In Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and the Bahá'í Faith, a prophet is a person believed to have received a revelation from God. A prophet is thus a recipient of revelation. Some people use the word "prophecy" as a synonym for "revelation"; thus one could say that a prophet is a recipient of prophecy.
A prophetic message may be intended solely for the recipient of the message, but is usually a truth to be stated to the community at large.
Readers of this article are encouraged to read the parallel article on revelation, as the term revelation itself has a number of meanings and interpretations, even within the same religion. Various forms of revelation have been proposed, including: verbal revelation; Aristotelian rationalism; non-Verbal propositional revelation; and God's will as revealed through a people's historical development of their faith. In the 20th century existentialism has inspired new ways of understanding revelation.
What is a prophet?
The definition of the word prophet varies from group to group. Some Christian denominations teach that a person who receives a personal message that is not intended for the body of believers, where such an event is credited at all, should not be termed a prophet. For them, a prophet is a person who speaks for God, in the name of God, and who carries God's message to others. The reception of a message is termed revelation; the delivery of the message is termed prophecy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote one of the 20th century's classic commentaries on the prophets, entitled "The Prophets" which has received acclaim in the Jewish community, and in part of the Catholic and liberal Protestant community.
Some examples of prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament) include:
Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) affirms that prophecy is not limited to Jews, and is remarkable for the many accounts of prophets it contains. The Tanakh specifically mentions the prophecy of Bilam, a gentile. The accounts include details of men, women and even animals receiving prophecy in various ways. (This section needs to be greatly expanded)
Jewish views of prophecy
Classical Jewish texts teach that the most direct forms of prophecy ended with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, various rabbinic Jewish works, including the midrash, state that other less direct forms of communication between man and God still exist, and have never ended.
Many Jewish works, including the Talmud and Maimonides's "Guide of the Perplexed" affirms that gentiles may receive prophecy. However, Judaism generally does not affirm that any of the specific people well known in other religions are genuine prophets. Jews have not recognized any specific gentile leader as a prophet, as most people who claim to be prophets in other religions have done so in such a way as to delegitimize or supersede Judaism itself. Judaism holds that no true prophet will create a new faith or religion as a successor to Judaism. Thus, the Christian Testament's claim that the Jewish leaders were the offspring of the devil, and that Christians are the new Israel, is rejected. Similarly, Jews reject the Quran's claims that Jews have deliberately falsified the Bible and that only Muslims know the true word of God.
The Talmud affirms that minor forms of prophecy still occur. One example of this is the 'bat kol'. (e.g. Tosefta Sota 13:3, Yerushalmi Sota 24b, and Bavli Sota 48b). The Talmud notes that each time a Jew studies the Torah or its rabbinic commentaries, God is revealed anew; there is still a link between the God and the Jewish people. Reference: Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Others" (Ktav)
A Jewish tradition holds that there were 600,000 male and 600,000 female prophets. Judaism recognizes the existence of 49 prophets who bequeathed permanent messages to mankind.
According to the Talmud there were also seven women who are counted as prophets whose message bears relevance for all generations: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah (mother of the prophet Samuel), Abigail (a wife of King David), Huldah (from the time of Jeremiah), and Esther. There were, of course, other women who functioned as prophets, and the last prophet mentioned in the Bible, Noahdiah (Nehemiah 6:14) was a woman.
Some Christians, i.e. those who believe in the dispensationalism, believe prophecy ended with the coming of Jesus Christ, who delivered the "fullness of the law". Within this group, many Protestants believe that prophecy ended with the last of the prophets in the Hebrew portion of the Bible that Christians call the "Old Testament" included in their canon, leaving a gap of about 400 years between then and the coming of Jesus Christ.
This being said, Christianity as a whole and the majority of Protestant denominations reject dispensationalism. Most Protestants hold that prophacy continues to this day, though what is meant by this varies widely. Denominations influenced by Pentecostalism tend to look for ecstatic visions and cryptic messages of the kind found in the Old Testament, while Reformed denominations see prophacy continuing in everyday preaching. The majority of Protestant congregations do not seem to have a well-developed inclusion of prophacy in their religious practice.
The Eastern Orthodox generally believe that John the Baptist (also known as John the Forerunner) was the last of the prophets, thus tightly linking the period of prophecy in the Old Testament with Jesus. Roman Catholics and Muslims also regard John the Baptist as a prophet.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Mormon church, believes that its founder was a prophet. The leader of the church is known as the "Prophet, Seer and Revelator" in the belief that he continues to receive direct revelation from God for the guidance of the church. This began with first of the presidents, Joseph Smith, Jr. The Unification Church likewise regards its founder, Sun Myung Moon as a living prophet.
Jehovah's Witnesses do not consider their founder Charles Taze Russell or any other person in their modern-day history to be a prophet. Occasionally, their literature refers to the Christian congregation collectively as God's prophet on earth; this must be understood however in the sense of declaring God's judgments from the Bible, rather than a claim to inspiration. For many years, their magazine The Watchtower included a foreword that said: "No, The Watchtower is no inspired prophet."
Given that most Christians believe Jesus to be God, those in the Greek Bible called the "New Testament" that received a message from him might be considered by some Christians to be prophets.
Islam holds that Allah (Arabic for God) sent prophets to all nations on earth, at various stages of their histories. These prophets had the task of conveying religious guidance to the people. The Quran is held by Muslims to have been written by God and transmitted via the angel Garbriel to the prophet Mohammed.
The Quran mentions the names of 25 prophets, and indicates that there have been many others sent to humanity throughout time. These 25 include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. These individuals were mortal humans; Islam demands that a believer accept all of the prophets, making no distinction between them. It is Muhammad who is held to be the last prophet, ending a long line of messengers and also believed is the return of prophet Isa (Jesus) on the Last Day.
The Ahmadi Muslims consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian to be a prophet. However as he comes after the prophet Mohammed, their teachings are considered heretical and non-Islamic by most Muslims.
The Bahá'í Faith teaches that there have been other great prophets besides the seven cited by Islam. The founder of the Bahá'í faith, Bahá'u'lláh, who came after Mohammed, is one such prophet. In addition, there were other prophets who spoke to the followers of other faiths in other parts of the world. Thus the founders of great non-Western religions, such as Buddha, are also considered prophets of God. The faith teaches that religion is an unfolding process in world history, and the various prophets participated in this process in different times and cultures. This explains the differences in the world's great religions, which are ultimately one and come from God.
Foretelling the future
According to certain groups, the following figures were not prophets in the Biblical sense of the word, but they are supposed to have foretold the future.