Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Introduction

This begins a new Study Series which will run throughout the Fall season. It deals with the subject of “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. This area of study is a rather precarious one for commentators, and I approach it with some reluctance. Not only is the eschatological interpretation of “Bible Prophecy” quite problematic and controversial, with many Christians holding sharp and distinctive views, but it also represents one of the more lurid and speculative areas of Scriptural study. There have been an extremely wide range of opinions and interpretations of certain passages—some more or less plausible, and others quite preposterous—throughout the centuries. Often the interest and emphasis on Eschatology, to the neglect of more essential aspects of Christian faith and life, has proven to be altogether unhealthy, resulting in any number of travesties (and tragedies) among Christians all the way down to the present day.

Even more serious is the fundamental question of how to deal with the eschatological worldview we find among the earliest believers (in the 1st century A.D.), in the period of the New Testament, since it differs so markedly, in many respects, from our frame of reference today. Both the chronological and cultural divide creates enormous challenges for us in understanding and interpreting the New Testament writings, and nowhere more so than in the area of eschatology. This will be discussed in detail throughout the series, beginning in this introduction (cf. further below).

The words “Prophecy” and “Eschatology”

Let us start with a definition of the terms:

Prophecy

The English terms “prophecy” and “prophet” derive from the Greek profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ), and the related nouns profhtei/a (proph¢teía) and profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s). The Greek has the fundamental meaning of bringing something to light (i.e. saying, telling, revealing it) before (pro/) others. Prophecy is typically understood in terms of telling the future; however, this is only one aspect of prophecy, and not even the most important one at that. There are two ways that the preposition pro/ (“before, fore[ward]”) here may be understood: (1) spatial or relational, i.e. “in front of”; and (2) chronological, i.e. “beforehand”. The latter sense relates to the foretelling of future events (i.e., declaring things before they happen); yet, the former sense better fits the basic meaning of the corresponding Hebrew ayb!n` (n¹»î°) and ab*n` (n¹»â°) in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near Eastern religious and cultural context, shared by Israelite religion, the aybn is a spokesperson (for God), a chosen representative who receives a message, and communicates this “word” (and will) of God to the people at large. This is also the role of “prophets” in early Christianity, individuals gifted by the Spirit (or, at least, receptive to it), who then speak this message to the congregation(s) with whom they are associated.

Eschatology

This word, as derived from the Greek, literally means “an account of the last [e&sxato$, éschatos] (things)”, i.e. as a subject or area of study. From the standpoint of Biblical theology, it refers to passages in the Scriptures which are thought to discuss or to reveal the end of the current Age, usually connected with the idea of the final Judgment to be brought by God upon the world, and the eternal Life which follows for believers.

Apocalypse/Apocalyptic

Both the verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ) and the related noun a)poka/luyi$ (apokálypsis) occur relatively frequently in the New Testament (26/18 times). The fundamental meaning is “take the cover away from”, i.e. “uncover”; it refers to the idea of revelation, more than to specific revelation about the future. The tendency to associate it with prophecy about the future is largely due to the influence of the Book of Revelation, which is called an a)poka/luyi$ (‘Apocalypse’, 1:1). There were a number of Jewish (and Christian) writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. which have many characteristics in common, enough to warrant categorization as a genre of “Apocalyptic” literature. In these texts, a prophetic figure (usually a famous personage from the past) is given information, and/or allowed to see visions, which are purported to describe future events. The tendency among critical scholars is to regard all (or nearly all) of such works as ex eventu revelations—i.e., descriptions of things which, for the most part, have already occurred. Often the “future” events described would seem to refer to the author’s own life-setting and concerns.

Particular Difficulties Related to Early Christian (New Testament) Eschatology

There are a number of fundamental difficulties which face us today when studying the eschatological worldview and beliefs of the earliest Christians in the New Testament. I outline four here, which I will discuss briefly:

    1. The symbolic (multivalent) character of eschatological language and images.
    2. The unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological (and Messianic) elements, applying them to Jesus.
    3. The nature and extent of “dispensational” language and concepts.
    4. The expectation of an sudden/immanent end to this Age among early Christians.

1. Eschatological expression tends to be apocalyptic in nature (cf. above). This means that the mode of expression, within the framework of “uncovering” hidden/secret things, is often intentionally obscure, utilizing a symbolic language. Such symbolism is the result of two dynamics at work: (1) the idea that the heavenly/divine message, especially regarding future events, is difficult to express, requiring the use of symbols and figurative language; and (2) that this language is meant to protect the message, keeping it hidden and obscure for outsiders. This last point relates especially to eschatological and apocalyptic tendencies in the New Testament, going back to the teachings (esp. the parables) of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 4:11-12 par, etc).

Moreover, the very nature of symbolic language systems is multivalent—that is, individual symbols (and networks of symbols) can often have more than one underlying value or meaning. This requires most careful study and analysis when looking, for example, at the many symbols and figures used in the Book of Revelation. The multivalent character of the apocalyptic mode of expression is mirrored precisely in the vast number of ways that such language has been interpreted by Christians over the centuries.

2. Early Christians, for the most part, inherited their eschatological thought and apocalyptic mode of expression from Israelite/Jewish tradition, beginning with the Old Testament Prophets (especially the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah). This can be seen by the many similarities between the New Testament and certain Jewish writings c. 250 B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D. (including the Qumran [Dead Sea] texts). Most of these writings reflect Messianic thought, in various ways. All of the primary Messianic figure-types which developed (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Judge/Deliverer) had a strong eschatological context, being closely associated with the end of the current Age (and the beginning of the Age to Come). Their appearance was generally thought to coincide with God’s (final) Judgment upon humankind, in which God would judge the wicked/nations and rescue His faithful ones. For more on this topic, cf. the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The early Christian application of Messianic thought (and interpretation of Scripture) to the person of Jesus created a uniquely Christian mode of eschatological/apocalyptic expression. A central difficulty was the fact that Jesus had been put to death, raised, and then departed back to God the Father (in heaven), apparently without fulfilling the traditional eschatological role of the Messiah. The final Judgment, defeat of the wicked/nations, and deliverance of God’s people, etc, all had to wait until Jesus’ return to earth (i.e. “second coming”) sometime in the (near) future. This becomes the fundamental point of early Christian eschatology, but the tension it creates with the traditional manner of eschatological expression, which continued to be used, is manifest all throughout the New Testament, and causes many challenges for interpretation.

3. One specific area where this is manifested is in what I would call the “dispensational” mode of early Christian thought. I am by no means referring to the Dispensationalist systems, and manner of interpretation, popular among many Christians in recent centuries, but, rather, to the basic understanding early Christians had regarding the (eschatological) distinction between “the current Age” and “the Age to Come”. Unique (and essential) to the Christian worldview was the dual character of this “Age to Come”:

    • Aspect 1: The New Age was introduced and inaugurated by Jesus, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, and, especially, by the coming of the Spirit upon believers.
    • Aspect 2: At the same time, this “New Age” is experienced only by believers (i.e. at the spiritual level); the rest of the world remains dominated by sin and darkness. The true end of this current Age will only occur at Jesus’ return, with the final Judgment by God, and the Resurrection of the dead.

The first aspect is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology”, as opposed to the traditional (future) eschatology of aspect #2. Christians can use eschatological modes of expression to speak of either (or both) of these aspects, which can make study of early Christian eschatology quite difficult at times. “Realized” eschatology is particularly prominent in the Gospel and Letters of John, but it can also be found clearly (and repeatedly) in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well.

4. Perhaps the single most difficult area of early Christian eschatology, for believers today, is the expectation of a sudden (imminent) occurrence of the end of the current Age, marked by the return of Jesus and God’s final Judgment. This view that the end is near is to be found in dozens of places, in most of the New Testament writings. I will be discussing these references during this series. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, in particular, this aspect of early Christian eschatological can be highly problematic, and, indeed, many would deny (or at least mitigate) its implications. After all, by any normal standard of divine inspiration, how could the New Testament authors have been so mistaken as to believe the end was near, when at least 2,000 years would come and go before this occurs? There are no quick or easy solutions to this problem, which requires much careful study, done honestly and openly, without the burden of dogmatic presuppositions. Here I would only summarize several possible views, each of which will be discussed during the course of the articles and notes in this series:

    • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us.
    • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language—i.e., Jesus was still the Davidic Ruler even though he did not restore the Kingdom to Israel, in a literal sense, during his life. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined.
    • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur.
    • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be.

The Format of this Series

The articles in this series will cover two aspects of New Testament Eschatology:

    1. Scripture (Old Testament) passages which were understood, by the New Testament authors and/or their readers, to be prophecies or descriptions of the end-time and the Age to Come. I will be limiting this discussion to only those Scriptures which are quoted, or for which there clear allusions, in the New Testament writings. Even though many other passages (in the Prophets, etc) have been given an eschatological interpretation by subsequent Christians, and may have been viewed that way already by believers in the 1st century, these will not be addressed, except in passing.
    2. Statements and prophecies by the New Testament authors, or otherwise contained in the writings themselves, which are not necessarily tied to Old Testament passages.

Here is an initial outline which will be followed:

    • Part 1: Eschatology of Jesus (in the Synoptic Gospels)
    • Part 2: The Early Christian Preaching (in the Book of Acts)
    • Part 3: Eschatology in the Pauline Letters
      • Overview of the Evidence
      • 1 and 2 Thessalonians (with a special study on 2 Thess chap. 2)
      • Eschatological aspects of Romans
    • Part 4: The Gospel and Letters of John
    • Part 5: The remainder of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, Jude)
    • Part 6: Christology and the Development of Eschatology
      Appendix on the Early Christian Writings c. 90-150 A.D.

This is preceded by a general survey of the Scriptures which were interpreted in a Messianic sense (and applied to Jesus).

Because of the special place held by the Book of Revelation for New Testament eschatology, I am devoting a separate series of daily notes, commenting on the book, which will run concurrent with the articles in the main series.

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

(A concluding note for the series Women in the Church)

In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a, which may be outlined as follows:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value
      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

    • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai]
      —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
    • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.

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).

On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage in a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).