Seers, Sibyls, and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism

By John J. Collins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
THE JEWISH TRANSFORMATION OF
SIBYLLINE ORACLES

In a lengthy review essay of H.W. Parke's posthumous book on Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, David Potter praised the work for having “finally succeeded in rescuing sibyls from the fringes of Judeo-Christian pseudepigrapha where they have been relegated by many scholars, and in placing the development of the sibylline tradition firmly in the classical world.”1 I am not aware that Parke himself had any such salvific intentions. His book is as irenic as it is learned. But Potter's claim raises some fundamental questions about “the sibylline tradition,” if we may speak of such a thing as a unified entity.2 If the sibyl occupied an important place in the prophetic imagination of Christians, and even of Moslems, through the Middle Ages, what sibyl was this? The oracles read and revised in the time of the Crusades had not been written on leaves in the cave at Cumae, nor were they uttered by a shrivelled old woman who had lived for centuries but forgotten to ask for the gift of youth. They were, for the greater part, written by anonymous Jews and Christians, beginning in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Michelangelo did not paint sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because they knew the ritual response to the birth of an androgyne, but because they were believed to have prophesied Christ. While Parke's book reminds us that sibyls and sibylline prophecy had a long and illustrious history in pagan antiquity, their influence on the Christian West was due primarily to the way the tradition was developed in the Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha. It is true, of course, that both Jews and Christians propagated oracles in the name of the sibyl because of her reputation in the pagan world. But in the process they changed the kind of oracles attributed to the sibyl, and thereby extended her reputation long after the gods of antiquity had faded away

1 D.S. Potter, “Sibyls in the Greek and Roman World,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 3(1990) 471–83 (the quotation is from p.471); H.W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (London and New York, 1988; paperback edition, 1992).

2 In his book, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. A Historical Commentary on the thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (Oxford, 1990) 102, Potter opines that “it is probably incorrect to speak of a ‘Sibylline tradition’ in antiquity.”

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