On the Nature of Rethinking Prophetic Literature: Stirring a Neglected Stew (A Response to David L. Petersen)

James R. Linville


David L. Petersen’s 1997 paper, “Rethinking the Nature of
Prophetic Literature” posits a five-fold typology of prophetic literature and
prophetic roles: (1) divinatory chronicles about seers; (2) vision reports
concerning seer/visionaries; (3) prophetic speech from prophets; (4) legends
about men of God; (5) prophetic histories, attributed to intermediaries with no
formal title. Petersen critiques other scholars for stereotyping prophets as
formal speakers or poets, viewing prophetic literature too often as the actual
words of prophets, and reducing its diversity to a single message. Petersen
makes a number of valid points, especially his call for an interdisciplinary
dialogue. Yet, he himself is dismissive of many approaches in the
“methodological stew” that he considers “uninformed”. His typology is supported
by ambiguous evidence, and he works with an uncritically studied premise that
the Hebrew Bible reflects accurate data about prophets. Similar objections can
be raised concerning his complaints about the prejudgments. My critique is based
on a fundamentally different historical paradigm than that of Petersen.
Cross-cultural comparisons cannot reliably describe the social institution of
prophecy, although other types of social scientific research may provide
heuristic tools for study in different directions. The biblical portrait of
‘classical’ prophecy needs analysis as the construction of a later era. The
literary qualities of the texts also deserve attention. Perceptual role theory,
as opposed to the role theory employed by Petersen, may provide a link between
literary and historical research into the manufacturers of the biblical
portrait. The required dialogue is much more eclectic than Petersen’s paper
would allow.

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