The second part of our Advent look at Jesus as the greatest Black Swan event in human history. Go here to read part one.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling. Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
In regard to the first test of a Black Swan event, was the coming of Jesus unexpected? The Old Testament is studded with texts that predict the coming of the Messiah. Go here, here, here ,here, here, here, here, here , here , here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, and here to read a handful of them. These messianic interpretations were not merely Christians reading back into Scripture references to Christ. For centuries before Christ Jews had debated and argued about whether a Messiah sent by God was coming and what he would be like if he came. Greatly simplifying a very complex historical debate, most Jews who believed in a Messiah expected a scion of the House of David who would re-establish, with the help of God, the Jews as a great people ruling themselves. A minority of Jews thought the Messiah might be humble and meek, the “suffering servant” of Messiah, while most Jews regarded such passages as a prophetic reference to the weak state of the Jewish nation. A handful of Jews, some of the Essenes, believed that the Messiah had come about a century to a century and a half before the Christian Era and would come again.
Intriguingly some Romans believed about the time of Christ that some great change was about to enter the world. One of the odder stories in the history of Rome is the purported purchase by the last Roman King Tarquinus Superbus. Sybil means prophetess in Greek. Lines of women prophets established themselves at various locations throughout the Greek world and were frequently consulted during times of crisis. As the story goes, the Cumaean Sybil, located near Naples, offered to Superbus nine books of prophecies of the history of Rome written in Greek hexameters at an exorbitant price. When he declined the offer she burned three of the books and repeated her offer. The King declining again she burned three more books at which the King met her price for the final three books. God alone knows what grains of truth are in this story. What is quite historical is that the Roman Senate did have Sybilline Books, or rather scrolls, of prophecies, closely guarded by the Roman state and consulted in times of peril as to the religious observances that must be undertaken to avert the peril. Kept in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol the original books were lost when the temple burned in 83 BC. The Senate rounded up prophecies from other Sybils to replace them, and the new Sybilline books were placed in the restored temple to Jupiter. Consul Flavius Stilicho ordered these books burned in 408 AD as they were being used by adversaries of the government.
The Roman poet Virgil in his bucolic Eclogues collection of ten poems has this intriguing passage in the Fourth Eclogue:
Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own
Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,
This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away,
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace. For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts, the gadding ivy-spray
With foxglove and Egyptian bean-flower mixed,
And laughing-eyed acanthus. Of themselves,
Untended, will the she-goats then bring home
Their udders swollen with milk, while flocks afield
Shall of the monstrous lion have no fear.
Thy very cradle shall pour forth for thee
Caressing flowers. The serpent too shall die,
Die shall the treacherous poison-plant, and far
And wide Assyrian spices spring. But soon
As thou hast skill to read of heroes’ fame,
And of thy father’s deeds, and inly learn
What virtue is, the plain by slow degrees
With waving corn-crops shall to golden grow,
From the wild briar shall hang the blushing grape,
And stubborn oaks sweat honey-dew. Nathless
Yet shall there lurk within of ancient wrong
Some traces, bidding tempt the deep with ships,
Gird towns with walls, with furrows cleave the earth.
Therewith a second Tiphys shall there be,
Her hero-freight a second Argo bear;
New wars too shall arise, and once again
Some great Achilles to some Troy be sent.
Then, when the mellowing years have made thee man,
No more shall mariner sail, nor pine-tree bark
Ply traffic on the sea, but every land
Shall all things bear alike: the glebe no more
Shall feel the harrow’s grip, nor vine the hook;
The sturdy ploughman shall loose yoke from steer,
Nor wool with varying colours learn to lie;
But in the meadows shall the ram himself,
Now with soft flush of purple, now with tint
Of yellow saffron, teach his fleece to shine.
While clothed in natural scarlet graze the lambs.
“Such still, such ages weave ye, as ye run,”
Sang to their spindles the consenting Fates
By Destiny’s unalterable decree.
Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh,
Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!
See how it totters- the world’s orbed might,
Earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound,
All, see, enraptured of the coming time!
Ah! might such length of days to me be given,
And breath suffice me to rehearse thy deeds,
Nor Thracian Orpheus should out-sing me then,
Nor Linus, though his mother this, and that
His sire should aid- Orpheus Calliope,
And Linus fair Apollo. Nay, though Pan,
With Arcady for judge, my claim contest,
With Arcady for judge great Pan himself
Should own him foiled, and from the field retire.
Begin to greet thy mother with a smile,
O baby-boy! ten months of weariness
For thee she bore: O baby-boy, begin!
For him, on whom his parents have not smiled,
Gods deem not worthy of their board or bed.
The Emperor Constantine remarked on how passages in this poem seemed to refer to the coming Christ. Saint Augustine thought that Virgil used the Sibylline Books in composing this poem:
“For that he did not say this at the prompting of his own fancy, Virgil tells us in almost the last verse of that 4th Eclogue, when he says,
The last age predicted by the Cumæan sibyl has now arrived; whence it plainly appears that this had been dictated by the Cumæan sibyl.”
At a minimum the Fourth Eclogue indicates that in the intellectual air of Rome there existed, just prior to the coming of Christ the expectation that the world would soon be undergoing a huge transformation.
However, neither the Messianic expectations of the Jews nor the desire of a return to a fabled Golden Age by the Romans prepared them for Christ. To the Jews Jesus came neither as a military Messiah nor as a Messiah who merely suffers for Israel. Instead He proclaimed himself the Son of God, one of the persons of a triune God, and declared that His mission was to both Jew and Gentile. The idea of course that God could have a Son would have struck pious Jews at the time of Christ as the rankest of blasphemy. For the Romans, their ideas were vaguer than those of the Jews as to how the great transformation some of them expected was to be carried out, but surely it would not be by a penniless Jewish carpenter from Galilee who after a brief public career would be executed on a Roman cross as rebel against Rome. Jesus came at a time of expectations, and He fulfilled such expectations in a completely unexpected manner that altered all future history. Much more on His impact next time.