Augustine Project: Week Thirty-Six

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 18.29–18.41

18.29–31. Augustine mentions some passages in the prophets that speak of Christ. He does not dwell long on these. He believes that their references to Christ are self-evident and need little commentary.

He claims that he doesn’t know when Obadiah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were written. Since tradition includes them in the canon, he must follow suit. These three books do not contain much evidence about when they should be dated. Nahum can be dated to the 600s BC, but the other two are pretty wide open.

18.32. Habakkuk 3 is a song concerning the coming of the Lord. Augustine explains line-by-line that the song refers to the work of Christ. Augustine quotes from the LXX version, which differs from the Hebrew version in a number of places.

18.33. Augustine pairs the writings of Jeremiah and Zephaniah since they were written within a similar context.

The remnant of Israel is a common theme in the writings of the prophets. Augustine takes this as a prophecy that only a small number of the Jews would believe in Christ.

18.34–35. Daniel and Ezekiel prophesied during the Babylonian Captivity. Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi prophesied during the return from captivity. Augustine finds passages in their works that predict the coming of Christ.

Sometimes Old Testament prophecy exhibits a certain amount of flattening, in which the text fails to make a clear distinction between the first and second coming of Christ.

18.36. The books of Esdras (Ezra and Nehemiah) are chronology, but Augustine still manages to find some references to Christ in them.

Augustine views the books of Maccabees, as well as some other works in the Apocrypha, as canonical, but he seems to conceive of them as holding second place to the sacred scriptures of the Jewish canon.

The church came to the conclusion that the Jewish Maccabean martyrs from the 160s BC were part of Christianity’s story of faithfulness in the face of persecution. The church actually came to this conclusion pretty late. Congregations didn’t start venerating the Maccabean martyrs until the fourth century. The idea that their suffering authenticates their story was less than a hundred years old by the time Augustine wrote City of God, but he didn’t know that. All he knew was that he had been handed a tradition.

18.37. Augustine points out that most of the church’s sacred writings are older than the philosophical writings of the Greeks. The Jewish canon was closed with the building of the Second Temple in 516 BC. Thales of Miletus, whom the Greeks consider to be the first philosopher, died around 546 BC, so some overlap exists.

18.38. Augustine rejects pseudepigrapha. Pseudepigraphical writing, in which an ancient person was falsely claimed as the author, was fairly common. Earlier in book 18, we said that people wrote new Sibylline oracles. Old and New Testament heroes were also common persons to use in pseudepigraphical writing. Augustine mentions works purported to be by Noah and Enoch, but others existed.

One can think of these writings as the urban legends of the ancient world. Gullible people might pass them along to each other, but educated people and people with common sense didn’t embrace them as authentic.

18.39. Augustine thinks that the Hebrew language always had a written form. His evidence is that Moses appointed “grammatoeisagogi” to teach the people their letters. Unfortunately that office doesn’t appear in the Hebrew version of Exodus or even in many of the Greek versions. His thesis about written Hebrew is unlikely.

18.40. The Egyptians lie about the age of their wisdom. Augustine wants his reader to believe that Abraham was writing things down in Hebrew long before the Egyptians learned to write. He’s wrong.

Egyptians began writing more than a thousand years earlier than Augustine gives them credit for. On the other hand, when Abraham wandered around Canaan, the Hebrew script hadn’t been invented yet. It’s unlikely that any Semitic script was in use.

18.41. Augustine finds harmony in the Holy Scriptures but disagreement in the Greek philosophers. This harmony supports the trustworthiness of the Christian religion. Since the philosophers disagree, they cannot guide a person to true felicity.

A somewhat side note: When Augustine speaks of the canon of the scriptures, he really means scriptures in the plural sense. In all likelihood, Augustine never saw the entire Bible bound into a single codex. When Augustine thought about the scriptures, he thought about a collection of writings on his shelf. He has a canon, or list, and he believes that that canon is closed, but he still conceives of the scriptures as being a plurality. This plurality, however, had the unified purpose of showing Christ. We tend to talk about our Bible in the singularity just because we’ve always seen in bound into one spine.

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