Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Early “Christian” Prophets in Pauline Gatherings

There is no end of people today willing to tell you God's opinion on whatever issue is on the table. Few, if any, of them would claim to be officially recognized as prophets by a religious organization. In the ancient world, however, there were many who were called prophets and believed to speak God's words. This was also true among the early followers of Jesus.

The early Christian prophet was an immediately-inspired spokesperson for God, the risen Jesus, or the spirit who received intelligible oracles that he or she felt impelled to deliver to the Christian community or, representing the community, to the general public.1

The earliest reference in Christian literature to early Christian prophets in the assemblies of the Jesus-gatherings is found in 1 Thess 5:19-20. Here Paul speaks approvingly of the utterances of such figures—meaning that he apparently regarded them as divinely inspired by God's spirit; there were many such figures in the religions of the ancient world.2 Paul, however, had reservations about such figures even in his own tradition:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. (NRSV)

In other words, listen carefully, for not everything the prophet says may be helpful. So, discriminate in and among the prophetic utterances and hold onto what is profitable. I detect a healthy skepticism in Paul's statement about the utterances of early Christian prophets.

Prophets, who were believed to be channels for the words of a God, were endemic to his social and religious worlds (Israelite, and Greco-Roman traditions). The matrix and stimulus for such prophets and prophetic utterances in Jesus-gatherings likely came from both reading the Bible and pagan traditions. Prophetism was in the Greco-Roman air, as it were. In such a social environment, it was simply the way Gods were reckoned verbally to communicate.3

In the gathering at Corinth Paul acknowledged that God had given the gift of prophecy to certain people in the fellowship (1 Cor 12:10; Rom 12:3-8) and appointed them prophets (1 Cor 12:28-29). What the prophets were believed to bring was a direct revelation from God (1 Cor 14:29-32) for the encouragement, consolation, and benefit of the community (1 Cor 14:1-6). He did, however, continue to have reservations.

            The prophets in the community apparently could not control themselves and, like Jeremiah (20:9), the Word of the Lord was a "burning fire shut up in their bones," and they could not restrain it. So, they all prophesied at the same time (1 Cor 14:26-31), creating general confusion. Paul insisted that "the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor 14:32). So, they should all prophecy but only one at a time (1 Cor 14:30-31).

            Nevertheless, he still had reservations about the utterances of the prophets (1 Cor 14:29). Whatever they said must be carefully evaluated or judged (diakrinetōsan). Why is that? Because different spirits inspire prophets (1 Cor 12:3). And that is the reason why some in the assembly had the spiritual gift of discerning between spirits (1 Cor 12:10).

            It is interesting that in the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Colossians, Ephesians) and the Pastorals epistles (1, 2 Timothy, Titus) prophets are no longer a vital force in the Jesus-gatherings.4 Itinerant prophets are, however, found to be a problem in the Didache (11:3-12).5 Among other things, the writer says "do not test or examine any prophet who is speaking in a spirit" (11:7), but recognizes that not everyone speaking in a spirit is a "true" prophet. The true prophet can be distinguished from the false prophet by his behavior (11:8-12). So, the writer of the Didache also had reservations about the prophets.

            When someone claims to know the mind of God and assumes to tell you what God requires of you—prophet or not, exercise a healthy dose of Pauline skepticism. Be an adult in your thinking (1 Cor 14:20). Evaluate and judge carefully what you are told, for who really knows the mind of God (Rom 11:33)?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1M. Eugene Boring, "Prophecy (Early Christian)" in D. N. Freedman, et al., The Anchor Bible Dictionary New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5. 495-502; the quotation is on 496.

2See Boring, "Prophecy."

3David S. Potter, "Prophecies," and Robert C. T. Parker, "Prophētēs" in Hornblower and Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1259.

4Boring, "Prophecy," 500.

5Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 1965), 325-27. The date of the Didache is not settled, but a consensus seems to be gravitating toward the end of the first century or beginning of the second. See Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache. A Commentary (Hermeneia; trans. L. M. Malony; ed., H.W. Attridge; Minneapolis, MN, 1998), 52-53.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

As you suggest, apparently reason was thought by Paul to be capable of "testing everything and holding fast to what is good" in even the earliest church gatherings. Thanks for a new and productive way to think about Paul.

Gene Stecher
Chambersbburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Gene!