What Is a Prophet?

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by Tim Widowfield

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short.

Consider, for example, when someone like Bart Ehrman uses the term apocalyptic prophet. Ehrman is pretty sure that not even most scholars understand what apocalypticism and the apocalyptic world view are all about. So what chance does a layperson have when he throws out such terms? A lay reader diving into Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium will come to understand that a prophet makes predictions, and that an apocalyptic prophet prophesies about the coming destruction and judgment of this age, followed by the coming of a new age.

But a Hebrew prophet was much more than just a seer. He did considerably more than foretell the future. If we don’t understand the role of prophets in the Tanakh, then we’ll miss important nuances. When a Jew in first-century Palestine called somebody a prophet, what did that really mean? What role was he or she fulfilling? (Note that some of the earliest prophets in the Hebrew Bible were female, so I’m not just being politically correct here.) What attributes did a prophet have that made him or her exceptional?


Prophets are specially chosen messengers of God’s judgment.

Prophets aren’t born; they’re chosen. A prophet in the Hebrew Bible usually came from outside royal and priestly circles. Often, the prophet doesn’t even want the job. Consider Moses, who protests that he isn’t up for the task, or Jonah, who tries to run in the other direction. God has a plan and picks some poor slob to become his messenger.

Notice that false prophets arise from time to time. They’re not selected, but they pretend to have been. In the narratives, the true prophet exposes false prophets, and they’re duly punished. In at least one case, the false prophets were enticed by a mischievous spirit to lie to the king who has lost favor. The king receives bad information from those prophets, causing him to make even worse decisions. (See 1 Kings 22:21-22.)

Unlike prophets, priests are born into the job. They’re descendants of Aaron. And they receive training to prepare for their life’s work. Prophets typically don’t have any formal training. We get the impression that the prophet’s message is more authentic, since it comes without all that priestly (or royal) baggage.


God selects prophets in order to deliver a divine message to his people. In the case of Moses, whom the Jews considered the very first and best prophet, God spoke directly, face to face. In other cases, a prophet found himself transported to the divine council where he would overhear the proceedings.

Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the LORD. I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left.” (1 Kings 22:19)

Here we see the main difference between the common definition of prophet and a Hebrew navi. A pagan prophet may have the gift of second sight, but a Hebrew prophet has the gift (or curse, perhaps) of direct access to the divine realm. The navi often must tell the people or the king things they do not wish to hear. Frank Moore Cross writes:

. . . Isaiah hears Yahweh’s address to the council, “Who will go for us?” and replies himself, “Send me,” subsequently receiving the oracle or decree of Yahweh which he is to announce to his people. Thus the prophet becomes in effect the malʾāk or herald of Yahweh ‘s council, and like a supernatural ambassador mediates the divine pronouncement. (Cross 1997, p. 187, emphasis mine)


Prophets are specially chosen messengers of God’s judgment. The prophet will typically proclaim that he was selected by God to deliver a warning. Often, the message is that the people or the king (or both) have sinned and have displeased God. And if they continue on their current path and do not repent, certain bad things are going to happen.

Sometimes, the verdict has already been rendered. At other times the herald brings a more comforting message as in Isaiah 40:1-8.

Their proclamation announces the imminence of Yahweh’s appearance in acts of redemption and, more specifically, directs preparations for the construction of a desert highway on which Yahweh will march through a transformed wilderness at the head of his people. This herald proclamation in verse 3 and 4, to level hills and raise valleys, is directed to supernatural beings, to the council of Yahweh, as is indicated by the cosmic scale of the project. (Cross 1997, p. 188, emphasis mine)

Formgeschichte shows us precisely what role the prophet plays.

Form-critical analysis of the prophetic forms of speech has yielded the information that the prophet’s office is that of messenger and that the fundamental message he brings is the judgment, Gerichtswort. The oracle of judgment properly carries overtones of a judicial decree or verdict, and rests upon a basic legal metaphor. More concretely, the prophet is the messenger of the divine court or council, and his authority rests upon the absolute authority of the council, its great Judge or great King who pronounces the judgment which the prophetic messenger is to transmit. The prophet himself receives the word of the Judge and court normally in vision or audition, most frequently the latter. (Cross 1997, p. 189)

In either case, God’s action will happen in the near future. Only later did people begin to imagine that these predictions referred to the deep future. Such an understanding of the texts requires a heavy, layered reinterpretation. It also requires a fundamental reinterpretation of reality — an apocalyptic mindset that sees the world as a fundamentally hostile place, ruled by the forces of darkness.

A counterweight to royal power

In 1 Samuel 13, Saul oversteps his boundaries as king and offers a burnt offering to Yahweh. The prophet Samuel can scarcely believe Saul’s foolishness. His heirs could have ruled the united kingdom of Israel for decades to come, but he has lost favor. God will now replace Saul.

All our sources, whatever their attitude towards the nascent monarchy, are in accord in reporting that Saul forfeited the kingship, for himself and his house, by his breach of old law, namely by attempts (in one way or another) to manipulate the fixed forms of holy war in his own interest. In the present form of the tradition, Samuel plays a part which anticipates the prophetic role over against the king which we associate with such figures as Elijah. Similarly, Samuel’s sermons, designed to limit the office of kingship in Israel, are strongly colored by the specific polemic against kingship that emerged in Solomonic and early post-Solomonic times. (Cross 1997, p. 221)

According to Cross, Samuel’s check on King Saul’s power provides the basis for Israel’s tradition of prophets haranguing sinful kings.

Moreover, the division of powers between king and prophet which we perceive the Northern Kingdom in the ninth century B.C. had a beginning at least in the reactionary designs of the historical Samuel. Saul’s “military kingship” was successfully limited and its conditionality demonstrated in the failure of the house of Saul to secure the succession. (Cross 1997, pp. 221-222) 

In the Southern Kingdom, with its unconditional monarchy, the prophets still functioned as a sort of conscience of the king. Nonetheless, after Nathan’s possible participation in the anointing of Solomon, prophets disappear from the stage for a significant period.

In contrast to the phenomenon of prophecy in the north, the era following David in Judah is a virtual blank in prophetic history until we reach the Judaean prophets of the eighth century. Nathan in the time of David played a similar role to that of the northern prophets to follow. He prophecied [sic] against the breach of league tradition in the matter of building a temple. As in the case of Ahijah and others in the northern succession, the preservation of traditional forms of the cultus of the Ark sanctuary appears to have been a matter of intense concern to Nathan. . . . Later in David’s reign, David was rebuked by the prophet for violations of the laws against adultery and murder in the matter of Bathsheba, and Gad the prophet imposed harsh punishment upon Israel for David’s violation of the tenets of Israel’s volunteer militia by imposing a military census on the nation. (Cross 1997, p. 227)

Social commentary

Besides a counterweight to royal power, prophets acted as the conscience of the people, protecting the poor against the rich, the weak against the strong, which often put them at odds against the religious authorities. Consider the prophet Amos.

21. I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
23. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (Amos 5:21-23, ESV)

The failure to care for weaker members of society causes Yahweh to turn away. From the prophet Zechariah:

8. Again the word of the LORD came to Zechariah: 9. “The LORD who rules over all said, ‘Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other. 10. You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being.’

11. “But they refused to pay attention, turning away stubbornly and stopping their ears so they could not hear. 12. Indeed, they made their heart as hard as diamond, so that they could not obey the Torah and the other words the LORD who rules over all had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore, the LORD who rules over all had poured out great wrath. (Zechariah 7:8-12, NET)

Prophets would eventually indict the people as a whole for not following the Torah, for acting selfishly. These sins, according to Hosea, will destroy not only Israel, but the Southern Kingdom as well.

The arrogance of Israel testifies against it;
Israel and Ephraim will be overthrown because of their iniquity.
Even Judah will be brought down with them. (Hosea 5:5, NET)

Apocalyptic Prophets

As Richard Horsley and John Hanson point out, the horrifying desecration of the Temple initiated by Antiochus Epiphanes and his violent repression of the Jewish religion led to an increased interest in eschatology (the study of the end times) and apocalypticism (revelation of the divine plan).

Acquiescing in the reform would have meant abandoning their faith in God and commitment to the Torah. But resistance to the reform meant facing a martyr’s death. Either course appeared to lead to an inevitable termination of the Jewish faith. One response to this crisis was an upsurge of apocalypticism. Desperate to understand their seemingly impossible situation, some faithful Jews sought divine revelation (Greek: apokalypsis, hence  our term “apocalyptic”) to explain why their life circumstances had become so intolerable and what plan God might have to deliver them. Beginning with this time of crisis for the Jews, there was an upsurge of revelatory (apocalyptic) literature. (Horsley and Hanson 1985, pp. 16-17)

The extreme focus on the apocalyptic did not overshadow prophecy.

Contrary to the common generalization that prophets and prophecy died out and were replaced by apocalypticism, it is clear that prophecy and prophets, at least of the oracular type, did not die out at all, but continued to function right into the late second temple period. (Horsley and Hanson 1985, p. 151)

But this apocalyptic age also saw the resurgence of the pre-oracular kind of prophets, namely the shophetim (judges) of the pre-monarchic period. These charismatic leaders simultaneously fulfilled the roles of prophet and military leader. In other words, they not only revealed God’s will, but they carried it out, as well. The authors call them popular prophets or “action” prophets. Their deeds might consist only of symbolic actions, but they often attracted the attention and wrath of the Roman occupation.

Large numbers of people, inspired and convinced of the imminence of God’s action, abandoned their work, homes, and villages to follow their charismatic leaders out into the wilderness. They knew from the sacred traditions that it was in the wilderness that God had shown signs and wonders of redemption in earlier times, and that the wilderness was the place of purification, preparation, and renewal. (Horsley and Hanson 1985, p. 162)


Either they knew Jesus was a popular, action-oriented prophet and chose to ignore or suppress all references, or else they never conceived of Jesus as a prophet.

In the first century CE, two kinds of prophets were prominent: those who revealed God’s judgment in the mode of Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah, and those who attracted followers and performed actions — e.g., healing the sick, baptizing followers, leading people to the Jordan, making it rain, etc. According to scholars like Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was the second type. The gospels clearly present him, at times, as the other type as well, but in the main he is the former. However, outside of the gospels, we find practically no evidence that the authors and their readers viewed him as any kind of prophet at all.

Either they knew Jesus was a popular, action-oriented prophet and chose to ignore or suppress all references, or else they never conceived of Jesus as a prophet. Messiah? Yes. Prophet? No.

Whatever the reason, this feature — the missing prophet Jesus — demands some sort of explanation.

Cross, Frank Moore

Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, Harvard University Press, 1997

Horsley, Richard with Hanson, John

Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1999

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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12 thoughts on “What Is a Prophet?”

  1. Mar_15:26 And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS

    According to SGF Brandon in his book “Jesus and the Zealots” the description of Jesus was included in the charge laid against him. But this from Mark is the only evidence we have for the charge other than Paul’s description of Jesus as “Christ” or Messiah and the statement that Jesus was crucified, which would seem to be a punishment fitting some type of sedition against Rome. One might also infer from Revelation a Messianic or kingly function for Jesus, but subordinate to God. There is of course Mark chapter 13, and other instances in the Gospels, but these are all post-eventum prophecies from the time in which the Gospels were written. And for the most part these “prophecies” are meant to explain the already accomplished destruction of Jerusalem, and (in my opinion) to validate Paul’s previously preached gospel of obedience to Rome.

    1. Jesus preaching the coming kingdom of God, like John the Baptist? Again, that is Mark saying that. And I guess one might argue that would make Jesus a prophet. But that does not seem to be the reason Jesus was crucified. If the violence in the temple is any evidence, and again we only have Mark, and if even only his disciples were declaring him to be Messiah or King, then that would have been sufficient reason for the Romans to take preemptive action.

  2. “Whatever the reason, this feature — the missing prophet Jesus — demands some sort of explanation.”

    And, to summarize an explanation that prophesy regarding Christ was repackaged in the story of the person of the prophet who walked among us, I’d suggest recycling (and reversing) an old chestnut from Rudolf Bultmann, saying instead, “the proclaimed became the proclaimer.”

  3. Luk 24:19 …..Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people….21 But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel…

    Luke’s testimony is late, and embarrassingly revealing about the expectations of the Jewish disciples, but was Jesus only a prophet in the same way the Moses redeemed his people?

    Gill says: “which was a prophet; not only a foreteller of things to come, as he foretold his sufferings, death, and resurrection, the troubles that should befall his disciples, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the world….

    But Gill’s indications of Jesus’ prophecies are all vaticinium ex eventu. As Dominic Crossan has pointed out, the parables of Jesus are aimed at rejecting those who reject Jesus, which Jesus seems to be primarily an allegory for Paul. And it seems to me Jesus’ prophecies also reject those who reject reject Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ death. And having rejected Paul, they also reject Paul’s Jesus, and therefore bring upon themselves the post eventum prophecies of a set of Gospels which are intended to “canonize” Paul’s teaching, as Dykstra has pointed out. This type of Gospel prophecy is of course quite distinct from the genuine apocalyptic prophecy of the Book of Revelation which had as its aim the coming temporal Jewish kingdom of God.

    Gill on Luke 24:21: they thought, hoped, and believed, that he was the Messiah, spoken of under the character of the Redeemer of Israel; and they had been in expectation of redemption by him, though only of a temporal kind, from the Roman yoke and bondage.

  4. It is my view now that the failed Christian apocalypticism produced a failed apocalyptic prophet from Nazaret and not the reversal.

    You don’t invent the paradox of a ”Messiah who forgives”(=”a prophet who fails”) unless the ”violent Messiah-Terminator” is delaying surprisingly his Parousia and therefore you have to explain the time of his delay as a time of forgiveness conceded by God to save the major number of sinners (=making Jesus a ”Son of Man” and therefore to give him an earthly life).

    I agree with Boccaccini that ”the gospels could be understood almost as a midrash to 1 Enoch 50 in a perspective of realized eschatology: John the Baptist and Jesus have fulfilled the Enochic prophecy.”

  5. https://www.amazon.com/Enoch-Synoptic-Gospels-Reminiscences-Intertextuality/dp/0884141179

    Some quotes:

    According to his followers, Jesus offered a more concrete perspective, as the promise of forgiveness comes from the Son of Man himself. Who can have more authority to forgive than the one whom God has designated as the eschatological Judge?
    (p. 163)

    The possibility of repentance announced by the Parables of Enoch and John the Baptist as one of the signs of the end become the center of the activity of the Messiah Jesus, who came as the Son of Man who has authority on earth to forgive sins. In baptizing in his name the early church continues and prolongs Jesus’s message of forgiveness as an instrument of God’s mercy, until Jesus will return to perform the judgement, and no furhter time for repentance will then be allowed.
    (p. 167, my corsive)

    Boccaccini and James Waddell think that “Son of Man” is absent in Paul because Paul didn’t like the subordination of Jesus to the sinner Adam. But they assume (very much freely) that the disciples of a HJ did call already him Son of Man. I would test the evidence about a Mythicist scenario where the premises become conclusions:

    1) an earthly Jesus was invented because
    2) the spiritual Jesus had to be ”one like a Son of Man” of the Enochic tradition because
    3) ”Who can have more authority to forgive than the Son of Man?” And this because
    4) the delay of the Parousia was interpreted as the last time of forgiveness allowed by God, because
    5) Paul was died before the Parousia and this was embarrassing for the pauline ”Mark” because
    6) Paul believed blindly in an imminent violent destruction/punition of this world without no forgiveness for the sinners

    1. ”Who can have more authority to forgive than the Son of Man?”

      Mark 2:6 But some of the scribes were sitting there and contemplating in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Mark 3:22 then launches into another polemic against the “scribes of the Law” who came down from Jerusalem just as they do in Galatians 2:12-13. Mark even sandwiches Jesus own family in with the “scribes of the Law”, and even goes so far as to say they “will never have forgiveness”. Mark has crafted this very carefully, as he does elsewhere, which narrative criticism has pointed out. So apparently Mark did not think these scribes who came down from Jerusalem were very keen on the idea of Jesus forgiving sins, which is what Paul taught and emphasized.

      That being said:
      Revelation 1:5 And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed (or freed) us from our sins in his own blood

      Revelation seems to be a very Jewish text. So it is hard to say exactly where the Jewish disciples stood on forgiveness. Mark apparently thought the Jewish disciples did not think much of Paul’s take on forgiveness, apparently because of Paul’s insistence on forgiveness as being apart from works of the Law.

  6. Good post on the definition of ‘prophet’, thanks.

    Would like to comment on some other issues of definition;
    In your sentence starting “When a Jew in first-century Palestine called somebody a prophet…” there is a problem with ‘Palestine’. It didn’t exist in the first century…..The Romans created the name to de-judaize the region of Judea and Samaria after the bar Kochba revolt, in the second century.

    I note that you base your definition of ‘prophet’ in the Tanakh (you probably mean the Torah and the Neviim), which was written long before the first century. I think we don’t know a lot about what most Jews actually thought or believed in the first century. We only seem to have Jewish information in the dead sea scrolls and Josephus. But what did ‘the Jews’ think?

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