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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
The ancient sibyls were, according to the popular belief, female soothsayers or prophetesses; who frequently delivered vaticinations, especially of a threatening character, and sometimes showed how to propitiate the wrath of the gods. The most celebrated of the number was the Cumsean, concerning whom there is the following fable: Apollo, having been enamoured of her, offered to give her what she should ask. She demanded to live as many years as she had grains of sand in her hand, but unfortunately forgot to ask for continued enjoyment of health and bloom. The god granted her request, but she refused in return to listen to his suit, and her longevity, without freshness and beauty, proved rather a burden than a benefit. It was supposed that she was to live about 1300 years, and at the expiration of this period she was to wither quite away, and be converted into a mere voice (Ovid, Metam. 14, 104; Serv. ad. Virg. En. vi, 321).. She is variously called Herophile, Demo, Phenomonoe, Deiphobe, Demophile, and Amalthea. She is said to have come to Italy from the East (Livy, i, 7), and she is the one who, according to most traditions, appeared before king Tarquinius, offering him the Sibylline Books for sale (Pliny, II. N. 13:28; Gellius, i, 19).
According to an ancient legend, the emperor Augustus Caesar repaired to the Tiburtine sibyl, to inquire whether he should consent to allow himself- to be Worshipped with divine honors, :which the senate had1decreed -to him. The sibyl, after some days of meditation, took the emperor apart and showed him an altar; and above the altar, in the opening heavens, and in a, glory of light, he beheld a beautiful virgin holding an infant in her arms, and at the same time a voice was heard saying, "This is the altar of the son of the living God;" whereupon Augustus caused an altar to be erected upon Capitoline Hill, with this inscription, Ara Priimogeniti Dei; and on the same spot, in later times, was built the church called the Ara Cceli, well known, with its flight of 124 steps, to all who have visited Rome. A very rude but curious bass-relief, preserved in the church of the Ara Coli, is perhaps the oldest representation extant. The Church legend assigns-to it a fabulous antiquity; and it must be older than the 12th century, as it is alluded to by writers of that period. Here the emperor Augustus kneels before the Madonna and Child, and at his side is the sibyl Tiburtina, pointing upwards (Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna, p. 197).
I. Lost Works. — The so-called Sibylline Books of antiquity were certain writings regarded with much veneration and guarded with great care. The legend concerning them is that a sibyl (some say the Curmseau, others the Ionian) came to Tarquin II (or Tarquin the Superb) with nine books, which she. offered to sell for a very high price. Tarquin refusing to purchase, the sibyl went away and burned three of the volumes. Returning, she asked the same price for the remaining six; and when Tarquin again refused to buy, she went and destroyed three more. She came once more to Tarquin demanding the same price for the three as she had for the nine. Her behavior struck the king, and upon his augurs advising him to do so, he bought the volumes. The sibyl disappeared and was never seen afterwards. The books were preserved with great care, and were called Sibylline Verses, etc. They were said to have been written on palm-leaves, partly in verse and partly in symbolical hieroglyphics. The public were never allowed to inspect them, but they were kept in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, preserved in a stone chest. A college of priests was appointed to have charge of them. It was the duty of this college to consult these books on all occasions when the gods manifested their wrath by inflicting calamities upon the Romans. The answers which were derived from them were almost invariably of a religious nature, as they either commanded the introduction of some new worship, or the institution of new ceremonies and festivals or the repetition of old ones. In B.C. 83, the Temple of Jupiter was burned and the Sibylline Books consumed. In order to restore them, commissioners were appointed to visit various places in Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, to collect any Sibylline oracles that could be found. They collected about a thousand verses, which' were placed in the Temple of Jupiter, after it had been destroyed. The Sibylline Books were also burned in the reign of Nero, in the reign of Julian (A.D. 363), and a fourth time in that of the emperor Hionorius (A.D. 395); but-they were restored each time. Notwithstanding many forgeries which had crept in, they were still held in great esteem. and we find them consulted even as late as the 6th century. See Anthon, Class. Dict. s.v. "Sibyllhe."
II. Extant Writings. — It is certain, from Roman history, that Sibylline oracles were committed to writing, and that Sibylline books were preserved; and it is a well-known fact that when the conquests of Alexander and the Romans in the East brought ins a period of religious syncretism, the faith of the nations in their traditional religions gave way to superstitions of every form, and was replaced no less by an interest in prophecies of every sort than by an inclination to the practice of secret arts. It is not strange, accordingly, that traces are found of a Chaldee and a Babylonian and even of a Hebrew sibyl. When Christianity began to assail heathenism with literary weapons, the belief in sibyls was wide-spread and general, and numerous professed- oracles were in circulation. Nor was Christendom itself disinclined to accept the popular belief upon this subject, or to turn that belief to its profit. The theologians and writers of the earliest period are especially open to this charge, e.g. Justin, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clemens Alexandrinus. So general was the appeal to the Sibylline, oracles among these writers that their antagonist Celsus terms them friends, or even. manufacturers, of the sibyls (σιβυλλισταί, Origen, Cont. Celsum, v, 61). The tendency was less apparent in the Western Church, though Lactantius makes more extended and reckless use of this form. of argument than does any other writer in either Church; and the writings of Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine are not free from favorable mention of the Sibylline Books. See Besancon, De l'Emploi que les Peres de l'Eglise ontfiait des Oracles Sibyllins (1851).
1. History of the Text. — The Greek text of the Sibyllines was lost from sight during the Middle Ages, and it was reserved for certain humanists of the 16th century to unearth a number of manuscripts amid publish their contents to the world. The oracles are in each edition divided into eight books, but the text is everywhere exceedingly corrupt, and even marred by arbitrary emendations. The earliest critical editions date from the beginning, of our century, e.g. that of cardinal Mai (1817 and 1828), and subsequently appeared those of Alexandre (Paris, 1841) and Friedlieb (Leipsic, 1852). The number of manuscripts thus far recovered amounts to scarcely a dozen, and they have not vet been fully examined. They exhibit great divergences of both text and arrangement; the language and versification are not everywhere governed by the same standards-the language and even the phrases of Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, and Pseudo- Orpheaus being contained in them, and no less those of the Septuagint and of the New Test. If to these considerations we add that entire sections are wanting from some manuscripts, and that whole sections have been added in others, and also that the numerous citations in the Church fathers from the Sibyllines afford no aid towards a settling of the text, it will be apparent that definite results in uthis field are scarcely to be expected. See Thorlacius, Libri Sibqyl. Veteris Ecclesica (Copenli. 1815); Volkmahn, De Ora-c. Sibyl. (Lips. 1853); Friedllieb, De Codd. Sibyl. (Bremen, 1847); Floder, Vestif/ii Homer, et Hesiod. in Oraecc. Sib. (Ups. 1770); and other monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Program. p. 14.
2. Contents. — The results of criticism show that the Sibylline Books are the work of different authors, and that they originated in different countries and periods. The collection as -we now have it includes:
a. Jewish Elements. — Scholars are generally agreed that book 3 is, upon the whole, the work of an Egyptian Jew, though based somewhat on already existent heathen oracles and corrupted by Christian interpolations. The description of historical events in this book reaches to the reign of Ptolemy Physcon (B.C. 170117), and is followed from that epoch by a fanciful forecasting of the future. To antagonize idolatry, especially under its Egyptian form, was evidently the object of the oracle, which to this end employs persuasion, historico - mythological description, and threatening prophecy - more commonly the latter, as might be supposed from the assumption of a Sibylline garb. The book enumerates successive world- powers though not in the manner of Daniel, and foretells a period of woe which should be ended by the advent of Messiah, who will overthrow his enemies, restore Judah, and gloriously deliver the saints. There is no unity of arrangement.
Book 4 belongs next in the order of chronology. It consists of not quite two hundred verses, and is complete in itself. The history of the world is traced through twelve generations, six of which are Assyrian, two Median, one Persian, and one Grecian. The eleventh covers the period of the Roman world-power, and the twelfth is the Messianic period. The events noted in the book as recent are the destruction of Jerusalem and the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79; that which is most immediately impending is the return of a matricidal emperor from his exile beyond the Euphrates to make, war on Rome. The date of its composition is easy to determine from these data. No specifically Christian elements appear, and the religious bearing. of the fragment upon the whole is difficult to determine. Its author was probably a Jewish Christian of the ordinary type, who had no conception of the contradiction involved in such a character.
Book 5 is a crux interpretum. The first fifty verses recite the list of Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Hadrian, their names being indicated by the respective initial letters, etc. The internal evidence assigns the date of composition to the. close of Hadrian's reign (A.D. 138). The description it gives of Nero as laying claim to divine honors, after he "'.'shall have returned," indicates a .Christian pen; but the Christian element is so little apparent that judicious critics regard the greater part of the book as a Jewish production. The repeated reference to Nero, the arch-enemy, seems to suggest. that the author wrote in Nero's time, in which case it would become necessary to separate that portion of the book which reaches down to Hadrian, and upon this point scholars are greatly divided. The subject matter is largely eschatological, but lacks comprehensiveness of view, so that the author or compiler deals rather with the doom of particular cities and countries than with that of the world.
b. Christian Elements. — Book 6 is a brief hymn on Jesus as the Son of God, which touches on his miracles, teachings, and death, and denounces, a prophetic curse on the Sodomitic land which wove for him the crown of thorns. In connection with the baptism in Jordan, it. introduces the fire mentioned in ancient gospels, and presents an idea of the dove greatly at variance with the canonical idea. It, has been supposed that a form of gnosis is here revealed to our notice; but the question may depend for. its answer on the connecting of this fragment with book 7. The latter also contains, among apparently disconnected oracles of threatening, a number of extended hymns on Christ, in which the baptism is again particularly referred to and a peculiar philosophy connected with it (the premundane Logos clothed with flesh by the Spirit), and in which, moreover, a ritual of sacrifice is. recommended (v, 76) to which the Church was an entire stranger. The only historical allusion which might afford a hint respecting the age of the books is that in which it is said that other Persians should reign" in the time of greatest trouble (the time then current?). The reference might perhaps apply to the beginning of the Sassanid rule.
Book 8 deals more extensively with ideas peculiar to Christianity than any of those described. It is composed of fragments and devoid of unity, but the first half (Numbers 34:1-29) makes the impression of a connected whole. It begins where book 5 left off, and assigns to Hadrian's family three additional kings. A further reference to a king of different family (Sept. Severus), with his sons, may be a later interpolation. The book is intended to be a prophetic portrayal of the last judgment, but it includes a rehearsal of the life of Jesus, with the famous lines, thirty-four in number, which are known as the Sibylline Acrostic (v. 217-250)the initial letters forming the words Ι᾿ησοῦς Χρειστὸς (sic) Θεοῦ υίὸς σωτὴρ σταυρός . They were early recognised, e.g. by Eusebius and Augustine (Civ. Dei, 18, 23); but it is evident that they originated with a later hand. Neither the first nor the last of the lines is independent of the context in its structure. Lactantius cites at least one of the lines as having a different initial letter. The number of the lines is in some copies limited to twenty-seven; and the form Χρειστςό has noparallel. The less extended second half (v. 361-501) contains nothing Sibylline in character, and is composed of fragments of Christian hymns. It-is supposed to belong to the close of the 4th century.
Books 1 and 2 are probably of later date than those, already discussed. No Christian writer earlier than the 5th century quotes from them, and they are remarkable because of the absence of all reference to Roman history. No definite fixing of their date is accordingly possible. They are distinguished by greater conformity to a settled plan than is found in the others, and doubtless owe to this quality the place they occupy at the head of the collection. The poem follows the outline of Genesis, from the creation and the fall of man, through successive generations, to Noah and the deluge. The sibyl is here introduced into the history, and is identified with Noah's daughter-in-law. After Noah the "golden age" opens, then that of the Titans, and later the Messianic. Three kings are said, to reign in the golden age, who are identified by some critics with the sons of Kronos, and by others with the sons of Noah, or with the three patriarchs of early Hebrew history. The Titans are supposed to denote the entire series of heathen powers to the time of the Messiah. Book 1 continues the history through the destruction of Jerusalem and to the final dispersion of the Jews, while book ii deals chiefly with the last judgment. It is apparent that a portion of the poem has been lost from between the two books as they now exist, and it would seem that the loss of that section has deprived us of all hope of ascertaining the: time in which these books originated; but the facts that they were wholly unknown to the Church fathers, that even the sibyllomaniac Lactantius does not mention them, and that they are free from all trace of Chiliasm compel criticism, to assign their origin to a period later than that of the other books contained in the earlier collections.
c. The more recently discovered books (11-14) have not yet been thoroughly weighed in the scales of criticism, and opinions with regard to them are very diverse. Their contents are as follows:
Book 11 begins at the deluge and the tower of Babel, and follows the history down through the Egyptian, Persian, and Grecian dominions to the time of the Roman supremacy. In the progress of the poem Joseph and the exode are mentioned; and Homer, the Trojan war, Alexander and the Diadochi, the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, Caesar and his successors, with their relations to Egypt, are all referred to. The book closes with a request from the sibyl for rest from the madness of inspiration, thus implying that it is the first part- of a continued poem. - The religious element is not made prominent, though the author was evidently acquainted with sacred history. A peculiar wealth of chronological statements and reckonings characterizes the book.
Book 12 begins with the reign of Augustus, and mentions the entire succession of Caesars, designating each individual by the numerical equivalent of his name, with the single exception of Alex. Severus. The absence of all reference to religious ideas is a very noticeable feature, though Vespasian is termed the annihilator of the righteous, and the coming of a κρύφιος λόγος ὑψίστου is mentioned (ver. 30 sq.), who may be the Messiah, as v. 232 declares that in the reign of the first Roman sovereign "the word of the immortal God came upon the, earth." The earliest victories .of the Sassanids over the Romans are, mentioned, and a repeated prayer from the sibyl for rest closes the book.
Much of the history of book 12 is inexplicable to us, and the same is true of book 13. It is fragmentary and brief and is almost exclusively devoted to Asiatic wars, the different Roman rulers being very indefinitely described. The situation of Oriental countries during the second half of the 3d century appears to have been more familiar to the author than it can be to us. The book is like those mentioned in the absence of religious references, and closes in the, usual form.
Book 14 is wholly inexplicable. Lists of emperors are given, but in such a manner as to render their identification impossible. The internal character of the book might suggest the idea that its author was an Egyptian living in the reign of Gallienus, who framed the history of the world and of the emperors in Sibylline verses,.. and added to. it a continuation drawn from a his own resources. No religious, and especially no Messianic, interest is apparent, unless the thought at the close (that after all of conflict shall be over, the earth shall enjoy undisturbed peace) might be regarded as Messianic.
The collection and arrangement of the Sibylline Books were evidently the work of comparatively recent hands, and were made in the interests of Christianity. Lactantius appears to have known them only as separate poems. Most of the manuscripts contain only the first eight books, and the differences of arrangement to be observed in them would indicate that, before the entire collection was completed, certain sections had been brought together. The loss of fragments and sections was the natural result of the scattered state in which the material existed; but the date of the last revision, which preserved the books against further losses, is wholly unknown.
3. Literature. — In addition to works mentioned in the body of this article, see Blondel, Des Sibylles Celebres tant par lAntiquite Paeienne que par les S. Peres (1649); the elder Vossius, De Poetis Graec.. (1654); chmid, De Sib. Oracc. (1618); Boyle, De Sibyllis (1661); Nehring, Deutsche Uebersetz. d. sibyll. Weiss. (1702); id. Vesrtheid. d. sibyll. Prophezeihungen (1720); Vossius [Is.], De Oracc. Sibyll. (1680); Bleek, in the Berl. theol. Zeitschr. 1819, pt. i and ii; Lucke, Einl. in d. Apokalypse (2d ed. 1852); Ewald, Entstehung, Inhalt u. Werth d.; 14 sibyll. Bucher (1858); Dahne, Alexandr. Religionsphilosophie (1834), ii, 228; Grorer, Philo (1831), ii, 121 sq.; Hilgenfeld, Jiid. Apokal. in ihrer gesch. Eastwickeltag (1857), p. 51 sq.; Thorlacitus, Doctr. C/hrist. in Sibyl. Libr., in the Misc. Han. 1816, vol. i; Terry, The Sibylline Oracles (N. Y. 1890).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sibylline Oracles.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​s/sibylline-oracles.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.