Marion Leathers Kuntz. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The root of the English word prophecy is derived from the Greek prophēteia, Latin prophetia. The root of prophēteia is derived from prophēmi, which means to speak before or for someone or something. A cognate Greek word is prophētazō,which indicates the reception of the gift of interpreting the will of the gods—that is, the gift of prophecy. The gift of prophecy apparently is a universal attribute since many civilizations and their religions claim to have experienced divine revelation through those who have received the gift of prophecy.
Prophecy is one of the ways God communicates with humankind and may be a continuous process. God speaks but the human must hear and comprehend; only then can he or she speak for God as his messenger—that is, as God’s prophet. A prophet reveals God’s intention for the future but also for the present. Moses is a prototype of the prophet who speaks for God in regard to the present as well as to the future.
The religion of the Hebrews was a prophetic religion from the beginning. The gift of prophecy was a distinctive mark of communion with the divine among the Semites. In the Old Testament theophanies and oracles were predominant in the earliest stages of God’s revelation of himself. Before a war or the signing of a treaty, the Hebrew people would “consult” God through its seers and especially its priests. Gradually a distinction emerged between dreams that truly revealed God’s communication with prophets (Num. 12:6; Deut. 13:1-2) and those of professional seers (Jer. 23:25-32; Isa. 28:7-13).
The covenant revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai became the apogee of God’s revelations. Through this covenant God (Yahweh) became the head of the Hebrew people (Israel) and delivered them from Egypt. In return the people Israel promised fidelity to the Law (the Decalogue), which reveals the divine will. The prophets used the covenant in regard to events in their own time. The word of God spoken through his prophets summons Israel to have faith in the Decalogue and the covenant.
The Hebrew word for prophet (nabhi) implies that the subject is being acted upon and retains the character of that which has acted upon it. The verb nibba means “to make an announcement” and also “to display excessive excitement.” Nabhi means one subject to the inspiration of a god or demon and designates the behavior associated with a prophet. Thus the word prophet could be applied to the prophets of the Bible and to the devotees of Baal. The dark aspects were surely present among the Hebrews, as witnessed by God’s destruction of almost all of his creation because of humanity’s sinfulness. Because of one man’s devotion to God, however, humankind was given a second chance. Noah becomes symbolic of righteousness and of God’s promise that he would not again destroy his creation by flood. Noah’s story is a prophetic story that offers hope for humankind, who listens to God’s voice and heeds it. While Noah himself was not considered a prophet in the strict sense, his faith in and obedience to God established the prophetic tradition among the Hebrews. Noah called upon his contemporaries to repent, hoping that their turning away from sin would secure their safety. Noah was called a righteous man because he obeyed God and served his fellow people. He brought aid to humankind by introducing plows, axes, sickles, and other implements that would lighten their labors, according to the Haggadah (folk legend, in distinction from law, in the Talmud). The Haggadah states that “wherever it says ‘a righteous man’ the meaning is of one who forewarns others.” Therefore in the Haggadah Noah is regarded as a “prophet, a truthful man, a monitor of his generation, a herald persecuted for his rebukes and honesty.”
In the last phase of Hebrew prophecy the word nabhi took on only the meaning of announcing. The Hebrews used another word in addition to nabhi when they spoke of prophets: “Now in time past, in Israel when a man went to consult God he spoke thus: ‘Come, let us go to the seer [ro eh]. For he that is now called a prophet [nabhi], in time past was called a seer'” (1 Sam. 9:9). “Second sight” is a description of the ways in which prophets arrived at their forecasts of the future and appears to be a universal phenomenon. Seeing and hearing are the principal means by which the Hebrew prophets received commands from the invisible God. Whereas seeing God was an important part of God’s revelation of himself, hearing God’s word as revealed in history was of equal if not greater importance. The “second sight” of the prophet is seeing that which is unseen by others and hearing that which is unheard by others. The Greek word oidareflects this association. Oida means literally “I have seen;” because “I have seen,” therefore “I know.” What the prophet has seen becomes for the prophet knowledge from God. A prophet has seen and consequently knows. An ordinary person has seen only.
The divine will might be manifested indirectly through the sights and sounds of physical nature, such as the rustling of trees (2 Sam. 5:24), the movements of clouds (Exod. 14:19-20), the power of the winds (Exod. 14:21-22), the consulting of lots, or even the movement of entrails of animals offered in sacrifice (Ezek. 21:19-21). God spoke directly through certain ministers chosen to be his prophets. Communication between God and humans was varied. Sometimes the prophet dreamed dreams (Numbers 12:6; 1 Sam. 28:6); sometimes the prophet’s inspiration came from music (2 Kings 3:15). Numbers 12:2-8 sets forth the distinctions God himself made about the types of prophecy and the reasons behind these types. When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of their jealousy, they complained, “‘Is it through Moses alone that the Lord speaks? Does he not speak through us also?’ And the Lord heard this.” God then summoned Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to come out to the meeting tent. All three obeyed. “Then the Lord came down in a column of cloud, and standing at the entrance of the tent, called Aaron and Miriam. When they both came forward, He said ‘Now listen to the words of the Lord: Should there be a prophet among you in visions, will I reveal myself to him, in dreams will I speak to him; not so with my servant Moses. Throughout my house he bears my trust; face to face I speak to him, plainly and not in riddles. The presence of the Lord he beholds.'” Since God chose Moses as the one to whom he would speak directly and face-to-face, Moses represented the highest order of prophecy, indeed the “prophet of prophets.” God had appeared to Moses in a burning bush in the land of Horeb and had bade Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of its bondage in Egypt. On Mount Sinai God spoke face-to-face. Moses towers above all in the Old Testament as a prophet and as a national leader, forging a captive people into a nation, Israel.
In The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135-1204) states that “the prophecy of Moses our Master is distinguished from the prophecy of those who came before and who came after him … The same applies, in my opinion, to his miracles and to the miracles of others, for his miracles do not belong to the class of the miracles of the other prophets. The proof taken from the Law as to his prophecy being different from that of all who came before him is constituted by His saying: ‘And I appeared unto Abraham … but by My name, the Lord, I made Me not known to them.'”
Moses was the mediator between God and Israel in explaining the responsibilities of the covenant confirmed at Sinai. His significance as prophet, lawgiver, nation builder, and intermediary cannot be overemphasized. His wonders performed on behalf of Israel far exceeded those of any other prophet. Prevailing over the mightiest force of nature, he activated God’s power. He could speak with God at will, “mouth to mouth.” He is called God’s servant, his chosen; on occasion he is called “the man of God,” which is a prophetic epithet. In Deuteronomy (34:10-12) he is compared to other prophets: “Since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He had no equal in all the signs and wonders the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and against all his land, and for the might and the terrifying power that Moses exhibited in the sight of all Israel.”
Numbers (11:25-30) relates that God bestowed some of the spirit taken from Moses on the seventy elders in the meeting tent. Two men who had remained in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also received the spirit of the Lord, and they prophesied in the camp. An aide to Moses asked Moses to stop them from prophesying, but Moses replied: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (Num. 11:29). From this passage it is clear that God bestows the gift of prophecy upon whomever he wills. It is also clear that Moses had all the qualities necessary to be “the man of God.” Therefore Moses can justly be called the archetype of a prophet.
The history of Israel could be said to demonstrate the significance of prophecy in the life of the nation. In Sirach (39:1) the sage sets forth for his contemporaries the essential nature of the Law and of prophecy. “How different the man who devotes himself to the study of the Law of the Most High! He explores the wisdom of the men of old and occupies himself with the prophecies.” The prophets who preceded the period of exile that began with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. conceived of themselves as defenders and guardians of the covenant. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah called Israel to fidelity and service to God and his covenant; because of Israel’s frequent failure to observe the covenant, the prophets warned of divine punishments. Amos emphasized the role of prophet: “For the Lord God doth nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Prophets were not always well received by the people, however, and Amos was urged to go into the land of Judah and prophesy because he had proclaimed that Jeroboam, the king of Israel, would die by the sword and Israel would be carried away from its land (7:10-11). Amos steadfastly maintained that his words were God’s words. He also warned of a famine more severe than a famine of bread and water: the cessation of hearing God’s word.
The prophecies of Isaiah, the son of Amos, warn of the punishment of Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem, indeed of all the lands that had forgotten the Lord. The prophet’s language is beautiful, even as he enumerates the sins of the people. In spite of his reproofs against the people, he offers hope that Jerusalem will be restored: “And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into plowshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation” (Isa. 2:3-4). Isaiah often expresses optimism, emphasizing the peace that will follow true repentance and a turning to the words of the Lord.
Jeremiah occupies an important place among the prophets because it was he who tried to determine criteria by which the word of God could be recognized: the authentic word of God would be known when the prophet’s words were fulfilled (Jer. 28:9, 32:6-8); the prophecy would demonstrate faith in God and the traditional religion (23:13-32); and the heroic witness of the prophet himself would validate the prophecy (26:11-15). In contrast to Isaiah, who inferred that God needed his holy city and a people for his self-expression in the world, Jeremiah believed that God could establish his word among men with or without Israel (44:28). However, Jeremiah held that a remnant of Israel must survive to carry on the tradition and that Jerusalem, God’s city and the seat of his worship, could not be allowed to be destroyed; but the deliverance of Israel would come from God himself, not from any human agent.
Whereas Jeremiah prophesied doom and Isaiah consoled, Ezekiel, whose name appears to mean “may God strengthen,” began with doom and ended with consolation. He is perhaps the most colorful of the Hebrew prophets. The dramatic opening of Ezekiel’s prophetic book sets the tone for the prophet’s experiences. He writes that the heavens opened, and he saw visions of God: “And I saw and behold a whirlwind came out of the north, and a great cloud, and a fire infolding it, and brightness was about it: and out of the midst thereof, that is, out of the midst of the fire, as it were the resemblance of amber” (Ezek. l:4). This divine chariot was borne by four creatures who had four faces with the likeness of humans, and all had four wings. After this awesome experience the Lord expressed the responsibility that he had placed upon the prophet: “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman to the house of Israel: and thou shalt hear the word out of my mouth, and shalt tell it them from me” (3:17). Ezekiel spoke for God in his denunciations against false prophets who follow their own spirit and see nothing, against the abominations of Jerusalem, against the ineffectiveness of the princes of Israel, and against the apostasies of Israel. Ezekiel’s denunciations and his calls for repentance are based upon his insistence on the justice of God. Ezekiel was the only prophet since Moses to lay down a plan and law for the future. His plan envisioned true repentance and obedience to God as essential for a restored Israel. Then God in his justice would provide a permanent reconciliation with his people. Ezekiel followed the earlier prophetic view that God’s special holiness, grace, and protection are reserved for Israel, although God rules over all the world.
Messianic expectations are also not missing in Ezekiel. Because of the wickedness and greed of the shepherds of Israel, who neglected their flock, the Lord will drive out the evil shepherds: “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David: he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God” (34:23-24). This passage is extremely significant for the association of the shepherd with the house of David and its subsequent centrality in the messianic expectations concerning Jesus of Nazareth. In the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17), the gospel writer traces the lineage of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Lord’s appointed shepherd, from Abraham to David and from David to Christ.
Although the influence of prophecy declined after the time of the Hebrew prophets, the ancient belief in the word and symbolic act maintained its efficacy because of humanity’s need of God and of communion with him. The sacraments of the Christian Church exemplify the belief in this concept of the power of word and acts. When Hebrew prophecy was stilled for a long time, new prophets were inspired by the divine voice to proclaim the good news about a child, soon to be born to a virgin, who would be the savior of the people. The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him that the Holy Spirit had touched his betrothed and that she would bring forth a son to be called Jesus, “for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:18-25). John the Baptist called the people to repentance, for “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He proclaimed Jesus as the one of whom Isaiah spoke.
Luke records the story of the angel who appeared to Zacharias, a priest, as he was burning incense in the temple. The priest’s wife, Elizabeth, was barren, but the angel spoke to Zacharias with astonishing words: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for thy petition has been heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son and thou shalt call his name John.… [He] shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:13-15). When Zacharias asked the angel how this was possible, since he and his wife were elderly, the angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to thee and to bring thee this good news. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and unable to speak until the day when these things come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (Luke 1:18-20). The prophecies of the angel Gabriel were fulfilled: Zacharias was dumb until the birth of the son, John, who was to be the forerunner of Jesus. Gabriel also appeared to Mary, a virgin, telling her that she had found favor with God and that she would bring forth a son from the Holy Spirit whose name was to be Jesus: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of David his father, … and of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Prophecy clearly was the foundation of Christianity and continued the messianic expectations of the Hebrews who believed that the Messiah, accompanied by Elijah the prophet, would usher in a national regeneration. In Christian belief Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would both regenerate the nation and bring salvation to the whole world.
Isaiah is a favorite prophet among Christians because his prophecies are considered to proclaim a prince of peace who will be the Messiah. The prophet proclaimed that a virgin would conceive and bear a son whose name would be Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14). “For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace” (9:6). This prophecy is the heart of Christian belief in Jesus Christ as Prince of Peace and Messiah. The epithets of Jesus—prophet, priest, and king—also have their roots in Isaiah: “His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace: he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom; to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and forever: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (9:7). The Servant Songs (Isaiah 42 and 49) also proclaim a message of salvation and deliverance that can be associated with Israel and in Christianity with Jesus as the suffering servant. Isaiah and Christian prophecy both emphasize universalism.
One of the most significant examples of Christian prophecy was on the day of Pentecost, when after the Crucifixion the apostles were gathered together and were astonished when a sound like a strong wind came down from heaven; then “parted tongues of fire” settled on each of them, and all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in foreign tongues (Acts 2:1-4). The universality of the languages used represented the universality of the message of salvation and redemption. Peter’s discourse makes clear the point of the speaking in tongues: “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says the Lord, that I will pour forth of my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And moreover, upon my servants and upon my handmaids in those days will I pour forth of my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.… And it shall come to pass that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved'” (Acts 2:16-21).
As the history of Israel was dependent upon the word of God as spoken through his prophets, Jesus Christ was the epitome of revelation and the fulfillment of the Law, according to the New Testament and Christian teaching. As Paul expressed it, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:1-3). Paul describes Jesus as a superior mediator, superior to the angels and to Moses. In Judaism and in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet; in Christianity he is superior to all prophets as the Son of God and Messiah, who by his death brought salvation to all who would live according to the will of God and accept his sacrifice as expiation of humanity’s sins.
In Christianity apocalyptic motifs are also strong, especially in the Gospel of Mark (13) and in the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), which is “the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to make known to his servants the things that must shortly come to pass and he sent and signified them through his angel to his servant John” (Apoc. 1:1). The apostles were witnesses and messengers of Christ and proclaimed what they had seen and received. To Paul revelation is “manifested now through the writings of the prophets, according to the precept of the eternal God, and made known to all Gentiles to bring about obedience to faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be honor forever and ever” (Rom. 16:26-27). In the Gospel of John, Christ reveals God and is God revealed (John 1:18; 14:6-7).
Islam is also a prophetic religion, since the angel Gabriel revealed the divine message to the prophet Muhammad, who in turn communicated it to humankind. In the Koran every prophet of God is called a Muslim, and this is said to indicate that Islam is the true religion for the whole world. The prophet Muhammad is the last and most perfect of the prophets who preached Islam among different nations at various times. Islam is said to contain within itself all religions that came before it, all of which have been revealed by God. Consequently, Islam believes not only in the prophet Muhammad but in all the other prophets. The Koran is said to be a combination of all the sacred scriptures of all religions. In Islam revelation is seen as a factor necessary in human evolution and is the universal experience of humanity; in prophetical revelation God has bestowed this gift on all nations of the world. According to the Koran, prophets were sent to all nations and peoples. The Koran expresses the paths of devotion and the forms of worship and the means by which humankind may attain communication with God. The relationship between human beings in all their experiences on earth is also defined in the Koran, which establishes rules for the progress of individuals and for society at large. The aim of Islam is to unify humankind in a universal brotherhood, and religion is the most efficacious force in accomplishing this unity. “All men are a single nation” (Koran 2:213). The Koran teaches that divine revelation has three forms: “And it is not vouchsafed to any mortal that Allah should speak to him, except by revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger and revealing by His permission what He pleases” (42:51). The third mode is the highest form of revelation, exemplified by Gabriel’s message to the prophet Muhammad, and is limited to the prophets of God.
Prophets also received the lower forms of divine revelation. Before Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran, he had visions and heard voices. The details of the law were instilled in his mind as an “inner revelation.” Revelation is granted to righteous people who follow the Prophet and also to others. The highest form of revelation, which only the prophets enjoy, requires a passing from one world to the other while the prophet is fully awake. This revelation works a profound change in the prophet that is visible to those who see the prophet. The Koran was revealed to Muhammad by Gabriel in stages, and its arrangement is considered part of the divine plan; the word Koran indicates “he collected together things” and also means “he read or recited.” Islam teaches that God has sent to every nation prophets whose responsibility was to uplift the morals and regenerate the religion of each nation. In contrast, Muhammad was a prophet for the world.
According to Islam, a new age of prophecy was born with Muhammad. The Koran establishes the concept of world prophet when speaking of Muhammad: “We have not sent thee but as a bearer of good news and as a warner to all mankind” (48:9). (All scholars of Islam, however, are not in agreement about Muhammad as world prophet.) The Koran places prophecy as the greatest of all miracles and pronounces that Islam will be triumphant and spread to the farthest corners of the earth. Ultimately Islam would be supreme over all the religions of the world. In the tenets of Islam “prophethood” came to a close with Muhammad, but divine revelation continues as a gift of the righteous. The world does not need a new prophet, according to Islam, because there is the Koran, the perfect law. Still, in each century it is believed that a reformer will arise to remove any errors and to elucidate the religious truths of Islam in changing circumstances.
Greece and Rome
In ancient Greece and Rome oracles abounded. The primary meaning of the word oracle is “the response of a god to a question asked of him by a worshipper.” The word also indicates the college of priests who manage an oracular shrine or the shrine itself. Since there were many gods in the Greco-Roman world, there were many shrines, several of which were widely known. In each shrine the god was consulted in fixed procedures, and in the most primitive oracles the god revealed answers by means of the casting of lots, by observation of signs, the rustling of leaves in a sacred tree, the marking or entrails of victims sacrificed upon the altar of a god, or the movement of objects tossed into a spring. At healing oracles such as that of Asclepius at Epidaurus, the consultant slept in the shrine and received a vision after having performed preliminary sacred rites. At the most important oracles, the god spoke through a male or female intermediary who had spent hours in purification. At Delphi, for example, the Pythian priestess of Apollo drank from the sacred spring and chewed laurel leaves before taking her seat on the tripod in the temple, from which she in a trance heard the questions asked of her by the pilgrims to the shrine. Her responses were probably incoherent to the questioner, but a priest of the temple translated her utterances into understandable language. It was customary for the consultants to present questions in writing, and responses would be returned in written form. Many gods gave oracles at their shrines, but Apollo was the most famous and was considered an oracular god. He had important shrines at Delphi, Didyma, and Claros, as well as in Boeotia, Troas, and Lycia. Zeus was also an oracular god, with shrines at Dodona and Olympia.
For those seeking freedom from pain and disease, prophetic incubation was practiced among the Greeks and Romans, who believed that sleeping within the precincts of a temple would result in revelations, visions, and freedom from sickness. Speaking in dreams was common to all the gods, but only some were believed to be aroused by specific acts to give responses or perform certain functions. In the second century C.E. Pausanias described the emotional experience received by the devotees at the oracle of Trophonius as they descended into the earth and visited the god. Incubation was used especially at the temples for bringing about cures. At Epidaurus the cure was effected mainly by faith healing; however, in the Orations of Aelius Aristides (117-187 C.E.) and in later inscriptions, medical prescriptions were revealed. The great oracles were Greek, but there were also oracles in Syria, Egypt, and Italy. The oracle of Ammon at Siwa, although an Egyptian deity who was worshipped in Nubia, Syria, and Libya, was known to the Greeks in the seventh century B.C.E. and became so famous in the Greek world that it rivaled Delphi and Dodona. Ammon was portrayed on Greek coins with the head of Zeus and the curling horns of Ammon.
Prophets and prophetesses played a significant role in Greek literature from the time of Homer. The mythological blind prophet Tiresias was an infallible source of information for the Greeks and appears frequently in Greek tragedy. Most memorable is his warning in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Oedipus, king of Thebes, that he was the land’s pollution. In this drama the prophet Tiresias spoke the truth about Oedipus, who did not believe him. Yet the prophet’s words—”God within, reckon that out, and if you find me mistaken, say I have no skill in prophecy”—provide the denouement of the tragedy, as the angry Oedipus begins his painful search for the truth about himself. The female prophetess Cassandra has a significant role in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, when she, speaking with the chorus, predicts the death of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra. She also sees her own death, soon to come. Cassandra is an example of a prophet who was disbelieved, though she spoke the truth, because Apollo had placed this curse upon her, since she had refused his love. The significance of prophecy in Greece can be well documented from a study of Greek tragedy.
In Italy various prophetic sites provided the petitioner with numerous types of responses. The sibyl, a prophetess usually associated with Rome and Cumae, spoke from various localities and was known as early as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 540-c. 480 B.C.E.). At first she was a lone female prophet, but later her name, Sibylla, was made plural (Sibylle), and she flourished in various parts of the world. Ancient authors speak of different numbers of sibyls. Marcus Terentius Varro’s naming of ten sibyls has been generally adopted. The ten sibyls resided in Persia, Libya, Delphi, Cumae in Italy, Erythrae, Samos, Cumae in Aeolia, Marpessa, Ankara, and Tiburtis. Of all the sibyls the Cumaean Sibyl in Italy is the most famous and was immortalized in Virgil’s Aeneid. To learn of his fate in Italy, Aeneas was advised by Helenus to seek out the sibyl at Cumae: “When you have sailed here and have arrived at the city of Cumae and the divine lakes and Avernus resounding with its forests, you will see the frenzied prophet who sings the fates from the depths of the cliff and commits her signs and symbols to leaves. Whatever songs the maiden has written down, she arranges them in order and leaves them set apart in the cave.” (Aeneid 3:441-446).
Noted historians of the Roman republic reported that one of the sibyls offered nine volumes of her prophecies to Tarquin the Second, who refused the high price she asked. She then burned three of the books and asked the same price for the rest. Tarquin again refused but finally bought the last three, since the sibyl had burned all but these. The sibyl then disappeared, and her books were preserved and were called the Sibylline Verses. These prophetic books were reverenced by the Romans, and a college of priests was in charge of safeguarding them in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. When the Capitolium was burned in 83 B.C.E., the Sibylline Verses were destroyed. Verses were sought in Greece to replace those destroyed. Although eight books of Sibylline Verses remain, they were probably composed in the second century C.E. by Christians. The Renaissance humanist Guillaume Postel wrote a commentary on Virgil’s fourth eclogue often referred to as the “Messianic Eclogue,” in the preface to which he indicated that if the eclogue were read as “Sibylline Enthusiasm,” which he equated to the most divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it would be worthy of the bishop of Clermont, to whom Postel dedicated the work. In his commentary he wrote that from the judgments of Janus, the sibyls, and the holy men of the Gentiles, among whom he included Job, prophecies developed in a continuous tradition. He argued that the final age of the Cumaean song, which all antiquity awaited, depended upon the instauration of a golden age that also had been proclaimed by the sacred vow of the sons of Shem under Christ.
In both Greece and Rome ordinary people in the historical period were sometimes inspired to prophecy. In Greek those inspired people were called chēsmōdoi and in Latin vates. In De divinatione (Concerning divination) Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) notes that Romulus did not establish the city of Rome until the auspices were taken and that Romulus, the parent of the city, was said to be the best augur. In Rome a college of augurs took the signs, usually from the flight of birds. Observations were taken before every public action. Cicero also indicated that the knowledge of augury came from the Etruscans. In De divinatione he identifies two methods by which “souls were aroused without reason and knowledge, by their own movement, spontaneous and free; one was raging, the other dreaming; the augurs believed that the divination of fury was contained especially in the Sibylline Verses.” They selected ten men from the state to interpret the Sibylline Verses. Virgil was considered a vates in subsequent centuries not only because of his so-called Messianic Eclogue but because of his Aeneid, the grand epic of Rome, which detailed the great glory that was to come to this small settlement on the Tiber. It seems worth noting that perhaps the greatest Roman authors, Cicero in prose and Virgil in poetry, understood the significance of prophecy in the lives of men and in the life of the state.
Among other significant oracles in Italy was the oracle of the dead at Avernus, a deep lake near Puteoli. Because of its great depth, the dark woods that surrounded it, and the offensive exhalations that Avernus spewed forth, this spot was considered by the ancients the entrance to the underworld. It was to Avernus that the Cumean Sibyl led Aeneas so that he might enter the underworld, meet his father, and learn his fate and that of his offspring. At Tibur there was an incubation oracle of Faunus. The goddess Fortuna had an oracular shine at Praeneste, where a boy would throw billets of oak wood (sortes) on which sentences had been inscribed. These randomly tossed billets might provide the consultant with advice for his own situation.
Saint Augustine (354-430) considered the Psalms of David to be prophetic songs inspired by the Holy Spirit. He made reference to Christ’s command: “It is necessary that all things be fulfilled which have been written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms about me” (Luke 24:44). He also noted “The more open [the Psalm] seems, the more profound it is accustomed to be seen.” His belief that God spoke through his prophet David in the Psalms is quite clear in De civitate dei (The city of God). He accepted David’s authorship of all the Psalms “because the prophetic spirit was able to reveal even the names of future prophets to King David as he was prophesying, so that anything which could be appropriate to their person could be sung prophetically.” To Augustine the Psalms seemed to contain all the prophetic ideas found in the Law and Prophets individually. In a gloss on Psalm 18:15, when the psalmist wrote “the foundations of the world have been revealed,” Augustine made clear the significance of prophets: “And the Prophets have been revealed, who were not being understood, upon whom the world, believing in God, would be built.” Tertullian and Jerome also ascribed prophetic mysteries to the Psalms.
As Rome waned and life in Europe became very difficult, prophecies began to abound. In fact, prophecy is often seen as a major, if not the major, theme in the literature of the Middle Ages. It is difficult to present even a small fraction of the “visions of the end,” as Bernard McGinn has aptly described them. A text called The Tiburtine Sibyl appeared in the fourth century and became an important prophetic voice that attempted to relate events of the Christian empire to a new apocalyptic vision. This work was renewed in the early eleventh century and had a continuing influence, since its universalism and the universalism of the Christian message transcended historical boundaries. Prophecies abounded about the antipope, who led the people of God away from his calling. The antipope would ultimately be replaced by an angelic pope, who would restore the church to its pristine purity and unity. The Great Schism and the Black Death were events that prompted prophetic utterances.
The influence of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202) was very significant in the Middle Ages and continued into the Renaissance. His prophetic admonitions for reform of the church were influential in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in Venice. There was a tradition that Joachim had a small room in the upper section of the Basilica of San Marco, in which he designed the mosaics of the basilica. His prophecies were known from those designs and also from beautiful editions of his works, many of which were published in Venice. An important book of prophecies,Expositio magni prophete Ioachim in librum beati Cirilli de magnis tribulationibus et statu Sancte Matris Ecclesie(Exposition of the great prophet Joachim on the book of the blessed Cyril about the greatest tribulations and the state of the Holy Mother Church), was published in Venice in 1516. Although this work contains the prophecies of Telesphorus of Cosenza, John of Paris, Ubertino of Casale, and the author of the so-called Mestre prophecy, it is Abbot Joachim’s likeness that is seen on the title page. The heading “Abbas Ioachim magnus propheta” appears above a beautiful woodcut showing Joachim seated at his desk with head turned slightly and with his left hand held to this ear, while with his right hand he records the prophecies from God. In the Expositio Joachim expresses great expectations of an angelic pope, chosen by God for his sanctity. Joachim wrote that the patriarch of the Venetians would warn the flock about their sins and that the Venetians would be reformed from their iniquities. The reform would continue until the Day of Judgment, so much so that “not such good men among all nations of Christians will be found, as Merlin says in his own revelations.” Joachim also noted that before the Antichrist should come, a certain man, chosen by God, would come forth in Italy, though he was not an Italian, and would help to free Italy from her servitude to Lombardy. The prophecies of John of Paris contain the famous Mestre prophecy, which is filled with political overtones about France and Germany and the need to reform the church and follow in the train of Joachimite prophecy.
The diarist Marino Sanudo the Younger, in an entry for 30 May 1509, recounted the prophecies of Piero Nani, a Venetian patrician and a brother of the Order of Charity. Nani warned the patricians that Venice would lose all of its dominance because of sin, and the flagellation would last twelve years. He had a great supply of prophecies that predicted hunger and famine. Sanudo reports that Nani then remarked: “The people at present pay much attention to prophecies and go into the Church of San Marco, seeing the prophecies in mosaic which the Abbot Joachim made.” In the Basilica of San Marco two unnamed figures in mosaics, designated only as sancti, were studied for their presumed messianic connotations. Under one figure were the words, no longer visible, “Fiet unum ovile, et unus Pastor.” The figure, clothed pontificalmente in brown and carrying a bishop’s staff, was believed to represent the angelic pope, according to Francesco Sansovino (1521-1586), the author of Venetia città nobilissima. Also influenced by the expectation of the angelic pope and “one sheepfold,” Sansovino wrote a prophetic poem, still in manuscript, entitled A principi Christiani,in which he describes the evils of his day. After many troubles are endured, there will be a renovation of the church.
Francesco Sansovino has not been generally associated with prophecy, and prophecy has not usually been considered an important aspect of Renaissance thought after 1530. Research during the 1990s, however, demonstrated that prophecy was a continuing tradition throughout the sixteenth century, especially in Italy. The sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire spawned prophets, and “inspired preaching” continued in spite of restrictions imposed by the Lateran Council and the Roman Inquisition after 1542. There were numerous preachers throughout Italy, and none more famous than Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Giovanni Nesi, one of the disciples of Marsilio Ficino, followed Savonarola’s call for a renovatio mundi and glorified him as a prophet in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. Savonarola, however, denied any relation between the prophet and his prophecy, since prophecy was a gift from God, and humans had no power of prophecy without divine infusion. His prophetic preaching expressed his unfaltering belief in the necessity of reform on all levels of society and especially in the church, and his audiences were spellbound by his sermons, which often lasted for many hours.
Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo declared in his inaugural address to the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512 that he had preached for twenty years about the times prophesied in the Apocalypse. The strength of his convictions about prophetic preaching is all the more significant since the Lateran Council in 1517 prohibited “free and inspired preaching” and prophesying about the last days. One of the most influential books circulating in Italy during this period was the Mirabilis liber (1524; Wondrous book), a compilation of many prophecies from various ages that contained predictions about the reform of the church and the conversion of the enemies of Christianity. In the second decade of the sixteenth century, Father Zaccaria Ferreri wrote a devotional tract entitled De reformatione ecclesiae and sent it to Pope Adrian VI. On the title page Father Ferreri includes the prophetic question “Are you the one who will come, or are we awaiting another?” The question reminds the pope that he should become the angelic pope who would reform the Ecclesia militans.
In European literature of the sixteenth century, visions of the Antichrist and the universal judgment were commonplace. In 1525, in the two nights preceding Pentecost, the painter Albrecht Dürer dreamed that the end of the world had arrived with a dire flood that encompassed the world; even the sky was obscured by a huge column of water. The dream made such an impression that next morning he painted his vision in water-colors and annotated various aspects of the dream in the margins.
Many prophets were women who proclaimed the need to practice works of charity and to aid in the reformation of the church. The messages of female prophets differed very little from their male counterparts. Francesco Zorzi (1466-1540), a Venetian friar and the author of De harmonia mundi and the Problemata, among other famous works, was deeply influenced by a mystical woman, Chiara Bugni, whose ecstasies, according to Zorzi, had revealed to her the mysterious secrets of divine will and endowed her with prophetic knowledge. Her renown in the monastery of San Sepolcro was so great that she was elected superior of the monastery. She accepted this responsibility only after God had revealed to her a “remarkable sign.” Her fame was enhanced by Zorzi’s confidence in her profound spirituality, which seemed to prepare the way for the ecstasies that engulfed her. Zorzi’s belief in an angelic pope who would reform the church may have been influenced by Chiara Bugni. There are many accounts of the miracles, ecstasies, and visions that were attributed her.
Another important prophetess of Venice was called simply the Venetian Virgin because she did not choose to recall the name of her family. She said to the great French humanist Guillaume Postel that “no one knows from whence I am.” The great sanctity of her life and her unceasing works of charity so inspired Postel when he first met her that he called her the Mother of the World. Her given name was Giovanna, and Postel said she was given this name more from divine will than from the will of her parents. The name Giovanna is the feminine form of Giovanni (John), who heralded the coming of the Messiah. Postel wrote often of her many miracles and her prophecies. She experienced a miraculous change in her person when she experienced the presence of Christ descending into her. She prophesied that the reformation of the world would begin in Venice; the Turks would soon be converted and would be the best Christians in the world; all who had faith in God and love for all would be blessed by Christ; ultimately all sinners would be restored as if the first parents had never sinned; and human nature would be led to such perfection that all men would be as Christ except for his divinity. The life and prophecies of the Venetian Virgin influenced Postel to the extent that they became for him a foundation for the restitution of humankind and for a universal monarchy under the rule of God. After his encounter with the Venetian Virgin, Postel proclaimed himself the Virgin’s “little son,” who would endeavor to set in motion the restitution of all things she foretold.
Postel was not the only humanist who turned to prophecy. Indeed, many humanists followed the same course, becoming reformers within or outside the Roman Church. Anabaptists following Jakob Hutter listened for the voice of prophecy that would proclaim the next installation of God’s kingdom on earth. Erasmus wrote in 1526 in one of his Colloquia that the “Antichrist is awaited.” The wars among Christian princes, popular uprisings, the collapse of Christian unity, and the threat of the Turks made it appear that the last days were at hand.
A French humanist who called himself Dionisio Gallo arrived in Venice on the feast of Pentecost in 1566. He was rector of the College of Lisieux until he experienced a mystical anointment by the Virgin Mary, who told him that he had been chosen by God to summon the princes to help him, God’s servant and messenger, reform the church, society, and the universities. He was unsuccessful in gaining the help of the king of France, Charles IX, whose advisors claimed that the prophet was mad. Sometime in 1565 he left France for Italy, where he visited Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence. He composed a long work on prophecy while in the duke’s household, as well as a work in which he laid out the program for the reformation of the church that the Virgin had given to him. He spent time in Ferrara as the guest of Francesco d’Este, marquis de Masse, and Duke Alfonso II, to whom he read his Legatio, the title that he gave to his program of prophetic reform. When he arrived in Venice, he lived in the home of a Venetian magistrate and was befriended by a Venetian patrician. Preaching for three days in the court of the Palazzo Ducale before his incarceration for preaching without a license, Dionisio urged the Venetians to assume the responsibilities bestowed upon them by God. He urged all three princes and the doge and Senate of Venice to aid him in his grand enterprise to help reform the church, since the pope and cardinals seemed unable or unwilling to accomplish this task, though it was ordained by divine decree. Dionisio remained in prison in Venice for about eighteen months and was finally released and put on a boat headed for Ferrara. Dionisio’s prophetic message and his choice of “sacred space” in the ducal palace revealed his clear understanding of the connection between prophecy and politics in the sixteenth century.