Martti Nissinen. Ancient Prophecy: Near Eastern, Biblical, and Greek Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Through several decades of productive and influential work, Martti Nissinen has established himself as a leading scholar in the study of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. With Ancient Prophecy, Nissinen weaves together his experience, skill, and insight into an impressive monograph. What results is one of the most complete and authoritative accounts of the prophetic phenomenon in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “Theory,” consists of one chapter, “Constructing Prophetic Divination” (pp. 3–54), in which Nissinen outlines the major theoretical and methodological aspects of his approach. Expanding upon ideas in his excellent essay “Prophecy as a Construct: Ancient and Modern” (2013a), Nissinen builds on the fundamental observation that in both the modern, scholarly construct and the historical phenomenon, prophecy is “a social and intellectual construct that exists if there is a common understanding about what it means and how it can be recognized” (p. 4). Prophecy does not exist as a natural phenomenon; rather, it is socially and historically contingent, both for the communities in which prophets functioned and for those which seek to define, reconstruct and understand it.
As the title of the book makes evident, one of the major features of the book is Nissinen’s inclusion of the Greek oracle “as a part of the same landscape in geographical and phenomenological terms” as biblical and ancient Near Eastern prophecy (p. 6). Thanks to pioneering works by scholars such as Gustav Hölscher (1914), Alfred Haldar (1945), and Johannes Lindblom (1962), it is now common to consider biblical and ancient Near Eastern prophecy as parts of the same cultural milieu. However, this is less true for the Greek oracle. Historical differences and disciplinary divisions in the academy “seem to have discouraged a thorough comparison between the sources” from Greece, the Bible and the ancient Near East (p. 9). Thus Nissinen aims to overcome disciplinary boundaries and construct a picture of ancient Eastern Mediterranean prophecy “as big and attractive as the sources enable it to appear” (p. 10).
Nissinen understands prophecy as an intuitive kind of divination—a mode of divine-human communication and system of knowledge—that involves the transmission of divine knowledge inspired by a divine agent through non-technical means. Following the structure of the classic “messenger” metaphor, the “prophetic process of communication” has four basic parts: (1) the sender of a message; (2) the message; (3) the prophet, i.e. the diviner; and (4) the human recipient(s). This basic description derives from Manfred Weippert (1988), whose definition of prophecy continues to enjoy wide acceptance. However, Nissinen supplements this definition with five points of emphasis. First, the nature of the prophetic process as “a form of social communication” requires a community which both recognizes the “value, veracity and applicability” of prophetic behavior and presupposes belief in the existence of a deity or deities behind the communication (p. 22). Second, since the life of a prophetic message is extended by its transmission as a written text, Nissinen adopts Armin Lange’s (2006) distinction between “written prophecy,” a record of oral performance, and “literary prophecy,” which includes the interpretation, recontextualization and invention of prophetic texts by scribal communities. Third, Nissinen cautions against semantic creep from modern notions of prophecy as “prediction” when considering ancient sources, stressing that “a predictive text is not per definitionem a prophecy” (p. 23). Fourth, since their distinction is less absolute than that of ancient Near Eastern sources, one must “allow for some flexibility with regard to the divinatory method” when considering the differentiation of technical and non-technical means of divination in Greek and biblical sources (p. 23). Fifth, to avoid confusion arising from different academic preferences for terminology, Nissinen refers to “a diviner of the intuitive or non-technical type” with the term “prophet,” rather than “seer,” in each of the three ancient Eastern Mediterranean corpora (p. 23).
After discussing the terms by which one can identify ancient prophets, Nissinen then outlines his justification for a comparative method. While comparative methods have traditionally been “addicted to the question of influence and causality” (p. 43), Nissinen argues that cultural interactions and “phenomenological points of convergence—similarities as well as differences” between the Near East and Greece allow us to identify common categories shared by the particular sources (p. 45). After documenting the particulars in their respective contexts, one is able to paint a coherent picture of the ancient “landscape” of prophecy in the Eastern Mediterranean, “however fragmentary this picture will turn out to be” (p. 49). Referring to the work of Jonathan Z. Smith frequently in this chapter (1978; 1982), Nissinen uses the metaphor of “keyholes” through which one peers upon this landscape; each source cannot provide enough information to fill out a complete picture, but “[t]he incompleteness of the historical data provided by one source material may only become evident when compared with the information obtainable from another source” (p. 51). So, Nissinen uses the comparative method with the hope that a broadened scope and new scholarly tools will result.
Concluding with observations about genre, Nissinen emphasizes how the sources for ancient Eastern Mediterranean prophecy are shaped by the social concerns of the communities which participated in the prophetic process. Through the “literarization of prophecy,” these communities took oral performances of prophecy and wrote them down, quite often for purposes other than documenting the prophetic phenomenon (p. 53–54). It is therefore critical to recognize “what can be known” through the filter of genre mediating between text and reader (p. 54). Researchers are inherently limited by differences in emic and etic genre expectations, and are not always provided satisfactory answers to historical questions.
In Part II, “Sources” (pp. 57–167), Nissinen employs the methods of Part I as he documents the available sources for ancient Eastern Mediterranean prophecy in three chapters: ancient Near Eastern sources (pp. 57–115), Greek sources (pp. 116–43), and Hebrew Bible (pp. 144–67). Throughout this section he classifies texts according to six ancient genres: (1) lexical lists and omen texts; (2) administrative texts; (3) ritual texts; (4) letters; (5) written prophecy; and (6) literary prophecy (p. 57). In addition to some lexical, administrative and ritual texts, the Mesopotamian sources mostly comprise letters from Mari, Amarna, Neo-Assyria, and Lachish, and written oracles from Ešnunna and Neo-Assyria. Though “their connection to actual prophetic performance [is] difficult if not impossible to determine” (p. 105), Nissinen discusses the literary descriptions of prophecy in the Epic of Zimri-Lim, the report of Wenamon, the Luwian inscription from the Ahmar/Qubbah stele, the Zakkur inscription, the Deir Alla plaster text, royal inscriptions of Assurbanipal, and the “purely literary” Akkadian and Egyptian predictive texts. The textual corpora from Greece consist of the epigraphic sources of lead tablets from Dodona and oracles from Didyma and Claros, as well as literary sources—“by far the most abundant sources of our knowledge of the Greek oracle” (p. 127)—attesting oracles from Delphi, Dodona, Didyma and Claros. Finally, Nissinen surveys the prophetic books and historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible. These sources attest prophecy at a point where its literarization “has reached a more advanced state than any other source material”; though there is “no reason to deny the reality of prophecy in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah,” one has “no direct access to the prophets as historical personalities” because one must pass through the filter of generations of scribal activity in the Second Temple period (p. 147–48).
Finally, in Part III, “Comparative Essays” (pp. 171–355), Nissinen draws together conclusions from the three corpora in five thematic essays. Four of these are “partially rewritten and expanded” versions of articles published elsewhere (p. viii): “Prophecy and Ecstasy” (pp. 171–200; cf. Nissinen 2000), “Prophets and Temples” (pp. 201–56; cf. Nissinen 2010), “Prophets and Kings” (pp. 257–96; cf. Nissinen 2012) and “Prophecy and Gender” (pp. 297–325; cf. Nissinen 2013b). The final chapter, “Keyholes for Comparative Reconstruction” (pp. 326–55), distills Nissinen’s conclusions concerning sources, divination, ecstasy, temples, kings, gender, the scribal turn, and family resemblances. Some of these conclusions are as follows. As an intuitive type of divination, prophecy is distinguished from technical types most sharply in Mesopotamian sources, a little less so in the Hebrew Bible, and in a “far from absolute” fashion in Greece (p. 334). Regarding ecstasy, Nissinen notes that all of the ancient sources associate prophecy with “patterned public behavior” and the idea of divine inspiration, or possession, “is presupposed by the very idea of the prophets as mouthpieces of the divine” (p. 336). Prophets were closely affiliated with temples, “the point of convergence between human and superhuman worlds” (pp. 342–43), and it is evident that “prophecy had a political function throughout the ancient Eastern Mediterranean,” as kings and rulers consult prophets in all three corpora—though the independent traditions of Greek oracle sites, where private persons consulted prophets as well, allowed them greater autonomy from political structures (p. 344). The “virtual disappearance” of prophetic divination from Near Eastern records in the Persian period suggests that the collapse of native kingship impacted prophecy like it did scribal culture, as Seth Sanders has observed (2017). Though “prophecy was not a royal institution par excellence, because the primary context of prophets and prophecy is usually to be found in the temple context,” this loss of native kingship “caused drastic changes in prophetic agency” (p. 351). As the written text increasingly became the object of focus “as a sign and a carrier of revelation,” scribes relegated oral prophetic performance to a marginal position “with [a] new culture of writing and rewriting revelations” (p. 352). Finally, Nissinen concludes with a discussion of Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” mentioned in the opening chapter (p. 20). Commenting a little on questions of “influence and cultural transmission,” he notes that the strong correlation between Assyrian prophecy and Aramaic or Israelite/Judahite prophecy, especially Deutero-Isaiah, suggests a possible “common stream of tradition” for which direct influence is impossible to demonstrate (p. 353–54). The origins of Greek oracle sites are not necessarily traceable to the East, in contrast, probably due to political tensions between the Greek city states and Persia. Because “[p]rophetic tradition was not a matter of transcultural textual transmission,” its traditions moved across the ancient Eastern Mediterranean through “deep undercurrents” of cultural streams beyond our extant sources (p. 355). It is through the “recognition of the common category” of prophecy that scholars can move beyond a search for “textual and cultural influence” and see the big picture of a generically relate socio-religious phenomenon attested in Greece, the Levant and Mesopotamia (p. 355).
The book also contains two appendixes. The first charts the gender of prophets and deities in ancient Near Eastern sources (p. 357–60) and the second is a catalog of ancient sources documenting prophecy (pp. 361–65). This second list serves as an authoritative and up-to-date list of all prophetic texts from the ancient Near East. The extensive bibliography contains a wealth of resources (pp. 367–421), and indices for Near Eastern sources, biblical references, Greek sources, and modern authors round out the volume. With Nissinen referring to each source by its catalog number throughout, and since each chapter can be consulted independently on particular sources, topics and themes, Ancient Prophecy is even like a reference volume.
This is scholarship of the highest caliber in a truly excellent book: it is methodologically sophisticated; it is detailed, thorough and well-documented with primary sources in several ancient languages; it is fully conversant with scholarship in multiple academic disciplines; its bold and ambitious scope is tempered with admirable intellectual modesty; and it is written in stylishly elegant and clear prose. Nissinen notes how discussion of “apocalyptic writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and early Christian sources” and admirably apologizes for this “failure” (p. viii). Even so, Ancient Prophecy will be an essential point of reference for all future work in the area. For the wider academy, it models the productive use of comparative methods for historical reconstruction and of integrating findings across disciplinary boundaries. Nissinen should be congratulated for this accomplishment.
William L. Kelly is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond.
Alfred Haldar. 1945. Associations of Cult Prophets among the Ancient Semites. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.
Gustav Hölscher. 1914. Die Profeten: Untersuchungen zur Religionsgeschichte Israels. Leipzig: Hinrichs.
Armin Lange. 2006. “Literary Prophecy and Oracle Collection: A Comparison between Judah and Greece in Persian Times.” Pages 248–75 in Prophets, Prophecy and Prophetic Texts in Second Temple Judaism. Edited by Michael H. Floyd and Robert D. Haak. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 427. London: T&T Clark.
Johannes Lindblom. 1962. Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Blackwell [2nd ed. 1973].
Martti Nissinen. 2000. “Spoken, Written, Quoted and Invented: Orality and Writtenness in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.” Pages 235–71 in Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. Edited by Ehud Ben Zvi and Michael H. Floyd. SBL Symposium Series 10. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Martti Nissinen. 2010. “Prophetic Madness: Prophecy and Ecstasy in the Ancient Near East and in Greece.” Pages 3–29 in Raising Up a Faithful Exegete: Essays in Honor of Richard D. Nelson. Edited by K. L. Noll and Brooks Schramm. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Martti Nissinen. 2013a. “Prophecy as a Construct: Ancient and Modern.” Pages 11–35 in “Thus Speaks Ishtar of Arbela”: Prophecy in Israel, Assyria and Egypt in the Neo-Assyrian Period. Edited by Robert P. Gordon and Hans M. Barstad. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Martti Nissinen. 2013b. “Gender and Prophetic Agency in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean.” Pages 27–58 in Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ancient Near East. Edited by Corrine L. Carvalho and Jonathan Stökl. Ancient Israel and Its Literature 15. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Seth Sanders. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum 167. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Jonathan Z. Smith. 1978. Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 23. Leiden: Brill.
Jonathan Z. Smith. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Manfred Weippert. 1988. “Aspekte israelitischer Prophetie im Lichte verwandter Erscheinungen des Alten Orients.” Pages 287–319 in Ad bene et fideliter seminandum: Festgabe für Karlheinz Deller zum 21. Februar 1987. Edited by Gerlinde Mauer and Ursula Magen. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 220. Kevelaer/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Butzon & Bercker/Neukirchener.