Lives of the Prophets

From New World Encyclopedia
Jonah preaching at Nineveh

The Lives of the Prophets is an ancient apocryphal account of the lives of the authors of the prophetical books of the Hebrew Bible and several other biblical prophets. Although its biographies of the prophets are sketchy at best, the book does provide a number of details about their lives that are not found in the biblical text. The historicity of these reports, however, is doubtful.

Although the Bible says little about the lives of most of the biblical prophets, there was a growing tradition around the turn of the Common Era that some of the prophets had been martyred. The Lives of the Prophets continues this tradition and may have been in part responsible for popularizing it. Among the violent deaths described in the Lives are those of Isaiah by being sawn in two, Jeremiah by stoning, and Ezekiel by a similar execution.

The work survives only in Christian manuscripts which contain numerous additions that support Christian theology, but some of its stories are repeated in Jewish midrashic and Talmudic accounts. The martyrdom of the prophets is also referred to several times in the New Testament.

The text

The text of the Lives of the Prophets was apparently compiled from various oral and written sources. The current Greek manuscripts derive from an older source probably composed shortly before or during the beginning of the first century C.E. in Hebrew or Aramaic/Syriac, by a Jewish writer familiar with Jerusalem, as well as with the geography of Judea and the Galilee. Much of the material is legendary, and it is difficult to know its exact origins. Some commentators suggest that the Jeremiah material came from a written Jewish source from Egypt, while the reports of the prophets' supposed martyrdoms may have circulated in the Judean oral tradition for centuries.

Despite its Jewish origins, the current text betrays several Christian additions indicating later scribal tampering with the text. Some manuscripts also rearrange the order of the material, while others include summaries of biblical information concerning the prophets' biographies that do not appear in other, shorter manuscripts.


The text begins by explaining its basic purpose, to provide: "The names of the prophets, and where they are from, and where they died and how, and where the[ir graves] lie." The major literary prophets are dealt with first: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Daniel. The text then proceeds to summarize the lives of the 12 minor prophets and a number of others who are mentioned in biblical narratives, such as Nathan, Elijah, Elisha and others.

Major prophets and Daniel

Ezekiel confronts the elders. In the Lives of the Prophets, Ezekiel is eventually martyred for his denunciations.

Isaiah. Following the tradition found in the Jewish sections of the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, the text reports that this prophet was killed by being sawed in two under the evil King Manasseh of Judah. A tradition is preserved that the miraculous powers of the waters of the Pool of Siloam (see John 9) were initiated as a result of Isaiah's prayer.

Jeremiah. Having escaped death several times previously, Jeremiah was later stoned to death by "his people" at Taphnai in Egypt and buried in honor near Pharaoh’s palace, because his prayers had delivered the Egyptians from poisonous snakes and other plagues.[1] His relics were reportedly moved to Alexandria and placed in a circle around the city, which was consequently likewise protected from asps and crocodiles.

A Christian addition to the text indicates that Jeremiah prophesied to the Egyptians concerning a savior who would be born of a virgin in a manger. The prophet is also greatly praised in more traditionally Jewish terms, and is said to dwell in the next world with Moses.

Ezekiel. This great prophet is said to have died in Babylonia where "the leader of the Israelite exiles" killed him after being reproved for worshiping of idols. Ezekiel was reportedly buried in the grave of Shem, after which the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was modeled. The text also preserves an alternate tradition that Ezekiel was killed by an unidentified member of either the tribe of Dan or Gad, who had blamed him for cursing their children and flocks.

Daniel. This prophet was apparently unmarried, a "chaste man," whom the Jews of his day believed to be a eunuch. Various legends from the Book of Daniel are repeated and expanded upon. Daniel is reported to have died of natural causes and was buried with great honor in the royal tombs of Babylon.

Minor prophets

Hosea. Born of the tribe of Issachar, Hosea also died of natural causes and was buried in his home town of Belemoth. The text records an extra-biblical prophecy of Hosea, possibly of Christian origin, that "the Lord would arrive upon the earth if ever the oak which is in Shiloh were divided from itself." Some manuscripts add that twelve oaks indeed came from this one.

Micah was another of the prophets who became a martyr, according the the account of the Lives of the Prophets.

Micah. He is reported to have been killed by Joram of Israel, the son of King Ahab, after Micah rebuked him for Ahab's impiety. And was reportedly buried in his home district on the "burial ground of the Anakim"—the race of giants who were conquered by Caleb. The story of Joram's killing Micah is unlikely, however, since Micah prophesied around 735–700 B.C.E., more than a century after Joram's reign. The author may confuse this Micah with Micaiah son of Imlah, who was indeed a thorn in Ahab's side (1 Kings 22:1)

Amos. This northern prophet was tortured severely by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, against whom Amos had prophesied. He was then mortally wounded with a club by Amaziah's son. Amos was able to make his way back to his own district of Tekoa, where he soon died and was buried there.

Joel. Died in peace and was buried the territory of Reuben.

Obadiah. Said to be the same Obadiah who was once the steward of King Ahab's palace, he is identified as a disciple of Elijah from the area near Shechem who later left the evil king's service, became a prophet, and wrote the Book of Obadiah.

Jonah. He reportedly lived during the time of Elijah and hailed from a village near the Greek city of Azotus. The fact that the text here mentions Elijah's resurrection of a widow's son may be the source of a rabbinical tradition that this child was Jonah. In any case, after his time at Nineveh, Jonah traveled with his mother and lived among the Gentiles, feeling embarrassed because, "I spoke falsely in prophesying against the great city of Nineveh." The text also gives an otherwise unreported prophecy of Jonah: "When they see a stone crying out, the end will be at hand, and when they see all the Gentiles in Jerusalem, the entire city will be razed to the ground.[2] Returning to the land of Judah after the famine of Elijah's day, Jonah buried his mother near Deborah’s Oak and was himself buried in the cave of Kenaz, the relative of Caleb.

Nahum. Probably based on the Book of Nahum's prophecies concerning Nineveh, Nahum is described as Jonah's successor as God's prophet of doom to that city. Nahum predicted that the city would be destroyed by fresh water and an underground fire. Unlike the embarrassed Jonah, Nahum spoke truly, as the author reports that the lake which surrounded Nineveh inundated it during an earthquake, and a forest fire spread to the upper city. Nahum, too, died in peace and was buried in his own district.

Habakkuk. This prophet fled from Jerusalem in the face of Nebuchadnezzar II's advance and lived in exile "in the land of Ishmael." He later went to Babylon, where he was acquainted with the prophet Daniel.

Zephaniah. The book which bears his name is very briefly summarized and it is reported that "he died and was buried in his field."

Haggai. This prophet came from Babylon to Jerusalem, as a youth and witnessed the rebuilding of the Temple. He was buried in honor in the tomb of the Jewish priests.

Zechariah. He returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia as an old man and became a very active prophet in the holy city. It was he who named Shealtiel's son Zerubbabel and blessed him. The text claims that Zechariah had earlier prophesied the victories of Cyrus the Great of Persia and his role in allowing the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem.[3] He died at a great age and was buried near Haggai.

Malachi. A man of great piety and physical appeal, Malachi was given his name, which means angel, not by his parents but by his people. His prophecies were always confirmed on the same day by an angel of God. He died, apparently of natural causes, while still young.

Other prophets

The Lives of the Prophets reports that Nathan (left) tried to warn King David ahead of time not to sin with Bathsheba, but was prevented from doing so by the Devil.

Nathan. It was Nathan who taught King David the Law of Moses. He foresaw that David would sin with Bathsheba but was hindered from warning him by the Devil. Nathan died of natural causes when he was very old.

Ahijah. Hailing from Shiloh, Ahijah predicted that Solomon would sin against God and warned the king concerning his foreign wives. He also warned Jeroboam I not to "walk deceitfully with the Lord." Ahijah is reported to have seen a vision of "a yoke of oxen trampling the people and running against the priests," a possible reference to the golden calves of Dan and Bethel. He was buried near the Oak of Shiloh mentioned in the story of Hosea.

Joad. This is the name given to the prophet of 1 Kings 13, who was attacked and killed by a lion after he rebuked Jeroboam I concerning the unauthorized altar at Bethel.

Azariah. This is the Azariah son of Obed mentioned in 2 Chronicles 15:1. The text claims it was he who "turned from Israel the captivity of Judah," apparently a mangled rendering of what should read "turned Judah away from the captivity of Israel," a reference to Azariah's effective prophesying to King Asa of Judah to do away with idolatry.

Elijah. Described as a descendant of Aaron, Elijah's father, Shobach, had a vision of angelic figures wrapping his child in fire and feeding him with flames. Some manuscripts go on to summarize Elijah's biblical ministry. The story of his resurrection of the widow's son is detailed in the section on Jonah.

Elisha. When this prophet was born in Gilgal, the infamous golden calf bellowed so shrilly that it was heard in Jerusalem.[4] As in the case of Elijah, some manuscripts summarize his activities as described in the Bible. At his death, Elisha was buried in the northern capital of Samaria.

Zechariah son of Jehoiada. This Zechariah was the high priest's son who denounced his cousin, King Jehoash of Judah, and was immediately stoned to death in the Temple courtyard. He was buried with his father Jehoiada. From that time on several unspecified bad omens occurred in the Temple, and the priests' visionary and oracular powers of the priests came to an end.


Saint Stephen may have based his opinion on the Lives of the Prophets when he asked: "Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?"

A number of later rabbinical traditions concerning the prophets find their first known written expression in the Lives of the Prophets, for example the story of Nathan's being hindered by the Devil from warning David about Bathsheba, the idea that the writer of the prophetic Book of Obadiah was originally the same Obadiah who worked for King Ahab, and the prospect that Jonah was the widow's child resurrected by Elijah.

However, the Lives, or at least the traditions that it preserves, may have had an even more profound impact on Christian tradition. The Hebrew Bible itself is silent about the deaths of most prophets, the case of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada being a notable exception. Yet Jesus is quoted as saying "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you." (Luke 13:34) Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians that the Jews "killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets..." (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); and the Book of Acts reports Saint Stephen as declaring, just before his martyrdom: "Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One." (Acts 7:52)

None of these denunciations seems justified by the Old Testament biblical record alone. However, if one accepts the testimony of the Lives of the Prophets, then the three greatest Judean prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—were all killed by their own people or rulers because of their prophetic activity. So were the important northern prophets Amos and Micah. The supposed martyrdom of Isaiah was probably known from other sources as well, namely the Jewish part of the Ascension of Isaiah, but the traditions preserved in the Lives also seem to have been known among first-century Jews. If so, the early Christian denunciations of the treatment of the prophets by the Jews are more understandable, even if not historically accurate.

See also


  1. Some commentators have noted the similarity of this account to the later legend of Saint Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland.
  2. This prophecy could provide an alternate interpretation of the meaning of the "sign of Jonah" referred to by Jesus in Matthew 16:4.
  3. Such a prophecy is recorded in the Book of Isaiah—or Deutero-Isaiah according to modern theories—but not in the Book of Zechariah. Could this account provide a hint that Zechariah was one of the writers that produced the Deutero-Isaiah material?
  4. This passage apparently preserves a tradition that one of the golden calves was at Gilgal rather than Dan.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. ISBN 0664256392
  • Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001. ISBN 0060936991
  • Podhoretz, Norman. The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0743219279
  • Satran, David. Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine: Reassessing the Lives of the Prophets. Studia in Veteris Testamenti pseudepigrapha, v. 11. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. ISBN 9789004102347
  • Torrey, Charles Cutler. The Lives of the Prophets; Greek Text and Translation. Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1946. OCLC 1436865


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