Sibylline Oracles I.387-400    

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The prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple

70 CE to 150 CE
Jewish and Christian
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Sibylline Oracles



The Sibylline oracular tradition is ancient and extremely complex, and the product of constant redaction, reinvention and appropriation by different groups. The tradition was laid claim to over the centuries by communities interpreting and adding to the oracles according to their own worldviews (on the development of the Sibylline tradition, see Herbert Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy, David Potter, Prophecy and History, chapter 3, and Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Book III, p. 92-123). John Collins argues that the earliest references to a “Sibyl” are from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and refer to the proper name of a prophetess (“Sibylline Oracles,” p. 317). The prophetic figure of the Sibyl is originally thought to be from Asia, but became popular in Greece (see Ursula Treu, “Christian Sibyllines,” p. 653). A reference from Heraclitus in around 500 BCE describes the Sibyl’s words as timeless and having of divine authority, and by Plato’s time her words are understood to be widely known and taken seriously (see Phaedrus 244B). Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities IV.62, describes the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BCE), and aims to show that the possession of these books by the Romans is evidence of their continued favour in the eyes of the gods. Dionysus states that his main source of information was the writings of Varro (quoted in Lactantius, Divine Institutions I.6), which taught that the earliest compilation of Sibylline prophecies dated to the sixth century BCE, and was ascribed to the Hellespontine Sibyl, who resided in the Temple of Apollo at Gergis. Subsequently, the collection travelled to Erythrae, and then on to Cumae. Virgil (writing in the time of Augustus) attributes to the Cumaean Sybil the task of guiding Aeneas through the underworld (Virgil, Aeneid VI.98-903). After 367 BCE, a magistrature of ten, and later fifteen individuals of the patrician and plebeian senatorial aristocracy was created (the decemviri sacris faciundis), who were responsible for the upkeep of the Sibylline Books. The books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, which caught fire in 83 BCE. What remained of the books were brought to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus by Augustus (Apollo was his personal god) in 12 BCE. This symbolic act indicated that the prophecies were now firmly the property of the emperor, and served him.

Because of the popularity enjoyed by these pagan oracles, and their influence on the religious views of the period, Hellenistic Jews during the second century BCE wrote verses mirroring their form, and attributed them to the Sibyls in order to diffuse Jewish ideologies, doctrines, and prophecies, and Jewish and later Christian authors continued to compose and redact existing oracles in this manner until the third century CE. Popular were oracles pertaining to natural disasters or overthrowing of empires, for example, which were taken on and supplemented with biblical scripture. The subsequent adoption by Jews and Christians of this particular form of oracle was no casual decision; rather, it was a very deliberate move to hijack for Jewish and Christian purposes an expression of Roman religion.

The Sibylline Oracles are preserved in twelve books, which vary in length from 162 to 829 hexameters. In all of these, the Sibyl is presented as speaking in the first person, maintaining a predominantly future tense. The collection stems from two separate collections: 1) books 1-8, extant in a collection made by a fifth-century CE redactor, and 2) seven texts which came to light in the early-nineteenth century, labelled as books 9-15, but with only books 11-14 of these representing different material from that in the first collection. For this reason, modern editions of the corpus do not contain books labelled 9 and 10.

The first two books of the collection are not separated in the manuscripts, and can be understood as constituting a unit; they represent Jewish oracles with some evident Christian redaction (see John Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” p. 330). Books 1 and 2 begin with an overview of history from creation to the final judgement, and predict the coming of Christ in addition to offering ethical prescriptions. In the case of the present passage, the undertones of Jewish deservedness of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple seem to be quite clearly Christian. Dating the collection is often difficult, as the oracles contain material from around 180 BCE right up until the third century CE. Johannes Geffcken dated the Jewish and Christian stages of redaction to the third century CE (Komposition und Entstehungszeit, p. 49), whereas Alfons Kurfess preferred much earlier, placing the Jewish stage to the turn of the Common Era, and the Christian stage before 150 CE (“Oracula Sibyllina I/II”). For John Collins, the fact that in the first two books Rome is the only power to be mentioned suggests that the Jewish stage was written when Roman power in the Near East was consolidated (so not before 30 BCE). However, the Jewish material does not reference the fall of the Jerusalem Temple, which seems odd if a Jew was writing after 70 CE. He therefore suggests that 70 CE is the latest date for the Jewish stage (“Sibylline Oracles,” p. 331). In the case of the present text, however, which is agreed to be from the Christian redactional stage, the clear allusion to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple means that this section cannot have been added earlier than this event.

In the present passage the fall of Jerusalem is presented along with the subsequent exile and suffering of the Jewish people. Earlier on in book 1 there is some clear anti-Judaism which seems to be much more watered down by this point. As we will see below, there is an undercurrent of this here, but perhaps Charles Alexandre was correct in his suggestion that I.360 onwards (where Israel’s “intoxication” and “polluted lips” will cause her to incur God’s wrath, and the Jews are explicitly blamed for the suffering caused to Jesus) and the present passage are the work of two different writers, one for whom disdain for the Jews was more of a concern than the other (Oracula Sibyllina II, p. 552). The passage is divided into two: verses 387-392 and verses 393-400. Both sections see the Jewish people (“the Hebrews”; this is specifically biblical) suffer at the hands of the Romans (whose warlike audacity is emphasised with the phrase “brazen breastplates”) and then subsequently experience more general anguishes. Each section begins with a “when” clause; firstly when the Hebrews “reap the bitter harvest” and secondly when “Solomon’s temple falls to the holy earth.” Moreover, the agricultural reaping metaphor of verse 387 is reflected in the description of the Jews mingling tares with wheat in verses 396-397, and the oppressive kingdoms which fall in verses 389-392 are echoed in the fate of the sinful cities which receive God’s wrath in 397-400 (for the structure, see Jane Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles, p. 441-442).

As Lightfoot observes, it seems that rather than referencing specific events (with the obvious exception of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by a “Roman king,” who in this context refers to Titus due to his role in the Temple’s decimation), the more general calamities described in this passage may simply be drawing on a pattern of suffering amongst the nations (ἔθνη, ethnē) which is found in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Isaiah 13-14; 29; 34:1-8; Zechariah 14). Verses 388-391 adapt a prophecy from the third book of oracles about the coming of Rome. The present passage replaces the metaphorical ruler of book 3 with a “Roman king,” and the gold and silver described as being taken from cities in book 3 might be imagined as the looting of the Jerusalem Temple. The phrase rendered in the above translation as “Roman king” seems unusual (1 Maccabees 8:14 for instance, comments on how Rome does not have kings in the same way as other nations). In the New Testament, we also find the emperor referred to as a βασιλεύς (basileus), and translators vary between rendering this term as “emperor” and “king,” even when context makes it reasonably clear that the Roman emperor is in view (see 1 Peter 2:13; 1 Timothy 2:2).

As Lightfoot highlights, the type of end-time prophecy that we find in Matthew 24:3-31 and its parallels seems to be envisaged in the sufferings described here after the fall of the Temple, but without it actually being the final eschatological judgement (The Sibylline Oracles, p. 441). The Romans are referred to as βαρβαροφώνοι (barbarophōnoi; those of “barbarous speech/language”), which seems to mimic Hebrew Bible prophecies about the foreign language of Jerusalem’s enemies (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 33:19; Jeremiah 5:15). Epithets such as this, which focus on the foreign language of an enemy are found in epic literature (e.g. Iliad II.867), and are also used in many oracles as a general tool for labelling enemies (e.g. Sibylline Oracles III.516) (Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles, p. 442).

Although the implication is that the Jews deserved their destruction at Roman hands (they “reap the bitter harvest”), we do not find here any trace of Christian smugness that they have now taken the place of Israel in God’s favour, becoming his new “people” (for a discussion of such an attitude within early-Christianity, see the commentary on the Epistle of Barnabas 16.1-5). Not all early-Christians felt the need to highlight their superiority over the Jews when discussing them, or utilise the events of 70 CE to gain one up on them. For John Collins, this passage represents a Christian author’s updating of the review of history which the original Jewish oracle had left around the time of Augustus, as it is the only part of the Christian addition to book 1 which is not concerned with the “career of Christ” (“Sibylline Oracles,” p. 331). If this is the case, then the polemical tone against the Jews might be less than that of the earlier section simply because the author was more concerned with the historical fact of the destruction of the Temple rather than the reasons he believed it had occurred. This said, the reaping allusion of verse 387, which reflects a popular metaphor in both classical and Judeo-Christian literature (see, for instance, Galatians 6:7) where the principle is that one gains back only what is rightly deserved from the “work” that one puts in, does seem to be specifically unsympathetic to the Jews. While not so poisonously vehement about Israel’s sins as the lines immediately preceding the present passage, the rhetorical line is nevertheless still identifiable, and in this sense fits with other early-Christian polemic (and one which is already found of course in Josephus) which saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE as a fitting punishment for God’s wayward people, sometimes suggesting that the Romans fulfilled a necessary role as God’s chosen agents of retribution (in addition to the Epistle of Barnabas, see also the discussion of Luke 21:7-28).

Bibliographical references: 
Collins, John J., “Sibylline Oracles”, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (ed. James E. Charlesworth; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983), 317-472
Treu, Ursula, “Christian Sibyllines”, in New Testament Apocrypha Volume 2: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects (ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher ; Cambridge: James Clarke, 1992), 652-685
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Sibylline Oracles I.387-400    
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Mon, 04/16/2018 - 14:52
Visited: Tue, 02/19/2019 - 19:45

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