In Book 8 of the Confessions, our patience in dealing with Augustine’s doubts, errors, and procrastination is finally rewarded, and we learn about his conversion to Christianity.

Augustine’s conversion—as Mark Scott’s earlier essay explains—is embedded within multiple stories of conversion. Earlier in Book 8, he learns of the conversion of Victorinus, a famous Roman orator turned baptized Christian from Simplicianus, and then from Ponticianus, he hears of the conversion of Antony and how his story inspired the conversion of two court officials. By the end of Book 8, both Augustine and his friend Alypius convert, and in book 9 we learn of more conversions, including Augustine’s son Adeodatus and his friend Nebridius.

In addition to these concentric circles of conversions, there are other aspects of Augustine’s conversion that underscore its literary artistry as a “full-circle” moment. The setting of Augustine’s conversion in a garden with a fig tree harkens back to Genesis, as well as to the pear tree episode of Book 2. It is Augustine’s opportunity to redeem himself by following the examples of those who have clung to God, rather than fallen away from him—to embrace the social nature of humanity without embracing sin. The fig tree also symbolizes faith and lessons learned from Christ’s wisdom (see Matt 24:32-36; Mk 13:28-32; Luke 21:29-33; John 1:47-51).

In this pregnant landscape, Augustine—who has struggled greatly with chastity—hears a child sing ‘Tolle lege.’ Following the child’s command, Augustine, like Antony, picks up the nearest text, a book of Paul’s letters, and reads silently—a practice he learned from watching Ambrose (see Conf. 6.3.3).

It seems fitting that Augustine’s conversion involves reading, as his first step toward love of wisdom came from reading Cicero (see Conf. 3.4.7). It also seems fitting that the text would be from Paul, given his role in leading Augustine to accept Christianity (see Conf. 7.21.27). Even the Pauline quotation itself is fitting, for it tells Augustine precisely what he thinks he needs to hear most: “Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (Romans 13:13-14).

“I had no wish to read further,” Augustine confesses, “nor was there need. No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away” (Conf. 8.12.29; tr. Boulding).

Augustine then immediately tells his story to Alypius, who like any good former pupil, then immediately imitates Augustine’s example by reading Rom 14:1 and converting on the spot. Both then immediately go indoors to tell Monica, who is, of course, overjoyed. After three decades, she is finally seeing her prodigal son come home to God. His delayed baptism (see Conf. 1.11.17-1.12.19) will at last take place.

The entire episode weaves everything together so well, that we might find ourselves wondering: Did Augustine’s conversion really happen this way? Doesn’t it seem just a bit too neat? The fig tree? Really?

Infamously, Augustine is very strict in his stance against lying (see De mendacio 16.17), so we may reasonably doubt that he would consider anything in his account of his conversion to be a lie. If he truly intended for this work to be a confession before God, then it would not have served his purpose to lie about his conversion. It also would have been a fool’s errand to try to hoodwink an omniscient God.

It would also seem to go against Augustine’s pastoral intentions in writing Conf. to lie to his human readers about his conversion. How would lies lead them toward the truth? How would lying to them promote caritas?

This is certainly not the first time the veracity of Augustine’s conversion story (let alone other narrative parts of Conf.) have been called into question (cf. Leo Ferrari’s scholarship and the debate it elicited from a generation ago). Rather than call Augustine a liar, it may be more helpful to say that he prioritized the spirit of what he was trying to convey over the historical accuracy of his account.

Augustine was no historian. It is unlikely that he took contemporaneous notes on the day of his conversion to ensure that he got every detail correct. Even methods-minded historians in antiquity like Thucydides admit that sometimes all they could convey was how they thought something might have happened or what speech they thought should have been made.

As a former rhetoric teacher, Augustine would have wanted to confess his conversion experience in the most compelling and instructive way. If he did stretch the truth—perhaps in changing the timeline of events or the setting he describes in Book 8—he likely did not view it as a lie but a stylistic choice to ensure his writing would both delight and instruct (see Doc. Chr. IV.1-8, 22-31, 55-58).

If this is the case, Augustine likely would not have viewed himself as a liar but a storyteller trying to imitate Christ. The parables that Christ tells are not necessarily factual, but there is truth in them that can be learned from. In describing his conversion the way he did, weaving together so many themes and images from earlier books of Conf., Augustine might have understood himself as trying to convey a greater truth about God’s providence and unfolding of history.

I think those of us who like time stamps and timelines will still take issue with Augustine’s account, but it can be instructive to push ourselves to think of the spirit of what Augustine was trying to convey rather than get bogged down by the specifics.