Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth


In recent notes on the Book of Revelation (the visions of chapters 13-17), we have had occasion to explore the “Sea” as a symbol. In my view, within the visionary language of Revelation, it rather clearly represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil that are at work in the world. This symbolism derives largely, and primarily, from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. The ancient cosmology, widespread throughout the Near East, extending to Greece in the West and India in the East, can be summarized as follows:

In the beginning there was only a great (and dark) mass of water. The universe came to take shape within the midst of these primeval waters, like a bubble surrounded by water. This space effectively separated the water ‘above’ from the water ‘below’, even as the heaven/sky above would be separated from the earth (and underworld) below in the developing universe. The universe itself was geocentric (very different from our modern understanding of the universe) and spherical (or hemispherical) in shape; only the spherical shape of the upper half is definite, since it was much harder to be sure of the shape of things below the earth. The “earth” in its narrow sense was generally viewed as a flat disc or cylinder, with a hemispheric ‘dome’ above, and a similar (or roughly comparable) space below. The waters above manifested themselves primarily through rain and snow, etc, while the waters below by way of underground springs, and so forth. There were also waters (rivers, lakes, etc) on the surface of the earth. In some cosmologies, the earth/universe was also surrounded by a ring of water, related to primitive conceptions of the great oceans. Only a few brave souls would have ventured out into the oceans far enough to realize the lands and peoples beyond; for most the oceans represented the boundary of the known world.

Thus the “Sea”, as the primeval waters, was central to the ancient cosmology. An important related concept had to do with the creation of the universe in terms of establishing an order within the natural world. This order is reflected and expressed several ways, one of the most fundamental being that of separation—dividing and arranging the universe into distinct shapes, regions, livable domains, etc. By contrast, the primeval waters represent the opposite of order—the condition of things before the natural order of creation was established. The waters are now generally outside of the created order, manifest and breaking through only at its boundaries (above, below, and the oceans beyond). When it does ‘break through’ often chaos and destruction is the result (i.e. through rain-storms, flooding, tidal waves, etc), endangering life on earth. To make human life, in particular, sustainable requires that these primeval forces be controlled and regulated—i.e. rain and flooding in its proper season, and limited in scope.

To the ancient mind, there were many powers and forces in the universe, easily observable and manifest to human beings. Simply put, this is the basis for the widespread polytheism in the ancient world (and still characteristic of many traditional societies even today). Creator deities established the initial order of the universe, controlling and regulating its processes, which are also governed by many local “gods” or intelligent powers. Stories were told in an attempt to describe all of this, and we may refer to these as cosmological myths—tales meant to explain how the universe came to be, and how/why it operates as it does.

The religion of ancient Israel represented a distinctive break from this common polytheistic worldview. The earliest forms of Israelite monotheism were not as stark or absolute as its later, more developed forms, but still required a very different way of expressing the ancient cosmology. Vestiges of ancient cosmological myth are preserved in the Old Testament, but sublimated under the idea of the Creator El-Yahweh as sovereign over all things.

This brings us back to the primeval waters, the “Sea”, in ancient Near Eastern myth. In establishing the natural order of the universe, the Creator deity was seen as having to gain control over the waters. This was often expressed in stories of conflict, military action or battle by a great hero-figure—i.e. conflict with the Sea. This was a mythic story-pattern that was truly widespread, with variations and versions of it as far afield as Greece and India. Some scholars theorize that these specific conflict-myths—especially those which involve a heroic deity doing battle with a sea-creature—derive from the Semitic world.

Marduk and the Babylonian Creation Epic

Perhaps the best known of the surviving texts is the Babylonian “Epic of Creation” (also known by a transliteration of its opening words En¥ma eliš). The tablets date from the time of the great Babylonian and Assyrian empires in the 1st millennium B.C., but they doubtless contain traditions and poetic elements that are centuries earlier, into the 2nd millennium, perhaps as far back as the kingdom of Hammurabi (mid/late-19th century). At some point, the epic poem was recited at the New Year’s festival in Babylon, ritually signifying the ‘renewal’ of creation (and the created order).

Following the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above), in the beginning there was a great mass of water, depicted as a pair of beings joined together—Apsu (male, fresh water) and Tiamat (female, salt water). The creation of the universe within this water is narrated in terms of a great family conflict that turns into a military battle, pitting children against their parents. It begins with a disturbance in the belly of the ‘mother’ Tiamat; eventually the ‘father’ Apsu is slain by one of ‘sons’ (Ea)—this is a common feature in ancient theogonic myths, in which a new generation must take the place of the old as the universe develops and comes into being. With the ‘death’ of Apsu, the gods come into prominence. Tiamat then rages against them, producing monstrous beings (including a horned serpent and fierce dragons) to fight for her. Ultimately the gods choose Marduk as their champion, who will lead the battle against Tiamat on their behalf. The great battle ends with the ‘death’ and dismemberment of Tiamat, and the establishment of Marduk’s rule as supreme deity; out of Tiamat’s ‘body’ (i.e. the primeval waters), the universe as we know it is formed, along with the natural order of the world. This is all narrated in the first four tablets (I-IV) of the standard imperial version of the Epic.

Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon, who gained in prominence when the city-state became a larger regional empire. He was primarily associated with farming and the establishment of agriculture; this, of course, meant the need to control and regulate the waters—rain in its season (and in the right amounts), flooding of the rivers, etc. Marduk appears to have been more or less identified (and assimilated) with the Sumerian deity Ninurta, who played a similar role in governing agriculture, including control of storms, etc. Ninurta was considered the “son” of En-lil, one of the supreme deities in Sumerian religious thought. The name En-lil is usually translated as “Lord Wind” or “Lord Air”, indicating a domain that governs the ‘world’, the atmosphere, etc, that comes in contact with the earth below (governed by a different deity En-ki). The precise etymology is disputed (in terms of the meaning of the word lil); however, Ninurta as the “son” of “Lord Wind/Air” would certainly fit his association with the storm and the fertility of the land that results from rainstorms, etc. Marduk’s battle against Tiamat is similar in many respects to that narrated of Ninurta in the Anzu epic. Ninurta battles Anzu, a hybrid bird-figure (also known as Imdugud), associated with the winds and storms and a guardian for En-lil. By conquering the Anzu, Ninurta establishes control over the storms; he is also said to have slain a seven-headed Serpent (cf. below) and the “bull-man” of the Sea.

Other Ancient Versions of the Conflict-Myth

There are other Near Eastern myths in which a heroic deity, associated with the storms (wind and rain, etc), battles a hybrid monster who represents, in some fashion, the Sea and its primeval waters. There are, for example, relatively simple myths from Hittite (or Hattian) sources in Anatolia (Asia Minor), in which the “Storm God” battles (and kills) the Serpent-being Illuyanka, usually connected with the Sea, though this is not always clearly indicated in the tale. The episode played a role in the Purulli festival (about which little is known), even as the Epic of Creation featured in the Babylonian New Year festival.

These stories contain clear ritual elements in them, much more so than we find in the developed Epics. In particular, the Storm deity (Hittite Tar—una, Hurran Teshub) requires the assistance of a human being to defeat the Serpent. Similarly, in tales of the “disappearance of the Storm God”, ritual formulae are included within the narrative, performed by a human priest-figure, to appease the deity and bring him back, thus restoring/ensuring the fertility of the land. In all likelihood these Serpent-conflict myths spread westward into Anatolia, where they were inherited (and adapted) by the Indo-European Hittites.

The mythic-pattern spread even further west, among the Greeks, where there are several notable examples, such as Apollo’s slaying of the Python-figure at Delphi; however, in that tradition the Serpent is more of a chthonic Earth-being, rather than connected to the Sea. Closer to the Near Eastern cosmological myth is the episode made famous in the Theogony of Hesiod. Dating from c. 700 B.C., Hesiod’s work is a compendium of ancient Greek cosmological tradition, some of which, almost certainly, was inherited from the Near East (via the Greek colonies on the Anatolian coast, etc). The poem begins with the initial creation—which does not follow the Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above)—and climaxes with the establishment of Zeus’ rule over the universe as king of the gods. His battle with the Typhoeus (Tufweu/$, also called Typhon, Typhos), a multi-headed Serpent-creature, is narrated in lines 820-885, after which Zeus is declared “king” of the gods (886). Zeus (Zeu/$) is the Greek reflex of the Indo-European high deity associated with the Sky (dyeus), especially in its bright and shining aspect; the ancient derivation is preserved in the form Dio/$ (in Latin as Deus). Zeus took on traditional characteristics of the storm theophany—i.e. the deity manifest in storms—making use of thunder and lightning, winds and rain, etc, especially when exercising his authority or engaged in battle.

Even further afield, from the Indo-Aryan regions of India, are mythic traditions associated with the figure of Indra, a deity similarly connected with the storm (he had the title “wielder of the thunderbolt”). In one set of ancient tales, Indra slew the serpent being Vr¤tra (“restrainer”), who holds back (“restrains”) the waters need for the fertility of the earth. In slaying Vr¤tra, Indra releases the waters (locked up on the mountains, presumably in the form of snow). In other tales it is the demon Vala who had held back the waters (“seven rivers”, also depicted as cows). These traditions are clearly quite ancient, as they go back to the Rg¤ Veda (c. 1200-900 B.C.)—cf. 1.32; 2.12; 10.124.6ff.

The Canaanite Epic of Baal

Perhaps the clearest ancient version of this conflict-myth, and the one most relevant to the Old Testament and Israelite tradition, is the so-called Baal Epic. This work is preserved on six tablets (and other fragments) uncovered at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit). They date from the mid-14th century B.C.; however, as an extended epic poem, the Baal Epic is almost certainly the product of centuries of development, during which time various traditions, poetic elements, and even shorter individual tales, were brought together to give shape to the text as we have it. There is still some question whether all six tablets belong to a single composition; in particular, the place of the first tablet (CAT 1.1) is quite uncertain. Due to the fragmentary nature of the tablets, requiring reconstruction based on parallel passages, it is not possible to discern all the details of the narrative, but the basic outline is clear enough.

The central character is Baal-Haddu—the deity Haddu (Hadad/Adad) who controlled the weather and personified the storms needed to give life and fertility to the land. He was thus the prominent deity among farming societies in Palestine and Syria, in many ways supplanting the Creator god °El in importance. The title “Baal” (Heb lu^B^) means “lord, master” (cf. my earlier article), and is thus an honorific that could be applied to any deity. There is some indication that this title had once been used for YHWH in Israel; however, in the face of the danger of syncretic assimilation of Canaanite religious elements (esp. worship of Haddu), such use soon disappeared, the title being reserved for the pagan/false deity Baal-Haddu. In Israel, YHWH was more or less identified with the Creator °El (“Mighty One”), though very different in character than the °El portrayed in many of the Canaanite myths. With Baal-Haddu, the situation was different; a sharp conflict arose between adherents of exclusive worship of the Creator El-Yahweh (i.e. Yahwists), and those willing to adopt (and assimilate) Canaanite religious beliefs and practices (e.g. “Baal-worship”). The agricultural fertility rites practiced among Canaanites (and devoted to Baal-Haddu) were especially problematic for devout Yahwists. This conflict is well-attested in the earlier Old Testament Prophets and the Deuteronomic History (Samuel–Kings), as also in the book of Judges.

The Baal Epic itself is clearly cosmological—that is to say, it deals with the universe and the natural order established in creation. As with the other myths cited above, the Epic centers around a conflict; actually there are two great conflicts which serve to structure the poem: (1) between Baal and the Sea (Yamm = Heb <y`), and (2) between Baal and Death (Mot = Heb tom). The first conflict relates to the establishment of the created order; the second relates to the cyclical nature of the current order (i.e. life-death-rebirth). As in the Babylonian Creation Epic (cf. above), the storm-bringing deity (Marduk / Baal-Haddu), following his conquest of the Sea (the primeval Waters), becomes king and ruler over the created order. The “Sea” is conquered and dismembered (or cut up), which allows for the waters to enter into the natural world safely, on a limited basis (i.e. scattered as rain), and in different locations (rivers, with local flooding, etc). Baal’s rule (over these waters) is marked by the construction of a great palace—the palace symbolizing his domain over the natural world.

The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), the construction of his palace extends over the third and fourth tablets (III-IV, CAT 1.3-4). At the end of tablet IV (column 8) Baal’s kingship is announced to Mot (i.e. Death personified), which sets the stage for the conflict in tablets V and VI. Interestingly, in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister. As a deity-figure Anat is difficult to define; she is depicted as an adolescent (virginal) maiden, but also as a fierce warrior. It is probably best to view her as a kind of personification of battle. This makes her similar in many respects to the Greek Athena, the Hindu Kali/Durga, and the savage hilds of Germanic myth. The episode in III.2, where Anat ‘hosts’ a bloody battle between two (human) armies, does not appear to be integral to the narrative; rather, it is a symbolic scene that establishes the setting for her character (conflict/battle), along with the peace that must follow warfare (III.3.4-31). Thus, in Baal’s doing battle with Yamm, his ‘sister’ Anat is also present; after the battle, he comes to her directly to set forth peace in the world (cf. the beautiful lines III.3.14-31, repeated as a refrain throughout the poem).

Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea (like the creatures of Tiamat, cf. above). In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu (cf. below).

The Old Testament and Israelite Tradition

Only vestiges of the conflict-myth are preserved in the Old Testament, the Canaanite-style myths being generally incompatible with Israelite monotheism. The ancient cosmology (cf. above) is quite clearly present in the Genesis 1 creation narrative, but shorn of nearly all mythological features. The primeval waters are divided and the created order established simply by the command of God, without the slightest sense of conflict. The situation is different in Old Testament poetry, where the mythic language and imagery is better preserved. However, even in those passages, they have been detached from their earlier (mythological) context, floating as vivid and colorful references to El-Yahweh’s sovereign power and control over the created order.

First, it must be noted that YHWH is often described in storm-theophany imagery that would similarly be associated with Baal-Haddu in Canaanite tradition. This includes all aspects of control over meteorological phenomena—wind, rain, thunder, lightning. The “voice” (loq) of YHWH is thunder (cf. above). YHWH’s control over the ancient, primeval waters is clearly expressed in poetic declarations such as Psalm 29:3 and 93:3-4; He is seated above the flood-waters, signifying His dominion over them (Ps 29:10), and exercises control over them at will (Job 26:5ff; 28:25; Psalm 33:7; 104:3; 136:6; Prov 8:29; 30:4, etc). This cosmological imagery was applied to the episode at the Reed Sea in the Exodus narrative (cf. especially the poetic references in Psalm 77:16ff; 78:13).

As far as depicting YHWH’s control in terms of the conflict-myth pattern, there are two main passages where this is preserved: Psalm 74:13-14 and Isaiah 27:1. Consider each of these:

Psalm 74:13-14:
“You broke apart the Sea [<y`] with your strength,
you broke in pieces the monsters [<yn]yN]t^] upon the waters;
you crushed (completely) the heads of Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!],
you gave him as (something) eaten by the people (dwell)ing in (the) desert!”

Isaiah 27:1:
“In that day YHWH will oversee (the judgment) with His sword, great and hard, upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) fleeing [j^r!B*] serpent, even upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) twisting [/otL*q^u&] serpent, and He shall slay the monster [/yN]T^h^] that (is) in/on the sea [<y`].”

To this may be added Job 26:12-13:

“With His power He stilled the (raging) Sea,
with His skillfulness He shattered Rahab;
with His breath He made the Sea clear,
with His hand He pierced the fleeing Serpent.”

The italicized words all refer to mythic beings, associated with the Sea, that also were mentioned in the Baal Epic (cf. above). Clearly we are dealing with very ancient cosmological traditions, which survived even in the context of Israelite monotheism. Isaiah 27:1 brings together four of the names and expressions; though, in all likelihood, they are meant to refer to a single mythological creature, the Liwy¹t¹n (/t*y`w+l!, “Leviathan”), Caananite L£t¹n¥, a serpentine Sea-monster also called by the more general term tannîn (/yN]T^). This creature has the parallel labels “fleeing serpent” (j^r!B* vj*n`) and “twisting serpent” (/otL*q^u& vj*n`), just as in the Baal Epic. The reference to the “heads” (plural) of Liwy¹t¹n in Psalm 74:14 suggests that a seven-headed creature may be in view, corresponding to the “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm) in the Baal Epic, and similar ancient traditions (cf. above). It is probably best to see all of these expressions as relating to a single multi-headed serpentine Sea-creature—the very image that is utilized in the book of Revelation for the Dragon and its Creature from the Sea.

Isaiah 27:1 is also significant for the way it utilizes these elements of ancient cosmological myth—the conflict with the Sea—in an eschatological setting. Apocalyptic literature, with its colorful imagery, tended to recycle older/archaic elements, setting them within a new context. The immediate precursors of Jewish apocalyptic lie in the Old Testament Prophets, with passages such as Isa 27:1. In a way, the use of cosmological myth was appropriate for eschatological narrative, to express the end of things in terms of their beginning. Just as a battle with the Sea marked the beginning of creation, the start of the current Age, so another kind of conflict with the “Sea” would characterize the end of the Age. This is very much the dynamic we see at work in the book of Revelation.

Trinity/Triad in Ancient Egypt

In commemoration of Trinity Sunday (June 7, 2020), and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is worth considering some interesting, albeit rather loose, parallels to the idea (and mode of expression) attested in other ancient religious traditions. Perhaps the most noteworthy examples come from ancient Egypt, where the symbolism of the number three was, in a variety of ways, consistently applied to concepts of deity, especially in terms of triadic structures and formulae—involving groups of three deities. In ancient Egypt, as in other cultures, the number three could be used as a shorthand to indicate plurality and multiplicity (i.e. the first number after two, beyond duality). In Egyptian script, the plural could be indicated by three strokes or by repeating a sign three times.

Triads of Egyptian deities are well-known, with numerous and varied examples at hand in the surviving texts and inscriptions. What is significant is the way that these triads express both unity and multiplicity—the one and the many (three)—at times using both singular (“he”) and plural (“they”) pronouns when referring to the triad. This will be discussed further below.

Different sorts of triads, typical of the syncretistic tendencies in Egypt whereby deities (and/or conceptions and manifestations of deity) are combined and united in various ways. This fundamental syncretism distinguished Egyptian religion from the other cultures of the Ancient Near East, where such combinations are attested much less frequently. Three kinds of triads may be mentioned:

    • Mythological—that is, deities described in the manner of human beings (with personalities, etc) about whom tales (i.e. “myths”) may be told
    • Cosmological—the work of creation and natural phenomena described in terms of the actions of, and relationships between, divine powers
    • Theological—i.e., deities related to one other conceptually, in an attempt to describe the nature and characteristics of deity, often in somewhat more abstract terms.

One common “mythological” triad in ancient Egypt is the natural combination of father, mother, and child (son), reflecting the dynamic of the human family. The best known examples of this sort are: Amun-Mut-Knonsu (from Thebes), Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem (from Memphis), and Osiris-Isis-Horus (from Abydos). The king (Pharaoh) is often identified with the son in this triad, understood as a manifestation (or ‘incarnation’) of the deity on earth. A similar incarnation, in animal form, is the Apis bull; the Memphite theology surrounding the Apis identified it, for example, with the divine triad of Osiris-Atum-Horus, or Ptah-Re-Horus (cf. Morenz, p. 143).

Perhaps the most famous (and well-known) cosmological triad involves the manifestation of the Creator deity [Re] in the form (or symbol) of the sun during its daily course: Khepri in the morning, Re in midday, and Atum in the evening. These associations are known as early as the Pyramid Texts, but find their definitive formulation in the later Turin papyrus, in which the deity says “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, Atum in the evening”. In the Book of the Dead, the Creator deity (represented by the Sun), is called “the aspect of the three” (Morenz, p. 145). With the setting of the sun, the deity Re is united with Osiris in the underworld (as Re-Osiris). A similar sort of combination was expressed, at Memphis in the late period, by the triad of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

A triadic construct, both cosmological and theological in nature, is the famous Ennead (group of nine deities) of the Heliopolitan theology. According to this cosmology, the universe is represented by three generations (comprised of four male-female pairs) of offspring from the Creator deity Atum, with whom they are ultimately identified. The best known theological triad from ancient Egypt is found in the Leiden Hymn to Amun (late 14th-century B.C.), which gives definitive expression to the identification of the Creator deities Re and Ptah with the high deity Amun (whose name means something like ‘the Hidden One’):

“All gods are three: Amun, Re, Ptah; they have no equal. His name is hidden as Amun, he is Re before (humankind, i.e. visible to them), and his body is Ptah.” (stan. 300)

This dates from the revivial of Amun-religion, in the time of Tutankhamun (following the reign of Akhenaten), and is similarly expressed, visually, on a trumpet from his burial treasure (cf. Hornung, p. 219):

Admittedly, these Egyptian triads, are quite different from the Christian trinity, in two important respects: (a) they are part of a highly developed polytheistic religious outlook, and are ultimately tri-theistic rather than trinitarian; and (b) there is no parallel whatever for the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Something roughly comparable to the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is, up to a point, found in Egyptian religious thought—i.e. the king (or the deceased) as the incarnate Son of the Creator (Re/Ptah/Atum)—but nothing like the Holy Spirit. What Christianity and Egyptian religion have most in common is the basic conceptual vocabulary of “one in three, three in one”, as applied to God, however different the overall religious culture might otherwise be. It is possible that this theological language (mode of expression) in Egypt exercised some influence on Christian theology during the two centuries prior to the council of Nicaea (and the establishment of the Nicene Creed). The importance of Alexandria is often cited as the connecting point with Egypt’s past, preserving ways of religious thinking and formulating that go back centuries. The first-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Philo of Alexandria offers an interesting comparison for how the ancient Egyptian triadic theological expression might have been preserved. In his Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo comments on God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three persons (Gen 18:1-2ff), and seeks to explain this in a manner not too dissimilar from the ancient Egyptian triadic formulation:

“…it is reasonable for one to be three and for three to be one, for they were one by a higher principle [kat’ a)nw/teron lo/gon]; but, when counted with the chief powers…He makes the appearance of three to the human mind. …. the spiritual eyes of the virtuous man are awake and see….he begins to see the holy and divine vision in such a way that the single appearance appears as a triad, and the triad as a unity.” (IV. 2, Loeb translation)

This statement by Philo lacks the ontological and metaphysical basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but, in its clear expression of God as both one and three—trinity (triad) and unity—it points in the direction the Trinitarian language utilized by believers, even to this day, as we attempt to approximate and express, in some manner, the mystery of the Godhead.

References above marked “Hornung” are to Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, transl. John Baines (Cornell University Press: 1982). Those marked “Morenz” are to Siefried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, transl. Ann E. Keep (Cornell University Press: 1973).

It has proven a challenge for Christians, over the centuries, to represent the Trinity visually in works of art; however, there have been a number of notable and worthy attempts. One of the most famous, to be sure, is the icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the early 15th century (c. 1410?). It draws upon the same Old Testament narrative (“The Hospitality of Abraham”, Gen 18:1-8) commented on by Philo (cf. above), but has been turned into a beautiful, stylized depiction of the Trinity. The tendency toward a kind of visceral realism in Western art, in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, made the Trinity a more difficult subject matter for the visual arts; however, a pattern was established by Masaccio (c. 1427) in his altar fresco for the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (second, below). This pattern, depicting the Father, Son (Christ on the cross), and Spirit (as a dove), was followed by Albrecht Dürer, in his magnificent “Adoration of the Trinity” altarpiece (1511) for the All Saints Chapel of the Landauer “Twelve Brothers House” in Nürnberg (third, at bottom).

John the Baptist in Josephus’ Antiquities

The general historical accuracy of the Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist, including the background to the narrative in Mark 6:14-29 par, is confirmed by the information in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.116-119—the only other contemporary reference to John outside of the Gospels and book of Acts:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent as prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the citadel I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (LOEB translation)

The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).

Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.

Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.


Charlesworth (1977)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

2 The Son is the cup,
And the Father is He who was milked;
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
And she received conception and gave birth.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.


Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.


This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:

  • Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
  • Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth

The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).

It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:

5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]

One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:

  • God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
  • The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)

This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father).  We can, I think, qualify the parallel:

  • In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
  • The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God

There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.

Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.

For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff

The Birth of Jesus and Virgil’s 4th Eclogue

One of the most interesting Greco-Roman parallels to the birth of Jesus is found in the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Written at the time of the Peace of Brundisium (40 B.C.), following decades of civil war, it is an ode to a coming “Golden Age” (for the cycle of Ages—Gold to Iron—cf. Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 106-201, and the similar concept in many cultures worldwide).

SICILIAN Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. 2Not all do the orchards please and the lowly tamarisks. 3If our song is of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.
4Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; 5the great line of the centuries begins anew. 6Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; 7now a new generation descends from heaven on high. 8-10Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!
11-12And in thy consulship, Pollio, yea in thine, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; 13under thy sway, any lingering traces of our guilt 14shall become void, and release the earth from its continual dread. 15He shall have the gift of divine life, 16shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, 17and shall sway a world to which his father’s virtues have brought peace.
18-22But for thee, child, shall the earth untilled pour forth, as her first pretty gifts, straggling ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the smiling acanthus. Uncalled, the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall fear not huge lions; 23unasked, thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. 24The serpent, too, shall perish, and the false poison-plant shall perish; 25Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil.
26But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, 27and canst know what valour is, 28slowly shall the plain yellow with the waving corn, 29on wild brambles shall hang the purple grape, 30and the stubborn oak shall distil dewy honey. 31Yet shall some few traces of olden sin lurk behind, 32-33to call men to essay the sea in ships, to gird towns with walls, and to cleave the earth with furrows. 34-35A second Tiphys shall then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen heroes; a second warfare, too, shall there be, 36and again shall a great Achilles be sent to Troy.
37Next, when now the strength of years has made thee man, 38-39even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. 40The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; 41the sturdy ploughman, too, shall now loose his oxen from the yoke. 42Wool shall no more learn to counterfeit varied hues, 43but of himself the ram in the meadows shall change his fleece, 44now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; 45of its own will shall scarlet clothe the grazing lambs.
46“Ages such as these, glide on!” cried to their spindles the Fates, 47voicing in unison the fixed will of Destiny!
48Enter on thy high honours—the hour will soon be here—49O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty descendant of Jupiter! 50Behold the world bowing with its massive dome—51earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! 52Behold, how all things exult in the age that is at hand! 53O that then the last days of a long life may still linger for me, 54with inspiration enough to tell of thy deeds! 55-57Not Thracian Orpheus, not Linus shall vanquish me in song, though his mother be helpful to the one, and his father to the other, Calliope to Orpheus, and fair Apollo to Linus. 58-59Even Pan, were he to contend with me and Arcady be judge, even Pan, with Arcady for judge, would own himself defeated.
60Begin, baby boy, to know thy mother with a smile—61to thy mother ten months have brought the weariness of travail. 62-63Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed!
(transl. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb edition, 1916).

This “Golden Age” is connected with the birth of a child, somewhat similar, perhaps to situation in Isa 7:14 and 9:6-7 (cf. the earlier articles on these passages). Indeed, there are a number of images and motifs in this poem that could almost have been lifted out of Isaiah. It has been suggested that Virgil is drawing upon Jewish or related Near Eastern sources in some fashion (note the details in lines 18-25); though overall the idyllic pastoral picture owes more to Theocritus and other Greco-Roman poets than it does to foreign works. As with Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, the identity of the child here is uncertain; many proposals have been made, the most common of which are:

  • The son of Asinius Pollio (the consul in lines 3, 11-12)
  • A son of Octavian (Augustus)—his wife Scribonia was pregnant at the time (but she would bear a daughter)
  • The child is symbolic of the Golden Age

Certainly, Augustus would come to be associated with a reign of peace (Pax Augusta) and be called “savior of the world” (on this Imperial background to the birth of Jesus esp. in the Gospel of Luke, see a previous Christmas season note). Not surprisingly, some Christians saw in this poem a (pagan) prophecy of Jesus’ birth (e.g., Lactantius, Institutes 7:24; Oration of Constantine §§19-21; but cf. Jerome, Epistle 53, for a contrary opinion). There are likely several reasons for this:

  • Reference to the Cumaean Sibyl in line 4—the Sibyls were seen as predicting the coming of Christ in other early Christian traditions (see below)
  • The “Virgin” in line 6 (here the virgin is ‘Justice’)
  • The child’s connection to the new age, especially the miraculous fertility which comes upon the earth (lines 18-25ff, 40-45)
  • Divine (honorific) attributes seem to be given to the child in lines 15-17
  • The (very) rough similarities with details in Isaiah 7:14ff (cf. the time indicators related to the child’s age in lines 26ff, etc)
  • The depiction of the birth and connection with the mother in lines 60-63 may have conjured up associations with Mary and the virgin birth.

Mention of the Sibyl, along with the possibility of Jewish (or Near Eastern) influence in parts of the poem, have led some scholars to theorize that Virgil may have had access to Sibylline “oracles” similar to those which have come down to us today (cf. especially the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracles). As I discussed in a previous note, these surviving books are a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material—the pseudepigraphic Christian books and sections are largely a reworking of the Jewish oracles, meant to integrate the birth and life of Jesus into the fabric of biblical and world history.

The Births of Augustus and Jesus

The announcement of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is related in some way to that of the Roman emperor (Augustus). This is not just a matter of a chronological setting for the narrative; the mention of Augustus (2:1, cf. parallel reference to rulers in 1:5; 3:1f) almost certainly is of theological (christological) importance. Consider the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:

1. Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).

2. Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).

3. Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (swth/r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou) in an inscription from Myra (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72).

Most notably, the Roman government established a new calendar (the Julian) which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, reads as follows (abridged):

It is subject to question whether the birthday of our most divine (emperor) Caesar spells more of joy or blessing, this being a date that we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in, terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: CAESAR. Therefore people might justly assume that his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living and marks the end and boundary of any regret that they had themselves been born. And since no other day affords more promise of blessing for engagement in public or private enterprise than this one which is so fraught with good fortune for everyone…. it is my judgment that the one and the same day observed by all the citizens as New Year’s Day be celebrated as the birthday of Most Divine Caesar, and on that day, September 23, all elected officials shall assume office, with the prospect that through association with observances connected with the existing celebration, the birthday observance might attract all the more esteem and prove to be even more widely known and thereby confer no small benefit on the province. Therefore it would behoove the Asian League to pass a resolution that puts into writing all his aretai, so that our recognition of what redounds to the honor of Augustus might abide for all time. And I shall order the decree to be inscribed in (Greek and Latin) on a stele and set up in the temple.

Along with the letter is the decree, which reads (in part):

Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apollonios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. (proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus) has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.

I have emphasized several phrases above in bold. Even more well-known is the so-called Priene Calendar Inscription, related to this decree, of which note especially lines 31-42 (again key phrases emphasized below, along with the corresponding Greek):

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [swth/r], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [e)pifanei=n] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

For the above letter of Paulus Fabius Maximus and the Asian decree, see Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (1982), p. 217;
the translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription is courtesy of Craig A. Evans, Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel

The birth(day) and appearance of the ‘savior’ is called “good news/tidings”, the same word typically translated as “gospel”. The closest Gospel parallel is found in the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 (note the italicized portions):

10And the Messenger said to them, “Do not fear! For see—I bring a good message [eu)aggeli/zomai] to you of great joy which will be for all people: 11that today is brought forth for you a savior [swth/r]—which is Anointed, Lord—in the city of David! 12And this (is) the sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in cloth-bands [i.e. swaddled] and lying (down) in a feeding-(trough).” 13And suddenly there came to be with the Messenger a full crowd of (the) heavenly army praising God and saying,

14do/ca in the highest (places) to God,
and upon earth peace in [i.e. among] men of (his) eu)doki/a.”

(For more on the translation of this passage, and other critical notes related to the Infancy Narratives, see the recent Christmas article)

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Gospel here has such points of contact with the emperor Augustus (2:1). However, in order to understand the significance of this properly, the points of difference must be clearly brought out:

  • The announcement comes from a heavenly Messenger, and according to the pattern of angelic appearances elsewhere in Scripture.
  • The Savior is also called: (a) Anointed (Xristo/$), that is, an anointed ruler sent by God to his people; and (b) Lord (Ku/rio$), that is, the very title given to YHWH himself.
  • Though well-wrapped, the new-born Savior is lying in an animals’ feeding-trough—generally understood as a sign of humility and condescension, perhaps even as a symbol of Incarnation (see also Isa 1:3).
  • The message is especially addressed to the lowly in society.
  • Heaven and earth are united at the moment of revelation, in a powerful, mysterious way (verse 14)

do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$

The Birth of Jesus and the Sibylline Oracles

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, the most notable 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:


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….


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,….


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 Sibylline Oracles will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming “Ancient Parallels” article.

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.

Ancient Parallels: Introduction

A regular feature on this site is a series called “Ancient Parallels”. Each article in this series will entail an examination of some text or tradition from the Ancient World which happens to be similar, or parallel, in certain respects to an area of early Christian thought and belief. Here we will look at a wide range of cultural and religious traditions, from ancient Sumer and Mesopotamia in the early Bronze Age to those of the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D.—and everything in-between!

Comparative religious study such as this can be sensitive (even controversial) for Christians today, in light of the pluralistic ideals generally held in modern (Western) society. There is the underlying fear, perhaps, that recognition of similarities or parallels in other traditions will somehow negate the uniqueness and divinely-inspired character of the Christian faith. While such fear is understandable, in my view, it is both unnecessary and unwarranted. The revelation recorded in Scripture took place within a definite thought-world—a matrix of language, vocabulary, images, and ideas—which, in many ways, was shared by the peoples of the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world, etc. It should come as no surprise that these extra-Biblical cultural and religious traditions would occasionally express a hope or belief which is similar to those which we find recorded in Scripture.

We will thus proceed without fear, in the expectation that an honest and objective study of the ancient texts will only demonstrate anew the remarkable character of the Christian faith preserved in the Scriptures, shared by all true believers today, and will give us a deeper awareness of the way in which God has spoken to us through (and within) the language and thought of the time.