Today I completed my feedback on Scott McGill’s forthcoming annotated translation of Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels, the first major Christian epic poem, a metrical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew (more or less). My interests in the text are manifold, but especially for the ways in which the Gospel of Luke finds its way into the retelling.
As noted in a previous blog post, book 1 of the Evangeliorum relies heavily on Luke, especially its birth and childhood narratives. As is well known, John and Mark have nothing to say about Jesus’ earthly life before his ministry, and Matthew’s infancy narrative is much shorter and quite different than Luke’s. So it makes sense, given the canonical sources available and Juvencus’ efforts to retell the whole life of Christ, that he would depend so heavily on Luke for his birth narratives, even while taking Matthew as his base text for the bulk of his composition.
What I found among books 2-4 were rare and fairly brief references to Luke’s Gospel. For example, in 3.81-83, Juvencus borrows Luke’s unique phrase, “that is enough,” in order to make a clever intertextual connection between the Gethsemane arrest and the feeding of the five thousand:
The disciples showed that there was nothing more
to eat but two fish and five pieces of bread.
“This is enough,” he said.
Besides the Lukan infancy narratives, the longest episode pulled from Luke is 14:7-11, a passage Aland’s synopsis entitles “Teaching on Humility,” but one that amounts to instructions on where to sit as a guest at a feast, and on whom to invite to the feasts one hosts. In 3.614-621, Juvencus weaves in this uniquely Lukan teaching so as to bolster the brief Markan/Matthean counsel about how those who humble themselves will be exalted. This appears immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of the sons of Zebedee for their request for eschatological places of glory. Apparently Juvencus thought that meal decorum, humility, and (perhaps) the inclusion of the poor were important enough so as to adventure out from his base text.
Surprisingly, book four had only one clear and very brief reference to Luke, specifically 17:34, about judgment dividing two people “in the same bed.” He inserts this saying in place of the Matthean mention (24:41) of two women at the mill. Perhaps he found the Matthean text too rustic.
What is most surprising about book four of the Evangeliorum is that the uniquely Lukan details and narratives related to the Passion and Resurrection are almost entirely absent. Juvencus’ retold Gospel has no second cup at the passover, no miraculous healing of the servant’s ear, no Annas, no Herod, no threefold assertion of innocence, no repentant criminal, no mourning crowds, no Emmaus road encounter, no post-resurrection feast with the disciples, and no ascension.
In summary, Juvencus was not primarily interested in navigating through or creating a harmonized Gospel (akin to Tatian’s Diatessaron). Instead, he sought to fashion a harmoniously epic version of the life of Jesus. Given the priority of Matthew’s Gospel for many early Christian interpreters, it makes a lot of sense that Matthew’s Gospel remained his consistent default.