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A prophecy is the message that has been communicated to a prophet[1] which the prophet then communicates to others. In general, this message can involve divine inspiration, revelation, or interpretation. More specifically, it may be a professed psychic prediction. Confusion often exists between the word "prophecy" (noun) and "to prophesy" (verb). A memory phrase to help distinguish between "prophecy" (pronounced with the long e sound as in "see") and "prophesy" (pronounced with the long i sound as in "sigh"): "When a prophet prophesies he or she utters prophecies."[2]

The concept is found throughout the religions of the world. The term has found popular acceptance in two of the world's largest religious groups, Christianity and Islam, along with many others.[3]

Definitions of Prophecy

Rabbinic scholar Maimonides, suggested that "prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty."[4] This closely relates to the definition by Al-Fârâbî who developed the theory of prophecy in Islam.[5] The Catholic Encyclopedia defines prophecy as "understood in its strict sense, it means the foreknowledge of future events, though it may sometimes apply to past events of which there is no memory, and to present hidden things which cannot be known by the natural light of reason."[6] From a skeptical point of view, there is a Latin maxim: prophecy written after the fact vaticinium ex eventu [7].


The English word "prophecy" (noun) in the sense of "function of a prophet" appeared in Europe from about 1225, from Old French profecie (12th century), and from Late Latin prophetia, Greek prophetia "gift of interpreting the will of the gods", from Greek prophetes (see prophet). The related meaning "thing spoken or written by a prophet" is from circa 1300, while the verb "to prophesy" is recorded by 1377.[8]

One of the earliest recorded uses of the term "prophecy" is nevuah, and comes from Hebrew divrei nevuah "words of prophecy", and forms the name of a major subdivision of the Tanakh, the Nevi'im [נביאים], and means "a prediction", from the root "Nuv" meaning to bear fruit, or make flourish.[9] This may relate to the nature of prophecy from the Jewish perspective where, in Rabbinic traditions, Ezra is metaphorically referred to as the "flowers that appear on the earth" signifying the springtime in the national history of Judaism.

Nature of prophecy

In the earliest Jewish source, the Torah, prophecy often consisted of a warning by God of the consequences should the society, specific communities or their leaders not adhere to Torah's instructions in the time contemporary with the prophet's life. Prophecies sometimes included promises of blessing for obeying God, and returning to behaviours and laws as written in the Torah. Warning prophecies feature in all Jewish works of the Tanakh.

The rabbinic teachings, notably RaMBaM, suggest there were many levels of prophecy, from the highest such as that experienced by Moses, to the lowest where the individuals were able to apprehend the Divine Will, but not respond or even describe this experience to others, such as Noah.

Maimonides' theory of prophecy contains two elements 1) an explanation of what prophecy is, and 2) a ranking of the various types of prophecy and prophecy-like phenomena. I think we can use the ranking of prophecy implicate in Maimonides to substantiate our thesis that the rationalism of Maimonides is essentially a moral rationalism.[10]

Maimonides in his work, The Guide for the Perplexed, outlines twelve modes of prophecy[2] from lesser to greater degree of clarity:

  1. Inspired actions
  2. Inspired words
  3. Allegorical dream revelations
  4. Auditory dream revelations
  5. Audiovisual dream revelations/human speaker
  6. Audiovisual dream revelations/angelic speaker
  7. Audiovisual dream revelations/Divine speaker
  8. Allegorical waking vision
  9. Auditory waking revelation
  10. Audiovisual waking revelation/human speaker
  11. Audiovisual waking revelation/angelic speaker
  12. Audiovisual waking revelation/Divine speaker (that refers implicitly to Moses)

Of the twelfth mode Maimonides, focuses his attention on its "implicit superiority to the penultimate stage in the above series", and therefore above all other prophetic and semi-prophetic modes.[10]

Experience of prophecy in the Torah and the rest of Tanakh do not restrict it to Jews, or even to human beings if one episode is to be interpreted literally. Nor is the prophetic experience restricted to the Hebrew language, since much of the prophecies of Daniel are in Aramaic.

Many of the Tanakh prophecies are accompanied by radical changes in the life of the prophets, and their experience is often accompanied by physiological change, including physical stress, experience of extrasensory perception (visions), physical collapse, and changes in their psychological state as a result of the encounter with the Divine.

The prophetic experience is always bestowed on the individual, usually unprepared for the experience, by the Divine, and this often causes the prophet to undergo travel, and often privations and persecution due to the unwelcome contents of the message he or she bring to those for whom it is intended.

In the Christian New Testament prophecy is referred to as one of the spiritual gifts that accompany the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. From this many Christians believe that prophecy is the supernatural ability to receive and convey a message from God or the divine. The purpose of the message may be to "edify, exhort and comfort" the members of the church or an individual believer. In this context, not all prophecies contain predictions about the future. The Apostle Paul also teaches in First Corinthians that prophecy is for the benefit of the whole Church and not just the individual exercising the gift.[1 Cor. 14:22]

Instances of prophecy

Ancient Civilizations

Prophesy is by no means new or limited to any one culture. It is a common property to all known ancient societies around the world, some more than others. Many systems and rules about prophesy have been proposed over several millennia.


In ancient Chinese, prophetic texts are known as Chen(谶). In contemporary Chinese "yuyan"(预言).


The Jewish Bible Tanakh contains prophecies from various Hebrew prophets (55 in total) who communicated messages from God to the nation of Israel, and later the population of Judea and elsewhere.

Malachi, whose full name was Ezra Ha'Sofer (the scribe), is acknowledged to have been the last prophet of Israel if one accepts the opinion that Nechemyah died in Babylon before 9th Tevet 3448 (313 BCE). [11]

New Testament


There are instances in the Gospel writings where individuals are described as being prophets or prophesying. Some examples include Simeon, Anna, and John the Baptist.[Matt. 21:26] The Gospel literature shows several instances where Jesus prophesied. An example of this is the gospel of John which shows that whilst passing through Samaria, Jesus encountered a woman who had been married five times. In the story, Jesus relates to her details of her personal life. The woman states that "I can see you are a prophet."[John 4:19] Jesus prophesies about his pending death,[Matt. 16:27-28] and about the end times.[Matt. 10:5-7] [10:23] [28:64]

Acts Throughout the book of Acts, there are numerous references to individuals prophesying in different ways and contexts. Examples include where the church in Antioch is described as having both prophets and teachers.13:1;&version=TNIV; Acts  13:1

Pauline Epistles In the Pauline Epistles, the prophet, is referred to as one of the fivefold ministries: Apostles; Prophets; Evangelists; Pastors and Teachers.[Eph. 4:11]

Other Epistles The Epistle of Jude contains a verifiable citation from the Book of Enoch,[12] which not a part of the Canon of Scripture for most of the Christian Churches, which has "Enoch the Seventh from Adam" having "prophesied to" false teachers.[13][14]

Later Christianity

New Revelation of Jesus Christ Through the ages many prophets who proclaims themselves Christian, started giving prophecies which they called [New Revelation of Jesus Christ]. These prophets claim themselves to have heard things that is not subject to testing by Scripture in the bible, but are claimed to be above testing because it is received from Jesus Christ directly. Such New Revelation always results in a cult which could become very dangerous. An individual is now in a sense lifted to the status of mediator to God, as he or she receives direct communication from God like the rest of the group can't and nothing said by this prophet may be challenged against the bible or any other measure because it is said to come from God directly and therefore has the highest authority.

Many evangelical churches make room for prophecy, but it is generally accepted that all prophecy should be tested against scripture to determine if the source was truly God, as scripture warns about false Christs that would rise up to deceive many.2 Tim. 3:16 and 1 Thess. 5:19-22

Amerindian prophecy

Several cases of claimed prophecy exist among the Amerindian populations, notably the three Dogrib prophets who claimed to have been divinely inspired to bring the message of Christianity's God to their people.[15] This prophecy among the Dogrib involves some shamanic elements such as dances and trance-like states.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has many prophets, the founding prophet of which was Joseph Smith, who had been guided by an angel found gold tablets on a drumlin near Manchester, New York, which he interpreted through divination and restored The Church of Jesus Christ.


Muslims maintain that Muhammad experienced a prophetic phenomena equated with interpretation of dreams, visions and remote viewing, and thus identify him as a prophet. Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 87, Number 112: Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah's Apostle Muhammad said, "A good dream (that comes true) of a righteous man is one of forty-six parts of prophetism."

Bahá'í Faith

In 1863, Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, claimed to be the promised messianic figure of all previous religions, and a Manifestation of God,[16] a type of prophet in the Bahá'í writings that serves as intermediary between the divine and humanity and who speak with the voice of God.[17] Bahá'u'lláh claimed that while being imprisoned in the Siyah-Chal in Iran he underwent a series of mystical experiences including having a vision of the Maid of Heaven who told him of his divine mission, and the promise of divine assistance;[18] in Bahá'í belief the Maid of Heaven is a representation of the divine.[19]

Other belief systems

Prophecy has been claimed for, but not by, Michel de Nostredame popularly referred to as Nostradamus who was a converted Christian. However, it is known that he had travelled widely, had suffered several tragedies in his life, and had been persecuted to some degree for his suggestions about the future, reportedly derived through a use of a crystal ball. These are consistent with experiences of earlier individuals who claimed prophecy.

Scepticism about prophecy

According to skeptics, many apparently fulfilled prophecies can be explained as coincidences (possibly aided by the prophecy's own vagueness), or that some prophecies were actually invented after the fact to match the circumstances of a past event ("postdiction"). Whitcomb in The Magician's Companion observes,

One point to remember is that the probability of an event changes as soon as a prophecy (or divination) exists. . . . The accuracy or outcome of any prophecy is altered by the desires and attachments of the seer and those who hear the prophecy.[20]

See also

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • Vaticinium ex eventu
  • False prophets
  • Divination


  1. Prophecy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. "prophecy" v "prophesy"
  3. "Prophets and Prophecy" at
  4. (Rambam, The Guide p.225)
  5. The influence of Islamic Philosophy on Maimonides's Thought, Diana Steigerwald Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)
  6. "Prophecy" in the Catholic Encyclopedia
  7. as at 29-08-08
  8. "Prophecy" in the Online Etymology Dictionary
  9. p.1596, The Complete Hebrew - English dictionary, Reuben Alcalay
  10. 10.0 10.1 The Suprarational Grounds of Rationalism: Maimonides and The Criteria of Prophecy, Mark R. Sunwall
  11. Babylonian Talmud, San.11a, Yom.9a/Yuch.1.14/Kuz.3.39,65,67/Yuch.1/Mag.Av.O.C.580.6 
  12. Jude 14 is a citation of 1En1:9, itself a midrash of De.33:2, see Nickelsburg, G. Book of Enoch under 1En1:9.
  13. see note on Greek grammar of Jude 14 under main article on Book of Enoch
  14. Letter of Jude with also a probable reference in Peter%203:19,20;&version=TNIV; 1 Peter 3:19,20 to Enoch 6-36, especially 21, 6; 2 Enoch 7:1-5
  15. p.27, Helm
  16. Smith, Peter (2000). "Bahá'u'lláh – Theological Status". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 78–79. ISBN 1-85168-184-1. 
  17. Hatcher, W.S.; & Martin, J.D. (1998). The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 116–123. ISBN 0877432643. 
  18. Smith, Peter (2000). "Bahá'u'lláh – Life". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 73. ISBN 1-85168-184-1. 
  19. Smith, Peter (2000). "Maid of Heaven". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 230. ISBN 1-85168-184-1. 
  20. [1] The James Randi Educational Foundation
  • Online Etymological Dictionary [3]


  • Alcalay, Reuben., The Complete Hebrew - English dictionary, Hemed Books, New York, 1996 ISBN 978-9654481793
  • Tucker, T.G., Etymological dictionary of Latin, Ares Publishers, Inc., Chicago, 1985 ISBN 978-0890051726
  • Helm, June., Prophecy and Power among the Dogrib Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1994 [4]

Further reading

  • Jim Thompson. 2008. Prophecy Today - A further word from God? Does God-given prophecy continue in today's church, or doesn't it?. (Evangelical Press), ISBN 9780852346730
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero. 1997. De divinatione. (Trans. Arthur Stanley Pease), Darmstadt: Wissenschaflliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • David Edward Aune. 1963. Prophecy in early Christianity and the ancient Mediterranean world. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-3584-8.
  • Christopher Forbes. 1997. Prophecy and inspired speech: In early Christianity and its Hellenistic environment. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, ISBN 1565632699.
  • Clifford S. Hill. 1991. Prophecy, past and present: An exploration of the prophetic ministry in the Bible and the church today. Ann Arbor, MI: Vine, ISBN 080280635X.
  • Jürgen Beyer. 2002. 'Prophezeiungen', Enzyklopädie des Märchens. Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung (English - Encyclopedia of the fairy tale. Handy dictionary for historical and comparative tale research), vol. 10. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, col. 1419-1432
  • Stacey Campell. 2008. Ecstatic Prophecy Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books/Baker Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8007-9449-1.

External links

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