The City of God/Book XVIII/Chapter 23
Some say the Erythræan sibyl prophesied at this time. Now Varro declares there were many sibyls, and not merely one. This sibyl of Erythræ certainly wrote some things concerning Christ which are quite manifest, and we first read them in the Latin tongue in verses of bad Latin, and unrhythmical, through the unskillfulness, as we afterwards learned, of some interpreter unknown to me. For Flaccianus, a very famous man, who was also a proconsul, a man of most ready eloquence and much learning, when we were speaking about Christ, produced a Greek manuscript, saying that it was the prophecies of the Erythræan sibyl, in which he pointed out a certain passage which had the initial letters of the lines so arranged that these words could be read in them: ᾽Ιησοῦς Χριστος Θεοῦ υιὸς σωτηρ, which means, “Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour.” And these verses, of which the initial letters yield that meaning, contain what follows as translated by some one into Latin in good rhythm:
Ι Judgment shall moisten the earth with the sweat of its standard,
Η Ever enduring, behold the King shall come through the ages,
Σ Sent to be here in the flesh, and Judge at the last of the world.
Ο O God, the believing and faithless alike shall behold Thee
Υ Uplifted with saints, when at last the ages are ended.
Σ Seated before Him are souls in the flesh for His judgment.
Χ Hid in thick vapors, the while desolate lieth the earth.
Ρ Rejected by men are the idols and long hidden treasures;
Ε Earth is consumed by the fire, and it searcheth the ocean and heaven;
Ι Issuing forth, it destroyeth the terrible portals of hell.
Σ Saints in their body and soul freedom and light shall inherit;
Τ Those who are guilty shall burn in fire and brimstone for ever.
Ο Occult actions revealing, each one shall publish his secrets;
Σ Secrets of every man’s heart God shall reveal in the light.
Θ Then shall be weeping and wailing, yea, and gnashing of teeth;
Ε Eclipsed is the sun, and silenced the stars in their chorus.
Ο Over and gone is the splendor of moonlight, melted the heaven,
Υ Uplifted by Him are the valleys, and cast down the mountains.
Υ Utterly gone among men are distinctions of lofty and lowly.
Ι Into the plains rush the hills, the skies and oceans are mingled.
Ο Oh, what an end of all things! earth broken in pieces shall perish;
Σ .... Swelling together at once shall the waters and flames flow in rivers.
Σ Sounding the archangel’s trumpet shall peal down from heaven,
Ω Over the wicked who groan in their guilt and their manifold sorrows.
Τ Trembling, the earth shall be opened, revealing chaos and hell.
Η Every king before God shall stand in that day to be judged.Ρ Rivers of fire and brimstone shall fall from the heavens.
In these Latin verses the meaning of the Greek is correctly given, although not in the exact order of the lines as connected with the initial letters; for in three of them, the fifth, eighteenth, and nineteenth, where the Greek letter Υ occurs, Latin words could not be found beginning with the corresponding letter, and yielding a suitable meaning. So that, if we note down together the initial letters of all the lines in our Latin translation except those three in which we retain the letter Υ in the proper place, they will express in five Greek words this meaning, “Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour.” And the verses are twenty-seven, which is the cube of three. For three times three are nine; and nine itself, if tripled, so as to rise from the superficial square to the cube, comes to twenty-seven. But if you join the initial letters of these five Greek words, ᾽Ιησοῦς Χριστος Θεοῦ υἰὸς σωτήρ, which mean, “Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour,” they will make the word ἰχθὺς, that is, “fish,” in which word Christ is mystically understood, because He was able to live, that is, to exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters.
But this sibyl, whether she is the Erythræan, or, as some rather believe, the Cumæan, in her whole poem, of which this is a very small portion, not only has nothing that can relate to the worship of the false or feigned gods, but rather speaks against them and their worshippers in such a way that we might even think she ought to be reckoned among those who belong to the city of God. Lactantius also inserted in his work the prophecies about Christ of a certain sibyl, he does not say which. But I have thought fit to combine in a single extract, which may seem long, what he has set down in many short quotations. She says, “Afterward He shall come into the injurious hands of the unbelieving, and they will give God buffets with profane hands, and with impure mouth will spit out envenomed spittle; but He will with simplicity yield His holy back to stripes. And He will hold His peace when struck with the fist, that no one may find out what word, or whence, He comes to speak to hell; and He shall be crowned with a crown of thorns. And they gave Him gall for meat, and vinegar for His thirst: they will spread this table of inhospitality. For thou thyself, being foolish, hast not understood thy God, deluding the minds of mortals, but hast both crowned Him with thorns and mingled for Him bitter gall. But the veil of the temple shall be rent; and at midday it shall be darker than night for three hours. And He shall die the death, taking sleep for three days; and then returning from hell, He first shall come to the light, the beginning of the resurrection being shown to the recalled.” Lactantius made use of these sibylline testimonies, introducing them bit by bit in the course of his discussion as the things he intended to prove seemed to require, and we have set them down in one connected series, uninterrupted by comment, only taking care to mark them by capitals, if only the transcribers do not neglect to preserve them hereafter. Some writers, indeed, say that the Erythræan sibyl was not in the time of Romulus, but of the Trojan war.
- The Sibylline Oracles are a collection of prophecies and religious teachings in Greek hexameter under the assumed authority and inspiration of a Sibyl, i.e., a female prophet. They are partly of heathen, partly of Jewish-Christian origin. They were used by the fathers against the heathen as genuine prophecies without critical discrimination, and they appear also in the famous Dies iræ alongside with David as witnesses of the future judgment (“teste David cum Sibylla.”) They were edited by Alexander, Paris, 2d. ed. 1869, and by Friedlieb (in Greek and German), Leipzig, 1852. Comp. Ewald: Ueber Entstehung, Inhalt und Werth der sibyll. Bücher, 1858, and Schürer, Geschichte der jüd. Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu (Leipzig, 1885), ii. § 33, pp. 700 sqq., Engl. transl. (Hist. of the Jews in the times of Jesus. Edinburgh and New York, 1886), vol. iii. 271 sqq.—P.S.]
- [Hence the fish was a favorite symbol of the ancient Christians. See Schaff, Church Hist. (revised ed.), vol. ii. 279 sq.—P.S.]