Christ the Greatest Black Swan: The Unexpected Expected Messiah




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.


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  1. I did not know about Virgil’s Eclogues. Thank you. The translation is missing the 1st several lines (and my translation would be somewhat different, but I do not have time right now and I am not the linguist which MPS is).
    Sicilian Muses, sing we a somewhat ampler strain:
    Not all men’s delight is in coppices and lowly tamarisks:
    if we sing of the woods, let the woods be worthy in consul.
    I looked up the original:
    Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus.
    non omnis arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae;
    si canimus silvas, silvae sint consule dignae.
    Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
    magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. 5
    iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
    iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
    tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
    desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
    casta fave Lucina; tuus iam regnat Apollo. 10
    Teque adeo decus hoc aevi, te consule, inibit,
    Pollio, et incipient magni procedere menses;
    te duce, si qua manent sceleris vestigia nostri,
    inrita perpetua solvent formidine terras.
    ille deum vitam accipiet divisque videbit 15
    permixtos heroas et ipse videbitur illis
    pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem.
    At tibi prima, puer, nullo munuscula cultu
    errantis hederas passim cum baccare tellus
    mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantho. 20
    ipsae lacte domum referent distenta capellae
    ubera nec magnos metuent armenta leones;
    ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores.
    occidet et serpens et fallax herba veneni
    occidet; Assyrium vulgo nascetur amomum. 25
    At simul heroum laudes et facta parentis
    iam legere et quae sit poteris cognoscere virtus,
    molli paulatim flavescet campus arista
    incultisque rubens pendebit sentibus uva
    et durae quercus sudabunt roscida mella. 30

    Pauca tamen suberunt priscae vestigia fraudis,
    quae temptare Thetin ratibus, quae cingere muris
    oppida, quae iubeant telluri infindere sulcos.
    alter erit tum Tiphys et altera quae vehat Argo
    delectos heroas; erunt etiam altera bella 35
    atque iterum ad Troiam magnus mittetur Achilles.
    Hinc, ubi iam firmata virum te fecerit aetas,
    cedet et ipse mari vector nec nautica pinus
    mutabit merces; omnis feret omnia tellus.
    non rastros patietur humus, non vinea falcem, 40
    robustus quoque iam tauris iuga solvet arator;
    nec varios discet mentiri lana colores,
    ipse sed in pratis aries iam suave rubenti
    murice, iam croceo mutabit vellera luto,
    sponte sua sandyx pascentis vestiet agnos. 45
    ‘Talia saecla’ suis dixerunt ‘currite’ fusis
    concordes stabili fatorum numine Parcae.
    Adgredere o magnos—aderit iam tempus—honores,
    cara deum suboles, magnum Iovis incrementum.
    aspice convexo nutantem pondere mundum, 50
    terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum;
    aspice, venturo laetantur ut omnia saeclo.
    O mihi tum longae maneat pars ultima vitae,
    spiritus et quantum sat erit tua dicere facta:
    non me carminibus vincat nec Thracius Orpheus 55
    nec Linus, huic mater quamvis atque huic pater adsit,
    Orphei Calliopea, Lino formosus Apollo.
    Pan etiam, Arcadia mecum si iudice certet,
    Pan etiam Arcadia dicat se iudice victum.
    Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem; 60
    matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses.
    incipe, parve puer. qui non risere parenti,
    nec deus hunc mensa dea nec dignata cubili est.

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