Scholars often compare Ancient Greek oracles and Jewish prophets and their writings. The differences are pronounced.
The Greek seers (manteis plural of mantis) differ from early Jewish prophets because they depended mostly on intuitive divination instead of direct divine revelation.
Furthermore, the name “prophet” comes from the Greek word “profitis” meaning “forespeaker.”
The mantis who gives the oracle is often described as “prophet,” so the comparison with Jewish prophets is important in understanding similarities and differences between the two.
The Oracle of Delphi
Delphi was the first sacred place which served as the seat of Pythia, the major Greek oracle who was consulted in relation to important decisions throughout the ancient classical world.
The god himself was believed to communicate through this oracle.
Pythia was coming to a state of ecstasy when communicating with the gods, so the oracle was regarded as the true word of divinity, with the prophecy supposedly being the absolute truth.
The ecstasy that generated the inspiration was believed to be originating from the relationship of the sibyl with Apollo, the god of oracles and manteis.
Another explanation for the state of trance that Pythia was falling is the fumes that were coming from the earth through a crack. However, contrary to ancient literature, when a team of French archaeologists led by Théophile Homolle of the Collège de France excavated the site at Delphi in 1892, they discovered no fissure and no possible means for the production of fumes.
Τhe Pythia oracles were ambiguous and sometimes true. A good example was the oracle given to Croesus, powerful king of Lydia (560-546B.C.)
In 560 BC, Croesus of Lydia conducted an oracle trial, consulting all of the famous oracles about what he was doing on a specific day. The Delphic oracle, according to Herodotus, proclaimed:
“I know the number of the sand and the measure of the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless. The smell has come to my sense of a hard-shelled tortoise being cooked with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot: bronze is the cauldron underneath, and bronze is the lid.”
Delphi was declared the winner. Croesus then asked if he should make war on the Persians and if he should take to himself any allied force. He sent this question to oracles in Delphi and Thebes.
Both oracles said that if Croesus went to war with the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. They also advised him to seek out and form alliances with the most powerful Greek peoples.
Croesus paid the Delphians a high fee and then asked the oracle, “Would his monarchy last long?” Pythia responded:
“Whenever a mule shall become sovereign king of the Medians,
then, Lydian Delicate-Foot, flee by the stone-strewn Hermus,
flee, and think not to stand fast, nor shame to be chicken-hearted.”
Croesus believed that a mule could never be king of the Medes and thus that he and his issue would never be out of power. As a result, he decided to join forces with certain Greek city-states and attack Persia.
However, it was his empire that was defeated, not the Persians’, fulfilling the prophecy but not his interpretation of it. He seems to have forgotten that Cyrus, the victor, was half Mede (by his mother) and half Persian (by his father), and thus could be considered a “mule.” (Herodotus, Histories)
Greek male seers
Male seers in Greece, on the other hand, did not operate on ecstasy. They were mostly experts of the intestines of sacrificial animals and the flight of birds.
The study of the flight of birds to reach a Greek oracle is a technique that derived from the Ancient Near East, most historians argue.
Tisamenus from Elea is the most famous of the Greek manteis. He helped the Greek army during the Persian War after a Delphic oracle had foretold that he would win five great battles.
The Spartans wished to hire him after the victorious battles, and although he was from Elea, he and his brother were pronounced citizens of Sparta as part of the deal. They were the only foreign men this privilege had ever been bestowed upon.
Early Jewish Prophets
Hebrew prophecy actually begins with Moses (c. 1200 B.C.). He was a combination of a civilian leader and religious director in one.
Moses’ claim to be the first and greatest of Jewish prophets is founded upon the fact that he introduced the worship of Yahweh among his people.
Moses offered his people the basics of law and a new sense of justice wider and deeper than that of the tribal system. By him, “direction” (Torah) was given to Israel.
The Torah is the compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, namely the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It is also known as the Five Books of Moses.
Samuel (c. 1050 B.C.) was the legitimate successor of Moses. He was a political leader, judge and priest. His prophecies referred to all possible matters, from those of personal or local interest to the announcements of the kingdom.
Sons of the Prophets
A major difference between ancient Greek oracles and Jewish prophets is that Samuel established “the schools of the sons of the prophets.”
This was an actual formation of bands (or schools) in five different locations where young men were taught to become prophets, according to the Old Testament.
The master had a whole group of prophets with him under his auspices. They prophesied, but it was the teacher who took the credit for the prophecy.
There are several references to large groups of prophets in the Old Testament, such as when Jezebel was determined to destroy the Lord’s prophets, “Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifty in a cave.” (1 Kings 18:4)
The sons of the prophets built their own dwellings with borrowed tools and lived simply as ascetics, sharing room and food, and going together in missions.
The first location of the school of the prophets was Ramah, the birthplace of Samuel, where he taught the young prophets himself. The other four were in Bethel, Gilgal, Jericho and Carmel, but it is not known if they were formed at the time of Samuel’s life.
The schools of the sons of the prophets had each at least three teachers who were great men of their day.
After Samuel, in the days of great prophet Elijah, and later in the time of his successor, Elisha, there are writings confirming that the schools existed. The latter spent most of his life teaching in the schools.
The great Jewish prophets Samuel, Elijah and Elisha
The names of the three great Jewish prophets above are the only ones mentioned in the Bible. Samuel is mentioned as The Father, Elijah as Master and Elisha as Master and Man of God.
The three masters taught the students prophesying. According to the Old Testament, when Saul met the prophets in Gilgal “the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them.”
It is inferred that prophesying was a physically active and exhausting method of worship that left Saul exhausted one day and night.
In some cases, the intense physical exertion of the Jewish prophets bears similarities with the state of trance of the ancient Greek oracles, who also came out of it exhausted.
The other thing that the masters taught the young prophets was music. The use of psalms was crucial and when the prophets came out of the trance they had “a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp before them.”
So the sons of prophets composed sacred poetry and music that were used widely when worshipping.
Interpretations of Greek Oracles and Jewish Prophets
In comparing the interpretation of texts by Jewish prophets and Greek seers, we gain new insights into the divinatory use of written oracles. The interpreters of the Jewish prophecies and Greek oracles operated at least partly in similar ways.
While their methods of deciphering the oracles are somewhat alike. The Jewish prophets enjoyed an almost divine status, whereas Greek seers operated more independently and without a similarly evident divine mandate.
In his paper “Greek Seers and Israelite-Jewish Prophets,” Armin Lange, faculty member of the University of Vienna, states that Greek oracles are distinctly different from Jewish prophets. In most cases the Greeks employed forms of deductive divination while the use of deductive divination is the exception with Israelite-Jewish prophets.
Greek seers used intuitive divination, and they did not rely on divine revelations but exhibited a special ability to perceive more than normal human beings.
Although Near Eastern prophets and Greek manteis do not equate, the comparison of the two sheds better light on the characteristics of both.
On the one hand, the Near Eastern prophets relied heavily on divine revelation. On the other hand, the Greek manteis acted mostly as diviners in their own right, relying on their special abilities.