Inter-testamental Reflections on Prophecy and Canon

Recently, I had the chance to teach Old Testament (Biblical) Theology  at a local Bible College here in the Philippines. I usually teach Missions, and Pastoral Care on occasion, so it was rather exciting.septuagint

As I was preparing, and as I was teaching, several interesting things struck me. I won’t go into everything here, but I was struck by some aspects of the Bible as the Inter-testamental period was approaching. They are rather related, and tied to issues of Prophecy and Canon.

  1.  The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) does have a feel of ending a plot line as we reach the post-exile. If one looks at Hosea (a book NOT from this period), Hosea’s rocky marriage feels like the history of God with Israel– as it was meant to. But in the exile, one feels like one has hit the resolution of the crisis, in a narrative plot— followed by the gradual restoration. With Nehemiah, one reaches the denoument. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abram a vast people and a land. This was fulfilled and restored. With the Mosaic Covenant, the people are, finally, throwing away their idols and seeking God (Yahweh), trying to abide by the Law (terms of the treaty with God). The promised dwelling of God with Israel, evidenced in the tabernacle and the first temple– and lost with the exile– is seen as restored with the second temple.
  2. There is a transition from the oral prophetic word to the written canon. This can be seen, for example, in II Baruch 85:3, “But now, the righteous have been assembled, and the prophets are sleeping. Also we have left our land, and Zion has been taken away from us, and we have nothing now apart from YAHWEH the Mighty One and HIS Torah” Additionally, Babylonian Talmud Sotah 48b, states that when Malachi died, “the Holy Spirit departed from Israel”…. meaning, I suppose, that there was no more prophetic witness. Tied to that was the role of Ezra, as well as new institutions to support the written word, including the Sanhedrin, synagogues, and rabbinical schools. People like to argue when the OT books were written… but the Torah appears as if it must predate considerably the exile (and I, personally, have no problem with it being penned primarily by Moses). The Deuteronomistic history is completed during the Exile, and the history of the Chronicler appears, based on the geneologies, to have been completed around 400BC. This transitio relates to the change of attitude of the people. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the people seem to be generally surprised and saddened at their faithlessness when read the Book of Deuteronomy. Knowing the unreliability of prophets (perhaps, especially, court prophets), the written word, canon, provided a stabler ground for their beliefs and ethics.
  3. There is a strong case for “Unfinished Business.” The Abrahamic Covenant wasn’t fully met. It would be difficult to say that through Abraham’s seed, all of the nations of the world were blessed by the time the Hebrew Bible was completed. The Davidic Covenant did not appear to have been fully met, with an unending dynasty. The New Covenant of Jeremiah (and related ideas in Ezekiel) did not appear to be fully established either. Finally, the lack of prophecy at this time was directly stated to be a temporary thing as both Joel and Malachi look forward to the restoration of visions and prophecy.
  4. The Septuagint established the precedent for the translatability of God’s Word. This is no minor thing. Even though the Jews did back away from it 300 years later, the pattern had been set. And Christians, despite some embracing “sacred languages” or “inspired translations” over time, generally recognized that God’s revelation is still God’s revelation even in translation. This is HUGE. In general, Islam never really made that leap. Truthfully, they really should have. There are no true “heart language” readers of 4th century BC Hebrew, 1st Century Koine Greek, or 7th century Arabic… so readers of Holy texts in the original must always translate to some extent. So the question is not whether translation is good or bad. Rather, the question is “Who should do the translation– unskilled readers, or skilled translators?”

So why does this all matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but it does for me.

  • The Hebrew Bible does really seem to set the stage for a New Covenant (as Jeremiah describes it). It seems like the end of a story arc, but much like the seasonal finale in a TV series, establishes hints as to what the new season will reveal and develop.
  • There is something healthy about the transition from oral prophecy to written canon. The focus on written canon appeared to be good for the Jewish people, providing a better standard for conduct. This is hardly surprising. Prophets were often unreliable in the Old Testament because of the temptation to say what what is not true. Some were false prophets because they were spokesmen for a false god, while others were false prophets in that they claimed to speak for God (Yahweh) but said what the people wanted to hear rather than what God needed them to hear.
  • The replacement of prophets with canon repeated itself in the New Testament time,  with claims of false prophets and false Christs. The Didache warned of prophets and apostles who were false due to improper motivations. Into the 2nd and 3rd centuries, prophets and apostles faded away, as the canon of NT Scripture, and the leadership structure of churches began to take away much of the need for these other offices. Some of the problems may be control issues between churchplantes/apostles and local churches (sodality versus modality structures), and a similar thing could be of prophets and local churches. The growth of cultic schisms in the second century led to a focus on determining a written canon. It also led to the idea of “apostolic succession”– establishing a ecclesio-geneological canon of sorts.
  • The growth today of the tendency of some denominations to embrace prophets and prophecy again– particularly among “Restorationist” groups, can be a bit troubling as the problems of the past have roots that can still resurface in the present. A fascination with prophecy (whether foretelling or forthtelling) still tempts people to fake it, saying what people want to hear. American “prophets” love to come to the Philippines to tell local Christians what they want to hear. The fascination with the contemporaneity and novelty of “new revelations” (and “secret knowledge”) can dull people to the reliable (but old) canon of the written word. I recall an acquaintance of mine who was attending a “prophecy” conference in the US. A self-styled prophet gave my friend a whole bunch of “prophecies” regarding the Philippines to take back here and publish. I just haven’t seen a good track record with these things, and considering the number of Christians living in the Philippines, if for some reason God decided that his written revelation and Spirit-illumination were inadequate, it seems pretty likely he would find a messenger who was local. But I could be wrong. (There is also a movement to create “Apostles” again as an office… but since the role has essentially nothing to do with the original NT role/office, it hardly deserves comment.)
  • The Septuagint, as well as the Jerusalem Council makes it clear that written canon does not mean ossified written relics. Canon is both translatable and contextualizable. As such, it has the qualities of both permanency and dynamism. The permanancy provides a better foundation to base one’s faith and action on, while the dynamism provides unique applicability to unique cultural circumstances.

I guess, in the end, I would say that a transition from oral prophecy to written canon is a good thing, and seeking to reverse it is going backwards, in more than one way.


 

The Problem with Prophets… a Missiological Look

Prophet Elijah, Russian Orthodox icon from fir...
The Prophet Elijah  Image via Wikipedia

The term prophet is used in different ways by different people. Technically, a prophet is simply someone who gives the message of God… outside of the local church hierarchy. But it is commonly used by people as someone who “gives new and authoritative revelation to the people.” While I don’t care for this definition (neither do I like the present use of the term “apostle” that has to do more with 3rd century than first century usage) but we have to accept the reality that a word means how it is used by the people.  Humpty Dumpty said (according to Lewis Carroll)  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But for shared conversation, we have to agree on meaning on some level.

Self-described prophets cause problems in missions. Here is why.  A prophecy is supposed to be the revelation (message) of God. So is the Bible.

Which one takes the place of supremacy? When I was in the military, documents there have a section on supercession. That is, where there is conflict in military documents or regulations, which one is to be followed. Most Christians would say that the Bible is the standard by which prophecies must be judged (there seems adequate Biblical support for this both in the Old and New Testament). But consider what happens in practice.

A message has several components. Among these are:

-Content-

-Source Context-

-Recipient Context-

-Feedback (clarification, interpretation)-

-Transmission (medium)-

Suppose the content of the message in the Bible is radically different from the message of a self-described prophet?

For both, the recipient context is the same (the culture of the hearer) for a given situation. However, the source context is radically different. For the “prophet,” the context is local and contemporary. For the Bible, the  context is distant both in locale/culture and in time.

Likewise, the transmission is radically different. The transmission is short for the “prophet”. It might be as short as from mouth of one to the ear of another. For the Bible, the transmission is through many centuries of copyists. Further, the feedback is greatly different. The “prophet” can provide immediate and authoritative feedback/clarification/interpretation of his own “prophecies”.  The Bible was written millenia ago so clarification and interpretation is through others living today, and no reputable Biblical scholar would describe his own interpretation as absolutely authoritative.

What is the result? In practice, to accept a “prophet” as being authoritative today means to replace the Bible’s authority with that of this “prophet”. When content differs, it can argue that we don’t understand the source context of the Bible. Or one can argue that the transmission of the Bible was flawed. Or one can argue that interpretation of the Bible is in error. On the other hand, since the “prophet” lives in the now, and can provide his own interpretation, he provides his closed loop of authority and reliability.

Of course, one might argue that the advantages that the prophet today has over the Bible should make one question why we rely on the Bible.

Ultimately, it boils down to ultimate authority and reliability. From an authority, standpoint, the Bible is not authoritative because it claims to be the Word of God. Many books make similar claims, and many prophets (of many flavors) claim to serve as God’s voice. I would argue, that it rests on the resurrection of Christ. Jesus made very bold claims about his own authority, and even his divinity (I think even those who would argue about divinity would agree that many of his statements would be so interpreted by the listeners at that time). He was then crucified… arguably an appropriate divine judgment for one who was guilty of false prophecy and blasphemy. However, the resurrection demonstrates that he wasn’t under divine judgment, but in fact had divine approval. So we take Jesus’ message seriously as having divine authority. That would include the Hebrew Bible (that Jesus declared as authoritative), his words in the Gospels, and the words of his immediate followers (in the New Testament). More subjectively, the Holy Bible has been found reliable by millions over 2000 years. Not a bad track record.

The authority and reliability of self-styled prophets is often lacking… often circular at best. I am thinking of one here in Asia. He makes a lot of generally vague open-ended cries of judgment on people unless they repent. When something bad happens that can be loosely linked to one of his statements… it is used to suggest authority and reliability. When even these vague statements cannot be linked to any calamity, it is not seen as questioning authority and reliability, but evidence that the potential victims repented.

Is this a problem in missions?  You bet! Consider some history. If one goes back to the founding prophet of Islam, one sees the same problem. The Bible/Injil is revered, but is not used as an authoritative text. That is because the content of the Bible disagrees on many points with the two authoritative documents of Islam. Mormonism has a similar situation. Its prophets created their own three authoritative texts to add to the Bible. However, these three are placed  over the Bible in authority… once again because of clashing content. Islamic and Mormon scholars study and use the Bible, but for interfaith dialogue and apologetics, not for seeking an authoritative message from God (Allah/Elohim).

Of course, the Quran and Book of Mormon (and more) have aged considerably and are now also prime targets themselves. But “new prophets” are today a great challenge on the mission field. In the Philippines many of these self-styled prophets have arisen. A common theme for many of them here, strangely, is the focus on the New Israel or the New Jerusalem. Perhaps, since the Philippines is described as the only “Christian” nation in Asia (ignoring Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Timor L’este as well large regions in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, and South Korea)  the idea of the Philippines either being the New Israel, or being the site of the New Jerusalem, is oddly alluring. A similar belief swept through Great Britain and the US in the past… but its appeal appears to be on the decline.

Is this a big problem or a harmless novelty? In some cases, it is clearly a problem. One of these prophets has set himself up as the new Christ. Another has done the opposite… lowered Christ to his own level. Others have very strange beliefs but time will tell whether they are damaging, harmless, or even helpful in God’s mission. When I arrived in the Philippines, Christian churches were sharing a “prophecy” given by an American “prophet” that spoke as to how the Philippines would be a great nation of Christians spreading His Word throughout the world (I have long since forgotten the wording). Is this prophecy? motivational affirmations? shameless pandering? I don’t know.

Are there prophets today? Sure, there are people that give God’s message to the people. Are there people who give new and authoritative revelations from God to the people today. I have my doubts. And even if there are… I think doubt is a very good thing. A healthy reliance on the Bible and a healthy skepticism of self-described prophets is needed both at home and in the mission field.