Sibylline Oracles: Book 3

The Sibylline Oracles are a series of prophetic texts akin to those found in Roman and Grecian literature. Non-biblical literature Sibylline oracles were prophetic texts by a female prophetess that were either used in serious crises or as political propaganda. The Sibylline Oracles in the Pseudepigrapha consist of  eight books and were written between the mid-second century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. These oracles combined the Mediterranean medium of a prophetic Sibyl and and incorporated them into Jewish literature. J. J. Collins notes that “willingness to incorporate material from pagan oracles shows a significant readiness to build on the common human basis of Jews and gentiles” (OTP, vol. 1, 322). Even with the shared prophetic medium, prophecy still changed and developed, reflecting the time period in which the different books were written. – The Biblical Review: click here for source.

It should be noted that this is my third time examining the Sibylline Oracles. I will primarily focus on one passage in order to illustrate why the descriptions of practices in a historical document are so significant for reconstructing an accurate portrayal of history. In book three of the Sibylline Oracles, the Sibyl writes about idolatry: “You neither revere nor fear God, but wander to no purpose, / worshiping snakes and sacrificing to cats, / speechless idols and stones statues of people” (3.29-31). Through briefly examining this passage, we will demonstrate the value of the understanding the condemnation of non-ideal practices, at least from the viewpoint of the author.

Cats and Egypt

As J. J. Collins notes, the statement about “worshiping snakes and sacrificing to cats” is a polemic specifically against Egyptians. Other portions of the text, likewise, speak specifically of events which took place in Egypt and involved Egyptians Jews. Consequently, Collins proposes that the text was composed in an Egypt. This is significant for historians. First, it provides a better understanding as to how Jewish identity, or identities, formed. There was not single strand of tradition that formed from a void of nothingness into “Judaism”; rather, ideological conflict and cultural exchange contributed the Jewish author’s ability to define identity through establishing Egypt as the Other. In this case, witnessing Egyptian culture(s), war(s), and religious practice(s) became what permitted this Sibyl of Jewish Egyptians to offer an identity for her own community.

So, when the author speaks of “worshiping snakes”, it takes on a cultural meaning because it is a polemic comment. Henceforth, from the author’s perspective, “worshiping snakes” becomes something that is outside of the boundaries of what constitutes the Sibyl’s version of Judaism. The same is true with worshiping cats.

To summarize, we are able to understand a strand of Jewish tradition and identity primarily because of their cultural exchange and polemic with Egypt. Due to these two factors, cultural exchange and polemic, people are able to form an identity with more clear boundaries as to what is correct practice and what is wrong practice.



“Evil and Death” edited by Beate Ego and Ulrike Mittman

EvilandDeathEvil and Death: Conceptions of the Human in Biblical, Early Jewish, Greco-Roman and Egyptian Literature. Edited by Beate Ego and Ulrike Mittmann. Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 18. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015, pp. 421, $168 (de Gruyter).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to de Gruyter for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Additionally, I should note that I did not realize half of the contributions were written in German until I received this book. That said, I will only review the English contributions for the time being. After mastering reading in German next summer, I will complete the review.

Evil and Death contains a variety of articles approaching the title subject, sin and death, from an anthropological perspective. Consequently the volume is demonstrative of the diversity of anthropological worldviews within antiquity. Although the website describes the volume as “an exemplary foundation for further research on ancient Jewish anthropology”, it is more of an exemplary foundation for further research on ancient anthropology more generally.

Patricia Kirkpatrick (McGill University) examines how Mrs. Job expresses the narrator’s judgement by challenging Job’s rigid covenant framework of retributive justice. While this article does well at proposing an alternative understanding of Job’s wife, greater interaction with the rhetorical discourse of the text itself and how it is reflected in later reception would have strengthened her argument.

Christoph Berner examines dynamics between death, evil, humans, and God in Qohelet and how it provides a foundation for the reworked book of Qohelet. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this contribution. More specifically, the manner in which compares Qohelet’s anthropology to the Priestly creation account does well in illuminating what is unique about its anthropology.

Gerbern S. Oegema (McGill University) explores the variety of ethics in early Judaism, illuminating the divergent ideas and consistent ideas, in order to demonstrate the ethic foundation sof early Judaism. While this contribution is intriguing for contributing to the anthropological diversity in early Judaism, there is nothing particularly programmatic or innovative.

David A. deSilva (Ashland Theological Seminary) investigates the author’s interaction with theodicy in 4 Maccabees, drawing out how human nature (menschenbild), Torah, evil, death, and eschatology intersect to form a cogent image of how the author of 4 Macc. deals with evil in the human experience.

In my favorite contribution, Ekaterina Matusova examines the Greek influence on 1 Enoch 22:1-13 and connects the river topos and post-mortem traditions to a Mesopotamian prototype and biblical tradition. Matusova does well in clearly demonstrating how Mesopotamian prototype is present in 1 Enoch, and even in Greek literature; however, her argument would be stronger if it moved beyond a mere literary connection. I would have liked if she had attempted to briefly traces how the Mesopotamian prototype influenced 1 Enoch, and other Greek literature, through historical evidence.

Ian H. Henderson (McGill University) considers how children in Mark reflect the author’s anthropology about humanity: “objective powerlessness, desperate vulnerability to death and the demonic, profound dependence on God” (216). This complexity partnered with the role of parents in Mark bolsters and prepares Jesus’ audience for the coming of the Son of Man.

Rouven Genz (Theologisches Studienhaus) illuminating the account of Lazarus and the poor man through a contextualized reading, in which he draws out the particularities of the Lukan use of the motif, and a theological reading of Lazarus as fate without Jesus. His argument is intriuging because, through contextualization of the Lukan motif, he is able to draw out what is unique in Lukan reception and connect it to the anthropology of Luke via theology.

Ellen Bradshaw Aitken attempts to answer what constitutes humanity in Hebrews. Unfortunately, the article is quite unclear and difficult to follow.

Finally, Marlis Arnhold (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn) examines representation as evil and death in the myth of Meleager through textual (Homer, Bachylides, and Ovid) and visual (Sarcophagi) sources. She does well in drawing out how different receptions of the myth interacted with the extent to which the human, or the deity, was responsible evil and death within the tale. Consequenly, she presents a cogent image of anthropological views throught he reception of a single myth.

At least from the English contributions, this volume is important. With the exception of Aitken’s article, it provides several unique and innovative approaches to various areas of antiquity through an anthropologically focused approach. The volume isn’t necessarily the sort of thing perfect for an individuals bookshelf; however, it is an excellent addition to any library or reference shelf.






Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Ezekiel the Tragedian

PhoenixIntroduction to Ezekiel the Tragedian:

Ezekiel the Tragedian re-frames the exodus account as a Greek tragic drama in iambic trimeter, suggesting the original was written in Greek. Dated to the 2nd century BCE, the short drama reflects traditions of the Septuagint, a 3rd-2nd century BCE translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Among various reworked elements of Exodus, the inclusion of a Phoenix at the end of the drama is the most intriguing to me.

The following provides a brief description of the Phoenix:

“The stories of the Egyptian benu-bird formed the inspirations for the classical story of the phoenix, a bird whose mythological life cycle ends in a fiery conflagration that resulted in the renaissance of the new phoenix rising from the ashes of the old. Tales involving the phoenix traveled far and wide throughout the ancient Mediterranean world… The benu-bird had a close association with the sun god and appeared on scarab-shaped [spell] amulets”(134).

“The benu-bird figured in certain Egyptian cosmogonic stories. In Pyramid Text spell 600, the benu-bird is said to appear as the creator god Atum-Khepri at the beginning of time upon the primeval mound rising from the cosmic waters” (134).

Source: Rozenn Bailleul-Leuser (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Oriental Institue Museum Publications 35. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute, 2012. Link:

Having provided a brief description of the role of phoenix in ancient Egypt, the following will explore the phoenix’s significance with regard to use in Jewish materials and its relationship to a “triumphant bull” (268). Before proceeding, here is the portion of text I am examining:

254 Another living creature there we saw,
255 full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
256 ’twas near in scope to twice the eagle’s size
257 with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
258 Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple’s shade,
259 its legs were red like ochre, and its neck
260 was furnished round with tresses saffron-heud
261 like to a coxcomb did its crest appear,
262 with amber-tinted eye it gazed about,
263 the pupil like some pomegranate seed.
264 Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent;
265 of every other winged thing, the king,
266 it did appear. For al the birds, as one,
267 in fear did haste to follow after him,
268 and he before, like some triumphant bull
269 went striding forth with rapid step apace.

R. G. Robertson. “Ezekiel the Tragedian”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.

The Phoenix and the Bull in Ezekiel the Tragedian:

As noted above Egypt associated the phoenix with Egyptian deities. The addition of a phoenix by Ezekiel demonstrates cultural exchange in which certain elements are modified and utilized within another culture. Of course, the Jewish author is likely not attempting to follow the Jewish exodus account with a non-Israelite god. Rather, the author re-appropriated the traditions and mythology behind the phoenix and applied them to Yahweh during the 2nd century BCE. By attributing to the phoenix a king-like status, Ezekiel implicitly declares Yahweh as the phoenix.

Additionally, the phoenix is found in Pyramid Spell 600  at “beginning of time upon the primeval mound rising from the cosmic waters”. The phoenix appears in exodus drama directly after Moses leads the people across the sea to an oasis of sorts: “248 And there we found a meadow shaded o’er / 249 and splashing streams: a place profuse and rich, / 250 which draws from out one rocky ledge twelve springs”. Associating the phoenix of the drama with the springs is akin to Egyptians relating the phoenix to the initial landmass from water. Perhaps I am stretching this connection, but it may have some credibility.

Secondly, the phoenix in compared to a triumphant bull. Common within Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern theology and mythology is the representation of gods as bulls. In this case, the phoenix is likened to a bull. Already associated with deity, the association of the phoenix with a bull further suggests that drama writer wants the audience/reader to recognize the phoenix as a manifestation of the deity active in the exodus drama. Of course, in this drama, the deity is Yahweh, the Judean god during the 2nd century BCE.


Rozenn Bailleul-Leuser (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Oriental Institue Museum Publications 35. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute, 2012. Link:

R. G. Robertson. “Ezekiel the Tragedian”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.

“Ancient Near East: The Basics” by Daniel C. Snell

Daniel C. Snell. Ancient Near East: The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. xi + 161 pp., $27.95 (paperback).

*I would like to express my gratitude to Routledge for providing with a review copy in expectation of my honest opinion of the book.

Routledge’s series “The Basics” opens the doors to all people, especially non-academics and students, to explore the basics of certain topics. Daniel C. Snell, the L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, has an interest in not only technical books but also accessible books. Hence, he was well qualified to write the basics of the ancient Near East. The accessibility of the book is, after all, one of its most outstanding achievements.

Snell begins by discussing the what the ancient Near East actually means. His brief summary of essential terminology, linguistic and writing developments, modern and ancient political issues, and geographical layout provide a solid foundation for the remainder of his introduction. Following, Chapters Two through Four explore the ancient Near East, divided by the Early, Second, and First Millenniums. Discussion of the Early Millennium focuses on introducing basic concepts important to the ancient Near East, such as royal ideologies, the role of states, basic lifestyle, and much more. Chapter Three, while still demonstrating technological developments, focuses on the conflicts and interactions between ancient city-states. Chapter Four then shifts to the major developments with regard to religious reformation, deportations, and ruralization, which resulted in the disappearance of the ancient Near East until its recovery in the 19th century.

Chapters Five through Seven focus on the remaining materials, namely literature, art, and legacy. The literature, Snell notes, was not necessarily written at a particular time; rather, literature was more likely than not a tradition of stories passed down that elucidate the ideas and cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. Art, in a similar vein, accomplishes the same thing, providing modern scholars with the opportunities to understand ancient ideas.  Finally, Snell specifically notes various things and ideas which left a legacy for humanity, such as the wheel, education, and science.

Chapter Eight expertly and succinctly reviews the history of the re-discovery of the ancient Near East. From early 18th century scholarship to 20th century scholarship, Snell traces how ancient Near Eastern studies emerged and eventually found a place of conceptual autonomy apart from the Hebrew Bible. Ancient Near Eastern history, Snell argues, has implications for the present in that it permits people with distinct religious backgrounds to work together and, thereby, soften borders and attitudes towards each other in ways that “tend to underline our shared human heritage” (135). He wraps up the basics by noting hope for the future of ancient Near Eastern studies emphasizing the importance of philology for finding the common humanity that has been preserved for us to this very day.

As a whole, Snell’s work is exquisite. In order to allow every reader to fully engage in and learn what is being presented, he speaks in a very personal matter, referencing “we” and “us” quite often. In doing so, one is brought into the narrative unfolding of ancient history and developments therein. Furthermore, in a few chapters, he includes fables to demonstrate the humanness of the discoveries and ideas in the ancient Near East. These help to demonstrate issues of the rule of kings and spread of humans across the Mesopotamian plains in a relatable and entertaining fashion.

Another major achievement of his basic introduction is the clear relevancy for ancient Near Eastern studies to the modern world. Rather than writing a basic introduction focused on the ideas, all the discussion of history, literature, and art written as and explained to be pertinent to continuing multi-religious dialogue and repairing rifts created by conflicts through history.

In conclusion, Snell’s addition to Routledge’s “The Basics” is an indispensable contribution that provides a solid framework for ancient Near Eastern studies and biblical studies. The writing style of the book allows one to fully immerse in and absorb his words. Such a book is an excellent addition to any introductory class on the Hebrew Bible, as it engages with ancient Near East history and provides the essential context to understand it.