Distinguishing Between True and False Prophets


A Prophetic Litmus Test

The end of Devarim 18 focuses on the dual obligation to listen to a true prophet and punish a false one with the death penalty. How, though, can one distinguish between true and false prophets? The Torah sets out what appears to be a fairly straightforward criterion:


(כא) וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ ה'. (כב) אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם ה' וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ ה' בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.

(21) And if you will say in your heart, "How shall we know the word which Hashem has not spoken?" (22) That which the prophet speak in the name of Hashem and the thing does not follow and not happen, that is the thing that Hashem has not spoken, the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you shall not be afraid of him.

At first glance, this test leaves little room for doubt or error. If a prophet's predictions do not materialize, he must be a fraud. However, the reality is more complex, as this is contingent on the highly questionable assumption that Divine prophecies must always be realized.

Must a Prophecy Come True?

Both Yirmeyahu 18 and Yechezkel3:16-2133:7-11 lay forth the principle that individuals and nations have the ability to overturn both positive and negative decrees with acts of repentance or sin.1 Other stories in Tanakh seem to corroborate this principle. Chizkiyahu recovers from his illness and prophetically predicted death, and the people of Nineveh avert the decreed destruction of their city after praying and changing their ways. From these verses it seems not only that prophecies are not always fulfilled, but that part of the job of the prophet is to ensure that they are not!! If this is true, though, how can a lack of fulfillment of a prophecy indicate anything about the authenticity of the prophet?

A Face-off

One of the most famous arguments between a true and false prophet is that described in Yirmeyahu 28. Yirmeyahu and Chananyah present diametrically opposed prophecies, one promising destruction and the other peace. In response to Chananyah's prediction, Yirmeyahu states:


(ח) הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנַי וּלְפָנֶיךָ מִן הָעוֹלָם וַיִּנָּבְאוּ אֶל אֲרָצוֹת רַבּוֹת וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת לְמִלְחָמָה וּלְרָעָה וּלְדָבֶר. (ט) הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ ה' בֶּאֱמֶת.

(8) The prophets who have been before me and before you from the beginning prophesied to many lands and on great kingdoms of war, and of evil, and of pestilence. (9) The prophet who will prophesy of peace, when the word of the prophet will come, the prophet that Hashem has truly sent shall be known.

These words introduce another option, that it is only through positive predictions that a false prophet can be detected.

How is the reader to make sense of all the seemingly contradictory verses? Must all prophecies be fulfilled? Only some? Or none at all? If the latter, how can anyone distinguish the real from the fake? Are there other qualifications or signs that can assist in this determination?