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Priests, Prophets, Sorcerers



Definitions of ‘priest,’ ‘prophet,’ or ‘sorcerer’ must take account of the social setting of such religious specialists. Though most definitions are rooted in biblical traditions, ‘priest’ can serve as a useful umbrella term in a typology of terms of religious authorities, describing a person serving a community as the main specialist responsible for transmitting religious knowledge and establishing the relationship between individuals or the society as a whole and superhuman beings by performing rituals on behalf of the former and for the pleasure of the latter. This approach rejects a functional distinction between priests and sorcerers, given it embodies a contingent theological dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘magic.’ ‘Prophets’ are primarily performers of mantic techniques used to convey the gods’ messages to people, which in the Bible and the Qur’ān is mainly seen as conveying the ‘divine word.’ More generally, prophets also perform tasks similar to other priests and sorcerers.


This article is a selection from The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion, edited by Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler.


Featured Image: Elijah Ascends to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire (2 Kings 2:1-15), engraving by Gustave Doré. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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