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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

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Prophecy

Deborah W. Rooke

Introduction

Which Books are ‘Prophecy’?

According to Jewish tradition, the canon of the Hebrew Bible which forms the basis of the Christian Old Testament is divided into three parts: Law, Prophets, and Writings. The division known as ‘Prophets’ consists of the historical books Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings (also known collectively as the ‘Former Prophets’) as well as the books more commonly recognized as prophetic by Christianity: that is, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the so-called Book of the Twelve, from Hosea to Malachi. These fifteen works from Isaiah to Malachi are also known collectively as the ‘Latter Prophets’. However, even though prophets appear quite frequently in Joshua–2 Kings, in terms of literary genre these books are not prophecy but historiography, and so the focus of the present discussion will be on the the Latter Prophets, consisting of the three major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi. This list does not include Daniel, which in the eyes both of the ancients and of modern scholarship belongs in a literary context other than that of prophecy. The Hebrew/Aramaic book of Daniel is located in the division of the Hebrew canon known as the Writings rather than in the Prophets, and modern critical scholarship has pointed to features of the book that differentiate it from prophecy as traditionally understood and associate it rather with apocalyptic writings of a relatively late date.

The present discussion will attempt to give an (inevitably brief) overview of scholarly issues that pertain to the prophetic books in general, as well as highlighting issues that are particularly associated with individual books.

Prophecy as a Literary Phenomenon

When thinking about prophecy as it appears in the Hebrew Bible, it is necessary to recognize that the written deposit known as ‘prophecy’ is different from the socio-religious phenomenon of prophetic intermediation upon which the written deposit claims to be based. Indeed, the relationship between individuals who functioned as prophets and the books in which (some of) their words are now supposedly embedded is highly complex, not to say obscure. The prophetic books are far from being mere transcriptions of a given prophet's words; rather, they are sophisticated literary products that have undergone an extended process of development, as is evident from their content and structure.

In the first place, the presence of headings at the start of individual books, giving the name of the prophet and often some kind of date for the period of that prophet's activity, is an indication that someone other than the prophets themselves has annotated the material, perhaps in order to contextualize it or to claim for it the authority of divine inspiration. Such contextualization, whether or not it is based upon reliable factual information, inevitably affects the way in which the material is appropriated by the reader—an observation underlying the exchange between Auld (1983) and Carroll (1983) as to whether the prophets were always viewed (or viewed themselves) as prophets. Headings also punctuate the main body of some of the books, indicating that the editing process was more thoroughgoing than the simple ‘labelling’ involved in naming and dating the prophet whose words are supposedly contained in any given collection.

As well as headings, and alongside the oracular material that represents the prophet's own message, there are various different types of material in the body of the books that can reasonably be accounted for only as stemming from a source other than the prophets themselves. The prime example of this is third-person biographical narratives about the prophets. Such narratives occur most notably in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, although biographical elements are also present to a lesser extent in Hosea and Amos. The exact source of such narrative material is often unclear, and its historical reliability cannot be taken for granted. In an extreme example of this, the book of Jonah consists entirely of third-person narrative about the prophet. Some of the books also contain first-person narrative, which has traditionally been thought of as more historically reliable than third-person narrative, but, as with the third-person narrative, its historicity should not be presumed.

As well as non-oracular material that is unlikely to have originated with the prophets themselves, most if not all of the prophetic books are also thought to contain expansions and supplementations of the oracular material. More will be said about this below; but for the moment, the point is that prophetic books are not simply a straightforward record of a single prophet's words. Rather, they are elaborate literary creations, and their existence and character owes just as much, if not more, to people other than the prophet whose words they supposedly represent.

Over the last 150 years or so, critical scholarship has responded to the literary phenomenon of prophecy in two different ways broadly speaking. With the rise of so-called historical-critical methodologies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholarship was primarily concerned to identify the particular situations to which prophetic material was addressed and to strip away the secondary accretions in the prophetic books so as to reconstruct each prophet's original words—tasks which went hand in hand with each other. However, under the influence of changing intellectual attitudes that are both more cautious about the possibility of large-scale historical reconstruction and more sensitive to the immensely complex ways in which texts function, recent scholarship is increasingly focusing on the prophetic books as they stand, in an attempt to understand them as literary entities in their own right, rather than as sources of information regarding a set of historical circumstances which are now lost to us. That is not to say that historical research on the prophetic texts has ceased; rather, that it is now being complemented by other approaches that reflect the paradigm shift taking place in biblical studies as a whole.

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