"Killed Their Own Prophets" New Testament Libel of the Jews

by Stephen Van Eck

We can only imagine how such a harsh statement affected the mentality of Christendom and inspired, almost justified, the long history of Jewish oppression. Although I'd been well aware of the decisive arguments that Jesus had really been executed by the Romans (though with the acquiescence of the high priests), when it came to the accusation of killing the prophets, I'd taken it for granted that this was correct.

I should have known better than to take anything the New Testament says at face value. The accusation proves to be virtually unsupported by scriptural evidence, which should not surprise anyone experienced in critical reading of the scriptures.

At least 34 prophets are mentioned by name in the Bible, besides the occasional obscure prophetesses. Half have books in their names, some do not, and at least five (Shemiah, Iddo, Nathan, Gad, and Jehu) have books mentioned (2 Chron. 12:15; 1 Chron. 29:29; 20:34) that are nowhere to be found, a fact that raises the question of why God would allow his revelations to faithful prophets to vanish completely.

It can't be that they were too insignificant, since relatively insignificant ones like Obadiah and Haggai were preserved. Besides, no revelation of God could truly be deemed insignificant.

Of these prophets, no record of their deaths is given for most of them, so there is no scriptural indication that they were killed. The deaths of a few prophets are mentioned (Moses, Samuel in [First] 25:1, and Elisha in 2 Kings 13:20) without any indication that their demises were by anything other than natural causes. One prophet (Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11) did not even die at all but was assumed bodily into heaven... or so it says. There were instances where false prophets were put to death, as when Ahab and Zedekiah were roasted to death by Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah 29:21.

Presumably, the Babylonian king was doing the Lord's work here, but that's not what Paul had in mind in 1 Thessalonians. We might also include Jeremiah's death curse on Hananiah (28:15-17) for the horrendous impiety of giving the people hope in the face of foreign oppression, but, again, that's not what Paul had in mind either.

No, we need the deaths of "true" prophets, not "false" ones. In my investigation of the prophet-killing charge, I found only three who actually were killed: John the Baptist, Balaam, and the obscure Urijah. The Baptist was killed not by the Jews but at the behest of Herodias, the wife and former sister-in-law of Herod, who took offense at John's denunciation of her. It is highly unlikely she was a Jew but rather an Edomite.

As far as Balaam is concerned, while Numbers 31:8 records his death at the hands of the Israelites, it is important to realize two things. First, he was not one of "their" prophets anyway (although he set the pattern subsequent prophets followed) but was hired by the king of Moab, whom he double-crossed by refusing to curse Israel. Second, he was judged to be evil (Numbers 31:16; Rev. 2:14; Jude 11; 2 Peter 2:15), just the sort of prophet Yahweh would conceivably "want" the Jews to kill, despite his use of Balaam against Moab.

The only fully legitimate prophet I could find who was killed by his own people was Urijah, a small-time Jeremiah parrot, who was tracked down, dragged back, and killed by King Jehoiakim himself (Jere. 26:20-23). This was the deed of one Jew and his flunkies and not a collective act.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament I could find only a vague reference to the Jews' killing their own prophets: 2 Kings 19:10, 14. These redundant passages make reference to Jewish apostasy, including that they had "slain thy prophets by the sword," but we should note that the only prior account of a general prophet-slaying by the sword was that of Elijah, who slew 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40).

As for prophets of the Lord, Jezebel is casually mentioned, almost as an afterthought, as having killed an unspecified number of them in 1 Kings 18:13. However, Jezebel, as a princess of Sidon (1 Kings 16:31), was a Phoenician, not a Jew. Any attribution of blame to the children of Israel collectively for the act of their foreign queen is unjustified, and the subsequent killing of the prophets of Baal may have been a retaliatory massacre by Elijah. At any rate, he was considered a hero for doing it.

In the final analysis, there is insufficient basis to substantiate the charge that the Jews killed their own prophets. All we have in the Old Testament is a solitary killing by a solitary king, and the unsupported indictment in 2 Kings 19. In the New Testament, we have Paul's bald assertion in 1 Thessalonians, plus Hebrews 11:32, 36-37, which makes the killing of prophets seem like a common occurrence.

The source of the notion in Hebrews is not even scriptural but derives from later Jewish traditions that Isaiah and Jeremiah had both been killed. Hebrews 11:37, without even mentioning his name, reflects a folk belief that Isaiah had been sawed in half. Another tradition had Jeremiah killed (method unknown) by exilic Jews who found him profoundly annoying, that part of the tradition being highly credible.

However, since both of these traditions are non-canonical, no Bible literalist can accept them as evidence and must conclude that on the basis of scriptural information alone, Paul's accusation in 1 Thessalonians is unfounded.

Further refutation might be found in Jeremiah 1:8, which seems to indicate that Jeremiah was under divine protection: "Be not afraid of their faces; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD." It isn't recorded that this protection was withdrawn, which God could not have done anyway without being a fink. So any notion of Jeremiah's being killed would present a severe apologetic dilemma: either God is ineffectual or unreliable. Jeremiah 27:11-19, 24 provides additional support against this notion by relating how the false prophets and priests could not persuade the princes or (most important) the people that Jeremiah should die.

But even if we add Jeremiah to the single name of Urijah, only three prophets killed of a guild that operated for centuries, shows remarkable restraint, given how incendiary the prophets strived to be... and murderous as well. Recall the mass killings by Elijah (1 Kings 18:40; 2 Kings 1:10,12) and the deaths of 42 children following Elisha's curse, for a crime tantamount to yelling, "Hey, Baldo!" (2 Kings 2:23-24). Why this vile and unwarranted overreaction did not lead to the elimination of Elisha by a rightfully aggrieved parent is one of the Bible's unremarked miracles. That is, if this bizarre moral lesson for children ever actually occurred, which sane minds will strongly doubt.

Investigating Paul's charge led to an unexpected nugget of some interest. When Jesus (Luke 11:15) referred to murder victims from A to Z (Abel to Zechariah), Matthew (23:35)--or even Jesus himself--confused the latter with the prophet Zechariah, referring to him as "the son of Barachiah," when the Zechariah who was killed was the son of Hehoiada (2 Chron. 24:20-22), and not the Old Testament prophet. This is yet another scriptural discrepancy that the inerrantists will undergo extreme contortions trying to explain away.

No doubt they will also devise some imaginative explanation to show that Paul was right when he said that the Jews had killed their own prophets, but they won't find any support for the claim in the Jewish scriptures.