The Human Truth Foundation

The Major Prophets of the Old Testament

By Vexen Crabtree 2019

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Next section: The Minor Prophets.

In the Christian Bible, the Major Prophets are a collection of texts copied from Hebrew scriptures. In particular, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are taken from the Nevi'im (second section of the Tanakh), and Lamentations and Daniel are originally from the Ketuvim (third section). Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles also include Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in this collection, although Protestant bibles do not. The "major" and the twelve "minor" prophets are not named due to their importance, but for their length. Therefore, the collection isn't in any kind of chronological order, but they are often read as if they were. Most of the text is comprised of doom-laden warnings and condemnations for those who aren't on God's side, often mixed with political and social criticism of all non-Hebrew tribes.


1. Yeshayahu / Isaiah / Isaias

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Isaiah is known as a famous resident of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE and he may well have written the first portion of the Book of Isaiah1 which contains spiritual prophecies tinged with political commentary1. Chapters 40-55 were an anonymous text written 150 later, after the captivity of some of the Hebrews in Babylon2. And chapters 56-66 were written by an unknown author2 in the 5th century BCE1.

Isaiah gained a reputation as a good place to derive prophecies and predictions, but, most such attempts draw versus out of context. For example, Isaiah 7:14 is traditionally used to predict the birth of Jesus, but, in context, the claim makes no sense. It only works if you extract the verse and then read it as if it wasn't part of a flow of meaning. Fed up with such exegesis, Thomas Paine wrote in 1807 that "it has no more reference to Christ and his mother than it has to me and my mother"3.

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2. Yirmeyahu / Jeremiah / Jeremias

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Probably written in the 7th century BCE and edited (or perhaps written) by some later scribes and copyists, this text has so many variants that historians are unsure what the original text said. Its internal confusion and disordered state make it impossible to be the product of a single author4. The book was named "Jeremiah" because the text frequently refers to him, but it is not by him4. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah contains predictions of the (eventual) fall of Babylon and Assyria - although it also fails to predict the collapse of all the other major cities that also did, eventually, collapse. They, alongside every other ancient political body, did indeed fall, but critics point out the almost universal success of all such predictions. No nation has, so far, lasted forever. The book condemns immorality, but, this categorisation also includes things such as worshipping wrongly, and for this Jeremiah has been blamed for causing intolerance towards other religions by Jews and then Christians. It is probably unwise to quote Jeremiah and especially avoid it on historical, theological or moral matters that require confidence in the text.

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3. Eikhah / Lamentations

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Lamentations was written by multiple, unknown authors all writing, probably, before the 6th century BCE. The first four chapters is a collection of structured poems, and the last chapter is a song, probably designed around music which is now lost. The mood is introspective.

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4. Baruch / Baruch EO

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The book of Baruch "is supposedly the work of Baruch, who was the scribe or secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. It is, however, thought to be of composite authorship. It begins with an address by Baruch to the exiles in Babylon, with a prayer of confession, and prayers asking for forgiveness and salvation. The next section speaks in praise of wisdom, and the last chapters are a lament of Jerusalem for the captives, with a final assurance that they will be restored to their home."5.

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5. Baruch / Letter of Jeremiah

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The Letter of Jeremiah often appears as chapter 6 of 1 Baruch. It was "probably composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, [and] is the oldest writing in the Apocrypha. A Greek fragment dating from around 100 BCE was found in Qumran Cave VII. [...] A date between 323 and 100 BCE seems possible; perhaps around 300 is most likely. [...] The document is "a letter" pseudonymously attributed to Jeremiah (verse 1); it contains seventy-two or seventy-three verses. The work is not a letter but a passionate sermon or plea to fellow Jews not to fear or worship idols"6.

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6. The Book of Yekhezqel / Ezekiel / Ezechiel

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Ezekiel was a Jew deported to Babylon, who wrote a large number of symbolic stories for Jews living in captivity or occupation, trying to maintain hope and encourage them to conduct proper ritual. His writings have had a powerful influence on Judaism and Christianity. Critical analysts of the Bible such as Thomas Paine came to consider the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel to be the first in the Bible where it's quite possible the claimed authors are genuinely the actual authors of the books7.. Hence, Ezekiel may well date from the 6th century BCE8. Ezekiel writes in code for the Jews in captivity, using obscure messages to reassure them of the coming destruction of their enemies, and the future hope of a restored Jerusalem, if only the Jews return to the correct observance of ritual. It includes some graphic symbols, such as a valley of dry bones, which have served to inspire much imaginative exegesis.

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7. The Book of Daniel

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The Book of Daniel claims to be written by Daniel himself (i.e. see Daniel 9:2 in the 6th century BCE. Critical analysts of the Bible such as Thomas Paine came to consider the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel to be the first in the Bible where it's quite possible the claimed authors are genuinely the actual authors of the books7. But, full-time scholars for over a hundred years have "shown clear and compelling reasons for thinking that it was written four hundred years later, in the second century BCE, by someone falsely claiming to be Daniel"9. Daniel's Chaldean name was Bethshazzai. The first six chapters are about Daniel but historians consider it to be a work of fiction. It is apparent that there are two (quite different) accounts of Daniel placed side by side, and the same stories are often told twice; this was either poor editing, or, the compiler simply didn't know which details were correct so included both. The editor and the text assert that Daniel and his friends stayed true to Jewish culture and religion whilst in Babylon, even though the majority of Jews combined Jewish and Mesopotamian culture when writing the rest of the books of the Bible that were authored in or after Babylonian exposure.

Daniel is described as spending time interpreting dreams, but there are serious problems with the likelihood that the stories are true. In the most famous incident, a phantom hand materializes and writes a message on a wall, during a grand feast to a thousand of his lords and the King then brought in astrologers, Chaldeans, soothsayers and all his wise men (Daniel 5:1-8). But isn't it strange that of all those powerful and influential people none of them had the event written down by their scribes. Somehow, only the author of Daniel knows what happened.

The second half of the Book of Daniel are an imaginative series of prophecies about the Antichrist and the arrival of a saviour; many of these have been problematic for Christians as many of the prophecies about Jesus did not come true; hence, Christians now say the leftover prophecies will be fulfilled during a second coming of the saviour.

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