Christmas and the end of history
In the misty morning of Roman history, an old woman came to King Tarquin and offered to sell him nine books at a huge price. He laughed. She went away, burnt three books and returned, offering the six left at the same price, only to be rebuffed again. A third time she came, with only three books still unburnt. Tarquin bought them at the price first named. For she was the Sibyl of Cumae, and the scrolls of her prophecies were lodged for centuries in the holiest site of pagan Rome, the temple of Jupiter.
Ancient Rome wanted to know its future, and yet feared to know, for the Sibylline prophecies spoke of ashes, suicide, rape, terror, looting and a terrible fall from pride that would bring despair to humankind. And so it came to pass.
There is, though, an unlikely place where both the prophets of Israel and the Cumaean Sibyl are honoured, and that is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's incomparable frescoes show her opposite the prophet Ezekiel. The idea comes from the poet Virgil, for in his fourth Eclogue he talks of a Cumaean prophecy coming true; he speaks of a virgin, the birth of a boy, the beginning of a golden age, with a new generation born from heaven. No wonder Christian poets and artists took it for an inspired prophecy. There, on Michelangelo's painted plaster, the puzzles of the pagan Sibyl and the Bible's prophecies are reconciled. But the world's conflicts still await reconciliation, and only in a spirit of hope can we wish all of our readers a Happy Christmas.
No pagan Sibylline Oracles survive, but there are Christian and perhaps Jewish oracles attributed to the Sibyl. Not all the surviving Sibylline Oracles are included in Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volumes. The More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project is publishing still more.