1st Century Prophetic Movements

One could conclude from passages in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (4:46; 9:27; 14:41) and in the Rabbinical literature (t. Sota 13:2) that no prophet existed after Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. But the evidence shows that at least some claimed to be prophets.

The Essenes were especially cultivators of prophecy (i.e., inspired utterances). Josephus (War 2.159) says they claimed to foretell the future as a result of a lifetime of study of the sacred books and adds that few of their prophecies ever were wrong. If the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran were indeed the product of Essenes, then the so-called Teacher of Righteousness was such an Essene prophetic figure. They believed he had been given the Spirit of God and the ability to make known interpretations of Scripture (e.g., Habakkuk) which contained knowledge for the end-time or eschaton.

The troubled period from A.D. 6 to 73 witnessed the coming of many prophetic troublers. Josephus wrote that many imposters and deceivers promised to show great signs in the wilderness and incited the mob into a frenzy. Josephus described in some detail the activity of three such false prophets and more briefly about a fourth one. The first was a Samaritan who did his mischief during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate (c. A.D. 35). The Samaritan promised he could show the mob where on Mt. Gerizim Moses had buried the holy vessels of the Tabernacle. The excited crowd came with arms evidently expecting revolution to follow quickly (Ant. 18.85–87).

The next was Theudas (A.D. 45) who promised he could part the Jordan River as Joshua had done. Many of the simple peasants gathered their belongings and followed him to the river (Ant. 20.97–98).

Another false prophet, whom Josephus called the Egyptian, around A.D. 56 promised to make the walls of Jerusalem fall down at his command. He then would overpower the Roman garrison there and take charge of the city (Ant. 20.169–71; War 2.261–63).

Finally, one of the numerous prophets that delivered encouraging promises of success during the Jewish War made a disastrous prediction in A.D. 70. He claimed, incorrectly, that God had decreed that everyone should go to the temple where God would deliver them from the Romans (War 6.283–85).

In every case the gullible crowd met with disaster. Hundreds were slaughtered by the unmerciful Romans. In the last case, Josephus writes that 6000, including women and children, died when the Romans burned the temple area. These false prophets kept the mobs stirred up and ultimately led them to their deaths. The prophets themselves—except for the Egyptian who escaped—were caught and executed by the Romans.

One final prophet must be mentioned. Jesus ben Ananias began prophesying in A.D. 62 or 63 that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. He was a man of humble, peasant origins and evidently affected a very strange manner. He walked up and down the streets of Jerusalem day and night shouting his dire words like Jeremiah of old. Although he was flogged within an inch of his life, he refused to stop this behavior. Finally, the war started and then came the siege of Jerusalem. Jesus ben Ananias was struck by a missile and killed while walking around the walls of the city (War 6.300–309):

  For seven years and five months he continued his wail, his voice as strong as ever and his vigor unabated, till, during the siege, after seeing the fulfillment of his foreboding, he was silenced. He was going his rounds, shouting in penetrating tones from the wall, “Woe, woe once more to the city, and the people and the Temple;” then, when he added a last word, “and woe to me also!” a stone hurled from the ballista struck him, killing him on the spot. With those same forebodings still upon his lips, he met his end.

Thus prophetic activity was not lacking from 200 B.C. through the fall of Jerusalem. Most of these prophetic figures were persecuted or killed by the Jewish leadership or by the Roman authorities. It was in this situation that John the Baptist and Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God and they were treated as violently as many of these prophets we have just named.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.