Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Cessation of Prophecy

The followers of Jesus found meaning in the events of the life of Jesus by looking to scripture. For instance, in Today’s Reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, “Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?’”[i] This provided context and meaning for understanding the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see you are a prophet.’”[ii]

As I listened to the Gospel reading this morning, I wondered if there was a disconnect. Malachi was regarded as the last really canonical prophet. While doubtless there was not a total lack of prophetically endowed seers and speakers of God, nevertheless the general conviction prevailed that there was a cessation of prophecy.

Afterall, we read in 1 Maccabees:

And they laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, till there should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them. (1 Maccabees 4:46)

And there was a great tribulation in Israel, such as was not since the day, that there was no prophet seen in Israel. (1 Maccabees 9:27)

And that the Jews, and their priests, had consented that he should be their prince, and high priest for ever, till there should arise a faithful prophet. (1 Maccabees 14:41).

So the thought occurred to me during the gospel reading that Josephus affirms the prevailing belief in the cessation of prophecy in War[iii] because he is attempting to discredit all who claimed to be prophets including by implication the one whose followers said was “a prophet like Moses” and/or “a prophet greater than Moses”. Josephus has lumped together all those so-called prophets with the bandits and troublemakers. His essential thesis (War 1.9-12) is that only only a few trouble makers among the Jews--power-hungry tyrants and marauders who drove the people to rebel against their will, caused the revolt. Josephus revised his view somewhat in Antiquities. In making these statements, I recognize the existence of a heated debate among Feldman[iv], Gray[v] and Mason[vi] as to the meaning of being a prophet in the works of Josephus and whether or not Josephus claimed to be a prophet based in part upon their lexical study. It is my understanding that this quote from Josephus figures prominently in the debate: "From Artexerxes to our own time the complete history has been written but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets." (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 1:8).

I am wondering if Josephus in any of his discussions of prophecy mentioned Deuteronomy 18:21-22 which includes the only biblical test of a prophet. If the prophet is in error, then the Scripture instructs us to conclude the prophecy is not from God. The penalty for prophesying falsely was death (18:20). Deuteronomy 13:2 warn us that false prophets sometimes prophesied accurately. Even if what a "prophet" says comes true, the prophet is not necessarily genuine. Jeremiah 5:30-31 provides an accurate commentary on the charismatic movement's prophetic practices, "An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priest rule on their own authority; and my people love it so!"
I will be checking Josephus to see if he (or for that matter Feldman, Gray or Mason) discussed Deut. 13:2 or Jer. 5:30-31.

I was naturally disappointed that Gray’s book was not available at my library but I added it to my reading list.

[i] Exodus 17:2.
[ii] John 4:19. Also included in Today’s Reading for the Third Sunday in Lent.
[iii] Yet I recognize that Josephus in revising 1 Maccabees 12:1 felt the need to insert God’s providence in Antiquities 13:163 but I did not see any rewrite of the above quotes.
[iv] Louis Feldman, "Prophets and Prophecy in Josephus," JTS 41 (1990) 386-422.
[v] Rebecca Gray, Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence from Josephus, (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
[vi] I have not located Steve Mason’s review of Gray’s book.

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