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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    This entry consists of two articles, the first on prophets in Ancient Israel, and the second on the phenomenon of prophecy in Early Christianity. For further discussion of this topic, see Social Sciences and the Bible, and for discussion of individual prophets, see the entries under their names or the books that bear their names.

    Ancient Israel

    No comprehensive definition of an Israelite prophet is possible. The persons conventionally included in this category appear to have manifested great diversity of character and function. They are referred to by a number of terms that in some texts are used interchangeably, and some of these shed some light on their functions: “seer” implies a recipient of visions, and “man of God” suggests some kind of close relationship with the deity. But the most common designation, nābîʾ, usually translated as “prophet,” is of uncertain derivation. The prophets of the eighth century BCE seem to have avoided terminological classification altogether.

    In general, it may be said that prophets were men or women believed to be recipients through audition, vision, or dream of divine messages that they passed on to others by means of speech or symbolic action. The persons they addressed might be individuals, particular groups of Israelites, the whole nation, or foreign nations. The prophets, then, were divine messengers, as is indicated by the formula, “Thus Yahweh has said,” which precedes many of their utterances. Frequently, these messages were unsolicited and were delivered under divine compulsion, though on some occasions a prophet was consulted by persons who inquired whether there was a message from God for them. Several of the prophetic books contain “call narratives” in which the prophets express their conviction that they have received a particular summons to prophesy (Isa. 6; Jer. 1; Ezek. 1.1–3.15; Amos 7.15). Several prophets, notably Jeremiah, recorded their reluctance and even strong resistance to this divine constraint. These call narratives, however, belong to a literary genre (see also Exod. 3.1–12; Judg. 6.11–17), and may not be simply (auto)biographical.

    Prophetic activity was not confined to Israel, nor were all prophets prophets of Yahweh. Although the term nābîʾ is not found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, activities comparable with those of the Israelite prophets are attested among other Semitic peoples, notably at Mari in the eighteenth century BCE. In Israel an early reference to prophets (1 Sam. 10.5–11) is found in a narrative that associates their activity with the founding of the Israelite kingdom by Saul. For the next four centuries, both in northern Israel and in Judah, prophets are mainly found in close connection with the kings and with political events generally.

    It is not possible to give a systematic account of this early prophecy—or indeed of much of the prophetic activity in the ensuing period—because the information available is so diverse. One can only note certain rather disparate scraps of information. There was the solitary prophet, liable to appear suddenly to confront the king (1 Kings 18; 21.17–24), in contrast with the groups known as the “sons of the prophets” (NRSV: “company of prophets”) who lived in isolated communities under a leader (2 Kings 4.38–41; 6.1–7; see also Amos 7.14); these are in turn to be differentiated from groups of prophets maintained at the royal court (1 Kings 22). Other individuals appear to have been local seers or prophets (the explanatory note in 1 Sam. 9.9 does not throw much light on the distinction) who might be consulted in cases of lost property but might also serve in some local cultic capacity (1 Sam. 9). While in some cases prophetic activity took the form of apparently insane behavior attributed to seizure by the spirit of God (1 Sam. 10.10–13) and prophets could simply be dismissed as “mad” (2 Kings 9.11), others acted as military advisers to the king (1 Kings 22; 2 Kings 3) or confronted kings with their moral or religious misdeeds (1 Kings 18; 21), condemning them in God's name; in some cases, they were even capable of fomenting a coup d’état, deposing one king and choosing and consecrating another (2 Kings 9). As miracle workers, they might make an ax head float (2 Kings 6.6) but might also call down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18.36–39; 2 Kings 1.10) or raise a dead person to life (1 Kings 17.17–24; 2 Kings 4).

    Such examples of contrasting behavior and activity could be multiplied from the evidence of the books of Samuel and Kings and, to some extent, from the prophetic books. These stories, which represent popular views of prophets, are to a large extent legendary in character; but they show clearly that Israelite prophecy was a many‐sided phenomenon. Apart from some accounts of rather trivial miracle‐working, however, they have one common characteristic: they represent the true prophet as the agent and defender of Yahweh in opposition both to religious apostasy and syncretism and to the authority of kings when these failed to uphold the cause of Yahweh or flouted his moral demands. This is especially true of the ninth‐century prophets Elijah and Elisha.

    The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE stood for the same principles as their predecessors. For this period, however, our sources of information are mainly of a different kind. The prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the books of the twelve “minor” prophets) contain far fewer stories about prophets, and consist mainly of what purport to be records of words spoken by the prophets whose names they bear. The word of God received and transmitted by the prophet now assumes primary importance. It is, however, no easy matter to identify these words and to distinguish them from other material. In their present form, the prophetic books have all become repositories of other and later material, both prophetic and nonprophetic. This additional matter has its own importance and should not be regarded as in any way inferior to the words of the original prophet; but its presence makes it difficult to form a correct notion of his message.

    The extent to which the prophecy of the eighth century BCE marks a decisive change in the character of Israelite prophecy is disputed. Two features, however, call for notice: first, the eighth‐ and seventh‐century prophets addressed themselves not only to kings and other individuals and particular groups but also to the whole people; second, they were, as far as our information enables us to judge, the first to prophesy the destruction of the entire nation as a punishment for its sins. This prophecy of national disaster, sometimes presented as avoidable through repentance but sometimes not, was the main feature of the message of the prophets of the eighth century BCE (Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah) and also of Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the late seventh/early sixth. The latter, however, who survived the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, also offered hope for the future beyond the disaster. The prophets of the exile and the postexilic period were chiefly concerned with the hope of a restoration of the nation's fortunes and with current problems of the postexilic community.

    The prophets were not primarily theologians; but some of them, in their attempt to present their message coherently and persuasively, achieved profound insights into divine and human natures and the relationship between God and his people Israel. (The theological teachings of the individual prophets are described in more detail in the articles on each prophet.)

    The prophets whose words have been preserved were only a small and probably unrepresentative minority. Other prophets are frequently mentioned by them, usually unfavorably. It is clear that, especially in the time of Jeremiah, there were two groups of prophets opposed to one another. Jeremiah regarded his opponents, who offered the people a comforting message of national security based on the belief that God would protect them irrespective of their conduct, as false or lying prophets (Jer. 14.13–16). Passages such as this reflect the problem faced by the people when two groups of prophets, each claiming to speak in Yahweh's name, proclaimed diametrically opposite messages. Attempts were made to establish criteria for identifying the genuine prophet (e.g., Jer. 28.8–9; Deut. 13.1–5; 18.15–22), but these were unable to resolve the problem.

    Prophets who delivered unpalatable messages not only encountered difficulties in gaining acceptance as authentic messengers of Yahweh but were liable to suffer humiliation (Amos 7.10–13) and even threats to their lives (Jer. 26; 36–40). Yet insofar as they were believed to have an intimate relationship with God they were feared. Even kings were unable to ignore them. On the other hand, it is unlikely that prophets generally enjoyed an official status in either the religious or the political establishment. Recently, attempts have been made to define their role in sociological terms (see Social Sciences and the Bible). Whatever results may eventually emerge from this kind of study, it can be safely asserted that the prophets about whom we have any detailed information came from a wide variety of social backgrounds, and functioned in a variety of ways.

    R. N. Whybray

    Early Christianity

    Prophecy in the New Testament is the reception and subsequent communication of spontaneous and divinely given revelations; normally, those who were designated “prophets” in early Christianity were specialists in mediating divine revelation rather than those who prophesied occasionally or only once. The exhortation to desire earnestly to prophesy (1 Cor. 14.1) may be best explained as a call to all those who regarded themselves as gifted with inspired utterance (the “spiritual” ones of 14.37) to aspire to prophesy rather than to speak in tongues: none are excluded a priori from the gift, but God will not in fact distribute any one gift to all. From what we can deduce about them from Acts and the Letters, as well as from the book of Revelation (a document that self‐consciously presents itself as Christian prophecy in written form), prophets might conduct their ministry in one congregation or throughout a region (Acts 15.22, 32), singly or more often in groups (Acts 11.27; 13.1; 21.10–11 cf. Rev. 22.9). In the lists of ministries (1 Cor. 12.28–30; Eph. 4.11) they are mentioned next after apostles; they are associated with teachers in the church at Antioch (Acts 13.1).

    In the context of the church meeting (1 Cor. 14.26–33) the ministry of the prophet is spoken of as “revelation,” and such an utterance is associated with the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Thess. 5.19). This prophetic speech is not the same as speaking in tongues (see 1 Cor. 14.22–25, 27–29), nor is it the interpretation of tongues (see Glossolalia); it is some perception of the truth of God intelligibly communicated to the congregation. In Paul's view, it is an abuse of prophecy to pretend to an ecstatic frenzy so that prophets become, so to speak, out of hand; he insists that “the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14.32), that is to say, each is in full possession of his or her faculties and is able to restrain the impulse to speak if the interests of order so require.

    Most important, prophets were not to be given undiscerning credence. The utterances required “testing” or “evaluation” by other prophets (1 Cor. 14.29); only then were they to be received as the word of the Lord. This testing is not only to distinguish the Spirit's word from the speaker's natural impulses, but also to identify and exclude false prophecy. The most important criterion put forward by Paul for the evaluation of prophetic speech (or indeed for viewpoints expressed through a variety of oral and written forms of communication) was the content of the message, which should agree with the generally accepted beliefs and customs of the Christian community (Rom. 12.6; 1 Cor. 12.3).

    The gift of prophecy gradually fell into disuse and, in spite of occasional revivals, into a measure of disrepute because of the continuing presence of false prophecy and the difficulties or uncertainties involved in discerning it. Other factors contributing to the decline of prophecy were the increasing authority of an official ministry in a church becoming more institutionalized, and the tendency to rely more on rational and didactic forms of spiritual utterance; the latter led to the place of prophets being taken by teachers, catechists, scholars, and theologians, whose authority depended not on any revelation directly received but on the exposition of an existing authoritative tradition, especially the Bible.

    David Hill

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