The End of Prophecy

The End of Prophecy September 4, 2015

If you open the Old Testament at random, the chances are that you will find yourself reading in one or other of the prophets. Those prophets, who worked chiefly between the eighth century BC and the sixth, were clearly a major feature of Israelite religion, and they have been exhaustively studied. In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to the question of how and when prophecy ended, a matter of prime interest not just to scholars of later Judaism, but also to Christians and Muslims.

In the traditional Jewish canon, “Prophets” broadly defined – the Nevi’im – account for 21 of the 39 books. That includes not just the figures we normally think of under that term, but also all the “Earlier Prophets,” the books from Joshua through Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings. The “Later Prophets” include the three mighty figures of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as the twelve minor prophets, terminating with Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

According to later Jewish tradition, the lack of later prophetic texts was not just a matter of failure to notice or record words that sipped into obscurity. Rather, the prophetic phenomenon itself fell into disuse, and at a clearly datable moment, roughly around the time of Ezra in the fifth century BC. The reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes (465-424) was the usual reference point. For Josephus, that time also marked the closing of canonical scripture. “From Artaxerxes to our own time the complete history has been written but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.” In 1 Maccabees (late second century BC), we hear of Jewish leaders in the 160s tabling decisions on some issues until a true prophet should appear, with the suggestion that such a development was not expected any time soon. 1 Macc. 9.27 records that “there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.” Later rabbis were consistent on this issue –  conceivably, as a reaction to early Christian claims that the prophetic tradition continued in that community.

So where, so to speak, did prophecy go? Ever since Wellhausen in the 1890s, scholars have suggested that it did not vanish, but rather evolved into an equally well known phenomenon, namely apocalyptic. By the way, that last word has been the subject of endless feuds between myself and copy-editors, who resolutely refuse to believe that apocalyptic can be a noun as well as an adjective. I hear that complaint time and again! But am I bitter?

Shaye Cohen offers an excellent summary of this evolution argument in his From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (revised edition 2006). That book, incidentally, is a superb example of how an accomplished scholar can cut his way through extensive academic literature to produce a readable and scrupulously accurate guide for the perplexed non-specialist. Besides Cohen, I am also using John J. Collins, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), especially the chapters by Stephen L. Cook, “Apocalyptic Prophecy,” and Hindy Najman, “The Inheritance of Prophecy in Apocalypse.” Also Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, eds., Knowing the End from the Beginning (London: T & T Clark International, 2003); and Michael H. Floyd and Robert D. Haak, eds., Prophets, Prophecy, and Prophetic Texts in Second Temple Judaism (New York : T&T Clark, 2006).

Scholars today debate the lines separating not just prophecy and apocalyptic, but more subtly, prophetic apocalypse, and apocalyptic prophecy.

Cohen begins by defining classic prophecy, in which a man (always, it appears, a man) present messages he believes he has received from God, his words usually marked by phrases such as “Thus says the Lord” and “The Word of God.” The prophet’s aim is not, of course, to foretell the future, but to highlight failings of the nation and community, and to urge the people to return to the ways of righteousness, in a public act or declaration. As Cohen remarks, “Since the prophet was such an important intermediary between God and humanity, his identity was important.” Hence books were all associated with individuals, whether or not we can be sure that any particular person authored part or whole of the work attributed to him.

By the second century, though, prophecy had been replaced by the significantly different form of apocalyptic. Now, the Old Testament contains lots of prophetic passages that prefigure the apocalyptic literature we know: for visions of future disasters and ultimate vindication, we look for instance at Isaiah’s chapters 24-27, or Ezekiel 40-48. But the later apocalyptic differed in certain key ways from this classic model. For one thing, it was fundamentally a revelation of a secret, in declarations passed through an inspired seer – through “mantic” statements. (“Mantic” refers to the world of diviners, seers and dream-interpreters, as was well-known in early Mesopotamia). That may sound like traditional prophecy, but the differences are clear. For one thing, the revealer is not passing on words supposedly received from God, but rather what has been passed on to him through some heavenly intermediary, usually an angel. It was that angel who was the real intermediary from God, rather than the prophet himself. Also, the statements are not meant to be ringing public declarations: rather they are cryptic, ambiguous, and of necessity open to debate and interpretation. “The prophets had the masses for their audience, but the apocalyptic seers had only the wise.” This is esoteric literature.

The newer form is also distinguished by the question of authorship. Prophets like Amos or Isaiah spoke through their own names. As Cohen notes, “Unlike the prophetic books, which almost always are credited to their real authors, apocalyptic works never are.” They are usually anonymous or pseudepigraphic, that is, attributed to some mighty sage of bygone centuries, such as Enoch or Ezra. “The apocalyptic seers, the epigones of the classical prophets, had enough courage to write their thoughts, but not enough courage to assert their own identity.”

One reason for the change was the dramatic growth in the significance of canonized scriptures in the Second Temple era. Prior to the sixth century, the canon was much more fluid, insofar as it existed at all, while by 200 BC, a definite canon very much like the one we know in later centuries was already taking shape. In that environment, it seemed outrageously bold if not blasphemous to offer anything that might be taken as a new scripture or pseudo-scripture, and that act demanded subterfuge. Ronald Hendel speaks of  “the textualization of prophecy,” as a fixed scripture (“Isaiah and the Transition from Prophecy to Apocalyptic”).

Also new in the post-Biblical period was the vastly enhanced notion of God’s power and transcendence, making it inconceivable that he would interact directly with mere mortals. Hence the steady growth in the number of intermediary figures such as angels, who now formed a complex heavenly hierarchy.

Finally, as John J. Collins notes, the new Hellenistic world disrupted traditional patterns and expectations, and created a whole range of new stresses demanding radical religious rethinking, from which emerged whole new genres.

But if prophecy notionally disappeared, something very like the traditional prophet continued and flourished in the form of the charismatic holy man or healer, who became such a mainstay of popular religious belief by the centuries around the Common Era. The emphasis is now on the charisma, rather than the public proclamations of divine judgment and anger. It is the singer, not the song.

That image of the prophet as holy man certainly fits many, but not all, of the uses of the term we read in the New Testament, especially as applied to Jesus himself. I’ll be describing the (significant) exceptions in another column.

As I say, I am briefly summarizing Cohen’s views here, but there is a great deal more to say on the subject. As Cohen himself would be the first to admit, most of the book from which I am quoting was written almost thirty years ago, and the scholarly developments since then have been rapid and far-reaching. I’ll talk more about these ideas in my next posts.

And if you have been following my recent posts: you do know that I will be circling back to Zechariah, don’t you?





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  • stefanstackhouse

    Since the book of Judges is included in “the Former Prophets”, would not Deborah have been considered to have been a prophetess?

  • MesKalamDug

    Interesting point about transcendence. Not everybody was willing to accept the
    idea that transcendence meant God was incommunicative – rather we get mystics.
    The same tension can be seen in early Islam. Roughly – it would be lese majeste
    to ask God for forgiveness – one must ask an intercessor (equals, more or less, a saint) to ask God. I believe Catholic thought has gone so far that the saint is to
    intervene with Mary to intervene with God.

    As a Unitarian I see the elevation of Jesus into the Trinity as a sublimation
    of the idea of Jesus intervening with God. But that’s a different story.

  • philipjenkins

    I honestly don’t know. Good question. Miriam would have been a prophet, I think, but I am away from most of my resources right now and can’t verify. Watch this space.