Augustinian find proved authentic
By Dorothea Weber and Clemens Weidmann
Every new discovery of a text by a Father of the Church causes a sensation. In fact, this current find completes our image of a very exciting epoch, that of the shift from pagan antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages.
Two important discoveries of collections of texts in the 20th century have given rise to a number of new ideas about the life of Augustine. Bishop of Hippo Regius (Hippo; today Annaba. Algeria): in 1974, in France, Johannes Divjak found 29 unpublished letters; in 1990, in Mainz, François Dolbeau discovered 26 sermons. The latter discovery, however, is only a link in the chain of finds in Germany: during the past century about 60 sermons came to light in various German libraries which research has shown to be authentic.
At Erfurt — in the context of a vast project of the Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften which plans to catalogue accurately all of Augustine’s writings — Isabella Schiller came across an unpublished 12th century manuscript containing a number of Latin sermons, some of which were unpublished.
The authors of this article were able to prove that six of these texts are by Augustine: a sermon on the martyrdom in Carthage of Perpetua and Felicity, one on the resurrection of the dead. another on Cyprian, the Carthaginian Bishop-Martyr, and three on various aspects of almsgiving.
The parchment manuscript’s 264 pages are no bigger than 115 x 95 millimetres and contain about 60 sermons, most of which are already known. They are sermons by Caesarius and the Pseudo John Chrysostom, written for the Lenten Season and for several celebrations in the month of September, and an extraordinary collection of 28 sermons which can be attributed to Augustine. In addition to the abundantly documented texts, there are others that are rare and some until now completely unknown.
Following the chronological order of the calendar of Saints, these writings are dedicated to a series of liturgical memorials, from that of Vincent (22 January) to that of Cyprian (14 September) and the solemnities of the liturgical year, from Lent to Pentecost.
To Southern Italy then England
Since the sermons on the Saints concern especially the martyrs venerated in Africa in Augustine’s time, one may conclude that the collection was assembled in the fifth century precisely in Roman Africa and from there was moved to safety in Southern Italy, as was Augustine’s entire library.
In all likelihood — following the missionary activity started by Gregory the Great — the corpus was taken to England, where it was transcribed in the 12th century. The Erfurt Code derives from this or from another similar copy. Not only is the handwriting in British style but the parallel production of certain texts and textual sequences, such as the famous Worcester Homily, also seem to be of direct or indirect English provenance.
In about the year 1400, Amplonius Rating, the erudite doctor, came into possession of the small manuscript and donated it to the Amplonianum of Erfurt which he had founded. Today his library forms part of the Erfurt University Library.
Three of the six new texts are to be published in the coming weeks.
So far, only the first part and the conclusions of the sermon on the Carthaginian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity have been known to us and no doubts as to its completeness have been raised. In the new, central part, Augustine provides a theologically complex explanation of two scenes of the martyrdom: the vision of Perpetua — in male attire the Saint wrestles with a dark-skinned man — came about in her martyrdom in which she defeated the devil in courageous combat and entered into the Body of Christ.
Whereas Felicity — who was pregnant — by her confession to the tribunal gave birth to the heavenly man, Christ, even before actually giving birth to her child. This sermon, which can henceforth be considered complete, is thus the original of two pseudo-Augustinian texts that borrowed its concept.
New life follows death
The main topic of the sermon entitled De resurrectione mortuorum is faith in future events: from prophecies that are already accomplished the Christian believer draws the certainty that the eschatological prophecies also merit trust.
The fact that in nature too new life follows death contributes to belief in the Second Coming of Christ, in the Last Judgement and in the physical welcome of believers into the Kingdom of Heaven. By his victory over death, Christ himself demonstrated that belief in the Resurrection is justified.
The title of the sermon In natali Marcellini martyris suggests the date of 2 June. This date appears to be unauthentic; since individual passages refer to the Baptism of some of the faithful and since just before the sermon’s end the remission of sins in Baptism is mentioned it was probably given during the Easter Season. In the early Church this was the only time during the liturgical year that Baptism was administered.
The last Augustinian sermon of this collection is dedicated to Cyprian. Bishop of Carthage, who suffered martyrdom in 258. We only have the beginning of it and the end. In the first part Augustine briefly describes the exemplary behaviour of Cyprian the martyr and doctor of the Church. In the second part. he criticizes the custom of celebrating ecclesial feasts with an abundance of food and drink. In spite of the missing section, which may be presumed to have been considerable, this sermon is the only one among those that came to light which can be given a place and a date. It would seem to have been delivered in Carthage in the year 401 or a little earlier.
Unpublished texts — especially those in medieval codices that have been attributed to an author as well known as Augustine — often turn out later to be medieval texts that erroneously bear his name or attempts by a writer to make his own writings look like those of the famous Father of the Church.
So what are the criteria that enable us with certainty to attribute the sermons we found to Augustine? In the first place, their style is certainly an important proof of authenticity: with the abundance of rhetorical figures (anaphora, rhymes, parallelism, word play), the style coincides with the characteristic style of writings that we are certain are by Augustine, especially the sermons.
The same is true regarding the construction of the sentence and the style of the phraseology. In the new texts, for example, there are comparisons which in Latin literature are only to be found in Augustine.
Another argument refers to the biblical citations: the text is different from that of the Vulgate, that is, from Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, and largely coincides with the one that Augustine uses elsewhere.
Definitive proof is then offered to us by an external factor: three of the sermons bear titles which exactly correspond to the titles present in the list of Augustine’s works. This list exactly dates back to the time of the Bishop of Hippo; it was inserted by Possidius — a close friend of the Father of the Church — into his biography of Augustine. Until now it had been impossible to identify them.
These three sermons address works of love for one’s neighbour and the relationship between spiritual and material almsgiving. They will be studied and published by the Viennese group in 2009.