How we can judge whether prophecy is authentic?

  • July 29 2019
  • Tag: Christianity
Can we judge we when prophecy is authentic?

Prophecy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

The question of how to assess the authenticity of prophecy rests primarily on the understanding of what is meant by the word ‘prophecy’ in itself and on subsequently weighing any given prophetic definition against that benchmark. There are many religious, esoteric or mystical ideologies in which the concept of prophecy plays a key role but we shall here situate it within the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Islam, with slight reference to Christianity, and assess how prophecy might be validated with reference to these traditions. The main argument put forward here is that, within a monotheistic context, prophecy cannot be authenticated in any absolute or universal sense based on the prophecy itself but, rather, is authenticated by the group to which it is addressed to the extent that they accept the prophecy and abide by the content or message of that given prophetic address. In this sense a ‘false prophet’ could potentially be legitimately regarded as false from the perspective of one specific religious grouping but ‘true’ from the viewpoint of another. The definitions of truth and falsity – and indeed the very status of prophethood – are not immutable. Following on from this argument we will examine the characteristics of prophecy themselves within the frameworks of the Old Testament and Islam respectively, and suggest that a foundational leitmotif of prophetic expression is the entering of the prophet into what we may term ‘the prophetic space’ (in contradistinction to the everyday reality of the group who are to receive the prophetic utterance) in order to receive and bring back a message from this domain of the ‘other’ to the intended recipients.

In assessing what is to be understood by the term prophecy in our current context, it is important to firstly draw a distinction between the concepts of prophecy and divination. Prophecy is not synonymous with forecasting future events or unveiling some degree of obscured knowledge (although it can include these elements) but rather is taken to be the voice of God speaking through the medium of the prophet. Stemming from the Greek word prophētēs in which the prefix pro means ‘forth’, the label prophet signifies “a preacher, a forthteller rather than a foreteller”(Lindblom, 1967, p. 1). The term ‘prophecy’ itself, as Geoffrey Ashe points out, means inspired utterance and signifies direct speech imparting a message rather than an omen or other signifier that needs to be interpreted by the practitioner: “An omen is not a message. It simply happens. It works, if it does, for no definable reason. A correct forecast based on it may owe something to insight on the diviner’s part, as in successful fortune-telling. But no gods goddesses or spirits need be involved….” (Ashe, 2002, p. 1). Prophecy can thus be seen to be distinct from divination in the classical sense but to still classifiable as one of the two main types of divination - deductive and intuitive

In principle, two types of divination can be distinguished: deductive and intuitive (or inspired) divination. Deductive divination tries to divine the transcendent and/or the future by analysing material means which can easily be manipulated by the divine to communicate its intentions…Intuitive divination does not use material means but relies solely on different types of visions and/or auditions. (Lange, 2007, p. 463).

Prophecy then, is a form of intuitive divination occupying a place at the end of a defined spectrum along which are also situated the divinatory arts and with which there is often considerable overlap. It has been defined as a “direct communication from a divine source which supersedes human will or inference” (Voss, 2015, p. 233). Nevertheless, there are numerous examples in the lives of the Old Testament prophets where divinatory practices are clearly identifiable but these are subsumed to the motif of God relaying a message to humanity. For example “in the Old Testament we commonly meet the expression ‘to enquire of Yahweh’, a technical term for taking steps to acquire an oracle” (Porter,1981, p. 205) but, here again, it is the ‘message’ from Yahweh that situates the practice in the category of intuitive as opposed to deductive divination. It can be seen then that, in terms of the Old Testament tradition, it is the provenance of the prophecy (i.e. God) that marks it out as legitimate rather than the means utilised to obtain the result. That it so to say “the mode employed to make divination does not have any relationship with its provenance, and it therefore offers no guide to its discrimination as truth. What matters for the Israelites and the editors of the sacred texts is the certainty that this is indeed Yahweh who responds”. (Cornelius,2015, p. 4). Indeed, many of the practices employed by the prophets (retiring to a sacred space to sleep and dream(1) for example or the consultation of the urim and thummim) would be regarded as deductive divination if removed from their context. Another key correlation between divination and the function of prophecy is that of the double process “if there is indeed a marked altered state of consciousness – the ‘divine frenzy – then the inspiration must be moderated by ordinary speech if the Pythia is to make herself intelligible – or is to be made fully intelligible – to the enquirer” (Cornelius, 2014, pp. 5-6). This double process - essentially to both provide the sign or omen and its interpretation - has been shown by Porter to be a marked motif of Old Testament prophecy

To give such signs in response to enquiries was an accepted part of the prophetic function; king Ahaz was told by Isaiah to ask ‘Yahweh your God for a sign, from lowest Sheol or from highest heaven’. In particular, the prophets often provided such signs themselves, when, in the grip of ecstasy they performed strange and unusual symbolic actions which caught the attention of the public and guaranteed to them the authenticity of the interpretation of the sign, as an indication of what was going to happen. (Porter, 1981, p. 210)

The question of the legitimacy of the prophets from an Old Testament perspective is a complex one and it should not be assumed that the figure of the prophet held over time an unshifting legitimised status as the messenger of God (i.e. a position synonymous to that occupied by Muhammad in Islamic tradition) nor that, paradoxically, prophets were the only individuals that could prophesy or speak for God. As we have seen above, the sole criteria for the authenticity of prophetic utterance in ancient Israel was that the prophet spoke on behalf of Yahweh rather than the means by which they did so, but sometimes, historically, the identification of Yahweh’s ‘true voice’, as it were, has been highly influenced by shifts in political and religious trends. The Bible scholar M. J. de Jong has convincingly shown that the two prophetic modalities outlined in the Old Testament - prophecy of judgment and prophecy of salvation - are not two distinct competing types of prophecy as commonly argued but rather are separate manifestations of the same impulse and that “prophecy is to be seen as a multifaceted phenomenon which could include messages of encouragement, support, warning, criticism, and reproach” (de Jong, 2012, p. 26). The distinction between these two divergent typologies and their consequent framing within a true/false binary construct is drawn from (but not, in de Jong’s view, supported by) the Biblical texts themselves which contrasts the ‘true’ prophecy of judgement with the ‘false’ prophecy of peace. De Jong argues I part that this perception arose after the fall of Jerusalem in the 6thCentury BCE when the prophets had wrongly prophesied that no disaster would occur - d despite the sinful state of the people which would traditionally be an indication that some form of similar punishment would indeed come to pass

Reflection on the disastrous events of the sixth century found different expressions. One variant was blaming the prophets. The prophets, as it was judged in retrospect, had encouraged king and people and proclaimed the well-being of the state, despitethe grave sins of the people. Instead of warning the people of the coming disaster, the prophets had falsely encouraged them. From there, it was only a small step to conclude that the falseness of the prophets had caused the disaster. (de Jong, 2006, p. 252).

According to de Jong then, this failure led to the prophets gaining the repute of firstly being untrustworthy and then later as being actively deceitful. Nevertheless, the functionsfulfilled by the prophets were still necessary, even if the prophets themselves were in disfavour, and so the prophetic mantle was, for a time, vested on figures and individuals who were explicitly distanced from existing ideas of prophethood and even portrayed as not being prophets at all. A clear example of this can be found in the figure of Amos (Amos 7:12-13) as cited by de Jong (de Jong, 2006, p. 248), who is made to say “I am no prophet (nābî’), nor a prophet’s son (ben nābî’); but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, Yahweh took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy (nb’ni.) to my people Israel.” Further examples include that of Jeremiah who, again, is not portrayed as a prophet but one who is prophesying againstthe prophets who are “positioned in contrast to a hostile and godless establishment, of which the prophets as officials are part” (ibid.). The situation here is more complex than the prophetic mandate being removed from one group and assigned to another. As de Jong points out, the issue is not one of ‘false’ prophets versus ‘true’ prophets and that the two have merely swapped positions in the overall narrative, rather, in some sense allthe prophets are legitimate but not all are equally reliable and certainly not all have the backing of Yahweh. Citing the passages referencing Elijah versus the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) de Jong shows that Baal’s prophets are not viewed as false per se and that they even had a form of divine inspiration; albeit a deliberately misleading one

the four hundred prophets are not depicted as ‘false prophets’, but simply as ‘prophets’ that, for a particular reason, are deliberately misinformed by Yahweh. An interesting element here is the ‘spirit’ becoming “a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” ... This element functions as an explanation for the fact that all the prophets (including Micaiah himself, in v. 15!) have delivered an illusory and deceptive message to the king ... So the question of reliability is at stake - the issue whether a prophetic message can be relied upon, or, in caseof several, conflicting messages, which one is most trustworthy - but there is not the issue of ‘true versus false prophecy’. (de Jong, 2012, p. 27).

The book of Deuteronomy outlines two criteria for validating prophecy; firstly, if a prophet spoke to lead people away from Yahweh such a prophet was necessarily false and, secondly, if a prophetic utterance did not come to pass then it was not from Yahweh and, again, identifiable as false. It will clearly be seen that these two legal rulings are not sophisticated enough to function in anything higher than the most rudimentary cases and certainly lack the nuance to be successfully applied in situations such as those cited above. This may not have mattered in the societal contexts in which the Prophets were operating and it was perhaps not of primary importance that the ruling

did not take into account the fact that a genuine prophet might on occasion be false and a so-called in-authentic prophet might speak the truth…The distinguishing features between prophets who declared ‘Yahweh will save his people’ and prophets who proclaimed ‘Yahweh will destroy his people’ were complex matters of judgement that few communities can have had the time or the ability to work out. (Carroll, 1979, pp. 186-187).

It can be seen that the Deuteronomy rulings are less about providing a means to authenticate prophecy than they are about reinforcing a specific view ofprophecy. Indeed, from one perspective, no method of authentication was needed because once it had been established that the prophets in the past hadprophesied destruction should the people not heed Yahweh’s word and that such destruction had indeed occurred then, these prophets became the benchmark, they were the “authentic prophets and by their criteria all the others were necessarily false. Deuteronomy legislated in the service of a particular view of prophecy… Beyond that it was not interested in providing a sophisticated discussion of prophetic complexities.” (Carroll, 1979, p. 188).


  1. It should be noted that although such elements are clearly related to divinatory practice in Classical contexts, Christian tradition in particular does not necessarily view the two as related and would see a prophetic dream or vision purely as God approaching the prophet rather than the prophet preparing himself to be ready to receive a message. The prophet’s initial approach or preparation to an interaction with God is subsumed in toto and reframed as God being the sole mover and the prophet a passive receiver with any dream or divinatory practice being part of God’s call and expression.
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