A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Tombs of Anonymous Prophets

The longer I study the prophetic books, the less I talk about the prophets as people.  I see more and more how the authors of the books shaped the words and used stories about prophets to speak to later concerns. More and more I quit looking for who Amos or Jeremiah really were and focus on why writers presented these figures in the way they have.

And yet, the more I follow this path, the more I distance myself from what many people find most compelling about the prophets:  how real they were.  I’ve listened to enough sermons, read enough books, and done enough internet searches to know that people on all sides of the theological spectrum find the prophets interesting as people.  Whether you think ancient prophets predicted the future, called folks back to pure worship, or challenged unjust social systems, chances are that you conjure in your mind the face of a fiery preacher rather than a bookish writer.

I’m reminded of this distance between my own interests and those of most folks whenever I see mention of a prophet’s tomb.  This week I read an article about the purported tomb of Ezekiel, south of Baghdad. And that reminded me of my own experience of visiting the Tomb of the Prophets in Jerusalem in the early 1990’s.

When I saw this sign on the Mt. of Olives, I smiled.  When I found out that it claimed to contain the bones of Malachi, I laughed.  Just a few years before, I had completed my dissertation on Malachi, arguing to my own satisfaction that the book was functionally anonymous.  Others have gone further, claiming that the book isn’t really a separate composition at all but rather a piece of Zechariah made independent so that the collection could be The Book of the Twelve rather than The Book of the Eleven.

The tomb of an anonymous prophet.  Of course, I had to visit.  I had to take a picture.  Which I did. (Sadly, those glasses were in style at the time.)

Maybe it was the darkness of the cave or the fact in Jerusalem everything oozes holiness.  But I did experience something mysterious and sacred peering into the tomb of a prophet I suspect never existed.  It became a place of honoring what the prophet had come to mean, what people had made of a story about him, what chain of significance linked back to this place.  For me, it was also place to think about what writing about Malachi had meant to me.

The article mentioned above suggests that the tomb of Ezekiel functions not only to honor a prophet but also to hold on to a religious past that is too quickly being lost.  Tombs give us a place to go to honor someone and something, a way to make the abstract more concrete and touchable.

I’m not surprised at the excitement that erupts when someone claims to have found the tomb of Jesus’ brother or Caiaphas.  Artifacts help us feel a connection with stories that matter.  A former teacher of mine says that Jerusalem itself is one big icon.  It is a window into contemplation of sacred things.  Things that might not have happened happen in our own experience.


7 Responses to Tombs of Anonymous Prophets

  • good post, i tend to agree. i do see jeremiah, however, as an exception. the confessions are very personal. the text displays personal involvement in composition. 2 corinthians seems to pick up on the prophet’s dilemma of being a messenger of the Lord (diakonia = dispatched ministry in 2 cor) concerning the new covenant and it’s place on the heart who faces persecution, rejection, and powerful opponents (false prophets and superapostles).

    still, i see what you’re saying

  • The irony is that Jeremiah “feels” like the most personal, autobiographical of the prophetic books, while many scholars find in this book the most evidence of intensive editing. The late Robert Carroll, of whom I am a fan, paid a lot of attention to how Jeremiah was intentionally created as a sympathetic, accessible character in the book that bears his name. A good case is also made in Terrence Collins, The Mantle of Elijah. What interests me is the possibiltity that Jeremiah was developed as a character that would embody the feelings of Jerusalem after exile.

  • gotcha, but “feeling” personal goes a long ways towards “being” personal. i guess sometimes people have to agree to disagree, because i find carroll’s commentary too preoccupied with outdated historical-critical methods to actually get at putting the book together. i think the hebrew text is a lot more organic than critical scholars have given it credit for being, though i might not say the same for the LXX text in this case.

  • Carroll’s methods might not be current, but I do think the evidence he presents has to be evaluated. But there are other routes to similar conclusions. Kathleen O’Connor talks poignantly about Jeremiah as community’s response to trauma, using trauma theory. You note the significant difference between the LXX and the MT. For me, that actually helps make the point that the figure of Jeremiah is being used for purposes other than straight biography.

  • yes, i would COMPLETELY agree that jeremiah is not a biography (did i ever say that?). it’s funny how “evidence” works. i look at the LXX and HB arrangements and see evidence of authenticity. it appears that the same material was preserved and passed down, and at some point two different groups in two vastly different locations reproduced the same material, except they put the pieces together a little differently (i.e. redaction) and the LXX lost some verses here and there (as well as lengthened some, in good jewish explanatory style!)

    yeah, evidence is tricky. it just seems obvious to me that the retension of vastly similar material in different places (and by different communities) points at something other than fiction by and for said communities.

    thanks for your thoughts, i appreciate good conversations. and i have o’connor’s work on the confessions – i don’t have to agree with everything in it to find it immensely helpful (i still think scholars show a major oversight by not addressing your own claim that malachi is a riv).

    again, thanks

  • Mike, interesting that you mention Malachi as a riv (covenant lawsuit). To my knowledge, no one has ever engaged that part of my dissertation.

  • then perhaps i’ll be the first! i’m waiting to get a paper back and see what suggestions my prof has. afterwards i plan on pulling a section out of it on ANE covenant messengers and the book of malachi and submitting it to a journal. the riv stuff dovetails with what i want to do. okay, i’ll try to stop being a gadfly now. thanks again

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