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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Augustine: A Biblical Hermeneutics

Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ms laur. Plut. 12.17, c. 3v. With the authorization of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita' Culturali. Further reproduction without permission is forbidden.

Augustine, the most important theologian of late antiquity, born in 354 in North Africa, and educated in classical rhetorical studies, became a Christian in 387 and bishop of Hippo in 396, staying in this office until his death in 430, when the Vandals beleaguered his town. Commentaries are just a minor part of his works, but he wrote one of the first Christian hermeneutics: De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine). In the frame of a Neoplatonic theology—God is the highest good one has to love intellectually, though combined with the commandment to love one's neighbour—the place of the Bible is not easy to determine. Augustine calls ‘temporal dispensation’ God's acting in history, including Israel, witnessed in the Old Testament and culminating in Jesus becoming a human being. It happens as a sign (sacramentum) adapted to the weakness of human understanding. The Bible mainly is a book of ethics, though also containing doctrines to believe. Because originally spoken words are the instruments by which humans communicate the movements of their minds to other people, writing is the way to fix the fleeting sounds. The scriptures are partly written in pictures and parables, some of them not easy to understand. But there are enough easier ones comprising all you need. In a scheme of seven steps for the ascension of the soul to God (VII. 9–11) the first three include the study of the Bible. One has to begin with reading the books which are acknowledged by all or most catholic churches, learning them by heart, understanding first the easier passages, then explaining from the easier the more obscure ones. For unknown signs (i.e. words) one should know Hebrew and Greek. Strange expressions in Latin may have their origin in a too literal translation. Augustine prefers the Old Latin version (Itala), in Greek the Septuagint, even where the Hebrew original varies. Here he differs from Jerome. He did not know Hebrew. For the choice between a literal and an allegorical understanding he gives the rule, that the literal is sufficient wherever it leads to love (XV.23). Morally offensive acts of biblical persons are to be explained allegorically, if other explanations fail.

Bibliothèque Municipal, Avranches.

Augustine closes book III of his work by a look at the Liber regularum (Book of Rules) of the Donatist layman Tichonius, which mostly have a technical character. Rule 1 says that Christ and his body, the church, belong together; rule 2 that the church is divided in the true and the mixed church; rule 4 speaks about the kind and the individual; rule 6 about ‘recapitulation’ (in stories sometimes events that happened earlier are told later); rule 7 states that in speaking of the devil either his person or his body, the godless, can be meant.

Augustine's commentaries do not show that he put his theories into practice. His enormous impact later was in the field of theological thinking. But the Bible remained important for him, especially in his sermons.

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