In Our Time: Prophecy

Prophecy is an important facet of all three Abrahamic religions, but the interpretation of the role of prophecy (& who the prophets are) is different in each. The experts who talked about it on In Our Time were Mona Siddiqui (University of Edinburgh), Justin Meggitt (University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Stökl (Leiden University).

For the modern incarnations of the three religions the bulk of the prophets are those attested to in the Hebrew Bible. Stökl was the expert on Judaism on the panel and so he talked most about these prophets. Prophets are divinely inspired and are in communication with God without being divine themselves. Nowadays when we think of prophecy we think of predicting the future, but this was only one of the sorts of messages that prophets could pass on from God. They also provided more general advice for the rulers about matters that the divine had some bearing on. They pronounced on the validity of old texts, they advised the King when to or when not to undertake campaigns, they’d advise him if God wasn’t happy with how the country was being run. Stökl was also saying that some figures in the Bible were retroactively designated as prophets – that Moses, for instance, was a charismatic leader and then later in Judaic history when prophets are more important he’s designated a prophet.

In terms of predicting the future most if not all of the descriptions of this in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible were written after the events that were predicted – so “prophesying” after the fact. (And actually there are no written texts dating before 200 BC, which means we don’t know how it evolved before this.) It was a win-win situation for the prophets anyway – if they got it wrong, then either they had misunderstood what God told them or God had some reason for telling them the wrong thing. Not that they weren’t a prophet, or that God had got it wrong. Jeremiah was the example here – God told him to tell the people something that turned out to be false & this was because it set up the punishment that God was going to visit on the people for previous wrong doing. There are warnings in the texts about false prophets and discussions of punishments for this, but there are actually no records of this ever happening.

Meggitt was the expert on Christianity & he talked about the way that early Christianity used the Jewish prophets to legitimise their belief that Christ was the Son of God. Obviously the Christian tradition is that prophets weren’t really getting the message across, so God himself had to come to earth in the person of Christ. The way the Christian Bible has ended up being structured means that the Old Testament ends with prophecies that Elijah is going to return and proclaim the day of the Lord. Although this is in the Hebrew Bible the way it is structured means that this isn’t where the book ends. Meggitt was saying that there’s a strong sense that the authors of the New Testament were looking for the prophecies in the Old Testament and then making sure they could find a bit of the life of Christ to fit them. The narrative being created to reflect the prophecy rather than the prophecy predicting the narrative.

In the early church there were still people being referred to as prophets, but as the Church became more institutionalised the role of the prophet diminished & then vanished. Meggitt was saying this was because lone self-selected divinely inspired people don’t really fit in well with a hierarchical organised Church. Bragg brought up the Pentecostal Church which is a modern Christian tradition which has prophets – so it’s not something that’s completely absent from Christianity. Just that as with Judaism the bulk of the religion thinks that prophecy stopped some time ago.

Siddiqui talked about Islam & the role of prophets in that religion. She told us that from an Islamic perspective all the prophets including Mohammed were given the same message or revelation from God. This message is about the oneness and truth of God, and has needed to be repeated because people fall away from it or fail to understand it. The differences in what was passed on or written down by each prophet & their followers are due to the interpretation of the prophet themself & their cultural blinders & ability to understand the message. Mohammed was able to properly understand and pass on God’s revelation, so there’s no need for any more prophets after him. Siddiqui also mentioned a distinction between prophets and messengers in Islam – I think she was saying that all messengers are prophets, but not all prophets are messengers. There’s some debate about whether the Virgin Mary is a prophet in the non-messenger sense because she is sinless, and this is one of the criteria for a prophet.

The way I’ve written this up it looks a little disjointed, but actually they followed the usual round table format & drew out the comparisons between the three strands as well as the differences. Although at times I felt like Siddiqui wasn’t quite having the same conversation as everyone else.