Part 2: Popular Prophets in the Time of Jesus

This interesting book is a history of popular movements during the lifetime of Jesus. The Gospels say that where were many messiah figures and many prophets in first century Palestine. The Jews were looking for deliverance from Roman rule, from burdensome taxes, and from the ruling Jewish families who collaborated with the Romans. These elite families enriched themselves by collecting the temple proceedings and earning the hostility of Jewish landowners, peasants, and merchants. We wrote about the collaborating Jewish families here and about the Bandits in Part One, here. We will focus on “Messiahs” in Part Three in an upcoming article.

Jewish Prophets in First Century Israel. Our interest is in first century Jewish prophets who persuaded numbers of Jews to leave their work and even their homes to follow them. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus, as well as from the Gospels and other historical records that Jewish peasants and merchants joined themselves to certain self-proclaimed prophets at great cost to themselves and their families.[1] This is a textbook meaning of a “sodality.” The prophet would inspire his followers to “deny themselves” for a God-given cause. Zeal for the cause and for the realization that they may die a martyr’s death made these bands of brothers feel close to one another in a way not possible in a synagogue or at the temple.

Apocalyptic visions. Prophets tended to oppose the temple officers on account of their collaboration with the Romans. Recent scholarly analyses have established with considerable precision that the Essene community wrote some of its apocalyptic literature, such as the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch 85-90, with a view to predicting the downfall of the temple.[2] Horsely writes:

“To what degree the Jews generally were caught up in the keen anticipation of imminent divine action to deliver them we have no way of knowing. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how the Judean peasantry could have sustained such a prolonged struggle against the overwhelming odds of the Seleucid military might without supposing that at least significant segments of the people were fired by apocalyptic inspiration. They were fighting to restore the rule of God, which, they must have believed, was imminent.”[4]

Prophets and Prophetic Movements. Judging from several reports by Josephus, there were a number of prophetic figures that appeared among the people around the time of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus was understood as a prophet (see Mark 6:15-16. Also the Samaritan woman, “I see you are a prophet” (John 4:19). Careful analysis of Josephus’ history of first century Palestine indicates that prophets were of two fairly distinct types, oracular prophets and activist prophets.

Oracular Prophets. The principal function of the oracular prophet was to announce impending judgment or redemption by God. Oracular prophets spoke “in the name of the Lord,” in the first century, that the time of deliverance had come. Who will rise and throw off the rule of Herod and the Romans? Who will deliver the people from the burdensome taxes (40% of the harvest) and from the collaborating Jewish families who controlled the temple income? Prophets reminded the Jews of the bygone days when there was only the rule of Yahweh. If only a Divine Deliverer would arise to redress the grievances of the poor and return the Jews to true worship of God.

Elijah and Elisha, earlier prophets who spoke against the rulers of Israel. Horsley writes, “From the Elijah-Elisha narrative we learn that there were groups or guilds of “sons of the prophets” residing in or around major towns such as Gilgal or Jericho, probably under the leadership of a prominent figure such as Elijah or Elisha. These groups are portrayed as popular movements against the monarchy. Seen as enemies or “troublers of Israel,” Elijah and other loyal Yahwists even had to go into hiding for a time.[5] Ahab and his sons oppressed the prophets of Yahweh. Elijah and Elisha, accompanied by fifty “sons of the prophets,” went out on Yahweh’s instructions to the Jordan River:

Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8).

After Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, Elisha had assumed his mantle. Elisha in turn “struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” These are clearly prophetic signs of imminent deliverance reminiscent of Moses and the crossing of the sea and of Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan.[6]

The prophets Elijah and Elisha and their followers, “the sons of the prophets,” fomented a popular rebellion against the house of Ahab. This rebellion led to Ahab’s overthrow and the anointing of a new king, Jehu.[7] Thus, first century prophets understood a divine calling to deliver Israel as Elijah and Elisha had in their day. There was even an expectation that Elijah would appear to lead a popular movement (John 1:20-21).

The Essenes: Remembering Yahweh’s Acts of Deliverance through the Prophets. According to the Essenes, God’s would soon restore Israel as a free nation in her own land. The Qumran community moved to the wilderness to wait this deliverance, based on Isaiah 40:3-5, “In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh.”[8] There were many seers among the Essenes, as Horsley recounts. Josephus writes of two of them:

A certain Judas, of the Essene group, who had never been proven wrong in his predictions, foretold that Antigonus (son of John Hyrcanus) would die at a place called Strato’s tower.” The second seer was Menahem, who predicted Herod’s eventual kingship.[9]

The Relative Lack of Prophecy among the Pharisees. From what we know of the Pharisees we would not expect them to produce anything like a prophetic movement, and indeed they did not. The Pharisees believed that the decisive revelation had occurred on Sinai through Moses. Everything we need to obey is written in the Bible. The mission of the Pharisees was to interpret Torah to understand God’s will in their own situation. The Pharisees pursued personal purity in their own associations and at the outset at least attempted to have the rule of God realized by working through established political processes.[10] (We have written about the Pharisee associations (havurot) here.)

2. Activist Prophets. The activist or “action” prophets led rebellions that the Roman Empire was determined to crush. Josephus, writing for his Roman audience, says:

Imposters and demagogues, under the guise of divine inspiration provoked revolutionary actions and impelled the masses to act like madmen. They led them out into the wilderness. There, in the wilderness, God would show them signs of imminent liberation. For they said that they would display unmistakable signs and wonders done according to God’s plan.[11]

Large numbers of people, inspired and convinced of the imminence of God’s action, abandoned their work, homes and villages to follow their charismatic leaders out into the wilderness. They knew from the sacred traditions that it was in the wilderness that God had shown signs and wonders of redemption in earlier times, and that the wilderness was the place of purification, preparation, and renewal.[12]

 Josephus writes about Theudas, a prophet whose name is mentioned in the book of Acts:

When Fadus was governor of Judea, a charlatan named Theudas persuaded most of the common people to take their possessions and follow him to the Jordan river. He said he was a prophet, and that at his command the river would be divided and allow them an easy crossing. Through such words he deceived many. But Fadus sent out a cavalry unit and killed many in a surprise attack. Theudas was captured and his head cut off and carried to Jerusalem.[13]

The Egyptian. Josephus writes:

At this time, a certain man from Egypt arrived at Jerusalem, saying he was a prophet and advising the mass of the common people to go with him to the Mount of Olives, which is just opposite the city. He said that from there he wanted to show them that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down and they could then make an entry into the city. But when Felix learned of these things, he commanded his soldiers to take up their weapons. With many horsemen and foot-soldiers he attacked the Egyptian and his followers, killed four hundred of them and took two hundred alive. The Egyptian himself fled the battle and vanished without a trace.[14]

Horsely writes:

The symbolism is apparent: The “Egyptian” understood himself as a leader about to conquer the promised land. The historical prototype must have been the battle of Jericho led by Joshua. Luke’s statement in Acts that the “Egyptian” had stirred up a revolt and led 4,000 men of the Sicarii out into the wilderness (Acts 21:38) can be explained simply by his confusion of the prophetic movement led by the “Egyptian” with the terrorism being conducted by the Sicarii during this very same time under the procurator Felix.[15]

Blincoe’s Summary. In this wonderful book the authors enable us to understand that Jesus Christ was one of many first century Jewish persons with an understanding that he had come in the name of the Lord. Many prophets were standing up to be heard, and some of them were active in leading actual rebellions. The Essenes went to the wilderness to study the signs of the times; deliverance was coming soon. Horsely writes, “Most significant is the clear pattern of symbolic correspondence between the great historical acts of redemption [especially the Elijah and Elisha narrative] and the new eschatological acts anticipated by theses prophetic movements.”[16] Jesus spoke about these: “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible the elect” (Mark 13:22). And in Matthew: “So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out” (Matthew 24:26).

[1] Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs : Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus, 1st Harper & Row paperback ed., New Voices in Biblical Studies (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). xiii

[2] Ibid. 17

[4] Horsley and Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs : Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus. 19

[5] Ibid. 140

[6] Ibid. 141

[7] Ibid. 141

[8] Ibid. 151

[9] Ibid. 156

[10] Ibid. 158

[11] Ibid. 161

[12] Ibid. 162

[13] Ibid. 164

[14] Ibid. 168

[15] Ibid. 170

[16] Ibid. 171