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THE SIBYLLINE ORACLES

The story of the Cumæan Sibyl, who brought her books of oracles to Tarquin, is a commonplace of Roman History. It was the accepted explanation in the time of Livy of the fact that certain oracular rolls were laid up in the Capitol from the days of the founding of the Roman state, to be referred to for guidance in the hour of national stress. These books play their part in the religion of Rome until their destruction by fire in 82 B.C. ; they were then replaced by a selection of similar oracles collected from Sicily, Greece, and Asia Minor.

The earliest and most famous of these oracular Sibyls was the Erythræan, but in course of time many were recognized as showing this peculiar form of inspiration. The early Fathers, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria, quote from them, while Augustine does not hesitate to admit them to the City of God (De Civ. Dei. xviii. 23). There was then a considerable quantity of Sibyllic prophecy in circulation in antiquity in addition to that officially recognized as concerned with the destinies of Rome. Some of it was venerable with age, some of it appeared in response to the needs of the time, novel and fresh. It lay in the archives of private families, it became incorporated in histories, it ran rapidly in its easily remembered hexameters from mouth to mouth, and from land to land. It was a real expression of the sense of divine purpose, the certainty of judgement, the capriciousness of fate, as men felt themselves to be involved in the bewildering stress of events. We have to ask what the relation of our so-called Sibylline Books was to this mass of mostly perished literature. These books, originally fifteen in number, now comprise twelve, and consist of over four thousand lines. What is the decision of scholars as to their connection with the heathen utterances ?

The answer is that “they are a compilation of old and new oracles worked up by Jewish and Christian authors who lived at various times between 160 B.C. and the fifth century, or even later, A.D.” (Lanchester in Charles's Apoc. and Pseudepig. ii. 368). It is with the Jewish portion that we have to do here, or rather with the portion that is not decidedly Christian, for we are on very debateable ground. This consists of two fragments, and three books, III., IV., and V. Book III. is probably the work of an Egyptian Jew living about 140 B.C. There is little doubt that he has incorporated large sections of Sibylline work. Notably there is a piece of 700 lines, which may have been the poem of the Erythræan Sibyl, alluded to by Lactantius (Div. Inst. i. 6). It tells the story of the Titans and the birth of Zeus, in the manner of Hesiod, and of the building of Babylon, and gives a short summary of Jewish history. The original poem was probably written about 160 B.C. as it refers to Ptolemy Philometer. The whole book has references to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus 168 B.C. and his attack on Egypt 170 B.C. It refers to the prosperity of the days of Simon 140 B.C. It seems to refer in Roman history to the Mithridatic, Social, Punic and Greek wars of 88, 89, and 146 B.C.

There is a long section pronouncing woes on heathen lands, especially Greece, and eschatological passages which describe the coming of the Messiah, and the signs of the end.

Book IV., after promising a history of the ten generations of the world, turns after the second to denunciation of the wickedness of heathen countries and towns. It contains an eschatological passage, and speaks of the restoration of Laodicea after the earthquake of 60 A.D., the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the disappearance of Nero and the strange expectation of his return, and the earthquake in Cyprus of A.D. 76.

Book V., if we neglect the statements of three lines, which seem to be interpolated, seems to have been written in the earlier years of Hadrian, circa A.D. 130. It gives a short sketch of history up to Hadrian, and denounces doom on the nations one by one. It includes also a poem on Pride," a description of Judæa, a striking eschatological passage, and a prophecy of the battle of the stars. There is here, as in the earlier books, much of the local colouring of Egypt, whence the book must have emanated.

The contents of this strange mélange of the Western and the Eastern spirits shows clearly enough the motive of their production. To Jew and Christian alike the manner and matter of these widely spread writings appealed as a useful instrument to popularize the truth. So far as these scattered leaves were inspired by the Spirit of God they could, though not written by the children of the Covenant, be pressed into the service of the propaganda of the true faith. The awe that clung around them in the popular mind, and the fulfilment, evident to the trustful, of many of their predictions, procured a respectful hearing for the word of life couched in their ancient form. The Jewish adapter knew nothing of copyright, and coveted no literary fame. He was zealous to proselytize, and to deliver the world that lay in wickedness from its bondage to the flesh and the devil. And with this high aim we see him pouring the ideals of Jewish prophecy through a heathen instrument, and making the venerable figure of the Sibyl the exponent of the Law of Jehovah. If we shrink from the lack of honesty in his methods, it is because we are transferring the literary code of morals in our own time to his. We should at least admire the recognition of the unity of inspiration, revealed to the Jewish thinker in the outpourings of the heathen prophetess and in his own sacred seers.

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To give a general idea of the spirit of the Sibyllines let us take a few typical passages showing the attitude of the writer to the idolatry of the heathen world, to the doctrine of the true God, and to the coming judgement and Messianic Kingdom.

Thus he writes of God:

“ There is one sovereign God, ineffable, whose dwelling is in Heaven, self-sprung, unseen yet seeing all himself alone. No mason's hand did make him, nor does some model formed from gold or ivory by the varied skill of man represent him. But he, himself, Eternal, hath revealed himself as One who is, and was before, and shall be hereafter. . . . Ye do not worship nor fear God, but wander at haphazard, bowing down to serpents, and doing sacrifice to cats, and to dumb idols and stone statues of mortals, and sitting down before the doors of godless temples, ye weary the God who ever is, who guards all, taking your delight in miserable stones, forgetting the judgement of the Eternal Saviour, Who created heaven and earth.” (III. II-35.)

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And of Rome :

"0. Rome, pampered golden offspring of Latium! Thou virgin intoxicated by thy many suitors in marriage, as a slave-girl shalt thou be wedded without ceremony, and ofttimes shall thy mistress shear thy luxuriant locks, and passing sentence on thee shall cast thee from heaven to earth, and shall lift thee up again from earth to heaven, because men held to a bad and shameless life.” (III. 356–361.)

He cries to Greece:

Hellas, why dost thou put thy trust in governors, mortal men who are powerless to

escape

the consummation of death? With what view dost thou offer vain gifts to the dead, and sacrifice to idols? Who has put error in thy heart, that thou shouldst perform these rites and

forsake the face of Mighty God?” (III. 545-549.) And in his panegyric on his own countrymen he sings of a

holy race of God-fearing men, adhering to the counsel and the mind of the Most High; who pay full honour to the temple of the Mighty God with drink-offerings and fat-offerings and sacred hecatombs, with sacrifices of lusty bulls and unblemished rams, and piously offer as whole burnt sacrifices rich flocks of firstling sheep and lambs upon the great altar. ... They raise to heaven holy hands, rising early from their bed, and ever cleansing their flesh with water, and honour him alone who reigns for ever the Eternal, and after him their parents : and more than anymen they are mindful of the purity of marriage.”

(III. 573-595.) And these verses come from the description of the Messianic age:

And then from the sunrise God shall send a King, who shall give every land relief from the bane of war; some he shall slay and to others he shall consecrate faithful vows. Nor shall he do these things by his own will, but in obedience to the good ordinances of the Mighty God. . From heaven shall fall fiery swords down to the earth; lights shall come bright and great, flashing into the midst of men. . . And God shali judge all with war and sword, and with fire and cataclysms of rain. Then again all the sons of the great God shall live quietly around the temple, rejoicing in those gifts which He shall

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