The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, according to Augustine (Reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ #1)

Saint Augustine by Sandro Botticelli (1445—1510). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Saint Augustine by Sandro Botticelli (1445—1510). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What is the ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis 1—3, the chapters detailing the creation of the world and the fall of man? Happily this is a question which the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354—430) answers in his twelve-volume work ‘On the Literal Meaning of Genesis’ (Latin De Genesi ad Litteram), completed in the year 415.

What is Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’?

“Augustine wrote On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis in order to try to put forth (though he admits the difficulty of the endeavour) a literal interpretation of Genesis chapters 1—3.”

The full title of this work is De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: a work in twelve books.’ Augustine wrote it to try to put forth (though he admits the difficulty of the endeavour) a literal interpretation of Genesis chapters 1—3.[1]

In Books 1—5 of the work he comments upon the first chapter of Genesis, the creation of the world; in Books 6—11 he deals with chapters 2 & 3 which cover the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall; and in Book 12 he discusses the related question of the meaning of ‘Paradise’ in 2 Corinthians 12:3-4.[2]

What does he mean by a ‘literal’ interpretation?

By ‘literal interpretation,’ however, Augustine doesn’t mean what we necessarily think he means.

“In the early centuries of Christianity, including up to Augustine’s time, it was a common exegetical approach to allegorize all sorts of things found in Scripture.”

In the early centuries of Christianity, including up to Augustine’s time, it was a common exegetical approach to allegorize all sorts of things found in Scripture.

A good example of this is found in the third-century theologian Origen’s Commentary on John. In Book 1 of the Commentary on John, Origen picks up on Isaiah’s language of the ‘Servant of the Lord’ describing himself as “a polished arrow” — or in the Authorized Version, “a polished shaft” — in Isaiah 49:2. He then goes on to say that the beloved in the Song of Songs who was “wounded with love” (Song 2:5) was wounded for the love of God by the One who is the Lord’s “polished shaft”![3]

Augustine himself does his own allegorizing — indeed with Genesis chapter 1 — in Book 13 of his Confessions (an earlier work). In Confessions 13.15 he tells us that the firmament of heaven in Genesis 1:6-8 is to be understood as the authority of Scripture which God has spread over us like a canopy![4]

It is against this kind of allegorizing of a text of Scripture that Augustine contrasts a ‘literal’ interpretation.

“Augustine, like many of his predecessors, recognized that a given passage of Scripture could be understood at multiple different levels — the literal, and the prophetic or allegorical.”

Augustine, like many of his predecessors, recognized that a given passage of Scripture could be understood at multiple different levels. Put at its most simple, a piece of narrative such as a passage in 1 Kings obviously had a literal meaning — “what happened?”

But any passage of Scripture could also be understood prophetically or allegorically — that is, “what does this passage foreshadow?” or, “what is the symbolic meaning of this passage?”[5]

Origen’s “polished shaft” piercing the heart of the beloved in the Song of Songs, and Augustine’s interpretation of the firmament of heaven as the authority of Scripture, are obviously symbolic interpretations. And for the ancient Christian mind, much more than for the modern one, these symbolical interpretations were entirely valid and appropriate.

However, in the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, Augustine wants to avoid these interpretations and stick to the ‘literal’ interpretation: “what happened?” or, “what did the writer wish to convey?”[6]

“Augustine’s ‘literal’, then, does not demand that there were six literal days of creation, or that these ‘days’ lasted twenty-four hours. It simply demands that we interpret the passage in terms of, ‘What did the author wish to convey by these words?’”

Augustine’s ‘literal’, then, does not demand that there were six literal days of creation, or that these ‘days’ lasted twenty-four hours. It simply demands that we interpret the passage in terms of, “What did the author wish to convey by these words?”

We will see some of the detail of what this means in some of our subsequent reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’. For now I just want to get us thinking about the assumptions we make, as moderns, when we use words such as ‘literal’ or ‘creation,’ and to question whether we are understanding those words in the sense (indeed, anything like the sense) in which the ancients would have understood them.

Perhaps if we can take off some of our modern assumptions about how to read a text, we can see that — understood as the author intended — these things are entirely believable and reasonable.

 

Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (ISBN 0-8091-0326-5; 0-8091-0327-3) is available in two volumes from Newman Press / Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

 

 

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[1] Augustine and John Hammond Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 41 (New York, N.Y: Newman Press, 1982), 4.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Origen, Commentary on John, 1.37, in Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 10: The Gospel of Peter, The Diatessaron of Tatian, Etc., Original suppl. to the American ed., 5. ed., repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1995), 316.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 13.15, in Saint Augustine and R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions (Penguin Classics, 1968), 321–22.

[5] Augustine and Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1:9–10.

[6] Ibid., 10.

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