Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Sibylline Oracles

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 Sibylline Oracles and the Land:

Sibylline Oracles 3 contrasted to 5 demonstrates this historical development well. Collins, in fact, provides and excellent primer for what the following will explores. He says that “by contrast with Sibylline Oracles 3 , book 5 shows advanced alienation from all its gentile neighbors.”(OTP, vol. 1, 391). Both Oracles were written in Egypt; however, they were written in very different periods. Sibylline Oracles 3 was written between 163-145 B.C.E., while Sibylline Oracles 5 was written in the beginning of the 2nd century C.E. Both Sibylline Oracles differ in context. I will pick up on the contrasting nature of their uses of land.

The Sibylline Oracles 3 says the following:

“And then God will give great joy to men, / for earth and trees and countless flocks of sheep / will give to men the grue fruit / of wine, sweet honey and white milk / and corn, which is best of all for mortals” (619-623).

This sentiment is echoed later.

“For the all-bearing earth will give he most excellent unlimited fruit / to mortals, of grain, wine, and oil / and a delightful drink of sweet honey from heaven, / trees, fruit of the top branches, and rich flocks / and herds and lambs of sheeps and kids of goats. / And it will break forth sweet fountains of white milks” (SibOr 3.744-749).

Both of these words by the Sibyl demonstrate a theme for her, namely the importance of the promised land. Genesis to Joshua sometimes draw up imagery of the promised land flowing with milk and honey. The author applies the motif to the whole world, though. All people will have the opportunity to participate in the eschatological age in which Yahweh establishes a common Law for all people on the earth. “The Immortal in the starry heaven will put in effect a common law for men throughout the whole earth” (SibOr 3.757-758). While Yahweh will still judge those who do note adhere to the law, the Sibyl words her prophecy in such a way that encourages cohesion with fellow humans beings to a certain extent, so long as it is under the hegemony of Yahweh.

By contrast, Sibylline Oracles 5 “reflects the alienation of the Jewish community from its environment” (OTL, vol. 1, 392). With the political turmoil in Rome and Egypt, Siylline Oracles 5 clearly reflects a shift in thought. Again focusing on the promised land, the land of Israel, the prophets writes that “the holy land of the pious alone will bear all these things: / a honey-sweet stream from rock and spring, / and heavenly milk will flow for all the righteous” (SibOr 5.281-283). This shift in thought echoes the socio-political situation of Jews in Egypt. Whatever exactly happened to them is not the focus, but it is clear that whatever happened resulted in a new, more exclusive view of Yahweh’s covenant. The 2nd century C.E. viewpoint, unlike like the 1st century B.C.E. viewpoint, restricts the blessings of the promised land, land flowing with milk and honey, to the land of the pious alone. The earlier Sibylline Oracles 3 contrasts her view in that it applied the motif to the whole world.

These developments are important because they allow historians to better trace the trajectory and reception of motifs through history. In doing say, texts like the Sibylline Oracles provide insight to the environments in which the prophetic texts were written and also elucidate how certain elements of biblical literature were appropriates for other people’s uses. In this case, the promised land flowing with milk and honey was initially appropriated for the whole world. However, following the Jewish Revolt and other political turmoil, later appropriations of the same motif appropriate it not for inclusive purposes, but for exclusive purposes to clearly mark off who was the Other.


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