Prophetic Rivalry, Gender, and Economics

A Study in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4-5

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Olivia Stewart Lester
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , July
     239 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Prophetic Rivalry, Gender, and Economics, Olivia Stewart Lester investigates strategies of "written prophecy" in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4-5. She contends that these texts depict prophetic rivalries in which prophets are legitimated through strategies of interpretation, gender, and economics. When looking at interpretive strategies, Stewart Lester focuses on the ways in which the writers of Revelation and the Sibylline books integrate and reinterpret earlier texts and traditions. With gender, she focuses broadly on how the writers appeal to and manipulate contemporary constructions of gender, centering on violence towards feminine bodies and processes of emasculation. As for economics, she draws attention to the proposed prophetic economies of the texts, which are framed as alternatives to the financial transactions of pagan oracular centers. These three foci evidence attempts to reinforce the superiority of the prophecy propagated in each text over alternative forms of prophecy inspired by other deities. Stewart Lester argues that through this inner-textual legitimation process the writers authorize their own polemical announcements addressing the realities of the world external to the text.

Stewart Lester makes it clear from the outset that she views her work as contributing to the longstanding debate on the so-called "decline of prophecy." For Stewart Lester, Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4-5 challenge the notion of a prophetic decline because both attest to a lively written form of divine revelation and to rhetorical rivalries over prophetic authenticity. To expand on the latter notion, the writers of both sets of texts include constructions of true and false prophets in order to claim greater inspiration for themselves and their oracles over the false inspiration of pagan prophets. Stewart Lester understands these claims as important for Mediterranean Jews and early Christians who were faced with various questions concerning Rome, its authority, and their obligations following the destruction of the Temple.

The first three chapters address the prophetic rivalry in Revelation. In the first chapter, Stewart Lester takes up Revelation's construction of true prophecy, in which the writer of Revelation, whom Stewart Lester identifies as John, is the true prophet. She observes that John articulates the details of his commission to write (Rev 1:9-20) and his command to prophecy (Rev 10:11), which both work alongside Rev 22 to suggest the prophetic status of the author. John uses this prophetic authority to speak out against local, imperial, and cosmic forces. On the other hand, the figures of Balaam and Jezebel, whose stories are reworked to negatively emphasize their femininity and greed, represent false prophets. By way of contrasts, these re-presentations reinforce John's status as a true prophet (48-70). In the second chapter, Stewart Lester draws out the similarities of Revelation's treatment of the Balaam narrative to those of Philo and Josephus.  

In chapter 3, Stewart Lester examines Revelation's use of the "combat myth." She reads the incorporation of this myth, which has its roots in pagan literature, as presenting an interpretive opportunity for the author to articulate an origin story for the messiah and legitimate his prophetic authority over that of Apollo and his Oracle at Delphi (109-121). By reworking this myth, John underhandedly contrasts the messiah and Apollo, with whom the myth is often associated, to rhetorically emasculate the pagan deity and associate his prophetic economy with greed.

In chapters 4-6, Stewart Lester addresses Sibylline Oracles 4-5 as one unit. In chapter 4, she focuses primarily on the question of how scholars should categorize the Sibylline Oracles. She advocates for a category of Sibylline discourse as opposed to that of pseudepigrapha, especially pseudepigrapha understood as "forgery." Whereas pseudepigrapha assumes a claim to authorship, Sibylline discourse recognizes the Sibyl not as the sole author but as the central figure that unites the various features of the Sibylline books (150-161).

In chapters 5 and 6, Stewart Lester returns to the primary themes of the study, addressing the strategies of gender and economics in Sibylline Oracles 4-5. In these oracles, the Sibyl's femininity allows for authorial and divine control over her body. The violent means by which control is exerted over the Sibyl does not reduce the authority of the prophetess but proves the vitality of the Jewish God that exerts dominance over her. By doing this, the author reinforces the veridiction of the Sibyl's inspiration and heightens the threat against those who disobey her message (173-179). Chapter 6 details the prophetic economies of Sibylline Oracles 4-5, which describe negative behavior as accruing a debt that the responsible party must repay.

Stewart Lester's monograph is first and foremost a contribution to scholarship on Jewish and early Christian prophecy and divination. As such, her study may not satisfy the demands of scholars focusing solely on Revelation or the Sibylline Oracles, or even one of the themes therein—that is interpretation, gender, or economics. None of these topics are thoroughly investigated on their own. Nor does Stewart Lester directly address the important technical questions concerning the composition history, manuscript tradition, or communities behind each text. That being said, until recently divination as a whole was a neglected area of study. Stewart Lester's analysis of the polemical, interpretive, gender, and economic aspects of divination yields new insights into the internal workings and logic of the practice. Secondly, her focus on the texts as "written prophecies" is a refreshing move beyond the current dominant model of literary prophecy, with which scholars prioritize the interpretive component of texts. With written prophecy, Stewart Lester acknowledges that Revelation and the Sibylline Oracles do not just appeal to revelation for the purpose of interpretation, but they themselves are rhetorically fashioned as prophetic announcements. In sum, Stewart Lester's conclusions speak to the persistence of Jewish and early Christian notions of prophecy and divination during the early centuries of the common era; and with these conclusions, her book adds to the recently increasing body of literature challenging the theory of a prophetic decline.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Miguel M. Vargas is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Olivia Stewart Lester is John Fell Postdoctoral Fellow at Oriel College, Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.


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