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The Anti-Roman Sibyl

Helen Van Noorden

University of Cambridge

The classification ‘resistance literature’ has recently gained ground as a description of the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of Greek hexameters intriguingly blending world history, eschatological prophecy directed to various nations and ethical advice, ascribed to the pagan prophetess Sibyl but in fact composed, expanded and updated by Jews and then Christians from c.2nd century BCE onwards. This paper takes up the question of what forms of resistance are promoted by these oracles, bearing in mind how (subtly) ‘resistance literature’ is usually said to operate, and paying attention both to content and to generic form.

The Sibylline prophecies of ‘weal and woe’ are remarkably international in outlook, and earlier scholars categorized this collection as ‘missionary’, introducing the Jewish apocalyptic world-view to pagans. However, most of the extant ‘books’ of oracles seem to have been produced in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire (book 3, the oldest section, is thought to derive from an Egyptian Jewish community – see e.g. Collins 1983), and while precise dates, locations and authors in the accumulated corpus are impossible to pin down (Gruen 1998), an explicitly anti-Roman tone is one of its most consistent and distinctive features. In consequence, scholars have read these oracles as indicative of ‘the atmosphere that fostered’ various Jewish revolts.

Genre is the first point of discussion. In adopting the voice of the most popular prophet of the Roman world, whose books were consulted by a select group of officials at times of crisis, Jews were taking what had become a Roman tool of power and knowledge and using it to speak against Rome, in part by emphasizing their own Hellenic identity. Both the ascription of their oracles to the Sibyl and the use of archaic Greek hexameters may be considered forms of ‘compositional resistance’ (Rader 2011) whereby authoritative genres are inverted. I will also briefly consider the use of etymology and word-play (e.g. deriving ‘Hades’ from ‘Adam’) in this corpus, in order to explore whether its authors sought more to escape or to control dominant forms of language and knowledge in their society.

The examination then moves to the level of content or theme (in Rader’s term, ‘contextual resistance’), subdivided into the topics of history, eschatology and ethics. Characteristically Sibylline schematic presentations of history into generations and empires, apparently anti-Macedonian material updated to position Rome as the last earthly empire before the arrival of the kingdom of God, may be considered a ‘strategy of inversion’ (Portier-Young 2014) and a bid for control of the cultural record (Quint 1993), whose effectiveness has been debated (Eddy 1961, Friesen 2014). Mythical and historical events are put into a longer timeframe through typological readings; the effect is to suggest that the same wars are ever renewed, but the Jews will survive as they have done in the past. Next, apocalyptic visions ranging from underworld judgement on sinners to the return of Nero as eschatological adversary can be seen to emphasize that Roman elements will be turned against Rome.  Thirdly, addressing the topic of ethical prescriptions, the paper will suggest that the Sibylline Oracles model various sorts of behaviour recommended for the faithful, such as continued praise of God and maintenance of temple worship.

Turning back finally to the form of the Sibylline Oracles as a whole, this paper notes in conclusion that, while the oracles seem to adopt a range of strategies that may be counted modes of ‘resistance’, the sheer extent of replication and repetition within this collection should not be overlooked if we are seeking to understand the production of these oracles as a sustained act of resistance to Roman rule.

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Greek Culture in the Roman World

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