Prophecy – Definition from the Anchor Bible Dictionary Part 2


The Babylonian Exile of the 6th century B.C.E. caused a sharp break in many of the traditions and institutions of ancient Israel. Its effect on the character of prophecy, however, was less marked than its social and political consequences; and there is a clear line of continuity linking Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem with Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, and Zechariah. Nevertheless, in time prophecy did gradually evolve into something very different from what had been known in preexilic Israel; and by the NT period the designation “prophet” applied to people in whom few of the characteristic features of the preexilic prophets are discernible.

This change in turn had an effect on the way people in the Greco-Roman period perceived the preexilic prophets. At some point in the postexilic age, the idea began to develop that prophecy in the strict sense of the word had ceased from Israel, though certain groups, notably the Qumran community and the early Christians, held that it had recently revived.

The interpretation of postexilic prophecy has many disputed areas, and in general it has not received as much scholarly attention as its preexilic counterpart. We shall examine five questions: the message of the postexilic prophets, their role and status in the community, the nature of prophetic experience after the Exile, the forms of prophetic literature, and the editing of prophetic books.

A. The Message of the Postexilic Prophets
1. From Doom to Hope
2. Calls to Repentance
3. The Prophets and the Cult
4. Oracles about Foreign Nations
5. Eschatology
B. The Role of Prophecy in the Postexilic Age
C. Prophetic Experience
D. The Forms of Prophetic Literature
E. The Editing of Prophetic Books

A. The Message of the Postexilic Prophets

  1. From Doom to Hope. The most obvious shift in the message of the prophets which begins with the Exile is the gradual loss of the sense that God was about to bring disaster on Israel and Judah. Scholars continue to disagree about the extent to which the preexilic prophets had seen hope beyond judgment, or had even thought that the judgment they predicted could be averted; but whether or not the preexilic message of judgment was total, there can be no doubt that it was an important part of the prophets’ teaching. Amos had said “The end has come upon my people Israel” (Amos 8:2); Hosea, “Compassion is hid from my eyes” (Hos 13:14); Isaiah, “His anger is not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (Isa 9:12, 17, 20). In Jeremiah, and in the early oracles of Ezekiel, we hear the same message of impending doom, foretelling the disaster of the Exile. But once the Babylonian invasion had happened and all false hopes of averting it had come to nothing, prophets began to look beyond disaster to more favorable divine purposes for Israel, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11). This is already clear in some of the oracles collected in Jeremiah 30–33 (although many scholars believe these to be additions to the words of Jeremiah, they cannot be much later than the work of the prophet himself), in Ezekiel 36–39 and the early postexilic appendix to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40–48), and above all in the oracles of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55).

But exilic and postexilic prophecy of blessing is continuous with the preexilic judgment prophecy that it gradually displaced; it does not represent the triumph of the facile, optimistic prophets condemned by Jeremiah, who said “Peace, peace” when there was no peace (Jer 6:14). The stories of Jeremiah’s activities during the early years of the exile of Jehoiachin make it clear that Yahweh has not in any sense changed his mind about the fate of Judah; no speedy return of the exiles or simple restoration of the preexilic kingdom is to be looked for. In Jeremiah 28 we read how Jeremiah disputed with a prophet, Hananiah, who had said “Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house” (28:3).

Jeremiah rejected such optimism as a failure to see that the Babylonian conquest was not a temporary setback, but part of a consistent divine plan, and that far worse was to come before there could be any thought of a change in Judah’s fortunes. As late as Deutero-Isaiah, who prophesied just before the return of the first people back to the land of Israel, there is no suggestion that the disaster of Exile had been against the will of Yahweh, or that the better times which were now coming marked a change of heart by Yahweh or invalidated the judgment prophecy that had gone before.

On the contrary, the Exile was a vindication of the prophets who had predicted doom: “Your first fathers sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me; therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary, I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling” (Isa 43:27–28). The possibility of a better future results from the fact that Yahweh has now exacted the punishment which earlier prophets had correctly maintained that he would insist on. There is thus, in postexilic prophecy, a strong sense of identity with the teaching of previous prophets.

Nevertheless, the belief that Yahweh’s judgment had now been fully exacted and so had come to an end did gradually change the prophetic message into something substantially different from what it had been before. Already in Deutero-Isaiah we find the idea that the punishment imposed on Judah was measured and could in principle be paid in full, so that a time would come (and had now come, according to the prophet) when the nation would owe Yahweh no more suffering by way of payment: “her time of service is ended … for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2). This could easily V 5, p 490 lead to a belief that the Babylonians, Yahweh’s instruments of punishment, had afflicted the Israelites more than they deserved and so stood under imminent judgment themselves. Such seems to be the perception both of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 46–47) and of the early postexilic prophet Zechariah (see Zech 1:15: “while I was angry but a little they furthered the disaster”).

Soon the notion took root that Yahweh had vented his full anger on his people in the past, in the Exile which was now over, and that there was no danger that he would ever have cause to do so again. After the Exile, oracles predicting judgment on Israel still appear fitfully, in Haggai’s warnings that sin leads to drought and famine (Hag 1:6–11), in Malachi’s insistence that blemished offerings lead to divine displeasure (Mal 1:6–2:9), or in Trito-Isaiah’s condemnation of social injustices and pagan practices which lead God to blight social relations and bring national calamity (Isaiah 59). But increasingly divine judgment was thought to fall selectively on those elements in Israel which continued to deserve it, and the overwhelming sense of impending national calamity which had been so marked a feature in the preexilic prophets was lost. Eventually even the theme of selective judgment died away, and the role of the prophets came to be understood as one of comfort and consolation for Israel, and of judgment only on her enemies.

  1. Calls to Repentance. The question of whether the preexilic prophets preached “repentance” (i.e., a change in social and political attitudes and actions) is a vexed one, and the answer to it affects our assessment of how far the postexilic prophetic message is novel. There is no doubt that Jeremiah urged his contemporaries to “repent,” that is, to alter their attitude toward the Babylonian threat by capitulating rather than resisting, and that he urged them to reform the religious customs of the day—to move away from the syncretistic practices that had replaced a purer Yahwism. It is clear, however, that he did not expect such repentance to lead to a simple change in Yahweh’s plans for Israel. There was no question of averting the disaster of the Exile, whatever the people did; and the course of action he most urgently wished the leaders of Judah to adopt was to come to terms with this reality, not to resist it. Their “repentance” would thus consist more in recognizing the justice and inevitability of the Babylonian invasion and victory, and in adjusting to the new state of affairs this would imply, than in reforming the national life so as to persuade Yahweh to alter the course of international events—the time when that might have been possible was already past. Similarly, after the major deportations of 597 and 586 his advice to the exiles (according to the account in Jeremiah 29) is to settle down and come to terms with the reality of life in the land of Exile and not to act as if it were merely a temporary aberration in Yahweh’s designs for his people.

Jeremiah’s calls to repent are thus in practice calls to embrace realism and to abandon false hopes. Much the same may be said of the early oracles of Ezekiel, whose aim seems to have been chiefly to dissuade his contemporaries in Exile from believing that there would be a speedy restoration, and to accept that they were responsible for the fate that had befallen them and for the disasters which were still in store for the city of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 18). In this early exilic period attention shifts from the earlier prophetic concern with social justice and religious purity to the question of how the community will react to the conditions of life under Babylonian domination. Calls to reform the national life, even if these had once been typical of prophets, cease to be appropriate, in view of the total lack of self-determination possible for a nation in Exile or living in the ruins of its land.

In the period of postexilic reconstruction, however, prophets appear much more as teachers whose role is to induce a change of heart and of conduct in the community now striving to repair its national and social life. Haggai in particular quite clearly sees his task as being to persuade the people to make an effort to rebuild the temple (1:4, 9), while Zechariah seems to combine a similar concern for restoring the nation’s cultic life with an interest in questions of social justice that reminds us of Amos or Isaiah (see, for example, Zech 8:16–17). It is possible, of course, that passages of moral exhortation in the postexilic prophets owe something to the work of editors, but these passages are in keeping with the much more positive and constructive role of these later prophets as compared with the doom-laden words of their preexilic predecessors.

By NT times it was widely held that all the prophets had been essentially moral teachers, whose function had been to exhort rather than to foretell disaster. This idea seems to owe much to the early years after the Exile, when prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah had directed their efforts to improving the moral condition of the nation, at a time when it was no longer believed that national disaster was impending. Whereas preexilic prophets had been concerned to discern God’s hand in contemporary international affairs, and to show Israel the signs of the times, postexilic prophets became directly involved in social and political questions, as respected, official teachers of morality. The tenor of the preexilic prophets’ message (continued by Jeremiah and Ezekiel) is that the people should accept the justice of Yahweh’s impending punishment for their sins; that of the postexilic prophets is that Yahweh seeks moral reformation and renewal, and will reward them with his favor.

  1. The Prophets and the Cult. Anyone who comes to the postexilic prophets after reading their preexilic predecessors is immediately struck by how differently they react to the place of the cult in Israel’s national life. Amos had condemned the religion of the sanctuaries (4:4–5; 5:4–5), and Jeremiah had dismissed the temple as a false focus of security for the nation (7:1–4). But Haggai and Zechariah regard rebuilding the temple as crucial to national reconstruction (Hag 1:4; Zech 4:8–10); the appendix to Ezekiel places cultic institutions at the center of national life (Ezekiel 40–44); Malachi rebukes the priests for neglecting the detail of ritual ordinances (Mal 1:6–10); and in the work of the Chronicler prophets are consistently represented as concerned with the cultic life of the nation (cf. 2 Chr 13:8–11; 15:1–7). The reason for this may be that there had been a change in the prophetic message—perhaps a necessary change in view of the different conditions of life for the postexilic Jewish community, deprived of its political institutions and obliged to embrace distinctive ritual and cultic ordinances as an alternative focus for national life. Alternatively, it may simply V 5, p 491 mean that the postexilic prophets who are represented in the OT happen to be those who came from a cultic milieu, though in this respect they were not necessarily typical of postexilic prophecy in general. (This point will be discussed again below in relation to the question of the role of the prophet in postexilic society.) Only in Trito-Isaiah (Isa 66:1) do we find hints that not all postexilic prophets were enthusiastic supporters of the renewed temple cult.

Connections between prophets and cult may be reflected not only in the content of the prophetic message but also in the form of prophetic books, for it is after the Exile that these begin to show influence from literary forms whose natural home is public worship. Deutero-Isaiah makes extensive use of hymns, royal oracles probably taken from coronation or enthronement rituals, and cultic exhortations; indeed, it has sometimes been suggested that the whole collection is liturgical in origin, or at least that the prophet was a temple singer or poet by profession.

If we follow the division of prophetic collections into diwan (collected oracles) and liturgy types (as proposed by Engnell 1969), it is noteworthy that the postexilic period contributes by far the most examples of the liturgy type to the prophetic corpus of the OT. Postexilic prophecy almost wholly lacks the antipathy to national cultic life which is so marked a feature of the teaching of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. Perhaps this is because the cult had ceased to be a cause for complacent self-satisfaction, preventing the people from hearing the prophetic warning that sacrifices would not save a nation steeped in social injustice. Instead it had become the essential rallying point for renewal and reconstruction.

  1. Oracles about Foreign Nations. Israelite prophets had probably uttered oracles about foreign nations from the earliest times, since prophets seem to have been retained by kings to foretell the downfall of their enemies—and perhaps to help bring it about, through what we might call magic. Amos (in chaps. 1–2) seems to presuppose that his audience was familiar with the custom of uttering oracles predicting the fall of Israel’s enemies. However, one of the most radical changes effected by the preexilic classical prophets was to replace such prophecies, which foretold disaster for the nation’s enemies, with condemnation of Israel itself. Thus by the time of Jeremiah, there was a strong tradition among the prophets of seeing Israel itself as the enemy whom Yahweh had cursed. But in either case, down to the early exilic period prophets evince little interest in the fate of foreign nations except as this bears on the fate of Israel. Other nations may be doomed because they are Israel’s enemies, or they may be Yahweh’s instruments to punish his sinful people. Sometimes both themes may appear: Isaiah 10 contains a number of oracles in which the eventual downfall of the Assyrians is prophesied after they have carried out their commission to punish Israel.
    From Jeremiah onward, however, the interest of Israel’s prophets widens to include the fate of foreign nations as a theme in its own right. In Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah the downfall of Babylon is the prelude to the eventual restoration of Israel to its land; and the old tradition of cursing the enemies of Israel reemerges in the form of oracles against Babylon: Isaiah 46–47 is the most extended example. The Babylonians are denounced for their arrogance (cf. Isaiah 10 on the Assyrians), and their speedy collapse is promised by Yahweh. Probably from the same period are the oracles in Jeremiah 50–51 against Babylon. The logical implication of this is that Yahweh has appointed the Persian king, Cyrus, as his agent of judgment on Babylon and hence of salvation for the Jews, and this results in one of the earliest examples of an oracle’s promising divine blessing to a foreign king (Isa 45:1–7). Here Cyrus is actually described as Yahweh’s “anointed one”—a title previously used only for the Davidic king. The generally favorable view of the Persians continues to be characteristic of postexilic prophecy, which contains no explicitly anti-Persian oracles.

But alongside the specific oracles of doom on Babylon and of blessing on Persia, the prophetic tradition from Deutero-Isaiah onward comes to contain vaguer oracles about “the nations,” in which virulently xenophobic sentiments alternate with an attitude which seems incipiently universalistic. Most of the prophetic books now contain a cycle of “oracles against the nations,” in which (sometimes named, sometimes anonymous) nations are threatened with Yahweh’s wrath. These oracles are notoriously difficult to date, but must in most cases derive from the Persian or Hellenistic age. At the same time, many prophetic books include oracles foretelling the “gathering in” of the nations to Jerusalem, and seem to envisage a future in which the barriers between Jew and gentile will break down and all mankind will come to acknowledge Yahweh as the one God.

There is dispute about whether this is how we should understand passages in Ezekiel and Deutero–Isaiah which say that Yahweh will become known to the nations. They may rather be a promise that the nations (who have derided fallen Israel) will come to acknowledge the reality of Yahweh’s power when he punishes them and restores his own people. But in Zechariah and Trito-Isaiah there can be little doubt that foreigners are regarded positively (cf. Zech 8:20–23; Isa 56:3–8), while Malachi seems to contrast the worship offered by gentiles favorably with the blemished offerings of Israelite priests (Mal 1:11–14).

The book of Jonah—a legend about a prophet rather than a collection of prophetic oracles—seems designed to teach a similar message, perhaps in reaction against the exclusivism of some Judaism of the Second Temple period. Isaiah 19 concludes with five oracles of a strikingly universalistic tone, including the remarkable prophecy, “In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage’ ” (Isa 19:24–25).

  1. Eschatology. It is sometimes said that postexilic prophecy became more “eschatological” than prophecy had been in the preexilic period. This may mean one of several things.
    First, sometimes this is a convenient way of expressing the idea that the time scale of prophetic predictions became longer after the Exile. Instead of foretelling the immediate consequences of national sin, prophets now came to be interested in a longer sweep of history; and, in particular, they started to think that God has a detailed plan for the history of all the nations which he was working out in a more or less predetermined manner. The V 5, p 492 preexilic prophets give the impression that Yahweh reacts sharply and immediately to human conduct, but not that he has a grand design coming to fruition in preplanned stages. But already in Ezekiel and Deutero–Isaiah, and to an increasing extent in the thought of Trito-Isaiah, Zechariah, and the forerunners of apocalyptic—such as the authors of Isaiah 24–27 or Zechariah 9–14—history seems to form an orderly progression, with human volition playing a role clearly subordinate to the divine plan. When the prophets after the Exile are said to have “an eschatology,” this is the aspect of their message that is often being referred to. Of course they also had an interest in what the immediate future held for Israel, but (as noted in the preceding section) the scope of their concern was perceptibly wider. It should be noted, however, that it is not until a few of the apocalyptic works of the NT period that the events foretold can be called “eschatological” in the full technical sense the term has in traditional Christian theology, where it implies an end to the whole world order and also refers to the fate of the individual after death.

Second, “eschatology” may also be used (as it frequently is by NT scholars) to point not so much to the long-term plan found in the thinking of postexilic prophecy as to the transcendent character of the divine action in history. This is another aspect of the tendency to determinism just noted: the prophets stress that what happens in human history is divine action, the coming to fruition of a divine purpose, accomplished through more than human means. God breaks into the progression of human history and takes control of it in a direct and uncompromising way, leaving little to human agents. This is certainly the impression created, for example, by Zechariah 14, where God stands in person on the Mount of Olives and causes it to be split in two, or in Isaiah 34, where he himself wields the sword that first destroys the heavenly hosts and then descends in judgment on Edom. The expectation of God’s personal, decisive intervention in human history seems to be a feature of prophecy as it develops toward what we call apocalyptic. There are few parallels to this way of thinking in the preexilic prophets, for whom divine involvement in human affairs is more often expressed through the mediation of human agency.

Third, some scholars hold that the failure of prophetic predictions to materialize led to their being projected into the remote (“eschatological”) future as a way of retaining their authority, when a simpler reaction would have been simply to conclude that they had been proved wrong. On this view, the postexilic prophets themselves did not hold any longer-term view of history than their predecessors; it was their disciples who, faced with the apparent failure of the prophets’ predictions, reworked their oracles so as to make them refer to the very remote future. Thus they made it impossible that the prophecies would ever be falsified by events. On this interpretation, “eschatology” is thus not a development within the prophetic tradition, but an interpretative category applied to prophetic oracles by those who edited and reused them in later generations.

B. The Role of Prophecy in the Postexilic Age

We noted above that alongside collections of oracles, the postexilic prophetic books also contain many works which are closer to the “liturgy” type. This observation, combined with the evidence of the books of Chronicles, where “prophets” often appear in a liturgical role, may suggest that there was a significant shift after the Exile toward a closer alignment of the prophetic tradition with the institutions of the cult. Haggai and Zechariah might already be examples of this, with their concern for the reestablishment of temple worship among the returned exiles.

Even Ezekiel, during the exilic period itself, shows many more points of contact with priestly circles than is the case with the preexilic prophets: the sins listed in chap. 18, for example, include a number of “cultic” offenses such as we do not find in Amos or Isaiah. Even if Ezekiel 40–48 is a postexilic addition, the perception of Ezekiel as a prophet deeply concerned with the ordering of worship may well be the reason why it was to his oracles that this appendix was added.

Late 19th-century scholarship was inclined to regard almost all postexilic prophecy as the product of cultic circles. This was thought to mark a decline in the institution of prophecy, from the high ethical concerns of the 8th and 7th centuries into an incipient “legalism” and obsession with ritual matters. On this view, prophecy in the sense the term has when applied to Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah more or less ceased to exist after the Exile; the term “prophet” (nābı̂ʾ) came to be used as the title of one among the many different types of temple officials. Other terms certainly underwent similar shifts—“Levite,” for example, ceased to mean any sort of priest and became the name for a temple singer.

In recent years, however, a more nuanced interpretation of these postexilic developments has been proposed by Hanson (1975), building on the work of Plöger (1968). Hanson argues that there are two distinct strands within postexilic prophetic writings. The first is indeed a drift toward the institutionalization of prophets as temple officials, whose function was to produce liturgical texts. Their “oracles” consisted only of exhortations to keep the Torah and be regular in worship, or of promises that God would bless the cultic community around the temple. Hanson sees this trend as beginning with Ezekiel, continuing in Haggai and Zechariah, and passing on into the Chronicler’s understanding of prophets.

But in tension with this shift toward the cult, there was also a second, minority tradition which kept alive “authentic” prophecy, the inheritance of Amos and Isaiah. This prophetic movement had as its task to protest against the increasingly static and complacent institutions of Second Temple Judaism. Its best representative is Trito-Isaiah (Isaiah 56–66). Trito-Isaiah’s opposition to rebuilding the temple (66:1) stands in continuity with the preexilic prophetic protest against the centrality of the temple, expressed most clearly by Jeremiah (see, for example, Jer 7:4, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”).

According to Hanson, prophets such as Trito-Isaiah were not officials appointed by the Second Temple state but outsiders, just as the great preexilic prophets had been, denouncing the society of their day and attacking its cultic life as an empty show. This Isaiah 58 attacks solemn fasts in terms very similar to those used by the preexilic prophets to condemn feasts. The message here is that Yahweh hates fasting unaccompanied by social justice, and (by implication) will punish those who use such pentitential practices as a cover for an unreformed life.

It contrasts with Zechariah’s cheerful optimism that fasts will cease merely because (in the newly restored and forgiven Jerusalem, which is to enjoy God’s blessing) they will no longer be appropriate (Zech 8:18–19). Trito-Isaiah is full of sharp condemnations of the corruption of cultic life (56:9–12; 57:1–13; 59:1–8; 65:1–12). It is hard to see him (or them, if the work is a collection of oracles by many hands) as any kind of temple official paid to maintain the institutional stability of the restored nation.

Hanson suggests that it is in this prophetic protest movement that the roots of apocalyptic are to be found, and that Trito-Isaiah represents “the dawn of apocalyptic.” The insights of this movement continue in the works commonly called “proto-apocalyptic”—Isaiah 24–27, Joel, and Zechariah 9–14. Thus the “liturgy” type of prophecy by no means succeeded in completely displacing the old independent prophetic spirit, which continued to exist and to resist the tendency toward “establishment” attitudes in the Second Temple period.

These independent prophets believed that Yahweh’s hands were not tied by the institutional structures that had been established. Yahweh was still free to intervene dramatically in human affairs and, if he saw the need, to punish Israel as of old. To use the terms proposed by Plöger (1968), the postexilic theocracy succeeded in taming most prophets and reducing them to mere state officials—not unlike the “institutional prophets” whom Elijah, Micah, and Jeremiah had opposed; but there remained a loyal band of prophets who insisted that Yahweh’s word to Israel included an eschatology—a message of doom on a disobedient people.

Hanson’s theories have been widely accepted in OT scholarship, with the result that the picture of prophecy in postexilic times has become more subtle than it was at the end of the last century. There is no single model that will account for the role and function of “prophets” in the Second Temple period, as though all prophets were the same. Rather, we seem to have at least two radically different types. Some have asked whether there is really such a sharp distinction to be drawn between, for example, Trito-Isaiah and Zechariah; for Zechariah seems also to envisage the need for moral (not merely cultic) reform—Zech 7:1–7 criticizes fasting in much the same terms as Isaiah 58.

Conversely, Isaiah 56–66 contain some oracles that seem perfectly well-disposed toward the restoration of Jerusalem and its cultus (the whole of Isaiah 60–62 belongs to this tradition). It has also been noted that the apocalyptic movement is by no means homogeneous and that not all apocalypses can be regarded as anti-“theocratic”; some indeed are entirely noneschatological. However, Hanson’s work has been important in establishing that something akin to the preexilic tradition of noninstitutional, independent prophets did continue after the Exile.

We should not be misled by the fact that many of those responsible for our finished OT tried to erase the traces of this movement by preserving rather few of its works, and by hijacking the term “prophet” for use as a technical term in describing the personnel of the temple. Enough remains in the OT to show that there were prophets who had no official role even after the Exile, and that these persisted in denouncing the hierarchy of temple and nation when they saw fit.

C. Prophetic Experience

The question of prophetic experience is an obscure one in every period of OT history. In the postexilic age the most noticeable development is a greater emphasis on the spirit of God as the motive force behind prophetic utterance. Ezekiel speaks of the spirit of Yahweh transporting him from place to place, and this seems intended to imply an “out-of-the-body” experience or perhaps even literal levitation (at one point he is picked up by a lock of his hair: see 3:12; 8:3; 11:1, 24). Trito-Isaiah contains a famous reference to the spirit of Yahweh as the inspiration behind his prophecy (Isa 61:1); and throughout Haggai and Zechariah there are repeated references to the spirit (Hag 1:14; 2:5; Zech 4:6; 7:12), though some scholars think that these are additions by the editors of the books, for whom it was important to stress the activity of the spirit in the restored community. Joel 3:1–2—Eng 2:28–29 explicitly refers to the gift of prophecy as resulting from the pouring out of God’s spirit, predicting that a time will come when this gift will be extended to all humankind.

As is well known, references to the spirit are very rare in the preexilic prophets, so that we have clear evidence here of a shift in understanding of the prophetic experience. It is not clear, however, whether this reflects any change in the experiences prophets actually had—whether, for example, the postexilic experience was more dramatic, or “ecstatic,” or was in some sense a return to the uncontrolled, frenzied activity of the preclassical prophets whom we meet in the books of Samuel and Kings and upon whom the spirit of Yahweh “came mightily” (cf. 1 Sam 10:10), driving them to act in uncontrollable, dervishlike frenzy. While this is possible, it may be simply that the post-exilic community spoke more of the spirit as the motive force behind prophecy as a way of emphasizing its divine origin, without meaning to imply that the psychological experience involved had changed significantly from preexilic times. It may be better to ask why the great classical preexilic prophets seem to avoid reference to the spirit of Yahweh, when both their predecessors and their successors seem to take it for granted that this is the best language to use in explanation of prophetic gifts.

A more significant shift may lie behind the greatly increased interest in visions and dreams in postexilic prophetic books. The passage from Joel just cited glosses the extension of prophetic gifts to all by saying, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” If it is right to see significance in the insistence by preexilic prophets on hearing the word of Yahweh rather than on seeing visions or dreams, this change may well indicate an important new departure. Jeremiah once explicitly distinguishes true prophecy from seeing visions: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord” (Jer 23:28). This appears to imply that true revelations from Yahweh do not come in visions or dreams, though it is not clear what experience is concretely implied by “him who has my word.” Does this refer to “audition,” a supernatural but literal hearing of voices, or to some more subtle inner conviction that Yahweh has spoken in the heart? In any case, preexilic prophets are not uniformly opposed to visions: both Amos (7:1, 4, 7; 8:1; 9:1) and Isaiah (6:1) report visions which enshrine the word Yahweh is speaking to his people, and they show no embarrassment about this mode of revelation—unless these reports are the work of postexilic redactors.

At all events postexilic prophets and the collectors of the oracles seem to have regarded visions as the normal method by which God communicates with his messengers; and sometimes the visions in question are detailed and full of symbolism, a kind of pageant played out in front of the prophet’s eyes, each incident within which has allegorical significance (see, for example, the vision reports in Zechariah 1–6). Amos’ visions already contain a symbolic component. In that a commonplace object (a basket of summer fruit, a plumb line) is given a deeper meaning, often through wordplay (cf. also Jer 1:11–12).

But in the postexilic period the visions become lengthier, and sometimes a whole drama is acted out in symbolic form, requiring interpretation (often by an angel) before its significance can be grasped by the prophet and communicated to his hearers. The earliest example of this is Ezekiel’s vision of the coming fall of Jerusalem, recorded in Ezekiel 9. In later apocalyptic works such visions become deliberately obscure and riddling, so that it is quite impossible to understand them without the appended explanation. Such is the case, for instance, with the visions of Daniel, or (outside the Bible) of Enoch in the various books attributed to him.

A question which this often raises in the minds of students of apocalyptic, but one which is equally useful in studying the prophets, is whether in some cases the vision is not a “genuine” vision at all, but a literary convention deliberately and consciously adopted by the prophet. If so, then the “prophet” or apocalyptist is to be seen more as a writer than as a speaker. This question arises already with Ezekiel and Zechariah, for their allegorical visions seem to lack the immediacy and directness of the brief vision reports in Amos or Isaiah.

There is no reason to rule out the possibility that some postexilic prophecy may have been communicated in writing, by the production of fly sheets which could be passed around among a literate religious group, rather than by the kind of public declamation that we associate with prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. In the case of apocalyptic works, it is virtually certain that this is how the works were appropriated by their intended audience. Of course the suggestion that some prophecy may have been literary from the beginning does not in itself detract from its inspiration; but it does imply that the prophet was a learned writer rather than a simple and perhaps illiterate spokesman for Yahweh.

Since Hebrew culture seems to have lacked any conventional ways of describing literary inspiration, it may have seemed natural to account for such prophecies by attributing them to an origin in dreams and visions which had afterward to be written down—by contrast with the directness of the “word” of Yahweh which passed immediately through the prophet’s mouth as he spoke to the people.

D. The Forms of Prophetic Literature

The postexilic period witnessed a breaking down of some of the distinctive forms of prophetic utterance. Oracles beginning “Thus says the Lord” or ending “oracle of Yahweh” continue to appear, but are less characteristic than they were in the books of the preexilic prophets. Sometimes these formulas seem to be scattered almost at random as a guarantee of prophetic authenticity, and have lost their original character of marking the beginnings and ends of distinct oracles. This is particularly marked in Haggai and Zechariah, where the phrase “says the Lord of hosts” appears more or less as a refrain (e.g., Hag 2:4–9; Zech 1:2–6, 14–17). Furthermore, what is introduced by such formulas is often not what we would recognize as an “oracle” in earlier prophetic writings. In Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah many of the oracles use liturgical forms, and this is part of a general drift toward the use of cultic forms by the prophets (as discussed above).

On the other hand, the postexilic prophets do not seem to follow their preexilic predecessors in using forms borrowed from other spheres of Israel’s life with deliberately ironic or sarcastic effect. There is nothing like Amos’ parodying of priestly tôrôt (e.g., 4:4–5) or his use of lament forms to suggest that Israel is already spiritually dead (e.g., 5:2). One has the impression that the forms of prophetic oracles are not taken directly from this or that everyday use, but are imitated from what is by now perceived to be “normal” prophetic style, without any awareness that originally each prophetic oracle had a distinct origin. It is as though postexilic prophets are producing imitations or pastiches of the existing prophetic collections, and whereas these are often jumbled because of the vagaries of transmission and editing, the imitations are jumbled because postexilic writers felt that this is how a prophetic book should look.

At the same time, some forms that scarcely occur at all in the preexilic prophets now come into prominence, notably the allegory, and the extended vision report (with its interpretation by an interpreting angel), which eventually becomes the form known as the apocalypse. There is also a profusion of oracles beginning “in that day” or “in the end of the days,” which perhaps reflect the increasingly eschatological interest of these prophets. In general the developments are all consistent with the suggestion made in the preceding section, that prophecy gradually turned from a spoken into a written phenomenon, so that the forms used came increasingly to reflect leisurely literary composition rather than the needs of oral delivery, memorability, and immediate impact.

E. The Editing of Prophetic Books

This leads naturally into the next question: the editing of the prophetic books. A marked feature of the postexilic age is the growth of official or semiofficial versions of older writings, which gradually moved in the direction of becoming “Holy Scripture.” Just as the Persian period saw the codification of the pentateuchal books to form the Torah, so at about the same time collections of prophetic oracles began to take on the character of sacred writings. At first perhaps these were revered by particular groups, but in due course they became part of the shared heritage of all Jews.

It is usually thought that the Exile itself provided the initial impetus toward the collection and codification of prophetic writings. For one thing, the event itself had vindicated the predictions of the preexilic prophets and so turned them from objects of scorn into venerable figures whom God himself had shown to be in the right; for another, the separation of so many Jews from their homeland made the preservation of the national literature imperative if Jewish culture and religion were to survive.

The process by which the prophetic books were compiled was almost infinitely complex, but it involved at least three separate elements. First, the authentic utterances of the prophets were arranged in order, sometimes chronologically (so far as the editors could guess at what this might be), sometimes thematically or on a catchword principle. Secondly, narratives about the prophet, which might or might not be of any historical value, were added. In the case of some prophets, such as Amos, very little such material was available, but with others, notably Jeremiah, it was very extensive. And thirdly, further oracles which had no original connection with the prophet in question were appended or worked into the earlier collection, until the ordinary reader could no longer discern the difference.

With a book such as Isaiah this third stage probably contributed the greater part of the book. Indeed, from chap. 40 onward we have at least two collections which had probably existed in a semifinished form under who knows what name before they were added to Isaiah 1–39. Whether the editors intended to assert that the prophet named in the book’s superscription had in fact delivered all these oracles himself remains wholly uncertain. Later generations certainly took this to be implied. Some of the additional oracles may very well be genuinely prophetic, in the sense that they were originally delivered by people who would have claimed for themselves the same kind of inspiration as those in whose names the present books appear.

But others may have always been essentially the work of scribes, composing what they took to be plausible “prophetic” utterances in an endeavor to update or revise existing oracles. And it seems clear that the same sort of process operated with all the prophetic books; the words of late postexilic prophets, once uttered and remembered, became subject to just the same procedures of redaction, addition, and embellishment that had by then already produced something like the present form of older books, such as Amos or Hosea. Only the beginnings of a distinct “canon” of Scripture eventually set limits to this kind of editorial work, and ensured that from then on comment and interpretation would have to take the form of acknowledged commentary rather than changes to the text of the prophetic books themselves.

How far the work of editors should itself be regarded as “prophetic” is largely a matter of our definitions. No doubt there were some for whom the work of interpretation entailed in the work of editing constituted a sharing in the inspiration of the prophet himself. Some people may have believed that Isaiah or Jeremiah himself continued to speak through the disciples who revised and collected his oracles—much as in later times the disciples of rabbis would give their own teaching but claim (and believe) that it was given “in the name” of their teacher, and of his teacher, and of the whole line of teachers in whose succession they stood.

Matters are complicated further when one remembers that, by the NT period, it was widely believed that the gift of authentic prophecy had died out in Israel—though its restoration, promised (it was felt) in Joel 3—Eng chap. 2, was eagerly hoped for. This belief could make claims to have received a direct divine revelation automatically suspect. The strange prediction in Zech 13:2–6, which regards “prophets,” like idols and “unclean spirits,” as a blight which Yahweh will remove from the land, may belong to a movement of thought in which any claim to be a prophet branded the claimant as an impostor.

In such circumstances anyone who believed that God had spoken to him was obliged to dress his message up as the utterance of some ancient prophets, speaking in the time before “the spirit departed from Israel,” as the Talmud expresses it. This is undoubtedly part of the reason for the pseudonymity of apocalyptic works; and it no doubt also explains some of the more improbable additions to the prophetic books, such as those which imply that Isaiah addressed the problems of the Babylonian or Persian periods, or that Zechariah was interested in the Greeks.

There is, however, little evidence that prophecy did in fact die out, if by “prophecy” we mean the phenomenon of inspiration such as existed in the 8th century. Indeed, theories such as those of Hanson (discussed above) have made it seem probable that the postexilic age saw just as active a prophetic movement as the preexilic. But the forms of expression did change significantly, and postexilic prophets often expressed their oracles as additions to existing collections, or even as whole new works falsely attributed to figures from the past, rather than speaking in their own persons as earlier prophets had done.

Ackroyd, P. R. 1968. Exile and Restoration. London.
Barton, J. 1986. Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile. London.
Blenkinsopp, J. 1983. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Philadelphia.
Carroll, R. P. 1979. When Prophecy Failed: Reactions and Responses to Failure in the Old Testament Prophetic Tradition. London.
Coggins, R.; Philips, A.; and Knibb, M., eds. 1982. Israel’s Prophetic Tradition. Cambridge.
Engnell, I. 1969. Prophets and Prophetism in the Old Testament. Pp. 123–79 in A Rigid Scrutiny. Trans. and ed. J. T. Willis. Nashville.
Fishbane, M. 1985. Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford.
Hanson, P. D. 1975. The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Philadelphia.
Koch, K. 1982. The Prophets. 2 vols. Philadelphia.
Levenson, J. D. 1976. Theology of the Program of Restoration in Ezekiel 40–48. Missoula, MT.
Mason, R. A. 1977. The Books of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Cambridge.
Petersen, D. 1977. Late Israelite Prophecy. Missoula, MT.
Plöger, O. 1968. Theocracy and Eschatology. Oxford.
Whybray, R. N. 1975. Isaiah 40–66. NCBC. London.
Wilson, R. R. 1980. Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia.
Zimmerli, W. 1979–83. Ezekiel. 2 vols. Hermeneia. Philadelphia.


Barton, J. (1992). Prophecy: Postexilic Hebrew Prophecy. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 495). New York: Doubleday.


The phenomenon in early Christianity of inspired speech in the name of God, the risen Jesus, or the Spirit. V 5, p 496 Prophecy and its effects are evident in the books of the NT and in other early Christian writings.

A. Terminology and Definitions
B. Prophecy in the Hellenistic World
1. Gentile
2. Jewish
C. Prophecy Reflected in the Literature of Early Christianity
1. Paul
2. Deutero-Paul
3. Q
4. Mark
5. Matthew
6. Luke-Acts
7. John and the Johannine Tradition
8. Revelation
9. Didache
10. Ignatius
11. Odes of Solomon
12. Hermas
D. General Characteristics and Themes of Early Christian Prophecy
1. Extent, Uniformity, and Variety
2. Prophets as Church Figures
3. Prophets as Religious Figures
4. Prophets and Tradition
5. Prophets and the Continuing Voice of Jesus

A. Terminology and Definitions

A glance at the entry on “prophecy” in the standard dictionary of ancient Greek (Liddell and Scott) will reveal that in the world into which Christianity was born the terms prophet, prophecy, prophesy, and prophetic did not function univocally, but were used with reference to a variety of figures and functions (cf. Fascher 1927). Prophētēs in Greek was a synonym for hypophētēs. Originally, both meant simply “spokesperson” or “announcer,” but both were used in derivative and metaphorical senses. “Prophet” was used not only to mean “one who speaks for a god and interprets his will” to human beings, but also for the cultic official keepers of the oracle (at Branchidae), for members of the highest order of the priesthood (in Egypt), for herbalists and quack doctors, for the interpreters of the oracles of the mantis (Plato, Ti. 72a), and hence derivatively for poets as such (cf. Titus 1:12, of Epimenides), and then metaphorically for proclaimers in general, including the announcer at the games. On the other hand, “prophet” and related words represented only one set of terms used for the claim to communicate messages from the gods, with other designations such as “seer,” mantis, and “sibyl” being used in related and overlapping ways.

In the light of this state of affairs, the 1973 Seminar on Early Christian Prophecy of the Society of Biblical Literature adopted a definition based on the common features of the use of the “prophet” word group in a number of early Christian sources. This definition has been widely received. The following adaptation of it expresses the understanding of prophecy assumed in this article: “The early Christian prophet was an immediately-inspired spokesperson for God, the risen Jesus, or the Spirit who received intelligible oracles that he or she felt impelled to deliver to the Christian community or, representing the community, to the general public.” Since the term “inspiration” is used in a variety of senses, “immediately-inspired” is used here to express the prophetic claim that what he or she says represents the present, immediate voice of the deity.

This does not exclude the use of sources, traditions, or the prophet’s own reflections, all of which may be involved in the delivery of what the prophet perceives as directly revealed from the deity. This article investigates the phenomenon of prophecy so defined, whether or not it is labeled as prophecy. Conversely, other uses of the “prophet” word group are not explored.

B. Prophecy in the Hellenistic World

  1. Gentile. The Judeo-Christian tradition did not introduce prophecy into the Hellenistic world. The inspired spokesperson for the gods, the oracle giver, the ecstatic mouthpiece for the deity, frequently called “prophet,” was a familiar figure to the Greco-Roman populace. Many gods could speak through their prophets, of whom Apollo was only one of the more active. There were many shrines where he could be consulted by means of the oracle, of which Delphi was only the most famous.
    Prophecy was located within the broad spectrum of devices by which information from the world of the gods was transmitted. There was a tradition at least as old as Plato of distinguishing artificiosa divinatio and naturalis divinatio. The former refers to divination by technical means such as the interpretation of dreams and reading the will of the gods from the flight of the birds and the livers of sacrificed animals, while the latter refers to communication of a message from the gods by inspired speech received in trance, ecstasy, or vision (Aune 1983: 24, 349 n 9). Greek prophecy was not always ecstatic. The spectrum of prophetic experiences ranged from raging loss of consciousness to sober declaration of the message from the god. Plutarch describes (De def. or. 431d–438e) the Pythia at Delphi as inhaling the vapors from a fissure in the earth, becoming “inspired,” and delivering unintelligible utterances that were then translated by the “prophets.” In other descriptions, the Pythia became inspired by drinking from the sacred spring, and delivered oracles that were quite intelligible. Probably different practices occurred at different times and places, even in the history of one oracle center such as Delphi. Plato’s description (Ti. 71–72) of the mantic behavior of the agents of revelation, and the translation of their utterances into intelligible speech by the prophets, has perhaps been too influential in the scholarly assessment of Greek prophecy. Generalizations about prophecy in the Greco-Roman world should be avoided, but in a context where early Christian prophecy is being explored, some features that were usually characteristic of Hellenistic prophecy should be noted: (1) Hellenistic prophecy could be the result of the spontaneous inspiration by the deity, but it was normally a response to inquiries in which human beings took the initiative and was subject to manipulation. (2) Prophecy was not a function of a particular religious group and was not directed to a group of insiders, but was a part of the general public cultural scene, available to any interested person. (3) Prophecy was generally directed to the needs and inquiries of individuals, revealing the will of the deity or V 5, p 497 future information concerning the personal lives of individuals. (4) Oracles were generally ambiguous. Heraclitus’ remark with reference to the Delphic oracle is characteristic: oute legei, oute kruptei, alla sēmainei (“she neither reveals nor conceals, but signifies”). (5) Oracles were generally brief and expressed in metrical form. (6) Collections of oracles were made, and later generations interpreted them with reference to their own situation. While Christian prophecy resembled pagan prophecy on points #5 and #6, prophecy in the Church was in contrast to its pagan counterpart on points #1–#4.
  2. Jewish. Some streams of rabbinic Jewish tradition held the view that prophecy had ceased in the time of Ezra and would not return until the eschatological age (e.g., Song of Songs Rab. 8.9–10; Num. Rab. 15.10; b. Yoma 9b, 21b; t. Sota 13.2; ʾAbot 1). This view was reinforced by the widespread influence of the later Protestant canon of Scripture, in which there was presumed to be a gap of 400 years from Malachi to John the Baptist. Hence the popular tradition of the “four-hundred silent years.” Except for the case of John the Baptist, who was incorporated into the Christian stream of history, the NT presents only minimal and indirect evidence for contemporary Jewish prophecy (cf. John 11:51; Acts 13:6). There is massive evidence for 1st-century Jewish prophecy, however, from the Jewish sources themselves.
    a. Philo. If Philo was aware of the tradition of the cessation of prophecy, he ignored it. Prophecy had been available to every good Israelite and was still available to “every worthy man” (Heres 259). Like other Hellenistic Jews (e.g., Wis Sol 7:27), Philo understood all the religious leaders in Israel’s history in prophetic terms, and understood prophecy in Hellenistic terms, using the complete range of the vocabulary of Greek ecstatic experience to portray biblical prophets. Moses and Abraham were prophets, and the Pentateuch was a collection of oracles. Like Josephus, Philo never explicitly calls himself a prophet, but his extraordinarily frequent discussions and detailed descriptions of the prophetic experience strongly suggest that he was describing a contemporary phenomenon he had observed in the synagogue, indeed that he himself experienced a kind of inspiration akin to the prophetic (cf. e.g., De mig. Abr. 35; De Cher. 27; esp. Heres 259–60).
    b. Rabbis. The rabbis, too, testify to the fact that the prophetic spirit was alive and well in the Judaism from which Christianity was born. The heavenly voice (Bath Qol) was heard even by those rabbis who believed that it could not take precedence over traditional Halakah. Though by no means a major element in rabbinic religious experience, a significant number of prophetic phenomena may be documented even among those rabbis where the dogma of the end of prophecy might be expected to have been most influential. We should not, therefore, be surprised to find an abundance of evidence for prophets and prophecy in those circles where the rabbinic dogma was less influential, namely among the Zealots, Essenes, and other apocalyptically oriented groups (though conspicuously absent among the Sadducees).
    c. Josephus. Josephus claimed that during the 66–70 war he presented himself to the conquering Vespasian as a messenger sent from God to announce that Vespasian would be the new Roman emperor (JW 3.400–402). Without using the word, he thus claimed to be a prophet himself. The term “prophet” is used in several senses by Josephus, who used it to describe Zealot prophets and Essene seers, as well as folk prophets among the people, especially during the critical period of the war and siege of Jerusalem (66–70 C.E.). The result is that it is not always clear that he refers to persons characterized by the claim to be inspired spokespersons for God, as in the definition used here. It is equally clear, however, that he does describe such people, though for his own political purposes he often describes them as “false prophets.” That the prophetic phenomenon was alive in 1st-century Judaism is illustrated in Josephus’ account of Joshua (Jesus) ben Ananiah, an unlettered peasant who began in 62 constantly to repeat an oracle of doom against the city, and continued despite insults and torture to repeat his oracle until the last days of Jerusalem in 70, when he was killed by a Roman projectile (JW 6.300–309).
    d. Qumran. Qumran illustrates the presence of prophecy in one Jewish fringe group, which believed that it lived in the last days, within which the gift of prophecy had been renewed. The Teacher of Righteousness did not use the word “prophet” of himself, but functioned as a prophet, speaking from the mouth of God (1QpHab 2:2–3), taught by God himself, who has poured out his spirit upon him (7:4–7). As in early Christianity, prophecy was related to the interpretation of Scripture and to the eschatological theology of the community.
    e. John the Baptist. The first prophet described in the New Testament is John the Baptist, whose career was contemporary with, and in some respects like, that of Jesus: he was a popular charismatic figure who created eschatological excitement, was alienated from conventional culture, was critical of the established authorities and suffered death at their hands, and had a community of disciples that continued to revere him after his death, Matt 3:1–12 (= Mark 1:4–8; Luke 3:2–18); 11:2–19 (= Luke 7:18–35); 14:5 (= Mark 6:17–29; Luke 3:19–20); 17:10–13 (= Mark 9:11–13); John 1:19–36; Luke 1:5–80; Acts 19:1–7. As a result, the Christian tradition, which could not ignore him, was at pains to fit him into a Christian understanding of the founding events and to show his subordination to Jesus. This means that the portrait of the historical John cannot be read off the surface of the NT text, but must be disentangled from the later layers of Christian interpretation. One way some, but not all, early Christians came to terms with John was by interpreting him as Elijah, understood as the forerunner of the Messiah (Matt 17:9–13; but contrast John 1:21). It is thus difficult to determine, for example, if John’s strange dress is historical reminiscence or the later effort to describe him as Elijah (compare Mark 1:6 and 2 Kgs 1:8). Luke in particular is intent on describing John as belonging to the prophets of Israel described in the Hebrew Bible (3:10–14, peculiar to Luke). Still, it is clear that John was a prophet conscious of a direct call by God, who called for repentance on the basis of the eschatological judgment in the near future (Matt 3:7–12 = Luke 3:7–9). John’s baptism could well be understood in the category of the symbolic actions of the prophets. He expected an eschatological “mighty one” who would execute the fiery baptism V 5, p 498 of God’s judgment on those who had not received his baptism with water as the sign and seal of their repentance. John is thus pictured in the NT as belonging to the prophetic line of biblical prophets, but as “more than a prophet,” i.e., the eschatological prophet who serves as the immediate forerunner and herald of the final act of God’s saving history (Matt 11:9 = Luke 7:26).
    f. Jesus. All four Gospels picture Jesus as a prophet. He is regarded as a prophet not only in the eyes of the people (Matt 16:14; 21:11; cf. 26:68; Mark 6:15; 8:28; 14:65; Luke 7:16; 9:8, 19; John 4:19; 9:17), but in one of the few sayings preserved in all four Gospels, he applies the proverb of the prophet rejected in his native land to himself (Matt 13:57; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; cf. 13:33; John 4:44). Moreover, Jesus is pictured as receiving a vision at the beginning of his ministry corresponding to a prophet’s call (Matt 3:13–17; cf. Isa 6:1–10, and the role that 6:9–10 plays in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry; Mark 4:10–12 [= Matt 13:10–11 = Luke 8:10]). The spirit that he received in baptism would be understood in a Jewish context as the spirit that made one a prophet. Jesus is described as having apocalyptic visions of the fall of Satan (Luke 10:18) and even of delivering prolonged apocalyptic discourses, Mark 13:4–37 (= Matt 24:3–36 = Luke 21:7–36); Luke 17:21–37. For Luke especially, “prophet” is not a mistaken, preliminary, or minor category, but is one of his major categories of christological thought: Jesus is indeed the eschatological prophet promised in Scripture (Luke 24:19; Acts 3:22–23; 7:37; cf. Deut 18:15–18), who specifically identifies the Spirit that empowers him as the prophetic Spirit of Isa 61:1–2 (Luke 4:16–21). Jesus’ authority is not the derived authority of the scribe, but the immediate authority of the inspired prophet (Matt 7:29).
    Yet, if in the case of John the Baptist the historical figure of the prophet John is covered with layers of Christian interpretation, this is all the more true in the case of Jesus. Was the historical Jesus a prophet; or does “prophet,” i.e., “eschatological prophet,” the final messenger from God before the end, belong to the early layers of Christian interpretation of the significance of Jesus? Christian scholars of the most varied theological positions have generally agreed that the NT’s picture of Jesus as prophet is historical bedrock. Conservative and evangelical Christians, while affirming the “higher” christological titles as more important, have, nonetheless, concurred in asserting that Jesus was also a prophet (Jeremias 1971). Liberal theologians, while considering other titles such as “Son of God” to be later church interpretation, have celebrated Jesus as the prophet of social justice (Rauschenbusch 1917; Enslin 1968). Rudolf Bultmann’s agnosticism about the historical Jesus did not extend to his doubting that Jesus was a prophet, and his students who returned to the (“new”) quest of the historical Jesus found “prophet” to be the key category (Bultmann 1958; Bornkamm 1960; Conzelmann 1969). Some recent American study of Mark (Mack 1988) and Q (Robinson 1987; Kloppenborg 1987) has argued that the prophetic picture of Jesus was a church construction, and that Jesus was more like a Cynic sage than a Jewish prophet, but the majority of scholarship would see two prophetic figures, John and Jesus, at the beginnings of the Christian movement.

C. Prophecy Reflected in the Literature of Early Christianity

The following survey presents the documentation for the phenomenon of Christian prophecy from its origins to the middle of the 2d century, i.e., prior to the advent of the “New Prophecy” with Montanus.

  1. Paul. The first reflection of Christian prophecy in Christian literature is 1 Thess 5:19–20, in which Paul appears as the advocate of the prophetic gift over against its detractors. Prophecy has appeared in the Thessalonian congregation, had created some sort of problem that caused some of the Thessalonians to reject it, and Paul promotes their acceptance of the phenomenon as a gift of the Spirit, but not without critical evaluation. The most extensive discussion of Christian prophecy in the NT is found in 1 Corinthians 12–14. As in 1 Thessalonians, the discussion has a polemical tone, again revealing Paul as an advocate of prophecy, this time over against an inappropriately high valuation of glossolalia. These prophecies were more than normal pastoral preaching; it was a matter of direct revelation (cf. 1 Cor 14:29–32). It is impossible to gain any idea of the content of the revelations of the Corinthian prophets, except that in contrast to glossolalia they were expressed in intelligible language, and in Paul’s view were directed to the edification of the whole church rather than responses to the private inquiries of individuals. The brief reference to prophecy in Rom 12:3–8 is valuable in that it is not polemical. Rather, a fundamental assumption of Paul’s comes to expression here, namely, that wherever there is a church the Holy Spirit is at work, and wherever the Spirit is to be found there is a principal manifestation of the Spirit, the gift of prophecy. Prophecy, in fact, is the only constant in Paul’s “lists” of charismata (1 Cor 12:8–11, 28–30; 13:1–2; Rom 12:6–8). When Paul “ranks” spiritual gifts, prophecy appears second only to the apostolic office or, from another perspective, love.
    Since Paul insists so adamantly on his apostleship and thus does not refer explicitly to himself as a prophet, it has often been overlooked that, when defined functionally as above, Paul is a prophet who does in fact implicitly claim to exercise the prophetic gift (1 Cor 13:2; 14:6, 37). Though reluctant to parade it, he has “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1–10). The many points of contact between Paul’s own biographical statements and the prophets of the Hebrew Scripture document Paul’s awareness of standing within the prophetic succession (cf., e.g., Gal 1:15–16; Jer 1:5; Isa 49:1). Scholars have identified numerous passages in Paul’s epistles where he is incorporating his own prophetic revelations or the oracles of some other Christian prophet. Three that are commonly so identified are 1 Thess 4:15–17; Rom 11:25–26; and 1 Cor 15:51–52, while a larger number are identified more tentatively. Paul’s epistles also contain a large number of prophetic forms and formulas, which he seems to use habitually and unconsciously even when he is not citing a prophetic oracle (Müller 1975).
    Paul’s prophetism was once understood as of a piece with Hellenistic prophecy generally (Reitzenstein 1927; Leisegang 1919). More recent study has indicated that Paul’s understanding of prophecy was not simply a reflection of the prophetic phenomena experienced in his churches but stands in tension with them (cf. V 5, p 499 1 Thess 5:19–20 and especially 1 Corinthians 12–14). While the line between “Greek” and “Jewish” understanding of prophecy should not be drawn too neatly, it is, nevertheless, the case that Paul’s understanding of prophecy is shaped by his Scripture and Jewish tradition, as well as by the understanding of prophetism in early Jewish Christianity.
  2. Deutero-Paul. It is striking that there is no reference at all to prophecy in Colossians, and that “spirit” occurs only twice, each time with reference to the human spirit. “Spiritual” in 1:9 and 3:16 does suggest insight and songs given by the spirit (not just “lively tunes”), but Colossians seems very reserved with reference to the Pauline enthusiasm for prophecy, and may already express a reaction.
    Ephesians, on the other hand, looks back upon the first generation and considers prophets, along with apostles, to be a constituent element in the foundation of the Church (2:20; 3:5; 4:11). The great spiritual insight of the inclusiveness of the Church was given through the post-Easter Christian prophets (not the historical Jesus!). While it is clear that the author of Ephesians admires prophets, it is equally clear that they are no longer a living reality in his church.
    Likewise in the Pastorals, prophecy is primarily a remembered phenomenon from the Pauline past, rather than a vital part of the Pastor’s own church, in which not charisma but “regular” ordination at the hands of authorized officials designates people for leadership in the Church. There may still be some stirrings of the prophetic spirit manifest in the references in 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14 and 2 Tim 1:14, but if they refer to the time of the author, then the gift of prophecy is regarded with more than a bit of suspicion. The point seems to be that claims to charismatic endowment should lead to regular ordination, and in fact operates properly only with the legitimately ordained channels and in connection with the deposit of tradition (hē parathēkē). More likely these texts, like 1 Tim 4:1–5, belong to the fictive world of “Paul” in the first generation. As in Ephesians, prophecy seems to be admired from a safe distance.
  3. Q. Our earliest source for Palestinian Christianity is the hypothetical document Q, which is often considered a witness to the prophetic nature of earliest Christianity. “Prophets” are mentioned in six pericopes of Q. Of these, four refer to the prophets of Hebrew Scripture (the convention of designating Q passages by their Lukan location is here followed): 6:23; 10:24; 11:47; 16:16. (“Prophesy” in the Q passage Matt 7:22 is a Matthean addition; “prophets” in the Q text Luke 13:28 is a Lukan addition.) The way in which these texts are used indicates that for the Q community the prophets were considered the key leaders of ancient Israel. Two references point to prophets of the Q community’s own time. In 7:26 John is called “more than a prophet,” a designation that would include both John and Jesus as the twin messengers of transcendent Wisdom (cf. 7:33–35. In 11:49 the prophets of the Q community are included in this same line. The result is that for the Q community there was an unbroken succession of prophets from the times of Israel through John and Jesus to the Christian prophets of their own community. Rejection and persecution were the common lot of all (11:47–51). The Q document is replete with prophetic forms such as [amēn] legō de hymin (“[Amen] I say to you”). Whether some sayings of Christian prophets may be contained in Q as sayings of Jesus is discussed below.
  4. Mark. Though he quotes their writings often, Mark specifically refers to OT prophets only twice (1:2; 7:6, both times to Isaiah), and makes two incidental references in connection with the understanding of Jesus as a prophet (6:16; 8:28). He never refers to John the Baptist or Jesus as a prophet (except for the implied self-identification by Jesus in 6:4). His only reference to prophets in the post-Easter time of the Church is 13:22, where they are considered false prophets, and are the Church’s only opponents specifically named. Mark seems to be opposed to the prophetic phenomenon, which may indicate that Christian prophets who announced new sayings of the Lord were a problem in his church.
  5. Matthew. The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, seems to represent a church where prophecy is present and critically affirmed by the author, much as was the case with Paul and the Pauline churches. Unlike Paul, the author himself is not a prophet, but more of a scribal type (he seems to be describing himself in 13:52). His church may have been “founded” by the Q messengers (Luz 1985); he seems to stand in a later phase of the Christian prophecy manifest in the Q community. Matthew rephrases his Q source to read “the prophets who were before you” in 5:12, joining his own community to the prophetic community of Israel and Q. A saying peculiar to Matthew, 10:41, concludes his version of the “Missionary Discourse,” indicating that Christian prophets were among the missionaries sent out by Matthew’s church. In 7:15–23, general exhortations to the Christian community, in which neither the word nor idea of prophecy appears, have been altered to deal specifically with the problem posed by prophecy in the Matthean church. The passage makes clear that for Matthew the gift of prophecy did not guarantee that one was a true disciple; “doing the will of God” was the ultimate criterion.
  6. Luke-Acts. Acts is the only NT document that purports to describe prophets in the earliest Church. Agabus stands out most clearly (11:27–30; 21:1–14) as one who is not only called “prophet” by Luke but fits the functional definition given here as well. Judas and Silas are prophets (15:32). Philip has four daughters who prophesy (21:9). Anonymous prophets proclaim their message by the Spirit, a term used interchangeably in such contexts with “Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of the Lord,” and “Spirit of Jesus,” showing that it is the exalted Christ who is thought of as active in the prophetic event (16:6–7; 20:23; 21:4). A group of prophets and teachers at Antioch includes Barnabas and Paul (13:1–2). That Luke intends to include Barnabas among the prophets seems to be clear both from the grammar of this text and from 4:36; whether or not Paul is called a prophet in 13:1–2 is not absolutely clear. At the least, Paul is associated very closely with church prophets and is described by Luke as functioning as a prophet (9:3–6; 13:9–12; 16:6–9; 18:9–10; 22:6–21; 26:9–20; 27:23–24). In addition to this portrayal of particular individuals who manifest the prophetic gift, Luke understands that the Spirit has been poured out on the whole church, and this Spirit is preeminently the Spirit of Prophecy (2:17–18, 38; 4:31; 6:10; 16:6–7). This means that, though Luke does recognize certain persons in the Church who V 5, p 500 function consistently as prophets (whom he so designates), he does not draw a sharp line between prophets and nonprophets. For Luke, whoever in the church acts in the power of the Spirit is something of a prophet.
    Luke is obviously interested in portraying the Church as the continuation of the OT people of God, which leads him to portray Christian prophets (as well as John the Baptist and Jesus) as similar to the prophets of his Bible. Agabus’ binding himself with Paul’s belt, for example, is reminiscent of the symbolic acts performed by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (Acts 21:10–14; cf. Isa 20:2–6; Ezekiel 4–5; Jer 13:1–11). This and other Lukan tendenzen make it difficult to extract the historical reality that lay behind Luke’s theological portrayal. Prophets may have been much more active in the leadership of the earliest Church, for example, than Luke’s account indicates, for it emphasizes his own interests in ordered apostolic leadership. In this, Luke-Acts belongs with the Deutero-Pauline tradition discussed above. This means that in the gospel of Luke, where Jesus is portrayed in the garb of a biblical prophet, it is difficult to distinguish history from Luke’s own theologizing. An exception may be provided by the outburst of prophetic phenomena in the Lukan Birth story (cf. Luke 1:35, 41–45, 67–79; 2:29–35), which may preserve memories and materials from early Christian prophets.
  7. John and the Johannine Tradition. Only Jesus is called “prophet” in the gospel of John (4:19, 44; 9:17), and only Caiaphas is said to “prophesy” (11:51). Yet the function of Christian prophecy seems to be clearly evidenced in the Johannine church. Whether or not the author of Revelation is regarded as a member of the Johannine “school,” the numerous points of contact between the gospel and the Apocalypse indicate interaction between the evangelist and Christian prophecy, since the Apocalypse obviously was written by a prophet. The letters, too, come from a circle that was familiar with the prophetic phenomenon and was beginning to experience some manifestations of it as problematic, without denying its validity per se (1 John 2:20, 27; 4:1–3). And since the “we” of 1 John cannot be separated from the “we” of the Fourth Gospel, we would expect a priori that the gospel would also originate from a circle in which the prophetic ministry was alive. The internal evidence of the gospel bears out this expectation. The Johannine portrayal of both the Paraclete and Jesus seems to be influenced by the author’s perception of the ministry of Christian prophets in the Johannine church (cf. Boring 1978). On the night before Jesus’ death, the disciples are promised that the Spirit will come in Jesus’ name and speak with Jesus’ authority, the Paraclete who will both keep alive the memory of Jesus and reveal new truth after Jesus’ death (14:15–17, 25–26; 15:26–27; 16:8–11, 12–15). The functions of Christian prophets are here described.
  8. Revelation. The Apocalypse is our most obvious, and most extensive, example of Christian prophecy among our earliest documents, being rivaled only by the later Hermas. Like Paul, the author does not specifically use prophētēs of himself, but nonetheless claims to write prophēteia (1:3; 19:20; 22:7, 10, 18–19) and to belong to a group of prophētai (22:9). The “book” (i.e., letter) is throughout the address of the risen Lord to his church through his immediately inspired spokesman. It is not only chapters 2–3 that are presented as the word of the exalted Lord, but the document as a whole. The subjective genitive of 1:1 embraces the whole document (cf. the series of quotations in 21:9, 15; 22:1, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12). Although the apocalyptic form of sealed scroll and interpreting angel is retained, it is subordinated to the understanding of revelation as Christian prophecy in which the risen Lord speaks through his prophet. Though saturated with apocalyptic content as well as apocalyptic forms, Revelation is thus, nonetheless, a thoroughly prophetic document. “Prophetic” and “apocalyptic” are not alternatives. Unlike the apocalyptists, John speaks in his own name the revelations he receives from the exalted Lord. That he uses traditional materials and stereotyped forms is no objection to the reality of his visionary experiences, for prophets customarily made use of traditional forms and materials to convey their messages received in various degrees of “ecstatic” experience.
  9. Didache. The Manual of Church Order (Didache 6–15) comes from a Christian community that both honors prophecy and has come to experience it as a problem. This is the reason for the intense interest of the author(s) in prophecy, an interest that causes the instructions on prophets to be elaborated far beyond what is said about “apostles” and “teachers.” These instructions do not seem to be all of a piece, indicating that they came into being from different hands over an extended period. For example, the prophet is considered to be above question when he speaks “in the Spirit,” so that to challenge him is the unforgivable sin (11:7); and yet some things that he says are not to be tolerated, even if said “in the Spirit” (11:12). The criterion of true prophecy is whether he teaches according to the truth (11:1); but even that prophet who teaches according to the truth is a false prophet “if he does not practice what he teaches” (11:10). The Didache has been most influential in supporting the one-sided theory that early Christian prophets were itinerant “wanderers” rather than “settled” (Harnack 1910), but a close reading of the Didache indicates that its support for this purported characteristic of early Christian prophetism has been overemphasized.
  10. Ignatius. The one instance in the Bishop of Antioch’s letters that may refer to Christian prophets is not clear; it may refer to biblical prophets (Phld. 5:2). In any case, the reference is only incidental and provides no information. On the other hand, Ignatius speaks of himself as having “cried out” with a “great voice,” the “voice of God,” in which “the Spirit was speaking” (Phld. 7:1–2), in a context which suggests he thought of himself as speaking prophetically. The content of his oracle is an admonition to “give heed to the bishop, the presbyter, and the deacons,” so Ignatius is somewhat like the Pastorals in that charisma serves primarily to reinforce church order through the developing regular channels.
  11. Odes of Solomon. The prophetic spirit was thought to inspire not only oracles but hymns (cf. 1 Cor 14:15; Col 3:16; Eph 5:19; cf. the Hodayot from the prophetic Teacher of Qumran). The collection of forty-two hymns, all composed by the same author, seems to express the claim to prophetic inspiration. In some of them Christ speaks in the first person, as in Revelation. Particularly well-known is V 5, p 501 the concluding hymn, which expresses the prophetic self-consciousness in the words (42:6). Then I arose and am with them, and will speak by their mouths.
  12. Hermas. The Shepherd of Hermas likewise emanates from within a structured ecclesiastical context, the Roman church in the first half of the 2d century, and is written by an author who never refers to himself as a prophet. Unless the “prophecy” of the author is only a literary device, the author is, nonetheless, a prophet by our definition, for the document repeatedly presents itself as the revelation of the Holy Spirit or Son of God to his church in the latter days (e.g., Vis. IV. 1.3; Sim. IX 1.1). The prophetic phenomenon seems still to be present in the author’s church, where both “true” and “false” prophets can be observed and must be tested (Man. XI). There still seem to be some marks of genuine prophetic self-consciousness, e.g., the revelation of a second chance of repentance in view of the impending persecution and the imminent return of the Lord (Vis. III. 1.9). But even if the author does have some personal prophetic experiences, for the most part his writing is a tedious, labored, uninspired, and uninspiring work, formally in the prophetic category but written by one for whom prophecy is already a traditional phenomenon that may be stereotyped. In him, we hear the last faint echoes of the “old” prophecy. After him, references to prophecy in the Church are oriented to the “New Prophecy” of Montanism, either in affirmation or in repudiation. D. General Characteristics and Themes of Early Christian Prophecy
  13. Extent, Uniformity, and Variety. The survey above indicates that prophecy was not rare, episodic, or isolated, but was a widespread phenomenon in early Christianity that has left its traces in a variety of early Christian literature. Christian theology’s emphasis on “the Prophets” (of the Hebrew Scripture) as those who predicted the days of Jesus and the Church has contributed to the fact that “prophecy” is frequently neglected as a major category for comprehending early Christianity and its own self-understanding. In fact, prophets and prophecy form a primary common denominator and line of continuity between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scripture. We have seen that there is considerable variety in the manifestations of prophecy in early Christianity. There are, nonetheless, enough common features to permit some general impressions, to which there are always exceptions.
  14. Prophets as Church Figures. The context of prophecy is the worshipping congregation, to which prophets belong as constituent members. Although prophets, like others, on occasion travel from place to place, it is overdrawn to impose a doubtful interpretation of prophecy in the Didache on all our other sources, and picture itinerary as of the essence of Christian prophetism.
  15. Prophets as Religious Figures. While Early Christianity generally believed that the Spirit was given to the body of believers as a whole, and not only to gifted individuals within it, prophecy was not an amorphous potentiality diffused throughout the Christian community. There was usually an identifiable group that functioned as prophets, who were recognized as such by the Church. Since the Spirit was given to the Church at large, however, the prophetic gift did not separate prophets from the Christian community. The Church as a whole, which also possessed the Spirit, was charged with critically evaluating the utterances of the prophets (Rev 2:2, 6, 14, 15, 20; 1 Corinthians 14). The prophets spoke with authority as they announced the unqualified word of the Lord, but it is also clear that they should expect a deliberate, engaged response from the community. The prophets functioned in the gathered worship of the community, not in private séances or consultations. The burden of their message was the edification of the community, not the satisfaction of private curiosity.
  16. Prophets and Tradition. Tradition and revelation are not alternatives. The reality of the revelatory experiences of the prophets did not mean that they were divorced from tradition. Their oracles could be expressed using words from Scripture or other Christian tradition as the vehicle of their message.
  17. Prophets and the Continuing Voice of Jesus. Prophets could express their revelations in words of the historical Jesus, which they sometimes took up and re-presented in a modified form more relevant to the new situation. Many scholars believe that new sayings of Jesus were spoken by church prophets. These sayings were blended into the Church’s tradition of Jesus’ words and appear in the narrative framework of the Gospels as sayings of the earthly Jesus. Since to early Christianity the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Lord were one and the same person, prior to the fixation of the tradition in the writing of the Gospels no consistent distinction was made between sayings of the pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter revelations through church prophets. Although the presence of such prophetic sayings in the gospels is generally acknowledged, whether particular sayings that originated as Christian prophecy can be identified with any degree of confidence is a disputed point among scholars (pro: Boring 1982; con: Aune 1983; Hill 1979).
  18. Bibliography
    Aune, D. E. 1983. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Grand Rapids.
    Boring, M. E. 1978. The Influence of Christian Prophecy on the Johannine Portrayal of the Paraclete and Jesus. NTS 25: 113–23.
    ———. 1982. Sayings of the Risen Jesus. Cambridge.
    ———. 1989. Revelation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville.
    Bornkamm, G. 1960. Jesus of Nazareth. New York.
    Bultmann, R. 1958. Jesus and the Word. New York.
    Conzelmann, H. 1969. An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament. London.
    Crone, T. 1973. Early Christian Prophecy. Baltimore.
    Dautzenberg, G. 1975. Urchristliche Prophetie. Stuttgart.
    Ellis, E. E. 1978. Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids.
    Enslin, M. S. 1968. The Prophet from Nazareth. New York.
    Fascher, E. 1927. PROPHETES: Eine sprach-und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Giessen.
    Harnack, A. von. 1910. The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries. New York.
    V 5, p 502 Hill, D. 1979. New Testament Prophecy. Richmond, VA.
    Horsley, R. A. 1986. Popular Prophetic Movements at the Time of Jesus: Their Principal Features and Social Origins. JSNT 26: 3–27.
    Jeremias, J. 1971. The Proclamation of Jesus. Vol. 1 in New Testament Theology. New York.
    Kloppenborg, J. S. 1987. The Formation of Q. Philadelphia.
    Leisegang, H. 1919. Die vorchristlichen Anschauungen und Lehren vom pneuma und der mystisch-intuitiven Erkenntnis. Vol. 1 in Der Heilige Geist. Leipzig.
    Lindblom, J. 1968. Gesichte und Offenbarungen. Lund.
    Luz, U. 1985. Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (Mt 1–7). Neukirchen-Vluyn.
    Mack, B. 1988. A Myth of Innocence. Philadelphia.
    Müller, U. 1975. Prophetie und Predigt im Neuen Testament. Gütersloh.
    Panagopoulos, J. 1977. Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today. Leiden.
    Rauschenbusch, W. 1917. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York.
    Reitzenstein, R. 1927. Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen: Nach ihren Grundgedanken und Wirkungen. Leipzig (ET 1978).
    Robinson, J. M. 1987. The Jesus Movement in Galilee: Reconstructing Q. Bulletin of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. 14/3: 4–5.
    Sato, M. 1988. Q und Prophetie. WUNT 2/29. Tübingen.
    Schmeller, T. 1989. Brechungen: Urchristliche Wandercharismatiker im Prisma soziologisch orientierter Exegese. SBS 136. Stuttgart.

Boring, M. E. (1992). Prophecy: Early Christian Prophecy. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, pp. 495–502). New York: Doubleday.


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