Christianity & Ancient Greece

Sibyls: The Voice of God or Evil Spirits?

A Sybil is a woman who prophesied, while in a state of frenzy, under the supposed inspiration of a deity. In the Jewish sense of persons who felt themselves spiritually impelled to speak to the people in the name of God, prophets were unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, among whom prophecy was limited to the deliverances of the sibyls (σίβυλλαι). The ancient sources differ as to the number and nativity of these sibyls. Plato speaks of only one sibyl, while Aristotle and Aristophanes mention several, and Varro (in Lactantius, "Divinarum Institutionum," i. 6) enumerates ten, including a number from the East.

The most interesting list from the Jewish point of view, however, is that of Pausanias, who enumerates the following four sibyls (x. 12): the Libyan sibyl; Herophile, the sibyl of Marpessus or Erythræ (said to have prophesied both in Asia Minor and at Delphi, and therefore frequently mentioned under various other names); Demo of Cumæ, the chief sibyl of Roman history; and the Hebrew sibyl, Sabbe of Palestine (known also as the Babylonian or Egyptian sibyl). A late source, the "Chronicon Paschale," which was composed in the sixth century of the common era, enumerates twelve sibyls (ed. Bonn, 108, p. 201), and expressly terms one of them the "Hebrew" sibyl, the same designation being used by Suidas and other late authors.

the almighty with prophets and sybils
The Almighty with Prophets and Sybils. Pietro Perugino, 1500, Collegio del Cambio, Perugia

The scanty references in these ancient sources clearly imply that the sibyls were native to the East; and this is confirmed by their common designation. Although Varro gives a Greek etymology for the word (σιός = θεός + βούλλα, whence σίβυλλα = θεοβούλη, "the counsel of god"), and modern philologists derive it from an ancient Italian dialect (see "Rheinisches Museum," 1. 110 et seq.), the arguments are not convincing. Since Lactantius expressly says (l.c.) that the sibyl is a native of Babylon, the name is probably Semitic in origin. The word may be resolved into the two components "sib" + "il," thus denoting "the ancient of god" (Krauss, in "Byzantinische Zeit." xi. 122), especially as great age is one of the sibylline characteristics.

The Hebrew sibyl is identical, moreover, according to Pausanias and Suidas (s.v. Σίβυλλa), with the sibyl of Babylon, and the name "Sabbe" consequently represents the Aramaic "saba " (= "old"), inasmuch as the sibyl is the personification of old age. Suidas gives the form "Sambethe" instead of "Sabbe"; this is to be explained by the fact that the Hebrew sibyl was supposed in the Byzantine period to be mentioned in the Biblical list of nations, and that hence "Seba" and "Sabtechah" (Gen. x. 7 and I Chron. i. 9) came to be, in slightly Hellenized forms, two equivalent designations for the Hebrew sibyl (Krauss, l.c.).

Connection with Biblical Personages

The connection of the sibyl with Biblical personages appears also in a statement found in the extant collection of the Sibylline Books to the effect thatshe asserted herself to belong to the sixth generation of man and to be descended from Noah (i. 298), while in another passage she termed herself a virgin cf the blood of Noah (iii. 827). On account of these statements the Erythræan pagan sibyl was likewise said to be descended from the sixth generation after the Flood (Eusebius, "Constantini Oratio ad S. Coetum," xviii.). The Hebrew sibyl was alleged also to have been the wife of one of Noah's sons, and consequently to have been saved in the ark (Plato's "Phædrus," p. 244b, note).

five sibyls seated in niches the babylonian libyan delphic cimmerian and erythraean
Five Sibyls Seated in Niches: the Babylonian, Libyan, Delphic, Cimmerian and Erythraean. Sandro Botticelli,1 444/1445–1510, (studio of), Christ Church, University of Oxford

It was generally said, however, and with greater show of right, that she belonged to the race of the blessed Noah (prologue to the Sibyllines), which statement agrees with her names Saba and Sambethe. Epiphanius regarded her as the daughter of Noah himself, or even of Eve ("Adversus Hæreses," vi., xxvi. 1). The Jewish sibyl, however, deliberately falsified her genealogy, for it was an accepted tradition that the old pagan sibyl was a native of Babylon, while the Jewish sibyl was held to be the daughter of the ancient Chaldean historian Berosus (pseudo-Justin, "Cohort. ad Græcos," xxxvii.; comp. Pausanias, x. 12; Moses of Chorene, 1. 6). The Jewish sibyl, then, was regarded as a very ancient personage who perpetuated the wisdom of the past, and the traditions concerning her may consequently be compared with the Jewish legends of Enoch and of Asher's daughter Serah.

Hebraic Tendencies in Hellenic Garb

All these legends arose after the ascription of Jewish prophecies to the sibyl. The Hellenistic Jews, especially those of Alexandria, were in conformity with the spirit of their time when they clothed their sayings in Gentile garb, for only thus could they hope to gain an audience. For the sibylline prophecies were intended primarily for the pagans, although the intention was rather to convict them of sin and to glorify Judaism by contrast with them than to convert them. The medium of verse was chosen, moreover, as being the commonly accepted vehicle of prophecy at Delphi, as well as in the oracles of Orpheus and Cassandra, in the magic papyri, and especially of the pagan sibyl. But the clumsy hexameters and the awkward sentences did not satisfy the refined tastes of the Greco-Roman world, and Heraclitus, the sage of Ephesus, himself declared that the sibyl uttered unrimed and uncouth words with raving mouth, even though her broken speech was regarded as the stammering of ecstasy, since she was merely the frail vessel of the divine spirit. In the extant collection of the Jewish oracles the sibyl often complains that she is exhausted by the mighty spirit of the Lord, but that she is compelled by His command to continue her utterances. She is, however, fully conscious of her divine mission, which is to be "the light of the heathen," "preparing the path for man." She circulates the divine code of ethics, and explains the ancient history of the Jews to the Gentiles, whom she familiarizes with monotheism, retaining some of the concepts of Greek mythology merely to lend some degree of familiarity to her instruction. She lashes the wickedness of the heathen, describes the impending divine judgment and the coming Messianic period, and dwells on the sublime mission of the Jewish people, for whom is reserved a future of splendor and sanctity, despite the shame which has been its lot. Special stress is laid on the most attractive ethical laws of Judaism, since these alone could be used for a successful propaganda among the Gentiles.

sybils receiving instruction from angels
Sybils receiving instruction from Angels. Raphael, 1514, Santa Maria della Pace, Rome

Yet the sibylline poems are far from being such cosmopolitan compositions as is the work of the Pseudo-Phocylides. They are, on the contrary, essentially national and nomistic in so far as they are Jewish. Even the Messianic time is inconceivable without the Temple, sacrificial worship, and the Law. Despite this the pagan Greeks are nowhere urged to observe the Law; they are asked merely to lead moral lives and to recognize the one God. Although the sibyl addresses all peoples, the Syrians, Britons, Gauls, and the nations of the Isles, she especially exhorts the people of Hellas, knowing that it will be well with all the human race if this people with its grand culture will combine its own virtues with the pure religion of Judaism.

"Of centuries fifteen have passed away Since o'er the Greeks those haughty tyrants ruled Who first taught evil unto mortal man, And made false gods for them that now are dead, Whereby ye learned to think but vanity"

These lines deserve special attention, for they indicate the philosophical point of view of the author. According to the sibyl, whose attitude was subsequently shared by the Christian apologists, paganism originated when mankind revolted from God and undertook to build the Tower of Babel, abandoning the worship of the true God for idolatry and renouncing God and His law, which, "in a certain sense," had existed even before Moses. The princes of Greece had been the chief agents in the introduction and dissemination of idolatry, and the conversion of the heathen meant, therefore, simply a return to the God of Israel and to His law, which had been wickedly abandoned in ages past (Friedländer, "Apologetik," p. 44). A Hungarian philologist has correctly summarized this view in the single phrase: "The Jewish sibyl states the case euhemeristically" (G. Némethy, "Philologiai Közlöny," xxi. 1-5; comp. idem, "Euhemeri Reliquiæ," Budapest, 1889). Judaism could, indeed, be successfully defended by recourse to the euhemeristic theory of the Greek pantheon.

Christian Sibyls

Nascent Christianity could find no better aid for its apologetics than the sibylline poems, and it is due to this fact that the utterances of the Jewish sibyl have been preserved in considerable fragments, while the words of the pagan sibyl have been almost entirely lost, although it must be admitted that the fragments of the latter which have escaped destruction are more pithy, poetic, and valuable than the Jewish portion. Christianity has not only preserved these poems, but has added to them, so that the sibylline utterances in their present form are a mixture of Jewish and Christian elements, imposing upon criticism the task of separating them. The difficulty of the problem is increased by the fact that the text of the fragments is very imperfect, uncertain, and full of errors.

the erythrean sibyl
The Erythrean Sibyl. Michelangelo, 1508 - 1512, detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

The evidence thus far accessible shows that a sibylline poem of considerable extent was first put in circulation by Alexandrian Jews in the second century B.C., and that compositions of this nature continued to be published until late in the imperial period. These productions always availed themselves of the latest events, the frequent convulsions in the Roman empire furnishing rich material for new visions, which deeply affected Judaism and renewed its hopes for the future. The Christian compositions of this type covered a much longer period of time, stray poems being written even in the Middle Ages. The Christian sibylline verses may easily be recognized when they contain prophecies referring to Jesus or when they are couched in decided antinomistic and occasionally anti-Jewish language. Some of them, however, bear none of these marks of a Christian origin, and have been so completely incorporated with the Jewish portion that the two elements can not readily be separated.

When the prologue to the Sibyllines was written, in the fifth or sixth century, by a Byzantine author, they had been cast into almost their final form, although they were then somewhat shorter. They were little read at Byzantium in the Middle Ages, since the Byzantines had their own sibylline oracles, both in verse and in prose, while the West produced a different kind of oracle, written in Latin, and modeled on the sayings of the sibyl of Erythræ.


In the period of the Renaissance the ancient poetic oracles were again read eagerly, although they were not printed until a late date. The first edition was issued by Xystus Betuleius (Sixtus Birken) of Augsburg, in eight books (Basel, 1545), and created a sensation in the world of scholarship; Castalio of Basel published a Latin versed translation of the Sibyllines in 1546. Better manuscripts were used by Johannes Opsopœus (Johannes Koch), whose edition appeared at Paris in 1596. The next edition was that in Gallandi's "Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum" (Venice, 1765, 1788), but it was not until the nineteenth century that editions of scholarly accuracy appeared. In 1817 a fourteenth book was edited, from a manuscript at Milan (Codex Ambrosianus), by Angelo Mai, who, eleven years later, published books xi.-xiv., from a Vatican manuscript. Better texts also became available for the parts previously published. The two editions published by the French scholar Charles Alexandre in 1841-56 and 1869 are masterly from a historical, critical, and exegetical point of view. Other noteworthy editions are those by Alois Rzach (Vienna, 1891) and Johann Geffken (Leipsic, 1902), both of whom have elucidated the Sibyllines in numerous other studies. Without going into textual details, a brief résumé may here be given of the results of the literary criticism of these poems, since the Christian and the Jewish elements must be distinguished from each other. Although definite results are impossible, there is a certain consensus in scholarly opinion, which may be epitomized as follows, on the authority of Schürer and Harnack:


The origin of books i. and ii. is doubtful. Dechent and Friedlieb have designated passages of considerable length in both as Jewish in origin, although, according to Schürer, most scholars regard then as Christian. Harnack more reasonably considers them as based on a Jewish original influenced by Christian revision. In harmony with this theory, i. 1-323, which constitutes the nucleus of the book, contains no Christian elements, while i. 324-400, immediately following, is not only distinctly Christian, but is even openly anti-Jewish. In book ii. the Jewish part of book i. is continued, but the sibyl, passing by former ages, deals directly with the last generation; only verses 34-55 are Christian. Verses 56-148 are a didactic poem taken from pseudo-Phocylides, and the passage beginning with verse 154 is, on the whole, a Jewish eschatology mingled with Stoic conceptions, though it may contain some Christian elements.

the libyan sibyl
The Libyan Sibyl. Michelangelo, 1508 - 1512, detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

Book iii. is undoubtedly the most valuable of the entire collection. According to Bleek, it is, at least in its main portion (verses 97-807), the work of an Alexandrian Jew, who may have flourished in the Maccabean period (170-160 B.C.). Other critics assign it to the year 140 or 124 B.C., though, with the exception of Alexandre, who ascribes verses 295-488 to a Christian author, they agree in regarding it as an ancient Jewish poem. The poem, which is by no means uniform, may be divided into three parts: (1) verses 97-294; (2) verses 295-488; (3) verses 499-807.

The Third Sibylline

(1) Verses 97-294 describe the building of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the peoples; this event is ascribed to the quarrel among the three kings Kronos, Titan, and Japetus, Biblical material and Greek mythology being indiscriminately mingled. The poet surveys the successive rules of the Egyptians, Persians, Medes, Ethiopians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Romans, the last-named being still a republic, for it is designated as "many-headed" (πολύκρανος). All these governments are succeeded by the peaceful rule of the people of God, who once before had been great and mighty under Solomon. After the seventh Hellenic king, Ptolemy VII. (Physcon) of Egypt, the people of God will again be in the ascendent, and will rule mankind. This passage is followed by an account of the history and the characteristics of Israel.

(2) Verses 295-488 comprise denunciations and warnings regarding Babylon, Egypt, Gog and Magog, Libya, Syria (under the Seleucids), Phrygia, Troy (with a noteworthy polemic against Homer), Lycia, Cyprus, and Italy. This portion was evidently written in the second century, although some details do not agree with actual history. In the description of the Syrian kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, his son Eupator, the latter's assassin, Demetrius I., and the succeeding rulers down to Trypho, are clearly recognizable.

(3) Verses 499-807 also contain denunciations of the Gentiles, which contrast sharply with the promises for Israel and the announcement of the last judgment; this section, too, includes an allusion to the seventh Ptolemy. The Christian elements which some critics have sought to find in this passage maybe interpreted differently. Verse 785, "Be glad, O virgin [κόρη], and rejoice," refers to Jerusalem, in which God shall dwell, according to Zech. ii. 10. The sibyl again refers to Jerusalem in verses 260 et seq. which may be compared with viii. 324, "Be glad, thou holy daughter of Zion." This purely Biblical phraseology has not always been correctly interpreted by the editors; thus Geffken emended the received text in iii. 355 and viii. 75 because he did not perceive that the phrases "daughter of Rome" and "native of Rome" refer to the city of Rome itself. In verse 776 the reading should be, as was recognized by Alexandre, ναὸν Θεοῑο ("temple of God"), in allusion to Isa. lvi. 7, instead of υἱν Θεοῖο ("son of God").

This internal evidence is supported by external evidence, for the sibyl's version of the story of the building of the Tower of Babel and the battle of the sons of Kronos with the Titans was quoted also by Alexander Polyhistor in the name of the sibyl, and Josephus likewise knew it ("Ant." i. 4, § 3). The majority of the quotations from the Sibylline Books found in patristic literature are taken from the third book.

The two fragments, containing eighty-four verses, found in Theophilus ("Ad Autolycum," ii. 36) have been separated from the Sibylline Books in their present form, although, according to Lactantius, they seem originally to have formed the prologue. They are evidently a genuine product of Jewish sibylline literature, and glorify in inspired speech the monotheism of Judaism, while denouncing the folly and the abominations of pagan idolatry. Verses 36-92, now placed at the beginning of book iii., may be dated with some degree of certainty. The words "When Rome shall rule also over Egypt" (verse 46) indicate Rome's assumption of rulership over Egypt as very recent; there are also allusions to the triumvirs and to Cleopatra. Under this queen the Jewish author hoped for the advent of the Messianic kingdom; he therefore must have composed his work between 40 and 31 B.C. The reference to the "Sebastenians" in verse 63 is frequently regarded as an allusion to the Samaritans, and the poem is accordingly assigned an earlier date, or the lines in question are explained as interpolations. The name may refer, however, to the Romans, who were so known in Palestine.

the persian sibyl
The Persian Sibyl. Michelangelo, 1508 - 1512, detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

The third book concludes with an epilogue (808-828), in which the Sibyl explains her nature. The Greeks erroneously suppose her to be the Erythræan prophetess, but she is in reality a native of Babylon and a daughter of Noah. These verses may be interpolations, although there is a possibility that they are genuine.

Book iv. is far more unified. In the name of the true God the sibyl predicts the events that will take place from the first to the tenth generation of man. This division of history into ten periods (comp. ii. 15) is very important, for it served as a model for the medieval chroniclers, such as pseudo-Methodius; Hebrew analogues also exist. All nations, great and small, pass in review before the poet, who follows the example of the Bible in finding omens in the names of cities and countries according to their etymology. Thus, Samos shall be covered by sand (ἄμμος), he declares, and Delos shall disappear (ἄδηλος; comp. Micah i. 10 and Zeph. ii. 4). He even alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (115-127), declaring that the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 B.C. was a punishment for it (130-136); and he shares the view of his contemporaries in regard to Nero's flight across the Euphrates and his speedy return (117-124 and 137-139). These data show that the author lived about 80 C.E. The entire poem is Jewish in spirit, and there is no reason to regard it as a Christian product. The attacks upon animal sacrifices were directed only against the Gentiles, and have nothing to do with Essenism. The baptism which the pagans are invited to accept (165) is the Jewish baptism of proselytes; the passage is modeled, moreover, on Isa. i. 16.

The Fifth Sibylline

Book v., one of the best of the entire collection, consists of several Jewish passages and brief Christian additions. The number of peoples and countries enumerated by the author exceeds those in the other poems. The lamentations and hopes he utters clearly show that the historic background in each is a different one, as Zahn correctly states. The poet wrote shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, and, influenced by this catastrophe, he predicted the downfall also of the temple of Onias in Egypt. Then follow the Messianic prediction and the description of the last judgment. This portion seems to include verses 111-178, 200-205, 228-246, 361-433, and 484-531. About 120 C.E., in the beginning of the reign of Hadrian, who is designated, like the other rulers, merely by the initials of his name, another Judæo-Egyptian poet prophesied, eulogizing the emperor as the best and most excellent of men, and apparently expecting that he would rebuild the Temple. The poet mourns over the Egyptians and other nations, all of whom deserve punishment because they worship animals and are idolaters (52-110). In another passage (179-213) he laments again over Egypt, and over the African districts of Barka, Syene, Cyrene, and Ethiopia, following this section with the judgment of Corinth (214-227). He anticipates, with great felicity, the liberation of the Jews from the Hellenic dominion and the conversion of the Gentiles (247-360; a Christian passage, 256-259, in praise of Jesus, is interpolated). Verses 434-483 render the judgment of Babylon.

the cumean sibyl
The Cumaen Sibyl. Michelangelo, 1508 - 1512, detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

About 150 C.E. a Christian redactor seems to have combined all these passages, adding Christian matter. Harnack ascribes the remarkable eulogy of Hadrian, whom no Jew could extol, to a Christian; but in general the Christian elements here can not be definitely distinguished from the Jewish.

Books vi., vii., and viii. are usually regarded as Christian in origin. Book vi. is a short hymn to Jesus, with denunciations of Israel, which is called a country like Sodom (21). In book vii. also Jesus is glorified; the author of this poem lived in the Christian era, after the establishment of the Parthian empire. Book viii. is still more openly Christian, and includes the famous poem in acrostics to "Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, the crucified Son."

Recently Discovered Sibyllines

The recently discovered books xi.-xiv. (ix. and x. are missing) are, on the whole, Christian in character,as is clear from historical analysis rather than from positive statements. Book xi., however, is probably Jewish in origin. Although the Church Fathers do not quote these books, this does not imply that they were composed at a late date; they remain uncited because the religious thought they express is unimportant, and their Messianic-apocalyptic elements are entirely conventional.

Book xi. narrates the history of the world from the Flood, and alludes to the founding of Rome, the siege of Troy (the sibyl here asserts that Homer borrowed from her), Alexander the Great, and the Diadochi, tracing the course of history up to the time of Cleopatra and Julius Cæsar. The religious element, especially of the Messianic type, is unimportant. The author seems to have been an Alexandrian. The book contains no Christian elements whatever.

Book xii. continues the Roman history, giving the numerical values of the initials in the names of the emperors down to Alexander Severus; that the immediate successors of Septimius Severus are omitted may possibly be due to a lacuna in the text. A religious element appears in the statement that the divine Logos appeared on earth during the reign of the first Roman emperor (30 and 232)—evidently a Christian statement. Vespasian, however, is termed, in the Jewish sense, the "destroyer of the pious," while Hadrian, on the contrary, is eulogized.

the delphic sibyl
The Delphic Sibyl. Michelangelo, 1508 - 1512, detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome

Book xiii., which has no religious elements, continues the history of the Roman emperors from Maximinus to Aurelian, who will subdue the monsters, the thirty tyrants. There are references also to Philippus, to the Persian wars, and to Alexandria as the granary of Rome.

Book xiv. differs from the preceding books in that the allusions to the emperors are too obscure to admit of identification, while alleged historical events do not correspond with the authenticated data. The poet apparently followed his own imagination. He seems to have been chiefly interested in Asia Minor, from which it may be inferred that he was a Jew or a Christian from that region. The book contains no religious elements whatever, although the author gives his work a Messianic conclusion, proclaiming that during the last generation of the Latins, Rome will enjoy a period of felicity under the government of God Himself, while in the countries of the East, including Egypt, a holy people will live in peace, after all wrongs have been righted.

No allusion to the sibyl, and no traces of her influence, are found in medieval Jewish literature, beyond the cursory mention by Abraham Zacuto, in the sixteenth century, of the legendary Roman sibyl who went with her books to Tarquin ("Yuḥasin," ed. London, p. 239a); this legend is referred to by Jehiel Heilprin ("Seder ha-Dorot," i. 110b, Warsaw, 1891) and David Gans ("Ẓemaḥ Dawid," ii. 8b, Offenbach, 1768). The Byzantine historians Georgius Monachus, Cedrenus, and Glycas turned the Biblical Queen of Sheba into a sibyl (Krauss, in "Byzantinische Zeit." xi. 120), and Zacuto alludes to her (l.c. p. 237a) under the name of Nicaulis or Nicaula. In medieval Christian art this sibyl Nicaula is a conventional figure, and is regarded as hostile to the Synagogue. Christian theology employed the sibylline oracles in polemics against Judaism, the well-known formula for this being "Teste David cum Sibylla." New texts were continually produced by medieval prophecy, such as the sayings of the Tiburtine sibyl (edited by E. Sackur, Halle-on-the-Saale, 1898), who predicted death and destruction for many peoples, and gave forewarning of the persecution of the Jews under Heraclius, in the manner of the ancient sibyls (Krauss, l.c. ix. 202-203). The sibylline literature, then, merges into apocalyptic literature. Similar in nature are the pseudo-Methodius, the Judæo-Persian and Coptic apocalypses of Daniel, and the Ethiopian sibyl (R. Basset, "Les Apocryphes Ethiopiens," x. 19, Paris, 1900).