I don’t believe in prophetesses.
“Miriam, the prophet…” I read. It jolted me.
I was looking at one of the Dead Sea scrolls, part of a library of ancient documents discovered in 1947 which include the oldest known copies of the Bible’s Old Testament. At this exhibit, pages from the scrolls were on display and next to each page was an English translation.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t read that passage about Miriam before. The same story is found in my King James Bible, with one key difference. In that version, Miriam is a prophetess, not a prophet. (Exodus 15:20)
If course, that difference doesn’t mean anything at all. The word “prophetess” is just an outdated word for “prophet.” Back in King James’s time, and even in Joseph Smith’s time, the English language used gendered versions of the same word to differentiate between men and women. Emma Smith, for example, called herself “presidentess” of the Relief Society.
For the most part, the English language has since abandoned the “-ess” suffix. Mormons don’t have a Relief Society presidentess anymore. She is a president, like the Elders Quorum president. But when we talk about female prophets, if we mention them at all, Mormons tend to use the outdated word “prophetess.”
We should stop it.
Using a unique word to differentiate female prophets leaves the impression that they were something other than—and perhaps less than—their male counterparts.
The LDS Guide to the Scriptures, included as a supplement in online and printed Mormon scriptures, goes beyond impressions. Although prophet and prophetess are translated to Old English from the same word in the original text, the Guide provides two completely different definitions for the masculine and feminine Old English forms. The definition for prophet describes a person with a sacred calling, analogous to the modern calling of prophet in the LDS Church, with extensive authority and responsibility.
In contrast, the definition for “prophetess” is much shorter. A prophetess, according to this LDS reference, is a spiritually gifted woman. She has no particular calling or authority. Unlike male prophets, the Guide asserts, prophetesses did not hold the priesthood.
Again, we are talking about the exact same word here, just written differently because of an Old English grammatical rule that doesn’t even apply any more. The Guide offers no scriptural references to support its claims of gendered differences in the status and roles of male and female prophets in ancient times because there are none.
Denying that female prophets were prophets in the same sense that men were lends itself to certain kinds of scriptural interpretations. I was taught as a teenager in LDS seminary that when Aaron and Miriam committed the same sin—complaining against their brother, the prophet Moses—Miriam received a much harsher punishment because, as my teacher explained, while it is wrong for anyone to undermine the authority of a prophet and seek to elevate their own status in the church, it is particularly bad for a woman to do it, because women aren’t supposed to want the priesthood. (Numbers 12) (For a less sexist explanation, read Why Does God Hate Miriam? by EmilyCC.)
At the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, I had the opportunity to participate in the tradition of placing a written prayer on a stone from Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I prayed for women to hold the priesthood and I was not struck down with leprosy. Phew.
Calling female prophets by a different name creates a distinction that did not exist in Biblical times and that we should not pretend ever existed. I believe women were prophets. I don’t believe we should keep calling them something else.