Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Q: Concerning the pagan Roman poet Virgil’s prophecy about the birth of Christ: is there anything recently written by scholars about it? Is it true or not? Is it merely a da Vinci Code function?

A: The reference here is to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, found in his Pastoral Poems known as the Bucolics, composed around 40 years before the birth of Jesus. This refers, of course, to the Roman Poet, Virgil, who wrote the famed epic, the Aeneid, one of the world’s most enduring classics (and long-required reading by fourth year high school Latin students; I recall being introduced to it in public high school). Virgil was a pagan, albeit a holy pagan, somewhat comparable to Cicero; the Aeneid abounds with explanations of natural virtue, such as piety, obedience, commitment to peace, patriotism, perseverance, honesty, courage, etc. In the Middle Ages, it was even used as a textbook in Christian education.

As for the Fourth Eclogue, it contains phrases similar to Isaiah’s prophecy about a boy-king who will lead the world in harmony, bringing together, as it were, lions and lambs. Read Isaiah 7:14 sqq. Virgil speaks of the emergence of a new world, and a new generation descending from the heavens.

The question here is whether or not Virgil knew about the imminent advent of the birth of Jesus. To me it is a fascinating question, and certainly worthy of analysis. One could ask: “Could Virgil have known?”

My own inclination is (always has been) that the Fourth Eclogue remains an open question within the history of religions – we do know that (as many philosophers and historians of religion have argued) all over the ancient world, from the eighth century onwards, great minds were searching the heavens for a savior who would unite all mankind and render all creation new again.

There are, of course, many naysayers, some of whom dismiss Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as totally without merit. And traces of ridicule are still heard among some exegetes. But the Fourth Eclogue, in my own judgment, remains quite mysterious, and begs for serious interpretation.

Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI, in his volumes on the Infancy Narratives (Vol. III of Jesus of Nazareth), does approach this entire question with seriousness. One of the key phrases he uses of the Eclogue describes it as “a possible intuition of the mystery of the virgin birth.”

Pope Benedict is quick to admit that although Virgil’s prediction of what appears to be a new world order under an innocent boy ruler can be interpreted in terms of Jesus’ nativity under the Pax Romana (a global dismissal of weapons by virtue of Rome’s military might), the “back story” defers to “a contemporary aspect” of this suddenly peaceful chapter; namely the beginning of an entirely fresh interval of world history. It was as if “a wave of hope” surged through the world, a hope oriented toward peace. The long awaited “divine Child” was readily seen as belonging to “the archetypical images of human hope, which emerge at times of crises and expectation…” (Ibid., 55)

This is not to say that Virgil’s prophetic verses and Jesus’ Nativity are doctrinally related; of course not. In fact, each of the events points to a totally different world. “Perhaps,” Pope Benedict concludes, “one could say that humanity’s silent and confused dreams of a new beginning came true in this event – in a reality such that only God could create.” (Ibid., 56)

There is a helpful sentence in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that comes to mind (for me, at least, in such related matters) concerning Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. The words were spoken in admonition of his colleague Horatio’s anxiety about the appearance of the King’s ghost; Horatio had just arrived in Denmark from his classroom studies abroad. In response to his tendency to doubt the reality of the ghost, Prince Hamlet says:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (I,5)