Prophets and Priests

Prophets and Priests: A Common Theme Across Religions

Saturday, October 8 is when the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is celebrated by Muslims. All religions have a founding prophet who acts as the first leader of the faith. But once they are gone, new leaders must take their place.

Although we tend to treat prophets as special individuals—even superhuman—most prophets across religions thought themselves to be ordinary people. Spiritual teachers like the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus attached importance not to themselves but to the teachings, which had been revealed to them by God. It is the source that we were instructed to revere, and not the human vessel through which it revealed its teachings.

Over the years, however, numerous false prophets and priests have regrettably taken advantage of the human tendency to seek guidance. Unlike true prophets, they prefer that the attention be directed toward them rather than toward the divine. The more clever charlatans have been known to abuse their power over people, dividing communities, encouraging blind faith. Because of this, some religious groups have chosen to do away with any kind of formal clergy and intermediary leaders and move back to the source. 

In Sikhism, each Guru upon his death passed the baton to the teacher he considered most worthy of the title. The tenth guru ended this tradition by urging the congregation to follow the teachings of the ten gurus enshrined in the holy book, the Granth Sahib, the repository of their collective wisdom. So, no one would be able to usurp power or taint the purity of the faith. The Baha’i faith has also abolished its priesthood.

Priests and prophets can play important roles in our spiritual lives, but it is important to remember that they too are human and fallible and their words should not be followed blindly. 

Christianity

“For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”

—The New Testament (Matthew 24:24), Christian text

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” 

—The New Testament (Hebrews 4:14-15), Christian text

Islam

Say, [O believers], "We have believed in Allah and what has been revealed to us and what has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Descendants [al-Asbāṭ]1 and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him."

--The Qur’an (2:136), Islamic scripture

“Muḥammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, would you turn back on your heels [to unbelief]? And he who turns back on his heels will never harm Allah at all; but Allah will reward the grateful.”

--The Qur’an (3:144), Islamic scripture

Judaism

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”

—Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 18:15), Jewish text

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.”

—Hebrew Bible (Malachi 2:7), Jewish text

Baha’i

“Fear thou God, but not the priest.”

—Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet

“Bahá'u'lláh asserted that priests and other religious professionals had their role in former times when the majority of people were illiterate and needed guidance. Today, however, humanity has the ability to bring education and literacy to all. Therefore it is possible for all to read the scriptures themselves and come to their own understanding of them. Bahá'u'lláh has therefore abolished the priesthood and the professional religious class.”

—Moojan Momen, Baha’i writer

Buddhism

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism, but to study ourselves. It is impossible to study ourselves without some teaching […] Through the teaching we may understand our human nature. But the teaching is not we ourselves; it is some explanation of ourselves. So if you are attached to the teaching, or to the teacher, that is a big mistake. The moment you meet a teacher, you should leave the teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher so that you can become independent. If you are not attached to him, the teacher will show you the way to yourself. You have a teacher for yourself, not for the teacher.”
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher

Hinduism

“If my spiritual guru and God were both in front of me, I would show my reverence and respect to my guru first by bowing down to touch his feet. It is only because of the guru’s guidance that I am able to find God.”

—Kabir, Indian mystic and poet

“There is not a fellow under the sun who is my disciple. On the contrary, I am everybody's disciple. All are the children of God. All are His servants. I too am a child of God. I too am His servant.”

--Sri Ramakrishna, Hindu saint 

Daoism

“Confucius and Mo-tzu were not princes. They never became leaders or held any political office. However, people gave them respect equal to that of kings and nobles. Everywhere they went, people craned their necks and stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of them. Everyone respected them and wished them well.”

—Lieh-tzu, Daoist text

“Does it really matter if someone is recognized as a sage or not? If you are truly honest, sincere, and upright in everything you do, do you need others to acknowledge your virtues to make you virtuous?”

—Lieh-tzu, Daoist text

Confucianism

“To no one but the Son of Heaven does it belong to order ceremonies, to fix the measures, and to determine the written characters.”
--The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian text

“How great is the path proper to the Sage! Like overflowing water, it sends forth and nourishes all things, and rises up to the height of heaven. All-complete is its greatness! It embraces the three hundred rules of ceremony, and the three thousand rules of demeanor. It waits for the proper man, and then it is trodden. Hence it is said, "Only by perfect virtue can the perfect path, in all its courses, be made a fact."”

--The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian text 

Modern philosophy and theology

“Whether dream or myth, there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as a guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography.”
—Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion

 “Religious leaders tend to have high status, and it is not beyond the pale to see their preaching as a form of exploitation, a subtle bending of the listener’s will to the speaker’s goals. [...] It would indeed be wasteful, as Campbell suggests, to throw out eons of religious tradition without inspecting it first. The sages may have been self-serving, like the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t sages.”

— Robert Wright, journalist and writer