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"Of the Greek Sibyls" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticism: "Of the Greek Sibyls." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of the Greek Sibyls" by Voltaire



When almost the whole earth was filled with oracles, there were old maids, who, without belonging to any temple, thought proper to prophesy upon their own account. They were called Sibyls, a Greek word of the Laconian dialect, which signified "The Council of God." According to antiquity, there were ten principal Sibyls in different countries.

The story of the woman, who came to Rome and brought the elder Tarquin the nine books of the ancient Sibyls of Cumaea, is well known. As Tarquin bargained too much, the old woman threw the first six books into the fire, and insisted upon as much money for the three remaining ones as she had asked for the nine all together. Tarquin paid her. They were, it is said, preserved at Rome, till the time of Sylla, when they were consumed in the conflagration of the Capitol.

But how could the prophecies of the Sibyls be dispensed with? Three senators were dispatched to Erythea, a city of Greece, where a thousand bad Grecian verses were carefully kept, because they were reputed to be the production of the Sibyl of Erythea. Everyone was anxious to obtain copies of them; the Sibyl of Erythea had foretold every thing. Her prophecies were considered in the same light as those of Nostradamus with us. Upon every remarkable event, some Greek verses were forged, which were attributed to the Sibyl.

Augustus, who had just reason to fear that in these rhapsodies some verses would be met with that authorized conspiracies, forbade, upon pain of death, any Roman to keep Sibylline verses by him: a prohibition worthy of a suspicious tyrant, who, by address, preserved a power usurped by crimes.

The Sibylline verses were in greater esteem than ever when the reading of them was forbidden. They must needs have contained truth, as they were concealed from the people.

Virgil, in his eclogue upon the birth of Pollio, or Marcellus, or Drusus, failed not to cite the authority of the Sibyl of Cumaea, who had fairly foretold that the child, who should soon after die, would restore the golden age. The Sibyl of Erythea had, as it was then said, prophesied at Cumaea. The prediction of the new-born infant belonging to Augustus, or to his favorite, must necessarily have taken place. Besides, predictions are never made but for the great; the vulgar are unworthy of them.

These oracles of the Sibyls, being then always in great repute, the first Christians being too much carried away by false zeal, imagined that they might forge similar oracular predictions, in order to defeat the Gentiles with their own arms. Hermas and St. Justin are reputed the first who supported this imposture. St. Justin cites the oracles of the Sibyl of Cumaea, promulgated by a Christian, who had taken the name of Istapus, and pretended that his Sibyl had lived in the time of the deluge. St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromates, assures us that the apostle St. Paul recommends in his Epistles, "the reading of the Sibyls, who have manifestly foretold the birth of the Son of God."

These epistles of St. Paul must necessarily be lost; for none of these words, nor any like them, are to be found in any of the epistles of St. Paul now extant. An infinite number of books, which we are now no longer possessed of, were then dispersed amongst the Christians, such as the prophecies of Jallabash, those of Seth, Enoch, and Kamla; Adam's Penances; the History of Zachariah, father to St. John; the evangelist of the Egyptians, the evangelist of St. Peter, of Andrew, of James, the evangelist, of Eve, Apocalypse of Adam, the letters of Jesus Christ, and a hundred other writings, of which scarce any fragments remain; and these are buried in books that are very rarely read.

The Christian religion was then divided into a Jewish society, and a Non-jewish society. These two were subdivided into many others. Whoever was possessed of any degree of talents wrote for his party. There were upwards of fifty gospels till the Council of Nice; and at present, there remain only those of the Virgin, of the Infancy, and of Nicodemus. Verses attributed to the Sibyls were frequently forged. Such was the respect the people paid to these Sibylline oracles, that this foreign support was judged necessary to strengthen the dawn of Christianity. Not only Greek Sibylline verses were made, which foretold Jesus Christ; but they were formed in acrostics, so that the letters of these words, "Jesous Christos ios Soter," followed each other at the beginning of every verse. Among these poems we meet this prediction:

"With five loaves and two fishes,
He will feed five-thousand men in the desert,
And in gathering up the fragments that remain,
He will fill twelve baskets."

They did not confine themselves to this: it was imagined that the sense of the verses of the fourth Eclogue of Virgil might be turned in favor of Christianity.

"Ultima Cumaei venit jam carminis aetas;
Jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto."

"The time of Sibyls are at last arrived,
A new progeny descends from above the skies."

This opinion was so current in the first ages of the church, that the emperor Constantine vehemently supported it. When an emperor spoke he was surely in the right. Virgil was, for a long time, considered as a prophet. The oracles of the Sibyls were at length so thoroughly believed, that in one of our hymns, which is not very ancient, we have these two remarkable verses:

"Solvet saeclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla."

"The world to ashes he will reduce,
In proof -- David and the Sibyl we adduce."

Amongst the productions attributed to the Sibyls, the Millennium was particularly esteemed, and which was adopted by the fathers of the church, till the time of Theodosius the Second.

This Millennium of Jesus Christ upon earth, was at first founded on the prophecy of St. Luke (chap. xxi.) a prophecy that has been misunderstood, "that Jesus would come in the clouds with great power and majesty, before the present generation was gone." The generation had passed; but St. Paul had also said in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, chap. iv., "For this we say unto you, by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

It is very strange that Paul says that the Lord himself spoke unto him; for Paul, so far from having been one of the disciples of Christ, had for a long time been one of his persecutors. Though he might be one, the Apocalypse also said, chap. xx. "that the just should reign upon earth for a thousand years with Jesus Christ."

It was therefore every moment expected that Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to establish his reign, and rebuild Jerusalem, wherein the Christians were to rejoice with the Patriarchs.

This new Jerusalem was foretold in the Apocalypse. "I John, saw the new Jerusalem, which descended from heaven, decked out like a bride. -- It had a large and high wall, twelve gates, and an angel at each gate -- twelve foundations. -- whereon are to be inscribed the names of the apostles of the lamb -- He that spake unto me had a golden fathom to measure -- the city, the gates, and the wall. The city is a square building, twelve thousand furlongs in circumference; its length, breadth, and height, are all equal. -- He also measured with it the wall, which is a hundred and forty-four cubits high -- this wall was made of jasper, and the city was made of gold, &c."

This prediction might have sufficed; but a voucher was thought necessary, who was a Sibyl, and made to say nearly the same things. This belief was so strongly imprinted on the people's minds, that St. Justin in his Dialogue against Tryphon says, "he is convinced, and that Jesus is to come into that Jerusalem, and drink and eat with his disciples."

St. Irenaeus so completely adopted this opinion, that he attributes these words to St. John the Evangelist. "In the new Jerusalem every vine shall produce ten thousand branches, and every branch ten thousand buds, and every bud ten thousand bunches, and every bunch ten thousand grapes, and every grape ten thousand amphors of wine. And when any of the holy vintagers shall gather a grape, the next grape shall say to him, take me, I am better than him."

It was not sufficient that the Sibyl had predicted those miracles, -- there were witnesses of their being fulfilled. Tertullian relates that the new Jerusalem was seen forty successive nights to descend from heaven.

Tertullian expresses himself thus: "We confess that the kingdom is promised to us for a thousand years upon earth, after the resurrection in the city of Jerusalem brought down from heaven thither."

Thus has a love of the marvelous, and a desire of hearing and relating extraordinary things, at all times, perverted common sense, and banished reason. Thus has fraud been brought into play, when force could not be produced. The Christian religion was, in other respects supported by such solid reasons, that all this jumble of errors could not shake it. The pure gold was extracted from this alloy, and the church, by degrees, arrived at the state where we now see it.

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