By Shelley Neese—
Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
We have finished the Minor Prophets and we are gearing up for the reformers Ezra and Nehemiah before we tackle the Major Prophet Ezekiel. But before we switch modes entirely, we are doing a mini lecture series, a Prophets 101 class. Last week we discussed the Institution of the Prophetic Office. Today I want to explore the Jewish understanding for why prophecy ceased after Malachi.
In Jewish understanding, the cessation of prophecy is a spiritual tragedy, a major loss for the community that will only return in the messianic age. On that, all sources agree. As to why prophecy stopped, rabbis, both ancient and modern, have offered many well-contemplated and biblically based theories but there is no one accepted answer.
According to the prophet Amos, prophecy ceased because of the prevalence of sin and lack of faith. In his own day, idolatry and injustice were rampant, but Amos looked to a future when God would no longer bother to send his prophets to offer course correction. Amos predicted, “the days are coming when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11-12).
In the postexilic period, God sent three prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Haggai demonstrates initial enthusiasm among the returnees (Hag. 1:12) and Zechariah describes a national repentance on the part of the people for generational sins (Zech. 1:4). By Malachi’s time, however, all but a remnant is accused of spiritual apathy (Mal. 3:16).
According to a treatise in the Mishnah, God discontinued the prophetic function when a portion of the people refused to return from the Babylonian exile. After the edict of Cyrus in 539 BCE, around fifty thousand Judean exiles immediately resettled their national land.
Waves of exiles continued to journey back to Jerusalem for the next hundred years as chronicled in Ezra and Nehemiah. Though they were permitted to rebuild their temple and even their city wall, many ignored the prophecies of a swelling remnant (Mic. 2:12; Zech. 10:10; Ps. 107:3). They opted to stay comfortable in the heart of the empire rather than immigrate to a struggling unimportant Persian province. Another comment in the Mishnahsuggests the incomplete restoration of the nation was the reason the Ark of the Covenant, the holy fire, the Urim and Thummim, and the spirt of prophecy never revisited the Second Temple.
The events of Ezra and Nehemiah’s day offers a more optimistic interpretation for the end of prophetic witness. Ezra entered the biblical story around the same time that Malachi, the last prophet, exited. Ezra was a reformer and a scribe, learned in Torah and capable of restoring the primacy of Mosaic law.
According to Nehemiah, people gathered to listen to Ezra in a daylong public reading of the Torah to men, women, and all who could understand (Neh. 8:3). Ezra was not functioning in this role as a High Priest, but as scribe and scholar. The gathering intentionally took place at the Water Gate, “not in the Temple precincts where only males were allowed.” God did not expect the people to comprehend every word so the Levites stood by clarifying the meaning of the passages (Neh. 8:7).
The people wept as they listened. Until then, “most villages did not possess a copy of the Torah” so they were “fairly unfamiliar with its contents and the specific instructions.” Understanding the words for perhaps the first time, they shouted “Amen” (Neh. 8:6). This was their Sola Scriptura moment! What the 95 Theses was to the Reformation, Ezra’s public reading was to the remnant of Judah.
Ezra was a scribe “well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ez. 7:6). While he did not lay claim to prophecy, Ezra presented the community with a new type of leader and teacher. Soon enough, Torah study flourished, as the centerpiece of Jewish life. Second Temple Judaism is famous for its strict purity rituals, regular Temple sacrifices, and proliferation of schools teaching Jewish law. Like the absence of a Davidic king, the prophets, as an institution, were no longer, and the absence was felt as true loss. However, priests and scribes rose to prominence and filled the vacuum. Synagogues developed over the centuries in their role as religious Torah-centered institutions.
Everett Ferguson writes about the changing dynamics of the period after the cessation of true prophecy: “A different kind of “wise man” arose—scholars in the sacred writings. Scribes replaced priests as the interpreters of the law, and in the absence of prophetic revelation, scribal interpretation became the authority.”
When the Jewish people lost their Temple and covenanted land in 70 CE, priests, elders, and scribes focused their attention on expertly documenting every tradition and instruction circling the Torah and Mosaic laws. Without a sacrificial system or political independence, that task was made more difficult, but the rabbis and elders were creative enough to navigate the uncertainty of the times. They believed that instructing the people on the Torah and the oral law was a commission passed down to them through a long line of recipients of divine revelation.
One of the most popular Mishnaic tractates records the line of succession: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”
In a post-Temple world, Jews became forever known as the people of the Book. As they focused on the written law, they continually added volumes to their extrabiblical and rabbinic literature. The Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Peshers, and Targums all sprang from this period of renewed focus on a literary faith.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel makes an argument that in the postexilic period, the “spirit of the age” had changed, phasing out the office of the prophet and phasing in the Bible scholars. He explains, “In the age in which the prophets lived, the belief was common that the deities revealed themselves to men.” When belief in magic and divination were no longer commonplace in the gentile world, Israel did not need the intervention of prophets.
For hundreds of years, the Word of God, as delivered by the prophets, offered an approved alternative to seeking knowledge through pagan practices. As gentile religions lost their need for oracles, so did Israel.
Even still, traditional Judaism anticipates the return of prophecy in the Messianic age. According to 2 Baruch, a Jewish pseudepigraphal text, the prophets helped previous generations of Jewish people, but while the “prophets are sleeping,” all the Jews can dependably rely on is Yahweh and his Torah (2 Baruch 85:1-3).
Even if Malachi was not self-conscious of his status as the last prophetic writer, his closing promise was that God will send an Elijah, the ultimate prophet, to lead the people on a path to their ultimate redemption (Mal. 4:5-6). The coming Elijah is still a central part of modern Passover Seder dinners, warranting his own place setting at the table should he finally appear. From the Second Temple period until today, Judaism is not a modern religion that has shunned prophecy, merely one that has paused it.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week I am going full force on the Christian understanding of the postbiblical age. I can’t quite call it post-prophetic for Christians since we believe in the spiritual gift of prophecy but we can call it postbiblical because no one is adding divine revelations to the Biblical canon. For all of the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I don’t say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Yoma 9b:16, The William Davidson Talmud, accessed February 10, 2023, Online: https://www.sefaria.org/Yoma.9b.16?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
Yoma 21b:7, The William Davidson Talmud, accessed February 10, 2023, Online: https://www.sefaria.org/Yoma.21b.7?lang=bi
Matthew Levering, Ezra & Nehemiah, SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible (United Kingdom: SCM Press, 2008), 173.
Gary V. Smith, Ezra and Nehemiah: A Discourse Analyis of the Hebrew Bible, ed. Daniel I. Block (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 360.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 401.
Pirkei Avot 1:1, accessed February 9, 2023, Online: https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.1.1?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
Even the ancient world’s most famous seer, the Oracle of Delphi, fell out of operation by the fourth century CE.