What are the Sibylline Oracles?

To begin here are some relevant items online:

  • The Catholic Encyclopedia
  • The Oracles Online

    As the article notes, the Oracles derive from a variety of sources and points of view. Of particular interest is an oracle in Book 4, a Jewish document, which has an "appeal to baptism as a way of forestalling eschatological judgment." [Anchor Bible Dictionary Entry] This has relevance for the reaction which may have been received by John the Baptist and the early Christian movement.

    Of particular concern for our purposes is an accusation deliever by some Skeptics -- notably Joseph Wheless -- claiming that the Oracles were forgeries perpetrated by Christians. (In contrast, Acharya S, who quotes Wheless extensively, differs from him and regards some of the Oracles as genuine, pre-Christian works which she uses to promulgate her Christ-myth theory, supposing that Christians created deeds for Jesus out of some of the Oracles.)

    A middle ground offers that Christians interpolated the Sibyls. Origen cites Celsus as charging the Christians with having "interpolated many impious statements, though he does not mention what those interpolations are." (For Wheless' quote, see here. For Acharya's, see here note 36.)

    Acharya quotes this oracle: "With five loaves at the same time, and with two fishes, He shall satisfy five thousand men in the wilderness; And afterwards taking all the fragments that remain, He shall fill twelve baskets to the hope of many. . . .He shall still the winds by His word, and calm the sea as it rages, treading with feet of peace and faith. . . . He shall walk on the waves, He shall release men from disease. He shall raise the dead, and drive away many pains. . ."

    Other than applying an "astrotheological" interpretation, Acharya argues that this oracle "existed prior to the Christian era" and "constitutes proof to those who use logic that the Christians utilized it in creating their Christ character..." Wheless, however, clearly believed that this Sibylline Oracle was forged by Christians, since after he quotes Lactantius' words on the oracle, he states: "In view of these 'divine testimonies' of Pagan Oracles forged by pious Christians in proof of their Christ, need one wonder that the like testimonies in the Gospels themselves may be under suspicion of like forgery?"

    Wheless is much closer to having scholarly support here. The question that remains is whether skeptics like Wheless are nevertheless justified in claiming malfeasance by Christians. The answer is far from definitive. To begin, it is far from clear that the Sibyls, in their original form, were the product of the orthodox church.

    The use of the sibyl concept, so well known in antiquity, suggests a syncretism that both orthodox Jewish and Christian believers would not normally have accepted; as the Encyclopedia notes, "Because of the vogue enjoyed by these heathen oracles and because of the influence they had in shaping the religious views of the period, the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria, during the second century B. C. composed verses in the same form, attributing them to the sibyls, and circulated them among the pagans as a means of diffusing Judaistic doctrines and teaching."

    The Oracles from the Jewish side came from a group that was often regarded as on the margins of Judaism, and it is not unlikely that Christian oracles came from an equitable source within Christendom.

    The following point from the Encyclopedia substantiates this view: "The contents are of the most varied character and for the most part contain references to peoples, kingdoms, cities, rulers, temples etc. It is futile to attempt to find any order in the plan which governed their composition. The perplexity occasioned by the frequent change of theme can perhaps be accounted for by the supposition that they circulated privately, as the Roman Government tolerated only the official collection, and that their present arrangement represents the caprice of different owners or collectors who brought them together from various sources."

    In this respect one may compare the Oracles to a story that people from various sources freely added to, never intending it to be taken as a true story or as authoritative. For Jews and Christians, the Oracles were more likely an equivalent to a fictional case for their views, as in today's Left Behind series promulgating dispensational eschatology.

    Finally, note the Encyclopedia's conclusion: "The peculiar Christian circle in which these compositions originated cannot be determined, neither can it be asserted what motive prompted their composition except as a means of Christian propaganda." Any skeptic like Wheless that points to the Oracles as proof of a propensity to Christian forgery as a whole (inclusive of, as he supposed, the Gospels) is in error. Since we do not know why or by whom the Oracles were written or interpolated, it is illicit to use them as proof of Christian malfeasance.

  • Recommended Read: The Other Bible, ed. by William Barnstone

    -JPH