On the Incarnation of the Word and the End of the Oracles

Alan Jacobs posted a summary of Plutarch’s 2nd century essay on the cessation of the oracles.

It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.

Jacobs goes on the describe the various reasons that Plutarch through Lamprias rejects and accepts for this silence, which he concludes is a result of shifting natural phenomena. I happened to read Jacobs’ post at the same time I was reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius addresses this subject as well, but from a much different perspective. Athanasius argues that the incarnation of Christ profoundly altered the world. His incarnation brought the divine into the created, and broke the power of spiritual blindness upon the world. Jesus as the conquering word is not only defeating spiritual evil in the present and future, but has defeated it already by his arrival.

“When did human beings begin to abandon the worship of idols, except since the true God Word of God came among human beings? Or when did have the oracles ceased amongst the Greeks and everywhere ceased and become empty, except since the Savior revealed himself upon earth?…Or when were the deceit and madness of the demons of the demons despised, except when the Power of God, the word, the Master of all, even of these, condescended, because of the weakness of humans, to appear on earth?” (§46, page 99).

“And formerly everywhere was filled with the deceit of the oracles, and the utterances of those in Delphi and Dodona and Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and Cabiri and the Pythoness were admired in the imaginations of human beings. But now, since Christ is announced everywhere, their madness has also ceased and no longer is there anyone among them giving oracles. Formerly demons deceived human fancy…but now, after the divine manifestation of the Word has taken place, their illusion has ceased.” (§47, page 100).

The context of Jacobs’ summary of Plutarch is a class on disenchantment, and Jacobs states that Lamprias’ view is disenchanting “because it removes power from spirits and gods and concentrates them in a single transcendent Monad.” The difference between Plutarch and Athanasius on this point is that the former is seeking a disenchanting explanation (i.e. a non-mystical, naturalistic explanation) for the cessation of oracles, while the latter argues for a re-enchantment of the world through the incarnation of Christ.