CS Lewis and St Jerome

In Reflections on the Psalms, CS Lewis makes the following statement:

I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist. That is because I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous. Some people find the miraculous so hard to believe that they cannot imagine any reason for my acceptance of it other than a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth. But this I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation “after the manner of a popular poet” (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction. The real reason why I can accept as historical a story in which a miracle occurs is that I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen.

I am most interested in the bolded statement. I have occasionally tried to track down the source of that St. Jerome quote, because it could be used as a compelling part of an argument that the “poetic” interpretation of Genesis predates the whole Evolution debate. In other words, the poetic interpretation is not some late-breaking fudge factor designed to weasel our way out of the implications of the theory of Evolution for the Genesis narrative. In fact, if you google “after the manner of a popular poet”, you will find CS Lewis quoted all over the place as having said this. Furthermore, you will find some people dropping the Lewis reference altogether and simply attributing the quote directly to St. Jerome. What you will never find is a primary reference to St. Jerome.

And I think this is the reason why. I don’t think he ever said it. In that google search above, you will find a few references to the same quote having been uttered by John Colet. He apparently wrote some Letters to Radulphus on the Mosaic account of the Creation, ca. AD 1497. In these letters, he says:

Thus Moses arranges his details in such a way as to give the people a clearer notion, and he does this after the manner of a popular poet, in order that he may the more adapt himself to the spirit of simple rusticity…

This is by no means conclusive. But it is certainly quite possible that CS Lewis got his authors a little mixed up. And I suppose John Colet could still be used as an example of how the “poetic” interpretation of the Genesis narrative predated the Evolution debacle, but he is certainly not as well known as St Jerome, and lived about 1000 years later.


~ by Rob on May 29, 2008.

8 Responses to “CS Lewis and St Jerome”

  1. The allegorical interpretations of Genesis seemed (to me) to be a cop out for a long time, an obvious retreat of religion in the face of science. I remember reading that CS Lewis quote as well, and being somewhat shocked that there were pre-Darwin doubts about a 6000 year old universe. I haven’t read much St. Jerome, but I can tell you that St. Augustine (much more famous than John Colet) in The Confessions (written in 397AD) wrote that the wording of Genesis was not to be taken literally, and going from the seven days of creation, he arrives at some startlingly modern conclusions. You can find it online at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1101.htm, the relevant books are 11 and 12. Anyway, St. Augustine doesn’t pre-date St. Jerome, but they were contemporaries, and it’s pretty good evidence that the literal translations were a much later (post-Reformation) take on the Creation story.

  2. Thanks, Ryan. I will be sure to check out those books. Best…

  3. Lewis used this in Miracles as well: “No philosophical theory which I have yet come across is a radical improvement on the words of Genesis, that ‘In the beginning God made Heaven and Earth’. I say ‘radical’ improvement, because the story in Genesis—as St Jerome said long ago—is told in the manner ‘of a popular poet’, or as we should say, in the form of folk tale. But if you compare it with the creation legends of other peoples—with all these delightful absurdities in which giants to be cut up and floods to be dried up are made to exist before creation—the depth and originality of this Hebrew folk tale will soon be apparent.” (“Nature and Supernature”)

    Would it surprise you that Lewis would mis-attribute the line twice, in publications separated by more than a decade?

  4. That’s a very good point, Stephan, and to see it used twice so far apart in time does seem to make it less likely that he got his references messed up. But there does remain the issue of actually locating that quote.

  5. I’m pretty sure that Lewis actually uses that “quote” in three different places… he is prone to misquoting though, so I’ve been content with that explanation of this mysterious Jerome quote of his for a while now.

    Someone who does pre-date Augustine who may be very much of interest here is Origen. In his *On Principle Things* (ca. 212-215 AD), Book IV, Origen advocates the allegorical interpretation of Genesis pretty staunchly. “…I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.” It’s interesting stuff.
    Origen’s not the earliest example that you can look to either: he may be one of the earliest Christian voices, but this interpretation in the Christian reading is picking up from a long standing Jewish interpretive tradition–a well known example here would be Philo, who was a contemporary of Christ and Paul.

  6. I know that I’m piling on rather late here but it occurs to me that since John Colet was heavily influenced by the writings of Jerome and since Jerome essentially laughed off the idea that Genesis “needs no explanation” (Letter LIII.8) it’s quite possible that Colet was echoing a sentiment Jerome expressed in one of his works not currently available online in digital format which Lewis had also read.

  7. If you did even the quickest of studies PEOPLE..you would find that Genesis was questioned as being literal all the way until the 1800’s. The majority view was that it was not literal. a big change happened in protestant America where many now had full access to the bible in their language–AND…sufficient time to read it through a more stable society. They were separated from the successive thought of earlier teachers and started churches anew in many cases(much as it is today)–anyone can pick up a bible and start a church. Great thinkers who had no knowledge of evolution had previously deemed genesis as allegorical, poetic, or simply a song passed down.

    Thats when this literal interpretation became widespread–so when evolution hit…it was fought with all its might. However, if evolution came 300 years earlier or before that, this fanatical opposition would have been much lighter.
    We are not required to disregard what is obvious to us now–the world is billions of years old. Of course, much of evolution is atheists extrapolating the world without a creator. But there is enough evidence to say there has been some sort of evolution of life on earth. It seems God guided and even outright changed its course through miracles–but he could just have easily, and some would say this is even more profound, that God can throw a handful of matter in such a way that it all lands precisely where he wants it too. Im speaking figuratively–but its like holding a trillion dice and having them all land on 1–after they bounce around for a million years.

    I also think the point christians miss is God could easily write the truth in the sky–so why doesnt he? Why doesnt he set up a castle in your town? Think, would freewill be defeated to some extent….coerced? Who can make a free choice if hell is a certainty? People would follow the devil into the door to heaven to avoid hell. If God said in the beginning there was a Big Bang, and particle clumped together to form planets, and dna sprang from chemicals eventually into humans—where would faith lie? That would be undeniable proof. If God wanted to give undeniable proof he is doing a terrible job. Its not undeniable..there IS doubt–which in turn makes our choice to search for God free. Once we turn– God allows us to KNOW…but we dont know for sure when we turn to God in faith. Now its a fact in my head..but it wasnt before I turned to him.

    So apply this thinking to evolution, divided denominations, and everything else. Error and doubt serve to make our choice free. Atheists can fully reveal themselves as not wanting anything to do with God by there being evolution. For Christians to argue over this is just lame. God doesnt ask us to check our faculties at the door. We would have to assume he staged an elaborate scientific falsehood(the very science he gave us to improve our world though medicine, engineering, etc) all to see if people would have faith genesis? We are to have faith in Christ.

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