AFB B-Sides: Sibylline Oracles

Apocrypha for Beginners is meant to cover many representative works, but I was only able to include so many. There are, of course, myriad more. This is part of a series of “B-sides”: posts about apocrypha that weren’t included in the book.

Sibylline Oracles

Facts

Author: Unknown, various Jewish and Christian authors

Date written: Various, between about 180 BCE and 700 CE

Language: Greek

Canons: Not part of any canon, but popular in various Christian communities throughout the Middle Ages

Discovery

The Sibylline Oracles have been known in Greek and Latin forms from late antiquity up to the present. Xystus Betuleius published the first printed edition in Greek in 1545. Since then, numerous other editions have been printed.

Summary

Beginning in the Second Temple period and continuing for the next several centuries, various Jewish and Christian authors composed prophetic verses that were later compiled into a collection now known as the Sibylline Oracles. These oracles are organized into twelve or fourteen books of varying lengths, with a total of 4,000 verses. The shortest book is a 28-line Christian hymn. Many portions of the oracles are presented as prophecies, even though they were written after the events they supposedly foretell. It is not possible to summarize all of the details, but an overview is possible.

Many of the contents of the Sibylline Oracles include histories and supposed prophecies of the future, often with an outlook toward the Last Judgment. Books one and two form a coherent unit. Book one recounts a ten-part history of the world, with many elements corresponding to narratives in the Hebrew Bible. These include a retelling of the Fall of Adam and Eve, Noah’s life and the Flood, and Jesus’s life, ending with the dispersion of the Jews. Book two picks up where book one leaves off and then foretells an eschatological vision of history leading up to the Last Judgment, including many of the same images common to Jewish and Christian apocalypses. The beginning of this book includes a digressive series of reflections on various ethical issues with proverbial teachings on subjects like justice, mercy, moderation, money, and honesty.

Book three presents a syncretic account of history, bringing together biblical narrative and Greek mythology. Book four is concerned with the rise and fall of empires, such as the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. Books five and seven are similar, with emphasis on judgment heaped upon empires and their leaders. Book eight includes political prophecies against Rome. Books eleven through fourteen present another outline of history, including biblical narratives and other elements, down to the Arab conquest of the seventh century. Interspersed throughout these books are passages with eschatological imagery of the future.

The Christian hymn of book six is comprised of praise for Jesus’s life, emphasizing his teachings and miracles, with general parallels to the canonical Gospels. The final three lines are addressed to the Cross, with imagery about its ascension into heaven.

Analysis

While a futuristic outlook and the visionary figure of the Sibyl unite the disparate verses and books, the many oracles are diverse and demonstrate a range of literary and thematic features. All of the oracles are composed in Greek epic hexameter and incorporate high literary stylistic elements. Common elements include overviews of world history, proverbs, hymns of praise, messianic expectations, sin and judgment, critiques of empire, and apocalyptic anxieties. These different expressions portray influences from Judaism, other Near Eastern cultures, and Hellenism, among others.

Some of the oracles present challenges to identifying authorship by Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians. In fact, while the earliest oracles were composed by Jews, some were later adapted, revised, and expanded by Christians. In some cases, earlier oracles with messianic ideas were reworked with interpolations (later additions) to align the details with depictions and teachings of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. Many portions of the oracles portray connections with other Jewish literature from the Second Temple period and works from the first several centuries of Christianity.


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