City of God, Book 18: A Brief History of Nearly Everything

In Book 18, Augustine takes up a history of “the earthly city” with was growing alongside the heavenly city. This society of mortal men, though men share a common nature, is divided against itself as “one part of it oppresses another.” In the providence of God, some nations have “been entrusted with empire, while others have been subdued to alien domination.” Of all the empires of the world, two stand out as having achieved particular renown – the Assyrian Empire and the Roman Empire. These two empires present a contrast: “Assyria rose to power in earlier times; Rome’s emergence was later. Assyria rose in the East, Rome in the West.”

Augustine begins recounting the Assyrian empire’s exploits with Ninus, the second king, who was on the the throne at the time Abraham was born in the land of the Chaldeans. Ninus subdued all of Asia to the borders of Lydia “and Asia is said to be a third of the entire world, though in fact it proves to be as much as half the area of the earth.”

Augustine spends many pages exploring Assyrian kings in relation to Biblical characters – who was reigning when so-and-so did such-and-such. Alongside the growth of empires the growth of false religion is also detailed, and Augustine explains how some kings became gods and were worshiped (while others were not).

Woven into the history of Assyria is some history of Egyptian kings and gods and the birth of the Greek nation. Augustine suggests “Moses led God’s people out of Egypt at the very end of the reign of Cecrops, King of Athens, when Ascatades was on the Assyrian throne, Marathus was king of Sicyon, and Triopas king of Argos.” Moses ruled the people for forty years, dying at the age of 120 yrs. He was succeeded by Joshua and it was “during this period ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the kings of Greece.” Alongside these ceremonies grew the fables of Hercules, Icarus, and stories of centaurs and gorgons. Disgusted, Augustine writes, “Whoever were the inventors of such tales…words fail to express what a low opinion these fable-mongers must have formed of human nature to assume that men could endure such lies with patience. And yet men gave them a delighted welcome.”

During this time Augustine dates the rise of the ‘theological poets’. “These poets may have had something to say about the one true God, among all their frivolous lies; but they did not rightly serve him, we may be sure…” Augustine takes a bit of time to consider the tales of men being transformed into animals by gods (or magic) and, if true, attributes these deeds to demons. Such tales, he concludes, should cause us to cling even closer to Christ and “take refuge in the living God.”

Moving on to Rome, he dates the founding of the empire with the end of the Assyrian kingdom and the reign of Hezekiah in Judah. Rome, he asserts, is pictured in the Bible as a second Babylon. Romes empire building was slower than Assyrian, in part because the nations they subjugated were older, better organized, and used to warfare.

Fascinatingly, during the reign of Hezekiah (and Romulus in Rome) the Erythraea Sibyl made her predictions regarding Christ. This was entirely new to me. The utterance of this oracle, when recorded in Latin manuscripts “the order of the initial letters in one passage … form the words: JESOUS CHREISTOS THEOU UIOS SOTER, the translation of which is ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour.” This also is the reason Christians used the fish as a symbol, as the Greek word for fish is ‘ichthus’ – and acronym for this creedal affirmation. Augustine reckons this woman is to be counted among citizens of the City of God because she does not affirm pagan gods, but attacks them and their worshipers.

During the time of Zedekiah and the fall of Jerusalem, the ‘Seven Sages’ attained their fame and Pythagoras became the father of all those who are called philosophers. Roughly coinciding with the time of Israel’s return to the land, Rome freed themselves “royal tyranny” and “began to free themselves from the tyranny of their kings.”

Augustine rewinds the historical tape at this point and survey’s the prophets of Israel, specifically the minor prophets. Augustine points out that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God was foretold by Israel’s prophets. These twelve also point to Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection. He detours from the twelve prophets to revisit Isaiah, who says more about Christ and the Church than any other prophet and visits briefly the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel.

The books of Esdras and the Maccabees Augustine claims “are regarded as canonical by the Church (though not by the Jews) because of the savage, the amazing sufferings endured by some of the martyrs who, before Christ’s coming in his human body, contended even unto death for the cause of God’s Law, and held firm under the most appalling agonies.”

The prophets, Augustine contends, predate the philosophers, even if you go back to the Seven Sages who lived before the term philosopher was circulating. Only the theological poets predate Israel’s prophets, but none of these predate Moses who ought to be considered a prophet. Augustine admits that wise men wrote in Egypt before Moses (who, according to Scripture, “learned all the wisdom of the Egyptians”), but even these do not predate Abraham. The Egyptian baseless lies regarding the antiquity of their wisdom is dismissed by Augustine.

In addition to their antiquity, the prophets show their superiority over the philosophers in their agreement with one another. The philosophers are rarely in agreement, disciples disagreeing with teachers because “they sought the answers to these questions as men relying on human senses and human powers of reasoning” and also because they were prone to self-glorification which leads “each man to desire to seem wiser and cleverer than the rest.” The biblical authors, though they are many, do not show the kind of discord reflected in the philosophers.

During the time of the Ptolemy kings, the Bible of the Jews was translated into the Greek. Among the 72 (or 70) scholars commissioned to do this work, there was a not a word of difference. “There was such unity in their translation,” writes Augustine, “that it was as if there had been one translator: for in truth there was the one Spirit at work in them all.” The church has accepted the Septuagint, but the Jews continue to contend that the translation errs in several places. Augustine speaks for the church in it’s defense of the Septuagint, arguing that 72 scholars all in agreement are more weighty than any one translator and that the same Spirit that inspired the prophets inspired these translators. Where the Hebrew and the Greek differ (for example, in how many days Nineveh was given to repent, three or forty), Augustine claims this is an inspired. In one place the Spirit inspired the author/translator to allegorically point to the three days in the tomb, at another place to represent Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Bit of stretch, me thinks!

Interestingly, Augustine points out that at the point Israel would expect to improve, namely after their return from Babylon, they experience further decline because there is a prolonged period of prophetic silence. This is intended to show their reliance on God and to prepare for the arrival of Jesus and the mission to the Gentile world, as during this time the Jews were scattered all over the known world.

Augustine takes up, briefly, the question of whether there were elect, citizens of the Heavenly City, living outside of Israel before the Christian era. He asserts, “there is nothing far fetched in the belief that among other peoples besides the Jews there existed men to whom this mystery [of Jesus] was revealed, and who were compelled to go on to proclaim what they knew.” He takes Job as an example of someone who did not belong to the earthly city of Jerusalem, but did belong to the True Israel, the City of God.

Considering the church in his day, Augustine writes, “In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome. In this situation many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good, and both sorts are collected as it were in the dragnet of the gospel.” In this we follow Jesus and are comforted by his Spirit. In addition, the Church’s suffering makes the preaching of the gospel more powerful. Likewise, the Church is strengthened by its opposition to heretics as “God makes good use of even the wicked.” In all this God provides for his church so it will not be “shattered by adversity” or “corrupted by prosperity.” He concludes, “

“In this manner, the Church proceeds on its pilgrim way in this world, in these evil days. Its troubled course began not merely in the time of the bodily presence of Christ and the time of his apostles; it started with Abel himself, the first righteous man slain by an ungodly brother; and the pilgrimage goes on from that time right up to the end of history, with the persecutions of the world on one side, and on the other the consolations of God.”

Augustine dismisses the notion that the next great persecution would be that of the antichrist. The age is filled with persecutions culminating in the last persecution of the antichrist, which will “be extinguished by Jesus himself.” He also dismisses “the deluded idiots” (pagans) who contend the Christian religion will only last 365 years.

This book was long, but interesting as it wove together the histories of the earthly city and the City of God. It provided a few surprises such as his belief that members of the City of God could be found outside Israel prior to the Christian era and his assertions regarding the Erythraea Sibyl and her prophecies regarding Christ.