Spinoza and the ‘Outsider’ Prophet

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Since the middle of the twentieth century, partly through the wide influence of Abraham Heschel’s work on the prophets and prophesy in Ancient Israel, an image of the prophet as an ‘outsider’ has emerged. This image contrasts, in critical ways, with an image of ‘the prophet’ that appears central in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise. Spinoza’s Treatise, however, is an inaugural text for the historical-critical study of prophesy in ancient Israel; and it casts a long shadow over Heschel’s view of prophesy. I identify three areas of tension between their images of prophets. The contrasts reveal that Heschel, and other twentieth century theorists of prophesy invest prophetic authority and authenticity in religious experience whose transformative power is a function of its ‘breaking through’ oppressive social/religious institutions and norms ‘from the outside.’ Spinoza, by contrast, accounts for prophetic authority via ‘immanence’: the location of prophets within a tradition of law and common ‘usage’ with the political institutions which they criticise and challenge. I argue, finally, that Spinoza’s image can accommodate the prophetic ‘outsider’ and rebel, and in a way that suggests that prophesy must now be conceived as encompassing social critique within the context of the arts.