What is Biblical Prophecy?
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D. 

Introduction: What Biblical Prophecy is NOT, and What It Really IS:

Contrary to what many fundamentalist preachers or late-night radio hosts would have you believe, biblical prophecy is not primarily about "predicting the future" or finding clues in the Bible that correspond to people or events in our own day and age! The prophets of Ancient Israel did not look into some kind of crystal ball and see events happening thousands of years after their own lifetimes. The books they wrote do not contain hidden coded messages for people living in the 20th or 21st centuries!

Rather, biblical prophets were mainly speaking to and writing for the people of their own time. They were challenging people of their own world, especially their political rulers, to remain faithful to God's commandments and/or to repent and turn back to God if they had strayed. They were conveying messages from God, who had called or commissioned them, rather than speaking on their own initiative or authority. However, because the biblical prophets were transmitting messages on behalf of God (as Jews and Christians believe), much of what they wrote for their own time is clearly also relevant for people living in the modern world. The overall message of faith and repentance is timeless and applicable in all ages and cultures.

To understand what biblical prophecy really is, let's look more closely at the origins, definitions, and uses of some key biblical words.

Biblical Vocabulary:

In the Hebrew Bible, the word for "prophet" is usually nabi' (lit. "spokesperson"; used over 300 times!), while the related feminine noun nebi'ah ("prophetess") occurs only rarely. Both words are derived from the root verb naba' ("to prophesy; to speak on behalf of another"). The root meaning of "prophet" is clearly expressed in several biblical passages, such as when God tells Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet" (Exod 7:1). Aaron's role was not to predict the future, but rather to be the spokesperson or mouthpiece of Moses, who evidently did not wish to speak to Pharaoh directly (see Exod 4:10-17). Later, God also tells Moses, "I will raise up for [the Israelites] a prophet like you from among your own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak to them everything that I command" (Deut 18:18).

Two other Hebrew words (ro'eh and hozeh) are closely related, but usually translated "seer" rather than "prophet." The word ro'eh seems to be older, as explained in the Bible itself: "Formerly in Israel, anyone who went to inquire of God would say, 'Come, let us go to the seer' (ro'eh); for the one who is now called a prophet (nabi') was formerly called a seer (ro'eh)" (1 Sam 9:9). In contrast, hozeh seems to be a newer word, since it is used mostly in the Chronicles. All three words are used of three different people in 1 Chronicles 29:29: "Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the records of the seer (ro’eh) Samuel, and in the records of the prophet (nabi’) Nathan, and in the records of the seer (hozeh) Gad." In other texts, nabi' and hozeh are practically synonymous and are sometimes even used for the same people.

Hebrew English Torah/Law Frmr. Proph. Lttr. Proph. Writings HB Total
naba' to prophesy 3 17 87 9 116
nabi' prophet; spokesperson 14 100 156 47 317
nebi'ah prophetess 1 2 2 1 6
nebu'ah prophecy; message - - - 4 4
hozeh seer - 2 4 10 16
ro'eh seer - 4 1 6 11
Note: The four sections of the Hebrew Bible (HB) are the Torah, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets, and other Writings.

In the biblical Greek of both the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, abbreviated LXX) and the New Testament (originally written in Koine Greek), the word for "prophet" is profhthV (prophetes), which stems from two other words: pro + phemi. The verb phemi simply means "to speak." The preposition pro has many different possible meanings, depending on the context in which it is used; it can mean "before" (which is why many people think "prophets" are those who "speak before" something happens, thus "pre-dicting" it), but it can also mean "for" or "on behalf of" (which is why most biblical scholars insist that "prophets" are those who "speak on behalf of God"). Which of these two possible meanings is more appropriate should be judged from the actual usage in the Bible.

Greek English Pent. Hist. Wisd. Proph. LXX Total Mark Matt Luke John Acts Paul Hebr Cath Rev NT Total
profhteia prophecy - 6 7 3 16 - 1 - - - 9 - 2 7 19
profhtein to prophesy 3 22 4 87 116 2 4 2 1 4 11 - 2 2 28
profhthV prophet 15 172 18 120 325 6 37 29 14 30 14 2 4 8 144
profhtikoV prophetic - - - - 0 - - - - - 1 - 1 - 2
profhtiV prophetess 1 3 - 1 4 - - 1 - - - - - 1 2
yeudoprofhthV false prophet - - - 10 10 1 3 1 - 1 - - 2 3 11
Note: The four sections of the Septuagint (LXX) are the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom/Poetic Books, and Prophetic Books.
For the subdivision of the NT books, see my overview of the NT Canon.

Prophetic Words:

A careful study of the hundreds of relevant texts shows that biblical prophets rarely speak about future events as if they were inevitable, but much more often transmit various kinds of messages on behalf of God to the people, conveying God's interpretation of the past, present, and future aspects of people's lives. Thus, a "prophet" in the Bible is primarily a "spokesperson for God," someone who receives messages from God and conveys them to other people. If a prophet speaks words that are not from God, he or she is considered a false prophet or sometimes called a prophet of another god (e.g. "prophets of Baal" in the OT).

The messages transmitted by the biblical prophets are not only or primarily about the future, but about the past and present as well. They provide interpretations--from God's perspective--about past events, present circumstances, as well as future possibilities. Note that I say "future possibilities" rather than "future events," because when biblical prophets speak about the future, it is usually not about what will inevitably happen, but rather about what might happen, depending on how people choose to react and act: whether they listen to the prophetic message and live their lives accordingly, or ignore the words of the prophets and suffer the consequences.

What can we learn from this story? At least one crucial point about the nature of biblical "prophecy," namely, that even when prophets speak about the future, they are not predicting an inevitable, unalterable future! Rather, they are warning people about a possible future that might come upon them if they continue in their evil ways and do not turn back to God. But if the people do listen to the prophet's message and react appropriately, with prayer, repentance, and faithfulness to God, then the future will look very different than what the prophet had foretold!

Of course, not all biblical texts make the conditional nature of the future so explicit; the two alternatives ("If you don't repent, here's what will happen; but if you do repent, then God will be merciful to you.") are not always clearly stated, but might remain implicit. Some texts may even presuppose that people will not repent, and thus will be punished for their wickedness; but if they do, even contrary to all expectations, then the disasters foretold by the prophets will not come about after all!

The role of biblical prophets as spokespersons for God, speaking God's words primarily to people of their own time (and only secondarily to people of future generations), can also be seen in the various "introductory formulas" found so often in the prophetic books of the Bible. The messages God wishes to convey through the prophets to the people are often preceded by some very familiar phrases:

Prophetic Deeds:

Moreover, when biblical prophets convey God's messages to the people, they do so not just in words but sometimes also in deeds, not just by speaking or writing, but also by performing various symbolic and/or miraculous actions. Examples are found throughout the Bible, esp. in the stories surrounding the prophets Elijah and Elisha in the books of Kings and in the book of the prophet Ezekiel:


The Prophetic Books of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament:

Which books of the Bible are considered "prophetic"? The answer depends on which Bible you mean! Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians all use slightly different versions of the Bible, count different books among the "prophets," and arrange them in different orders in their respective Bibles.

So What?

The categorization of a biblical book can significantly affect how you interpret it, especially in the case of the Book of Daniel. Is this a "prophetic" book much like all the other prophets, as some Protestant Christians emphasize? Or is it somewhat "prophetic" but more accurately described as an "apocalyptic" book, as other Protestants and most Catholics maintain? Or is it not really "prophetic" at all, but rather belonging to a different literary genre that should be read differently, as most Jews agree?

Moreover, most biblical scholars emphasize that in order to interpret the writings of the biblical prophets properly, one must understand the historical context in which the prophets lived, since they were primarily addressing the people and political situations of their own day. To complicate matters, the canonical order of the prophetic books (how they are arranged in our Bibles) is not the same as the historical order (when they were originally written):

Era / Century BCE

Prophetic Books [with other named Prophets]

Pre-Monarchy (13th–11th Cent.) Books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, beginning of 1 Samuel
Early/United Monarchy (10th Cent.) 1 & 2 Samuel, most of 1 Kings [incl. Nathan & Ahijah]
Divided Monarchy (9th Cent.) rest of 1 & 2 Kings [esp. Elijah & Elisha]
End of Northern Kingdom of Israel (8th Cent.) Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah 1-39
End of Southern Kingdom of Judah (7th Cent.) Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, most of Jeremiah
Babylonian Exile (597/587–520 B.C.) some of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah 40-55
Early Post-Exilic Restoration (late 6th - early 5th Cent.) Haggai, Zechariah 1-8; [also Ezra & Nehemiah]
Persian Era (5th–4th Cent.) Isaiah 56-66, Jonah, Zechariah 9-14, Obadiah, Joel, Malachi
Hellenistic Era: Ptolemies (3rd Cent.) Daniel 1-6 (more prophetic)
Hellenistic Era: Seleucids (early 2nd Cent.) Daniel 7-12 (more apocalyptic)

Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel:

In addition to the prophets who have separate biblical books named after them (and who are sometimes also mentioned in other biblical books), quite a few other people are also called "prophet" or "prophetess" in the Hebrew Bible. Many of them are true prophets (who speak on behalf of the God of Israel), while some are false prophets (who serve other gods of other nations). Moreover, whole groups of prophets (lit. called "the sons of the prophets") appear in certain biblical stories. The following are some of the most important individuals referred to as "prophets" of God:

Although all of these prophets speak on behalf of God, rather than on their own authority, how they came to be prophets or when God first commissioned them for this role is only rarely narrated or alluded to in the Bible. The best know stories include:

False prophets, or prophets serving other gods, are sometimes also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Several biblical texts mention explicit criteria for distinguishing true vs. false prophets (Deut 13:1-5; 18:20-22), while other texts name certain groups or individuals as false prophets:

On a more artistic note, see the woodcut illustrations of several of the prophets in the Doré Bible Gallery.


Prophecy and Prophets in the New Testament and Early Christianity:

Most of the NT references to "prophets" (mentioned 144 times in the NT, 116 of which are in the Gospels and Acts) are to the prophets of the OT, either generically as a group or often explicitly naming individual prophets (esp. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah, but sometimes also Jonah, Daniel, Elisha, Joel, Moses, Samuel, and even King David!). Some NT passages speak of the role of prophets in general, such as when Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward" (Matt 10:41).

In addition to these references to the ancient Hebrew prophets, the NT also refers to certain people of its own day as "prophets," including John the Baptist, Jesus, and many early Christian leaders, either individually or generically:

In addition to all these individuals who are named prophets, the gift of "prophecy" (Gk. profhteia / propheteia) and the action of "prophesying" (Gk. profhteuw / propheteuo) are very important in the life of the early Christian communities, as seen in various NT texts:

(This page is still under construction; more will be added some day, although I cannot "predict" when!  :-)


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February 12, 2012.
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