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 I will primarily focus on one passage in order to illustrate why the descriptions of practices in a historical document are so significant for reconstructing an accurate portrayal of history.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.



Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Apocalypse of Abraham

Introduction to the Text:

The Apocalypse of Abraham is a narrative that was composed within the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. and expresses two aspects of Abraham not spoken of in the book of Genesis. First, chapters 1-8 focus on Abraham’s childhood and how he comes to the conclusion that idols, namely physical representations of deities, should not be worshiped. Second, chapters 9-32 is an apocalyptic vision revealed to Abraham by God. Based on textual analysis, it is most reasonable to assume that the original composition, aside from later Christian interpolations, included chapters 1-6 and 9-32.

In this post, I will assume the same chapter divisions and examine how the text reflects early logic regarding idolatry, God, and how humans should think of the two.

The Logic of Judaism and Christianity

In the account of Abraham’s youth in the Apocalypse of Abraham, the primary focus is the inequality of serving deities represented through stone and wood. Questioning the actual benefit and return of worshiping these deities, Abraham asks: “What is this inequality of activity which my father is doing?” (3:2). Essentially, he observes that Terah, Abraham’s father, constantly crafts new gods; yet, Terah never receives any payments or benefit. In fact, the gods merely break, with nothing in return. The focus on the long-term value of a manufactured representation of a deity is re-enforced when Abraham suggests an alternative deity: “For behold, Zouchaios, my brther Nahor’s god is more venerable than your god Marumath because he made of gold, valued by man” (6:7). This deity, of course, doesn’t rust or age. Thus, alongside the question of what a god can give in return, the narrative in the Apocalypse of Abraham raises the questions of the longevity of gods.

So, as Chapters 9-32 transition into the apocalyptic portion of the text, the narrative points towards hope for a deity that doesn’t rust or age and also returns something for worship. Approaching the remainder of the apocalypse from this perspective may be beneficial in illustrating and drawing out literary motifs within the text. For example, in the beginning of the apocalyptic revelation, God says the following: “Behold, it is I. Fear not, for I am Before-the-World and Mighty, the God who created previously, before the light of the age. I am the protector for you and I am your helper” (9:3-4). In the introduction, the first thing we see is God’s re-affirmation that he has longevity and is eternal, a value emphasized in Abraham’s encouragement to worship gold idols, and that he acts to protect and help Abraham, a value initially criticized by Abraham regarding Terah’s gods.

These considerations help us to understand the logic of Jews and early Christians in the 1st century C.E. with regard to their conceptualization of idolatry, God, and why humanity should focus on the latter rather than the former. The text itself is undeniably a Jewish text; however, due to parallel expressions between the Apocalypse of Abraham and the New Testament, it is clear that both documents drew from a common tradition. Thus, the Apocalypse of Abraham is important for understanding the historical theological and philosophical foundations of early Judaism and Christianity.