Contents of spoon-archives/phillitcrit.archive/papers/sloane1
Augustine on Jews and Women in "City of God" and "Confessions"
Professor Patricia Sloane
New York City Technical College of
The City University of New York
1. Augustine and The Old Testament
2. The Mother of Adeodatus
3. Augustine and Dante
1. Augustine and The Old Testament
History has many cunning passages
T. S. Eliot, Gerontion (1920)
Saint Augustine (354-430) was born in Algeria and lived in Carthage, Rome, and
Milan. He returned to Africa in 388, and served as Bishop of Hippo from 395 to
the end of his life. Augustine's Confessions (400) is cast as the spiritual
expedition of a pilgrim buffeted by many winds. Merton calls City of God
(413-426) "the autobiography of the Church, written by the most Catholic of her
great saints."1 Its title is from Revelation, where, at the end of time, John
the Divine sees "that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven
from God" (Rev 21:10). Its implied opposite is the other Jerusalem, the
metropolis established by human beings. But the city of God also succeeds
Babylon, the evil empire personified as a whore.
In long stretches of City of God, Augustine instructs the reader on how the Old
Testament ought to be interpreted. Like any explicator, he had a theory of
textual analysis. Or he inherited an exegetical theory that originates in the
New Testament. In Luke, Christ says that David is the author of Psalms (20.42),
and that there are "things...in the psalms concerning me" (24.44). Acts of the
Apostles, attributed to Luke, identifies Psalm 2 as a prophesy of the Nativity
(13.33).2 Matthew 27.35 identifies Psalm 22 as a prophesy of the Crucifixion.
Paul says that Isaiah 11.10 is a prophecy of the coming of Christ (Rom. 15.12).
These and similar passages laid a foundation for the pious belief that the
Psalmist (King David) was Israel's greatest prophet, and perhaps the entire Old
Testament might be a book of prophecies about Christ. The reasoning was expanded
by the Alexandrian allegorical exegetes, of whom Saint Augustine is the most
widely read. Briefly, "Tyconius, a Donatist exegete of the late 4th century,
laid down the rule in his Liber regularum that every verse in the Old Testament
could be interpreted in a Christian way. Augustine epitomized this approach in
his principle: 'The New Testament lies hidden in the Old; the Old Testament is
enlightened through the New.'"3
Augustine's defense of Christianity against Roman paganism wends its way
through City of God. Or he worries and plays with the question of why Christians
are better than pagans, and where Jews fit into the picture. Augustine was
credulous by modern standards. He professed to believe (and thought it a great
miracle) that in pagan Rome a vestal virgin had proved her chastity by carrying
water from the Tiber River in a sieve. No water leaked out, as the vestal showed
her accusers (22.11.834). But, argues Augustine, Christianity can show greater
miracles. The wisest minds of the ancient world had known about the coming of
Christ. Of Augustine's two examples of foreknowledge, the "divine prophecies
about Christ written in the books of the Jews" articulated a rationale for
preserving the Hebrew Testament as part of the Christian Bible (18:47:658).
Augustine's second example is a manuscript attributed to the Sibyl of Cumae (or
the Sibyl of Erythrea). It included a miraculous prophecy that could be
extracted by reading only the first letter of each line (18:23:629). The
letters, in sequence, spelled out Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.4 A way could
be found around the minor impediment that the prophecy was in Greek although the
manuscript was in Latin.5 The wise Sibyl, honoring what Augustine calls "the
science of numbers," gave her prophecy in 27 lines, "the cube of three. For
three times three are nine; and nine itself, if tripled, so as to rise from the
superficial square to the cube, comes to twenty-seven" (CG 18.23.629).
Augustine's anecdote might seem to speak well for the Sibylline books, the
compilation of prophetic manuscripts attributed to the legendary wise woman of
ancient Greece. But Augustine complains, elsewhere, that the Romans "resorted to
vain and ludicrous expedients" when they superstitiously used the Sibylline
books for guidance during the Punic Wars (3.18.95). On still another page, he
ridicules superstitious Virgil (Fourth Eclogue) for announcing that "the last
age predicted by the Cumaean Sibyl has now arrived" (10.27.333). Augustine could
tolerate great inconsistency, at least in his own reasoning.
Augustine's story about the Sibyl's manuscript is better remembered than its
source, and usually retold today as an example of Medieval naiveté. But
Augustine's two examples seem to be the only identifiable literary source for
the Hebrew Prophets and Greco-Roman Sibyls who occasionally loiter in the
backgrounds of Medieval and Renaissance paintings. Given little pictorial
emphasis, these shadowy figures could be read as the wisest minds of the ancient
world, the seers who knew about the coming of Christ. Or they personified Israel
(male prophets) and Rome (female sibyls) as parallel, non-Christian traditions.6
Summoned to Christendom from their alien cultures, the Sibyls and Prophets
typically have the look of quasi-anonymous servants of the Church. In the
Medieval equivalent of fifteen minutes of fame, each may eventually be brought
forward to present his or her testimonial. Sibyls and Prophets are more often
seen in the visual arts than in literature, though Dante includes a rarely
noticed pair in the last two cantos of Paradiso.7
Michelangelo, in a Renaissance reinterpretation, uses twelve over-size Sibyls
and Prophets to frame the central scenes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1516).
His majestic savants still hold the manuscripts in which they were thought to
have given their prophecies. But they have been moved, in a manner of speaking,
to the foreground. Each of Michelangelo's Prophets and Sibyls is identified by
name, and the names are written on banners. Each is an honored guest, assisted
by infant angels.
We assume that Michelangelo and his patron, Pope Julius II, recognized Israel
and Rome as the cultural roots from which the Church had grown, and which it had
to recover. But the two streams that converged may have had fewer similitudes
than Michelangelo's presentation implied. By the Sixteenth century, there were
no longer any living worshipers of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and
Rome. The Jews inconveniently persisted. Because of this mismatch, or through
the influence of Petrarch (1304-74), Greco-Roman culture was indeed glorified
during the Renaissance. Saint Augustine's pagans in effect were exhumed and
virtually sanctified. Jews failed to rise above their pariah status. But the
likelihood of their conversion could be treated with levity. The English
satirist Andrew Marvell (1621-78) wrote, in To His Coy Mistress,
Had we but World enough, and Time,
This coyness Lady were no crime.
And you should if you please refuse
Till the Conversion of the Jews.
Augustine offers no examples of miraculous manuscripts beyond the Sibyl's
acrostic and "the books of the Jews." But he thought it "not incongruous to
believe that even in other nations there may have been men to whom this mystery
[of Christ] was revealed" (18.47.658). He worried "lest perchance any one should
say that the Christians have forged [the Old Testament] prophecies about
Christ." He recommends that the Jews, though he calls them enemies, be kept
alive to bear witness. Only they could convincingly swear that the Old Testament
is not a Christian forgery (18.46.657).
The reasoning anticipated a time when the Jews would no longer be needed for
this limited purpose, and it might be possible to dispose of them. It was one of
the earlier articulations of what came to be called the Jewish Problem. The
"books of the Jews" were to be preserved. And none of these ideas is really new.
Even for a source as staid as Encyclopaedia Britannica, "by the time the last
book of the New Testament had been written, Christians had so identified
themselves with the Old Testament that they could regard Judaism as the
interloper on the ancient Scriptures and the Christian church as the rightful
possessor and authoritative interpreter of the Jewish Bible."8 Briefly, and this
is always the exegetical thesis, a book belongs less to its original author or
authors than to those who claim a superior understanding of what the text
In the Twentieth century, Sigmund Freud secularized exegetical seeking, and
provided a terminology. He looked behind what any literary text actually said
(manifest content), focusing on what he believed it "really meant" (latent
content). By this reasoning, any text can, or must, have two different meanings.
It means what it means. But it also means what it "really" means. The followers
of Freud (and Jung) found a warmer welcome in literature than in the visual
arts. If a Freudian commentator approached a text, it was invariably found to
validate, or conform to, Freudian theory. If the commentator was a Jungian, the
text was discovered to conform to Jung's theories. The purpose of the exegetical
effort was unclear. It might be construed as a game of one-upmanship. The wise
commentator stepped in to illuminate readers on what the confused author really
was trying to say. Or the point may have been that all the world validated
Freudian (or Jungian) principles, much as Augustine believed all the world bore
witness to the miracle of Christ.
Freud presents an enigma apart from his followers. He had a well-founded fear
of stirring up anti-Semitism, the reason he gave for not carrying out a plan to
apply his methods to the Bible. Though Freud had the good fortune to die in
England rather than in Auschwitz, he was never able to return to Vienna after
fleeing the Nazis. What could this beleaguered man possibly have found
attractive in the methods of an Augustine? Anything is possible, and Freud may
have missed the point that his exegetical methodology virtually clones Saint
Augustine's procedure for reading the Old Testament, the procedure that helped
set in place a foundation for what later came to be called anti-Semitism.
Similar temperaments might have led the two men to parallel theories of textual
analysis. Freud, like Augustine, is a moralist remembered for confessions, his
own and others. Each has a predominantly pessimistic point of view. For
Augustine, original sin so burdened the human race that the highest joy was
anticipation of a better life with God in another world. For Freud, there was no
act of human goodness that could not be traced back to self-serving, shameful,
perverse, impure or ignoble motives. The psychoanalyst's couch became a
non-sectarian alternative to Catholicism's confessional booth. Group therapy,
originally an economic expedient, evolved into support groups for those who
shared special needs. Human beings may have a genuine need to flush out, from
time to time, the detritus that accumulates in the mind. Or we need to air our
griefs and problems for an audience, whether of one or many.
Augustine was shielded from certain kinds of criticism by his sainthood. Freud's
exegetical ways were not to everyone's taste. Susan Sontag's classic Against
Interpretation (1966) provides a devastating critique of those who bend texts to
what they would like to hear. Sontag stopped short, as anyone might, at a point
more widely recognized among Biblical scholars than among literary commentators.
The game of actually or figuratively rewriting a text to suit one's own purposes
was not invented by Freud. It was played at a much earlier date with the Old
Testament. Or it was played in the Old Testament, and in secular literature over
the centuries. The Sumerian legend of how King Ziusudra survives the flood
reappears, unacknowledged as to source (and with improvements), as the Biblical
story of Noah. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses visits the afterworld to consult
with wise Tiresias, an episode that spawned a chain of acknowledged, and
generally benign, imitations and imitations of imitations. In Virgil's recycling
(Aeneid), the Sibyl of Cumae, who sounds like a female amalgamation of Ulysses
and Tiresias, takes Aeneas to the afterworld to consult his father. Virgil, or
his shade, reappears as Dante pilgrim's first guide on the afterworld journey
told in Commedia. In James Joyce's Ulysses, the Homeric seafarer and his
abandoned son wander through modern Dublin as Leopold Bloom and Stephen
Daedelus, the Jewish father and Christian son who need to find one another. In
short, the reworking of stories is inherently neither good nor bad. It can be
turned to a broad range of good, bad, or neutral purposes.
Augustine lived more than 1500 years ago, and the modern mind-set has changed.
Twentieth century Biblical specialists seem more interested in the Dead Sea
scrolls than in testing Augustine's hypothesis that prophecies were sent to all
nations. Merton recommends the chapter on peace as the heart of City of God.9 He
finds the defense against Roman paganism "not altogether worthy of the genius of
Augustine," and hopefully points out that the Spanish theologian Paulus Orosius
is known to have contributed to those chapters.10 On textual analysis, some or
most of the miracle claims rest on a method of reading so peculiar it might not
pass muster in a modern freshman English class. Take, say, the Crucifixion
story, in which Christ's last words on the cross quote Psalm 22. By a
complicated reasoning that I will not review here, Matthew (a tax collector)
concludes that Psalm 22 prophesies the Crucifixion. But the reversal of cause
and effect is disastrous if applied universally. T. S. Eliot, for example,
includes in The Waste Land quotations and paraphrases of passages from Dante's
Commedia. This is not usually interpreted to mean that Dante, in Commedia,
"prophesied" that T. S. Eliot would write The Waste Land.
Augustine's miracle-collecting may have been an expedient originally, an appeal
to the superstition of the pagans. Undone by his own ingenuity, he could have
found prophecies in a hardware catalogue. Dante may be a far more careful reader
of the Bible, as well as a better example of what Christianity can be at its
best. The intriguing question is whether Dante actually structured Commedia as a
response to Augustine's strengths and shortcomings.
2. The Mother of Adeodatus
Augustine on Jews may be difficult or impossible to separate from Augustine on
the women who were part of his life. Confessions is highly stylized, and
Monsignor John K. Ryan, in his introduction, 34, finds it hastily written.
Nevertheless, a good bit of Augustine's character comes through between the
lines, and he may be least commendable when he thinks he has done the most. What
is missing, as the Bishop of Hippo wallows in self-reproach, is outreach to
other human beings, especially those harmed by his actions or inactions. What is
a modern reader to make of the famous incident (2.9) in which Augustine steals
pears from a pear tree? The episode becomes a pretext for self-flagellation. Yet
Augustine never apologizes to the owner of the tree, asks for the person's
forgiveness, or looks for a way to make amends. His love affair with God was too
exclusive to allow room for anyone else, with the possible exception of Saint
Monica, his mother. Confessions is largely a melodrama about Augustine and his
lust, and what he thought of his lust, and what he thought God thought of his
lust. I cannot help being reminded of a passage in Petronius' Satyricon in which
the rogue Encolopius carries on a conversation with his penis.
Ryan, 34, finds Augustine "a master at presenting living men and women." But
the Carthaginian woman with whom Augustine lived from about 371 to 384 is a
nameless shadow. He has no praise of her virtues, if she had any, and lavishes
no loving words on her. In 372, she gave birth to their son, Adeodatus, baptized
along with his father in 387 (9.6). Two years after his baptism, Adeodatus died
in some unidentified manner, and Augustine rejoices that the teenager left this
world as a Christian. Concern for the soul of a family member is commendable.
But we have all of Confessions as evidence that Augustine was more interested in
his own soul. He was no Mother Teresa, no Saint Francis, no Father Damian among
the lepers. He was a rhetorician, a disorderly thinker, a weak and inattentive
reader of the Bible.11 He was a bureaucrat (probably a good administrator), and
the world is still short of Bishops willing to follow him in baring their souls
to the world. But Augustine also comes through as a neurotic who never quite
transcends his own narcissism.
The mother of Adeodatus is eliminated relatively early, when, in Augustine's
words, "steady pressure was put on me [by my family] to get married" (6.23). He
dutifully proposed to an eight year old child, and the age of consent for
marriage was ten. But "since she appealed to me, I was willing to wait for her"
(6.23). Augustine's short attention span, again, was a problem.
[While awaiting marriage to the eight year old] my sins were multiplied. The
woman with whom I was wont to share my bed was torn from my side as an
impediment to my marriage. My heart still clung to her: it was pierced and
wounded within me, and the wound drew blood from it. She returned to Africa,
vowing that she would never know another man, and leaving me with our natural
son....Since it would be two years before I could have her whose hand I sought,
and since I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust, I procured
another woman, but not, of course, as a wife. (6.25)
Despite Augustine's display of his own bleeding heart, it is not clear that he
allowed the mother of Adeodatus any opportunity for input before sending her
packing, or that he cared what she thought. Ryan, 20, concludes that she was
"apparently [Augustine's] social inferior." Perhaps this bears on why Monica,
who wanted Augustine married, apparently never pressed him to marry the woman
with whom he was living. But why would mother or son disdain a "social inferior"
if the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5.5)? The arrangement between
Augustine and his son's mother sounds like a chillingly exploitive one-night
stand, inexplicably prolonged for more than a decade. Though the woman may have
had hopes, she had made her bed with a solipsist. "Lust" never evolves into love
in Confessions. Augustine takes on and discards women to suit his needs of the
moment as he sees them. If he remembered that the women might have needs of
their own, this does not come through in Confessions. Relying on the parting
words of the mother of Adeodatus, Augustine may have been an exceedingly cold
fish, even by the standards of his own day.
In the longish passage in which Augustine comes closest to explaining what he
means by lust, he argues, briefly, that even married persons are reluctant to
perform the sexual act in public. He concludes that even they feel guilty about
sexuality, which, in turn, shows it to be irredeemably filthy and wicked.
Augustine finds faith, or the highest degree of relief he could have expected,
when he opens the New Testament to a passage that memorializes his monomania,
and is usually identified as Romans 13.13-14.
Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in
chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord
Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
Romans is the only New Testament book that directly addresses the question of
what the pious call God's plan for the Jews. Augustine passed lightly over the
passages about Jews, as did Luther and Calvin.12
Augustine's exploitive attitude towards women, who were either useful or not
useful to him, reappears, magnified, in City of God. The Church, as Augustine
envisions it, may be constructed in his own image. Rather than serving the
world, it finds ways in which even unbelievers can be used to satisfy needs of
the Church. The Jews can be discarded as easily as the mother of Adeodatus if
and when they cease to be needed. Whether or not this is a true picture of the
Catholic Church, it is not an ideal picture.
Augustine could not have anticipated that Hitler, a more inventive utilitarian,
would realize the Jews could usefully be raw material for the manufacture of
fertilizer, lampshades, and soap. But we may adopt too narrow a perspective on
Hitler's "final solution" if we assess the Holocaust as anything other than the
tip of an iceberg. Hitler was not the inventor of the problem he purported to
solve. The "problem" was already perceived as such by Augustine, and European
history is egregiously anti-Semitic. The virtually forgotten pogroms of the
Middle Ages were still raging, in Eastern Europe, well into the late Nineteenth
century. Human beings can be inexcusably insensitive to other human beings, the
flaw that links Augustine's unfortunate reasoning about Jews to his unfortunate
reasoning about the women in his life.
2 Macabees records the suffering of the Jews when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c.
165 BC), unsuccessfully tried to force them to "conform themselves to the
manners of the Gentiles" (2 Mac. 6.9). The Roman satirist Juvenal (65-c.128)
complained, whether seriously or in jest, that the Jews worshipped clouds rather
than, in a manner of speaking, some more weighty or substantial kind of deity.
But Cantor, 365, is essentially correct in dating "incessant and violent
anti-Semitism" to the reforms of Pope Gregory and the First Crusade (begun at
the urging of Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095). The Crusades petered out,
gradually, during the early Thirteenth century. In the interim, pogroms against
local Jews became mini-crusades for those defenders of the faith too impecunious
to visit the Holy Land in person to piously butcher Jews (and Muslims). Sir
Walter Scott's imaginary reconstruction, in Ivanhoe, of England during this
period may be a fair approximation.13 Even Scott, more sympathetic than not,
draws the line at what used to be called miscegenation. Brave Ivanhoe could not
marry Rebecca, the beautiful, tragic Jewess, just as the beautiful, tragic
octoroons of 1940s movies were off-limits to respectable white men. As in
Augustine's day, "social inferiors" were not suitable wives. Ivanhoe ends with
Rebecca, like the mother of Adeodatus, committing herself to celibacy in honor
of the man who could not be expected to take her seriously.
The great slanders against Jews arose shortly after the beginning of the
Crusades. The most spectacular was the blood slander--that Jews ate Christian
children or drank their blood at the Passover meal. We may need to know more
about why this particular meal is singled out. The Gospels, not once but about a
dozen times, identify the Last Supper of Christ as the Passover meal.14 If
Christ and the Apostles were eating children, or drinking their blood, one might
expect the New Testament to mention this. It is not out of the question that the
blood slander was based on an ignorant or perverse misunderstanding of Christ's
demand that Christians eat him, that "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my
blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John
We may also need to know more about why the slanders against Jews were needed
at all. If the New Testament had ordered Christians to kill Jews, no additional
pretext would have been required. Even allowing for the low educational level of
the Medieval peasantry (and much of the local clergy), there may have been at
least a rudimentary awareness that mayhem was not commanded by Holy Writ. The
first wave of pogroms began shortly after 1144, when William of Norwich, a young
boy, was said to have been crucified by Jews. In the next century, the alleged
victim was little St. Hugh of Lincoln, the second saint by that name. The
original Saint Hugh of Lincoln, canonized in 1220, was a Bishop recalled as
especially kind to children, poor people, lepers, and Jews. The second Saint
Hugh, less fully documented, is mentioned by Chaucer and recalled in ballads and
Why were there two saints from Lincoln, both named Hugh? Perhaps we cannot
assume that the charity of kindly Bishop Hugh won unanimous approval from his
flock. The picture becomes interesting if at least one malcontent would have
been gratified to see the Bishop murdered by the ingrate children of Israel, a
sign to the world of the error of Bishop Hugh's Jew-loving ways. The awkward
discovery that the Bishop had not in fact been murdered by Jews may have been
bridged over by fabricating an additional Hugh of Lincoln. Whatever the case,
the Fourth Lateran Council of the Church (1215) demanded that Jews live apart
from the Christian community and "decreed that all Jews should wear a yellow
label as an emblem of their pariah status."17 Goethe (1749-1832) suggests, in
Die Farbenlehre (The Color Book), that yellow is associated with Jews because it
can be the color of cowardice. Hitler retained the traditional color, and the
label was a yellow Star of David.
To Augustine, the Jews were God's fools. They had been scattered throughout the
nations to allow believers to see for themselves that the children of Israel had
no understanding of the "real" meaning of the Old Testament. To Augustine's
exegetical progeny, the broader issue was Jewish identity. Some Christian sects,
to this day, insist on calling themselves the "true Israelites." Or they may be
the spiritual Israelites, which means about the same thing. In the Holman Bible
Dictionary (1904), "Spiritual Israel, the Christian church, has supplanted the
Jews as the elect people of God." I am not certain what anyone means by
asserting a right to another's identity, or whether the absurdist concept can be
explained. But the figurative extinction of a people contributed its bit to the
underpinnings for Hitler's "final solution": the actual, rather than figurative,
extinction of all Jews.
Whether Augustine's coldness came from "following the Bible" may be less to the
point than how he read certain passages. His belief that Jews were enemies, for
example, may draw on a verse often pointed out as either prescriptive or
As concerning the gospel, [the Jews] are enemies for your sakes: but as touching
the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes. (Rom. 11.28)
If the verse is descriptive, it reports that Christians--rightly or
wrongly--regard Jews as enemies (and God has his own agenda). If prescriptive,
it advises or commands Christians to classify Jews as enemies, the directive
Augustine may have thought he was obeying. A third interpretation, less often
noted, is approximately the way of Saint Francis. Christians are not forbidden
to imitate God, to whom the Jews are "beloved." The passage is one of many in
the Bible in which the most oblique of several possible interpretations may
warrant serious consideration but is likely to pass unnoticed.
Much of the New Testament recycles material from the Old Testament, and the
twist in the enemies passage recalls, say, Leviticus 11.10. The people are told
that the unclean animals "shall be an abomination unto you" (emphasis added).
They may or may not be an abomination to God, who made them. The division of the
animals is introduced in an alternative version of how to load the ark. Noah is
told that "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and
his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female"
(Gen 7.2). An anonymous numberer of chapters and verses helpfully red-lined 7
(which recurs as the chapter number) and 2 (which recurs as the verse number).
Assuming that 7 (clean) is associated with the God who created the world in 7
days, 2 (unclean) may point to the two human beings he created at that time.
Whatever the case, the contrast between a God who is pure and perfect (clean?),
and human beings who are neither (unclean?), runs persistently through the Old
Testament. The bodily functions that we still characterize as "unmentionable"
are those that God does not share. With no need to eat, he does not excrete. He
does not procreate in the manner of men and women. His counterbalancing
attribute is an unmentionable name that the faithful may not know or utter. I
would not care to evaluate the Old Testament Creator's hidden or secret name in
terms of Augustine's conjecture that anything hidden or concealed is a guilty
secret, wicked, or shameful. I am not sure any of the Biblical nuances were
meant to support Augustine's perhaps heavy-handed conclusion that sex is
irredeemably filthy, and to be abhorred for that reason. Nor am I convinced that
repentance, as the New Testament uses the term, should be dumbed down to the mea
culpas that provide a backbone for Confessions. Augustine was a theologian, not
a poet. He moralized over the poetic metaphor of the Bible.
3. Augustine and Dante
Augustine's writings were continuously in print over the centuries, and need to
be considered for that reason. In Medieval Studies and Art History, a common
assumption is that pious Christians largely agreed with Augustine's
interpretations (which is why his works were in print). But at least a few
writers and artists of the period may have been unusually close readers of the
Bible, and any assumption that they were "following Augustine" is disastrous.
They may have been light years ahead of him. I am thinking of, say, Dante,
Hieronymus Bosch, and--perhaps--Michelangelo. I agree with Harold Bloom that
Dante is a rebel, and misconstrued as a purveyor of "versified Saint Augustine."
The question is whether he may be a rebel along the line of Martin Luther, a man
of uncompromising piety who regarded the Bible as Holy Writ--the word of God.
Vossler notes that in Commedia the largest number of Dante's allusions is to the
Bible, the second largest to Saint Augustine, and that he sometimes "reverses"
The most striking example--if it is, in fact, a studied reversal of Augustine's
imagery--may be Dante's vision of the Church Triumphant as a rose in which the
blessed are seated (Parad. 32). A cleft down its center divides the flower into
Hebrew and Christian halves. Seated on the Hebrew side are "saints" of the Old
Testament, where the word simply means the faithful.18 On the Christian side,
New Testament saints join their successor saints--those canonized by the
Catholic Church. As in Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Last Judgment,
Dante places the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist first among the blessed. They
were (literally or figuratively) closest to Christ, who, however, is not with
them in the rose. Dante's choice of a rose rather than, say, a chrysanthemum may
recall the large, round rose windows that are a prominent architectural feature
of Gothic Cathedrals. But another aspect of the imagery is seemingly
unprecedented. In what sense can the Roman Catholic Church be regarded as half
Jewish? Granted, we might think of its foundation in Jewish monotheism. But
that was not a point usually emphasized in Dante's day, or in Christian
religious art generally. Also, the text of Commedia will not allow us to move
quickly to simple answers.
Dante's divided rose may provide an alternative answer to Augustine's question
of where the Jews belong in the picture. But what it means turns on whether the
Old Testament figures in the Jewish half of the rose are stand-ins for the
Jewish people (past or present) or just for the Christ-prophesying "books of the
Jews." Dante poet has Saint Bernard of Clairveaux (1090-1153) explain the
meaning of the rose to Dante pilgrim. Bernard says it means, briefly, that Jews
who lived before the time of Christ will be saved. Those born after the coming
of Christ will go to hell if they do not convert to Christianity. Bernard's
words are usually taken at face value, perhaps partly from strong resistance to
the possibility that Dante might present the highest saint in his highest heaven
as anything less than all-knowing. But something may be terribly wrong with this
assumption, and I list four difficulties from among many. First, Paradiso is
loaded with reminders that even the blessed in heaven (Saint Bernard of
Clairveaux?) do not entirely understand God's plan.19 Second, Bernard is taking
it on himself to answer the question Paul is asked in Romans--what will become
of the Jews?--and is deviating radically from the answer Paul provides. Third,
the real Bernard is remembered as an anti-Semite, leaving open the question of
whether his explanation of the rose is colored by his own point of view.20 Is
Bernard speaking for God or for himself? Also, does Bernard speak for Dante? On
that last question, the fourth difficulty with Bernard's speech may be
conclusive. Not one single soul in Inferno is identified as an unbaptized Jew
(who is in hell for that reason). Yet, if Bernard is correct, Dante's hell ought
to have a large and well-populated Jewish Quarter. Where has Dante hidden, so to
speak, the damned Jews?
One possibility is that Dante's perhaps less than entirely wicked Jews may
complement his perhaps less than entirely perfect saints. It was never a tenet
of the Catholic Church that saints are either perfect or infallible. But it
became a popular fallacy, perhaps originally because well-meaning pastors
oversimplified to impress on their unlettered flocks the importance of
veneration of the saints. In the Byzantine Empire, the Iconoclastic Controversy
(726-87) turned on the question of whether a tad too much veneration of the
saints (or of icons that depicted them) could become confused with worship of
the saints (idolatry). Luther kept the issue at a distance, and no Protestant
sect canonizes saints. Piously, only God is perfect, and Saint Bernard of
Clairveaux is not God.
Establishing a foundation for a Bernard whose understanding of the rose may be
less than all-knowing, Dante associates many or most of the saints in Paradiso
with "errors" largely overlooked even by Singleton, the most exhaustive of the
annotators of Commedia. In what may be Dante's central use of the device,
Beatrice angrily castigates Saint Jerome for misreading the Bible by inserting
ideas of his own that he subsequently passed off as Holy Writ (Parad.
29.36-116). Jerome was the translator of the Vulgate, and "so learned in Latin,
Greek, and Hebrew letters that no one dared to be compared to him."21 If even
Jerome cannot meet the lofty standards of Dante's high-minded Beatrice, there
may be little hope for anyone else, or even for lesser saints. As the other
saints of Commedia make their entrances, the obligatory "error" may be small.22
And it is not clear whether Dante endows every single saint with some minuscule
flaw. But even a few should be enough to make the point.
If Commedia depicts a universe in which saints are not necessarily perfect, and
Jews do not necessarily go to hell, Dante may have taken dead seriously the
pious truism that there can be no certainties about salvation. Each of us is, so
to speak, in the hands of God. Or we are all human beings. The two special cases
that so distinctively color Golden Legend and other literary productions of
Dante's day are virtual mirror images of one another. In the first special case,
saints are better than other human beings, and we are asked to assume that God
will certainly welcome them into heaven. In the second, Jews are worse than
other human beings, and we are asked to assume that God will certainly cast them
into hell. Dante may have thought that the two special cases involved too many
assumptions about the mind of God, or that none at all should be made. Or he may
have reflected that we are all human beings, even saints and Jews. Or, in the
Biblical rhetoric, "there is no respect of persons with God" (Rom. 2:11). Dante
tends to rely heavily on the Bible, in this case perhaps particularly on the New
Testament verses in which Paul is asked the question that Bernard answers in
In the Old Testament, God chooses the Jews in a covenant that he says will be
everlasting (Gen. 17.13). In the New Testament, he chooses the Christians, a new
covenant. Gentile converts ask Paul, in Romans, about the status of the Old Law
covenant, and what God intends to do about those Jews who do not convert to
Christianity. Will God keep his word to the Jews or not? Paul's reasoning is
more transparent than that of Dante's Saint Bernard, who in fact simply makes
pronouncements without explaining his logic or showing the Scriptural authority.
In Paul's reasoning,
I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid....God hath not cast away
his people which he foreknew. (Rom 11.1-2)
Paul's unspoken premise is that God is perfect, and cannot be unfaithful or lie,
which leads easily to his final conclusion that "all Israel shall be saved"
(11.26). The argument is irrefutable if we accept the premise. It may be one of
the unrecognized gems of Western thought, a beautifully simple blend of
Judaeo-Christian faith and Greek rationalism.
Paul's conclusion, taken in isolation, might be read as a tactful or generous
adjudication of a bad case of sibling rivalry. As such, it might recall the Old
Testament episode in which Isaac is chosen but his brother Ishmael is also
blessed and provided for (Gen. 17.20). The passage as a whole, however, may be
more about the nature of God than about Christians and Jews. Paul could scarcely
have given any other answer without irreparably damaging Christianity, which
would have relapsed, over a period of time, into paganism. It could not have
survived in its present form with an imperfect God who was fickle or lied, whose
word was not to be relied on, who to this extent was no "rock of ages." He would
have been a deity made in the image of Saint Augustine, who thought he had done
enough for the mother of Adeodatus by being faithful until he found someone
The Golden Legend of [Archbishop] Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1250), a compilation
of stories about the saints, was "one of the most famous books of the Middle
Ages."23 It says that all Jews go to hell. Paul had said, about a thousand years
earlier, that "all Israel shall be saved." The element needed to bridge the gap
may have been fanciful allegorical interpretation. Relying on the familiar
exegetical claim that Israel really means the Christian Church, it might argue
that Paul's "all Israel shall be saved" may not mean all Jews will be saved. It
may actually mean all Christians will be saved; the Jews, not.24
It is not out of the question that Paul meant exactly what he said, or that
Dante saw or considered the possibility. Though Biblical metaphor is complex,
and language is used in a highly figurative manner in many passages, an
allegorical reading wreaks havoc with the sense of Romans 11.26. It avoids the
question Paul was asked, which is whether God keeps his word. Or it implies God
does not keep his word. If Dante read "all Israel shall be saved" to mean what
it actually says, this may illuminate certain inclusions and exclusions in
Inferno. In direct contradiction to the words Dante puts in the mouth of Saint
Bernard of Clairveaux, Jewishness is not presented as, so to speak, a punishable
offense in Commedia. And we can go well beyond the point that Dante's hell
offers no examples of Jews punished for refusing to be baptised. It also
includes no Jews who kill Christian children, though Europe was in a frenzy on
the issue in Dante's day. Usury is condemned as a vice, but not as a vice unique
to Jews. The slanders embroidered on in Golden Legend and by Chaucer--that Jews
poison wells, dishonor the host, and so forth--are conspicuously absent from
Commedia, which stands apart from many or most literary productions of its day
for that reason. Though we might have expected him to do otherwise, Dante never
demonizes Jews. He sat in a cesspool of sectarian hatred writing about a
universe ruled by love.
As a pilgrimage to find God, Commedia is a direct descendant of Augustine's
Confessions. It may have drawn on City of God in taking up the question of where
the Jews belong in the picture. Dante lived a thousand years after Augustine's
time. Though the world may not have grown any better, he may arrive at radically
different answers. Dante gives Augustine his place in heaven--seated in the rose
with the Jews. Augustine's name is mentioned in Commedia three times, which may
have been intended as an honor.25 Certainly Augustine, like Freud, was brave in
understanding the importance of saying what many or most people would rather not
hear. Six hundred years after Dante's death, the Second Vatican Council
(1962-65) actually permitted female auditors, and identified racism as
unchristian. It also deplored "all hatreds, persecutions, and displays of
anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews." The
controversial proceedings may be remembered, many centuries from now, as the
modest start of what became a new pilgrimage to find God. Or no effective way
may be found to cast out the well-entrenched devils of doublespeak and
euphemism. I wish the Council had gone the limit by recommending that the Old
Testament and the New Testament henceforth be identified as the Jewish Testament
and the Christian Testament.
Biblical quotations are from the King James translation. Quotations of Commedia
are from the Temple Classics edition. Citations of City of God give book,
chapter, and page numbers. Holman Bible Dictionary is cited as HBD.
Place of Publication is New York unless otherwise noted.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. 6 vol. Translated by Charles S. Singleton.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. Harcourt
Cantor, Norman. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Harper Collins, 1993.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine. John K. Ryan, Translator. Doubleday, 1960
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by (Reverend) Henry F. Carey.
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1897.
Saint Augustine: The City of God. Marcus Dods, Translator. Random House, 1959.
Cited as CG.
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. Translation ascribed to Oscar Wilde. Book
Collectors Association, 1934
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Dell, 1966.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Patric Dickinson, Translator. New American Library, 1964
Vossler, Karl. Medieval Culture: An Introduction to Dante. 2 vol. and His Times.
2 volumes. Frederick Ungar, 1966.
1Thomas Merton, introduction to City of God, xi.
2 On Luke as the author of Acts, see HBD "Acts."
3 Jerome Bible Commentary, hereafter JBC, 2.612. On the Alexandrian allegorical
exegetes, JBC 2:612 ff. "
4 Compare the Sibyl's vertical or acrostic prophecy with the legend that the
fish became a symbol for Christ because (in Greek) the initial letters of Jesus
Christ Son of God Savior spell out ichthus, fish. More remotely, acrostics are a
little-understood feature of ancient Hebrew poetry, and several Psalms
incorporate acrostics. Each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew
alphabet and the letters fall in alphabetical order. Because Hebrew letters can
represent numbers, a Psalm that lists all the letters of the alphabet also lists
all the numbers (or all the marks used for writing numbers). On acrostics in
Hebrew poetry, see JBC 13.17. Acrostic devices eventually came to be treated in
a whimsical manner, and modern examples abound. Keats' posthumously published
acrostic to Georgiana Keats, for example, is arranged so that the first letter
of each of the twenty-one lines spells out "Georgiana Augusta Keats."
5 Greek g (gamma), needed three times, could not be matched to any Latin words
in the manuscript that began with an equivalent. Augustine presents an ingenious
method for working around the problem.
6 The New Testament actually characterizes Jews as "the children of the
prophets" (Acts 3.25). By extension, Greeks and Romans (Saint Augustine's
pagans) might be children of the Sibyls. Perhaps because the male-female
contrast added interest to paintings, the iconography ignored Miriam and other
Old Testament women who prophesied, and ignored Tiresias and other male seers of
Greco-Roman mythology. The multiplication of Augustine's prophesying Sibyl drew
on another source. The original wise woman of Greek mythology was Deiphobe, the
Sibyl of Cumae. She went into a trance after chewing on laurel leaves and was
possessed by the god Apollo, who uttered cryptic prophecies through her mouth.
The Romans improved the legend by claiming that there were actually twelve or
thirteen Sibyls, each of whom lived on a different hill.
7 See Parad. 32.11-12 (David) and 33.64-66 (Deiphobe, the Sibyl of Cumae).
8 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1972 ed., see "Exegesis and Hermeneutics."
9 Merton, introduction to City of God, x. JBC, 613, dates to the late nineteenth
century the recognition that "a Christological approach that found Christ in
every line of the OT was patently out of step.
10 See Parad. 10.118-20, where Dante places Orosius as "that pleader for / the
Christian times, with whose discourse / Augustine fortified him."
11 Among outstanding examples of insensitive reading, Augustine thanks the God
who "made me wiser than the birds of the air" (Conf. 6.1). The vainglorious
theme that human beings are more intelligent than birds is developed further in
Augustine's sermons on the Psalms. But this may be a wretchedly inadequate
understanding of Psalms, where birds are singled out for the joyous abandon with
which they sing praises of their Creator. Honoring the "fowl of the air" as
models worth emulating, the Psalmist calls himself God's turtledove and
identifies himself with four different birds (Ps. 74.19, 102.6). The issue, at
least for the Psalmist, may have been the degree to which the birds seem to love
God, not the size of their brains. Augustine may have applied too broadly, or
too woodenly, the verses in Gen. in which human beings are made the keepers of
the garden and given dominion over other creatures. In the Bible as a whole, it
is not at all clear that human beings are more worthy than the lilies of the
field...or wiser than the birds of the air in any way that genuinely matters.
12 See HBD, "Romans, Book of," that "Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant
Reformation, was studying Romans when he concluded that faith alone justifies a
person before God. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was converted on May
24, 1738, upon reading Luther's introduction to Romans."
13 See Scott, for example, that "...except perhaps the flying fish, there was no
race existing on the earth, in the air, or the waters, who were the object of
such an unintermitting, general, and relentless persecution as the Jews of this
period. Upon the slightest and most unreasonable pretences, as well as upon
accusations the most absurd and groundless, their persons and property were
exposed to every turn of popular fury; for Norman, Saxon, Dane, and Briton,
however adverse these races were to each other, contended which should look with
greatest detestation upon a people, whom it was accounted a point of religion to
hate, to revile, to despise, to plunder, and to persecute" (Ivanhoe)
14 See, for example, "I have desired to eat this passover with you before I
suffer" (Luke 22:15). Also, Matt. 26.2, 26.28-19; Mark 14.1, 14.12, 14.14,
14.16; Luke 22.1, 22.7-8, 22.11, 22.13.
15 This otherwise curious cornerstone of Catholic salvation metaphor,
commemorated in the ceremony of the Eucharist, may make sense against the thread
of eating imagery that meanders through the OT. But it has been a worrisome
point of theology. Catholics and Protestants argued over whether it was meant
literally or figuratively.
16 In Canterbury Tales, see the Prioress' copy-cat story of the widow's son. His
corpse is found because the decapitated head loudly sings Christian hymns to
rebuke the Jews who murdered him. The prioress closes with an appeal, on behalf
of all such innocents, for the prayers of "yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also
with cursed Jewes...but a litel while ago."
17 Cantor 366
18 See, for example, Deut. 33.2: "The Lord came from Sinai...and he came with
ten thousands of saints."
19 See, for example, Parad. 20.133.
20 Bernard's enigmatic remarks about Jews are more often mentioned by historians
than in the Dante literature. Briefly, Bernard supported Innocent II for Pope
over Anacletus II, who was of Jewish ethnic origin. Bernard is supposed to have
argued that it would be a disgrace for a Jew to sit on the throne of Saint
Peter. If Bernard said this, it seems odd he would forget that Simon Peter was
an ethnic Jew, or a Jewish convert to Christianity.
21 Golden Legend, 591.
22 Though this severely compresses a complex web of allusions, see, for example,
Parad. 25, where Dante tells Saint James that he has read "thine epistle." In
it, James argues that the prophet "Elias [Elijah]...prayed earnestly that it
might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and
six months" (James 5:17). Though the allusion is to 1 Kings (17.1), James has
either a faulty argument or less than the entire story on the sufficiency of
prayer. In 2 Samuel (1.21), a verse that Dante paraphrases elsewhere (Purg.
12.40-42) , David prays for the rain and dew to stop (on Mount Gilboa). David's
prayer, however, goes unanswered. James, then, may not be a reliable authority
on how to stop rain and dew. Or earnest human prayers are not enough to work
miracles--which piously are effected solely through the grace of God. The NT
actually includes a number of passages where speakers make small errors, whether
inadvertently or for some pious or literary purpose. Luke (1.55), for example,
has Mary saying that God made a covenant with Abraham. The covenant is actually
with Isaac (Gen. 17.19).
23 Ryan and Ripperger, foreword to Golden Legend, vii. See also Caxton, foreword
to 1483 edition, that Golden Legend is "holden moost noble above al other
24 A more literal interpretation of the passage may lie behind the Medieval
eschatological belief, still preserved by some Christian sects, that the end of
the world will be heralded by the conversion of the Jews. Pious beliefs of this
kind reveal their vintage by the scope of their world view. This one--a
Medievalism--was never updated to deal with the question of whether, say,
Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus would also convert to Christianity at the end of
25 See Parad. 10.120, 12.130, 32.35. Though I have not checked whether, or to
what extent, Dante uses "the science of numbers" to honor saints other than
Augustine, note that the sum of 10, 12, and 32 (the numbers of the cantos in
which Augustine's name is mentioned) is 54, a number that can be expressed as
twice 27. The sum of the line numbers carrying Augustine's name (120, 130, 35)
is 285, and the sum of the factors of 285 is, again, 27. That is, the sum of 3,
5, and 19 is 27, while the product of 3, 5, and 19 is 285. See above on the
importance, to Augustine, of the Sibyl conveying her prophecy in 27 lines, the
cube of 3.
Dr. Patricia Sloane
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