In the previous Introduction to this Easter series (“Yeshua the Anointed”), I discussed how the expression or title “Anointed (One)”—Heb. j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ, “Messiah”) and Grk. xristo/$ (christós, “Christ”)—did not have a single predefined meaning in Jewish thought in the 1st-century B.C./A.D. Rather, several different concepts emerged, drawn from certain key Scripture passages, some of which had a decided eschatological emphasis—a future/end-time figure, appointed by God, and through whom God would bring about the restoration of Israel. In my introductory article, I outlined five distinct ‘Messianic’ figure-types or roles which are relevant to an understanding of Jesus (Yeshua) as the Anointed One (Messiah) in early Christian belief and tradition. Of these five types, it is that of Prophet which I will be examining first, since it seems to fit Jesus best during the time of his ministry on earth.
To begin with, the word “prophet” is simply an anglicized transliteration of the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), and refers to telling or declaring something (verbal stem fh-) before (pro/). The prefix pro (pro) can be understood two different ways: (1) declaring something beforehand (i.e. before it takes place), or (2) declaring something before (i.e. in front of) an audience. The noun (and its derived verb) are used in the former sense throughout the New Testament, and, in literal translation, I always render profh/th$ as “foreteller”. However, the latter sense better fits the basic meaning of the corresponding word ayb!n` (n¹»î°) in Hebrew. A ayb!n` is essentially a spokesperson—one who announces or declares the message (of God) to the people. If related to Akkadian nabû, then the word would also indicate someone called or appointed (by God), i.e. as an authoritative representative. In other words, in terms of ancient Near Eastern religion and society, the ayb!n` represented God before the community and made known His word to them. This role could be filled at any level of society, all the way up to the royal court. Contrary to popular tradition, prophets could be highly educated, literate people (such as Isaiah), and might possess considerable prestige and influence in the community.
Prophets as “Anointed”
In the Old Testament, we find very little evidence for prophets being ceremonially anointed (as were kings and priests). The only clear example is in 1 Kings 19:16, where Elijah is commanded by God to anoint [jv^m* m¹šaµ] Elisha as prophet in his place (cf. also 2 Kings 2:9, 15), just as he was to anoint Hazael as king of Syria (similarly the prophet Samuel anointed Saul and David as king, and Nathan did for Solomon). In Psalm 105:15 / 1 Chron 16:22, “my anointed one(s)” [yjyvm] is set parallel with “my prophets“, where the Prophets of God are referred to collectively. A similar usage may be found in the later Qumran texts (c. 1st century B.C.), where the plural “anointed ones” [<yjyvm] seems to refer to the historical Prophets—cf. 1QM 11:7-8; 4Q270 2 ii 13-14; 4Q287 10 13; 4Q521 8 9; also CD 5:21-6:1 (= 4Q267 2 6 | 6Q15 3 4); and the singular in 1Q30 1 2 probably also refers to a Prophet. In this regard, Moses also appears to have been viewed as an anointed Prophet (4Q377 2 ii 4-5, cf. CD 5:21-6:1). The important text 4Q521 will be discussed in the next article.
Jesus as a Prophet
Christians are not accustomed to thinking of Jesus as a Prophet, but in the Gospel tradition—at least in terms of his time of ministry (prior to the final journey to Jerusalem)—this is the ‘Messianic’ designation that best applies to him. In the Synoptic narrative, which divides neatly between Jesus’ ministry [in Galilee and the surrounding regions] (Mark 1-9 par) and the time in Jerusalem (Mark 11-16 par), there are virtually no references to Jesus as a Davidic ruler or ‘Messianic’ king (cf. Matt 9:27) during the period of ministry. Even references to “the Anointed One” [o( xristo/$] are quite rare, and almost non-existent prior to Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed One…”, Mk 8:29 par). There are considerably more references to Jesus as “the Anointed One” in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:41; 3:28; 4:25, 29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 10:24; 11:27), but, apart from the explicit identification in Jn 7:42, it is by no means clear that “Anointed One” in these passages always refers to a ‘Messiah’ of the Davidic-ruler type. There is actually better evidence for Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, though it takes a bit of detective work to see the extent of this.
- First, Jesus himself claims to be a Prophet (or identifies himself as such) in Mark 6:4, along with the parallel passages of Matt 13:57; Luke 4:24ff. The Lukan version of this pericope offers a much more extensive development of this idea, including Jesus’ illustrations associating himself with Elijah/Elisha (vv. 25-27) and his interpretation of Isa 61:1-2 in vv. 18-21. The earlier reference to Jesus coming to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (v. 14) may be intended to depict him as a Prophet as well (cf. Luke 1:17; Acts 10:38).
- Such a self-identification by Jesus may also be inferred or implied from:
Mark 13:24 (Matt 24:11, 24); Matt 10:41; 23:29-37 (Lk 11:42-50); and Luke 13:33-34
- Others identify Jesus as a Prophet at numerous points in the Synoptics:
Mark 6:15; 8:28 (Matt 16:14; Lk 9:8, 19); Matt 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16, 39; 24:19
There are even more direct statements in the Gospel of John—Jn 4:19; 6:14; 7:40, 52; 9:17
- In at least one early sermon by Peter (as recorded in Acts 3:18-24), Jesus is identified as the Prophet of Deut 18:15-19 (on this, cf. below).
Additional evidence for Jesus as a Prophetic figure in the type/pattern of Moses and Elijah will be discussed in detail in the next article. In passing, it should be noted that the idea of Jesus as a Prophet is entirely based on early Gospel tradition, and is really only found in the Gospel narratives themselves. Apart from Acts 3:18-24 (cf. also 7:37), it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, and is virtually non-existent in early Christian doctrine and theology as well. All of this is strong evidence for the historical veracity of the Gospel references, on entirely objective grounds—the identification of Jesus as a Prophet is not something the early Church would have invented. In spite of the fact that Prophet is one of the customary “offices of Christ” in standard theological terms, it has played very little role in Christian thought since the first century.
The Coming Prophet
As noted in the previous article, I define a “Messiah” as: a ruler or leader, specially appointed by God, and through whom God will bring about the restoration of Israel, in a political and/or religious sense. According to this definition one may properly speak of a Messianic Prophet. The roots of this idea go back to the exile and post-exilic period, during which time the role and office of Prophet [Hebrew ayb!n`, cf. above] had begun to fade out of importance, to the point that a general belief developed regarding the “cessation of prophecy” in what we would call the Intertestamental period. Just as Israelites and Jews expected the future appearance of a king like David, it is not surprising that they would also hope for a Prophet like the great Prophets of old. It is hard to say just how widespread this expectation was—the evidence for it in Jewish writings prior to, or contemporary with, the time of Jesus is relatively slight, but clear enough for us to detect several strands of tradition. Three in particular will be discussed, all of which stem from specific Scripture passages:
- The Elijah-Tradition—either Elijah himself, or another Prophet in his mold, will appear at the time of the Last Judgment (or just prior to it); through his preaching and signs (miracles) he will bring people to repentance. This is derived from Malachi 3:1 and the concluding verses 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24].
- The Moses-Tradition—similarly, at the end-time a “Prophet like Moses” will appear, who will instruct the faithful just as Moses did. This tradition clearly comes from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (cf. also Deut 34:10-12).
- The Isaiah-Tradition—this refers specifically to the “Anointed” Prophet of Isaiah 61:1ff, a passage which, I believe, was highly influential on the idea of a Prophet as “Messiah”.
All three of these traditions were current, to varying degrees, in Judaism during the 1st centuries B.C./A.D., and each is important in understanding how Jesus was viewed in the earliest Gospel tradition. They will be discussed in the next article. First, let us look at passages which indicate belief in a coming (future or end-time) Prophet:
- 1 Maccabees 14:41, part of an official record of thanksgiving (vv. 27-45), in honor of the high priest Simon; verse 41 reads (in conventional translation): “…the Jews and the(ir) priests thought it good (for) Simon to be their leader and chief priest into the Age [i.e. forever], until a trust(worthy) Prophet should arise“.
- Testament of Benjamin 9:2 refers to the coming of “the unique Prophet”. The Testaments (of the Twelve Patriarchs) are difficult to date, as they represent Christian expansions/adaptation of earlier Jewish material, ranging from the mid-2nd century B.C. to the early-mid 2nd century A.D. For example, here verse 3 is a clear Christian addition (drawing upon Mal 3:1).
- There are two passages in the Qumran texts (both to be dated sometime in the 1st cent B.C.):
- The so-called ‘Community Rule’ 1QS 9:11, which has the famous phrase “…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed (One)s of Aaron and Israel”.
- 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, citing Deut 18:18-19 (cf. above); for more on the Moses-type of Prophet, cf. also 4Q375 and 377 (the “Apocryphon of Moses” B, C).
- It is likely that 4Q521 describes a Messianic Prophet, combining elements of the Elijah- and Isaiah-traditions (see the next article for more on this text). A combination of elements is also found in the Messianic figure of 11QMelchizedek, including that of an anointed herald (or Prophet).
- The tradition of Elijah’s appearance at the end time is attested by Sirach 48:10f (alluding to Mal 4:5-6), and also in the “Sibylline Oracles” 2:187ff (Christian, but drawing upon earlier Jewish material).
Several passages in the New Testament demonstrate a similar belief in the appearance of an end-time (Messianic) Prophet, indicated by references to “the Prophet”—John 1:21, 25, and with whom Jesus is identified in John 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 39 v.l., and (possibly) also Matt 14:5; 21:11. Probably “the Prophet” here refers to the expected “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:18ff, as likely also for the “trustworthy” or “unique” Prophet in 1 Macc 14:41; Test. Benj. 9:2 (above). Jesus is specifically identified as the Prophet of Deut 18 in Acts 3:18-24 (cf. also Acts 7:37), and is associated with Moses in various ways throughout early Christian tradition.
As for the eschatological appearance of Elijah, this belief (derived from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6) is expressed several places in the Gospels—Mark 1:2; 6:15; 8:28 pars; 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14; John 1:21, 25; Luke 1:17, 76ff. In all likelihood the Elijah-tradition also underlies the expression o( e)rxo/meno$ (“the [One who is] Coming”) which occurs at several important points in the Gospels. It is closely related to the vital early question as to whether John the Baptist or Jesus was “Elijah” and/or the Anointed Prophet (to Come). This specific issue will be discussed in detail in a supplementary note. Regarding the Elijah/Moses-traditions in relation to Jesus, this is the subject of the next article.