Olivia Stewart Lester, “Prophets and Their Rivals: Interpretation, Gender, and Economics in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4–5,” PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 2017.
In the century after the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, several Jewish and Christian writers answered the burning questions of their age by writing prophecy. The book of Revelation and two Jewish books from the Sibylline Oracles are examples of such prophetic writing. Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4–5 grapple with the ascent of Roman power and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The writers of these texts employ prophecy to reorder their world and imagine an alternate universe. They place Rome under the governance of divine judgment, displacing Roman power by subordinating it to the power of their God.
John and the Jewish sibyllists assert themselves against rivals—political and prophetic. They bolster their own authority by presenting their message as true prophecy, and they malign conflicting viewpoints as false prophecy. My dissertation-to-book-project, Prophetic Rivalry, Gender, and Economics: A Study in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4–5, examines constructions of true and false prophecy in these texts at the intersections of interpretation, gender, and economics.
The book proceeds in two movements, considering constructions of true and false prophecy in Revelation and then in Sibylline Oracles 4–5. John and the Jewish sibyllists show themselves to be intellectual citizens, however, of a multicultural, multireligious, multilingual ancient Mediterranean world. For this reason, each section begins with Revelation or Sibylline Oracles 4–5, but also treats them as entry points into larger conversations about prophecy in the ancient Mediterranean.
Chapter one contrasts John’s self-presentation as a true prophet with the rival figures of “Balaam” and “Jezebel” in Revelation. John’s prophecy includes an attendant rhetoric of sexual violence as divine judgment against a woman’s body and, in the case of “Jezebel,” the death of her followers due to an act of divine violence. The replication of women’s vulnerability to divine violence, including sexual violence, is a constituent part of John’s imagined world, but it is not unique to Revelation. Women’s vulnerability to divine violence, in judgment, in inspiration, and as a prophetic illustration, occurs in prophetic texts from across the ancient Mediterranean. The threat against “Jezebel” then is a vivid example of a larger discourse of divine violence against prophets.
Chapter two compares the brief depiction of Balaam in Revelation with his portrayals by Philo and Josephus, arguing for the repeated usefulness of this figure in Hellenistic Jewish interpretation for ideological rivalry. For Philo, Balaam represents sophistry, and he portrays him as a greedy, emasculated false prophet to undercut this rival ideology. For Josephus, retelling Balaam’s story warns of the dangers of intermarriage, and he subverts Balaam’s reliability to heighten the threat of these unions. Josephus renders Balaam as both a less masculine man than Moses and also one violently overpowered by God, thus depicting him as part of a failed prophetic transaction. For John, Balaam is useful for resisting teaching that allows for unacceptable involvement in Roman society, including eating and economic practices. While each of these writers manipulates Balaam for diverse ends, gender and economics play important roles in each account of Balaam as a false prophet.
Chapter three considers Revelation’s rhetorical potential to delegitimize the prophecy of Apollo’s shrine at Delphi. It argues that Revelation’s reworked combat myth could have functioned rhetorically to undermine Delphic prophecy, undercutting its prestige by making the shrine’s foundation story an origin story for Jesus. How might such a Delphic critique have sounded to first century audiences? Lucan’s Civil War serves as another instance of “prophetic” writing, however loosely construed, in which many of the same dynamics are at work: resistance to Nero, pervasive and graphic violence, the vulnerability of women to divine violence, and ambivalence about Delphi. In both cases, prophetic writing is as an act of resistance: resistance to Nero and, I argue, rhetorical resistance to Delphi. The chapter concludes by juxtaposing one strand of anti-Delphi economic discourse in the ancient Mediterranean, evidenced in the Life of Aesop, with John’s creation of a new prophetic economy in Revelation, an economy in which he invites his audience to participate.
Chapter four turns to Sibylline Oracles 4 and 5, and the writing of Jewish sibylline oracles more broadly. It critiques the historical insufficiency of describing the writing of sibylline prophecies as “forgery.” The complicated relationship between ancient Jewish scribalism and prophetic writing, on the one hand, and ancient understandings of divine inspiration of a prophet, on the other, both challenge the notion that ancient audiences would have understood the Sibyl to be the author of these oracles. Drawing on the work of Hindy Najman, this chapter argues that “Sibylline discourse” more aptly characterizes the function of the Sibyl in holding these different texts together. It contends that Sibylline discourse was appealing to the Jewish writers and editors of books 4 and 5 because of its suitability for political resistance (against Rome) and prophetic rivalry (again with Apollo’s prophecy at Delphi).
Chapter five analyzes the roles of gender in constructing true prophecy in Sibylline Oracles 4–5. It argues that the Sibyl’s gender makes her more controllable and vulnerable to divine violence, thus ensuring the validity of her prophecy as coming from God. Within the oracles themselves, each Sibyl appears profoundly under the control of the deity who inspires her. The Sibyls’ instrumentality shows itself in their vulnerability to divine violence within these texts, particularly the lashing of a whip. God is portrayed as exercising masculinized dominance in Sibylline Oracles 4–5; each Sibyl’s vulnerable female body is useful as a conduit for her message and simultaneous proof of her imminent threats of violent judgment.
Chapter six examines the prophetic economies created by Sibylline Oracles 4–5, following the themes of divine reversal and Roman repayment. In the sibylline framework, human evil (especially Roman evil) incurs a debt that must be repaid, and divine judgment forces restitution. The chapter then concludes by examining prophecy and economics in the reception of Sibylline Oracles 4–5. It explores the ways the writer of the Prologue and Clement of Alexandria use economic images to reinforce the value of the Jewish-Christian Sibylline Oracles. The writer of the Prologue makes a strong rhetorical case that the cost of reading these complicated Greek prophecies will produce profit for the reader, in the form of proper instruction about God, the world, and time. In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement mocks Apollo, the immoral lover of gifts, and his useless false prophecy; meanwhile, he marshals the Sibyl to his ideological aid against statues, locating her squarely on the side of true prophecy.
My book underscores the widespread and interrelated power dynamics of producing prophecy in the ancient Mediterranean. Appeals to true prophecy tap into broader networks of political, economic, and religious legitimacy. With respect to gender, I argue that John and the Jewish writers who produced Sibylline Oracles 4–5 use prophecy to create imagined worlds that participate in a larger ancient Mediterranean discourse of divine violence against prophets. In this discourse, male prophets are emasculated and female prophets are vulnerable to masculine divine domination. John and the sibyllists resist the economic actions of political groups around them, especially Rome, by imagining an alternate universe with its own new economy. In this economy, God requires restitution from human beings whose evil behavior incurs debt. Regardless of whether perceived threats originate with local or imperial rivals, prophecy works as a stabilizing force for John and the Jewish sibyllists in fragile political environments.
The ongoing appeal of prophecy as a rhetorical strategy in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4–5, and the ongoing rivalries in which these texts engage, argue for prophecy’s continuing significance in a larger ancient Mediterranean religious context. In this way, my book adds to a growing body of scholarship challenging widespread narratives about prophecy’s decline in Second Temple Judaism and in early Christianity, as well as narratives about the decline of Greek oracles and divination, in the early Roman imperial period. Prophecy persists in tenuous political moments, reinforcing the authority of those who feel their power is under threat.
 The Sibylline Oracles are a disparate collection of prophecies produced by Jews and Christians over centuries in different geographical locations. The writers place teaching about their God and the kind of life that God requires in the mouth of a type of “pagan” prophetess, a Sibyl. Two of the Jewish books in this sibyllline collection, Sibylline Oracles 4 and 5, were likely written within about sixty years of Revelation—Sib. Or. 4 just before Revelation, in about 80 C.E., and Sib. Or. 5 in the mid-second century C.E. For an introduction to the Jewish-Christian collection and dating of the individual sibylline books, see John J. Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (vol. 1; ed. James H. Charlesworth; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1983), 317–324.
 In this, I agree with Jill E. Marshall, Women Praying and Prophesying in Corinth: Gender and Inspired Speech in First Corinthians (WUNT II; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
 See Leslie Kurke, “Aesop and the Contestation of Delphic Authority,” in The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration (ed. Carol Doughtery and Leslie Kurke; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 77–100; eadem, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
 Hindy Najman, Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2003), esp 9–29.
Olivia Stewart Lester is a John Fell Postdoctoral Fellow at Oriel College, University of Oxford. Her book, Prophetic Rivalry, Gender, and Economics: A Study in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4–5, is forthcoming with Mohr Siebeck.