Juvencus' Four Books of the Gospels

Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor

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Scott McGill
  • New York, NY : 
    Routledge
    , January
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780815352693.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scott McGill provides his readers with the first complete English translation of Juvencus’s 4th-century poem, Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor (ELQ)This poem, in classical dactylic hexameter used by poets such as Homer and Vergil, compiles the four canonical gospels into a singular poetic rendition of the life and deeds of Jesus. ELQ is the first “biblical epic” to emerge from early Christianity andis formatted in four books, although it does not simply produce a poem from each gospel for every book; rather, Juvencus entangles the four gospels in his four-book poem, making heavy use of Matthew in particular. While ELQ has been neglected by most scholars of early Christianity and late antiquity in the early modern and modern periods, McGill urges us to take this text seriously as a prominent example of early Christian poetry and hermeneutics, given its usage as a school text in the middle ages and Renaissance (26). 

In his introduction, McGill shows how Juvencus’s ELQ participates in larger discussions throughout the Greco-Roman world regarding what poetry ought to be, and whose poetry still deserves to be read and remembered. McGill recognizes that not many readers will be familiar with Juvencus’s biography or interpretive value, and so he provides such information and argumentation from the beginning. Particularly with McGill’s dating of ELQ to circa 329 CE––soon after Constantine’s defeat of Licinius and ascension as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324 CE––he urges that his readers contextualize Juvencus in 4th-century debates regarding the value of Greco-Roman texts and traditions in the (post-)Constantinian era. Juvencus makes use of Vergilian intertexts, particularly from the Aeneid, with some frequency. However, as McGill convincingly argues, Juvencus purposefully places himself in the tradition of Vergil while claiming poetic superiority to him. This Kontrastimitation, the “moment of imitation in which the content of the imitating text contrasts with that of the source text” (16), attempts to set Juvencus’s ELQ apart from the earlier Latin poetic tradition of those like Vergil and Ovid by claiming that an epic about Jesus is truer and more deserving of praise and remembrance. 

McGill’s translation of ELQ is heavily and helpfully annotated, so that readers can follow Juvencus’s intertexts more easily. For example, McGill helps clarify how Juvencus builds the character of Jesus in comparison to other figures of poetic or historical significance. In ELQ 2.55, Christ is presented as a “sure offspring of the Lord” (Domini certissima proles), borrowing its language from Vergil’s Aeneid 6.322, where the Sibyl calls Aeneas the “truest offspring of the gods” (deum certissima proles) (158). Similarly, McGill notes how ELQ blends Jesus’s calling of Nathaniel––an apostle he prophetically recognizes lying in the shade of a fig tree––with Vergil’s character of Tityrus in Eclogue 1.1, in which Tityrus was lying in the shade of a spreading beech tree (1). In these and many other cases, McGill demonstrates Juvencus’s significant debt to earlier Latin poetry and how further study of Juvencus might benefit scholars in understanding the reception of (non-Christian) Latin authors in late antiquity and beyond. 

McGill’s work with ELQ might also be beneficial to scholars in two other areas. First, we might analyze how Juvencus attempts to reconcile the four canonical gospels within a singular narrative structure. Juvencus makes heavy use of Matthew’s narrative structure (except when he begins his poem with the birth narrative of Luke 1-2) but intersperses the narrative of the gospel of John throughout the poem––for example, he places John 1-4 in the middle of Matthew 9 and John 5 in the middle of Matthew 12. McGill begins such work by noting narrative omissions and their potential anti-Jewish uses or interpretations (20-21). Second, Juvencus’s ELQ might help us better understand the emergence and development of Christian poetry in late antiquity and, as McGill suggests, “recognize the multiple responses among Christians to the classical past that to the classical culture that still surrounded them” (3). Along with comparing Juvencus’s ELQ to other “biblical epics” such as the Heptateuchos and Sedulius’s Paschale Carmen, we might also further conceptualize its relation to texts like the Vergilian centos of Proba, the Homeric centos of Aelia Eudocia, and Nonnus of Panopolis’s Paraphrase of the Gospel of John in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Whether Vergilian poem, cento, or paraphrase, works like Juvencus’s ELQ can further our contemporary understanding of how elite Christian writers never quite abandoned their classical heritage, and were never limited to the structure of the canonical gospels as they now stand in the New Testament, but continued to transform the story of Jesus Christ through them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chance Everett Bonar is a doctoral student in New Testment and Early Christianity at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott McGill is Professor of Classics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the author of Virgil Recomposed: The Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity (Oxford, 2005) and Plagiarism in Latin Literature(Cambridge, 2012). He is also a co-editor of From the Tetrarchs to the Theodosians: Later Roman History and Culture, 284-450 CE (Cambridge, 2010) and Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity (Winter, 2016).

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