Franz Joseph Dölger-Institut

zur Erforschung der Spätantike

»Oraculum«. Beobachtungen zu Konstanz und Wandel des Begriffs im antiken Christentum des lateinischen Westens

JbAC 61 (2018) Seiten: 175-207

The article offers a lexical study of the lemma ›oraculum‹ based on selected examples in Latin Christian literature up to Augustine. It examines to what extent the pagan spectrum of meaning is taken up and how far the term is processed and transformed in a Christian context. A continuous line in Christian literature is the critical, apologeticprotreptic, confrontation with pagan oracles. Approaches to the concept of oracle can be found in the area of dreams (Tertullian) and in the attempt to take pagan oracle sayings as witnesses of Christian truths (eg. Lactantius). The decisive step towards Christian transformation is the application of the term to the biblical scriptures. This prevails shortly after Constantine (Firmicus Maternus) and reaches a climax (esp. in Ambrose) when Christianity was established as the state religion and pagan cults were pushed back and finally prohibited. Speaking of the oracula of Holy Scripture is based on the traditional meaning of oraculum as a ›divine saying‹ (in oral or written form). It is applied to the Old Testament, especially to the ›prophets‹ following the scheme of announcement and fulfilment, but is also seen in the New Testament. Further connections to the pagan tradition are the high authority of the divine word, its darkness and ambiguity, that compels interpretation of an expert, as well as the scheme of question and answer. As in pagan usage both divinely inspired individuals and the human spirit itself, can also be classified as ›oracles‹. In contrast to the pagan oracle, however, in Christian ›oracles‹ it is the one God, thus the infallible truth that speaks. While pagan oracles promise (deceptively) answers to everyday earthly worries, God’s words have existential meaning. Observing these truths is decisive for the eschatological fate.

Andreas Hoffmann