The Sibylline Oracles (Books 3-5)


by Catherine Anne Brain

[Catherine Brain is a third-year undergraduate in the M.Theol. program at the University of St. Andrews.–JRD]

The Sibylline Oracles are a collection of 14 books of which my paper concentrates on book 3-5. The manuscripts are divided into 2 collections, the first referred to as _Phi_ and _Psi_ containing books 1-8 and dating from the 5th century CE, and the second _Omega_ containing books 9-14, from the 3rd or 4th centuries CE.

The Sibyl was pictured as an old woman who spoke ecstatic prophecies, mostly of doom and woe. The most famous are the Cumaean and the Erythraean Sibyls. The official collection of sibylline oracles at Rome was granted great prestige and was consulted at times of crisis or disaster. These oracles have been lost except in the literary attestations. The Sibylline Oracles are attested to by many early Christian authors and several pre-Christian pagan and Jewish writers. The earliest book is thought to be book 3.

Sibylline Oracle 3 – Many scholars date this book from the reign to Ptolemy VI Philometor. It is thought to have originated in Egypt because of the profusion of Egyptian references. It was probably written, says Collins, by followers of Onais the founder of the Leontopolis temple, because of the good relations between Jews and gentiles in Egypt during this period.

Sibylline Oracle 4 – This was probably written during the late 1st century CE, by Jews, but it contains an older hellenistic oracle of about the 3rd century BCE. The dating can be seen by looking at the last datable event in the book – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Sibylline Oracle 5 – Like book 3, this is of Egyptian Jewish origin and seems to continue the tradition that was begun in book 3. There are, however significant differenced between the two books. The main one being that the relationship between Jews and gentiles seems to have deteriorated.

D. S. Potter says that we cannot date the oracles with any accuracy because they were fluid until the 5th or the 6th centuries CE. We must remember, however, what seems to be a lack of Christian interpolations within these older books. J. C. O’Neill thinks that scholars have noted that certain passages contain a Christian interpolation when they could as easily be the original Jewish.

The Jewish Sibylline Oracles seem to have built upon pagan oracles because in the ancient world the sibyl was used for religious and political propaganda. The Jews and later Christians have adapted and used this form for the same purposes. The form is in many respects similar to the books of the Old Testament prophets.

(c) 1999
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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