When drawing the canonical limits of the Bible, Jewish sages strictly declared that the prophetic age had ended in the fifth century BC, and that the last prophets were figures like Zechariah and Malachi, whom Christians know from their own Old Testament. Henceforward, said the rabbis, Jews should seek instruction only from their learned sages. Yet prophets and prophecy continued long after those debates, in both Christianity and Judaism, and many believe that the tradition has never ended. The idea is thoroughly familiar in the Pentecostal tradition, to say nothing of the Mormon experience.
Those Jewish scholars were working in the earliest centuries of the Common Era, and their firmness in these matters might well have been a reaction to contemporary Christian claims. In fact, it is quite easy to find Jews claiming prophetic status long after the time of Malachi, and right through Roman times. We see this for instance in a book like Rebecca Gray’s Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Among other things, Gray notes an idea that the High Priest had a kind of prophetic status by virtue of his priestly office (134-104 BC). Of the king and high priest John Hyrcanus, Josephus records that “He was esteemed by God worthy of three of the greatest privileges – the government of his nation, the dignity of the high priesthood, and prophecy; for God was with him, and enabled him to know futurities.” Prophetic claims were also attributed to Essenes. In the mid-late second century BC, the Qumran sect described its Teacher of Righteousness in strongly prophetic terms.
That context helps us understand the many uses of prophetic language in the New Testament. Related words occur about 150 times, and the vast majority involve statements that a particular action or saying happened in accordance with what a prophet had foretold. Matthew is especially fond of that usage. Jesus also spoke of “the Law and the Prophets,” the conventional phrase for the Hebrew Bible.
On many other occasions, we are clearly meant to understand that prophets are a familiar expectation in Jewish life at the time. Many people, we are told, suspect or fear that John the Baptist and Jesus himself are prophets, and we hear about other prophets that might come, whether good or evil. As the crowd declares, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This in itself does not contradict the “end of prophecy” idea, as modern scholars stress how the idea of prophecy had changed since the Golden Age of Isaiah and Jeremiah. As Shaye Cohen notes, the traditional prophet had a particular role – to announce God’s word publicly, and to call people to repentance – while in later eras, the prophet had become assimilated into a generic holy man or charismatic healer. Yet even applying this criterion, it is difficult to deny that Jesus’s contemporaries and followers did know prophets who followed in the older mold of Isaiah or Elijah.
That continuity is evident in Acts, where prophets are not only described but treated as a well known part of the church. “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch,” and one, named Agabus, predicted a great famine (11.27). The church of Antioch had its prophets and teachers (13.1). “Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers” (15.32). The church structure described in 1 Corinthians describes apostles, prophets, and teachers. New Testament warnings about false prophets make no sense unless we assume that people expected true prophets. In the Didache, probably from the early second century, “apostles and prophets” are still leading figures in the church, operating under separate rules
We can also draw reasonable conclusions about what such prophets were meant to do, and it can clearly be distinguished from the image of the charismatic holy man/healer. Above all, they were meant to speak and to convey divine messages, which might or might not predict future events. They speak in the Spirit. The Didache again (c.11) has a nice passage giving rules for the vital process of distinguishing between true and false prophets. If a prophet orders a table set, that is fine as he might be making a point, or teaching some allegory. If he sits down to eat it, he is a fake and should be ejected immediately. (“And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit does not eat it, unless he is indeed a false prophet”). However great the problem of false prophets though, the picture we get sounds very much like the classic image.
Significantly, in view of the modern literature about the distinction between classical prophecy and later apocalyptic, that division is not too apparent in the Book of Revelation, which gives its name to the whole apocalyptic genre. In one key way, Revelation does fit the academic classification of apocalyptic, in that it passes on material received from an angel, not from God directly. Otherwise, there are problems. For one thing, prophetic texts were spoken by named individuals, while apocalyptic was (supposedly) pseudonymous or anonymous. Yet John of Patmos apparently did use his own name, rather than crediting the whole thing to Enoch or Moses. Moreover, John clearly regarded his own role as that of a prophet, so that his writings were prophecy, rather than some new-fangled genre. To that extent, even the prototype of apocalyptic was still prophecy rather than “true” apocalyptic. Whoever John may have been, he was presumably regarded as one of the still-continuing Christian prophets whose treatment was so carefully regulated in the Didache.
In the Christian tradition, then, when did matters change? In the mid second century, Justin Martyr claimed that prophetika charismata still operated within the Christian church, and that was one of the signs of its truth, as against Judaism. Ultimately, the tradition perished – or at least, went underground – with the Montanist crisis (the “New Prophecy”) at the end of that century. That is another, lengthy, story.
But prophecy of the old kind really did continue throughout the Second Temple period and beyond. The reason it stopped was because authorities decided to start pretending it wasn’t there.
Besides books I have listed in earlier posts, see also Michael H. Floyd and Robert D. Haak, eds., Prophets, Prophecy, and Prophetic Texts in Second Temple Judaism (New York: T&T Clark, 2006). For continuing prophecy, see Lester Grabbe’s chapters in Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, eds., Knowing the End from the Beginning (London: T & T Clark International, 2003).