The decline of the legend of the Seven Sages and theosophical prophecies

A. Delatte begins his article of the above title with the following words:

Never did anyone prophesy so much, in the special form known as prophecy post eventum, as in the first centuries of Christianity.  The rapid conquest of souls by the new ideal and the solid establishment of the Christian churches showed the hand of God, and this transfiguration of the face of the world so stirred some spirits that in order to explain it they felt obliged to fall back on the idea of a preparation stage for the gospel.  Similarly some were unable to believe that the brightest and most inspired of the pagans did not have some presentiment or secret revelation of the mystery of the Redemption. 

In order to satisfy this longing of faith, some people who were well-intentioned but too little scrupulous of their choice of methods composed new Sybilline oracles, and placed in circulation prophecies that had previously come, so they said, from the sanctuaries of Apollo, announcing the coming of the messiah.  They also began to search the books and the biographies of the philosophers for features and doctrines that could easily be misinterpreted as disguised evidence of foreknowledge of the great event. 

Did they find them?  Some apostles of dissident Christian groups, those whose followers were of limited education and unable to detect the fraud, did not hesitate to resort to the falsification of ancient literary works to nourish the faith of their followers.  It might seem, moreover, that this was an excellent means of propaganda among those lingering in paganism, who were not fleeing the embrace of Christianity so much as clinging to the debris of the too mystical teachings of the magi, astrologers, and the theurgists, and were therefore ill-equipped to detect imposters.

Perhaps for Christianity to become universal, it had to appeal to the irrational element in every society, as well as the rational and devout; to the people who waste their time on New Age frauds in our day, as well as to the university-educated who make up most evangelicals in our day.  The thought is an interesting one, and the parallel also.  But let us return to Delatte, who is not so far footnoting these comments, unfortunately.

But in putting Christianity back among paganism, in making Orpheus, Pindar, Plato, Hermes Trismegistus and many others be Christians before the fact, the Orthodox faith was at great risk of diminishing itself, or even being contaminated.  The church was cautious; some of these theologians  to the troubled soul learned this to their cost. 

A certain Aristocritus (5th century) used all the resources of an uncertain science and the powers of a too supple spirit of conciliation to compose a book entitled Θεοσοφία.  He wanted to show that the most eminent souls among the Hebrews and the Greeks had, by the grace of God, the divination of the mysteries and prior knowledge of certain Christian doctrines, but in the opinion of orthodox theologians he only succeeded in demonstrating the identity of the doctrines of Judaism, Hellenism and Christianity, which was a hopeless error.  This system of accomodation which resembles the methods practised by the Stoics in handling previous philosophies was not to the liking of the strong-minded and clear-minded.  As a result the book of Aristocritus features among the works tainted with the Manichaen heresy which are anathematised in an ancient formula used for renouncing Manichaeism.

Accomodation is indeed the chronic hazard of the apologist; to be coloured by the views of those you oppose, to insensibly move to resist certain views and unknowingly accept others equally fatal to your position.

Delatte then goes on to review the scattered remains of Greek texts which preserve supposed extracts from philosophers predicting the coming of Christ.  I won’t repeat all this here, in what is already too long a post.  But these texts deserve to be gathered and made more readily available.

6 thoughts on “The decline of the legend of the Seven Sages and theosophical prophecies

  1. Excellent post, thoroughly enoyable and contains a timely lesson for our generation also.

    Is there a rough translation for the name of the book in English:

    Θεοσοφία

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. I never know how much of these things are of interest to others. But *I* thought the article shed an interesting light into a corner of antiquity which may not have the status of the great literary works, but may well have been more widely read and influential.

    The transliteration would be “Theosophia” (I hated Delatte’s habit of leaving material untranslated), which I suppose might be rendered “Theosophy”. What, if anything, that means I don’t know!

  3. Thanks. It’s such a pain as my wordpress renders any other language as a series of ??????’s. Really annoying as I often need to post Hebrew text!

  4. It sounds as if you need to upgrade WordPress, you know. I’m running 2.8.4 (not the latest), and I just pasted the text above in from Word. I think WordPress had problems with unicode longer ago. There are also security issues with running an old version. Worth a thought, anyhow.

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