On Sibylline Oracles 1-2 (1)

The first two books in the critical editions of the SibOr are actually unseparated in the manuscripts and constitute a single work, marked in the Φ group of MSS as ἐκ τοῦ πρώτου λόγου/“from the first book” and in MS R of the Ψ group as ἐκ τοῦ δευτέρου λόγου/“from the second book” (since book 8 occupies the first position in Ψ). The critical editions’ reconfiguration of the manuscript tradition extends, in fact, into book 3 as well. “In most manuscripts the present SibOr 3 is introduced as an extract ‘from the second book, about God.’ Before verse 93 three manuscripts in the class Ψ insert the note ‘seek here the remnants of the second book and the beginning of the third’” (Collins, “Sibylline Oracles”, p. 359). Evidently all the MSS descend from a single damaged exemplar that lacked most of the original book 2 and the initial lines of book 3 (see Buitenwerf, Book III, pp. 66-71; Buitenwerf seems to me to go too far, however, when he posits a hypothetical lost original book 1 in place of the MSS’ first book [= the critical editions’ books 1 and 2] . . . but that's a subject for another post). The editors of the standard critical editions have simply perpetuated, for the sake of continuity of reference, the scholarly tradition — initiated by Betuleius in his 1545 editio princeps — of splitting the MSS’ first book into two in order to provide a viable replacement for the MSS’ “lost” second book (see Buitenwerf, Book III, p. 7).

In regard to its history of composition, however, SibOr 1-2 is generally held to have been two books: (1) a Jewish pseudepigraphon thought to have been produced in Phrygia around the turn of the Common Era, and (2) a 2nd-century Christian redaction of the earlier work, presumably also produced somewhere in Asia Minor. The current consensus identifies SibOr 1.1-323, 2.1-33, and 2.154-76 — together, these passages present a ten-part periodization of world history, from creation to the eschatological rule of the Jews — as the minimum amount of material assignable to the original Jewish edition; the rest of book 1 (lines 324-400), on Christ and the Jews, is attributed to the 2nd-century Christian redactor. This much would seem to be reasonably certain. But the precise extent of the Christian redaction of the rest of book 2, everyone agrees, is more difficult to determine and a matter of some debate, even if a number of obviously Christian passages can be discerned in it. According to Collins, the list of Christian passages in book 2 includes 2.45-55, 177-83, 190-2, 238-51, 311-12, and 264. “One passage, 2.154-76, is surely Jewish . . . . The remainder of Sibylline Oracles 2 could have been written by either a Jew or a Christian” (“Sibylline Oracles”, p. 330).

SibOr 1-2 differs from most other SibOr in that it does not present itself as a collection of oracles strung together more or less discontinuously, but as a sustained oracular narrative with close affinities to the historical review type of apocalypse (see e.g. Daniel 7-12, the Animal Apocalypse [= 1 Enoch 83-90], Jubilees 23, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; on historical review apocalypses see John J. Collins, “Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre” in idem [ed.], Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre. Semeia 14 [1979], pp. 1-20: 14, and in the same volume, idem, “The Jewish Apocalypses”, pp. 21-59: 30-6). Here the Sibyl divides universal history into ten γενεαί/“generations” or “races” (or perhaps better, “ages” or “eras”), five from creation to the flood and five from the flood to the eschaton, emphasizing flood and eschaton as parallel times. Although ten-part periodizations do very occasionally occur in early Jewish apocalyptic literature and are especially common in the SibOr (see e.g. the Apocalypse of Weeks [= 1 Enoch 93.1-10; 91.11-17], 11QMelch 7, and SibOr 3.156-61; 4.20, 47, 49-101; 7.97; 8.199.), the one in SibOr 1-2 is unique in its dependence on and doubling of the well-known “five ages of man” passage in Hesiod’s Works and Days 109-201.

The following summary rehearses the contents of SibOr 1-2 and identifies some of the problem areas that have raised dating and provenance issues (to be discussed in more detail in later posts):

Introduction: “Beginning from the first generation of articulate men / down to the last, I will prophesy all in turn, / such things as were before, as are, and as will come upon / the world through the impiety of men.”

Creation of the world and the first human couple, the serpent’s deception, and the expulsion from the garden, summarizing Gen. 2-4.

A catalog of four successively more degenerate generations, followed by a long account of the fifth and worst, the generation of the flood, including Noah’s preaching, the building of the ark, the flood, and the landing on Mount Ararat in Phrygia. The whole section, though summarizing Gen. 5-9, is clearly modeled after the “five ages of man” passage in Hesiod’s Works and Days 109-201.

A catalog of the 6th (Noah’s three sons) and 7th (the Tower of Babel) generations, summarizing Gen. 10-11; also based on Hesiod’s “five ages of man” passage, since the generation of Noah’s sons, in which the Sibyl also situates herself, is characterized as “first” and “golden” (1.284; see Hesiod, Works and Days 109). Evidently, then, the Sibyl is starting over with a second set of five generations, for a total of ten, but the expected 8th and 9th generations are missing. Instead, there follows:

An extensive and strongly anti-Judaic account of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and the consequent fall of Judea to the Romans and exile of the Jews from the land.

Transitional passage: “When indeed God stopped my most perfectly wise song / as I prayed many things, he also again placed in my breast / a delightful utterance of wondrous words. / I will speak the following with my whole person in ecstasy / for I do not know what I say, but God bids me utter each thing.”

The ten-generation scheme resumes with the beginning of a long account of the tenth generation, listing signs of the approaching end, “raging earthquakes / and thunderbolts … destructions of men and bellowing oxen … robbing of temples”, etc. (2.6-7, 9, 14), anticipating the time “when the earth-shaking lightning-giver / will break the glory of idols and shake the people of / seven-hilled Rome” (2.16-18).

A long exhortation to enter the contest (ἀγών) for heavenly rewards that includes in 2.56-148 a recitation of Pseduo-Phocylides (PsPhoc) 5-79, found only in the Ψ group of MSS. Although PsPhoc is a Jewish work, most commentators regard this passage as having been added, as part of the contest section, by the Christian redactor, since 2.45-9, “For holy Christ will make just awards to these / and crown the worthy. But to martyrs he will give / an immortal treasure, to those who pursue the contest even to death. / He will give an imperishable prize from the treasure / to virgins who run well”, is so obviously Christian.

Continuation of the list of signs of the approaching end, beginning with “children born with gray temples from birth” (see Hesiod, Works and Days 181) and ending with the sudden appearance of Elijah. This section includes an evidently Jewish prediction that “the faithful chosen Hebrews will rule over / exceedingly mighty men, having subjected them / as of old, since power will never fail” (2.174-6) and equally evident Christian references to “blessed servants, as many as the master, when he comes, / finds awake” (2.180-1; see Matt. 24.42) and woe “for as many as are found bearing in the womb / on that day, for as many as suckle / infant children” (2.190-2; see Mt. 24.19).

A long account of the destruction of the world by a river of fire, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, the fiery punishment of sinners, and the reward of a new life on a purified earth for the righteous, to whom God “will also give / another thing. Whenever they ask the imperishable God / to save men from the raging fire ... he will pick them out again … and send them … to another eternal life with the immortals / in the Elysian plain where he has the long waves / of the deep perennial Acherusian lake” (2.330-8). This section is considered by some commentators to be an obvious summary of Apocalypse of Peter 2-14, and therefore Christian.

Conclusion, in which the Sibyl confesses her sins and prays to be rescued and given “a little rest” from the “holy giver of manna, king of a great kingdom”.

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