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 I will primarily focus on one passage in order to illustrate why the descriptions of practices in a historical document are so significant for reconstructing an accurate portrayal of history.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

Bibliography

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

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.

Bibliography:

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