Christian Literature

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Christian Literature


Every Ending Is a New Beginning. The first Christian writers, however, take issue with this pagan and philosophical world. Apologists like Minucius or Tertullian attempt to answer head-on the standard Roman accusations against their sect. Contemporary Romans suspected the Christians of immorality and found them to be cliquish. More substantial accusations were the unknowability of the divine, a strange concept of God as a single being, and a rather absurd eschatology. All these (and then some) are refuted individually in Minucius Felix’s Octavius by the speaker Octavius Januarius.

Jerome, Bible Translator. It took almost two hundred years, however, for the most significant Christian writers to emerge. These were St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible, and St. Augustine, the church father. Jerome’s writings show the severity of his ascetic tendencies. He was some-what remarkable for his time in having mastered both Hebrew and Greek in addition to his considerable Latin erudition; his scholarship still stands out as preeminent in his period. He studied rhetoric, like all educated men of his time, and he spent some time in the desert as an anchorite (hermit). Moving eventually to Palestine, he settled in Bethlehem, where he spent the rest of his life, often engaging in vehement scholarly polemics. He produced an expanded translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, a history of the world, and an historical catalogue of 135 famous writers (mostly Christian), the De viris illustribus. His work is classicizing in its style, and frequently alludes to the pagan classics; there is an anecdote about a nightmare he had, in which, standing before the Judgment Seat, he was accused of being not a Christian, but a Ciceronian.

Vulgate Bible. In Jerome’s time the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, which had been originally composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, already existed in Latin translations (known the Vetus latina, or “Old Latin” version). It was Pope Damasus who, in the 380s, commissioned Jerome to revise these against the original-language texts. Over time, however, Jerome conceived the project of producing, not just a revision, but an entirely new translation from the original languages. This he did, striving more for an accessible vernacular translation than for a polished style. Over the next several centuries this monumental translation was revised and reworked into what came to be known, by the eighth century C.E., as the “Vulgate” or “common-language” Bible. The Vulgate was the standard version of the Christian Bible until the Reformation. For this achievement alone Jerome would stand as a giant in the history of the Christian church.

Augustine, Church Father. Augustine is the most influential and the most fascinating of the early church fathers, since he combined a thorough philosophical and rhetorical grounding with his Christianity. He could be cerebral or fanatical, philosophical or polemical. His most significant works are his Confessions, published in 397/398 C.E., and the City of God, written between 413 and 426 C.E. In the first nine books, the Confessions provides an autobiography of Augustine until the death of his mother. The last four books present a neoplatonic view of memory, time, creation, and finally an allegorical exegesis of Genesis chapter 1. His autobiographical narrative vividly illustrates the theological point of the latter part. In Augustine’s view, man has turned away from God and given in to bodily pleasures. Man’s soul therefore declines and disintegrates, although it yearns to be made whole again. Only the love of God through the example and mediation of Christ can achieve this. Augustine’s own story is therefore emblematic of mankind:

At last I have come to love You, Beauty so ancient and so new, at last I have come to love You! And behold You were inside me and I outside and there I used to seek You; and I, misshapen, used to rush to those shapely things which You made. You were with me but I was not with You. The shapely things kept me from You which, if they existed not in You, would not exist at all. You called and shouted and broke my silence. You lit, brightened, and chased away my blindness. You emitted a fragrance, I took a breath and I pant for You. I tasted You and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I burn for your peace. (Confessions 10.27)

In describing his own spiritual journey as a paradigm for all of us, Augustine’s prose, often reminiscent of Cicero in its style, sometimes rises to poetic heights in his hymnic address to God. These poetic passages re-create an effect in Latin that clearly recalls the repetitive style of the Psalms. And so the last giant of Latin literature is also the first one who already belongs to the subsequent age. Rooted in Greek philosophy and Latin rhetoric, he combined these traditions with the Bible to argue and spread the message that dominated the next fifteen centuries.

Consoled by Philosophy. The writer Boethius provides a major bridge between antiquity and the Middle Ages. In his philosophical dialogue, The Consolation of Philosophy, the prisoner talks to the personified Philosophy. After dealing with chance, God emerges as the essence of happiness, independent of the trappings of this world. Misfortune is a test for the righteous, and each individual depends on his personal attitude toward his own lot. Chance is therefore not without cause, and human free will consists of following God. From a literary point of view, Boethius combines a platonic dialogue with the Roman form of Menippean satire, since he mixes prose and verse passages throughout. However, Boethius’s Menippean mixture is injected with a philosophical and theological seriousness never previously associated with this format. Nonetheless, he is firmly rooted in the classical world: his style is surprisingly classical; he quotes with ease from great Latin authors; and his metrical range is astonishing. Following the ancient principle, his manner follows his matter, and great attention is paid to inward unity. Boethius therefore stands on the threshold to a new age: an author writing in thoroughly classical style, but advocating the Christian God as the essence of happiness; a Roman consul at the mercy of a Germanic king. The balance still found in Boethius, however, was destined to tilt in favor of Christianity and the Germanic tribes.


Michael von Albrecht, A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1997).

Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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