BMCR 2008.06.21

The Sibylline Oracles: With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books

, The Sibylline oracles : with introduction, translation, and commentary on the first and second books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xxii, 613 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780199215461 $220.00.

It is hard to do justice in the course of a review to any of Jane Lightfoot’s monumental contributions to classical scholarship, but this is particularly the case with her new text, commentary, and discussion of the first two books of the Sibylline Oracles, Judaeo-Christian texts that adopt the narrator, form, and language of Greek hexameter poetry and oracles. In the essay portion of this book, L. has built on the work of scholars such as R. Buitenwerf, J.J. Collins and H.W. Parke to produce new and incisive formulations of the problemata confronted by the scholar of Sibylline Oracles Books ι and answers to those questions that she believes can be reasonably deduced from the evidence. Lightfoot does not shy away from withholding a definitive conclusion when none seems to suggest itself from the extant material, leading her to sensibly conclude many of her deeply researched questions not with artificially confident answers, but with the questions to which her and others’ research has not been, and may never be, able to respond (see, for example, p. 219). L. exercises a healthy skepticism towards overly creative, and not sufficiently evidence-based, answers to textual problems. And problems in the Sibylline Oracles are inevitably textual problems because of the extreme scarcity (sometimes total dearth) of external evidence relevant to the discussion, and it is because of the textual nature of these questions that L.’s utilization of methods derived from classical philology yields such solid results. L.’s work represents the first comprehensive commentary in English on the first two books, such that all future study of the text will benefit from L.’s editing of the text and apparatus criticus for the first two books.

This volume is divided into three major parts: the first a series of essays on Books I-III that deal with questions best addressed comprehensively in one continuous discussion (general contexts, direct parallels or influences, questions of composition, and stylistics); the second, L.’s text, translation, and extensive commentary on Books I-II; and the third, a series of extremely useful appendices. The first section is itself divided into six chapters dealing with, respectively, the Sibyl, God, Prophecy, the relationship between Books I-II and Book III, technical stylistic analysis of Books ι and the classical and Judaeo-Christian contexts of Books I-III.

L. begins, reasonably, with a survey of the main references to Sibyls in classical literature in an effort to understand in what ways the self-depiction of the Sibyl throughout the Sibylline corpus contrasts with that of other seers, prophetesses, and inspired speakers in both the Jewish and classical traditions. She finds that, unlike the Sibyls we know through Heraclitus, Varro, and Pausanias, our Sibyl speaks not from a local outlook (i.e. Erythrean, Cumaean, Apamaean), but from a universal perspective (5). Being daughter-in-law to the gentile but revered Noah, our Sibyl, in the words of Momigliano, offers “the best of both [the pagan and Jewish] worlds,” (23) making her, like Job, a member of and therefore prophet to all of humanity. L., however, is careful to differentiate our Sibyl from the “privileged pagan” oracles which in later Christian texts were intended to provide independent confirmation for scripture’s veracity (23). L. sees our Sibyl’s self-depiction as deeply indebted to the Platonic (and Aeschylean) tradition of the crazed prophetess, but points out that, as befits “a prophetess of the true god …[, she] is not mad or deranged” (14). L. innovatively finds that our Sibyl, in marked distinction from prophetesses like Cassandra in poetry or the extant hexameter oracles from Delphi, depicts herself throughout the corpus (and L. quotes examples from Books ι but also from a wide range of later oracles) with language borrowed from the world of bards and of muses (11).

In the second chapter, “God,” L. elucidates the Sibyl’s conception of the monotheistic God. Using Norden’s groundbreaking Agnostos Theos (1913) as a starting point, L. looks for answers not in what the Sibyl says about God, but how she says it (for which, see L.’s appendix on “Predications of God and Divine Epithets”). On the basis of a variety of differences between our Sibyl and classical cletic hymns (i.e. the Sibyl avoids the second person vis-à-vis God, the Sibyl speaks about God’s essence not his actions) L. concludes that the Sibyl’s God, with His “pervasive anthropopathism” (38), more closely resembles the God of intertestamental literature than that of Platonists or Stoics. L. further finds that, although the Sibyl shares certain idioms with later theological oracles like those found in the Tübingen Theosophy (4th century AD the Sibyl, unlike these, makes no attempt to reconcile polytheistic and monotheistic traditions, to refer to God as Zeus, or to otherwise mask the differences between Judaeo-Christian and pagan outlooks.

The Sibyl’s presentation of God is inherently tied to the audience whom she addresses, thereby raising the question of this work’s intended audience. Though a long tradition of scholarship (including Schürer, Charles, Lanchaster, Rainbow, Dalbert and most recently Feldman) saw a missionary purpose in the Sibyl and other intertestamental literature, Goodman and Gruen’s attack on the missionary hypothesis has recently won relatively broad assent. Considering the internal evidence too weak, L. takes no strong position but conjectures that the Sibyl’s use of the term theos hypsistos and her tendency to tout Jewish ethical principles but eschew more explicitly Jewish practices (i.e. dietary laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision) may indicate that the Sibyl in part addresses her attention to the “God-fearers” or what she calls “the semi-pagan followers of the Theos Hypsistos” (44-47).

Though the Sibyl is a character from the classical tradition, L.’s third chapter, on prophecy, presents the Jewish Sibyllina as more firmly situated in the tradition of Jewish, rather than pagan, prophecy. Specifically, L. fits the Sibylline Oracles into the context of other apocalyptic literature, relying most heavily on John Barton’s work on Jewish prophecy in Oracles of God (London, 1986) and on J.J. Collins’ definitions of an “Apocalypse” in Seers, Sibyls and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism (Leiden, 1997). L. connects the content of Sibyl’s ethical passages (especially ps.-Phocylides in Book II) with the revelatory portions of the text. On the basis of this and other similar combinations of apocalyptic motifs, L. sees the Sibylline oracles and the Book of Enoch as closely connected. Based on the dating of various parts of Enoch by VanderKam’s Enoch and the Growth of an Apocalyptic Tradition (Washington, DC, 1984), L. presents a brief argument for a conjectured borrowing by the Sibyl of early translations of Enoch into Greek (72, 77), but admits, skeptically and wisely, that the evidence does not currently allow for a definitive answer to the question and that a shared tradition explains certain similarities just as well as direct borrowing. Finally, L. provides a survey of Jewish pseudepigraphic works that attribute Jewish prophetic texts to pagan authors. Endowed with extensive bibliographical and primary source citations, this section is a good review for those in the know and a clear survey for those with little background.

The fourth chapter deals with the troubling question of the composition of Books ι in particular whether the book represents a single and unified Christian composition or whether an earlier Jewish stratum can be discerned amidst a heap of Christian “accretions.” This section is rich in research regarding the textual sources of Books ι but a selection of a few crucial arguments will suffice to give a flavor of the chapter. L. sees Books I-II as a later Christian interpretation of Book III, comprising “a more systematic survey of world history, with an even grander finale” (94). Arguing against the position of Kurfess (“Oracula Sibyllina I/II”, ZNW 40 (1941), 151-165), L. sees the author of Books I-II unequivocally as a Christian of the second century AD (150), basing her terminus post quem on her revivification and expansion of the thesis of M.R. James that sees Books I-II (but especially II) as particularly indebted to the Apocalypse of Peter. L. brings further order to the text by convincingly showing how the borrowings of hellish scenes from Apoc. Petr. interact with the wholesale importation of the ethical teachings of ps.-Phocylides. L. shows that this section, far from being embarrassingly discrete, in fact is the “positive correlate of the depiction of hellish punishments” (147) in the “hell-tourism” of Book 2.254-283, thus bringing order and sense to what before was considered proof of the generic chaos of apocalyptic literature.

In the fifth chapter, L. addresses the Sibyl’s stylistics. Relying on the work of Nieto Ibáñez and others for her statistics, L. sees the metrical abnormalities of the Sibyl’s hexameters as based in epic precedent, deeming the Sibyl’s irregular lines as the product not necessarily of poetic weakness but rather of “liberal reinterpretation of Homeric license” (161). Sub-sections on “Morphology and Inflection” and then on “Syntax” provide a useful and detailed, well-organized grammar of the Sibyl’s particular syntactic and morphological tendencies. The chapter concludes with L.’s discussion of how stylistic elements shows the Sibyl to be more Hebrew or more Greek. L rejects Austin’s theory that the Sibyl’s alleged “parallelism” has its roots in Hebrew sources, seeing more likely a source in the LXX or in the repetitious style of Greek oracular poetry. L. claims that the mixing of Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek traditions would have been too far advanced in our Sibyl’s milieu to make it possible to settle the either/or question of Hebrew vs Greek influence vis-à-vis style.

In her sixth chapter, L. addresses the nature of the Sibyl’s borrowings from the classical and Jewish literary and mythological traditions. Though parallels in the text of the oracles to classical or Jewish sources are noted in L.’s detailed commentary, this chapter allows for a systematic approach to parallels. L.’s focus in this section on Book III, and in particular her stance on orality, puts her in direct conflict with Buitenwerf when she argues that Book III made use of written, and not necessarily always oral, consultation of its (especially Jewish LXX) sources (220; Buitenwerf, Rieuwerd. Book III of the Sibylline Oracles and its Social Setting, Leiden 2003, pp. 324-332). Readers will find useful L.’s discussion of a variety of parallels to Sibylline style and content in the LXX.

The book’s second part moves the focus of the book entirely to Books ι beginning with a short overview of those books’ textual history as manuscripts. This is followed by L’s text of the two books in Greek, together with critical apparatus, and her translation of the text into consistently accurate but also outstandingly poetic English, utilizing iambic pentameter blank verse throughout. Though L. provides no discussion of her method of translation, it is clear that her intention was to provide an English text as close as possible to the Greek, in order to make close-reading of the text possible together with the commentary, yet notably poetic in such a way as to preserve the essentially poetic and archaizing character of the oracles themselves.

Given that Book III was treated in such detail in an English-language commentary by Buitenwerf in 2003, Lightfoot might have spent her introductory essays concentrating more exclusively on issues directly concerning Books ι on which, as she points out in her introduction and throughout her essays, comparatively less work has been done. That being said, Lightfoot presents the material in a comprehensive and compelling way for readers not acquainted with the Sibylline corpus in general, and the material from Book III is very often introduced as a way to reinforce the differences between that earlier Jewish book and what Lightfoot takes to be the later essentially Christian-authored Books I-II. Further, L.’s conclusions are of a sufficiently divergent nature from those of Buitenwerf to justify her concentration on that book, especially insofar as it plays a crucial role in her understanding of how Books I-II came to be. Finally, Lightfoot’s very extensive commentary includes many notes that are themselves mini-essays on topics of interest in Books ι and more than make up for the way in which Book III occasionally steals the limelight in the introductory essays. The incredibly diverse references and analogues explored in depth in L.’s commentary provide rich reading on all of the traditional cruces of Sibylline scholarship and on many new issues as well.

Of the three appendices, scholars will see as invaluable the chapter on “Predications of God and Divine Epithets in the Sibylline Oracles” and her compilation in a single extended table of the “Sources and Parallels” that relate to individual verses of Books I-II. The indices include an index locorum, indices of Greek and Hebrew words used in L.’s essays and commentary, and complete general index. Readers who need to quickly find a particular discussion in the commentary will be pleased that the Table of Contents divides the commentary by the subject-matter of the episode(s) in the text it addresses at any given page.

L.’s work undeniably now holds a crucial place in scholarship on the oracles, and her matter of approach differs in some substantial points from that of Buitenwerf. Buitenwerf, unlike Lightfoot, includes two full chapters surveying the history of scholarship from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries (Buitenwerf 2003:5-64), making this review of scholarship just under one half of the total length of Buitenwerf’s introductory essays on the Sibylline oracles. This survey constitutes a welcome contribution to Sibylline studies, and it is only natural that Lightfoot should not have felt the need to take time and space to repeat this research. In general, Buitenwerf’s book assumes less prior knowledge on the part of the reader and makes a point of translating all foreign languages into English, making it more suited for the lay reader. On the other hand, Buitenwerf’s decision not to include the Greek text of Book III, or the Greek of many of his quotations in the essays, will frustrate scholars of the period. It is to this group, to scholars and students, that Lightfoot’s work will be most valuable. Though her decision not to translate Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian quotations in the essays and the commentary will limit the usefulness of the book to non-scholars, her graceful translation of the oracles and her exhaustive discussion of scholarly issues will undoubtedly inspire future students of the texts. All future study of the Sibylline Oracles will have to engage with this monumental work of scholarship.