the Fourth Week of Lent
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Prophecy Prophet Prophetess
Christianity produced a revival of the ancient gift of prophecy, which was so marked a feature of the religious life of Israel. It was the spoken utterance of the man of vision and inspiration; it was a declaration of the ‘word of Jahweh’; it was a revelation of the Divine will not so much in the sense of prediction-an aspect of prophecy not original, but subordinate-but rather in the sense of spiritual instruction involving a special degree of religious and ethical insight. John the Baptist, the herald of Christ, may be called the last of the older prophets. Christianity did not supersede the earlier revelation but fulfilled it, as the first and greatest Prophet of the new order declared (Matthew 5:19); hence Christian prophecy is continuous with the prophecy of Israel, and the functions of both Jewish and Christian prophet are substantially the same. It was the content of the prophecy which was changed with the new revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Christian prophecy was born on the Day of Pentecost, the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which seemed to St. Peter to be a direct fulfilment of ancient prophecy (cf. Joel 2:28 f.).
1. The office of prophet.-It is natural to look for the prophet in the earliest environment of Christianity; and, as a matter of fact, we find prophets and prophetesses from the very beginning of the early Jewish Church. Christian prophets are referred to in the context of Acts 2:18, where προφητεύσουσιν is not part of the original quotation; and the gift which developed at Pentecost in the Church at Jerusalem was destined to spread wherever a Christian society came into being. To take the word “prophetess’ first, we find in Luke 2:36 Anna described as a prophetess, in Acts 21:9 the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist, and in Revelation 2:20 Jezebel, ‘which called herself a prophetess.’ It was evidently a function in which women might share, as we gather from 1 Corinthians 11:5, where public prophecy and public prayer are associated as gifts of Christian women. Prophets are mentioned in the Acts-Agabus (Acts 11:28; Acts 21:10), Symeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, in addition to Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1), and Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32). We have evidence of prophecy not only in the churches of Jerusalem and Caesarea, but also in Antioch (Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1), in Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonica (Romans 12:6 f., 1 Corinthians 14:32 f., 1 Thessalonians 5:20).
‘The three members of the Christian group-apostles, prophets, teachers-were already to be met with in contemporary Judaism,’ but ‘the grouping of these three classes, and the special development of the apostleship, were the special work of the Christian church’ (Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, Eng. tr._, i. 334). The ‘apostles’ were the itinerant missionaries of the Christian Church; they were also by nature of their office prophets and teachers (cf. Ephesians 2:20, ‘the foundation of the apostles and prophets,’ where the two are virtually identified; also Ephesians 3:15 and Ephesians 4:11, whore ‘classes of functions rather than persons’ are indicated; see Hort, Christian Ecclesia, p. 166). ‘Prophet’ stands second in the list, but there is a wide sense in which this term could be applied to each of the three classes. The prophet in Did. xi. 10 is called a teacher, and teaching was undoubtedly an element in the prophetic gift (cf. Polycarp, ap. Eus. HE_ IV. xv. 30, διδάσκαλος ἀποστολικὸς καὶ προφητικός). But though all three were speakers of the word (λαλοῦντες τὸν λόγον [Did. iv. 1]), prophecy was a distinctive χάρισμα (see Gifts), distinguishable from that of the ‘apostle’ and the ‘teacher.’ While the ‘apostle’ is a wandering missionary, the ‘prophets’ and ‘teachers’ were in general attached to a local church; e.g. Silas and Judas, prophets of the Church of Jerusalem, are described as ἡγούμενοι (Acts 15:22); and in Hebrews 13:7 such ἡγούμενοι or leaders are described as speaking ‘the word of God.’ Neither the ‘prophet’ nor the ‘teacher’ was appointed by the apostles, as were ‘bishops’ and ‘elders’; their gifts were an endowment of the Spirit, and both fulfilled the function of speaking in the spirit (λαλεῖν ἐν πνεύματι).
2. The nature of prophecy.-The characteristic quality of the prophet was not his power of expounding the facts of the Christian faith in their relation to each other or to life and conduct; it was ‘revelation.’ This did not necessarily mean rapture or ecstasy accompanied by unintelligible utterances. On the contrary, ‘prophecy’ is a greater gift, a nobler function than γλωσσολαλία or ‘tongue-speaking.’ ‘The former gift was exercised with the consciousness of the subject, and it issued in something logically intelligible. To use the latter gift, which issued in a jargon of words and unduly excited the speaker, was to speak to God instead of man’ (Selwyn, Christian Prophets, p. 1f.). ‘Prophecy’ is of course a larger term than ‘revelation’ (ἀποκάλυψις; see art._ Apocalypse): it includes ‘revelation’ among its specific forms of expression and yet may be distinguished from it, e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:6 (where the Apostle might speak ‘either by apocalypse, or gnosis, or prophecy, or teaching’). Prophecy is connected not only with revelations, but with ‘visions’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-3). ‘The Apocalypse, which is the great prophetic book of the NT and the most conspicuous relic we have of the prophecy of the primitive Christian Church, is a series of visions seen by a prophet and related by him’ (T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries2, 1903, p. 95, who further refers to the Shepherd of Hermas, a Roman presbyter who was also a ‘prophet’). In 1 Timothy 1:18 St. Paul expresses himself as guided by ‘prophecies’ in relation to the separation of Timothy for the Christian ministry. These apparently were ‘mysterious monitions of the kind called prophetic’ (Hort, op. cit. p. 182), either arising within himself or through the lips of Silas, or both; cf. also ‘prophecy’ as the medium of the spiritual gift which was imparted at Timothy’s ordination (1 Timothy 4:14). There was undoubtedly a mystical or ecstatic element in prophecy, but it had a practical aim. In 1 Corinthians 14:3 St. Paul mentions three functions of the prophet: ‘He that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and comfort, and consolation’: in other words, he builds up the Christian character, utters ethical precepts and warnings, and gives the encouragement arising from personal testimony, example, and sympathy. ‘He edifieth a church,’ while ‘the speaker with tongues edifieth himself,’ In Romans 12:6 by the use of the phrase ἀναλογία τῆς πίστεως the Apostle declares that a prophecy is required to agree with the accepted doctrines of the faith; while 1 Corinthians 12:10 (διακρίσεις πνευμάτων) shows that criticism of prophecy was a regular practice (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29). The canon of edification is conspicuous in the remarkable set of rules laid down in 1 Corinthians 14:26 f. for prophetic and other ecstatic utterances. Two or three prophets may speak, while the rest are to discriminate as to the character of their addresses; but if a ‘revelation’ be given to another sitting by, the first prophet must keep silence. ‘Ye can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted (and the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets),’ which means that, although individual inspiration is legitimate and undoubted, it is subject to the control of the prophets collectively. Thus, St. Paul did not limit freedom of speech, but in urging that only two or three prophets should address a given meeting he aimed at securing not only spiritual edification, but reverence and order in the assembly. Even if we had no evidence of the apocalyptic character of prophecy beyond the statements of St. Paul, it would not be going too far to argue that the expectation of the Parousia would naturally give rise to a predictive element in prophetic utterances. The author of Revelation speaks of the prophets as his fellow-servants, and of the Church as made up of ‘saints, apostles, and prophets’ (Revelation 18:20), ‘prophets and saints’ Revelation 18:24), and ‘saints and prophets’ (1 Corinthians 16:6); and in such a connexion it is easy to understand how ecstasy might lead to a vivid realization of the circumstances of the Parousia. But the general evidence is in favour of the spiritual and ethical quality of the prophetic utterances, which, as we gather from 1 Corinthians 14:24, were addressed to pagans as well as to Christians.
3. The history of prophecy in the sub-Apostolic Age.-The locus classicus for the subsequent development of prophecy in post-apostolic times is Did. 11, which is the clearest evidence afforded by extra-canonical literature of the established influence of Christian prophecy in the Church. The prophet is rooted in the life of the Church; but there are divergences from the Pauline tradition. No apostle is ever to remain more than three days in one place, otherwise he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). The spiritual test of his genuineness is not so definite as St. Paul’s (‘no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit’ [1 Corinthians 12:3]). He has indeed to speak ἐν πνεύματι; but his speech is to be confirmed by his possession of ‘the ways of the Lord,’ i.e. the general test of his Christian conduct. This is so far sound; but the subordinate tests (e.g., asking for money, ordering a table [i.e. an Agape] in which he himself is to participate, not practising what he teaches) suggest a lower type of spirituality both in prophet and people. There is further the obscure proviso that he is not to ‘make assemblies for a worldly mystery’ (or to ‘act for a worldly mystery of the church’), but the difficulty of understanding the phrase as it stands forbids any deduction as to the character of this test. Again, the prophet when he speaks in ecstasy is above criticism: to criticize one who ‘speaks in the spirit’ is the unpardonable sin. He is to receive ‘the first-fruits’: for ‘the prophets are your high-priests.’ Both ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ hold a higher rank in the Didache than bishops and deacons (presbyters are not mentioned), concerning whom the warning is given not to ‘despise’ them. The apocalypse with which the Didache closes has many phrases that recall Matthew 24, e.g., the warning against false prophets, and the prediction of lawlessness and persecution and of the appearance of the world-deceiver (ὁ κοσμοπλάνος). Thus it would appear that the authority of the prophets was already beginning to be undermined by the appearance of false and covetous prophets. In the Apostolic Fathers ‘prophets’ are not mentioned; when Ignatius speaks of prophets, they are OT prophets: at the same time, he claims to receive revelations, lofty and incommunicable (Trall. 5), and waits for such (Eph. xx. 1), while Polycarp is to pray for them (Polyc. ii. 2). Hermas considers himself to be a prophet commissioned by God to comfort and persuade his hearers and to sound the call to repentance (Mand. XII. iii. 2-3). Harnack’s suggestion that the silence of Hermas as to prophecies is due to the fact that he reckoned himself a prophet is not convincing (op. cit. p. 340). In Mand. XI he refers to false prophets as mere magicians practising on people of wavering faith who apply to them ὡς ἐπὶ μάντιν. If the Didache represents the situation immediately after the Apostolic Age, the Shepherd of Hermas may be reasonably regarded as fixing the time when the authority of Christian prophecy was beginning to decline. Ecstasy in either its orderly or irregular forms was gradually to die under the development of the Church Order as represented by bishops and elders. We have to wait for the rise of Montanism in the 4th cent. for a revival of the extemporaneous enthusiasm and unconventional apocalypses of individual Christians. But it is more likely that the decline of prophecy was due less to Church organization and discipline than to the fact that the gift was so open to abuse. Even the apostolic safeguards could not save it: these depended on a high ideal of Christian conduct for their efficacy. Prophecy disappeared because its spiritual dignity and power were difficult to maintain in a community where the degrees of spirituality differed so widely, and where the mystical elements of the faith had necessarily to be subordinated to the practical in the evolution of Christian character. On the other hand, prophecy in its less reputable forms became a barrier to Christian progress and lent colour to the criticisms of outsiders like Celsus (see Origen, c. Cels. vii. 9), whose intellectual tastes were offended by the excesses of certain types of prophet, and who had not sufficient insight or tolerance to estimate the spiritual value of prophecy as a whole.
Literature.-In addition to the Literature named under artt._ Gifts, and Tongues, Gift of, the following may be consulted: A. Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity2, Eng. tr._, 1908; E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. tr._, 1904; E. C. Selwyn, The Christian Prophets, 1900; P. D. Scott-Moncrieff, Paganism and Christianity in Egypt, 1913; F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, 1897; C. von Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age, Eng. tr._, 1894-95.
R. Martin Pope.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prophecy Prophet Prophetess'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​p/prophecy-prophet-prophetess.html. 1906-1918.