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Sibylline Oracles By Patrick J Healy, Transcribed by Douglas Potter

Sibylline Oracles is the name given to a particular collections of prophecies, emanating from the sibyls or divinely inspired seeresses, which were widely circulated in antiquity. The derivation and meaning of the name Sibyl are still subjects of controversy among antiquarians. While the earlier writers (Eurìpides, Aristophanes, Plato) refer invariably to "the sibyl", later authors speak of many and designate the different places where they were said to dwell. Thus Varro, quoted by Lactantius (Div. Instit., L, vi) enumerates ten sibyls: the Persian, the Libyan, the Delphian, the Cimmerian, the Erythræan, the Samarian, the Cumæan, and those of the Hellespont, of Phrygia, and of Tibur. The Sibyls most highly venerated in Rome were those of Cumæ and Erythræa.

In pagan times the oracles and predictions ascribed to the sibyls were carefully collected and jealously guarded in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and were consulted only in times of grave crises. Because of the influence these oracles had in shaping the religious views of the period, during the second century B. C the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria composed verses in the same form, attributing them to the sibyls. These were circulated among the pagans as a means of diffusing Judaistic doctrines and teaching. This custom was continued down into Christian times, and was borrowed by some Christians so that in the second or third century, a new class of oracles emanating from Christian sources came into being. Hence the Sibylline Oracles can be classed as Pagan, Jewish, or Christian.

In many cases, however, the Christians revised or interpolated the Jewish documents, and thus we have two classes of Christian Oracles, those adopted from Jewish sources and those entirely written by Christians. Much difficulty is experienced in determining exactly how much of what remains is Christian and how much Jewish. Christianity and Judaism coincided on so many points that the Christians could accept without modification much that had come from Jewish pens. It seems clear, however, that the Christian Oracles and those revised from Jewish sources all emanated from the same circle and were intended to aid in the diffusion of Christianity. The Sibyls are quoted frequently by the early Fathers and Christian writers, Justin, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Augustine etc. Through the decline and disappearance of paganism, however, interest in them gradually diminished and they ceased to be widely read or circulated, though they were known and used during the Middle Ages in both the East and the West.

Large collections of these Jewish and Christian oracles are still in existence. In 1545 Xystus Betuleius (Sixtus Birken) published an edition of eight books of oracles with a preface dating from perhaps the sixth century A. D. At the beginning of the last century Cardinal Mai discovered four other books, which were not a continuation of the eight previously printed, but an independent collection. These are numbered XI, XII, XIII, XIV, in later editions. Alexandre published a valuable edition with a Latin translation (Paris, 1841-56), and a new and revised edition appeared from the pen of Geffcken (Leipzig, 1902) as one of the volumes in the Berlin Corpus. In addition to the books already enumerated several fragments of oracles taken from the works of Theophilus and Lactantius are printed in the later editions.

In form the Pagan, Christian, and Jewish Oracles are alike. They all purport to be the work of the sibyls, and are expressed in hexameter verses in the so-called Homeric dialect. The contents are of the most varied character and for the most part contain references to peoples, kingdoms, cities, rulers, temples etc. It is futile to attempt to find any order in the plan which governed their composition. The perplexity and frequent change of theme can be accounted for by the supposition that the form we have circulated privately, and that their present arrangement represents the caprice of different owners or collectors who brought them together from various sources.

GEFFCKEN, Komposition u. Entstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina (Leipzig, 1902); HARNACK, Gesch. der altchrist. Litt. (Leipzig, 1893), I, pt. ii, 581-89; II, pt. ii, 184-89; BARDENHEWER, Gesch. der altkirch. Litt., II (1902-3), 651, 656; SCHÜRER, Gesch. des jud. Volkes, III (Leipzig, 1910), 290 sqq.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc.

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