The Unabridged Bible:  exploring the complete set of ancient holy writings

Sibylline Oracles
Highlights
The importance of an old, practically incoherent woman proclaiming ecstatic prophecies goes back at least to the days of Greece's greatest influence. She was called "the Sibyl." Surprisingly, Jewish and Christian leaders also stressed the centrality of this figure, even though she was a pagan, and even though her identity has been lost over time.

Her works, and works in her name, are collected in the Sibylline Oracles.

The Text Speaks
"Then Elijah the Thesbite, driving a heavenly chariot all the way from heaven, will come to earth and display three signs1 to the whole world, as life perishes."
Discussion
The original notion of a prophetess named "the Sibyl" goes back to the middle of the first millennium BC. Plato mentions her, and Heraclitus probably does, too. "The" Sibylline Oracles are a later collection of writings, and represent various different women all named "the Sibyl," among them a Hebrew Sibyl and a Babylonian Sibyl (also called the "Chaldean Sibyl"), as well as Sibyls from Erythrea in Asia Minor, Cumae in Italy, and more. The writing is always in Greek hexameter.

For the Romans, no set of writings was more important than these various "Sibylline Oracles," which is why the Roman leadership compiled and stored them in the great Temple of Jupiter, where it took an official act of the Roman senate to authorize access to them. They were to be consulted only in the most dire of circumstances.

Alas, the official compilation of oracles was destroyed when the Roman Temple burned down in 83 BC.

Our current set of Sibylline Oracles comes from later attempts to reconstruct the original body of work. As is often the case, the people doing the reconstruction frequently had their own agendas, so we are now left with a mishmash of original oracles and later emendations. These are collected primarily in two major compilations, commonly referred to by scholars as phi (Φ) and psi (Ψ).

Surprisingly, Jewish and Christian leaders, too, respected and even praised the Sibylline Oracles, even though the Sibyl, though claiming to be Noah's daughter or daughter-in-law, is clearly is pagan. The Christian theologian Clemens Alexandrinus even says that St. Paul quoted the Sibylline Oracles when he preached. For the great historian Josephus as well as for early Christian leaders, part of the appeal of the Sibyl was that she provided independent confirmation of what the believers were saying.

Excerpts
"Beginning from the first generation of articulate people
Down to the last, I will predict everything in turn,
Such things as once were, as now are, and as will be upon
The world through human impiety."
     - Book 1, Introduction



"When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods2 sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon."
     - The Sibyl as quoted by Josephus



"Then the son of the great God will come,
Incarnate, like mortals on earth,
Bearing four vowels and two consonants3.
I will state explicitly what those numbers mean."
     - Book 1



"Give to the poor immediately, and do not tell them not to come until tomorrow....
People who give alms know that they are lending to God.
Mercy will save them from death when judgment comes.
God wants not sacrifice but mercy instead of sacrifice,
So clothe the naked. Give the hungry a share of your food."
     - Book 2



"There is a city in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans,
from where a race of most righteous people4, comes.
They are always concerned with good counsel and noble works,
And do not concern themselves with the course of the sun
Or of the moon of with monstrous things under the earth
Or the depth of the sea...
Or with portents of sneezes, augurers' birds,
Or seers, or sorcerers, or soothsayers"
     - Book 4



"The Persian5 will come upon your soil like hail,
And he will destroy your land and people who plan evil
With blood and corpses, by awful altars,
A savage, bloody man spouting folly...
And then, most prosperous city6, you will be in great distress
All of Asia, falling to the ground, will lament the gifts it enjoyed from you."
     - Book 5



Notes
1. Three Signs: This tradition of three signs is also recorded in the Didache, in 16:6. The signs are first a rift in heaven, then the voice of a trumpet, and finally the resurrection of the dead.

2. Gods: Josephus, a Jew, doesn't seem to mind that the Sibyl refers to lots of gods.

3. Four vowels and two consonants: This refers to Jesus's name in Greek: Iesous (Ιησους).

4. Race of most righteous people: The Jews.

5. The Persian: Nero, making an extraordinary return in the End of Times.

6. Prosperous City: Alexandria



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