Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World

Written by David E. Aune Reviewed By Dick France

This is unquestionably now the major work on early Christian prophecy. It was written before the author could see Boring’s important Sayings of the Risen Jesus, but since most of Boring’s work was already available in article form, I doubt if access to the subsequent book would have altered Aune’s verdict. Wayne Grudem’s dissertation, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, is unfortunately referred to only in passing. Otherwise Aune has read and interacted with all the obvious literature, and a great deal which is scarcely known to most New Testament scholars. His breadth of knowledge is impressive, and it is fruitfully combined with a welcome blend of incisive criticism and scholarly caution.

The book is bound to be compared with David Hill’s New Testament Prophecy. Aune would distinguish it mainly on two counts. Hill, he believes, failed to distinguish between a phenomenological or historical study of early Christian prophetic activity and an attempt to evaluate such activity theologically. Such presumably pejorative verdicts as ‘This is theology, not history’ indicate that Aune’s aim is, by contrast, strictly historical and descriptive. Secondly, Aune criticizes virtually all previous studies on the grounds that their cultural horizon is too narrow, scarcely looking beyond the Jewish scene. But in fact prophecy was a well-known phenomenon in a much wider area of the New Testament world, and Aune aims to include all relevant evidence, particularly that of Graeco-Roman paganism. Chronologically he carries his study up to Montanism.

The result is encyclopaedic. Each relevant area is carefully analyzed and described, with copious examples from ancient literature. A review can best simply follow the study through section by section.

Graeco-Roman prophecy will be the area least known to most Themelios readers. Aune provides a fascinating tour of the various means by which paganism then tried to discover the mind of the gods (as it still does—I was at some points strongly reminded of divination as I have known it in West Africa today). The focus of such activity was in religious institutions, the prophets being officials who gave oracles on request rather than by spontaneous inspiration. Oracles, which were often (and were expected to be) enigmatic and even deliberately ambiguous, were collected and preserved as sacred books.

With Israelite prophecy we move onto more familiar ground, and may therefore feel that the treatment is more superficial. But the aim is to see how Old Testament prophecy fits into the wider pattern. Again Aune finds an earlier focus on institutional divination, but with the rise of ‘shamanistic’ prophets like Moses, Elijah and Elisha classical Israelite prophecy begins to develop as a spontaneous force, based on ‘a revelatory trance experience’.

Early Judaism (i.e. the post-Old Testament period) is traditionally characterized as the period when prophecy ceased, until it reappeared in John the Baptist. Not at all, says Aune. This was the view of some untypical later rabbis, but does not represent majority opinion at the time. In one of the most ground-breaking parts of the book, he attempts to trace the further development of Jewish prophecy along four lines. Apocalyptic literature was, he believes, a continuation of the prophetic task, though he admits that its authors did not regard themselves as prophets like those of the Old Testament; then there er the ‘eschatological prophets’, people like John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteousness, and various ‘messianic’ leaders like Theudas, the ‘Egyptian’, etc. (again very unlike the Old Testament prophets in most cases, but popularly seen in a ‘prophetic’ light); thirdly cultic prophecy, where the focus falls on Josephus’ claim to interpret dreams, etc; and finally ‘sapiential prophecy’ as seen in some major rabbis, and particularly in Philo. By the end of this section it is plain that ‘prophecy’ is going to have to be defined pretty broadly to substantiate Aune’s case. Does his definition as ‘intelligible messages from God in human language through inspired human mediums’ (p. 103) meet the case, or is it too broad to be useful? It is clearly far wider than what is normally meant by ‘prophecy’ in the Old Testament at least.

Then follows a study of the prophetic role of Jesus, both in the popular mind and in his own consciousness and teaching. A study of Jesus’ ‘prophecies’ focuses on his predictive teaching, despite the recognition that ‘a focus on predictive elements is an artificial way to analyze the “prophetic speech” of Jesus’ (p. 187).

Well over halfway through the book we at last come to the study of early Christian prophecy. Aune is well aware from recent literature of the difficulty of defining ‘prophecy’ in this context. He believes that the basic model for the application of the term should be Old Testament prophecy, and on this basis argues that there is no evidence for the view that all Christians were potentially prophets, but that prophets were special individuals who tended to operate independently of the official local church structure, and indeed had an authority of their own which transcended it. There is a good detailed study of the evidence for the testing of prophecy (pp. 217–229). The refreshingly honest conclusion of the chapter is that ‘early Christian prophecy was a relatively unstable and unstructured institution within early Christianity’ (p. 231).

A brief but very important chapter then assesses the Bultmannian claim that prophets were the originators of many of the ‘sayings of Jesus’ which found their way into the gospels. Boring’s arguments are carefully analyzed and the conclusion is reached that ‘the historical evidence in support of the theory lies largely in the creative imagination of scholars’ (p. 245).

Two long chapters then search for prophetic material in early Christian literature, in the recognition that here, unlike both pagan and Israelite prophecy, there are no collections of prophetic material as such; rather, scattered fragments may be found by the following criteria: (1) attribution to a supernatural being; (2) display of knowledge not ordinarily accessible; and (3) oracular formulae (pp. 247–248; the criteria are slightly expanded on p. 317). These are not offered as infallible indicators, but as useful guides, especially where two or three coincide. On this basis he aims to explore ‘every fragment of prophetic speech embedded in early Christian literature to the middle of the second century AD’ (p. 248). The resultant anthology is of fifty-nine texts in the New Testament (almost all in Paul, Acts, ‘recognition oracles’ in the gospels, and in Revelation), and forty-eight subsequently (Ignatius, Odes of Solomon, Hermas, and Montanist oracles). I shall not spoil the book for the potential reader by telling you what they are!

A final chapter attempts to analyze the basic features in form and content of this collection. It is a rather unsatisfying conclusion in that he finds no clearly distinctive features of these sayings as compared with their surrounding contexts, except in the formulae by which they are often introduced. In the end ‘the distinctive feature of prophetic speech was not so much its content or form, but its supernatural origin. Christian prophetic speech, then, is Christian discourse presented with divine legitimation’ (p. 338).

If this seems a meagre result for such a Herculean labour, it is not to be despised, for such a corrective is much needed. There is a tendency in some study of the New Testament today to explain everything by waving the magic wand ‘prophetic’. In the light of Aune’s book the wand will need to be used much less confidently, and in many areas its use should now be banned. This is not to suggest, of course, that Aune plays down the importance of prophecy in the life of the early churches. But by setting it within a wider cultural context he has helped us all to be more responsible in our appeal to it.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd