I have been reading the Sibylline Oracles for my daily quiet time. The Sibylline Oracles were pagan prophetesses, but Jews later composed an edition of their prophecies that were in line with Jewish thought, and Christians added Christian elements to some of the books.
What continually occurs in the books of the Sibylline Oracles is that they are purporting to predict the future about world figures and world events, and yet many scholars would say that the books are “prophesying” after the fact: that someone is putting words into the mouths of ancient figures, making it appear that these ancient figures were predicting the future, when that “future” is actually the past and present of the person putting the words into the ancient figures’ mouths. The Oracles predict, for example, that such-and-such a Roman leader will come, and that such-and-such will happen to him. They call the Roman leader by a number that can be decoded, or they refer to him by the first letter of his name, so scholars are often confident about the identity of the Oracles’ reference. Overall, what the Oracles said would happen is what happened in history, though things are not always that neat. In a number of cases, the writers’ knowledge of what happened or was happening appears to be skewed or inaccurate: they may say that the Roman leader would die in a certain way, for instance, when actually he died in another way. And, when they predict an eschatological intervention by God that would precede an eschatological paradise, scholars would not say that the Oracles were prophesying after the fact in those cases, for such a dramatic intervention by God followed by an eschatological paradise did not historically occur. Rather, the scholars would say that those writers of the Oracles expected such a dramatic intervention to occur in their own time—-the time of the Roman leader, or Nero.
As I was walking to church and thinking about the Sibylline Oracles one morning, I was wondering how exactly I should see the work. Prophesying after the fact—-acting as if one is an ancient writer predicting the future, when actually one is a current writer describing the present and the past as if they are the future—-sounds pretty shady and fraudulent, doesn’t it? So does putting Jewish and Christian words into the mouths of ancient pagan prophetesses. Was the goal of these authors or editors to make people believe that these renowned ancient prophetesses agreed with Judaism and Christianity and should be taken seriously because they accurately predicted the future? That is rather deceptive, isn’t it? Can I read such a work sympathetically? I usually try to give what I am reading the benefit of a doubt: to assume that the authors at least had a good motive. I would especially like to believe that the authors of the Sibylline Oracles had a good motive, since they say such profound things about the futility of war, and the rest and equality that will exist in the age to come. But if they were concocting a fraud to deceive people, does that imply that they did not even believe their own message? I have a hard time accepting that authors would write something that they do not even believe.
I wonder if there is a way to accept that the Sibylline Oracles were prophecies after the fact, while also acknowledging that their authors and editors sincerely believed what they were writing, regarding it, in some way, as divine revelation. They may have genuinely thought that God was at work in the manner that they were describing, and they wanted people to accept their message—-perhaps to gain hope that God was in control. They realized, however, that they were not important enough for their words to be taken seriously, so they put their words in the mouth of the ancient Sibylline Oracles. See here.
Or perhaps they actually believed that they were writing down the words of the ancient Sibylline Oracles: that God was telling them what the Sibylline Oracles said, or that they were somehow in touch with the Sibylline Oracles. Philo said that the composers of the Septuagint were in touch with the spirit of Moses when they were translating the Pentateuch into Greek (Philo, Life of Moses 2:40). There is a rabbinic tradition that even a question that a student asks was delivered to Moses on Sinai years before (Midrash Rabbah 47:1). In these cases, a person is saying something, and yet what that person said somehow coincides with something that a revered authority said years before. Could that be what is going on with pseudepigraphic writings, or what the writers of those writings believed was going on: that they were somehow channeling (if that is the right word) or mediating the words of Abraham, or Moses, or the Sibylline Oracles?
It gets difficult to believe that when we are dealing with glosses and insertions. A Jewish edition of a Sibylline Oracle may be going on about events, and a Christian glossator decides to insert a brief remark about Jesus, giving the impression that the ancient Sibylline Oracle was predicting Jesus. That does sound rather deceitful. At the same time, could the Christian glossator have believed that the Sibylline Oracles must have said something about Jesus—-which, in the Christian glossator’s mind, was the most significant thing that God had ever done in history—-and thus the Christian glossator, in his own mind, was simply returning to the text what he thought had originally been there? I don’t know. Maybe that is a stretch. On the other hand, the Christian glossator may have sincerely believed in Jesus and was open to convincing others of what he believed was the truth through fraudulent means, so he depicted the ancient and respected Sibylline Oracles as predicting Jesus.
This issue applies to the Bible, too, at least if you agree with the scholars who believe that Moses did not write Deuteronomy, or that Daniel did not write the Book of Daniel. Someday, I may read Bart Ehrman’s Forged, which is about pseudepigraphy in ancient times. Ehrman has a more scholarly version of the book, but I would like to see how he explains to layreaders why writers resorted to pseudepigraphy.