Michelangelo painted several iconic images on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel including ‘The Creation of Adam’ and ‘The Last Judgement.’ But in addition to these important pieces, around the outer rim of the ceiling he painted pictures of twelve people who predicted the coming of Jesus. There are images of seven male Old Testament prophets including Jonah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and interspersed with the seven men are five female pagan Greek priestesses of Apollo called Sybils, one of them was the Oracle of Delphi.
The history of the oracle of Delphi is that around 1300 BC about the same time Moses was on Mt Sinai, there were a group of shepherds watching over sheep on a different mountain called Mt Parnassus. One day these shepherds noticed that vapors were rising from a crack in the ground. They also noticed when their goats inhaled these vapors, they became intoxicated. One of the shepherds, a man named Coretas, decided to breathe in the vapors for himself to see what happened, you know that friend- the one who is like, I am just going to give it a little whiff. So he breathed in the vapors and began to go into a trance speaking wildly. It terrified everyone he was with because as he spoke, he was revealing the personal secrets of the people he was with, and he also shared about things that would happen in the future, which frightened them even more.
The shepherds interpreted this phenomenon at first as a goddess, and then as The Greek god Apollo. So, they built an enclosure around the site, dedicated it as a holy place and appointed a priestess who would oversee it and receive messages by breathing in the vapors. The priestess overseeing this temple was called the Oracle Delphi.
For the next 1500 years, the city of Delphi became famous for the accurate predictions made by the priestess that oversaw the temple. People from all over the world came to hear predictions about the future and seek advice.
How it went down, was that the priestess went into an inner part of the temple called the holy of holies alone, sat on a special stool and began to inhale the vapors that ascended from the deep cavern beneath the floor. Then she would fall in a trance and began hallucinating, the male priests waiting outside would interpret what they heard and write down a message from what they believed to be the god Apollo.
Here is why this is significant. The oracle of Delphi along with the other sybils prophesied about the coming of Christ.
It started in an oracle given to Octavius Augustus in 31 BC. He had just defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in a sea battle that took place close to Delphi. Then Octavius faced a dilemma, should he invade Egypt to destroy the enemy once and for all, or should he first return to Rome to be crowned the emperor. Octavian came to the Oracle to seek advice. The Delphic sybil said to him, “A Jewish child ordered me to go down to Hades and to stay there in silence. This Jewish child is going to reign eternally. Therefore, go away from my sanctuaries and be in silence yourself.”
The other sybils on Michelangelo’s ceiling predicted the coming of Christ as ‘a star rising from a virgin.’ Another said that ‘in the golden age there won’t be famine because the master can feed 5000 men with 5 loaves of bread’. Another sibyl said that ‘the master will touch lepers and heal them’.
Just like the Magi were informed from above about Christ’s birth, God worked with the sibyls of the pagan world to preannounce Jesus’ coming. Not only that, but early Christian apologists and church fathers, including St. Augustine, quoted passages from these oracles to their unbelieving friends as proof that in their words, “even the pagans own sacred books prophesied of Christ.”
I had never heard about any of this until I traveled to Greece, and I was shocked once again by God. Shocked that He constantly shows up in places and in ways that I think are out of bounds. And not only that but in the situations or places that seem the most broken, or lost, or even evil, God is there making himself known and preparing a way.
The Kingdom of God is a shocking place.
Sometimes as people of faith, I wonder if we’ve occasionally gotten too comfortable with Jesus. Because all the people who were encountering Jesus in the Bible- the religious people, and the people with no faith at all, were all shocked by Him.
The message of Jesus is shockingly Good News.
And perhaps, Divine proclamation is coming to you this holiday season through unexpected means.
“Do not be afraid, I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today… a Savior has been born to you. – Luke 2:10-11
Daily Reading: Luke 5:27-32; Luke 19:28-48
Greece: A Biblical Tour of Greek Historical Sites by Costas Tsevas- HIGHLY RECOMMEND!