Ancient Prophecy

Near Eastern, Biblical, and Greek Perspectives

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Martti Nissinen
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anyone working broadly in the fields of Mesopotamian and biblical prophecy knows the inestimable debt that scholars owe to Martti Nissinen. His publications have provided avenues for understanding biblical prophecy as part of a shared eastern Mediterranean phenomenon with Mesopotamian sources, all without also sacrificing the rigor and particularities of biblical studies and Assyriology as distinct disciplines. That debt now increases even more with the publication of Nissinen’s Ancient Prophecy: Near Eastern, Biblical, and Greek Perspectives. The work reflects decades of thought, and provides a “comprehensive view” of biblical, Mesopotamian, and Greek prophecy (vii). Nissinen structures the book in three parts, consisting of (1) theoretical issues for the study of prophecy; (2) a survey of sources that inform scholars about prophetic activity and literature from ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, and the Hebrew Bible; and (3) a series of essays addressing topics relevant for the comparative study of prophecy in ancient times. The result is an interdisciplinary masterpiece that will provide the foundation, and be the standard, for future research in these fields. 

The first section contains a rich discussion of theory and method for studying prophecy in ancient texts. Borrowing from J. Z. Smith, Nissinen helpfully contextualizes the study of prophecy as one of constructing intellectual categories in the modern academy to analyze historical phenomena that are themselves the product of ancient communities and their needs. While this section is the smallest in the book, it is perhaps the most groundbreaking, providing the application of method that is well-established in religious studies broadly to a field that has historically been undertheorized. 

The second section of the book has three chapters. Each chapter surveys the textual evidence for prophecy in Near Eastern, Greek, and biblical sources. Nissinen also deals with the complicated relationship between history, orality, and writing in each area. This section is invaluable for a comprehensive view regarding where scholars can find information about ancient prophecy in the eastern Mediterranean. On its own, this sort of compilation serves as an important contribution for researchers in Assyriology, classics, and biblical studies.

The final, and longest, section consists of five essays dealing with comparison between prophetic texts from the three cultures of the ancient eastern Mediterranean. Nissinen tackles issues such as the relationship between prophecy and ecstasy; prophecy and religious institutions such as temples; prophets and kings; prophecy and gender; and a final essay in which all of the foregoing topics are the object of more extensive comparative reflection. In addition to these subjects, I would have liked to have seen a section on prophecy and law, a topic that has a deep history in biblical studies (though perhaps less so in Assyriology and classics). While Nissinen touches on this issue occasionally (see his comments on prophecy and the cult generally, as well as specifically on law and prophecy, 274), a more sustained analysis would be illuminating. Finally, an operative term for Nissinen is the category “family resemblance.” Nissenen takes the term directly from Wittgenstein (20), and his use of the concept will be of special interest for scholars of religion (see especially 50 and 353-355). 

In such a sweeping, learned, and theoretically informed work, it is difficult to find room for critique. An issue not addressed in Nissinen’s masterpiece, however, involves a definitional matter. As Nissinen states, prophecy is not a “one way street” involving a message from the divine to the prophet, and from the prophet to the audience (22). Prophecy as a category is an intellectual construct of the scholar and necessarily involves a social context. As Nissinen claims, prophets were often subject to critique and suspicion by their communities; however, the divine realm, at least in rabbinic if not also biblical thought, was also subject to question through prophecy. As Yohanon Muffs argued (“Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession” in Love & Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel, Harvard University Press, 1992) passages such as Genesis 18:25 suggest that God needs prophets like Abraham to act as prophets in order for the divine realm to function: perhaps as a self-imposed limitation, but as a limitation nonetheless. In other words, according to Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael 1:8-9, a true prophet acts like Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:42 (which was traditionally attributed to Jeremiah): a prophet not only brings the divine perspective to the people, but also makes God aware of (and calls him to account with respect to) the issues that Israel faced (see also Isa 51:9-11). Nissinen is absolutely correct to draw attention to the multi-faceted nature and social context of prophecy, but the two-way street, at least in biblical and rabbinic texts, extends not simply from the community to the prophet but also all the way back up to the divine.  

This observation is in no way a criticism or detraction from Nissinen’s volume. As he states, he does not deal with other prophetic texts such as those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity, much less in rabbinic material. Nissinen claims that any approach to prophecy necessarily requires flexible categories that can adapt to increasing data, different time periods, and evolving theory. Indeed, a fuller consideration of later perspectives, rightly excluded from Nissinen’s study, might reframe his claim that prophecy is “a universal product of the human mind” (11). For example, Maimonides did not grant that the “divine-human mediation” through direct communication was intuitive, even going so far as to reanalyze the call of Abram (the first person termed a “prophet” in the Hebrew Bible) as one of philosophical introspection. 

The above comments perhaps offer an additional dynamic to Nissinen’s definitional discussion, but one is hard-pressed to identify flaws in this learned and thoughtful work. Scholars engaged in comparative study will find this volume essential for drawing together theory and the analysis of texts. Ancient Prophecy will instantly serve as the standard work for researching in ancient prophecy generally and prophetic texts from the eastern Mediterranean specifically. Assyriologists and biblical scholars once again owe Nissinen an inestimable debt for his work in ancient prophecy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel L. Boyd is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies & Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martti Nissinen is Professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Helsinki. He is also the leader of the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence "Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions." Nissinen is an expert of the prophetic phenomenon in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, and his research interests include also gender issues (love poetry, homoeroticism, masculinity) in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean. His publications include Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (Brill, 2003) and Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Augsburg Fortress (1998).


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