The Bible, Sibylline oracles, and divination

Reading Pieter W. van der Horst's article "Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity"* recently, two thoughts occurred to me:

1. I wonder how many Christians realize that randomly opening your Bible and taking the first verse your eyes happen to light on as a divine response to a problem or question is (a) a practice that is at least as old as Hellenistic times and (b) a form of divination that is not any different, functionally, from inspecting the liver of a sacrifical animal or interpreting the flight of birds or consulting Tarot cards or New Age channellers. Bibliomancy.

2. Although the official Roman collection of Greek Sibylline oracles appears to have functioned in precisely this way, the pseudepigraphic collections of Jewish and Christian Sibylline Oracles that the Church Fathers were familiar with apparently did not.

We are accustomed to referring to Sibylline oracles as unsolicited prophecies because they were not composed in response to a question posed to the prophet(ess) or the god (as, e.g., consultations of the Pythia/Apollo at Delphi). But they weren't read as unsolicited prophecies by their Roman handlers; quite the opposite: they were consulted in order to identify appropriate responses to crises deemed serious enough by the senate to instruct the official board of interpreters (originally duumviri/"2 men" but eventually rising to quindecemviri/"15 men") to approach them with questions.

The precise method of approach employed is never described. For instance, did the duumvirs read through the [Sibylline] books till they came on a significant passage or were they supposed to have an index? Alternatively, did they employ some method like the sortes vergilianae, unrolling the books at random and lighting on a particular passage? (Parke, Sibyls, p. 191).

Either way, though, they were read, against the grain of their composition, as solicited prophecies.

Not so with the Church Fathers' use of Sibylline oracles. (And let me mention in passing that there appears to have been very little overlap [if any] between the Sibylline oracles that made up the official Roman collection and those that the Church Fathers knew.) It was the Hebrew prophets who provided the model for Patristic use of the Sibylline Oracles (among, i.e., those Church Fathers who regarded the Sibylline Oracles as inspired by God . . . not all of them did). Roman reception of Sibylline oracles was anisomorphic with their composition: unsolicited prophecies were read as solicited ones. In contrast, Patristic reception of Sibylline oracles and their (early Jewish and Christian) composition were isomorphic: the Hebrew prophets served as a model for both writing and reading Jewish and Christian Sibylline oracles. Nothing (at least nothing I have come across) suggests that the Jewish and Chrisitian Sibylline oracles were ever actually used for divination by Jews or Christians in late antiquity.

This seems a bit odd to me, given van der Horst's quite detailed catalog of divination-by-scripture among Jews and Christians (as well as Greeks and Romans) in late antiquity. But perhaps, although viewed as inspired by God, they were also perceived as too gentile/pagan to be legitimately consulted; they would, after all, most likely have been read as (religiously) Greek, not Jewish or Christian, compositions. On the other hand, when did a little thing like that ever stop some people?

*Pieter W. van der Horst, "Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity", in L. V. Rutgers et al. (eds.), The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World (Leuven: Peeters, 1998) 143-173.

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