“Spirit of Prophecy” in Second Temple Literature

by Nov 1, 2023Biblical studies, Hermeneutics, Spiritual Gifts0 comments

“Spirit of prophecy” in Second Temple Literature is thought by many scholars to be in the  background knowledge of New Testament pneumology. In the intertestamental literature the term “Spirit of prophecy” became a title for the Holy Spirit describing how Jews understood the Holy Spirit to operate.  Max Turner helps clarify this idea. 

For someone from outside the Jewish tradition the term could be a little misleading, for it might suggest that Jews thought of the Spirit primarily as giving prophecies; in fact, Jews meant something much wider, namely the Spirit acting as the organ of communication between God and a person in a variety of ways.”[1] 

Turner looked through all references to the “spirit of prophecy” and texts that described the Spirit’s work as understood in the Second Temple period. A majority of Turner’s references come from the Targums which include Jewish understanding from that historical period.[2]

The references fell into five categories. This led Turner to conclude that those in the Second Temple period had an expectation that when the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ was given in greater measure certain activities would be indicative of the Spirit’s work. Said another way, Judaism just before Jesus’ birth had an expectation of the Spirit’s work. They believed when Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled the Holy Spirit would function in these ways. 

Five activities were central to the concept in Judaism (with references to Second Temple literature)

1.) Charismatic revelation and guidance – 4 Ezra 14:22;  Bib. Ant. 9.10; 31.9; Sir 48:24

2.) Charismatic wisdom  – Targums to Ex 31:3; Frg. Tg. Num 11:26-27; Tg. Onq. Deut 34:9; Jos. and As. 4:9; Josephus Ant. 10.239; Jub 40:5; Wis 7:7; 9:17-18

3.) Spontaneous inspired prophetic speech – Targums to Num 11:26-27; Josephus Ant. 4.119; Jub 25:14; 31:12; Philo Spec. Leg. IV.49

4.) Spontaneous inspired praise or worship – 1 Enoch 71:11; Targums. Neb. 1 Sam 10:6; 19:20, 23; Bib. Ant. 32.14; T.Job 48-50

5.) Miraculous works of power – All from Targum Jon. Judges 3:10: ct. 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12,14; 8:1, 11:1,24

B. Explanation and examples of the five activities (content from Turner if not otherwise specified)

1. Charismatic revelation and guidance 

foreknowledge of the future, or revelatory insight into some aspect of the present world or of the heavenly realm often through a visionary experience, a dream, or in the hearing of words (or by some combination of these).

2. Charismatic wisdom

including two ways of impartation, (1)  the sort of wisdom that comes immediately in a single charismatic ‘event’ (2) Or slowly over a long process not necessarily consciously perceived by the recipient (i.e. God makes the person spiritually wise). For example Sirach 39.6

If the great Lord is willing he [that is, the man who devotes himself to the law] will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom and give thanks to the Lord in prayer’ – Sirach 39.6 

Given the N.T. assumption of the Spirit’s work behind the cultivation of wisdom, I could not help but sees James’ twofold description of wisdom as consistent with this Second Temple category. James could be understood to view the Spirit as working in both forms of wisdom in line with Second Temple thinking.  (1) James 1:5, and for (2) James 5:16-17. In chapter one we pray for that spontaneous wisdom needed in a moment and in Chapter five it speaks of wisdom cultivated by a life of virtue. such a life only happens by the inward work of the Spirit. 

3. Spontaneous inspired prophetic speech 

by ‘invasive’, spontaneous revelation, that is as the Spirit comes upon people, they are caught up and inspired to speak with urgency.

What is described in the literature is quite different from the form of prophecy, of the biblical writing prophets of the 5-9th centuries B.C., which was not spontaneous utterances but more cultivated and crafted inspiration from God. It involved relating to a target audience some revelation given by God, perhaps days or weeks, beforehand. The spontaneous speech bears a resemblance to the type of oracular speech given by the sign prophets of Samuel and Elijah’s time. 

4. Spontaneous inspired praise or worship

Targum Jonathan of 1 Sam. 19:20-23, show the connection: “and a spirit of prophecy from before the Lord resided upon the messengers of Saul, and they too were singing praise.”

5. Miraculous works of power

This one has the least evidence in the literature, yet the LXX and Targums retain the word ‘Spirit’ (even ‘Spirit of prophecy’ in Targums) in contexts where miraculous power is enacted. For example, in the Targum of 2 Kings 2:9-15, the power by which Elisha divides the waters is specifically identified as the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ upon him. 

C. Spirit of Prophecy in Acts as the gift of the Spirit

1. Luke in Acts seems to identify that the gift of the Spirit functions like the Spirit of prophecy. In the rest of Acts, the Spirit is consistently portrayed as the source of the very activity Judaism regarded as prototypical to the ‘Spirit of prophecy’. 

(a) The Spirit is thus the author of revelatory visions and dreams… Acts 7:55,56 Luke would probably trace such vision / dream guidance as 9:10-18; 10:10-20; 16:9,10 and 18:9,10; 22:17,18, 21; 23:11 to the Spirit  (cf. the specific mention of Spirit in these contexts, 10:19; 16:6,7) 

(b) The Spirit gives revelatory words or instruction or guidance: 1:2; 1:16; 8:29; 10:19; 11:12,28; 13:2,4; 15:28; 16:6,7; 19:21; 20:22, 23; 21:4,11 

(c) The Spirit grants charismatic wisdom or revelatory discernment: Luke 21:15 and Acts 5:3; 6:3,5,10; 9:31; 13:9 and 16:18

(d) The Spirit inspires invasive charismatic praise, e.g. the tongues on the day of Pentecost: Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6

(e) the Spirit inspires charismatic miraculous works, acts of power and healing. Acts 3:1-10, 5:12-16, 8:4-8, 9:17-19, 9:32-35, 14:8-10, 14:19-23, 16:16-18, 19:11-20, 20:7-16, 28:1-9. 

(f) Max Turner adds under the heading of the Spirit of prophecy the idea that the Spirit inspires charismatic preaching or witness: Acts 1:4,8; 4:8,31; 5:32; 6:10; 9:17. The evidence is less textually clear but conceptually sound. 

A few years ago on Remnant Radio, Jack Deere explained an interesting point when it came to Luke’s use of the term “filling” in regards to the Spirit. He explained how every time the “filling of the Spirit” was used, some speech act occurred. He made the point that there is a connection between being filled with the Holy Spirit and some form of speaking, whether it was tongues, prophecy, praise etc. Such a linguistic connection strengthens the idea that God’s Spirit wishes to speak through His people. Speaking is connected to filling; this helps us understand a broad work of the Spirit. 

For the Christian, the Holy Spirit is both God’s empowering presence and God’s self-communicating presence. This was the hope of Israel and is the inheritance of the saints.  


The connection to the prophecy of Joel and the Second Temple term “spirit of prophecy” could not be more evident. Joel spoke of God by His spirit would be poured out on all flesh and work in ways extremely similar to what we see described by the term “Spirit of prophecy”. 

At Pentecost, Christ sent “the Spirit of prophecy” on His people in a democratization of the Spirit. The eschatological age of the Spirit had begun (in part already but not yet fully) God with His people doing a new thing. The Spirit would rest on so many and work in all irrespective of status or social position. 

We can understand for Peter and the early church, Pentecost likely was associated with the coming of the promised Spirit of prophecy. In the term ‘spirit of prophecy’ we have a good summary of what it looks like for the church to be a prophethood of all believers. We all are guided by God’s spirit and have the potential of a prophetic voice. Some are given an occasional spontaneous word for a group or person. Others operate in a more consistent capacity, ministering in prophetic power and/or  insight. Thus, a broad view including the working of revelatory gifts and acts of power, all framed in terms of relationship with room to maintain proper New Testament terminology.


[1] Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now revised ed. (Peabody, Hendrickson 2009) 6

[2] Note: the Targums are translations with added context and interpretive additions; a first-century “Eugene Peterson” style of the translation.