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prophet [Gr.,=foreteller], a religious leader and spokesperson, particularly used in the Bible. The prophets emitted messages from the divine through inspired speech, the interpretation of omens and dreams, and the casting of lots and divination. The word derives from Greek cults, in which prophets interpreted answers to questions put to oracular mediums (see oracles). The concept of a divine interpreter is common in religion, yet the function varies according to culture; thus the term can be defined only with respect to a particular religion. Usually prophet connotes inspired utterance of a spontaneous nature, while priest suggests established ritual duties.

The Prophetic Tradition in the Ancient Middle East

Prophets are clearly evident in Mesopotamia from the first centuries of the 2d millennium B.C. They are mentioned in texts from Emar, Egypt, and Aram, as well as from Assyria during the Old Testament period. In Assyria, prophets appear to have been closely associated with the court, delivering oracles regarding the prospects of foreign policies.

The phenomenon of prophetic speech is also present in Israel from the monarchical era to the post-exilic era. Court prophets (e.g., Nathan), as well as unofficial prophets (e.g., Amos) are attested. Not all the prophets of Israel left deposits of oracles. The most extensive of the collections are found in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The title of prophet is also accorded to others of varying importance, e.g., Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, and Jehu. Certain of their divine mission to purify Israel's religion, the prophets attacked many aspects of people's lives and came forward as the advocates of the poor and oppressed and as the leaders in social reform. According to them, Israel could be reconciled with God only by complete purification in religion and in the state. It is part of traditional Christian belief, found in the Nicene Creed and Second Peter, that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets” concerning the intentions of God for his people.

In Christianity and Islam

In the New Testament, the term prophecy is used of enthusiastic, presumably inspired utterances. This tradition was perpetuated in Montanism, an early Christian sect (late 2d cent. A.D.). Such prophecy has a somewhat dubious history in Christianity (e.g., in Joachim of Floris and Joanna Southcott), but there have been millennialists and miracle-working preachers among the unassailably orthodox (e.g., St. Vincent Ferrer). Some varieties of Protestantism have emphasized “inspired” utterances or behavior; the most spectacular were the Anabaptists (e.g., Thomas Münzer and John of Leiden). Emanuel Swedenborg and Joseph Smith are examples of self-proclaimed prophets who came out of Protestant backgrounds. Islam confesses Muhammad as the last and greatest of prophets. He gathered a community based on his being the divine messenger of the final revelation of God.

Among Native Americans

Native American prophets resembled the great prophets of Israel in preaching a definite message; the ordinary medicinal healer (see shaman) had no such role. The Native American prophet in the late 18th and the 19th cent. normally foretold the regeneration of the indigenous peoples and the recapture of lands from the settlers, provided that Native Americans accepted the idea of ethnic brotherhood and that they follow prescribed religious practices. Frequently prophets were connected with their military leaders, such as the Delaware Prophet with Pontiac, and the Shawnee Prophet with his brother, Tecumseh. Two later prophets of renown were Smohalla and Wovoka (of the Ghost Dance).


See R. R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (1980); D. E. Aune, Prophecy in Society in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (1983); J. Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (1983); J. Barton, Oracles of God (1986).

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any ‘individual bearer of charisma (e.g. as demonstrated by ecstatic powers or MAGIC) who by virtue of his or her mission, ‘proclaims a religious doctrine or divine commandment’ (WEBER, 1922). For Weber, it is the ‘personal call’ and personal revelation of the prophet which distinguishes him or her from the priest, who has authority only as the 'servant of a sacred tradition’. Weber also notes that prophets have usually come from outside the priesthood.

A further significant distinction in Weber's discussion is that between ethical prophecy, in which the prophet proclaims God's will (e.g. Mohammed), and exemplary prophecy, where the prophet demonstrates by personal example the way to personal salvation (e.g. Buddha). According to Weber, the latter is characteristic of the Far East and the former appears initially in the Near East, and is associated with the appearance of conceptions of a personal, transcendental, ethical God only in this region. See also MONOTHEISM.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000

Prophet; Prophecy

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A prophet is one who speaks the will of a deity, quite often revealing future events. The ancient Hebrews called a prophet nabhi. In the early period (c. 1050–1015 BCE), a nabhi appeared to be little more than a fortune-teller. Rather than claiming to use any special techniques that would draw such information, the nabhi simply made him or herself receptive to whatever messages or prophecies might come from deity. David Christie-Murray said, “The prophets aimed not so much at foretelling the future as at describing what they saw as the will of God in the circumstances of their time. But in doing so, their prophesies were fulfilled, often in ways more profound and long lasting than they ever imagined.”

The Bible’s Old Testament used the term prophet very loosely, applying it to all those who were “friends” of God. For example, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all named as prophets though Moses was the only true prophet of the four, as “the appointed mouthpiece of divine laws,” according to Geoffrey Ashe. There were those who became known as the “Fanatical Prophets.” In I Samuel, 10, there are bands of prophets who existed c.1000 BCE, in Gibeah and Ramah. They were devotees of the national deity Jehovah (Yahweh). They were stimulated by rhythmic music, dancing and chanting, building up into ekstasis (ecstasy) when their frenzied behavior exercised a hypnotic effect on the onlookers.

In ancient Greece the prophets were generally attached to the oracles, and in Rome they were represented by the augurs. In ancient Egypt the priests of Ra at Memphis acted as prophets. The Druids were frequently prophets to the Celtic people.


Ashe, Geoffrey: Man, Myth & Magic: Prophecy. London: BPC Publishing, 1970
Christie-Murray, David: Mysteries of Mind Space & Time: The Unexplained. Westport: H.S. Stuttman, 1992
Spence, Lewis: An Encyclopedia of the Occult. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1920
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a prophet?

A prophet in a dream may indicate that the dreamer is seeking or needs guidance and spiritual advice. The dream itself may provide that assistance, if the dreamer internalizes the inspirational feeling they receive from the dream encounter.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


1. a person who supposedly speaks by divine inspiration, esp one through whom a divinity expresses his will
2. Christian Science
a. a seer in spiritual matters
b. the vanishing of material sense to give way to the conscious facts of spiritual truth


1. the principal designation of Mohammed as the founder of Islam
2. a name for Joseph Smith as founder of the Mormon Church
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005