Long before the term “prophet” took on its contemporary meaning of predicting the future, the Greek term prophetes has a very different meaning. In fact, until the Christian era after apostles refocused the meaning, it did not embody the concept of peering into the future at all. Prophetes has its roots in the Greek culture prior to the fifth Century BC. In the most ancient Greek writers, the word is used as a description for proclaiming, usually with a connection to religion, but not about the future. In fact, some scholars argue that the very construction of the word with the introductory prefix pro (from) indicates its vital component, to speak forth.
Because the word was intertwined with Greek oracles, it described the activity of declaring the divine will. But this did not require an expression of future events. Often the oracle made declarations concerning ethical responsibility, civil and personal matters or gave general directions concerning human conduct. What was described under the term prophetes was the interpretation of the will of the gods, an act that involved exposition of meanings hidden from ordinary view. This action revealed what was previously concealed. The prophetes was a proclaimer by way of the spoken word. Plato distinguishes this function from the role of the ecstatic priestess or priest. They are caught up into revelries with the gods, beyond rational control and under the possession of the will of the gods. The prophetes retains rational understanding, converting the experience of ecstasy observed in the priestess or priest into logical discourse. The prophetes uncovers the hidden meaning by exposition through speaking. This does not mean that the prophetes always spoke plainly. Often the expositions were in paradoxical form, forcing the listener to critically engage in the thought. It is not without significance that Jesus often spoke in this manner, so much so that his followers complained that they could not understand the words he used.
Lucian, a Greek playwright of the second Century BC, satirizes Glykon who claimed to be a prophetes. The description is insightful. He is called a magician, one who could predict the future (a critical insult to Glykon), who explained obscure events, healed the sick and raised the dead, who was seized by the gods and foamed at the mouth. Most unusually, Glykon declared oracles to people who were not seeking answers to questions. In the Greek world, no true prophet would proclaim a message of communal concern. Prophets dealt with individual matters when asked to do so. It is easy to understand the skepticism that would have been encountered when the life of Jesus was preached to the Greeks. With a long history of cynicism toward self-proclaimed prophetes, and a satirical description that included many activities considered by the Greeks as clear indications of a charlatan, the Greeks would easily have categorized Jesus among the false prophets, not worthy of serious consideration.
The Greeks did have a descriptive term for “seers”, those who looked into the future. But the term was not prophetes. It was mantis. A mantis was someone given illumination of the future. A prophetes was someone who declared and revealed what was hidden. The essential religious connection is that the prophetes declares something that is not his. His knowledge comes from outside himself, from the god who reveals the knowledge to him. It is not, however, knowledge of some future event. It can be and usually is knowledge concerning the proper course of actions for human affairs. Moreover, the function of the prophetes is public declaration, given to those who seek counsel or explanation while the mantis experience is necessarily private. The prophetes is the mediator of higher wisdom. He is able to fulfill the function because he is born with the divine favor required to perform the task.
In summary, the function of prophetes in the Greek culture was the proclamation of wisdom, revealed to the human agent, explained, clarified and taught for the good of the individual in the world. The prophetes was dependent upon the god for this information and for the ability to proclaim it. From the second century BC on, this function never included prediction of the future. He was a herald, not a fortune teller, an exegete, not an author. He is a narrator of wisdom, an interpreter of truth, a teacher of what is right.
Paul wrote in Greek. He was undoubtedly familiar with the Greek background of prophetes. But Paul’s own theological background came from his Hebrew roots. Prophecy and prophets were important concepts in the Hebrew culture. An examination of the Hebrew etymology reveals some interesting parallels and some startling differences. Without these additions, we cannot grasp the full impact of God’s intentional displays of joy found in the gift of the proclaimer.
The typical translation of prophetes in Hebrew is naba. In spite of the fact that the translation correspondence is clear, the scope and role of the prophetic office in ancient Israel is anything but clear. The problem lies in the fact that there are two groups of people involved in the function of prophet. While occasionally these groups are intermixed, for the most part they seem to operate in different spheres and quite independently of each other. One group is the collection of individuals usually associated with the royal court who carry the title and office of prophet. The other group is the collection of particular men who act as independent oracles of the voice of God, sometimes in conjunction with the monarchy, but often quite separate from the royal court. What relationship these groups have to each other, and how they can both be connected by the word naba is not at all clear.
What is clear is that naba in its oldest usage has the same meaning as the oldest instances of prophetes. It is the verb associated with “proclaiming”. Furthermore, naba is often found in the passive, indicating that the proclaimer is carrying the message of someone else. Finally, just as the Greek proclaimer is distinguished from the one who receives the ecstatic illumination, so the Hebrew proclaimer is distinguished from those who undergo ecstatic experiences. By the 6th and 7th Centuries BC, naba focuses attention on the delivery of the word of the Lord. Over the history of Israel, this feature begins to predominate. The prophet speaks God’s decisions and intentions in a language the people can understand. He does not deliver a message of his own. He transmits a message that comes to him from God, but it is nevertheless explained, taught and interpreted through the rational mind of the prophet. It differs from pure ecstatic experience insofar as it is communicated in the common language. Paul apprehends this essential difference in his discussion of speaking in tongues and prophecy. The first requires an interpreter; the second does not.
With the collapse of the monarchy, the group of prophets attached to the court fades away. In the later stages of the history of Israel, individual prophets appear. Some of these men write the words received from God. Others act as oracles of the Lord. Here is a striking difference between the Greek and Hebrew roles. While both cultures recognized election to the position, in the Hebrew culture the prophet comes unasked. There is no relationship of inquiry and answer like the one found in the Greek oracles. In the Hebrew view, the prophet is sent with a commission from God. He fulfills the Lord’s bidding, not the requests of human agents. “The freedom and independence of the prophet’s work is a wholly new element.” In opposition to prophetes in the Greek world, the characteristic of true naba is that that proclaimer is sent. His proclamation comes on the basis of the authority of the sender, not himself. He reveals what has been given to him.
How is the truth of the prophet’s message to be determined? The New Testament reaffirms the Old Testament criteria. A message from God can only be tested through the exercise of the Spirit. It is not subject to deduced rational standards. While the Greek background of prophetes rests on the assumption that the test of truthfulness lies in subsequent confirming events and practical application, the Hebrew view is not so tidy. False prophets can easily seduce the audience by mimicking God’s language and style. It takes the Spirit to discern what is genuine. God’s word is not subject to Man’s scrutiny.
This distinction between the Greek and Hebrew understanding of the test of the prophet’s message is critical. In the Greek world, rationality stands above revelation. The mind is supreme as a judge of truth. Not so for the Hebrew. It is inspiration that determines the truth of the prophetic word. While there are innumerable confirming events for divinely inspired proclamations, the events do not make the proclamations true. They are the by-products of the message. The truth of the message rests on the source of the message and that source can only be finally determined via God Himself. The Greek world’s answer to the question of justified belief was gnosis. The Hebrew reply was apokalupsis.
Finally, the focus of the proclamation is dramatically different in the two cultures. “For the Greek, the goal of human life is the perfect development of the individual personality”. Prophetes is therefore subjected to the realm of the individual. It shines light on the problems and solutions of individual agents. This is the reason behind the inquiry and response methodology. But the Hebrew culture is an ancient, tribal culture, based not in the rise and perfection of the individual but rather in the welfare of the group. Israel is community conscious to an extent far beyond our current Western Greek conception. The “individual” in the Hebrew culture was an extension of the lineage of the tribe. Identity was found in community connection, not individual aspiration. Naba finds its focus in proclamation to the whole community. It exists for the good of the community, not the advantage of the individual. Paul echoes this Hebrew perspective when he writes that gnosis brings pride and self-sufficiency in its coat tails but prophetes (as naba) brings edification for all (1 Corinthians 14:3).
The Proclaimer Today
What can we discern from this analysis of the ancient cultural background so influential in our Western thinking today? We see that the oldest strata of the concept behind prophecy does not reflect the fortune-telling mythology common in today’s myopic concern with the future. We recognize immediately that the role of the prophet is the proclaimer of what is hidden and what is hidden is often not at all concerned with the future. The proclaimer deals with practical matters. In the Greek world, those matters concern individual issues. In the Hebrew world, they are matters for the community. But in both cases, the prophet brings a message from a divine source. Therefore, what is revealed is often an insight into moral and ethical lapses, judgments of the heart and the divine will. But the Hebrew prophet was subject to the will of God and his answers and proclamations revealed God’s purposes and thoughts, not the purposes and thoughts of men. The Greek oracles became the centers of insight partly because they were information management points for many individuals. Careful collection of the information implied in human inquiry could often become the source for “revealed” knowledge to others supplicants. The Greek oracles were storehouses of information bartering. None of this fits the role of the Hebrew prophet. He had no access to a catalogue of standard answers. His ability to address the community depended entirely on the movement of the Spirit in his life and his proclamations were as diverse and uncommon as the movement of the wind.
For the Greeks, prophecy is associated with the practical need for answers from a realm beyond immediate human understanding. But even these answers are subject to the power of the mind. For the Hebrew, the proclaimer comes unbidden; bringing a message that cannot be subjected to human rationale as the arbitrator of truth. What comes from the Spirit must be measured by the Spirit.
Both Greek and Hebrew proclaimers are distinguished from those who are caught up in ecstasy and exhibit unintelligible signs and language. The prophet is a man of reason, addressing his message to the audience in terms that can be understood, although not always easily. Jesus’ parables are a prime example of prophetic utterance in the common language but with deeper meaning.
Finally, the prophet is chosen. His role is not the result of a career path but rather the result of a calling. Refusal to accept the call or denial of its grip on his life can have severe results. He is the emissary of another and in this sense, he is quite literally “not his own”.