A Response to West

By J. Edward Wright, Ph.D.
Director and Professor, Arizona Center for Judaic Studies,
University of Arizona
Editor, Bible and Interpretation
March 2013

Thank you, Jim, for your recent article. As an editor I hesitate to comment on publications to our site, but with your and our readers’ forbearance I will make a comment here. We post articles and op-ed pieces that make a contribution to the field and/or bring up important points that call for open, frank discussion. At the outset I want to point out to our readers that I know Jim and have worked with him in a few contexts over the past several years. Jim has made many valuable contributions to this website, and for that we are all extremely grateful. Thus, I here offer comments intended to advance the discussion among friends and colleagues.

Jim, what first caught my attention was your statement that “Post-exilic prophecy, when compared to the pre-exilic giants Isaiah and Hosea, is stale and limp and colorless and quite uninspiring and powerless.” I find this inexplicable. I am not sure how one comes to such assessment of these texts. I cannot recall the book of Zechariah ever being described in such terms. In fact, it just the opposite — vibrant, colorful, inspiring and powerful. Perhaps not as dramatic as Zechariah, the others are also quite engaging and informative. But perhaps this is just a matter of taste.

The key issues in your article, however, are 1) the motif of the “decline” and “cessation” of prophecy, and 2) “Judaism at that time.” You conclude your piece by wondering if perhaps “Wellhausen wasn’t so wrong after all.” I can say unequivocally that when it comes to his understanding of Judaism, he was wrong, and that for many reasons. In general, Wellhausen imagined Judaic religion as an evolutionary process that began with free and open worship at any site deemed significant or sacred by the people. That religious tradition became institutionalized with the emergence of the central cult in Jerusalem. Those priests, so the thesis maintains, created a religion that was formalized in a way that Wellhausen himself might well have described as “stale and limp and colorless and quite uninspiring and powerless.” But this is not simply a matter of taste. Wellhausen thesis is founded on an antipathy for Judaism per se. For him and many others, Judaism was not the natural heir of the prophetic “giants” like Isaiah and Hosea. The true heir was Christianity. Thus, Jesus was imagined as the one who restored prophetic vitality to Judaic religion, and his version of true, reformed religion would eventually become Christianity. This thesis views the priestly religion with all its regulations as dead religion needing some kind of reformation. Moreover, this approach views the rabbis and rabbinic Judaism as the direct heirs of that form of ossified religion. In fact, the designation “Late Judaism” in essence identifies Judaism of the Greco-Roman era as a late, inferior version of what it once was. In the end, this is just another expression of Christian Supercessionism, a malady that much of the Christian world has overcome, but which from time to time continues to infect, unknowingly I think, some Christian views of Judaism.

The motif of the decline or cessation of prophecy works in much the same way, and I am afraid that again this unfortunate idea continues to appear in some Christian circles. The idea is that among the people of Yehuda/Judah, Jews if you will, prophecy somehow declined or even ceased by the third or second century BCE. This sad situation wherein the people were bereft of God’s spokesperson was resolved only with the appearance of Jesus, who restored God’s communications with humanity.

For this thesis to work, one must read only the canonical texts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament. This restricted reading list finds “prophetic” activity “ending” ca. 150 BCE with Daniel and resuming in ca. 30 CE with Jesus. Moreover, in some Christian circles the phrase “the four hundred silent years” refers to the time between the last prophets (Daniel here is regarded as a product of the Babylonian Exile) and Jesus. In fact, the fundamentalist preacher H. A. Ironside published a book with the title The Four Hundred Silent Years in 1914, and in the preface to the book he states his goal.

Some time ago I endeavored, thought with no claim to originality of treatment, to draw practical lessons for the separated people of God from the captivity and post-captivity books of the Old Testament. At the suggestion of the publishers I have now sought to trace the history of the same people through the years of waiting that elapsed from the time when the voice of inspiration ceased until the heavens resounded with the glad announcement of “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men,” thus heralding Messiah’s long-promised Advent” (3).

The conservative Christian position is clearly stated: prophecy ceased in the post-exilic period and returned only with the ministry of Jesus. During the course of the intervening four hundred years the divine voice to the prophets was “silent.” Now, anyone who is at all familiar with the history and literature of the Persian, Hellenistic, Hasmonean and Roman eras knows that these years were anything but silent and that the Judaisms of this period were vibrant and diverse. Over one hundred years of research on the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and sixty-plus years of work on the Dead Sea Scrolls have transformed our understanding of “Judaism at that time.” These and other texts have revealed that prophecy in fact thrived among many groups; it just did not find its way into the canon. The Jews of this era did not sense that God had lost his voice. They experienced not the silence of God voice but the multiplicity of competing voices. Their dilemma wasn’t that God wasn’t communicating; the issue for them was what communication would they accept and follow.

So, Wellhausen was wrong then, and any attempt to rehabilitate his anti-Judaic, supersessionist thesis today is misdirected. Whatever point the tale about ‘old baldy’ Elisha is meant to communicate, it is not about an office “which was originally positive but lost that ideal and became destructive and self-serving.” True, there was conflict among the prophets, as James Crenshaw demonstrated long ago (Prophetic Conflict: Its Effect on Israelite Religion. BZAW 124. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1971), but the fact that there remained competing voices demonstrates that prophets continued their work in a variety of literary forms and social settings.

I find it appropriate that we post this interesting piece during the week when Jews celebrate Passover and Christians celebrate Easter. It gives us a good opportunity to explore anew themes that have historically divided these two communities. Such explorations can lead to better understanding of the data, more sensitive approaches to differences of opinion, and ultimately to increased cooperation between these communities.

Comments (3)

Thank you, Ed. Thanks very much for some very provocative suggestions and I will certainly be thinking about them for a good bit.

#1 - Jim - 03/28/2013 - 18:44

What is meant by 'prophet'? How do we recognise that any book we read is prophetic in nature? (I presume it's not just a matter of foretelling the future?) Does prophecy exist outside Judaism and Christianity? Does it continue still?
On another aspect of this essay - surely it's permissible, in studying the history of ideas, to think that one tradition of interpretation is more authentic than another?

#2 - Martin - 04/03/2013 - 21:48

The Bible states that a true prophet is one who gives prophecies that come true 100% of the time. Apart from the writers of the B'rit Hadashah, can you name me one Hebrew prophet after the close of the Tanakh (which I believe happened circa 400 BCE but will allow you up to 100 BCE for the sake of argument) whose prophecies have come true 100% of the time?

#3 - Dan Bruce - 06/15/2014 - 13:42

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