The Beatitudes: On Prophets and False Prophets

In previous notes I discussed the Beatitude of Jesus in Matt 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 (with the corresponding “woe” in Lk 6:26); there “Prophets” and “False Prophets” are mentioned in relation to the ethical instruction for believers to rejoice when experiencing persecution. It may be helpful to examine briefly the background and significance of these terms.

Prophets

The English word prophet is simply a transliteration of the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), which is presumably derived from a root compound of a verb fh(mi) (“say, speak, tell”) and the particle pro (“fore[ward], before”), along with the related (or denominative) verb profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ). This can be understood in either (a) a spatial-relational sense (i.e., to speak/declare before someone, to speak forth), or (b) a temporal sense (to speak/declare beforehand). In earlier Greek (from the classical period) the former sense is dominant; by the time of the New Testament, the latter is more prominent. The verb profhteu/w (“to speak/tell before”) is roughly synonymous with similar verbs such as prole/gw (“gather/count/say before”), profwne/w (“give voice before”), and proagoreu/w (“say in public before”), and early on came to be used in the technical sense of delivering an oracle or message from the gods (cf. G. Friedrich in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT] VI:781ff for an extended discussion and many references).

The Hebrew noun ayb!n` (n¹»î°) is usually translated in English as “prophet”, though its precise etymology remains uncertain. The Arabic verb naba°a (“announce, inform, impart”) may ultimately derive from the same (early Semitic) root as ayb!n` (the verb ab*n` is denominative, itself deriving from the noun ayb!n`). In all likelihood the Hebrew noun relates to the Akkadian verb nabû (“call, proclaim,” etc), and may reflect a passive form (i.e. “[one who is] called”, “[one] appointed to proclaim”; cf. a comparable term dyg]n` n¹gîd, “[one] highly visible, in front” [leader/ruler]). In any event, ayb!n` refers more to a role than a specific activity (unlike the partially synonymous word hz#j) µœzeh, “seer”, one who receives visions, cf. 1 Sam 9:9)—namely, to serve as an intermediary or spokesperson between God and the people. The role of prophet/ayb!n` was hardly unique to Israel; it is attested throughout the ancient world (the prophetic/oracular letters from Mari provide perhaps the closest early examples). Our best information, understandably, comes from prophets attached in some way to the royal court, but there doubtless were persons who fulfilled a similar role and function at the smaller community level (of family, clan, or tribe). By use of various means and methods (vision, oracle, divination), prophets informed people of the will and intention of the gods. “Prophecy” in the popular mind is often associated primarily with predicting the future; however, this is a distortion of the prophet’s true function—to reveal the will of God (or the gods). In the dynamic-magical (one might say “proto-logical”) religious mindset of the ancient world, that which God (or the gods) willed would certainly come to pass. In a non-literate or pre-literate society especially—with no sacred writings—leaders depended upon such a spokesperson for accurate “revelation”. As such, the “false prophet” (see below)—one whose revelatory information was ‘incorrect’ or unreliable—could have a devastating effect on society.

Interestingly, the term ayb!n` occurs only rarely in the Pentateuch and early Historical Books (Joshua–Samuel); outside of Deuteronomy and 1-2 Samuel, it appears only in Gen 20:7 (said of Abraham); Exod 7:1 (of Aaron); Num 11:29; 12:6; Judg 6:8, along with the feminine form ha*yb!n+ (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4, of Miriam and Deborah) and the denominative verb ab*n` in Num 11:25-27 (of inspired elders/leaders of Israel, cf. v. 29). Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22 provide instruction for how the people should regard prophets who appear or become known in the community, including tests for true and false prophecy (see below); the latter passage, in particular, refers to Moses as a prophet (also in Deut 34:10). Samuel was the first great Prophet, in the traditional sense (1 Sam 3:20); but there are also enigmatic references to groups of prophets (1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24) as well as passing mention of “prophets” (1 Sam 9:9; 28:6, 15), the precise context of which is lost to us today. Other specific prophets begin to be mentioned in the later sections of 1-2 Samuel—Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11) and Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25)—and many more figures appear in the books of Kings (with parallel accounts in 2 Chronicles), intertwined with the political history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The best known of these prophets are Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 172 Kings 8) and Isaiah (see esp. Isa 6:1-9:6; 36-39 and parallel passages in Kings-Chronicles). Contrary to the popular conception of Elijah (and, subsequently, John the Baptist) in tradition, most of the prophets were almost certainly educated and literate persons, especially those associated with the royal court. In all likelihood, there were ‘schools’ or ‘guilds’ of prophets—already in 1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24 we see prophetic groups or communities, and Isaiah is described in a matter of fact way as having ‘disciples’ (Isa 8:16). This latter reference also suggests the task of recording and preserving prophecies (in written form)—a very slight indication of the sort of work which may ultimately have produced the core of the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) which have come down to us (similar collections of oracles [of the Sibyls] are known from the Greco-Roman world).

The early Old Testament references to prophets and prophecy seem to emphasize three primary aspects: (1) the general role of serving as spokesperson (i.e. for God), (2) declaring a specific oracle or message from God, and (3) delivering ecstatic (divinely-)inspired utterances. By the kingdom period, it is the second aspect which dominates, in two basic ways (for an extended discussion, cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 223-229):

    1. Royal oracles—messages delivered to kings, and related to their rule
    2. Judgment oracles—messages delivered to both king and people, foretelling and/or threatening God’s coming judgment, sometimes with an exhortation to repent

In the Prophet books (Scriptures) which are principally pre-exilic and/or exilic in date, the message is largely one of judgment, focusing upon the condition and fate of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, gradually, this is extended to incorporate two additional themes:

    1. Judgment oracles against the surrounding nations
    2. The promise of restoration following judgment (for at least a “remnant” of Israel/Judah)

The theme of restoration becomes even more prominent in the later exilic and post-exilic writings (all the more so if one wishes to include some or all of Isaiah 40-66 in this category), and provides the background for a good deal of Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity.

Within Jewish tradition, “the Prophets” came to be virtually synonymous with the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) that are now part of the Old Testament. The extent to which these writings derive from the Prophets themselves (and reflect their exact words) continues to be debated by scholars. There can be no doubt, however, that in Jesus’ time “the Prophets” meant the books as least as much as the men associated with them. The expression “the Law and the Prophets” served as a locution for all of what we would call inspired or authoritative Scripture (cf. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:16, 29-31; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; cf. Sirach 1:1), though the extent of the “canon” at the time remains an open question. The book of Psalms appears to have been included under the “Prophets” (with David as a prophet, cf. Acts 2:30), as well as the historical books Joshua–Samuel (associated with the prophet Samuel). Even the Law (Pentateuch) had a prophetic character, considered traditionally as the work of Moses (a prophet, cf. Deut 18:15ff; 34:10).

It is less clear to what extent the actual prophetic role and gift was believed to continue on in persons within Judaism up to the time of the New Testament. The evidence from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) is equivocal and ambiguous at best. The word ayb!n` (whether in the singular or plural) nearly always refers to the Prophets of old (or their Writings); in only a few instances is it possible that prophecy is thought to continue on into the present (e.g., in 1QS 1:3; 8:15-16; 1QpHab 7; 4Q265; 4Q375; 11Q5; 11Q19 54, 61; for these and other references cf. George J. Brooke, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Qumran Scrolls and the New Testament” in Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity Brill:2009, pp. 32-41). Within the Qumran Community, the positive sense of prophecy appears to have been limited to the (inspired) teaching and interpretation of Scripture (“the Law and Prophets”), such as is exemplified in the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Jesus fulfills a similar role as inspired interpreter in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. Matt 5:17-20ff). 1 Maccabees 9:27 seems to reflect a common sentiment that authoritative Prophets (in the ancient religious and Scriptural sense) had disappeared from Israel—a view which helped to fuel eschatological and apocalyptic expectation of a great Prophet-to-Come. There were two strands to this tradition: one, in terms of Moses (via Deut 18:15-19, cf. 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41; 1QS 9:11; 4Q158; 4Q174); the other, in terms of Elijah (prim. from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. Sir 48:10; 4Q558; also 4Q521). This (eschatological) Prophet is mentioned several times in the New Testament, in reference to Jesus (see Jn 6:14; 7:40, also Lk 7:16; Jn 1:21, 25 and note the imagery in Mark 9:4ff par); in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37, Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff. As for the figure of Elijah, there is some evidence associating him with Jesus (see Mark 9:4ff par; Jn 1:21, 25; Lk 4:25-26 and 7:18-23 par, with similar language [from Isa 61] in Lk 4:18ff), though in the Synoptic tradition he is more commonly identified with John the Baptist (Mark 8:18; 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but see John’s explicit denial of the role in Jn 1:21). In the Gospels, Jesus himself is depicted as prophesying: regarding his own suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31 par), the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-2 par; Lk 19:43-44), and other end-time events (Mark 13 par [Matt 24; Lk 21], also Lk 17:20-37). And, of course, in traditional Christian theology, Prophet is one of the three main “offices” of Christ.

Within the early Christian community, prophecy was viewed as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, marking the “new age” which inaugurates the end-time (see the quotation and adaptation of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech, Acts 2:14ff, and cf. Acts 19:6). In the Pauline congregations, prophecy had its proper place as a “gift” and work of the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29; 13:2, 8-9; 14:1-6, 22ff; 1 Thess 5:20); and there are other references to prophets and prophecy in the Church as well (Matt 7:22; Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14, etc), though the exact nature such activity and utterance is not entirely clear. The early Christian Didache (chaps. 11-13) deals with the issue of receiving prophets, including the question of how to judge whether they are true or false (see below). The expression “Apostles and Prophets” (Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:14; Didache 11:3) almost serves as a locution for all leaders and teachers in the community. This may also relate back to the manner in which early believers (esp. the Apostles and first disciples) were, by the suffering and persecution which they would endure, identified with the Prophets of old—the theme of persecution of the Prophets is relatively common in the New Testament (Matt 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; 1 Thess 2:15), serving as sympathetic and exhortative examples for believers (Heb 11:32-12:1) and signifying their ultimate heavenly reward (Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:22-23; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24).

Interestingly, there is relatively little direct evidence in the Old Testament itself regarding the persecution of the Prophets. We read of attempts to kill Jeremiah (Jer 26; 38:4-6ff, cf. also Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1ff); the latter episode occurring within the context of Ahab and Jezebel putting prophets to death (1 Kings 8:4, 13; 19:1, 10, 14), just as king Jehoiakim put to death Jeremiah’s contemporary, Uriah. Later tradition, as recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 10.38), attributes similar widespread slaughter of prophets by wicked king Manasseh, but there is no comparable detail in the Old Testament (Josephus may simply be elaborating upon 1 Kings 21:16). Amos encountered threatening opposition from the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10-13), but no further action is recorded. The Jewish work known as The Lives of the Prophets (1st cent. A.D.?) summarizes the lives and careers of twenty-three prophets; of these, only six (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, and Zechariah ben Jehoiada) were put to death, though a number of others suffered persecution in some form. Most famously, Isaiah is recorded as having been sawn in two during the reign of Manasseh (1:1), and this appears to be reasonably well-established tradition (cf. Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-5; j. Sanh 10:28c, 37; b. Yeb 49b, and the reference in Heb 11:37a). For Zechariah ben Jehoiada, see the note at the bottom of the page.

False Prophets

The term “False Prophet” translates the Greek yeudoprofh/th$ (pseudoproph¢¡t¢s), but actual references to “false prophets” in Scripture are quite rare. As indicated above, societies—especially those which did not rely on fixed authoritative Writings—depended on the veracity and reliability of their prophets (i.e. those who spoke for and interpreted the will of God [or the gods]). False or unreliable prophecy was, therefore, a religious problem of the highest magnitude. For ancient Israelite religion, the question of false prophets is addressed in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22. The first passage is connected with idolatry: the prophet who advocates following after “other gods”, even if associated prophetic ‘signs’ have come true, can be judged to be acting falsely (implied) and should be put to death. The second passage frames the true Israelite prophet as being like Moses (see the discussion above), and offers a simple test in 18:20-22: if the prophecy does not come true, then it is not a message spoken by God (cf. also Jer 28:9). This latter test is reasonable enough on the surface, but who makes this determination? Moreover, it may take generations to determine whether a prophecy has ultimately come to pass; indeed, numerous oracles in the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) have not clearly come to pass or require questionable methods of interpretation to demonstrate that they have taken place. By comparison, the early Christian Didache, in its discussion on receiving prophets (chaps 11-13), uses their moral conduct and ethical behavior (along with ‘orthodoxy’ in teaching) as the principal test (11:8-12). Jesus himself offers a test regarding false prophets (Matt 7:15ff), whom he apparently identifies with those followers who have not done “the will of my Father” (vv. 21ff); in the context of the Sermon on Mount, this no doubt refers to those who fail or refuse to follow Jesus’ own teaching and interpretation of the Law.

Who exactly are these “false prophets”? Are there any examples in Scripture? The prophets of pagan religions and deities (such as those of Canaanite Baal-Haddu, 1 Kings 19:20-40 etc), according to the nature of Israelite monotheism, have to be considered false. Other “false” prophets are, perhaps, to be associated with the use of questionable means (forms of visions, dreams and divination, etc, cf. Jer 23:25ff; Ezek 13:7ff; Isa 8:19, etc); however, the emphasis in Jer 23:9-40 and Ezek 13:1-23 has more to do with relying on “false” visions which come from the prophet’s own mind. 1 Kings 22:5-28 records an historical instance of “false prophets” (contrasted with a “true” prophet, Micaiah vv. 8ff)—here at least the name of one “false” prophet is mentioned (Zedekiah, v. 24). In 1 Kings 22 and Ezek 13, the false prophets declare peace, security and military success (which, of course, is just what the people and the ruler would like to hear), rather than judgment, destruction, and military defeat. This, indeed, would seem to be the primary characteristic of “false prophets”—they declare what appeals to their audience, rather than the (often harsh) message which may come from God (Isa 30:10-11; Jer 5:31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:3; Mic 2:11; 3:5; for a similar thought, cf. also 2 Tim 4:3). In Jeremiah 28, Hananiah is a (false) prophet who, in a similar fashion, predicts the defeat of Babylon (see esp. Jeremiah’s response and rebuke in vv. 6-9). At the time of the New Testament, the famous and ancient figure of Balaam would no doubt have been considered a false prophet, of sorts (cf. 2 Pet 2:5; Rev 2:14); however, in at least one strand of Old Testament tradition, Balaam appears as a positive figure, who utters (inspired) oracles regarding Israel (Numbers 23-24).

Within the New Testament and early Christian tradition, along with the revival of Spirit-guided prophecy (see above), the problem of false prophets surface anew. Already Jesus had warned of false prophets (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24) to come. The Jewish magos Elymas (bar-Jesus) is called a false prophet in Acts 13:6; and the danger of (pseudo-)Christian false prophets is mentioned in early writings as well (1 Pet 2:1; 1 Jn 4:1; Didache 11-13). In Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13 par) “false prophets” are connected with “false Christs”—that is, false Messiahs—(Mk 13:22 and par Matt 24:11, 24); and elsewhere there is an association with those who claim to have done wonders in Jesus’ name (Matt 7:21-23). More prominent is the connection with “false teaching” in the Church (see esp. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 4:3f; 2 Pet 2:1-3; 1 Jn 4:1ff; 2 Jn 9-10; Rev 2:14-15, 20, 24; Did 11:3ff, and Paul’s reference to “false brothers” and “false apostles” in 2 Cor 11:13, 26; Gal 2:2, cf. also Rev 2:2). 1 John provides perhaps the most detailed description of false teaching, related to a specific Christological view, which is difficult to determine precisely (see esp. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6). This aberrant view of Christ is connected both with “false prophets” (4:1) and “antichrist” (2:18) which have resulted in divisions within the community (2:10). 1 Jn 4:1ff provides another test to determine false prophets, whether the spirit which speaks through the Christian messenger is truly from God. Mention should also be made of the personification of false prophecy depicted in the book of Revelation (see on the “False Prophet” in Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10); whether this should be understood as a real flesh-and-blood figure, or symbolic and representative, quite depends on one’s mode of interpreting the book (but cf. 2 Thess 2:9-11).

In referring to “false prophets” in the ‘Woe’ of Luke 6:26, Jesus is drawing upon the Old Testament image of prophets who declare things which the people want to hear (peace, prosperity, material security, et al), rather than the message of God. This explains why people speak well of them, and they may have considerable currency and popularity in their lifetime; but the ultimate (heavenly) reward belongs to those who confront society with a message of righteousness (justice) and holiness, according to the example of God in Christ.

The reference to Zechariah in Matt 23:35 presents a notorious historical-critical difficulty. Here he is named as “Zechariah son of Berechiah” (the designation of the Old Testament exilic prophet of the book that bears his name), but the historical event described almost certainly relates to “Zechariah son of Jehoiada” (2 Chron 24:20-22), an earlier figure. The Lives of the Prophets correctly distinguishes the two characters, but regards them both as prophets (chs. 15, 23 [2 Chron 24:2 describes Zechariah ben Jehoiada as a priest]). That there was some confusion in the tradition is clear from the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (mid-2nd cent. A.D.), which further identifies the Zechariah slain in the Sanctuary with Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (§23-24).