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In Christianity, there is a school of interpretation where God sometimes describe future events using past tenses. God, being outside of time, see future events as if it already happens and hence use perfect/past tenses. Thus, for example, in Isaiah 9:5, when Isaiah said that a child was born for us, Christians think that it actually refers to a future child, Jesus. (This is a continuation of an answer on Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange about that verse.)

Also, many of the other prophecies of Isaiah are rendered in past tense. Atheists say that those prophecies were written by someone other than Isaiah (deutero Isaiah) after the events happened. Christians believe that there is only one Isaiah and all the prophecies are written long before return from Babel happened.

  • What's Judaism's point of view and how reasonable are other alternative points of view?
  • Is it common for the Bible to use past/perfect tenses to refer to future events?
  • If you like an answer, consider marking it correct. if not, consider clarifying what additional information you want. – mevaqesh Jan 2 '17 at 5:01
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To posit some sort of "prophetic perfect tense" or the like is entirely superfluous. I am confident that one is unable to grammatically distinguish between regular and "prophetic" usage.

However we do find examples where a prophet will speak from a point of view in which a future event is seen as having transpired, see Numbers 24:17 for example. This is not a special "tense" but regular grammar applied to prophetic vision of the future.

[With regard to the issue of Christian proof-texts in my experience there are no cases where the criticism of the Christian interpretation is predicated upon the verse being in the past tense and have only found such arguments made by those who at any rate not inclined to affirm prophecy.]

  • Why are you using Numbers 24:17 to prove past tense being used to describe future events? – avi Dec 30 '13 at 8:18
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Prophetic perfect is a matter of scholarly debate. Some scholars believe that it is indeed a phenomenon, while others are of the opinion that the use of qatal for prediction should be viewed as a more general grammatical feature. For a summary, see Alleged Non-past Uses of Qatal in Classical Hebrew, by Rogland.

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I am quoting from another answer from Hermeneutics stackexchange on Isaiah 53 prophecy being past tense. That is another example of past tense narration of a prophetic vision or prophecy, and it is also believed by many rabbinic commentaries as prophetic of the Messiah.

Rabbi David Kimchi (דוד קמחי), also known as Radak (רד"ק), who lived from 1160–1235 A.D., wrote this in his Sefer Mikhlol (Folio 45b - מה) concerning the usage of the past tense in prophecies (which naturally concern future events):

תדע כי מנהג העוברי׳ בלשון הקדש להשתמש בו עבר מקום עתיד שהן אותיות איתן וזה בנבואות ברוב כי הדבר ברור כמו אם עבר כי כבר נגזר

And you should know that it is a typical behavior of the past tense verbs in the holy language to use a past tense verb in place of a future tense verb (which are the letters איתן), and this is mostly in prophecies because the matter is clear as if it passed, because it has already been decreed.

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As mentioned, Radak (12th cent.) writes in his Sefer Mikhlol that past tense can be used in prophecies of the future. He notes many examples of this in his Bible commentary, such as Psalms (3:5):

ויענני, עבר במקום עתיד, כמו וְיַעֲנֵנִי, וכמוהו רבים. או הוא כמשמעו, כי בטוח היה בזה. או רוח הקודש הופיעה על לשונו, והוא הנכון, כי כבר פירשנו כי ברוח הקודש נאמרו כל המזמורים, וברוב הנבואה נמצא זה שמדבר עבר במקום עתיד, שהוא כאילו נעשה הדבר

Or the holy spirit expressed itself in his language, and this is the correct explanation, for we have already explained that all the Psalms were [transmitted] through the holy spirit, and in most cases of prophecy the narrator speaks in past tense, in the place of future tense, as though the deed is already done. (My translation of the bolded text).

Regarding the issue of Isaiah, see here. The classic explanation is indeed that prophecy is at play, but Jewish interpretation on the matter was not monolithic.

  • With respect, I don't think this adds enough to the previous answer to merit being an answer in its own right. You've just brought another example is all. – Shimon bM Dec 29 '16 at 8:00
  • @ShimonbM Not just another example; a discussion of the phenomenon in general by Radak, and his explanation for it. | Furthermore, IMHO this is very useful since the Sefer Mikhlol is a rather obscure grammatical work, and the citation is to a page number without an edition, whereas his Bible commentary is an extremely common work, found in most prints of Nakh. | I also link to the Isaiah issue which seems to be a major part of the OP that was totally ignored by all the other posts. – mevaqesh Dec 29 '16 at 8:12
  • @mevaqesh—I was the author of the post on BH.SE that Michael16 hyperlinked to, and in that post, I cited the Bomberg edition published in Venice in 1545. So, not sure what you mean when you say “the citation is to a page number without an edition.” – Der Übermensch Dec 17 '18 at 20:08

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