The following is the third and final part of an essay I wrote for a tutorial in Oxford in an attempt to address the question: “In what ways has Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue been interpreted since its composition and why is the Messianic view rejected by most modern scholars?”
Royds’s remarks on the similarities between Virgil’s Eclogue and the prophecies of Isaiah evoke questions about the nature and function of prophecy and its connection with messianic expectation. In light of the stark contrast between the interpretive methods of early commentators and those of modern scholars, one wonders if a christocentric reading has any merit whatsoever. Has the rise of modern scholarship entirely dethroned centuries of traditional Christian interpretation of the Eclogue at one fell swoop? There is also the ever-pervading question about whether Christian interpretation itself is not antithetical to the nature of critical scholarship. As aforesaid, Royds has noted the tendency to read Christian dogmatic theology into pre-Christian writings. This has often resulted in gross misinterpretation of texts. The messianic prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah provide a prime example of this.
The writers of Isaiah portend the birth of a child who will establish a kingdom and uphold it with justice and righteousness (Isaiah 7:10-9:7). This messianic passage has often been interpreted as a reference to Christ, largely because Matthew’s Gospel cites Isaiah 7:14 and declares that the prophet’s words were fulfilled by the events surrounding the virgin birth of Christ (Matt. 1:22-23). It is a mistake, however, to assume that Matthew believed that the Isaianic prophecy had not in some way already been fulfilled by the birth of a child in Isaiah’s own lifetime. While the identity of the child in Isaiah remains unknown, it is evident that the child’s birth was to be a sign for the people to whom Isaiah preached. In using a citation from Isaiah, Matthew is not committing the “sin of Constantine” by insisting that Isaiah prophesied concerning Christ. Rather, Matthew and the other writers of the New Testament viewed the Old Testament as a witness to the fact that God had already broken into human history through his dealings with the nation of Israel. They viewed the advent of Christ as the climax to Israel’s story for, in their minds, the Christ Event signified that God had once again broken into human history and changed the course of human history forever. Just as the writers of the inscriptions at Priene considered Augustus to be not just the Savior of the Romans, but the one who would “stop war and ordain all things,” so the NT writers saw Christ not just as the Savior of Israel, but as the Savior of the whole world. When Matthew cites Isaiah in his Gospel, he is not employing a shoddy method of textual interpretation, but recalling to his readers the memory of the entire OT story and claiming that Christ is the culmination of that story and thus the ultimate fulfillment of all messianic figures.
How does this have bearing on interpretations of Virgil? Simply this: the apparent tension between christocentric readings of the Fourth Eclogue and modern attempts to provide a more historically-grounded interpretation ought not to exist. The interpreter of the Eclogue, or Isaiah, for that matter, should not be forced to choose between an intellectually-honest reading and what might be deemed a more “mystical” understanding of a text. If Constantine had better understood the nature of biblical prophecy and known the historical background of the Eclogue’s composition, he might have made a better claim both for Virgil and for Christianity. Had Constantine interpreted the child to be one of the Caesars, it might have strengthened his argument for Christianity for, whether or not Christ was indeed the Savior of the world, it was clear that Augustus was not. Augustus had not set the world to rights; he had not established a kingdom of peace and justice. It was clear that Caesar had not inaugurated a lasting Golden Age; the ancient utopian ideals had not come to fruition under his reign. In essence, Constantine did not have to assert that the Eclogue portended the birth of Christ in order to claim that Christ was the one who met messianic expectations. It could be argued that, if Christ truly was the Savior of the whole world as the NT writers believed him to be, then interpreting Virgil’s Eclogue in accordance with its historical context would be the essence of a truly christocentric reading.
Virgil’s “Messianic” Eclogue has been interpreted in many ways since its composition. Although Virgil’s intent in writing the Eclogue still remains hidden, a study of how it has been interpreted provides insight into how the nature of prophecy has been understood throughout the past two millennia. The idea that Virgil foretold the birth of Christ is rejected by modern scholars because the theory simply does not fit the context or content of the Fourth Eclogue. However, its messianic themes bear witness to the fact that the pagan world, not just the Jews, was longing for peace and prosperity and awaiting a ruler through whom would come, as the inscriptions at Priene read, “a beginning of good tidings (εὐαγέλλιον).”
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Excellent essay, Rebekah. I will be preaching to an Episcopal congregation here in the states on Sunday, Dec. 30. Readings are John 1:1-18 and Galatians 4, where it is said that God sent his Son, born if a woman, born under the law, at just the right time. Indeed, the idea of a messianic figure was ripe throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.