Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans 7.1

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Natural law, Jewish law, and Roman law

Name of the author: 
366 CE to 384 CE
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Title of work: 
Commentary on Romans

Ambrosiaster (“Pseudo-Ambrose”) is the name given to the mysterious Christian author writing in Rome during the latter half of the fourth century CE, in the pontificate of Damasus I (the pope who commissioned Jerome’s Vulgate). Ambrosiaster composed the first complete commentary on the Pauline Epistles, although in most of the manuscripts, the commentaries are ascribed to Ambrose. Ambrosiaster’s commentaries on the Corinthian correspondence exist in two recensions, and the present Commentary on Romans in three (we have used the longer alpha recension for the present extract). The commentaries on the rest of Paul’s letters have come down to us in just one recension. It is widely agreed that all of the recensions go back to the author, who saw the need to revise his work (David Hunter, “The Significance,” p. 9; for a very concise discussion of the recensions of the commentaries, see Gerald Bray, Commentaries, p. xvi-xvii). This same author also penned a text entitled Questions on the Old and New Testaments, also in multiple recensions, which in the Middle Ages was attributed to Augustine. It is generally agreed that the texts were originally published anonymously, and the attributions to Ambrose and Augustine were educated guesses by later scribes (Hunter, “The Significance,” p. 6). Scholars have struggled over the years to firmly identify Ambrosiaster, but it has been suggested particularly by David Hunter that he was a very active member of the Roman clergy (see Hunter, “The Significance,” p. 13-21). Ambrosiaster’s responses to both pagans and Jews, which are seen not only in his chapters in the Questions entitled adversus paganos and adversus Iudaeos, but more widely in his writings, have led some to identify him either as a converted pagan or a converted Jew (for the former, see Alexander Souter, A Study, p. 166-174; for the latter, see Lydia Speller, “Ambrosiaster and the Jews”; for a detailed overview of the arguments relating to Ambrosiater’s religious identity, see Lunn-Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 33-44).

In our discussion of the extract above from Ambrosiaster’s Commentary on Romans, along with relevant material from elsewhere in his writings, we will consider his understanding of the relationship between natural law, divine law (both Mosaic and that of Christ), and the law of the Romans. Ambrosiaster frequently utilises legal terminology, and subsequently, as Sophie Lunn-Rockcliffe states, Ambrosiaster’s interest and competence in legal matters has been the subject of debate, although it is clear that he is interested in the scriptural and theological dimensions, not the secular or practical (Lunn Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 50 n. 82, cites Alexander Souter, A Study, p. 178, who argued that Ambrosiaster’s legal terminology indicated an experienced administrator, and Dom Germain Morin, “Qui est l’Ambrosiaster?” p. 2, who describes him as an expert on law and a theologian). Ambrosiaster favours a more cosmic notion of law, which understands natural law as God’s law. In the text which follows the passage quoted above from his Commentary on Romans, Ambrosiaster affirms that “It is no secret that the whole life of man is under the law of nature, which has been given to the world. This is the general law” (translation by Lunn-Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 51). Roman understanding of natural law was centred around the question of why the ius gentium (“law of nations,” applicable to both Roman citizens and foreigners) was widely accepted by all inhabitants of the empire. The jurists’ answer to this was that these laws were simply logical to a person of reason, and as such they could be termed as falling under ius naturale (natural law) (on the Romans and natural law, see Ernst Levy, Gesammelte Schriften, p. 9-11, a concise and helpful summary is provided by David Novak, Natural Law in Judaism, p. 139-140). The jurists recognised that the issue of slavery was slightly problematic in this context, as despite being accepted across the empire, it was not natural to force human beings to work for others. Hence, slavery was part of the ius gentium, but not the ius naturale (see Clifford Ando, Law, Language, and Empire, p. 91).

The passage above, which comes from Ambrosiaster’s exposition of Romans 7:1 (“Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime?” NRSV), recognises that the Romans, not being barbarians (barbarus, uncivilised), do have a comprehension of natural law. This comes partly from themselves (i.e. their own legislative framework), and partly from that of the Greeks. This is a reference to the law of the Twelve Tables, which Roman tradition held to be the foundation of Roman law (see further below), and Livy describes as having been compiled based on Greek legislation. What is more, the Greeks have gained part of their understanding from the Hebrews (the Jews); the implication is therefore that Roman law can in part be traced back to that of the Jews. Ambrosiaster continues to affirm that while (natural) law existed prior to Moses, it was not collected in an authoritative and ordered form. Organisation of law was something which the Romans achieved through their adoption of Greek laws.

To help make more sense of Ambrosiaster’s comments here, we can consider in addition a short passage in his Questions 75.2, which is slightly uncertain, but most likely attributable to Ambrosiaster, where he states: “for certainly the Romans were within that law (i.e. natural law), which certainly was fetched back from Athens by ten men having been sent (and two after them), as it is written in the two tablets [sic] which are hidden in the Capitol” (this can be found in Alexander Souter, Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, p. 468; the translation is that of Andrew Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 96). This is a slightly confused account of Livy’s narrative in his History of Rome III.31.8-33.7 of the envoy sent to Athens by the decemvirito copy the laws of Solon, and to observe the institutions, customs, and laws of other Greek States. This resulted in the creation of the Twelve Tables, with the first ten being completed around 450 BCE, and the final two in 449 BCE. Jacobs argues that for Ambrosiaster, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) was so important that some of its precepts are found in Roman law. The implication of our passage is that because the Romans are a civilised people, they already practice to a certain degree the ethical precepts of the Decalogue (“natural law” as Ambrosiaster sees it). These precepts are even inscribed in their most ancient legal institution, the Twelve Tables (Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 96).

There is a cross-over in Ambrosiaster’s thought, then, between natural law, the Mosaic law, and the law of the Romans, which itself owes much to the law of the Greeks. Ambrosiaster argues elsewhere that law did not originally need to be written down because it was ingrained in nature itself. Human beings ought naturally to know what is good, and to understand that what he or she would not want done to them they ought not to do to someone else (see also Paul’s remarks at the beginning of his letter to the Romans). This is of course the so-called “Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12 (see Ambrosiaster’s Questions 4.1; Commentary on Romans 5.13). However, as Lunn-Rockcliffe observes, Ambrosiaster’s concept of “instinctive justice” recognises that it was not solely powerful enough to keep human beings from sin, and this resulted in the breaking of natural law (see Lunn-Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 52; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans 1.20). The Mosaic law was God’s way of showing that he both cared and was prepared to judge human beings (Commentary on Romans 5.13). Ambrosiaster therefore presents the Ten Commandments as “natural law which – being partly reformed by Moses, partly confirmed by his authority – brought about the recognition of sin through its restriction of vices” (Commentary on Romans 3.30: translation by Lunn-Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 52). Still, the Mosaic law was insufficient, as it did not legislate for repentance; this is why Christ was necessary (Commentary on Romans 4.15; 5.20; the law of Christ is not our major concern in the discussion here, but for further discussion see Lunn-Rockcliffe, Political Theology, p. 52-53).

Ambrosiaster accepts the usefulness of the Mosaic law, then, in that it provided a more definite and organised structure of the moral precepts which God had already instilled within nature. However, this still proved insufficient for preventing human beings from doing wrong. Andrew Jacobs characterises Ambrosiaster as an author who attempts to simultaneously maintain distance from and appropriate Jewish law (“Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 95). Moreover, he argues that in Ambrosiaster’s conflation of “law” (Christian, Roman, and Jewish), we see a “triangulation of Christian identity actually comparable to that of the collatio.” The Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum is a fourth-century document which places Mosaic and Roman laws side by side, highlighting their similarity and compatibility, arguably in an apparent attempt to minimise any tension between Christianity and the Roman legal system (although there are some scholars who prefer to view the text’s compiler as Jewish, rather than Christian). Ambrosiaster is “pushing the boundaries of the ‘Christian’ decalogue, creating an ambivalent relationship between ‘divine Law’ and Roman law, and (perhaps) appropriating the Jewish valorization of the Law in its broadest sense” (“Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 95).

Ultimately, Ambrosiaster aligns divine law and Roman law (partly through aligning the two tablets of Moses and the Twelve Tables of the Romans), and in this sense seizes the Jews’ sole claim to the Mosaic law. In Jacobs’s words: “The result is a complex fashioning of the Christian self that can triumphantly speak with the Jewish Law adversus paganos, and yet claim solidarity with Rome in speaking adversus Iudaeos.” Through his overlapping “condemnation and reconciliation” between Mosaic law and Roman law, whereby the flaws in the Mosaic law are recognised, but it is still praised as a positive influence upon Roman legislation, we can perhaps understand Ambrosiaster’s context as one similar to that imagined by the author of the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum when he states in VI.7.1 that divine and human (Roman) judgement can “condemn (wrongdoing) with the same voice” (“Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 97). However, for Jacobs, this attitude does not amount to simple accommodation. Rather, by making clear that God’s law (i.e. the proper fulfilment of “natural law” that Christ brings) transcends both Jewish and Roman law (which are themselves in a hierarchy, as Roman law derives indirectly from Jewish law), Ambrosiaster carves out for himself a religious identity of superiority. In this sense he can be seen to be doing something slightly different from the author of the Collatio, whose purpose seems to be to minimise the perceived difference between the Mosaic and Roman law.

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Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans 7.1
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Wed, 05/30/2018 - 14:28
Visited: Sat, 04/13/2024 - 02:17

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