Golden plates, prophesying of Christ

May 17, 2007 | 11 comments
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Part of medieval Christianity’s reworking of its inheritance from Classical Antiquity included turning the Greek Sibyls from local oracles into foretellers of Christ’s birth. After the christianized Sibyls’ prophecies had spent a thousand years or so on the medieval equivalent of the bestseller list, meddling philologists started asking just how the pre-Christian Sibyls came to know Jerome’s Vulgate so well. In the foreword to a German edition of sibylline and other assorted tracts printed in 1516 (VD16 ZV 11992), the anonymous author anticipates the question:

When you read the predictions and prophecies of these heathen women, you should not find it incredible that they proclaim our scripture about Christ so literally. For St. Augustine writes how he found in the heathen writings of Plato the great and profound gospel of John, from “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God” to “and the word became man.” Plato didn’t know anything to say about it. Also St. Thomas writes that in the histories of the Romans, in the time of Emperor Constantine and his mother Hierene a grave was found in Constantinople in which lay a man with a golden tablet on his chest upon which was written: “Christ will be born of a virgin, and I believe in him. O Sun, at the time of Hierene and Constantine you will see me again.” And when the grave was opened, the sun shone into it, and people saw the dead body lying there and the written prophecy about Christ the Lord, which was truly fulfilled in his conception and birth for our salvation.

The notion that people in the centuries B.C.E. knew of and believed in Christ, and wrote messages on golden plates for the benefit of people they knew would be living many centuries later, is, I gather, a bit embarrassing in polite society these days. One benefit of poking around old books is the occasional experience of recognizing a certain devotional kinship, of being able to say comrade, brother! to someone who, five centuries ago, also believed in embarrassing things.

11 Responses to Golden plates, prophesying of Christ

  1. Wilfried on May 17, 2007 at 10:05 am

    How true, Jonathan! Ancient writings are full of surprises and sometimes cleverly forgotten… E.g. Christianity believes that the heavens were closed with the death of the last apostle. No more prophets. But Augustine in his Confessions hankers after revelation:

    “Let me understand how in the beginning thou made heaven and earth. Moses wrote of this; he wrote and passed on and he is now no longer before me. If he were, I would lay hold on him and ask him that in thy name he would open out these things to me. However, since I cannot inquire of Moses, I beseech thee, my God, grant me also the gift to understand them. Now what is the mode by which thou teachest those things? Thou has taught thy prophets. O Light of my heart, let not my own darkness speak to me! Speak to me; converse with me.”

  2. manaen on May 17, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    In a similar light, I enjoy sharing this from Etruscans, who the Romans wiped out in the 4th century BC.

    Wilfried notes things are “sometimes cleverly forgotten” — they also sometimes are cleverly not noticed.

  3. manaen on May 17, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    2.
    Here’s the link that should have worked in # 2:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/2939362.stm

  4. Capt. Obsidian on May 17, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for the post. I always wondered what the Sibyl had to do with foretelling the end of the earth in the Requiem mass.

    Dies irae, dies illa
    Solvet saeclum in favilla,
    Teste David cum Sibylla.

    Day of wrath, that day
    Will dissolve the earth in ashes
    As David and the Sibyl bear witness.

  5. Todd Hopkinson on May 17, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Would you mind citing a primary reference for the following?

    [Also St. Thomas writes that in the histories of the Romans, in the time of Emperor Constantine and his mother Hierene a grave was found in Constantinople in which lay a man with a golden tablet on his chest upon which was written:] “Christ will be born of a virgin, and I believe in him. O Sun, at the time of Hierene and Constantine you will see me again.” And when the grave was opened, the sun shone into it, and people saw the dead body lying there and the written prophecy about Christ the Lord, which was truly fulfilled in his conception and birth for our salvation.

    Thanks

  6. Bill on May 18, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Capt. Obsidian,

    you may also be interested in the settings by Orlandus Lassus of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum. In addition to the twelve six-line dactylic hexameter Latin poems, there is a three line prologue, the text thought to have been written by Lassus himself:

    Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenere,
    Haec sunt illa, quibus nostrae olim arcana salutis
    Bis senae intrepido, cecinerunt ore sibyllae.

    Chromatic songs, which you hear in modulation,
    These are they in which the mysteries of our Salvation
    were sung, intrepidly, by the twelve sybils.

    As with his settings of the seven Penitential Psalms, Lassus presented the Prophetiae Sibyllarum to his patron, Albrecht V of Bavaria, for the exclusive use of his private chapel, and the costly manuscript partbooks which are now housed in the Oesterreichisches Nationalbibliothek were copied by the composer himself, and adorned by the court painter Hans Mielich, with miniatures of each of the twelve sibyls.

  7. Jonathan Green on May 18, 2007 at 5:11 am

    Wilfried, when we talk about the heavens being closed, what do we mean? Or rather, what does the rest of the Christian world mean? I suspect it means something closer to “no new scripture” rather than “no new visions and revelations.” The reason I ask is that there’s too much popular interest in visions and visionaries in the Middle Ages, and too much official approval for it, to sustain the idea that medieval Christianity rejected all possibility of prophetic inspiration.

    Manaen, interesting stuff. (“Wiped out by the Romans in the 4th century BC” isn’t the most accurate way the article could have summarized the fate of the Etruscans in ten words or less, though.)

    Bill and Cap’n O, thanks, I’d forgotten about the Sibyl in liturgy.

  8. Jonathan Green on May 18, 2007 at 6:43 am

    Todd asks a good question: what’s the source of all this? That question is tangential to my current project, and I won’t have time to look at it in any depth, unfortunately. The basic story probably was repeated in Latin, Greek, and vernacular translations in one form or another from late antiquity to the early modern period, and finding an ultimate source may not be possible (and if it was, it would likely require much more Greek than I have). Here’s how I’d start on the problem, though.

    “St. Thomas writes that in the histories of the Romans…” is a translation into English from German and, I would guess, from Latin before that. Chances are pretty good, though, that this is pseudo St. Thomas Aquinas, or another pseudo-St. Thomas. I don’t know what works about Rome get attributed to Aquinas or other prominent Thomases. Poking around the Gesta romanorum or the Miribilia romae couldn’t hurt.

    Above, I identify the source I’m translating from with a reference to VD16 (VD16 ZV 11992). VD16 is shorthand for “Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts,” or “Index of sixteenth-century prints published in the German language area,” an extremely useful resource for 16th-century German printing. It’s available online (http://gateway-bayern.bib-bvb.de/aleph-cgi/bvb_suche?sid=VD16). With the reference number, you can find the edition I’m using: OFFENBARVNG Der Sibillen Weissagungen/ Mit viel Andern Prophecien künftiger ding/ Dye noch biß zů Ende der welt geschehen sollen/ Volgen hiernach/ warhaftigklich angetzeigt. Oppenheim : Jakob Köbel, 1516.

    The VD16 entry also lists an alternate title, Opusculum de vaticiniis sibyllarum. I can’t find a work with this Latin title in VD16, where it should be, but it does pop up in ISTC (Incunabula Short-Title Catalog, a census of all books printed up to 1500), where it shouldn’t be. It’s listed as Barberiis, Philippus de, Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini. Add: De variis Judaeorum et gentilium de Christo testimoniis. De vaticiniis Sibyllarum. Proba Falconia: Centones Vergilii. Ed: Jacob Köbel. Oppenheim: [Jacob Köbel, about 1510]. In this case, we have a Latin text, included as one of a number of anonymous tracts printed with another work by the same printer, probably earlier but close to the same time. There’s a copy of this work in Munich.

    The Bavarian State Library catalog is good, and with a little work I can find the call number online: Res/4 Polem. 958. Next step: travel to Munich, transcribe the text, and plug relevant keywords into the right databases. Or, alternatively, take an educated guess at how the Latin might look, and plug that in instead.

    The database I’d start with would be the Patrologia latina. For better or worse, it’s the largest searchable database of medieval ecclesiastic Latin. My current institution has an awkward setup that mounts 5 CDs over a Citrix client, unfortunately, rather than the snazzy web interface that most places use. The best keyword for narrowing down the search, oddly enough, turns out to be “o sol,” for “o sun”. I find a somewhat reduced version of the story in PL 212: 836 (Helinandus Frigidi Montis, Chronicon), PL 188:88, 400 (Ordericus Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica), and PL 160:149 (Sigebertus Gemblacensis, Chronica): “Constantinopoli quidam laminam auream invenit, et in ea virum jacentem cum hac scriptura: Christus nascetur ex virgine Maria, et credo in eum: sub Constantino et Hirene, o sol, iterum me videbis.”

    There are somewhat more expansive versions in PL 95:1113 (attributed to Paulus Vinfridus [apparently Paulus Diaconus], Historia miscella): “Hoc etiam anno in longis Thracae muris quidam homo fodiens invenit arcam lapideam, quam cum expurgasset et relevasset, reperit virum jacentem, et conglutinatas arcae litteras continentes haec: Christus nascetur ex virgine Maria, et credo in eum; sub Constantino et Eirene imperatoribus, o sol, iterum me videbis”; and and PL 154: 856, 859 (Ekkehardus Uraugiensis, Chronicon universale), “Eo anno Hirene piissima una cum Constantino gloriose divinitus imperium accepit. Primo hujus imperii anno cum Constantinus 10 esset annorum, homo quidam in longis Thrace muris fodiens, invenit arcam lapideam. Quam cum expurgasset et revelasset, repperit virum in ea jacentem, et literas arte conglutinatas, continentes haec: ‘Christus nascetur ex Maria virgine, et credo in eum. Sub Constantino vero et Hirene imperatoribus, o sol, iterum me videbis.'”

    Without checking all the names and dates, the oldest of these is perhaps Paulus Diaconus, in the 8th century.

    Also, I see now that I really should have called Constantine’s mother Irene, as she’s usually known in English.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on May 18, 2007 at 10:35 am

    VD16 is shorthand for “Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts”…The VD16 entry also lists an alternate title, Opusculum de vaticiniis sibyllarum…It’s [also] listed [in the ISTC] as Barberiis, Philippus de, Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini. Add: De variis Judaeorum et gentilium de Christo testimoniis. De vaticiniis Sibyllarum. Proba Falconia: Centones Vergilii. Ed: Jacob Köbel. Oppenheim: [Jacob Köbel, about 1510]…I find a somewhat reduced version of the story in PL 212: 836 (Helinandus Frigidi Montis, Chronicon), PL 188:88, 400 (Ordericus Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica), and PL 160:149 (Sigebertus Gemblacensis, Chronica): “Constantinopoli quidam laminam auream invenit, et in ea virum jacentem cum hac scriptura: Christus nascetur ex virgine Maria, et credo in eum: sub Constantino et Hirene, o sol, iterum me videbis”…There are somewhat more expansive versions in PL 95:1113 (attributed to Paulus Vinfridus [apparently Paulus Diaconus], Historia miscella): “Hoc etiam anno in longis Thracae muris quidam homo fodiens invenit arcam lapideam, quam cum expurgasset et relevasset, reperit virum jacentem, et conglutinatas arcae litteras continentes haec: Christus nascetur ex virgine Maria, et credo in eum; sub Constantino et Eirene imperatoribus, o sol, iterum me videbis”; and PL 154: 856, 859 (Ekkehardus Uraugiensis, Chronicon universale), “Eo anno Hirene piissima una cum Constantino gloriose divinitus imperium accepit. Primo hujus imperii anno cum Constantinus 10 esset annorum, homo quidam in longis Thrace muris fodiens, invenit arcam lapideam. Quam cum expurgasset et revelasset, repperit virum in ea jacentem, et literas arte conglutinatas, continentes haec: ‘Christus nascetur ex Maria virgine, et credo in eum. Sub Constantino vero et Hirene imperatoribus, o sol, iterum me videbis.’”

    Jonathan, you know that I have absolutely nothing but the very highest respect for the sort of complex and delicate archival and interpretive work that you do, as well as for your skill at those tasks. So please take no offense when I tell you that when read your response to Todd, the very first thing that came to mind was “Man, Jonathan should write mystery novels like that Umberto Eco fellow.”

  10. DKL on May 28, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    It all reminds me of this cartoon.

  11. Todd Hopkinson on June 13, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you!

    Great find!! great find.