There’s a very famous woman missing from your nativity set.
No, it’s not Mary Magdalene. It’s a long-forgotten, much-revered prophet who foretold the birth of the Messiah. She actually did more than that. She talked Christians into thinking they were destined to rule the world.
Today, she’s been quietly removed from our memory of the “first Christmas,” but that’s what usually happens with embarrassing family members. At holiday gatherings, they’re kept in the basement and told to keep quiet.
So who was this mystery woman? And why is her story worth remembering this Christmas season?
First, her name. Greeks and Romans called her “Sibyl.” In reality, she wasn’t one person. She was ten. Sibyls were priestesses stationed throughout the Mediterranean. They were based at well-known cities like Delphi in Greece and Cumae near Naples. Their job was to keep the lines of communication open between human and divine. It wasn’t an easy task.
The Sibyls were possessed by a god and spoke with a “manic voice,” according to a writer in the fifth century B.C. The poet Virgil described one woman as if she were raving mad. She scrawled her notes on leaves, Virgil said, and littered the floor of her cave with them. Whenever anyone opened the door, the wind shuffled the verses out of order. The implication? Her predictions, like those of Nostradamus, could be made to say almost anything.
No wonder she had so many crackpot followers.
In 63 B.C., leading Roman citizens tried to convince a band of rebels that the “Sibyl” had predicted the overthrow of the government. Things did not turn out the way they planned. The coup was quashed before it began. The muscle was provided by an ambitious young politician — friend of Latin classrooms everywhere — Marcus Tullius Cicero. According to Cicero, it was the rebels’ deranged belief in prophecy that justified his government’s swift military response.
The Republic eventually died, but the Sibyl continued bewitching people. Almost 200 years later, during a Jewish uprising in Egypt, rebels incited support for their resistance by impersonating her. One poet predicted a triumphant outcome for their struggle. Jews would avenge the destruction of the Temple, he wrote. The Roman Empire would fall.
That, too, didn’t exactly happen. Two decades later, the Temple was still in shambles. Jerusalem had become a Roman colony, and Jews would be cut off from their holiest site — until 1948.
All of which brings us back to the manger.
The “Sibyl” enchanted Jesus’s followers, too. In 325 A.D., just before the famous church council at Nicaea, the first Christian ruler of Rome reflected on the events that had brought him to power. Christianity’s “triumph” had been divinely ordained, Constantine told the Christian crowd, in a speech that is still preserved today. The Sibyl had foreseen the birth of a savior, “a child” under whom a blessed new race would rise. She had also seen the punishment of “pagan” Rome and the rise of a new one.
Of course, the Sibyl never actually predicted either.
The source of Constantine’s first statement was Virgil. Four decades before Jesus was born, the distinguished poet had longed for an end to the civil war that was tearing his country apart. Virgil, through the words of a Sibyl, had expressed his hope for the future in uncertain times. He was not having visions of Jesus. As for Constantine’s second claim, someone — we don’t know who — had handed the emperor a pious forgery to capitalize on the emperor’s new faith. It worked.
The leader of 60 million people began selling others on the idea that a Christian empire was part of God’s plan. Soon, myth would become reality. By the end of the fourth century A.D., “pagan” Rome would be legislated away.
In the Middle Ages, these Christian imperial delusions grew worse. Many believed the Sibyl had miraculously appeared to the first Roman emperor, Augustus — a kind of second Annunciation. Renaissance artists ran with the new propaganda. Many scenes of the nativity, in Renaissance books, modern museums, even churches, depict canonical Christmas scenes like the Visitation to Mary and the Journey of the Magi. Look more closely and you can see the Sibyl there, too. She’s predicting Jesus’ birth.
Even Rome’s prophets had been smart enough to see the “superiority” of the Christian faith — or so we are supposed to believe.
Am I really suggesting that nativity manufactures start selling Sibyls for us to add to our manger scenes? Not really. But I do think her haunting presence can teach us something important.
For me, the Sibyl is a symbol. She is a sign of all the manic beliefs that have motivated people throughout history — “pagans,” Jews, and Christians alike. These frenzied beliefs often arose during times of intense change and social crisis. They also cross the theological aisle. For Christians in particular, however, I think she offers a cautionary reminder this holiday season: not everything that came with the birth of Jesus was cherubic angels, bland straw, and hay.
We shouldn’t be hiding that uncomfortable history. We should be studying it — more.
Lead image: The Middelburg Altar by Rogier van der Weyden. Around 1450. Commissioned for the town hall in Brussells. Currently in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. To the right is the visit of the Magi. To the immediate left is the Sibyl announcing the birth of Jesus to the Roman emperor Augustus.