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Just a Girl - Episode 4

In Our Time: Prophecy

Friday 14 June 2013, 17:20

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Prophecy. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

In Our Time: Prophecy In Our Time: Prophecy


One characteristic of Thursday's programme was the scholarly calm with which the three contributors discussed what, for many people in many parts of the world, is an explosive subject. Religion. A new factor in our programme is that people tweet us as we go along, and Tom Morris can somehow produce the programme in the adjoining booth and bring in tweets at quarter to ten. A couple of these tweets were from self-described atheists who asked us why were we discussing this subject? Why bother? It was all so irrelevant. It is almost impossible to think of a subject more relevant to so many aspects of life on the planet at the moment than religions. The Islamic movement in its most extreme form is driven by extreme reactions to, and interpretations of, the Qur'an. Issues such as gay marriage are being challenged by reference to the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament plays a major part in the current tension in the Middle East. It bewilders me that people who call themselves atheist – for wholly understandable reasons of not believing in a God, a Resurrection, a Virgin Birth, a Trinity – think that this gives them the right to dismiss a massive body of knowledge which has informed people for almost two thousand years, led to some of the greatest artefacts mankind has ever seen and, for better and for worse, has to be taken into account if we think at all of the past in terms of morality, history and art.

Put that aside. Mona called the Muslims the 'People of the Book'. I thought that that phrase – 'People of the Book' – had been pre-claimed by the Jews. And then later on, in the early seventeenth century, when the Presbyterians from Britain went to the east coast of America in order to worship through their own form of Protestantism, they too became the 'People of the Book'. The Qur'an, Mona said, was the nearest you get to God. The Bible does not fulfil that function, I think, in Christianity and Judaism, but it certainly has been the nearest you get to a revelation of faith.

It's been a switchback week. First seeing the programme on Tyndale go out and being met by – well, more than usual positive reactions. We also managed, on BBC Two, to pip BBC One, which gives childish satisfaction to we arts programme makers. Though it's worth pointing out that neither of those programmes at nine o'clock in the evening on television came within reach of the audience for In Our Time at nine o'clock in the morning on Radio 4. Then switching from the documentary on John Ball to Thomas Paine, we started to film on a wonderfully sunny day in London on Saturday. The Guildhall, Clerkenwell, Westminster, Cecil Court with its bookshops – still the most attractive street in London – and on the way to our second radical. On Monday we went to Lewes, where Tom Paine came of age as an intellectual writing for the local newspapers and forging his early reputation through being a Customs and Excise officer. He led a raw life on the high seas, tackling smugglers, setting up a business, running a tobacconist's (badly), and all the time filling every spare minute with learning.

It's a bit busy at the moment so I won't bore you with the rest, but it did include going to Sheffield, to the great documentary festival where I was talking about arts programmes, and was stunned when I came out of the station at Sheffield by the splendour that those who run Sheffield have made of a town which seemed at one stage to have everything going against it. It looks like a modern European city from the moment you come out of the railway station and this documentary festival is magnificently organised.

And on we go. Next stop Derry, City of Culture, and then Paris to film more of Tom Paine, who was elected to the French Assembly in the French Revolution, who was integral and perhaps even essential to the making of the American Revolution, and who was imprisoned for sedition in London. In Lewes the local brewery, the famous Harveys, there since 1790 in the hands of the same family, has a fine strong ale called Tom Paine. His great patron Benjamin Franklin said beer was invented by God to show that he loved us. They must have had fine evenings together when Franklin got this pugnacious young man over to Philadelphia.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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    Comment number 1.

    Prophecy seemed a little anti-climactic after Relativity which generated such an amazing response.In some ways prophecy was to the ancient world what relativity is to the modern world.In reply to Malcolm I think Melvyn gets a little churlish about aggressive atheism(a la Dawkins) as it is the darling of the age,and Melvyn made an excellent programme on Tyndale and his role in translating the Bible into English,emphasising how he translated into simple language what were formerly esoteric religious truths known only to an elite,now accessible to the ploughman.The system of religion was revelation(hence the importance of prophets),not reason.Prophets give hope/fear there is a Kingdom beyond this world,where you’ll be saved.If we don’t refer our behaviour to the godhead do we become a monster and chaos?

    I gathered priests were distinguished from prophets by being part of the Temple,with the development of rituals and the offer of sacrifice.Prophets like Amos,Hosea or Jeremiah had an enthusiasm for God.A prophet is “one who is convinced that God has something to say through him”.They are the highest divine accolade in the Jewish and Islamic religions.You say they were employed in state offices,they were a means by which the deity addressed the king.There is a tradition of loyalty to one God.Where there is no king the prophet becomes a leader.The programme said they made prophecies which tended to come true,authorized by the deity, although you made the point that these were often made following the events.If a prophet gets things wrong,it was God’s way of punishing the people.Texts may have been doctored to appear to come true(e g Daniel).

    Religious texts were said to be living oracles not original historical documents,God’s way of intervening in history.The life of Christ was foretold in prophecy.Although prophets were expected to have knowledge of future events,this is not an essential part of the Hebrew concept of prophecy.The Koran makes reference to the Hebrew Bible prophets,proclaiming the oneness of God,people often straying from this truth.In Islam Mohammad was seen as the final prophet. Jews and Christians had misunderstood their prophets.There is the dictate in the Bible tobeware of false prophets.The Muslims saw Christ not as son of God,but as an important prophet in the
    line of Abraham and Moses.To the Jews Christ was not the Messiah,only to the Christians.You said there was a polemic between the Muslims and Christians about who of their founders was foretold.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "It bewilders me that people who call themselves atheist – for wholly understandable reasons of not believing in a God, a Resurrection, a Virgin Birth, a Trinity – think that this gives them the right to dismiss a massive body of knowledge which has informed people for almost two thousand years"


    I'm a non-believer in any of the religions featured. I'm not sure if that makes me what you call an atheist, Melvin.

    I don't claim a right to dismiss any knowledge, (if knowledge is indeed what it is), though.

    However, that, to which you seem to allude, can only reasonably be described as knowledge, in that it is familiarity with the recorded beliefs of certain people. That is, there's no solid foundation to it, in reason and/or evidence. It's not true knowledge, but merely second-hand belief. (Although it's not plain exactly what you mean).

    So when you say "informed" people, wouldn't it perhaps be better to say "misled" them, on a balance of probabilities?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The Seer or Visionary isn't that uncommon and we can cite St Francis for example but there have been many. So the Prophets can be seen in the same way seers and or visionaries. The key element of Prophecy is that the Prophet is the instrument used to pass the message on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The discussion on the programme about the relationship between Islamic prophets and messengers was far too simplistic. Prof. Mona Siddiqui said that there are very few messengers, and messengers holds a much higher position in Islam than prophets.

    The reality is more like the 'brothers of Jesus' in Christianity, with some sects insisting that Jesus had brothers, and other sects insisting that they were really just cousins, and with each sect considering members of other sects to be heretics.

    Most Arabs learning Arabic grammar in gradeschool are taught: 'All prophets are messengers, but not all messengers are prophets.' Of course, Arabs are a minority of Muslims, and most Muslims do not learn Arabic grammar in gradeschool.

    A British Muslim assured me that there are only 5 messengers, and she didn't know how many prophets, but more than 5, so every messenger is a prophet, but most prophets are not messengers. This agrees with what Prof. Mona Siddiqui said. But it does NOT agree with the interpretation by most Arab Muslims.

    Both the Arab Muslim and the British Muslim that I asked assured me that the other Muslim was a heretic.

    The British Muslim said she could never see me or talk to me again because I had insulted her religion when I said that Arab Muslims believe that every prophet is a messenger.

    The Arab Muslim said the British Muslim was completely wrong, that she knew nothing about Islam, and I must never listen to what she had to say about Islam, but must ask him if I had any questions about Islam.

    So, just as the 'brothers' or 'cousins' of Jesus is a sensitive issue for Christians, the relationship between messengers and prophets is a very sensitive one for Muslims.

    One can find many Muslims who believe that every prophet is a messenger but not every messenger is a prophet, and also many Muslims who believe that there are only 5 messengers and many prophets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I was astounded that not one of the so-called experts on prophecy knew that prophecy is a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10 and Romans 12:6) and is available to ALL believers whenever it is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Dear Roger - I am sorry you felt that we did not touch on this important point. I thought I had mentioned this distinctive feature of early Christian understanding of prophecy in relation to Joel 2:28/Acts 2:17ff and the brief discussion of 1 Cor 11 - which is, of course, the outworking of what you refer to. It is difficult to say everything you would like to say on a live radio programme but thank you for your comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Every programme I have ever listened to that relates to religion exposes the complete lack of understanding of the true origins of Western religions and the motivations of prophets like Ezekiel and Isaiah. The evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls receives scant consideration, despite the fact that they are acknowledged as the most important religious texts ever discovered.

    There are virtually no explanations on the origins that are not inadequate. When Sigmund Freud in the 1930’s made a connection for the Hebrew Bible back to the time of Pharaoh Akhenaton in 18th dynasty Egypt his findings were marginalised by most historians, even though he was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His book ‘Moses and Monotheism’ substantiated his ideas in great detail.

    Largely through the evidence of the Dead Scrolls, in addition to the biblical references Freud recognised, it is now becoming even clearer that Akhenaton, probably in association with Jacob and Joseph, was instrumental in the formulation of monotheism and the origins of Judaism and its daughter religions.

    The Temple Scroll and the so-called New Jerusalem Scroll, as well as many of the other Dead Sea Scroll texts, crystallise the fact that the Qumran-Essenes knew intimate details of the religious practices, rituals, and geometry of Akhenaton’s holy city in central Egypt of the 14th century BCE. They also throw brilliant light on the New Testament and the Koran.

    Recent studies of the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, demonstrate that they too knew about the religion of Akhenaton.

    These findings are still largely being ignored by modern scholarship, perhaps because they would demand a complete revision of past understanding, or should one say misunderstandings, of the subject.


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