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Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.1 (2004) 128-130
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Eric Plumer, Augustine's Commentary on Galatians. Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xxvii + 294. $80.
This volume, a revision of the author's doctoral dissertation, provides the first English translation of Augustine's only complete exegetical commentary on a book of Scripture. Given the crucial role which Augustine attributes to his reading of St. Paul in his Confessions and the influence which his biblical hermeneutics would exercise on the next thousand years of Western thought, this fact is surprising. It also justifies Plumer's assertion that the period of Augustine's priesthood (ca. 391-396) has been relatively neglected.
In addition to an accurate and graceful translation, Plumer supplies a lengthy introduction (divided into five chapters), copious notes, and four appendices to aid the reader in appreciating the context and significance of this text. After a brief chapter on the date of composition (394/5), the introduction comprises chapters on "Augustine in Relation to the Other Latin Commentators on Paul in Late Antiquity," "The Purpose of Augustine's Commentary," and "Augustine as a Reader of Galatians," as well as a summary of the editor's conclusions. The appendices deal with the Latin text of the Commentary, Augustine's text of the Bible, the use of the Confessions for historical information, and Augustine's concern with Donatism around the time he wrote the Commentary.
Plumer's introduction makes a compelling case for giving this work more prominence. Along with Augustine's treatise on Galatians, we have those of Marius Victorinus, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, and Pelagius. Thus, the Commentary is an important piece in our understanding of how the Latin church read Paul in particular and Scripture in general. Secondly, the work was written at a critical time in Augustine's career. Many have noted that he was struggling with fundamental questions, both theological and personal, in the years immediately [End Page 128] preceding his ordination as bishop. Theologically, he had begun to question his earlier high assessment of the possibility of human fulfillment, and this disillusionment would lead to his insistence, central to his mature thought, on the inscrutability of divine grace. Personally, he had to make the difficult adjustment to a life of ministry far different from the contemplative leisure he had planned for himself.
Plumer supplies valuable insights into both of these areas. Taking up Divjak's remark that the question of Victorinus's influence on Augustine's commentary demands more systematic investigation, he offers a fresh consideration of the evidence. His starting point is Newman's argument from antecedent probability, which states that if there is a substantial likelihood of something being the case, even if the instances we can adduce as evidence are few, we nevertheless have good reason to presume that it is true. In the past, scholars have begun by looking for specific verbal or conceptual influences of Victorinus in Augustine. Plumer believes that this is not the correct way to proceed. Rather, if we have solid grounds for thinking that Augustine was familiar with Victorinus's work, then we ought to presume his influence. Plumer first goes to the Confessions to establish that Augustine considered Victorinus his chief model for his own conversion to Christianity (a point which the author defends in Appendix 3). He then examines Augustine's early efforts at biblical interpretation against the background of his and Victorinus's practice as grammarians. Having set the groundwork, Plumer is able to show how the apparently meager points of comparison between the two make it highy probable that Augustine made use of Victorinus's commentary on Galatians.
In arguing for the relevance of Victorinus's commentary, Plumer points to the list of famous men in the De doctrina christiana (2.40.61), which includes Victorinus. Since it is quite likely that Augustine started writing Dedoctrina christiana shortly after completing his commentary on Galatians, Victorinus's inclusion provides further evidence of Augustine's familiarity with his commentary. But this passage also has a much broader...