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4. Pre-Classical vs. Classical

It has been common to divide the history of Biblical prophecy into “pre-classical” and “classical” stages.  What assumptions are involved in such a distinction?  Does it have any validity?  If so, what?  In your answer, consideration of some non-Israelite phenomena from the ancient Near East may be helpful. 

Summary: Scholars often divide Biblical prophets into two groups: 1) pre-classical, or 2) classical prophets. Pre-classical prophets are from 10th-9th centuries (e.g., Samuel, Elijah); stories are recorded about them. They were miracle workers and participated in divination. Classical prophets date to 8th-6th centuries (e.g., Isaiah, Amos); books are recorded of their oracles. Although this division is convenient, it does not describe the situation of Biblical prophecy in the most accurate sense since in actuality, there was overlap of features among the pre-classical and classical prophets.

I. Introduction

*Some interpreters (see Hayes, 257-60) have tried to delineate the “pre-classical” prophets from the “classical prophets” on several fronts. It is first an issue of chronology, and more importantly, an issue of typology. 

*Some have argued that the pre-classical prophets were more like ecstatics or diviners, and relied on the manipulation of objects or trance states to produce prophetic words, while the classical prophets received lofty visions and so on; (this, however, ignores a prophet like Ezekiel, where “symbolic” actions may not be so symbolic. See also ritual actions of breaking pots and burying clothing in Jeremiah.)

*Others, like Gunkel (in his 1924 article) saw the development from pre- classical to classical by assuming an evolutionary continuum; in the time of Saul, ecstasy was a prophetic state with its own value, while later, ecstasy became a means by which one could receive a prophetic word, and still later, the prophets became political advisors and so on. The British scholar John Skinner (1851-1925) also saw this development (quoted in Hayes, 258):  “When we look at prophecy...as a human medium of revelation, we can trace a progressive emancipation of its spiritual essence from the ecstatic or visionary forms in which its earlier manifestations consist. At the lowest stages of prophecy...inspiration and ecstasy are identified...On the higher level represented by the great prophets of Israel this crude and fragmentary conception of inspiration is left far behind...”

II. A Chronology and Typology of Biblical Prophecy

A.) Before Pre-Classical Prophets:

Abraham, Moses, and Deborah are called and considered prophets but they precede even the pre-classical prophets.

B.) Pre-Classical Prophets (10th-9th cent. BCE):

*Pre-Classical Prophets: Samuel (1&2 Sam), Saul (1Sam 10), Nathan the prophet (2Sam 7, 12, 24), Gad the Seer (1Sam 22:5; 24), Ahijah the Shilonite (1Kgs 11), the Man of God & the Old Prophet (1Kgs 13), Elijah (1Kjs 17-19), Elisha (1Kgs 19; 2Kgs 2-9), Micaiah (1Kgs 22), Huldah (2Kgs 22).

Characterized by:

1) Ecstatic behavior and spirit falling upon people 

*Saul (1Sam 10:9-13); Prophet of Baal (1Kgs. 18:28-9).

2) Bands of prophets

*Gilgal (1Sam 10:5-13); Ramah (1 Sam 19:18-24); Bethel (2Kgs 2:3); Jericho (2 Kgs 2:5);  

3) Miracles and Wonders. (e.g. Elijah and Elisha are wonder-workers; ag. king Ahab) 

*Elijah sends bears to eat children. Taken up in a chariot to heaven. Axe floats. Child raised from dead. Elijah does battle with cult of Baal and Asherah. Jezebel and Ahab introduced these gods.  Elijah announces a drought. Baal controls rain, so Elijah is challenging Baal, by stating that YHWH controls the rain. 1 kgs 18. Elijah challenges prophets of Baal. 450 prophets of baal, 400 prophets of asherah. 

4) Names of pre-classical prophets are:

4a)  The Man of God (1Kgs 13;  איש אלהים ); used of Samuel, Elijah, Elisha 

4b) The Seer (1Sam. 9:9;  רואה ) ; [but also ( חוזה ) was used of Gad in 2Sam 24:11.]

4c) The Prophet ("the called";  נביא ); use of Samuel, Elijah, Nathan.

C.) Classical Prophets (8th-6th Centuries):

*Classical Prophets: Amos, Hosea, 1st Isaiah (chs 1-39), Jeremiah (just before exile), Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah.

Characterized by:

1) Their oracles are recorded with books called by their name.

2) Focused on producing change in society and kingly court. The taught morals, and ethical monotheism (Amos 6)

3) Warned of impending judgement from God (Isa, Jer, Habakkuk)

4) Names of Classical Prophets:

4a)  The Seer ( חוזה ; Amos 7:12)

4b) The Prophet ("the called"; נביא ); used for Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Ezekiel, Haggai.

Side Note: Exilic: Ezekiel, 2nd Isaiah, Haggai

Post Exilic: Zechariah, 3rd Isaiah, Malachi

Not Certain: Jonah (4th cent?), Joel, Obadiah

III. Benefits/Problems with Binary Division & Other Possible Explanations

A.) Benefits of this division:

1) 1Sam 9:9 contains a Dtr note that previously, a prophet was called a "רואה" (seer) while now he is called a "נביא". Thus, there seems to be a differentiation between the pre-classical and classical prophets even in the Bible.

2) There does appear to be a shift in focus from the king (pre-classical prophets; i.e. Ahab, David), to the general public (classical; i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah). But perhaps this is just a shift in audience while the message is the same (?).

3) Assyria is a threat so the themes of the classical prophets are warnings of judgement. Again, while the circumstances may have changed, the message seems to be similar (?).

B.) Problems with the 2-part division

1) Assumes biased evolutionary model: primitive, ecstatic prophecy -> ethical monotheism of the classic prophets.

2) Comparison with ANE prophecy does not support a binary chronological division or an evolutionary model. If pre-classical prophecy evolved into classical prophecy, this seems to have happened only in Ancient Israel, and not in surrounding ANE societies! 

Ecstatic prophecy existed in ANE much earlier (3rd mill BCE) Israelite pre-classical prophets and also during the time of Israelite classical prophets (1st mill BCE)! Ecstatic prophets (Muẖẖû/Muẖẖūtu; maẖûm, "to become crazy, go on a frenzy") is attested in records of Old Akkadian (3rd mill BCE), Old Babylonian (2 mill BCE) & Middle Babylonian/Middle Assyrian (2nd mill BCE), and Neo-Babylonian & Neo-Assryian (1st mill BCE). Muẖẖum also existed in Mari in 18th cent BCE; their behavior included self-wounding actions and eating quivering meat! 

In Mari (18th cent), a very similar functionary was the Āpilum/Āpiltum (from apālum, "to answer"). Seems to have functioned/behaved similar to the Muẖẖūm. In Neo-Assryian sources (1st mill BCE), the Raggimu/Raggintu (from ragāmu, "to shout, to proclaim") replaced the Maẖẖû. 

In Mari (18th cent), there was also a Nabû ("called, prophet") who delivers Oracles to the king of Mari. Unlike the ecstatics, this seems to correspond better with the court prophets (Nathan–1&2Sam; Hananiah–Jer 28; also "erring prophets"–Isa 28:7); court prophets were not exactly classical prophets but they weren't ecstatics either.

So if Biblical prophecy is anything like the prophecy of the ANE, then the binary division is a bit arbitrary. Ecstatic prophecy existed in the ANE much earlier and also at the same as the Israelite classical prophets. Also, ANE prophets similar to Israelite court prophets (not exactly like classical prophets but not ecstatics either; more like the classical prophets) existed much earlier than Israelite court/classical prophets. So, it's difficult to say that only in Israel ecstatics evolved into classical prophets and nowhere else. Thus, this binary and evolutionary model, although helpful, is not entirely accurate.

C.) Some explanations for the variety of prophets in Israel

1) The difference between pre-classical and classical prophets is perhaps a difference in geography–northern prophets vs. southern prophets. Elijah-Elisha are northern while written classical prophets (except Hosea and Jeremiah) are in the south. Also, there may be difference between metropolitan vs. provincial prophecy.

2) Genre may also be at play. Narratives of pre-classical prophets may capture different aspects than do the writings of the classical prophets. 

3) Furthermore, there were aspects of continuity/similarity between the pre-classical and classical prophets. 

a) Both the pre-classical and the classical prophets had "ecstatic" behavior. The classical prophets exhibited bizarre behavior as well as miracles.

*Jeremiah buries loincloth (chap 13); Isaiah walked around naked (Isa 20:1-3); Ezekiel cuts his hair off, divides it into three piles, and does different symbolic acts with each pile of hair (Ezek 5:1-4)

*Isaiah had ecstatic visions (chap 6); Ezekiel had visions (chaps 1, 8-11)

b) Monotheism was a main theme of classical prophets (Isa chs. 40-55; Jer 10), but this has precedents in pre-classical prophets (1Kgs 18).

c) Social justice was a main theme in classical prophets (Amos 5); but this has a precedent in pre-classical prophets (2Sam 12–Nathan rebukes David about Bathsheba; 1Kgs 21–Elijah rebukes Ahab about killing Naboth).

IV. My View:

*Difference between pre-classical and classical is primarily an issue of audience and circumstances, but the message and general behavior seems to have similar features. The audience of pre-classical prophets was primarily the king while the audience of the classical prophets was both the king and the people. In the pre-classical era, there was no looming danger of Assyria while in the classical era, Assyria was a clear and present danger! Therefore, the message of classical prophets was to the court AND to the people.

*The message was similar: to do justice. Ahab and David were exhorted by Elijah and Nathan to act justly while the people of Judah were exhorted to act justly by the classical prophets. Both types of prophets stressed mono-theism and the the worship of YHWH (Elijah-1 Kgs 18 and Isaiah-Isa 43; Jeremiah-Jer 10). 

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