Saturday, September 14, 2013

This week in class, after discussing the nature of Israelite prophecy with a group of my students, we continued talking about the origins of the Prophetic Literature (PL). As expected, the conversation turned from the surprise of discovering that there were prophets in Israel who we don't know and we don't have their writings either (cf. Jer 28:8; Ezek 2:5) to the complexity of the PL writing process. Many of them were not aware that the majority of the PL is not written in prose but in elaborate speech poetry. As the lecture went on, one of the students asked if it was possible that the prophets themselves would have had pronounced their oracles to all the people of Israel in this way... 

For those who have the same question, here are some reflections on the matter. I think it is a good way to start acknowledging the most discernible difference between what we know from reading the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) about Israel's prophets and the oracles and actions they performed and the manner the prophetic books portrayed them with their words and deeds. While in the DtrH we read about some divine announcements and actions of several prophets dispersed throughout the Joshua - 2 Kgs accounts, in the PL we find (as a difference from other ANE cultures) a good number of prophetic speeches from different individuals gathered in collections. 

The specific way these oracles were collected and preserved is not totally clear. There are some cases in the same PL that can give us some ideas on the origins of the prophetic writings. In Isa 8:16 we encounter evidence that some of the prophet's followers or disciples may have been entrusted with the task of keeping their master's words. Jer 36:4, 17-18, 32 present the prophet Jeremiah asking Baruc his scribe to write down Jeremiah's oracles. Also there are some PL texts in which YHWH asks his prophets to preserve in writing his messages (Isa 30:8; Jer 30:2; 36:2; Ezek 43:11, Hab 2:2).  All these testimonies present a methodic form of preserving the prophetic oracles and making them available for others later in time. This is a procedure very different from the charismatic and “on the go” prophetic utterances we find recorded in the DtrH.

Jeremiah and Baruch
(Photo credit: goodsalt.com)
As we can notice, there is no specific way to explain how the PL originated. We can, however, outline its process of composition in several steps or stages. First of all, the prophet, playing his charismatic role, pronounced oracles (short prophetic utterances), or sayings or speeches while some of his listeners, thinking that these words were worth preserving started putting them in writing. If a prophet, like we see in the book of Jeremiah dictated his words, then a scribe was chosen for the task of writing them down. Then these collectors and/or scribes organized these oracles according to different criteria: “woe” oracles, judgment against foreign countries, restoration messages, chronology and so forth. The use of the poetic genre became essential in the preservation of these collections, conserving the messages in a way they could be more easily remembered. Some of these speeches were interlaced with some other forms of prophecy like visions (as in ecstatic experiences, cf. Ezek 1:4-28; Zech 1:8; 2:1; 4:1) and symbolic actions (Isa 20: 1-8; Jer 16:1-4; Hos 1-3). As part of the process, these collections were copied while sometimes the scribes added some remarks and amplifications, updating here and there the contents to new situations (redactional interventions), many of them probably happening after the Exile. Finally, as the prophetic material became more organized, a form of an established text was settled and preserved. Moreover, further additions and alterations (glosses and interpolations) still continued, which then were not considered authoritative. Consequently, these written works became other kind of readings (i.e., Targums on the prophets).


The PL was formed within the path from spoken word to poetic speech. Therefore there was not a direct writing process from the prophet himself to the actual form of the texts. And even though these books were named probably in order to remember some of these great people, these Israelite prophets, we need to appreciate in these same writings the reflection of the assisting contribution and labor of those who were behind the final form of the books. 

Juan Miguel Betancourt
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