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Prophet

PROPHET

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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