Where Have all the Prophets Gone?

The following article is a reprint from the Eleventh Edition (1911) of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the article Prophet, subsection Prophets in the Primitive Church. It gives a very interesting explanation of what happened to prophets during the first and second centuries, A.D. The only changes we have made to the article are the replacement of Roman numerals with our standard Arabic numerals, the splitting of large paragraphs into smaller ones, and a bit of boldface for emphasis.

It is interesting to note that both “Jewish” and “Christian” groups at one time had a much greater reliance on direct intervention from God. The Talmud records numerous instances of divine revelation to their “sages,” including the hearing of the bat kol (heavenly voice). The New Testament also speaks of prophets as an integral part of the early church operation (Acts 11:28; 13:1-3; 15:32; 21:10-14; 1Cor 12:28; 14:29-33; Eph 3:5; 4:11, Rev 11:3,10; 22:8-9). But today, very few Jewish and Christian groups recognize any kind of prophet.

It is evident both from the Bible and this history that the numbers of false prophets grew rapidly during the first and second century. Apparently, some were adopting a kind of “ecstatic” or possibly “charismatic” style. Two excuses were used to silence prophets: (1) the proliferation of the New Testament books which contained much essential truth and (2) the perceived need to concentrate power in the hands of church leaders. What should have happened? The brethren should have used the Old and New Testament books to judge the validity of the prophets (1Cor 14:29), and they should have refused to submit to man-made hierarchies which refused to let possibly true prophets speak.

We still have these problems today. Most people claiming to be prophets usually work in some kind of emotional “charismatic” style and often say things contrary to scripture. But today, everyone has their own copy of the scripture and nearly everyone has a concordance—we should be much better prepared to evaluate the sayings of prophets. Unfortunately, many people think that they do not need to hear directly from the Eternal, or the leaders in their church organization refuse to recognize any instruction that does not come through them. But now, more than ever, we need divine guidance in how to organize congregations, how to preach the Gospel, and how to prepare for the difficult times immediately ahead.

—Norman S. Edwards

The appearance of prophets in the first Christian communities is one proof of the strength of faith and hope by which these bodies were animated. An old prophecy (Joel 3:1) has foretold that in the Messianic age the Spirit of God would be poured out on every member of the religious community, and in point of fact it was the universal conviction of those who believed in Christ that they all possessed the Spirit of God. This Spirit, manifesting His presence in a variety of ways and through a variety of gifts, was to be the only ruling authority in the Church. He raised up for Himself particular individuals, into whose mouths He put the word of God, and these were at first regarded as the true leaders of the congregations.

We find accordingly that there were prophets in the oldest church, that of Jerusalem (Acts 11:27; 15:32), and again that there were “prophets and teachers” in the church at Antioch (Acts 8:1). These were not office-bearers chosen by the congregation, but preachers raised up by the Spirit and conferred as gifts on the Church. When Paul says (1Cor. 13:28; cf. Eph 4:11), “God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers,” he points to a state of things which in his time prevailed in all the churches both of Jewish and heathen origin. We here learn from Paul that the prophets occupied the second point of dignity; and we see from another passage (1Cor 14) that they were distinguished from the teachers by their speaking under the influence of inspiration—not, however, like the “speakers in tongues,” in unintelligible ejaculations and disconnected words, but in articulate, rational, edifying speech.

Until recently it was impossible to form any distinct idea of the Christian prophets in the post-apostolic age, not so much from want of materials as because what evidence existed was not sufficiently clear and connected. It was understood, indeed, that they had maintained their place in the churches till the end of the 2nd century, and that the great conflict with what is known as Montanism had first proved fatal to them; but a clear conception of their position and influence in the churches was not to be had. But the discovery, by Bryennios in 1873, of the ancient Christian work called [Didache... The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles] (published in 1883), has immensely extended the range of our knowledge, and has at the same time thrown a clear light on many notices in other sources which, for want of proper interpretation had been previously neglected or incorrectly understood.

The most important facts known at present about the manner of life, the influence, and the history of the early Christian prophets, are the following:

(1) Until late in the 2nd century the prophets (or prophetesses) were regarded as an essential element in a Church possessing the Holy Ghost. Their existence was believed in, and they did actually exist, not only in the catholic congregations—if the expression may be used—but also in the Marcionite Church and the Gnostic societies. Not a few Christian prophets are know to us by name: as Agabus, Judas, and Silas in Jerusalem; Barnabas, Simon Niger, etc., in Antioch; in Asia Minor, the daughters of Phillip, Quadratus, Ammia, Polycarp, Melito, Montanus, Maximilla and Priscilla; in Rome, Hermas; among the followers of Basilides, Barkabbas and Barkoph; in the community of Apelles, Philumene, etc.,. Lucian tells us that the impostor Peregrinus Proteus, in the time of Antoninus Pius, figured as a prophet in the Christian churches of Syria.

(2) Till the middle of the 2nd century the prophets were the regular preachers of the churches, without being attached to any particular congregation. While the “apostles” (i.e., itinerating missionaries) were obliged to preach from place to place, the prophets were at liberty, either, like the teachers, to settle in a certain church or to travel from one to another.

(3) In the time of Paul the form of prophecy was reasoned exhortation in a state of inspiration; but very frequently the inspiration took the form of ecstasy—the prophet lost control of himself, so that he did not remember afterwards what he had said. In the Gentile-Christian churches, under the influence of pagan associations, ecstasy was the rule.

(4) With regard to the matter of prophecy, it might embrace anything that was necessary for the edification of the Church. The prophets not only consoled and exhorted by the recital of what God had done and by predictions of the future, but they uttered extempore thanksgivings in the congregational assemblies, and delivered special directions, which might extend to the most minute details, as, for example, the disposal of the church funds.

(5) It was the duty of the prophets to follow in all respects the example of the Lord, and to put in practice what they preached. But an ascetic life was expected of them only when, like the apostles, they went about as missionaries, in which case the rules in Matt. 10 applied to them. Whenever, on the contrary, they settled in a place they had a claim to a liberal maintenance at the hands of the congregation. The author of the Didache even compares them to the High Priests of the Old Testament, and considers them entitled to the first-fruits of the Levitical law. In reality, they might justly be compared to the priests in so far as they were the mouthpieces of the congregation in public thanksgiving.

(6) Since prophets were regarded as a gift of God and as moved by the Holy Spirit, the individual congregation had no right of control over them. When anyone was approved as a prophet and exhibited the “conversation of the Lord,” no one was permitted to put him to the test or to criticize him. The author of the Didache goes so far as to assert that whoever does this is guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost.

(7) This unique position of the prophets could only be maintained so long as the original enthusiasm remained fresh and vigorous. From three quarters primitive Christian prophecy was exposed to danger—first, from the permanent officials of the congregation, who, in the interests of order, peace and security could not but look with suspicion on the activity of excited prophets; second, from the prophets themselves, in so far as an increasing number of dishonest characters was found amongst them, whose object was to levy contributions on the churches; third, from those prophets who were filled with the stern spirit of primitive Christianity and imposed on churches, now becoming assimilated to the world, obligations which these were neither able not willing to fulfil.

It is from this point of view that we must seek to understand the so-called Montanistic crisis. Even the author of the Didache finds it necessary to defend the prophets who practiced celibacy and strict asceticism against the deprecatory criticism of church members. In Asia Minor there was already in the year 160 a party, called by Epiphanius “Alogi,” who rejected all Christian prophecy. On the other hand, it was also in Asia Minor that there appeared along with Montanus those energetic prophetesses who charged the churches and their bishops and deacons with becoming secularized, and endeavoured to prevent Christianity from being naturalized in the world, and to bring the churches once more under the exclusive guidance of the Spirit and His charismata.

The critical situation thus arising spread in the course of a few decades over most of the provincial churches. The necessity of resisting the inexorable demands of the prophets led to the introduction of new rules for distinguishing true and false prophets. No prophet, it was declared, could speak in ecstasy, that was devilish; further, only false prophets accepted gifts. Both canons were innovations, designed to strike a fatal blow at prophecy and the church organizations re-established by the prophets in Asia—the bishops not being quite prepared to declare boldly that the Church had no further need of prophets.

But the prophets would not have been suppressed by their new methods of judging them alone. A much more important circumstance was the rise of a new theory, according to which all divine revelations were summed up in the apostles or in their writings. It was now taught that prophecy in general was a peculiarity of the Old Testament; that in the new covenant God had spoken through apostles; that the whole word of God so far as binding on the Church was contained in the apostolic record—the New Testament; and that, consequently, the Church neither required nor could acknowledge new revelations, or even instructions, through prophets.

The revolution which this theory gradually brought about is shown in the transformation of the religious, enthusiastic organization of the Church into a legal and political constitution. A great many things had to be sacrificed to this, and amongst others the old prophets. The strictly enforced episcopal constitution, the creation of a clerical order, and the formation of the New Testament canon accomplished the overthrow of the prophets. Instead of the old formula, “God continually confers on the church apostles, prophets and teachers,” the word now was: “The Church is founded in the (written) word of the prophets (i.e. the Old Testament prophets) and the apostles (viz. The twelve and Paul).”

After the beginning of the 3rd century there were still no doubt men under the control of the hierarchy who experienced the prophetic ectasy, or clerics like Cyprian who professed to have received special directions from God; but prophets by vocation no longer existed and these sporadic utterances were in no sense placed on a level with the contents of the sacred scriptures. &