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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Prophecy, Jewish Interpretation of.

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The Hebrew and the Christian alike recognise the reality of the predictive element in the chosen oracles of the great I am. The two religionists, however, differ widely in their manner and sense of interpretation and in the application of the oracular utterances. This difference regarding a portion of Scripture accepted alike by both is easily accounted for. The divergence is in the two religions themselves, and is called out by the question whether the predictions for a Messiahship to the "chosen race" have ever been fulfilled. Upon this query all turns. The Israelite, refusing to recognise in Christ the long-promised divine messenger, either declares it a vain attempt to decipher the prophetic images, if he be a rationalist; or, if he be more faithfully wedded to the canon of the synagogue, patiently sits back, awaiting the final solution of the problem of God's salvation of his people. (See JEWS); (See MESSIAH); (See PHARISEE); (See RATIONALISM).

In the early and mediaeval days of Christianity, the Jews did not deny the facts of the Christian miracles, but explained them away, and so nothing remained for settlement but the verity of the prophecies and the question of their fulfilment. The first of these the Jew conceded to the Christian, but on the last point a somewhat rich literature of polemics is preserved to us. It begins with the New Test. itself. Paul and other apostles were frequently called upon to argue the Messiahship of Christ. We have the same phase of the contest in the apology of Justin Martyr (q.v.) against Trypho, to which a new kind of objection expressive of prejudice is added in the discourse which Celsus, as preserved in Origen (Contr. Cels. bk. i and ii), puts into the mouth of the Jew whom he introduces. (In reference to this contest, these Church fathers, and especially Semisch's work on Justin Martyr and the works on the Jewish Talmudic literature and philosophy, may be consulted. See also, for later continuations of this con test, Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctr. i, § 144, and the art. POLEMICS, JEWISH.) The Jew contends with the Christian not only for a special spiritual elevation in the prophet an intenser degree of the same divine intuition which God gives to all who worship him in love and reverence-but for a gift of light vouchsafed to him different from any ordinary endowment. Maimonides remains the chief of the Jewish hermeneutists. "This sage of mediseval Judaism thus teaches: Prophecy signifies the communication of verities to the human mind from God by the medium of the active reason, with or without the power to foretell future events or to perform miracles. The first point is essential, the other is merely accidental. Prophecy is a capacity of the human mind.

All possess it more or less. Like other human capacities, it may remain dormant in this or that mind, or be developed partially or perfectly. In the development of this capacity, it is necessary, in the first place, to cultivate and purify the imagination, i.e. the ability of beholding internally, clearly, and truly things external and distant, either in space or time, and to place the imagination under the control of mental judgment. In the second place, the moral nature of the individual must be trained to purity, goodness, love of the true and the sublime, and the desire to understand the voice of the eternal Deity. This cannot be done outside of society, but within it and in its active service. It cannot be done by asceticism and the renunciation of the world and its charms; it must be done in gladness and joy, by chastity, temperance, and a life of moderation, governing and controlling the lower passions and developing the nobler, finer, and higher ones to a harmonious moral character. Passionate, immoral, and wicked persons bewilder their imagination, pervert their judgment, and benight their reason. In the third place, reason must be fully developed to control all other powers of the individual, without weakening them or disturbing the harmony of the soul, and to elevate him to universal reason, which Maimonides calls the active reason,' which enables him to grasp universal truth and to depict it clearly to himself or others by the power of his imagination. Man so prepared, so developed and trained, is a prophet, although he still may receive no special messages from on high, either because his age requires none, or outer influences, climatical or social, disturb the mind. But the man so prepared, and he only, can be a prophet of the Lord. So the ancient prophets were prepared for their messages and their missions. Others, also, may conceive original ideas and prophecies; but if the reason predominates over the imagination, they cannot realize or reproduce their own internal visions.

If the imagination predominates, they produce phantasmagorias-wild, disconnected, and confused images. If the moral character supports not both, falsehood, deception, imposition, and even self-delusion spring from reason's light and imagination's vision. If one profess to be a prophet of the Lord, says Maimonides, we would first be obliged to investigate whether his education, his learning, his character, and his antecedents warrant such a presumption. If this be not the case if he be a vulgar, uncultivated, or an impious man, but maintains that God or an angel spoke to him this or that, we should be bound to declare him a deluded fantasy or a wilful impostor. The genuine prophets, Maimonides further maintains, are not all of the same category. They are as different as are their natural capacities and the development thereof. With the one reason and with the other imagination may predominate, and another, again, may be influenced by moral deficiencies. Therefore, while one prophet, like Moses, is always ready and prepared to receive prophecies in a sound, waking, and clear state of mind, and in words perfectly prosaic and perfectly definite and accurate, others can receive visions in a state of dream, in eccentric agitation, or hallucination only. Then they see phantasms which are expounded to them or which they themselves must expound; or they see an angel or a person in themselves, of course who speaks to them; or they hear a voice without seeing any vision, in which they suppose they have heard God speak. Therefore the prophetical style varies so much with the various writers of Scriptures, and the oracles of some are announced in different poetical forms. The prophet knows how to distinguish divine visions from vulgar ones by the profound impression which the former make upon him, carrying conviction into his mind, and we must know it by the test of reason to which the matter revealed is subjected. All visions recorded in the Bible, Maimonides advances, were subjective, psychological processes. Wherever it is said God appeared, an angel appeared, this or that vision was seen, it must always be understood to have appeared so in the prophet's imagination. Only one prophet received his revelations through and to reason directly, without poetical garbs or visionary assistance, and that was Moses. Only one divine manifestation of this nature did actually come to pass, and that was the revelation on Mount Sinai, and this, also, Maimonides rationalizes in his own way. In all these rational expositions of prophecy, Maimonides refers to the Bible and the Talmud for support" (comp. his Yesodai Haftorah, which forms the Introd. to his Yad- Hachazakah). (See MAIMONIDES).

Another sage, whose authority the ultra-orthodox prefer to depend upon, is Joseph Albo (q.v.). He has expressed his opinion on the various grades of prophets in his book on Princinples (Sepher Ikkarim, ch. 10:§ 3). It differs materially from that of Maimonides. Albo has four grades of prophets; the first class consists of prophets with whom the understanding has no dominion over the phantasy. They receive the prophetical vision in a state of slumber and dream, after an attack of pain and terror. The second class consists of prophets in whom the understanding and the phantasy are well balanced; they receive the prophetical visions without pain or terror, in quiet dreams. The third class consists of prophets with whom the understanding predominates over the phantasy; they see no imaginary visions, as the above two classes do, which must be expounded; they see real objects in their visions, and hear them speak intelligible words; there is neither pain nor terror, nor doubtful visions in the prophetical ecstasy of this class. The fourth class consists of prophets with whom phantasy has no influence whatever upon the understanding; they see no visions, no symbols whatever, but hear prophetical words addressed to them, not in a dream or vision-not merely sometimes and in a state of ecstasy but waking, intelligent, and whenever they wish. Albo adds, "If a man has elevated himself to this high state of mind, he should no longer be called man he should be called angel. None of us mortals has ever reached this perfection, except our teacher Moses." See Dr. Wise, Lectures on the Philosophy and Philosophers of the Jews as reported in the Israelite (Cincinnati, 1873); Rothschild (Miss), Hist. and Lit. of the Israelites, vol. 2; Geiger, Judaism, vol. 1; M'Caul, Old Paths. (J. H. W.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Prophecy, Jewish Interpretation of.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/p/prophecy-jewish-interpretation-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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