One of the challenges (or frustrations) in studying prophecy is the difficulty in defining precisely what it is. Well did Erich Fascher call the label “prophet” a “frame word without concrete content” [German: “προφήτης allein ist ein 'Rahmenwort' ohne konkreten Inhalt”] (Fascher 1927, 51). I'll make some observations below, but first take a quick look at these attempts at definition:
The prophet as the individual par excellence: “It belongs to the notion of prophecy, of true revelation, that Jehovah, overlooking all the media of ordinances and institutions, communicates Himself to the individual, the called one, in whom that mysterious and irreducible rapport in which the deity stands with man clothes itself with energy.” (Wellhausen 1885, 398)
The prophet as intermediary: “It is appropriate to think about prophets as intermediaries, typically representing the deity to the world of humans and in ways related to but different from priests and technical diviners.” (Petersen 2009, 625)
The prophet as [covenant] preacher:
The prophet as healer: “We will not enter Luke’s world without grasping the fact that healing and revealing were twin aspects of a single prophetic vocation” (Minear 1976, 75).
- Jesus’ “habitual praxis marked him out as a prophet, in the sense of one announcing to Israel an urgent message from the covenant god.” (Wright 1996, 185)
- “[T]he biblical prophet is an interpreter of the present rather than an announcer of the future.” (Croatto 2005, 459)
- Christian prophets were “the first theologians.” (Gillespie 1994)
The prophet as persecuted mediator: Prophets are persecuted “messengers and mediators of Yahweh’s salvation.” (Moessner 1986, 225)
Prophecy as direct revelation:
Prophecy as spontaneous, impelled and/or “immediately inspired”:
- Prophets are “individuals claiming to speak for God” (Greenspahn 1989, 37). Prophecy is “direct revelation” (37).
- Prophecy was understood as “God . . . speaking directly to certain individuals” (Sommer 1996, 32).
Prophecy as intelligible:
- “A Christian prophet is a Christian who functions within the Church, occasionally or regularly, as a divinely called and divinely inspired speaker who receives intelligible and authoritative revelations or messages which he is impelled to deliver publicly, in oral or written form, to Christian individuals and/or the Christian community.” (Hill 1979, 8-9)
- “The early Christian prophet was an immediately inspired spokesman for the risen Jesus, who received intelligible messages that he or she felt impelled to deliver to the Christian community or, as a representative of the community, to the general public.” (Boring 1991, 38; cf. Boring 1982, 16)
- Prophecy may be defined as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.” (Grudem 2000, 313; cf. 210)
- “According to Luke and Paul, Christian prophecy was the reception and immediately subsequent public declaration of spontaneous [i.e. unsolicited], (usually) verbal revelation, conceived of as revealed truth [i.e. not regarded as a product of the speaker’s own reasoning processes] and offered to the community on the authority of God/Christ/the Holy Spirit.” (Forbes 1995, 236; cf. 229)
Or simply… “human speech on behalf of God” (Moberly 2006, 1)
- “[I]ntelligible messages from God in human language through inspired human mediums.” (Aune 1991, 103)
- “[P]rophecy was a type of oracular speech: that is, it was an intelligible verbal message believed to originate with God, and to be communicated through an inspired human intermediary.” (Turner 2005, 184)
Observations(1) I included Wellhausen’s 19th century definition because it so clearly illustrates how much definitions can be shaped by context. Notice, for example, Wellhausen’s very modern valorization of the individual.
(2) Some definitions are based on content (Croatto, Wright), others on the experience of inspiration (e.g., Forbes).
(3) Definitions articulate what is essential and what is distinctive. Differences in definition often point to disagreement over larger issues:
- What activities count as characteristic activities of prophets? Speech, obviously, but what about miracles? (See Minear’s definition and the biblical prophets Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah and Jesus.)
- Calling prophecy “direct revelation” (Greenspahn, Sommer) presumably distinguishes it from divination. According to Sommer, it also excludes charismatic interpretation of Scripture and supernatural insight; Sommer regards dreams as a lesser form of prophecy. …It is fair to ask whether these are ancient or modern scholarly distinctions.
- The criterion of intelligibility excludes glossolalia on the basis 1 Cor 14:1-5, but does not account for Acts 2 (where I would argue ‘tongues’ is included as prophecy) or, apparently, 1 Sam 10:9-13, 19:19-24.
- The claim that prophecy is, by definition, spontaneous attempts to distinguish prophecy and teaching. It also tends to assume that divine action in prophecy is independent from the human action of the prophet.
(4) Variety is to be expected. Early Jewish and Christian understandings of the term, “prophet,” could be filled out in a variety of legitimate ways because there are different OT models to choose from.
Aune, David E. 1991. Repr. from 1983. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Boring, M. Eugene. 1982. Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boring, M. Eugene. 1991. The Continuing Voice of Jesus. Louisville, Ky. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Croatto, J. Severino. 2005. “Jesus, Prophet like Elijah, and Prophet-Teacher like Moses in Luke-Acts.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (3): 451-465.
Fascher, Erich. 1927. ΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ: Eine sprach- und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Gießen: Alfred Töpelmann.
Forbes, Christopher. 1995. Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment. WUNT 2/75. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).
Gillespie, Thomas W. 1994. The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Greenspahn, Frederick E. 1989. “Why Prophecy Ceased.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1): 37-49.
Grudem, Wayne A. 2000. Rev. from 1988. The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. Rev. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.
Hill, David. 1979. New Testament Prophecy. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Minear, Paul S. 1976. To Heal And To Reveal: The Prophetic Vocation according to Luke. New York: Seabury Press.
Moberly, R. W. L. 2006. Prophecy and Discernment. Cambridge studies in Christian doctrine 14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moessner, David P. 1986. “‘The Christ Must Suffer’: New Light on the Jesus - Peter, Stephen, Paul Parallels in Luke-Acts.” Novum Testamentum 28 (3): 220-256.
Petersen, David L. 2009. “Prophet, Prophecy.” Pages 622-648 in New Interpreterʼs Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld. Nashville: Abingdon.
Sommer, Benjamin D. 1996. “Did Prophecy Cease? Evaluating a Reevaluation.” Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1): 31-47.
Turner, Max. 2005. Rev. from 1996. The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament Church and Today. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Wellhausen, Julius. 1885. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Ed. Allan Enzies. Repr. 1983. Gloucester, Mass. Peter Smith.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. 1996. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress.