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In religion, a prophet is an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary with humanity, delivering this newfound knowledge from the supernatural entity to other people. The message that the prophet conveys is called a prophecy.
Claims of prophethood have existed in many cultures through history, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in Ancient Greece, Zoroastrianism, and many others. Traditionally, prophets are regarded as having a role in society that promotes change due to their messages and actions.
The English word prophet comes from the Greek word προφήτης (profétés) meaning advocate. In the late 20th century the appellation of prophet has been used to refer to individuals particularly successful at analysis in the field of economics, such as in the derogatory prophet of greed. Alternatively, social commentators who suggest escalating crisis are often called prophets of doom.
In Hebrew, the word נָבִיא (navi), "spokesperson", traditionally translates as "prophet". The second subdivision of the Hebrew Bible, TaNaKh (for "Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim"), is devoted to the Hebrew prophets. The meaning of navi is perhaps described in Deuteronomy 18:18, where God said, "...and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him." Thus, the navi was thought to be the "mouth" of God. The root nun-bet-alef ("navi") is based on the two-letter root nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself "open". Cf. Rashbam's comment to Genesis 20:7.
In addition to writing and speaking messages from God, Hebrew prophets often acted out prophetic parables. For example, in order to contrast the people’s disobedience with the obedience of the Rechabites, God has Jeremiah invite the Rechabites to drink wine, in disobedience to their ancestor’s command. The Rechabites refuse, wherefore God commends them. Other prophetic parables acted out by Jeremiah include burying a linen belt so that it gets ruined to illustrate how God intends to ruin Judah's pride. Likewise, Jeremiah buys a clay jar and smashes it in the Valley of Ben Hinnom in front of elders and priests to illustrate that God will smash the nation of Judah and the city of Judah beyond repair. God instructs Jeremiah to make a yoke from wood and leather straps and to put it on his own neck to demonstrate how God will put the nation under the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In a similar way, the prophet Isaiah had to walk stripped and barefoot for three years to illustrate the coming captivity, and the prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his side for 390 days and eat measured food to illustrate the coming siege.
The prophetic assignment is not always portrayed as positive in the Hebrew Bible, and prophets were often the target of persecution and opposition. God’s personal prediction to Jeremiah, "Attack you they will, overcome you they can't," was fulfilled many times in the biblical narrative as Jeremiah warned of destruction of those who continued to refuse repentance and accept more moderate consequences. In return for his adherence to God’s discipline and speaking God’s words, Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet. Likewise, Isaiah was told by his hearers who rejected his message, "Leave the way! Get off the path! Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel!" The life of Moses being threatened by Pharaoh is another example.
According to I Samuel 9:9, the old name for navi is ro'eh, רֹאֶה, which literally means "Seer". That could document an ancient shift, from viewing prophets as seers for hire to viewing them as moral teachers. Allen (1971) comments that in the First Temple Era, there were essentially seer-priests, who formed a guild, divined, performed rituals and sacrifices, and were scribes, and then there were canonical prophets, who did none of these (and were against divination) and had instead a message to deliver. The seer-priests were usually attached to a local shrine or temple, such as Shiloh, and initiated others as priests in that priesthood: it was a mystical craft-guild with apprentices and recruitment. Canonical prophets were not organised this way. The similar term ben-navi ("son of the prophet") means "member of a seer-priest guild".
A Jewish tradition suggests that there were twice as many prophets as the number which left Egypt, which would make 1,200,000 prophets. The Talmud recognizes the existence of 48 male prophets who bequeathed permanent messages to mankind. According to the Talmud there were also seven women who are counted as prophets whose message bears relevance for all generations: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah (mother of the prophet Samuel), Abigail (a wife of King David), Huldah (from the time of Jeremiah), and Esther. Rashi points out that Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were also prophets.
Prophets in Judaism are not always Jews. The story of Balaam in Numbers 22 describes a non-Jewish prophet who honors God and refuses to curse Israel and who is generally presented favorably. According to the Talmud, Obadiah is said to have been a convert to Judaism.
The last prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, all of whom lived at the end of the 70-year Babylonian exile. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 11a) states that Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi were the last prophets, and nowadays only the "Bat Kol" (בת קול) exists.
In Christianity a prophet (or seer) is one inspired by God through the Holy Spirit to deliver a message for a specific purpose. God's calling as a prophet is not to elevate an individual for their own glory, but for the glory of God and to turn people to him. Some Christian denominations would limit that and exclude those who receive a personal message not intended for the body of believers, but in the Bible on a number of occasions prophets were called to deliver personal messages. The reception of a message is termed revelation and the delivery of the message is termed prophecy.
James Jordan argues that the office of prophet involves more than delivering the direct revelations of God. He writes, "The full meaning of prophet is council member, a member of God's Divine Council . . . Moses, who is an exemplary prophet of the Old Covenant (Numbers 12:6-8) . . . not only received information from the Counsel and passed its decisions onto the people . . . he also actively argued before the Council when he felt it necessary, even 'changing God's mind' on occasion (Exodus 32:7-14, 30-35; Numbers 14:13-19)."  In this way, Christ is executing a prophetic office when he intercedes for Christians and ordinary Christians are executing a prophetic office when they reason with God on the behalf of others in prayer, just as Moses interceded and persuaded God on behalf of Israel as part of his prophetic function.
The term prophet is applied to those who receive public or private revelation. Public Revelation, in Catholicism, is part of the Deposit of faith, the revelation of which was completed by Jesus; whereas Private Revelation does not add to the Deposit. The term "deposit of faith" refers to the entirety of Jesus Christ's revelation, and is passed to successive generations in two different forms, sacred scripture (the Bible) and sacred tradition.
Anyone who claims to speak God's words or teach in his name and is not a prophet the Bible terms a false prophet. One test given in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy contains a warning of those who prophecy events which do not come to pass and said they should be put to death. Elsewhere a false prophet may be someone who is purposely trying to deceive, is delusional, under the influence of Satan or is speaking from his own spirit.
Some Christians who believe in dispensationalism believe prophecy ended along with the rest of the sign gifts shortly after the coming of Jesus, who delivered the "fullness of the law." Within this group, many Protestants believe that prophecy ended with the last of the Hebrew prophets of the Torah of the Hebrew Bible, leaving a gap of about 400 years between then and the life of Jesus. The majority, including the Eastern Orthodox, allow an exception for John the Baptist as a prophet contemporary with Jesus.
New Testament passages that explicitly discuss prophets existing after the death and resurrection of Christ include Revelation 11:10, Matthew 10:40-41 and 23:34, John 13:20 and 15:20 and Acts 11:25-30, 13:1 and 15:32. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit leads people to faith in Jesus and gives them the ability to lead a Christian life and to give gifts (i.e. abilities) to Christians. These may include the charismatic gifts such as prophecy, tongues, healing, and knowledge. Christians holding a view known as cessationism believe these gifts were given only in New Testament times and ceased after the last apostle died.
The Didache gives extensive instruction in how to distinguish between true and false prophets, as well as commands regarding tithes to prophets in the church. Irenaeus, wrote of 2nd-century believers with the gift of prophecy, while Justin Martyr argued in his Dialogue with Trypho that prophets were not found among the Jews in his time, but that the church had prophets. The Shepherd of Hermas describes revelation in a vision regarding the proper operation of prophecy in the church. Eusebius mentions that Quadratus and Ammia of Philadelphia were both prominent prophets following the age of the Twelve Apostles. Tertullian, writing of the church meetings of the Montanists (to whom he belonged), described in detail the practice of prophecy in the 2nd-century church.
Prophetic movements in particular can be traced throughout the Christian Church's history, in expressions such as Montanism, Novatianism, Donatism, Franciscanism, Anabaptism, Camisard enthusiasm, Puritanism, Quakerism, Quietism and Pietism.
Some Christians also believe that the title "prophet" encompasses others than those who receive visions from God. A more modern definition of prophet is someone who spreads God's truths. These can be revealed in a number of ways not only visions.
Some Christian sects recognize the existence of a "modern-day" prophet, one such denomination is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), which teaches that God still communicates with mankind through prophecy.
The Qur'an identifies a number of men as "Prophets of Islam" (Arabic: nabiyy نبي; pl. anbiyaa' أنبياء). Muslims believe such individuals were assigned a special mission by God (Arabic: Allah) to guide humanity. Besides Muhammad, this includes prophets such as Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus).
Although only twenty-five prophets are mentioned by name in the Qur'an, a hadith (no. 21257 in Musnad Ibn Hanbal) mentions that there were 124,000 prophets in total throughout history. Other traditions place the number of prophets at 224,000. Some scholars hold that there are an even greater number in the history of mankind, and only God knows. The Qur'an says that God has sent a prophet to every group of people throughout time, and that Muhammad is the last of the prophets, sent for the whole of humankind. The message of all the prophets is believed to be the same. In Islam, all prophetic messengers are prophets (such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad) though not all prophets are prophetic messengers. The primary distinction is that a prophet is required to demonstrate God's law through his actions, character, and behavior without necessarily calling people to follow him, while a prophetic messenger is required to pronounce God's law (i.e. revelation) and call his people to submit and follow him. Muhammad is distinguished from the rest of the prophetic messengers and prophets in that he was commissioned by God to be the prophetic messenger to all of mankind. Many of these prophets are also found in the texts of Judaism (The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings; collectively known as the Old Testament to Christians) and Christianity.
While Islam shares the Jewish tradition that the first prophet is Adem (Adam), it differs in that the last prophet is Muhammad, who in Islam is called Seal of the prophets or Khatim an-Nabuwwah. Muslims often refer to Muhammad as the prophet, in the form of a noun. Isa (Jesus) is the result of a virgin birth in Islam as in Christianity, and is regarded as a prophet.
Traditionally, four prophets are believed to have been sent holy books: the Tawrat (Torah) to Moses, the Zabur (Psalms) to David, the Injil (Gospel) to Jesus, and the Qur'an to Muhammad; those prophets are considered "messengers" or rasul (Ule al A'zm men al Rusul أولي العزم من الرسل). Other main prophets are considered messengers or Nabi, even if they didn't receive a Book from God. Examples include the messenger-prophet Aaron (Haroon), the messenger-prophet Ishmael (Isma'eel) and the messenger-prophet Yusuf (Joseph).
Although it offers many incidents from the lives of many prophets, the Qur'an focuses with special narrative and rhetorical emphasis on the careers of the first four of these five major prophets. Of all the figures before Muhammad, Moses is referred to most frequently in the Qur'an. As for the fifth, the Qur'an is frequently addressed directly to Muhammad, and it often discusses situations encountered by him. Direct use of his name in the text, however, is rare. Rarer still is the mention of Muhammad's contemporaries.
Unlike the majority of Muslims, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community does not believe that messengers and prophets are different individuals. They interpret the Quranic terms of "warner," (Nadhir) "prophet," and "messenger" as referring to different roles that the same divinely-appointed individuals perform. Ahmadiyya Muslims distinguish only between law-bearing prophets and non law-bearing ones. They are the only Muslim group who believe that although law bearing prophet-hood ended with Muhammad, non law-bearing prophet-hood continues. In this capacity, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community recognizes Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908) as a prophet of God, and also believes him to be the promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi of the latter days.
The Bahá'í Faith refers to what are commonly called prophets as "Manifestations of God" who are directly linked with the concept of Progressive revelation. Bahá'ís believe that God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including through a series of divine messengers referred to as "Manifestations of God" or "divine educators". In expressing God's intent, these Manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world. Thus they are seen as an intermediary between God and humanity.
The Manifestations of God are not seen as incarnations of God, and are also not seen as ordinary mortals. Instead, the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation of God emphasizes simultaneously the humanity of that intermediary and the divinity in the way they show forth the will, knowledge and attributes of God; thus they have both human and divine stations.
In addition to the Manifestations of God, there are also minor prophets. While the Manifestations of God, or major prophets, are compared to the Sun (which produces its own heat and light), minor prophets are compared to the Moon (which receives its light from the sun). Moses, for example, is taught as having been a Manifestation of God and his brother Aaron a minor prophet. Moses spoke on behalf of God, and Aaron spoke on behalf of Moses (Exodus 4:14-17). Other Jewish prophets are considered minor prophets, as they are considered to have come in the shadow of the dispensation of Moses to develop and consolidate the process he set in motion.
In modern times the term "prophet" can be somewhat controversial. Many Christians with Pentecostal or charismatic beliefs believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy and the continuation of the role of prophet as taught in Ephesians 4. The content of prophecies can vary widely. Prophecies are often spoken as quotes from God. They may contain quotes from scripture, statements about the past or current situation, or predictions of the future. Prophecies can also 'make manifest the secrets' of the hearts of other people, telling about the details of their lives. Sometimes, more than one person in a congregation will receive the same message in prophecy, with one giving it before another.
Other movements claim to have prophets. In France, Michel Potay says he received a revelation, called The Revelation of Arès, dictated by Jesus in 1974, then by God in 1977. He is considered a prophet by his followers, the Pilgrims of Arès.
Joseph Smith, who established the Church of Christ in 1830, is considered a prophet by members of the Latter Day Saint movement, of which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is the largest denomination. Additionally, many churches within the movement believe in a succession of modern prophets (accepted by Latter Day Saints as "prophets, seers, and revelators") since the time of Joseph Smith.
Jehovah's Witnesses do not consider any single person in their modern-day organization to be a prophet. Their literature has referred to their organization collectively as God's "prophet" on earth; this is understood, however, in the sense of declaring their interpretation of God's judgments from the Bible along with God's guidance of His Holy Spirit. Their publishing company, Watch Tower, and official position magazine, The Watchtower, have asserted: "Ever since The Watchtower began to be published in July 1879 it has looked ahead into the future... No, The Watchtower is no inspired prophet, but it follows and explains a Book of prophecy the predictions in which have proved to be unerring and unfailing till now. The Watchtower is therefore under safe guidance. It may be read with confidence, for its statements may be checked against that prophetic Book." They also claim that they are God's one and only true channel to mankind on earth, and used by God for this purpose.
They have made many eschatological forecasts, some of which have led people (including followers) to incorrect assumptions. One example is The Watchtower's assertions that the end of the "Gentile times" or "times of the nations" would occur in 1914; even prominent Watch Tower representatives such as A. H. Macmillan incorrectly concluded and overstated their expectations. As a result The Watchtower has acknowledged that Jehovah's Witnesses "have made mistakes in their understanding of what would occur at the end of certain time periods." Concurrently with these exceptions, Jehovah's Witnesses in their literature and assemblies have taught their leadership was personally chosen by Jesus Christ in 1919 (a prophetic year in Jehovah's Witnesses eschatology) and that they are "God's sole channel on earth," and "Jehovah's spirit directed organization".
The Ahmadiyya movement in Islam believes that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a non law-bearing Prophet, who claimed to be a fulfillment of the various Islamic prophecies regarding the spiritual second advent of Jesus of Nazareth near the end times.
The Hindu concept of Rishis is similar to the concept of prophets. The Sanskrit word Rishi is loosely translated into English as "seer" (a prophet, a man who can foresee the future). Hinduism recognizes and reveres thousands of Rishis, who can be thought of as the collective founders of the Hindu religion over many millennia. Of these, special importance is given to the Saptarshi (the Seven Sages), widely regarded as patriarchs of the Hindu religion, whose listing is different according to different texts. The Saptarshi and their clans are believed to have composed the hymns of the four Vedas by entering into communion with the Supreme Cosmic Spirit through meditation. For instance, Rigveda 1.1 is attributed to Rishi Madhucchandā Vaishwāmitra (i.e. Madhucchandā of the clan of Vishwamitra). Most Rishikās were male, but some were female too. Lopamudra is the author of one hymn in the Rigveda, and Gargi Vachaknavi is described in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as a highly respected woman in the field of Brahmajñāna. Apart from the Vedas, various Rishis are also credited with composing the several Smriti texts, like Veda Vyasa who composed the Mahābhārata.
Divination remains an important aspect of the lives of the people of contemporary Africa, especially amongst the usually rural, socially traditionalistic segments of its population. In arguably its most influential manifestation, the system of prophecy practiced by the Babalawos and Iyanifas of the historically Yoruba regions of West Africa have bequeathed to the world a corpus of fortune-telling poetic methodologies so intricate that they have been added by UNESCO to its official intangible cultural heritage of the World list.
Other people throughout history have been described as prophets in the sense of foretelling the future (as opposed to relaying a religious message). Examples of such prophets include:
...after making a series of uncannily accurate predictions about the global meltdown, Roubini has become the prophet of his age...
There are 25 prophets mentioned by name in the Quran [...] Among those mentioned by name are: Adam (mentioned 25 times by name), Idris (1), Noah (43), Hud (7), Salih (10), Abraham (69), Ishmael (12), Isaac (17), Jacob (16), Lot (27), Joseph (27), Shuayb (11), Job (4), Dhu al-Kifl (2), Moses (137), Aaron (20), David (16), Solomon (17), Elijah (1), Elisha (2), Jonah (4), Zechariah (7), John (5), Jesus (25), Muhammad (4).
|Wikisource has the text of a 1905 New International Encyclopedia article about Prophet.|
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