What Are the Sibylline Oracles? Originally published October 5-6, 2018.

Last week, in our discussion of Gog and Magog, we mentioned the Sibylline Oracles.  We wondered about them, too.

Sometimes called the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, these are a collection of prophesies or oracular statements written in Greek hexameter which are ascribed to the Sibyls, who were prophetesses who uttered divine revelations in a frenzied state.  Apparently they were written by Grecian Jews and also by Christians and others.  The earliest writings seem to be the third through fifth books, written partly by Jews in Alexandria.

Apparently there was only one Sibyl originally, a Greek prophetess type, who was atypical in that she didn’t wait for a question to utter her prophecies.  Subsequent Sibyls displayed the same behavior.

Other Sibyls arose in different countries, some of them with specific given names.  A Sibyl named Sambethe or Sabbe was mentioned by Lucius Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor in the first century BCE.  (He was a Greek scholar born in Kütahya, Turkey, enslaved by the Romans during the Mithridatic War, and taken to Rome as a tutor.  He later became a Roman citizen, and earned his surname as a writer.)  In Athens during the fifth century BCE Sibylline Oracles were said to speak in hexametric verse.  During Alexander the Great’s time, they were said to side with the underdogs and to predict doom to the nasty rulers.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “a combination of Babylonian astrology and Persian millenarian speculations was the basis for a firm belief in a predestined future.”  Thus, books of the Sibylline prophecies were deposited for consultation in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, for use when the Roman senate had to make critical decisions. 

However, when Rome expanded east, the oriental oracles morphed into anti-Roman screeds.

Christians thought of the Sibyl as a heathen prophesying the coming of their savior, and they incorporated Jewish Sibylline verse into larger collections.  Michelangelo painted both specific Sibyls and the Jewish prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted 1509-1511).  ItalianRenaissanceArt.com tells us that around the center of the ceiling are twelve figures, predicting a savior — seven prophets and five Sibyls:  Jonah, Jeremiah, Persian Sibyl, Ezekiel, Erythraean Sibyl, Joel, Zechariah, Delphic Sibyl, Isaiah, Cumaean Sibyl, Daniel, and Libyan Sibyl.

Books 3 and 4, and much of book 5, of the collection are primarily Jewish in authorship.  In book 3, the Sibyl is presented as Noah’s Babylonian daughter-in-law, Sambethe.  There is much to learn about these books, and many cultures seem to share this history.