Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Erythræan Sibyl's prophecy of the Christ

Michelangelo's Erythræan Sibyl
from the Sistine Chapel.
Most semi-conscious Christians are aware that the coming of Jesus was foretold in the Hebrew sacred books, particularly the prophetic writings of Isaiah. That said, almost no one today realizes that it was a common belief among early Christians that Our Lord’s advent was predicted by pagan oracles as well. It is for this reason that we see the various pagan Sibyls included among the Hebrew prophets in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Though normally possessed by demonic spirits in the form of pagan divinities, it was believed that these prophetesses would occasionally be compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak the truth in order to help prepare the gentile world for the coming of Jesus.

One of the earliest proponents of this theory was, in fact, the emperor Constantine himself. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, transcribed by Eusebius Pamphilius in the early 4th century AD, Constantine presents evidence that the Erythræan Sibyl, writing in Asia Minor hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, predicted both His coming and His judgment upon mankind. Constantine explains:
"The Erythræan Sibyl, then, who herself assures us that she lived in the sixth generation after the flood, was a priestess of Apollo, who wore the sacred fillet in imitation of the God she served, who guarded also the tripod encompassed with the serpent's folds, and returned prophetic answers to those who approached her shrine; having been devoted by the folly of her parents to this service, a service productive of nothing good or noble, but only of indecent fury, such as we find recorded in the case of Daphne. On one occasion, however, having rushed into the sanctuary of her vain superstition, she became really filled with inspiration from above, and declared in prophetic verses the future purposes of God."
He then goes on to cite the Sibyl's verses. A straight reading of the words reveals an eschatological text concerning the world's end and divine judgment using terminology which, though generally Judeo-Christian in tone, does not mention anything specifically Christian. The verses are remarkable, however, because the lines form an acrostic--that is, a poetic form in which a hidden message is related via the first letter of each line. In the Greek, these letters spell out the words: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Cross. These verses in the original Greek, and in a literal translation into English with explanation, may be found here.

The Erythræan Sibyl from the Duomo in Siena.
"It is evident," Constantine continues, "that the virgin [meaning, the Sibyl] uttered these verses under the influence of Divine inspiration. And I cannot but esteem her blessed, whom the Savior thus selected to unfold his gracious purpose towards us."

The first thought of skeptical moderns when confronted with these verses is that they are forgeries written by a Christian hand after the fact and dropped into the so-called Sibylline literature. Apparently, such arguments were current in Constantine's time as well, for the emperor mentions these types of doubts and has the refutation immediately at hand:
"Many, however, who admit that the Erythræan Sibyl was really a prophetess, yet refuse to credit this prediction, and imagine that someone professing our faith, and not unacquainted with the poetic art, was the composer of these verses. They hold, in short, that they are a forgery, and alleged to be the prophecies of the Sibyl on the ground of their containing useful moral sentiments, tending to restrain licentiousness, and to lead man to a life of sobriety and decorum. Truth, however, in this case is evident, since the diligence of our countrymen has made a careful computation of the times; so that there is no room to suspect that this poem was composed after the advent and condemnation of Christ, or that the general report is false, that the verses were a prediction of the Sibyl in an early age. For it is allowed that Cicero was acquainted with this poem, which he translated into the Latin tongue, and incorporated with his own works. This writer was put to death during the ascendancy of Antony, who in his turn was conquered by Augustus, whose reign lasted fifty-six years. Tiberius succeeded, in whose age it was that the Savior's advent enlightened the world, the mystery of our most holy religion began to prevail, and as it were a new race of men commenced."
Read the full Oration of Constantine (Chapters 18 and 19) here.

This testimony of the Erythræan Sibyl is later cited by Saint Augustine in his magnum opus, The City of God, Book 18, Chapter 23. Augustine provides his own translation of the acrostic verses along with additional information borrowed from the late 3rd century Christian apologist, Lactantius. The writings of Lactantius regarding the Sibylline prophecies and their relationship to Christianity may be found here.

See the second part of this post in which Constantine calls out and parses the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, written in 40 BC, as another prophecy of the Christ.

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