BMCR 2024.05.21

Hellénisme et prophétie. Les Oracles sibyllins juifs et chrétiens

, Hellénisme et prophétie. Les Oracles sibyllins juifs et chrétiens. Semitica & classica supplementa, 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2023. Pp. 368. ISBN 9782503607962.

The hexametric Sibylline Oracles, a pseudepigraphic collection of (largely) Jewish and Christian oracles, have experienced a scholarly renaissance. Since Jane Lightfoot’s edition and commentary of Books 1-2, which also featured a wider introduction to the corpus, classicists (alongside theologians with different but complementary interests) have worked to situate the collection within wider Greek and Roman literary culture and to examine its precise engagement with Greek literature, especially Homer and Hesiod.[1] Lafontaine’s new monograph is the first recent book to treat the whole corpus, and aims to contribute to these wider discussions. Despite the book’s general title, he focuses on the Oracles’ re-writing of scripture, paying particular attention to how this re-writing interweaves ‘allusions’ to Greek literature. Whilst Lafontaine’s ambitious scope should be commended, along with some of his more focused discussions, the monograph is flawed both methodologically and on matters of detail.

The meat of the book is two parts, but they are sandwiched by a brief introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, Lafontaine explains his notion of scriptural rewriting. Using Gérard Genette’s conception of a ‘hypertext’ derived from a ‘hypotext’, Lafontaine argues for the Oracles’ ‘intentional’ adaptation of biblical passages. In the conclusion, Lafontaine focuses on paideia, a concept I discuss further below, and briefly traces their reception in antiquity.

Part 1 provides a general study of the Oracles (‘Inscription générique des Oracles sibyllins’), contextualising the corpus from various angles. After the first chapter, a brief introduction, the second examines the figure of the Sibyl through her possible prophetic models, as well as passages which link her to Noah, Homer, and Vergil. Though there is a good examination of the way the Sibyl’s voice moves between the intra- and extra-diegetic (25), Lafontaine often rehearses scholarship without advancing it. For example, his discussion of prophetic inspiration largely repeats Lightfoot (41-44), and he is oddly dismissive of the importance of the Sibyl’s gender (48-50), though recent scholarship has put it centre-stage.

The third chapter discusses the Sibyl’s ‘wisdom’ through her similarities to Greek didactic literature, as well as her ethical commitments and religious and ethical language. There are some good moments here, especially the ‘popular’ quality of her moral message (66), and her use of the Homeric language of sacrifice (81), but this chapter tends to amass primary material rather than analyse it. For example, the argument that the Sibyl uses ethical categories derived from popular morality, though interesting in concept, is proven by an extended catalogue of examples but little discussion of, e.g., how these examples play different roles in the text (some are ethical injunctions to an addressee, others are realised in the eschaton). Then, we get a list of every example of a ‘paraenetic catalogue’ in the corpus. This is linked (rather vaguely) to catalogic aesthetics in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and didactic poetry (78). Discussions of individual paraenetic catalogues can be imprecise. For example, in a discussion of abstract moral language in 3.367-80, Lafontaine brings in over just half a page (74-75) Hesiodic personification, moral qualities in Theognis, and an allusion to the Iliad’s proem, all without exploring implications or disentangling what is different about these parallels.

The next chapter studies the Sibyl’s conception of both history and eschatology. This chapter is the strongest of Part 1: Lafontaine takes on Lightfoot’s analysis of the structure of Book 2’s eschaton, but extends it across other parts of the corpus to reveal the common building blocks of Sibylline eschatology whilst acknowledging a certain flexibility. He also deals well with the complex relationship between ‘mythical’, ‘historical’, and ‘eschatological’ time in the corpus.

Part 1’s final chapter examines the corpus’ presentation of ‘signs’ and ‘wonders’, linking them to wider discourses of divination and astrological disasters. Again, specific moments of this chapter are strong, especially Lafontaine’s argument that astrological breakdowns represent an inversion of philosophical and political order (109-12). However, it exhibits the same parallelomania as the chapter on the Sibyl’s wisdom. For example, Lafontaine quotes a large chunk of the Argonautica (in which the Argonauts’ despair is compared to men in a suffering city who witness prodigious events) just to argue that these phenomena can afflict mortals and make them conscious of divine power (107). Is this really the right comparison to focus on to illuminate the Oracles, whose signs may be more interpretable, and linked more to ‘didactic’ poetry?

Part 2 (‘Paraphrases bibliques’) examines the sections of the Oracles which rewrite passages from scripture. In the methodological introduction, Lafontaine restates his interest in intentional allusions before discussing what he means by paraphrase. Whilst he briefly mentions Josephus and Philo as examples of such paraphrase, his methodology focuses on ancient literary theory (120-22). He begins with Aelius Theon’s definition of paraphrase, before bringing in wider ancient literary criticism (Aristotle on the order of events and lexis, Demetrius on obscurity). As with other parts of the book, the move from one piece of evidence to another is confusing: Aelius Theon’s definition of paraphrase could be relevant, but the Sibyl’s prophetic obscurity is not best clarified by Demetrius’ conception of style, and Aristotle’s definition of lexis does not prepare us well for Lafontaine’s attention to intertextual lexical echoes. More conceptually, whilst Theon may offer a way into thinking about the potential for paraphrase to add to and subtract from its ‘hypotext’, I wonder how helpful it is to fit the Oracles within an educational and rhetorical context of paideia, rather than (a) an ancient Jewish and Christian context of scriptural paraphrase and (b) a poetic context of rewriting scripture through Homeric allusions (e.g., Nonnus’ Paraphrase of St John, Eudocia’s Homeric Centos, Ps.-Apollinaris’ Paraphrase of the Psalms).

Two major chapters follow, along with a much shorter conclusion to Part 2. The first, on the rewriting of ‘mythical’/‘historical’ portions of the Hebrew Bible, examines sections of the Oracles which narrate(/prophesy) Genesis’ cosmogony, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Exodus, and the destruction of the First Temple and the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem. The second, on the rewriting of the Gospels, studies the Oracles’ treatment of Jesus’ birth and ministry, and the Passion. Each individual section of these chapters is structured in a similar way: we get a quotation of the relevant passage, potentially some general discussions about its structure, and then its relationship to biblical passages and its ‘classical allusions’—although the subdivision between the biblical and the classical is not often maintained, and we occasionally get material like the Shepherd of Hermas classed as ‘classical’ literature (228). Whilst there is not a particularly strong ‘argument’, Lafontaine is especially interested in the interaction between classical allusions and biblical paraphrase. It would be impossible to deal with every section in this review, and so I discuss instead Lafontaine’s strengths and weaknesses across Part 2.

Lafontaine offers a few excellent insights into the Oracles’ rewriting of both their scriptural and pagan models. The discussion of Book 3’s bending of Genesis 1’s chronology (133) and the extreme compression of the Joseph story into a handful of lines in Book 11 (195) is especially strong. On the pagan side, Lafontaine’s study of the way in which Book 1’s proem uses the Hesiodic word ἐφετμή both for the commands which the addressee should listen to and for God’s commandments to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit (140) is a subtle close reading.

Some other parallels which Lafontaine notes are intriguing, but as in sections of Part 1, they are not always given the analytical space they need to breathe. His observation that Book 3’s description of the exile after the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem echoes Leviticus 26’s curse against the Israelites (207) is compelling, but could have been situated in a wider biblical context which reads the exile through Leviticus 26 (in, e.g., Daniel and 2 Chronicles). Similarly, Lafontaine notes an allusion to Aratus in 7.71’s use of ἐστήριξεν for God’s creation of heavenly towers which house personified virtues (228), but this could have been pushed further by noting the echo to Iliad 4.443’s use of ἐστήριξε for a personification of Eris (an anti-virtue?).

Finally, and most concerningly of all, Lafontaine’s conception of what may constitute an allusion is often extremely tendentious. Sometimes this stems from an attempt to make hexametric formulae refer to too precise a moment. For example, Lafontaine argues that 6.14’s description of baptism as pushing away ἄλγεα πολλά could allude to the μυρία… ἄλγεα which Achilles’ wrath causes in Il. 1.2 (223), even though ἄλγεα πολλά is a common Odyssean formula. Similarly, he argues that the textual variant ἄλγεα λυγρά could allude to Priam’s suffering in Il. 24.742, even though it is used more generically in Il. 13.346 and, if we wanted to push for a more direct allusion, it would make sense to link it to WD 200, where it is used of the woes of the Iron Race. In this reading, baptism would reverse Hesiodic pessimism.

Other times, Lafontaine’s echoes are far too distant. For example, he argues that Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples (χερσίν τε πόσιν τ᾽ ἐπιδείξει… ἴχνη πηχθέντα μέλεσσιν. 8.319-20) alludes to Odysseus revealing his scar to Eumaeus (σῆμα… δείξω Od. 21.217) (243). Odysseus’ scar and Jesus’ wounds are linked in, e.g., Eudocia’s Homeric Centos 2313, but I am unsure if ἐπιδείξει ~ δείξει is enough to get us there. Just before arguing for this allusion, Lafontaine notes a parallel to a line in Euripides’ Cyclops about pierced limbs (πηχθέντας μέλη, 302). Whilst it is ambiguous whether he reads this as a specific allusion, it does seem like Lafontaine, through a sleight of hand, wants to get us from one text about Odysseus to another. However, the combination of πήγνυμι and μέλη is common, and I doubt that the Oracles are alluding here to satyr play (even the role of tragedy in the corpus is contested). On the biblical side, Lafontaine suggests that the phrase βροτέην ἐνεδύσατο μορφήν (8.458) for the incarnation sends us to Philippians 2.7, where Jesus takes on the form of a slave (μορφὴν δούλου λαβών), and consequently to Isaiah’s ‘servant of God’ motif (265). Surely the word μορφή is doing too much work to allude to Philippians, let alone to Isaiah via window allusion. These loose allusions are unfortunately far too common in Part 2.

There are enough good observations that all who work on the Sibylline Oracles, and potentially those who work on wider Greco-Jewish and Greco-Christian literature, will want to consult this work. It is unfortunate, however, that readers will need to work hard both to push Lafontaine’s interpretations further themselves and to assess how convincing many of his parallels really are. I noticed few mis-citations and misprints, most of them trivial.[2]



[1] J. L. Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles: With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). For some exemplary recent work by classicists, see: Helen Van Noorden, ‘Hesiodic Rhapsody: The Sibylline Oracles’, in Reception in the Greco-Roman World: Literary Studies in Theory and Practice, ed. Marco Fantuzzi, Helen Morales, and Tim Whitmarsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 344–70; Emma Greensmith, ‘The Wrath of the Sibyl: Homeric Reception and Contested Identities in The Sibylline Oracles 3’, in Late Hellenistic Greek Literature in Dialogue, ed. Jason König and Nicolas Wiater (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 178–210.

[2] More serious: p. 27 puts οὐ μόνον in the wrong place in Plut. De Pyth. or. 407a; p. 83 cites 3.466 rather than 3.766; p. 104 claims that Thucydides 1.29 is opposed to paradoxography, but I presume that he is referencing τὸ μὴ μυθῶδες in 1.22.4; p. 146 claims that Hes. Th. 97 refers to poetic inspiration, when in fact it refers to the speech of kings; p. 229 cites Isthmian 5.56-57, rather than 44-45. Strangely, Lightfoot’s edition of Books 1-2 is not always used despite Lafontaine’s programmatic assertion (9) that it would be (e.g., 1.287 on p. 34, 2.248 on p. 91).