The Sibylline Oracles
J. J. Collins
Oracles, or inspired utterances, are a very widespread form of religious speech. Much of the Hebrew Bible is taken up with the oracles of the prophets. Prophecy declined in the post-exilic period, but we know from Josephus that there were prophets who uttered oracles throughout the Hellenistic period.1 These oracles have only been preserved in summary form or are very short. We do have, however, a lenghty corpus of Jewish oracles, attributed to the Sibyl.
The standard collection of Sibylline oracles consists of twelve books, numbered 1-8 and 11-14. The anomalous omission of the numbers 9 and 10 from the sequence of books is due to the nature of the manuscript tradition.2 There are, in fact, two distinct collections. The first contains books 1-8,3 and was published in Basel in 1545. The second collection begins with a ninth book, which is made up of material found also in the first collection: Book 6, a single verse which has been placed at the beginning of Book 7 and Bk. 8:218-428. Then follows Bk. 10, which is identical with Sib. Or. 4. Books 11-14 follow in sequence. The first two books of the collection should be numbered 9 and 10, but since they only repeat material found in Books 1-8, they are omitted in the editions. The numbering of Books 11-14 is retained. Books 11-14 were first published by Angelo Mai in 1817 and 1828.4
The twelve books of the Oracula Sibyllina were written over a span of more than 700 years. Books 3, 4 and 5 are generally recognized as Jewish works from the period before Bar Kokhba. It is also probable that Bk. 11 was composed by a Jew about the turn of the era, and that Books 1-2
1 Meyer, ‘Prophecy and Prophets’; Michel, ‘Spätjüdisches Prophetentum.’
2 The two major editions of the Sibylline Oracles are those of Geffcken, Die Oracula Sibyllina and Rzach, Oracula Sibyllina. For a complete English translation, with introductions and notes by Collins see Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha. For full discussion of the text of the Sibyllina see Geffcken, Die Oracula Sibyllina, XII-LIH, and Rzach, ‘Sibyllinische Orakel,’ 2119-22. Rzach gives the more complete listing of the manuscripts which make up each group.
3 This collection consists of 2 manuscript groups, φ and ψ. The anonymous prologue is found only in group φ. There, Sib. Or. 8:486-500 is lacking. Sib. Or. 8 is placed first.
4 The first complete edition was that of Alexandre, Oracula Sibyllina.