The Use of Sibyls and Sibylline Oracles in Early Christian Writers

by Hooker, Mischa A.

Abstract (Summary)
References to the Sibyl and citations of oracles attributed to the Sibyl appear in the works of a number of early Christian writers, typically as part of an apologetic strategy: the Sibyl was known as an authority figure in Greek and Roman traditional culture, and so Sibylline texts forged by Jews and Christians were a useful device for promoting Christianity. Prior investigations of these references and citations, however, have tended to exaggerate the enthusiasm of early Christians for the Sibyl and Sibylline oracles. The present study first traces negative views of the Sibyl ñ the “default” position toward an oracular figure difficult to separate from Greco-Roman paganism. Christian writers who seem negatively inclined toward the Sibyl, however, did not generally attack her directly or question the texts’ authenticity. Strong attacks on the Sibyl are seen in a cluster in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, reflecting increased hostility to paganism on the part of Christians. Next, the general reputation of the Sibyl as a source amenable to Christians is established – a reputation eventually helped by a line referencing the cross. A rising enthusiasm for the view of the Sibyl as prophetess parallel to the Biblical prophets is observable through the later 2nd and early 3rd centuries, culminating in Clement of Alexandria’s full assimilation of her as a “Hebrew prophetess.” Such assimilation, however, conflicted with developing canon and apologetic use of Sibylline texts. Hence, early Christian writers of the later 3rd and early 4th centuries emphasized the Sibyl’s identity within paganism, and also first used the Sibyl for specifically Christian teachings. The use of the Sibyl by Lactantius and Augustine has also been overestimated. In fact, Lactantius cited the Sibyl with a calculated apologetic theory; he preserved a careful ambiguity regarding her status; and the Sibylline material did not drive his exposition. Augustine was very cautious about the usefulness of Sibylline appeals throughout his career, and only when confronted by a dramatic acrostic text did he come over enthusiastically to the view that the Sibyl was truly part of the City of God. This, however, became the standard medieval view.
Bibliographical Information:


School:University of Cincinnati

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:sibyl oracles inspiration prophecy clement of alexandria lactantius augustine constantine


Date of Publication:01/01/2008

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