A mysterious citation: ‘Cursed is the one without a seed in Israel’

In a short note published in 1983, N. Adkin called attention to a curious quotation in (esp.) Latin fathers: maledicta sterilis, quae non parit semen in Israel (with variations) (N. Adkin, ‘An Unidentified Latin Quotation of Scripture related to Isaiah 31,9’, Revue Bénédictine 93 [1983]: 123-125). He called attention to this citation in Jerome, Let. 22.21.1, Adv. Helv. 20; Adv. Iovin. 1.22 (cf. 1.37); in Isaiam 2.4.1, 15.56.4-5; in Zach. 3.14.18-19, but also in Origen, in the Latin translation by Rufinus of Hom. in Genesis 11.1 and in Jerome’s Latin translation of Origen’s Hom. in Ezech. 4.1; in the Ambrosiaster, Quaest. 1.17; Cassian, Conlat. 21.32.2; and Quodvultdeus, Liber promissionum 1.25.34. None of them offer a definitive identification for this citation (nor do their editors), though Jerome combines it several times with Isa 31:9 and Ps 127:3.

Writing before the advent of the fully searchable corpora we now have, Adkin erroneously suggested ‘Neither Augustine nor Ambrose nor any other Greek Father cites it’. In fact, it appears in Augustine on Faustus’s lips (attributed to Moses):  ‘So we find him pronouncing a curse on all youths of both sexes, when he says: “Cursed is every one that raises not up a seed in Israel.” This is aimed directly at Jesus, who, according to you, was born among the Jews, and raised up no seed to continue his family. It points too at his disciples, some of whom he took from the wives they had married, and some who were unmarried he forbade to take wives. We have good reason, you see, for expressing our abhorrence of the daring style in which Moses hurls his maledictions against Christ, against light, against chastity, against everything divine’ (14.1; cf. 14.13). And we find the quotation in Greek (via the TLG) in a couple of places: a (7th century?) tractate of Adversus Judaeos literature (ἐπικατάρατος ὃς οὐκ ἔχει σπέρμα ἐν Ἰσραήλ), and in St. John of Damascus in the Expositio fidei, 97: ἐπικατάρατος πᾶς, ὃς οὐκ ἐγείρει σπέρμα ἐν τῷ Ἰσραήλ. It also occurs in some later medieval Latin authors like Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux, though probably derived from Jerome.

But where does this citation come from? None of the proposed explanations Adkin examines is convincing, and he rightly repudiates them all. And yet it seems to appear on the scene as something that has widespread currency as scripture. Any ideas?

  1. #1 by SF on April 12, 2014 - 4:32 pm

    This is actually very interesting! At first I thought that Deut 25.5-10 might be the background here – which discusses a man refusing to perform levirate duty for his brother. It mentions the deceased husband’s “name” being “blotted out of Israel”; and the brother is to be spit in his face by his brother’s widow, who pronounces “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” But this is all a very loose parallel, and I don’t think it does much the clarify the citation.

    Whatever the origin of “Cursed is every one that raises not up a seed in Israel” itself, I found the subsequent lines in Augustine to also be interesting, about Jesus’ disciples: “…some of whom he took from the wives they had married, and some who were unmarried he forbade to take wives.” Of course, the former might simply be an inference from the itinerancy of the disciples, as described in the NT (and, more specifically, things like Luke 14.26). But what of the latter element? It seems to be unparalleled, as far as I’m aware. (Does the eunuch passage in Matthew have any bearing on this?)

    • #2 by David Lincicum on April 12, 2014 - 7:06 pm

      It’s interesting that Augustine’s translator in the NPNF series also suggests Deut 25.5-10 as background to the citation, which does make some sense conceptually, even if verbally it clearly isn’t precise. And I hadn’t really paused over the later lines (by the Manichaean, Faustus, who is attempting to demonstrate how wrong Moses is by contrasting him with Jesus), but you’re entirely correct that it is striking. I wonder if it could be related in some roundabout way to ascetic trajectories of interpretation stemming from 1 Cor 7, but it then clearly stands in some contrast with 1 Tim 4.3. And yes, it may be that the eunuch passage also comes to bear on this. Intriguing observation!

      • #3 by SF on April 16, 2014 - 2:57 am

        Yeah, I think the language of Deut 25.5-10–in all versions: MT, LXX, etc.–is too remote for this.

        I also thought about 1 Cor 7. As (Augustine’s representation of) Faustus doesn’t ascribe these words to Jesus himself, it just seems maybe like a polemical (mis)representation, retrojected back to Jesus himself. I suppose it’s similar to, say, one of Christian “archenemies” like Celsus, also accused of similar things. I have a couple of articles and maybe a monograph or two on celibacy/asceticism in early Christianity…might try to take a look at it soon.

        I didn’t search that hard, but I couldn’t really find other commentators on this citation. But now I’m _very_ curious to locate its origins.

      • #4 by David Lincicum on April 16, 2014 - 12:43 pm

        Keep me posted as to what you discover! I also thought of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, where one of Paul’s pillars of preaching is ‘abstinence’, though the verbal link is not strong to what Faustus is here made to say.

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