the First Week of Advent
Click here to learn more!
Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
denotes something delivered by supernatural wisdom; and the term is also used in the Old Testament to signify the most holy place from whence the Lord revealed his will to ancient Israel, 1 Kings 6:5; 1 Kings 6:19-21; 1 Kings 6:23 . But when the word occurs in the plural number, as it mostly does, it denotes the revelations contained in the sacred writings of which the nation of Israel were the depositories. So Moses is said by Stephen to have received the "lively oracles" to give unto the Israelites. These oracles contained the law, both moral and ceremonial, with all the types and promises relating to the Messiah which are to be found in the writings of Moses. They also contained all the intimations of the divine mind which he was pleased to communicate by means of the succeeding prophets who prophesied beforehand of the coming and of the sufferings of the Messiah with the glory that should follow. The Jews were a highly privileged people in many and various respects, Romans 9:4-5; but the Apostle Paul mentions it as their chief advantage that "unto them were committed the oracles of God," Romans 3:2 . "What nation," says Moses, "is there that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?" Deuteronomy 4:8 . The psalmist David enumerates their excellent properties under various epithets; such as the law of the Lord, his testimony, his statutes, his commandments, his judgments, &c. Their properties are extolled as perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true, and righteous altogether; more to be desired than much fine gold; sweeter than honey and the honey comb. Their salutary effects are all mentioned; such as their converting the soul, making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes; and the keeping of them is connected with a great reward, Psalms 19. The hundred and nineteenth Psalm abounds with praises of the lively oracles, the word of the living God; it abounds with the warmest expressions of love to it, of delight in it, and the most fervent petitions for divine illumination in the knowledge of it. Such was the esteem and veneration which the faithful entertained for the lively oracles under the former dispensation, when they had only Moses and the prophets; how, then, ought they to be prized by Christians, who have also Christ and his Apostles!
Among the Heathen the term oracle is usually taken to signify an answer, generally couched in very dark and ambiguous terms, supposed to be given by demons of old, either by the mouths of their idols, or by those of their priests, to the people, who consulted them on things to come. Oracle is also used for the demon who gave the answer, and the place where it was given. Seneca defines oracles to be enunciations by the mouths of men of the will of the gods; and Cicero simply calls them, deorum oratio, the language of the gods. Among the Pagans they were held in high estimation; and they were consulted on a variety of occasions pertaining to national enterprises and private life. When they made peace or war, enacted laws, reformed states, or changed the constitution, they had in all these cases recourse to the oracle by public authority. Also, in private life, if a man wished to marry, if he proposed to take a journey, or to engage in any business of importance, he repaired to the oracle for counsel. Mankind have had always a propensity to explore futurity; and conceiving that future events were known to their gods, who possessed the gift of prophecy, they sought information and advice from the oracles, which, in their opinion, were supernatural and divine communications. The institution of oracles seemed to gratify the prevalent curiosity of mankind, and proved a source of immense wealth, as well as authority and influence, to those who had the command of them. Accordingly, every nation, in which idolatry has subsisted, had its oracles, by means of which imposture practised on superstition and credulity. The principal oracles of antiquity are, that of Abae, mentioned by Herodotus; that of Amphiaraus, at Oropus in Macedonia; that of the Branchidae at Didymeum: that of the camps at Lacedaemon; that of Dodona; that of Jupiter Ammon; that of Nabarca in the country of the Anariaci, near the Caspian Sea; that of Trophonius, mentioned by Herodotus; that of Chrysopolis; that of Claros, in Ionia; that of Amphilochus at Mallos; that of Petarea; that of Pella in Macedonia; that of Phaselides in Cilicia; that of Sinope in Paphlagonia; that of Orpheus's head at Lesbos, mentioned by Philostratus. But of all oracles, the oracle of Apollo Pythius at Delphi was the most celebrated: this was consulted in the dernier resort by most of the princes of those ages.
Most of the Pagan deities had their appropriate oracles. Apollo had the greatest number: such as those of Claros, of the Branchidae, of the suburbs of Daphne at Antioch, of Delos, of Argos, of Troas, AEolis, &c, of Baiae in Italy, and others in Cilicia, in Egypt, in the Alps, in Thrace, at Corinth, in Arcadia, in Laconia, and in many other places enumerated by Van Dale. Jupiter, beside that of Dodona and some others, the honour of which he shared with Apollo, had one in Boeotia under the name of Jupiter the Thunderer, and another in Elis, one at Thebes and at Meroe, one near Antioch, and several others. AEsculapius was consulted in Cilicia, at Apollonia, in the isle of Cos, at Epidaurus, Pergamos, Rome, and elsewhere. Mercury had oracles at Patras, upon Harmon, and in other places; Mars, in Thrace, Egypt and elsewhere; Hercules, at Cadiz, Athens, in Egypt, at Tivoli, in Mesopotamia, where he issued his oracles by dreams, whence he was called Somnialis. Isis, Osiris, and Serapis delivered in like manner their oracles by dreams, as we learn from Pausanias, Tacitus, Arrian, and other writers; that of Amphilochus was also delivered by dreams; the ox Apis had also his oracle in Egypt. The gods, called Cabiri, had their oracle in Boeotia. Diana, the sister of Apollo, had several oracles in Egypt, Cilicia, Ephesus, &c. Those of fortune at Praeneste, and of the lots at Antium are well known. The fountains also delivered oracles, for to each of them a divinity was ascribed: such was the fountain of Castalia at Delphi, another of the same name in the suburbs of Antioch, and the prophetic fountain near the temple of Ceres in Achaia. Juno had several oracles: one near Corinth, one at Nysa, and others at different places. Latona had one at Butis in Egypt; Leucothea had one in Colchis; Memnon in Egypt; Machaon at Gerania in Laconia; Minerva had one in Egypt, in Spain, upon mount AEtna, at Mycenae and Colchis, and in other places. Those of Neptune were at Delphos, at Calauria, near Neocesarea, and elsewhere. The nymphs had theirs in the cave of Corycia. Pan had several, the most famous of which was that in Arcadia. That of the Palici was in Sicily. Pluto had one at Nysa. Saturn had oracles in several places, but the most famous were those of Cumae in Italy, and of Alexandria in Egypt. Those of Venus were dispersed in several places, at Gaza, upon Mount Libanus, at Paphos, in Cyprus, &c. Serapis had one at Alexandria, consulted by Vespasian. Venus Aphacite had one at Aphaca between Heliopolis and Byblus. Geryon, the three-headed monster slain by Hercules, had an oracle in Italy near Padua, consulted by Tiberius; that of Hercules was at Tivoli, and was given by lots, like those of Praeneste and Antium. The demi-gods and heroes had likewise their oracles, such were those of Castor and Pollux at Lacedaemon, of Amphiaraus, of Mopsus in Cilicia, of Ulysses, Amphilochus, Sarpedon in Troas, Hermione in Macedonia, Pasiphae in Laconia, Chalcas in Italy, Aristaeus in Boeotia, Autolycus at Sinope, Phryxus among the Colchi, Zamolxis among the Getae, Hephaestion the minion of Alexander, and Antinous, &c.
The responses of oracles were delivered in a variety of ways: at Delphi, they interpreted and put into verse what the priestess pronounced in the time of her furor. Mr. Bayle observes that at first this oracle gave its answers in verse; and that it fell at length to prose, upon the people's beginning to laugh at the poorness of its versification. The Epicureans made this the subject of their jests, and said, in raillery, it was surprising enough, that Apollo, the god of poetry, should be a much worse poet than Homer, whom he himself had inspired. By the railleries of these philosophers, and particularly by those of the Cynics and Peripatetics, the priests were at length obliged to desist from the practice of versifying the responses of the Pythia, which, according to Plutarch, was one of the principal causes of the declension of the oracle of Delphos. At the oracle of Ammon, the priests pronounced the response of their god; at Dodona, the response was issued from the hollow of an oak; at the cave of Trophonius, the oracle was inferred from what the supplicant said before he recovered his senses; at Memphis, they drew a good or bad omen, according as the ox Apis received or rejected what was presented to him, which was also the case with the fishes of the fountain of Limyra. The suppliants, who consulted the oracles, were not allowed to enter the sanctuaries where they were given; and accordingly, care was taken that neither the Epicureans nor Christians should come near them. In several places, the oracles were given by letters sealed up, as in that of Mopsus, and at Mallus in Cilicia. Oracles were frequently given by lot, the mode of doing which was as follows: the lots were a kind of dice, on which were engraven certain characters or words, whose explanations they were to seek on tables made for the purpose. The way of using these dice for knowing futurity, was different, according to the places where they were used. In some temples, the person threw himself; in others, they were dropped from a box; whence came the proverbial expression, "The lot is fallen." This playing with dice was always preceded by sacrifices and other customary ceremonies. The ambiguity of the oracles in their responses, and their double meaning, contributed to their support.
Ablancourt observes, that the study or research of the meaning of oracles was but a fruitless thing; and that they were never understood till after their accomplishment. Historians relate, that Croesus was tricked by the ambiguity and equivocation of the oracle:
Κροισος Αλυν διαβας μεγαλην αρχην καταλυσει . Thus rendered in Latin:
"Croesus Halym superans magnam pervertet opum vim."
[If Croesus cross the Halys he will overthrow a great empire.] Thus, if the Lydian monarch had conquered Cyrus, he overthrew the Assyrian empire: if he himself was routed, he overturned his own. That delivered to Pyrrhus, which is comprised in this Latin verse,
"Credo equidem AEacidas Romanos vincere posse,"
[I believe indeed that the sons of AEacus the Romans will conquer,] had the same advantage; for, according to the rules of syntax, either of the two accusatives may be governed by the verb, and the verse be explained, either by saying the Romans shall conquer the AEacidae, of whom Pyrrhus was descended, or those shall conquer the Romans. When Alexander fell sick at Babylon, some of his courtiers who happened to be in Egypt, or who went thither on purpose, passed the night in the temple of Serapis, to inquire if it would not be proper to bring Alexander to be cured by him. The god answered, it was better that Alexander should remain where he was. This in all events was a very prudent and safe answer. If the king recovered his health, what glory must Serapis have gained by saving him the fatigue of the journey! If he died, it was but saying he died in a favourable juncture after so many conquests; which, had he lived, he could neither have enlarged nor preserved. This is actually the construction they put upon the response; whereas had Alexander undertaken the journey, and died in the temple, or by the way, nothing could have been said in favour of Serapis. When Trajan had formed the design of his expedition against the Parthians, he was advised to consult the oracle of Heliopolis, to which he had no more to do but send a note under a seal. That prince, who had no great faith in oracles, sent thither a blank note; and they returned him another of the same kind. By this Trajan was convinced of the divinity of the oracle. He sent back a second note to the god, in which he inquired whether he should return to Rome after finishing the war he had in view. The god, as Macrobius tells the story, ordered a vine, which was among the offerings of his temple, to be divided into pieces, and brought to Trajan. The event justified the oracle; for the emperor dying in that war, his bones were carried to Rome, which had been represented by that broken vine. As the priests of that oracle knew Trajan's design, which was no secret, they happily devised that response, which, in all events, was capable of a favourable interpretation, whether he routed and cut the Parthians in pieces, or if his army met with the same fate. Sometimes the responses of the oracles were mere banter, as in the case of the man who wished to know by what means he might become rich, and who received for answer from the god, that he had only to make himself master of all that lay between Sicyon and Corinth. Another, wanting a cure for the gout, was answered by the oracle, that he was to drink nothing but cold water.
There are two points in dispute on the subject of oracles; namely, whether they were human, or diabolical machines; and whether or not they ceased upon the publication or preaching of the Gospel. Most of the fathers of the church supposed that the devil issued oracles; and looked on it as a pleasure he took to give dubious and equivocal answers, in order to have a handle to laugh at them. Vossius allows that it was the devil who spoke in oracles; but thinks that the obscurity of his answers was owing to his ignorance as to the precise circumstances of events. That artful and studied obscurity in which the answers were couched, says he, showed the embarrassment the devil was under; as those double meanings they usually bore provided for their accomplishment. Where the thing foretold did not happen accordingly, the oracle, for-sooth, was misunderstood. Eusebius has preserved some fragments of a philosopher, called OEnomaus; who, out of resentment for his having been so often fooled by the oracles, wrote an ample confutation of all their impertinencies: "When we come to consult thee," says he to Apollo, "if thou seest what is in futurity, why dost thou use expressions that will not be understood? Dost thou not know, that they will not be understood? If thou dost, thou takest pleasure in abusing us; if thou dost not, be informed of us, and learn to speak more clearly. I tell thee, that if thou intendest to equivoque, the Greek word whereby thou affirmedst that Croesus should overthrow a great empire was ill chosen; and that it could signify nothing but Croesus's conquering Cyrus. If things must necessarily come to pass, why dost thou amuse us with thy ambiguities? What doest thou, wretch as thou art, at Delphi? employed in muttering idle prophecies!" But OEnomaus is still more out of humour with the oracle, for the answer which Apollo gave the Athenians, when Xerxes was about to attack Greece with all the strength of Asia. The Pythian declared, that Minerva, the protectress of Athens, had endeavoured in vain to appease the wrath of Jupiter; yet that Jupiter, in complaisance to his daughter, was willing the Athenians should save themselves within wooden walls; and that Salamis should behold the loss of a great many children, dear to their mothers, either when Ceres was spread abroad, or gathered together. Here OEnomaus loses all patience with the god of Delphi. "This contest," says he, "between father and daughter is very becoming the deities! It is excellent, that there should be contrary inclinations and interests in heaven. Poor wizard, thou art ignorant whose the children are that Salamis shall see perish; whether Greeks or Persians. It is certain they must be either one or the other; but thou needest not to have told so openly, that thou knewest not which. Thou concealest the time of the battle under those fine poetical expressions, ‘either when Ceres is spread abroad, or gathered together;' and wouldest thou cajole us with such pompous language? Who knows not, that if there be a sea fight, it must either be in seed time or harvest? It is certain it cannot be in winter. Let things go how they will, thou wilt secure thyself by this Jupiter, whom Minerva is endeavouring to appease. If the Greeks lose the battle, Jupiter proved inexorable to the last; if they gain it, why then Minerva at length prevailed."
It is a very general opinion among the more learned, that oracles were all mere cheats and impostures; either calculated to serve the avaricious ends of the Heathen priests, or the political views of the princes. Bayle says positively, they were mere human artifices, in which the devil had no hand. He was strongly supported by Van Dale and Fontenelle, who have written expressly on the subject. Father Balthus, a Jesuit, wrote a treatise in defence of the fathers with regard to the origin of oracles; but without denying the imposture of the priests, often blended with the oracles. He maintains the intervention of the devil in some predictions, which, could not be ascribed to the cheats of the priests alone. The Abbe Banier espouses the same side of the question, and objects that oracles would not have lasted so long, and supported themselves with so much splendour and reputation, if they had been merely owing to the forgeries of the priests. Bishop Sherlock, in his "Discourses concerning the Use and Intent of Prophecy," expresses his opinion, that it is impious to disbelieve the Heathen oracles, and to deny them to have been given out by the devil; to which assertion, Dr. Middleton, in his "Examination," &c, replies, that he is guilty of this impiety, and that he thinks himself warranted to pronounce from the authority of the best and wisest of the Heathens themselves, and the evidence of plain facts, which are recorded of those oracles, as well as from the nature of the thing itself, that they were all mere imposture, wholly invented and supported by human craft, without any supernatural aid or interpositon whatsoever. He alleges, that Cicero, speaking of the Delphic oracle, the most revered of any in the Heathen world, declares, that nothing was become more contemptible, not only in his days, but long before him; that Demosthenes, who lived about three hundred years earlier, affirmed of the same oracle, in a public speech to the people of Athens, that it was gained to the interests of King Philip, an enemy to that city; that the Greek historians, tell us, how, on several other occasions, it had been corrupted by money, to serve the views of particular persons and parties, and the prophetess sometimes had been deposed for bribery and lewdness; that there were some great sects of philosophers, who, on principle, disavowed the authority of all oracles; agreeably to all which Strabo tells us, that divination in general and oracles had been in high credit among the ancients, but in his days were treated with much contempt; lastly, that Eusebius also, the great historian of the primitive church, declares, that there were six hundred writers among the Heathens themselves who had publicly written against the reality of them. Plutarch has a treatise on the ceasing of some oracles; and Van Dale, a Dutch physician, has a volume to prove they did not cease at the coming of Christ; but that many of them ceased long before, and that others held till the fall of Paganism, under the empire of Theodosius the Great, when Paganism being dissipated, these restitutions could no longer subsist. Van Dale was answered by a German, one Moebius, professor of theology at Leipsic, in 1685. Fontenelle espoused Van Dale's system, and improved upon it in his "History of Oracles;" and showed the weakness of the argument used by many writers in behalf of Christianity, drawn from the ceasing of oracles. Cicero says, the oracles became dumb in proportion as people, growing less credulous, began to suspect them for cheats. Plutarch alleges two reasons for the ceasing of oracles: the one was Apollo's chagrin; who, it seems, took it in dudgeon to be interrogated about so many trifles. The other was, that in proportion as the genii, or demons, who had the management of the oracles, died, and became extinct, the oracles must necessarily cease. He adds a third and more natural cause for the ceasing of oracles; namely, the forlorn state of Greece, ruined and desolated by wars; for, hence, the smallness of the gains let the priests sink into a poverty and contempt too bare to cover the fraud. That the oracles were silenced about or soon after the time of our Saviour's advent, may be proved, says Dr. Leland, in the first volume of his learned work on "The Necessity and Advantage of Revelation," &c, from express testimonies, not only of Christian but of Heathen authors. Lucan, who wrote his "Pharsalia" in the reign of Nero, scarcely thirty years after our Lord's crucifixion, laments it as one of the greatest misfortunes of that age, that the Delphian oracle, which he represents as one of the choicest gifts of the gods, was become silent.
Non ullo saecula dono
Nostra carent majore Deum, quam Delphica sedes
Quod sileat. — Pharsal. lib. v. 111.
"Of all the wants with which the age is curst, The Delphic silence surely is the worst." ROWE.
In like manner, Juvenal says,
Delphis oracula cessant,
Et genus humanum damnat caligo futuri.
Sat. v. 554.
"Since Delphi now, if we may credit fame, Gives no responses, and a long dark night Conceals the future hour from mortal sight." GIFFORD.
Lucian says, that when he was at Delphi, the oracle gave no answer, nor was the priestess inspired. This likewise appears from Plutarch's treatise, why the oracles cease to give answers, already cited; whence it is also manifest, that the most learned Heathens were very much at a loss how to give a tolerable account of it. Porphyry, in a passage cited from him by Eusebius, says, "The city of Rome was overrun with sickness, AEsculapius, and the rest of the gods having withdrawn their converse with men because since Jesus began to be worshipped, no man had received any public help or benefit from the gods." With respect to the origin of oracles, they were probably imitations, first, of the answers given to the holy patriarchs from the divine presence or Shechinah, and secondly, of the responses to the Jewish high priest from the mercy seat: for all Paganism is a parody of the true religion.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Oracle'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​o/oracle.html. 1831-2.