Figurations of the Sibyl (1)

“La véritable différence est que les Pythies de l’oracle apollinien ont été des femmes réeles et les Sibylles, des êtres imaginaires comparable aux nymphes ou aux muses/The real difference is that Apollo’s Pythian prophetesses were actual women, while the Sibyls are imaginary beings comparable to nymphs or muses.”[1]

The Sibyls were legendary ancient Greek prophetesses whose unsolicited oracular pronouncements were written, as epic and didactic poetry usually were also, in dactylic hexameter verse. Among the Greeks in classical and Hellenistic times the Sibyls were held in prestige second only to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. At the same time, Sibylline oracles were accorded even higher honors in Rome: an officially sanctioned collection of them was kept in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, where they were consulted in times of emergency by a board of certified interpreters, the quindecemviri.[2]

The earliest extant reference to Sibylline prophecy, from Heraclitus (6th/5th century bce) as quoted in Plutarch’s De Pythiae Oraculis (1st century ce), mentions only one Sibyl, and already she is a shadowy figure of hoary antiquity: “Think of the elegance of Sappho’s songs, that so charm and fascinate the listener! Σίβυλλα δὲ μαινομένῳ στόματι καθ’ Ἡράκλειτον ἀγέλαστα καὶ ἀκαλλώπιστα καὶ ἀμύριστα φθεγγομένη χιλίων ἐτῶν ἐξικνεῖται τῇ φωνῇ διὰ τὸν θεόν/And contrast the Sibyl, who, from her madwoman’s lips, as Heraclitus tells us, speaks words without laughter, without adornment, without perfume, and reaches through a thousand years with her voice because of the god”.[3] The exact extent of the quotation is unclear — does it include μαινομένστόματι/“from her madwoman’s lips” and does it run from ἀγέλαστα/“without laughter” to φθεγγομένη/“who speaks” or to τὸν θεόν/“the god” or to somewhere in between? — but even if we assign the reference to a thousand years to Plutarch, the Sibyl will still already have been only a figure of hearsay to Heraclitus, as she clearly was also to Aristophanes and Plato.[4]

[1] Nikiprowetsky, Troisième Sibylle, 1.

[2] The most comprehensive recent treatment of the Sibyls is Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy; see pp. 136-51 and 190-215 on the official Roman collections.

[3] Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 397A; translation by Russell, Plutarch: Selected Essays 62, with internal quotation marks omitted.

[4] See Aristophanes, Equites 61, Pax 116 and 1095; Plato, Phaedrus 244b, Theagenes 124d.


Rescheduling the apocalypse

According to Harold Camping (who I've never heard of before, but that's probably only because I wasn't paying attention), the world is not going to end in December of 2012, but more that 1.5 years earlier, on May 21, 2011.

The number 5, Camping concluded, equals "atonement." Ten is "completeness." Seventeen means "heaven." Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011.

"Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.," he began. "Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that's 1,978 years."

Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days - the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year.

Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500.

Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500.

Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared.

I'm teaching a course on early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism this semester, so Camping's story has won a spot on my syllabus, just for being timely. But I'm wondering whether he took into account the 10 days lost in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? Because it doesn't sound like it. And the last time, his calculations were off a bit (Sept. 6, 1994!), and you wouldn't want to make that mistake twice . . .


A new book on the Sibylline Oracles

My review of J. L. Lightfoot's The Sibylline Oracles: with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) is set to appear in The Classical Review (2009) 59.1: 101-3. At xxiv + 613 pages, Lightfoot's is the biggest book on the subject since Alexandre's 1856 Excursus ad Sibyllina (which weighed in at 624 pages of 19th-century scholarly Latin!) and, in addition to bringing the discussion up-to-date (and in English!), will prove (I predict) to be every bit as indispensible as Alexandre's (out-dated and un-Englished though it be) still is.


And I quote . . .

The least of learning is done in the classrooms.

Thomas Merton


To my Latin students . . .

. . . in particular, and to learners of ancient languages in general, I would like to offer these words of encouragement uttered by Tom Hanks' character, Jimmy Dugan, in Penny Marshall's delightful film, A League of Their Own:

It's baseball. It's supposed to be hard. If it weren't hard, then everyone would do it.

Have a happy (and be) Thanksgiving!


If you haven't read this little book yet . . .

. . . I'm referring to Walter Bruegemann, William Placher, and Brian Blount, Struggling with Scripture (Westminster John Knox 2002) . . . well, Greg Carey makes a terrific case for why you should.

If you want to improve your skills in reading biblical Hebrew . . .

. . . you should heed the bibliographical advice offered by Stephen Cook at Biblische Ausbildung.

Eminently sensible career advice . . .

. . . that both undergraduate and gradutate students interested in biblical studies would do well to heed is available at April DeConick's "Forbidden Gospels" blog. (ī, puella!)

On plagiarism

I learned about this from Stephen Cook's blog Bliblische Ausbildung, and since he posted such a delightful cartoon in connection with it, I hope you'll start from there to link to James McGrath's post on Butler University's Very Clear And Straightforward tutorial about plagiarism. Everyone who teaches undergraduates . . . and anyone who is an undergraduate . . . should pay close attention to it.


I was going to buy this book eventually anyway

But now I have even more reason to, given what it is apparently costing its author, Peter Enns, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary, for having written it. Visit the stuff of earth and Faith and Theology and MetaCatholic to learn more about this developing academic outrage. And be sure to visit Prof. Enns' own weblog at a time to tear down / A Time to Build Up. A book with consequences like these has got to be worth reading, whether you end up agreeing with it or not.

Enns Insp and Inc

Available at Amazon. Updated links to reviews of Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation and related information are being collected by Brandon Withrow.


Honoring Dr Jim West

Somebody ought to be keeping track of the outpouring of support for Jim West since his hugely popular blog's untimely demise. Might as well be me. Here's what I've seen so far . . .


A religious studies course for public schools

Dr. Jim West thinks that "Bible courses in public schools simply are improper" and that "the same would be true" for public schools "to offer Qur'an courses or the like". I'll have to beg to differ with him on this issue, since I am in fact teaching a course in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for high school students here in the grandly conservative state of Nebraska. The focus of the course is on comparing how Jews, Christians, and Muslims read their own and each others' scriptures, by engaging students in discussion of close readings of selected passages from the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Qur'an in English translation. Of course, I do happen to be employed as a lecturer in Classics and Religious Studies at UN-L, and I am trained in historical studies in Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Virginia, and the course is part of UN-L's "Advanced Scholars" program, which means it's for college credit, so maybe it doesn't really fit Dr. Jim's criteria for a public school Bible/Qur'an/the like course. But they are high school students, and we're not in church (or synagogue) (or mosque).

There . . . now I'm not sure whether I've challenged Dr. Jim West, or buddied up to him, but either way, this should make my blog more popular, right? (I learned this from Nick Norelli.)

And then, of course, there's that old saying,"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach", to which Woody Allen famously added, "And those who can't teach, teach gym" . . . or is that "Jim"?

Now I've done it . . .