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Sibylline Oracles

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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At the close of the 5th (6th?) cent. Gospel (cf. vol. i. p. 489) which is entitled The History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Saviour predicts that Antichrist will murder four persons and shed their blood like water, in revenge for their exposure of his evil policy. The apostles ask who these four persons are, and the Lord replies, ‘They are Enoch, Elijah, Schila, and Tabitha.’ ‘Schila’ has puzzled editors of this Arabic document. It is commonly taken as a man’s name, and he has been identified with the NT ‘Silas,’ although there is no obvious reason either in the NT or in later tradition why Silas should be in such exalted company. E. Nestle (ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft.] xi. [1910] 240) suggests that he was the son of the widow of Nain; but this is pure conjecture, and Nestle’s companion idea that ‘Tabitha’ represents the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:41, ταλειθά κούμ) is a precarious support. Tabitha is certainly the woman of Joppa (Acts 9:36-41) whom St. Peter raised from the dead. In the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah she encounters Antichrist, and in a fragment of some Sahidic apocalypse, quoted by Crum (ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft.] xii. [1911] 352), she is ranked with Enoch and Elijah as having entered heaven in the body. Crum further solves the problem of ‘Schila’ by noting that when the Arabic noun is pointed differently it becomes equivalent to ‘Sibylla,’ who is elsewhere associated with Enoch. This yields an excellent sense for the passage, two men being followed by two women.

But what is the Sibyl, a pagan figure, doing in this Christian connexion? How did she come to till so strange a rôle? The answer to these questions is the subject of the present article.

The etymology of the word ‘Sibyl’ is a disputed point. (a) The oldest derivation is the attractive one given by Varro (quoted in Lact. Div. Inst. i. 6), that the term is a generic title for prophetesses, which comes from the Doric or aeolic σιός = θεός, and βολλά (βούλλα) = βουλή, i.e. ‘the counsel of God.’ (b) J. P. Postgate (AJPh [Note: JPh American Journal of Philology.] iii. [1882] 333-334), unable to accept (a), since σιός is Laconian, not aeolic, and since the loss of an accented syllable is unlikely, prefers the roots σιβ-υλο-γα (the feminine suffix) = ‘the wise (little) woman,’ the suffix -υλο being used in a diminutive sense, and σιβ- being connected with sap, ‘to be wise.’ (c) The idea of wisdom is brought in by those philologists, like Max Müller (Lectures on the Science of Language, new ed., London, 1882, vol. i. p. 109), who connect σιβ with a primitive Italian sabus or sabius, ‘wise’; but there is no trace of this Italian term as the origin of the diminutive, and ‘Sibulla’ does not seem to occur in any Italian dialect. (d) E. Hofmann (see below) accepts the first part of (a), but makes the word a composite from σιός and ἵλλαος = ἱλαος (ἵλεως), meaning ‘God-appeasing,’ or ‘God-reconciling,’ with reference to the aim of the primitive Sibylline oracles. Others find the thought of age dominant and (e), like S. Krauss, derive it from sib-il, ‘the ancient of God,’ sib or šib = ‘old,’ and -ιλ as in Βαβυλών, for which the inscriptions furnish the form ‘Bâb-il’ (Byzantinische Zeitschrift, xi. [1902] 122), or (f), like H. Lewy in Philologus, lvii. [1898] 350 f., connect σίβυλλα with the Semitic (Aramaic) root of sâbetâ, ‘grandmother,’ although this leaves the reduplication of the β unexplained. None of these, or of the other ancient and modern etymologies which have been proposed, is satisfactory. Σίβιλλα occurs as a woman’s name in an Attic inscription from the 4th cent. b.c., but, while this suggests that Sibyl may have been a proper name to begin with, it is insufficient to prove that Sibyl was a Greek term, not an Oriental. Eventually the name was applied la any woman or prophetic gifts, according to Servius (on aen. iii. 445: ‘Sibylla … dicitur omnis puella cuius pectus numen recipit’) and Suidas (ἐνὶ ὀνόματι αἱ θηλείαι μάντιδες ὠνομάσθησαν Σιβύλλαι). But originally it was restricted to a small class or prophetesses, whom we may call:

1. The classical Sibyl(s).-Towards the end of the 6th, or about the beginning of the 5th, cent. b.c., the foundation of the Capitoline temple in Rome was associated with the influence of Sibylline utterances and the infusion of Greek rites (Graecus ritus) into Roman religion. The origin of these was Eastern. During the 6th cent. ‘Greece was not only full of Orphism and Pythagoreanism, but of floating oracular dicta believed to emanate from a mystic female figure, a weird figure of whom it is hard to say how far she was human or divine; and of whose origin we know nothing, except that her original home was, as we might expect, Asia Minor’ (W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London, 1911, p. 257). This was the Sibyl. Like the Pythia, she was a woman, considered to be inspired by Apollo. Subsequently, she was supposed to be extremely old, on the principle, probably, that long experience added to her prophetic capacities. As time went on, her personality multiplied; in the 4th cent. b.c. Heraclides Ponticus, the historian, knew of three, and Varro reckoned as many as ten [Note: The variant tradition of nine reached Shakespeare. The Bastard in King Henry VI. (pt. i. act i. scene ii. lines 55-57), describing Joan of Arc, says:

‘The spirit of deep prophecy she hath,

Exceeding the nine sibyls of old Rome:

What’s past and what’s to come she can descry.’] Sibyls. Primitive tradition located the original Sibyl at Erythrae, but the most famous Sibyl resided at Cumae, the old Greek settlement in Campania, though it is probable that the Sibylline oracles which came to Rome from Cumae had reached the latter city from Erythrae. [Note: Emmanuel Hofmann’s paper on ‘Die tarquinischen Sibyllen-bücher’ in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, new ser., 1. [1895] 90-113.] The Roman collection, which legend linked to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus, perished in the Capitol fire of 83 b.c. But they had become too important for the purposes of religion to be lost, and a commission of three State officials replaced them by a fresh collection of a thousand verses, gathered from Erythrae, Samos, Ilium, Africa, Sicily, and elsewhere. Instructions were given that only genuine productions were to be admitted to thus new edition of the libri Sibyllini or libri fatales. [Note: According to some recent critics, e.g. F. Kampers (in Histor. Zeitschrift, 1908, p. 252f.), the new harvest of Sibyllina included some Jewish Alexandrian productions, which influenced Vergil. See. further, J. B. Mayor’s paper in the Exp. 7th ser. iii. [1907] 289 ff.] But such precautions as were taken do not seem to have been more than partially successful. Oracles of this kind absorbed forgeries of a more or less political aim, and the authorized collection had to be purged from time to time. In 13 b.c. Augustus included this among his religious reforms, and Tiberius had to prevent an anonymous Sibylline book from being added to the list; the Emperor showed himself more sceptical than the quindecimuiri sacris faciundis, [Note: When his patron’s son was elected to this board of officials, Tibullus (ii. 5) wrote a pcem for the occasion, in which he invokes PhCEbus Apollo, under whose guidance ‘the Sibyl has never played the Romans false, singing Fate’s secrets in hexameters’ (15 f.).] who were officially responsible for the interpretation of the oracles and for the application of their mysterious commands to the national life. In times of disaster and misfortune, or when prodigies occurred, the Romans turned to this sacred collection. Whatever measures it dictated-fasts, feasts, expiations, or the like-were carried out with trembling, anxious care, as during the panic roused by Hannibal’s campaign in Northern Italy. The Sibylline collection met, or was skilfully manipulated to meet, the popular appetite for appeasing the supernatural, which prodigies and defeats created from time to time. These Roman oracles originally were not so much predictions of woes to come, like apocalyptic tracts, as explanations of what was required to avert the anger of the gods and ward off evil to the State on earth. They were not ‘vaticinia’ but ‘remedia Sibyllina,’ as Pliny puts it (Historia Naturalis (Pliny) xi. 35). They were also esoteric literature; the consent of the Senate was required before a line of their contents could be divulged to the general public. This put considerable power into the hands of the officials who had charge of them, especially as the obscurity of their contents made the sense of certain passages conveniently ambiguous, and it is not surprising to find that, as time went on, their reputation suffered in the same way as the Greek oracles; the Roman, like the Greek, Sibyllina might ‘philippize’; genuine lines might be interpreted for private ends, if a political leader could influence the expositors, and forged lines could be surreptitiously introduced. Still, for two centuries at least, these oracles had a singular power over the religious hopes and fears of the people. An odd story like that preserved by Petronius [Note: His drunken hero, Trimalchio (Satyricon, 48), alleges, ‘I once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage at Cumae, and when the boys called to her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” she replied, “I want to die.” ’] in the 1st cent. a.d. must not be allowed to count unduly against the esteem which was still felt for the oracles. But their influence was upon the wane. Thus, in a.d. 270, when the Alemanni invaded Italy, the Senate hesitated to consult the Sibyllina, and Aurelian had to incite them (Vopiscus, Vita Aureliani, 20); the Emperor taunted them with behaving as if they were in a Christian church-a significant indication of the changed attitude towards these oracles! Their use lingered down to the age of Julian. Then the Christian reaction proved fatal to them, and Stilicho is said to have burned the entire official collection at the beginning of the 5th century. His action was bitterly resented, as we can see from the indignant verses of Rutilius Numantianus, but the protect did not affect the fact; Stilicho’s action had made it impossible for the authorities to appeal in future to this ancient relic of pagan divination. [Note: On the whole subject, see G. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, Munich, 1902. pp. 462-475, and W. Buchholz’s article in Roscher, pp. 790-813, with the penetrating discussion in A. Bouché-Leclercq’s Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquité, 4 vols., Paris, 1879-81, ii. 199 f.]

Besides the official collection, however, Sibylline oracles passed current in large numbers among the people. Lactantius, who has preserved several important data on the subject, declares that only the Cumaean Sibyl’s oracles, amounting to three books, were kept secret, [Note: Justin (Apol. i. 44) denounces this as a device of evil demons, to prevent men from reading evidence for the truth of God!] while the writings of the other Sibyls for the most part circulated freely. It is true, as we have seen, that the very diffusion of such verses led to the partial discrediting of the entire literature as a religious authority of impartial value, but long before this shadow fell upon the Sibyllina at Rome the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria had taken advantage of the current Sibylline verse as a literary genre and started a new, ingenious development of the method.

2. The Jewish Sibylline oracles.-We come upon Jewish Sibylline oracles before we hear of a Jewish Sibyl. The latter is first mentioned by Alexander Polyhistor, the Greek author of Χαλδαϊκά, in the 1st cent. b.c., who quotes what is apparently an oracle still extant in Sib. Orac. iii. 97 ff. It is necessary to say ‘apparently,’ for serious doubts have been thrown recently upon Alexander’s indebtedness to a Jewish source; both Geffcken [Note: In his ‘Komposition und Entstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina’ (TU xxiii. 1 [1902] 2 f.).] and Bousset [Note: In an essay in E. Preuschen’s ZNTW iii. [1902] 23-49.] prefer to find traces of a Babylonian (Greek) Sibylline oracle, and Schürer’s criticism of this theory does not succeed in ruling it out of court. The exact relations between the Jewish Sibyl and the Chaldaean have not yet been cleared up. Pausanias vouches for four Sibyls, the Erythraean Herophile, the Cumaean Demo, a Libyan prophetess, and ‘subsequent to Demo, an oracular woman among the Hebrews, named Sabbe; Berosus is said to have been the father, Erymanthes the mother, of Sabbe, Some call her the Babylonian, others the Egyptian Sibyl’ (x. 12). A later variant for ‘Sabbe’ is ‘Sambethe,’ which is variously explained. But among these uncertainties the fact shines clear, that by the 2nd cent. b.c. the literary method of the Sibylline oracles had been exploited by one or more Jewish authors at Alexandria, in the interests of religious apologetic and propaganda. Like the older Philo, Theodotus, and possibly the author of the pseudo-Phocylidaean verses, the Jews who composed these Sibylline oracles of their own could write Greek hexameters. [Note: ‘The language of prophecy naturally assumes a metrical or rhythmical form, partly as an aid to the memory, partly, perhaps, as a means of giving to the words uttered the effect of perhaps, as a means of giving to the words uttered the effect of a more solemn intonation’ (W. Y. Sellar, Roman Poets of the Republic, Oxford, 1905, p. 34); cf. ERE iv. 798a.] They chose this pagan form in order not only to convey threats of doom against persecuting powers like Assyria and Rome, but also to win a hearing among outside circles for their own monotheism and moralism. Why should not the Sibyl, this recognized exponent of Divine things, voice the true inspiration of Israel as well as the secondary revelation of the nations? Why should not this authoritative channel convey the living water of Jewish truth, or rather of truth as only the Jews knew it? And so this form of pseudonymous literature came into vogue. [Note: A. Hilgenfeld’s Jüdische Apokalyptik, Jens, 1857, p. 51 f. Ewald’s Abhandlung über Entstehung, Inhalt, und Werth der sibyllinischen Bücher, Göttingen, 1858; B. W. Badt’s essay De oraculis sibyllinis a Judaeis compositis, Breslau, 1869; and J. Lieger’s Die jüdische Sibylle, griechisch und deutsch mit erklärenden Anmerkungen, Vienna, 1908; in addition to the prefaces of critical editors like Alexandre and Friedlieb. The bulk of bk. iii. goes back to the 2nd cent. b.c.; nuclei seem to gather round 170 b.c. and 140 b.c.]

But the vogue did not last very long. The same fate befell the Sibylline oracles of Judaism that befell the apocalypses: their popularity with the early Christian Church appears to have thrown them out of favour with the officials of Rabbinic Judaism.|| [Note: | Even Josephus only once refers to the Sibyllina, to the oracle of iii. 97 f. about the tower of Babel (Ant. i. 4).] The Church appropriated them, appealed to them, edited them in her own interests, composed fresh ones, and, in general, treated the Jewish Sibylline oracles much as the Alexandrian Jews had treated the pagan ones. It is true that the composition of Jewish Sibyllines continued sporadically till the reign of Marcus Aurelius at any rate, and even later. But the extant collection is due to Christians, and one of the intricate problems of this literature is to determine how far Christians have edited sources which were originally Jewish. As in the case of the apocalypses, the criteria are far from being satisfactory. The Sibylline oracles are a conglomerate of documents, ranging from the 2nd cent. b.c. to the middle of the 7th cent. a.d. Some sections (e.g. the earliest, in bk. iii.) are evidently Jewish, others as evidently Christian; hut large passages seem to show no distinct soil in one or the other religion. Some of them are not definitely pre-Christian, and even those that are to be dated in the Christian era may be Jewish compositions worked over by a Christian hand.

An instance of the difficulty of deciding whether a passage of the Sibyllina was written by a Jew or by a Christian is afforded by the first of the fragments which Theophilus of Antioch has preserved (ad Autol. ii. 36):

‘O mortal men of flesh, mere things of nought,

How quick your pride, regardless or life’s end!

Have ye no fear of God, who knows each thought,

Who sees all, rules all, [Note: τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ὑμῶν, almost in the sense of Wisdom of Solomon 1:6 (= scrutator) or 1 Peter 2:25 (‘overseer’).] who doth all transcend,

Nourishing all he made, and in all men

Sets the sweat [Note: As below (p. 485) in bk. vi. Blass prefers to render, ‘who set the sweet breath of life in everything, and made man director of all things.’] Spirit to direct their ways?

One God there is, Lord above mortal ken,

Unborn, alone in power, from mortal gaze

Hidden himself, who yet beholdeth all.

The immortal God no eye of flesh can view,

Who dwells above, the heavenly God, the true;

For mortal nerves will weakly flinch and fall

Even before the sun’s refulgent ball. [Note: This ancient argument is applied in the Epistle of Barnabas (v. 9 f.) to the Incarnation specifically: ‘He manifested Himself as God’s Son. For, had He not come in the flesh, how could men ever have been saved by beholding Him, since they are unable to gaze directly at the rays of the sun, which is destined to perish and is the work of His hands?’]

Ah, worship him who o’er the world holds sway,

Unborn, eternal, self-created Being,

Sustaining Lord, who in our common day [Note: ἐν φαῒ κοινῷ, a frequent phrase in the Sibyllina.]

Assigns to mortals each the power of seeing. [Note: e., apparently, of recognizing Himself, But κριτήριον is difficult in this sense. To take it as meaning that God constantly judges men in the present, not simply in the future, is a possible, though less probable, alternative.]

Bitterly for ill error shall ye pay,

For all forsaking of his altars true,

For hecatombs and offerings ye lay

On altars of dead idols as their due.

Besotted, proud, ye left the straight highway

To wander blindly among thorns; ah, cease.

Cease, oh ye foolish men, to roam astray,

From darkness and black night seek ye release,

Lay hold upon the Light, [Note: If this alludes to Christ, the authorship is plain. To take it as a reference to the sun is possible, but less likely. The same difficulty emerges in the interpretation of iii. 95 f.] unerring, clear,

For all to mark his presence now and here.

Turn not for ever to the murky night:

When lo the sun’s sweet rays are shining bright!

Be wise at heart, be wise and understand:

There in one God, who sends upon the land

The rain, the wind, the lightning and the might

Of earthquake, famine, pestilence, and wce,

Sad wce that weighs the heart, the had, the snow,-

All, [Note: Literally, ‘why detail each one by one?’-a common phrase of the Sibyl, in breaking off a list.] all are his, who reigns over his own,

Sovereign of heaven and earth himself alone.’

A passage like this breathes so much of the monotheistic moralism which was common to Orphism, Judaism, and Christianity that we have no definite criteria for assigning it to either a Jewish or a Christian Sibyllinist; either might have written it, subordinating his dogmatic idiosyncrasies to the need of preserving the dramatic probabilities of the situation. The spirit of the piece is deliberately neutral. On the other hand, there can be no doubt with regard to a passage like this from bk. iii. 263 ff., which describes the fortunes of the twelve tribes:

‘To them alone a hundred told the field

Bears harvest, and God’s measures ample yield.

Yet even they shall fare amiss, even they

Shall suffer pestilence. Thou, [Note: Suddenly apostrophizing the Jewish people.] far away

From thy fair shrine shalt flee, for ‘tis thy fate

To leave thy sacred soil all desolate;

Borne to Assyria, thou shalt there behold

Thy wives and children into slavery sold,

And greedy hands despoiling all thy gold.

Thou shalt fill every country, every sea,

And at thy customs all shall angry be. [Note: The well-known anti-Semitic prejudice which echoes through Latin literature. See H. Strong’s paragraphs in HJ xiii. [1915] 306 f.; he points out how, e.g., the Jewish objection to pork must have irritated Romans, as pork was their favourite animal food.]

But thy land shall be empty, down shall fall

The great God’s shrine and altar, the long wall,

Since God immortal thou would’st not obey,

But from his holy law didst swerve and stray,

Since wretched idols were the heart’s desire,

Careless in reverence for the immortal Sire

Of gods and men, who worship doth require.

Wherefore thy wondrous shrine, thy fruitful land

For seventy years [Note: From Jeremiah 25:12.] untouched by thee shall stand.

Yet at the end shall bliss and glory great

Be thine, as God has ordered: only wait …’

We have thus three strata in the medley of the extant Sibyllina: (1) the pagan (Greek or Babylonian) oracles, which came into the hands of Jews and eventually of Christians. It is one of the many services rendered to the criticism of the oracles by Geffcken, their latest editor, that he has distinguished more fully than any of his predecessors the presence of such outside sources throughout the collection; even although the evidence in occasionally unsatisfactory, there can be little doubt that the later Jewish and Christian Sibyllinists made more use of these surviving fragments than scholars formerly were disposed to admit; [Note: See below, p. 486. In viii. 361, 373, two lines are quoted from a Delphic oracle which happens to be preserved by Herodotus (i. 47). Hermas (see below) hears terrible news from his Sibyl, followed by gentle, gracious promises, and Rendel Harris (The Homeric Centones, London, 1898, p. 15 f.) conjectures that the former were ‘an intimation of the impending ruin of Rome, something like what we find in the eight book of the Sibylline Oracles.’ But this would be Jewish. The couplet in iv. 97-98 is indubitably pagan; Strabo quotes it as such.] (2) the Jewish Sibyllines, rising in Alexandria not lone after the invasion of Egypt by Antiochus Epiphanes in 171-169 b.c. The literary method was to imitate [Note: ‘The pseudo-oracular,’ as F. W. H. Myers puts it, ‘is a style which has in all ages been cultivated with success’ (Hellenica2, London, 1898, p. 411).] the pagan oracles, for the purpose of persuading or threatening the Gentiles, but occasionally fragments of them were incorporated as the nucleus of a fresh composition, and more or less edited for their new setting; (3) the Christian Sibyllines, which followed the same path in dealing with their predecessors. Fresh oracles were composed, old ones were recast and Christianized. It was the Jewish composers who gave the lead to Christian in this literary method, as in the apocalyptic department of pseudepigrapha, and the production of occasional Jewish oracles went on side by side with the Christian activity, even after the Pharisaic reaction and re-organization of Judaism had eschewed the Sibyllines. But we must now turn to the third of the strata. It is the most important for our present purpose, not simply because it is Christian, but because the final editing of the oracles, as we have them, was the work of Christians. [Note: A good statement of the problem is to be found in Harnack’s Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur, I. i. [Leipzig, 1893] 861 ff., II. i. [do., 1897] 581 f., ii. [do., 1904] 184 f.]

3. The Christian Sibyl.-In the early Christian literature we hear of the Sibyl before we hear of Sibylline oracles. The so-called allusions in Clement of Rome are dubious, but Hermas (Vis. II. iv.) mentions her. Justin (Apol. i. 20) quotes her, along with Hystaspes, to prove that the world would be destroyed by fire, and the author of pseudo-Justin’s Cohortatio ad Graecos (16), not earlier than the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 3rd cent., not only quotes her as a primeval witness to monotheism, but (37) describes her shrine at Cumae: ‘You will also be able easily to learn the right religion, to some extent, from the ancient Sibyl, who, under a powerful inspiration, teaches you by her oracles what seems closely akin to the doctrine of the prophets. She is said to have come from Babylon, her father being Berosus, who wrote the history of Chaldaea; after crossing over, somehow, to Campania, she uttered her oracles in a town called Cumae, six miles from Baiae, the site of the hot springs of Campania. When I was in that town, I saw a spot where I was shown a huge basilica cut out of a single block-an extraordinary and most marvellous object. According to those who had the local tradition from their fathers, it was there that she used to put forth her oracles. In the middle of the basilica I was shown three openings cut out of the same block, in which, when filled with water, she was said to have bathed; after which she would resume her robe, retire to the inner shrine of the basilica (still cut out of the same block), and in the middle of the chamber, seated on a high platform and throne, put forth her oracles.’ He then argues that Plato must have had this Sibyl in his mind when he described in the Phaedrus (244B) and the Meno (99C) the phenomena of prophetic frenzy or rapture, since the Sibyl did not recollect afterwards what she had said during her unconscious ecstasies. [Note: In the Sibylline oracles, the Sibyl is passive or reluctant under the influence of inspiration. This tallied with some Jewish and Christian conceptions of prophetic inspiration.] This Christian author also shares the view of Pausanias (see above) about the parentage of the Sibyl; but for our immediate purpose it is move relevant to note his appeal to her teaching on morality and monotheism. The appeal is by no means characteristic of him alone. It represents a widespread attitude, and from it there developed a Christian Sibylline literature. Christians, especially Christian apologists of the 2nd cent. like Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria, were content to upbraid the degenerate and immoral paganism of the age by holding up the purer conceptions of the ancient Sibyl, but others were attracted to the predictions and threats of the Sibylline prophecies, which seemed so analogous to the apocalyptic tracts of the Church. It was the latter interest that first started the independent composition of Sibylline verses by Christians, probably on quite a small scale. Celsus, e.g., taunts Christians on two grounds, in this connexion; they were ‘Sibyllists,’ he urged, with their belief in the existence of a prophetic Sibyl and their appeal to her oracular authority (Orig, c. Cels. v. 61), and they dared to interpolate these ancient sources with impious lines of their own (vii. 53: νῦν δὲ παρεγγράφειν μὲν εἰς τὰ ἐκείνης πολλὰ καὶ βλάσφημα εἰκῇ δύνασθε). It was not difficult to slip in a Christian line or alter a phrase, any more than in the case of the apocalypses of Judaism. Then came the full-blown production of such oracles by writers of the Church, partly to justify the ways of Providence, partly to enforce Christian predictions and threats, partly even to disseminate Christian doctrines. Once the fabrication of Sibyllina started, it went on from modest interpretations of a line or two to fresh pieces. The sustaining force in the composition of such oracles was drawn from the popular passion, in several Christian circles, for their pagan and Jewish prototypes. The ingenuity of Sibylline composers and the credulity of many simple Christians combined to produce our present collection.

One remarkable proof of the prestige gained by the Sibylline oracles of paganism in certain corners of the Church during the 2nd cent, is afforded by an incidental allusion in Clement of Alexandria, which proves that Some Pauline apocryphon claimed the authority of the Apostle for the Divine testimony of these primeval predictions. In the sixth book of the Stromata (ch. 5), arguing that the Greeks had some knowledge of the true God, Clement declares:

‘From the Hellenic discipline and also from the legal [i.e. the Jewish] discipline, those who accept faith are gathered into the one race of the saved People-not that the three peoples are separated chronologically, but that they are disciplined in different covenants of the one Lord [and instructed?] by the word of the one Lord. As it was God’s will to save the Jews by giving them prophets, so he raised up the most notable of the Greeks themselves to be prophets in their own tongue, as they were able to receive the divine bounty, and thus separated them from the vulgar crowd. This will he clear from The Preaching of Peter and also from the words of the Apostle Paul: “Take the Greek books, read the Sibyl, see how the unity of God and the course of the future are shown there. Take and read Hystaspes, and you will find the Son of God far more luminously and plainly described, and how many kings will array themselves against the Christ, hating him and those who bear his name, his faithful ones, his patience and his coming.” ’

Unfortunately Clement does not name this Pauline document, and nothing corresponding to his quotation has turned up yet in any surviving fragments of the Acta Pauli. But the Alexandrian apologist’s attitude brings out one distinctive feature in the Christian Sibyllina. For all their common appeal to the pagan Sibyl or Sibyls, there was one difference between the procedure of the Jewish Sibyllinists and the Christian, The former often took pains to construct a Sibyl of their own; she spoke Greek, and spoke to Greeks, but she was of Hebrew birth, She repudiates her sisters of Erythrae and Cumae. ‘Mortals throughout Hellas will call me foreign, sprung from Erythrae, and shameless; some will say I am the Sibyl whose mother was Circe and whose father was Gnostos, a raving maniac. But when all these things come to pass, then you will remember me, and none will then call me mad, but the prophetess of mighty God’ (iii. 813-818; cf. iv. 1-23), The Sibyl, like Cassandra, has to prophesy to an incredulous generation. But she is of Hebrew origin, or at any rate of Babylonian. Traditions vary on her birth; in some quarters she appears to have been connected with Noah (iii. 827, ‘I was his daughter-in-law’), but it was at any rate essential to safeguard the origin of one who not only denounced idolatry but glorified the Jewish people, and there was a tendency to identify her, in one or other of her Oriental forms, with Hebrew story. The Christian Sibyllinists, on the other hard, took over the pagan Sibyl or Sibyls. Their theory of Divine inspiration working in the past outside Israel-an outcome of the finer conception of the Logos, as held by the apologists-enabled them to dispense with the construction of a new figure. It would have been much more difficult for them, in any case, to produce a Sibyl for themselves than it had been for the Hellenistic Jews of an earlier age. [Note: The traits remained the same: (a) the Sibyl was a woman; (b) her inspiration was ecstatic and frenzied; (c) she spoke in hexameters, the ordinary metrical mould for religious oracles (Plutarch, De Pyth. Orac. 9, says she was nourished by the Muses on Helicon); and (d) she was very old. The last point was sharpened for Jews and Christians. If the Sibyl was already in the far past, when Heracleitus heard of her towards the end of the 6th cent. b.c., how much more remote she would be to Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity!] The Christian Sibyl is therefore a voice rather than a figure; she is rarely so dramatic and definite as the Jewish Sibyl, except when she is made to repent of her pagan vices (see below).

The only exception to this may be found in the pages of that second-rate Bunyan of the 2nd cent., Hermas. He makes his hero receive a book of revelations from an old woman, whom he takes to be the Sibyl. But he is told in a vision that it is the Church; the Church is old, because she was created first of all things (Vis. i-ii.). This would be all the more dramatic if the setting of the vision were Cumae. [Note: ‘I was on my way,’ says Hermas, εἰς κώμας (MSS); most editors alter this to εἰς Κούμας.] Whether Hermas added this graphic touch or not, he certainly took over the figure of the aged Sibyl and re-shaped it as the Church, in order to suggest a medium for moral precepts and eschatological predictions. It is one of the daring touches in this religious romance, but later writers of the Church went on another line when they appropriated the Sibyl. They preferred to leave her in the far mists of Greek antiquity as an incontrovertible witness to God’s presence and purpose among the nations of pre-Christian paganism. From that coign of vantage she pours out reproof and threatening. She has little or no dramatic rôle of an independent kind, till we turn aside to some corners of Egyptian Christianity, [Note: Vergil, of course, had already begun to set the Cumaean Sibyl in motion. She is more to him than a seer who is consulted. She conducts aeneas to the world of the dead, just as she does in Ovid.] where, as we saw at the beginning of this article, apocalyptic fantasy set her among the final opponents of Antichrist, among the four witnesses to Christ who herald His overthrow of death and evil. A conception of this kind could arise only in a popular Christianity which was face to face with sterner exigencies than those of the age of Hermas; but it represented the normal Christian attitude to the Sibyl as little as did Hermas. What the Church valued primarily in the Sibyl was her rhapsodies, not any actions or sufferings. She was a voice in the wilderness, and it was to the oracles which she was supposed to have voiced that Christians turned for confirmation of their hopes and beliefs.

A number of prominent early Christian Fathers ignore the Sibyl, but none of those who mention or quote her feel any need of defending this procedure. The ordinary assumption is that she is a reliable prophetess of the truth, and that her predictions of Christ and Christianity are as anthentic in their own way as the prophecies of the OT. Tertullian [Note: Ad Nationes, ii. 12: ‘Ante enim Sibylla quam omnis litteratura exstitit. Illa scilicet Sibylla, ueri uera uates, et cuius uocabula daemoniorum uatibus induistis. Ea senario uersu in hunc sensum de Saturni prosapia et rebus eius exponit.’ The description recurs in the passage inserted by Codex Fuldensis in Apol. 19, but the authenticity of the addition is doubtful (cf. R. Heinze’s Tertullians Apologeticum, Leipzig, 1910, p. 385 f.).] voices the general opinion “when he calls her ‘ueri uera nates.’ The first indication of any real [Note: Origen’s answer to Celsus is weak, and he never uses the Sibyl in his proofs of revelation. But he does not pronounce against the Sibyllina. Lactantius (Div. Inst. iv. 15, 26) takes much the same line of defence as Constantine.] scepticism on the part of Christians occurs in the 4th cent. oration of Constantine, ad Sanct. ccetum (18 f.). Though the speaker quotes the Sibylline oracles as a telling proof, from paganism, of the Divine origin and nature of Christ, he feels obliged to give reasons for the faith that is in him: the reasons are weaker than the faith, but the significant thing is that evidently he could not count upon an unquestioning acceptance of the oracles as inspired by God in pre-Christian Greece. He argues in this way:

‘The Erythraean Sibyl, who declares that she lived in the sixth generation after the floods, [Note: In bk. i. 283 f. the Sibyl distinctly says she belonged to the sixth generation after Adam!] was a priestess of Apollo; she were the sacred fillet in imitation of him whom she served, and guarded the tripod round which the serpent called; she answered those who consulted her, as her parents in their folly had devoted her to this service-a service which produced not solemn results but unseemly passions, such as are told of Daphne. However, she once swept into the shrine of that obnoxious superstition and, really filled this time with the Divine inspiration, foretold in words the Divine plan for the future, plainly disclosing the story of the descent of Jesus by the initial letters of the lines-which form an acrostic.’ He proceeds to quote the acrostic (see below), adding: ‘Obviously a divine impulse inspired the maiden to foretell this. For my part, I consider her blessed who was thus chosen by the Saviour to be a prophetess of his gracious thought for us. But many people are sceptical; they allow that the Erythraean Sibyl was a seer, but they suspect that it was someone belonging to our religion, not unacquainted with the art of poetry, who composed these lines; they think they are a forgery and that they are alleged to be oracles of the Sibyl because they contain salutary moral precepts which curb sensuous indulgence and promote a sober, orderly life. It is impossible, however, to mistake the real facts of the case, for our own members have been at pains to calculate the time with care, so that no one need suspect this pcem was written alter the arrival and the condemnation (κάθοδαν καὶ κρίσιν) of Christ or that the current view of their previous composition by the Sibyl is inaccurate.’

He then appeals to the evidence of Cicero in the de Divin, ii. 54-a singularly maladroit appeal, for Cicero did not translate this acrostic [Note: The Sibylline oracle he mentions advised the Romans ‘eum quem re vera regem habebamus, appellandum quoque esse regem, si salui esse vellemus.’ The Parthians could be conquered only by a ‘king.’ Therefore, as this adroit partisan of Caesar put it in his oracle, let that title be given to Caesar.] into Latin, and in fact used the acrostic form of the Sibylline verses to disprove the assertion that the Sibyl spoke in ecstatic frenzy; acrostics, as he observed, are not the product of a frenzied intellect, pouring out impromptu inspiration. Eusebius, or whoever wrote this speech for the Emperor, felt, however, that the Sibyllina afforded too telling a proof of Christianity to be surrendered. The uncritical spirit prevailed over the doubts of more intelligent Christians and the ridicule poured by pagans on this manufactured product. The Sibyllina were read, and they continued to be written.

From what has been said, it will be gathered that no Sibylline oracles of Christian origin are contemporary with the Apostolic Age. We do not possess any definite evidence as to the period when such compositions began to appear in Christian circles, apart from the insertion of lines here and there in extant Jewish oracles, which preceded independent Sibylline composition. But it can hardly have been much, if at all, earlier than the end of the 2nd cent. that the Church’s interest in the Sibyl became creative. All the sections which are specifically Christian, in the present collection, are quite post-apostolic; some may be earlier than the 3rd cent., but none has a sure claim to be reckoned as belonging to the 2nd century. The result is that we are left with the paradox that those Sibylline oracles which, strictly speaking, are relevant to this Dictionary are all of Jewish origin, i.e. the familiar oracles embedded in books iii-v especially, illustrating the apocalyptic and eschatological traditions [Note: g. the belief in Nero redivivus or at any rate redux, which echoes through bks. iv., v., and viii., and which sounds behind the Apocalypse of John.] which operated in some circles of contemporary piety. These Jewish oracles the present writer does not propose to discuss. They are accessible, and for the most part intelligible, thanks to the research which for over a century has been devoted to this branch of our subject. [Note: Besides the translations mentioned in the Literature (below), the English reader will find critical discussions in S. Krauss’s. article (JE xi. 319-323), W. J. Deane’s Pseudepigrapha, London, 1891, pp. 276-344, Bousset’s article in the Eng. tr. of Herzog (vol. x. pp. 396-400), J. H. Lupton’s art. In Smith’s DCB iv. 644-649, a paper by S. A. Hirsch in the JQR ii. [1890] 406-429, and-for the religious ideas-James Drummond’s Philo Judaeus, 2 vols., London, 1888, i. 167 ff., and R. H. Charles, in EBi i. 245-250.] It is the rest of the Sibyllines which are unfamiliar to the ordinary student, even of Church history; they are not easily accessible, and they are by no means clear, but they represent so curious and baffling a phase of early Christian literature and popular feeling, on its romantic side, that it will be of some service even to call attention to the problems which they still contain, and to the phenomena of their origin. In surveying these Sibyllina we enter a by-way of early Christian literature, but it is a by-way which, like that of the uncanonical gospels, though never to the same extent, was once thronged and popular.

In Geffcken’s standard edition of the text (see Literature), apart from a prose prologue and some brief, scattered fragments, the extant collection contains fourteen books. Nothing from the ninth and tenth has been preserved, but the other twelve amount to 4146 lines (400, 347, 829, 192, 531, 28, 162, 500, 324, 299, 173, 361), and there are some obvious lacunae in the text. The present form of the collection probably goes back in the main to the anonymous Byzantine Greek who wrote the prologue some time in the course of the 6th century. This prologue is a rough piece of work. It repeats some current legends about the Sibyl and Sibylline oracles, but its structure is loose. This may be due to later interpolations, or the text may have suffered at the hands of scribes. Even so, however, it shows more good will than critical ability in the writer. He is a simple, credulous Christian, who undertakes the literary task of collecting and arranging the Sibyllina because he desires to aid Christian piety. The contents of the prologue are as follows:

‘If toil spent on reading Greet books yields rich profit to those who labour at it, inasmuch as it has the power of making scholars of those who toil thus, it is far more fitting for the rightminded to devote themselves at all times to the divine scriptures, inasmuch as they treat of God and of what issues in spiritual profit; this yields a twofold gain, for people can thereby profit themselves and also those whom they come across. Hence it was that I myself resolved to take the oracles which are called Sibylline, and which are to be found here and there, read in confusion and indistinctly understood, and to publish them in connected and orderly form, so that they may be readily grasped by the reader and yield him their profit (for they contain no small amount of what is essential and useful), thus rendering the study of them at once more rich and varied. For they impart clear information about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the divine and life-imparting trinity, as well as about the incarnation of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, about his birth from a pure virgin, about the cures performed by him, likewise about his life-giving Passion and his resurrection from the dead on the third day, about the judgment to come and the recompense for what we all have done in this life, Besides, they treat clearly of what is disclosed in the writings of Moses and the books of the prophets about the creation of the world, the formation of man, the expulsion from paradise, and the re-forming; [Note: ἀναπλάσεως, the ‘new’ creation in contrast to πλάσεως, which has just been used.] they foretell what has taken place, and perhaps what is to take place, in various ways. In a word, they can be of no small service to those who come across them.

“Sibyl” is a Roman term, meaning prophetess or seer; hence female seers were called by this single name. There were Sibyls, as many writers tell us, in different ages and localities, to the number of ten; first, the Chaldaean or Persian, whose proper name was Sambethe, belonging to the race of the most blessed Noah, and said to have foretold the events connected with Alexander the Macedonian; she is mentioned by Nicanor the biographer of Alexander. Second, the Libyan sibyl, mentioned by Euripides in the prologue to the Lamia. Third, the Delphic, born at Delphi, of whom Chrysippus speaks in his book upon the deity (divination?). Fourth, the Italian sibyl of Cimmeria in Italy, the mother of Evander, who founded the shrine of Pan in Rome called the Lupercal. Fifth, the Erythraean sibyl, who predicted the Trojan war; Apollodorus the Erythraean vouches for her. Sixth, the Samian sibyl, whose proper name was Phyto; Eratosthenes has written of her. Seventh, the Cumaean sibyl called Amalthea and also Herophile, by some Taraxandra; Vergil [aen. vi. 36) calls the Cumaean sibyl Deiphobe, the daughter of Glaucus. Eighth, the Hellespontine sibyl, born at the village of Marpessus near the town of Gergition, in the district of the Troad, during the days of Solon and Cyrus, as Heraclides Ponticus writes. Ninth, the Phrygian, and tenth, the Tiburtine sibyl, called Albunea. [Note: This paragraph is practically a reproduction of Varro’s account, which Lactantius (Div. Inst. i. 6) had preserved.]Copyright Statement
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sibylline Oracles'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/sibylline-oracles.html. 1906-1918.
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