Anthropological Perspectives on Old Testament Prophecy

Robert C. Culley and Thomas W. Overholt, eds.

Copyright © 1981 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Chico, CA.


Contributors to This Issue


Anthropology and Old Testament Studies: An Introductory Comment

Robert C. Culley


An Anthropological Perspective Upon Prophetic Call Narratives

Martin J. Buss

Social Dimensions of Prophetic Conflict

Burke O. Long

Prophecy: The Problem of Cross-Cultural Comparison

Thomas W. Overholt

From Prophecy to Apocalyptic: Reflections on the Shape of Israelite Religion

Robert R. Wilson

Responses to Articles

Reflections on Prophecy and Prophetic Groups

Kenelm O. L. Burridge

Problems and Promises in the Comparative Analysis of Religious Phenomena

Norman K. Gottwald

Prophets and Their Publics

Ioan M. Lewis

Replies to the Commentators

On Social and Individual Aspects of Prophecy

Martin J. Buss

Perils General and Particular

Burke O. Long

Model, Meaning, and Necessity

Thomas W. Overholt

The Problems of Describing and Defining Apocalyptic Discourse

Robert R. Wilson

Contributors to This Issue

Kenelm O. L. Burridge

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

University of British Columbia

Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 2B2

Martin J. Buss

Department of Religion

Emory University

Atlanta, GA 30322

Robert C. Culley

Faculty of Religious Studies

McGill University

3520 University Street

Montreal, P.Q., Canada H3A 2A7

Norman K. Gottwald

New York Theological Seminary

5 West 29th Street

New York, NY 10001

Ioan M. Lewis

London School of Economics and Political Science

Houghton Street, Aldwych

London, England WC2A 2AE

Burke O. Long

Department of Religion

Bowdoin College

Brunswick, ME 04011

Thomas W. Overholt

Department of Philosophy

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Stevens Point, WI 54481

Robert R. Wilson

The Divinity School

Yale University

New Haven, CT 06510


Robert C. Culley

The inside cover of Semeia has stated from the beginning that a primary role of the journal was to publish articles employing the methods, models, and findings of a number of different disciplines in the study of the Bible, among them social anthropology. The editors have always had anthropological and sociological approaches to the Bible in mind but for one reason or another were not successful in producing a volume directly in either of these areas. Several articles have kept sociological and anthropological issues alive, and there was one issue on oral tradition. The editors were quite pleased when a suggestion came from Thomas W. Overholt that the nucleus of a volume on anthropology and Old Testament prophecy was available. As a result, Overholt was invited to join with me in producing such a volume. Overholt was responsible for arranging for the main articles and inviting two distinguished anthropologists to write responses along with Norman Gottwald, a biblical scholar who is well-known for his interest in sociology. My own contribution was largely consultation with Overholt and preparation of the manuscripts for publication.

Anthropology and Old Testament Studies: An Introductory Comment

Robert C. Culley

McGill University

One of the areas which is attracting the attention of biblical scholars these days is anthropology. It is likely that this interest will grow. Thus, we need to begin to take stock of what is happening and to consider how recent publications apply anthropology, as well as related disciplines like sociology, folklore, and social psychology, to the Old Testament.

Anthropological perspectives have long played a role in the study of the Hebrew Bible. One need only think of William Robertson Smith, a name not unknown to anthropologists. The remarkable William Foxwell Albright, who influenced so many North American biblical scholars, ranged far and wide among the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, not the least of which was anthropology. The nature and extent of the impact of anthropology, along with folklore and sociology, on past Old Testament studies may be seen in the survey of Herbert Hahn, as well as the more recent studies of J. W. Rogerson for anthropology and N. K. Gottwald and F. Frick for sociology.

The research of the past few years on anthropology and the Old Testament differs from earlier work in two noticeable ways. In the first place, anthropologists themselves, a small but distinguished number, have used the Old Testament as the basis for anthropological investigation. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most controversial, of these studies is the application of structural analysis of the Lévi-Strauss variety to biblical texts by Edmund Leach (1969). More recently he has also used sacrifices described in Exodus and Leviticus as the basis for an examination designed to illustrate the usefulness of structural analysis for uncovering the cultural meaning of ritual (1976). A related approach to the Old Testament may be seen in the work of Mary Douglas. Her interest in the question of purity led her to a study of the purity laws in the book of Leviticus (1970). This investigation was broadened in later studies (1975). Uneasy about Leach’s analysis of biblical texts, Julian Pitt-Rivers offered a substantial critique and then presented his own view of what an anthropological approach to biblical texts might be by examining the story of Dinah (Gen 34) in terms of marriage customs. The contribution of Peter Berger, a sociologist, to the discussion of the nature of Old Testament prophecy might also be mentioned here.

The second way in which recent work is different consists in a more substantial, systematic, and careful exploitation of anthropology, as well as sociology, folklore, and social psychology, than has been usual in the past. In my own work, field studies were used to gain a picture of the nature of oral tradition in order that a sounder basis might be created for the discussion of the role oral tradition might have played in the formation of the Hebrew Bible (see also Long, 1976a). Robert Wilson’s book on Old Testament genealogies drew extensively on field studies by anthropologists but beyond this raised the important question of method. What sort of care is required when a scholar reaches out to another discipline in which he or she is not a specialist? Wilson thinks that considerable care must be taken and sets out six guidelines which he seeks to follow in his own use of the writings of anthropologists. On the whole, he wants to extract data from field studies carefully executed by trained scholars and leave behind the interpretive framework of the anthropological investigators. This is to ensure that the biblical text and biblical scholars will remain in control.

As far as sociology is concerned, Norman Gottwald’s book on premonarchical Israel would have to be mentioned. In this book, he uses a sociological approach as an important ingredient in a historical reconstruction of early Israel. Following George Mendenhall, he interprets the conquest as a peasant revolt. In addition to the use of data from the studies of anthropologists and sociologists, he seeks to make deliberate use of sociological theory, employing a structural-functional model at one level of his analysis and a historical cultural-materialistic model at another. Sociology also plays a significant part in the studies of ancient cities by James Flanagan and Frank Frick.

It is within this wider discussion that the study of prophecy has emerged as an important topic. Once again, Robert Wilson has produced an important book which exploits field studies of anthropologists for information to help reconstruct the social settings of the Old Testament prophets.

Another recent book, When Prophecy Failed by Robert Carroll, is cross-disciplinary in the sense that the author makes use of a particular theory developed and employed by some social psychologists, namely cognitive dissonance. This approach is different from Wilson’s in that Carroll is attempting to apply a theory rather than data from field studies. However, since Carroll is well aware of problems with the theory of cognitive dissonance, he is content to use it as a heuristic device to highlight features of the text which might otherwise go unnoticed. A way of reading the text is thereby opened up.

Apart from these two books, a number of articles have been written on the phenomenon of prophecy or some aspect of it in which use has been made of the writings of anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists. Herbert Huffmon has written on the origins of prophecy. Thomas Overholt has discussed the prophetic process. Simon Parker has dealt with the question of possession trance. The social psychology of prophecy has been investigated by Martin Buss. Burke Long has treated prophetic authority. The contributions to this present volume constitute a valuable addition to this material with discussions of the prophetic call, prophetic conflict, a model for the prophetic process, and the nature of apocalyptic religion.

Recent use of anthropology and other related disciplines in a more thorough and systematic way than heretofore has produced substantial results, even though this sort of work has only just begun. For example, the studies on prophecy which have appeared so far, including those in this volume, have clarified significantly the nature of Old Testament prophecy by setting it in the context of other similar figures described in field studies of anthropologists. One can think of many other features of the life of ancient Israel which could be examined usefully by biblical scholars with the aid of carefully selected data from field studies or through the use of models developed by anthropologists or sociologists. Beyond this, it is to be hoped that anthropologists and sociologists will continue to show an interest in analyzing biblical texts and commenting on the work of biblical scholars.

Already a number of issues are emerging which will bear further examination. Three may be briefly noted where, it is to be hoped, some lively discussion will develop.

One issue is the problem of method, that is, the question of how to do cross-disciplinary study. How should biblical scholars in a responsible way make use of work done in another discipline such that not only biblical scholars but also scholars in the other discipline in question, say anthropology, will take seriously what is being done? Wilson is very sensitive to this problem as may be seen in his establishment of guidelines in his own investigations. He inclines toward a prudent approach, and this makes good sense. Others, however, may feel more adventurous and less restricted in their use of data, models, and theory from other disciplines. Since most biblical scholars are not trained specialists in other disciplines as well, the problem of responsible use of material from another discipline is real.

Another issue has to do with the nature of the social sciences and what kind of perspectives they bring. In other words, how may they be used in biblical studies? So far, anthropology and sociology have been used on the whole by Old Testament scholars to reconstruct the social settings of phenomena like prophecy or the social system of a specific period in ancient Israel. This continues and expands the task of historical reconstruction which was one of the important aims of historical criticism. But, since the social sciences by their very nature deal with many cultures, and therefore repeated patterns and types, one might be just as easily led in a phenomenological direction rather than historical. The study of patterns repeated in several cultures and societies or the examination of social worlds constructed by varying factors in a common grid, poses the question of explanation and meaning differently than a historical approach usually has. It would be useful to have some fuller discussion of this.

Finally, there is the issue of the relationship between the study of society and the study of text. Along with a growing interest among biblical scholars in social sciences like anthropology and sociology, has gone an increased fascination in the implications flowing from the fact that the Bible is language and literature. The pages of Semeia have long reflected many different attempts to work out these implications. Many are inclined to see texts as structures of language in which literary patterns and features deserve primary attention. The tendency has been to compare literature with literature, within the Bible or outside it, before relating texts to social settings. The way in which a text may be said to reflect its social setting is seen as more indirect and the task of reconstructing social background from texts as more problematic than has usually been assumed. Furthermore, since many texts survive original social settings and are valued in subsequent societies and cultures, one may well seek the explanation for the power of these texts to survive in the text itself rather than a given social setting. On the other hand, language and literature are social. They do not exist in a vacuum. There is good reason to examine how texts are related to social settings, original and otherwise. We may look forward to a new kind of discussion of an old problem. (For an attempt to relate social sciences and hermeneutics, see Kovacs.)

Works Consulted

Buss, Martin J.

1980    “The Social Psychology of Prophecy.” Pp. 1–11 in Prophecy. Ed. J. A. Emerton. BZAW 150. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Carroll, Robert P.

1979    When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament. New York: Seabury.

Culley, Robert C.

1976    “Oral Tradition and the OT: Some Recent Discussion.” Semeia 5:1–33.

Douglas, Mary

1970    Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Douglas, Mary

1975    Implicit Meanings. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Flanagan, James W.

1978    “The Relocation of the Davidic Capital.” JAAR 46:224–244.

Frick, Frank S.

1977    The City in Ancient Israel. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Gottwald, Norman K.

1979    The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 B.C.E. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Gottwald, Norman K. and Frank S. Frick

1976    “The Social World of Ancient Israel.” Pp. 110–119 in The Bible and Liberation. Berkeley: Radical Religion.

Hahn, Herbert F.

1966    The Old Testament in Modern Research. With a Survey of Recent Literature by Horace D. Hummel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Huffmon, Herbert B.

1976    “Orgins of Prophecy.” Pp. 171–186 in Magnalia Dei, The Mighty Acts of God. Eds. Frank Moore Cross, Werner E. Lemke and Patrick D. Miller, Jr. New York: Doubleday.

Kovacs, Brian Watson

1979    “Philosophical Issues in Sociological Structuralism: A Bridge from the Social Sciences to Hermeneutics.” USQR 34:149–157.

Leach, Edmund

1969    Genesis as Myth and Other Essays. London: Jonathon Cape.

Leach, Edmund

1976    Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols are Connected. Themes in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Long, Burke O.

1976a    “Recent Field Studies in Oral Literature and their Bearing on OT Criticism.” VT 26:187–198.

Long, Burke O.

1976b    “Recent Field Studies in Oral Literature and the Question of Sitz im Leben.” Semeia 5: 35–49.

Overholt, Thomas W.

1974    “The Ghost Dance of 1890 and the Nature of the Prophetic Process.” Ethnohistory 21: 37–63.

Parker, Simon B.

1978    “Possession Trance and Prophecy in Pre-Exilic Israel.” VT 28: 271–285.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian

1977    “The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex.” Pp. 126–171 in The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Rogerson, J.W.

1978    Anthropology and the Old Testament. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wilson, Robert R.

1977    Genealogy and History in the Biblical World. Yale Near Eastern Researches. New Haven: Yale University.

Wilson, Robert R.

1980    Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

An Anthropological Perspective Upon Prophetic Call Narratives

Martin J. Buss

Emory University


Reports of a prophetic call in Israel are comparable to call accounts found throughout the world. These phenomena reflect common human structures and are in part connected historically. Theoretical analysis indicates that they can be understood in terms of basic sociopsychological categories.

A call summons the recipient to a specialized role, which becomes increasingly differentiated as a society grows in size and complexity. Persons with a revelatory task are normally believed to receive a call directly from the spirit world. Not infrequently, reluctance is expressed in the face of a challenging assignment.

A prophetic call selects persons who can communicate insight beyond what is already known, for the guiding of decisions. In varying ways such individuals transcend the established structures of their group.

The idea of a call attributes the ground of a diviner’s activity to a spiritual reality. This eases the burden of personal responsibility and at the same time supports a perspective wider than that of private interests.

Questions of Method

0.0.    Comparison is an inevitable aspect of any investigation, since all concepts by which a phenomenon can be understood involve a degree of generality. Comparison, furthermore, includes the making of contrasts (cf. Wright). Thus a meaningful question is not whether, but how, one should engage in comparative study.

0.1.    It is possible to recognize three kinds of comparative procedures. One, that of detailed description, draws attention to specific characteristics which may appear within a limited range of space and time. This procedure is useful primarily for a recognition of historical connection, or diffusion. Another, that of typology, outlines forms of expression and behavior, which may be observed quite widely. This approach introduces order into the perception of multiform data and has been applied extensively during the twentieth century. A third, that of theory, seeks to account for observable similarities and differences by placing phenomena into a framework which can give a reason for their appearance. It requires much more attention than it has received so far in the study of religion.

0.2.    A theoretical procedure makes explicit the ideas that are otherwise implicit in an investigation. Every study stands under the influence of a more or less coherent set of conceptions which guide the selection, organization, and presentation of data. An important issue, therefore, is the appropriateness and validity of concepts employed. For human phenomena, both psychological and sociological considerations are relevant, as is recognized by many anthropologists (e.g., Lewis: 25; Beidelman: 406); indeed, one of the strengths of the discipline of anthropology lies in its relative comprehensiveness in supplying perspectives on human life.

0.3.    The development of theories is, then, to be actively sought. It should be recognized that conceptions are always subject to improvement. A theoretical approach does not yield greater finality or safety than does one oriented to historical chronology; rather, it asks different kinds of questions-questions designed to produce an understanding of phenomena. If there are differences of opinion, that fact does not undermine the significance of the endeavor, but points to the need for further research.

0.4.    For biblical scholarship there is pronounced value in examining comparative data beyond the borders of the Near East, for both historical and structural reasons. With regard to history, it is necessary to consider that Near Eastern data may be incomplete. The phenomenon of a prophetic call is an excellent example of such a situation. Initiatory experiences occur in many parts of the world, yet few appear in the literature of the ancient world surrounding Palestine. (Perhaps such events were not normally included in a written account; in fact, in some societies the narrating of call dreams is discouraged [Wissler: 71; Underhill: 266]). An erroneous impression of Israel’s antecedents and early history can arise if one’s vision is limited to the records of its immediate neighbors.

In regard to functional-structural concerns, it is often useful to compare phenomena that are not closely connected historically, in order to determine whether they fit a certain kind of psychological or sociological context. For instance, one can give attention to the level of social complexity of a society and to the age group for which a given literary form is intended. Quite a few of the observable similarities and differences between phenomena can be explained through reference to such factors.

0.5.    It is true that the historical and structural dimensions sometimes cannot be distinguished easily. For instance (as is well known in anthropological circles), many parallels obtain between Israelite and African life. Are these due to the fact that ancient Israel and tribal Africa exhibit similar levels of social complexity, based to a large extent on a comparable agricultural economy? Or has there been extensive historical interchange between Africa and the Near East? Probably both of these questions need to be answered in the affirmative. Certain similarities are undoubtedly a result of “convergence,” the independent appearance of similar phenomena under similar conditions. Others may be due to diffusion, even apart from social appropriateness. Most African-Israelite parallels, however, quite likely reflect the operation of both historical connection and sociological conditioning: after all, a cultural trait does not spread readily if it does not fit well the receiving society.

The relative importance of the different dimensions can frequently be estimated through a survey of the geographical spread of certain features and through statistical analysis of their covariance with social conditions. That requires a wide sampling—and eventually a reasonably complete account—of phenomena of a given type. For divination, prophecy, and possession, notable steps toward such an overview have been taken in anthropological discussions, by focusing either on specific types or on certain geographical regions; yet more integrative work is needed.

0.6.    An anthropological study of Israelite call narratives, then, appropriately focuses on two basic issues: a theoretical understanding of the nature of a call and an assessment of the place of Israelite prophecy in the history of humanity. The following analysis will seek to deal especially with the former, in the hope that future scholarship will continue to advance with fuller data and better concepts. Specifically, the call to prophesy will be viewed with the aid of notions drawn from social psychology concerning role, communication, and the attribution of cause and responsibility. These concepts are employed since they appear to fit the data of ancient literature as well as of field observations in various groups.

Induction into a Social Role

1.0 A call summons a person to a specialized role. In a simple, usually small, community relatively little differentation occurs. Thus, for instance, some groups have neither religious nor political specialists (Turnbull: 181). As a society grows, normally the first emerging specialty (the practitioner of which can be called a shaman) is one that combines the performance of curing and other rituals with the giving of advice on the basis of a special relationship with normally unseen realities4. This differentiation apparently emerges gradually, since only a mildly specialized shamanic role, for which a member of a family is designated informally, appears in moderately-sized communities. Such data indicates that the task of a religious specialist does not stand in sharp contrast to general human existence, but that it represents in acute form one aspect of human life. (Indeed, universal participation in prophecy is portrayed as an ideal in Num 11:29 and Joel 3:20.)

1.1 Frequently, the role of a comprehensive religious specialist is believed to be assigned by one or more spirits through dreams, protracted illness, or special experiences of some kind. At the same time family connections are important, in that a new shaman is quite commonly chosen from among the relatives of an older one (see, e.g., Eliade: 13–20; Métraux, 1949:589; Knuttson: 190). As a society increases in membership, the religious duties are divided among several specialists, differing in task and procedure of selection. Ritual becomes the responsibility of the priest, while supernatural communication is the sphere of the diviner and curing the job of the doctor. A diviner who receives insight primarily in a personal, non-mechanical manner (for instance, through visions) can be termed a medium or prophet. Such personal diviners, who may also act as curers by spiritual means, are typically inducted into their work through a call from the spirit world. If they function as one kind of religious specialist among others, their selection is usually carried out with little attention to heredity7. The other roles—which do not require direct revelation—are acquired largely through inheritance (this is true especially for the priest) or voluntary training (especially for mechanical divination); partly specialized roles are sometimes designated by a medium. In practice, a personal call received by a shaman or a medium often also needs to be recognized as such by an established diviner, and a period of apprenticeship commonly follows9. In any case, processes of selection become on the whole differentiated in conjunction with a divergence in tasks.

1.2 Political roles, too, emerge with a sharper focus in a larger society, although they may continue a close connection with the more strictly religious ones. For instance, a chief or royal person can act as shaman, as in early China and Japan (Weber, 1951:26–31; Eichhorn: 16–17; Hori: 187, 196) or can be viewed as possessed by a spirit from the moment of installation on, as in parts of Africa (Butt, 1952:63; Chadwick: 40). Depending largely on their presumed relation to the spiritual realm, such leaders have often been believed to be selected directly or indirectly by deity. Thus the Basuto prophet-chief Mohlomi reported a call to rule his people (Ellenberger and McGregor: 90). More frequently, divination has played a part in the selection of a political figure—at least in Africa, including Egypt and Ethiopia (Tanner: 285; Schenke: 70–71). In ancient Mesopotamia, kings could be termed “the called one” and described as the object of divine choice.

1.3 According to Israelite tradition, God personally called the early leaders, whose task was quite comprehensive in character (Abraham, Gen 12:1–3; Moses, Exod 3:7–4:17; 6:2–13; 6:26–7:5). Thereafter, persons with primarily military and political duties were summoned by deity—particularly Joshua (through Moses, Num 27:18–23 and Deut 31:7–8; directly, Deut 31:23 and Josh 1:1–9), Gideon (through an angel, Judg 6:11–24), and Samson (through an angelic appearance to the parents, Judg 13:2–23). Such leaders are described as being possessed with the spirit of God (Moses: Num 11:17; Joshua: Num 27:18; Othniel: Judg 3:10; Gideon: Judg 6:34; Jephthah: Judg 11:29; Samson, a holy person as a “Nazirite”: Judg 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). An immediate divine call is reported for Samuel, who was prophet, judge, and ritualist (1 Sam 3:2–18—like Deborah, Judge 4:4–5:31). In subsequent centuries, prophets were believed to be commissioned directly by God (Amos 7:15; Isa 6:1–13; Jer 1:4–19; Ezek 1:1–3:15) or to receive the task and spirit from an older prophet according to the divine will (Elisha: 1 Kgs 19:16, 19–21; 2 Kgs 2:9–15). Kings were designated by prophetic revelation (especially the first of a royal line) and were viewed as possessed by God’s spirit, at least in early times (Saul and David: 1 Sam 10:6, 10; 16:13, 14; 2 Sam 23:2) and in the ideal future (Isa 11:2). The notion of a call became quite important for Second Isaiah, who applied it to the general prophetic-royal figure of the “Servant of Yahweh” (42:1, 6; 49:1–9) and in particular to Abraham (51:2), Israel (41:9; 43:1; 48:12), and the Persian king Cyrus (45:1; 46:11; 48:15). Biblical accounts of a call, then, like those in other societies, are closely adjusted to the role to which a person is assigned. Comprehensive leaders or specifically revelatory intermediaries receive a direct assignment by deity. Other important personages, especially kings, are designated indirectly through prophets.

1.4 A call by a deity or spirit commonly summons the recipient to a lifetime of special service; that is true especially if selection occurs already at, or before, birth. Stories of more limited commissions, however, are also told. They follow, on the whole, a pattern similar to that of long-term assignments, so that it is not easy to draw a dividing line between them15. Indeed, mediumistic activity occurs in temporary, non-professional forms (e.g., de Groot: 1214; Eder: 372; Gouldsbury and Sheane: 83, with warnings described by the group as the roar of a lion). Amos appears to have declared that he is one who prophesies without being a professional prophet (7:14–15). Even a life-long activity as shaman or medium very frequently does not constitute a full-time occupation17. Thus the professional quite regularly pursues an ordinary career. It is possible, then, that a number of the Israelite prophets earned their living by means of a priestly or secular occupation.

1.5 In the Bible and elsewhere, stories of a summons repeatedly include an element of hesitation, ranging from mild caution to stubborn rejection. Reluctance is reported for non-Israelite shamans and mediums and for such general religious leaders as Moses (Exod 3:11; 4:10, 13; 6:12) and Christian popes (Mühlbacher: 2). Diffidence is expressed in accounts of early political figures and to some extent of Israelite prophets20. One can wonder whether hesitation is a matter of politeness or pretended humility or whether it is genuine, based on awe or on a wish to escape an unpleasant involvement. Undoubtedly the various possibilities enter into play at different times, even in combination. In any case, it is to be noted that all of these possible motivations have a common logical ground, namely the assumption that the task is an important and demanding one

A good description of reasons for reluctance is the following given by Kuper: “It is considered best to be normal, not to be limited all one’s life by special taboos on sex, food, and general behaviour; not to be exhausted by the demands of someone stronger than oneself; not to have to shoulder responsibility for the life and death of others” (164). A narrative of a hill tribe in India relates that the first shaman, chosen by the sky god to protect and heal men when no one volunteered, declares: “But how can I do such a thing? I am a poor man and ignorant” (Elwin, 1955:131). Many recipients, however, accept a call without conscious (or reported) remonstration, acknowledging the power of spirits and perhaps welcoming the task23


2.0 One can now raise the question why a call from the spirit world is viewed as appropriate for a personal diviner. A major part of the reason lies in the belief that such a person is in contact with a reality which in some sense stands higher than the human, for a summons implies that the one who extends it is superior to the recipient. An especially significant advantage of a spirit over an ordinary human being is believed to lie in the realm of knowledge. Access to such special knowledge is important for the communicative function of a diviner, aiding human beings in making large or small decisions. Decisions require, in theory, a very large amount of information for assessment of the over-all consequence of an act; since such information is not readily available, they are, to some extent, always made in the dark. To pierce this darkness, guidance is sought from those who are thought to be able to furnish relevant insight. (Cf., further, Buss, 1980:nn. 18, 19.)

2.1 There are reasons to believe that a specialist can indeed add to the wisdom of decisions and that the call experience is a sign of an ability to do so. A recent study indicates that persons who are especially successful in intuition—that is, in making correct judgments on the basis of a limited amount of explicit data—are relatively “unconventional and comfortable in their unconventionality” (Westcott: 141). Investigations of creative persons describe them as independent, rather androgenous (somewhat “feminine,” if they are males), welcoming complexity (even messiness), and willing to tackle large issues (e.g., Bruner: 24; Barron: 192, 212, 220; Berlyne: 319). Sometimes, a prolonged “creative illness,” primarily psychological, precedes a burst of insight (H. Ellenberger: 889). All of these characteristics have been observed among mediums and shamans and frequently constitute a sign to a community and to the individual concerned that a certain man or woman has been called. Specific signals include a distant gaze and special sensitivity (Bogoras: 415), running into the wilderness or nakedness (Harva: 453; Field: 61–66; Middleton, 1971:224), and, very commonly, illness with psychological overtones (as also in the Christian-influenced Handsome Lake, Parker 9). Shamans and mediums may be impotent or homosexual, or dress transsexually (e.g., Schärer: 57; Eliade: 125: Burridge: 119). In some societies, they tend to be orphans or to have physical disabilities, such as blindness (Murphy: 75–76; Eder: 369, 373). They have been described as “individualists, odd, abnormal, queer,” socially difficult persons, who live in “a hectic, excited manner and in a dangerous world which is not the world of everyday life” (Krader: 336). A call vision is received primarily in solitude—in other words, with some independence from social exchange.

2.2 The dynamics of creative insight can be clarified to a considerable extent by referring to recent analyses of the process of communication. It is now recognized that only a situation with a large degree of uncertainty can provide much information to a recipient, since a stable condition is already known. For this reason, complexity as a high form of order stands in contrast to “orderliness” or predictability (Buss, 1979:13–15, 19). Creativity and fresh perception, then, involve a willingness to confront uncertainty and complexity and to stand loose in regard to established structures. Such a readiness appears to be facilitated by a receptive state, since an assertive goal-direction limits the information intake to patterns relevant to one’s specific aim. Sheer receptivity, it is true, does not reach a solution; but in conjunction with appropriate reasoning and information gathering, an open state of mind can lead to important results (Martindale and Armstrong: 311, 317; Field: 57; Tanner: 278; Fry: 35). Furthermore, imagination—including hallucination—is fostered by withdrawal from external input26. All in all, creative and prophetic persons are quite flexible in their facing of reality. Societies clearly have learned to give a place to such persons.

2.3 The guidance of a shaman or medium is usually sought for limited concerns, but a revelatory person can present a new general perspective or express social criticism. A number of those propounding a new or special point of view have presented themselves as being called primarily to proclaim that particular message (e.g., Wallis: 136, 143; so, perhaps, also Amos). Innovations, however, are also included in the work of professionals with various revelations (Hori: 196–197; Horton: 43, 46; Reinhard: 288; Adas). The relative freedom of prophets in relation to social structure encourages an association and sympathy with lower levels of stratified societies and gives room to women, who may otherwise occupy a deprived position. Accordingly, revelations in ancient Israel and elsewhere exhibit a protesting or equalizing tendency28.

The Attribution of Cause and Assignment of Responsibility

3.0 It is important to give specific attention to the logic and practical implications of a belief that a call by a spiritual reality has taken place. This belief is a special case of the attribution of causes and thus the assignment of responsibility in human perception and expression (cf. Heider: 89, 114–118, 168–171; Harvey et al.). The narrative of a call declares that a spiritual power forms the basis of the activity of a revelatory person. It supports the truth or authority of prophetic declarations or demands and elicits in those who accept them appropriate emotional states and active responses (cf., for such consequences, E. Jones et al.: xi).

3.1 Of course, the fact that a story is told does not imply that a hearer or even the narrator believes the account. Indeed, there is widespread skepticism of prophetic claims and a fair amount of conscious deceit (sometimes rationalized as for the good of the other) among intermediaries (e.g., Evans-Pritchard, 1937:185–193; Beattie: 167; Tanner: 284). Therefore, a first-person account of a call does not in itself accomplish an authentication; the acceptance of a shaman or medium rests primarily on other grounds, such as recognition by an established diviner, appropriate behavior, and, especially, successful prediction or analysis of a problem (e.g., Anisimov: 120; Winkler: 248–249; Deut 18:20–22; Jer 28:9). Probably in large part for this reason, reports of receiving a prophetic call are not very plentiful and the primary emphasis in public pronouncements is laid on particular messages and recent or current inspiration30. It appears, however, that in many and perhaps most instances a sense of having been called informs the self-concept of a revelatory person (with J. Lindblom: 21, 182). The specific form of a call report is clearly shaped by cultural patterns; it is likely, however, that the subjective experience is influenced by cultural expectation as well, so that no conscious deception need be implied by such stereotyping.

3.2 The theme of a spiritual origin of prophetic activity concerns the whole sequence of revelations initiated by a call and involves the issue of responsibility in prophecy. On the one hand, the attribution of messages to a source in the spirit world absolves human individuals from personal responsibility for presenting or accepting them. A value in this absolution lies in the fact that a medium can express an unpopular opinion (or one critical of authority) and a hearer can make a difficult (perhaps somewhat humiliating) decision, more readily than may be easily possible otherwise (Field: 76; Lewis: passim; Long: 6–7). On the other hand—in a more positive view—the orientation toward an overarching reality encourages an ethical outlook which incorporates a self-transcending concern for the larger human and nonhuman community. The assignment of responsibility to the spiritual realm then expresses an encompassing perspective wider than that of a private interest.

3.3 Thus a call is associated precisely with those tasks which, in actuality, bear a high degree of responsibility in that they require considerable discretion and have a major impact on individual and group existence. For persons with such assignments, self-transcendence clearly does not stand in opposition to a strong selfhood but rather in a close connection with it-a situation which is symbolized by the fact that the initial summons sometimes consists in the calling of the recipient’s name33. Although it may appear paradoxical, the high task to which a person is called provides major elements of freedom even as—in part, because—it is related to an ultimate reference point.

Concluding Reflections

4.0 There are several aspects of call experiences and narratives that can be explored further. Yet the observations that have been made are enough to show that major features of prophetic call accounts appear throughout the world and can be understood in terms of sociopsychological categories. Thus, although certain elements of individual stories may strain modern belief, the occurence of a call as such need not be dismissed as a superstition. Furthermore, the events and narratives fit human experience well enough so that one can conclude that divine communication does not violate common processes. Anthropological study of call phenomena, rather, reveals their specific place in human life. A call inducts the recipient into a highly responsible role; one that is received personally typically leads to a communicative task which provides guidance in decisions.

4.1 In regard to the relation of biblical accounts of a call to human history, a few tentative comments are in order. First, diffusion undoubtedly took place. Israelite prophecy received impulses from other traditions and had considerable influence on later cultures. Secondly, although the call narratives of the Bible resemble those found elsewhere, they also exhibit some special characteristics. Perhaps most notably, the Israelite call is represented as coming from a single and supreme deity, while in many traditions one or more lesser spirits are held responsible. A large part of the reason for this difference appears to lie in the situation of Israel among high societies of the ancient Near East without being, politically, one of them (cf. Gottwald for a discussion of this issue). Thirdly, Israelite society, at least since the beginning of kingship, was sufficiently specialized to differentiate between several roles, but it was not as diversified as were (and are) larger states. Thus a call in Israel stands intermediate between those of other groups in terms of comprehensiveness. Finally, the concrete nature of Israelite descriptions of a call, with voices and visions, is somewhat different from the way in which many persons of the present time sense their responsibility. Some of them, for instance, differentiate more sharply between ultimacy (or the dimension of commitment) and finite (or specifically describable) events.

4.2 If theology is inherently an inclusive discipline—as is likely—it needs to incorporate both structural and historical considerations. With the aid of philosophy, it can construct a general theory of dynamic relations including the particular categories employed here (role as the contribution of individuals to a group, communication as the content of a relationship, and origin as the ground of responsibility). An anthropological analysis cannot by itself establish a theological point of view, but it can contribute to one by shedding light on the process of faith.

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Social Dimensions of Prophetic Conflict

Burke O. Long

Bowdoin College


Anthropological studies emphasize the importance of situation-specific social factors for understanding conflict among various types of prophetic figures. Conflict is normal, and complex; it involves personal, social, economic, and political dynamics as well as ideologies. We should weigh the importance of these factors relative to each other in any given situation. The social effects of conflict may be positive, negative, or both, depending on factors at work in a particular society and time.

Against this background, we look at a Biblical example of conflict (Jeremiah 26–29; 36–38) and explore the social dimensions relevant to both the tradition of conflict and the historically reconstructed situations of Jeremiah’s day. (1) The Jeremiah traditions are paradigmatic. To survivors of national destruction, they explain the reason for exile, and lessen “cognitive dissonance,” by reaffirming belief in God-given monarchy and prophecy; they seek vindication of “true” prophesying and “right” rule. The traditions of conflict transform a prophetic impulse into a text of implicit warning. The tradents may even assert a precedent within the advocacy of pure Yahwism for an exilic political policy favorable to co-existence with Babylonian rule. (2) There were few or no social (class) distinctions between Jeremiah and his opponents among the prophets, priests, and governmental officers. Jeremiah gained position and support from a network of blood and social relationships extending back into Josiah’s court and into the highest reaches of contemporary royal and cultic service. Among people of high birth and professional connection, Jeremiah joined in a political struggle between “autonomist” and “coexistence” options for national policy. Partisans of both persuasions at various times exercised political authority, and continued their vicious struggles even after exile. Both options found ample Yahwistic, theological justification among prophets. Since Jeremiah was aligned with the “co-existence” policy, as were the later bearers of his tradition, this policy’s attendant triumphalist religious ideology now dominates our vision.

0.1 The Hebrew Bible frequently alludes to conflict involving the prophets—conflict with each other and with various other people with whom they interacted, or to whom they addressed their oracles. At the same time, because of its viewpoint which champions an impeccable Yahwistic faith, the Bible tends to view these conflicts almost exclusively in ideological terms. It is a question of truth, and of a prophet truly sent by God: true religion, prediction, reading of events; true understanding of religious norms; true homily for a needy people, e.g., Ezek 13:1–19; Jer 23:9–15; Mic 3:5–8. Accordingly, the Bible tends to ignore, or to suppress, the societal aspects of conflict—those personal, political, social, and economic factors that would have been a part of any public display of rivalry. The Biblical traditions may even foster a slightly negative attitude toward conflict, which after all, interferes with a person’s being a prophet. Conflict is something to be endured and suffered in the interest of a higher duty to one’s holy calling (see 1 Kgs 22:24–28; Jer 1:7–8, 18–19; 20:7–12; Ezek 3:8–9).

0.2 Naturally, this perspective on the prophets’ conflicts reflects the bias of those who collected and authored the Biblical materials. Careful study of the traditions has exposed therein a history of developing consensus among people who were convinced of the religious truth and value of certain individual prophets, and of the falsity of those who opposed them. We now see a stereotype in which any opposition to a prophet who came to be canonized is viewed simply, and simplisticly, as anti-prophetic, anti-Yahwistic, as a misguided and even virulent paganism (Hossfeld and Meyer: 113).

Despite a few neutralist voices among historians of religion (e.g., Ringgren: 215–16; Lindblom: 211–12), this theological interest and commitment have remained at the center of the studies on prophetic conflict. Consequently, for most critics, the canonical tilt toward ideologically drawn pictures persists.

In one form, the bias shows up in the fixation on truth and falsity as an issue, perhaps the issue, in the earliest translators (Septuagint and Targum) down to the latest historical critical investigations. This stream of discussion was brought to a modern watershed by G. Quell (1952), who moved beyond a priori and pejorative assumptions about the moral character, motivations, and intentions of so-called “false” prophets, and set the agenda for subsequent study. It is now widely held that criteria for distinguishing true from false were, and are, illusive and subjective, quite incapable of generalization (von Rad; Osswald; Hossfeld and Meyer; Crenshaw). Nevertheless, the quest goes on, dressed recently as a problem in hermeneutics. The (true) prophet was one who turned out in time to be flexible, alive to the shifting situation, and above all sensitive of Yahweh’s transcendent freedom to do a new and surprising thing with his people Israel. In ancient Israel, true or false was a matter of correct or incorrect interpretation of authoritative Israelite traditions (Sanders, 1972: 73–90; 21–41; see Kaufmann: 278–79; Overholt: 43–44). Taking account of our skeptical and pluralistic times, one may say that in these recent discussions the Biblical claims of truth in all their boldness were suspended or, at least, muted for purposes of scholarly description, but the Biblical formulation of the problem posed by conflict was embraced. To this extent, the social, non-theological dimensions of the prophets’ conflicts were largely, if not entirely, overlooked.

Even when the focus of study is on the prophets’ conflicts with the royal houses, the canonical bias dominates scholarly imagination. For example, in an exhaustive study of 1 Kings 22, Simon de Vries not only ranks the prophet’s problem with the king as the most important, but he defines the problem theologically—just as do the author-editor(s) of the Biblical traditions. Micaiah ben Imlah, the hero, emerges in our mind’s eye as the defender of true Yahwism over against the hubristic, self-serving royal establishment.

It is clear that the most central conflict was the constant polarity between the spiritual power of prophecy insisting on Yahweh’s absolute priority, and the political establishment—theoretically instrumental but ever prone to forsake its status as servant to Yahweh and the people … conflict is always between covenant integrity and political opportunism. (de Vries, 148; cf. Th.C Vriezen: 42–43.)

One last example. James Crenshaw has written an admirable book in which he emphasizes that the inevitable conflict among the prophets grew out of the nature of prophecy itself. Appeals to higher transcendent authority, charges and counter charges, the inner struggles of the prophets with self-doubt, all fueled controversy. For Crenshaw, it is a theological problem, theologically imagined:

Within the two-fold task of the reception of the word of God in the experience of divine mystery and the articulation of that word to man in all its nuances and with persuasive cogency rest multiple possibilities for error and disbelief. (Crenshaw: 3)

And the outcome, the eventual collapse of prophecy as a viable religious institution, is evaluated theologically.

… the conflict between prophets so degraded the prophetic movement that its witness was weakened and prophetic theology was too burdensome to overcome such a weakenss. (Crenshaw: 108)

0.3 The theological approach to prophetic conflict is neither incorrect nor inappropriate. But like any method, it limits while illuminating. In order to engage overlooked, but important, aspects of the Israelite situation, we must be absolutely clear about the theological interests of both the Bible and the bulk of critical scholarship. Often in details that may escape the theologian’s eye (that of the Biblical narrator as well as the commentator) lie hints of social, economic, and political currents helpful in giving us fuller historical understanding. In quest for this elusive and indirect evidence, we find some help in contemporary anthropological studies where access to a particular culture is not limited to literary texts. Such aid comes not in the form of directly comparative data, but as enriching stimulus to historical and sociological imagination. From anthropology we gain a wider range of questions, a heightened sense of the relative place of ideology (or theology) along side of other forms of social exprssion, and a feel for what might be worth investigating in ancient Israel.

This article is especially concerned with some social aspects of conflict among the Hebrew prophets. We will survey a few recent anthropological studies related to this sugject, and armed with this new background material, look again at selected Biblical traditions.

1.0 At the outset, we must realize that the word “prophet” has been used in a number of different ways by ethnographers. A broad range of material discusses diviners, priests, oracle givers, shamans, witches and mediums in rather culturally specific ways. These titles, if there is a corresponding native word for such, often overlap to a considerable degree in a given society, and religious functions may blend and separate in quite specific ways. To be able to gain from these studies, a flexible stance is helpful. We follow Wilson (27–28; see Fry: 30; Carley: 242–43) in speaking generally of an “intermediary,” that is, of a religious specialist who works in contact with the divine reality, and who brings forth for his public direct or indirect messages through which others gain access to, and benefits from, the supranatural world. From this standpoint, then, we may mention a few relevant studies. I have been selective rather than exhaustive, citing works which illuminate the social dimensions of conflict among intermediaries, and which seem to me to be particularly useful to Biblical scholars because of the specific character and history of our discipline.

1.1 As part of a thorough study of the shaman (=”master of the spirits,” Eliade: 3–13; Shirokogoroff: 269) as a social and religious institution among the Evenks of Eastern Siberia, A. F. Anisimov provides a detailed description of a curative seance. After the disease spirit had been captured and expelled with raucous and aggressive ceremony, there followed the ritual “vengeance of the shaman and his spirits on the shaman of the hostile clan … (wherein) exclamations of indignation and threats descended from all sides onto the evil alien shaman” (Anisimov: 105). The alien shaman, seen as the cause of disease among clan members, naturally bears the brunt of this purgation (cf. the ritualized combat among the South American Yanomamö in Chagnon). This form of conflict received social reinforcement not only in the public ritual but in the cultural mythology about the shaman himself. The master healer possesses a marylya, a mythical fence consisting of those spirits controlled by the shaman and built to protect his clan from the invasion of evil spirits from alien sources. Some of the protective spirits are weak, however, and sometimes an evil spirit at the behest of an alien shaman breaks through the defenses, bringing disease or misfortune. Hence, the necessity of shamanizing, and the appropriateness of a curative procedure dramatizing conflict and power; the shaman aims to drive off the spirit, and to repair the protective fence around the clan (Anisimov: 111–12). Thus ritual conflict among shamans is fully expected. It is thought to be essential and is explainable in the society’s world view.

Conflict is also a positive world-maintaining social force because it is connected with healing and maintaining the equilibrium of the Evenk clan. Such social functions are entirely consistent with the highly professional, specialistic, and status conscious role of the shaman among the Evenks. Winning these important battles with the alien spirits (and their shamans) is a way to defend power and position through public works—all part of the shaman’s social network which offers an extraordinarily privileged status to a chosen few (Anisimov: 114–15).

1.11 Asen Balikci (1967); 1970) paints a similar picture for Netsilik Eskimo shamans. Based in part on the North American expedition reports of Rasmussen, Balikci (1967) interprets the shaman’s powers and rituals as means to (1) deal with environmental threats which endangered the clan; (2) mitigate individual or group crises; (3) control interpersonal relations, including the aggressive and competitive acts by shamans against others; and (4) support and enhance the shaman’s own prestige among the clan members.

Where the shaman is in conflict with members of his clan or with other shamans, it becomes a matter of competition for superior status, power, and recognition. Informants told Balikci about contests of supernatural strength which sometimes involved aggressive behavior, and often the working of miracles before an appreciative audience. People who claim to have seen such performances speak with awe and admiration about the ability of the shamans; folk tales, particularly, remember the power of some great shamans of the past (Balikci, 1967: 203–204).

As in the Evenk groups, this aggressive behavior seems to have been supported by belief in a hostile cosmos from which one needed powerful protection. Shamanizing and shamanistic conflict not only were expected, but in a dramatic way mirrored the hidden world of the spirits. Conflict seems therefore to reinforce both the clan’s world view and the shaman’s central position in society. Nevertheless, discreet criticism and skepticism of particular practitioners may be privately expressed by a few (Rasmussen; 54–55).

1.12 Shirokogoroff gives us a much fuller picture of the shaman’s social position among the Tungus of Siberia. In the days before extensive Russian European influence, the shaman was an important figure who stood at the head of a network of social relations built out of contacts and dealings with clients. As with the Evenks and the Netsilik Eskimos, the Tungus shaman carried out his profession against the ideological backdrop of a spirit filled cosmos from which mankind needed protection. Ironically, while regulating the social and psychological equilibrium of the clan, the shaman’s own social position was, according to Shirokogoroff, delicate and in need of constant fine tuning. Lacking the absolute authority of the priest, and the political position of the clan “chief,” the shaman was dependent upon public opinion, which monitored his every step. His shamanizing in public, while supported by the group’s liking for social gatherings, nevertheless faced a range of reactions—from full approval to hostile interference. Success in curing and bringing on a kind of group “ecstasy” brought him status. Failure, brought lowered prestige, perhaps disuse. Such public evaluations were individual matters, however, and need not weaken confidence in the institution of shamanism. Even individual failure could sometimes be explained ideologically by pointing to evil spirits which could not be fought, or to an evil shaman, a “bad person,” whose aggressive and hostile powers proved too strong (Shirokogoroff: 332–378; 342–344; 376–378; 332–334).

In this context of fragile reputations and guarded positions, the Tungus knew a much more dangerous form of shamanic conflict: the “wars” between shamans who were personal rivals for power and influence, or representatives of clan hostilities. Battles in the form of competition in art and murder took place while dreaming or awake. But the results were thought to be tangible indeed—mystifying deaths, illness, bodily mutilations, intractable disease, and the like. Among certain groups of Tungus, these shamanic conflicts had a decidedly negative effect on the public attitude toward shamanizing. For most groups, however, negative feelings were directed only at individual practitioners. These “bad persons” were feared, not consulted, and in other ways were socially isolated by clansmen. They were also fought by ritual means. Shamanism as an institution thereby remained intact, supported by ideologies and social forces more powerful than individual competing shamans (Shirokogoroff: 371–372).

1.2 A thorough and substantial study of mediums (=a human channel of communication from the spirits, the god, or the gods) among the Zezuru in southern Rhodesia provides yet another picture of social authority, status, and conflict (Fry). For the Zezuru medium, as among many other peoples, public success depends upon an ability to articulate common consensus, especially in politics (i.e., African nationalism), and his day to day “capacity as a diviner, his ability to foster a wide circle of adherence, his ability as a showman, and a certain amount of luck” (Fry: 33–42).

Conflict with the public is built into the social order. Insofar as status rests upon public opinion, undergirded of course by certain ideologies relating to spirits and the specialists’ role in mediating their influence, conflict with members of the public including other mediums may result in being dismissed as a fraud or simply down-graded. More rarely, a Zezuru medium might be totally discredited because of a flagrant violation of social norms (Fry: 43). He might be only partially discredited when suspected of feigning his “trance” (Fry: 44) or on the basis of a public challenge to the identity of his spirit presentation, rather than a more radical challenge to his mediumship (Fry: 68–106). A particularly interesting case involved one called “Wild Man,” who claimed to be the medium of the legendary spirit, Chaminuka, a famous Shona oracle-giver and rainmaker (see Cripps). Another person, one Muchatera, claimed also to be Chaminuka’s medium, and pointedly observed that it was impossible for two people to act as hosts for the same spirit. A public meeting was thereby arranged. According to Drum magazine, the two claimants exchanged deprecatory comments with one another, and Muchatera challenged the “Wild Man” to make rain, whereupon he climbed up a small rock, waved his arms, and rain clouds appeared. The “Wild Man” and his supporters demanded the withdrawal of Muchatera, who did in fact leave, disgraced. Later, the “Wild Man” announced that Muchatera was not the medium of Chaminuka, but of another spirit, Zhanje. Fry’s analysis follows:

The import of the Drum article was that the ‘Wild Man’ was the true Chaminuka medium whereas Muchatera was a fraud. However, such questions are relative, for the status of a particular medium depends on the population which supports him. In this case, Muchatera’s authority was based on his followers who were far away in Rusape. The ‘Wild Man’s’ status as the true medium of Chaminuka was guaranteed by the presence of his followers at Chitungwiza [where the meeting took place]. Muchatera was partially discredited because he was ‘playing away’ and it is quite probable that the outcome would have been reversed had the meeting taken place in Rusape [Muchatera’s home]. (Fry: 43–44).

Conflict primarily with other mediums rather than the general public is built into the social order because claims of supernatural warrant and proper ritual initiations, even successful mediation with the spirits, are not sufficient in themselves to guarantee success and social status, both of which—contrary to the Zezuru ideology of mediumship—are in fact important to individuals (Fry: 36). In practice, authority is built and maintained by creating a network of client and peer relationships. In this situation, endemic rivalry among mediums is a given, as they compete for positions of power and status relative to various factions in the populace. In Fry’s words:

The overall situation is best described in terms of networks and spheres of influence. Each medium, on being initiated, incorporates himself into the ritual network of the mediums who are involved in the initiation. If he is successful as a high level medium he in his turn will initiate new mediums who join the wider network through joining his, and so on. In this way successful mediums are able to build up networks which ramify continuously and which are not bounded. These spheres of influence reach the lay public through their contact with the mediums as clients, as attenders of rituals, but these ritual networks are not stable or exclusive. Their stability is threatened by the competition between mediums which is endemic to the system and which may bring a medium to challenge the authority of the medium who initiated him, in order to alter relationships within the network or to establish a new network with him as center. (Fry: 45).

A good deal of Fry’s book is in fact given over to intensive case study material which penetrates the complexities of these social networks. He was a close observer of the entry of his assistant, Thomas Mutero, into high-level spirit mediumship, and witnessed a long and difficult process in which Mutero met not only considerable opposition in the village from the senior low level mediums in the village, but became embroiled in a long standing dispute between his full and paternal half-brother. Eventually the personal, village level disputes touched on the larger Black nationalist movement in Rhodesia, the support of which was a major source for the social strength of mediumship (Fry: 68–106; 107–123).

1.3 It is clear from Fry’s analysis that competition, public rivalry, and conflict were as much a part of the Zezuru medium’s life as ritual performances. And equally important. Conflict served to destroy and to build status and influence, to challenge a social situation, and to adapt to changing situations—including the political movements in Rhodesia. Conflict was a constant and positive means of adjusting the “system” to the rise and fall of various mediums in the society. It seemed to have less to do with ideological differences than with social and political dynamics.

But is not conflict among intermediaries divisive rather than upbuilding? The answer must be in some cases, yes, in others, no, in others, both yes and no. Certainly for the Zezuru medium, conflict both builds and tears social fabric. For the Nuba peoples, of the southern Sudan, whom Nadel (1946) studied, conflict seemed more clearly divisive. Highest ranking shamans were remembered as leaders in the widest sense; they were appealed to regularly, and looked to for leadership in war. They would advise on blood feuds between clans and ordain wars to be fought. Equally, they might recommend peace and reconciliation, and negotiate on behalf of communities or kinship groups. But shamanistic leadership was fluid, irregular, localized, and often conflicting. The shamans were rivals of one another, and frequently divided the people. In Nadel’s words:

One shaman, entrusted with the supervision of some ceremonial, would unite the community in one way and on certain occasions; the war shaman would unite it in a different way and for different purposes. The leadership of each would last only while he was alive or unrivalled by the priest [shaman] of a stronger spirit. Rival war shamans and other kujurs frequently divided the people. The Nyima rebellion of 1918 collapsed so easily because a kurjur prophesying the downfall of its leader caused a large section of the community to desert the cause (Nadel: 31).

Similarly, Kingsley Garbett (1977) has noted for modern Zimbabwe the divisive effect of competition among factions which claim rival intermediaries and spiritual sanctions for their political programs (Garbett: 86–87). On the other hand, Elizabeth Colson (1977) observed a more complex situation among the Tonga peoples of Zambia. She studied conflict and tension between prophets (“possessed” oracle-givers) and custodians of local shrines (ritual officiants carrying out seasonal religious duties). In the situation following government resettlement of large numbers of people, however, this tension had a double effect. When resettled prophets criticized a shrine or its custodian, disputing, for example, matters of shrine maintenance, the prophets emphasized by their actions their freedom to reassert innovative leadership in a new geographic area. On the other hand, this public conflict indirectly highlighted the “social maintenance” role of traditional shrines, and their importance in meeting needs for continuity among the resettled prophets. Thus, conflict affirmed both the prophetic “free” role and status, while underlining the important conservative social functions of shrines (Colson: 119–139, esp. 128–135).

1.4 Reviewing these various studies with due caution and allowing for the uneven quality of data and interpretation, we may venture a few summarizing comments. First, conflict among intermediaries is obviously a complex, little-studied, imcompletely understood social phenomenon. Second, conflict is highly situational—that is, related to, and expressive of social dynamics in particular societies. Full understanding requires more information than we usually have for a given example. Third, conflict in the mediational process is certainly normal, if not inevitable.The potential for disputes lies in the claim to supernatural mediation—spirit possession, manipulation of the spirits, disputes over the value of, and interpretations given to, messages from these spirits. The potential for conflict lies also in the social components of such ideological matters: competition for status, influence, and power in situations where religious authority tends to be pragmatically given and removed by public concensus (Fry). Fourth, it is important to conceive of such conflicts in both their ideological and social aspects. Given the variety in the examples we have seen, we may recognize, according to the weight given to various factors, different kinds of conflict among intermediaries, such as personal, ideological, and political. But no typology should fail to take into account the degree and extent of overlap in characteristic features and social involvements. It seems appropriate always to ask about the relative weight these factors may have, and how this may differ from express comments made by participants.

The social effects of conflict among intermediaries is also complex, shifting, and varied. Although Nadel and Garbett mentioned in passing the divisive, negative consequences of disputes among shamans and mediums, other studies clarified more positive effects as well. Depending on the situation, and a given society’s basic view of reality, conflict might be supportive and protective of community (Anisimov; Balikci), somewhat disruptive (Shirokogoroff), or expressive of a socially healthy and upbuilding tension between need for innovation and conservation of religious values (Colson). Disputes among intermediaries may also be important to an individual’s maintaining both social position and adaptability in changing circumstances (Fry). Finally conflict may, but need not, undermine public acceptance of the mediation process (Shirokogoroff), although it may have something to do with an individual’s credibility among his peers. (Fry)

2.0 In the light of these anthropological studies, some of the special problems associated with trying to reconstruct social aspects of conflict among Biblical prophets are all the more obvious. The historical and social distance between text and situation to which text might refer, a point of view more theological than sociological, a one-sided, Yahweh-triumphant perspective on conflict and opposition—these are the main problems to be dealt with, but not entirely overcome. I have chosen to comment on a few major scenes of conflict in Jeremiah 26–29 and 37–38, which, because of their fullness of detail, offer the best hope of adding some important information to our understanding.

2.1 There is widespread agreement among critics that early exilic Deuteronomistic (Dtr) editors had a determinative hand in shaping the materials in Jeremiah 26; 27–29; 37–38. There is less agreement when it comes to spelling out details of that editing or isolating original traditions (see Hossfeld and Mever; Nicholson; Seidl; Kessler). It seems the safest course, therefore, to consider first the matter of conflict from the perspective of these latest editors.

2.11 Jeremiah 26 highlights the fate of the divine word as spoken by Jeremiah and as resisted by King Jehoiakim. It is this king who by implication acquiesces to the priests, opposition prophets, and all the people in the hostile rejection of Jeremiah (vv 7–9). And this same Jehoiakim is explicitly said to have spurned the word and person of yet another prophet (vv 20–23; cf. Jer 22:13–19). These two pictures of conflict and rejection now frame a scene of apparent reprieve for Jeremiah: “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of Yahweh our God.” (v 16). The point seems to be a double one: Jeremiah is spared (vv 16–19, 24) and yet the hopes raised in v 3 that the divine word might achieve its end are dashed. The tradents cite no repentance by this king, but only a second instance of obstinate hostility toward a Yahweh prophet.

In Jeremiah 27–29, despite problems in some details, it is clear that we are meant to see a unit of thematic consistency. The tradition develops two events: chaps. 27–28, Jeremiah’s word about the inevitable Babylonian conquest in King Zedekiah’s day (after a first deportation to Babylon of certain leaders in 597 B.C.E.), and chap. 29, a letter from the prophet to these same exiles. These two events, linked by the symbol of ox yoke and Jeremiah’s word, are now woven together as material about Jeremiah and prophets who rejected his message. The effect is to dramatize the singularity of Jeremiah’s view—speaking for Yahweh over against many whose heads and hearts were turned to others—and to maintain the correctness and eventual triumph of Jeremiah’s position. Having focused in this way on the rejection of the divine word in chaps. 26–29, the text goes on to tell of Jeremiah’s rejection and violent treatment during Zedekiah’s reign (Jer 37–38), and his ultimate vindication in events of exile (Jer 39:1–10) and rescue (Jer 39:11–14).

2.12 Clearly, we are reading in all these chapters a Dtr vision of the failure of a nation and its religion, focused like a prism on the actions of Kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, princes, and prophets (principally Hananiah and Shemaiah). In Jeremiah 26, the issue is not so much conflict among the prophets or between Jeremiah and his public as it is the fate of Jeremiah’s message, seen now as the true word of God. Will the word be heeded or ignored? True, the message provoked hostile reactions, and eventually Jeremiah escaped harm, but in the eyes of the final editors this incident along with Jehoiakim’s treatment of another prophet, Uriah ben Shemaiah, seems to have been treated as illustrative of the failure of a people to turn to Yahweh alone for guidance. These scenes are paradigmatic for the editor and perhaps for his audience. One cannot ignore Jeremiah and his words, preserved of course in tradition, nor should one ignore the “type” of the pious king, represented in Hezekiah (26:18–19; cf. the Dtr evaluation of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:1–18).

Similarly, chaps. 27–29 defend the correctness of Jeremiah’s word and the legitimacy of this particular prophet in the long line of those prophets who were sent as messengers of warning to a stubborn people (28:8–9; 29:19; cf. 2 Kgs 17:13–14, a classic Dtr text). For the editor, it is not the institution of prophecy which is on trial, but certain practitioners, just as the monarchy is not in itself religiously misguided, only certain kings. Indeed, in Jeremiah 26, the value of prophecy as a means of mediation with the deity is affirmed by citing as a positive model the earlier incident involving Micah and King Hezekiah (26:18–19). And in chap. 28, the editor must have defended Jeremiah over against his look-alike Yahweh prophet Hananiah by succinctly showing Jeremiah’s word of death to Hananiah fulfilled (“In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.” v 17) and by repeating Hananiah’s prophecy of a short exile (v 3) in a tradition aimed at an exilic prople who had already experienced its disconfirmation. The perspective is no different in chap. 27, where Jeremiah opposes other prophets, and where the Dtr ideology of the legitimate prophet is applied to the opposition (27:18). The institution is not questioned, but a number of practitioners en masse are measured and found wanting.

2.13 In this later editorial context, the traditions of Jeremiah’s conflict functioned obviously to explain the catastrophe of exile in terms of the transgressions of king and people, mainly their refusal to heed the consistent warnings of Yahweh’s messengers, especially the one called Jeremiah whom hindsight and devotion now deemed to be among those truly sent to a misguided people. The tradition of conflict, therefore, carried with it certain ideological claims, and this probably meant that it also was addressed to a situation of ideological confusion and or competition following the demise of temple, monarchy, and cult in 587 B.C.E. If we might apply the categories of “cognitive dissonance” (Festinger; cf. R. P. Carroll), we might suggest that when the basic social, political, and religious institutions were destroyed, and consequently their religious underpinnings called into question, the Dtr editors could have lessened dissonance over discomfirming facts by reinterpreting tradition in the light of new circumstances. Belief in monarchy, Yahwism, and prophecy is reaffirmed by remembering paradigmatic examples of “true” prophesying, and “right” rule, and by attributing present circumstances o improper handling of these God-given trusts.

The traditions of conflict may also have served as a kind of homily in this exilic period. As paradigmatic literature, they represented a transformation of the prophetic impulse into a textual tradition of implicit warning to a later generation—those who bore and those who heard the filtered memory of the events spiraling to disaster. The Dtr ideology of prophet, as reflected in 2 Kgs 17:13–15, is embodied as it were in Jeremiah 26, 27–29. These incidents become warnings, therefore, and carry with them a “prophetic” exhortation—as do the prose traditions dealing with law in the Book of Jeremiah—”turn again (to Tôrāh) and live” (Jer 7–8:3; 17:19–27; 18:1–12; 24:4–7; 29:10–14; Nicholson: 57–93). Whether or not conflict among prophets was a live issue for the Dtr editor(s) remains uncertain. The self-serving assertions found in Zechariah, “… you shall know that Yahweh of hosts has sent me …” might suggest that such conflict among intermediaries was not unknown in the exile and post exilic periods (Zech 2:15 [= 2:11 RSV]; 6:15; see Petersen).

2.2 Can we see anything of these conflicts other than what the Dtr editor wanted us to see? Perhaps so, by focusing on elements in the tradition not directly expressive of the editor(s) apologetic and homiletic interests.

2.21 The prophet delivers oracles to Israelite kings, priests, princes and people, as well as to the kings of neighboring states (Jer 27:4–11). Even allowing for exaggeration, it seems justified to say that Jeremiah at the least worked as a highly placed oracle-giver (cf. Jer 37:3, 17; 38:14–28), who enjoyed certain influence with at least one King (Zedekiah) (37:17–20), but who was opposed by certain of Zedekiah’s high ranking men (Jer 38:1–6) and sometimes even the king (such as Jehoiakim [Jeremiah 26 and 36]). We get some indication of the social and political status of these opponents from Jeremiah 38. The text, as usual, has been pointed by later interest in the eventual rescue and vindication of Jeremiah (vv 7–13; cf. 39:15–18), but the details of name and family in 38:1 ring truly. The “princes” (sārîm) who plot against Jeremiah are among the elite in the land. Gedaliah is the son of Pashhur, presumably the priest who was in charge of the temple (he is pāqîd nāgîd běbêt YHWH in 20:1) and who was an opponentof Jeremiah (20:1–6). Jehucal (Jucal) turns up elsewhere in a delegation of two persons, one of whom is a priest, sent by King Zedekiah to Jeremiah for divinatory consultation during the military siege of Jerusalem (37:3). Similarly Pashhur, son of Malchiah, is one of two persons, and again the second is a priest, sent by King Zedekiah to Jeremiah for consultation when the Babylonians first attacked the city (21:1). In both instances, the priest is Zephaniah ben Maaseiah, who is the second ranking priest in the kingdom (Jer 52:24), and who possesses some kind of supervisory power over prophets in the temple compound (Jer 29:25). Shephatiah is unknown.

2.22 If there was some presumed difference in social status between Jeremiah and the princes who opposed him, there is little or no evidence that he differed in any way from his prophetic opponents. Jeremiah is opposed by another Yahweh prophet, Hananiah, in chap. 28, without any hint of social distinction. They speak with similar language, using typical prophetic forms of discourse, and ply their trade inside the temple compound in the presence of priests. In chap. 29, it is a Yahweh prophet in exile, Shemaiah, who complains to a priest in Jerusalem about Jeremiah’s activities; and they are Yahweh prophets who are said by the people to have been “raised up by Yahweh” in Babylon, and who are condemned by Jeremiah (29:15, 21–22). Furthermore, both Jeremiah and his prophetic opponents are pictured as delivering oracles to the king (Jer 27:12–15). Moreover, both Jeremiah and his prophetic opponents share the common characteristic of being native to villages outside the royal and religious capital. Hananiah comes from Gibeon (28:1), Jeremiah himself from Anathoth (1:1), and Shemaiah from Nehelan. Even those prophets cited in the traditions as ideologically akin to Jeremiah, are similarly remembered to have been non-Jerusalemites (Uriah, 26:20; Micah, 26:18). None of these prophets, including Jeremiah, claim a special status because of place of birth or family associations. But they may in fact have had in common the social background and culture of village life.

2.23 Jeremiah and his prophetic opponents also appear to have been associated with priests and their cultic affairs. The Dtr editors pictured the prophets as oracle givers to both king and priest (27:16b; 28:1). They viewed Jeremiah in exactly the same way (27:16a; 28:5; 29:1). As far as we can tell, this view of the editor(s) is consistent with historical fact. In Jer 29:26, a Yahweh prophet who opposes Jeremiah appeals to a priest, Zephaniah, and thereby implies that the latter has some authority over, or at least working association with, prophets who prophesy in the temple. The exact nature of Zephaniah’s authority is unclear. At the least, the tradition assumes a relationship that made a complaint before a priest a sensible course of action for disputing prophets.

From other texts, we may sketch something more of this association of priest and prophet. Jeremiah enjoyed free access to the temple (26:1; 35:2–4) and speaks in the temple before priests (28:5); so does his rival, Hananiah (28:1). According to Jer 26:7, Jeremiah’s temple audience consists of priests, prophets, and “all the people.” These references may be nothing more than narrative stereotyping, however. A more reliable indication is the oracle in 23:11, which implies that both priest and prophet regularly operate within the temple:

Both prophet and priest are ungodly;

even in my house I have found their wickedness,

says the LORD (Jer 23:11; cf. Lam 2:20)

Or again, Jeremiah says:

The prophets prophesy falsely,

while priests make rulings

at their direction. (Jer 5:30–31)

Quite without tendentiousness, Jer 35:4 mentions a special chamber in the temple set aside for the “sons of Hanan ben Igdaliah, the man of God,” that is, for a guild of prophets attached to Hanan ben Igdaliah. We recall, too, that Nathan, the prophet, and Zadok, the priest, worked together in the coronation of Solomon (1 Kgs 1:26, 32–40). Similarly, in Zech 7:1–14, both priest and prophet are involved in a cooperative effort at rebuilding the temple. All these passages suggest a long-standing association of priest and prophet (Johnson: 60–64). They further suggest no important distinction between Jeremiah and his rival prophets in this regard. The details escape us. But apparently Jeremiah, his rivals, and the priests are functionaries in associated systems for dealing with the national deity.

2.24 In sum, the evidence suggests that there was little social distinction between Jeremiah and his prophetic rivals, and they had much in common. A typology of “peripheral” and “central” to describe and/or contrast their relationships to central governmental authority does not seem appropriate (against Wilson). On the other hand, the Dtr perspective gives the distinct impression that Jeremiah is something of an outsider. For example, he addresses King Zedekiah and refers to other prophets who speak to that king as though he, Jeremiah, is not a part of the group of prophets who regularly have the royal ear. And in that same chapter, Jeremiah speaks to priests as though he is not regularly used to working with the cultic officials (v 16). But, given the ample indication of Jeremiah’s activities within the temple before the priests and his associations with and solicitation by royalty (37:3–5; 38:14–28; 22:1; 34:6), the impression that Jeremiah was something of an outsider likely means only that in the view of the Dtr editor Jeremiah was pitted ideologically against others in the society.

2.3 Precisely because of this editorial interest, it is very difficult to gain a sure sense of the ideologies of Jeremiah’s opponents, or even the full range of issues in any given incident of conflict. For the prophets, we unfortunately see this matter only through the eyes of editors, who by and large have Jeremiah speak for the opposition. Any picture we have of their beliefs is very likely to be simplified, exaggerated, and hardly able to be generalized into an ideological portrait of the opposition, despite efforts to the contrary (e.g., van der Woude; Crenshaw).

According to tradition, the opposition prophets spoke of Yahweh’s unshakable attachment to Jerusalem and its well-being, šālôm (Jer 5:12–13; 6:14 = 8:11; cf. 14:13). This characterization of the prophets’ message seems consistent with a kind of royal theology evidenced in Isaiah 36–38, a theology which rested the defense of Jerusalem of Yahweh’s protective care and covenant with the Davidic monarchy (cf. Isaiah 7:1–9 and 2 Sam 7:1–14). However, the matter is put this way partly, perhaps largely, because the collectors of the traditions focus Jeremiah’s distinctiveness in his predictions of destruction for Jerusalem, which in hindsight turned out to be correct. We really have very little basis on which to reconstruct an opposing ideological position. My guess is that the conflict between Jeremiah and these other prophets was, as the anthropological evidence would suggest, highly situational, highly geared toward particular events and circumstances to which all of these prophets addressed themselves. There must have been ideological disagreements on specific issues, and in the Book of Jeremiah we see these issues by editorial choice circling around the threat of Babylonian conquest and the fate of Jerusalem and its exiles.

2.31 We can be even less assured of the ideological positions of those princes who opposed Jeremiah. Presumably they were active in positions of authority with Zedekiah, son of Josiah. The Babylonians had taken Jehoiachin and the queen mother into exile, and instead of installing a successor in the normal line, put Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, on the throne (37:1). If not exactly a puppet government, it was a regime which stood at the pleasure of the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar. It must have been a government naturally sensitive to its precarious position, and to judge from Jer 38:4; 52:3, apparently secretly nationalistic as well. Perhaps it was a sign of the times that the house of a high ranking royal official, the scribe (sôpēr) had become a prison in Zedekiah’s reign (37:15). We might surmise that the princes (śārîm) were jealously guarding the hope of eventually resisting the Babylonian threat and surviving the siege (Jer 38). Presumably, it was this reading of the situation that Jeremiah opposed (38:2–3). Here again, we must allow for the Dtr editor’s filtering of the situation for his own apologetic and homiletic purposes.

2.4 What of those who supported Jeremiah in the midst of conflict? We have only indirect information of a general sort, and no information for specific situations of conflict in chaps. 26, 27–29, 37–38. According to Jer 1:1, the prophet came from Anathoth, a city which by tradition was given to the Levites (Josh 21:18). Jeremiah was possibley a descendant of the priest Abiathar, who was an early supporter of the Davidic house and part of a line of priests nearly wiped out by King Saul (1 Sam 22:11–23). Abiathar was one of David’s chief priests who had been later banished by King Solomon to Anathoth for aiding Adonijah’s rebellious claim to the throne (1 Kgs 2:26–27). There at Anathoth, the priestly family continued, perhaps as earlier, variously supportive of and opposed to the monarchy. Jeremiah’s father was Hilkiah, and we may wonder if this is the same Hilkiah who was the chief priest intimately connected with Josiah’s reform of Israelite religion (2 Kings 22). Perhaps he was not. But in any case, Jeremiah’s uncle, Shallum, was a property owner at Anathoth (Jer 32:7), and thus presumably a member of the landed Levites in that village. Shallum might be the husband of Huldah, the prophetess who was instrumental in Josiah’s reform (2 Kgs 22:14). Thus one may see that tradition assigns Jeremiah blood relationships with a prominent priestly house, a house moreover that was linked to events of religious reform highly praised by the Dtr editors of the Books of Kings and Jeremiah.

The tradition also indicates that Jeremiah was closely associated with the family of Shaphan, a family also linked to the Josianic reforms. Jeremiah is protected by Shaphan’s son Ahikam, who had been at court in Josiah’s time (Jer 26:24; 2 Kgs 22:11, 14). The letter which Jeremiah sent to the exiles (Jer 29) was carried by Elasah, a second son of Shaphan (Jer 29:3). The scroll which Baruch read to King Jehoiakim was read from the house of Gemariah, another son of Shaphan (Jer 36:10–12). From this particular passage, we learn that Shaphan himself held royal office as the king’s scribe (sôpēr), and indeed must be the same Shaphan who bore that title for King Josiah (2 Kgs 22:3, 8). Finally, when the Babylonians crushed the Israelite monarchy, they put Jeremiah into the custody of Gedaliah, a grandson of Shaphan (Jer 39:14; 40:5).

As we have seen, Jeremiah’s uncle, Shallum, was a property owner at Anathoth and presumably a Levite. His son, Maaseiah, Jeremiah’s second cousin, was a priestly official, the “keeper of the threshold” (Jer 35:4; see 2 Kgs 25:18 = Jer 52:24; 2 Kgs 12:9). One of Maaseiah’s sons, and second cousin to Jeremiah, was the second ranking high priest, Zephaniah (Jer 21:1; 37:3; 52:24). This same Zephaniah presumably supported Jeremiah on at least one occasion, to judge from his refusal to take Shemiah’s side in opposing Jeremiah (29:24–32).

Finally, Elnathan ben Achbor, a prince (śār) in Jehoiakim’s court (36:12), is among Jeremiah’s sympathizers. At least, he was not openly hostile to the message of Jeremiah when it was presented at court (Jer 36:25). Now Elnathan’s father was linked to Josiah’s reform (2 Kgs 22:12, 14). Also, this same Elnathan may have fathered Jehoiakim’s queen (2 Kgs 24:8).

Thus we may catch the barest suggestion of a network of family relationships supportive of Jeremiah, and extending into the highest levels of royal and cultic service. Jeremiah is born into a priestly house, is kinsman to at least two prominent priests—the second ranking high priest and one of the three “keepers of the threshold.” Jeremiah finds support with this high ranking priest Zephaniah in a dispute with another Yahweh prophet. He also is surrounded by supporters from families whose connections with the royal court are intimate and extensive, and whose links to the religious reform movement under King Josiah are deep. Jeremiah may have been born a rural non-Jerusalemite, but his blood and social relationships are anything but lower class.

2.5 We now have another perspective on the conflicts reflected in chaps. 26; 27–29; 37–38. A scene of conflict between Jeremiah and royal princes with priests (Jer 26) is essentially repeated in the following regime with a new king, and many of the same royal officials (chaps. 27–29; 37–38). We have a picture of a relatively weak king (Zedekiah) who is said to have rebelled against the Babylonians and hence to have brought on a siege of the capital city (Jer 52:3). But this king is dominated by a group of princes (śārîm), who at least want to offer strong resistance to the Babylonians and may stand in a general tradition of protecting national autonomy at all costs (Jer 38:5, 7–16, 24–38). Presumably, the Yahwistic theology which would have accompanied such political sentiments is reflected in the royalist theology of the Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7) and the divinely chosen and protected city, Jerusalem (Isaiah 36–38). On the other side, we may think of Jeremiah and his supporters from members of an aristocratic family (Shaphan) and official, priestly ranks in Judean society. Because Gedaliah, a grandson of Shaphan and a protector of Jeremiah, was eventually chosen by conquering Babylonian authorities to be a Judean provencial governor instead of other princes in Zedekiah’s court (Jeremiah 39–40), we may presume that he and his family associates were perceived as more or less amenable to Babylonian authority. If so, the basis for the Babylonian perception may have lain in their earlier political action and opinions which would have argued for cooperation and co-existence with Babylon: ride out the storm, cooperate with the foreign domination, make the best of Judah’s position of weakness following a first deportation in 597 B.C.E. In fact, Jeremiah is accused of going over to the Babylonians during the siege (37:11–15) and of counselling others to do the same (38:2). In 29:4–9 he was said to have advised the first deportation exiles to support their new Babylonian masters. Presumably, the theological justification for this political persuasion would have roots in the ideals of Josianic reform, as now reflected in 2 Kings 22–23, since Jeremiah and his supporters had such deep and intimate ties with that movement. But these ideals in this particular moment in history may have been cast in terms of allegiance to Yahweh alone and turning away from what was deemed a religiously apostate and foolhardy course set by the noblemen around Zedekiah, the “autonomists” who apparently hoped to resist (Jer 26:4–6; 36:29). Thus within the royal court, among people of high familial and professional connection, including Jeremiah the prophet, there apparently raged a political struggle for the future of the nation. How much, or how little, a role personal ambitions may have played in the conflict, we cannot know.

The struggle did not cease with the final blow to the monarchy in 587 B.C.E. The Babylonians crushed the resistance, sweeping away, presumably, Zedekiah and many of those who supported the “autonomist” position. They also chose Gedaliah, a grandson of Shaphan, and presumably heir to all those associations stretching back through Shaphan to Josiah’s reign, to be the provincial governor at Mizpah (Jeremiah 39; 52). This same Gedaliah was given custody of Jeremiah as well (39:11–14). It looks as though the political figures who were more or less amenable to living with, rather than resisting, Babylonian power were now placed in authority. But the remnant of Zedekiah’s court resisted and finally murdered Gedaliah (Jer 41:1–10), provoking counter violence (Jer 41:11–12) and a plan to flee to Egypt out of fear of Babylonian reprisals for Gedaliah’s murder. In this new situation of political division, Jeremiah apparently was aligned with Gedaliah and the remnant in the land who had accepted existence under Babylonian supervision as a positive, desirable state (40:7–12). And he counsels them even in the wake of this murder to remain where they are, not to flee to Egypt. His line is as it was before 587: roll with the Babylonians, do not resist them, or in this case, do not flee to Egypt.

2.51 These same basic political divisions must have been at work in the dispute between Hananiah and Jeremiah. Hananiah counsels that exile (the first deportation) will be short, that the Babylonian power is short-lived, that autonomy will be regained within two years. Jeremiah, representing the political option of “co-existence,” has a different prophecy: servitude to Babylon is inevitable (28:14; cf. 27:7–8). Both men stand for opposing political options in the kingdom; both may have been closely involved in the struggles for influence. At least we know that Jeremiah was well connected; possibly Hananiah’s grandson accused Jeremiah of deserting to the Babylonians (37:13); both, as Yahweh prophets, cover or reinforce their political persuasion with oracles from Yahweh.

2.52 We may see something similar in Jeremiah 29. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, victims of the first deportation, counsels “co-existence” as a command from Yahweh:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce … seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:5–7)

Apparently what we have is an attempt by Jeremiah to extend his sphere of influence to the exiles who are in Babylon—done at close to the time that he advocated to those in Jerusalem a similar conciliatory posture toward Babylon (Jer 38). And just as his political advice met with opposition in the capital, so too, his advice by letter to the exiles drew forth resistance in the person and words of Shemaiah, the Babylonian Yahweh prophet (29:24–32). Again, the matter seems not to be just that two prophets opposed one another on a specific theological issue, but that they—at least we may say this for Jeremiah—were part of a larger struggle between factions for “autonomist” or “co-existence” political action. Both factions evidently sought support in prophetic oracles.

2.6 It is surely no accident that the struggles of Jeremiah are preserved and presented so fully by the Dtr editors. We may presume from the thoroughly Dtr composition in chap. 44 that the editors were unsympathetic to those Israelites who insisted upon fleeing to Egypt after the murder of Gedaliah. Translated into political terms, the editors in hindsight favored the counsel put in the mouth of Jeremiah, that one should remain in Judah, wait out this period of exile while Jerusalem lay in ruins, and get along with the Babylonians (42:7–17; 44:1–14; 26–30). It may be that these editors were themselves survivors of that group which before exile had counselled moderation and co-existence. In any case, it appears that now, in exile, the traditions of conflict between Jeremiah and his public were serving yet another function besides explanation and homily for Yahwistic religion. Tradition of conflict may have reinforced the social and political position of the editors as well. We might suppose that they wished to mount a political argument against those who went to Egypt, sanctioned of course with theological reprobation, because their own situation in exile demanded that they remain on amicable terms with their Babylonian masters. Such a pro-Babylonian posture was in fact to be elaborated more fully by the Chronicler (Ackroyd).

3.0 We have come full circle—beginning with the latest editorial perspectives on these traditions, back to what we could learn of Jeremiah’s situation, now returning to the environment of the editors. There remains much that we would wish to know: the group with which Jeremiah apparently was aligned seems hardly distinguishable in socio-economic terms from those “autonomists” around Zedekiah. But were there in fact “class” distinctions? Were there social, economic, material bases for the political options we have seen? The personal dimension remains closed to us—those human strivings for power and influence that one might imagine to be at work are never mentioned or hinted at. And the effects of those conflicts, whether over theological warrants for political action or political programs themselves, are invisible. It is difficult to say who the victors and the victims finally were, unless one assumes the story to be written by the victors, i.e., that the Dtr editor(s) carried on that earlier tradition of cooperation with Babylonian powers.

In any case, what we can see has enabled us to gain a somewhat fuller picture of the social dimensions of conflict between one prophet and his public. And certainly from the point of view of the editors, conflict in itself was not viewed as a problem, but part of a renewed proclamation of religion and (implicitly) political posture. It may have been that a consistent literary portrait of conflict along with the vindication of spokesmen for certain political views would have been served as part of the Dtr editor(s) response to a new need in Babylonian exile, viz., to establish that there was precedent within the advocacy of pure Yahwism for a policy which, if not pro-Babylonian, was at least favorable to co-existence with that nation.

The textual tradition, tendentious as it is, nevertheless allows us a glimpse of the complex social and political situation in which this example of prophetic conflict was played out. Anthropological studies help us realize that conflict is a vital element in prophetic activity, and that it is both deeper and broader than disputes over religious beliefs. Thus, anthropological study helps us compensate for distortions which arise from isolating religious ideology from other forms of social expression.

Works Consulted

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Prophecy: The Problem of Cross-Cultural Comparison

Thomas W. Overholt

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point


Prophets have been widely distributed throughout human societies and they and their movements have been extensively studied. Because of difficulties related to the sometimes vastly different patterns of cultural adjustment represented by the various groups among which they have appeared, however, there have been few attempts at a broadly cross-cultural analysis of the nature of the prophetic process. The paper suggests a model in terms of which such an analysis and comparison can be made, and applies it to a discussion of two specific prophets, Jeremiah, a Judean of the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C.E., and Handsome Lake, a Seneca Indian of the late 18th and early 19th centuries C.E. In conclusion some implications of the comparison are suggested for three interrelated problems which are important for any attempt to understand prophecy: the nature of the situation in which the prophet operates, the nature of prophetic authority, and the problem of how the content of a prophet’s proclamation relates to the cultural tradition in which he stands.

0.1 The phenomenon of prophecy has been widely distributed throughout human societies. We have recorded instances of prophetic activity from an impressive range of times and places, from the ancient Mesopotamian citystate of Mari, where in the 18th century B.C.E. prophets confronted royal administrators with the demands and promises of the god (Malamat, 1966; Huffmon; Hayes; Moran), to the New Yorker Joseph Smith, whose revelation and message have formed the basis for the development of Mormonism. The Saint-Simon movement of early 19th century France is another of the many instances of prophecy that have arisen within the Western stream of tradition (Talmon), but prophetic activity has also been widespread outside that tradition. Since the late 19th century the peoples of Melanesia have produced a whole series of cargo cult movements in most of which prophetic figures were of central importance (see Worsley). There were Tokerua, the “prophet of Milne Bay” (Papua, 1893), Saibai, the prophet of the German Wislin movement (Torres Straits, 1913; see Chinnery and Haddon; Eckert), Evara and Biere of the Vailala Madness (Papua, 1919; see Williams, 1923 and 1934), and Manehevi and his successors in the John Frum movement (Tanna, 1939–present; see Guiart, 1951 and 1956; Barrow), to name but a few. Prophets have appeared in Africa (Lanternari, Sundkler), wartime Japan (May), among various American Indian groups (see Mooney: 657–763), and in other parts of the world as well.

Nor has the appearance of prophets been confined to a particular kind of cultural adjustment. To be sure, the term “prophet” is likely first to call to mind the great high civilizations of the ancient Near East and figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Muhammad. But Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance religion of 1890, was a Nevada Paiute, a tribe whose simple hunting and gathering culture had only recently come into close contact with European civilization. Navosavakadua, the first prophet of the new Tuka religion among Fijians, began his movement about 1885 in an interior region where there were as yet no white settlements (Sutherland, Thomson).

0.2 As one begins to explore the vast literature on prophecy, certain tendencies appear. For one thing, data from primitive and higher cultures are usually dealt with separately. Studies of the Old Testament prophets, for example, normally make reference to extra-Israelite phenomena only to the extent that they bear directly on the development of Israelite prophecy. Much of the continuing discussion of the Mari prophets has centered on the question of the extent to which they were parallel in nature and function to the Israelite prophets, and one finds a similar concern mirrored in discussions of cult prophecy (Johnson, Pedersen), and other possible institutional analogues to Old Testament prophecy such as the royal messenger (Ross) and royal vizier (Baltzer). On the other hand, one finds studies of prophecy that are confined to its appearance within “lower cultures” (Schlosser or among “colonial peoples” (Fabian, Lanternari).

0.3 Another tendency of the literature is to discuss prophecy less for its own sake than as an element in some larger process. Studies of the Old Testament prophets have been very much preoccupied with the content of what these men proclaimed, and have found their message useful in helping to define the nature of Yahweh and his relationship to his people, as well as the general development of Israelite culture and religion. Thus we have discussions of “prophecy and covenant” (Clements, 1965) and of the relationship of prophecy to certain specific aspects of Israelite culture (e.g., Donner, Koch). This inclination to be more interested in the theological content of the proclamation than in the prophetic process itself is particularly evident in some of the well-known “theologies” of the Old Testament.

When one turns to extra-Israelite phenomena, the situation is similar. The focus is not so much on prophecy itself as on the broader soci-cultural movements of which the prophets are a part, a concern which Anthony F. C. Wallace makes clear in his now-famous essay, when he defines a “revitalization movement” as “a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture” (1956:265). Beginning with Ralph Linton’s essay on “nativistic movements” (1943), there has been a continuing effort to classify these cults in terms of their beliefs and goals (Guariglia, Koppers, Kobben), as well as numerous attempts to define their causes (in general see LeBarre). There have, of course, been many studies of individual movements, and these often take their departure from the kinds of theoretical analyses just mentioned (Zenner, following Festinger; Griffin, following Wallace, 1956). On the whole the same conditions persist in all these studies which led Jarvie to protest, with specific reference to theories of Cargo cults, that the prophetic leader himself has been unjustifiably neglected (1963:131).

0.4 Now it must be acknowledged that there are good reasons for these two tendencies, for real stumbling-blocks to the comparison of prophets arise from at least three sources. The first has to do with the nature of the given group’s cultural adjustment. There are obvious and striking differences, say, between stone age, tribal men of aboriginal New Guinea or North America and iron age, urban men of the ancient Near East, which complicate the task of comparison. And these differences do not stop with the material culture, but extend to world-views as well. One can think of the Judeo-Christian “historical” tradition as opposed to native mythological traditions and observe that persons who write about prophets tend to come out of the former and spend time discussing the “irrationality” of the latter. A second and closely related stumbling-block involves the content of the prophecies themselves, which in all cases is culturally conditioned. Separate movements may share a general hope for the eventual appearance or return of some valued person or thing, but to what extent are the specific objects of hope (e.g., Jesus, the buffalo, the ancestors bringing cargo) comparable? Finally, there is a real danger that the investigator will fall prey to ethnocentricity and evaluate more highly what to him is more familiar or intelligible or “rational.”

0.5 The difficulty of overcoming these barriers may be seen by glancing briefly at several attempts to do so. J. Lindblom, for example, approaches his study of ancient Israelite prophecy on the assumption that prophecy is a universal human phenomenon (1962). Early in the book he discusses extra-Israelite prophets and suggests what he considers to be the three defining characteristics of prophecy in general, namely that the prophet is a person who is conscious of having received a special call from his god, who has had revelatory experiences, and who proclaims to the people the message received through revelation. He then discusses the Old Testament materials with reference to these characteristics. But the extra-Israelite prophets are not again brought into the discussion for purposes of comparison, and it is clear that one of Lindblom’s main interests, to which he devotes the last third of the book, is the specific theological content of the ancient Israelite prophetic messages.

James Mooney’s classic study of the Ghost Dance of 1890 is another case in point (1896). Mooney was not satisfied simply to describe the origin and development of this one prophetic movement, but attempted to set it in the context of a number of others which he took to be similar in character. Thus the first eight chapters of his book are devoted to descriptions of prophetic activity among various North American Indian groups, beginning with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and culminating with John Slocum and the Shakers of Puget Sound in the late 19th century. In addition a later chapter is devoted to “parallels in other systems” and discusses examples of such activity from the biblical period, Islam, and Christian sects and movements from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Mooney does not elaborate any theorectical structure in terms of which he makes his comparisons, but one can find occasional statements that indicate he was using two general criteria in the selection of his materials. The first was the notion that messianic doctrines, wherever they are found, “… are essentially the same and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity” (1896:657). The second is a list of traits—inspiration via dreams, dancing, ecstasy, and trance—which are taken to “… have formed a part of every great religious development of which we have knowledge from the beginning of history” (1896:928; see 719, 947). Because of its scope, Mooney’s study is important and interesting, but it is more a listing of movements than a systematic comparison. It avoids the stumbling-blocks mentioned above by not acknowledging their presence, and throws little theoretical light on the nature of the prophetic process.

1.1 It is clear that the effort to compare prophecy cross-culturally would be greatly facilitated if one could arrive at some basis for comparison that was as much as possible free from culturally-conditioned content. With this in mind I want to propose a model of how the prophetic process works, apply this model to the discussion of two specific prophets, Jeremiah and Handsome Lake, and then suggest several implications that seem to me to follow from this approach to prophecy. The claim I wish to make is that although the specific content of their respective messages is culturally conditioned and, therefore, quite dissimilar, the prophetic activity of the two conforms to the same general pattern.

1.2 Before introducing the model itself, a word seems in order regarding its genesis. My own training has been in biblical studies, and my primary interest OT prophecy. I gradually became aware of and interested in what appeared to be prophetic movements among American Indians, and a post-doctoral fellowship which allowed me to spend a year studying anthropology afforded the opportunity for an extensive investigation of one such, the Ghost Dance of 1890. Though a formal cross-cultural comparison was not part of my original intention, it eventually became evident that the Ghost Dance as well as other prophetic movements and figures that I studied had important features in common with OT prophecy. Reflection on this fact led to the development of the model, which I first proposed in a study of the Ghost Dance (Overholt, 1974). I view the model, then, as the natural outgrowth of my study of Israelite and non-Israelite prophetic movements and of the important interpretive literature that has been generated by the scholarly investigation of both.

1.3 Figure 1 states in the form of a diagram a way of understanding the nature of the prophetic process. The basic components of this model are two: a set of three actors and a pattern of interrelationships among them involving revelation (r), proclamation (p), feedback (f), and expectations of confirmation (e).


Figure 1

1.4 The focus on interrelationships that is evident here calls for some enlargement of traditional notions concerning a prophet’s authority. Since the prophet functions as the messenger of the god, it seems justifiable to view his revelatory experiences as the primary source of his authority. In all instances of which I am aware it is simply assumed that a person who is truly functioning as a prophet has been the recipient of some such communication. These experiences are essentially private, and form the theological justification for his activity. They are also inevitably culturally-conditioned, since both his perception and later articulation of them will be affected by the cultural and historical context in which he stands. In addition to this, however, there is a more public aspect of a prophet’s authority which displays itself in various reactions to his message by the people to whom it is addresed. Since the act of prophecy must necessarily take place in a social context, these reactions are both inevitable and of critical importance. For the prophet seeks to move his audience to action, and his hearers may be said to attribute authority to him insofar as they acknowledge and are prepared to act upon the “truth” of his formulation. In their response the hearers in effect judge the cultural “competence” of the prophet by deciding whether or not his message makes sense in the context of their cultural and religious traditions and is relevant to the current socio-political situation. As Peter Worsley has put it, “Charisma is thus a function of recognition: the prophet without honor cannot be a charismatic prophet” (1969: xii; cf. also Overholt, 1977:144f.). We will return to this point below.

Though most of the prophet’s audience will be members of his own cultural community, we can expect that they will not all be of one mind in their evaluation of his message. But whether individuals accept, reject, or are indifferent to it, they will react to the prophet in some fashion, and it is this “feedback” and the prophet’s response to it that defines the dynamic interrelationship between actors that is central to the model. Similarly, the prophet will assess his own message against his perception of the events going on around him and the feedback he gets from his audience. Since in his understanding the message he delivers is not strictly his own but is revealed to him by the god, we also need to assume the possibility of feedback from the prophet to god and an eventual new revelation either confirming or altering the original message.

1.5 Operating on the basis of this model, we can now list in a more systematic way the component elements that we would expect to find in any given example of the prophetic process. The minimum number of elements necessary for the operation and identification of the process are three: 1. The prophet’s revelation. 2. A proclamation based on that revelation, which will have the following general characteristic: though it will inevitably contain innovative features, the message will nonetheless “make sense” in light of the cultural traditions of the prophet and his audience and the current social and historical situation in which they find themselves (cf. Barnett: 181–266). 3. an audience to whom the proclamation is addressed and whose reactions to it—positive, negative, or indifferent—will be determined in large part by how well the message is perceived to meet the criterion suggested above. Additional components (prophetic feedback to the source of revelation; additional revelations; additional messages; certain experiences, here labeled “expectations of confirmation,” which tend to independently confirm the god-given task of the prophet and strengthen the conviction of his authenticity) are possible, in fact even probable, although our ability to discover them will depend largely on the amount of data extant for any given instance of prophecy. Sometimes a fourth “actor,” in the form of one or more disciples who serve as intermediaries between the prophet and his audience, may be added to the basic model sketched in Figure 1.

2.1 Because a prophet speaks in a concrete historical situation and elicits a response from his audience partly on the basis of their judgments concerning what he says about it, it is necessary to preface the discussion of our two prophets with a brief sketch of the contexts within which they operated. The known public activity of the prophet Jeremiah spans approximately the last forty years of the existence of the Palestinian state of Judah (626–586 B.C.E.). For the century prior to this period Judah had been an Assyrian vassal state, but by the time Jeremiah appeared on the scene the power of the Assyrians had begun to wane, particularly in the outlying regions of their empire. Under King Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.) Judah began to reassert her independence. Her political influence was extended northward into the Assyrian provinces of Samaria and Galilee, and accompanying this rebellion there was a major reform of the Yahweh cult. Based on an old lawbook found during the remodeling of the temple in 622, this reform sought to reassert the traditional form of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people.

But though independent, Judah’s geographical position placed her in the middle of an international struggle for power that made her situation precarious. Revolts in both Egypt and Babylon had contributed to the weakening of the Assyrian empire, but as the pressure on the Assyrians by Medes and Babylonians became more intense (614–610), Egypt, hopeful of preserving a buffer state between herself and these new threatening powers, came to the aid of her old enemy and joined Assyria in an abortive attempt to recapture the city of Haran near the headwaters of the Euphrates. It was while he was on his way to this rendezvous in 609 that Pharaoh Neco met and killed Josiah in battle, and on his return from the Euphrates three months later deposed Josiah’s successor and placed a Judean of his own choice, Jehoiakim, on the throne in Jerusalem. Four years later in 605 the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar decisively defeated the Egyptian army at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Judah again found herself squarely between two opposing powers.

As one might expect, there was considerable factionalism in Judah over how best to respond to this situation. During his reign, Jehoiakim and his supporters among the princes adhered to a pro-Egypt policy and came into open conflict with Jeremiah. The king eventually revolted against Nebuchadnezzar, and the result of this action was the capture of Jerusalem and the deportation of persons and property to Babylon in the year 597. Under Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, the same party dispute continued. The majority of the princes seemed to have been solidly pro-Egyptian, while the proclamations of Jeremiah became explicitly pro-Babylonian in the sense that he interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s will and instructed the people to be obedient to their Babylonian overlord (cf. Jer 27–29). The king wavered, but ultimately threw in with the former group. Judah revolted again, and Jerusalem was again besieged and captured. More of the population was exiled, and the city itself was destroyed and the temple of Yahweh burned. The prophet elected to stay in Judah, but shortly was carried away to Egypt against his will by a group of fleeing Judeans (cf. Jer 37–44).

This series of events presented the participants in them with a complex political and theological problem. Decisions were required concerning concrete and appropriate political and military actions, and in this critical time some looked to the religious traditions of the people for guidance. But prophets differed (cf. Jer 28), and no single answer satisfactory to all emerged.

2.2 Turning now to the New World, the Seneca tribe of North America Indians to which the prophet Handsome Lake belonged had been a member of the famed Iroquois League, a closely knit confederation of tribes whose origin predates the arrival of Columbus. During much of the 18th century, this confederation was able, through a system of playing off the British against the French, both to maintain its territory and security and benefit from the material goods of European culture. But all that ended during the Revolution, which split the confederacy. Neutrality was abandoned, and most of the Iroquois gave their loyalty to the British. The ultimate result was that nearly all of their villages from the Mohawk River to the Ohio country were destroyed and they were cut off from their allies to the west, who established their own confederacy separate from the Iroquois.

The reservation system which was gradually imposed upon the Iroquois during the last decades of the century created what Wallace calls “slums in the wilderness, where no traditional Indian culture could long survive and where only the least useful aspects of white culture could easily penetrate” (1972:184). The Cornplanter grant on the Allegheny River in northern Pennsylvania was somewhat unique among the reservations because of its relative isolation from white settlement. Though the influences of European material culture were considerable, many of the old social and political customs survived and the annual cycle of traditional religious ceremonials was still observed. It was there that Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother, resided. Of course, such isolation could only be relative, and the social pathologies that had been making inroads among the Iroquois for years were found also in Cornplanter’s town. Drinking was a particularly serious problem.

As in the case of Judah in Jeremiah’s day, there was no unanimity of opinion among the Iroquois as to how to confront the problems inherent in their historical and cultural situation. Each reservation had its factions, the progressives “advocating the assimilation of white culture” and the conservatives “the preservation of Indian ways” (Wallace, 1972:202, Berkhofer). Cornplanter may be reckoned with the former group, and by the time of Handsome Lake’s vision his village had already come under the influence of Quaker missionaries. These men were non-dogmatic in their approach to religion, and chose to concentrate on offering positive assistance to the Cornplanter Seneca in such practical areas as farming, carpentry, and education. By May of 1799 they had also persuaded the council to ban the use of whiskey in the village (Deardorff; Wallace, 1972:221–236).

3. The model outlined above assumes that for the prophetic process to occur there is required, first of all, a set of three actors designated the supernatural, the prophet, and the people. In the pages that follow we will be dealing with two such sets. The prophets are Jeremiah, a Judean of the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C.E., and Handsome Lake, a Seneca who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries C.E. Jeremiah addressed his message to Judeans, primarily the inhabitants of the royal city of Jerusalem. Handsome Lake’s message was directed to the Seneca of Cornplanter’s band and, subsequently, other groups of Iroquois. The supernatural powers from whom each received his revelation were those familar to the people: Yahweh, the ancestral God of Israel, and the Iroquois Creator.

The second basic component of the prophetic process is a pattern of inter-relationships among these actors. I have termed the modes of this interaction revelation, proclamation, expectations of confirmation and feedback. The latter is especially important, since it allows us to understand what has sometimes been conceived of as a one-way informational flow as a dynamic, two-way process. For the sake of brevity the following discussion will center mainly on two sequences of action involving revelation, proclamation and feedback.

3.1 The prophetic process involves what we might call a revelation-feedback-revelation sequence. The Book of Jeremiah opens with an account of an experience that Jeremiah understood to be a revelation from Yahweh commissioning him to be a prophet (1:4–10). Both from the style in which the various utterances of the prophet are framed and reports of other visionary or auditory experiences (1:11–12, 13–19; 13:1–11; 18:1–11; 19:1–15; 24:1–10), it seems clear that Jeremiah continued to receive revelations. But this communication with Yahweh was not all one-way. In the call vision itself Jeremiah is pictured as protesting against the role that was being put upon him (1:6), and these protests continued in a series of six “laments” or “complaints” in which he lashed out against his enemies (11:20, 12:1–4, 15:5, 17:18, 18:21–23), complained about the burdens of his office (20:7–9, 14–18), and accused Yahweh himself of acting unfaithfully (15:18, 20:7–9).

It is important to point out that one of the factors in the mutual hostility between Jeremiah and some of his hearers was the question of the validity of his revelation and the message derived from it. Because he understood it to be part of what had been revealed to him, Jeremiah continually announced that disaster would befall the nation of Judah (cf. 1:10, 13–19; 17:16). But the people, who in any case would not have been overjoyed at such a message, at some point began to subject him to intense ridicule because the threatened calamity had failed to occur (17:15, 20:7f). The prophet also seems to have had his doubts about the revelation (15:18, 20:7), and these formed one element in his feedback to Yahweh.

The book also provides us with two examples of Yahwheh’s rejoinder to the prophet’s feedback (12:5f., 15:19–23), and these can be considered “additional revelations” which in effect confirmed the prophet’s original message. By implication we can assume that a similar feedback-response sequence lies behind that portion of the Hananiah episode (chapter 28) in which Jeremiah was temporarily unable to dispute the message of his opponent, but “sometime later” returned to condemn him as a liar. Further, it seems necessary to assume that, given the nature of prophecy, any alteration in message would be understood by the prophet to be grounded in an additional revelation from god, and therefore insofar as the announcement of a “new covenant” (31:31–34) and other passages of a more “positive” tone (e.g., 32:1–15) can be taken to reflect a genuine element of Jeremiah’s message, they also imply further revelations.

The Gaiwiio (“Good Message”), a record of Handsome Lake’s teachings which is still in use among followers of the “Longhouse way” (see Shimony), begins by describing a “time of troubles” in Cornplanter village. The scene is at first community-wide. A party of Indians had just returned from Pittsburg, where they had traded skins and game for whiskey. A wild drinking party followed in which village life was disrupted and some families moved away for safety. The focus then shifts to a single sick man, who was held in the grip of “some strong power” and feared that he might die. Realizing that the cause of his illness was whiskey, he resolved never to use it again. Afraid that he would not have the strength to do this, he prayed to the “Great Ruler” and began to be confident that his prayer had been heard and he would live. The sick man was Handsome Lake (Parker: 20–22).

On June 17, 1799, the sick man appeared to die. His body was prepared for burial and relatives summoned, but he revived and reported he had had a vision of three messengers who had been sent to reveal to him the Creator’s will and instruct him to carry it to the people. The vision also contained a threat, for Handsome Lake was shown the steaming grave of a man who had formerly been commissioned “to proclaim that message to the world,” but had “refused to obey.” On August 7 of the same year the prophet received his second revelation in which he was guided on a journey through heaven and hell and given moral instruction. A third revelation occurred on February 5, 1800. Each of these visions was reported and discussed in a council of the people.

Several passages in the Gaiwiio make it clear that Handsome Lake expected to receive further revelations. In his initial vision the three messengers promised, “We shall continually reveal things unto you,” and this promise was repeated in 1809 when in the midst of a personal crisis the messengers came to the prophet and said, “We understand your thoughts. We will visit you more frequently and converse with you” (Parker: 25, 47; Wallace 1972:293f.). Although the present form of the Gaiwiio makes it difficult to date specific revelations, there is some internal evidence of such a continuing sequence. Most conspicuous are the place names. The Gaiwiio specifically sets the initial vision in Cornplanter’s village, but subsequent sections are said to derive from Cold Spring. Tonawanda, and Onondaga (all in New York; Parker: 20, 46, 47, 57, 60–62, 76–80). These localities correspond to known periods of the prophet’s activity. Furthermore, there are at least four sections of the Code that Wallace links to specific, dateable events: a derogatory reference to Chief Red Jacket arising out of a dispute over the sale of reservation land in 1801, a prophecy intended to discourage Iroquois participation in the “war in the west” (1811), and a composite section mentioning the people’s reviling of Handsome Lake and his meeting with the Spirit of the Corn which seems to mirror events that took place in the years 1809 and 1815 (Parker: 68, 65f., 47; Wallace, 1972:260, 293f., 318). The final sections of the Code deal with the revelations and events immediately preceding the prophet’s death, which occurred on August 10, 1815, at Onondaga (Parker: 76–80). It is clear that these revelations did not simply repeat what had gone before. They arose out of Handsome Lake’s attempt to deal with new situations, and were doubtless seen by him to be divine responses to his own quest for a solution.

3.2 The prophetic process involves as well a proclamation-feedback-proclamation sequence. Throughout his long career Jeremiah seems to have proclaimed a fairly consistent message, viz., that because of their actions and the “falsehood” that pervaded their existence the people were standing on the brink of a great national catastrophe (Overholt, 1970). This message evoked both positive and negative responses from the people, though judging from the material available to us, the latter predominated. The negative feedback was sometimes stated in terms of derision because the destruction he proclaimed had not yet come to pass (17:15, 20:7f.). In addition there are reports that he was at various times of his life threatened (11:18–23; 18:18, 22; 20:10), put in the stocks and beaten (20:1–6; cf. 29:26–28), brought to trial on a trumped-up charge (26:7–19), thrown into an abandoned cistern in hopes that he would die (38:1–6), charged with treason (37:13f., 38:1–4), and imprisoned (32:2f; 37:15f., 20f.).

A further negative response to his proclamation can be seen in the numerous references to prophetic opponents whose message of “peace” contradicted that of Jeremiah (cf. 6:9–15, 23:9–40). A classic example because of its richness in narrative detail is the conflict with the prophet Hananiah recounted in chapter 28. We also have references to persons simply refusing to obey instructions conveyed to them by Jeremiah as the will of Yahweh (43:1–7, 44:15–19). On the other hand, there are instances of positive feedback. There were individuals and groups which supported the prophet (26:16–19, 24; 36:13–19; 39:11–14; 40:1–6), as well as occasions on which he was sought out by someone who wished to learn Yahweh’s will for the current situation (21:1f., 38:14–16, 42:1–3).

I have already suggested that the response of the people to a prophet will depend largely upon whether they perceive his message to be in continuity with their cultural and religious traditions and relevent to the current sociopolitical situation. But this is a rather flexible criterion, and not likely to lead to complete unanimity of opinion. It puts a tremendous burden upon the hearers, each of whom will be tempted to view the matter in terms of his own self-interests. It is evident that both Jeremiah and Hananiah had a following, and that the supporters of each could find some legitimate grounds for believing that their man’s message was faithful to the tradition and relevant to the situation. I have dealt specifically with this problem in another place, and will not repeat that discussion here (1970, chaps. II and V). It is sufficient for our present purposes to point out the intensity and significance of this feedback from the people to the prophet and suggest the mechanism by which it works.

As to whether the content of Jeremiah’s message was affected by this feedback, the data are not so clear. In the Hananiah episode we have reference to a specific occasion on which the prophet was at least temporarily blocked and forced to retreat for some reconsideration and/or renewal of his message (28:11–16). Taken in conjunction with other passages in which he expresses doubts about his revelation (15:18, 20:7), it would seem reasonable to conclude that the intensity of the negative feedback Jeremiah experienced from time to time caused him to reconsider both the content of what he said and his own continuance in the prophetic office (cf. 20:9). Beyond that, the passages of more positive tone referred to above may indicate a response to a changing historical situation (looking beyond the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem) and mark the beginning of a substantive change in the prophet’s long-standing proclamation of doom.

A summary of Handsome Lake’s proclamation to the Iroquois has come down to us in the Gaiwiio. This narrative begins with an account of an episode of drunkenness and destruction in Cornplanter’s village and of the prophet’s sickness, death, and resurrection. It is in connection with the latter experience that the main themes of Handsome Lake’s proclamation assert themselves, for the messengers revealed to him the four great wrongs by which “men spoil the laws the Great Ruler has made and thereby make him angry”: drinking whiskey, using witchcraft, using “compelling charms,” and practicing abortion. In the remaining sections considerable space is given to positive commands relating to social behavior (gossip, drunkenness, sharing, mourning customs, etc.), family life (the care of children, husband-wife relationships, the care of elders), and religion (the medicine societies were ordered to disband, but a number of the traditional ceremonies are specifically sanctioned and regulated). In addition the Code deals in several places with the relationship between Indians and whites (agriculture, schooling, and the Creator’s protection of his people against extermination by the whites) and with the status of the prophet (disbelief is said to be due to the operation of an evil spirit, and will be punished). A number of these themes are reinforced in the sections recounting the second revelation (the “sky journey”), where Handsome Lake witnessed the suffering of a variety of sinners (drunkard, wife-beater, gambler, etc.) in the house of the “punisher.” Finally, there is reference to the apocalyptic themes of the sin of the world and the world’s end and renewal.

Wallace understands the preaching of Handsome Lake to fall into two distinct phases. The first, covering the years 1799 to 1801, was characterized by an “apocalyptic gospel” in which the people were summoned to repentance and the recurring themes were world destruction, sin, and salvation. The second phase began in 1801 and featured a “social gospel” in which the main values that were stressed were “temperance, peace and unity, land retention, acculturation, and a revised domestic morality” (Wallace, 1972:278, cf. 239–302). As in the case of Jeremiah the response to this message was mixed. In the early years he was able to exercise both political and religious power, and the council at Buffalo Creek in 1801 prohibited the use of liquor and appointed him “High Priest, and principal Sachem in all things Civil and Religious.” Over the next few years, however, his political influence declined. In 1807 the Iroquois confederacy was reorganized and the great council fire established at Buffalo Creek, where one of the prophet’s chief rivals. Red Jacket, was influential. Handsome Lake and Cornplanter also quarreled, and factions developed in the Allegany band, causing the prophet to move out and locate first at Cold Spring and later at Tonawanda. But his religious influence remained strong. He made an annual circuit of visitations to other reservations preaching his gospel and winning converts (Wallace, 1972:260f., 286ff., 296ff.). As Wallace describes it, “these conversions were not casual matters. The Indians traversed the same mystic path to Gaiwiio as white converts to Christianity; the converts retained an intense devotion to the prophet who gave them strength to achieve salvation. ‘One of the Onondagas, when asked why they did not leave their drunken habits before, since they were often urged to do it, and saw the ruinous consequences of such conduct replied, they had no power; but when the Great Spirit forbid such conduct by their prophet, he gave them the power to comply with their request” (1972:301).

What one notices about the Gaiwiio is how directly it spoke to the situation that plagued the Iroquois of Handsome Lake’s day. Addressing a people debauched and demoralized by contact with white culture and the loss of their own traditional ways, the Gaiwiio accused them of wrong-doing, laying heavy stress on evils disruptive of harmonious community life (strong drink, witchcraft, charms, and abortion, Parker: 27–30). In its commandments great emphasis was placed on the strengthening of family relationships and the regulation of social behavior11. In response to the growing influence of white culture there was explicit approval of farming, house-building, animal husbandry, and, to a limited extent, education “in English schools” (Parker: 38).

In real life parts of this message evoked a negative response and caused the prophet trouble, particularly his determined attacks against witch-craft and supposed witch-inspired conspiracies. Reaction to the execution of one witch in 1809 caused him to have to leave Cold Spring, a situation reflected in the Gaiwiio: “Now it was that when the people reviled me, the proclaimer of the prophecy, the impression came to me that it would be well to depart and go to Tonawanda. In that place I had relatives and friends and thought that my bones might find a resting place there” (Parker: 47, cf. Wallace, 1972: 254–262, 291–294). Other sections which mirror responses to feedback in specific situations have been mentioned above.

The Gaiwiio spoke to the current situation, advocating such important cultural innovations as the involvement of men in farm labor, limited acceptance of white education, and the dissolution of the totem animal societies. But for all that, the Gaiwiio “made sense” in light of the traditions of the past. Social solidarity was stressed in the ethical commandments of the Code, and in particular the old religious values and ceremonies were for the most part retained. Its major new religious concept, the notion of judgment and afterlife in heaven or hell, was compatible with the old beliefs and was introduced “to insure the dedication of the people to conservative ritual.” Handsome Lake “was in his own eyes as the messenger of God, necessarily the defender of the faith” (Wallace, 1972:318; cf. 251–254, 315–318). As Parker puts it, “Handsome Lake sought to destroy the ancient folk-ways of the people and to substitute a new system, built of course upon the framework of the old” (114; emphasis added). Eventually, a myth even developed to account for the origin of the conditions that made the Gaiwiio necessary and fix its place in the overall order of things (see note 7).

The position taken in this paper is that feedback from the people to the prophet is important both because of its potential for helping to shape the latter’s message and because their acceptance forms one of the bases of his prophetic authority. That the message of Handsome Lake gained such wide acceptance among the Iroquois in his own day would seem to be due largely to the skill with which he utilized the old traditions of the people in addressing himself to the crucial problems of the present. And when after his death (1815) some of the traditional Iroquois leaders sought a way to counter the threats of both sectarian Christian and disruptive nativists, they found it convenient to call upon the memory of Handsome Lake in attempting to define the form and spirit of the old religion. At the religious council at Tonawanda in the summer of 1818 John Sky repeated a version of Handsome Lake’s teaching and a minor prophet recounted a vision of confirming it. Similar incidents occurred over the next two decades, and by the 1840s the text of the Code, which continues to this day to be an important force in Iroquois life, was fixed (Wallace, 1969: 330–37).

3.3 In discussing specific instances of prophecy we are always dependent upon the vicissitudes of historical reporting for our information. This is especially evident in the case of the final interactive element of the model, expectations of confirmation. We are dealing here largely with beliefs based upon circulating reports of individual experiences of a “supernatural” character, and such pious tales easily escape the attention of the chroniclers of prophetic movements. Nevertheless, enough examples are available to suggest that this element was of importance in the people’s response to a prophet. Faith in Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance of 1890, was certainly enhanced by Indians returning from visits to his camp with tales of how he could control the weather and miraculously “shorten” the homeward journey of those who made the long trip from the northern Plains to western Nevada to visit him (Overholt, 1974:47–48). With respect to Handsome Lake the same dynamics can be seen at work in the Onondagas crediting the Great Spirit with giving them the power to give up alcohol and follow the Gaiwiio, as well as in the visions of other prophets confirming his message. If it is difficult to find such clear examples as this in Jeremiah (20:7–8 and 44:16–19 rather seem to echo disconfirming experiences), that is perhaps because the book as we have it is preoccupied with the negative reactions of Jeremiah’s audience to him.

4. It seems fair to conclude on the basis of the foregoing summary of evidence that the model which I have proposed for understanding the nature of the prophetic process “works” cross-culturally. That is to say, it provides us with categories in terms of which to compare the activity of two such culturally disparate holy men as Jeremiah and Handsome Lake in a fashion not unduly prejudiced by the obvious differences in their respective messages. This is an important conclusion in several respects. In the first place it has been pointed out above that the processes of interaction which lie at the heart of the prophetic act have for the most part not been given their due by students of prophetic movements. Moreover, it would seem that adopting this view of prophecy enables us to put into satisfactory perspective three interrelated problems which are important for any attempt to understand prophecy: the nature of the situation in which the prophet operates, the nature of prophetic authority, and the problem of how the content of a prophet’s proclamation relates to the cultural tradition in which he stands.

4.1 The prophetic process has its locus in a specific situation. This means that any discussion of a prophet’s activity will need to be informed by details of the cultural context and historical moment in which he operated. The question is whether in comparing situations which gave rise to prophecy one can say anything beyond the widely recognized fact that they are invariably times of “crisis.” Let me briefly suggest, with the aid of concepts borrowed from Kenelm Burridge and Clifford Geertz, that it is possible to understand these situations more fully.

Burridge’s view of the prophetic situation derives from his notion that religion is “the redemptive process indicated by the activities, moral rules, and assumptions about power which, pertinent to the moral order and taken on faith, not only enable a people to perceive the truth of things, but guarantee that they are indeed perceiving the truth of things” (6–7). Religion thus establishes a prestige system in which the criteria of one’s integrity within the social order are well-known and consistent with everyday experience. The crisis of the prophetic situation resides specifically in the fact that events have taken place (usually involving contact with another culture) which have posed a serious challenge to these assumptions. The result is that the experience of a loss of prestige and integrity and the need for regeneration are widely felt among the populace. In a similar fashion Geertz speaks of a religious system as a cluster of sacred symbols woven into an ordered whole which supports a certain view of morality “by picturing a world in which such conduct is only common sense” (1973:129). Religion creates a synthesis of ethos (the moral and aesthetic tone of a culture) and world view (a culture’s picture of the way things are in sheer actuality). Either of these elements taken by itself “is arbitrary, but taken together they form a gestalt with a peculiar kind of inevitability” (1973:130). Above all, such symbolic activities are “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand” (1973:140–141). The prophetic situation, then, is one in which the basic religio-cultural understanding has been undermined. In what did the integrity of the Seneca male reside, now that the game animals were depleted and he could no longer go to war? To be able to subsist more emphasis had to be put on farming, but that was woman’s work! And what could be more damaging to the system of beliefs about Yahweh’s election and protection of his people Israel than the death of “good king Josiah” and the first Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (597 B.C.E.) and exiling of its inhabitants? In these situations men found chaos breaking in upon them (cf. Geertz, 1966:12–24), but heard as well prophets like Jeremiah and Handsome Lake proclaiming an interpretation which promised a new order.

4.2 This leads to a second problem, viz. how one is to understand the basis or source of a prophet’s authority. My main concern here has been to avoid a one-way interpretation of the prophet’s activity, that is to say, an interpretation of the power of the prophet over others which dwells too exclusively on the presumed divine source of his message. The divine revelation which the prophet claims is, of course, important to his understanding of himself (cf. Amos 3:8), and can be used to justify his utterances (Jer 26:12–15) and condemn his opponents (Jer 28:15–16). It is also an important element in the people’s understanding of a prophet. But despite this fact the prophet’s exercise of his role cannot be effective unless his message is met with a positive response on the part of at least some of his hearers.

Thus there are two aspects to the prophet’s authority. On the one hand, the prophet makes the claim that the deity has authorized the proclamation of a certain message. The basis of this claim is usually a religious experience which is private and therefore essentially intangible and unverifiable by the members of his audience, who nevertheless assume that a genuine prophet will have had such an experience. I wish to be emphatic about this, since the “call” of a deity is an absolutely crucial element in the constitution of a given occurrence of prophecy, not only in the OT but in other cultures as well. On the other hand, the prophet cannot be effective, cannot function as a prophet, unless the people acknowledge his claim to authority by their reaction to his words, and the social reality of prophecy depends upon this act. The brute fact behind the words of Peter Worsley quoted above is that the members of the prophet’s audience are free to choose whom they will follow. Burke Long has summarized the matter in this way: The authority of a prophet was a vulnerable, shifting social reality—closely tied to acceptance and belief. It was supported by concrete deeds of power … Butthe authority rested upon acceptance of those appeals (19).

To speak of authority in terms of acceptance is to acknowledge that, from the point of view of the hearers, a particular instance of prophecy will be deemed “authoritative” on the basis of certain tangible marks. One such mark is the prophet’s ability to clarify and articulate what the people who follow him have themselves begun to feel about their particular situation. His utterances are experienced as having explanatory power. Burridge in fact sees the task of the prophet as one of organizing and articulating a new set of assumptions which suggest a way of making sense out of the chaos of the present situation (11–14). In doing so he concentrates in himself the people’s own probings, and his revelation usually “echoes the theorizing and experimentation that has gone before” (111). The prophet is thus a transitional figure in a redemptive process the goal of which is the regeneration of the people as a group, i.e., the creation of new assumptions about power in the broad sense, a new politico-economic framework, a new mode of measuring man, new criteria of integrity, a new community. The people choose their prophets, that is they attribute authority to them, because they perceive in their proclamation continuity with the cultural traditions sufficient to make what they say intelligible and at the same time innovations sufficient to offer the possibility of a new interpretation that will bring order out of chaos. Thus, a second and closely-related mark of a prophet’s authority is the effectiveness, real or imagined, which seems to characterize his activities. This effectiveness is perhaps most often experienced in the form of rhetorical skill (to his followers the prophet’s message “makes sense” out of the current crisis situation), but marvelous acts, including instances of fulfilled prophecy, may also play a role (cf. Long: 13–16). Such seemingly supernatural occurrences help to confirm the authenticity of the prophet. They are accounted for in the model under the rubric “expectations of confirmation.”

From the point of view of audience reaction, then, the general criterion for the attribution of authority to a prophet might be expressed as “perceived effectiveness.” The hearers do not by their act of attributing authority to a prophet confer his powers on him, since, from one point of view, the claim to supernatural designation means that he already has or is perceived to have these powers. What they do, in effect, is confirm him in his role. Their affirmative response, necessary for his exercise of that role, is an act of commitment based on their recognition of that power. It must be stressed, however, that while some positive response to his message appears to be necessary for the operation of prophecy, large numbers are not. Crenshaw has shown with respect to the OT prophets that conflict with perhaps the great majority of those who heard them (even other prophets) was “inevitable” and that on the whole they had little impact upon their contemporaries. That they had some support, however, is shown both by references to specific instances (Isaiah’s mention of his disciples, 8:16; the aid Jeremiah received from various members of the house of Shaphan, 26:4, chap. 36) and by the very fact that their utterances were preserved, collected, and eventually committed to writing.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this role of the people is the case of Yali, a native leader in post-World War II New Guinea. Though he made no supernatural claims for himself, his audience began to attribute prophetic authority to him, in effect making him a prophet even in the absence of any claims to revelatory experience. Without their reaction he would neither have claimed to be nor functioned as a prophet (Lawrence). Since prophecy is always situation-bound and public, private revelation alone is insufficient to establish its authority.

4.3 This leads, finally, to the problem of how much “old” and how much “new” we might expect to find in a prophet’s message. There can, of course, be no neat formula. Clearly, the message must have enough recognizable roots in the traditional but now threatened cultural synthesis for it to be understood and acceptable. In Burridge’s scheme the millenial prophet is central to a process by which a people moves from a time when the “old rules” of the society remained intact, through an interim time of “no rules,” and to a final synthesis of a set of “new rules” (165–169). Thus a consistent theme in Handsome Lake’s preaching was condemnation of the individual autonomy and glorification that had been characteristic of the old Iroquois way, lately fallen into the chaos of social pathology, while advocating in its place restraint in social affairs. Elizabeth Tooker has suggested that what the prophet was trying to do was “to introduce a value system … consistent with the economic system that was also introduced at the same time” (187). With the collapse of the old hunting-trading system the Iroquois were forced into more intensive agriculture, but plow agriculture is a man’s work and the yearly agricultural schedule demands a stable social order. Therefore, the values he selected emphasized communal order over individual gratification. If these values were similar to those of the white society, it was primarily because both were agrarian.

That the message of the OT prophets arises out of and is in dialogue with the religious traditions of their people is well-known (cf. Clements, 1965, 1975). For his part Jeremiah stood within the old exodus-election tradition of Judah (cf. for example, 2:1–8). His accusations against the people make it clear that from his viewpoint (i.e., that of a “pure” Yahwist; one wonders how many such there were among his compatriots) the present period was one of “no” rules, at least in the sense that the people had chosen to ignore important aspects of their covenant with Yahweh. Put differently, we might say that he was interpreting the fruits of a long process of acculturation in the land of Canaan as apostasy. Yet in the future he saw the institution of a “new covenant,” one recognizable in terms of the old but operating on the basis of new assumptions about the nature of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel (31:31–34).

5. Almost inevitably when we look at a prophet we consider first the content of his proclamation, and having adopted this approach we are likely to be most impressed by his differences from all other prophets about whom we know. The argument of this paper has been that when we go beneath the level of content to that of process significant similarities begin to emerge. And having learned something about the underlying similarities of two specific prophets, Jeremiah and Handsome Lake, we have, I believe, gained at least some understanding of all other prophets as well.

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From Prophecy to Apocalyptic: Reflections on the Shape of Israelite Religion

Robert R. Wilson

Yale University


Recent attempts to tie Israelite apocalyptic to a particular tradition stream such as prophecy or wisdom appear to be unable to accommodate all of the biblical evidence. Both prophetic and priestly elements appear in some of the so-called proto-apocalyptic passages in the prophetic books, and the Book of Daniel, the best example of early Israelite apocalyptic, contains explicit allusions to the prophetic traditions but at the same time employs wisdom motifs and vocabulary. New light on the problem of Israelite apocalyptic comes from recent anthropological studies of apocalyptic groups. The anthropological evidence indicates that any group can develop into an apocalyptic group if the right sociological conditions are present. However, the shape of the group’s apocalyptic program will depend on the cultural background of the group’s members. When this insight is applied to the Book of Daniel, a unique apocalyptic group emerges, a group not related exclusively to a single Israelite theological tradition. When other apocalyptic writings are analyzed in this way, it may be possible to understand more fully the complex character of apocalyptic religion in Israel.

0.1 Since the beginning of the critical study of the Hebrew Bible in the late nineteenth century, scholars have had trouble dealing with apocalyptic religion and literature. While pre-critical scholars were able to view books like Daniel as genuine and historically accurate sources of divine revelation about future events, critical scholars faced the task of analyzing apocalyptic as a religious phenomenon rooted in a particular historical setting and influenced by a variety of social, political, and theological forces. The results of this research then had to be integrated into the history of biblical religion and literature. However, many researchers found it difficult to fit apocalyptic into the religious and literary histories that they were reconstructing. In the opinion of these early scholars, apocalyptic religion was completely alien to preexilic Israelite Yahwism and had nothing to do with the profound theological insights of the prophets. For this reason some scholars ignored apocalyptic completely, while others regarded it as a late, degenerate feature of Israelite popular religion which was not originally Israelite at all but which was imported into Israel from outside sources. A number of external sources were suggested, but by the early twentieth century there was general agreement that most biblical apocalyptic ultimately had Persian roots. It was therefore a foreign import which did not originally grow on Israelite soil.

0.2 Having solved the problem of the origins of apocalyptic religion in Israel, early critical scholars turned their attention to the study of apocalyptic literature itself. Their normal approach to this topic was simply to catalogue the literary features and theological motifs to be found in the apocalyptic portions of the Bible. Over the years these lists have varied somewhat, but they have usually included items such as the notion of divine transcendence, the presence of a developed angelology, fantastic symbolism, cosmic imagery, the use of foreign mythology, reinterpretation of prophecy, references to cataclysm, judgment, the Day of the Lord, the destruction of hostile nations, the coming of the messianic age, and the resurrection of the dead (Russell: 91).

0.3 The early scholarly consensus about the origin of apocalyptic religion and the nature of apocalyptic literature was preserved largely intact for a number of years, and little new work was done on the subject. To be sure, the discovery of an almost archetypical apocalyptic community at Qumran forced a reevaluation of the apocalyptic roots of early Christianity and intertestamental Judaism, but students of ancient Israelite religion were not really touched by this activity. The new evidence from Qumran was later than the Hebrew Bible and could easily be accommodated in the standard view that apocalyptic religion was a late development in Israel and came about under Persian influence.

1.1 However, within the last ten years Israelite apocalyptic has once again become a subject for scholarly debate, and numerous new studies have appeared (Nicholson: 189–213). Included among them are at least two challenges to scholarly orthodoxy about the origins of Israelite apocalyptic. The first of these challenges came from Gerhard von Rad, who, in his attempt to fit apocalyptic into Israel’s religious traditions, came to the conclusion that apocalyptic was the product of the wisdom movement in Israel. The keystone of von Rad’s argument is the observation that time and the determination of time play an important role in apocalyptic literature such as Daniel, which contains several cosmic timetables purporting to sketch out in some detail the future events which are to occur. This information about the future course of history is hidden from ordinary people and can be uncovered only by the wise, who have been granted divinely revealed knowledge. Apocalyptic thus necessarily moves beyond the historical realm and deals with an unknown future which is in the process of being shaped by supernatural forces. According to von Rad, this move places apocalyptic outside of the mainstream of Israelite religion, which stresses God’s saving activities in history and which celebrates those activities in its historical and prophetic traditions and in its cult (1965:301–308). Von Rad finds the closest analogues to apocalyptic views in Israel’s wisdom writings, which, according to von Rad, are also concerned with the proper determination of times and with the acquisition of knowledge about the future (1972:278–282).

1.2 A second major challenge to the orthodox scholarly view of apocalyptic has recently been presented by Paul Hanson. In a major book and a series of articles, Hanson criticizes the standard view because it cannot adequately comprehend all apocalyptic literature. The lists of apocalyptic features which scholars have collected do not actually correspond completely to any given apocalypse. Hanson also criticizes von Rad for unnecessarily driving a wedge between apocalyptic and Israel’s other traditions, particularly the prophetic tradition. Rather, Hanson argues, Israelite apocalyptic was a natural outgrowth of Israelite prophecy, and it is therefore not necessary to resort to theories of outside influence to explain the existence of apocalyptic in Israel. The basic elements of Hanson’s own view can be outlined as follows: (1) The sources of apocalyptic eschatology lie solidly within the prophetic tradition of Israel; (2) the period of origin is in the sixth to the fifth centuries; (3) the essential nature of apocalyptic is found in the abandonment of the prophetic task of translating the vision of the divine council into historical terms; (4) the historical and sociological matrix of apocalyptic is found in an inner-community struggle in the period of the Second Temple between visionary [prophetic] and hierocratic [priestly] elements. (1975:29) Hanson supports his position with a careful analysis of Second and Third Isaiah and Zechariah 9–14 and is able to demonstrate conclusively that in these instances apocalyptic did indeed grow out of prophecy.

1.3 Although Hanson’s views are a much needed corrective to the orthodox scholarly position, there are hints that he has not completely solved the problem of biblical apocalyptic. First, although Hanson’s detailed work does indeed uncover links between apocalyptic and prophecy, his thesis, at least in its classic form, has difficulty explaining the presence of non-prophetic elements in Israelite apocalyptic. In this respect the Book of Daniel is a particular problem, for here von Rad’s discovery of wisdom motifs cannot easily be dismissed. Daniel does concern itself with timetables, and what appears to be wisdom terminology also occurs, particularly in the vision reports of chaps. 7–12. For example, in Dan 9:22 the angel Gabriel appears to Daniel and prefaces an interpretation of Daniel’s vision with the remark, “I have come to make you understand.” Furthermore, the title “the wise” (maśkîlîm) appears in the vision report in Dan 10:1–12:4 and in the epilogue (12:5–13) as a designation of a human group. In 11:33–35 it is said that when there is oppression by the evil power, “the wise of the people will cause many to understand.” As a result of the oppression, some of the wise will fall, but the oppression will serve to purify the wise because the time of the end has not yet come. In Dan 12:3 it is said that the wise will shine like the firmament. They will understand the future course of events, in contrast to the wicked, who will not understand. In the vision chapters, then, the apocalyptic group apparently characterizes itself as “the wise,” who understand the meaning of events and who have the responsibility of making others understand. In this connection it is important to remember that in chaps. 1–6 Daniel and his companions are not usually portrayed as prophets or visionaries but as wise men. In 1:3–19 the Israelites are to be trained to join the royal wise men, while in chap. 2 Daniel and his friends are included among the wise who are condemned to slaughter because they cannot reconstruct and interpret the king’s dream. In Daniel 5 Daniel is described by the queen as one having the wisdom and understanding necessary to interpret the handwriting on the wall, and both in chap. 4 and in chap. 5 Daniel is apparently able to provide interpretations on the basis of his own wisdom, without being dependent on divine aid. In short, there is evidence that von Rad was correct in seeing wisdom motifs and vocabulary in Daniel, and the reasons for the presence of this material must be investigated. Such an investigation has recently been undertaken by John P. Collins, who supports Hanson’s thesis of the prophetic origins of apocalyptic but who also argues for a closer connection between “mantic wisdom” and prophecy, as well as for later apocalyptic influence on Israelite wisdom writers (Collins: 54–59). At the very least Collins’s perceptive discussion suggests that the interrelationships between prophecy, wisdom, and apocalyptic may have been more complex than scholars have previously thought. His work also raises questions about the possibility of tracing Israelite apocalyptic to a single religio-historical source.

1.4 A second difficulty with Hanson’s thesis is the sharp distinction which he seeks to draw between the visionary (prophetic) elements in Israel that gave rise to apocalyptic and the hierocratic (priestly) elements that opposed the prophetic apocalyptists. The problem here is that some apocalyptic passages, which according to Hanson’s theory should reflect prophetic visionary eschatology, in fact seem concerned with priestly matters. For example, Ezekiel 38–39 immediately precedes a detailed account of the reconstruction of the temple (Ezekiel 40–48), an account which Hanson himself convincingly analyzes as a Zadokite priestly reconstruction program. Hanson seeks to solve this problem by analyzing Ezekiel 38–39 as a very late addition concerned with the failure of the prophetic promises to come true (1975:71–74, 234). He is thus able to eliminate the Ezekiel apocalypse from his discussion of the origins of apocalyptic eschatology, but by making this move he leaves unanswered the question of why what appears to be a piece of prophetic apocalyptic literature also has strong links with priestly language and theology. In this connection it is worth noting that Zadokite theology appears elsewhere in Ezekiel and is not confined to chaps. 40–48 (Hanson, 1975;240–242). Hanson experiences similar difficulties in his treatment of Zechariah 1–8, which he admits contains the literary features of apocalyptic but which he wishes to analyze as a series of visions supporting the Zadokite reform program. He is therefore forced to argue that Zechariah 1–8 does not reflect apocalyptic eschatology, even though the visions contain apoclyptic motifs (1975:250–262). This distinction seems difficult to maintain.

1.5 Hanson himself has recognized some of the difficulties with his analysis, and in his most recent treatment of apocalyptic he seeks to clarify his position by making several potentially useful distinctions. According to Hanson, in discussing apocalyptic it is necessary to distinguish an apocalypse (a distinctive literary genre) from apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism. Hanson defines apocalyptic eschatology as “a religious perspective, a way of viewing divine plans in relation to mundane realities” (1976:29). In Israel apocalyptic eschatology developed out of prophetic eschatology. In contrast to apocalyptic eschatology, apocalypticism is “the symbolic universe in which an apocalyptic movement codifies its identity and interpretation of reality” (1976:30). According to Hanson, the symbols used by apocalyptists can come from any number of sources, including earlier biblical traditions, Canaanite myth, Zoroastrianism, Greek myth, and wisdom. In Hanson’s view, apocalypticism grows out of apocalyptic eschatology, although he does not explain exactly how this process works. Both are products of apocalyptic movements which are composed of alienated individuals and which appear in times of social disintegration.

1.6 While this distinction between apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism seems to solve some of the problems in Hanson’s earlier work, two fundamental difficulties remain. First, Hanson ultimately provides no explanation for the origin of apocalyptic religion in Israel. Hanson refuses to equate apocalyptic eschatology with apocalyptic religion (1976:29), so the latter is not really considered at all in his discussion. Second, Hanson is unclear about the relation between apocalyptic religion and the various symbolic expressions of that religion. To put the matter in Hanson’s own terms, he does not clearly relate apocalyptic religion either to apocalyptic eschatology or to apocalypticism.

2.1 In order to deal with some of the questions that remain after the important work of Hanson and Collins, it may be helpful to approach the problem of apocalyptic from a different direction. In the past, biblical scholars have tried to relate apocalyptic religion and the concrete expressions of that religion by beginning with the apocalyptic literature of the Bible and then by moving behind the literature to the apocalyptic religion that the literature reflects. Ultimately this approach is the only possible one to use in studying an ancient religion. Every theory about the religion must finally be judged against the available evidence, in this case the biblical text. But the way in which scholars have applied this approach in the past has assumed a direct and uncomplicated correlation between the written expression of apocalyptic religion (apocalyptic literature such as Daniel) and the apocalyptic religion itself. Thus, wisdom vocabulary, motifs, and concepts are said to indicate a wisdom origin for apocalyptic religion, and prophetic vocabulary, motifs, and concepts are said to indicate a prophetic origin for apocalyptic religion. This approach will work only if the relation between apocalyptic religion and its written expression is in fact direct and uncomplicated. Both apocalyptic religion and apocalyptic literature have been studied separately, but more attention needs to be given to the interrelationship between the two. Therefore, it may be helpful to outline in general terms the nature of apocalyptic religion as it is known from contemporary anthropological sources, where the relation between the religion and its concrete expressions can be studied. This information will illustrate the sorts of factors that cause apocalyptic groups to shape their literature in a particular way. Against the background of the modern evidence, it will then be possible to explore more fully the interrelation between apocalyptic religion and literature in Israel.

2.2 At the outset it is important to note that apocalyptic religion is always characterized by group formation. Apocalyptic religion is not an individualistic phenomenon but one which always appears in the context of a cohesive and relatively well organized group. Members of the group think of themselves as a group and seek to maintain and preserve its structure. They share common feelings and goals and may recognize the authority of a single leader (Lewis: 322–329). It is therefore necessary to approach the problem of apocalyptic religion by examining the groups connected with it.

2.30 Anthropologists are still debating the precise nature of apocalyptic groups, and in fact there is not even any agreement about the titles that should be given to such groups (La Barre, 1971:3–44). However, there does seem to be a consensus on the general sociological characteristics that all successful apocalyptic groups possess (B. Wilson: 1973; La Barre: 1972; Jarvie; Lawrence; Worsley; Cohn; Lofland). It is not necessary to deal with all of these characteristics here, but it is important to notice three of them.

2.31 First, apocalyptic groups are made up of people who are on the periphery of society. They lack political, religious, and social power and have little social status. Furthermore, they know that they are on the periphery. They feel repressed and deprived of something which they might reasonably expect to possess. The feelings of deprivation that these people experience may come from various sources. Peripheral individuals may lack food, clothing, useful work, or adequate housing. They may be politically powerless or socially ostracized, feeling that they no longer have a voice in the way in which the society or the government is run. They may even believe that they can no longer control their own lives and destinies. On the other hand, they may simply have the vague feeling that the quality of their lives is poorer than it was in a real or imagined past.

The sort of deprivation involved in apocalyptic groups is rarely absolute but is usually measured in relation to something else. People may measure their present situation against the situation of others in the same culture or in neighboring cultures, or they may measure their present situation against their own past situation.

Although it is normal for some feelings of deprivation to exist in every society, certain conditions tend to intensify those feelings and to create larger numbers of dissatisfied and deprived individuals. Such conditions are present particularly in times of rapid social change. Wars, famines, climatic changes, national economic reversals, and the shock of sudden cross-cultural contact can all lead to unusually widespread and severe feelings of deprivation. Not only do such periods of social upheaval produce political and social inequities that lead to genuine cases of deprivation, but crises such as wars and clashes with other cultures provide opportunities for people to compare their own situation with that of outsiders. These comparisons may lead to feelings of relative deprivation and fuel social unrest. Times of social crises frequently give rise to apocalyptic groups, for in such times feelings of deprivation are increased beyond tolerable levels.

Although members of apocalyptic groups are peripheral individuals, it is important to note that they normally remain physically within the larger society. They may sense a gap of some sort between themselves and the rest of the society, but this gap is usually more psychological than spatial. Participants in apocalyptic groups do not always separate themselves from the society as a whole, nor do they always cut their ties to other groups in which they participate. They may remain within the larger society and still feel that they are a minority within it (Aberle: 209–214; Burridge: 9–10; Barber: 664–668; Lanternari: 243–249; Spier, Suttles, Herskovits: 84–88).

2.32 A second feature of apocalyptic groups is that they have some sort of program for meeting the difficulties experienced by group members. The program expresses in concrete terms the group’s analysis of the present state of society (and perhaps even the present state of the entire cosmos) and then outlines the course of future events that will lead to the solution of the group’s problems. Apocalyptic programs usually look both forward and backward. The primary concern of apocalyptic groups is with the future, for they look forward to the solution of their present difficulties either in the present world or in a supernatural realm that lies beyond the world of time and space. However, if an apocalyptic program is to be made successful, it must deal with the immediate future as well as with the distant future and must provide group members with immediate realistic goals. If this is not done, the group may lose faith in its comprehensive program and eventually dissolve. However, apocalyptic programs have a historical dimension as well as a future dimension, for apocalyptic groups often tend to shape their picture of the future on the basis of what existed in the past. Sometimes they preserve threatened remnants of the past by incorporating them into the picture of an ideal future, while at other times groups seek to revive conditions believed to have existed before the present time of deprivation.

The nature of the language used to express an apocalyptic group’s plan for salvation depends on the backgrounds of group members. They will use symbols, motifs, concepts, and language drawn from their own tradition and cultural experience in order to analyze society and to describe the anxiously awaited future. This means that apocalyptic groups within the same society may use different terms to articulate their programs. The shape of the program depends ultimately on the cultural and traditio-historical context of the group. Thus, while an apocalyptic group may form in any society where the proper sociological conditions are present, the written or oral expression of the group’s religious beliefs will be at least partially determined by the backgrounds of the members of the group (Wallace: 270–278; Linton: 230–240 Talmon: 130–133; B. Wilson, 1963:93–114; R. Wilson: 62–68).

2.33 A third characteristic of apocalyptic groups is that they provide their members with some practical means of realizing group programs. These means may be active or passive. If an apocalyptic group uses active means, it will outline specific, usually rational, steps which group members can take to move the group toward its goals. If the group adopts a passive stance, it will take no direct action at all but will simply wait for the achievement of its goals by supernatural means (Wallace: 273–278; B. Wilson, 1963:93–114; Zygmunt: 245–268).

3.1 The anthropological evidence suggests that apocalyptic religion can arise at any time when the necessary sociological conditions are present. For this reason apocalyptic religion might have appeared during any of the times of political, social, and religious upheaval that dotted Israel’s long history. However, sociological conditions were particularly favorable for the development of apocalyptic religion during the postexilic period. In recent years a number of scholarly studies have documented the political and religious chaos into which Israel plunged in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. The work of Paul Hanson, O. H. Steck, Morton Smith, and Otto Plöger, among others, has indicated that during and after the exile Israel was increasingly marked by factionalism, with well-formed groups articulating divergent views. Tension and disagreement grew as the postexilic period wore on, and religious problems were made worse by a deteriorating political situation. No matter whose reconstruction of late Israelite political and religious conditions is accepted, the picture is one of inter-group conflict and shifting group fortunes. As some groups accumulated more social, political, and religious power, others must have been pushed out of the religious and political establishments and onto the fringes of society. Hanson has clearly demonstrated that some prophetic groups occupied this position, and at various times priestly groups may have suffered the same fate. The Zadokites responsible for the first version of the temple reconstruction in Ezekiel 40–48 and for the programs advocated in Zechariah 1–8 may have considered themselves a frustrated minority when their plans failed to materialize. In any case, the chaos of the postexilic period set the stage for the formation of various types of apocalyptic groups. Some may have been composed of prophets who were disturbed by the diminution of their authority and by the failure of their prophecies to come true. Other groups may have been made up of former priests who were unhappy with the ascendancy of the Deuteronomic theology and the departure from pure Zadokite views. Still other groups may have been formed by members of the Jerusalemite establishment who were unhappy with the course of political and religious events. Members of these dissident groups would have found themselves increasingly estranged from the central religious and political establishments, with no access to positions of power. In short, these people would have experienced the feelings of deprivation typical of members of apocalyptic groups, and the stage would have been set for the development of such groups.

3.2 The specific shape that these groups gave to their apocalyptic programs would have depended on the backgrounds of their members. Group members coming from prophetic backgrounds would naturally have expressed their views by using symbols, motifs, concepts, and terms drawn from Israel’s prophetic traditions. Similarly, former members of the Jerusalemite establishment would have used the distinctive language of their environment, the language of the royal court, which may have been similar to what is commonly called wisdom language. Groups of former priests would have expressed their apocalyptic programs in priestly language. Each group would have simply reflected the language and outlook of its members.

3.3 This brief survey of the anthropological evidence suggests new questions that might be asked of the biblical apocalyptic literature in an attempt to uncover more information about the religious views of the Israelite authors. In particular, the anthropological material indicates that biblical scholars should no longer concern themselves exclusively with the question, “why did apocalyptic religion and literature come into being in Israel?” That question has sociological and historical answers that have already been examined. Rather, scholars should also consider the question, “why did this particular kind of apocalyptic religion and literature come into existence?” “What sort of group would have produced literature having this particular shape?”

4.1 In order to illustrate the usefulness of phrasing the interpretive question in this way, we will now reexamine the Book of Daniel, paying particular attention to the way in which this distinctive literature may provide clues to the nature of the group or groups that produced it. However, at the outset two assumptions about the literary history of Daniel need to be stated. First, it is assumed that chaps. 1–6 antedate the Maccabean period and in general reflect a time when persecution was not a major problem (Collins: 8–11). Some of the stories in these chapters, particularly those in chaps. 3 and 6, may be quite old, although it is impossible to date them with any certainty. If one assumes that persecution became more of a problem as the Maccabean period approached, then it would appear that the oldest of the stories are those in which the relationship between the Jews and the government is the most benign (chaps. 3 and 6). Using this criterion, one might suspect that chaps. 4, 5, and 2 were created somewhat later than chaps. 3 and 6. The visions in the last chapters (7–12) are much later and in their final form date from Maccabean times. Second, it is assumed that the entire book was created over a period of time by a single group, although there is really no way to prove or disprove this assumption.

4.2 If one assumes that the earliest material, whenever it is to be dated, is found in the court tales in chaps. 3 and 6, then it is reasonable to accept the narrative’s own description of the group involved. On this point the texts are fairly clear. Daniel and his companions are said to have been Jews who were trained for service in the government of the Babylonian and Persian empires. If so, then we might guess that the apocalyptic group that produced the Book of Daniel was composed, at least initially, of upper-class Jews who remained in Babylon after the exile. There they began to work in the government bureaucracy and at least partially assimilated to Persian culture, although they maintained their identity as Jews and saw themselves as a peripheral group within the Persian empire. Because the government was not particularly antagonistic toward foreigners, this cross-cultural interaction presented group members only with the problem of advancing in the bureaucracy without losing their distinctive group identity and compromising the basic elements of their ancestral faith.

4.3 The group expressed its analysis of its current situation and outlined its plans for survival in the familiar stories of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6). Both of these stories are told in language characteristic of the royal court, and both have roughly the same structure. The first story (Daniel 3) begins with the note that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, set up a statue and commanded all of the government employees to worship it. There is nothing malicious about this command. It is simply the normal type of capricious behavior which one can expect from a king, and it will cause the government officials only a certain amount of inconvenience. The sensitive reader, however, already realizes that the king’s command creates a potentially dangerous situation for the Jewish officials, whose faith demands that they worship only their own God. The Jews are suddenly thrown into the middle of this dangerous situation when some Babylonians inform the king that the Jews are not obeying his command. The king becomes angry and summons the three Jewish officials. He asks them if they intend to obey his command by worshiping the statue, and they reply that they will not. They will maintain their distinctive Jewish identity by obeying the law of their God, even if doing so leads to their deaths. The king then orders them to be thrown into a furnace. They are miraculously saved from death, and in the end the king praises the God of the Jews and promotes them in the bureaucracy.

4.4 The structure of the second story (Daniel 6) is similar to the structure of the first one. At the beginning of the story, the king promotes Daniel to a high government position, an act which angers some of the Persian bureaucrats. To retaliate, they convince the king to command that he alone is to be worshiped for a period of thirty days. The king apparently sees nothing unusual in this proposition, and so he innocently agrees to it. The king’s command immediately poses a threat to Daniel, who, as a faithful Jew, can worship only the true God. Daniel persists in praying to his God, a fact which the Persians immediately point out to the king. Because of their urging, the king reluctantly orders Daniel thrown into a den of lions. But Daniel is saved through miraculous divine intervention, and the story ends with the king praising Daniel’s God and confirming Daniel’s power in the bureaucracy.

4.5 Both of these stories are not only told in language which is characteristic of the group that created them, the language of the royal court, but they also follow a structural pattern commonly found in the bureaucratic or “wisdom” circles in which the group moved. As Walter Baumgartner pointed out long ago, the stories have the basic structure of a typical martyr story. Stories of this type, which are found in many ancient and modern cultures, are didactic in their intent and are designed to inspire and strengthen the faithful so that they will not depart from their faith in times of persecution. However, in this particular case the authors or editors of Daniel 3 and 6 modified the structure of the traditional martyr story to reflect their perception of their current situation. The stories in Daniel are no longer typical martyr stories, for in fact they do not deal with martyrdom. The stories now end with the heroes being protected from death rather than being killed. This change in the ending of the traditional story not only reflects the group’s belief that martyrdom is not a current threat but also expresses clearly the group’s program for maintaining its distinct religious identity in the midst of an alien and potentially threatening culture. In their present form, the stories in Daniel 3 and 6 both convey the same message. As members of a foreign bureaucracy, group members will sometimes be faced with situations which might tempt them to give up their ancestral faith. But if they retain their faith in the face of outside threats, they will be protected, by supernatural means if necessary. They may suffer some inconveniences, but they will not lose their lives. They will be able to keep their jobs and in fact may even be promoted because of their faithfulness. It is possible to work for the government and still keep the ancestral faith. In this case the group’s program is preservationist, for the group seeks to preserve its old religious values in the face of a new cultural situation.

4.6 Unfortunately, the relatively trouble-free conditions described in these stories did not survive the end of Persian rule. Gradually the political situation grew more oppressive, and peaceful coexistence with the government became an impossibility. The group which produced Daniel therefore became more alienated from the surrounding society and began to move in a more clearly apocalyptic direction. This change in the group’s perception of its current situation naturally required a revision of the program designed to solve the group’s difficulties. The outlines of this revised program can be seen in Daniel 2, 4, and 5. Again all of these chapters have a similar structure and present essentially the same message. In each of the three chapters the king has a dream full of obscure symbolism. He calls in the court astrologers and wise men to interpret the dream, but they are not able to do so. Then Daniel, who in these chapters is portrayed as the wisest and most skillful dream interpreter in the kingdom, is summoned, and he interprets the dream for the king. The details of the interpretation vary from chapter to chapter, but the point of the interpretation is the same in all three chapters. The kingdom will eventually be destroyed, and power will be given to the members of the apocalyptic group. At this stage the apocalyptic group apparently still looked for the perpetuation of their political power and religious autonomy within a normal political system.

4.7 The background of the royal court is again apparent in the language in which these chapters are written. “Wisdom” concepts and vocabulary abound. Furthermore, the chapters contain motifs that are also found in other ancient Near Eastern literatures. Particularly noticeable is the concept of four world empires (Daniel 2), a concept which seems to have had a long history in the Greek and Persian worlds (Collins: 37–43; Lambert: 7–9; Flusser: 148–175). Of course it would have been possible for any Jewish group to have been influenced by extrabiblical literature, but such influences would have been particularly likely in the case of upper-class bureaucrats, who were well educated, cosmopolitan, and in regular contact with people of other cultures.

4.8 The bureaucratic background of the group may also be reflected in the basic structure of the chapters, which bear a striking resemblance to some of the so-called Egyptian prophetic texts. These texts—which are not prophetic in the strict sense of the term since they do not claim to recount divine revelations—all follow a pattern which is roughly similar to the one found in Daniel 2, 4, and 5. All of the texts picture a wise speaker standing in the presence of the king and delivering messages dealing with present and future social and political conditions. For example, in “King Cheops and the Magicians” (Papyrus Westcar), the king is being entertained by a succession of his sons, each of whom tells a miraculous story. The series of stories ends when one son tells of an old man named Dedi, who possesses secret and particularly miraculous powers. The king visits Dedi, who predicts the birth of three kings, who will found a new dynasty and bring an end to Cheops’s reign. A similar structure is exhibited by “The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage,” in which the wise Ipuwer berates the king for permitting lawlessness and chaos in the land and then describes the ideal society, exhorting the king to improve conditions. The “Prophecies of Neferti,” the “Prophecy of the Lamb,” the “Oracle of the Potter,” and the “Demotic Chronicle” are all much more explicit. They describe in great detail the political and social chaos that will befall Egypt in the future and then predict the coming of a good ruler who will put an end to the turmoil (R. Wilson: 124–128). The stress which the Egyptian texts place on wisdom and perception, the court setting of the speaker’s activities, and the predominant political concerns of the texts all suggest that this material was produced by scribes or other members of the Egyptian royal court. It is therefore precisely the sort of material that Israelite scribes and bureaucrats might have known, so it would not be surprising if the writers of Daniel were influenced by it when they produced Daniel 2, 4, and 5.

4.9 However, social, political, and religious conditions apparently deteriorated even further after Daniel 2, 4, and 5 were written. Government repression seemed to have grown more harsh, and opposing factions began to grow within the Jewish community itself. The group which produced Daniel therefore developed a third apocalyptic program now found in Daniel 7–12. The new program, expressed in a complicated series of visions, called for the revival of older political and religious ideals, but this revival was to be cosmic in its scope. Divine intervention would destroy all represive foreign rulers and give both political and religious power to those who had remained faithful to the old Israelite ideals. The faithfulness of group members would be rewarded when they became the ruling elite in the new world order. According to the apocalyptists, the future could be predicted because it was unfolding according to a predetermined cosmic timetable and was heading for a predestined goal. The present sufferings of the group and its future exaltation were all part of a divine plan.

4.10 In Daniel 7–12 the language, symbols, and motifs continue to be drawn from the “wisdom” circles out of which the group came. Again foreign motifs can be traced in these chapters, and the shape of the chapters themselves may have been influenced by the so-called Akkadian apocalypses, a little-understood genre of texts in chronicle form containing “predictions” of future events. These prophecies, which are clearly vaticinia ex eventu, are given by a divine (or deified human) speaker, who gives an overview of coming political events. This historical survey is expressed by the repeated use of a formula such as “a prince will arise.” The rulers are never explicitly named, but sometimes their countries are identified and the exact length of their reigns indicated. Each reign is evaluated positively or negatively in stereotypical terms. The texts seem to have ended with an elaboration of the reign of the ruler who was the real focus of the writer’s interest, although this point is uncertain because of the fragmentary state of the texts. The exact function of these texts is not always clear, but they are certainly scribal creations, so it would not be surprising if they influenced the bureaucratic creators of cosmic timetables such as Daniel 11 (Lambert: 9–13; R. Wilson: 119–123; Hallo: 231–242; Heintz: 71–87).

4.11 Although Daniel 7–12 contains “wisdom” motifs and vocabulary, these chapters also reflect prophetic motifs, symbols, and language. For example, Dan 8:2 and 10:2–9, 10–14 seem to reflect motifs in Ezekiel, while Dan 9:2 refers to Jeremiah’s prophecies of the end of the exile. Dan 10:15–17 may invoke the dumbness motif in Ezekiel, and the various series of animals mentioned in Daniel 7 seem to be drawn from prophetic sources (Isa 11:6–7; Hos 13:7–8; Jer 5:6; cf. Jer 4:7; 15:3; 51:38; Hab 1:6–10; Joel 1:6). In addition, in contrast to the first part of the book, in Daniel 7–12 Daniel is not longer portrayed as a wise, self-sufficient dream interpreter but as a confused and disturbed visionary who, like the prophet Zechariah, must have all of his visions interpreted for him by a divine intermediary.

4.12 The reasons for the sudden appearance of these prophetic elements are difficult to determine, but at least two factors may be involved. First, the sudden resort to the prophetic tradition may indicate a change in the composition of the group. While in its early history the Daniel group may have been composed primarily of upper-class bureaucrats and former government officials, by the time Daniel 7–12 was produced the group may have included people with closer links to Israelite prophecy. The change in the composition of the group would have then caused a shift in the language and imagery used to express the group’s apocalyptic program. Second, the appearance of prophetic imagery and vocabulary may indicate that the Daniel group at some point moved more firmly back into the biblical tradition and rejected some of the foreign influences that helped to shape earlier chapters of the book. Shifts of this sort sometimes occur when apocalyptic groups are persecuted and driven even farther onto the periphery of society. In such cases the group may become isolated and begin to think of itself as the “true community of the faithful,” the “saints” who are opposed by the unbelievers in the rest of the society. Under these conditions the group may seek to revive elements of its earlier religious history that clearly identify it as the true community of believers. The Daniel community clearly came to think of itself as the “true Israel,” the “people of the holy ones” who were opposed by the rest of the world and perhaps by the rest of Israel (Collins: 167–175). As the “true Israel,” the group may have sought closer identification with the prophetic tradition of the Bible and may even have begun to imitate the style of the prophetic literature. Also like earlier members of the true Israelite community, the group may have begun to write its literature in Hebrew. This may explain why the group wrote the visions of Daniel in 7–12 largely in Hebrew rather than in the vernacular Aramaic used earlier to compose Daniel 2–6.

5. This analysis of Daniel suggests that it is impossible to trace a direct line from a single tradition or movement in Israel to later apocalyptic. Rather, it appears, as the anthropological evidence indicates, that apocalyptic groups may develop whenever the required social conditions are presnt and that the shape of a particular group’s religion and literature will depend on the group’s social and religious background. The group that produced Daniel seems to have had both wisdom and prophetic roots, and it is likely that other groups in Israel exhibited similarly complex structures. For example, the group that produced Ezekiel 38–39 and 40–48 may have come from a mixture of priestly and prophetic backgrounds, while the much later Qumran community may provide an example of predominantly priestly apocalyptic. However, each apocalyptic group in Israel must be examined individually before any safe conclusions can be reached. Ultimately the shape of apocalyptic religion and literature in Israel depended on the unique characteristics of each apocalyptic group.

Works Consulted

Aberle, D.

1970    “A Note on Relative Deprivation Theory as Applied to Millenarian and Other Cult Movements.” Pp. 209–214 in Millennial Dreams in Action. Ed. S. L. Thrupp. New York: Schocken.

Barber, B.

1941    “Acculturation and Messianic Movements.” American Sociological Review 6: 663–669.

Baumgartner, W.

1926    Das Buch Daniel. Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann.

Burridge, Kenelm O. L.

1969    New Heaven, New Earth. New York: Schocken.

Cohn, N.

1970    The Pursuit of the Millennium. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford.

Collins, J. J.

1977    The Apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Flusser, D.

1972    “The Four Empires in the Fourth Sibyl and in the Book of Daniel.” Israel Oriental Studies 2: 148–175.

Hallo, W. W.

1966    “Akkadian Apocalypses.” IEJ 16: 231–242.

Hanson, P. D.

1975    The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Hanson, P. D.

1976    “Apocalypticism.” IBDSup: 28–34.

Heintz, J.-G.

1977    “Note sur les origines de l’apocalyptique judaïque à lumière des ‘prophéties akkadiennes.” Pp. 71–87 in L’apocalyptique. Ed. F. Raphaël et al. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Jarvie, I. C.

1969    The Revolution in Anthropology. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

La Barre, Weston

1971    “Materials for a History of Studies of Crisis Cults: A Bibliographic Essay.” Current Anthropology 12: 3–44.

La Barre, Weston

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1978    The Background of Jewish Apocalyptic. London: Athlone.

Lanternari, Vittorio

1965    The Religions of the Oppressed. New York: Mentor.

Lawrence, Peter

1964    Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Mandang District, New Guinea. Manchester: Manchester University.

Lewis, I. M.

1966    “Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults.” Man n.s. 1: 322–329.

Linton, Ralph

1943    “Nativistic Movements.” American Anthropologist 45: 230–240.

Lofland, J.

1966    Doomsday Cult. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Nicholson, E. W.

1979    “Apocalyptic.” Pp. 189–213 in Tradition and Interpretation. Ed. G. W. Anderson. Oxford: Clarendon.

Plöger, O.

1968    Theocracy and Eschatology. Richmond: John Knox.

Rad, Gerhard von

1965    Old Testament Theology. Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Row.

Rad, Gerhard von

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Russell, D. S.

1964    The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Smith, M.

1971    Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament. New York: Columbia University.

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1959    “Comments on Arberle’s Thesis of Deprivation.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 15: 84–88.

Steck, O. H.

1977    “Theological Streams of Tradition.” Pp. 183–214 in Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament. Ed. D. A. Knight. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Talmon, Y.

1962    “Pursuit of the Millennium: The Relation Between Religion and Social Change.” Archives européennes de sociologie 3: 149–164.

Wallace, A. F. C.

1956    “Revitalization Movements.” American Anthropologist 58: 264–281.

Wilson, B. R.

1963    “Millennialism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 6: 93–114.

Wilson, B. R.

1973    Magic and the Millennium. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilson, Robert R.

1980    Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Worsley, P.

1968    The Trumpet Shall Sound. 2d ed. New York: Schocken.

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Reflections on Prophecy and Prophetic Groups

Kenelm O. L. Burridge

University of British Columbia

0. Time and circumstances in relation to the deadline for receipt of copy require that this commentary be shorter and less measured and detailed than it might have been. It is confined, therefore, to the four broad problems raised by the essays under review: the nature of the anthropological approach (Buss); apocalyptic messages and their associated groups (Wilson); conflict and prophetic rivalry (Long); and the prophetic process (Overholt).

1. Anthropologists differ considerably in their conceptions of the subject, in their “theoretical” approaches, and in what the finished product of their researches is supposed to do. But there is a general agreement that data should be obtained systematically, that analysis should be logically consistent, systematic, and match the data. Most importantly perhaps, anthropology is a “mode of thinking about” both data and analyses. This “thinking about” is not easy to explain in a few words. It becomes explicit in the process of making field investigations—in continually asking who, what, where, when, why, in what circumstances—and speaks largely to the constraints present in total social situations in relation to the ways in which participants in these situations are placed in relation to each other. Though these concerns usually entail a present or quasi-present tense in analysis, out of them comes the too often muted question, as significant to anthropology as to other disciplines dealing with human or social relations, whether what happened was inevitable, whether there were any possible options or alternatives, whether the situation might not as easily have developed in some other way … Much depends on the answer, especially in relation to charismatic or apocalyptic movements. Is it inevitable that what seems to have happened in history should have happened thus?

2. When, after an admirable summary of anthropological work on the matter, Wilson (3.1) writes that the “anthropological evidence suggests that apocalyptic religion can arise at any time when the necessary sociological conditions are present,” the immediate question is precisely what are those necessary conditions. The fact is that the conditions outlined by Wilson can often occur without an apocalyptic message, and, unless an apocalyptic message is defined by the conditions which supposedly produce them, apocalyptic events also occur in quite different conditions. Those crucial negative instances are never studied because, one supposes, they are intrinsically without interest or points of entry. The pedestrian lying dead or injured in the road has an immediate interest. And accounts of what seems to have happened grow in number with the telling and in relation to the positions of particular observers. But the accounts of the latter would make little sense if there were not implicit some understanding of how it is that thousands of pedestrians manage to cross a road without getting injured or killed. Just as, without the awareness of negative instances, one might easily conclude that the injured person in the road must have been mad, or in some way rendered less sensible than he or she might have been, so have many anthropologists tended to view apocalyptic groups as varieties of social pathology. Hence the vocabulary of relatively deprived, frustrated, and so on: a view to be expected of scholars securely ensconced in an established station. The notion that apocalyptic messages may be natural to human groups, culturally prescribed, or an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process, is not, at the moment, generally accepted. But it bears thinking about. In nineteenth and late eighteenth century Britain (as in North America today) such occurrences were common, and nobody batted an eyelid.

3.1 The same sort of argument applies to Overholt’s argument that the message of a prophet or charismatic leader should “make sense.” Such “sense” as has been made has been usually made post hoc, the result of much painful research and analysis directed precisely towards making some sort of sense. If, for example, participants in a Melanesian cargo cult were asked before the event whether in such and such circumstances they would do what after the event all know they did, I am confident the answer would be a heartfelt and resounding negative. And there is plenty of evidence to show that, after the event, participants wonder why they did what they did. Or again, why is it that so many would-be charismatic leaders who do “make sense”—according to an observer—obtain no response? Nor does “responsibility” (Buss) have much to do with the matter so far as such utterances are concerned. Indeed, the reverse would seem to be more true. The “responsible” man is not normally apocalyptic or prophetic. If he should become so, he is generally consigned to a limbo of the insane. Rather is it that the irresponsible or insane person who, in saying something that strikes an intelligible spark, commands attention. To push the point a little further, in what way did the Jonestown tragedy “make sense”—except by taking effects as their causes and saying that the participants must have been possessed of some sort of death-wish? The truth is that we do not know what causes people in the nowness of the moment to do things they would not otherwise have done. There seems to be no kind of inevitability to it. Indeed, given the sorts of conditions that are supposed to produce apocalyptic or charismatic activity, there are so many negative instances that one may well wonder why so little has in fact been done to unravel what is specific to the positive instance and not present in the negative.

3.2 The answer to this is simple enough. We do not know what to look for. Nor is it an easy task to choose what might seem to be a likely situation, whether in the field or in the documentary record, and ask why it is or was that something did not happen. Yet that is precisely the question that must be answered.

4. Still, there is no doubt that, for one who is not used to biblical studies, a reading of the four essays seems to add enormously to one’s understanding of the Old Testament. Things seem to fit together much more than they did. What was apparently stark and, to some, inexplicable, is given context and meaning. Even if what is actually happening is that the unknown is being squeezed into the familiar, so that what is in fact unknown can seem to be known, there is a very real sense of avenues of understanding opening up. Precisely this—too often forgotten in the attempt to be scientific, consistent, and systematic, is the essence of anthropology. Dependent as it is (as Overholt points out) on data that happens to be collected at a particular moment or phase in history, anthropology is necessarily rough, refining itself in its concepts perhaps, but always dependent on the coarse and adventitious materials of its data. Common sense might have, but in fact surely did not, open one’s eyes to the nature of the conflicts and rivalries in which Jeremiah was involved (Long). At the same time, one has to bear in mind that the reduction of the particular to the general case—and it is a reduction—can often do less than justice to the former. If Jeremiah instances the general nature of shamanistic rivalry and conflict, it was his particularity that caused him to be remembered as a prophet. It is at this point that anthropology, like the other social sciences, begins to founder and take refuge in notions of inevitability.

5. There is no need here to follow the Azande and resort to witchcraft as an explanation of why a particular thing happened at a particular time. Nor do the vicissitudes of history necessarily require a theory of divine intervention. We have to be satisfied with explications rather than explanations. The Hebrews had a niche for shamans or quasi-shamans (often called prophets) as well as a quite separate niche or tradition for prophets proper which a shaman—or anyone else—might occupy. The Plains Indians had shamans but, so far as we know, no tradition of prophets. Neither Wovoka nor Handsome Lake behaved like shamans, yet they commanded attention. The Melanesians had neither shamans nor prophets, but when prophets manifested themselves they were listened to, and they commanded action. The Nuer had no shamans, and their prophets, quite different from the Leopard-skin chiefs of tradition, commanded respect—they were possessed by God—but not necessarily action. In Melanesia old crones and young boys with dreams or visions—those with least authority and responsibility—were certainly heard out, laughed at, or treated seriously. And in some areas, over the course, now, of nearly a century of European and Christian influence, a succession of prophets begins to assume the form of something like a tradition. But the longest lasting cargo cult, the Jon Frum of Tanna in the New Hebrides, now some 40 years in existence, had no precedents. As Overholt points out, Yali had no charismatic ambitions. He was in fact an administrator’s man to start with—a fink or collaborator if you like—who reversed his role and became one of the more famous and revered of cargo cult leaders. If Jeremiah could also be said to have been some sort of fink or, more ignominiously, collaborator, his theme seems to have remained constant. There was that in what he said (but precisely what?) and did which required remembering. For we may be sure of one thing: no set of editors could have kept in remembrance that which was trivial or merely incidental to a particular time and place.

6. “Prophetic authority” is a much more chancey business than both Long and Buss would seem to imply. The Californian proving grounds reveal the sincere, the silly, charlatans, confidence tricksters, and the purely evil as more or less equally authoritative. Yet Californians are not more gullible than the ancient Hebrews, the Melanesians, the North American Indians, and/or many others. By and large, the participants in Californian apocalyptic, charismatic, and prophetic movements do not reveal those relative deprivations, frustrations, etc. so beloved by so many of the students of the phenomena—unless of course we have arrived at the point where all those adjectives are defined by unorthodox cults. Rather than strive for uniformities (which probably only exists in relation to those in secure, established, and orthodox positions) it would surely be more fruitful to look for pertinent differences. In one situation, for example, factors a, b, c, d, e, f, might seem to be present; in another situation factors c, e, g, h, f, might seem to be present, in a third situation we might find factors a, f, h, i, to be present … Carrying on with such a procedure, looking for differences, specific relations—of which, as yet, we really have small knowledge—might be adduced.

7. Even then there is a long way to go. The point of this commentary is not a plea to look for what is not in the situation. On the contrary, bamboozled as one generally is by what authorities say should exist, it is a plea to look for those aspects of the situation which are there but have been missed. So, by way of conclusion let me say that I enjoyed reading the essays. I was most stimulated by them, and have grown in understanding. In playing the devil’s advocate I have been moved not by the trite conviction that we do not know nearly as much as we think we know or need to know, but in the sincere belief that if we really looked we would see much more than we do.

Problems and Promises in the Comparative Analysis of Religious Phenomena

Norman K. Gottwald

New York Theological Seminary

0.1 The articles above make laudable disciplined attempts to appropriate anthropological method and theory for an understanding of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic. The basic rationale is that religious phenomena in ancient Israel were sufficiently similar to religious phenomena in recent and contemporary societies studied by anthropology that the fuller data afforded by anthropology help us to understand the less documented or less adequately contextualized biblical data. Provided that the data from ancient Israel and other societies are properly examined in their own contexts and compared on relevant points (Wilson: 349–351), the enterprise is entirely justified. It is well at the outset, however, to be aware of the different ways that continental, British, and American anthropologists have conceptualized the discipline and have sub-divided its tasks (Rogerson: 9–10; Penniman: chapter 1), so that a monolithic view of anthropology is avoided. It is equally instructive to note how biblical scholars have misconstrued or unknowingly adopted anthropological theories, or have advocated positions long outdated in the discipline (Rogerson).

0.2 The contributors to this issue seem to know their way through the thicket of anthropological inquiry. Indeed, their essays serve the admirable function of bibliographical surveys that acquaint the reader with at least one major sector of anthropological literature pertinent to biblical prophecy. Rather than to temper their work with excessive caveats, however, they have attempted to theorize constructively, sometimes even to speculate beyond evidence in hand, by mining the anthropology of “prophecy,” i.e., studies of shamanism, spirit possession, and nativist or millenarian movements. The results offer fruitful possibilities which call for further research and reflection to establish them more securely, with necessary correction and refinement.

1.1 Overholt. This comparative study of Jeremiah and Handsome Lake is felicitous because we happily possess more documentary evidence of the Iroquois prophet’s developing career than is frequently the case for such figures studied by anthropology. What is most significant, however, is Overholt’s attempt to find a heuristic device for comparing prophets within and between traditions that is not vitiated by culture-specific idiosyncrasies of form or content. Since biblical scholars focus mainly on the historical and theological distinctiveness of prophets and anthropologists concentrate chiefly on the general culture or the specific cults in which prophets function, Overholt observes that little attention has been given to “the prophetic process” for which he hopes to supply an operational model that is relatively content-free.

1.2 The model of three actors (god/prophet/people) who interrelate in four modes (revelation/proclamation/feedback/expectation of confirmation) appears to be a useful one which nontheless invites careful scrutiny. That the feedback of prophet to God, in contrast with the feedback of people to prophet, is not taken by Overholt to be a necessary feature of the model seems to hypothesize a single revelation and proclamation and a single response from the people. That many, if not most, prophets have several revelations and give many proclamations, raises the issue of how the model can encompass the career of a prophet rather than a single typical moment of prophesying. Also, the factors shaping the people’s feedback (their cultural and religious traditions/their reading of the sociopolitical situation) are in fact greatly informed by deposits of revelation from past religious figures, prophets among them, so that the people relate each new prophetic revelation to a fund of revelations. These complications do not invalidate Overholt’s model but they do suggest need for further refinement and discrimination in the model. What he calls popular “expectations of confirmation” of the prophet’s proclamation appear much more like “signs/evidences of confirmation,” and it might well be claimed that prophets too are questing for these signs and evidences and that, when they do not eventuate, the shock of “cognitive dissonance” gives rise to the prophets’ protesting feedback to the deity (Gager: 37–49; Carroll).

1.3 This analysis of actors and functions in the prophetic process (analogous to V. Propp’s formal treatment of roles and functions in folktales) yields an elegant outline of prophecy as a feedback system. It serves to underline prophetic authority as a process of social assessment. The perceived effectiveness of the prophet in a shifting socioreligious field underscores “charisma as a function of recognition” and emphasizes the relative freedom of every audience to choose the prophet it will accredit. It accords well with the re-examination of charisma in the Weberian tradition (Eisenstadt: Introduction), which should be a timely antidote to biblical scholars who have imbibed a simplistic form of Weber’s notion of charisma which makes it into a virtual ahistorical and asocial force.

1.4 What Overholt’s model does for me is to suggest the importance of re-examining the cultural and religious traditions actually operative for a prophet’s audience, going beneath and behind the way the traditions now appear as a result of the canonical process in the Bible or in the immediate observer/participant report in anthropology. Likewise, a strenuous effort must be made to grasp the various options perceived by the prophetic audience for responding to the current sociopolitical situation, and in doing so not simply to take as the last word what the texts or reports choose to highlight. This latter inquiry is taken up in one way in Long’s study of prophetic conflict. Moreover, we need to inquire about the feedback of the spectrum of effective cultural/ religious traditions and sociopolitical assessments/options on the very genesis of a prophet’s revelation. After all, we only begin with the revelation as “the original moment” because we have to begin somewhere, but the revelation does not appear in a void. The filter or grid which guides the people in discerning prophets also operates as a benchmark or indicator for the kinds of revelation that a prophet is likely to receive. While Overholt is correct to eliminate from the model every detail of form or content in the revelation, it is necessary for the model in some way to represent the socially shaped predispositions of persons who become prophets toward revelations and proclamations of a particular form and with a particular content (Gottwald: 627–631).

2.1 Buss. Buss organizes his analysis of prophetic call visions around rubrics drawn from social psychology and communication theory (more fully developed in Buss: 3–44). Fundamental is his contention that a call is typical of most specialized religious roles taken up by “personal diviners,” even in cultures lacking warrants for preserving call traditions. Many of the supposed exclusionary opposites that have vexed interpreters of biblical prophecy (either prophecy as a life-time activity or as a single special task; either recompensed service or unrecompensed service; either full-time activity or part-time activity) are shown to be of dubious applicability in the light of the many permutations of role performance exhibited in the large body of data on such specialists.

2.2 In his section on communication, Buss offers the judgement that the prophet is supremely suited to grasp complexity and uncertainty as an opportunity for receptivity toward new ways of organizing experience and meaning. His view has certain resonance with von Rad’s stress upon the eschatological novelty of prophetic theology in fundamental discontinuity with earlier Israelite theology. One might, however, just as readily perceive the Israelite prophets at least to have been highly goal-directed and selective in cutting through the complexity of their times, and, in fact, severely reducing complexity and ambiguity both in tradition and in contemporary sociopolitical experience. Yet again, prophets might be seen as persons who absorb the new complexity around them, sifting or balancing it, so as to emerge with an incisive line of action/thought that looks much simpler than it actually is, or whose “simplicity” or “parsimoniousness” is on a new synthetic level that transcends any of the exclusive opposites perceived in the old view of things. The prophet, in short, offers a different reading of the contradictory elements in a supposedly familiar situation (see my remarks on Long below.) Examination of the relative order/looseness of the prophetic mind, its way of factoring contradictions, could have important implications for assessing the judgement/salvation dialectic in a prophet like Isaiah, not to mention implications for understanding the history of the formation of prophetic books so largely organized around that dialectic.

2.3 Buss’s contention that anthropological analysis can help in dating the content of literary materials points to a much neglected tool in biblical research. Anthropological clarifications of tribalism and peasant movements, combined with literary and historical evidence, have assisted me in identifying a solid core of pre-monarchic materials in biblical traditions that received their present form only in monarchic times (Gottwald: 25–44). Buss is also on target in cautioning that ancient Israel’s social organization was neither so simple as many nonliterate peoples studied by anthropology nor so complex as statist societies that surrounded Israel, which suggests that anthropological data on tribalism and prophecy may be used with profit in biblical studies, but only with the accompanying recognition that ancient Israel was well within the orbit of statist social organization that exerted a strong pull toward differentiation of labor and role specialization.

2.4 The call reports of prophets are not so much a way of convincing people who are undecided about the prophet’s claim to truth as they are an attribution that grounds truth already accepted in an ultimate “cause” and “responsibility.” On the surface this seems congruent with the view that the biblical call accounts had their primary setting and function among the prophet’s successors and followers who were making particular interpretations of the prophetic words as claims upon their own situations (Long: 6–13). It is not clear, however, whether Buss sees the call as an attribution of ultimacy that the prophet or a successor/follower is more likely to make. Actually an attribution of ultimacy seems already to be made by the prophet, at least implicitly, in proclaiming a revelation, and not merely an opinion. Thus, what additional force did the call report offer either an immediate hearer of the prophet or someone in the later prophetic tradition?

2.5 Finally, Buss argues that anthropological analyses cannot in themselves establish a theological perspective, but they can contribute to one by shedding light on the process of faith. I have argued from the side of a sociohistorical analysis of premonarchic Israel that a valid theology for our epoch must incorporate or mediate a cultural, historical material understanding of ancient Israel, a kind of socioeconomic demythologization, but my remarks constitute only a propaedeutic for such a theology (Gottwald: chapters 55 and 56). From the side of theology proper, some forms of political theology are contending that social scientific analysis, and especially Marxist methodology, can supply the medium of discourse for a full-fledged theology of the sort provided in the past by more abstruse philosophical systems such as those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or Heidegger (Fierro: chapters 7 and 8). In particular, Fierro propounds the outlines of a fundamental, (as contrasted with a dogmatic) historical material theology which has to do with “the genesis of faith … to reproduce on the level of discourse the movement that takes place in life when one comes to believe” (Fierro: 329–330).

3.1 Long. Adopting an anthropological view of the prophet as dependent on public opinion and support, Long shows that conflict among prophets to establish authority by enlisting a following is a built-in feature of many societies, resulting in “a network of client and peer relationships” (quoting P. Fry). In most cases this conflict system strengthens rather than weakens the society over-all, but Long does not deal centrally with cases of societies in decline or collapse, which is of course typical of anthropology’s bias in preferring stasis and equilibrium notions of society. Historical sociology will have to help provide the longitudinal developmental view that few nonliterate societies are able to give. The agonistic, or zero-sum game, dynamics of ancient Greek society held public life together for a long time by its very maximization of competition; however, when this agonistic drive later combined with pressing economic need for large numbers of slaves, it fueled fratricidal wars from which Greece never recovered (Gouldner).

3.2 Long is convincing in showing that conflict among religious specialists claiming divine revelation is often functional in societies. By using the book of Jeremiah with its considerable sociopolitical information, he is able to show that alignments of prophets, priests, and princes crystallized around antagonistic political programs of “autonomy” from Babylon and “co-existence” with (or submission to?) Babylon. These conflicting alignments have been much studied by biblical scholars. What Long adds is the perspective of the “normalcy,” or at least the high frequency, of ideological conflict among prophets when major rifts have opened in the body politic and when factors of personal status and prestige are entailed (although he is not sure how to assess the latter reliably). The analysis of the structures of the respective ideologies, and particularly the relative weights given to the factors in the heated sociopolitical situation, is aided by a dialectical model of dominant and secondary contradictions (Mottu).

What then is the actual dominant contradiction in the situation? It is, I think according to Jeremiah the overdetermination of the conflict Babylon-Judah by another conflict, a conflict altogether ignored by Hananiah—namely, by the conflict
between the subjective interests of the ruling class in Jerusalem and the objective interests of the people of Israel/Judah as a whole … This internal conflict, because of its socioeconomic roots, is much more basic to the situation than the more easily observed inter-state conflict between Babylon and Judah … Jeremiah sees not only the religious aspect of the antagonism between pseudo- and authentic prophecy [these terms applied of course from Jeremiah’s judgmental perspective] but also its concrete and practical social effects … What is at stake in the last analysis is not the correct religion or doctrine but rather the survival, “the good” of people of flesh and blood … For Jeremiah the secondary aspect of the contradiction is set into a social context in which the prophetic debate about truth and falsehood is merely a part … Thus, far better than his opponent, Jeremiah has seen the wholeness of the situation, a situation in which the religious secondary contradiction is never “pure and simple” but always overdetermined by the conflicts and power relationships among the social groups with their respective interests. (Mottu: 63–64; italics his)

It is probable that Long’s “autonomist” coalition equated survival with the continued independence of Judah under present leadership, whereas the “co-existence” coalition equated survival with the socioeconomic and religio-cultural preservation of the Judean populace. The autonomists saw the ruling class as a perfect, or at least fully adequate, representative of the people’s interests and therefore its overthrow would mean the downfall of the people. The co-existers, by contrast, viewed the domestic policies of the ruling class as decisively antagonistic to the interests of the people and regarded any strengthening of that ruling class against Babylon as precisely a promotion of policies that would further harm the people, whereas submission to or cooperation with Babylon would more likely foster a viable life for the Judean people.

3.3 If Mottu’s depiction of the antagonistic alignments is correct, then the probability that both parties were headed by socially prominent and powerful persons (and in this I think Long is right) is not the sole or decisive factor in assessing the social class dynamics of the confrontation. His analysis signals a division within the ruling class, one segment seeing domestic socio-economic and cultural deprivation as central to the determination of foreign policy, whereas the other segment either does not recognize major deprivation within Judah or does not think it determinative of foreign policy. Long’s dismissal of the applicability of Wilson’s peripheral/central prophecy to Jeremiah and his prophetic rivals seems unduly abrupt (Wilson: 241–251). Jeremiah and his allies were not simply “outsiders” ideologically according to Deuteronomic retrospection; they were “outsiders” sociopolitically in the sense that the public policies they fought for lost out. Autonomists and co-existers could not both win; their policies were mutually exclusive. The validity of Long’s emphasis is that the co-existence program was represented “inside” the ruling establishment before it was vanquished and its advocates neutralized.

3.4 Of course what is not clear is how far the split reflected in ruling circles extended into the general populace. We do not know the extent to which the disputing coalitions were fed by a base in the general populace, either through attempts of the disputants to mobilize the people behind their positions or through sectors of the populace pressing the leaders to adopt one or another state policy. It would be instructive to explore analogous situations from anthropological and historical sociological studies (e.g., peasant movements; Wolf), in order to see how divided ruling classes (or leaders of rank in non-statist societies) fight out their conflicts and appeal to or mobilize the populace on their behalf in relation to the ideological, and specifically prophetic articulation of conflict. To do this properly, we need to take account of Long’s observation (his note 2) that prophetic conflict appears in some societies and is absent in others. A study with control societies (samples of societies with and without prophetic conflict in relation to other variables) might throw some light on the types and mechanisms of sociopolitical conflict that tend to occur in conjunction with prophetic conflicts. Yet to do this there seems to be a need to be clearer about what we mean by “prophet,” how narrowly or widely the term is used for the purpose of gathering presumably comparable cases of religious conflict. For example, in drawing on the Mexican and Algerian peasant uprisings, would differences among the Catholic clergy and among the Islamic clergy and story-tellers be counted as cases of “prophetic conflict?”

4.1 Wilson. After exposing the weaknesses in attempts to root apocalyptic literature and thought primarily or exclusively in one or another tradition type (van Rad in wisdom and Hanson in prophecy), Wilson proposes that the key to apocalyptic is the alchemy of social deprivation which prompts groups to literary expression in any one of a number of traditional rhetorical/conceptual modes, either singly or in combination. Without spelling it out, Wilson urges that post-exilic Israel offered a matrix for groups to experience deprivation in a manner that was not true of pre-exilic Israel. However, his tersely expressed indicators such as increased “factionalism” in “well-formed groups articulating divergent views” and “a deteriorating political situation” are broadly applicable to pre-exilic conditions as well. How did post-exilic factionalism differ in concreto from pre-exilic factionalism? Were “the fringes of society” more sharply circumscribed in post-exilic times so that to be pushed there was to suffer much harsher consequences than previously? Were post-exilic times marked by greater “scarcity” in available power and wealth, with fewer leadership roles, reduced resources, and less room for autonomous communal maneuvering?

4.2 Wilson proposes that a block of apocalyptic tradition may in fact not be homogeneous, but may be a compound of sub-units that reflect changes in sociopolitical location and possibly changes in the types of adherents composing the apocalyptic group, especially in terms of the prophetic, priestly, or wisdom rhetoric and thought that its members may have been accustomed to use. In illustrating how this would apply to the book of Daniel, Wilson posits three temporally successive moments in the trajectory of the Daniel community that reflect different sociopolitical settings and find expression in different literary deposits in the book.

4.3 The first moment, in chaps. 3 and 6, reflects highly placed Jewish officials who remain in Babylon after the exile and are able to keep their Jewish identity within a tolerant or benign Persian government. In the second moment, in chaps. 2, 4, and 5, reflects Jewish bureaucrats under Greek rule when the government is less tolerant and it is expected that the foreign kingdom will be destroyed and power will be transferred to the apocalyptic group. The third moment, in chaps. 7–12, reflects later Greek (Maccabean) times when government repression has grown and there is intense Jewish factionalism which are to be remedied by a divine cosmic intervention to destroy all foreign powers and to institute the apocalyptic group as the ruling elite of a new world order.

4.4 This reconstruction depends on many prior critical judgments about the book that Wilson does not directly rehearse, so that it is not always possible to know how he has come to his conclusions. If we grant for purposes of discussion that there are three recognizably different deposits in Daniel as Wilson presents them, there remain many questions which the briefly argued proposal does not answer. If the tradents of the first group of texts are Jewish officials in the Persian administration, does it necessarily follow that they are actually in Babylon? Or in Persia? May they not as well have been Persian administrators in restored Palestine? If the tradents of the third group of texts are continuous with those of the first two groups, are members of the apocalyptic group still high officials in Seleucid Palestine? If not, is the sharpening of a sense of deprivation expressed in the texts precisely their expulsion from office? Is it really evident that the first group of texts shows a more benign foreign government than the second group? The deliverance of the Jews in the stories of chaps. 3 and 6 owes nothing to the good will of the rulers but solely to miraculous divine intervention. On the other hand, the resemblance of chaps. 2, 4, and 5 to the Egyptian prophetic texts implies a government open enough to allow, or even to invite, high officials to make critical statements about social and political conditions. On the surface this suggests that the government in the second group of texts may be experienced as more benign than the government in the first group of texts. Finally, it may be asked: are the peculiarities of literary form (edifying legends in the first two groups and visions in the third group) skewing factors of such magnitude in filtering sociopolitical realities that it becomes problematic to arrange such text families on a sociohistorical continuum? Within the stories themselves, the difference between a legend type that focuses on narrowly averted martyrdom and a legend type that features the wise interpreter of dreams may also be no certain indicator of the over-all mix or balance of policies in the actual governments experienced by the tradents in contrast to the legendary stylized governments of the stories.

4.5 If there are weaknesses in working from apocalyptic rhetoric to presumed wisdom or prophetic origins, there are also problems in reading off complex sociopolitical situations from ambiguous literary traditions when our sociopolitical information is so sketchy. Wilson has provocatively argued for apocalyptic as a particular amalgam of diverse religious traditions oriented around a group experience of sociopolitical deprivation, whereas his attempt to elucidate Daniel on this model shows how enormously conjectural the enterprise may become. For this model to be more than suggestive we will need to know much more about apocalyptic groups, how they employ and transform traditional materials, the composition of their memberships, the kinds of sociopolitical stress they either articulate or are known to have experienced, where independent information is available.

As with prophetic conflict in Long’s study, so with Wilson’s apocalyptic groups, we need control group studies of many such groups in terms of a range of variables. Immediately this poses, as with “prophets,” the task of formulating what we mean by “apocalyptic group,” so that we will know which nativist of millenarian movements we are studying for cross-cultural comparison with Israelite apocalyptic groups and the grounds on which we are making the comparisons. For instance, at one point Overholt refers to an apocalyptic period in the career of Handsome Lake. Are there criteria for judging whether the Handsome Lake cult, at least at some period in its history, ought to be studied as an apocalyptic group? In short, the issue here is not a petty quibbling over terms but rather the question of criteria by which we selectively group some religious phenomena for comparison while excluding others. The essays in this collection go some distance in pushing us toward greater clarity in method, not so that we can be satisfied “purists” but so that we can give a reasonable account of what we have compared and why, and thereby acquire a consistent and coherent way of judging how the religious phenomena and processes under study are similar and different.

Works Consulted

Buss, Martin J.

1979    “Understanding Communication.” Pp. 3–44 in Encounter with the Text. Ed. M. J. Buss. Philadelphia: Fortress and Missoula: Scholars Press.

Carroll, Robert P.

1979    When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament. New York: Seabury.

Eisenstadt, S. N., ed.

1968    Max Weber: On Charisma and Institution Building. Chicago: University Press.

Fierro, Alfredo

1977    The Militant Gospel: A Critical Introduction to Political Theologies. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Gager, John G.

1975    Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Gottwald, Norman K.

1979    The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 B.C.E. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Gouldner, Alvin W.

1969    The Hellenic World: A Sociological Analysis. New York: Harper.

Long, Burke O.

1977    “Prophetic Authority as Social Reality.” Pp. 3–20 in Canon and Authority. Eds. G. W. Coats and B. O. Long. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Mottu, Henri

1976 “Jeremiah vs. Hananiah: Ideology and Truth in Old Testament Prophecy.” Pp. 58–67 in The Bible and Liberation. Political and Social Hermeneutics. A Radical Religion Reader. Eds. N. K. Gottwald and A. C. Wire. Berkeley: Community for Religious Research and Education.

Penniman, T. K.

1965    A Hundred Years of Anthropology. 3rd ed. New York: William Morrow.

Propp, V.

1968    Morphology of the Folktale. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas.

Rogerson, J. W.

1978    Anthropology and the Old Testament. Atlanta: John Knox.

Wilson, Robert R.

1977    “Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel: The Present State of the Inquiry.” Pp. 341–358 in Society of Biblical Literature 1977 Seminar Papers. Ed. Paul J. Achtemeier. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Wilson, Robert R.

1980    Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Wolf, Eric R.

1969    Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper.

Prophets and Their Publics

Ioan M. Lewis

The London School of Economics and Political Science

0. While Lévi-Strauss himself baulked at applying his Structuralist style of analysis to biblical material because it was part of a literate, ‘hot’ cultural tradition, others have not hesitated to take up the challenge. On the anthropological side, the structuralist assault here is led by Edmund Leach whose assimilation of written biblical source material to oral mythology has been trenchantly criticised by Julian Pitt-Rivers who rightly insists on the need to distinguish between history and myth in treating these sources. Leach’s failure to do this and insistence on treating the Old Testament as a single myth raises very serious problems. This method of decoding arcane messages sometimes produces fascinating results. The trouble, however, is that one usually does not really know what the results mean. Do the dazzling patterns and contrasts that this structuralist approach discloses exist for anyone else, other than the analyst? More particularly, what is their bearing on what the biblical texts meant to their original compilers, and how, in turn, do they relate to the actual, historical events and settings from which the compilers got their material? Ultimately, one feels, Leach would have to defend his misapplication of Lévi-Strauss (as Pitt-Rivers sees it) in terms of the master’s famous justification of this analysis of ‘cold’ American Indian myth. In this view “… it is immaterial whether the thought processes of the South American Indians take shape through the medium of my thought or whether mine take place through the medium of theirs” (Lévi-Strauss, 13).

1.1 This is obviously not the position taken by Professors Long, Overholt and Wilson who have shunned the seductions of Structuralism in favor of a perhaps more old-fashioned but I think less problematic approach. With becoming scholarly caution, they employ ethnographic parallels in order to elucidate the social and political conditions associated with prophecy (especially apocalyptic prophecy) in the Old Testament. As Long phrases it, the aim here is to get behind the ideology in which discussion of the status of prophets is customarily couched, to the actual social setting, thus rendering prophetic utterance as a product rather than producer of social transformation. While emphasizing the cultural conditioning and specificity of different prophetic traditions, all three authors insist that, in principle, any cultural tradition can produce apocalyptic prophetic movements. I think the evidence for comparative religion, particularly on messianic and ecstatic cults, makes this abundantly clear, although not all anthropologists would agree. Some anthropologists insist, just as obdurately as the Old Testament scholars berated here, on the alienness of messianism or ecstasy to the particular cultures they study. Such foreign phenomena, were they to occur, would thus inevitably be ascribed to foreign influence and explained in the same diffusionist terms as those criticised by Wilson.

1.2 The comparative evidence does not support such ethnographic opinions and as Long, Overholt and Wilson point out, the problem becomes that of identifying the precipitating factors which encourage prophetic and messianic currents within an existing religious tradition. This, of course, does not exclude susceptibility to foreign cultural influence, or the borrowing of new cultural elements and ideology. For, after all, however much their adherants may protest the pristine purity of their faith, all religions are in some sense syncretic. What we must try to do, however, is to investigate the social conditions which would be likely to promote receptivity to such foreign elements. As Buss rightly reminds us: “a cultural trait will not spread easily if the receiving society is not open to it.” Thus, for instance, to take what is for many people perhaps the quintessence of prophecy—”speaking-in-tongues”—here we see at once, and very dramatically, foreign influence. But the crucial question is not so much the mere provenance of the exotic language itself. Of much greater significance is the meaning it carries for the prophet and his public. If the language employed is spoken by a group of higher status than those in the prophet’s culture or sub-culture, this suggests a desire for upward mobility, or even a change of ethnic identity. Archaic language may similarly be called upon to recall and assert the original identity of a group in its purest, pristine form. In this context, Wilson’s remark that the visions recounted in Daniel 7–12 are almost all recorded in Hebrew rather than the vernacular Aramaic, is suggestive of the kind of syncretic nativistic strand that Overholt detects in the movement of the Seneca Indian prophet, Handsome Lake.

1.3 Thus, while I understand and sympathize with the desire to get beyond ideology, I think much may still be gained from considering the character of the language of prophecy. For while it is true, as Overholt says, that the content of prophecy is culturally conditioned, in cross-cultural perspective there are often striking similarities in the idiom and metaphor prophets characteristically employ, as well as much stereotyping in the way in which the prophetic role is assumed and exercised. I am particularly struck, for instance, by the “wisdom” idiom which is used here to contrast priests and prophets. On anthropological grounds, Long, Overholt and Wilson are right to question the absoluteness of this postulated dichotomy and to emphasize the collaboration of prophets and priests in the same religious context. Since the comparativist anthropological literature on inspired prophets and shamans abounds in descriptions of visionaries discovering “wisdom,” “truth,” etc., I wonder whether there might not be greater movement between these two poles in the Israelite tradition than the literature contrasting them suggest. Is there evidence in the Old Testament texts, for instance, of priests becoming prophets, or vice versa? In the contexts discussed here, as elsewhere, their roles seem complimentary and one would like to know more about their patterns of recruitment and career profiles. In considering the specificity and uniqueness of the “Covenant” theme in Judaism, I wonder whether it is relevant to recall how frequently inspired prophets and shamans in other religious traditions (including Haitian Voodoo) describe their relationship to the deity in terms of a contract or even marriage (cf. Lewis, 63).

2.1 Returning now to the behavioural aspects of prophecy which are stressed by all contributors, Long is obviously right to insist on the “normality” of conflict between prophets and to see this in terms of recurrent competition between rival claimants for prophetic leadership. Long’s analysis can, I think, be pushed further since trauma and conflict are stereotypically associated with the assumption of the ecstatic vocation. Overholt notes, for instance, how Jeremiah protests against the role he is being called upon to assume. This is very interesting, since all over the world, the sine qua non of authentic calling is precisely this protest by the future prophet of his unworthiness to accept divine election. Prophets do not come running. They have to be coerced into assuming the heavy burdens that the gods thrust upon them. Very frequently, this is expressed in the form of a searing illness, trauma or some other calamity as with St. Paul on the Road to Damascus, whose conversion was literally blinding. These and other experiences which announce the assumption of the prophetic role are (pace Overholt) thus far from being entirely private. The comparative evidence indeed indicates that the insistence with which the gods summon their chosen vessels (or spokesmen) is directly related to the personal circumstances of the future prophet and the general social situation. The less well-qualified the novice is and the wider the range of his potential appeal, the more florid will be the phenomena which are interpreted as announcing his divine election. This is well illustrated in the Shona material to which Long refers and is interestingly discussed in Buss’s contribution.

2.2 Bearing in mind that protestations of the unworthiness of the human representative of the gods are most emphatically not to be taken at face value, Overholt’s tripartite model for the interaction between the supernatural, prophets and their publics seems attractive and useful. Indeed this might be seen as integrating Long’s focus on the role of the prophet with Wilson’s stress on the ambient social setting (i.e., the prophet’s public). The emphasis this schema places on feedback in the interaction between prophet and public is clearly important and, in my view, should be extended to include recognition as a prior event to confirmation (cf. Buss). The model might also be extended to explicitly include disconfirmation and rejection, leading to the redefinition of a failed (false) prophet, possibly as a witch or other purveyor of mystical malevolence.

3.1 Turning now to the effectiveness of prophets, or of candidates for the role, it seems to me that the question of their background ground and provenance merits more attention, particularly in the light of the familiar idea that outsiders are particularly well-qualified to assume the mantle of prophecy. Like the foreign expert sent to solve the problems of a Third World country, such prophetic intervention is detached, neutral, objective and authoritative in large measure because it comes from outside. Where prophecy is also couched in alien tongues, this, of course, compounds the prophet’s exotic character, in certain circumstances adding authority to his pronouncements. The paradox here is that linguistic unintelligibility enhances the authority of prophecy. Persian or other foreign influences should perhaps also be considered from this point of view.

3.2 While Long’s focus on competition between individual prophets or aspirants for such recognition highlights the context in which we should expect florid displays of mantic acrobatics, Wilson indicates the wider cultic setting which could similarly be expected to promote ecstatic flurries. Professor Wilson’s optimism about the abilities of anthropologists is flattering; but I am inclined to doubt whether we shall really succeed in discovering “the precise nature of apocalyptic groups.” If apocalyptic and ecstatic flamboyance are, as he, Overholt and Long agree, all to be expected in times of crisis, it is also important to recognize how such dramatic religiosity may also mark the rise or decline of religions. The Bible narrative appears to stress continuity, for obvious reasons. This seems likely to obscure fluctuations in relative centrality over time of the cult of Yahwe which might be expected to have assumed a subsidiary position within the Persian and Babylonian empires—as indeed Wilson argues.

Works Consulted

Leach, Edmund

1969    Genesis as Myth and Other Essays. London: Jonathan Cape.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

1970    The Raw and the Cooked. London: Jonathan Cape.

Lewis, I. M.

1971    Ecstatic Religion. Baltimore: Penguin.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian

1977    “The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex.” Pp. 126–171 in The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

On Social and Individual Aspects of Prophecy

Martin J. Buss

Emory University

1.1 Anthropology exhibits no established orthodoxy, either in method or in content. Thus I am greatful for Professor Burridge’s response and for his expression of caution in regard to what the discipline can accomplish.

1.2 At two or three points Burridge differs, at least on the surface, from notions developed in my paper. It is not entirely clear to what extent these differences are substantive. For instance, Burridge states that one has to be “satisfied with explication rather than explanations.” If this statement implies that the procedure of anthropology is to be contrasted sharply with that of the natural sciences, it expresses a view opposed to mine. Yet Burridge earlier offered some “explanatory models” (1969a:164) and suggested that in certain “situations and oppositions” the role of a prophet “may be necessary” (1969a:154).

1.3 On the topic of social responsibility, Burridge counters the claim that reference to a spiritual world embodies a sense of responsibility anchored in a larger-than-private perspective. In his study of the Australian Tangus he applied the term “responsibility” to a system of reciprocal relations. He found that in the view of this group God, children, and certain marginal persons stand outside such an order; according to one story, deity punishes by death a group of “responsible” persons who exclude an orphan (31969b:205). The moral claim of a prophet indeed goes beyond that of reciprocity. Further, one can agree with Burridge’s observation that many prophecies are unrealistic and even a danger to the welfare of human communities (similarly, Buss: 138). Yet (as Burridge, 1979:157–164, 198–204, 251–253 has pointed out) relative disorder can provide seeds for a new significant order.

2.1 In his detailed assessment of my paper, Gottwald suggests that prophets may very well reduce complexity and ambiguity. I fully agree with that judgment. Indeed, it is normally the aim of a guide to provide a meaningful vision within the welter of events and circumstances. Yet an insightful prophet does not oversimplify matters. Quite likely, the greatness of prophecies by Amos and Jeremiah—expressed in rich poetic form—lies in large part in the fact that they saw divine election as not simply equivalent to protection or exclusivity (Amos 3:2; 9:7; Jer 25:9). Gottwald appropriately points to the judgment/salvation dialectic in Isaiah as an example of complexity.

2.2 Gottwald asks for clarification in regard to the function of call reports, in view of Long’s thesis that call narratives have their predominant setting in the tradition of a prophet’s disciples. Long is correct in pointing out that “accounts of a call are rarely cited by charismatic specialists to counter criticism” (10), but he does not consider the positive features of the comparative data of call narratives. Most of the reports of a prophetic call in the Bible and elsewhere are autobiographical in style (including Amos 7:14–15); third-person form appears primarily in accounts concerning nonprophetic or relatively distant figures. One should thus search for a function which is associated with the life of a prophet, although not one of establishing (as distinct from expressing) legitimacy; it is probably that of relating the individual to the prophetic task. In particular, a self-report may be given to justify one’s activity to relatives, friends, and others or as part of the retrospective reflection of an older person (as among the Blackfoot Indians [Eastman: 9]). The latter process may give a partial hint about how collections of prophecies came to be formed, although disciples undoubtedly played major roles in gathering and editing.

2.3 In some strands of biblical scholarship, the person of the prophet—and the sense of a call—has been relegated to the background, in part because of a theology reluctant to treat faith in a psychological or, in general, anthropological perspective. (So, e.g., E. March; differently, G. Lindblom and A. Heschel, cited in my paper). Yet as has already been emphasized self-awareness is closely connected with self-transcendence. This paradox shows itself in the frequent appearance of both first-person pronouns and negatives (“not,” etc.) in many call narratives (Exod 3:11, 4:10; 6:30; Judg 6:15; 1 Sam 9:21; 1 Kgs 3:17; Amos 7:14; Isa 6:5; Jer 1:6). The personal and the social should thus be viewed together within the dynamics of faith.

Works Consulted

Burridge, Kenelm O. L.

1969a    New Heaven New Earth. New York: Schocken.

Burridge, Kenelm O. L.

1969b    Tangu Traditions. Oxford: Clarendon.

Burridge, Kenelm O. L.

1979    Someone, No One: An Essay on Individuality. Princeton: Princeton University.

Buss, Martin J.

1969    The Prophetic Word of Hosea. Berlin: Töpelmann.

Eastman, Charles Alexander

1911    The Soul of the Indian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Long, Burke O.

1977    “Prophetic Authority as Social Reality.” Pp. 3–20 in Canon and Authority. Eds. G. W. Coats and B. O. Long. Philadelphia: Fortress.

March, W. Eugene

1970    “Jeremiah 1: Commission and Assurance.” Austin Seminary Bulletin 86: 5–38.

Perils General and Particular

Burke O. Long

Bowdoin College

1.1 Burridge quite rightly warns against our too quickly seeking generalization and explanation at the expense of particularity in our studies of the social settings of prophets. In his words, he enters a plea for us “to look for those aspects of the situation which are there but have been missed.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the “reduction of the particular to the general case—and it is a reduction—can often do less than justice to the former.” And again, “we have to be satisfied with explications rather than explanations.” I am very taken by the sense of wonder and surprise, chance and unpredictability, which he maintains in observing social phenomena.

1.2 Burridge takes aim at an important target. In one sense his comments seem directed to the quick move that scholars may take toward causal explanation of social phenomena. I wonder if he also implies that it is too soon or somehow inappropriate to attempt sensible and responsible comparative statements across cultural boundaries. If reduction of the particular to the general is a danger, so is its opposite: losing the general in the particular. The one may be a refuge in theories of cause and effect, or explanation, and the other may take refuge in atomistic, ethnographic studies, unrelated to context beyond the particular culture.

1.3 The issue I raise is not a new one, and certainly not new to modern anthropologists. I want to agree that we need to give particularity its due, but also say that I feel something of a responsibility to provide broader frameworks of interpretation or explication. The aim is to see particular cultural phenomena with their own integrity, but also as related to broader categories of understanding. This volume in its own way illustrates both the problem and the promise of such a goal.

2.1 Lewis may invoke causal explanation more easily than Burridge thinks advisable. It is the strength of Burridge that he gives us pause for considering method. But the strength of Lewis is that he pushes us by example to see more particularity than we might have otherwise seen in Israelite materials.

2.2 For instance, Lewis suggests the importance of our considering the social implications of the use of language. In his words:

… the crucial question is not so much the mere provenance of the exotic language itself. Of much greater significance is the meaning it carries for the prophet and his public.

Biblical scholars will know that a good many studies of the prophets during this century have emphasized the forms of prophetic discourse and their relation to social context. The latter has usually meant provenance. Often the enterprise led to hypotheses about the nature of prophetic “office” and the work of prophets. Rarely if at all was the prophetic language examined as indicator of social class, mobility, aspiration, and identity. To contemplate these possibilities is to extend the range of Biblical form criticism, and to take more seriously the insights from sociolinguistics (see Samarin). Even if evidence is obscure and difficult to find, it strikes me that the new range of questions is so important as to demand exploration.

2.3 Another example of Lewis’s fruitful suggestions: extend the theme of conflict to include the trauma associated with the assumption of prophetic vocation. The language of selection is surely stereotypical, and as Lewis says, is “irectly related to the personal circumstances of the future prophet and the general social situation.” With Burridge’s comments lingering in our ear, we might draw back from Lewis’s causal explanation when he writes:

The less well-qualified the novice is and the wider the range of his potential appeal, the more florid will be the phenomena which are interpreted as announcing his divine election.

2.4 Nevertheless, Lewis looks in the right direction. We ought to investigate with seriousness the social meaning and implication of this aspect of a prophetic conflict. What does the initiatory struggle with the gods and the language used to describe these occasions have to do with a prophet’s social position? What social facts correlate with this ideological claim of being marked by the gods? In this regard, it is interesting to note an apparent case of ritual reinforcement of initiatory conflict. While calling the spirits, the Copper Eskimo shaman repeats like an incantation formula the language of conflict: “It is a hard thing to speak the truth. It is difficult to make hidden forces appear.” Helping women crowd around and reassure him of his position and capabilities, shouting things about his power and strength. The whole scene strikes me as possibly an extension into regular ritual contexts of the shaman’s initiatory trauma and the society’s stake in that conflict (Rasmussen: 56–61). Certainly the matter needs further investigation.

2.5 Taken together, Burridge and Lewis caution and stimulate at the same time. For what better or more natural expression of the investigative spirit could one wish?

3.1 Like Burridge and Lewis, Gottwald is a spoiler. I mean that as a compliment, for he seeks to complicate rather than simplify our analyses of prophecy. Thus, for example, Overholt’s model of the prophetic process has to be rebuilt so as to give adequate place for “socially shaped predispositions” of participants in the process, and for the changes that are an inevitable part of any historical phenomenon. Wilson begs a number of questions and too easily aligns Biblical text with the ideology and program of a particular socio-political group. And so on.

3.2 Yet, for all his “complicating” of the analysis, Gottwald still seems to look for something like generalizing sociological “laws.” He mentions twice the necessity for establishing “control groups” in order to gain a firmer grip on typical socio-political factors involved in (and giving rise to?) the phenomena which we study. It is well to remember Burridge’s interesting counterpoint: things are more “chancey” than analysts are wont to allow. While we are justified in looking for controls, then, we may not be able to find them, or overlook the limitations inherent in the search (see comments on Burridge).

3.3 Gottwald goes beyond the role of question-asking complicator in pushing my analysis of prophetic conflict one step further. Taking his cue from Mottu’s Marxist-like analysis of ideological and class conflicts, Gottwald seems to make Jeremiah into a hero of sorts. He writes as though Jeremiah were the champion of a deprived, or about to be deprived, populace—the true advocate of the peoples’ good over against that segment of the ruling class which saw itself as being necessary to Judah’s (and the peoples’) survival. Thus,

It is probable that Long’s ‘autonomist’ coalition equated survival with the continued independence of Judah under present leadership, whereas the ‘co-existence’ coalition equated survival with the socio-economic and religio-cultural preservation of the Judean populace.

The autonomists saw the ruling class as a perfect, or at least fully adequate, representative of the peoples’ interests. Therefore its overthrow would mean the downfall of the people. The coexisters by contrast, viewed the domestic policies of the ruling class as decisively antagonistic to the interests of the people and regarded any strengthening of that ruling class against Babylon as precisely a promotion of policies that would further harm the people, whereas submission to or cooperation with Babylon, would most likely foster a viable life for the Judean people.

3.4 If I understand Gottwald correctly, I believe he has made an implicit value judgement, aligning Jeremiah and the “co-existers” with the good things of cultural survival, and the “autonomists” with the bad things of cultural suicide. Allowing the analysis for the moment, it seems likely that both groups in the situation would have identified their own self-interest with the survival interests of the wider population. For Gottwald (and Mottu also) to favor one group over the other, even implicitly, is to transpose a sixth century B.C. ideological conflict with its inherent value choices onto the level of twentieth century historical reconstruction. Surely, Mottu and Gottwald are right in directing our attention to a level of socio-economic conflict beneath the more overt struggles over inter-state and religious matters. Yet to direct attention is one thing, to make assertions another. One may fairly ask for the evidence in the literary materials. Considering how little and slim are the data for reconstructing political ideologies and allegiances, I wonder how much further one may go?

Works Consulted

Rasmussen, Knud

1932    The Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimos. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 9. Copenhagen. Nordisk Forlag.

Samarin, W. J.

1976    Language in Religious Practice. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House.

Model, Meaning, and Necessity

Thomas W. Overholt

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

1.1 With respect to Prof. Burridge’s comments on the prophet’s message, it occurs to me that there must be several stages in the process of “making sense” out of what one hears, and that “making sense” of an utterance on the spot is a somewhat different matter than interpreting the same utterance after the fact. To subsequently repudiate an earlier decision to follow a prophet is probably not so much an indication that the message was not really convincing in the first place, as a later revaluation in the light of spoiled hopes. I would imagine that, if the ancestors had arrived bearing “cargo,” the participants’ answer to the question of whether they would do it again would be different. Jer 44:15–19 comes to mind, along with the proverb about hindsight being better than foresight. It has long been my opinion that discussions of the problem of “false prophecy” by OT scholars have too often failed to do justice to the “existential” situation of the hearers, who were called upon to make a response, but did not have the luxury of sufficient time to see whether the prophecy would “come true” before doing so. In responding to such a leader one is always taking a chance; the agony of decision is implicit in the prophetic process.

1.2 The crux of the matter is the problem of defining the “necessary conditions” for a given instance of prophecy (in the full sense of utterance-plus-acceptance). As Burridge puts it, there seems to be “no kind of inevitability” about the process by which in the immediacy of a situation people choose “to do things they would not otherwise have done.” One measure of the difficulty of this problem is the fact that in his now-famous survey of studies of “crisis cults” La Barre devotes over half the text to a discussion of “theories of causality.” His general conclusion is that no one theory taken alone is sufficient, that (to use his words) “in the study of crisis cults, the word ‘and’ serves better than the contentious word ‘only’ ” (1971:26).

1.3 While I acknowledge the complexity of this problem and would not want to be party to the kind of “reductionism” La Barre finds to be “rampant in crisis cult studies” (1971:26), I find myself wondering whether the presence of a prophetic-type leader is not the critical element in the emergence of a “crisis cult” (the terminology presents its own problems) within a given socio-historical situation. La Barre is critical of “the ‘great man’ theory” of the origin of such movements, largely it seems on the basis of instances of “failed” messiahs and a well-founded objection against using the notion of “charisma” in the sense of some “mysterious belief-compelling authority of the ‘supernatural’ ” (1971:20). I take this not so much as undermining the contention that the leader is a centrally important causative factor as a warning against misconstruing his power and role. Thus, he warns that “so far as ‘true’ and ‘false’ messiahs are concerned, the religious ‘genius’ is a psychosocial phenomenon only if and when he is psychodynamically relevant to others and is functioning in his proper sociocultural context, for otherwise he is likely to be adjudged as psychotic, given his discrepancy with reality and regnant ‘common sense’ ” (1971:20). I take it that my comments on the nature of a prophet’s “authority” are compatible with this caution. The whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that each instance of prophecy is a particular case, and, as Burridge points out, “the reduction of the particular to the general case … can often do less than justice to the former.”

1.4 Finally, Burridge’s plea that we “look for those aspects of the situation which are there but have been missed” prompts an observation. I suspect that one of the major practical differences between field anthropology and biblical studies is that in the former there is potentially a wealth of observed or observable data, while in the latter one is largely stuck with a text, which, because of the particular biases of the transmitters, conceals much. He has correctly seen that precisely because “common sense” has failed to open our eyes to certain presumed aspects of the social situation, we are in fact squeezing what is unknown “into the familiar, so that what is in fact unknown can seem to be known.” The transmitters of the text have to a large extent hung a “theological veil” before our eyes (cf. Overholt), but I for one am confident that the insights of anthropologists like Prof. Burridge can help us to find (or make) holes in that barrier, the better to understand the social reality which in the nature of the case must lie on the other side.

2.1 Prof. Gottwald calls attention to places where my model of the prophetic process would benefit from some refinement. I think his “signs/evidences of confirmation” is in fact a better rubric than my “expectations of confirmation,” a somewhat infelicitious phrase that occurred to me when I was working on the Ghost Dance materials and has remained more out of neglect than commitment. But more importantly he points out something I have neglected altogether, viz., that the prophets themselves quest for these signs and are affected by their presence or absence. It appears that some redesigning of Figure 1 with respect to the place of this element is necessary.

2.2 Several of Gottwald’s comments relate to the cultural context in which a specific instance of prophecy occurs. I understand my general statement about the people’s response to a prophet (1.4) to be in harmony with his more specific suggestion “that the people relate each specific prophetic revelation to a fund of revelations.” Further, he suggests the need to have the model represent the “socially shaped predispositions” of prophets “toward revelations and proclamations of a particular form and … content,” since otherwise we might be tempted to view prophets as “mysterious sources” of religious ideas “which are later adopted into a social routine” (to quote from Gottwald’s discussion of Weber’s “idealist ‘escape hatch’ ” to which his citation refers). The problem is whether the relationship of both prophet and people to their broader social context can be represented in the model itself. I will have to give it some thought.

2.3 Finally, it does seem to me that the model is applicable to prophetic careers of any length. To conceive of prophecy as a dialectical process implies the possibility of a duration beyond a single encounter between prophet and people.

3.1 Prof. Lewis’s remarks on “the character of the language of prophecy” suggest a matter which my model for a cross-cultural description of the prophetic process simply ignores, viz., whether there are in fact “striking similarities in the idiom and metaphor” employed by prophets of differing cultures. He mentions two clusters of concepts (wisdom-truth; covenant-contract-marriage) that might prove to be examples of such metaphors. At the broadest level of content I think I would still be surprised to find much similarity among prophets (Jeremiah and Handsome Lake spoke to audiences that were literally worlds apart). Still, it would be worth inquiring into the presence of similarities both in important themes (like those suggested) and also in specific formulae related to the way in which a prophet exercises his role in society (what, for example, is the equivalent in other cultures of the OT prophet’s, “Thus says Yahweh”?).

3.2 I am also inclined to take seriously Lewis’s suggestion that the experience by which the prophet felt himself to have been designated to perform that role need not be quite so private as I have claimed. Handsome Lake’s “death” and “resurrection” were in fact witnessed by a number of other persons, though they and we remain dependent upon his account for our knowledge of important aspects of that experience. Stereotypical possession behavior may be one sort of observable phenomenon attending a prophet’s call. Such manifestations would be examples of what I have termed “expectations of confirmation,” and that aspect of the model may require more emphasis than I have given it (and perhaps a new rubric!).

3.3 Lewis suggests some modifications of the model, among them extending the notion of feedback between prophet and public “to include recognition as a prior event to confirmation.” The whole process by which papers for this volume were circulated and responded to has been rather fluid, and I must confess that in response to some comments from Burke Long the section of my paper that deals most specifically with this matter (4.2) was strengthened after the completion of the draft that Prof. Lewis had at his disposal. Insofar as his “recognition” can be taken to mean “acceptance” or “acknowledgment,” this is now explicitly stated. On another point, the model does describe only what might be called “confirmed” instances of prophetic activity. What happens in cases of failure must be implied: absence or total disruption of either of the two major sequences (3.1, 3.2) would by definition mean that the occurrence under investigation was not an instance of prophecy. But there is a certain ambiguity here. To speak of acceptance or rejection always implies the question, “By whom?” Perhaps most prophets experience both, since occasions on which audience and support groups are coterminous must indeed be rare.

3.4 Finally, I find myself wondering about Lewis’s point that “outsiders are particularly well-qualified to assume the mantle of prophecy,” because their message is likely to be perceived as “detached, neutral, objective and authoritative.” These are all somewhat problematic terms when applied to prophets. Jeremiah and Handsome Lake were both “insiders.” They thumped a party line, so to speak, and were hardly detatched and neutral. Perhaps both they and their supporters would have said that their analyses of their respective situations were “objective,” but then opponents might well have made the same claim for quite different views (cf. Jer 44:15–19!). Amos, on the other hand, was an “outsider,” who came from Judah to prophesy in Israel, but the same points seem to hold true for him. His confrontation with the priest at Bethel (7:10–17) reveals that some significant members of his audience perceived his activity as anything but detatched, neutral, and objective.

Works Consulted

LaBarre, Weston

1971    “Materials for a History of Studies of Crisis Cults: A Bibliographic Essay.” Current Anthropology 12:3–44.

Overholt, Thomas W.

1979    “Commanding the Prophets: Amos and The Problem of Prophetic Authority.” CBQ 41:517–532.

The Problems of Describing and Defining Apocalyptic Discourse

Robert R. Wilson

Yale University

1.1 Professors Burridge, Lewis, and Gottwald have all pointed in various ways to one of the crucial unsolved problems raised by the study of ancient and modern prophecy and apocalyptic. Although modern anthropological studies have demonstrated a correlation between the existence of certain types of social conditions and the appearance of prophecy and apocalyptic, the fact remains that these conditions sometimes exist in societies where prophets and apocalyptic groups do not emerge. This state of affairs can be illustrated in modern societies and probably also in ancient Israel. The appearance of apocalyptic literature in Israel seems to correspond roughly with the deterioration of political, religious, and social conditions during the post-exilic period, and it is therefore fair to assume that some Israelites responded to the conditions of this period by creating or joining apocalyptic communities. However, not all Israelites responded in this way. Some apparently sought to restore equilibrium to their lives by living within the guidelines set out by Israel’s wisdom traditions, while others looked to the interpretation of the Torah as a way of regulating daily life. Apocalyptic religion was not the only form of post-exilic Israelite religion, and there is no evidence that it was even the predominant form. Rather, apocalyptic, the scholarly study of the Torah, a concern with the development of wisdom literature, the elaboration of the cult, and an interest in the interpretation of earlier prophetic literature all seem to be features of Israel’s post-exilic religious life. This religious diversity suggests that apocalyptic was not the inevitable result of certain social conditions. In the same way, as Gottwald has pointed out, various sorts of cultural upheaval and relative deprivation existed in the pre-exilic period; yet the biblical literature provides no clear indication that the formation of apocalyptic groups was a major feature of religion in pre-exilic Israel. Although it is theoretically possible that some of the so-called proto-apocalyptic passages in the prophets are pre-exilic rather than post-exilic, it is generally assumed, firm evidence on this point is lacking.

1.2 In both the ancient and modern situations, then, more work needs to be done on the question of the non-appearance of prophecy and apocalyptic in societies where social conditions might normally be expected to encourage the development of these phenomena. It may be that the willingness of societies to tolerate the phenomena plays a role, but the problem must be explored thoroughly in modern societies where more data are available. Without additional comparative evidence the ancient sources can be of little help.

2.1 In the same way, additional anthropological and biblical research needs to be done in order to shed some light on Gottwald’s question concerning the criteria on the basis of which ancient and modern groups are defined as “apocalyptic.” Anthropologists are in general agreement that certain specific groups or movements clearly fall into the category that biblical scholars would call “apocalyptic,” but there is disagreement about the status of other groups because they do not share all of the features usually associated with apocalyptic groups or because they share these features only to a limited degree. This difficulty in categorizing groups suggests that apocalyptic groups may exhibit a good bit of individuality and that the category “apocalyptic” must be allowed to remain somewhat flexible. However, the limits of this flexibility still need to be determined, and this is a task that might be fruitfully undertaken both by anthropologists and by biblical scholars.

2.2 It is the individualistic characteristics of apocalyptic groups that cause the greatest difficulties in applying contemporary anthropological research to the study of Israelite religion. My reading of the anthropological literature suggests that although contemporary apocalyptic groups share certain general features, these groups also differ markedly from each other because they are composed of individuals with differing social, political, cultural, and religious backgrounds. These differing backgrounds are reflected in the ways in which various groups perceive themselves and render an account of their self-identity to themselves and to the outside world. This means that in some sense each apocalyptic group is unique and must be studied in its particularity as well as viewed in the larger context of apocalyptic groups in general. My application of the anthropological material to Daniel was designed simply to show that the group that produced this particular piece of apocalyptic writing did not come from pure “wisdom” or prophetic roots but was a unique group that blended earlier Israelite traditions in its own distinctive way. To carry the exploration further, it would be necessary to examine each piece of apocalyptic literature to try to uncover evidence of the unique characteristics of the writers.

2.3 However, it is precisely at this point that the student of Israelite religion runs into difficulty, for except in the case of the Qumran community, Israelite apocalyptic groups are known to us only through the literature that they produced. To date, external evidence on these groups is nonexistent, and we have no choice but to reconstruct each individual group as best we can on the basis of its literature. In some cases we can, as Gottwald suggests, try to discover more about the sociopolitical situation in the time the literature was created, but in the end this information is unlikely to tell us much about the specific group that produced the literature. We are therefore left with the problem which Gottwald rightly highlights, the problem of how to analyze the literature of a group in order to reconstruct its social, political, and religious background. This problem is essentially a form-critical problem, and since the time of Gunkel form-critics have found it a difficult one to solve, for literary forms are not always tied to a single social setting, and as a result it is difficult to reconstruct the setting on the basis of the form alone. This problem is particularly difficult in the case of Daniel, for most modern form- and tradition-critics agree that the book is the product of a complex editorial process. This means that the question of social matrix must be asked at each point in the history of the text. When we attempt to deal with such complexity, certainty is never possible, and even the most sensitive form-critical analysis is unlikely to be able to uncover more than the bare outline of the social matrix. Given our present extra-biblical information, a reconstruction of the “complex sociopolitical situations” which must have existed at the time each layer was composed is a virtual impossibility.

2.4 It is for this reason that my analysis of the Daniel group was brief and schematic, and I am unwilling to claim for it the degree of historical specificity which Gottwald attributes to my reconstruction. Following several recent critics and on the basis of my own form-critical analysis of the book—an analysis which unfortunately cannot be included in a brief article—I suggested that the earliest layers of the book were written in the Persian Period, while the last chapters reached their final form in Maccabean times. In between these two points is a period of slow growth which can be traced through form-critical analysis. For the sake of brevity I spoke of three major phases in this literary history, but in fact many more layers seem to be present in the text. This complexity means that it is difficult to pinpoint the historical and social location of the writers and tradents with any certainty. It seems reasonable to accept the book’s own statement that the chief characters were exiled Jews who were working in a foreign bureaucracy, and in fact the text deals with the issues that would have been of particular concern to such people. However, even if one assumes that the book originally dealt with the problems of a particular class of Jews during the Persian Period, it is difficult to say more than this, and it is particularly hard to reconstruct the group’s subsequent history with any specificity. An increase in the severity of outside opposition can be inferred from the writers’ increasingly negative view of foreign rulers, from the group’s increasingly radical views on the degree to which society must change in order for injustices to be rectified, and from explicit references in the latter chapters to persecution, but details cannot be reconstructed because of uncertainties about the historical location of the group. Similarly, the latter chapters of the book seem to reflect some sort of religious dispute within the Jewish community, but the details are unclear. The most that can be said, then, is that the group became increasingly apocalyptic in its orientation over the course of its existence and that, like all apocalyptic groups, it was unique, reflecting in its outlook and literature the background of its members. Although we would like to know more about the group and although we might plausibly guess why it developed in the way it did, we cannot go further without moving too far away from the text. Many questions are unanswered, and for the moment they must remain unanswered.

Published: January 30, 2015, 13:01 | Comments Off on ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY
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