Reflections on Juvencus, Evangeliorum libri, Book 3

This is the third in a sequence of reflections on Scott McGill’s forthcoming (December 2015)  annotated translation (the first ever complete English translation) of the Four Books of the Gospels by Juvencus, the first great Christian epic poet. I continue to be impressed at the way Juvencus interweaves allusions to Latin classical poetry (especially that of Vergil), the narrative of Matthew, and also intertexts with other scriptures.

One such interweaving appears in lines 630-635 of book 3. This one stands out to me not only for its content, but also for its creative resequencing. As McGill mentions in his preliminary notes, these lines invert the order of Mt 21:4-7 (630-632 render Mt 21:6-7, while 633-635 render Mt 21:4-5).

Without delay, the disciples did as told.
They led the pair, spread a soft cloak upon
the gentle foal, and made a place to sit.
The ancient prophet’s vatic voice streamed down:
“Behold, your kind king comes; a gentle ass
and trailing foal bring him upon their backs.”

In my view, this inverted sequence dramatizes the episode. Rather than keeping with Matthew’s customary narrative pauses to quote a prophecy fulfilled, Juvencus makes the ancient speech into a present heavenly portent and voice that accompanies Jesus’ ascent. This shift also creates a resonance with other heavenly portents in the scriptures, most notably the “voice from heaven” at the baptism (Mk 1:11, Mt 3:17, Lk 3:22) and elsewhere (Dn 4:31, Jn 12:28, Ac 11:9, 2 Pt 1:18, Rv 10:4, 8, 11:12, 12:10, 14:2, 7, 13; 18:4). The inclusion of a heavenly portent here at the triumphal entry also recalls many possible scenes from Greek and Latin epic poetry.

– Mark Bilby

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