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Note of the Day – December 23

Early Christians, having found evidence for Jesus Christ in any number of Old Testament passages (see prior Advent notes and articles), began to look toward other writings—Jewish and pagan—for signs which foretold the coming of Christ. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, more such material became increasingly known and made available. A large portion of this Jewish literature comes under the umbrella term “Pseudepigrapha”—a rather unfortunate label which has nonetheless been almost universally adopted (for more on the meaning and use of this term, see the explanatory article on Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity).  These writings draw heavily upon the Old Testament books (thereby the qualifier Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), but are typically kept distinct from other writings of the period which also rely upon the OT Scriptures, namely: (a) the Dead Sea Scrolls, (b) works of Jewish philosophers and historians (such as Philo and Josephus), (c) the New Testament books, (d) similar works which draw upon the NT (in imitation of OT Pseudepigrapha), and (e) works of Rabbinic Judaism (Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashim). The Pseudepigrapha are primarily the product of Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Judaism, most being written in Greek (with some originally in Hebrew or Aramaic). They cover a wide range of material, with dates spanning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. (or later). The standard critical collection (in English) is the 2-volume set edited by J. H. Charlesworth (1983), originally published as part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library.

It is mainly due to the efforts of Christian scribes (whatever their intentions), that the Pseudepigrapha have come down to us today. This fact of transmission and preservation has created additional complications for analyzing these writings. With regard to their relationship to Christianity, one may outline four distinct situations—works which are:

  1. Entirely Jewish (or very nearly so)
  2. Primarily Jewish, but which contain significant passages considered to be Christian interpolations
  3. Primarily Christian, but which are most likely built upon earlier Jewish material
  4. Entirely Christian, composed in imitation of Jewish models

In terms of Pseudepigraphal works which provide (apparent) prophecies of Christ, including prophecies of his birth, the so-called Sibylline Oracles are perhaps the most noteworthy. The Sibyls were ancient prophetesses described in Greco-Roman literature; already in the Classical-period (5th-4th centuries B.C.) they were shrouded in legend, and it is difficult to say to what extent they represent real historical persons. However, their purported oracles were widely consulted and referenced, and a number of collections were drawn up over the centuries, most notably being the official collection kept in Rome (lost in a fire 83 B.C.). The set of fourteen ‘books’ of the surviving Sibylline Oracles is itself a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material, dating variously between the 2nd century B.C. and sometime after 500 A.D. The following oracles (or books) are generally regarded as Christian productions or adaptations:

  • Book 6: A short hymn to Christ of 28 lines, cited by Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.) in the 4th book of his Divine Institutes.
  • Book 7: A set of oracles touching upon world history and prophesying the coming Judgment (lines 29-39, 64-75 explicitly speak of Christ); also cited by Lactantius.
  • Books 1 (and 2): A Christian expansion/adaptation of a Jewish oracle spanning Biblical history (see below)
  • Book 8: An extensive Christian expansion upon a (Jewish?) anti-Roman oracle. In addition to the famous acrostic (lines 217-50), there are two lengthy sections on the life of Christ (see below); this oracle is cited by Lactantius (Institutes bk 7, etc), and the acrostic poem in Augustine’s City of God (18:23).

The principle passages (abridged) which speak of the birth (or incarnation) of Christ are:

1.324ff:

Then indeed the son of the great God will come,
incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth….
331Christ, the son of the most high, immortal God….
334Priests will bring gifts to him, bringing forward gold,
myrrh, and incense….

8.255ff:

The one who has believed in him will have eternal life.
For he will come to creation not in glory, but as a man,
pitiable, without honor or form, so that he might give hope to the faithless,
and he will fashion the original man,….
269Mindful therefore of this resolution, he will come to creation
bearing a corresponding copy to the holy virgin,….

8.456ff:

In the last times he changed the earth and, coming late
as a new light, he rose from the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Coming from heaven, he put on a mortal form…
469….A word flew to her womb.
In time it was made flesh and came to life in the womb,
and was fashioned in mortal form and became a boy
by virgin birth. For this is a great wonder to men,
but nothing is a great wonder for God the Father and God the Son.
The joyful earth fluttered to the child at its birth.
The heavenly throne laughed and the world rejoiced.
A wondrous, new-shining star was venerated by Magi.
The newborn child was revealed in a manger to those who obey God:
cowherds and goatherds and shepherds of sheep.
And Bethlehem was said to be the divinely named homeland of the Word.

Besides the Sibylline Oracles, one should also note the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: a Jewish collection of prophecies, patterned after Genesis 49, composed for the most part sometime during the late (?) 2nd century B.C. (there are fragments of similar ‘Testaments’ among the Qumran texts, most notably 4QTLevi ar). The work as a whole underwent a Christian redaction at some point, for there are a dozen or so passages which would seem to be Christian modifications or interpolations. Since the Jewish material already contained a number of ‘Messianic’ passages, it is somewhat difficult to determine definitively all of the Christian changes. In terms of prophecies of the birth of Jesus, the most significant passages are (in abridged form):

Testament of Levi 18:

2And then the Lord will raise up a new priest….
3And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.

Testament of Joseph 19:8-12:

And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb….
9And the angels and mankind and all the earth rejoiced over him…
11….will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel.
For his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will not pass away…

Other passages from the Pseudepigrapha which describe in some fashion the birth or coming of Christ:

Ascension of Isaiah 11; Testament of Isaac 3:18; Testament of Adam 3:3; Testament of Solomon 23:20; Ladder of Jacob 7; Treatise of Shem; 2 Enoch 71 (J); 4 Baruch 9:15ff; History of the Rechabites 12:9a ff; note also Apocalypse of Adam 7:9ff.
See also Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities) 9:9ff (on the birth of Moses), 42 (on the birth of Samson); Lives of the Prophets 2:8ff.

Translations above of the Sibylline Oracles are by J. J Collins, those of the Testaments are by H. C. Kee (both from the Charlesworth edition V.1, pp. 318ff and 776ff).

The acrostic poem from the Sibylline Oracles 8:217-50, cited by Augustine in the City of God (18:23), made its way into the Christian liturgy as the “Song of the Sibyl” (better known by its Latin title Iudicii signum). Accompanied by a pseudo-Augustinian homily, the Song became part of a lesson chanted in the night office (matins) for Christmas (eve), until it was eventually banned as part of the Council of Trent’s liturgical reforms. It continues to be performed today, especially in the popular Catalan version. A reference to the Sibyl remains in the Dies Irae: the “day of wrath”, which was prophesied by both “David and the Sybil” (teste David cum Sibylla), a reflection of that interest in pagan lore—side by side with Christianity—which, having first appeared in the early Church, resurfaced powerfully during the Renaissance.

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