C. S. Lewis and St. Jerome

The background of a recurring misattribution


by Arend Smilde



At the end of chapter 4 of his book Miracles (1947), talking about the opening words of the Bible, C. S. Lewis briefly refers to what seems to be a dictum of St. Jerome:

... 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 a folk tale.

Hieronymus of Stridon (c. 347-420), or St. Jerome, was perhaps the greatest scholar among the Latin Church Fathers. Living and working in Bethlehem from 386 until his death, he made the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was the standard Bible text for Western Christendom for the whole medieval period and in some ways authoritative as late as the 20th century.

     Anyone who has ever tried to trace Lewis’s “popular poet” quotation in Jerome’s works must have concluded that it isn’t there. This is in itself a small matter. Having checked perhaps hundreds of sources in Lewis’s works over the years, I have found him not impeccable, but nevertheless fairly reliable as regards both the letter and spirit of his countless quotations and allusions. Seeing how much he wrote and how much he quoted, making ancient authors uniquely accessible to modern readers, it is only fair to grant him the right to a handful of blunders. It seems we must count this as one of them.

     What makes it hard to leave the matter there, however, is the fact that Lewis, over a period of about fifteen years, repeated more or less the same assertion about Jerome in three more publications as well as in a private letter which was later published. This makes a total of five instances – in three of which he repeated the phrase “popular poet” and ascribed it to Jerome. I will list the relevant passages in what I suppose to be the order in which Lewis wrote them (although I would certainly not argue about the order of the first two).

     (1) Lewis’s largest academic work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama, is described on the title page as “The Completion of The Clark Lectures, Trinity College, Cambridge 1944”. The book did not appear until 1954; but since Lewis began working on it in the mid-1930s it may be assumed that much of the writing was at least in a draft stage by the time of the Clark Lectures and that much of the required reading for it had been done. A reference to Jerome and Genesis appears on pp. 159-160 of the published work, where Lewis discusses the English humanist scholar John Colet (1467-1519). My quotation must be long because, as will appear, it contains the key to solving our problem:

Colet ... has an important place in the history of Biblical studies ... he is one of those who helped to banish the old allegorical methods of interpretation, at least as regards the New Testament, and made some attempt to see the Pauline epistles in their real historical setting. In the Epistolae ad Radulphum he himself allegorizes freely on the opening chapters of Genesis, as St. Augustine had done before him, but he is seeking a scientific or philosophical, rather than a moral or spiritual sense. It is one among many attempts made in this [viz. the 16th] century to reconcile the Mosaic account of the creation with the cosmological ideas of the day. In this difference between Colet’s treatment of St. Paul and his treatment of Genesis there is inherent the recognition that the Bible contains books very different in kind. It was not exactly new – St. Jerome had allowed what we should now call the “mythical” element in Genesis – but it was timely and useful.

     (2) Lewis’s essay “Dogma and the Universe” was first published in two parts in March 1943 in The Guardian, the Anglican weekly that had published The Screwtape Letters as a serial in 1941. After a 1942 essay called “Miracles”, also in The Guardian, the “Dogma” piece was one of the earliest of what we may now identify as a series of preparatory moves, or building blocks, for Miracles. Jerome and Genesis appear in the ninth paragraph:

The first chapters of Genesis, no doubt, give the story of creation in the form of a folk-tale – a fact recognised as early as the time of St Jerome ...

     (3) Miracles was published four years later, in May 1947. Its Jerome passage, now including the phrase “popular poet”, is quoted at the beginning of the present essay.

     (4) On 5 October 1955 Lewis wrote a letter to a woman named Janet Wise, who had written to tell him she was troubled by other people’s disbelief in the authority of the Bible and asked which books on the subject he recommended (Collected Letters III, p. 652, note). In his reply, Lewis explained his own position in some 600 words, in the course of which he noted that

Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and, from earlier, St Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done “after the method of a popular poet.”

Interestingly, Walter Hooper in editing Lewis’s letters has added a footnote giving the source for the assertion about Calvin. The one about Jerome he left unreferenced.

     (5) When Lewis presented his Reflections on the Psalms in 1958, he pointed out in the introductory chapter that this book was only a layman’s attempt to “compare notes” with fellow Christians, and not another defence of Christianity. However, in the last three chapters he is back in the role of an apologist, arguing that Christians have indeed a right to see specifically Christian meanings in the ancient Hebrew poetry. Jerome appears in chapter XI, “Scripture”, second paragraph, as Lewis is distancing himself from

... a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth. ... [T]his 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.

     So much for known expressions of Lewis’s belief that the great St. Jerome was an early Christian authority for the “poetic” reading of the creation story in Genesis. But this is not merely a case of persistence in an unwarranted attribution. The subject at hand – the nature of the biblical account of creation – is a weighty one, making it all the more worthwhile to find out exactly what error is involved here. Lewis may have simply confused Jerome with another Church Father. If so, then even if Jerome’s was the wrong name to mention, Lewis would still have been correct in a general way in invoking an ancient authority: the mere antiquity of the cited authority was surely more than half his point. It would be worse for Lewis and perhaps for his view of Genesis (although it remains to be seen exactly how bad) if the remark about the “manner of a popular poet” could not be traced to any early Christian authority at all.

      Now it seems in fact that it cannot. All of Jerome’s works are contained both in the Online Library of Latin Texts and the Patrologia Latina Database: and no Latin phrase translatable as “popular poet” can be found anywhere in either of these.

     Precisely such a phrase does appear, however, in the Epistolae ad Radulphum, written some 1,100 years after Jerome by John Colet – the book Lewis was discussing in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century when (as I think) he first mentioned Jerome in connection with Genesis. Colet’s Latin treatise is partly lost and was first published in 1876 in its incomplete state, with an English translation, in Letters to Radulphus on the Mosaic Account of Creation, together with other treatises. The fourth letter  breaks off in mid-sentence and, since the letters broadly deal with one Creation Day each, it is quite likely that what has come down to us is only about half of the original work. In the second letter (p. 170) we read:

Firmamentum et celum primum factum fuit in illo die quem [Moyses] vocat unum. Sed particulatim haec spectabiliora voluit deinceps attingere Moyses; et hoc, modo poetae alicujus popularis; quo magis consolat spiritui simplicis rusticitatis; fingens successionem rerum, operum, et temporum; cujusmodi apud tantum opificem certe nulla esse potest.

– [1876 translation, p. 9] The firmament and heaven had been made first of all, in the day which he [Moses] calls first. But it was the design of Moses to touch on these more conspicuous objects afterwards in detail. And he does this after the manner of some popular poet, that he may the better study the spirit of simple-minded rustics; imagining a succession of events, and works, and times, such as could by no means find place with so great an Artificer.

Colet does not mention Jerome here, nor in connection with another reference to the “poet-like” ways of Moses (more poetae) at the end of the third letter. Nevertheless there are good reasons to suppose that it is the above passage from Colet that Lewis mistook for – or misremembered as – a passage in Jerome.

     At the beginning of the first letter, Jerome is mentioned in conjunction with an earlier Church Father, Origen. The two are praised, along with “all the most careful investigators of Holy Writ”, for their knowledge of Hebrew as an essential tool for understanding “the Mosaic record”. This is the only place in Colet’s treatise where Jerome is mentioned at all. Origen, however, is mentioned in two other places. The second of these comes just before the end (as we have it), where Colet once more propounds the notion of Moses as a “poet” – and ascribes it to Origen:

Sed more boni piique poetae, qualem illum [sc. Moysen] in libro quem contra Celsum scripsit, vocat Origenes, effingere aliquid voluit nonnihil indignum Deo, modo idem commodum et utile hominibus esse possit

– But, like a good and devout poet, as Origen in his treatise against Celsus calls him, Moses would invent something, even in a certain degree unworthy of God, if only it might be of advantage and service to man.

     Unfortunately, no reference to Moses as a poet (let alone a popular one) can be found in Origen either, as already noted by Colet’s 19th-century editor and translator J. H. Lupton (page 27, note 2). Lupton helpfully mentions a passage in Origen’s Contra Celsum (I.19) which Colet may have had in mind; but this does not solve the problem of finding an early Christian source for the epithet “poet” or “poetic” applied to Moses. Or, since the occurrence or absence of particular words and phrases can no longer be contentious in the age of electronic databases, the problem may now be restated as whether something at all like the “poetic” view of Moses can be attested in any Church Father (preferably Jerome).

     While an answer to this question is far beyond the scope of the present essay, we might yet make a start by noting that Lupton, when talking about Colet’s sources and inspirations, mentions Jerome only in passing (p. xvii, note 3). He regards Origen as a much more important source for Colet even if this is largely a matter of a shared direct dependence on Philo Judaeus, the Jewish-Greek scholar from Alexandria who was a contemporary of Jesus Christ (Colet/Lupton, pp. xvi-xvii, cf. p. 9, note 2). In the end (xvii-xix), Lupton argues that Colet was influenced by no other writer – ancient or modern, Christian or pagan – more than

by Augustine, both as regards the general spirit of enquiry in which he enters on the subject of these Letters, and the special line of interpretation which he follows.

As regards the creation story, Lupton illustrates his point with several passages from Augustine’s Confessions, Books XI and XII.

     Thus Lewis’s allusion to Augustine in the passage quoted from English Literature was relevant; but about Jerome he appears to have doubled a mistake that was first made by Colet about Origen.

     Going back now to my list of Lewis’s five misattributions over a period of some fifteen years, and assuming that my chronology is roughly in order, we may note that the first two statements – those from English Literature and “Dogma and the Universe” – do not include the phrase “popular poet” and are the nearest to what may in fact be broadly or even precisely true, whether or not the allusion to Jerome is quite as relevant as Lewis suggested. What may have happened next is that Lewis, in consulting “Dogma and the Universe” for use in Miracles, recovered among other things his own earlier reference to Jerome, remembered its background in Colet along with the “popular poet” phrase in the same treatise, perhaps quickly but too carelessly checked that source, and remembered the mistaken attribution to Jerome for the rest of his life.

     I am grateful to Professor Neil Adkin (University of North Carolina), one of the world’s leading scholars on Jerome, for taking up my suggestion that this matter was worth researching. His findings, from which I took my lead, are presented in his essay “C. S. Lewis and St. Jerome’s ʻPopular Poetʼ” (submitted for publication in Orpheus: Rivista di umanità classica e cristiana). As Adkin points out,

A Jeromean “popular poet” immediately strikes a student of Jerome as fishy: the very idea can in fact be shown to be alien to him ... for Jerome it is only with the help of the grammaticus that “poets” can be “understood”: by definition they are not “popular”.

     In fact even barring the “popular” element, Lewis must have been to some extent aware of the incongruity. In his essay “Christianity and Culture” (1940) he listed Jerome among a number of Christian authorities on the value of “culture”. He found Jerome definitely suspicious of “culture”, actually equating carmina poetarum, “the songs of poets”, with cibus daemonum, “the food of demons”. It is hard to see how, holding such a view, Jerome could have been content to describe Moses as one who wrote in the manner of a “poet”. As for Origen, he too would seem to have at least been careful (e.g. while borrowing insights from Philo) to make a clear distinction between Moses and the Greek poets.

     While Lewis is sometimes called a modern Church Father, he himself appears to have been rather more conversant with the great pagan poets of antiquity (notably Virgil, among the Latins) than with the ancient Church Fathers – with the possible exception of Augustine, who was a contemporary of Jerome. When discussing Colet, Lewis would perhaps have done better to pursue his rightly directed allusion to an Augustinian background if he wanted an early Christian authority for the idea of a “mythical” element or folk-tale form in Genesis, or indeed for a popular-poetic view of Moses. To be sure, Augustine’s relationship to poetry also seems to have been a love-hate one. On the other hand he wrote a treatise explicitly on The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), with special reference to the creation story; and one need not even be an amateur in patrology to learn very soon that Augustine used the word “literal” in sense that is a surprisingly different from what the modern reader expects. Perhaps, after all, when we want ancient authority for modern insights, checking the occurrence of words and phrases in databases isn’t enough. Jerome also wrote about Genesis, and his Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim contains no instances of the word poeta in any form; but it would be rash to conclude from this that he had nothing at all to say to Lewis’s purpose. It would be rasher still to conclude that nothing could be found – with a proper awareness of the mutability of concepts and terminology – anywhere in patristic or early Christian literature. But this is a question which I am happy to leave to the patrologists.

     Whatever the result of such an inquiry, however, Lewis would in any case have had to admit he was wrong to make a statement about a man’s views, repeat it for fifteen years several times, in both scholarly and popular, private and public writings, and never check it.




Posted on 15 December 2011.

Thanks to Paul Leopold, Stockholm, for improving my English; he is not responsible for the final result.