The Passion Narrative in the Sibylline Oracles

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The Passion Narrative in the Sibylline Oracles 










The question of the relationship between apocryphal and canonical Scrip-

tures is fascinating, but it has to be asked in different ways depending on 

the apocryphal text under study. In this paper I look at the way the passion 

narratives are retold in the Sibylline Oracles. The question is to be asked 

specifically for the Sibyls who are “vaticinating” in Books 1, 6, and 8 of 

the collection. A special place must be given to the first Book,


 because in 




I wish to thank warmly Dr. Alicia Batten and Dr. Paul Laverdure for their valuable 

help in editing this text. 


 This book consists of 400 hexameters, an important part of which – verses 1 to 323 

– is probably the work of a Jewish author of the turning point of our era, “rewritten” by a 

Christian who intended to complete it by adding a long section on Jesus and his earthly 

ministry. Most scholars see Books 1 and 2, separated in the manuscripts by a colophon, 

as a single writing. Some date its composition in the second or third century of the Chris-

tian era. Some others consider that there is no reason to distinguish a primitive Jewish 

stratum and a Christian rewriting, and conclude that the double Book 1–2 is an entirely 

Christian work of the second, third or fifth century (see the conclusion below). For recent 

studies of this double book, see J.L. Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles. With Introduction, 

Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books (Oxford 2008); O. Waß-

muth,  Sibyllinische Orakel 1/2: Ein apokalyptisches Dokument des kleinasiatischen Ju-

dentums und seine christliche Adaption. Studien und Kommentar (to be published in the 

series “Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity” at Brill, Leiden, in 2010); and T. Beech, 

A Socio-Rhetorical Analysis of the Development and Function of the Noah-Flood Narra-

tive in Sibylline Oracles 1–2 (Ph.D. Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Theology, Saint 

Paul University, Ottawa, February 2008). A first review of J.L. Lightfoot’s book was 

published by A. Kachuk in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, June 21, 2008; very recently a 

shorter review has been published by G.L. Watley in The Classical Review 59/1 (2009), 

101–103 (who is about to finish his own dissertation on the Sibylline Oracles 1–2). See 

also M. Monaca, Oracoli Sibillini (Testi patristici 199; Rome 2008). Translations of the 

Sibylline Oracles are taken from J.J. Collins, “The Sibylline Oracles,” in The Old Testa-

ment Pseudepigrapha (ed. by J.H. Charlesworth; vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Tes-

taments; Garden City, N.Y. 1983), 317–472 (unless otherwise stated). The Greek text, 

sometimes emended, is taken from J. Geffcken, Die Oracula Sibyllina (GCS 8; Leipzig 

1902; repr. Berlin 1967). 

Jean-Michel Roessli 


it the Sibyl predicts not only the advent of Christ, his passion, and his res-

urrection but, still more surprisingly, she also predicts the gospel and the 

end of the prophets (vv. 382 and 386). This means that the Sibyl, who is a 

pagan prophetess, considers herself to be on the same level as the prophets, 

prophesying the history of salvation with them, and also completes them, 

explaining that their promises are realised in Jesus. And she even pretends 

to a kind of superiority, since she predicts the teachings of the gospels (v. 

382) and the end of prophecy (v. 386). In order to realize this divinatory 

fiction – since it is obviously a fiction – the Sibyl intends to use both the 

prophets and the Gospels, often combining the two, either by implicit 

allusions, or by literal quotations, or even by precise lexical borrowings. In 

order to build her passion narrative, the Sibyl selects elements from both 

canonical and apocryphal traditions, sometimes identified and sometimes 

not, which she illustrates with texts from the prophets. 

The Passion Narrative in Books 1, 6 and 8 

of the Sibylline Oracles (Sibyllina Oracula

Thus this paper analyzes textual fragments related to the passion in Books 

1, 6, and 8 of the Sibylline Oracles and compares them with the corre-

sponding passages in the New Testament. Subsequently, the paper evalu-

ates the Sibyl’s rewriting, points of contact between her work and the ca-

nonical Scriptures, possible dependencies, and discrepancies. 

Sib Or 1:365–366 and Sib Or 8:287–290 

In the Sibylline Oracles, the passion narrative proper starts with Christ’s 

scourging, when he receives blows and spit. We find the scourging in Sib 

Or 1:365–366 and Sib Or 8:287–289, while the canonical narrative can be 

read in Matt 26:67 and 27:30; Mark 14:65 and 15:19, and Luke 22:63–65. 

Sib Or 1:365366 





kai. to,te dh. kola,fouj kai. ptu,smata far& 


Then indeed Israel, with abominable lips, 


VIsrah.l dw,sei musaroi/j evni. cei,lesi 


And poisonous spittings, will give this 

man blows. 

Sib Or 8:287–290 

eivj avno,mwn cei/raj kai. avpi,stwn u[steron 


Later he will come into the hands of lawless 

and faithless men, 

dw,sousin de. qew/| r`api,smata cersi.n av& 


and they will give blows to God with un-

holy hands 

kai. sto,masin miaroi/j evmptu,smata 


and poisonous spittings with polluted 


The Passion Narrative in the Sibylline Oracles 


dw,sei dV eivj ma,stigaj avnaplw,saj to,te 


Then he will stretch out his back and give it 

to the whips. 

Luke’s narrative, where there is no mention of the spit, is too different 

from the text in the Sibylline Oracles to have served as a source for the 

Sibyl. We can thus set it aside. The words r`api,smata


and  evmptu,smata



Sib Or 8:288–289, however, reveal a close kinship with Matthew’s 

narrative, where we find the corresponding verbs evmptu,w and r`api,zw in 

Matt 26:67, and the verb evmptu,w alone in Matt 27:30. The same terms 



and evmptu,smata


also show a link with Mark’s narrative, where 

in 14:65 we find the verbs evmptu,w and the substantive r`api,smata


in the 

dative plural. Nevertheless, since Mark is closer to Luke than to Matthew 

and we have set aside the third evangelist, we can conclude for now that 

the closest parallel is with Matthew. Several other passages in the Sibylline 

Oracles confirm that Matthew was the Gospel par excellence, as is 

generally the case for most Christian apocalyptic literature of the second 

and third centuries. 

In the case of Sib Or 1:365, the kinship with Matt seems to be 

particularly clear, since Matt 26:67 uses kolafi,zw and evmptu,w, while the 

Sibylline verse combines the substantives kola,fouj and ptu,smata; an 

abbreviated form of evmptu,smata in Sib Or 8:288. 

In the canonical Gospels the spit upon Jesus is mentioned twice and in 

two different contexts. In Matt 26:67 // Mark 14:65 it is done in front of 

the Sanhedrin, while in Matt 27:30 // Mark 15:19 it is done by the Roman 



 The context is not defined clearly in the Sibylline Oracles. But in 

Sib Or 1:365–366, the responsibility for the scourging is explicitly stated: 

it is Israel. “Then indeed Israel, with abominable lips, / and poisonous 

spittings, will give this man blows.” This anti-Judaism is not new in Book 

1 of the Sibylline Oracles, since it appears earlier, in lines 360–361: “And 

then Israel, intoxicated, will not perceive / nor yet will she hear, afflicted 

with weak ears.” Yet, in Book 8 the Sibyl leaves the identity of the guilty 

party vague, because she introduces the scourging by saying that the Logos 

will come into the hands of lawless and faithless men” – Jesus is called 

this two lines earlier (v. 285: “and the Logos, who creates forms, to whom 

everything is subject”). Who these lawless and faithless men are cannot be 

easily determined. Nevertheless, we may wonder if the words avno,moi and 


 refer to the Romans rather than to the Jews, because the latter had 



 In the fourth Gospel, Jesus is also struck twice, the first time by one of the guards of 

the High Priest (John 18:22: r`a,pisma), the second time by the Roman soldiers (John 19:3: 



Jean-Michel Roessli 


received the Law (“no,moj”), which is not the case for the Romans.


 But we 

can also wonder if the use of these two adjectival nouns does not distin-

guish two categories of unbelievers: on the one hand, the Romans, de-

prived of the Law (avno,moi), and, on the other hand, the Jews, who are 

faithless (avpi,stoi). If so, the two adjectival nouns would echo the Gospel 

narrative, where Jews and Romans alternately participate in the trial of Je-

sus. It is true that earlier in Book 8 (v. 220: “Both faithful and faithless 

men will see God”), specifically in the acrostic poem narrating Christ’s 

parousia and the Last Judgment, these two words are used interchangeably 

in order to contrast “just” with “unjust” or “faithful” with “faithless.



some lines earlier in Book 1 (vv. 362–363), where the anti-Jewish polemic 

is obvious, the Sibyl announces that “when the raging wrath of the Most 

High comes upon the Hebrews / it will also take faith away from them.” In 

the eyes of this Sibyl, there are Jews who are faithless (avpi,stoi). 

In Book 8 (v. 290), the scene continues with a line which does not have 

any parallel in Book 1: “Then he will stretch out his back and give it to the 



 The source here is not found in the canonical Gospels but in the 

third song of the suffering Servant of Isa 50:6 (NRSV): “I gave my back to 

those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I 

did not hide my face from insult and spitting.


 Three key words of this 

biblical verse are to be found in the scourging narrative in Book 8 of the 

Sibylline Oracles: ma,stigaj, r`api,smata, and evmptusma,twn, with one differ-

ence: in the third song of the suffering Servant the scourging precedes the 



 T. Nicklas, “Apokryphe Passionstraditionen im Vergleich: Petrusevangelium und Si-

byllinische Orakel (Buch VIII)”, in Das Evangelium nach Petrus. Text, Kontexte, Inter-

texte (ed. by T.J. Kraus & T. Nicklas; TU 158; Berlin and New York 2007), 263–279, 

here 270. 




 Lactantius  (Divine Institutes, 4:18:15), Augustine (City of God, 18:23:2), and the 

author of the Tübingen Theosophy (Beatrice, Anonymi Monophysitae Theosophia. An 

Attempt at Reconstruction [VigChr.S 56; Leiden, Boston and Cologne 2001], 55,225 = 

Erbse, Fragmente griechischer Theosophien [Hamburger Arbeiten zur Altertumswissen-

schaft 4; Hamburg 1941], 10,274) have a slightly different text: “But he will give for 

their blows simply a holy back.” The last is the epitome of a collection of pagan testimo-

nia compiled at the end of the 5


 or at the beginning of the 6


 century of our era and 

which relies mostly on Lactantius: see the bibliography in Beatrice and Lightfoot (n. 1), 



 Isa 50:6 LXX: To.n nw/to,n mou de,dwka eivj ma,stigaj( ta.j de. siago,naj mou eivj 

r`api,smata( to. de. pro,swpo,n mou ouvk avpe,streya avpo. aivscu,nhj evmptusma,twn

. – e;mptusma 

is a hapax legomenon in Isaiah. This biblical verse is also the background of Matt 26:67; 

cf. U. Luz, Matthew 21–28. A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis 2005), 448, n. 11. 

Jesus’ prediction of the Son of Man’s sufferings in the Synoptics (Mark 10:34 and paral-

lels) is surely inspired by this verse of Isaiah; see D.J. Moo, The Old Testament in the 

Gospel Passion Narratives (Sheffield 1983), 88–89 and 139–144. 

The Passion Narrative in the Sibylline Oracles 


blows and the spit. The process of rewriting in this section of Book 8 is 

similar to what we read in the Epistle of Barnabas 5:14 which quotes Isa 

50:6–7 without 6b–7a: “Again he says, ‛See! I have set my back to whips 

and my cheeks to blows; and I have set my face as a hard rock.’



It must be pointed out that, although they sometimes differ from each 

other, the two passages from the Sibylline Oracles both qualify the spit 

upon Jesus’ face as farmako,enta, i.e. “poisonous” or venomous.” This is 

not the case in the biblical text. Now, if the canonical Gospels merely say 

that Jesus received spit on his face, literally “in his eyes,” the Sibylline 

Oracles are more interested in stating that the spit comes from “abomina-

ble or “unclean lips” (1:366) and “polluted mouths” (8:289). Although the 

adjectives are not the same, the idea of “unclean lips” in Sib Or 1:366 

surely comes from Isa 6:5, where the prophet accuses himself and the peo-

ple to whom he belongs, that is to say, Israel, of having “unclean lips” 

(avka,qarta cei,lh e;cwn evn me,sw| laou/ avka,qarta cei,lh e;contoj). This par-

allel seems to be more than likely, because the verses quoted (Sib Or 

1:360–361, 369–371) are a free rewriting of the same chapter in the Book 

of Isa 6:9–10, where Israel is accused of stubbornness and stupidity: “And 

he said, “Go and say to this people: ‛Keep listening, but do not compre-

hend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people 

dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with 

their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, 

and turn and be healed.” (NRSV)


 Sib Or 8:289 is much less explicit in its 

accusation on this point. 

Some scholars state that these verses of the Sibylline Oracles (8:287–

290) are reminiscent of the Gospel of Peter 9


, but this is unproven. A de-



 Barn. 5:14: Kai. pa,lin le,gei\  vIdou,( te,qeika, mou to.n nw/ton eivj ma,stigaj( kai. ta.j 

siago,naj eivj r`api,smata( to. de. pro,swpo,n mou e;qhka w`j sterea.n pe,tran

. Translation by 

B.D. Ehrman in: The Apostolic Fathers (vol. 1; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, 

Mass. 2003); reprint in: id., Lost Scriptures. Books that Did Not Make It into the New 

Testament (Oxford 2003), 224. 


 Isa 6:9–10 LXX: kai. ei=pe Poreu,qhti kai. ei=pon tw/| law/| tou,tw| VAkoh|/ avkou,sete kai. 

ouv mh. sunh/te kai. ble,pontej ble,yete kai. ouv mh. i;dhte\ evpacu,nqh ga.r h` kardi,a tou/ laou/ 


‚ kai. toi/j wvsi.n auvtw/n bare,wj h;kousan kai. tou.j ovfqalmou.j auvtw/n evka,mmusan‚ 

mh,pote i;dwsi toi/j ovfqalmoi/j kai. toi/j wvsi.n avkou,swsi kai. th/| kardi,a| sunw/si kai. evpi& 

stre,ywsi kai. iva,somai auvtou,j


 Gospel of Peter 9: “Others standing there were spitting in his face; some slapped 

his cheeks; others were beating him with a reed; and some began to flog him, saying, 

‛This is how we should honor the Son of God!’”  Kai. e[teroi e`stw/tej evne,ptuon auvtou/ 

tai/j o;yesi kai. avlloi ta.j siago,naj auvtou/ evra,pisan( e[teroi kala,mw| e;nusson auvto.n kai. 

tinej auvto.n evma,stizon le,gontej\ tau,th| th/| timh/| timh,swmen to.n ui`o.n tou/ qeou/

. Trans-

lated by Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (n. 7), 32; on the critical text cf. T.J. Kraus / T. Nicklas, 

Das Petrusevangelium und die Petrusapokalypse. Die griechischen Fragmente mit deut-

Jean-Michel Roessli 


tailed comparison shows that the differences are more important than the 

similarities, and the latter are better explained by the imagery of the suffer-

ing Servant in Isa 50:6 than by a literary dependence between both texts.



It is interesting to note that the verses 287-290 of Sib Or 8 are quoted 

after Isa 50:5–6 and Ps 34:15–16 in the Divine Institutes of Lactantius 

(4:18:15), written at the beginning of the fourth century of our era, as 

proofs of pagan prophecies of Christ’s Passion.


 Augustine also cites 

them, but in Latin, in his City of God 18:23:2, after he presents and dis-

cusses the Sibyl’s famous acrostic. The Bishop of Hippo attempts to gather 

into a coherent unity those verses of the Sibylline Oracles spread 

throughout Lactantius’ work, “to support the progression of his 

argument,” as Augustine says. It must be pointed out that all of the 17 

verses gathered by Augustine refer to the Passion of Jesus: 

Afterwards, says she [= the Sibyl], he shall fall into the unjust hands of unbelievers; they 

shall strike God with unclean hands and shall spit upon him the poisonous spittle of their 

impure mouths; but he shall simply give over his holy back to their whips.


 And silently 

he shall take their blows so that none may know what word, or whence, He comes to 

speak to hell as he is crowned with thorns.


 For meat they have given him gall, and for 

drink, vinegar; this is the kind of hospitality they shall show him at table.


 Thou fool – 

not to have recognized thy God, displaying himself before the minds of men; instead, you 

crowned him with thorns and brewed him the cup of bitter-tasting gall.


 But the veil of 

the temple shall be rent; and at midday there shall be a night of pitch-blackness lasting 

for three hours.


 And, having died, he shall sleep the sleep of death for three days; then 

he shall come back from hell to the daylight; the first of the arisen, establishing the be-

ginning of resurrection for those whom he has recalled.


 (The City of God, 18:23:2)




scher und englischer Übersetzung (GCS NF 11; Neutestamentliche Apokryphen 1; Berlin 

and New York 2004). 


 This is also the point of view of Nicklas, “Apokryphe Passionstraditionen” (n. 3), 

270–271. See also L. Vaganay, L’évangile de Pierre (ÉtB; Paris 1930), 164–165. Vaga-

nay’s conclusions have been accepted by Mara, Évangile de Pierre (SC 201; Paris 1973; 

²2006). 23; Ead., Il Vangelo di Pietro (Scritti delle origini cristiane 30; Bologna 2003), 

19; M. Erbetta, Gli apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento. Vangeli I.1: Scritti affini ai vangeli 

canonici – composizione gnostiche – materiale illustrativo (Torino 1975), 141; J. Den-

ker,  Die theologiegeschichtliche Stellung des Petrusevangeliums. Ein Beitrag zur Ge-

schichte des Doketismus (EHS XXIII.36; Bern and Frankfurt, Main 1975), 19–20. 


 They can also be found in the Tübingen Theosophy (Beatrice [n. 5], 55,222–225 = 

Erbse [n. 5], 10,271–274). 


 Sib Or 8:287–290; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:18:15. 


 Sib Or 8:292–294; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:18:17. 


 Sib Or 8:303–304; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:18:19. 


 Sib Or 6:22–24; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:18:20. 


 Sib Or 8:305–306; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:19:5. 


 Sib Or 8:312–314; Lactantius, Div. Inst., 4:19:10. 


 Augustinus,  The City of God, 18:23:2: “in manus iniquas”, inquit, “infidelium 

postea ueniet; dabunt autem deo alapas manibus incestis et inpurato ore exspuent uenena-

The Passion Narrative in the Sibylline Oracles 


These verses come mainly from Book 8 of the Sibylline Oracles (except 

three verses coming from Book 6). Book 1 apparently was unknown to 

Lactantius (and consequently to Augustine, who relied on the latter for his 

knowledge of these lines). 

Sib Or 8:292–293 

The first Book of the Sibyllline Oracles jumps directly from the scourging 

and the spit to the food and drink given to Jesus on the Cross (1:367). 

But in Book 8, verses 292–293, there is an interesting development in 

Jesus’ attitude at the scourging: “Beaten, he will be silent, lest anyone rec-

ognize who he is, whose son, and whence he came, so that he may speak to 

the dead.” The blows are noted by the same verb, kolafi,zw, that we find 

in Matt 26:65 and Mark 14:65. This is nothing new, except that the order 

of events here is closer to the canonical Gospels than in Book 1. As for Je-

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