From one passage in his work (II, 806, sq.) and from St. Jerome's Chronicle it must be inferred that he wrote about the year 330. His poem, in dactylic hexameters, is entitled Evangeliorum libri (The Gospels). It is a history of Christ according to the Gospels, particularly that of St. Matthew. He goes to the other Evangelists for what he does not find in St. Matthew — as the story of the Infancy, which he takes from St. Luke. He follows his model very closely, "almost literally", as St. Jerome says.
The whole problem for him is to render the Gospel text into easy language conformable to the tradition of the Latin poets, and borrowed especially from Virgil. His task permits of little originality beyond that exhibited in new words composed, or derived, according to familiar types (auricolor, flammiuomus, flammicomans, sinuamen), elegant synonyms to express the Christian realities (tonans for "God", genitor for the Father, spiramen for the Holy Ghost, uersutia for the Devil), or, lastly, archaic expressions. The language is correct and the verses well constructed, but there is little colour or movement. A few obscurities of prosody betray the period in which the work was written. The whole effect is carefully wrought out.
In the prologue, Juvencus announces that he wishes to meet the lying tales of the pagan poets, Homer and Virgil, with the glories of the true Faith. He hopes that his poem will survive the destruction of the world by fire, and will deliver him, the poet, from hell. He invokes the Holy Spirit as the pagans invoked the Muses or Apollo.
The work is divided into four books, which make arbitrary divisions of the life of Christ. The number four seems to be symbolical, corresponding to the number of the Evangelists. Other traces of symbolism have been found in Juvencus, the most notable being the significance attached to the gifts of the Magi — the incense offered to the God, the gold to the King, the myrrh to the Man. This interpretation, of which he, certainly, was not the inventor, was to have the greatest success, as we know.
The Bible text which Juvencus paraphrased was of course an ancient one. He appears, too, to have had recourse at times to the Greek text. The source of his poetical phraseology and his technic is, first, Virgil, then Lucretius, Propertius, Horace, Ovid, Silius Italicus, and Statius. The cold correctness of the work recommended it to the taste of the Middle Ages, when it was frequently quoted, imitated, and copied.
St. Jerome tells us that Juvencus composed another, shorter, Christian poem on "the order of the mysteries" (Sacramentorum ordinem). This work is lost.
Modern writers have incorrectly attributed to him the Heptateuchus, a work of Cyprianus Gallus, and the De Laudibus Domini, a work of Juvencus's time, but to be credited to some pupil of the rhetoricians of Augustodunum (Autun).
Editions and translations
- C. Marold (Leipzig, 1886) in the "Bibliotheca Teubneriana"
- J. Hümer (Vienna, 1891) in the "Corpus script. ecclesiast. latinorum"
- McGill, Scott (2016). Juvencus' Four books of the Gospels: Evangeliorum libri quattuor. Routledge later Latin poetry. London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315646978. ISBN 978-0-415-63583-7.
- De viris, chapter 84; Chron., ad an. 2345; Epist. lxx, 5; In Matt., I, ii, 11.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Paul Lejay (1913). . In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. This work in turn cites:
- Cornel Heinsdorff, Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 67 (Berlin/New York 2003) ISBN 3-11-017851-6.
- Cornel Heinsdorff, Der interpolierte Juvencus des Codex Augiensis 112 und Severus von Malaga, Vigiliae Christianae 60 (2006), 148-170.
- R. P.H. Green, "The Evangeliorum Libri of Juvencus: Exegesis by Stealth," in Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity: The Encounter between Classical and Christian Strategies of Interpretation. Eds. Willemien Otten and Karla Pollmann (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007) (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 87),
- Roger P H Green, Latin Epics of the New Testament: Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator, Oxford UP 2008 ISBN 978-0199284573 (reviewed by Teresa Morgan in the article "Poets for Jesus", Times Literary Supplement, 4 April 2008, p 31).