prophet [Gr.,=foreteller], a religious leader and spokesperson, particularly used in the Bible. The prophets emitted messages from the divine through inspired speech, the interpretation of omens and dreams, and the casting of lots and divination. The word derives from Greek cults, in which prophets interpreted answers to questions put to oracular mediums (see oracles). The concept of a divine interpreter is common in religion, yet the function varies according to culture; thus the term can be defined only with respect to a particular religion. Usually prophet connotes inspired utterance of a spontaneous nature, while priest suggests established ritual duties.
The Prophetic Tradition in the Ancient Middle East
Prophets are clearly evident in Mesopotamia from the first centuries of the 2d millennium BC They are mentioned in texts from Emar, Egypt, and Aram, as well as from Assyria during the Old Testament period. In Assyria, prophets appear to have been closely associated with the court, delivering oracles regarding the prospects of foreign policies.
The phenomenon of prophetic speech is also present in Israel from the monarchical era to the post-exilic era. Court prophets (e.g., Nathan), as well as unofficial prophets (e.g., Amos) are attested. Not all the prophets of Israel left deposits of oracles. The most extensive of the collections are found in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The title of prophet is also accorded to others of varying importance, e.g., Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, and Jehu. Certain of their divine mission to purify Israel's religion, the prophets attacked many aspects of people's lives and came forward as the advocates of the poor and oppressed and as the leaders in social reform. According to them, Israel could be reconciled with God only by complete purification in religion and in the state. It is part of traditional Christian belief, found in the Nicene Creed and Second Peter, that the Holy Spirit "spoke through the prophets" concerning the intentions of God for his people.
In Christianity and Islam
In the New Testament, the term prophecy is used of enthusiastic, presumably inspired utterances. This tradition was perpetuated in Montanism, an early Christian sect (late 2d cent. AD). Such prophecy has a somewhat dubious history in Christianity (e.g., in Joachim of Floris and Joanna Southcott), but there have been millennialists and miracle-working preachers among the unassailably orthodox (e.g., St. Vincent Ferrer). Some varieties of Protestantism have emphasized "inspired" utterances or behavior; the most spectacular were the Anabaptists (e.g., Thomas Münzer and John of Leiden). Emanuel Swedenborg and Joseph Smith are examples of self-proclaimed prophets who came out of Protestant backgrounds. Islam confesses Muhammad as the last and greatest of prophets. He gathered a community based on his being the divine messenger of the final revelation of God.
Among Native Americans
Native American prophets resembled the great prophets of Israel in preaching a definite message; the ordinary medicinal healer (see shaman) had no such role. The Native American prophet in the late 18th and the 19th cent. normally foretold the regeneration of the indigenous peoples and the recapture of lands from the settlers, provided that Native Americans accepted the idea of ethnic brotherhood and that they follow prescribed religious practices. Frequently prophets were connected with their military leaders, such as the Delaware Prophet with Pontiac, and the Shawnee Prophet with his brother, Tecumseh. Two later prophets of renown were Smohalla and Wovoka (of the Ghost Dance).
See R. R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (1980); D. E. Aune, Prophecy in Society in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (1983); J. Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (1983); J. Barton, Oracles of God (1986).