The Cultic and Prophetic Cultures

in the Bible

A. The Problem

A section of theologians and Biblical scholars understand prophecy and cult as mutually opposing. Can we find justification to this approach in the Bible? It is true that many of the canonical prophets are critical of the Temple cultus. Does this mean that they advocate a religion devoid of cultic worship? Some times Christianity is explained as prophetic and not cultic. Is this not too much a generalization? Do we have any basis for this in the New Testament? How far is New Testament worship cultic; cult consisting of rituals and ceremonies? What is the relation between prophecy and cult in the New Testament tradition?

B. Cult and Culture

Before we begin searching answers for the above questions a brief description about cult and culture are in order. Both cult and culture are terms drawn basically from agricultural life. The term cult is derived from Latin cultus to mean habitation, tilling, refinement, worship, etc. The Webster's Dictionary gives various shades of meaning of which we may pick up one that appears to be appropriate for our analysis. It says that cult is ''a particular system of religious worship especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.''1

The term culture is the equivalent of Latin cultura which means tilling, place tilled. A number of definitions are given for culture; the relevant one for our purpose is the usage of the term in anthropology. Here culture is the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to the other''2

The term cult is broader than the term worship as it constitutes all religious exercises including ritualistic or ceremonial observances. There is some hesitation to use the term cult for Christian worship in general or Eucharistic worship in particular by some because of their negative attitude towards rituals and ceremonies. But all cultures, religious or secular have their own rituals and ceremonies. These are integral to any culture. Life itself is a rite, full of rituals.3 Since the Reformation the importance of the cultic or ritualistic aspect of the liturgy had not been adequately affirmed. The prophetic function of the Church was given more emphasis through the importance accorded to pulpit and the ethical or moral instructions taught from it. But in recent years studies in Comparative Religion, Anthropology and Psychology reveal that the 'ritual patterns' are to be seriously considered for the appreciation of a religious system, a culture.4

C. Cult and Prophecy in Ancient Israel

i) Priests and Prophecy

A close examination of the Biblical traditions will sufficiently show that priesthood and prophecy co - existed either in two persons or even in one person. We have evidences in the Old Testament to show that ''both in general and particularly as regards the Jerusalem Temple, the nabi' or prophet originally filled a cultic role at least equal, if not greater, importance.''5 This is particularly evident in early type of prophets who were connected in some way with the sanctuary and its attendant priesthood. It has been pointed out there were nebi'im who lived together in the neighbourhood of ancient sanctuaries and that they were closely connected with the priests (Jer 29 : 26; cf. also 20 : 1,2; Lam 2 : 20).

In Deut 33 which is commonly titled as the 'Blessing of Moses' the role played by Levi in giving oracles is mentioned. In vv. 8-10 we read,

Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; … They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt offering upon thy altar.

As Roland de Vaux rightly points out the function of Levi in giving oracles is mentioned even before that of the teaching of Torah and the service of the altar.6 In ancient Israel men went to a sanctuary 'to consult Yahweh' and the priest gave oracles. Thus in the desert the people of Israel went to Moses to consult Yahweh (Ex. 18:15). Moses then went inside the tent alone and spoke face to face with Yahweh (Ex 33 : 7-11). This seems to be a previlege enjoyed by Moses (Num 12 : 6-8) and not shared by the priests. They used to consult God by means of the ephod and of the Urim and Thummim as it is said in Deut 33: 8.

In early times offering sacrifice was not performed exclusively by the priests. It could be done by the head of a household (Judg 13 : 19; Job 1 : 5) a judge (1 Sam 7 :7), a prophet (1 Kings 18) or the king (2 Sam 6: 12-13; 24 : 18-25) at many places. In the 'Blessing of Moses' , however, the service at the altar is classed as a function of the Levi. In later legislation it became a priestly prerogative. Gradually the sacrificial duties gained importance as the primary function of the priest and prophetic role became secondary or of least importance.7 Malachi the prophet of the post-exilic period emphasises this priestly responsibility by saying,

For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek Instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. (Mal 2 :7).

ii) Prophecy and Cultus

Roland E. Clements convincingly argues that the prophets were vitally connected and concerned with the traditional forms of religion in Israel especially that of the cultus7. Samuel was permanently established as a prophet at the important sanctuary of Shiloah (1 Sam 3 : 19-21). Elisha's presence at Mount Carmel the site of an early and famous sanctuary (2 Kings 4 : 23-25) sufficiently shows that the prophet had a connection of some sort with the formal worship of Yahweh. That the canonical prophets protest against some of the evil practices of the Temple cult led to a totally misleading picture of the prophet as one who opposes all cultic forms. We may note here that the canonical prophets attacked the false prophets too. It is a fact that the prophets were connected with the Temple just as the peiests were. This is evident from Jer 26 :7 where the priests and the prophets are found coupled together,

The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the Lord

Cf. also 23 : 11, 26 : 17.

It can be rightly assumed that the prophets had special quarters within the Temple itself.8 This is clear from Jer. 35 : 4 where the prophet seeks to put the Rechabites to the test bringing them into the house of the Lord "into the chamber of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God". It is obvious that the term 'man of God' is a synonym for prophet. Since it is said that the chamber belongs to the 'sons' of the prophet we can rightly infer that the reference is to a particular school or guild of prophets and they form part of the Temple personnel (cf. 1 Kings 22 ; 2 Kings1; Amos 7 : 14).

At the time of the Restoration under Zerubbabel both the prophet and the priest are found together again. They cooperate to rebuild the Temple. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah had an official connection with the cultus. Zechariah, for example, encouraged the people communicating the divine instruction that "the Temple must be built" (Zech 8 : 9; cf. Ezra 5 : 1-2). Haggai too motivates the people saying, "The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former" (Hag 2 : 9).

All these evidences from the prophets themselves enable us to reject an evaluation which project them as the true pioneers of Israel's faith, the founders of ethical monotheism, moral idealists, religious individualists and independent of the established forms of religion. On the other hand they were, as we have already indicated, connected with the traditional forms of Israelite religion. With regard to the ethical ideas they were at least partially dependent on the classical prophets. The central concern of the prophetic preaching, as Roland E. Clements11 forcefully and convincingly establishes was with Yahweh's covenantal relationship with Israel rooted in the conviction of Yahweh's salvific intervention in history. It is worth noticing here that the earliest recollection and reaffirmation of the covenant in Israel took place in a cultic assembly, for example, the assembly at Shechem mentioned in Josh 24. Again, the cult-hymns reflect the religion of ancient Israel from which the prophets borrowed frequently. All these point to the connection of prophecy with the cultus in ancient Israel.

As a sort of digression we may present a brief summary of the debate on the relationship between prophecy and cult in the study of Old Testament.11 The tendency to understand prophets as anticultic is as old as 1875 when B. Duhm published a book with the title The Theology of the Prophets (original in German). According to Duhm the most important achievements of the prophets lay in the realm of theological ideas, especially the way in which they criticized and rejected the cultic practices. Duhm held that the prophets replaced these with a religion of moral idealism which corresponds to the moral idealism of the nineteenth century philosophy. As R. E. Clements points out,

Duhm believed he could show that the prophets had prepared the way for the Christian Gospel by their moral earnestness, their rejection of a religion of ritual and their preaching of the direct relationship of each individual to God12.

After seventeen years Duhm himself became conscious of the one sidedness of his earlier interpretation of the prophets and could discern the poetic nature of the prophecy and the ecstatic experiences of the prophets at the time when they received the message. H. Gunkel in 1913 discovered that certain prophecies showed a liturgical form and that they might be understood as prophetic adaptations of cultic sayings and activities. Besides, the source of various ideas and images used by the prophets could be traced back to the cult. For example, in Jer 14 : 17-22 we can find a communal act of lamentation appropriate to a national day of penitance and prayer. S. Mowinckel, as early as 1914, following Gunkel paid special attention to the way in which the prophets drew ideas and themes from the cult. He shows Habakkuk as an example for cultic prophecy, and Joel 1-2 for a cultic lament in prophecy. The Similarities between the prophecies of Isaiah (especially chapters 1-12 and the Psalms point to their common connection with the Jerusalem cultus.

G. Von Rad13 too objects to the understanding of prophets as original (independent of all influence), individualistic and in direct communication with God, and the "religion of the prophets as a religion of the spirit diametrically opposed to the cultic religion of the priests"14. Von Rad on his own right argues that the historical tradition of each prophet has its own cultic centre in the background. Thus Hosea is in fluenced by the traditions of North Israel and Israel by the tradition of Mount Zion and the Jerusalem Temple15.

The above discussion on the interrelation of cult and prophecy in ancient Israel sufficiently shows, that they are not mutually exclusive and that the prophets were not only not opposed to the cult but also that they could be better understood against the cultic life-situation of ancient Israel.

D. Cult and Prophecy in the New Testament

Jesus and his disciples participated in the cultic services of the Temple. However there are passages in the New Testament, which show a certain degree of opposition against the Temple. Does this go to the extent to say that the New Testament advocates a worship without cultic rituals and ceremonies? If this is true then how do we explain the cultic elements found in the Baptismal and Eucharistic liturgies of the Christian Church? Obviously these are sacraments with cultic rituals making use of elements like water, oil, wine, bread, etc. In view of this is it right to hold that the old ritualism is replaced by a new one with new meanings? Again, there arises the question whether the liturgical order found in the New Testament is a static one without any room for the freedom of the working of the Spirit. If there are both liturgical order and freedom of the Spirit, to what extent they are interrelated in the worship of the New Testament community?

i) Jesus and the Temple

Jesus worshipped in the Temple. All the four Gospels allude to this. According to Luke Jesus is found in the Temple as an infant when his parents bring him to be presented as the first male child (Lk 2 : 22) and when he goes to Jerusalem as a boy for his first Passover (Lk 2 : 41). All the four Gospels unanimouly witness that it is when he comes to Jerusalem for the passover that he is arrested and put to death. Jesus is present at the Temple, according to the fourth evangelist, for the feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7: 2-3) and for the feast of Dedication (Jn 10 : 22).

However, there are a few passages which can be taken as evidence for Jesus' opposition to the Temple. At the time of Jesus' trial some stands up and witness that Jesus has said, "I will destroy this Temple" (Mk 14 : 57-59; cf. Mk 15: 29 = Mt 27 : 40). In the Apocalyptic discourse Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13 : 1-2). Jn 2 : 19 has the saying, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it" and in Mt 12 : 6 we have Jesus' statement, "Some thing greater than the Temple is here."

All these point to the fact that (a) Jesus used the Jewish institutions of worship. (b) He foreknew the Judgement of God to take place on the Temple and that a "new Temple" would be built with his death and resurrection - the new temple being the body of Christ the Church. This is reflected in the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, "The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the father… the true worshipper will worship the father in Spirit and truth.'' (Jn 4 : 21, 23). Jesus' words on the Temple cannot be taken to mean that he is opposing the ritualistic and ceremonial worship of the Temple and is in favour of establishing a worship without any rituals. Rather, Jesus is predicting about the institution of the Church and a new worship administered by the Holy Spirit replacing the old Temple and its cultus.16

ii) The Apostles and the Temple

The disciples attended the Temple worship every day (Acts 2: 46). This is confirmed further when it is said that Peter and John go to the Temple at ninth hour, the hour of prayer (Acts 3: 1), which was also the hour of evening sacrifice (cf. Ex 29: 39). We find Paul too praying in the Temple (Acts 22:17). Besides, he is ready to pay the expenses of sacrifice for a group of men, presumably poor men as an act of Jewish piety (Acts 21: 23-26). In Acts 20: 6 it is implied that Paul observed the Passover and in Acts 20:16 we find him hurrying so as to reach Jerusalem by Pentacost. Only when the observance of certain days, months, seasons and years came into conflict with the freedom of the Christian Gospel and the Christian understanding of Christ that Paul protests against it (Gal 4: 10-11; Col 2: 16). The same is true of circumcision. Paul is prepared to circumcise Timothy so that he may be acceptable to the Jews. But it is questioned when it is interpreted by the Judaizers to challenge the central message of the Gospel and the finality of Christ.

Here, again, the conflict is not between the inward and outward or ritualistic and non ritualistic dimensions of worship and sacraments but between the two ages, the old and the new; the old representing the Law and the new representing the Holy Spirit.

iii) Liturgies of Baptism and Eucharist

No one can deny the cultic, ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of the Baptismal and Eucharistic liturgies. The cultic dimensions of the sacraments are indirectly affirmed by the scholars when they find parallels for these in Gnosticism and Hellenistic mystery religions. It has been pointed out that the image of putting off and putting on a garment was widespread in the ancient world.17 It was used in the mystery religions to interpret the rite of initiation. In Gnosticism too the image of putting off and putting on is to express the redemptive process into which one enters. Paul employs this image (Col 3: 9-10) to illustrate the change of rule that has taken place in Baptism. Parallels for Eucharistic meal can also be found in the mystery religions where the process of initiation into the mysteries is also connected with ceremonial eating or drinking.18

iv) Eucharistic Life as a Sacrificial Offering

What does it mean cultic culture? It implies that the meaning of the cult should become assimilated into our daily life and the life in its turn should make the cult meaningful. This reciprocity of cult and life is brought out in some passages in Paul, where he exhorts the believers to make their life an offering, eucharistic offering. Here there in no conflict between the ritual and the actual; the two constitute to make life an indivisible whole.

In Rom 12:1 Paul exhorts the believers to present their bodies as a sacrifice, living holy and pleasing to God, as a reasonable service. Here, the expression 'reasonable service' (logike latreia is in apposition with sacrifice (thysia). The former phrase is very often taken as in opposition to external rites. But the verse as a whole refers to the New Testament sacrifice which is in antithesis to the Old Testament animal sacrifice. In the eucharistic sacrifice humans offer themselves as a living sacrifice. They are rational beings and therefore theirs is a reasonable service. The eucharistic service itself involves some external rites. Therefore the antithesis is not between the external and the internal19 but between the whole old Testament and New Testament institutions of worship. In the eucharistic sacrifice those who offer and those offered, i.e the subject and object of offering, are humans themselves, and at the same time they conform themselves to Jesus Christ who offered himself as a living sacrifice to God the Father. The Old Testament sacrifice is performed in accordance with the Law where as the New Testament eucharistic sacrifice is administered by the Holy Spirit (cf 2 Cor 3: 7-11).

This is further clarified in Rom 15:16 where Paul states that God by his grace made him

to be a minister (leitourgos) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (hierourgounta) of the Gospel of God, so that the offering (prosphora) of the gentiles may be acceptable (euprosdektos) sanctified by the Holy Spirit

The terms leitourgos, hierourgounta , prosphora, euprosdektos, etc. are technical terms of cultic worship. All these are transferred to Christian worship, especially eucharistic worship with a new meaning acquired through the sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ on the cross.

In Phil 2: 17 Paul foresees his own martyrdom and uses the metaphor of libation to describe it,

Even if I am to be poured as a libation (spendomai) in sacrifice and service (thysia kai leitourgia) of your faith, I rejoice and do rejoice with you.

The same metaphor recurs in 2 Tim 4:6. The term leitourgia a technical term of worship is used here as well as elsewhere (cf. 2 cor 9: 12) to signify service rendered to others. Thus Philippians' service to Paul is a leitourgia (Phil 2 :30). Again, the gift of money sent by the Philippians through Epaphroditus is described as " a fragrant offering (osme euodia), a sacrifice (thysia ) acceptable and pleasing to God" (Phil 4: 18). It is worth noticing that the same terms fragrant offering and sacrifice are used in Eph 5:2 to explain Christ's own sacrifice on the Cross.

Two whole life is a leitourgia, thysia or prosphora when the believers turn to God in worship and when they turn to humans in service. C. F. D. Moule sums up this new meaning of the cultus thus,

Accordingly on the Christian showing, worship cannot possibly be an optional extra. It is the business of life. If "there is no longer any 'cultus' in the ancient sense", it is equally true, conversely, that all life has become 'cultus' in a new sense. Life has no other purpose than to be rendered up to God in adoration and gratitude.20

Here there is no dualism between worship and work. Life itself becomes a eucharistic offering, a cultus. This reciprocity is to be maintained both in our service to humans and to God.

v) Prophecy at the Eucharistic Assembly

I Cor 14: 26-33a points to the fact that in addition to the set form of worship there are some other constituent elements in worship based on the freedom of the Spirit. These are contributed by individual Christians for the edification of the whole congregation. Those elements are psalms, teaching, revelation, tongues, interpretation (of tongues). Here, revelation in the light of vv 29, 32 may be the contribution of a prophet.21 The gifts of prophesy and revelation are different from the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge ( 1Cor 12:8). The latter point to the intelligible exposition of the word where as the former are of special inspiration. Alongside fixed elements of worship there is room for a perfectly free proclamation in the Spirit.22 Paul, however, advises the Christian community to be prudent in discerning the prophetic utterances23 without denouncing the gift of prophecy . This is again, evident in Paul's instruction, "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything…" (1 Thess 5: 19-22). Thus prophesy was part of the early Christian cult.

vi) Cult as the Life- Situation of Prophecy

The references to the prophets in the New Testament point to the fact that they are attached to the worshipping Church. It is in the eucharistic context that they carried out their ministry. However, there are prophets sent out to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. But this does not imply that they are independent of the eucharistic assembly. It is in fact the worshipping community that commissions them to preach the Gospel (Acts 13 : 1-3).

There is a tendency to understand prophecy as ethical exhortation. This is not justified on the basis of the passages where the ministry of the prophets are dealt with. The prophets, declared the mind of God in the power of the Spirit. Their ministry was directed in the main to the requirements of the moment rather than to the enunciation of permanent principles. We may also note that even the so called ethical sections in the New Testament are to be understood against the cultic-sacramental life-situation of the primitive Christian Church. For example, the ethical section of Romans (chapters 12-13) begins with a strong allusion to the eucharistic celebration(12:1). The epistle of James is written in the context of the eucharistic assembly (cf. James 2 :1-7). The themes of 1 Peter without any doubt are wholly appropriate to Baptism25.

The Book of Revelation is prophetical (cf. Rev 1 :3). But the whole book is cast in the context of the worship of the early Christian Church making full of allusions to the liturgical usages of the early christian community.26. It is said that the seer has his vision on the Lord's Day (Rev 1 :10). He sees the whole drama of the last days in the context of worship. The cultic celebration of the angels corresponds to that of the eucharistic community. It is better to say that the celestial and the earthly celebrations merge into one chorus in the eucharistic cultus27. To this the whole cosmos joins.


The Old Testament and New Testament alike bear witness to the fact that cult and prophecy are integrally related. The cult is the life-situation or the matrix of prophecy. Any strict distinction between them is artificial. The tendency to dissociate prophecy from cult in the Bible might be traced back to the anti-ritualistic attitude found in pietism and moral/ethical idealism both being the products of European Enlightenment. The pendulum of scholarship has already swung to the opposite direction affirming the need for rituals and ceremonies in worship as they are integral to any quarter of human life. But it seems that a section of the scholarship still remains under the hang-over of the old approach. It is high time that we discover the real milieu of the prophecy and give heed to the true prophetic voice abandoning the false.


1. Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Gramercy, 1996.

2. Ibid.

3. Cf. George Guiver, Pursuing the Mystery: Worship and Daily Life as Presences of God, London: SPCK, 1996, pp. 46-48. Guiver rightly puts the value of rituals when he says, "Ritual is in fact one of the most important constituents of our daily life together. Anthropology and Psychology now tell us that humanity cannot live without rite, ceremony and communal symbol….. Rituals, ceremonies and paraphernalia borne along by a lively tradition are essential to a healthy life and indude many every day things which it would never occur to us to see as rituals". Ibid. p. 46.

4. Cf. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1945, p. ix.

5. Aubrey R. Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel, Cardiff: University of Wales, 1962, p.2

6. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, Tramsn. John McHugh, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973, p. 349

7. Prophecy and Covenant, Studies in Biblical Theology 43, London: scm, 1965, pp. 11-26.

8. Cf. Aubrey R. Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel, op.cit., p. 62.

9. Ibid.

10. Prophecy and Covenant, op. cit., p. 16

11. For this we mainly depend on Roland E. Clements, A Century of Old Testament Study, London:Lutterworth, 1976, pp. 51-75

12. Ibid., p. 53.

13. Old Testament Theology : Volume II: The Theology of Israel's Prophetic Traditions, Transn . D. M. G. Stalker, London: SCM, 1975, pp. 3-5.

14. Ibid., p. 4.

15. Cf R. E. Clements, A Century of Old Testament Study, op. cit., p. 70

16. We may understand, in the same line, the accusation levelled against Stephen that he has said, "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place." (Acts 6: 14).

17. cf. Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, Transn. W. R. Poehlmann and R. J. Karris, Hermeneia, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971, pp. 141-142

18. However, we may note that these similarities are peripheral and do not go deeper; cf. C. F. D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament, Ecumenical Studies in Worship, London: Lutterworth, p. 24

19. So Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, Rome: Bibli cal Institute, 1979, p. 486.

20. Worship in the New Testament, op. cit., p. 84.

21. Cf. F. F. Bruce, I & II Corinthians, New Century Bible Commentary, London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971, p. 134.

22. Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, Studies in Biblical Theology 10, London: SCM, p. 21.

23. Didache too instructs the believers to discern true and false prophecies (chs. 11-13).

24. Cf. Bruce, I & II Corinthians, op. cit., p. 13.

25. Cf. E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1981 (Second edition) pp. 17-23).

26. Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, op. cit. P.7.

          27. Pierre Prigent, Apocalypse et Liturgie, Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1964, p. 47.