When dealing with pressing questions on the proper interpretation of certain parts of the Old Testament, German Benedictine Alberic sought out guidance from leading pillars of the Church. One such medieval Patristic Pillar was Saint Peter Damian, Doctor and Father of the Church. The German stalwart was confused with the textual reading of 1 Samuel 13:1. His particular interest in the text is perhaps the earliest inquiry into the “problem” with the verse in Church History.
Peter Damian notes:
Proceed, then. How is it, you ask, that it is said, “Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel”?
Blessed Jerome certainly teaches that this is to be understood in this way, that he was innocent, just like a one-year old boy, when he began to reign, and he remained in the simple state of this same innocence for two years. But the one who was then a child of humility later was made a slave through pride.
From Petrus Damianus Letra CXXVI
Of course, Saint Peter Damian is not referring to the actual Jerome, but a pseudonymous work that was in circulation at the time. Interestingly enough, the author of the work was well versed in Hebrew, and although not written by Jerome, served as an early example of how the Church viewed this passage:
“Saul was a child of a year old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years over Israel; and this is not Isboseth, son of Saul, but of Saul himself. He was, at the beginning of his reign, as innocent as a child of a year, and Scripture says he persisted in this innocence for two years of reign in Israel.”
Patrologia Latina 23.1337C
A number of Fathers interpreted the “one year” in a figurative sense, believing that Saul was changed, when the Holy Spirit entered into him. This can be found as early as Augustine, who interpreted the ἐφαλεῖται of 1 Samuel 10 to be transformative.
When addressing questions to Simplician, Augustine comments thus:
“The Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul,”
“God gave Saul another heart, and all the signs came to pass on that day..”
“For “the Spirit blows where he wills,” and no one’s soul can be fouled by contact with the Spirit of prophecy, for it extends everywhere on account of its purity.”
Var.Quaestiones Simpl 2
For all the issues that we find with this text in modern day criticisms, we can see that the Early Church had no real issue with interpreting the text itself in a figurative manner. Peter Damian seems to recognize there is an issue already by his time, but whether this is a substantive one or not, is another debate and another blog post…and, another day :)
For all intents and purposes, this blog focuses upon the Church Fathers and how they were able to view and harmonize Scripture. These particular key verses were frequently used in the figurative sense, especially because Fathers like Augustine and various Church historians were well aware that the Acts of the Apostles notes that Saul indeed reigned for 40 years. Saul’s reign, though, is rarely touched upon by the Fathers.
“After forty years of rule Saul was ousted, so that none of his progeny might reign after him, and then died. David succeeded to the throne.”
DE CIVITATE DEI CONTRA PAGANOS LIB XVIII CAP XX
What is particularly interesting, though, are the comments made by Sulpicius.
The Church Historian comments:
“We do not find any certain statements as to the length of his reign, unless that he is said in the Acts of the Apostles to have reigned forty years. As to this, however, I am inclined to think that Paul, who made the statement in his preaching, then meant to include also the years of Samuel under the length of that king’s reign. Most of those, however, who have written about these times, remark that he reigned thirty years.”
“..and we repeat that Samuel and Saul together held the government for forty years.”
SACRED HISTORY BOOK 1 CHAPTER XXXVI
Sulpicius believed Paul to have meant to include some years of Samuel’s reign in his comments, but nevertheless believed the 40 years reporting to be an accurate one in the wider frame of things. Augustine briefly comments, taking Paul’s words in Acts at face value. This same Augustine interpreted Saul as becoming a changed man, which would fit in with the Patristic interpretation that Saul was “one year” of age due to the transformative effect of the Holy Spirit. Although modern day critics take the position that this text is no doubt corrupt and would view this Patristic harmonization as untenable, we must listen to the voice of the Earliest Christians as well.
For a wider discussion of the textual issues surrounding 1 Samuel, this book is highly recommended:
Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum)
In another post, I may cover the various Biblical and Tanakh commentaries on this particular verse.