Should Jesus be seen as a first-century Palestinian prophet?

However we define Jesus’ prophetic ministry, it is quite clear that he had one. But how similar was it to his contemporaries’? In this essay, we will start by looking at the claims that Jesus was a prophet, and then briefly look at the argument that prophecy was believed to have ceased by the first century. We will then go on to look at several different prophets mentioned in Josephus and compare the things which they are said to have taught or done to what is claimed about Jesus in the gospels and see how Jesus compares to other contemporary prophets.

No-one doubts that Jesus was seen to be a prophet because there is simply so much evidence in the gospels. Many times, Jesus calls himself a prophet or is called a prophet by others. This is especially surprising when we compare it to the early church which never explicitly calls Jesus a prophet outside the gospels (the only exception is Acts 3:22-23 about the fulfilment of Deut 18:18). When we compare this with the references to Jesus as “Messiah? or “Son of God? in the NT, we see that the early church had moved on from the idea of Jesus being “just a prophet?. Therefore, any such references in the gospels should have a strong claim to historicity because the early church had long ago stopped using this term for Jesus, and if they did there is a risk that people would have misunderstood it and thought they were only claiming Jesus as a prophet. A particularly strong example of this is in Luke 7 where Jesus has just resurrected a widow’s son and the people are reported to have said ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ (Lk 7:16). Had this been touched by the early church we would surely expect them to replace ‘prophet’ with ‘Messiah’ or ‘king’ or some such term. Some of the tradition suggests that Jesus was put to death on the charge of being a false prophet (e.g. Mk 14:58-9), but even if this was the case it is clear that it was only a trumped up charge, that many people followed him because they believed him to be a true prophet, and that he was vindicated by his subsequent resurrection.

It is also surprising that there is not much evidence for the early church claiming that Jesus was the fulfilment of the prophet that Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18-19. Given that most Jews seem to have been reading these verses with an expectation of a Prophet to come, for example the Qumran community shall follow the Laws “until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel? (1QS 9:11). This is particularly surprising because the early church majors on Jesus fulfilling the OT (e.g. the 11 “fulfilment quotations? in Matthew’s gospel). Perhaps the only explicit mention of Jesus as the Prophet other than the Acts reference above is in John 6:14 when Jesus has fed the 5000 people and they say “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world?. So, Jesus was seen by the early church as being the fulfilment of Deuteronomy 18, but they did not seem to consider that particularly important compared to some of the other things they were claiming for him.

Before we can look at some of Jesus’ contemporaries who were called prophets, we must consider an old claim that people believed prophecy had ceased. There are certain texts (e.g. 1 Mac and the Rabbinic writings) which seem to claim that prophecy had ceased. The Rabbis later claimed that it had been replaced by Bath Qol (“Daughter of the voice?): “since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the holy spirit ceased from Israel, but they received messages by means of a heavenly voice? (tSot. 13.2). We see this idea appear in the NT, for example at Jesus’ baptism “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’? (Mk 1:11 cf. the transfiguration in 9:7). There is an interesting story (bBM. 59b) about the voice in which Rabbi Eliezar ben Hyracus is debating halakhah (legal reasoning) with his colleagues. He runs out of arguments and so performs a miracle, only to be told that that is not a valid argument. He then exclaims “If my teaching is correct, may it be proved by Heaven!? and a voice from above declares “What have you against Rabbi Eliezar, for his teaching is correct??. However, this voice is not accepted by a valid argument because according to the Bible, decisions are meant to be reached by a vote! We also read that “the Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest for ever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise? (1 Mac 14:41). Despite these objections, it is reasonably easy to see why these texts took the position that prophecy had ceased: the Rabbis wanted the authority to rest upon the scriptures and not on modern-day prophets, and 1 Mac was written to support the Hasmonean dynasty – you don’t want prophets pronouncing judgement against the rulers and creating instability. There is also quite a lot of evidence that people did go around claiming to be prophets, and being accepted by most people as such.

We shall now look at the features of some of Jesus’ contemporary prophets were. A prophet is defined to be someone who is God’s mouthpiece on earth. From this, it may be argued that many of the people we will consider below were never mentioned specifically as a “prophet? but simply as miracle workers or exorcists. However, in the OT tradition, many prophets were able to perform miraculous signs and wonders (as we shall see), usually to go alongside their message from God, or as a kind of non-verbal message; for example healing could be considered to be a sign of God’s restoration of his people. In any case, healing or other supernatural gifts are given from God, and the miracles were an intrinsic part of Jesus’ ministry as a prophet (it was never really claimed that the miracles “proved? that he was the ‘Son of God’, simply that he had the authority of God at work through him). Therefore, it seems best to consider all these supernatural workers as doing a prophetic ministry, which we can then compare to Jesus’ own. We will look at five of the features of the prophets which we know about: their ability to perform miracles and exorcise demons, their message, their symbolic actions and their followers.

Firstly, miracles. We have records of Honi the Circle-Drawer (mTaan 3:8), who seems to be the same as Josephus’ Onias in Ant. 14:22-24, a prophet who died just before 63BC when Jerusalem was invaded by Pompey. The two short accounts of him both contain the story that he was able to pray for rain during a drought and it came. Because of his ability to do this, when the city of Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans, the people dragged him from his hiding place at about the time of passover and commanded him to curse Aristobulus. He refused and was stoned to death. It is also written that “no man has existed comparable to Elijah and Honi the Circle-Drawer, causing mankind to serve God? (Gen. R. 13:7). In a similar vein, there is another prophet called Hanina, living sometime in the first century, in the region of Sepphoris (very near Nazareth), who is reported to have stopped the rain while he walked home and started it again once he was indoors. He was also bitten by a snake, and the snake died (yBer. 9a, tBer. 2:20, bBer. 33a and others), There is also a report of him healing a man at a distance with a method very similar to Elijah (bBer 34b, cf 1 Ki 18:42), and several other accounts of his miraculous works. These collections of miracle stories sound very similar to those attributed to Elijah both in terms of method and effect. He was able to control the weather (1 Ki 17:1-7, 18:41-45), and even raise a person from the dead (1 Ki 17:17-24)! Jesus is recorded many times in the gospels of being able to heal people, raise them from the dead and even control the weather.

There also seems to be a specific line of people having the gift of exorcism. The best person, whom Josephus claims to have seen performing these rites was named Eleazar. “he used to put a ring that had a root … to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils? and he also sometimes “set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon as he went out of the man to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man? (Ant. 8:46-48). There are also reports of the Pharisees and other people performing exorcisms in the gospels and Acts (e.g. Lk 11:19, Acts 19:13-16). Jesus seems greater than these exorcists because he simply rebukes the demon and it leaves, rather than having a long conversation with it or concocting some magic remedy.

Another feature of prophets is their message. In the OT, prophets were used to give warning or comfort to Israel or a particular person. We don’t have any record of a particular message of the aforementioned prophets, although as in one of the quotes they did cause mankind to serve God, which is one of the roles of a prophet. Many prophets in the first century seem to have had a message of woe for Israel, for example Josephus tells the story of Jesus ben Ananus who, for seven and a half years cried “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!? despite being flogged and in other ways punished (Jos War. 6:6.3). We also have the example of John the Baptist in the gospels and corroborated by Josephus (Ant. 18:5.2). However, in the case of John, his message was a mixed one. He preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lu 3:3), but also a message of woe for all those who did not repent (Lu 3:7-9). In these terms, he is the closest prophet that we know about to the OT paradigm, which is of course what the gospel writers were trying to say. We also know that some of the other prophets around at the time had a message, or a claimed revelation (e.g. Theudas or the Egyptian), however we don’t know the content of the message merely that they claimed a sign would be produced by God. There is obviously great debate as to what Jesus’ message was, and how accurately it was recorded in the NT, but it was understood in the early church in a similar way to John’s: repent and your sins will be forgiven; but woe to you if you refuse to do so (e.g. Acts 2 and many of Jesus’ parables).

The fourth feature of the first century prophets is that they generally used symbolic actions. Looking at John again, we see that he was offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This was a very bold political and theological statement as Tom Wright says, “anyone offering water-baptism for the forgiveness of sins was saying : you can have, here and now, what you would normally get through the Temple cult? (JVG p.160). In a similar manner, Theudas (Jos. Ant. 20:5.1) took a great crowd of people to the Jordan and said that he would part the water, obviously evoking memories of Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 14. This symbolic action was intended to be understood that he was going to be the person who would lead the “slaves? of Israel away from the foreign oppressors. No wonder Fadus quickly slaughtered many of them. Similarly, the Egyptian (Ant. 20:8.6, Acts 21:38) promised his followers that after leaving Jerusalem, he would say the word, and the city walls would collapse, brining to mind the memory of the Israelite victory over Jericho in Joshua 6. This symbolised the re-conquest of the land for the Israelites of the present generation and the expulsion and slaughter of it’s pagan inhabitants. Similarly, Jesus is also recorded of having done such symbolic actions, for example going up a high hill to teach his disciples (Mt 5:1,2 reminiscent of the giving of the law in Ex 20ff), entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, by which he claimed to be it’s true king (Mk 11:1-11 fulfilling Zech 9:9) and feeding the multitude in the wilderness with ‘bread from heaven’ (Mk 6:30-44 re-enacting Ex 16).

The final feature of many of these prophets is that crowds of people followed them around. This is certainly true of John, the Egyptian and Theudas. In effect, these people following were being declared to be the “true? Israel. In the last two cases, they were following people who claimed to be sent from God to lead Israel out of her slavery, and in the case of John, Israel was being redefined to be those who repented and were baptised. Jesus also had a similar community of followers, although again he has even more symbolism with them, having 12 close disciples (symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel).

In conclusion, Jesus’ prophetic ministry surpasses all his contemporaries that we know about. Everything they did, he is recorded as having done more of and in more amazing ways. Jesus seems also to have modelled his prophetic ministry on the OT prophets as well. From this, it is easy to understand the Christian tradition that Jesus was seen as ‘fulfilling’ scripture; the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the NT is the climax of the whole prophetic movement that we know of. Of course, later Christianity took Jesus as being the telos of this tradition because they believed that prophecy was reporting the message of God, and yet Jesus was God incarnate.

Vermes, Geza. 1983. Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. 2nd edn. London: SCM
Wright, N. T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God 3. London: SPCK.

3 thoughts on “Should Jesus be seen as a first-century Palestinian prophet?”

  1. That was an interesting article.

    I would like to add that Jesus was not the true leader of “his” movement, at least not in the beginning. John the Baptist was the leader of this movement. He actually lived how a “true” holy man was expected to live (as opposed to the hypocritical Sadducees and pharacees who lived in luxury). He wore animal skins and ate locust and honey. He lived in the desert as a hermit. Anyone could see that he really belived his spirituality and did not just talk about it, because of this he drew huge crowds and this was why he was excecuted, not because a pretty girl asked him.

    When Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized, he just got in line with everybody else. There is no special circumstance or notable difference in Jesus’ baptism and hundreds of others that day. The voice from heaven could not have happened and was injected into this scene by Luke in order to make Jesus’ otherwise mundane experience, notable. But all this was written after the fact and with a specific agenda in mind. If there was a voice, John the Baptist might have commented on it.

    In Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches to sinners including tax collectors and soldiers, just like Jesus would later do. He also speaks in parables like Jesus would later do. This is just one record of his preaching to the public. There must be many more that the bible did not record or edited to diminish john’s importance.

    Only after John was excecuted did Jesus become the leader of the movement. The bible goes through great lengths to make John the “preparer” for the true messiah, Jesus. But John was not preparing the way for Jesus, he was preparing the way for the lord god himself, for the final judgement.

    It is pretty clear that his metaphor about the tree that does not bear good fruit, that it will be cut down and thrown into the fire. He was talking about the final judgment, not another prophet that was to come. Every prophet that ever appeared in Jewish history has been concerned with only one issue, repent (because we assume mankind is evil) or be thrown into the fire.

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