By Gerald O’Collins, SJ
This is a curious little book, and that for at least two, somewhat contradictory, reasons. St Augustine of Hippo is such a towering figure in the history of Christianity, about whom such a wealth of material has been written, that it would be easy to mistake this slender volume for one of those slightly whimsical exercises in scholarly barrel-scraping that accompany all such figures. It is rather a shock therefore for those who have already prepared a place in their downstairs bathrooms for St Augustine on the Seabirds of North Africa or St Augustine on Late Antique Bear-baiting, to discover that the subject of the book is in fact St Augustine on the central mystery of the Christian faith: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. What? Are there not already great shelves groaning with the weight of tomes devoted to this very subject? Apparently not. And herein lies the source of the book’s initial curiosity: that it does not exist already. As O’Collins puts it “very little attention has been directed to what Augustine preached and wrote about the rising of Christ himself and the questions it raises”. This is curious indeed. And yet to concede this point is immediately to draw attention to a second, rather more unfortunate, curiosity of this book. For if, as its preface claims, the purpose of the book is nothing less than to “fill that important gap” in Augustinian scholarship which O’Collins has just identified, we cannot help but register our surprise, not to say disappointment, that this much-vaunted “gap” turns out to be a mere 128 pages wide. Indeed, we begin to wonder whether the book’s curious lack of predecessors really is that curious after all.
Alas, for those who do venture inside the book’s rather diminutive spine, its contents prove to be something of a barrel-scraping exercise after all. This its author all but concedes in its opening sentences:
Augustine never wrote a treatise on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence this chapter [for which read this book] has no principal source but must draw on various works: Answer to Faustus a Manichean, The City of God, Expositions on the Psalms, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Letters, Sermons, and The Trinity.
The remaining 127 pages are given over to O’Collins gathering up these fragments in the workmanlike manner that will be familiar to readers of his other books. It does not bode well for the interest of this material, however, that a rather earnest excursus on Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is required to reach the lordly sum of 128 pages. Nor would you think it possible that a book of such proportions would repeat itself, and yet on at least three separate occasions O’Collins takes the Bishop of Hippo to task for suggesting that the disciples touched the body of the risen Jesus when in fact the emphasis of the resurrection appearances is on sight, an observation that is not without interest but hardly worth repeating twice over.
In the end perhaps the greatest curiosity of this book is the somewhat heretical thought it leaves in its readers’ minds — that just possibly the great St Augustine of Hippo did not have that much of interest to say about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.