Augustine Project: Week Thirty-Seven

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 18.42–18.54

18.42–43. Augustine defends his use of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians adopted the Septuagint as part of their canon from the earliest days of the church. When Christianity moved into Latin-speaking communities, people translated this Greek translation of the Hebrew into Latin. We usually call these the Old Latin versions of the Old Testament.

Augustine recounts the traditional story of the Septuagint’s creation, in which seventy-two scholars independently arrive at the same translation. This legend, which attempts to prove the translation’s accuracy, is almost as old as the Septuagint itself.

Jerome had recently finished his own translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, a translation for which the Bishop of Rome had asked. Augustine is a bit uncomfortable with a translation based on the work of one man.

Augustine provides some of his own views on textual criticism. Good Latin translations should acknowledge differences in the Hebrew text and the Greek text. Christians should view both, even when they differ, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit might wish to communicate one thing through the prophets and another through the translators.

18.44. In the story of Jonah, the Hebrew text says that Nineveh will be overthrown in forty days and the Septuagint says that it will be overthrown in three days. Can they both be correct? Augustine says that if you want to know exactly which words came out of Jonah’s mouth, then read the Hebrew text, but Augustine doesn’t want you to have your senses dulled by the historical.

He claims that the discrepancy is intended to drive you past the historical meaning toward the spiritual meaning which points to Christ. Forty days indicates the forty days before Christ’s ascension, and three days indicates the three days before his resurrection. Therefore we are to see that Christ will overthrow the gentiles and bring them into his church. On the spiritual level, no discrepancy exists.

18.45. In chapter forty-five, Augustine gets back to the historical narrative. Here he outlines what many people call the intertestamental period.

Alexander arrived in Judea around 332 BC, taking the territory from the Persians. After his death, the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt controlled this area until the Seleucid kings seized it in 198 BC. Augustine gets some of his details confused here.

In 168 BC, Seleucid King Antiochus IV attempted to keep the Jews from being Jews by outlawing circumcision. The Jews rebelled and gained their independence.

The Hasmoneans, the family of Judas Maccabeus, reigned as kings and high priests in Jerusalem until 63 BC. At that time, the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus argued over who should rule the Jews, and Pompey the Great, the Roman general, happened to be in the area. Pompey decided the dispute and made Judea a client of Rome, ending Jerusalem’s independence.

Augustine blames Cassius for plundering the Temple in 53 BC. It was actually Crassus. Perhaps this error was just a slip of the pen.

King Herod the Idumean was the king of the Jews at the birth of Jesus. Rome had made him king.

18.46. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, Jesus was born; the Word was made flesh. Many of the Jews, however, did not recognize that their messiah had come. As a consequence for this blindness, God used the Romans to scatter the Jews from their homeland.

Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70 in order to end a Jewish rebellion. They turned the city into a Roman colony in the 130s in response to another Jewish rebellion. The Romans banned Jews from the new city.

Augustine believes that this judgment on the Jews confirms the truth of Christianity.

18.47. Augustine then explores whether any citizens of the heavenly city existed apart from Israel before Christ came. Augustine uses Job as his example to prove that God could include outsiders in the heavenly city if he chose. Nevertheless, this predestination of outsiders must be accomplished by giving them some knowledge of the coming Christ.

Augustine seems to be somewhat ambivalent about using extra-canonical writings to support Christianity. Remember the alleged Sibylline Oracles that prophesied Christ? Augustine probably thinks some of these sorts of writing are genuine and some are fabrications, but he wants to emphasize that none of them are necessary for faith.

18.48. The true Temple of God is the Church Universal, made out of living stones. This Temple is better than the one that the Romans destroyed in AD 70. It’s more beautiful. It includes the Gentiles. It cannot be torn down and will stand forever. We cannot see this Temple clearly in the present age, however, because local churches contain people who are not chosen by God.

18.49–51. Augustine begins to summarize the situation of the Church after Jesus’ ascension.

Even though Christ has come, difficulties beset the Church. Not every member of the local congregation is actually a member of the heavenly city. The sojourning church contains both the good and the reprobate, but God will sort them out on the Last Day.

Christians shouldn’t despair. A reprobate was even numbered among the disciples, and God used him for good.

Persecution and heresy will also trouble the church. Augustine suggests that both these problems ultimately help the church rather than harm it. The martyrs’ deaths became the witness that God used to incorporate the gentiles, and resisting heresy strengths the church. Resisting heresy trains the church in wisdom and benevolence. The polemical writings from the early church show that this benevolence is a very tough form of love.

18.52–53. Augustine discusses past and present persecutions. Orosius suggested that ten persecutions have occurred, and one final persecution will occur at the end of time. Augustine finds this scheme too simplistic.

Augustine notes that persecution didn’t end entirely with Constantine’s ascension to the imperial purple. He leaves the question open. Maybe more persecution will occur. Maybe not. He doesn’t think it wise to predict the future.

He does believe that the Antichrist will introduce a new persecution at the end of time, but he cautions believers to not bother trying to predict when that might occur.

He takes this opportunity to dismiss a Pagan prophecy that Christianity would only last 365 years.

18.54. Augustine explains the foolishness of believing a Pagan prophecy that claimed Peter cast a spell on the world and that Christianity would only last 365 years. The year in question had passed about thirty years before, but Christianity continued to grow as Paganism declined.

Augustine brings Book 18 to a close. The end of Book 18 seems most notable for what it doesn’t include. Augustine does not mention Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and he doesn’t mention Theodosius’s laws that essentially turned Christianity into the state religion. Of course this section is already longer than the others, but it seems that he’s avoiding an important discussion concerning the relationship of the two cities in the chronology of Book 18.

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