A recent post highlighted Augustine’s poor Greek skills, which caused him to rely on the Latin of Rom 5:12 for the development of his doctrine of original guilt. Responses provoked the question: just how bad were Augustine’s Greek skills?
In his earlier years, when writing the Confessions (1.13-14), he recalled his difficulty learning Greek and his lament that he did not learn it better.
I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty to those more profitable studies, or rather loved the one and hated the other. “One and one, two”; “two and two, four”; this was to me a hateful singsong: “the wooden horse lined with armed men,” and “the burning of Troy,” and “Creusa’s shade and sad similitude,” were the choice spectacle of my vanity. Why then did I hate the Greek classics, which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he bitter to my boyish taste. And so I suppose would Virgil be to Grecian children, when forced to learn him as I was Homer. Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments.
Scholars take this account seriously. Patristic scholar Richard Norris, e.g., has claimed that Augustine was “never a learned exegete” due to his lack of Hebrew and Greek skills.
But I think that statement is way overblown. In his On Christian Teaching, Augustine lays out a sound and sophisticated hermeneutical method with regard to the biblical languages. From this work, and from reading many of his other works (particularly City of God), I believe three reasons suggest caution before scrutinizing Augustine’s hermeneutical skill.
First, he consulted a multitude of Latin versions, as well as authorities on Hebrew and Greek words (e.g., Jerome’s Interpretation of Hebrew Names).
Second, his belief in the authority of the Septuagint means he was playing by different rules than many modern exegetes, who value exegesis of the Hebrew text over the Septuagint. His Greek was not superb, but was better than his Hebrew, and he was able to consult the Septuagintal Greek when exegetically necessary.
Third, his exegesis in practice—e.g., in his homilies on John, City of God, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and other works—displays caution, aptitude, theological acumen, and exegetical sensitivity. Augustine certainly lacked the linguistic and text-critical skills of Jerome, but he fared well exegetically by using other sets of skills at his disposal.
Augustine’s Greek was likely as good as many pastors today who work with it for sermon preparation using resources like lexicons, exegetical dictionaries, or programs such as BibleWorks, but who don’t really know the language as a language. He was certainly not a poor exegete, but he also relied on others such as Jerome for his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.
Thus, when it came to a difficult phrase in Greek such as ἐφ᾽ ᾧ in Rom 5:12, if he read the Latin first, which says “in whom,” and then came to ἐφ᾽ ᾧ in the Greek to check it, he easily could have confirmed the Latin translation “in whom” by misinterpreting the Greek phrase.
But does a misinterpretation of one Greek phrase make Augustine a poor exegete? Not at all. His hermeneutical theory and exegetical practice prove him to be an able exegete and world class theologian. If one poor interpretation makes a bad theologian, we’d all be sunk!