Augustine Project: Weeks Thirty-One through Thirty-Five

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 16.26–16.43.

16.26–27. Augustine discusses the promise of Isaac’s birth and the covenant of circumcision.

Circumcision represents newness of life. Old skin is sloughed off on the eighth day. Augustine claims that the number eight symbolizes Christ’s resurrection because he rose on Sunday. The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, and Jesus rose on the day after the Sabbath, the eighth day, inaugurating a new creation.

Augustine continues to protect Abraham from any criticism. Abraham’s laughter becomes laughter of thankfulness rather than laughter of incredulity.

But why must boys who aren’t circumcised on the eighth day die? The text says that they’ve broken the covenant. How can an infant have broken the covenant?

Augustine claims that the covenant mentioned here is actually God’s covenant with Adam. Children are born as covenant breakers because they are born with original sin. Circumcision symbolizes that even the infant needs rebirth in order to be set free from sin and death.

16.28. Augustine seeks significance in God’s changing of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. His etymology of “Sarah” is quite wrong. “Sarah” probably means “princess,” or “queen”—something like that. “Sarai” MIGHT mean “my princess,” but no one’s really sure what the shift signifies.

16.29. Augustine resists the interpretation that Abraham met the pre-incarnate Christ by the Oak of Mamre. A visitation by Christ was and is a fairly common way of understanding the text.

16.30. Sodom’s destruction symbolizes the coming divine judgment that the entire earthly city will experience. The angels told Lot’s family not to look back because it is not proper to look back on the old way of life once man is reborn by grace. Lot’s wife, however, becomes a warning to later generations.

16.31–32. In this section Augustine explains the significance of Abraham’s test on the mountain. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but Isaac was the son of the promise.

This episode is often interpreted as God giving a test to see if Abraham loved God more than anything else in the world. Augustine, however, follows the New Testament’s interpretation of the event in which God is testing Abraham’s belief in the resurrection. God had said that the promise would come through Isaac. If Isaac was to be killed, then God must be powerful enough to raise Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill the promise. God has proven that he can bring forth life from a dead womb; will Abraham believe that God can restore life to a dead body? Abraham passes God’s test.

In both the person of Isaac and the substitute ram, Augustine sees references to Jesus. Abraham’s faith in resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian faith.

The promise of the City of God is not tied merely to genetics. Otherwise Ishmael could have fulfilled the promise. The promise of the City of God is tied to God’s miraculous intervention.

Augustine begins to follow the blessing of God through Abraham’s descendants.

16.34. Why did Abraham remarry after Sarah died? Why did he have six sons by Keturah? Augustine thinks that it must have a symbolic purpose since a righteous old man like Abraham wouldn’t be interested in sex or more children. According to Augustine, Abraham’s other children besides Isaac symbolize those people who say they are part of God’s heavenly city, but really aren’t. Ishmael represents the Jews, an interpretation provided by the Apostle Paul. Keturah’s children represent Gentiles who identify with the church but haven’t actually been redeemed. They remain carnal. He identifies these children of Keturah with the heretics. They have no part in the promise, even though from the outside they look like they are part of the covenant.

According to Augustine, Abraham’s second marriage also refutes those Montanist heretics who claim that second marriages are invalid. Montanism was a movement that seemed to rely on the continuation of the Spirit’s revelation through further prophecy. It became popular in many areas of the Empire in the third century, including North Africa. There was enough wiggle room in the third-century catholic church that most Montanists did not leave the church.

16.35. Augustine teaches that God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau is an example of how God’s grace works. God chooses whomever he will. Neither boy merited grace in the womb, but God chooses one over the other. We see Augustine’s doctrine of predestination peeking through here, though, as he says, he doesn’t have time to explain it fully.

Augustine notes that the common symbolic interpretation of this passage is that the Christians would supplant the Jews, their older brothers, just like Jacob supplanted Esau. Everyone in the ancient world seems to have thought this passage was about Jews and Christians. If one looks at late-antique rabbinical literature, one will find that the rabbis interpreted this passage almost identically, except they reversed the roles. They identify the Christians with Esau and themselves with Jacob.

16.36. Isaac is a righteous man, but Augustine believes that we shouldn’t think him more righteous than Abraham, even though Isaac only had one woman and Abraham had three.

Augustine writes, “There can be no doubt that the merits of his father’s faith and obedience were superior to his own, so much so that God says that the blessings he bestowed on Isaac were granted him for his father’s sake.” In my estimation, Augustine is a bit inconsistent here. In the previous chapter Augustine wrote that God bestows grace and favors some apart from merit. This fact would seem to call into question whether Abraham really was more faithful and more obedient. Maybe God just loved him.

Augustine takes this opportunity to provide a moral for his own age. Abraham is to be more highly esteemed than Isaac, even though Abraham had relations with three women, while Isaac only had relations with one. In the same way, Christians ought not necessarily esteem the celibate person more highly than the married. All things being equal, celibacy is a higher calling, but Augustine says that there is more to the Christian life. Some married people, he argues, are more faithful Christians than many celibates. Augustine is much more friendly to the married life than many other late-antique bishops.

16.37. Jacob gets no blame from Augustine for stealing Esau’s blessing. Augustine claims that there was no deceit in Jacob because the Bible refers to him as “simple.” While Augustine, along with other church fathers, interprets this as being without guile, it also could mean that he was the quiet sort.

The line about lentils is an interesting one. Augustine takes this as principle regarding food. Nothing can be more innocent than lentils, yet Esau still sins while consuming them. Augustine draws the conclusion that all food is fine, but our greed is the problem. A member of the reading group pointed out that it’s likely Augustine had the Manicheans in mind when he wrote this part. Manicheans were vegetarians.

Augustine sees a prophecy of Christ in Isaac’s blessing of Jacob. He seems quite exuberant in his explanation of how this relates to Christ and his church. Again he is adamant about the historicity of the narrative of Genesis.

It’s always amusing to see Augustine claim that his book would be too long if he fully pursued a certain line of inquiry.

16.38. Augustine finds Christological significance in Jacob’s experience at Bethel. The anointing of the stone with oil prefigures the “Christ” which means “anointed one.”

Augustine attempts to remove any blame that might attach to Jacob for having four women, just as he did for Abraham who had three. It’s not Jacob’s fault that he had four; he only sought one wife.

In 1 Cor 7:4, Paul wrote, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Therefore, Jacob is not to blame since he was only doing what his wife told him to do.

This argument, however, avoids the question as to whether Rachel and Leah had any guilt in asking their husband to have sex with another woman. Augustine claims that Jacob has no guilt since he performed his duty to procreate without lust. It seems, however, that the family as a whole experiences a different sort of lust in this rivalry between the wives. I’m always surprised at how Augustine can be an iconoclast at times and a whitewasher at others.

16.39. Augustine finds more Christological imagery in the episode in which Jacob wrestles with the angel. Augustine calls the angel a “type” of Christ. He is hesitant to say that Jacob wrestles with the pre-incarnate Christ, even though in the text Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face,” an item that Augustine leaves out.

Augustine claims that the name “Israel” means “seeing God,” but it’s ambiguous whether Augustine thinks that Jacob saw God or whether Jacob received a promise of a future seeing in the blessing. This etymology, “seeing God,” was popular, but it is almost certainly false. Scholars debate about what the root of “Israel” is, but the author of Genesis clearly intends to communicate that the root meaning is “striven with God.” Augustine and others might have been led astray in their etymology because the Septuagint isn’t worded like the Hebrew version.

16.40. Augustine spends quite a bit of space ironing out a wrinkle in the text regarding how many people went down to Egypt. This might not seem spiritually satisfying, but City of God is a work of apologetic. Augustine tries to convince both the Christian and the Pagan that the Bible is historically reliable. The text cannot be spiritually beneficial if it’s not historically true.

However, the discrepancy only exists in Augustine’s Old Latin translation of the Septuagint. The Hebrew version of the text doesn’t present any problems at this point.

16.41. Jacob’s blessing of Judah ought to be read as a prophecy concerning Christ. Augustine detects imagery that refers to Jesus’s death and resurrection and his washing of the church.

16.42. Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s children reinforces Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau. The younger will serve the older, and Augustine finds the spiritual meaning that the Jews will serve the Christians.

16.43. In this last chapter of Book 43, Augustine discusses the City of God from the time of Moses to the time of David. He quickly mentions how one can find Christ in the stories of Moses, Joshua, and David. (E.g., Jesus is the Greek version of the name Joshua.) Has he lost patience with his own historical narrative?

Augustine says that this brings the City of God to the end of its adolescence. Many in the early church taught that humanity moves through stages of development, just like individuals do.

Augustine discussed the first stage, from Adam to Noah, in Book 15, and the next two in Book 16. The second stage is Noah to Abraham, and the third is Abraham to David. After this point, Augustine doesn’t really follow through with discussing these stages anymore, but he discusses them elsewhere. The fourth stage ends with the return from Babylonian captivity. The fifth stage is the period between Babylonian Captivity and the advent of Christ. Humanity is in the sixth stage now. The seventh stage will begin at Christ’s second coming. The first six stages reflect six days of creation, and the seventh reflects a Sabbath rest in God.

Perhaps Augustine abandoned this scheme as the book progressed because he starts to emphasize the idea of an “eighth day,” the dawning of a new creation.

City of God 17.1–17.24.

17.1–3. In Book 17, Augustine will discuss the Age of the Prophets, the time period from Samuel to the return from the Babylonian Captivity. He notes that prophets existed before, e.g., Noah and Moses, but this era is characterized by prophecy.

He plans to provide a brief overview of this age and its implications for the City of God. A “minute scrutiny of the record” would take too long and too much space. Undoubtedly, Augustine would find much more that prefigures the City of God than a modern commentator would due to his method of allegorical interpretation.

Augustine proposes a threefold way of looking at prophecy. Sometimes prophecy relates merely to the earthly Jerusalem, the Jews. Sometimes it relates only to the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God. Sometimes it relates to both. Augustine sees prophecy as including historical events in the text, not just prophetic utterances.

Not every single detail in the text should be read as prefiguring some aspect of the Christian life. However, Augustine would prefer that an interpreter find Christ everywhere in the Old Testament text than find him nowhere.

17.4. Chapter four of book seventeen is almost like a self-contained sermon on the subject of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.

Augustine takes this song to be a prophetic utterance about the Church. Hannah, whose name means “Grace,” speaks on behalf of the entire Church who is full of grace. Augustine’s interpretation of the song reinforces many of his teachings concerning the Christian life.

Christians, though meek and humble, get their strength from God. Righteousness comes only from God, and we cannot achieve our own righteousness, which is what the Jews attempted to do. The Church goes forth to the entire world, and Christ gives the Church life. The message of Christ is urgent because men only have this life in which to seek Christ. Christ will return in judgment and exalt his Church who is joined to him as his own body. Augustine finds all these doctrines in Hannah’s song.

Hannah’s song marks the beginning of the narrative concerning her son Samuel. Augustine suggests that the events of Samuel’s ministry as priest and judge are also prophetic. Samuel’s ministry marked a shift away from the importance of the old priesthood. This shift is a prophecy concerning Christ whose ministry marks a shift away from earthly Jerusalem to heavenly Jerusalem.

17.5. Augustine discusses the prophecy regarding Eli and his sons in 1 Samuel 2. This chapter and the preceding one demonstrate Augustine’s idea of the threefold way of interpreting prophecy.

In 1 Samuel 2, the prophecy announces that the sons of the high priest, Eli, would die, ending that family’s hold on the high priesthood. Augustine says that when Samuel steps into this role, the priesthood has left the line of Aaron. He corrects himself in his Retractions. Samuel is listed as being of the line of Aaron, though he was not the son of a priest.

Augustine believes that this prophecy is only partially fulfilled in the events surrounding Eli and Samuel. The ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy is in Christ’s supersession of the line of Aaron. In the Church all Christians are part of the priesthood.

17.6–7. Augustine begins a section in which he explains the prophecies that surround the Israelite kingdom.

Prophecies which refer to the priesthood or the kingship as being forever must refer to Christ, rather than the individuals involved. Augustine says that the priests and kings were merely shadows of the coming Christ. Shadows pass away—are superseded—when the reality comes. The book of Hebrews talks about the relationship between Jewish institutions and Christ in the same way.

Augustine goes a bit further and believes that prophecies about division of kingdoms and loss of kingdoms refer to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. After the resurrection, many Jews believed and became the cornerstone of the Church. These Jews were divided from the Jews who continued to reject the Messiah.

The Jews who reject Jesus are concerned with earthly blessing, which is the same thing that Augustine accused the Romans of being concerned with at the beginning of City of God. Jews who did not reject Jesus, however, are part of the Church, citizens of the City of God who find true happiness in heavenly blessing.

17.8. Augustine teaches that the prophecy to David regarding his son was only partially fulfilled in Solomon. Its ultimate fulfillment occurred with the coming of Christ. Solomon’s reign included some problematic aspects which remind us that he was not the ultimate Messiah but merely another shadow.

These shadows point to the real work of Christ which is spiritually efficacious. The scripture points to Christ through both verbal prophecy and prophecy worked into the historical events, which show the pattern of how God works.

17.9–11. Augustine continues to explain how prophecies concerning the Davidic kingship really apply to Christ.

Since Augustine works from a translation of the Septuagint, sometimes he calls things different names than we do. In 17.9 he refers to the book of Kingdoms. The Septuagint calls 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings 1–4 Kingdoms. Also, the Septuagint numbers the psalms in a slightly different way, so what Augustine calls the eighty-eighth, we call the eighty-ninth.

Augustine thinks that Psalm 89 must be interpreted as referring to Jesus, the true “anointed one.” All the other anointed ones were merely shadows. He also sees reference to a distinction between earthly and heavenly Jews (17.10), and Christ is the actual substance of the people (17.11).

When referring to “substance,” Augustine is adopting some philosophical language to explain Christ’s primacy. Even though Christ was born chronologically later than the Jewish people, the heavenly Jews derive their existence from him. It’s another way for Augustine to talk about heavenly Jews or the Church being the body of Christ.

Also in 17.11, Augustine gives a brief answer to a hard question. Why did God create the reprobate? If God is all-knowing, why would he create people that he knew he was going to damn? Augustine says that God created these people for the benefit of the elect, because contrast adds beauty to his design, and because it showcases his justice. Not everyone has been satisfied by this answer.

17.12. Augustine finishes up his discussion of Psalm 88/89, asking whether the end of the psalm reflects the cry of the Israelites or of later Christians.

17.13. Augustine has already said that David and Solomon are shadows of Christ. Here he says that the peace of Solomon’s reign was merely a shadow of the peace that Christ offers.

17.14. Augustine believes that David wrote all of the psalms. His discussion of the prepositions “for” and “of” seems to be based on translations of translations and is not very helpful in discerning what the headings might signify.

17.15. Augustine warns that he couldn’t possibly discuss all the allegories for Christ in this book. He also warns against an approach which takes certain poetic lines out of context and joins them with lines taken from other psalms. Augustine has in mind the genre of the “cento,” which is a poem or song made up entirely from lines of other poems or songs. It’s not that Augustine thinks the cento a bad thing; it’s just that he doesn’t consider it interpretation. Some Christians had even made poems to Christ made entirely out of lines from Virgil. One can’t argue that this method rightly interprets Virgil.

17.16. Augustine begins a section in which he interprets select psalms as representing the relationship between Christ and his church. (Zion does not mean “contemplation.”)

17.17–18. Augustine lists a number of psalms in which he finds references to Christ’s life. Psalm 110 affirms Christ as both priest and king.

Augustine also finds reference to Christ’s death and resurrection in a number of psalms. Remember that the psalm numbers that he references are off by one because his translation is based on the Septuagint.

17.19. Augustine believes that Psalm 69 prophecies the Jews’ disbelief.

17.20. Biblical wisdom literature also points the careful interpreter to Christ. Augustine believes that Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus should be read alongside Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Even though those two books weren’t written by Solomon, the tradition of the Western Church has accepted them as canonical. Augustine tries to affirm tradition where he can, but I suspect that acceptance of these books rests on his preference for the Old Latin translation of the Septuagint, in which Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are lumped with the other wisdom texts.

When reading Proverbs, Augustine equates the personification of Wisdom with Christ, who is the wisdom of God according to the apostle Paul. Reading Proverbs as a book about Christ rather than a book about wise living revolutionizes the interpretation. This is probably the most straightforward example of what Augustine is attempting to do with the entirety of the Old Testament.

As an aside, Augustine claims that it is Christ who sacrificed the martyrs, and this idea crops up every now and then in his discussions on martyrdom. God arranged the martyr’s deaths in order to provide a testimony. This view is not unique to Augustine. In The Passion of Perpetua, Perpetua envisions her death in a similar way when she imagines God as the organizer of the contest. These passages attest to a robust view of God’s sovereignty.

Augustine does not go into any great detail regarding the prophecies contained in the Song of Solomon, but what he does say is interesting. He says that the book is about Christ, who is the king, and the Church, who is Christ’s bride. He seems to compare the uncovering of the allegory with the pleasure a couple receives when they undress each other on their wedding night.

17.21–24. Augustine does not dwell on the events after the reign of Solomon. The utterances and deeds of the kings do not seem to contain many prophecies concerning Christ or his heavenly city.

After Solomon, the Hebrew kingdom divided into two halves. The northern kingdom comprised ten tribes and called itself “Israel.” Judah, Benjamin, and the bulk of the Levites made up the southern kingdom, which was simply called “Judah.” The southern kingdom contained Jerusalem and the Temple. Augustine says this division was a divine punishment for the kings of Jerusalem.

In 722 BC the Assyrian Empire destroyed the northern kingdom Israel and deported much of the population. In 612 BC the Chaldean Empire, also known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire, destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, ending the Assyrian Empire. The Chaldeans then defeated Jerusalem in 597 BC, taking some of the inhabitants into exile. The Chaldeans came back in 586 and destroyed the city and the Temple, taking more inhabitants into exile. The Persians captured the city of Babylon in 539 BC, ending the Chaldean Empire. The next year, Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed the Jews of the Babylonian exile to return home. The Jews returned in waves under men like Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, and Ezra. They finished rebuilding the Temple in 516 BC. The Greeks overthrew the Persians in 330 BC and ruled over the Jews for a time. The Jews achieved independence through the Maccabean Revolt in 160 BC. They remained independent until the Roman general Pompey annexed their territory in 63 BC.

Augustine will discuss the prophets of the divided kingdom and return from exile in the next book. He seems to think that Book 17 has gotten long enough.

Before he ends the book, however, he claims that Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna from the early chapters of the gospel accounts should be lumped in with the Old Testament prophets because they foretell the coming Christ at the time of his birth. John the Baptist too should be included in this group because he provides testimony at the beginning of Christ’s ministry.

The Jews accepted the prophets of the Old Testament, but many of them rejected the testimony of John the Baptist. Augustine claims that this is the real division of the Jews, hinting that the division of the kingdom prefigured this. God has rejected some Jews and accepted others. Those Jews who do not accept the testimony that Jesus is the Christ cannot be part of the City of God.

City of God 18.1–18.28.

18.1. Now that Augustine has discussed the development of the City of God in isolation from the earthly city, he will describe the development of the two cities side by side. Much of his chronology relies on the Chronicle of Eusebius.

18.2. Augustine believes that the world had seen two major earthly cities, the Assyrian Empire and the Roman Empire. He claims that every other kingdom has been an appendage to these.

Unfortunately, one cannot trust most of Augustine’s discussions of Assyrian history. He conflates Assyria and Babylon, and all the rulers that he mentions are legendary composites of actual monarchs. Augustine doesn’t have the resources to investigate eastern history on his own, so he’s forced to use Greek and Roman caricatures of early Near Eastern history.

The Greek city of Sicyon features prominently in Augustine’s chronology as a counterpoint to what’s going on in the east. The city wasn’t really that important. It just so happens that the sources that Augustine used had a chronology of that city laid out against a faulty Near Eastern chronology.

18.3–5. Augustine continues to explain the side-by-side growth of the City of God and the City of Man. However, his sources are still unreliable in this section.

Serapis was probably an Egyptian and Greek conflation of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis. Ptolemy I popularized the worship of Serapis in Alexandria around 300 BC, so the cult of Serapis is about 1000 years younger than Augustine imagines.

18.6–8. Augustine continues to place the events of Genesis within a dubious chronology of the kings of Greece and Assyria.

Augustine also believes that it’s during this era that some groups began to worship their dead heroes as gods. He discussed this theory of euhemerism back in Book 4. Some of the coming chapters of Book 18 will sound like Augustine’s old polemic against Paganism at the beginning of the book.

18.9–10. Augustine uses Varro as a source in his explanation of the naming of Athens and the Athenian Areopagus. It’s interesting that Augustine will explain away pagan stories with euhemeristic interpretation when it suits him, but other times he’ll attribute the stories to demonic activity. His main concern seems to be to demonstrate a certain inconsistency in Varro’s method.

18.11. Moses didn’t get much attention in the previous book, but Augustine inserts a few details here. Augustine says that Moses prophesied Christ through the creation of the Tabernacle and the inauguration of the sacrificial system. Christological interpretations of the sacrificial system were widespread at the time, so Augustine probably felt that he didn’t need to explain them in detail.

18.12. Augustine discusses the origins of some pagan cults.

The Lupercalia, which took place in mid-February, was one of Rome’s oldest religious festivals. The festival was so ancient that the Romans themselves weren’t sure of its origins. The festival promoted purification and fertility. It involved running around in a goatskin.

Augustine claims that Xanthus, the king of Crete, carried off Europa and had three children by her. The common myth, which inspired countless works of art, has Zeus in the form of a bull taking Europa.

As far as Augustine is concerned it doesn’t matter how these events took place. Whether the stories of men have been embellished or demons intervened supernaturally, the result is a false religion.

[For those reading the Penguin edition: There’s an error on page 776. Where the text says, “and because the temple belonged jointly to Neptune and Minerva,” should read “Vulcan and Minerva.”]

18.13–15. Augustine claims that it was during the period of the judges in Israel that the Greeks created most of their stories. He catalogues the most famous myths of the Greeks and Romans.

In this discussion he revives many of his critiques from the beginning of City of God. The stories are really about men. The stories slander the gods at the gods’ own behest.

His history is moving into the era of the Trojan War, and Augustine is feeling a little more sure of himself. Notice that he’s referring to his flawed sources on Assyria less.

18.16–18. Augustine begins by saying that many of the heroes of the Trojan War joined the ranks of the gods, but he gets a little distracted by the tale of Diomede’s companions turning into birds.

Augustine lists a number of examples of humans being turned into animals. Some of these examples came from the old poems; some came from contemporary witnesses. Because of the trustworthiness of some of the people who attest these transformations, Augustine tentatively believes that it might be possible.

He doesn’t think that human bodies can actually be transformed into animal bodies. Rather, he thinks that demons orchestrate an elaborate out-of-body experience in which a person appears to have been transformed. The demons do this for their own amusement.

18.19–22. Augustine has reached that part of his history in which the city of Rome is founded. He relies heavily on the foundation myths of the Roman people, and he doesn’t attempt to explain them away as being fabulous tales. If he didn’t accept the traditional accounts of Rome’s founding then he wouldn’t have any sources to work with.

According to the tradition, Romulus and his twin brother Remus founded the city of Rome on April 21, 753 BC. The daughter of the king of Alba Longa bore the twins by Mars the god of war. The twins’ uncle condemned them to die by exposure because of their mother’s fornication. A wolf suckled the boys, and once grown they took revenge on their uncle. They then founded Rome.

Augustine suggests that the founding of Rome took place during the reign of Ahaz or Hezekiah in Judah. That’s a pretty close estimation. If we use the traditional dates, then it might have been a little earlier, in the reign of Uzziah.

The establishment of Rome is a turning point. Augustine sees Assyria, the other great empire, waning as Rome waxes. As I’ve already pointed out, Augustine’s reconstruction of ancient Near Eastern empires is problematic. Assyria was never what Augustine imagined it to be. Even so, Rome becomes the image bearer for the city of man—for Babylon. He even suggests with typical Roman pride that Rome was better than its precursor because Rome conquered its neighbors at the height of their strength.

18.23. Augustine interrupts his chronology to discuss some of the writings of the Sibyls that carry Christian themes. Sibyls were prophetic priestesses belonging to the mythic past in Greece and Rome. The most famous of the Sibyls was the Sibyl of Cumae who sold some prophetic writings to one of the early kings of Rome. These incomplete and cryptic writings were kept on the Capitoline Hill, and the Romans consulted them from time to time. During the Roman Empire, people wrote vague prophecies in poetic style and claimed they were saying of various Sibyls. The oracles that Augustine quotes were probably written relatively late.

18.24–26. Augustine places Greek intellectual history and Hebrew political history into the framework of the seven kings of Rome.

These are the traditional dates for Rome’s seven legendary kings:

  • Romulus, 753–715
  • Numa Pompilius, 715–673
  • Tullus Hostilius, 673–642
  • Ancus Marcius, 642–617
  • Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, 616–579
  • Servius Tullius, 578–535
  • Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, 534–510

Traditional dates for the Hebrews:

  • Assyria destroys the Northern Kingdom, 722
  • Babylon destroys the Southern Kingdom and the Temple, 586
  • Jews begin their return from Babylonian Exile, 538
  • Temple completed, 516

18.27–28. Augustine neglected to say much about the prophets of Israel and Judah in the last book, so he begins a section here in which he addresses some of their writings.

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