In Hebrew, the usual word for prophet is nab. The New Testament uses prophetes from which the English “prophet” is derived. Prophets were interpreters of God’s will. In popular thought, prophecy is associated with predicting future events but this was not the main function of Biblical prophets. According to Newsome (1984) Hebrew prophets have their roots in a wider Near Eastern context where seers played a clairvoyant role, sometimes using sheep’s entrails as signs pointing to future happenings (p. 11).
Seeing the future was associated with ecstatic trance-like states as the seer communicated with spirits, or with God. In the Hebrew tradition, clairvoyant ability became less significant, with prophets taking on a special role as guardians of God’s covenant. The prophet’s job was to challenge the children of Israel to keep the commandments, to keep their covenant with God by upholding justice, living righteously and forsaking the worship of false Gods. There may have been guilds based at some of the ancient holy shrines, such as Shiloh where Samuel operated.
I Kings 22: 6 refers to King Ahab summoning four hundred prophets to seek their advice. One of the most important prophets was Nathan, who challenged David to live up to the ideal of kingly conduct. In the Bible, there are sixteen books named for prophets (the twelve minor prophets form one book in the Hebrew bible but are sub-divided in Christian versions). There were many other prophets besides those after whom books have been named, including Elijah and Elisha. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are considered Major Prophets.
Moses and Aaron are also referred to as prophets, though they are not usually regarded as such. Indeed Deuteronomy 18:18-22 suggests that Moses represents the “example of what a YAHWEH prophet should be” (Newsome, p. 5). The prophet spoke truth to power. In doing so, they pointed out what consequences would follow if people failed to keep the commandments. God would punish God’s people. Consistently, the message was “Obey my voice, and I will be your God … walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you” (Jeremiah 7: 23).
When Jeremiah spoke about the Temple’s destruction, this was not a prediction but a warning of what would happen if the Hebrews disregarded justice. When speaking of the future, what was said was based on what prophets knew “of the nature of a holy God and of a sinful, arrogant people” (Newsome, p. 11). Ecstasy continued to be associated with prophecy but what was more important was the content of their message, not the means by which this was communicated. False prophets had to be denounced. Famously, Elijah battled with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18).
Above all, prophets were bearers of “revelation”, their words came to them from God. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as a prophet (Luke 7: 16) and in Christian theology Jesus is understood as God’s word made flesh. Prophets were often reluctant to accept their calling, for example, Jonah (see Jonah 1: 3). Sometimes they operated against the established political system, calling kings to account. At times prophets appear as honored members of a king’s inner circle. In the New Testament, Matthew often cites “prophecies”, suggesting that prophets predicted events in Jesus life.
One way of understanding this is that Matthew was anxious to emphasize continuity between God’s revelation in Jesus and God’s revelation through the prophets. The role of prophet existed in the early church but was never formalized, perhaps because “prophecy” cannot be controlled. It can challenge established authority. The New Testament also warns against false prophets (Matthew 7: 15), so any claim to be a prophet must be tested against the content of the message. Reference Newsome, James D. 1984. The Hebrew Prophets. Atlanta, Ga: J. Knox Press.