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This article is limited to the Biblical notion of prophet. For general information and bibliography, see prophetism (in the bible).

The etymology of the Greek προφήτης, from which prophet derives, suggests the fundamental note in the definition of a prophet: he is one who speaks (φημί) for (πρό) another, i.e., in the present case, for God.

It is not clear that the Hebrew word for prophet, nābî', has exactly this significance. Most likely it is a passive participial form of a root meaning to call (cf. Akkadian, nabû ); that is, it designates someone called by God, although it is possible that the Hebrew word is active in form and so designates a speaker (for God). In any event, the central concept is surely one of divine communication; and if etymology cannot determine the concept completely, the actual history of the Prophets of the Bible makes it clear that they were men who brought God's word to others.

The basic sources of information on what constitutes a Prophet are the accounts of the call to prophecy in the Old Testament (Is 6.113; Jer 1.419; Ez 1.13.21; Am3.78; 7.1416). These and other passages reveal the following essential factors in the prophetic role: the Prophet is delegated to speak for Yahweh (Is 6.89; Jer 1.9); the prophetic vocation is compelling even though the Prophet be reluctant or untalented (Am 3.78; Jer 1.78); God communicates His word to the Prophet (Is 6.9; Jer 1.79; Ez 2.83.3); and this communication involves visions and auditions, states analogous to those known in later mystics. The last assertion is often denied, but this is largely because of confusion concerning the meaning of mystic. Thus, the Biblical Prophet is one who has heard God's call and brings God's word to men. Primarily, then, the Prophet is an inspired speaker.

The Prophets did not write the books now called prophetic. Their words were preserved in oral tradition, and inspired writers recorded and arranged the traditional words; thus, it is the prophetic word as edited, arranged, and even added to by these writers that the Church now possesses in the inspired text. The modern interest in history has emphasized the effort to sift out the original prophetic message. This is important for reconstructing the history of Israel and its religion, but for theological interpretation it is the inspired prophetic book that counts. A study of the prophetic book in its present structure along the lines of Redaktionsgeschichte is often a fruitful avenue of interpretation. [see exegesis, biblical].

The Prophets of the Old Testament are divided into the four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and the 12 minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The terms major and minor have nothing to do with the relative importance of these men and their message; they simply refer to the respective extent of the prophetic books of the old testament. It must be remembered also that in the Old Testament the prophetic name and office were not confined to the 16 canonical Prophets of the modern Bible, the so-called writing Prophets. There are other men who appear in Israel's history, men such as elijah and elisha, who were equally the inspired bearers of God's word, although few of their words have been preserved in writing.

The New Testament offers few details about the experiences of the prophets in the early Church; but since they had much the same function as the Old Testament Prophets, admonition and prediction, one may conclude that the New Testament concept of prophet carries on that of the Old Testament.

Prophetess. In the Old Testament a number of women are referred to by the designation prophetess (Hebrew n ebî'â, feminine of nābî ), but little is told of the nature and function of the office. Presumably they acted and were regarded as being much the same as the male prophets. The earliest to be so designated are Miriam and Deborah. Miriam, the sister of Moses, is called a prophetess on the occasion of her song of triumph after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 15.20). Deborah was a "judge" in Israel, one who regularly decided cases brought to her (Judges 4.45). However, she is doubtless called prophetess because of her inspired (charismatic) intervention to save Israel and, more especially, because of her connection with the song found in Judges chapter 5.

The name prophetess is, to be sure, an anachronism in the time of Miriam and Deborah, as the Old Testament itself witnesses (1 Sm 9.9). The name is attributed to the two women by later writers, and the reason seems to be their connection with songs considered inspired. It is not likely, however, that the attribution would have been made unless later writers knew of women who functioned

as prophets and spoke under inspiration at a later stage of Israel's history.

Direct evidence of the presence of female prophets in Israel is found in 2 Kgs 22.1420. When a book of the law was found on the occasion of the Temple restoration, Josiah consulted a prophetess, Huldah. (see deuterono my, book of.) Further, a false prophetess (and an effective false prophetess implies the acceptance of the possibility of a true one), Noadiah, opposed Nehemiah's efforts to restore Jerusalem (Neh 6.14).

Isaiah's wife is called a prophetess in Is 8.3. Some have thought this should be taken strictly, i.e., that she functioned as a prophetess, and have argued from Isaiah's connection with her that he and she belonged to a band of professional prophets. However, the attribution is sufficiently explained by her connection with Isaiah, who considered that the members of his family were caught up in his own prophetic activity (Is 8.18).

The New Testament speaks of a number of prophetesses: Anna who recognized Jesus as the Messiah (Lk2.3639), the daughters of philip the deacon (Acts 21.9), and the false prophetess Jezebel (surely a symbolic name; Rv 2.2023). The last two passages suggest that it was possible for a woman to act as a prophetess, i.e., to teach in the early Church. Presumably the Christian prophetesses had the same function as the Christian prophets.

See Also: prophecy (in the bible)

[d. j. mccarthy]


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Prophet, Prophecy


In the Jewish Bible, a prophet (nabi; pl., nebiʾim) is one who speaks on behalf of God. In origin, they were a part of a Near Eastern phenomenon (e.g. at Mari), cultic functionaries who make known the unknown. Among these functionaries were also the ḥozeh (‘seer’) and roʾeh (‘seer’), and ʾish ha-Elohim (‘the man of God’). The relationship between these is unclear, 1 Samuel 9. 9 simply affirming that he who is now called a prophet was in former times called a seer.

The classical or literary prophets are those whose oracles were preserved in writing, i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets. Like the pre-classical prophets, some at least were subject to ecstatic seizures (e.g. Hosea 9. 7), they performed symbolic acts (e.g. Isaiah 20. 2 ff.), and they were intimately involved in the current affairs of the nation. The prophets constantly pleaded with Israel to repent (e.g. Amos 5. 4). The later classical prophets realized that humanity could not by its own efforts return to God and they looked forward to a time when God would initiate a ‘new covenant’ when ‘I will write my law upon their hearts …’ and ‘I will remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31. 33–4). In that day, the faithful remnant of Israel would live in peace and God's glory would again be manifest through all the earth (Isaiah 40. 5). It was generally agreed that prophecy had ceased in the time of the second Temple: after the Exile, authority was transferred to the Temple and its priests, interpreting Torah (to ensure holy behaviour and thus no repetition of the Exile).


Early Christians experienced the consequences of the Holy Spirit, and believed that this ‘return’ of the Holy Spirit in visible gifts was a mark of the redemptive will of God. Thus in addition to accepting the earlier Jewish prophets (who were seen to have been foretelling the coming of Christ and events surrounding and arising from that advent), prophets returned as functionaries in the early Church. However, the problem arose of what control Church leaders could have over the inspired (or claimed-to-be inspired) utterances of an individual. The problem became acute in relation to Montanism; and prophets ceased to have a major role, until the revival of their importance in African Christianity.




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prophet Individual who is thought to be a divinely inspired messenger from a god, or is believed to possess the power to foretell future events. The classic examples of prophets were the holy men and seers who preached by the authority of Yahweh to the Jews of the Old Testament kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Part of the Old Testament consists of books devoted to their preachings and predictions. The term ‘prophet’ also applied to Abraham, Moses, and Samuel. John the Baptist fulfilled the role of a New Testament prophet, predicting the coming of the Messiah. In ancient Greece and Rome, divinely inspired prophetesses made oracular pronouncements to those who consulted them. Among Muslims, Muhammad is held to be a prophet, the last of a long line of God's messengers, who included Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ. In both Buddhist and Hindu literature predictions occur, and many prophetic reformers appear in Hinduism.


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proph·et / ˈpräfit/ • n. 1. a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God: the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. ∎  (the Prophet) (among Muslims) Muhammad. ∎  (the Prophet) (among Mormons) Joseph Smith or one of his successors. ∎  a person who advocates or speaks in a visionary way about a new belief, cause, or theory: he was a prophet of revolutionary socialism. ∎  a person who makes or claims to be able to make predictions: the anti-technology prophets of doom.2. (the Prophets) the prophetic writings of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures, in particular: ∎  (in Christian use) the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve minor prophets. ∎  (in Jewish use) one of the three canonical divisions of the Hebrew Bible, distinguished from the Law and the Hagiographa, and comprising the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the twelve minor prophets.DERIVATIVES: proph·et·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n.


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prophet a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God; among Muslims, the Prophet means Muhammad, and among Mormons, Joseph Smith or one of his successors. The word comes (in Middle English) via Old French and Latin from Greek prophētēs ‘spokesman’.

In Christian use, the Prophets designates the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve minor prophets; in Jewish use, the Prophets is one of the three canonical divisions of the Hebrew Bible, distinguished from the Law and the Hagiographa, and comprising the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the twelve minor prophets.
the Law and the Prophets the Old Testament Scriptures or their content (especially as referred to in the New Testament).
a prophet is not without honour save in his own country proverbial saying, late 15th century, meaning that a person's gifts and talents are rarely appreciated by those close to him; in Matthew 13:57, the words are attributed to Jesus.