Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Sibylline Oracles, Book 1

Introduction to the Text:

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.

Because I previously wrote about an aspect of the Sibylline Oracles, the I simply copied my previous introduction. This time, however, I will examine a different aspect of the oracles. In Book 1 (5-37; written before 150 CE), the creation account is presented through a Greek worldview. The Sibyl writes that “It was he who created the whole world, saying, “let it come to be” and it came to be. For he established the earth, draping it around with Tartarus, and he himself gave sweet light” (1.7b-10). Genesis 1:1-3 is similar in style: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (2)The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (3) Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (NASB).

Interestingly, it seems as if the Sibyl’s use of Tartarus and the rabbinic understand of deep, formless, and void (tehom, tohu, and bohu) are interrelated too a certain extent.

Tartarus and Tehom

Tartarus is the place of punishment in Greek mythology, akin to hell [1]. Although the triad of pre-creation terminology (tehomtohu, and bohu) does not explicitly relate to hell at any point in the Hebrew Bible, a concept already illusive in it, there are traditions which connect the tohu and bohu to Tartarus. In Midrash Rabbah, classical Rabbinic literature commenting on various aspects of Genesis, Rabbi Judah ben Simon (Rabbi Judah son of Simon) relates the ‘deep things’ to Gehenna, a term for hell [2]. So, there is some sort of continuity between the tradition of God “draping it around with Tartarus” in Book 1 of the Sibylline Oracles and Jewish thought of the period.

Although this is an incredibly brief, underexplored, and not well explained idea, it may be a possible route for studies in the relationship between Rabbinic literature and Jewish Pseudepigrapha.

[1] So Louw Nida, 1.25.

[2] I was only able to access Midrash Rabbah through a web archive. So, in order to locate it, search “GENESIS (BERESHITH) [I. 5-6” on this page.


J. J. Collins “Sibylline Oracles”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Hendrickson Publishers, 1983: 317-472.