Roman Emperors – Sibylline Oracles, Book 12

This Oracle continues the themes of book 11, extending the history into the currant era. Augustus is described as a ruler no other Roman will ever exceed, a man God approved for this hour (14-35). There is a brief “Christian insertion” in 30-34 which predicts the coming of the Messiah, the “bright star like the sun.

Roman EmperorsThe book includes sections on the emperors of Rome, including a comment about their character and history, usually a comment about their appearance, hair color, etc. and a hint at their name (the one with the number three hundred as his first initial). This serves to show the “riddle” of Rev 13:18 (the number of the beast) was common enough in the ancient world. NB: the numbers in parenthesis are lines in the oracle, not dates.

  • Tiberius (37-47, he will rule wearing purple, and “sack the city with high gates”).
  • Gaius (48-66, a man with “deceitful locks”).
  • Claudius (68-75, terrible signs accompany his reign, darkness at noon). OTP 1:447, note m states there were four solar eclipses during his reign.
  • Nero (78-94), “a terrible snake, an athlete, charioteer and murderer” who later flees and perishes wretchedly).
  • Galba, Otho, and Vitelius (95-98)
  • Vespasian (99-116, a “great destroyer”).
  • Titus (117-123, a noble lord who falls by deceit).
  • Domitian (124-143, all mortals will love him but he will receive a wound in the middle of his chest). This is rarely mentioned as a potential background to the wounding of the beast in Revelation 13, which is remarkable since Domitian is often cited as the emperor in the immediate context of Revelation.
  • Nerva (143-146, a majestic man, slain and gone to Hades).
  • Trajan (147-163, a mighty warrior who will die on foreign soil).
  • Hadrian (164-175, a silver-haired man who will bring a long peace).
  • The Antonines (176-185, three who rule for three decades).
  • Marcus Aurelius (186-205, a man who knows many wise things, at whose prayer it will rain).
  • Commodus (206-223, he will live dangerously and will suffer evil in a bath).
  • The Death of Commodus (224-235, when the destructive time is near for Rome).
  • Pertinax (236-244, a man who will shed blood with sharp bronze swords).
  • Didius Iulianus (245-249, he will have a swift fate, mighty in war and smitten by iron).
  • Pescennius Niger (250-255, another warrior, will die on the Assyrian plains).
  • Septimus Severus (256-268, a resourceful and crafty man who knows what is expedient).
  • Alexander Severus (269-288, he will reign with an infant and have the name of a Macedonian prince).

The conclusion to the book is a warning that those who honor God and forget idols will have joy (289-299).  What is remarkable about this conclusion is that none of these kings could be said to have honored God in the least.  In general this review of history is quite complimentary to the Roman emperors.  One might expect a Christian writer to have portrayed Domitian, for example, as a great evil ruler because of his persecution of the church. Unless, of course, Domitian was not a great persecutor as many scholars have claimed.

This may help several scholars who have argued external persecution is not the problem in the book of Revelation.  See for example Alan James Beagley, The “Sitz Im Leben” of the Apocalypse with Particular Reference to the Role of the Church’s Enemies (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1987).  For a brief summary of Beagley’s position, see his article “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1997), 111-112.

A History of the World – Sibylline Oracles, Book 11

Collins dates this book to the “turn of the era” and considers it an example of Diaspora Judaism.  We are therefore back to the early part of the development of the format of the sibyl, but as Collins notes, this is very different than Sibylline 3 and 5 (OTP 1:432).

PythiaThis text is not particularly religions but is political propaganda, interested in Egyptian political movements. As such, there is no familiar eschatology at all in the book, but rather a history of the political relationship between Rome and Egypt. This book is valuable for setting the context of other Diaspora books, but has little to say for New Testament backgrounds.  Common features of the book include a ten-generation history of the world (line 14) and a series of oracles working through the kingdoms which ruled the world through those ten generations (Egypt, Persian, Media, India / Ethiopia, the Assyrians, Macedonia, then Rome).

There is remarkable is a summary of the Trojan War (123-163) and a reference to Virgil (164-171).  Alexander the Great receives a long poem 195-223, (“the one whose name begins with the first letter”).  The diadochi are described (223-243), with the final sections detailing the intrigue of Cleopatra (243-260) and eventually Julius Caesar (261-276).

The writer of the oracle predicts (or expresses some wishful thinking) that Egypt will fall (276-314) and be judged by God himself (311-314):

Therefore God himself, the imperishable prince who lives in the sky, will utterly destroy you and impel you to lamentation, and you will make amends for what you formerly did lawlessly. At last you will realize that the anger of God has come upon you.

There is no hint of Christian editing (no allusion to Jesus or a coming Kingdom, for example). In fact, the book ends with the words of the Sibyl who will be confirmed at Panopeia as a “true seer, chanter of oracles, though someone will call me a messenger with frenzied spirit.”

Christological Poems – Sibylline Oracles, Book 8.217-500

Lines 217-250 of the eighth Sibylline oracle form an acrostic poem based on “Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, Cross.” The theme of the poem is eschatology and much is drawn from the Old Testament (the heavens will roll up, Isa 34:4, for example.) The oracle makes a connection between Jesus and the Old Testament messiah figure and concludes with a statement that “this is our God, now proclaimed in acrostics, the king, the immortal savior who suffered for us.”

annunciationThe second Christological poem (251-336) includes many references to the life of Christ: feeding the 5000 in line 275; “your king comes on a foal of a donkey;” the passion in 280-284; “the veil of the Temple will be rent, and in midday there will be dark monstrous night for three hours” (305-306). Jesus goes to Hades announcing hope for all (perhaps a hint of the “harrowing of hell,” 1 Peter 3:19). The resurrection of Jesus is clear, “and then, returning from the dead, he will come to light, first of the resurrection, showing a beginning to the elect” (313). This is followed by an eschatological fragment in 337-358. The catastrophic signs found elsewhere in the Sibyllines reappear.

A lengthy speech by God himself condemns idolatry (359-428). There is a consistent theme in this poem of God as creator and the offense of man worshiping creation. God has, for example, “formed eyes and ears, seeing and hearing” (368) and knows every thought. “Abandoning the Creator, they worshiped licentiousness. All have gifts from me but give them to useless things, and they think all these things useful, like my honors making burnt offerings at meals, as to their own dead.” Similar to Romans 1:18f, humans have abandoned their creator, pursuit of sexual sin 381.

The hymn to God appearing in lines 429-455 is similar to pagan thinking about God (OTP 1:427, note t2). God is “Self-begotten, undefiled, everlasting, eternal” (429). Like the Jewish use of Greek mythology in the early Sibyls or the Christian use of Gnosticism in the seventh Sibyl, this writer / compiler has drawn on Greco-Roman philosophy to describe God.

The poem concerning the incarnation in 456-479 reflects fairly advanced theology and the Virgin Mary is featured prominently. The archangel Gabriel says to Mary, “‘Receive God, Virgin, in your immaculate bosom.’ Thus speaking, he breathed in the grace of God, even to one who was always a maiden.” (461-462). It is possible it was appended at a later date when Mary becomes more important in Catholic theology.

The final paragraph on ethics closed the book (480-500). The Christian reader is admonished to never “approach the sanctuaries of temples nor to pour libations to statues nor to honor them with prayers” (487-489) nor “to defile the light of the sky with smoke from burnt offerings” (494). Perhaps this exhortation to abstain from sacrifice reflects a period when Christians were not yet fully depaganized, making sacrifices in order to appear loyal to civic cults.

Nero Redivivus – Sibylline Oracles, Book 8.1-216

The eighth Sibylline oracle contains a wealth of clear historical allusions. The first 216 lines are probably Jewish with some Christian interpolations. The second half of the book draws together various sources, nearly all Christian and interested in developing Christology. We are therefore dealing with an oracle at the Christian end of the spectrum, placing Christian theology in the mouth of a pagan seer.

Colossus of NeroThe Sibyl begins with a description of the kingdoms of the world: the Persians, the Medes, the Ethiopians, Assyria Babylon, Macedonia, and then the “famous lawless kingdom of the Italians” (1-16). These kingdoms will be judged, “the mills of God grind fine flour, though late” (14, OTP comments this is an old Greek proverb).

Greed is condemned (17-36). Greed is the “source of impiety and forerunner of disorder, deviser of wars, a hostile troubler of peace” (24-25). Like Revelation 18, the writer characterizes Rome as a greedy nation and an oppressor the poor. Because of their greed, Rome will be destroyed “one day” by a heavenly affliction and no god will be able to save them (37-49). Their wealth will be laid low and the race will become lifeless corpses.

Lines 50-67 describe Hadrian as the “luxurious one” who inspects the world with polluted foot, giving gifts.” This is an allusion to Hadrian’s tour of the provinces in A.D. 121-130.  He will participate in magical shrines and “display a child of the gods” (His favorite son was deified in A.D. 130 after he was accidentally drowned in Egypt). Three kings will rule after Hadrian, “fulfilling the name of the heavenly God whose power is both now and for all ages.”

The next section concerns the return of Nero during the reign of “an old man,” Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180). A “matricidal exile returns from the ends of the earth” and will control dominions far and wide (68-72).

Rome will be judged (73-109, 123-130). They will be brought down from their great height by “gigantic hands” (100) and be made to dwell under the earth, everyone will hear bellowing from Hades and the gnashing of teeth. All will be judged in the great tribunal of God (110-122). This section is inserted into the condemnation of Rome and breaks off after a long list of “equality” statements (there will be no king, no tyrant, etc.) The age will be “common to all.” (Cf. 1 Enoch 53:6-7, the “leveling” of social groups in Matthew 3). In lines 131-138 Hadrian is praised as ruling “by the counsels of the great God without contamination.”

The text breaks off with “When the time of the phoenix comes” (139-159), but it is enough for Collins to once again identify this as a text about the return of Nero. By the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Nero would have been long dead, so the image of the Phoenix is appropriate to describe the rebirth of this enemy of God’s people. He will return to ravage the race of peoples, the nation of the Hebrews.

This section is an allusion to the persistent rumor Nero faked his death in A.D. 68 and would eventually return to his rightful place as emperor of Rome. Some scholars detect this in Revelation 13 where the first beast (representing Rome) appears to have died but is revived by the second beast. Sometimes this is used to date Revelation early, since the possibility of Nero’s return would diminish by the 90s since Nero would have been quite old by then. But this oracle implies Nero could return nearly 100 years after his own death, rising like a Phoenix to persecute God’s people once again.

The final and greatest evil will come upon the Rhodians (160-168). This section is perhaps related to the first in the oracle since it includes Rhodes as central to the final judgment of Rome (which will become a “street,” probably a reference to Rome becoming insignificant). The holy prince will gain control of the scepters of the world and Rome will fall (169-177). Various signs of the end are listed in 178-216. There are several breaks in the text, but the usually catastrophic “wrath of God” things are present. Of note is line 205, there will be a resurrection of the dead, the swift racing of the lame, the deaf will hear and the blind will see.

Christian or Gnostic? – Sibylline Oracles, Book 7

This is the least structured of the oracles and is probably a collection of various sources.  The work is Christian and probably is not based on any Jewish material.  As such, the Seventh Oracle represents the other end of the tangent begun in the earlier Jewish oracles. Christians placed prophecies in the mouth of a pagan oracle in order to give a universal validity to the claims of Christianity.

This oracle seems not only Christian, but in some ways Gnostic. Collins lists five allusions to Gnostic ideas but concludes that the presence of these elements do not make the book Gnostic.  In the same way earlier oracles drew on pagan mythology, so to this Christian oracle is drawing on Gnosticism (OTP 1:409).

  • Several European cites will be destroyed, Rhodes will be the first (1-6). The flood is briefly described (7-15).  This section is fragmentary, but makes Phrygia the location of Ararat as in 1 Enoch. A general oracle against the nations, although the focus is on Egypt (16-28).
  • A brief, fragmented description of a messiah figure (29-39). It is hard to get the sense of this prophecy since much is missing.  God entrusts his throne to someone from the house of David.  The angels sleep under his feet (33).  He is a “young shoot putting forth eyes from the root.” (38)
  • Various nations and cities are condemned (40-63). Colophon and Corinth are mentioned specifically as destroyed by the Roman Ares.
  • Christ’s baptism is described with a special emphasis on the people not recognizing him as their God when he came up from the water (64-75).
  • Sacrifice will be replaced by prayer, alms giving, and care for the poor (76-91).
  • Lines 91a-95 are a fragment which may continue the theme from the previous section, but there is not enough there to see this clearly.
  • Various nations and cities are condemned (96-116), including Sardina, Mygdonia, Macedonia and Rome, Thebes.
  • A “woe” against the “evil spirit sea,” which will be devoured by fire in the chaotic end of the world (118-131).
  • Those who falsely claim to be Hebrews and make money from prophecy will be destroyed (132-138).

After the third “circling of years” when the first Ogdoad is seen, he will begat a “pure mind of men” and no one will plow a crooked row anymore (139-149). Ogdoad can refer to eight frog/snake gods worshiped at Hermopolis, Egypt, although this does not fit the context well.  Ogdoad is also a Gnostic concept relating to the aeons (Edwin Yamauchi, “The Gnostics and History” JETS 14 (1971): 29-40, 31). The word is used to describe a place in the Hermetic Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth:  “The Eighth or Ogdoad is described as the place or sphere where souls and angels continuously praise the Ninth with hymns; the Ninth or Ennead is the dwelling place of Nous or Divine Mind” (Ruth Majerick, “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth” in ABD 2:210-211). It is possible this reference refers to Jesus in some kind of numeric wordplay, since the name Jesus Christ is often rendered 888. Finally, all people in this restored world will “eat dewy manna with white teeth” (148-149, cf. Revelation 2:17).

The oracle concludes with a confession of faith from the Sibyl herself.  This is part of the sibylline formula: the pagan prophetess confesses faith in God and claims her oracles are true.