Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Eagerly Awaiting: On Prophets, Wonder Workers, and the First Century
This is the first of a two part post. I think the second one will be more interesting, but it needs a little background. This last Sunday, the Church celebrated the Nativity of St John the Baptist. John is one of the most fascinating people in the whole Bible. He's a lot like the Old Testament prophet Samuel in that he stands at a great crossroad in the religious history of the People of God.The book of First Samuel recalls Samuel as both seer and prophet, noting that "Formerly in Israel, anyone who went to inquire of God would say, “Come, let us go to the seer”; for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer" (1 Samuel 9:9). Samuel ushers in the prophetic age, an age that (in the Christian tradition) would end with John the Baptist. The figure that would later be synonymous with the prophets was not Samuel, however, but Elijah the Tishbite (1 Kings 17ff).
This first part will sketch out the role of prophets and "wonder workers" among the people of Israel in the centuries leading into first century, when Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist lived. The second will deal with some really cool stuff in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It's not "cool" cool, but cool for me and maybe even cool for you if you dig this kind of thing. To be honest, this first part is a bit dry. I only included the things that would make the second part easier to read. I didn't make it one big post because, honestly, it would be way longer than it already is. If you walk out with a deeper appreciation for the milieu of the prophets, then that's great. You might even want to skip it if you already know a lot about the prophets. The second part will be more interesting. I hope.
Jesus and John the Baptist were unique not only for what they did and who they were, but also how they stood out from other interesting figures from the 1st century. It can be a surprise to find out that Jesus and John were not the only reputed wonder workers and prophetic figures to appear in the hotbed of Roman-occupied Palestine.
I: On Prophets, Wonder Workers, and the First Century
Prophets had a unique role in Jewish history. In the 8th century before Christ, when the Assyrians occupied the Northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled its inhabitants, prophets were at the ready to warn and to rebuke. The same thing happened in the 6th century BCE when the Babylonians exiled all but the poorest in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ditto when the Seleucid Empire exercised a political and cultural hegemony of the Jewish people. From the time of Samuel on up, prophets were not hard to find. King Saul twice encounters wandering bands of prophets. Prophets seemed to hover the thrones of the kings of Israel and Judah as a sort of check and balance to their rule. Prophets were a reminder of the ironclad interrelationship of spiritual well-being shared between the ruler and ruled. Like St Augustine, who attributed the fall of Rome to moral and spiritual decay, the prophets warned that the success of the nation depended totally on their relationships to both God and one another.
In the history of the people of Israel, prophets were ubiquitous enough for there to be a need to distinguish between two kinds of them: the true prophet and the false prophet. False prophets were not necessarily charlatans. Deuteronomy acknowledges their capacity to interpret signs with accuracy and predict the future, if only to lead the people away from God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). The Book of Kings contains a few examples of false prophets: an old prophet in Bethel manipulates a legitimate prophet into disobeying his mission is one episode (1 Kings 13:11-19). In another, the Judahite king Jehoshaphat summoning 400 prophets, all of whom except Micaiah son of Imlah were false (1 Kings 22:1-28). False prophets don't assume an office illegitimately. They are certainly recognized as "prophets", albeit of the false variety.
While living at different times and through different circumstances, the message of the prophets would often return to two common themes: justice and right worship. Justice dealt largely with caring for the weakest in society, typified in the widow and the orphan. This also covered other moral issues as the people were in a binding covenant with God, a covenant that included the acceptance of the Law by all of God's people in perpetuity and was periodically renewed (ex: Deuteronomy 29). The second dealt with right worship, itself an issue of justice because it was included in the law. But beyond that, worship was a "blueprint" of heavenly things. The Temple in Jerusalem corresponded to God's Temple in heaven (ex: Isaiah 6).
A good prophet was not a popular figure. In fact, their authenticity was usually recognized retroactively. A prophet was usually a failure in his own lifetime and they were often killed because of their smoldering unpopularity. Jesus famously rebuked the scribes and Pharisees on this point:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matthew 23:29-33)
Prophets were on guard at every major juncture of the history of of the People of God, warning the people and their leaders to change their ways as though they were in a car that was speeding towards a cliff. In time, their wisdom was collected and served as a perpetual reminder for God's people to read the signs of the times and to have the courage to change what needed to be changed.
Prophets and Wonder Workers in the First Century
As is popularly known, the Romans were not popular among the Jewish people, as their long history of self-governance attests. Theirs was not a time of miracles but of lament. The wonders of Moses were part of an ancient history, about as close to them in time as the High Middle Ages are to us in the 21st century. The last public miracle that the people of Israel had experienced collectively was the showdown between the great prophet Elijah and the 450 prophets of the Canaanite god Baal over 800 years before the birth of Christ. This same Elijah was central to the later understanding of the prophet, serving as the model of the divinely inspired wonder-working prophet. The later prophet Malachi, writing around 400 years after Elijah lived and a century after the Babylonian Exile, speaking in God's name declared that "I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 4:5).
Malachi's prophecy was still buzzing almost 500 years later when the Roman occupation was entering its ninth decade. Like before in their history, the people of Israel were forced again to reevaluate their own identity while in the grip of a foreign power. A Jew living in the first century was aware of two conflicting realities. One was a cultural memory of unified self-governance under the kings David and Solomon some thousand years prior. The other reality was far more grim, that in the thousand years bridging David to their present, the people of Israel had fallen victim to no less than six great kingdoms or empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and now Roman. At each stage, the biblical literature reflects both a deepening desire for deliverance and growing hope for a deliverer. The great prophetic figures were not only heroes from their ancient past, but types to discern God's greater designs in an ever unfolding history.
"I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 4:5). This was a messianic prophecy. In his book "The One Who Is To Come", New Testament scholar Fr Joseph Fitzmyer traced the development of the idea of the Messiah as it fermented in the centuries leading into the first half of the first century. The understanding that God would deliver His people was personified in the figure of the Messiah. There were many hopes for this Messiah, that he would reestablish the throne of David, that he would conquer oppressors, that he would bring peace and justice to the downtrodden people of Israel. As tensions increased because of the Roman occupation, so did the hope that God would do something to correct this.
Both Josephus and the Talmuds remember a few figures who emerged at this time that seemed to fulfill this hope. Honi the Circle-drawer was a Jewish holy man that lived about 60 years before Christ's birth. He is remembered as having the ability to command the rain in God's name. One rabbinic tradition compared Honi with Elijah, saying that "No man has existed comparable to Elijah and Honi the Circle-drawer causing mankind to serve God" (Vermes, pg 117). A man known as Jesus son of Ananias preached in the streets of Jerusalem in the years leading up to the catastrophic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, recalling both the prophet Jeremiah's laments against the great city and Jesus' own words (Matthew 23:37-39). Hanina Ben Dosa lived at the same time as Jesus of Nazareth and is later remembered as a healer and miracle worker (Vermes, 99-102).
But the memory of none of them survived with the persistence of Jesus and John. And while these others were not all necessarily messianic figures, they did reflect a desire on the part of God's people for God to act, to right the wrong, to make Himself known again like He did in the past.
"I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 4:5).