The lay community members at Thagaste in the years 389 to 391 were not slow in posing questions to Augustine on a great variety of topics. These questions showed the topics that interested members of this lay Christian community that was to give the early Church five bishops: Augustine of Hippo, Alypius of Thagaste, Severus of Milevis, Profuturus of Citra, and Possidius of Calama. Nor did questions to Augustine cease when he next lived in community at Hippo, first as a priest in the year 391 and soon afterwards as an assistant bishop to the aged Bishop Valerius of Hippo.
Augustine answered these questions from his vast store of knowledge. These questions together with the responses by Augustine were later collated by Augustine. This probably happened in 396, soon after he had become a bishop. He then published the result as his work entitled De diversis quaestionibus octaginta tribus, (in English: “On eighty-three various questions”.) Not that he held back from adding to his original answers any insights he had gained between the time that the questions began to be asked as early as 389 and his final answers that he published in 396.
While at Hippo, for example, preparing for priesthood and then as a priest for a few years, he had greatly deepened his understanding of the Scriptures not just for his own spiritual growth but also for his preparedness for ministry. Part of this was an in-depth study of the Epistle to the Romans, through which Augustine experienced what could be called a new conversion. Because completed at the end of this studious phase of ministerial inservice, De diversis quaestionibus ("Eighty-three Various Questions") is the first of Augustine’s writings to display what became the theological richness and depth that characterises Augustine's thought.
De diversis quaestionibus marks a beginning point for the maturity of Augustine’s theology. Upon completing this work, he then began a reassessment of the major events of his life, to look at them in the context of the providence of God having operated through them. The literary fruit of this God-focused self-assessment was his greatly significant and ground-breaking written work in about the year 400, his Confessiones ("Confessions”). The eighty-three answers in De diversis quaestionibus vary in length considerable. For example, the answer to Question 42 is only a few words, while that of Question 69 is a substantial essay.
In De diversis quaestionibus (“Eighty-three Questions”) the eighty-three questions may appear in approximately a chronological order. Even though Augustine seems to have imposed no specific sequence in this collection of eighty three questions, four broad categories in the question and answer literary form are discernible. The first category serves as Christian apologetic, e.g., against Arian and Manichaean errors. i.e., most of Questions 1 to 24, possibly questions from Thagaste. The second presents Augustine in the role of exegete of selected passages from many parts of the Bible, i.e., Questions 51 – 65, possibly just before and after he received priesthood in the year 391. The third category is seen in Questions 30 to 40. They deal with moral philosophy, and are difficult to date. The fourth category, containing the greater number of questions and answers, show Augustine the theologian. i.e., most of Questions 66 – 83, and were certainly answered after he had studied Saint Paul in detail.
One part of De diversis quaestionibus, however, that will puzzle contemporary minds is Augustine's certainty about the symbolism of numbers (e.g., in Questions 55-59, 61, 64 and 81). For example, in this work he offers an convoluted interpretation of the alleged significance that it was 153 fish that were caught by Simon Peter in one of their post-Resurrection encounters with Christ (John 21:11). In De diversis quaestionibus Augustine married his previous grasp of the philosophy of Neo-Platonism with new newer and developing insights. He took his understanding of happiness, goodness, beauty, change and evil and developed his theology on the role of Christ in human salvation, the image of God, human freedom and the need of individuals for the grace of God.
Augustine mentioned De diversis quaestionibus (“Eighty-three Questions”) in Retractiones 1, 10 (“Retractions”) late in his life. There he stated that he had great difficulty in De diversis quaestionibus with the literal interpretation and was forced to resort to allegory. In Retractiones 1, 26 he acknowledges that his answer to Question 31 is a quotation from his favourite Roman classical author, Cicero.
De diversis quaestionibus enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages, and a significant number of ninth-century manuscripts of it still exist. Unfortunately there does not appear to be any English translation of this work available on the Internet
For further reading
Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopaedia. ISBN: 0-8028-3843-X Published in 1999, by Erdmann, 880 pages. Edited by Allan Fitzgerald O.S.A. (This publication is now out of print, but second-hand copies of it may be available for purchase online from Amazon.com)
The encyclopaedia is the product of more than 140 leading scholars throughout the world. This comprehensive publication contains over 400 articles that cover every aspect of the life and writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). It traces his profound influence on the church and the development of Western thought through the past two millennia…." AN2120