Scott McGill has made available in English translation the first of the Latin biblical epics and the first known hexameter poem dedicated to Christian subject matter. With the publication of this volume, the entire poem is accessible in a modern European language for the first time. This is a great feat for the integration of a significant text to the teaching and study of early Christianity, quite apart from the linguistic heroism required to translate more than 3000 lines of dactylic hexameter into very respectable English verse.
The book itself is straightforward, consisting of a roughly 20-page introduction and very copious and valuable notes that give details of intertextual allusions, clarifications of references to the gospel stories, and literary commentary. The text of the poem is correlated in the right hand margin with the passages from the canonical gospels to which it refers. The poem itself takes up 78 print pages while the notes expand, very profitably, over 160 pages, not to mention index and bibliography. As such, the volume is optimally supplied with all resources necessary for teaching and study, and make it possible to connect the poem to broader topics (reception, genre, canon, historiography, Christian paideia). This volume presents a hitherto profoundly understudied text in its own right with every accoutrement necessary to make it coherent to the unfamiliar reader and allow for its integration into the scholarly map of the early Christian religious imagination. It does not supply the Latin in a facing-page edition.
I can also offer a straightforward evaluation of the book and its potential uses: it is a well-executed sample of the magical fusion of gorgeously-workmanlike philology with literary and cultural theory and method. McGill's text makes Juvencus legible to scholar and student alike, well beyond the level of linguistic analysis. As such, this book should be bought, read, and taught in the classroom. What is less straightforward and requires more attention here is the place of this particular source text in the teaching and study of late ancient literature, which is generally what we are really teaching when we teach courses on early Christianity.
I distinctly remember, as an undergraduate in a course on church history, hearing mention of someone who had re-told the story of the gospels in Virgilian hexameter as if they were Latin epic. I believe this was mentioned along with Methodius of Olympus' dialogue on virginity, cast as a new Symposium. While we did not go on to read either of these texts, hearing of their existence stuck with me as a moment of surprise and curiosity, which the strictures of the curriculum immediately wiped away. Juvencus was not merely erased by the need to move on to the standard sources on early Christianity, but still more vigorously removed from that moment of curious attention by being mustered as an example for Christians “taking over” pagan literary forms. My ability to understand this claim was greatly hampered by the fact that I had not, at the time, read any classical literature whatsoever, despite having started a degree in literature originally, so I did not know anything about the available genres or the system of education of which all authors in late antiquity would have taken part. My instructor's comment was aimed at producing a certain type of knowledge, namely a teleological account of cultural and literary supercession. First there was pagan literature, then Christians took it, and in that process there were a few misguided hybrid quirks, like Juvencus and Methodius. Here the seeds of faulty historical models were sown, at 11:47 on a Thursday morning, into my unsuspecting pony-tailed head.
20 years of reading later, with a translation of Juvencus on my kitchen table and a review deadline to meet, and I am greatly vindicated by the fact that this text can finally be connected to our larger picture of literary and religious life in the early fourth century. I hope that free access to it will squelch the idea that late antique Christians wrote such texts only to somehow make Christian narratives more palatable to the upper classes, or as missionizing efforts, or out of misguided assumptions about the compatibility of the gospel with pagan tradition. McGill's translation and commentary, by supplying complete information and thus thwarting the all too human tendency to fill in gaps in what we know with assimilation to an established pattern, pushes against persistent and misleading notion of pagan and Christian literary life as separate and incompatible entities whose occasional junctures require special explanations.
What we can now read and teach very easily is solid evidence for how normal such a text was in a world where readers educated enough to compose hexameters had also read a lot of hexameters, primarily from Virgil. This volume makes it possible, in fact easy, to read Juvencus as an example, not of efforts to make Christianity seem respectable all of a sudden with the ascension of Constantine, but of the way people who had read Virgil from boyhood went on to read and imagine the narrative of the life of Christ as epic. Juvencus helps us see more clearly how notions of election, grace, travail, supernatural conflict, virtue as armor, and redemption through heroism entered the Christian imagination.
The world of epic is not foreign to Christianity, nor does it need to be purged from it as a Hellenistic encroachment. For Juvencus, epic was simply the world in which a man engages the great adventure of devotion to the good; as such it was the only world in which Christ was legible to a Latin poet. As McGill points out in the introduction, Juvencus is part of a larger tradition of epic poetry, stretching from Homer to Milton and farther afield. What can this text deliver if it is read as part of that tradition, or indeed comparatively with epic literature from other cultures? How does it fit and what does it do if it is taken out of its conventional place as a footnote on the trajectory from Rome to a Christian Europe, and re-connected to the model instead as an entirely normal if novel example of religious epic? What if it is read together with other Virgilian or Homeric traces in Christian literature of the fourth century? There are also questions to pursue here about the role of Christian narrative in western epic (or vice versa), the relationship of epic vs. taxonomic approaches to moral life within Christianity in late antiquity, the greater or lesser traction of epic in culture as modernism or secularism rise and fall, and the connection of epic to religion. These are all questions which only become visible when we stop looking at Christian and classical literatures as two separate incompatible entities. Since we can't have both, I take the publication of this volume as a good occasion to suggest surrendering our received illusion, to go from our kindred and our father's house and to strike out on a new adventure, a quest if you will, for the full complexity of human religious genius in global late antiquity.