Divination vs. Prophecy

William Horbury, “Old Testament Interpretation in the Writings of the Church Fathers,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 744.

…the passage Deut 18:14f. is construed as a contrast between pagan divination and true prophecy by Philo, Spec. Leg. 1:59-65 and Origen, Contra Celsum 4:95; a contrast is also drawn by Clement of Alexandria, who stresses the decay of pagan oracles…and later advances by ‘oracles’…of the Hebrew ‘seers’…(Protrepticus [Exhortation to the Greeks], [quoted by Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, 2:3] and 8); and by Theodoret, Graecarum Affectionum Cura, book 10 (pagan oracles contrasted with the true oracles found in the prophets, Moses, and the psalms…).

According to Horbury, church fathers appealed to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies to convince Greco-Roman society, not only the Jews. The reason was that Greeks and Romans had a great deal of respect for prophecies and oracles. But, if Greeks and Romans could foretell the future within their own religion, then why should they have switched to Christianity? What would they have gained? The following is what I found in the sources that Horbury cites. Of course, Philo was not a Christian, but a Jew. Still, he was defending the superiority of Hebrew prophecy to that of the Gentiles. And I couldn’t find Theodoret’s work online, which is unfortunate, since he goes into the most depth on this issue.

1. Philo, Spec. Leg. 1:59-65: Divination is uncertain and promotes superstition, such as believing that life’s occurrences are dependant on corpses, the motions of birds and reptiles, etc. Biblical prophecy, however, occurs under the inspiration of God.

2. Origen, Contra Celsum 4:95: God doesn’t tell us the future through irrational animals or chance individuals, but rather through the most pure and holy people, whom God inspires. God forbids divination because he wants to protect us from demonic influence.

3. Clement in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 2:3; 8: I scanned these two passages. The point appears to be that diviners are frauds and promote a mythology in which the gods do immoral things. The law of Moses, by contrast, is virtuous and has good effects, even according to many Gentiles.

Here are some points:

1. I find Eusebius’ comments interesting, especially because they appear to be positive about the law of Moses. I’m doing a power-point presentation on Jewish-Christian relations in Byzantine Palestine, and, so far, my thesis is that Christendom was pretty anti-Jewish and supersessionist in its approach to Judaism. Eusebius himself says that the Jews deserved the destruction of Jerusalem! But he may have had some positive things to say about the Jews as well, and I should point those out.

2. Divination is not reliable all of the time, but was it totally unreliable? If so, then why did people continue to believe in it? I wonder that about a lot of ancient religions. Today, there are psychics who make false predictions. I once heard a few on Coast to Coast, and they predicted that Hillary would defeat Rudy in the 2008 Presidential elections. That didn’t happen! But cops supposedly use psychics, so maybe the phenomenon is not totally bogus.

Christians may appeal to demons to explain the occasional reliability of non-Christian “prophets,” and that is a possibility. But if demons can do the same things God can, then how can we tell who is doing the miracles? Eusebius says that the law of Moses has good things, and that’s why we should accept it and not pagan divination. But most religions have things that morally impress us, and things that we try to explain away. The law of Moses contains God’s love and the Conquest. Greco-Roman religion presented Zeus as a just, beneficent deity, but also as a shameless philanderer. And people in that culture tried to explain away Zeus’ misdeeds, often through allegory.

As far as the Bible goes, I guess there are many who look to it as their road-map to the future. The problem is that their interpretations of the prophecies are just that–interpretations, not the prophecies themselves. Maybe I as a Christian should believe that an Antichrist will emerge some day, and that he will be defeated at the return of Jesus Christ. But I don’t know when that will occur, so it’s not a prediction that I worry about in my day-to-day life. I know that the Bible tells us to be continually on-the-watch, but I see that as spiritual self-awareness, not perpetual fear that I’m in the end-times.

As far as the Old Testament prophecies are concerned, one could argue that those too are open to interpretation. I don’t think Christians are off-their-rocker to apply Isaiah 53 to Jesus, since it appears to discuss an individual who will atone for people’s sins. Elsewhere in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), there is talk about this servant meekly teaching the nations (Isaiah 42:1-4), restoring Israel, and bringing God’s salvation to the earth (Isaiah 49:1-6). For Christians, this servant is Jesus, who died for people’s sins and brings God’s salvation to the Gentiles.

But not everybody accepts this interpretation. Many Jews maintain that the suffering servant is Israel, or at least a righteous remnant within Israel. Although the servant is presented as a singular person, there are many times when the prophets depict Israel in a singular manner–as a woman, for example. So is Isaiah 53 a prophecy about Jesus? Some make that interpretive connection, whereas others do not.

Moreover, the prophets predict a restoration of the levitical priesthood and sacrifices (Jeremiah 33:18), even for atonement (Ezekiel. 43:13, 27; 45:15, 17, 20). There are many Christians who interpret these prophecies symbolically, since they believe that Christ is the only efficacious sacrifice for sin. But, if one can go that route, isn’t it possible to make anything a fulfilled prophecy? “Well, this didn’t fulfill that prophecy if you interpret it literally, but if you look at it symbolically…”

3. Are prophets necessarily pure? They may be righteous in a general sense, but they can goof up. Moses couldn’t enter the Promised Land because of his temper and self-exaltation. Elijah gave in to fits of despair. And then there are times when God does use an unrighteous prophet, such as Balaam. But there’s still something special about the biblical prophets: they faithfully convey the message that God gave them, even to their own personal detriment.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Divination vs. Prophecy

  1. James Pate says:

    On my blogger blog, Looney posted the following comment:

    “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35

    After reading Gibbons, the above verse was the thing that had the greatest impact in the spread of the early church – not the prophecies or the miracles. Today, Christians are short here, while the government emulates much of what Christians did through the welfare state.

    I was just reading Eusebius regarding why some false prophets were rejected:

    “All the fruits of a prophet must be submitted to examination. Tell me, does a prophet dye his hair? Does a prophet paint his eyelids? Does a prophet love ornaments? Does a prophet visit the gaming tables and play dice? Does a prophet do business as a moneylender?” – The History of the Church, 5.18. Distinguishing between true and false prophets was something the early church had to do, but Eusebius just gives a few hints of what happened. Augustine accepts miracles and prophecies of pagans at face value, but then looks at other aspects of their behavior.

    I hope you post more quotes on this as you run across them.

    Regarding Christians attitudes towards Jews, have you read Dialogue with Trypho? I have seen a lot of “they deserved it” attitude towards what happened to the Jews under Vespasian/Titus and Hadrian, but that isn’t any different from Josephus. What I haven’t seen is any overt hostility to Jews, but there is still a lot to read. Justin Martyr seems to be quite warm to Trypho.

    (Disclaimer: I have a Jewish grandmother, so it is tough for me to be anti-Jewish.)


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