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THE SIBYLLINE ORACLES.
The work thus named is a collection of Judaeo-Christian poems, of various dates, designed to propagate certain ideas among heathens, and assuming this form in order to win acceptance in such quarters. Various derivations have been suggested for the word Sibylla, and it has been attributed to the Hebrew and other Oriental languages; but many suppose that the word is really Greek, compounded of the Æolic σιός = θεός and βόλλα or βύλλα = βουλή,321321 So Alexandra, Excurs. ad Sibyllina, pp. 1 f. and thus meaning, counsel of God. However, it may well be doubted whether it is not a feminine form of the old Latin word sibus, meaning “wise.” Persibus, or Persicus, is found in this sense in Plautus and Nævius, where it is explained by old grammarians as = peracutus. Hence the term signifies “wise woman, witch.” The name was applied to any female who affected to foretell the future, so that it may be taken to mean an inspired prophetess, or, as Varro puts it, “cujus pectus numen recipit, et quæ vaticinatur.” She 277is not an official priestess, but one abnormally influenced by the Deity. The most ancient authors speak of a Sibyl; but this idea did not long continue, and we soon find them multiplied and assigned to different localities. The number of accredited Sibyls has been stated sometimes as three or four, sometimes as ten; and the writings that are current under their name have been increased by later discoveries from eight books to fourteen—though the whole of these are not extant, of many of them isolated fragments alone having been preserved. That some lines of the ancient heathen poems have been preserved by classical authors is well known; only one or two of these, however, as far as I know, are found in our present collection, though there are passages and expressions which show distinctly a pagan origin, as the account of the tower of Babel, quoted from a Sibyl by Josephus,322322 Antiq. i. 4. 3. where it is said that the gods sent a mighty wind and overthrew the building. In Asia Minor and Greece the Sibyllines obtained only a private circulation, and were never officially collected or publicly used, though, even from the scanty notices existing, we gather that they exercised a very potent influence and were largely credited. The original Libri Sibyllini, with which the name of King Tarquin is connected, and which reached Borne from Asia by way of Cumae, perished in the fire which consumed the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, B.C. 82. Their place was supplied by a collection gathered from various places in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, and amounting to about 1000 verses. This was revised by order of Augustus, and 278again by Tiberius; but has been preserved only in fragments found in classical authors. The widespread belief in the authority of such productions led to the composition and circulation of a quantity of professed oracles, which demanded critical investigation, and received some such attention at the hands of the emperors Julian and Honorius. The verses, however, thus authorised as genuine have not come down to us in their integrity, and what we know of them is little and unsatisfactory. Servius, in his commentary on Virgil, mentions a hundred as the number of these Sermones, and Suidas names twenty-four as the production of the Chaldaean Sibyls alone. How many more were attributed to the other Sibyls cannot be known. Our present collection is of Jewish and Christian origin, and can lay no claim to any high pagan antiquity. So common, indeed, had the forging of these poems become in early Christian times, that Celsus323323 Orig. Cont. Cels. v. 6. sneers at Christian writers as Σιβολλισταί, sibyl-mongers, or sibyl-believers. The exact relation of these later compositions to the early group it is impossible to determine. Their acceptance as authentic in an uncritical age is no argument in their favour; but they seem to have been considered to possess some supernatural authority, far inferior, of course, to that of Jewish prophets, but still originated by Divine influence. Doubtless the later Sibyls used some of the old material which was found ready to their hand, though it is now almost impossible to say what was borrowed from floating tradition. A line here and there, indeed, may be identified. Thus, as of heathen origin and probably 279remnants of old oracles or Sibylline verses, we may cite the punning couplet in iv. 71 and elsewhere:—
καὶ Σάμον ἄμμος ἅπασαν ὑπ᾿ ἠϊόνεσσι καλύψει·
Δῆλος δ᾿ οὐκέτι δῆλος, ἄδηλα δὲ πάντα τὰ Δήλου.
The Latin versifier has attempted to reproduce the second line thus:—
Et Delus, non jam Delus, deleta latebit.
From the same source come some of the lines in Book iii., which, as we shall see, narrate the reign of Saturn and the demigods of pagan theology, beginning with the building of the Tower of Babel on the plains of Assyria, when all men were of one language, and were animated with the one desire of invading the starry heaven. This is partly scriptural; but then follows a heathen episode: Chronos and Titan fight one with the other, but are reconciled by “Rhea and Guia and Aphrodite, with her fair crown, and Demeter, and Vesta, and Dione with her beautiful locks.” The birth of Zeus gives occasion for a wonderful piece of etymology. To save him from the fate of her previous children, Rhea sent (διέπεμψε) him away to Phrygia secretly, hence they call him Δία because διεπέμφθη.” On a par with this derivation is that of Hades (i. 85), which takes its name from Adam, who was the first to enter it, the death of Abel being ignored for philological purposes.324324 I. 82 f.: Ἅιδην δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἐκάλεσσαν, ἐπεὶ πρῶτος μόλεν Ἀδὰμ γευσάμενος θανάτου, γαῖα δέ μιν ἀμφεκάλυψε. Another etymology, not unrecognised by the Fathers,325325 Alexandre, p. 350 (iii. 26). is given to this name in Book iii. 26, which Alexandre 280calls “ingeniose absurdus.” Here it is commended as a name of four letters which represent the four quarters of the earth, as the Latin versifier writes:—
Qui nomine solo
Occasus ortusque refert boreamque notumque.
In the original:—
Ἀντολίην τε Δύσιν τε Μεσιμβρίαν τε καὶ Ἄρκτον.
Another paragraph owed to heathen sources is one concerning the destruction of Troy (iii. 414 ff.), where Helen is called “the Erinnys from Sparta,” which reminds one of Virgil’s “Trojæ et patriæ communis Erinnys” (Æn. ii. 578); and another where Homer, “the blind old man who writes lies,” is accused of plagiarising from the Sibyl whose oracles he was the first to use.326326 Alexandre, p. 356. Diodorus mentions this accusation as made by the Erythraean Sibyl, and is not referring to our present book.
The primary cause of the composition of these productions is not far to seek. Given the existence of a body of such prophetical utterances among the heathen, which were considered of superhuman authority and universally credited, it fell naturally into the mind of Jew and Christian to endeavour to gain acceptance for the truths which they had to teach, not only by tracing these truths in the extant words of poet and prophetess, but also by themselves expressing them in the form and under the guise of Sibylline inspiration. The mystery that enveloped these oracles greatly helped the impersonation, and the authors thought themselves quite justified in their undertaking if by this means they might insinuate 281the truths of God’s unity and righteousness, and disseminate the hopes which animated their breasts. That the Sibylline Oracles were held in high honour during the early Christian centuries is proved by the frequent appeals to them made by the Fathers. The list of the writers who thus used them includes the names of Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Lactantius, Clemens Alexandrinus, Eusebius, and Augustine. Some of these authors apparently were acquainted only with the heathen books; others, as Clemens Alexandrinus and Lactantius, cite passages of pagan, Jewish, and Christian authorship; and while some attribute to them an authority almost conclusive, others quote them with reserve, and own that their testimony is disputed and not always of decisive importance.327327 Comp. Euseb. Constant. Or. ad. Sanct. Cæt. i. 19; August. De Civit. xviii. 17; Cont. Faust, xiii. 2.
Every one is familiar with the verse of the “Dies Iræ,” which, if an interpolation, at any rate proves the estimation in which the Sibyl was held:—
Dies iræ, dies illa,
Solvet sæcla in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
The manufacture of Sibylline verses continued for some centuries. It was natural and easy to employ this means of disseminating correct opinions among piously-disposed minds. What had been done by heathen Greeks might become a power for good in Jewish and Christian hands. For two centuries before Christ writers used this form to propagate Jewish opinions; in the early days of the Christian era, Sibyllines attempted to force Christian 282views into prominence in pagan circles. Existing poems were largely used, adopted, and published. Imitations were freely made, and these additions to the already copious collection enlarged the stock to an unwieldy extent, which defied every effort at order or classification. Every writer allowed himself full liberty of inserting his lucubration wherever he chose; isolated fragments, therefore, abound, many duplicates occur, and the result is confused and chaotic. But as paganism disappeared, and Christianity grew stronger and less in need of such adventitious support, the composition of Sibylline verses gradually ceased, and no additions to the collection seem to have been made since the fourth century. The use of them dying out, their existence became forgotten, and in the Middle Ages the Greek text seems to have been unknown. Of course the passages quoted by the early Fathers and the Christian apologists, and the testimony borne to the “Prophetess,” as Clemens Alexandrinus calls her, served to keep alive the knowledge of the existence of such writings; but the collection of oracles gathered into books, such as we now possess, was not current; and from their very mystery and obscurity these unknown verses were regarded with more respect and deference than their intrinsic merits deserved.
The literary history of the Sibyllines is soon told. The earliest known quotation is that mentioned above concerning the building of the Tower of Babel. This is cited by Alexander Polyhistor, who lived between B.C. 80 and 40, and is found in Eusebius, Chron. i. 23, and in almost identical words, though with only a vague reference 283to the Sibyl, in Josephus, Antiq. i. 4. 3. In what form the book existed from whence this citation is taken we do not know. Whether Clemens Romanus quotes any part of our work is uncertain; Hermas Pastor mentions the Sibyl, but not her verses. Quotations abound most in Clemens Alexandrinus and Lactantius, who, however, seem to have been acquainted chiefly with the Jewish portions of the work as well as with some passages now no longer extant. In the time of Lactantius there was circulated a rude and undigested mass of verses in the Greek language, which had no pretence to order or completeness. Some unknown author, who has left a preface of untrustworthy character, collected these scattered elements, arranged them into books, with many interpolations of his own, designed to express his view or to facilitate the transition from one subject to another. The collector, probably a monk, and an adept at transcribing manuscripts, lived in the sixth century under Justinian. From his work our present collection took its origin. As has been already said, we are not here to look for the mysterious Sibylline books which were offered to Tarquin; nor yet for those which replaced the perished Oracles in later times. Our collection is of later date and different origin, being merely imitations of the original utterances, and only, as it were, by chance embodying any of the ancient heathen verses. A portion of what we now possess was first published at Basel in 1545 from an Augsburg, now a Munich, MS. by Xystus Betuleius (= Sixtus Birke—i.e. birch-tree); this, which comprised eight books, was followed immediately by a metrical Latin version, the composition of Sebastian 284Castalio (Chateillon), who also republished the Greek text with emendations some ten years later. The fourth edition appeared at Paris in 1599 (repeated in 1607), under the auspices of John Opsopoeus (i.e. Koch = ὀψοποιός, cook), purified by the aid of some newly-discovered MSS., and enriched with some short but useful annotations. Amsterdam produced the next edition in 1687, undertaken by Servatius Gallaeus (Servais Gallé); but this is of no critical value, and is full of typographical errors and irrelevant learning. A portion of the Sibyllines is printed in Gallandi’s Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum, Venet. 1788. All these editions above-mentioned contain only the first eight books. Some additions to the received text were made by Angelo Mai, who in 1817 and 1828 found and published some of the missing books, making the complete work to consist of fourteen books, the ninth and tenth, however, not having been recovered. The first perfect edition, and one that left little to be desired, is due to C. Alexandre, who, in 1841 and some subsequent years, put forth a carefully revised text, with Castalio’s Latin version improved and augmented, and with a large body of critical and exegetical notes, and a volume of excursus, which treat copiously of all matters connected with the Oracles.328328 Oracula Sibyllina, curante C. Alexandre, Paris 1841–1856. This edition was repeated in a handier form in 1869. Another edition of the whole work is that by J. H. Friedlieb (Leipzig 1852), which is supplied with a translation into German hexameters, but disfigured by a faulty text.329329 Subsidiary aids to the elucidation of the text are found in some treatises of Ewald, e.g. Abhandlung über Entstehung . . . der Sib. Bücher (Göttingen 1858); and of Bleek in Schleiermacher’s Zeitschrift, i. 2, 3; and in the Edinburgh Review, July 1877. There are numerous German treatises, many of which I have not seen. An Englishman, Sir John Floyer, published 285a prose translation of the first seven and part of the eighth books in 1713, in the authenticity of which he implicitly believed, taking the trouble to compare them with the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation, and finding in them a marvellous heathen testimony to the truth of Divine prophecy. As an instance of human credulity few books are more curious than that of this simple and uncritical knight-errant.
The work as at present arranged is a mass of confusion and incongruity, no pretence at chronological order being aimed at. The production of several authors—Gentile, Jewish, and Christian—taking very different standpoints, and living in very different ages, the Oracles must be examined separately, if we wish to weigh their contents accurately and estimate their real value and importance. Each book is not in itself a whole, the production of one author, or of one age. Often it contains incongruous elements, or is simply a congeries of unconnected fragments. But thus much is evident, that two chief elements are forthcoming, viz. a Jewish with some trace of heathen colouring, and a Christian which is more uniform. But it is very difficult to decide as to the character of many portions which are only of a neutral tint. The critics are not agreed as to the arrangement of the several books, but from the considerations adduced by Alexandre and Ewald, we may divide the whole collection into eight pieces of different date and authorship. 286The first and oldest is undoubtedly the prologue of Book i. and parts of Book iii. (97–828). This portion was the work of an Alexandrian Jew, who wrote under Ptolemy VII. Physcon, about B.C. 140. It is by far the most important of all the poems, and worthy of the fullest investigation, as it is the longest pre-Christian production in the whole series. There is one other, and only one other, certainly pre-Christian section in the whole collection. This fragment is found in vers. 36–92 of the same third book, and from internal evidence is assigned to B.C. 40, the time of the first Triumvirate. The second piece, Book iv., is regarded as the most ancient of the Christian Sibyllines, though there is nothing in it distinctively Christian, and it may well have been the work of a Jew. Its date is considered to be about A.D. 80. The third is a conglomeration of Jewish and Christian compositions, the Jewish preponderating. Much of it belongs to the first Christian century. It consists of the whole, or nearly the whole, of Book v. The fourth piece is composed of Books vi. and vii., and, as Ewald thinks, the first part of Book v.; but this latter assertion is doubtful. This is of a Christian character, though decidedy heretical, and is referred to the early part of the third century A.D. The fifth is found in Book viii., vers. 1–360, Christian and orthodox, a little later than the last. The sixth consists of the rest of the eighth Book. The seventh is composed of Books i., ii., and the first thirty-five verses of Book iii., and was written about the middle of the third Christian century. The last piece contains Books xi., xii., xiii., xiv., and is the production of a Jew in Egypt, who 287had some acquaintance with Christian rites and doctrine. Thus these “Oracles” cover a space of more than four hundred years, and give an insight into the tenets and feelings of Jews and Christians at an epoch the most important in the religious history of man.
Being of this miscellaneous character, the Sibyllines must be regarded as speaking each one for itself alone. In tracing any particular view or tenet or idea, we cannot, as in the ordinary case of a book composed at a definite time and place by a single author, say generally the Sibylline Oracles express this or that opinion; but we must carefully regard the passage where the opinion occurs, and decide when it was written, and whether by Jew, Christian, or semi-pagan; for on our determination of these questions depends the value of the given statement. Unfortunately, the interpolations of later hands are so numerous, that it is impossible in all cases to assign date or locality with absolute certainty. We are not about to attempt any critical examination of the text in this paper; the design is more humble, viz. to give readers some idea of the contents of these books, keeping distinct the groups into which they seem naturally to divide themselves, and to show their bearing on the religious ideas of the two centuries preceding and subsequent to the time of our Lord.
For the benefit of those who have not seen the original, it may be premised that the poems take the same form as, and endeavour to assume the outward character of, the ancient heathen oracles. They are written in Homeric hexameter verse, but with great 288licence as to the quantities of words, accent often being taken to lengthen a short syllable, e.g. iii. 1: Οὐράνἰ ὑψιβρεμέτα μάκαρ, ὃς ἔχεις τὸ Χερουβίμ, and quantities are in the most regal manner made to give way to the necessities of the verse, even without the excuse of accent, e.g. v. 272: αὐτοὺς δὲ κρύψουσιν ἕως κόσμος ἀλλαγῃ, the last two feet doing duty for spondees. It is supposed that the most ancient Sibylline verses were acrostics.330330 Dionys. Hal. iv. 62; Cicero, De Divin. ii. 54. Of this kind of verse one celebrated specimen occurs in Book viii., vers. 217–250, part of which in a Latin form has been preserved by St. Augustine (De Civit. xviii. 23). The passage in the Greek consists of thirty-four lines, the initials of which make the words ἸΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΕΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ ΣΤΑΥΡΟΣ. The Latin version omits the last word, employs C and S to represent Σ, and finding a difficulty in the use of the Greek letter υ, has substituted others in its place, which may possibly represent the current pronunciation; so that, as it stands, the initials compose the words: JESVCS · CREISTOS · TEV · DNIOS · SOTER.331331 Alexandre gives a revised Latin version, which forms the acrostic “Jesus Christus Dei Filius Salus in Cruce.”
The earliest portion of the work is found, as has been said, in Book iii., combined with some older Gentile verses and some later Christian interpolations. All critics agree in this view, and many consider the prologue placed now before Book i. to be of equal antiquity. There are fragments not found in the extant MSS. of the Sibylline Oracles, but preserved by Theophilus and 289Lactantius,332332 Theoph. Ad Autol. ii. 36; Lact. Div. Inst. iv. 6. and ascribed by the latter to the Erythræan Sibyl. After enumerating ten Sibyls, he proceeds (Instit. i. 6): “The verses of these Sibyls are all in circulation except those of the Cumaean, which are reserved in secret by the Romans, and are inspected by none but the Quindecimviri. They are the work of different authors, though often ascribed to one, who passed by the generic name of Sibyl. It is impossible to discriminate the writers, except in the case of the Erythraean, who inserts her own name in her poem, and is called Erythraean, though sprung from Babylon.” Some of the lines have been inserted by the original collector in the first part of the third book, and it is probably owing to this that the MSS. have ceased to contain the prologue, as it was thought unnecessary to transcribe what would be found in another place. The prologue, which probably formed the original introduction to Book iii., begins with an exhortation to the Gentiles to leave their false deities, and to worship the one true God, “who reigns alone, almighty, unbegotten, seeing all yet seen of none.” “Ye shall have the reward of your evil counsel,” says the Sibyl, “because, neglecting to honour the true, everlasting God, and to offer to Him sacred hecatombs, ye have made your sacrifices to the deities of Hades.” The Fathers333333 Clem. Alex. Protreph. pp. 23, etc. have seen in these words a wonderful advance of heathenism towards right religion. But, of course, they are not the genuine utterances of a heathen; they are written by a Jew personifying the pagan Sibyl. The following argument, however, seems to be genuine. It 290is preserved by Theophilus in his second book against Autolycus (p. 348), and takes the form of a kind of syllogism: “If gods beget, and are indeed immortal, they would be far more numerous than men, nor would any place be found for mortals whereon to stand. And if all that is begotten perishes,334334 Comp. Aristot. De Cælo, i. 9. no god could ever have sprung from a human womb. But God is one, alone, supreme, who made heaven and sun,” etc., “incorruptible, creator, eternal, dwelling in the air; who to the good proffers good as an exceeding great reward, and against the evil raises up wrath and anger, war and pestilence, yea, lamentable woes.” The closing lines of the prologue point to a late Jewish origin, the mention of Paradise in the sense of the abode of spirits never occurring in the Old Testament save in Ecclus. xliv. 16, and then only in the old Latin version, speaking of the translation of Enoch. The prologue ends thus: “But they who honour the true, eternal God shall inherit life, dwelling for ever in the fair garden of Paradise, feasting on sweet bread from the starry heaven.” The inheritance of life, the abode in Paradise, and the feeding on manna savour of New Testament terminology, and, if not of Christian derivation, are remarkable as anticipative of Christian doctrine.335335 Comp. Matt. xix. 29; Luke xxiii. 43; Rev. ii. 17. That the author was an Alexandrian Jew, and assumed the position of the writer of the Book of Wisdom, seems tolerably certain, if we regard his allusions to beast-worship. “O ye men,” he cries, “are ye not ashamed to make gods of pole-cats (γαλᾶς) and brutes? Has not madness and frenzy robbed you of 291your senses if ye think that gods plunder dishes and pots, and, instead of dwelling in the rich, golden heaven, look upon moth-eaten robes, and are begirt with spiders’ webs? Fools, to adore snakes, dogs, weasels, and birds of air, and creeping things of earth, and images of stone, and statues made by hand, and cairns by the roadside: these things ye worship and many other vanities which it were a shame even to mention.” Plainly the writer of these lines must have had before his eyes the abominations of Egyptian idolatry, and was expressing his hatred of a religion, the material forms of which were daily forced upon his notice. But he differs from many of his countrymen in his eschatological views. There is no trace of millennarianism, or of a reign of Messiah before the final judgment, or of a first resurrection which shall affect the righteous only—doctrines which are found continually in later books. Here there is only one judgment for all, which shall decide the fate of good and bad, who shall at once receive their appointed lot, the former entering upon an eternal life of happiness in an earthly Paradise, the latter going away into eternal fire.
We come now to the consideration of the most important and characteristic of the Oracles, viz. the most ancient portions of Book iii., vers. 97–294 and 489-828. The intervening lines, vers. 295–488, forming the second section of the book, are an interpolation of a heterogeneous character, and will be noticed further on. The writer of the genuine poem is evidently an Alexandrian Jew, living in the second century before Christ. The determination of the date of the composition depends on internal considerations. The author is 292acquainted with the Book of Daniel, and with the expedition, of Antiochus Epiphanes to Egypt. This affords some clue; but there is a closer limitation. After the division of the Macedonian kingdom, it is said that another empire shall be established by “a toga-clad and republican nation,”336336 Λευκὴ καὶ πολύκρανος, iii. 176. which shall deal hardly with Macedonia until “the seventh king of Grecian origin shall reign in Egypt.” The allusion here must be to Ptolemy Physcon, who, after his brother Philometor’s death, reigned as sole king (B.C. 145–117), having been associated with him for a time (B.C. 170–164) before he was banished from Egypt. He was the seventh sovereign of Hellenic race. Another criterion is the allusion to the destruction of Carthage and Corinth, which, as is well known, were overthrown B.C. 146.337337 Schürer, Hist. of Jewish People, iii. 280 ff.
The beginning of the poem evidently is absent. It now commences abruptly with an account of the building of the Tower of Babel, its overthrow by violent winds, and the dispersion of mankind consequent upon the confusion of tongues. Then follows a section, derived from Hesiod and other heathen sources, detailing the legends of the sons of Saturn and the Titans from the tenth generation after the Flood, wherein the gods of antiquity appear as human kings, and which are recounted in order to show how war was introduced into the world, and how other kingdoms arose. The history of the ancient empires—Persians, Medes, Assyrians, etc.—is dismissed in a few verses, the author arriving at a stride at Rome; and then merging into 293prophecy, the Sibyl foretells the prosperity of the kingdom of Solomon, whose dominion extends over Phoenicia, Asia Minor, the neighbouring islands, and Persia—an exaggeration which could scarcely have been made by any one but a Jew of a late period. After a short episode concerning the Greeks and Macedonians, the Sibyl proceeds to inveigh against Rome, “a nation clad in white, many-headed, which, coming from the Western Sea, shall grow into a mighty empire and shake the throne of kings.” Of its rapine and luxury, its gross licentiousness and profanity, its cruelty and oppression, she speaks in severest terms, and predicts a retributive punishment soon to fall. This is to happen in times when “the nation of the mighty God shall once again be strong, and become to all peoples the guide of life.” An eloquent passage follows, containing the history of the Jews unto the return from exile. The opening lines are fine:—
There is a city in the land of the Chaldæans from which arose the most righteous race of men, whose care was good counsel and fair deeds. For they regard not with anxious thought the course of sun and moon, nor the wonders that are found on earth, nor the depth of ocean’s blue-eyed sea, nor the omens of a sneeze and the birds of the augur, nor seers, nor sorcerers, nor charmers, nor ventriloquists’ fond deceits; they study not the predictions of Chaldæan astrologers; they observe not the stars; for merest fraud are all such things, which men in their folly day by day explore, exercising their soul in no useful work, teaching error unto hapless mortals; whence many evils have befallen the inhabitants of earth, so that they have strayed from the paths of righteousness. But, on the other hand, this people make righteousness and virtue their sole care; they shun avarice, which to the race of man brings numberless evils, wars, and famine past escape. Just bounds are theirs in town and field; no thief steals by night into their houses; they harry not their neighbours’ flocks of oxen, sheep, and goats, nor 294violate their neighbours’ boundaries; the rich man vexes not his poorer brother, nor harasses the widow, but rather aids her from his stores of corn and wine and oil; ever is he a blessing to them who have nothing; ever of his harvest he gives a share to the needy. Thus they fulfil the command of the great God, which is their ordered song; for the heavenly Father has given the earth as the common possession of all men.—Vers. 218–248.
This eloquent passage, which indeed is an amplification of the warnings in Deut. xviii., is succeeded by an abstract of the history of Israel in the form of prophecy. The exodus is noticed, and the promulgation of the law at Sinai, and the happy life in the Holy Land, “when to them alone among mankind the fruitful earth returned a hundredfold—such were the measures of God.” But the exile in Assyria follows and the ruin of the once favoured land, a punishment of the people’s idolatry. Therefore for seventy years the country lies desolate, till a king sent from heaven,—Cyrus,—warned by a holy dream, restores Judah, the royal tribe, and all the kings of Persia give means to rebuild the temple.
The last section of the poem (vers. 489–807) is occupied with various predictions concerning the nations of the earth. In the epilogue (vers. 808–828) the Sibyl speaks of herself (though some critics regard this notice as a later interpolation), affirming that, while fame tells that she came from Erythrae, or was the daughter of Circe, she was in fact the daughter-in-law of Noah, and shut up with him in the ark. She asserts emphatically that she came from Babylon inspired (οἰστρομανής) to foretell the future to mortals. “The Greeks,” she says, “assert that I am from Erythræ, or the daughter of Circe and Gnostos, and that I am insane and a false 295prophetess; but when my predictions shall be fulfilled, then shall ye remember me, and own that I am not mad, but a true prophetess of God” (808 ff.). Of the prophecy itself the following may be taken as a summary, though very often it is difficult to see to what events in history the seer refers, and sometimes there is known no fact corresponding to the fate announced:—Phoenicia shall be utterly destroyed, so that not a tribe shall be left, because of her lying lips and lawless life, and her proud exultation against the mighty God, A horrible end awaits Crete, whose smoking ruins all the world shall see. Thrace shall pass under the servile yoke, when a mixed horde of Galatians and Phrygians (Dardanidæ) shall overrun the fields of Greece. Evil shall befall Gog and Magog, the Marsi and Daci.” Under these appellations the extreme northern nations are meant; the Marsi were always formidable in Roman eyes, and the Dacians are often enumerated among Scythian tribes.338338 Ezek. xxxix. 1, 2; Horat. Carm. ii. 20. 18, iii. 14. 18, etc. This loose geography may be expected in a Jew living at Alexandria. Woe is next denounced on the peoples of Asia Minor—on Moors, Ethiopians, and Arabians; and then the ruin of Greece is predicted, when a barbarous nation shall invade it, and rapine and cruelty and slaughter shall reign throughout the land. This refers to the proceedings of the Romans in the Macedonian and Achaic wars. Man’s share in this destruction shall be aided by Nature: plague, fire, famine shall do their part, so that scarce a third of the inhabitants shall remain. These evils are a punishment for the idolatry which profane kings introduced into Greece “fifteen 296hundred years ago.” What this limitation of time may mean cannot accurately be determined. Dating it from the Sibyl’s age, it would land us in an epoch long anterior to the Trojan war, about which we can form only conjectures. But the seer looks forward to better days. Greece will some day cast away its idols and turn to the true God, and with hands uplifted implore His help, offering to Him the sacrifices which once were paid to false gods. And then, led away, as it seems, by the temporary prosperity of the Jews under the Maccabæan rule, the author utters his Messianic hopes in glowing language, contrasting the peace and happiness of the favoured people with the wars and misery which were the heathen’s portion.339339 This, according to Sir J. Floyer, is a description of the Reformation in Europe, A.D. 1517. “The holy race shall cleave unto the Most High God, and honour His temple with libations and incense and sacred hecatombs, and offer on the great altar fat thighs of rams. Righteously observing the holy law, they shall live happy in city and field, and, themselves becoming prophets, shall bring joy to all men; for to them alone of mortals hath God given wisdom and faith. They make no gods of gold or silver, nor pictured forms of beasts to worship; but ever they raise pure arms to heaven, in early morning rising from their bed to cleanse their hands with water;340340 John ii. 6. they honour the eternal God and their parents; they love chastity and the bed undefiled, nor ever practise the shameful vices of the heathen, which have brought on these infinite misery.” 297But a day shall come when idolatry shall be abolished, and the pagans shall hide their images in the holes of the rocks341341 Isa. ii. 19 f. for very shame. This blessed change shall take place “what time a new king shall rule over Egypt, the seventh in succession of the Grecian supremacy,” i.e. as we have seen, in the reign of Ptolemy Physcon. At that time “a mighty king from Asia, like a rapacious eagle”—Antiochus Epiphanes—shall ravage Egypt, and carry off large booty across the sea. Taught by these sufferings, the nation shall bow its knee to the great God of heaven, and burn its idols; and the Lord shall make all the land rejoice; and earth shall give her increase, and there shall be abundance of flocks and herds and of everything that sustains the life of men. This passage places us at the standpoint of the writer, who, knowing nothing of subsequent events, takes occasion from the happy circumstances of the Jews at this epoch to picture the peaceful life of the righteous nation in anticipation of the glories of Messiah’s kingdom. At the same time, he warns the Gentiles that first shall arise terrible tribulation from the cruel inroads of a barbarous people, meaning probably the Romans. At the close of this distress Messiah shall come. “Then from the rising sun342342 Ἀπ᾽ ἠελίοιο (v. 652), “from the east,” Isa. xli. 2; or it may mean simply “from heaven,” as Cyrus is said (v. 286) to come οὐρανόθεν. God shall send a king, who shall make all the earth to cease from cruel war, killing indeed some, making faithful treaties with others. Not by his own counsels shall he do all this, but in obedience 298to the good decrees of Almighty God.343343 John v. 19: “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father do.” Comp. ibid. v. 30. And the Lord’s people shall be rich with every blessing, with gold and silver and purple raiment; land and sea shall fill them with good things.” Nations shall war against the holy people, eager to destroy the temple of God, and bring in their own idolatrous worship; but the hand of the Lord shall be heavy upon them, and shall rain destruction upon them from heaven. “In those days the whole earth shall be shaken, and all the inhabitants thereof, and great fear shall be on every side. He shall rend asunder the mountains, and lay open the abyss, and fill the places with dead bodies, and lay low the walls of evil men, because they knew, not the law of God, and raised their weapons against the holy place.” And this destruction shall fall upon them until they recognise God, the righteous Judge. Here, as the seer unfolds the mighty future, he claims for his utterances the gift of inspiration. “The great eternal God Himself bade me prophesy these things, all of which shall be fulfilled in their season; for the Spirit of God throughout the world is true.”344344 Though the Jews did not accurately distinguish the Persons of the Holy Trinity, they often speak of the Holy Spirit as distinct from the Father,—e.g. in the Book of Wisdom,—and look to Him as the Author of inspiration. Then follows another glowing description of the felicity of the chosen people, who shall dwell in peace and plenty under the immediate protection of God. “Oh, how greatly doth the Immortal love these men! shall all the islands and cities say; for all things sympathise with them and bring them 299help,345345 Wisd. xvi. 17; Rom. viii. 28. both heaven, and moon, and God-moved sun.” At sight of this prosperity the Gentiles shall turn to God, and call on one another to come and offer sacrifice to the Almighty, and to be obedient to His law. Now the prophet calls upon Greece (i.e. the land of Egypt) to aid the Jews dwelling there to return to their own country, and to take part in the struggle then being carried on under the brave Maccabees.346346 The historical allusions may be read in Alexandre’s note on v. 734. If the Egyptians shall neglect to do this, and shall still cleave to their idolatry and heathen vice, they shall lose all share in the felicity of the Messianic kingdom, “when the fated end shall arrive, and the judgment of the eternal God shall fall upon mortal men.” A still more glowing description of this happy time follows, very similar to the classic accounts of the golden age; and the Lord, it is said, in the starry heaven shall give one common law to all the earth, “for He is God alone, and there is none but He.”347347 This is a phrase which often occurs: Deut. iv. 35; Isa. xlv. 5, etc. And when His kingdom is established over all men, then shall they bring incense and offerings to the one house of God which shall stand for ever.348348 In v. 774, according to the reading of the MSS., occur the words: “And mortals shall call him the Son of the Mighty God,” υἱὸν γὰρ καλέουσι βροτοὶ μεγάλοιο θεοῖο. The last object spoken of is οἶκος, the house of God, which Lactantius and Augustine took as denoting the Logos (see Lact. Div. Inst. iv. 6; August. Contr. Hær. v. 3). But Alexandre with great probability thinks that νηόν ought to be read instead of υἱόν, as the rest of the paragraph is concerned only with the temple, and any mention of the Son of God is alien from the passage. Here the writer 300evidently looks forward to the permanence and unique position of the temple at Jerusalem, once polluted by Antiochus, but now purified and restored by the piety of the Maccabees. By land and sea, he says, the peoples shall flock to the Holy City to pay their vows; and this they can do because it shall be a time of universal peace, when “the prophets of God shall take away the sword from among mankind, and they themselves shall be the kings and righteous judges of mortal men; and He shall dwell with them and be their everlasting light.” What signs shall precede this happy reign of Messiah? They are these: flaming swords in the sky seen by night in the east and west; storms of dust; the light of the sun failing in mid-day, and the moon’s rays falling on earth at unusual times; blood flowing from rocks; warriors and huntsmen appearing in the clouds of heaven.349349Comp. 2 Macc. v. 2, 3.
The book closes, as we have seen above, with an epilogue containing an account of the Sibyl’s origin, and asserting her claim to inspiration. In this composition we see the object of the writer very plainly. He employs the popularity enjoyed by the “Oracles” to enforce his own views, presenting the history of his own people up to Noah’s time as a past record, and narrating subsequent events in the form of prophecy, the rôle of antiquity being thus well maintained, and his own age virtually asserted. He sets before the Gentiles a high ideal, showing them to what they ought to aspire, and warning them that they can hope to attain this position only by favouring and supporting the chosen people, and following their bright example. And he 301recalls the Hebrews, especially those dwelling in foreign countries, to the observation of the law, and to the remembrance of Messianic hopes which are now approaching fulfilment. It is just possible that Virgil, in his description of the golden age, may have reproduced some of the ideas which had emanated from the Sibyl, whose verses may have been carried to Rome by the commissioners who were sent to seek for Sibylline books in Egypt, and that he alludes to our poet when he says (Ecl. iv. 4): “Ultima Cumæi venit jam carminis ætas.” The second section of this book is almost wholly occupied with denunciations of judgments and calamities upon nations more or less hostile to Israel. Babylon shall suffer heavily for her offences against the holy people; Egypt shall be pierced with the sword “in the seventh generation of kings,” and then shall rest in peace; Gog and Magog, whose unknown country lies between the Ethiopian rivers, shall be stained with blood; for Libya and western lands a bitter time is approaching. Nor shall signs of the coming calamities be wanting; comets, plagues, famines, wars, earthquakes, shall herald the fate of these nations. Proclamations of woes on particular towns and countries follow. Rome shall have to restore to Asia the wealth which she plundered. Then we have the paronomasias:
ἔσται καί Σάμος ἄμμος, ἐσεῖται Δῆλος ἄδηλος,
καὶ Ῥώμη ῥύμη.
After these tribulations peace shall ensue in Asia and Europe, and a time of Messianic prosperity. Then the Sibyl turns again to gloomy vaticinations, and utters oracles concerning Antiochus Epiphanes, “a man clad in 302purple, barbarous, iniquitous, fiery,” and his successors; she speaks of Phrygia, Troy, Lydia, Cyprus, Italy, and other countries, taking occasion to inveigh against Homer as a writer of lies (ψευδογράφος), one who plagiarised from Sibyl’s oracles, and falsified what he borrowed. The section ends with announcing the destruction of Carthage and Corinth.
The book next in age to the preceding one is the fourth, the production of a Jew or a semi-Judaising Christian, composed after the fall of Jerusalem under Titus or Domitian. The date is fixed by two allusions in the poem: first, the destruction of Jerusalem (vers. 115–127); and next; the mention of the eruption of Vesuvius (A.D. 79) as a recent calamity, and the precursor of Divine vengeance on the destroyer of the Jewish nation. “When from the cloven rocks of Italy, a fire returning shall blaze unto the broad heaven, and shall burn up many cities, and destroy the lives of men, filling the vast air with flaming ashes, and drops of. bloody hue shall fall from heaven, then shall men know the wrath of God for that they slew the guiltless race of the pious” (vers. 130–136). Prophecies of this calamity were prevalent among the heathen. Plutarch 350350 De Sera Num. Vind. t. viii. p. 240; De Pyth. Orac. t. vii. p. 566. Alexandre. twice alleges a supposed Sibylline oracle on the subject, which speaks of the overthrow of Cumae and Dicaearchia, i.e. Puteoli, by fire from the Besbian mountain. And the astonishment with which the news of it was received, and the effect upon men’s minds, may be gathered from the accounts which have come down to us. Dio 303Cassius 351351 L. lxvi. 23. asserts that the ashes reached even Syria and Egypt. To the Jews, suffering from their late disasters, and prone to look for God’s interposition in their behalf, the calamity seemed to be a well-deserved judgment on their conquerors, and a sign of the punishment which was to subdue the enemy, and re-establish their own fallen state. The supposed Christian origin of the book is inferred from certain allusions contained in it; but these are very far from being decisive. Thus the saying of grace before meals is (vers. 25 f.) noticed as a special mark of the pious, and the turning with horror from temples which flow with the blood of sacrifices. But the grace at meals was a special rabbinic practice, and the animal sacrifices referred to may be those offered by heathens. And if the author praises the people for being averse from unlawful and usurious gain, he is not necessarily alluding to Christians, but rather applauding the ideal Hebrew, however inappropriately to what we know of their actual character. We find also a seeming reference to the total immersion practised by the early Christians in the rite of baptism. “Ah! wretched mortals, lay down your swords; away with groans, and murder, and violence, and wash your whole bodies in the perennial waters, and raising your hands on high, ask pardon for past sins” (vers. 161 ff.). but this may just as well be said of the proselyte baptism practised by the Jews. 352352 See Schürer, ii. 323. In another passage the reproaches heaped on the pious are just such as are complained of in the apologetic writings of the Christians, whom their traducers “attack with derision and calumny, 304attributing their own evil deeds to the holy worshippers of God” (vers. 37 ff.). This, again, is too vague to determine the question either way. An epilogue about the condition of men after the judgment was thought to be sufficiently orthodox and in accordance with Christian notions to be transferred bodily to the Apostolical Constitutions, where it will be found in Book v. chap. 7. The episode there is indeed somewhat longer than that contained in the MSS. of the Sibyllines, and the editors of the latter have added the verses thus preserved to their editions, judging rightly that there is sufficient authority for the insertion.
There are some points of great interest in this book. Let us glance at the contents. Commencing with an address to the nations of Europe and Asia, the Sibyl claims direct inspiration from the true God, whose attributes are finely expressed; and, in opposition to the false oracles of Apollo, she professes to be able to narrate events from the first to the tenth generation; which, in Sibylline utterance, is always the last. Before doing this she digresses into the praise of those who serve the great God and bless Him before they eat or drink, and offer no bloody sacrifices, living honestly and chastely, the laughing-stock indeed of evil men, but approved of the Lord, who shall punish the mockers at the judgment, separating the righteous from the wicked. The allusion, as we have already noticed, is not necessarily to the Christians, and the passage is remarkable as, like one above mentioned, offering no support to millennial opinions, or to the notion of a first resurrection which prevailed among some of the Jews of this period. 305The view here entertained is (like that enunciated in the Ascension of Isaiah, etc.) rather that of an universal judgment to be followed immediately by the felicity of the righteous. This happy reward is to be received on earth and enjoyed in the body; that a resurrection is to precede it seems to be implied. There is no mention of Christ in this account of the last days, which is inconceivable if the book is written by a Christian. But all such speculations, not based altogether on revelation, are necessarily vague, and often contradictory. After this reference to the great consummation, the Sibyl proceeds to notice six generations of Assyrian kings, commencing from the time of the Flood, followed by two of Median origin, 353353 In this period occurs an eclipse of the sun, which may possibly be the one noticed by Thales, B.C. 585. and one each of Persian and Macedonian, the last ushering in the Roman dominion. We are told of a battle between the Medes and Persians at the Euphrates, which resulted in the victory of the latter; of the Trojan war, when “boastful Greece” brought ruin on the fields of Phrygia; of a famine in Egypt of twenty years’ duration, the Nile withholding its crop-nourishing waters; of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, with its disastrous termination; of eruptions of Ætna, and earthquakes in Italy, in one of which Croton was destroyed; of the war which raged in Peloponnesus; and of the destiny of many other nations, the verses concerning which seem to be remnants of old heathen oracles, and are curious if not instructive.
The allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple gives occasion for the earliest notice of the legend 306concerning Nero, which was at one time so widely prevalent. According to this notion, Nero did not commit suicide on hearing of the proclamation of Galba and the desertion of the army, but escaped secretly to the East, and will return some day, enacting the part of Antichrist, and making havoc of the Church. Mention of impostors who assumed to be Nero is found also among the heathen writers who have treated of this period—Suetonius, Tacitus, and others. 354354 Tacit. Hist. i. 2, ii. 8; Sueton. Nero. 57; Lactant. De Morte Persec. ii.; Zonar. xi. 18. The cruel persecution of the Christians under this emperor led them to look upon him as the type of the great enemy of the gospel whose advent they expected in the last days. Many have fancied that St. Paul referred to Nero in speaking of “that Wicked one” who was to be revealed in time (2 Thess. ii.). Indeed, so intense was the hatred of Nero, entertained alike by Jews and Christians, that no evil was too monstrous to be assigned to him—the former regarding him as virtually the destroyer of their city and polity, the latter finding in him all the attributes of the great enemy of God and man, whose appearance they were led to expect. The near approach of the final consummation was supposed to be heralded by the eruption of Vesuvius, which was regarded as an instance of Divine vengeance, and was to be followed by the return of “the exile from Rome, who should come from the far Euphrates, wielding his mighty sword, attended by myriads of soldiers.” Other signs of the times are the demolition of Salamis and Paphos by an earthquake, which visited Cyprus A.D. 71, and which is mentioned by other 307authors,355355 Euseb. Chron.; Senec. Ep. xci.; Dio Cass. liv. 23; Cramer, Anecd. i. 334. the destruction of Antioch, and the restitution to Asia of the wealth which Rome had plundered from her. This last event was the subject of a common expectation at that time, seized upon with avidity by the Jews out of their hatred for their conquerors. Zactantius (vii. 15) expresses the general feeling or hope when he says: “The Roman name, which now is supreme in all the world, shall be utterly abolished, the empire shall return to Asia, and once again the East shall bear rule.” Tacitus tells (Hist. v. 13) how an impression had prevailed that in certain sacred writings356356 Probably Dan. ii. 44 f. is meant. Comp. Sueton. Vespas. 4; Joseph. Bell. Jud. vi. 5. 4. it had been foretold that at this time the East should gain the mastery, and that Judaea should send forth conquering princes. In view of these coming occurrences the Sibyl, as we have seen, urges all men to repent and be baptized, for God was about to destroy the world and its inhabitants with fire. The book ends with the following paragraph, which is worth quoting, as showing the belief of a Jew or a semi-Christian in the latter half of the first century: “But when all things shall be reduced to dust and ashes, and God shall have put to sleep the awful fire which He kindled, He will again change the bones and dust of men, and make them such as once they were. And then shall be the judgment; and God Himself shall judge the world again; and those who have done iniquity, them the earth shall cover with its heaps, and the depths of darksome Tartarus and Stygian Gehenna. But the pious 308shall live again in the world (κόσμον), enjoying the incorruptible happiness of the immortal God, who shall give them spirit, life, and grace. And all shall see each other, looking on the sweet, joyous light of the sun. How blessed is he who shall live in that time!”
Belonging to the same period as the fourth book, or a little later, is the fifth, a few verses possibly being interpolated at the beginning. This is partly the work of an Alexandrian Jew, and seems to have been written, like other productions of the Alexandrian school, in order to introduce among the Gentiles Jewish ideas concerning monotheism and Messianic hopes. But there are some items which are clearly of Christian origin, as the one quoted further on identifying Jesus with Joshua. The writer of some passages appears to have had some acquaintance with the Revelation of St. John, and may possibly have been a renegade catechumen, and the same person who composed the interpolations in the third book, showing such implacable hatred to Rome on, account of her treatment of the holy people. The frequent references to Egypt and Alexandria sufficiently prove the birthplace of this poem; and the statements concerning the Roman emperors, down to the time of the Antonines, indicate its date. The writer, who calls herself the sister of Isis, deals largely with history, beginning with Rome, and passing thence to other kingdoms and lands, and concludes with a description of a war among the signs of the Zodiac, during which stars shall fall from heaven, and shall cause the total conflagration of the world. The Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar to Hadrian, are indicated by the value of 309the numbers, which in the Greek the initials of their names afford. Thus, J. Caesar is he whose name shall begin with “twice ten” (K), Augustus he who has the first of letters (A), Tiberius he whose initial is three hundred (T), and so on. Hadrian is not designated by his number; he is called “the man of the silver head, who has the name of a sea.” After him are to follow three Antonines. This concludes the oracular utterances respecting Rome. The rest of the book concerns itself with the affairs in Egypt, Judaea, and some other countries, comprising doubtless many ancient oracles once extant. Some few points in the historical allusions are worthy of mention. Thus here and elsewhere357357 iii. 384, xii. 40 f. mention is made of the conquest of the Persians and Medes, and the destruction of Babylon by Tiberius,—events which history has failed to record, and which belong to that affectation of universal dominion which was the product of the early Roman empire. Of course at this period the ancient Babylon was a shapeless ruin, which sheltered a few miserable Jews and natives, who contended with the wild beasts of the desert for a home in this desolate region. The connection of the Romans with this place was very slight. When L. Vitellius had the command in Syria, he took part in a civil war among the Parthians, and on one occasion led his forces to the Euphrates, and for a short time occupied the site of Babylon. This proceeding was magnified by rumour; and becoming in the course of time confused with Trajan’s expeditions to the East, and the capture of Seleucia and Ctesiphon in the days of M. Aurelius 310Antoninus and L. Verus, it was regarded as Rome’s great victory over the far-famed capital of Chaldaea. The expectation of Nero’s return, as the superhuman enemy of God, crops up again in this book. He is to come from Persia and overrun Egypt (vers. 92 ff.); but, daring to attack the sacred city, shall be overthrown by a mighty king sent from heaven, and then shall ensue the universal judgment. Nero appears, too, as the devastator of Greece; and some of his prominent crimes are mentioned with abhorrence. When he flees from Rome, he is said “to leave Babylon,” this name being often given to Rome in the Sibylline Oracles—a fact which may help expositors of 1 Peter and the Revelation. After the destruction of the Holy Temple, and when this Adversary shall have reigned three years, a star shall fall from heaven and dry up the sea, and consume “Babylon” itself and the land of Italy. Here there is evidently some acquaintance with Christian apocalyptic literature, though the knowledge is dim and imperfect. The writer’s hatred of the Roman name has led him to attribute unheard-of atrocities to the Antonines. Beliar, Antichrist, or Nero redivivus, who will have such power as was never before given unto man, will overthrow the three princes that spring from Hadrian, and compel them not only to slay one another, but even to eat one another’s flesh, so that the sons make a banquet of the father’s limbs (vers. 220 ff.). Most of the so-called Oracles are saved from gross error by being confined to events that had already happened, but this was really a prediction, and was not warranted by the event; but it is curiously paralleled by a statement 311in the Fourth Book of Esdras xii. 21 ff., which Alexandre supposes to refer to these times: “And whereas thou sawest three heads resting, this is the interpretation: In his last days shall the Most High raise up three kings, and they shall renew many things therein, and they shall have dominion of the earth and of those that dwell therein, with much oppression, above all those that were before them, therefore are they called the heads of the eagle. And whereas thou sawest that the great head appeared no more, it signifieth that one of them shall die upon his bed, and yet with pain. For the two that remain shall be slain with the sword. For the sword of the one shall devour the other; but at the last shall he fall through the sword himself.” In connection with the oracle against Rome, occur a few lines dooming Gauls and Britons to destruction (vers. 199 ff.) for taking part in the ruin of Jerusalem. Vespasian, it seems, summoned a Gallic legion from Syria to act against the Jews, and thus gave occasion for the Sibyl’s invective, which includes the destruction of Ravenna as being the port whence the expedition sailed.358358 Tacit. Hist. iv. 39, v. 1; Joseph. Bell. Jud. iii. 1. 4 f. Such reckless assertions, resting on no basis of fact, are very usual with this poet. Thus, to vilify the conqueror of Jerusalem, he states that Titus dethroned his father (ver. 39); in another place (vers. 227 ff.) he thus inveighs against Rome: “Unstable and of evil counsel, and by evil fate begirt, beginning of sorrows to men and alike their end, while nature by thee is now outraged, now preserved, 359359 The meaning is obscure. The old Latin. is: “Dum per te natura perit rursusque resurgit.” Friedlieb: “Da die Schöpfung beschädigt und wieder das Schicksal erettet.” Floyer: “Thy creation was pernicious; but thou art preserved by fate to be the most infamous,” etc. These are supposed to be translations of the Greek: Βλαπτομένης κτίσεως καὶ σωζομένης πάλι μοίρης (al .μοίραις). teeming with evil 312and misery, who ever longed for thee? Who did not burn with wrath against thee? What fallen king ever died in thee an honourable death? Ill hast thou everything disposed; thou hast brought in a flood of wickedness; by thee the fair frame of the earth is changed.” Contrasted with the iniquity and consequent destruction of Rome is the predicted prosperity of Zion. When Persia is at peace, and war shall no longer be found in her borders, the holy race of Jews shall once more arise superior to their enemies. Here follows a passage (vers. 255 ff.) which seems of Christian origin: “Now a certain excellent man shall come again from heaven, who spread forth his hands upon the very fruitful tree, the best of the Hebrews, who once made the sun stand still, speaking with beauteous words and pure lips.” There is here evidently an allusion to the crucifixion of our Blessed Lord, which reminds one of the Catholic hymn, where the cross is spoken of as a tree—“flore, fronde fertilis,” and the lines in the “Lustra Sex”:—
Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arbor una nobilis,
Silva tamen nulla profert
Fronde, flore, germine;
Dulce ferrum, dulce lignum,
Dulce pondus sustinent.
The identification of Christ with Joshua is a mixture of Jewish and Christian legend which is unique. It is 313no question of symbolism here, as Joshua in Christian writings is treated as a type of Christ, but rather the confusion is such as might be made by an ignorant person reading Heb. iv. 8, “if Jesus had given them rest,” and concluding that Jesus Christ led the Jews into Canaan. The author, indeed, identifies himself with the Jews, as where he prays (vers. 327 ff.): “Spare Judaea, Almighty Father, that we may see Thy judgments;” and were it credible that the whole book was the work of one author, we should regard his religion as syncretic, and in full accord neither with law nor gospel. But the book, as we have said, is of composite character, containing heterogeneous elements. One writer may have been a Christian, another filches occasionally from Christian sources, but has no lively faith in Christ; like many of his countrymen at this time, he suspends his judgment, and instead of making a decision expends his energies in denunciations of the hated power of Rome, and in speculations concerning the future. We need not recount these various predictions, which are of similar character throughout, and have no historical value. They. commonly introduce the victories and overthrow of Antichrist, or the Adversary, and contrast them with the prosperity of Israel under the Messiah. The author in the case of the latter subject is generally, but not invariably, in agreement with Revelation. He speaks of the New Jerusalem which Messiah shall build, a city, brighter than sun, and moon, and stars; but, in opposition to those who gave a spiritual interpretation, to such predictions, he places therein a temple, ἔνσαρκον, corporeal, material, whereas St. John says (Rev. xxi. 22) he saw no 314temple there. He proclaims the extinction of the two great luminaries in the heavens, but, apparently, not at the same time. When the moon’s light is quenched an universal war shall ensue, which shall be specially localised in Macedonia, where the Adversary shall overthrow the Antonines, and, returning thence, shall waste Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, Judaea alone being left at peace. When the sun shall set, never more to rise, the whole world shall lie in darkness, except the land of Israel, which shall have light from the Lord. This awful time shall be preceded in Egypt by the freezing of the river Nile, and an irruption of barbarians into Asia and Thrace, and shall be followed by the destruction of the Egyptian idols, Isis and Serapis, and the erection in Egypt of a temple360360 This is not the Temple of Onias, erected near Heliopolis in the time of Ptolemy Philometor, and long before this time dismantled and disused (Joseph. Bell. Jud. vii. 10. 4), but a new one, which was never built, though it may possibly have been contemplated, perhaps with some support from Isa. xix. 18 ff. to the true God, which shall last to the end of the world, when it will be destroyed by the Ethiopians, who then, with the rest of the evil-doers, will meet with their just punishment at the hands of Almighty God. The Sibyl leaves the world in flames, saying nothing of what shall be afterwards. This gap is supplied by a later oracle.
The next piece consists of Books vi. and vii., which, from internal evidence, seem to have been written by a Christian, one, however, who was very far from being orthodox, and held the doctrines of some of the sects of later apostolic times. Ewald sets the date at the end of Adrian’s reign, Alexandre nearly a century later. 315The latter relies on some lines in Book vii. (vers. 41 ff.) which speak of the rise of a new Persian kingdom, infamous with vice, and an expedition of the Romans against it, which terminated unfavourably, and which he supposes to refer to the proceedings of the Emperor Alexander Severus, A.D. 232. But the allusion is very obscure, and it is certain that the emperor on this occasion returned in triumph to Rome, and that the Persian monarch was restrained for many years from hostile operations; so that we cannot fix the date of the poem from this passage, which in fact would equally well apply to the defeat of Crassus by the Parthians. The threat against Judaea for its treatment of Messiah (vi. 21 ff.) may be a prophecy after the punishment had fallen, as are so many of the “Oracles.” The heresies which the author affects are such as were rife in early Christian times, and we shall probably not be wrong in setting the date of this piece in the latter half of the second century.
The sixth book, a very short one of only twenty-eight lines, is not a vaticination, but a hymn to Christ, in which are set forth His Divine nature, His appearance and ministry in the world, and His future return. These facts are produced in orthodox language, which is deemed worthy of quotation by Lactantius and Gregory Nazianzen, and was not unknown to Augustine.361361 Lactant. iv. 13 and 18; Greg. Naz. Ad Nemes. t. ii. p. 144; Aug. De Civ. xviii. 23. In the mention of our Lord’s baptism occurs the legend of the fire which then appeared, to which we shall refer again below. The Sibyl applies the verb “he saw” in Matt. iii. 16 316to Christ, not to John: “He, escaping from the fire, first shall see the sweet Spirit of God coming upon Him.” Thus far all is not unorthodox; but following the tenets of the Cerinthians and Ebionites, the writer holds that Jesus, a mere man, son of Joseph and Mary, received the Divine nature at His baptism by the descent of the Holy Ghost, who united Him with Christ, the eternal Word of God. He recognises two natures in Jesus Christ, and one Person, and always professes belief in His divinity. His words concerning the Cross have continually been quoted as confirming the doctrine of the Hypostatic union for which the Council of Ephesus contended. “O blessed tree,” he says, “on which God was stretched,” or, as the Latin versifier puts it—
O lignum felix in quo Deus ipse pependit.
Contrary to the tradition which represented Helena as the finder of the Holy Cross (and therefore supporting the earlier date assigned to this book), the Sibyl says that the earth could not keep the sacred wood, but that, it was transported to a heavenly home, to appear again at the last day, “the sign of the Son of man” (Matt. xxiv. 30). The same expectation is found elsewhere, e.g. in the acrostic in Book viii. 244, which is rendered—
Insigne et cunctis aderit mirabile visu
Nullo sat cultu fidis venerabile lignum.
In these early times it is plain that the Cross alone, without the figure of Christ upon it, was the object of veneration. The crucifix was of later origin. Before leaving this book we may observe that in the solitary denunciation which it contains, Judæa is addressed as 317“Land of Sodom,” an appellation of Jerusalem common alike to the prophets and the Apocalypse (comp. Isa. i. 9, 10; Ezek. xvi.; Rev. xi. 8).
The seventh book, which from internal considerations is rightly considered to be the work of the same author as the preceding, is of conglomerate character, and returns to the usual form of Sibyllines, consisting, that is, of predictions concerning various nations, interspersed with certain mystic and theological statements. The first part is fragmentary, containing oracles concerning Rhodes, Delos, Cyprus, and Sicily. In it is comprised a paragraph from a poem on the Flood, which is also found in Book i. This contains the curious myth that Phrygia was the first country to emerge from the waters, and became the originator of idolatry. The same legend is found in other of the Oracles, e.g. i. 19 6, iii. sect. 2. 140, v. 129, and seems to have been derived without examination from the prevalent opinion that the belief in the most ancient of the pagan divinities and the most antique rites of heathenism arose in that part of the world. There is another tradition which makes the ark ground on an Ararat in Phrygia, near the city Apamea Cibotus (i. 261). This is an offshoot of the preceding myth. After some other prophecies we come to the mention of Christ, “the Begotten, the great God,” appearing in judgment. Certain signs shall herald His advent, specially a mighty column of flame in the heavens, which shall drop fiery destruction on the wicked. In mentioning Christ’s dominion over the angels, the writer has expressions very similar to those used by Hermas in the Pastor (vers. 3, 4), where he 318speaks of the angels as controlling all creation. Still more striking is the parallelism concerning the three towers raised in heaven wherein dwell three daughters of God—Hope, Piety, and Religion (σεβασμοσύνη), and which are prepared by Christ for the reception of the righteous. Hermas in his third vision sees a tower raised in heaven, which is to be the habitation of the just; but instead of three Virtues dwelling there; he makes seven, viz. Faith, Temperance, Simplicity, Knowledge, Innocence, Gravity, Charity. It is strange that neither Hermas nor the Sibyl availed themselves of St. Paul’s enumeration of the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity. The Sibyl, however, errs widely from Holy Scripture and the lines of orthodoxy when foretelling the adoption of certain sacred rites (vers. 76 ff.) which shall obtain in Messiah’s time: “Thou shalt offer sacrifice,” we read, “to the great immortal God, not melting with fire the grain of incense, nor slaying with the knife the shaggy lamb; but, in company with all who share thy blood, taking woodland birds, thou shalt pray and let them fly, turning thine eyes to heaven, and thou shalt pour water in libation into the pure fire with these words: O Father, as the Father begat Thee, the Word, I send forth this bird, the swift messenger of my words, with holy water besprinkling Thy baptism through which from the fire Thou didst appear.” The Greek is obscure, but the ceremony, consisting in letting a bird fly to convey prayer to heaven, is plain enough, and is a remnant of Judaism unknown to any Christian community. The allusion also to the fire in the Jordan at Christ’s baptism is evident. A paragraph concerning 319false prophets who feign themselves Hebrews, Alexandre calls the last gasp of expiring Judaism (vers. 132 ff.). It upbraids these men with magnifying the evil of the coming epoch, and striving to change the ancient Jewish discipline. They and all such shall perish, and a new world shall appear “in the third allotment of rolling years, within the first octave.” This mysterious date has been variously interpreted, and more pains have been wasted on it than its importance demands. Alexandre, who has examined the matter with his accustomed diligence, decides that the writer refers to the year 350 of the Actiatic era, which corresponds to A.D. 380. At this time the final age commences, Antichrist is to appear, and be finally defeated; then shall follow the last great convulsion, and the terrestrial reign of the pious under the sovereignty of Messiah, God Himself being with them and teaching them.
The book ends with a curious epilogue, which is found somewhat watered down in the second book. In this the Sibyl accuses herself of various crimes, for which she deserves and shall receive punishment. She is not immortal, but will some day be slain by a shower of stones cast upon her by sailors passing near; and she concludes with the prayer: “Stone me, stone me, all ye wayfarers; thus shall I live and fix my eyes on heaven.” It is impossible to determine the reason of the introduction of this self-accusation in this place. We know nothing of its grounds, and cannot conjecture the object, unless it be a hostile interpolation intended to throw discredit on the Sibyl.
The eighth book has been divided by editors into four 320parts, of which the first two are of earlier date than the rest and by a different hand. The earlier portion falls into the time of the Antonines, the latter is a little later. The writer speaks of the adopted sons of Adrian, but he knows no details concerning any but M. Aurelius, in whose time he expects the return of Nero, the fall of Rome, the end of the world, and the judgment. But his acquaintance with M. Aurelius is very superficial, as he represents him as avaricious, and flying to Asia in order to save his treasures from Nero. He must have written therefore between A.D. 161 and 180, during which years Aurelius reigned. The author of this portion is a Jew, as we may conclude from his continual references to the Old Testament and the way in which he speaks of the Hebrews, but one who had some acquaintance with Christian doctrine and writings. He is thus to be placed in the same category as the writer of Book v., if he is not to be identified with him.
At the outset the Sibyl professes an intention of proclaiming the wrath of God upon the nations and the approaching end of the world; but little mention is made of any country but Rome, and the Sibyl’s mind is wholly occupied with the destiny of this enemy of her people. The vice which she specially and eloquently lashes is avarice; this sin it is which shall occasion Rome’s downfall. After fifteen princes have reigned in succession, “the white-headed” Adrian shall follow, who shall be greatly regretted and mourned, as if the city itself had perished. Then, as it seems, in the time of his successor, Almighty God Himself shall come and judge the souls of the quick and dead; but before the consummation 321a dragon shall cross the sea, with well-filled maw, and shall afflict the Roman people. This seems to be a remembrance of the dragon or the beast of Revelation xiii., which the Sibyl represents as coming from Asia with a fleet to attack and destroy guilty Rome, which is to be thrust down into hell. A description of Hades ensues, whereon rests eternal night, where all earthly distinctions are abolished, where “there is neither slave, nor lord, nor tyrant, nor king;” no corrupt judge, no libation or sacrifice, no feasting or music, no wrath or strife, but “one common life for all, which keeps them safe for the day of judgment.” Another portent, which shall precede the return of Nero and the end of the world, is the appearance of the Phoenix for the fifth time.362362 See Herod. ii. 73; Tacit. Ann. vi. 28; Plin. Nat. Hist. x. 2; Clem. Rom. 1 Ep. ad Cor. xxv.; Tertull. De Resurr. xiii. The curious myth concerning the Phoenix is given in various authors. Clemens Romanus tells it thus: In Arabia or some other Eastern countries there is a bird called a Phœnix, which lives for five hundred years a solitary life. When it feels death approaching, it constructs for itself a pile of frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatic herbs, and, lying there, dies. From its decaying carcass a worm is engendered, which assumes the appearance of the deceased bird. This young Phoenix carries the remains of its parent to Heliopolis in Egypt, places them on the Altar of the Sun, and returns whence it came. The priests keep an accurate account of this event, and compute the time of its recurrence. The fourth appearance of the bird is said to have taken place in the time of Tiberius, A.D. 34, A.U.C. 787. The Sibyl’s 322reckoning is quite different, as she expects the fifth resuscitation, which was to coincide with the ruin of Rome, to occur A.U.C. 948. This would be equivalent to A.D. 194, or nearly, and would fall in with the reign of Septimius Severus. The date doubtless depends on the numerical value of rwmh = 100 + 800 + 48; and the prediction, however greatly falsified by the event, was the utterance of an earnest hope, expressed confidently in this form, in order to animate the drooping spirits of the subdued and disconsolate Jews. It is difficult to arrive at any clear view of the sequence of events in these last days, the writer himself having but hazy notions on the subject, and not arranging his details chronologically. There are also many gaps in the MSS., which, if supplied, would doubtless clear up some obscurities. As far as we can understand this mysterious period, the circumstances are these:363363 Thus Alexandre arranges them. At the time that Anti-Messias or Nero invades the Roman empire, and before the destruction of Rome itself, Messiah descends from heaven, “the Holy King, who shall reign over Israel, and call the dead from their graves.” He shall inaugurate a new Jerusalem, with a new material temple, peopled partly by Jews collected from all parts of the world, partly by the just who have been raised to life again. Against Him the Antichrist shall conspire in conjunction with certain barbarian kings; but after various portents—stars falling from heaven, and a great comet appearing—he and his allies shall be defeated by an angel, and hurled into the abyss. And another foe, a woman, shall be overthrown. She is here called “the joyous,” and in 323Book iii. “the widow;” and she shall be a powerful queen, exercising a cruel tyranny, in the tenth age of man. This woman is no historical person,—certainly not Julia, the wife of Septimius Severus, as some have thought,—but the one figured in Revelation xvii., xviii., there certainly, here probably, representing Rome. In these eschatological predictions there are some differences from the details afforded by the previous books. In the fifth the empire of the Jews under Messiah was to be terminated by an irruption of Ethiopians, and the whole world was to perish, owing to some sidereal catastrophe. The earlier part of the present book takes up the story after this result, and expects a renovated earth, which is inhabited by the just of all countries, raised to life after the last judgment. Further particulars concerning the last judgment are afforded by the next portion of this eighth book, which, as it has come down to us, commences with the famous acrostic on the title of Christ already mentioned. St. Augustine gives a Latin version of this, omitting the last word “stauros;” Eusebius preserves the original thirty-four lines364364 In some MSS. the ninth line, representing the “E” of Chreistos, is absent, which shows that the spelling of the word still fluctuated. in his account of Constantine’s Oratio ad Sanctos, where the emperor quotes the verses, as a testimony to the divinity of Christ, uttered by the Erythraean Sibyl many centuries before the Christian era. The acrostic itself contains a description of the day of judgment and the events that shall succeed, and has many points of resemblance with the Proœmium, at which we have already glanced. The author was a Christian, though he probably worked up 324Jewish materials in composing his poems; and in the present case, wishing to emulate the ancient Sibyl in the form of his oracle, he prefaced his prophecy with this acrostic, which has become more celebrated than its author could have ever expected. We may suppose that in his desire to give verisimilitude to his utterance he took words which were oftenest on the lips of Christians, adding Σταυρός at the end as the most venerated of memorials, and perhaps (as Alexandre suggests) with the view of making the title into a spondaic hexameter. Whether the author intended to carry the same form through the whole of the book cannot be discovered; at any rate, he soon abandoned it, finishing his labour with the words, “This is our God, written in these acrostics, the Saviour, the King immortal, who suffered for us, whom Moses prefigured when he extended holy hands, by faith overcoming Amalek,” etc. The acrostic ends at “who suffered for us;” from thence the poem proceeds in the ordinary manner. It must be noted that the initials of the title compose the word ΙΧΘΥΣ, “fish,” the emblem of the Christian faith so frequently sculptured on early monuments. In the account of the great consummation, we are told little that is novel. Fire shall destroy earth, sea, and sky, and the gates of hell itself, and shall convict the unrighteous of guilt; sun, moon, and stars shall fail, and the heavens shall be rolled up; hill and valley shall be levelled, rivers shall be dried, and the voice of the trumpet shall summon all to judgment. The Cross shall be seen in the sky. The closing lines of the acrostic concerning the Cross are remarkable. It is called the sign, the notable seal for 325all men, expressions which recall our Lord’s words in Matt. xxiv. 30: “then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven,” and St. Paul’s in 2 Cor. i. 22 and Eph. 1. 13, where he speaks of believers being “sealed,” though not with the Cross, nor with the sign of the Cross (as some Roman Catholic expositors take it), but with the Holy Spirit. Further, it is named “the much-desired horn,” which seems to be an interpretation of the phrase “horn of David” in Ps. cxxxi. 17 and Luke i. 69; and it is said to be “the life of the pious, but an offence to the, world,” in agreement with the language of St. Paul (Gal. v. 11), where he speaks of “the offence of the Cross.” Then follows a curious verse, “which enlighteneth the elect with water by twelve springs.” This is explained to refer to the mission of the twelve apostles, which, as it were, originated from the Cross; but the writer seems to insinuate that the office of baptizing was committed to the twelve apostles alone, and presumably to their successors,—an opinion which he repeats again below (ver. 271), and which was not common in any section of the Church. He ends by terming the Cross “the rod of iron which tends and rules the flock,” expressions which may come from Ps. ii. 9 or Rev. ii. 27. It is interesting to find this adaptation of scriptural figures to the Cross at this early age; later, of course, nothing is more common.
From the remaining portions of this poem we obtain some further glimpses of primitive eschatology. First, we meet here with the use of the word “judgment” for Christ’s first advent into the world. The first judgment, in this view, is the Incarnation, which is regarded as the 326initiation of the final judgment, perhaps with some reference to such passages as John xvi. 11: “The prince of this world hath been judged,” and xii. 31: “Now is the judgment of this world,” though plainly in conflict with the forty-seventh verse of the same chapter: “I came not to judge the world.” In accordance with this theory the Sibyls here and elsewhere speak of Christ judging the world “again,” when they refer to the final award. Concerning the sojourn in the unseen world, we are told that Christ went thither to carry hope to the dead saints, and to announce to them the end of the world. Where the Gospel says that, for the elect’s sake, the last days shall be shortened, our present text affirms that God has given men seven ages for repentance “by the hand of the holy Virgin,” i.e. at her intercession. These words are allowed to be an interpolation, but of how early a date it cannot be determined. Certainly any such doctrine is centuries later than this Oracle; and, as Alexandre remarks, the Sibyllines always represent the final consummation as close at hand, and any postponement of this event for seven ages is quite alien from their view. A similar interpolation (probably the work of the writer of the preface) occurs in Book ii. 312; and with the same view of honouring the Virgin Mary a very clumsy alteration has been made in Book i. 359, where, in the accounts of the miracle of the five loaves and the five thousand, the glosser has changed the words, which he has quoted from Book viii. 275 ff., “the fragments shall fill twelve baskets, a hope for the peoples,” into, “for the holy Virgin,” as if the remains were reserved by Christ for His mother’s use.327
Before quitting this portion of the book, we may observe that the writer firmly believes in baptismal regeneration. Christ, he says (vers. 314 ff.), rose from the dead that the elect, “washed in the waters of the immortal fount, and born again (ἀναγεννηθέντες ἄνωθεν), might no longer serve the lawless customs of the world.” He supposes that the saints in glory will wear crowns of thorns like their Master. He sees in the rending of the temple’s veil and the supernatural darkness at the Crucifixion an intimation that the old law was no longer to be observed by men hitherto blinded by the deceits of the world. He considers that in the creation of man the Father says to the Son, “Let us make man,” taking Him as His counsellor (σύμβουλος) not only in the creation, but also in the redemption of the same. “I with my hands will make him, Thou hereafter shalt heal him with the word” (ver. 267). Thus in the ancient document called the “Epistle to Diognetus” (chap. viii.), it is said that the Father communicated His wise counsel concerning man to His Son alone. In Christ’s hands extended on the cross the writer recognises the comprehension of the whole world in the benefits of the Passion; in the wounds in His hands and feet he finds a representation of the four quarters of the globe as being concerned in His death. He puts into the mouth of God some lines which are quoted by Herodotus (i. 47) as a Delphic oracle: “I know the number of the sands, the measure of the sea. I understand the dumb, and hear the silent speak;” and he makes Him, in commanding men to show charity to their fellows, direct that they feed the hungry with vegetable food, “a table pure 328and of unbloody food,” whence it is argued that the author belonged to the Therapeutæ, one of whose distinguishing peculiarities was abstention from animal diet.365365 Philo, De Vit. Contempl. 9 (vol. ii. 483).
The next portion of this book is a hymn in praise of God the Father and God the Son, and cannot be regarded as an oracle; it is probably of the same authorship as the former parts, and its date is the same, or a little later. Like the writer of the last section, this poet makes the creation of the world and man the joint work of the Father and the Son, or the Logos, and speaks of man being made like to the form (μορφή) of God. He then proceeds to note the message of Gabriel and the Incarnation of Christ: “Receive, O virgin, God in thy immaculate bosom.” The visit of the wise men is mentioned, and there the narrative part of the poem abruptly breaks off, the rest of the section being lost. This doubtless contained an account of the life and actions of Christ, and the foundation of the Church, merging naturally into an argument concerning Christian doctrine and ethics. The fragment with which the book closes contains a portion of the latter subject, and is written in language of no mean order. The author professes himself a Christian, and, in opposition to the heathendom still prevalent, announces that he and his brethren are bound to live a holy life, to serve God, to love their neighbour as themselves. They frequent not temples, offer not prayers or libations to statues, nor deck their altars with flowers, nor adorn them with lights. They hang not the walls with costly gifts, nor offer 329incense, nor sacrifice animals; but in happy concord, with pure and cheerful hearts, they worship God, delighting in continual feasts of love (agapæ) and generous offerings, praising God with psalm and hymn. This is a beautiful picture of primitive Christian worship, confirmed by other notices, and quite in accordance with the simplicity of early times.
The next piece of the Oracles is composed of Books i. and ii., and as Ewald thinks, the first portion of Book iii. vers. 1–96, though Alexandre sets this fragment as the production of the author of the anonymous preface, and written by a monk in Justinian’s time; but it is more probably of a composite character, and derived from more than one source. It may be divided into two sections, vers. 1–35, and vers. 36–96. The whole piece is of Christian origin, and for the most part of orthodox character, though containing some trace of Origen’s opinions, and it is to be referred to the third century. It has been compiled and arranged in its present form by some later hand, which has also contributed some prose interpolations to connect the various fragments of which the work is composed. Indications of its date are afforded in various passages. Thus in ii. 45 ff., ii. 63 ff., there is mention of the persecutions which were being carried on, and the constancy of the martyrs, and this could refer to nothing subsequent to Diocletian (A.D. 302), and from the expressions used is considered to allude to something of earlier date. The doctrine of Universalism, which is found in Origen’s works, in the middle of the third century, is brought forward in more than one passage of this piece.330
The first book sketches the history of the world from the Creation to the Flood, and subsequently up to the second generation after Noah, and passes on to the advent of Christ, His life, death, and resurrection, the foundation of the Church, and the dispersion of the Jews. The second book takes, up the story, and prophesies of events to the end of the world. The writer for the most part keeps close to the Mosaic account, but occasionally differs from it either in details or by additions. Thus he makes Noah send from the ark on the third occasion a bird of black plumage, which remained on the earth and returned no more; he considers Noah’s sojourn in the ark to have lasted only forty-one days; and he introduces God as commanding Noah to preach repentance unto the Antediluvians, and gives the discourse of the patriarch in full. Friedlieb notes that Theophilus366366 Ad Autol. iii. p. 129. derives the name, if not the legend, of Deucalion from the first words of Noah’s warning on this occasion, which he gives in these words: δεῦτε, καλεῖ ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς εἰς μετάνοιαν. That Noah is called by St. Peter (2 Pet. ii. 5) “a preacher of righteousness” is an intimation of the same tradition which the Sibyl follows. Here, too, occurs the famous enigma on the name of God, which has exercised the minds of scholars for some centuries, and still awaits satisfactory solution (vers. 141 ff.). It is not worth while to waste time upon it, as the numbers given are uncertain, and differ in some manuscripts, and their interpretation is only conjectural. The griphus is supposed, with some appearance of probability, to mean 331θεὸς Σωτήρ. We give it here in the original, as it would be spoiled by translation:—
Ἐννέα γράμματ᾽ ἔχω· τετρασύλλαβός εἰμι· νόει με·
αἱ τρεῖς αί πρῶται δύο γράμματ᾽ ἔχουσιν ἑκάστη,
ἡ λοιπὴ δὲ τὰ λοιπὰ, καὶ εἰσὶν ἄφωνα δὲ πέντε·
τοῦ παντὸς δ᾽ ἀριθμοῦ ἐκατοντάδες εἰσὶ δὶς ὀκτὼ,
καὶ τρεῖς τρὶς (al. δὶς) δεκάδες, σὺν γ᾽ ἑπτά.
The last words are intended to represent the numerical value of the enigmatical name. There is another riddle on the name ’Ἰησοῦς in this book (vers. 326 ff.), which is plain enough. The appellation, it is said, is composed of four vowels and one consonant twice repeated, and its numerical value in 888. The number of generations between Adam and Noah in the Sibyl’s history does not correspond with the Mosaic account, the former making only five, the latter ten to intervene. But our author seems to have depended on Hesiod as well as Moses, and to have endeavoured to combine heathen mythology with Biblical history. According to him, the second generation consisted of a race called Gregori, who are named in the Book of Enoch Egregori, equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis, a race between men and angels; but the Sibyl does not countenance the notion of these having any connection with the daughters of men. She figures the fifth generation as that of giants, and Noah as one of their progeny. That a Christian with the Old Testament before him should deliberately foist into the inspired record legends of no authority, and often contradictory of Holy Writ, is a strange anomaly, but one which can be paralleled by the treatment which the Bible experiences at the hands of theologians in modern times, who place 332floating myths in the same category with Biblical stories, and find as much truth in a heathen fable as in a scriptural narrative. The remainder of the book is not open to the same objection as the preceding portion, being founded on the New Testament, and keeping pretty accurately to the details therein narrated. The writer quotes St. Matthew v. 17: “He shall fulfil the law of God, and not destroy it” (ver. 332, and refers to St. John iii. 3 in the words, “being born again,” γεννηθέντες ἄνωθεν, though he certainly errs in ascribing this effect to the baptism of John the Baptist (ver. 340). He calls Christ (ver. 345) “the fair stone,” against which the people of Israel shall stumble. This is evidently a remembrance of 1 Pet. ii. 6, 8: “I lay in Zion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious, . . . a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence;” and the statement that Jesus goes to Hades to preach to the dead (ver. 378) is derived from the famous passage in 1 Pet. iii.
The second book takes up the story where the first left it, and foretells the events that shall happen from the time of the overthrow of the Jewish polity to the end of the world. It contains many lines attributed to the gnomic poet Phocylides, and a long fragment of the spurious ποίημα νουθετικόν which passes under his name. Alexandre has shown that Phocylides’ verses had become a text-book in the Alexandrian schools, where his gnomes were committed to memory, and formed the groundwork of ethical teaching from the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Many of these lines found their way into the earlier Sibylline books, and were adapted to Jewish doctrine. The “carmen suasorium” here introduced by 333the Sibylline author may have been founded upon the words of the original poet; but it has suffered so many alterations and additions at the hands of Jewish and Christian manipulators that it is impossible to consider it as in any real sense the composition of Phocylides. The fragment is introduced to explain wherein Christian virtues consist, and what must be the lives of those who shall attain to the reward of Messiah’s kingdom. The contents of the book are briefly these: After the dispersion of the Jews there shall ensue a general corruption in the world, and tumults and wars, in the course of which Rome shall be overthrown and idolatry abolished; then shall good men have opportunity of showing their virtues and triumphing over evil. Great calamities and portents presage the last times, e.g. the appearance of Belial or Antichrist, the return of the twelve tribes, the coming of Elijah from heaven.. The last judgment follows, with the punishment of the wicked and the felicity of the righteous.
In this book, a great part of which is derived from others of the Oracles, there are some points to be remarked. Before the great consummation a star is to be seen for some days in the sky, as a signal for those who earnestly contend for the faith. The contest then begun is well called (ver. 39) a “Iudus iselasticus,” one, that is, where the conqueror is carried in triumph through a breach in the city walls to the temple of the guardian deity.367367 Plin. Ep. x. 119. In the fragment from Phocylides there are many passages introduced from the Gospels, one also from Tobit (iv. 16): “Clothe the naked, give of thy bread to 334the hungry;” and from James (ii. 13): “Mercy saveth from death, when judgment comes,” and from Acts (xxi. 25): “Eat not blood, and abstain from things offered to idols.” Among the portents which shall precede the last day, and which are mostly the same as those named in our Lord’s discourse, occurs one that is strange to Christian ears, and is derived from a heathen source, viz. the birth of children with grey hair.368368 Hes. Ἔ. καὶ H. 179. Another prodigy, mentioned also elsewhere, is the interchange of seasons; a third is the cessation of parturition among women. This last omen is cited by Clemens Alex.369369 Strom. iii. 6 (p. 532). as contained in the apocryphal “Gospel of the Egyptians.” The appearance of Beliar has been already mentioned. This name of Antichrist is derived from St. Paul’s use of it (2 Cor. vi. 15) as a designation for Satan, and it is found in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The return of the rest of the Hebrews from Assyria is expected also by the writer of the Second (iv.) Book of Esdras, who says (chap. xiii. 40 ff.) that in the latter time they shall cross the Euphrates, coming from a distant land, and settle once more in their own country. The Tishbite shall come from heaven in a chariot, not to “restore all things” (Matt. xvii. 11), but rather as a sign of the destruction of this world. Then the four, archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel — shall bring from Hades all the souls of men to the tribunal of God, who shall clothe them again with flesh and bones. And all shall pass through the probationary fire, from which the just shall emerge purified and saved, but the wicked shall perish therein. This last opinion is afterwards 335modified. The “ignis probatorius” is a notion derived from 1 Cor. iii. 13 ff., and is acknowledged by Augustine, Lactantius, and other early writers.370370 Aug. De Civit. xx. 18. 25, xxi. 26; Lact. Div. Inst. vii. 21. The Sibylline writer seems to hold that this fire will destroy the whole world at the same time that it will try every man’s work. From it the just shall be borne on angels’ hands to a land where the blessings promised to Canaan shall be realised to the full, and one unending day of happiness shall reign. And in their own felicity the saints shall think of the misery of the cursed, and God shall hearken to their prayers, and save some from the pains of hell. The author does not, like Origen, believe in universal salvation. His words are these (vers. 335 ff.): “Having chosen out the stedfast” (εὐσταθεῖς, probably, those who have endured the fire)” from the unwearied flame, and removed them in safety, He shall send them among His own people to another and immortal life.” This notion of the salvation of any of the condemned is, as we have seen, opposed to the sentiments elsewhere expressed, especially in vers. 309 ff. of this book, where, in picturing the torments of hell, the writer asserts that there is no place for repentance or mercy or hope. The statement in the text appeared so dangerous and erroneous to the editor of the Oracles in the sixth century that he introduced a refutation of the opinion, composed by himself in some execrable iambics, which Fabricius has thus translated:—
Hæc falsa perspicue: nec unquam desinet
Me impiorum tortor ignis fervidus.
Optarem et ipse equidem ista sic contingerent,336
Qui maximis maculis inustus criminum
Deformor ipse, queis plus gratia eat opus.
Verum erubesce, nugigerule Origenes,
Qui desituras esse pœnas dictitas.
The remainder of this portion of the Oracles, which is made up of the first section of Book iii., begins with an exhortation to the Gentiles to turn from idols to the worship of the true God, where we may note that the mention of cats and serpents as objects of adoration places the author at once in Egypt. It then proceeds to speak of the fall of Rome and the eternal kingdom of Christ, preceded by the appearance of Beliar. In former books we have seen the expectation of the return of Nero as the great enemy of God’s Church; in these later writings we hear no more of this particular phenomenon, but the Antichrist is announced as the devil personified. He is to come from the people of Sebaste (which was the name given to Samaria when rebuilt by Herod the Great), owing doubtless to the prediction in Gen. xlix. 17: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backwards.” Rabbinical interpretation saw in this a reference to Antichrist, and the Fathers adopted the view. Samaria, indeed, appertained to Ephraim, not Dan; but national hatred overlooked this slight discrepancy, and satisfied itself by teaching that the hated race was to give birth to this Enemy. If we can identify Dan with Sebaste, we can more easily see why this place is singled out for its bad pre-eminence. This tribe had become a by-word for idolatry, and the serpent, which was its emblem, represented the power of evil. It is 337thus excluded from the tribes of Israel whose elect are sealed in Rev. vii.; and St. Gregory could write:371371 Moral. xxxi. 24. “Some say that Antichrist is coming out of the tribe of Dan, because Dan is asserted to be a serpent and a biting one. Whence also in the partition of the camp, Dan most rightly pitched his camp to the north, signifying him in truth who had said in his heart, ’I will sit upon the mount of the testament, in the side of the north: I will be like the Most High’” (Isa. xiv. 13 f.). This Beliar will show forth signs and wonders, will level mountains, stop the tides, quench sun and moon, raise the dead, and by these lying wonders deceive even the elect Hebrews, as well as Gentiles who know not the law. Then all the world shall fall under the sway of a widow woman, as we have seen in Book viii., but who or what she is, is a mystery as yet unsolved. Friedlieb takes her to be Cleopatra; Ewald holds that she is Julia Domna, the widow of Septimius Severus, and mother of Caracalla and Geta. But she is evidently intended to be, not a historical character, but a mythical personage, whose existence is imagined, as has been already noticed, from some hazy remembrance of a scene in the Apocalypse of St. John. Her dominion, and that of Beliar, shall be brought to an end by God Himself, who shall rain destructive fire upon His enemies, “and then shall the judgment of the mighty God come to pass in the midst of the mighty age when all these things have fallen out.”
The last piece of our Oracles consists of Books xi., xii., xiii., xiv., Books ix. and x. being either wholly lost or else once contained in some of the other books (probably 338in Book viii.), afterwards differently arranged. This portion was that which was latest found and edited, and is last in merit as in date. Alexandre sets it as written by an Alexandrian Jew about the time of Gallienus. and Odenathus, A.D. 264. Friedlieb considers Book xi. to have been composed by an Egyptian Jew in Trajan’s days, the others by Christians about the middle of the third century. Ewald places some of them as late as A.D. 650, and sees in them traces of an opposition to Mohammedanism; but this opinion will not stand against a closer examination. The author is undoubtedly a Jew, who, by mixing with Christians, has learned some of their opinions, and modified some of his own. Thus he speaks (xii. 30 ff.) of the time when a luminous star appeared at mid-day above the brightness of the sun as synchronising with the coming of “the Word of the Most High, wearing flesh like (ὅμοιον) to that of mortals.” And in another passage he tells how in the time of Augustus “the Word of the great immortal God came upon earth.” But generally he shows himself a true Hebrew, with most of the prejudices of his nation. The date of the composition is about the middle of the third Christian century, and it seems to have been the work or composition of a single author. We need not delay long on these poems, as they consist mainly of plagiarisms from former oracles, and, where original, contain crude accounts of past and senseless conjectures concerning future events which time has completely falsified, and which are only interesting if they can be considered to represent current opinion at the period when and in the place where they were composed. They profess to 339embrace the whole history of man from the Deluge to the time of Aurelian, and contain some difficulties which are probably impossible of solution, and are certainly not worth the labour that commentators have bestowed upon them, as they doubtless arise either from the writer’s ignorance, or from a vivid imagination which has played havoc with history, chronology, and geography. Such as they are, they present some few points worthy of notice. We meet with that continual confusion in the names of Eastern nations with which the Christian Fathers have familiarised us, so that Parthians, Persians, Medes, and Assyrians are used almost interchangeably. Solomon is said to have secured the submission of the Assyrians, and induced them to receive the law of God. Homer, whom earlier Sibyls have treated with scant respect, is here called the wisest of men, and the great instructor of the world. But he is said to have lived after the rise of the Parthian kingdom. The computation followed in counting the years of Rome differs from that in ordinary use. Instead of taking A.U.C. 725 as the date of Augustus, the writer deliberately adopts A.U.C. 620, probably with the view of saving the credit of some prediction concerning the fall of Rome which had not occurred at the specified time. The account of the emperors of Rome from Augustus onwards is full of mistakes and unhistorical details. Among the better authenticated circumstances is found the story of the “Legio Fulminatrix,” attested also by Christian and heathen authors.372372 Tertull. Apol. v. p. 63; Ad Scap. iv. p. 87; Euseb. Eccl. Hist. v. 5; Greg. Nyss. Or. XI. in XL. Mart.; Oros. vii. 15; Dio Cass. lxxv. 8. The Sibyl, however, makes the marvel due to the piety 340and prayers of Aurelius himself, not to those of the Christians in his army; and this was the view taken by the Roman court and the Gentile world generally. A proper appreciation of Nero’s character is shown, who is called “a double pest,” in allusion, to his deeds as emperor and as Antichrist; but Domitian is highly lauded, and the whole world is said to have loved and honoured him—a proof, if one was needed, that no man is so bad but some will be found to regret his loss. The prediction concerning the final destruction of Rome is similar to one which has been already noticed in an earlier book. The catastrophe is to occur in the 948th year—a number obtained by taking the numerical value of the name in Greek. The author must have written just before the death of Odenathus, king and priest of Palmyra, A.D. 27l, which, according to Sibylline computation, would be A.U.C. 920, and thus the fall of Rome was to happen only twenty-eight years afterwards. But the whole reckoning is utterly inconsistent, as in Book xiv. a long series of princes is introduced between Aurelian and the destruction of Rome, which would have occupied some centuries. This calamity, is not, in these last books, always connected with the appearance of the Anti-Messias. This personage is more vaguely described than previously. He is no longer Nero, nor Beliar, but “that man,” “the warrior,” some mysterious, unknown person, who was to bring untold evils on the world. Some of the circumstances formerly ascribed to Nero are here assigned to Cyriades, the mock emperor set up by Sapor, king of Persia; and there are certain details about this tyrant which have been neglected by 341historians, but which, coming from a contemporary, have doubtless a basis of truth. Palmyra is named “the city of the sun,” and Odenathus, as its king and priest, is called “the sun-sent warrior.” That it was besieged by the Persians and defended by Odenathus is a fact not otherwise supported in the history of these times, though very probable in itself. It is curious, and corroborative of the date of the composition, that as the author approaches his own times, he abandons the use of easy alphabetical and numerical riddles in naming the emperors, and in their stead employs animals to designate royal or celebrated personages. Thus Sapor is a serpent, Valerian and his son are bulls, Macrianus is a stag, Balista a goat, Odenathus a lion. This change in indication seems to show that discretion was needed in making remarks on contemporaries. In the prophecies concerning the future, which could offend no one living, the former plan of designating princes by the initials of their names is resorted to, with the result that we are presented with a number of puzzles which are incapable of solution, and which, if solved, would only show the utter absurdity of the whole series. Out of the inextricable confusion of this pretended vaticination Ewald has attempted to produce some meaning by assigning the book to the seventh century, and endeavouring to find the names of Roman and Byzantine emperors under the enigmatical designations of the poem. The attempt is decidedly a failure, as the list of princes has evidently no historical basis, and has been evolved from the fervid imagination of the writer, whose insane ambition of acting the prophet has led him into ridiculous errors. Of Ewald’s 342ingenious theory Alexandre speaks thus: “Ita vir summus, quod in vario incepto necesse erat, nihil profecit, nisi ut novam sibi laudem, Sibyllinæ rei lucem nullam afferret.”
The common opinion, that after Christ’s advent the heathen oracles became silent and ceased to be consulted, is refuted by this Sibyl, who more than once refers to the answers lately given by their media. That their credit had greatly diminished, and that the ancient shrines were less frequented for fatidical purposes in the first Christian century, is true enough; but superstition dies hard, and we may take the Sibyl’s testimony as true, that up to the close of the third century oracles in Greece itself and in the islands, in Cilicia and elsewhere in Asia, were still consulted, and their responses obtained some credit. Indeed, we know from history that Titus, Adrian, and even Constantine himself were not above inquiring at the mouth of a soothsaying priestess. There was no reason in the nature of things why one author should not add his contribution to the Oracles then extant, little foreseeing how soon it would be made a criminal offence to have recourse to such means of divination. And though for a short time this enactment was abrogated by the Emperor Julian, who, on the eve of his expedition against the Persians, consulted all existing oracles, yet it was soon reimposed and enforced, and thus at length Delphic utterances were silenced.
The latter part of this final book is taken up with an account of the disputes between the Greeks and Jews dwelling at Alexandria. The latter were a very strong body, amounting to one-third of the whole population, and living in a separate quarter of the city. After 343many conflicts peace is established between the two rival communities, and then begins a time of happiness, which is described in glowing terms, such as are generally used in picturing the reign of Messiah. But there is no such reference in this book; and it is worthy of notice that the promised felicity should assume this novel form. After the prosperous period at Alexandria shall have endured for some long indefinite time, “the harvest of men” shall arrive, and the dead being recalled to life, a new state of things shall be introduced. “The holy nation shall reign supreme in all the earth under the eternal rule of its ancient worthies.” This is a remarkable statement, as it is deliberately altered from that in Books viii. and iii., where the advent and dominion of a “holy king” is announced; and it seems in part to favour the notion of the earlier sect of Zealots, who would have no monarch except Jehovah to reign over them; but it introduces an innovation, as it foretells for the Hebrews a kind of republic, of which the presidents should be Abraham and Moses, and other celebrated leaders risen from the dead.
Such is a brief account of the Sibylline Oracles. From what has been said it will be clear that they are to be regarded as literary productions, assuming the form of predictions, and taking the place of the lost books, but possessed of no claim to inspiration, conscious or unconscious, and intended to give a fictitious support to tenets which the pagans would receive with disfavour. The historical portion, which forms two-thirds of the whole collection, contains very little that is really valuable, though there are doubtless some additionary details which may be authentic, though otherwise unsupported. 344But the difficulty of severing the true from the mythical renders such paragraphs almost useless.
There are many allusions to the facts mentioned in the Gospels in these post-Christian “Oracles,” but scarcely any additions to the matters narrated therein. The most notable is the story of the fire kindled in Jordan when our Lord was baptized, a legend which is also mentioned by Justin Martyr (Dial. 88), and (though under a different tradition) in the Ebionite Gospel. Justin writes: “When Jesus came to the river Jordan, where John was baptizing, and descended into the water, both a fire was kindled in the Jordan, and when He came up out of the water the apostles of our Christ recorded that the Holy Spirit as a dove lighted upon Him.” The Sibyl, as we saw above, thus alludes to the same event: “When, in the flesh which was given Him, He came forth, having bathed in the stream of the river Jordan, which rolls, sweeping on its waves with grey foot, He, escaping from the fire, first shall see the sweet Spirit of God coming upon Him with the white wings of a dove.” Nothing else of moment as an addition to the Christian story is noticeable; and the variations in the histories derived from the Old Testament are only such as are found in the Targums and other apocryphal Jewish authorities. The “Oracles,” indeed, are valuable only as showing the development and modifications of thought at the momentous period covered by their production. Jew and Christian alike availed themselves of heathen sibyllism for some four or five centuries, and the result is shown in the heterogeneous collection which has reached us under the general title of Sibylline Oracles.
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