternally remain.

The famous passage which should confound the Jews, and make the Christian religion triumph in the opinion of all our great theologians, is that of Isaiah: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know how to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall whistle for the flies that are in the brooks of Egypt, and for the bees that are in the land of Assyria. In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head and the hair of the genitals, and he will also consume the beard.

“Moreover, the Lord said unto me, take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man’s pen concerning Maher-shalal-hash-baz. And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zachariah the son of Jeberechiah. And I went in unto the prophetess; and she conceived and bare a son; then said the Lord to me, call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry my father and my mother, the riches of Damascus, and the spoil of Samaria, shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.”

The Rabbin Isaac affirms, with all the other doctors of his law, that the Hebrew word “alma” sometimes signifies a virgin and sometimes a married woman; that Ruth is called “alma” when she was a mother; that even an adulteress is sometimes called “alma”; that nobody is meant here but the wife of the prophet Isaiah; that her son was not called Immanuel, but Maher-shalal-hash-baz; that when this son should eat honey and butter, the two kings who besieged Jerusalem would be driven from the country, etc.

Thus these blind interpreters of their own religion, and their own language, combated with the Church, and obstinately maintained, that this prophecy cannot in any manner regard Jesus Christ. We have a thousand times refuted their explication in our modern languages. We have employed force, gibbets, racks, and flames; yet they will not give up.

“He has borne our ills, he has sustained our griefs, and we have beheld him afflicted with sores, stricken by God, and afflicted.” However striking this prediction may appear to us, these obstinate Jews say that it has no relationship to Jesus Christ, and that it can only regard the prophets who were persecuted for the sins of the people.

“And behold my servant shall prosper, shall be honored, and raised very high.” They say, further, that the foregoing passage regards not Jesus Christ but David; that this king really did prosper, but that Jesus, whom they deny, did not prosper. “Behold I will make a new pact with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.” They say that this passage signifies not, according to the letter and the sense, anything more than — I will renew my covenant with Judah and with Israel. However, this pact has not been renewed; and they cannot make a worse bargain than they have made. No matter, they are obstinate.

“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth a ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

They dare to deny that this prophecy applies to Jesus Christ. They say that it is evident that Micah speaks of some native captain of Bethlehem, who shall gain some advantage in the war against the Babylonians: for the moment after he speaks of the history of Babylon, and of the seven captains who elected Darius. And if we demonstrate that he treated of the Messiah, they still will not agree.

The Jews are grossly deceived in Judah, who should be a lion, and who has only been an ass under the Persians, Alexander, the Seleucides, Ptolemys, Romans, Arabs, and Turks.

They know not what is understood by the Shiloh, and by the rod, and the thigh of Judah. The rod has been in Judæa but a very short time. They say miserable things; but the Abbé Houteville says not much more with his phrases, his neologism, and oratorical eloquence; a writer who always puts words in the place of things, and who proposes very difficult objections merely to reply to them by frothy discourse, or idle words!

All this is, therefore, labor in vain; and when the French abbé would make a still larger book, when he would add to the five or six thousand volumes which we have on the subject, we shall only be more fatigued, without advancing a single step.

We are, therefore, plunged in a chaos which it is impossible for the weakness of the human mind to set in order. Once more, we have need of a church which judges without appeal. For in fact, if a Chinese, a Tartar, or an African, reduced to the misfortune of having only good sense, read all these prophecies, it would be impossible for him to apply them to Jesus Christ, the Jews, or to anyone else. He would be in astonishment and uncertainty, would conceive nothing, and would not have a single distinct idea. He could not take a step in this abyss without a guide. With this guide, he arrives not only at the sanctuary of virtue, but at good canonships, at large commanderies, opulent abbeys, the crosiered and mitred abbots of which are called monseigneur by his monks and peasants, and to bishoprics which give the title of prince. In a word, he enjoys earth, and is sure of possessing heaven.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25