Chiliasm (Part 9): Aftermath of Early Chiliasm

Sibylline Oracles

Hellenistic Judaism’s Usage

The Sibylline Oracles had a long lineage going back even to the Greek oracles of Delphi. Hellenistic Judaism had adapted some of them as apologetic “prophecies,” which were a sort of bridge-building evangelistic literature directed at a Greek audience. They actually were a literary production in Greek Hexameter.

Christian “Sibylline” Prophecies

Proselytizing Christians began producing some of their own “Sibylline” prophecies, drawing on the Jewish oracles.

Deified Monarchs and Constantine

They knew of one eschatological savior, the warrior Christ of the book of Revelation. But the Graeco-Roman world had long been accustomed to deifying monarchs. Some Hellenistic kings had carried the title σωτήρ, and Roman emperors sometimes got divine honors while in power.

Emperor of the Last Days

As the Middle Ages came on, the Sibyllines took on new significance:

It was not therefore surprising that, as soon as Christianity joined forced with the Empire, Christian Sibyllines should greet the Emperor Constantine as the messianic king. Thanks to theme, in the imagination of Christians for more than a thousand years the figure of the warrior-Christ was doubled by another, that of the Emperor of the last days. (Cohn 1957, 15)

Tiburtine Sibylline

The oldest of these Sibyllines was the Tiburtina, which in its Christian form dated to the mid-fourth century. From 340–350 the empire was divided between Constantine’s two surviving sons, Constans I who ruled the West and Constantine II who ruled the East. At this time, Arianism was at its height, with Constans supporting the Nicene faith and protecting Athanasius but Constantius leaning toward the Arians—more on political than theological grounds.

In 350 Constans, who had been a harsh ruler, was murdered by his own troops. The empire was now reunited under Constantius. The Tiburtine Sibylline reflects the reactions of Catholics to this setback. It tells of a ‘time of sorrows’, when Rome will be captured and tyrants will oppress the poor and innocent and protect the guilty.

Uniting East and West

But then there comes a Greek Emperor called Constans who united the western and eastern halves of the Empire under his rule (Cohn 1957, 16). He is of a commanding presence, tall, well-proportioned, with a handsome and radiant face. Constans reigns 112 (or 120) years. During this period there is an age of plenty: oil, wine, and corn are abundant and cheap.

Final Triumph of Christianity

This becomes the age of the final triumph of Christianity. The emperor lays waste to the cities of the heathen, destroys the temples of the false gods, and summons the heathen to submit to Christian baptism. Those who refused are to die by the sword. At the end of his long reign, the Jews too are converted; when this happens the holy sepulcher shines forth in glory. Though the people of Gog and Magog break out, the emperor’s army annihilates them.

Final Conflict and Triumphh

Having completed his task, the emperor goes to Jerusalem to lay down the crown and royal robes on Golgotha, handing over Christendom to God. The golden age has come to an end. Before the end of all things, however, there is a short period of tribulation wherein the Antichrist usurps the throne at Jerusalem. The Lord shortens this period by dispatching Michael to destroy the wonder working Antichrist. Now the way lies open for the Second Coming.

Sibylline by Pseudo-Methodius

The emperor of the last days plays an even more glorious role in the Sibylline known as Pseudo-Methodius. This was disguised as the work of the fourth-century bishop and martyr, Methodius of Patara; however, it actually came from the end of the seventh century.

Comfort for a Church under Moslem Rule
Moslem Conquest and Oppression

Intended “to bring consolation to Syrian Christians in their galling and still unfamiliar position as a minority under Moslem rule,” it opens with a survey of world history from Eden to Alexander and on to the author’s own time. In it, Ishmaelites kill Christian priests and desecrate the Holy Places, but “just when the situation is worse than it has ever been, a mighty Emperor, whom men had long thought to be dead, shakes off his slumber and rises up in his wrath” (Cohn 1957, 17).

Final Conflict and Victory

He defeats the Ishmaelites and lays waste to their lands, setting on them a yoke a hundred times more oppressive than that which they had set upon the Christians. He rages against apostate Christians, bringing in a period of peace, and joy exists under his reign. Then Gog and Magog break out, bringing worldwide terror and war, but God dispatches the captain of the heavenly hosts, who destroys them.

The emperor goes to Jerusalem to await the appearing of the Antichrist. When that terrible event occurs, the emperor places his crown upon the cross at Golgotha, and the cross soars up to heaven. After that the emperor dies and the Antichrist begins his reign. Before long the cross reappears in the heavens as the sign of the Son of Man, and Christ comes on clouds to kill Antichrist and carry out the last judgment.

Long Life of the Sibyllines

Adapted to New Times

Though they were non-canonical, and even downright heterodox, these oracles persisted through the Middle Ages. Long after the occasion of their writing was past and forgotten, the Sibylline Oracles persisted in one adaptation or another, being reinterpreted in whatever way necessary to suit the conditions and preoccupations of the moment.

Known Even among the Common Folk

In the fourteenth century, when the only known versions in the West were accessible only to clerics who could read Latin, some knowledge of their purport had penetrated even to the lowest strata of the laity. From the fourteenth century on, vernacular versions began appearing, and they were among the very first books to be published when printing was invented.

Millennial Hope Never Dies Out

At the very close of the Middle Ages, a thousand years after the hopes and fears that first provoked the Sibyllines, “these books were being read and studied everywhere.”1 The book of Revelation tells of one warrior-savior in the last days, the Sibylline tradition tells of two; however, both agree that there will arise a final archenemy of God, the Antichrist.

The millennia hope never died out completely in the western church; in fact, it became prominent at different times. During the Reformation it was emphasized by some Anabaptists. Today it is a key element in many fundamentalist theologies, especially in its dispensationalist form.


  1. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn: N.J.: Essential Books, 1957) 18.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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