The prophetic spirit or the spirit of prophecy is charged with the gift of prophecy.
The phrase “spirit of prophecy” occurs only once in the entire New Testament, in several versions of Revelation 19:10. It appears to signify that the prophetic gift was still manifested in the time of the New Testament and in the latter days of the church. But 1 Maccabees 9:27 laments that in the second century, when the book of Maccabees was written, prophets ceased from appearing among them. Other rabbinic tradition states that Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were the last of the prophets and the Holy Spirit ceased. How can we understand from Jewish literature that prophecy ceased earlier? Can the understanding and use of “spirit of prophecy” within Judaism be of help to interpret and apply the term “spirit of prophecy” in the Book of Revelation?
Prophecy in Jewish Tradition
Decline of prophecy during the second temple period. In Jewish tradition, prophecy is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. At times, the Holy Spirit is identified with the spirit of prophecy.1 Indeed, there was a strong emphasis on Spirit-inspired prophecy.
According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased because of the sin of Israel (Zech. 13:2–6). Its cessation was connected with the departure of the presence (Shekinah) from the temple, which presaged its doom and destruction. Elsewhere, it was reported that the Holy Spirit ceased after Malachi. Tosefta, Sotah 13:2 reads, “When Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the last of the prophets, died, the Holy Spirit ceased in [from] Israel.” The absence of the Holy Spirit from the second temple is also referred to in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 21a. The cessation of prophets came along with the departure of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the author of Maccabees lamented “so there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (1 Macc. 9:27).
Nevertheless, it seems clear that cessation did not mean complete disappearance. As Yoma 21a notes, even though the Holy Spirit departed, the Jews still availed themselves of the Bath Kol, a term for a voice from Heaven. Thus, Tosefta Sotah 13:3 and 4 further assures: “When Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the last of the prophets, died, the Holy Spirit ceased in [from] Israel. Nevertheless, a Bath Qol was heard by them: it once happened that the sages entered a house in Jericho and they heard a Bath Qol, saying, ‘There is a man here who is worthy of the Holy Spirit, but there is no one in his generation righteous.’ Thereupon, they set their eyes upon Hillel.” In other words, there was an absence of prophets during a period of time. This is evident from 1 Maccabees 4:46, “and [the Maccabees] stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them.” Then in Maccabees 14:41, “The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise.” The author of Maccabees likely asserted that at the time following Judas Maccabee’s death “prophecy is a thing of the past and perhaps of the future but not of the present.”2
Josephus’ statement about the absence of an exact succession of prophets after Artaxerxes can be equally construed in the same manner: “It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.”3 As a matter of fact, biblical texts such as Psalm 74:4 state there were times when it was said there were no prophets. Wisdom of Solomon 7:27 goes further to affirm that there would be prophets in every generation: “Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets.”4
Jassen correctly concluded that “the identification of continued prophetic traditions in Second Temple period Judaism presupposes that classical prophecy as represented in the Hebrew Bible never disappeared completely. Scholars have long debated the question of the attenuation of prophecy in the post-biblical period.”5 Diversity in Judaism must be taken into consideration when talking about the cessation or disappearance of prophecy. That diversity has to do with the various forms of Judaism and rabbinic periods, thus reflecting multiple modes of religious piety.
“Spirit of prophecy” in the Targums. Bruce D. Chilton has emphasized the importance of the Targums for the study of the New Testament. He aptly states that Christian theology shares its origins with Early Judaism. Therefore, it cannot be fully appreciated without reference to its matrix.6 The phrase translated as “spirit of prophecy” occurs frequently in the Targums, which characteristically associate the Spirit with the prophecy. Targum Isaiah 61:1 reads, “the prophet said, a spirit of prophecy before the Lord is upon me.”7 In Targum Onkelos on Genesis 41:38, Pharaoh is said to have found only in Joseph a man possessing the “spirit of prophecy,” obviously referring to the divine inspiration to Joseph as he advised the Egyptians to store up grain for the coming famine in the land.8 In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Numbers 24:2, it is reported that Balaam raised his eyes and saw the Israelites, “then the Spirit of prophecy from before the Lord rested upon him.”9 It is noteworthy that in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Numbers 11:25, 26, 29, Ernest G. Clarke renders the same targumic phrase as “prophetic spirit,” reading, “and he [God] increased some of the prophetic spirit (rûaḥ něbû’â) which was upon him, but Moses, not lacking any, and gave [it] to the seventy men, the elders. And it happened when the prophetic spirit (rûaḥ něbû’â) rested on them, they prophesied without ceasing.”10
These statements from the Targums do indicate that the New Testament may share the same use and understanding of the phrase. It is equally important to state that these occurrences describe the role of the Spirit, who moves/inspires a person to prophesy, thus making him or her a prophet, with a particular message to a particular audience.
Prophecy in the Qumran community. A study on prophecy in the Qumran community by Alex Jassen argues that prophecy never ceased from the Qumran community.11 The Qumran community viewed itself as the heir to the ancient prophetic tradition. Jassen analyzed the explicit prophetic language in the Dead Sea Scrolls, that is, the hymn in the column 12 of the Hodayot (1QHa 12:5-13:4):12 “You have revealed yourself to me” (12:6, 23). Barstad goes further as to state that Qumran was saturated with prophecy.13
“Spirit of prophecy” in pseudepigraphic literature. The “spirit of prophecy” is manifested through Jacob blessing Levi and Judah. As Jubilees 31:12 reads, “And a spirit of prophecy came down upon his mouth. And he took Levi in his right hand and Judah in his left hand.”14 Even Rebecca is said to have had the “spirit of truth,” another phrase undoubtedly akin to “spirit of prophecy.” Jubilees 25:14 reads “and at that time, when a spirit of truth descended upon her mouth, she placed her two hands upon the head of Jacob and said . . .” In another instance, the “spirit of truth” is contrasted with the “spirit of error” (Testament of Judah 20:1). Interestingly, Testament of Judah 20:5 goes on to state that the “spirit of truth” testifies to all things and brings all accusations, which provides a striking parallel to Jesus’ statement in John 16:8, “‘And when He [Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin’” (NKJV).
Testimony of Philo. The phrase to pneuma tēs prophēteias is not found in Philo. Nevertheless, Philo affirms that Moses announced the Sabbath through “God-sent inspiration,”15 strikingly close to the wording of 2 Timothy 3:16. Philo goes on to connect prophecy under the guidance of the Spirit in De Vita Mosis 2.265, “I need hardly say that conjectures of this kind are closely akin to prophecies. For the mind could not have made so straight an aim if there was not also the divine spirit guiding it to the truth,” which is also a striking parallel to Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 2:21 and 22.
Prophecy in Josephus. Louis H. Feldman attempts to answer the question, How does Josephus explain the apparent discrepancy between the view that prophecy had ceased with the destruction of the First Temple and the fact that it apparently continued up to his own day?16 Josephus’ statement about the ceasing of succession of prophets after Artaxerxes in Against Apion 1.41 is worth quoting: “It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.”
In Feldman’s view, Josephus “speaks not of the cessation of prophecy as such but rather of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets . . . hence the statement of those who claimed to be prophets thereafter [i.e., after the time of Artaxerxes] no longer had the same sure authority.”17 In other words, for Josephus, only biblical prophets wrote canonical books and other prophets did not and were incapable of such.18 By his statement in Against Apion, Josephus affirmed the closure of the canon,19 while he acknowledged the continuation of prophecy. He clearly used the term prophecy loosely. Thus, he appears to assert that God granted John Hyrcanus the gift of prophecy (War 1.68-69; Ant. 13.299-300). Josephus, in his role as a historian, regarded himself as a prophet (War 1.18), a Jeremiah-like prophet (War 5.391–393), and a predictor with a certain message from God (War 3.399, 40). Elsewhere, Josephus reported possible cases of prophecy and prophets, one of which was Jesus, son of Ananus. These prophets greatly resembled biblical prophets and were regarded as genuine by thousands.
Prophets and prophecy in early rabbinic tradition. Sommer’s remark that “claims that prophetic behavior existed among the rabbis are misleading,”20 needs some further assessment. In fact, rabbis apparently pronounced quite the opposite. R. Abdimi “from the day the Temple was destroyed the prophetic gift was taken away from the prophets and given to the Sages,” and Amemar admited the superiority of a sage in comparison with a prophet because of the wisdom the sage has (Baba Batra 12a). It seems, then, that some claim of that sort was perceived among the sages. In this sense, Konsmo noted that “the rabbis believed that the prophetic office had been granted to them, at least in part.”21 At times, that prophetic activity even included the supernatural ability of prediction.22
The claim seems to be in line with the account in Tosefta, Sotah 13:3, 4: “Nevertheless, a Bath Qol was heard by them: it once happened that the sages entered a house in Jericho and they heard a Bath Qol, saying, ‘There is a man here who is worthy of the Holy Spirit, but there is no one in his generation righteous.’ Thereupon, they set their eyes upon Hillel.”23 Hillel was worthy to warrant the return of the Holy Spirit.24 Of course, it could not happen even with Hillel because of the persisting sins of his generation.
But with the Bath Qol perceived as a lesser form of prophecy, and the Bath Qol seemingly in his favor, the battle for religious authority appears to have been on the side of Hillel and subsequently his school. “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice [Bath Qol] emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel,” (Erub. 13b). Such a pronouncement supports the claim of some source of prophetic authority in the opinion of the House of Hillel.
Elsewhere, a recognition or claim of prophecy is attested. For instance, Rabbi Johannan states, “If one rises early and a Scriptural verse comes to his mouth, this is a kind of minor prophecy,” (Berak. 55b). Tobit 4:12 linked the Jews with prophets, “we are the children of the prophets,” a statement reiterated in the Talmud “if they [Jews] are not prophets, yet they are the children of prophets” (Pesah. 66a). Jewish religious leaders could identify themselves with what Peter told them that at the very moment he was preaching, the time had come for them to recognize, “‘You are the sons of the prophets,’” (Acts 3:25, NASB).
Jewish tradition set to 48 the number of prophets who wrote down their prophecies, provided their prophecies are in accordance with the Torah of Moses, and only prophecies required for subsequent generations were written down: “Were there no more prophets than these ?—Is it not written, How there was a man from Ramathaim-Zophim, [which we interpret], one of two hundred prophets [zophim] who prophesied to Israel?—There were actually very many, as it has been taught, ‘Many prophets arose for Israel, double the number of [the Israelites] who came out of Egypt,’ only the prophecy which contained a lesson for future generations was written down, and that which did not contain such a lesson was not written (Megillah 14a).”25
So, how do we explain the prophetic claim of the sages? At least, as Sommer calls it, the prophetic claim was a “transformation of prophecy that resulted in the end of the forms of divine communication found in the Hebrew Bible.”26 That is, the transformation was done in the form of exegesis/interpretation of Scripture.27 While claiming the prophetic mantle, the sages reduced the prophets to preachers and exegetes. That likely being the case, we can understand the favorable view on the House of Hillel in matters of scriptural exegesis.
Additionally, we should not fail to talk about Jewish eschatology in relation to prophecy in the second temple period (586 B.C.–A.D. 70). Jews looked forward to a renewal of prophecy in the messianic age when the Redeemer arrives. The atmosphere in Israel would change in future age. The prophecy clearly played a pivotal role in the conception of that view: “‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions’” (Joel 2:28, NIV).
This prophetic restoration is equally tied up with the ministry of the returned Elijah (Mal. 4:5). The fulfillment was confirmed and strongly preached by Peter in Acts 2. As Daniel J. Treier rightly states: “Rabbinic tradition also interpreted Joel 2 eschatologically as Peter did.”28 As a matter of fact, Peter affirmed that rabbinic eschatological interpretation was not wrong when he added: “‘You are the sons of the prophets’” (Acts 3:25, NIV). What differentiates Peter from the rabbinical view was that Peter saw it fulfilled in his day.
Summary: prophecy after the prophets. Based on the foregoing analysis on the Jewish view of prophecy, the “claim that prophecy ended . . . merely serves to mark a distinction in prophetic status. While prophecy does not cease, it is transformed to such an extent that later prophetic writings are unfit for inclusion into the sacred history.”29 As George Robinson says, prophecy predates the men we think of as the prophets.30 Both Jews and early Christians believed in the eschatological restoration of prophecy. The difference was that early Christians saw its actual fulfillment in the day of Pentecost.
Testimony of Jesus and Spirit of Prophecy in Revelation
The phrase “spirit of prophecy” was commonly used around the time of the New Testament. Keeping this in mind helps us understand both phrases: “testimony of Jesus” and “spirit of prophecy” in Revelation 19:10.
Testimony of Jesus. What does this phrase mean? The expression translated “testimony of Jesus” occurs six times in the Book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10 [twice]; 20:4). Two grammatically possible explanations concerning its meaning have been put forward. “He who has the spirit of prophecy will witness to Jesus” or “He who has the witness of Jesus will prophesy.”31 The first view takes it as an objective genitive and interprets it as humanity’s witness to Christ.32
But Gerhard Pfandl reacted: “A study of the word marturia in the Johannine literature, where it occurs twenty-one times, indicates that it is used fourteen times in a genitive construction that is clearly subjective: for example, John 1:19; 3:11, 32, 33; 5:31; etc. The objective idea of ‘witness about’ or ‘witness to’ in John’s writings is consistently expressed by the preposition peri (about, concerning) with the verb martureō ‘to witness, testify.’ He never uses the noun marturia (testimony, witness) with an objective genitive construction by itself. For example, John 1:7, ‘To bear witness to the light’ [martureō + peri]; 5:31, ‘If I bear witness to myself’ [martureō + peri]; 1 John 5:9, ‘He has born witness to his Son’ [martureō + peri].”33
The second view takes marturia Iēsou as a subjective genitive, the testimony of Jesus is His self-revelation, i.e., His own testimony.34 In this sense, the phrase is connected with the “spirit of prophecy.”
Spirit of prophecy. From Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 12:8 to 10, it is the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of prophecy to a prophet. In other words, a prophet is the one who has the gift of prophecy. Moreover, the parallels between Revelation 19:10 (“‘I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. . . . For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’” [NKJV]) and 22:9 (“‘I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets’” [NKJV]) clearly indicate that (1) testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and (2) a prophet is the one who has the spirit of prophecy.
Commenting particularly on to pneuma tēs prophēteias, D. E. Aune suggests that “the Spirit is chiefly characterized by prophetic manifestations, . . . should probably be understood as ‘the prophetic Spirit,’ i.e., the power that allows certain individuals to have visionary experiences and gives them revelatory insights not available to ordinary people.”35 In this, “prophetic spirit,” denotes the activity/role of the Spirit in inspiring and moving certain individuals, who are now known as prophets. Peter likely had this notion in mind in 2 Peter 1:21, “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (NKJV, italics supplied). The Armenian version has “for the testimony of Jesus is the Holy Spirit which is in the prophets.”36
Thus, the synthesis that he who has the spirit of prophecy will convey Jesus’s own testimony can be further explained in three interrelated points:
1. “The message attested by Jesus is ‘the spirit of prophecy.’”37
2. “The ‘spirit of prophecy’ is understood by John’s readers in terms of the Holy Spirit who inspired all prophecy, through the prophets.”38 In other words, it is equal to “Spirit-inspired prophecy.”39
3. “The testimony given by Jesus is the substance of what the Spirit inspires Christian prophets to speak.”40
Acknowledging that prophets occupy a prominent place in the writer’s vision of the church, John identified himself with the prophets (Rev. 22:9). Together with the apostles, prophets are told to rejoice (18:20). Both the blood of the saints and that of the prophets are avenged (16:6), and reward is given to them (11:18).
The understanding of “spirit of prophecy” in the Book of Revelation is not different from its understanding during the second temple Judaism. Richard Bauckham reaffirms what we have seen so far, that around the New Testament times, the Spirit is known especially as the spirit of prophecy, the Spirit who speaks through the prophets.41 Both in the Christian Church and in the Jewish faith, the prophetic spirit or the spirit of prophecy has been expressed in the words of individuals charged with the gift of prophecy.
Davidson Razafiarivony, PhD, is a Professor of New Testament Studies and Chair of the Department of Biblical-Theological Studies at the Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.
NOTES AND REFERENCES