Prophet: True or False?

Written by Gil Student

[The Lord said to Moses: "] I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and if he fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account.  But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle which I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods -- that prophet shall die."  And should you ask yourselves, "How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?" -- if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.
Deut. 18:18-22 (NJPS translation)

Defining A True And False Prophet

A simple reading of the passage tells us that we know how to discover a false prophet -- if his prophecy does not come true.  However, we do not know how distinguish between a false and true prophet until one of his prophecies is proven false.  Until that time we can never be certain that he is a true prophet.

1. Maimonides [Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10:1-2; Introduction to Mishnah, Vilna Shas, sec. 2 p. 106] explains that this verse tells us how to discern whether a prophet is true or false.  Since false prophets are never totally correct, even when they are correct in predicting the future they make mistakes on the details, and true prophets are always totally correct, even regarding the details, after a number of tests it can be accurately determined whether a prophet is truly relaying the word of G-d.  If his prophecies consistently come true, we know that he is true.  Otherwise he is false.  [The Turei Even quoted by R. Yosef Kaffih in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah ch. 10 n. 5 puts the number of required tests at three.]

The R. Nissim ben Reuven (Ran) [Derashot HaRan (ed. Feldman) p. 206 ff.] objects to Maimonides' logic.  The biblical passage tells us that a prophet whose prophecies do not come true is a false prophet.  It does not tell us the converse -- that a prophet whose prophecies come true is a true prophet.  Consider the following -- one who does not observe the Sabbath is not righteous.  Does that imply that one who observes the Sabbath is definitely righteous?  Not necessarily.  Similarly, just because the prophet has not yet been proven false does not mean that he is a true prophet.

[To the Ran's objection, Maimonides could counter that the example is not the same.  No one but a true prophet is capable of predicting the future consistently and accurately.  However, many people who are not righteous can observe the Sabbath.  Therefore, anyone who prophesies the future correctly a number of times must be a true prophet while one who observes the Sabbath is not necessarily righteous.]

2. The above passage, the Ran explains, is speaking solely about a false prophet.  Since a false prophet is executed we need to know how to determine if he is false.  A true prophet is not discussed in this passage.  However, the Ran suggests, based on a tradition relayed in the Talmud [Sanhedrin 89a-b], that if someone produces a miraculous sign, an action that goes against nature, he is believed to be a true prophet until proven false.  Granted, it is known that signs can be produced falsely, whether through trickery or black magic.  However, a sign alone is sufficient to give one the presumption of prophecy.

R. Yitzchak Abarbanel [Commentary to the Torah (Jerusalem:1964), vol. 3 pp. 177-178], however, objects to the Ran's suggestion that the passage does not discuss the determination of a true prophet since only a false prophet is punished.  The passage specifically says that a true prophet who does not follow his own word will be punished -- "if he fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account".  Since the passage discusses the punishment of both a true and false prophet, it must also discuss the definition of a true and false prophet.

[To this objection, the Ran could reply that since a true prophet will be punished by G-d, not man, we do not have to know how to determine who is a true prophet.  G-d will know and will punish accordingly.  Only a false prophet is punished by man and therefore requires identification by man.]

3. Abarbanel agrees with Maimonides that both a true and false prophet can be identified by their initial prophecy.  If it comes true, the prophet is true, otherwise the prophet is false.  However, while the Rambam requires a number of prophecies to determine the status of the prophet, the Abarbanel claims that only one prophecy is sufficient.  Both the moral character of the prophet and the divine assistance in performing this test will demonstrate the truth in one trial.  It seems fundamental that a prophet must be moral and righteous.  The passage above begins "I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself".  Like Moses, the prophet will be righteous.  In addition to that, when the test occurs, G-d will ensure that a false prophet will fail.

Testing A Prophet

4. A further disagreement revolves around exactly what type of prophecy will be the basis of this test.  Maimonides [Introduction to Mishnah, ibid.] explains that there are three types of prophecy about the future -- a public prophecy of bad things, a public prophecy of good things, and a private prophecy.  The definition here of public and private regards whether this prophecy is given to the prophet with the intention that he publicize it or for his own private benefit.  If the prophecy is public, then a bad prophecy may not come true if those intended to be punished repent.  G-d will relent from the punishment due to their change.  If the public prophecy is of a good future event, then it will definitely come true.  A private prophecy may or may not come true.  If the person intended to be punished repents or the person intended to be rewarded sins then G-d may relent.  However, a public good prophecy must always come true.  Maimonides says this based on the passage in the Talmud [Berachot 7a] that any prophecy that emitted from G-d, even on condition, will not be changed.  This, the Rambam claims, is referring to a public good prophecy.

Since this is the only type of prophecy that will always come true, this must be the basis for a test of a prophet's truth.  If a prophet makes a public prophecy of a good future event and it does not come true in all its details then we know the prophet is false.

R. Chasdai Crescas [Or Hashem 2:4:2] disagrees with Maimonides' claim that a public good prophecy must always come true based on the following passage in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 18:7-10 (NJPS translation)

At one moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be uprooted and pulled down and destroyed; but if that nation against which I made the decree turns back from its wickedness, I change My mind concerning the punishment I planned to bring on it.  At another moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be built and planted;  but if it does what is displeasing to Me and does not obey Me, then I change My mind concerning the good I planned to bestow upon it.

Here we see Jeremiah clearly stating that a public good prophecy, "that a nation or a kingdom shall be built and planted", can be revoked if the intended recipient of the reward sins.

Abarbanel [ibid.] also objects that it seems unjust for G-d to reward someone who no longer deserves it.  It seems to undermine the process of reward and punishment to reward someone undeserving.

[One could answer this objection with the general concept that while G-d is generally exactly fair, He is sometimes overly generous, even to those undeserving.]

Additionally, Maimonides' claim that G-d can relent on a private good prophecy and not a public good prophecy bothers Abarbanel.  Does G-d really have differing standards between a private and public communication?  Is G-d really that inconsistent?

[Maimonides could respond that regarding the prophecies, G-d is consistent.  However, for the sake of public confidence in true prophets, G-d is willing to reward those undeserving.  However, public confidence has no place in a private prophecy.]

5. R. Chasdai Crescas [ibid.] posits that the passage in Jeremiah is the general rule.  Any prophecy is subject to repeal based on a change in behavior, since the general equation of reward and punishment is an underlying albeit unstated condition to the prophecy.  The condition that a good prophecy will only come true if the intended recipient does not sin and a bad prophecy if the intended recipient does not repent is a given.  However, when a prophet specifically prophesies as part of a test of his status, the condition is inapplicable and the prophecy can not be revoked.  Since the prophecy is not part of reward and punishment but part of testing a prophet, there is no underlying condition.

Therefore, while Maimonides would insist that a prophet can only be tested on a good prophecy, Crescas would allow him to be tested on a bad prophecy as well since any prophecy by which he is tested is guaranteed to come true.

However, Crescas has trouble with the above passage from the Talmud that good prophecies must come true.  Crescas explains that this passage must be referring to a prophecy that does not discuss reward and punishment and therefore does not have this underlying condition.  Understandably, this is a difficult reading.

6. Crescas also offers another solution.  He suggests that the passage in Jeremiah is not discussing prophecies at all.  It is discussing decisions by G-d that are not relayed via prophecy.  If G-d decides to punish a nation who then repents, G-d will not punish them.  And if He decides to reward a nation who then sins, He will no longer reward them.

Therefore, the passage in Jeremiah refers to heavenly decisions and the talmudic passage refers to good prophecies, whether public or private.  Since, by definition, a private prophecy is unknown to others, a prophet can only be tested on public good prophecies, similar to the Rambam's opinion.

Abarbanel [ibid.] argues that it is possible for a prophecy to be both a test for the prophet and for reward and punishment.  Who said that a prophet must give a meaningless prophecy for his test?  G-d can use the opportunity to prophesy the reward of someone righteous.  In that case, the condition is understood and the prophecy can be revoked if the intended recipient sins.

Also, if justice demands that a decision to reward be revoked, it should be irrelevant whether the decision was publicized via prophecy or kept in the heavenly domain.  Either way, justice should be consistent.

Additionally, the word used in Jeremiah for "decree" literally means "speak".  It is a bit difficult to attribute that to Divine thought.

7. Abarbanel distinguishes between three types of prophecies -- the miraculous, which is an action that goes contrary to nature, telling of the past or future with neither good nor bad implications  (e.g. 1 Samuel 9:19-20, 10:2-8), and telling of good and bad events to come.  The first two are not affected by repentance and sin and will therefore always be true.  The last, however, is the subject of the passage in Jeremiah and is subject to change if the intended recipient repents or sins.  A prophet is tested by either of the first two types of prophecies -- either producing a miraculous sign or predicting a future that is not dependent on reward or punishment.

As to the talmudic passage, Abarbanel suggests that this is a minority opinion among talmudic sages with which we need not agree.

8. The Abarbanel offers another explanation of the testing of prophets.  He suggests that normally a prophet is not tested, as we don't see Isaiah, Jeremiah, or any other prophets being tested.  If a prophet is a moral and righteous person and prophesies according to the Torah as would be expected, then he is believed and presumed to be a true prophet.  Only when there are two conflicting prophets, neither of them who have gained a presumption of being a true prophet, do we need to test them.  And in that case, when we have two prophets who prophesy opposite occurrences, whomever's prophecy comes true is the true prophet and the other is executed.

9. Nachmanides [Commentary to Genesis 12:6] suggests that, like Jeremiah states, any prophecy, whether for good or for bad, can be revoked based on a change in behavior.  However, a prophecy that is accompanied by a po'el dimyon, a symbolic act that serves to represent the prophesied occurence, must always come true [cf. R. Yechezkel Landau, Tzelach, Berachot 7a sv. vamr"y].  Presumably, Nachmanides would say that prophets must be tested based on prophecies that have a po'el dimyon.

In summary, according to Maimonides [sections 1 & 4] a prophet is initially tested on a number of public good prophecies.  If they all come totally true then he is considered a true prophet. According to the Ran [section 2], a prophet is challenged to produce a miraculous sign.  If he does, he is considered a true prophet.  According to the Abarbanel's first opinion [sections 3 & 7], a prophet is tested once to either produce a miraculous sign or predict a future event that is unrelated to reward or punishment.  According to his second opinion [section 8], a prophet is only tested in the above manner if during his initial period as a prophet he is contradicted by another novice prophet.  According to Crescas's first opinion [section 5], a prophet is tested once with any type of prophecy and according to his second opinion [section 6], it must be a public good prophecy.  Finally, according to Nachmanides, a prophet is tested based on a prophecy that includes a po'el dimyon.

Copyright 2001 Gil Student