Prophecy involves a process in which one or more messages are allegedly communicated to a prophet by a god or spirit and often are then communicated to other people. Such messages typically involve inspiration, interpretation, or revelation of divine will concerning the prophet's social world and events to come (compare divine knowledge). Prophecy is not 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 prophecy have been proposed over several millennia.
The English word "prophecy" (noun) in the sense of "function of a prophet" appeared from about 1225, from Old French profecie (12th century), and from Late Latin prophetia, Greek propheteia "gift of interpreting the will of God", from Greek prophetes (see prophet). The related meaning "thing spoken or written by a prophet" dates from c. 1300, while the verb "to prophesy" is recorded by 1377.
Modern (Western esoteric) research in prophecy is a pseudoscience. In general, a diviner's foretelling or a prophetic prediction of the future does not adhere to the scientific method, therefore it is no object of science.
From a skeptical point of view, there is a Latin maxim: prophecy written after the fact vaticinium ex eventu. The Jewish Torah already deals with the topic of the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:20-22).
In 1863, Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, claimed to have been the promised messianic figure of all previous religions, and a Manifestation of God, a type of prophet in the Bahá'í writings that serves as intermediary between the divine and humanity and who speaks with the voice of a god. 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; In Bahá'í belief, the Maid of Heaven is a representation of the divine.
The Haedong Kosung-jon (Biographies of High Monks) records that King Beopheung of Silla had desired to promulgate Buddhism as the state religion. However, officials in his court opposed him. In the fourteenth year of his reign, Beopheung's "Grand Secretary", Ichadon, devised a strategy to overcome court opposition. Ichadon schemed with the king, convincing him to make a proclamation granting Buddhism official state sanction using the royal seal. Ichadon told the king to deny having made such a proclamation when the opposing officials received it and demanded an explanation. Instead, Ichadon would confess and accept the punishment of execution, for what would quickly be seen as a forgery. Ichadon prophesied to the king that at his execution a wonderful miracle would convince the opposing court faction of Buddhism's power. Ichadon's scheme went as planned, and the opposing officials took the bait. When Ichadon was executed on the 15th day of the 9th month in 527, his prophecy was fulfilled; the earth shook, the sun was darkened, beautiful flowers rained from the sky, his severed head flew to the sacred Geumgang mountains, and milk instead of blood sprayed 100 feet in the air from his beheaded corpse. The omen was accepted by the opposing court officials as a manifestation of heaven's approval, and Buddhism was made the state religion in 527.
In ancient Chinese, prophetic texts are known as Chen(谶). The most famous Chinese prophecy is the Tui bei tu (推背圖)
The New Testament refers to prophecy as one of the spiritual gifts given by the indwelling Holy Spirit[Rom 12:6]. From this, many Christians believe that the gift of prophecy is the supernatural ability to receive and convey a message from their God. The purpose of the message may be to "edify, exhort and comfort" the members of the Church. In this context, not all prophecies contain predictions about the future. The Apostle Paul teaches in First Corinthians that prophecy is for the benefit of the whole Church and not just of the individual exercising the gift.[1 Cor. 14:22]
According to Walter Brueggemann, the task of prophetic (Christian) ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture. A recognized form of Christian prophecy is the "prophetic drama" which Frederick Dillistone describes as a "metaphorical conjunction between present situations and future events".
The gift of prophecy was acknowledged in the Church after the death of the apostles. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr argued that prophets were no longer among Israel but were in the Church. The Shepherd of Hermas, written around the mid-2nd century - John A. T. Robinson dates it before 85 AD, describes the way prophecy was being used within the church of that time. Irenaeus confirms the existence of such spiritual gifts in his Against Heresies. Although some modern commentators claim that Montanus was rejected because he claimed to be a prophet, a careful examination of history shows that the gift of prophecy was still acknowledged during the time of Montanus, and that he was controversial because of the manner in which he prophesied and the doctrines he propagated.
Subsequently, there are few examples of the prophetic and certain other gifts (until the Scottish Covenanters like Prophet Peden and John Wishart). Prophecy and certain other spiritual gifts were somewhat rarely acknowledged throughout church history. From 1904 to 1906, the Azusa Street Revival occurred in Los Angeles, California and is sometimes considered the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement. This revival is well known for the "speaking in tongues" that occurred there. Some participants of the Azusa Street Revival are claimed to have prophesied. Pentecostals believe prophecy and certain other gifts are once again being given to Christians. The Charismatic Movement, which began to move into mainline denominations, also accepts spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy.
The "father" of the Healing Revival is said to have been William M. Branham, who started a religious cult based on his sermons and prophecies. His predictions include the End of the World in 1977, Benito Mussolini's last stand in Ethiopia, egg-shaped cars, and more during sermons recorded from 1947 to 1965.
Since 1972, the neo-Pentecostal Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International has expressed a belief in prophecy. The church claims this gift is manifested by one person (the prophesier) laying their hands on another person, who receives an individual message said by the prophesier. Prophesiers are believed to be used by the Holy Ghost as instruments through whom their God expresses his promises, advice and commandments. The church claims people receive messages about their future, in the form of promises given by their God and expected to be fulfilled by divine action.
In 1994, the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement came on the scene, largely due to the influence of the Toronto, Brownsville and Kansas City revivals. Along with the Charismatic Movement's speaking in tongues and prophecy, the Prophetic Movement distinguished itself from past movements with physical twitching, moaning, sightings of gold dust, "glory clouds" and gems that (allegedly) fell from heaven.
Latter Day Saint movement
The Latter Day Saint movement maintains that its first prophet, Joseph Smith, was visited by their god and Jesus Christ in 1820. The Latter Day Saints further claims that their god communicated directly with Joseph Smith on many subsequent occasions, and that following the death of Joseph Smith their god has continued to speak through subsequent prophets. Joseph Smith claims to have been led by an angel to a large hill in upstate New York, where he was shown an ancient manuscript engraved on plates of gold metal. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated this manuscript into modern English under divine inspiration by the gift and power of their god, and the publication of this translation are known as the Book of Mormon.
Following Smith's murder, there was a succession crisis that resulted in a great schism. The majority of Latter-day Saints believing Brigham Young to be the next prophet and following him out to Utah, while a minority returned to Missouri with Emma Smith, believing Joseph Smith Junior's son, Joseph Smith III, to be the next legitimate prophet (forming the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now the Community of Christ). Since even before the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, there have been numerous separatist Latter Day Saint sects that have splintered from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. To this day, there are an unknown number of organizations within the Latter Day Saint Movement, each with their own proposed prophet.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) which was maintained by Brigham Young and his followers in Utah is the largest LDS body. The current Prophet/President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Thomas S. Monson. The church has, since Joseph Smith's death on June 27, 1844, held a belief that the president of their church is also a literal prophet of their god, and the only true prophet on the earth. The church also maintains that further revelations claimed to have been given through Joseph Smith are published in the Doctrine and Covenants, one of four sacred LDS texts. Additional revelations and prophecies outside the Standard Works, such as Joseph Smith's "White Horse Prophecy", concerning a great and final war in the United States before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, can be found in other church published works.
Muslims believe that the Qur'an predicted many events years before they happened and that such prophecies are proof of the divine origin of the Qur'an. The Qur'an itself states "For every prophecy is a term, and you will come to know (it)." [Quran 6:67] Muslims also recognize the validity of some prophecies in other sacred texts like in the Bible; however, they believe that, unlike the Qur'an, some parts of the Bible have been corrupted over the years, and as a result, not all of the prophecies and verses in the Bible are accurate.
The Hebrew term for prophet Navi literally means "spokesperson"; he speaks to the people as a mouthpiece of their God, and to their god on behalf of the people. "The name prophet, from the Greek meaning "forespeaker" (πρὸ being used in the original local sense), is an equivalent of the Hebrew נבוא , which signifies properly a delegate or mouthpiece of another." A major theme of the Nevi'im is social justice.
According to Judaism, authentic Nevuah (Heb.: נבואה, "Prophecy") got withdrawn from the world after the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple. Malachi is acknowledged to have been the last authentic prophet if one accepts the opinion that Nechemyah died in Babylon before 9th Tevet 3448 (313 BCE).
The Torah contains laws concerning the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:20-22). Prophets in Christianity like Daniel, or prophets in Islam like Lot, for example, are not prophets or false prophets according to Jewish standards.
In the Torah, prophecy often consisted of a conditioned warning by their 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 conditioned promises of blessing for obeying their god, and returning to behaviors and laws as written in the Torah. Conditioned warning prophecies feature in all Jewish works of the Tanakh.
Notably Maimunides (Rambam), philosophically suggested there once were many levels of prophecy, from the highest such as those 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, citing in example, Shem, Eber and most notably, Noah, who, in biblical narrative, does not issue prophetic declarations.
Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed, outlines twelve modes of prophecy from lesser to greater degree of clarity:
- Inspired actions
- Inspired words
- Allegorical dream revelations
- Auditory dream revelations
- Audiovisual dream revelations/human speaker
- Audiovisual dream revelations/angelic speaker
- Audiovisual dream revelations/Divine speaker
- Allegorical waking vision
- Auditory waking revelation
- Audiovisual waking revelation/human speaker
- Audiovisual waking revelation/angelic speaker
- Audiovisual waking revelation/Divine speaker (that refers implicitly to Moses)
The 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. Experience of prophecy in the Torah and the rest of Tanakh was not restricted to Jews. Nor was the prophetic experience restricted to the Hebrew language.
Native American prophecy
There exists a problem in verifying most Native American prophecy, in that they remain primarily an oral tradition, and thus there is no way to cite references of where writings have been committed to paper. In their system, the best reference is an Elder, who acts as a repository of the accumulated wisdom of their tradition.
In another type of example, it is recorded that there are three Dogrib prophets who had claimed to have been divinely inspired to bring the message of Christianity's God to their people. This prophecy among the Dogrib involves elements such as dances and trance-like states.
Esoteric prophecy has been claimed for, but not by, Michel de Nostredame popularly referred to as Nostradamus who claimed to be a converted Christian. It is known that he had suffered several tragedies in his life, and had been persecuted to some degree for his cryptic esoteric writings about the future, reportedly derived through a use of a crystal ball. Nostradamus was a French apothecary and reputed seer who published collections of foreknowledge of future events. He is best known for his book Les Propheties ("The Prophecies"), the first edition of which appeared in 1555. Since the publication of this book, Nostradamus has attracted an esoteric following that, along with the popularistic press, credits him with foreseeing world events. His esoteric cryptic foreseeings have in some cases been assimilated to the results of applying the alleged Bible code, as well as to other purported pseudo-prophetic works.
Most reliable academic sources maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus's quatrains are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power. Moreover, none of the sources listed offers any evidence that anyone has ever interpreted any of Nostradamus's pseudo-prophetic works specifically enough to allow a clear identification of any event in advance.
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").
Bill 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.
The phenomenon of prophecy is not well understood in psychology research literature. Psychiatrist and neurologist Arthur Deikman describes the phenomenon as an "intuitive knowing, a type of perception that bypasses the usual sensory channels and rational intellect."
“(P)rophecy can be likened to a bridge between the individual ‘mystical self’ and the communal ‘mystical body’,” writes religious sociologist Margaret Poloma. Prophecy seems to involve “the free association that occurred through the workings of the right brain.”
Psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed that this is a temporary accessing of the bicameral mind; that is, a temporary separating of functions, such that the authoritarian part of the mind seems to literally be speaking to the person as if a separate (and external) voice. Jaynes posits that the gods heard as voices in the head were and are organizations of the central nervous system. God speaking through man, according to Jaynes, is a more recent vestige of God speaking to man; the product of a more integrated higher self. When the bicameral mind speaks, there is no introspection. We simply experience the Lord telling us what to do. In earlier times, posits Jaynes, there was additionally a visual component, now lost.
Child development and consciousness author Joseph Chilton Pearce remarked that revelation typically appears in symbolic form and “in a single flash of insight.” He used the metaphor of lightning striking and suggests that the revelation is “a result of a buildup of resonant potential.” Pearce compared it to the earth asking a question and the sky answering it. Focus, he said, feeds into “a unified field of like resonance (and becomes) capable of attracting and receiving the field’s answer when it does form."
Some cite aspects of cognitive psychology such as pattern forming and attention to the formation of prophecy in modern-day society as well as the declining influence of religion in daily life.