The future of the New Testament and the Sibylline Oracles
My argument in both The Coming of the Son of Man and Re: Mission is that New Testament eschatology – that is, the interest that the New Testament has in future events – can for the most part be mapped against a historical narrative that interprets, first, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 and, secondly, the eventual defeat of Greek-Roman paganism as critical events through which both YHWH and the early suffering church are justified and vindicated. This two-part vindication constitutes, in effect, the parousia event, when the church that has remained faithful to Christ under intense pressure, both from apostate Judaism and from paganism, will be rewarded – raised, exalted with Christ to reign with him throughout the coming ages.
A passage in the Sibylline Oracles appears at least to parallel if not corroborate this reading. An insertion by a Christian redactor (dated by Charlesworth between AD 70 and AD 150) describes how the Jews will ‘reap the bad harvest’ when they launch a haughty and reckless rebellion against Rome. As a consequence the temple of Solomon will be destroyed, and the ‘Hebrews will be driven from their land; wandering, being slaughtered, they will mix much darnel in their wheat’. This will be the wrath of God – punishment for an evil deed (Sib. Or. 1.387-400; cf. 1.362).
The Jewish text then describes a tenth and last generation of men, when God will ‘break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled Rome’ and ‘impose famines and pestilence and thunderbolts on men who adjudicate without justice’. But God will save ‘pious men’, and there will be ‘deep peace and understanding’ (2.15-31).
A crown from heaven in the form of a bright star will be revealed, to be won in a contest, at which point we revert to the Christian redaction. People from all nations will strive to win the prize of immortality. Christ will give an ‘immortal treasure’ to the martyrs who ‘pursue the contest even to death’, and an ‘imperishable prize’ to ‘virgins who run well and to all men who perform justice and to diverse nations who live piously and acknowledge one God’ (2.39-52; cf. 2.149-153).
In this hybrid Jewish-Christian story God will punish Israel, but the time will come when he will also put an end to the system of idolatry that inspired Rome’s antagonism, and an age of peace for the people of God will be inaugurated, when the faithful chosen Hebrews will rule over ‘exceedingly mighty men, having subjected them as of old, since power will never fail’ (2.174-176). At this climactic eschatological moment those who have pursued the prize of immortality, at their forefront the martyrs, will be rewarded by Christ.
What this shows is how a very early Jewish-Christian vision naturally focused on the overthrow of Rome and the victory over paganism as the terminus of an eschatological narrative. What ensues in Sibylline Oracles 2 is a resurrection of all the dead, who are summoned to the tribunal for judgment. The unrighteous are punished; the righteous are carried by angels ‘through the blazing river’ to a new earth and to ‘life without care’ (2.315-316). I would suggest that John inserts the period of a thousand years between judgment on Rome and the final judgment of all the dead because he understands that the eschatological victory is not an end in itself – it is for the sake of the continuing existence of the church in the world and for the sake of the world. But otherwise, it seems to me, there is a remarkable congruency between the narrative in Sibylline Oracles and the outlook of the New Testament.