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Summary Article: Prophecy
From Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

Prophecy has played a significant role in world religions, laying the groundwork for fulfillment of both religious and secular expectations of the future. The term prophecy derives from the Greek pro-, meaning “before” and pbanai, “to speak,” implying a foretelling. The term has become closely associated with supernatural abilities, and the word prophet, derived from the Greek prophete, has come to mean “one who speaks for another,” usually understood to be a divine entity. Prophets channel revelations that include predictions of the future as well as admonitions to return to the laws of a belief system in order to avoid disastrous consequences. Often referred to as “seers,” prophets receive their messages through various means, including trancelike states, dreams, visions, or agitated conditions induced by music or dance. Others receive special knowledge through the interpretation of physical signs, including astrological signs. Prophets have also been viewed as teachers and religious leaders. Three of the world's major religions describe their most venerated leaders as prophets. Judaism and Christianity revere the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and Islam regards Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus as respected prophets but Muhammad (571-624 CE) as the last and greatest prophet.

In the ancient world, the Persians, Assyrians, Chinese, Celts, Indians, Egyptians, and others sought out prophets who were often associated with temples and royal courts. During the later Hellenistic period, prophets, called oracles, were attached to shrines, one of the most important being the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The word oracle, derived from the Latin or are meaning “to speak,” particularly in a public forum, refers both to the seer and to the shrine, and the term can be used interchangeably. The temple at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god of medicine, healing, poetry, music, and prophecy. Unlike most other Greek gods, Apollo had no direct Roman counterpart; however, later Roman poets often referred to him as Phoebus. The archaeological remains of this site are located near Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis, which the Greeks considered the center of the earth and the universe. The name Delphi is believed to be derived from the Greek delphus, meaning “womb,” reinforcing its sacred origins.

The priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia and was consulted before all major undertakings, particularly battles. However, the oracle did not directly predict the future but rather gave advice and counsel, usually couched in ambiguous language that might be interpreted in various ways. Historic records dating to the 9th century BCE recount visits to the oracle by important Greek leaders, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Croesus, Lysander, and Philip II of Macedon. By 191 BCE the shrine at Delphi had come under Roman power, and the oracle continued to be consulted by Roman leaders, including Nero and Hadrian. It has been estimated that the pronouncements of the oracles at Delphi and other shrines had an important effect on the shaping of the Greco-Roman hegemonies.

Prophetic teachings play a particularly essential role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which emphasize a personal relationship with God and a sense of individual moral responsibility resulting in future judgment. Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible (Tanacb), which is traditionally divided into three parts: the Law (the first five books, called the Torab); the Prophets; and the Writings or Wisdom Books.

Particularly important are the later prophets, men of position such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, who spoke against religious hypocrisy as well as secular practices of their times, setting them in opposition to established religious tradition. Writing between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE, they pointed to threats by Assyria, Egypt, and later Babylonia as God's sign that Israel needed a return to more ethical conduct to avoid disaster. The so-called minor prophets, men of humble origins, such as Amos, Hosea, and Micah, also spoke out against social inequality and served as the moral conscience of the community. Other important prophets of the Hebrew Bible (in Christianity, the Old Testament) include Daniel, Samuel, and Elijah.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah is particularly significant in Christian theology and contains the foretelling of a young woman who shall conceive a son and call him Immanuel, Hebrew for “God is with us” (Isa 7:14). Christians consider this a reference to Jesus Christ, the Messiah; however Judaism contends the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled and that believers await the first coming of a savior. The Hebrew prophets solidified the concepts of a messiah and a millennial period that is incorporated into Christianity and, to some extent, Islam. The only purely prophetical book of the Christian New Testament is The Book of Revelation, also referred to as the Apocalypse of St. John, in which John describes the events culminating in the Second Coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the establishment of a new world of peace and justice. Islamic tradition holds that prophets were sent by God to each nation, and all received revelations from God. The prophets who received Sbaria (a divine code for life) that was ultimately written down and collected into holy books are also referred to as messengers. More than 25 prophets are mentioned in the Qur'an.

Prophecy is an important component in spiritual traditions throughout the world. Prophets pronounce visionary accounts of the future, which may or may not be predictions, but are rather interpretations of consequences based on present action. This particularly applies to beliefs regarding the ultimate future of humanity, and most of the world's major religions contain Messianic prophecies. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American religions all contain spiritual traditions that foretell the coming of a savior who will return, or send another in his place, to restore justice to the world.

In some beliefs, such as Taoism and ancient Mayan belief, time is cyclical rather than linear, and prophecy is based on predictable recurring events. In the contemporary secular world, researchers continue to investigate claims of some persons' apparent ability to access secret information and predict future events through means not scientifically explainable. Parapsychology is an academic field of study that seeks to determine the nature of those abilities by which some individuals are evidently able too see, hear, or predict events that are not apparent to others; these phenomena include clairvoyance, telepathy, extrasensory perception, precognition, and regression in time. Whether such powers are divinely inspired, supernatural, or scientifically explainable, or whether they turn out to be merely hoaxes, the desire to ascertain the future remains a powerful human motive.

Some modern scholars and theologians look for prophets in the contemporary context. In the tradition of Old Testament prophets and teachers, modern-day visionaries are often social activists, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and others worldwide who call upon society to reform and promote peace, justice, and tolerance. In this view, then, the future is not to be foretold to passive listeners, but rather created by concerted action.

See also

Apocalypse, Bible and Time, Christianity, Ecclesiastes, Book of, Futurology, Islam, Judaism, Nostradamus, Omens, Paracelsus, Qur'an, Revelation, Book of, Toffler, Alvin, Verne, Jules, Wells, H. G.

  • Fontenrose, J. ( (1981).). The Delphic oracle, its responses and operations, with a catalogue of responses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Ramsey, W. M. ( (1986).). Four modern prophets. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Iwamoto, Linda Mohr
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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