The Bible and Apparitions

Biblical prophecy and apparitions

It was at the time of Moses that prophecy came to the fore amongst the Israelites. He set out the criteria for judging between true and false prophets, that is the common sense position that genuine prophecies would be fulfilled (Deut 18:13-12). During the period of the Judges prophets were rare, as the biblical text indicates in the call of Samuel: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.” (1 Sam 3:1), but from this time on, and during the period of monarchy, from about the eleventh to the fifth century BC., prophecy became more common.

During this period the great literary prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel flourished. There were also twelve minor prophets, and a number of nonliterary prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. The last recognised prophet was Malachi, whose book completes the canonical Old Testament. Prophecy then fell silent for about four hundred years until the coming of John the Baptist.Opposition from false prophets

In looking at biblical prophecies it is clear that true prophets had to face opposition from false prophets, both in the sense of fellow Israelites and foreigners. In Deuteronomy we find strict condemnations of the false prophetic activities of the inhabitants of Canaan (Deut 18:9-13), while Elijah had to face the false prophets of Baal, in his struggle against the paganism encouraged by the wicked king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife Jezebel. It is significant that there were four hundred prophets of Baal ranged against the solitary Elijah (1 Ki 18).

In fact one of the main problems faced by genuine prophets was dealing with false prophets, who often did not protest against wrongdoing while falsely attempting to predict future events.

For example the prophet Micaiah had to face a further four hundred prophets who foretold victory for Ahab and Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, if they attacked Ramoth in Gilead. Micaiah was summoned before the two kings, who were accompanied by the false prophets who were in a state of ecstasy, and heard one of prophets, Zedekiah, proclaim that victory was certain.When asked his opinion Micaiah initially sarcastically agreed with this prophecy, but then gave the true verdict, that the kings faced defeat if they attacked Ramoth in Gilead. Micaiah even said that it had been revealed to him that a deceptive spirit had been put into the mouths of the false prophets, in order that Ahab should be led to his death, as in fact subsequently happened (I Ki 22:5-38).

Similarly, Jeremiah later spoke the Word of God against prophetic deceivers, whose immoral lives led them to condone wickedness, such that the whole land was effected. He proclaimed that God had not sent them and that they made up visions themselves, promising a peace which would not come. He accused them of taking their made-up prophecies from each other and warned of dire punishments for such lies (Jer 23:9-40). Similar condemnations are found in Ezekiel against both male and female false prophets (Ez 13).

Parallels between biblical prophecy and Marian apparitionsThus we can draw some important conclusions from the history of biblical prophecy in relation to the modern Marian apparitions. Firstly, perhaps, we can see a parallel between the major and minor prophets, and the major and minor apparitions, between Lourdes and Fatima, and Pontmain and Knock, for example. In addition, it is clear that true biblical prophets had to contend with false prophets, often whole swarms of them, and so likewise we should expect genuine apparitions to be faced with false ones.

We can also see that prophecy is not necessarily continuous, that is prophets did not appear continually throughout Israel’s history, but only during specific periods. In particular from about 400 BC until the time of Christ there were no prophets. God had given his message through the great literary prophets and it was up to the people to accept and live up to it, in expectation of the Messiah.

Similarly, as difficult as it might be for some people to accept, there is no reason to expect that Marian apparitions will have continued from the time of the last apparitions genuinely recognised by the Church as a whole, those at Beauraing and Banneux in the early 1930s. There have been more recent apparitions which have apparently gained the support of the local bishop, but this is not the same as acceptance by the Church in general. This is one of the points which this website hopes to explore.

The proliferation of alleged apparitions since the 1930s may well be a counterpart to the situation which prevailed in Israel in the “intertestamental” period, the time between Malachi and Christ. In other words it is possible to argue that the Church has been given a more than adequate “prophetic” message in Mary’s approved apparitions, and particularly Fatima, and that it is presumptuous to expect anything more. Perhaps it is up to us to take up the message of Fatima and put it into practice, rather than to continue to look for “signs and wonders.”

Biblical and apocryphal writings

The intertestamental period spawned a whole series of writings, some of which are genuine, and have been accepted as such by the Catholic Church (although not by the various Protestant groupings or Judaism), but more too which have turned out to be false, although often well-intentioned.

The apocryphal Old Testament books arose in the second century BC., and can be said to have had a threefold purpose. Some books, such as the Book of Jubilees, a rewriting of parts of the Pentateuch, were written with a juridical aim, that is to strengthen the idea of the Mosaic Law.Others, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, had a moral aim, that of inducing greater piety, by producing fictitious accounts of the lives of biblical figures.

The final section covers “apocalyptic” writings, such as the Book of Enoch, and these contain “prophecies” written in the name of a great biblical figure and designed to encourage the people to renew their hope in the Messiah.

The interesting point about many of these writings is that, although non-canonical, they were often held in high regard in the early Church. It was only with the gradual establishment of the canon of the Old Testament that they were excluded.Perhaps there is a parallel here with some of the more modern alleged apparitions, which although seemingly enjoying some support now, will finally turn out to be false.

New Testament writings

The New Testament writings were also subject to this type of imitation, and again it was centuries before the New Testament canon was definitively established throughout the Church. Some of the smaller books were very late in being universally accepted into the canon. In contrast some of the apocryphal writings were very popular before finally fading from prominence.

The four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, suffered most from apocryphal mimicry. This took a number of forms, including Gospels containing heretical or invented material. Infancy Gospels, purporting to give details of Jesus’ early life were very popular, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; this has stories of Jesus as a child working miracles. The Protoevangelium of James, gives details of Mary’s early life and names her parents as Joachim and Anna.

A partial listing of apocryphal Gospels indicates how popular this form of imitation was; the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Matthias, the Gospel of Barnabus, and even the Gospel of Judas!

It is noteworthy how many of these spurious gospels there were, numerous enough to be a threat to the true Gospels. Similarly, there were quite a number of imitations of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, which in the main seem to have been composed by heretics, although some of them may have been revised by orthodox writers. These include the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Thomas. Apocryphal editions of St. Paul’s epistles also exist, as do imitations of St. John’s Apocalypse.

These include apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Thomas and Stephen.The implications of all this are clear: of all the Gospels, epistles and apocalypses produced during the first centuries of the Church, only a small proportion were authentic. The others were either to a greater or lesser extent heretical, or else pious forgeries written to satisfy a legitimate desire to know more about various characters related to New Testament events.

In some cases they may contain elements of truth, but the Church has not been able to accept them completely. Comparing this with the approved Marian apparitions and their more modern alleged counterparts, we can obviously see that there is a strong possibility that many of them are imitations and not genuine.

Source: J. Steinmuller & K. Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, Old Testament, (Wagner, New York, 1959)