Reading the Sibyl again for the first time

The MS tradition of the Jewish and Christian Sibylline Oracles (SibOr) consists of three interrelated collections, 14 books in all, of unsolicited oracles purportedly uttered by the Sibyls -- legendary prophetesses from the heroic age of Greek mythology -- but actually composed and compiled between the 2nd century BCE and the 7th century CE by an unknown number of anonymous Jewish and Christian "chresmologoi" ("oraclers") who transformed the Greek oracle-collection into a useful vehicle for Jewish and Christian apologetics and polemics.

Unlike most other texts that have come to be categorized as Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (OTP), the Jewish and Christian SibOr are not attributed to a Jewish patriarch or prophet but to a well-known gentile/pagan figure. Aside from these oracles, which have come down to us remarkably intact, all things considered, only fragments are left (mainly quotations in patristic writings) of what must once have been a thriving Jewish literary industry of writing under various Greek pseudonyms: Aristeas, Hecataeus, Hystaspes, Menander, Phocylides, Tages, and of course the great names of the classical tradition, Homer and Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, etc. Like the other less well-preserved examples of this generically diverse group of texts, the Jewish and Christian SibOr take their stand on the borderlines and at the intersections of Greek, Jewish, and eventually Christian worldviews in late antiquity.

The standard collection of the SibOr derives from three distinct but interrelated MS traditions, conventionally labelled Phi, Psi, and Omega.

1. The Phi MSS contain an anonymous prose prologue and eight books, numbered 1-8.

2. The Psi MSS contain the same eight books, but they lack the prologue and begin with bk. 8, followed by bks. 1-7; in one Psi MS (R) the books are renumbered accordingly (i.e., Psi bk. 1 = Phi bk. 8, Psi bk. 2 = Phi bks. 1-2, Psi bk. 3 = Phi bk. 3, etc.).

3. The Omega MSS contain bks. 9 (= Phi bk. 6; 7.1; 8.218-428) and 10 (= Phi bk. 4) and four new books, 11-14, not included in the other collections.

Because the Omega bks. 9 and 10 are redundant, they are not presented separately in the critical editions, with the result that the standard collection of the SibOr (as represented, e.g., in Geffcken's critical edition and Collins' ET) consists of 12 books numbered 1-8 (in Phi) and 11-14 (in Omega).

Of these 12 books, only three -- SibOr 3, 4, and 5 -- tend to be included in modern collections of the OTP. This is because modern collections of the OTP tend to be conceived as collections of texts for the study of early Judaism, and SibOr 3-5 are the only books of the SibOr that are regarded as originally Jewish compositions, with little or no Christian redaction. (Collins' ET of the complete SibOr in vol. 1 of Charlesworth's OTP is the exception that proves the rule.)

But -- as Davila, de Jonge, Kraft, and others have been arguing for years now -- the reason we have (most of) the OTP in the first place is because Christians (not Jews) thought it was useful to pass them down to us. The category "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha" itself is an overtly Christian category. As far as study of the SibOr, specifically, is concerned, to misconstrue the OTP as a collection of early Jewish literature is to marginalize most of the SibOr as too Christian to be included, even though the earliest extant (Phi) collection of the SibOr (without which we would not have had access to the full text of SibOr 3-5) presents itself to us as a decidedly Christian compilation! As a consequence of this misconstruction of the OTP, most of the SibOr (1-2, 6-8, and 11-14) not only are not as well-known as the "obviously" Jewish SibOr 3-5, they are hardly even noticed at all, and almost might as well not exist, for all the attention that has been paid to them (apart from the famous ICHTHYS acrostic at SibOr 8.217-250, the long shelf life of which, again, only goes to prove the rule).

So the purpose of this weblog is to invite you to explore along with me ways to (1) view the more familiar SibOr 3-5 a bit differently -- as parts of a late antique Christian compilation -- (2) revisit the question of the religious affiliation(s) of some of the other, less familiar SibOr, especially SibOr 1-2 and 8 (since they figure in my forthcoming dissertation on the Jewish and Christian editions of SibOr 1-2), and
(3) expand scholarly (re)construction of the intertextures of the Jewish and Christian SibOr beyond apocalyptic literature (the primary rubric under which they have been studied so far) to include didactic poetry, myths, oracles, paraenesis, philosophy, prophecy, sermons, wisdom literature, etc., as well.


bulbul said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Gordon!
I am very much looking forward to your future posts. I would particularly appreciate it if you could devote a word or two to the transmission of SibOr in Syriac and Arabic Christian milieu.

GLW said...

Thank you for your kind welcome. I wish I did have something to say about the Syriac and Arabic Christian SibOr traditions, but unfortunately those are directions my research has not (yet) gone. I know of them but not much about them. On the other hand, if you have anything to contribute along those lines, I would be happy to hear it! As for me, that is a project for another day, God willing.