Introduction to the Sibylline Literature
by Phillip J. Long
July 19, 2016
The genre of the Sibylline Oracle is well known in the ancient world. The Sibyl is always an elderly woman who delivers strange sayings as if from the gods. Ovid tells the story of a woman who asked Apollo to live as many years as there are sands on the seashore. The wish was granted, but she did not ask the god to keep her from aging, so she is forced to live as a shriveled old hag. Various cultures have versions of this story – the Jewish legend calls her Sabbe or Sambethe and made her a daughter of Noah (Collins, OTP 1:317-38)
|Erythraean Sibyl, Michelangelo|
There were many sibyls by the fourth century B.C., but by the first century B.C. the most important was the Roman Sibyl. Her sayings were kept in Rome and consulted in times of crisis. These books were destroyed in 83 B.C. when the temple of Jupiter was burned. When it was rebuilt in 76 B.C., sibylline books from all over the empire were brought to Rome to be housed at the temple. Roman sibylline texts were filled with omens and prodigies, so too the Jewish oracles.
When something strange happened, the Oracles were scoured to give potential meaning to the event. The books could function as propaganda since a king could confirm his action by pointing to an arcane sibylline line which “predicted” his birth or some other key event. The obscurity of these works made them easy to manipulate and fabricate (Cicero, De divinatione 2.54.110; Plutarch, De pythiis oraculis, 25, cited by Collins 1:320, note 38). Eventually Augustus destroyed thousands of Roman oracles because he considered them politically subversive (Collins, OTP 1:320, citing Suetonius,Augustus 31.1.
The collection of oracles titled Sibylline Oracles in most collections of the pseudepigrapha are Jewish or Christian creations which mimic the style of Roman oracles in order to provide some additional validity to Jewish (or Christian) worldviews. These Sibylline Oracles are not single work from any one time. They range from Jewish works of the first century to late Christian theologies. To complicate matters, there are Christian interpolations into some of the Jewish oracles. This is a real problem for using this material: what is (early) Jewish as opposed to (later) Christian?
Sometimes this is obvious since the writer is clearly referring to Jesus Christ. For example, in the eighth oracle, lines 217-250 “an acrostic poem that spells out with the initials of each line the words Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr Stauros, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Cross.” As Collins points out, the first five of these letters spell Ichthus, “fish,” a famous Christian cryptogram (OTP 1:416).
Other times it is possible we may have a vague reference to a messianic figure or the messianic age which could be either Jewish or Christian. For example, in Oracle 3, some elements seem Jewish, such as lines 573-75, “There will again be a sacred race of pious men who attend to the counsels and intention of the Most High, who fully honor the temple of the great God.” But a few lines later there is a description of a restored kingdom which sounds like Christian descriptions of a millennium: “And then God will give great joy to men, for earth and trees and countless flocks of sheep will give to men the true fruit of wine, sweet honey and white milk and corn, which is best of all for mortals (3.-619-622).
Many times these “either/or” sections are not important (praise of God, for example), but in eschatological contexts it is very difficult to tell the Jewish from the Christian. This is the case because early Christian eschatology is very similar to Jewish eschatology since both developed out of the Hebrew Bible.
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Dating the Sibylline Oracles, Books 1-3
by Phillip J. Long
July 20, 2016
Because the “books” of the Sibylline Oracles are from different periods it is necessary to briefly note the date and provenance for each. See this post for oracles 4-7, this post for oracles 8-14.
Sibylline Oracles Books 1-2. The first two books of the Sibylline Oracles form a unit. Lines 1-323 are a Jewish oracle which begin to recount the “ten generations” of human history. The first seven periods are covered in this section, but lines 324-400 are clearly Christian. After a brief transition in 2.1-5, 2.6-33 finished the “ten generations” theme. The eighth and ninth generations are missing; Book 2 picks up with the tenth generation. SibOr 2.34-347 describes eschatological crisis and judgment. It is Jewish, but there are a number of lines which are Christian interpolations, especially in lines 45-264. The Jewish section of the book has been dated from 30 B.C. to A.D. 250 based on the dominance of Rome in the text. There is no reference to the fall of Jerusalem nor the Nero Myth (a frequent motif in later oracles.) Collins concludes that the Jewish sections date to pre-70, while the Christian interpolations date after 70, but no later than A.D. 150. There are numerous parallels between the second and eighth oracles, implying some literary dependence (which, assuming oracle eight used the second, implies the second was written first.) The Jewish section probably comes from Phrygia based on the reference in 1.196-198 to the ark landing in that country.
Sibylline Oracles Book 3. Lines 1-96 are probably a conclusion to another book. Lines 97-349, 489-829 are the “main book,” with an “Oracles against the nations” section inserted in 350-488. The main section expects God to intervene during the reign of the seventh king of Egypt (lines 193, 318, 608). The mostly likely candidates for the seventh king are Philometor (186-164, 163-145 B.C.), Neos Philopater (145-144 B.C.) and Physcon / Euergetes II (170-164, 164-163, 144-117 B.C.). Collins cites Valentin Nikiprowetzky, La Troisiéme Sibylle, (Paris: Mouton, 1970) as arguing the seventh king is Cleopatra VII (Athens, 85). As can be observed from the dates of these three kings, there are some co-regencies which complicate the chronology. Collins dates the book to 163-145 B.C. based on the prominence of Rome after 175 B.C. The book is definitely written after the battle of Magnesia, 190 B.C., (OTP 1:355).
This view has been challenged, however, by Rieuwerd Buitenwerf. He points out the numbering of Ptolemaic kings did not exist in antiquity. They were identified by “title.” The number seven is used three times in the context of the prediction of a seventh king, all figuratively according to Buitenwerf (cf. Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], 277). The writer of the oracle can only be said to believe that Roman rule will end when an Asian king conquers Egypt, signaling the appointed time for God to intervene in history. Therefore, the historical seventh king in the Ptolemaic dynasty does not matter for dating the book. Although he accepts the number seven may have been chose as an ideal number, Collins disagrees that the seventh king has no bearing on the date. The prediction of God’s intervention when the seventh king reigns is meaningless if it is known there have been more than seven kings (Collins,Athens, 83-84, interacting with Erich Gruen).
Buitenwerf points out there is no hint of a Roman invasion of Palestine nor an end to the Ptolemy dynasty, therefore the book must be written some time before Actium, 31 B.C. He finds confirmation for this date in the paraphrase of Book 3 of the Sibylline Oracles by Alexander Polyhistor on the tower of Babel. His citation of lines 3.91-107 are preserved in Eusebius’ Chronica and Josephus’ Antiq. 1.118-119, although Josephus probably also used Polyhistor. Polyhistor began to write about 880 B.C. and died about 40 B.C.
Collins believes the main section of the book to be pro-Ptolemaic and therefore argues the book is the product of a diaspora Jew living in Egypt. This too has been challenged by Buitenwerf, calling the evidence for an Egyptian origin “extremely meager” (Buitenwerf, 131). He considers Collins’ evidence of a pro-Ptolemaic author as saying nothing of the sort and considers the topographical details as a reflection of “general education” (Buitenwerf, 132). He argues for an Asian origin for the book based on the frequent mention of Asian locations and (more importantly), the prediction that an Asian king will invade Egypt. Lines 367-380 predicted this Asian king will usher in a time of bliss for Egypt, then again in lines 601-623 an Asian king invades and God intervenes in the world. The prophetess identifies herself as the Erythraean Sibyl, a very famous Asian prophetess. He concludes the author was a Jewish inhabitant of the Roman province of Asia. Collins agrees the “oracles against the nations” need to be dated a bit later, likely before the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., but the main section of the book, in Collins opinion, is earlier (Compendia rerum Iudaicarum 368-369). These are “gentile oracles” included to bring book three up to date and add to the sibylline flavor.
The first section is different from the rest of the book and is to be dated at least after Actium (line 46 seems to refer to the second Triumvirate.) Lines 75-92 refer to Cleopatra. Lines 63-92 are the most difficult to date, and ought to be considered separately from the rest of the introduction since they refer to the coming of Beliar. This looks like a Christian interpolation. The identity of Beliar may be Simon Magus as an anti-messiah, who was from Samaria (Herod’s renamed Samaria “Sebaste” in honor of Augustus in 25 B.C.)
A second and more likely possibility is the phrase describing Beliar ek Sebasttenon means “from the line of Augustus,” making Beliar Nero. This is in keeping with the Nero Myth and the common association of the return of Nero with an end-time villain. If the second option is accepted, then the date must be after A.D. 70 (when the Nero myth began to circulate), possibly later. The use of the Nero Myth in Revelation 13 is a bit controversial since most scholars date Revelation to the mid 90’s A.D. This would mean the Nero Myth was still common knowledge nearly 30 years after his death.
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Dating the Sibylline Oracles, Books 4-7
by Phillip J. Long
July 21, 2016
Because the “books” of the Sibylline Oracles are from different periods it is necessary to briefly note the date and provenance for each. See this post for oracles 1-3, this post for oracles 8-14.
Sibylline Oracles Book 4. Collins describes this book as a “political oracle from the Hellenistic age updated by a Jew in the late first century A.D.” (OTP 1:381. In Compendia rerum Iudaicarum 363, Collins says lines 49-401 are “substantially older”, probably the oldest in the Sibylline Oracles. It has been re-worked at a later date to include Rome and a prediction of the downfall of Rome). The earliest layer is quite early since there are no clear references to historical events after the time of Alexander the Great nor to the rise of Rome. It seems anti-Macedonian since Alexander does not bring in the golden age. The redaction “updates” the text sometime after A.D. 80. For example, line 116 refers to the destruction of the temple; lines 119-124, 138-139 refer to the Nero Myth, and 130-135 refer to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (A.D. 79). Collins speculates the text was used in a Jewish baptizing context, such as the Ebionites or Elcasaites due to the emphasis on baptism as a requirement for salvation and a rejection of temple worship (line 383).
Sibylline Oracles Book 5. This book cannot be dated earlier than 70 because of the numerous references to the Nero Myth in all but the very first section, but not much later than 80. The first section has favorable comments about Hadrian, which Collins uses to argue for a date for the first section prior to the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132 (OTP 1:391). There are a number of references to destroying pagan temples, possibly a reference to the Jewish Diaspora revolt of A.D. 115. That the book originated in Egypt is clear from line 53 (the Sibyl is a friend of Isis) and the interest in Cleopatra found throughout the book. Collins comments that despite the similarities to Sibylline 3, the eschatological perspective is quite different.
Sibylline Oracles Book 6. This short 28 line text is clearly a Christian “hymn to Christ” (OTP 1:406). There is no Jewish or pagan elements to the book, and very little to help date it either. The latest date is fixed since it is used by Lactantius about A.D. 300, but an earlier date is impossible to determine. Since the book has an interest in baptism and the Jordan River, some suggest an Ebionite origin, but Collins dismisses this as unlikely (OTP 1:406).
Sibylline Oracles Book 7. Collins describes the seventh books as “disorderly” and “loosely structured” (OTP 1:408). It appears to be entirely Christian, any Jewish elements are not distinctly so. The book is also used by Lactantius; a date in the second century is commonly given for the book. The origin of the book is also difficult to trace, Collins suggests Syria because of a slight interest in the region and in the baptism of Christ (OTP 1:408).
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Dating the Sibylline Oracles, Books 8-14
by Phillip J. Long
July 22, 2016
Because the “books” of the Sibylline Oracles are from different periods it is necessary to briefly note the date and provenance for each. See this post for oracles 1-3, this post for oracles 4-7.
Sibylline Oracles Book 8. The eighth oracle is a composite of two works. The first half of the book (lines 1-216) has been described as entirely Christian (Geffcken) or Jewish (Rzach), although it is probably best to see the section as a Christian redaction of a primarily Jewish work, probably under the influence of the book of Revelation (OTP 1:415-416). The first half can be dated during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180) since line 148 appears to predict Nero’s return in the reign of Aurelius (year 948 of Rome.) The second half of the book (217-500) appears Christian, possibly relying on the Christian section of Sibylline Oracles 2 (OTP 1:416). Lactantius used the second half of the book extensively, but there is nothing in the section to help fix a date prior to A.D. 300.
Sibylline Oracles Book 11-12. The last four of the sibylline books form a unit since they are a continuous outline of history. The later books appear to have appended to bring the outline of history “up-to-date.” Book eleven may end at the death of Cleopatra, although this is a challenged point (Compendia rerum Iudaicarum, 375-376, OTP 1:431-432). A date of the “turn of the era” is the best, but there is no doubt in Collins mind the book comes from Egypt because of the prominence of Cleopatra. If books 11 and 12 form a continuous unit, then the date needs to be pushed back to the third century since the book ends with Alexander Severeus (A.D. 218-235).
Sibylline Oracles Book 13. The beginning of this book appears lost since the history resumes with Gordianus (A.D. 240-244). Since it ends without mentioned the death of Odenath of Palmyra, the book is to be dated “with confidence” to A.D. 265 (Odenath took the title “king” when Valerian I was captured, Collins OTP1:458, note d2). Like the previous two books, it was likely written from Alexandria, Egypt. The book has very little theological content, making a decision on Jewish / Christian authorship impossible.
Sibylline Oracles Book 14. This last oracle is described by Collins as a reductio ad absurdum for the whole sibylline genre. He cites Geffcken’s assessment: the writer was “a Phantast . . . an ignoramus who knew nothing except names of people, countries and cities, and arbitrarily mixes them . . .” (OTP 459; Note 7 references Boussett in Real-Encyclopedia who assumes the work is Christian without arguing the case).
The book probably comes from the seventh century, written by an Alexandrian Jew with no hint of Christian redactions. W. Scott thought the book referred to the Arab conquest of Egypt, placing the date in the seventh century (W. Scott, “The Last Sibylline Oracle” Classical Quarterly 9 (1915), 144-166; 207-228, 10 (1916) 7-16).
Sibylline Fragments. Collins lists eight fragments of oracles which are found in Theophilus Ad Autolcycum 2.36 (fragment 1, 3) and 2.3 (fragment 2). Lactantius has fragments 4-7 and fragment 8 is referenced in Constantine’s “Speech to the Saints” The authenticity of the Theophilus fragments has been doubted. Geffcken thought Theophilus forged them himself (OTP 1:467).