The English word "prophets" is from prophetes, which means "one who speaks for a god and interprets his will," "interpreter," "keepers of the oracle," "the highest level of priesthood in Egypt," "interpreter," and "herald." It is from the Greek word for "shining" and as we might use the term "shining light" to describe an oracle. Note that this basic meaning does not include "one who predicts the future" as the word means in English. An "oracle" might predict the future, but he, she, or it might also reveal other divine secrets as well.
Jesus uses this word three distinct ways:
- To refer to specific books of the Bible (example:Matthew 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law)
- To refer to the historical prophets (example: Luke 11:50 That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed.)
- To refer to those acting as a spokesperson for the Divine (example: Matthew 10:41 He who receives a prophet).
This word is adopted from Greek, not actually translated. When the Bible was written, this Greek word was adopted into English based on 1,500 years of Christian teaching. Our sense of its meaning comes from the way the Bible was taught during those centuries. It is not the sense of the time.
In Hebrew, the word for "prophets" is Nevi'm, which mean literally, "spokesperson." However, the English sense of the word "prophet" comes from the verb form of this word and how Jesus uses it. The verb form of this word, "prophesied" is propheteuo (ἐπροφήτευσαν.) This verb means "to be a prophet," but it is used by Jesus only in four verses. And in two of these verses, Jesus clearly uses it to mean "predict the future and that meaning fits with all of his uses of it. From his use of this verb, we evolved our meaning for the word "prophet," though it didn't mean that directly.
Among the Jews, the Greek word meant specific people or "shining lights" from their written history. The Jews of the time divided the books of what we call the Old Testament into three different groups.
Referring to Specific Biblical Books
The books of Moses were known as "the Law" in the NT called the Torah ("Instruction"). Whenever Jesus used the word "Law" he is referring to these books (see this article). The next section books are known as "The Prophets"(Nevi'm). These books were divided into the former and minor prophets.
The other books of the Bible were called the writings, that is Ketuvim. Jesus refers to these as "that which was written."