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False prophet

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In religion, the term false prophet is a label given to a person who is viewed as illegitimately claiming charismatic authority within a religious group. The individual may be seen as one who falsely claims the gift of prophecy, or who uses that gift for demagogy or evil ends. The label 'prophet' can be extremely subjective: Without exception, someone who is considered a 'true' prophet by some people, is simultaneously considered a 'false' prophet by others.

Prophets are particularly important figures in many of the world's major religions. In particular, this article will focus on false prophets in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the specific interpretative and theological models each religion uses in order to distinguish a true prophet from a false one.

The term is sometimes applied outside religion, to describe someone who fervently promotes a theory that the speaker thinks is false.

In the Bible

In the Old Testament

"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. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you" (Deuteronomy 13:1-5 NIV).

A few examples of Yahweh testing his faithful using "evil forces" can be found in a few places in the Hebrew Bible such as when he uses Satan to test Job (Job chs. 1-2), to test King David (1 Chronicles 21:1, cf. 2 Samuel 24:1) and evil spirits to torment King Saul (1 Samuel 16:15; 18:10) (it should be noted that the traditional Jewish understanding regarding Satan tends to differ from Christian understanding of the same being -- Satan is often viewed within the context of Judaism as a divine agent commissioned by Yahweh to test his people whereas in Christianity, he is an evil force much like Angra Mainyu in Zoroastrianism, a possible source of early Christian and Jewish demonology).

One particular incident in the Hebrew Bible records a story where, under duress from Ahab, the prophet Micaiah depicts God as requesting information from his heavenly counsel as to what he should do with a court of false prophets. This depiction is recorded in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

"Micaiah continued, 'Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, "Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?"
"'One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, "I will entice him."
"'"By what means?" the Lord asked.
"'"I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets," he said.
"'"You will succeed in enticing him," said the Lord. "Go and do it."
"'So now the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you'" (1 Kings 22:19-23 NIV).

It is possible that Micaiah meant to depict the false prophets as a test from Yahweh. It is also possible that it was meant as a slur on Ahab's prophets, such as Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah.[1]


The penalty for false prophecy, according to the biblical context, is capital punishment (per Deuteronomy 13:1-5).

"But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death."

In summary, the biblical standards for a false prophet, it is forbidden to speak in the name of a god other than Yahweh. Likewise, if a prophet makes a prophecy in the name of Yahweh that does not come to pass, that is another sign that he is not commissioned of Yahweh and that the people need not fear the false prophet.

In the New Testament

thumb|396px|right|False prophet predicting christianity with snakes

Throughout the New Testament, there are warnings of both false prophets and false Messiahs, and believers are adjured to be vigilant. The following verses (Matthew 7:15-23) are from the Sermon on the Mount:

"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. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

The New Testament addresses the same point of a false prophet predicting correctly and, Jesus predicted the future appearance of false prophets, affirming that they can perform great signs and miracles. The following verses (Matthew 24:10-13;24) are from the Olivet Discourse:

"At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. . . . For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect –- if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time" (Matthew 24:10-13;24 NIV).

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus brought out an ethical application for his disciples using the analogy of false prophets in the Old Testament:

"Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets" (Luke 6:26 NIV).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas encountered a false prophet named Elymas Bar-Jesus on the island of Cyprus. In Acts 13:6-12, we read:

"They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met 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, and for a time you will be unable 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. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord" (Acts of the Apostles 13:6-12, NIV).

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This particular story likewise best matches the model found in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. The claim here is that Elymas Bar-Jesus is trying to turn Sergius Paulus from the "true faith", just like the false prophet described in the preceding verses (although Jews may legitimately argue that to worship Jesus is a form of idolatry in and of itself and likewise departing from the "true faith" -- in this article, the concern is not so much with differences between beliefs as it is with the similarities between the models). This demonstrates further evolution of this model between early Judaism and Christianity. In these verses, we do not see Elymas Bar-Jesus prophesying as the term is popularly understood, so the Deuteronomy 13:1-5 model seems to fit this scenario best.

The Second Epistle of Peter makes a comparison between false teachers and false prophets and how the former will bring in false teachings, just like the false prophets of old:

"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 –- bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping" (2 Peter 2:1-3 NIV).

The First Epistle of John warns those of the Christian faith to test every spirit because of these false prophets:

"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus, that spirit is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world" (1 John 4:1-3 NIV).*

One popular New Testament false prophet is the false prophet mentioned in the Apocalypse of John. The Apocalypse's false prophet is the agent of the Antichrist, also known as the Beast, and he is ultimately cast with the Antichrist into the lake of "fire and brimstone"(Revelation 19:20 KJV). There are many theories and speculations surrounding this "false prophet", the "Antichrist" and their identities, but this is best discussed in an article dealing with the Antichrist specifically. There is likewise a historical model which suggests that the writer of Revelation was referring to contemporary figures such as Nero and Domitian and not some far-off end times scenario [2]

Use outside religion

The term false prophet is sometimes applied outside religion, to describe promoters of scientific, medical, or political theories which the author of the phrase thinks are false. Paul Offit's 2008 book Autism's False Prophets applied the phrase to promoters of unproven theories and therapies such as the thiomersal controversy and chelation therapy. Ronald Bailey's 1993 book Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse applied the phrase to promoters of the global warming hypothesis; however, by 2005 Bailey had changed his mind, writing "Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up."[3]

References and notes

  1. Mordechai Cogan, 1 Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Commentaries, Yale 2001
  2. Early Christian Writings: The Apocalypse of John http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/revelation.html
  3. Bailey R (2005-08-11). "We're all global warmers now". Reason. 


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