Prophets and Prophecy

Prophets and Prophecy

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In the context of religious studies and theology, ‘prophecy’ can be broadly understood as a cross-cultural phenomenon involving claims of supernatural or inspired knowledge transmitted or interpreted by an authoritative recipient, intermediary, or interpreter labelled a ‘prophet’. The term is also used in a more general and secular way to refer to individuals who simply predict or prognosticate future events, or those leading principled causes or in pursuit of a particular social or political vision without any special association with inspired or supernatural insight. The language of ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ in English derives from the Greek προφητης (prophētēs) found in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Greek term is also a translation of the Hebrew נביא (navi’) in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, though other Greek and Hebrew words are found. Both the Greek and Hebrew roots suggest ideas of ‘telling forth’, ‘announcing,’ and ‘making known’, but the terms were used with a range of related meanings, and an explanation of a passive meaning of the term is worth noting: ‘one who has been called.’

The relationship between the written presentation of prophets and prophecy in the Bible and similar phenomena in the Ancient Near East is complex and contested in critical scholarship (for an overview, see Kelle 2014). However, while contextual differences must be noted, the various practices, types, and ideas attributed to biblical prophets are broadly paralleled in the Ancient Near East and ancient world (on which see, e.g., Nissinen 2017). Furthermore, individual or collective ownership of a supernatural message, predictions of destruction, conditional warnings, critiques of society, oracles, authoritative dreams and visions, divination, seers, spirit possession, and trance-like or ecstatic states, are recurring phenomena across cultures, continents, and time (see, e.g., Grabbe 2010).

‘Prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, cover a range of diverse practices but are generally associated with an intermediary function between the human and divine worlds, and prophets can be male or female. Biblical and other religious prophets are generally understood to have experienced some kind of divine revelation often including warnings, conditional threats, demands for repentance, and critiques of society and injustice, often accompanied by predictions of destruction and restoration.

Prophetic books form a major part of the Jewish and Christian canons. The ‘Prophets’ (נביאים; nevi’im) form one of the three main sections of the Jewish Bible which is subdivided into the ‘Former Prophets’ and the ‘Latter Prophets’. The Former Prophets comprise the narrative books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and tell the story of the history of Israel and Judah. The Latter Prophets are composed mainly of prophecies in poetic form and comprise three books named after the three major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and a fourth book named after twelve minor prophets. The latter is called the Book of the Twelve in the Jewish canon, but in Christian canons is divided into twelve books named after each minor prophet: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Latter Prophets collection corresponds with the overall classification of prophetic literature in Christian canons which also add the books of Lamentations (traditionally associated with Jeremiah) and Daniel, and (except in the Protestant canon) Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. While the Latter Prophets are most closely focused on individual prophets, the narratives in the Former Prophets contain information about the phenomenon of prophecy and stories of some of the most famous prophets (e.g., Elijah, Elisha). There has been much academic discussion on the connection between prophetic literature (particularly as found in the Latter Prophets) and the emergence of apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature, but whatever that historic relationship may or may not have been, prophetic books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel have been the source of numerous apocalyptic speculations and predictions in their long and varied reception histories, including for the book of Revelation in the New Testament.

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Prophecy and Prophets in History and Culture

Both the concepts and terms ‘Prophet’ and ‘Prophecy’ have been used in analogous ways across religious traditions and movements from ancient times to the present, especially in those tracing a lineage within or overlapping with the Abrahamic faiths and often associated with apocalyptic and millenarian ideas. The Muslim Shahada (declaration of faith), one of the five pillars of Islam, is often rendered in English as ‘there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet’—and Muhammad is often referred to simply as ‘the Prophet’. The Sibylline Oracles of the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE performed a prophetic function (including the apocalypticism ascribed to the last, Tiburtine, Sibyl) and came to be absorbed into Christian frameworks of understanding over time. Charismatic mystics such as Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438) (Watt 1997), Reformers such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) (Atkinson 1984) and John Calvin (1509–1564) (Balserak 2014), and many others, have been identified as prophets or in prophetic terms. Although prophetic elements have been found less frequently in Asian traditions, they are not completely absent. The Buddha is portrayed as a figure with knowledge of the future and predicts not only the demise of awareness of his teachings (as all things are impermanent) but also that a new figure called Metteya (Sanskrit: Maitreya) will eventually come to restore order. Within Japanese Buddhism, the thirteenth-century priest Nichiren (1222–1282) is the most obvious instance of a prophetic figure and movement.

More recent movements have referred to their founders and leaders as prophets; for example, the Panacea Society understood its founder, Octavia (Mabel Barltrop) (1866–1934) to be the final prophet of a line of inspired mystics originating in Jane Lead (1624–1704), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints identify Joseph Smith (1805–1844) and his successor presidents as prophets—including the current incumbent Russell M. Nelson (b. 1924)—and Claude Vorilhon (b. 1946), the founder of the Raëlian movement, formed his identity as a prophet through an overlap of UFO encounter and biblical learning (Gallagher 2010). In response to colonialism, many indigenous resistance movements were founded by people claiming to be prophets. For example, several Māori prophetic movements arose in the nineteenth century in opposition to British colonialism in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Prophets such as Te Ua Haumēne (Pai Mārire) and Te Kooti (Ringatū) found inspiration especially in the Old Testament prophets and Israelites, as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Christian colonisers (Rangiwai 2017).

The diverse phenomena associated with prophets and prophecy in the Bible are not necessarily categorised in the same way by practitioners in other cultural and historical contexts or by critical interpreters of them. Nevertheless, it is possible to make comparisons on the basis of how different societies and cultures conceptualise interpreters and interpretation of inspired knowledge. In religious terms, such interpreters might be an individual or a group who claim access to and/or understanding of supernatural knowledge, which might relate to, for instance, predictions, justification of a given authority, or a critique of society. In secular terms, similar labelling (even if ironically) might be given to a group or individual predicting political events or global catastrophes on the basis of readings of sociological or scientific data. For example, Donald Trump was reported to have ‘decried climate “prophets of doom”’ at the World Economic Form in January 2020 (BBC). Similarly, countercultural figures might be understood as prophets or ‘prophetic’ for being perceived to have spoken uncomfortable truths about society or the ruling class, as commonly found in the case of certain American comedians (e.g., Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin). Overlapping with the religious and the secular are phenomena like astrology and horoscopes which may or may not invoke the supernatural but remain comparable in the sense of claiming access to or an ability to ascertain knowledge about the future and presenting an authoritative interpretation to a wider audience. (For the cross-cultural study of prophecy, religious and secular, see e.g., Harvey and Newcombe 2013).

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Atkinson, James. 1984. “Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic.” Scottish Journal of Theology 37 (3): 313–27.

Balserak, Jon. 2014. John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BBC. 2020. “Davos: Trump Decries Climate ‘Prophets of Doom’ with Thunberg in Audience.” 21 January 2020.

Gallagher, Eugene V. 2010. “Extraterrestrial Exegesis: The Raëlian Movement as a Biblical Religion.” Nova Religio 14 (2): 14–33.

Grabbe, Lester L. 2010. “Shaman, Preacher, or Spirit Medium? The Israelite Prophet in the Light of Anthropological Models.” In Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel, edited by John Day, 117–32. London: T&T Clark.

Harvey, Sarah, and Suzanne Newcombe, eds. 2013. Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Kelle, Brad E. 2014. “The Phenomenon of Israelite Prophecy in Contemporary Scholarship.” Currents in Biblical Research 12: 275–320.

Nissinen, Martti. 2017. Ancient Prophecy: Near Eastern, Biblical, and Greek Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rangiwai, Byron. 2017. “Māori Prophetic Movements as Sites of Political Resistance: A Critical Analysis.” Te Kaharoa: The e-journal on Indigenous Pacific Issues 10 (1): 130–92.

Watt, Diane. 1997. Secretaries of God: Women Prophets in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

© CenSAMM 2021

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CenSAMM. 2021. "Prophets and Prophecy." In James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. 15 January 2021. Retrieved from

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144,000 refers to a belief in an elect group, often at end times or in an imminent transformation of the world. The usage typically derives from the book of Revelation. In Revelation 7:1–8, 144,000 refers to the twelve tribes of Israel who have the seal of God on their foreheads. They are also presented as virgins, blameless, ‘redeemed from the earth’, and expected to sing a new song at Mount Zion (Revelation 14:1–5).


In popular usage, 'apocalypticism' refers to a belief in the likely or impending destruction of the world (or a general global catastrophe), usually associated with upheaval in the social, political, and religious order of human society—often referred to as an/the 'apocalypse'. Historically, the term has had religious connotations and the great destruction has traditionally been seen as part of a divine scheme, though it is increasingly used in secular contexts. See the Apocalypticism article for a more detailed discussion.


In popular use, ‘Armageddon’ involves ideas of great cataclysmic events or conflict. The term has long been used to refer to a future battle or ongoing war at the end of time or civilization, whether understood generally as a cataclysmic final battle or specifically as a battle at a place called Megiddo (a location in modern Israel), or a more flexible understanding of Megiddo as a coded reference to an alternative location. ‘Armageddon’ derives from the book of Revelation where it appears just once (Revelation 16:16) with reference to the location of a great cosmic battle associated with the end times. See the Armageddon article for a more detailed discussion.

Beast of the Apocalypse

In popular terms, the 'Beast' or the 'Beast of the Apocalypse' refer generally to a violent and destructive creature that emerges at end times. Such understandings of an end-time beast or beasts derive from the book of Revelation (also called the The Apocalypse) and its long and varied history of interpretation. Revelation refers to 'beasts' on different occasions, including beasts in opposition to God: one emerging from the sea or a pit (Revelation 11:7; 13:1; 17:8; cf. Daniel 7), one from the earth (Revelation 13:11), and another scarlet in colour (Revelation 17:3). The beast from the earth is also associated with the number 666 (alternatively: 616) (Revelation 13:18) and Revelation 19:20 claims that the beast will 'thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur' (New Revised Standard Version).


‘Eschatology’ concerns the study of end times and is derived from the Greek term ἔσχατος (eschatos), meaning ‘final, ‘last’, ‘end’, etc. Eschatology is a label that can incorporate a cluster of related beliefs which differ according to tradition (e.g., end of the world, resurrection, regeneration, Day of Judgment, Antichrist).

Kingdom of God

In the Bible, the ‘Kingdom of God’ (sometimes synonymous with the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) refers to notions of ruling and kingship which are often understood to have a spatial or territorial dimension, whether in heaven or on earth. According to the book of Daniel, such ‘kingdom’ language is used to describe the claim that God rules the universe eternally (Daniel 4:34) but will also intervene in human history to establish a kingdom for his people (Daniel 2:44). According to the Gospels, Jesus predicted the coming Kingdom of God or Heaven and these predictions have been influential in the history of speculations about end times or the benefits of the kingdom being experienced in a present time and place. Across different traditions, such language has also been used to describe communities deemed holy or places deemed sacred, as well as being understood with reference to personal or ‘spiritual’ transformation.


Messianism refers to ideas about a redeemer figure or figures who transform the fortunes of a given people or the world as a whole. The term ‘Messiah’ is derived from the Hebrew משיח (mashiach), meaning ‘anointed one’. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is a term used to denote people such as kings, priests and prophets anointed to carry out their duties on behalf of God. In early Judaism, the term took on a more precise meaning as a future redeemer figure, including a king in the line of David. New Testament texts made such clams about Jesus where a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, Χριστός (christos), became part of his name: Jesus Christ.


In popular and academic use, the term ‘millenarianism’ is often synonymous with the related terms ‘millennialism’, ‘chiliasm’ and ‘millenarism’. They refer to an end-times Golden Age of peace, on earth, for a long period, preceding a final cataclysm and judgement—sometimes referred to as the 'millennium'. The terms are used to describe both millenarian belief and the persons or social groups for whom that belief is central. ‘Millennialism’ or ‘chiliasm’ are chronological terms derived from the Latin and Greek words for ‘thousand’. They are commonly used to refer to a thousand-year period envisaged in the book of Revelation (20:4–6) during which Christ and resurrected martyrs reign prior to the final judgment. More recently the terms have been used to refer to secular formulas of salvation, from political visions of social transformation to UFO movements anticipating globally transformative extra-terrestrial intervention. See the Millenarianism article for a more detailed discussion.


‘Prophecy’ can be broadly understood as a cross-cultural phenomenon involving claims of supernatural or inspired knowledge transmitted or interpreted by an authoritative recipient, intermediary, or interpreter labelled a ‘prophet’. The term is also used in a more general and secular way to refer to individuals who simply predict or prognosticate future events, or those leading principled causes or in pursuit of a particular social or political vision without any special association with inspired or supernatural insight. The language of ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ in English derives from the Greek προφητης (prophētēs) found in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the New Testament. See the Prophets and Prophecy article for a more detailed discussion.

Son of Man

‘Son of man’ simply means ‘man’ in biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and is a title for Jesus in the Greek New Testament. While the ancient idiom is gendered, some scholars prefer to bring out the generic implications and reflect inclusive language today in their English translations (e.g., 'son of a human being', 'son of humanity'). The phrase sometimes took on a more titular function before Jesus because of the book of Daniel. In Daniel 7, Daniel is said to have had a vision of four destructive beasts representing four kingdoms and who stand in contrast to a human-like figure—‘one like a son of man’. The ‘Ancient of Days’ then takes away the power of the beasts and Daniel sees ‘one like a son of man’ approaching, ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Daniel 7:13; New International Version). Daniel 7 claims that this ‘son of man’ figure will be given ‘authority, glory and sovereign power’, ‘all peoples’ will worship him, and his kingdom will be everlasting. The precise identification of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7:13 is not made explicit and there has been a long history of identification with a variety of candidates in apocalyptic and millenarian movements, sometimes without reference to the book of Daniel.


‘Zion’ is an alternative name for Jerusalem and the ‘city of David’ (2 Samuel 5:7; 1 Kings 8:1; 1 Chronicles 11:5; 2 Chronicles 5:2), though it is also used with reference to Israel. Zion can also refer to ‘Mount Zion’, a hill located in Jerusalem which was the site of the Jewish Temple (destroyed 70 CE) and is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Zion and Mount Zion are sometimes interpreted as coded references to an alternative geographical location or to something ‘spiritual’ and otherworldly. In some religious traditions, Zion plays a central role in expectations about end times or the benefits associated with end times being fulfilled in the present.