On (False) Prophets and Messiahs (2016)
The word “prophet” comes from the Greek for “one who predicts.” It served as the accepted translation of the Hebrew “navi”—itself from a Semitic source, which in Akkadian and Arabic indicated “call, announce.” Some Latin sources translated Greek “prophetes” with Latin “vates” (still current in English, and the source of “Vatican”); this can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root, meaning “to blow, inspire, spiritually arouse.” In Old High German “prophet” was rendered by “wizzago,” from “wizzan” or “to know” (which, incidentally, is also the source of contemporary “wiseacre”). The Hebrew source of “messiah” translates into “an anointed one” in English and into “khristos” (hence Christ and Christians) in Greek. The Hebrew root is first used in Genesis (31:13), and is applied to the anointing, i.e., consecrating by smearing with oil, of a pillar. So much for etymologies.
As for the title of this essay: According to my worldview, prophets are either liars or suffer from some psychopathology (or perhaps both). Therefore the label “false prophet” uses an unnecessary qualifier: one way or another, all prophets are false. By necessity, this conclusion would be rejected by religious denominations that declare some of their own prophets to be true (and most, if not all, of others’ prophets to be false). Historically, prophets and messiahs perform different roles; but given the overlap in their functions (messiahs prophesize, and many prophets have been regarded as messiahs), here I will treat them interchangeably.
To substantiate my doubts about the sanity of nonprevaricating prophets, I offer the following examples, which either demonstrate a prophet’s abnormal behavior, or note others’ characterizations of a prophet as a madman:
“He [Saul, the first king of the Israelites] stripped off his garments, and he too prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay naked all that day and all that night ” (1 Samuel 19:24). Zvi Mark mentions Rashi’s (perhaps the most revered exegetist of the Hebrew Bible) interpretation as King Saul having been “possessed by madness” (2009, p. 3). (See also Chabad, n.d.).
According to an article in New Scientist, “records in the Bible reveal that Ezekiel, who lived about 2600 years ago, showed extreme classic symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy” (Motluk, 2001). Alison Motluk’s report is based on Erik L. Altschuler’s (2002) work, in which he described some of Ezekiel’s symptoms, included fainting spells, inability to speak, hypergraphia (a compulsion to write profusely detailed accounts), and aggressive religiosity.
On God’s command, the prophet Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for about three years (Isaiah 20:2-3).
The prophet Balaam was thought to have been mad: “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Peter 2:15-16).
“The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired person a maniac” (Hosea 9:7).
“According to Rabbi Yohanan, since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to fools and babies” (Talmud: Baba Batra 12/B).
In 1825 Thomas Jefferson dismissed The Revelation of St. John as “the ravings of a maniac” (Allen, 2005).
Religious Attitudes Toward False Prophets
The abundance of claimants to messiahship should lead even believers to suspect that many are or have been false messiahs. Though not a totally reliable source, Wikipedia is useful for approximating the magnitude of this phenomenon: It lists and documents 20 Jewish, 34 Christian, 7 Muslim, and 10 other individuals who either claimed to be messiahs, or were regarded as such by a large number of followers (2015a); 16 more claimed to be a reincarnation of Buddha (2015b).
One might think that believers find it relatively easy to decide who is a false prophet/messiah by seeing whether their predictions come true. Yet both their scriptural definitions and an examination of later and better documented examples show that things are far more complicated: A prophecy may come true, and yet its author is declared false; and failed prophecies need not disqualify their source (as in Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956). Examples of such cases will be included among the brief review of scriptural, as well as extrascriptural, references to so-called false prophets and messiahs in the three Abrahamic religions.
According to the Hebrew Bible: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer…. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
This primary definition clearly tells us that the motive underlying most claims about the falsity of a prophet is a need for control. In today’s vernacular, this comes down to “Who is the boss?”
Take, for example, the Prophet Micah’s attack on his rivals:
This is what the Lord says about the prophets who are causing my people to go astray, who are calling out ‘Peace’ when they are being fed, but who declare war against those who won’t feed them: ‘You will have nights without visions, and darkness without prophecy. The sun will set on the prophets, and the day will darken for them. Those who see visions will be put to shame, and the diviners will be disgraced—every one of them—they will cover their faces, because there will be no answer from God.’
As for me, I am truly filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord, filled with judgment and power to announce to Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:5-8)
Many similar incidents of rivalry among prophets appear in the Jewish Bible: Elijah first challenged and shamed, then slaughtered, 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 22-40); in the Lord’s name Jeremiah (28:15-17) cursed the prophet Hananiah, and accused other prophets of lying and committing adultery (29:23); Isaiah (28:7) proclaimed that drunken “priests and prophets … stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions.” In postbiblical times Simon Bar Kokhba was recognized by Rabbi Akiva (referred to in the Talmud as Head of all the Sages) as the messiah; yet this hero of the 2nd-century war against Rome was called Bar Koziba, the son of lies, by his rabbinic opponents (Krauss, 1906, pp. 506-507).
A 17th-century case is especially worth mentioning: Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676) was a Turkish-born Jewish cabbalist who came to be acknowledged as the Jewish Messiah by tens of thousands of followers in Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. His claims to messiahship were based on a spurious book, supposedly containing scriptural proof of his messianic origin, as well as forged documents—all provided by one of his disciples (Scholem, 2007, p. 273). Gershom Scholem, probably the greatest authority on cabbalists in general, and on Shabtai Zvi in particular, described him as “a character that conforms largely to what handbooks of psychiatry describe as an extreme case of cyclothymia or manic-depressive psychosis” (1974, p. 246). His downfall was brought about by a rival prophet: Nehemia ha-Kohen, a Polish cabbalist, denounced him as an impostor to the Sultan. Subsequently, both Shabtai Zvi and his denouncer converted to Islam (Kohler & Seligsohn, 1906, p. 212).
Accusing another of being a false prophet, and thus attempting to retain control, is not a thing of the past. Rabbi Schneerson (1902-1994), a charismatic Hassidic leader, is regarded by many of his followers as the Messiah, to the point of denying his death. Rabbi Shach, one of his powerful opponents and the leader of a rival Jewish sect, compared Rabbi Schneerson to the followers of Shabtai Zvi, accused him of false Messianism, and called him “the madman who sits in New York and drives the whole world crazy” (Yehudim Neged Chabad, 2015).
The attitude of Christianity toward false prophets resembles what we have seen in the Jewish Bible. Here, too, admonitions are announced by rival prophets, warn of dangerous (i.e., heretical) messages, and even contain some character assassination. Notice how their purport is echoed by the censorship practices of various totalitarian regimes (see Goldstein, 2001):
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers… Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake. (Titus 1:10-11)
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them … In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15-16)
In addition to such warnings (see also Revelation 13:6 and Matthew 24:24), the New Testament recounts a confrontation between Paul and “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.’ Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand” (Acts 13:6-11).
Contemporary examples are abundant. In their quest for control, Protestant and Catholic sources inevitably blame each other for producing dishonest leaders of their faith. On the one hand, Protestants are liable to so describe the serving Pope. Hence the Rapture Ready website offers this indication of the current Pope’s falsity: “Humility may in fact be the real sign that Pope Francis is a possible candidate for the role of False Prophet. Revelation describes this person as a beast with two horns like a lamb. It will most likely take someone of a kind and flattering nature to bring the world together under the Harlot church system” (Rapture Ready, 2015). Catholics, on the other hand, attack evangelists. Having published a “Ten Most Wanted” list of the most famous ones, Anthony Hilder went on to say that “[w]hen these false teachers and false prophets are apprehended they will be tried in a spiritual court of law (I Kor. 6.2), and when found guilty they will be punished according to the Scriptures (Rom. 16.17; I Tim. 3.5, 6; 2 Tim. 2.25, 26; Tit. 1.9-16; 3. 10,11)” (2015). He also added that “All females teachers are false teachers for the Scriptures makes [sic] it explicitly clear they are not to teach men (I Kor. 14.34,35; 1 Tim. 2. 9-15)” (Hilder, 2015).
Since according to the Quran (33:40) Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, anyone claiming to be a prophet after Muhammad is a false one. However, Islamic eschatology speaks of a Mahdi (the guided one), who is the prophesied redeemer of Islam. The Mahdi will rule for several years before the Day of Resurrection, and with the help of Jesus will destroy Masih ad-Dajjal, the False Messiah (Bowker, 1997, p. 43). This false messiah will be easy to recognize; on the basis of Quranic and hadith sources, Abu Ibrahim described him as follows: “The Dajjal will be a short man, pigeon-toed, with curly hair. He will be one-eyed, with his eye neither prominent nor sunken. If you become confused about him, then remember that your Lord is not one-eyed” (Abu Ibrahim, 2011).
There have been numerous claimants to be the redeemer of Islam, including Muhammad Jaunpuri, the 15th-century founder of the Mahdavia sect; Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the 19th-century founder of Bábism, and Muhammad Ahmad, who in 1881 established the Mahdist state in Sudan. Each of these was violently opposed and persecuted by his rivals.
Though not having brought about the promised redemption, some of the self-proclaimed Mahdis have been very popular: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 19th-century founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, currently has 10 to 20 million followers in over 200 countries (Al Islam, 2015). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad saw himself as a prophet, and offered the following explanation for apparently violating the “seal of the prophets” idea:
All windows of Prophethood are now closed except the window of complete obedience to the Holy Prophet. Therefore, he who approaches God through this window is reflectively clothed with the same cloak of Prophethood which is the cloak of the Muhammadi Prophethood. The Prophethood of such a one is not apart and distinct from the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet, inasmuch as he does not claim it in his own right but receives everything from the fountain of the Holy Prophet, not for himself but for his glory…. Therefore the concept of Khatamun Nabiyyeen [seal of the prophets] has not been contravened by my advent, but it would certainly be contravened by the advent of Jesus a second time. (Ahmad, 2015)
Two contemporary examples are Muhammad al-Qahtani and Abdul Zahra. Al-Qahtani was behind a 1979 uprising in Saudi Arabia. In 1978 “Juhayman [al-‘Utaybi] declared that it had been confirmed to him in a dream that his companion Mohammad al-‘Qahtani was the Mahdi” (Hegghammer & Lacroix, 2007). Juhayman was a fundamentalist who opposed the corrupt Saudi leadership. Within a year he and his followers seized and held for two weeks the Great Mosque in Mecca, with the aim of consecrating al-Qahtani as the Mahdi. Hundreds of deaths occurred during the siege, and scores of public beheadings ensued. Abdul-Zahra, the leader of the Heaven’s Army cult, was arrested twice on charges of claiming to be Imam Mahdi, the revered Shiite Muslim saint who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago (Rouge & Fakhrildeen, 2007). He was killed by Iraqi and U.S. troops in 2007.
This essay has not been concerned with the need to believe in prophets and messiahs, only with the need to undermine them. As we have seen, in each of the three major religions (as in comparable monolithic organizations), self-acclaimed leaders who do not follow orthodoxy put themselves in harm’s way: when they threaten the secure status of those in power, or attempt to wrench away control, they are ridiculed, censored, persecuted, silenced, and destroyed. A basic human need underlies this behavior. While enumerating universal psychogenic needs, personality theorist Harry A. Murray called this need dominance and found that (a) it was a common reaction to being faced by stubborn opposition and (b) was directed against anyone who opposed any need (1938, pp. 81-82). Erich Fromm was more blunt when he referred to control as “the religion of psychical cripples” (1977, p. 386; cf. Kramer-Moore & Moore, 2002, p. 386).
 As weather forecasters, polltakers, and horoscope writers (among others) well know, as profitable as predicting the future may be, it is an occupation fraught with uncertainty and failure.
 See also the etymology and sense evolution of “giddy” (which in Old English meant “insane, mad, stupid”) from “possessed by a god.”
 This count disregards, of course, the countless psychiatric cases who make similar claims in and out of hospitals all over the world.
 Also note the following: Hanani the seer was jailed for cursing Asa, King of Judah (2 Chronicles 16:7-10); Micaiah was jailed (1 Kings 22:26); and Jeremiah was arrested and threatened with death, while his predecessor Urijah was killed (Jeremiah 26 and 37:14), for their unfavorable prophecies.
 Related aspects of this phenomenon, not dealt with here, are the Christian concern with the Antichrist (McGinn, 1994) and the success of charismatic cult leaders (Lofland, 1977).
Abu Ibrahim. (2011). “Dajjal Anti Christ.” Islamic Learning Materials Website. <http://islamiclearningmaterials.com/dajjal-anti-christ/>.
Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam. (2015). “Can a Prophet Still Come?” Why Ahmadi Website. <http://whyahmadi.org/why-i-am-an-ahmadi/can-a-prophet-still-come.html>.
Al Islam (2015). “An Overview.” Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Website. <http://www.alislam.org/introduction/index.html>.
Allen, Brooke. (2005). “Our Godless Constitution.” CBS News, February 4. (Slightly modified in the February 5, 2005 The Nation article of the same title.)
Altschuler, Erik L. (2002). “Did Ezekiel have Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?” Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 59, No. 6 (June 1): 561-562.
Bowker, John (1997). (Ed.). “Al-Dajjal.” In Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Chabad (n.d.). “Shmuel 1: Rashi’s Commentary.” Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/15848#showrashi=true>.
Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
Fromm, Erich. (1977). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Goldstein, Robert J. (2001). Political Censorship. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Hegghammer, Thomas & Stephane Lacroix. (2007). “Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi Revisited.” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 39, Issue 1 (February): 103-122.
Hilder, Anthony. (2015). “Ten Most Wanted: False Teachers In America.” Free World Alliance Website. <http://www.freeworldfilmworks.com/dov-10danger.htm>.
Kohler, Kaufmann & Max Seligsohn. (1906). Nehemiah ha-Kohen. In Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls.
Kramer-Moore, Daniela & Michael Moore. (2002). Life Imitates Art—Encounters
Between Family Therapy and Literature. New York, NY: Solomon Press.
Krauss, Samuel. (1906). Bar Kokba and Bar Kokba war. In The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls.
Lofland, John. (1977). Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization and Maintenance of Faith, enlarged ed. New York, NY: Irvington.
Mark, Zvi. (2009). Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. New York, NY: Continuum.
McGinn, Bernard. (1994). Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Motluk, Alison. (2001). “Old Testament Prophet Showed Epileptic Symptoms.” New Scientist, Vol. 172, Issue 2317 (November 17): 20.
Murray, Harry A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rapture Ready. (2015). “Is Pope Francis a Candidate for the False Prophet?” <https://www.raptureready.com/faq/faq800.html>.
Roug, Louise & Saad Fakhrildeen. (2007). “Religious Cult Targeted in Fierce Battle Near Najaf.” Los Angeles Times, January 30.
Scholem, Gershom. (1974). Shabbetai Zevi and the Shabbatean Movement. New York, NY: Meridian.
Scholem, Gershom. (2007). Yakhini, Abraham ben Elijah. In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. Vol. 21. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference.
Wikipedia. (2015a). “List of Messiah Claimants.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_messiah_claimants>.
Wikipedia. (2015b). “List of Buddha Claimants.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Buddha_claimants>.
Yehudim Neged Chabad. (2015). “What Do the Most Important Rabbis Think of Chabad-Lubavitch?” Chabad Mafia Website. <http://www.chabad-mafia.com/religion>.
Copyright ©2016 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2016 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.