Sibyl and Sibylline Oracles

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The sibyl was a Greek prophetess-figure, apparently of Oriental origin. The sibyl utters her predictions not on being consulted, like established oracles, but spontaneously, in ecstatic exclamations. She is believed to dwell in grottos, to wander through many countries and to live for 1,000 years. Originally conceived of as a single person, various sibyls are found later in different countries, some bearing individual names. From *Alexander Polyhistor (first century b.c.e.) comes the earliest mention of a sibyl named Sambethe or Sabbe, described as Babylonian or Hebrew. Sibylline oracles, in hexametric verses, circulated in Athens in the fifth century b.c.e.; from Alexander the Great's time, these sided with the oppressed peoples and predicted doom to the wicked rulers. A standard figure in these oracles was the hoped for Mighty King from the East, who would liberate the conquered, punish the oppressors, and inaugurate a period of welfare and peace. A combination of Babylonian astrology and Persian millenarian speculations was the basis for a firm belief in a predestined future. In Rome, Sibylline Books, deposited in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, were consulted at moments when the senate had to make critical decisions. However, when the Roman Empire came to rule over Asia, Oriental sibylline literature evolved into virulent anti-Roman propaganda. Doubtless the strong note of hope for final redemption induced the Jews to adapt the popular pattern of sibylline poetry to the needs of their national-religious propaganda (see below). Christians regarded the sibyl as a heathen prophetess predicting the coming of Jesus and integrated the Jewish sibylline poetry in a larger corpus of Christian oracles. The pagan sibyls and the prophets of Israel, as two kinds of messengers of Jesus advent, stand side by side in Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Books of Sibylline Oracles

Christian libraries have preserved two different collections of Sibylline Oracles, counted as books 1–8 and 11–14 respectively. The first of these collections was compiled by Christians about 500 c.e. and contains definitely Christian passages (e.g., 8:217–50), but it was composed much earlier and the oldest stratum is Jewish, with only occasional Christian additions. Scholars differ about the extent of this Jewish stratum, but it certainly includes books 3, 4 and most of 5. There are also considerable Jewish elements in the second, much later and inferior, collection; thus in 13:81 the Emperor Decius, persecutor of the Christians, figures as one of the good emperors – a fact that excludes Christian authorship.

The oldest and most interesting of the Jewish parts is book 3, in which the sibyl is presented as Noah's daughter-in-law, coming from Babylonia. This agrees with the tradition about the sibyl Sambethe. Indeed, the account of the oldest generations of mankind, though following the biblical narrative, is combined with motifs known from parallel Babylonian myths whose previous polytheistic character is sometimes still discernible. Even a piece of rationalized Greek mythology that, following a prevalent Hellenistic theory, makes Kronos and his brothers into kings of olden times, seems to have come down to the author via Babylonia.

It may seem strange that Church Fathers, in their ample quotations from the book, ascribe it to the oldest Greek sibyl. This may be due to the fact that the author incorporated in the work a rich collection of older Greek oracles, referring to many places throughout the Hellenistic world which were threatened with various natural or political catastrophes. But there is a marked difference between these stereotyped predictions of calamities and the Jewish sibyl's own oracles of disasters, which were always motivated by moral or religious considerations, in keeping with Israel's prophetic tradition. This genuine prophetic vein reaches its climax in the passage where the sibyl addresses the Greek nation (3:520ff.). Although the fictitious form of predicting a distant future is maintained here, it is clear that the sibylline poet is referring to the great disaster that befell Hellas in his own time, i.e., the middle of the second century b.c.e., when Greece was ravaged by the Roman legions. Here the poetry, too, reaches its highest standard. The Homeric assonances give the verses an evocative power, and the poet's sympathetic feeling for humiliated Hellas echoes in the repeated use of the designation "barbarian" for the cruel enemy. The same strong emotion also elicits biblical allusions; the words "one man chases a hundred warriors" evokes Deuteronomy 32:30, and "five a whole company," Leviticus 26:8. It is thus evident that the calamity has both a Greek and a Jewish significance for the poet. The latter becomes clear where the sibyl reproaches the Greeks for their cardinal sin, apostasy from the true God in favor of meaningless idolatry, introduced by haughty kings in olden times. The poet hopes that in their present agony the Greeks will find the only way of salvation, back to God Whom they once had known, presenting them with an ideal image of Israel, the people of "pious men" sitting around the sanctuary of the One God.

The sibyl's glorification of Israel is centered around three points: monotheism, sexual purity, and social justice: (1) strict Jewish adherence to the One God implies rejection of magic, astrology, and foretelling the future. In stressing this point, the poet may be opposing a Samaritan tendency, known from a fragment of Pseudo-Eupolemos who depicts Abraham as a wise astrologer; (2) sexual purity of the pious people is sharply contrasted with the vices of the gentile world, the most horrible of which is homosexual prostitution; (3) the stress laid on social justice as a Jewish characteristic is especially interesting. The author represents details of biblical law not as commands but as actual facts; thus he can say that the Jews use just weights and measures, do not remove their neighbor's landmark, and help the widows and the poor, "for God in heaven has given the earth to all men in common." The unique political situation of a sovereign Judea under Hasmonean kings confronting an enslaved Hellas lends specific shades to the picture of messianic times. The forthcoming last great onslaught of the heathen armies against God's sanctuary, repelled by divine miraculous intervention, is depicted on Jewish apocalyptical lines, but tinged by the sibylline tradition of the redeeming "Mighty King" from the East. The final life of bliss contains some individual elements unparalleled in messianic literature: "A great peace will spread all over the world. Kings will be friends with one another till the end of time. Immortal God will place in the starry sky a law, common to all mankind" (755–9).

Outbursts of hatred against Rome cannot belong to the original text of book 3, which was composed at a time when Judea was on excellent terms with Rome. Indeed, close analysis has shown that they result from a very late recast of the text. A completely different situation, however, prevails in books 4 and 5 which are imbued with an uncompromising hatred for Rome. The reason is obvious: they were written after the destruction of the Temple by Titus. Book 4 regards the eruption of Vesuvius (79 c.e.) as a divine punishment for this crime. It can therefore be assumed with certainty that the book was written fairly soon after this eruption. Book 5 has a surprisingly favorable opinion of the emperor Hadrian, indicating that it was written before the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba War (132 c.e.). In these two books messianic hopes are not directed at an immediate future, but they keep their specific sibyllistic, internationally minded vein. When the author of book 5 dreams of a rebuilt Jerusalem, connected by a long wall with the coastal town of Jaffa, he must have had in mind the image of Athens in her time of glory, when the famous "long walls" connected her with her seaport.


J. Geffecken (ed.), Die Oracula Sibyllina (1902), best complete critical edition of the Greek original; M.S. Terry, The Sibylline Oracles (1890); S.A. Hirsch, Book of Essays (1905), 219–59; Charles, Apocrypha, 2 (1913), 368–406; H.N. Bate, The Sibylline Oracles (1918); A. Peretti, La Sibilla babilonese (1943); A. Kurfess, Sibyllinische Weissagungen (1951), incl. bibl.; S.K. Eddy, The King is Dead (1961), index.

[Yehoshua Amir (Neumark)]