Wanted: an epigraphist. Or: Pancieri on “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso”

One of the most famous discoveries in Mithraic studies is the text painted on the wall of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome which reads “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso” – “and you have saved us through the shedding of the eternal blood.”  This has been widely compared to Christian ideas, and, outside the scholarly world, almost insanely so.

Yesterday a kind correspondent sent me portions of an article in Italian by Pancieri in which he queries whether the text actually says this.  The paintings are badly damaged, after all, and conjecture plays a part in the text above.

I thought that it would be useful to translate what he has to say into English, if only to make his cautious remarks rather better known.  I will give the Italian as well, in case I misunderstand it at any point: corrections are welcome!

With regard to the mysteries of Mithras, I note – as has been noted above concerning the nature of its creator, and his saving and merciful character – that, although it is considered reliable in most respects, whatever may be the interpretation to be given of his work of salvation [c.f., leaving aside the cult images, the verse from the Mithraeum of S. Prisca, "et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso", according to the reading of the first editor (A. Ferrua, in Bull.Com., LXVIII, 1940, p.85; in Ann.épìgr., 1946, 84), confirmed and corrected CIMRM, I, 485, and by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., pp.217-221)**], it is almost never reflected in the dedications [CIMRM, I, 213 (salutaris?), 691 cfr. 891 (propitius), 900b (deo bono, dubious), II, 2265 (epekoos), 2276 (deo bono invicto?)].[1]

One could wish Dr Pancieri had not compressed his thought quite so much!  The point being made is that we don’t know what “saving” means in the cult of Mithras, and it features hardly at all in the inscriptions.  The last point suggests that it is not exactly an important element in the cult.

The footnote, however, is the bit that interests us.  It is printed as one paragraph, but I will split it, for ease of reading:

** The exceptional importance of this verse, for the issue addressed in this seminar, led me to thoroughly review it, after the recent cleaning of the frescoes in the mithraeum of S. Prisca, carried out ​​by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (restorer Sig.Elio Paparatti). During the restoration, the  Soprintendenza has taken some excellent new photographs, from which I took the detail which I have reproduced (fig. 10).

Fig. 10.  1978 photo

Fig. 10. 1978 photo

Judging from a comparison of these with the photos published by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., plate LXVIII, 1-3), and comparing those with even earlier ones, dating from the time of the original discovery and publication (fig. 11), we find that, at this point, against the inevitable damage of time may be contrasted some gains due to the  major cleaning of the wall.

Fig.11 How the wall appeared in the 1930's.

Fig.11 How the wall appeared in the 1930’s.

This does not mean that our verse makes easy reading even now, and so, for this reason, the first publishers are to be commended for their ability, starting from quite miserable fragments, to make available to scholars a text of the utmost importance.

The main danger that we now need to avoid (which, it seems to me, that many have been led into, because of the current habit of transcribing the text without any critical marks) is of believing that the reconstruction of this verse is certain at every point; or, at least, is of the same degree of reliability for each part (see, for example, more specifically among those who have dealt with this text: H.D. Betz, in Nov. Test., X, 1968, p. 77 ff.; I.M. Hackethal, in Zeitschr. Papyr. Epigr., III ,1968, pp. 233-238; M.J. Vermaseren, in Meded. Nederl. Inst. Rome, XXXVII, 1975, p. 92 ff.; M. Simon, in Rev. d’hist. et de philos. relig., LVI, 1976, pp. 277-288).

In reality, as may be seen from all the photographs (not only the most recent), and also from the facsimile published by Vermaseren (fig. 12), the painted text from the start was in a gravely fragmentary state.  In a new facsimile (fig. 13), I have tried to reproduce as closely as possible what I think can be seen today.

Fig.12 Vermaseren's facsimile (1965)

Fig.12 Vermaseren’s facsimile (1965)

Fig.13 - fascimile, 1978

Fig.13 – fascimile, 1978

Without pretending to give a new reconstruction of the text, I will limit myself to indicating which elements are confirmed, and which are doubtful, as the new evidence seems to require.  Proceeding backwards:

1) Absolutely certain is the word FUSO, which is found in perfect form also in the short text painted on a jar in the same mithraeum (Excavations, l.c., p. 409 fig. 204, plate. XCIX, 1-3).

2) Almost certain, although not readable in full, is the word SANGUINE which precedes it, both because it fits very well both the spaces and the fragments of letters remaining, and because sanguine fuso, as previous editors have noted, is an expression used elsewhere and perfectly in place in this context.

3) Doubtful (and Ferrua also had some doubts) is the word ETERNALI.  After carefully analysing the perfectly straight line, slanting from left to right and top to bottom, before the N (which is clearly recognisable), it seems very difficult to recognise this as an R, even if connected to the following letter.  In every R present in the inscriptions of this layer (of paintings) it is possible to find a common feature, rising above the top edge of the writing.  So this line could belong rather to an A or an M or to two letters joined.  There are doubts also because the word is unique, and because the supposed L shows the remains of an upper crossing stroke, which seems a little too strong on the left side to be a mere flourish.  I see no sign of the I.  What in the photo looks like the remains of an S, near the head of the Leo which interrupts the writing, in fact does not exist on the plaster, which is damaged at this point.

4) Likewise the reading SERVASTI, with the RVA linked together, does not appear convincing when compared with what remains today (but see also Vermaseren’s facsimile).  And the E is not certain; it may be an F.  The following letter, which has been interpreted as an R, looks like an O in the photos; nothing can be seen on the wall now, where the plaster is missing (and, it would seem, was missing in the past).  Apart from this, I am unclear as to whether the signs that follow (which may well be part of a group VA) can be made to follow an S, since they seem to be the remains of a letter joined to an N.

5) Everything before that is no longer verifiable today, in the present state of conservation.  The miserable scraps of letters are not definitely identifiable, and do not clearly result in the text above, nor in the old photos.

It seems obvious, after what has been said, that this famous verse should be studied again by epigraphists, as well as by Mithraic specialists.  In the meantime, it would seem to be important that this reading of the text is not taken as secure, both to avoid building on shaky foundations, and because the text deserves to return to the centre of scholarly critical attention.[2]

I should add that I have Vermaseren’s description, and further photographs of the wall and inscription – some in colour! – here.

Pancieri’s points are interesting, but clearly there is more to be done.  One avenue of exploration would be to see whether the other texts at Santa Prisca would be amendable to similar criticism.  Do they actually appear on the wall now?  Did they once, but now only exist in the photos?  What is the rate of decay of the paintings at Santa Prisca?  Or is it the case that decay is not a  factor, and that Ferrua and Vermaseren were over-imaginative?  What could the text read?

As far as I know, nobody accepted Pancieri’s challenge.  Which is now itself, some forty years ago.

Is there an epigraphist in the house?

  1. [1] h) Altre caratteristiche del dio sono la misericordia e la pietà [per misericordiam tuam, quomodo... misertus es, miserearis, per tuam pietatem] per il cui tramite pare manifestarsi una sua benevola disposizione nei confronti del mondo. Meritevole di discussione mi sembra se la frase introdotta da quomodo (che dovrebbe avere valore causale piuttosto che correlativo [Thes. l. L., Vili, col. 1293 rr. 58 sgg.]) debba essere intesa come riferimento a uno specifico intervento misericordioso del dio, o serva soltanto a sostenere la richiesta individuale con l’argomentazione che della benevolenza che si chiede per sè il mondo intero beneficia. Per quanto concerne Mitra dei misteri, osservo che, così come si è notato per la sua qualità di creatore, anche il suo carattere salvifico e misericordioso, quantunque sia ritenuto certo per più riguardi, quale che sia l’interpretazione da dare alla sua opera di salvazione [cfr., senza tener conto delle immagini di culto, il versetto del mitreo di S. Prisca et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso nella lettura del primo editore (A. Ferrua, in Bull. Com., LXVIII, 1940, p. 85, inde Ann. épìgr., 1946, 84) confermata, rettificando CIMRM, I, 485, dal Vermaseren (Excavations, cit., pp. 217-221)**] quasi mai appare riflesso nelle dediche [CIMRM, I, 213 (salutaris?), 691 cfr. 891 (propitius), 900b (deo bono, dubbia), II, 2265 (epekoos), 2276 (deo bono invicto?)].
  2. [2] ** L’importanza eccezionale di questo versetto per il tema affrontato in questo Seminario mi ha indotto ad un suo accurato riesame dopo la recente ripulitura degli affreschi operata dalla Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma nel mitreo di S. Prisca (restauratore Sig. Elio Paparatti). In occasione del restauro, la Soprintendenza ha assunto anche nuove ottime fotografie, dalle quali ho tratto il particolare che riproduco (fig. 10). A giudicare dal confronto tra questo particolare e le foto pubblicate dal Vermaseren (Excavations, cit., tav, LXVIII, 1-3) e tra queste ed altra, ancora anteriore, risalente all’epoca della prima scoperta e pubblicazione (fig. 11), si riscontra che, in questo punto, ai danni inevitabili del tempo si contrappongono alcuni guadagni dovuti all’attuale maggior pulizia della parete. Ciò non significa che il nostro versetto presenti neanche adesso una lettura agevole e, per questo, i primi editori sono senz’altro da lodare per la capacità che hanno avuto, partendo da lacerti abbastanza miseri, di mettere a disposizione degli studiosi un testo di estrema importanza. Il pericolo principale che credo si deve evitare ora (mentre in esso mi pare siano stati indotti in molti dall’uso corrente di trascrivere il testo senza alcun segno diacritico) è quello di credere che la ricostruzione di questo versetto sia certa in ogni suo punto o, per lo meno, attinga allo stesso grado di attendibilità in ogni sua componente (si vedano, ad esempio, tra coloro che più specificamente si sono occupati di questo testo: H.D. Betz, in Nov. Test., X, 1968, p. 77 sg.; I.M. Hackethal, in Zeitschr. Papyr. Epigr., III ,1968, pp. 233-238; M.J. Vermaseren, in Meded. Nederl. Inst. Rome, XXXVII, 1975, p. 92 sg.; M. Simon, in Rev. d’hist. et de philos. relig., LVI, 1976, pp. 277-288). In realtà, come si vede bene da tutte le foto (non solo dalla più recente) ed anche dal facsimile pubblicato dal Vermaseren (fig. 12), il testo dipinto si è presentato fin dall’inizio in condizioni di grave frammentarietà. In un nuovo facsimile (fig. 13) ho cercato di riprodurre il più fedelmente possibile quello che mi sembra di vedere oggi. Senza pretendere di dare una nuova ricostruzione del testo, mi limito a mettere in evidenza in questa sede qualche conferma e qualche dubbio che il nuovo controllo sembra imporre. Procedendo a ritroso, risulta: 1) assolutamente certa la parola FUSO che trova del resto perfetto riscontro nel breve testo dipinto su un vasetto proveniente dallo stesso mitreo (Excavations, cit., p. 409 fig. 204, tav. XCIX, 1-3); 2) pressoché certa, anche se non leggibile per intero, la parola SANGUINE che precede, sia perché ad essa si adattano assai bene gli spazi ed i frammenti di lettera superstiti, sia perché sanguine fuso, come hanno ben visto i precedenti editori è espressione ricca di confronti e perfettamente a posto in un contesto come questo; 3) dubbia (e qualche dubbio lo ebbe anche il Ferrua) la parola ETERNALI. Dopo aver attentamente analizzato il tratto perfettamente rettilineo ed obliquo da sinistra a destra e dall’alto in basso che precede la N (ben riconoscibile), sembra infatti assai difficile riconoscervi parte di una R, sia pure in legatura con la lettera seguente; in nessuna R presente nelle iscrizioni di questo strato è possibile rintracciare un tratto analogo, per di più nascente dal margine superiore della scrittura; tale segno potrebbe appartenere piuttosto ad una A o ad una M o alle due lettere in nesso. Dubbi si potrebbero avere anche sull’unicità della parola e su altre lettere, come la presunta L i resti della cui traversa superiore potrebbero apparire un po’ troppo estesi a sinistra per un semplice segno di rifinitura; della I non si vede più nulla; quello che nella foto sembra un resto di S, vicino alla testa del Leo che interrompe la scritta, non esiste affatto sull’intonaco, che in questo punto è danneggiato; 4) similmente non appare convincente, se confrontato con quanto oggi rimane (ma si veda anche il facsimile del Vermaseren) la lettura SERVASTI con RVA in nesso; già la E non è del tutto sicura, potendosi trattare anche di una F; della lettera seguente, che è stata interpretata come R e nelle foto sembrerebbe una O, nulla si vede sulla parete che in questo punto manca (e sembrerebbe mancasse anche in passato) dell’intonaco; a parte ciò non mi è chiaro come ai segni che seguono (che potrebbero ben far parte di un gruppo VA) si possa far seguire una S, sembrando piuttosto i resti della lettera appartenere ad una N, anch’essa in nesso; 5) tutto quello che precedeva è oggi inverificabile non vedendosi più, nell’attuale stato di conservazione, che miseri brandelli di lettere non sicuramente identificabili e non risultando chiaramente il testo neppure nelle vecchie foto. Sembra evidente, dopo quanto si è detto, che questo famoso versetto dovrà essere nuovamente studiato tanto dagli epigrafisti, quanto dagli specialisti di cose mitriache. Per intanto, importantissimo sembrerebbe che la sua lettura non fosse data per scontata, sia per non fondare costruzioni su basi malsicure, sia perché questo testo merita di tornare al centro dell’attenzione critica degli studiosi.

Proof that Roman gladiators hated astronauts

Seen on Twitter this morning:

Hmm.  Maybe not.

We’re often told that “archaeology is science so only archaeology is reliable.”

So this is a fun illustration of the perils of that; of what can happen when you have no literary sources, and construct a narrative solely from archaeology or monuments.

Acts of Andrew and Paul: Does anyone have access to “Orientalia”?

I need an article: can someone help me?  We may get a translation out of it, if we can get hold of the text.

The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation by J. K. Elliott makes mention of some 9th century Coptic Acts of Andrew and Paul, on p.243. The text has been published, with French translation.  Unfortunately the journal is not one I have access to:

X. Jacques, “Les deux fragments conservés des ‘Actes d’André et de Paul'”, in: Orientalia, New Series, volume 38 (1969), pages 187-213.

The Orientalia journal seems to be issued by the Pontifical Bible Institute in Rome: info here.  The 2008 volume seems to be open-access, here and here.  The article is also referenced in Schneemelcher, p.450.

Does anyone have access to this article? If so, can you let me have a copy?  A kind gentleman is willing to translate the Coptic into English, if I can supply him with the text.

UPDATE: The series is ISSN 0030-5367. Apparently the journal exists in the “ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials” product (not the same as the more common “ATLA Religion Database”) – does anyone have access to this?

46 more Greek manuscripts online at the British Library – mostly classical or patristic!

The British Library manuscripts blog has announced here (and in PDF form here[1]) that another 46 manuscripts have gone online. Which is always good news!

This particular group is rather special. For the first time it isn’t dominated by biblical texts. Instead we have mainly classical or patristic manuscripts. Of course a lot of these are late, humanist copies, often from the book-copying industry in Venice in the 16th century – for creating printed Greek was never an easy enterprise – but sometimes still the earliest witness to a text.

Accessing the blog was difficult, so I’m guessing that this post is attracting plenty of attention!

Here are some highlights.

  • Add MS 24371, John Chrysostom, Fragments of Homiliae in Matthaeum (58, 70-75, 78-79, 81-83) (TLG 2062.152). 11th century.
  • Add MS 28824, John Chrysostom, In Genesim homiliae 11-31 (TLG 2062.112), imperfect and mutilated at beginning and end. 12th century.

  • Add MS 28826, John Climacus, The Ladder (TLG 2907.001), imperfect, and Liber ad Pastorem, imperfect. 12th century.

  • Add MS 30518, John Chrysostom, In Genesim homiliae 1-11, 21-33 (TLG 2062.112), imperfect. Written about the year 1121.

  • Add MS 32643, Patristic miscellany, partly palimpsest, with occasional marginal scholia. Includes works by Anastasius of Sinai, Epiphanius of Salamis, Gregory of Nazianzus, Anastasius I of Antioch, John Chrysostom, Hesychius of Jerusalem, and Christopher of Alexandria, as well as Gospel lections (Gregory-Aland l 1234). 12th-14th century.

  • Add MS 34654, Gregory of Nazianzus, Orationes. 11th century.

  • Add MS 36750, John Chrysostom, Ad populum Antiochenum homiliae (TLG 2062.024), imperfect, and Ad illuminandos catecheses 2 (TLG 2062.025), imperfect. 11th century.

  • Add MS 36753, Maximus Confessor, Loci Communes (CPG 7718), which is a florilegium of classical and patristic authors.  A few pages of bits at the end. Written in 1198.

  • Burney MS 62, Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, with scholia, vitae, and epigrams. Italy, end of the 15th century, written by the scribe known as the Anonymus Harvardianus.

  • Burney MS 66, Commentaries on Aristotle by John Philoponus and others. 1st half of the 16th century.

  • Burney MS 82, Hesiod, Works and Days (TLG 0020.002). Italy, end of the 15th century.

  • Burney MS 85, Speeches by Isocrates and Lysias, and gnomological literature. Italy, c 1500.  I don’t have the expertise to say which gnomological texts these are.

  • Burney MS 95, Codex Crippsianus, containing speeches by the minor Attic Orators. Constantinople, 1st half of the 14th century.

  • Burney MS 276, Fragments of Greek and Latin manuscripts, mostly of classical and patristic authors. 11th-17th century: Lucian, Gregory Nazianzen; Theodoret on the psalms; The Batrachomyomachia attributed to Homer; lists of homilies attributed to Chrysostom; Plutarch; Libanius, oratio to Theodosius; fragments of grammatical texts, such as Herodian;  and two leaves from a Latin commentary on Persius.

  • Egerton MS 942, Demosthenes, Orationes, preceded by Argumenta of Libanius. Florence, made for Alexander Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after 1490. This is a decorated manuscript, apparently. I wonder what the Argumenta are?

  • Egerton MS 2624, Thucydides, Historiae (TLG 0003.001) with numerous scholia and a few glosses added later. Florence, 1st half of the 14th century.

  • Egerton MS 3154, Geoponica (TLG 4080.001) attributed to Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus, imperfect. 16th century. This chap lived at the end of the 6th century and wrote on agricultural subjects. Which sounds dull, but since that was the foundation of ancient economies, it sometimes contains gems.

  • Royal MS 16 C III, Dionysius Periegetes, Orbis descriptio (TLG 0084.001), imperfect. Italy, N., end of the 15th century.

  • Royal MS 16 C XVII, Harpocration, Lexicon in decem oratores Atticos (TLG 1389.001), and Heraclitus, Allegoriae (=Quaestiones Homericae) (TLG 1414.001), imperfect. Possibly written in Italy, end of the 15th century.  The lexicon of Harpocration is probably more accessible here than anywhere else!

  • Royal MS 16 C XVIII, Scholia on the Greek Anthology of Planudes and Paraphrase of Aristotle’s Sophistici Elenchi. In two parts, bound together. Italy, N., end of the 16th century (part 1 contains a colophon dated 1580 in Venice).

  • Royal MS 16 C XXI, Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea (TLG 0086.010), with copious Latin marginal notes, ff 3r-130v. Preceded by Latin and Greek notes, with some quotations from Greek authors, ff 1r-2v, and followed by Greek notes on f 131v. Possibly France, S?, 1st half of the 16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 C XXII, Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea (TLG 0086.010), Books VIII-IX. Italy, Central, end of the 16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 C XXIV, Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae (TLG 0008.001), with glosses. Possibly written at Venice, 1st half of the16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 C XXV, Aristotle, De Anima (TLG 0086.002); Plato, extracts; [Plato], Definitiones (TLG 0059.037); Diogenes Laertius, Vitae Philosophorum (TLG 0004.001), Life of Epimenides. Possibly written in Messina, in the south of Italy, c 1500.

  • Royal MS 16 D X, Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae (epitome) (TLG 0008.003), with glosses, imperfect. Italy, Central, 1st half of the16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 D XII, John Tzetzes Homerica (&c), Eusebius Onomasticon, followed by bits connected with Oppian’s Halieutica, part of Philostratus’ Imagines, and a commentary on Hermogenes. Formerly three separate volumes, now bound together. 2nd half of the 16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 D XIII, Sextus Empiricus, with marginal notes by Isaac Casaubon. Italy, N. (Venice?), 2nd half of the 16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 D XIV, Works on grammar and prosody by Dionysius Thrax, George Choeroboscus, Heliodorus, Ammonius, Aelius Herodianus, Porphyry, etc. Italy, 2nd quarter of the 16th century.

  • Royal MS 16 D XVI, Polyaenus, Strategemata (TLG 0616.001), with marginal notes. Venice, mid-16th century.

  • Sloane MS 1774, Euripides, Hippolytus (TLG 0006.038) with marginal scholia in Greek and Latin. Italy, 16th century.

  • Yates Thompson MS 50, Aristophanes, with hypotheses, marginal scholia and interlinear glosses. End of the 15th century, possibly Venice.

There are quite a lot of interesting items in there (and more details and in some cases pictures in the BL blog post, although I have augmented one or two items above by looking at the full page).

  1. [1] With thanks to Cillian O’Hogan.  Sadly the manuscript links in this do not work.

Part 3 of the Chronicle of Seert translated by Anthony Alcock – now online

Anthony Alcock has continued translating the Chronicle of Seert.  Part 3 arrived last night.  I have added it to the post with his other translations, here.

This is excellent news.  The more translations that appear on the web, the more people will see them.  In particular this promotes interest among the educated general public; educated, but not specialists in this area.  And this in turn can only do good when funding decisions have to be made.

Choosing what we read: a spiritual warfare?

It’s a dark, dull, rainy day today; and I am steadfastly refusing to notice.  Because I don’t want to let the rain influence my mood.  So far, it’s working!

We all do the same, I know.  But why limit it to the weather?

Yesterday I saw, on an American Christian site, Reviewing School Book Lists, Part Four: Reading is Spiritual Warfare, which begins with the following words:

A child. Curled up in a couch. Nestled in an old oak tree with a book. What could be more bucolic? In a church I visit frequently (which doubles during the week as a school), a picture on the wall shows a prepubescent boy—no more than 6th grade, if that—holding The Hunger Games.  He grips the book, looks up into our eyes, and smiles as if he is eating a strawberry sundae.  Would you like to hear what he might have just read?  Here’s one sentence from the first few chapters: “He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.” (p.33) Not too bucolic, is it?

Every time I see that picture, I have to fight feelings of anger. And NOT because the kid is reading a possibly age-inappropriate story.  No, what makes me frustrated is that the picture illustrates a gaping disconnect between our perception of reading and its reality.

This young man is not merely having a fantastic, mind-expanding adventure as the brochure-like picture implies. With a book like The Hunger Games, he is involved in grave spiritual warfare.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t read the book. It certainly doesn’t mean the book should be banned by the government. But if reading generally is spiritual warfare, it changes everything. What we allow our kids to read and when. How they read, and the kinds of support they should receive. In short, it changes the most fundamental ways Christians ought to relate to books.

Nor is this limited to Christians, nor is it really about children, vulnerable as the latter may indeed be.  The article goes on to discuss various issues, probably of limited relevance here; but it caused me to think about the question: what do I want to read?

That I have just ordered the Loeb Petronius is relevant here.  I want no porn in my head.  Indeed I have taken pains to purchase the original 1913 edition, in the belief that the nastier elements should be bowdlerised in it.  What I want is the portrait of ancient life.

We all know that what people read influences their outlook, and the sort of people they become.  Of course this was widely denied in the 60’s and 70’s, as a pretext for removing the censorship of obscene books; but those who led those campaigns are now quite happily erecting a censorship of political opinions far more intrusive than anything the old Lord Chamberlain’s office used to do.  I think we can believe their actions, rather than their words.   Everyone knows that books and reading change minds.

What do we allow inside our heads?  What effect does it have?  Does it make us happier?  Healthier?  And, if not, can we get it out again, or will the images be seared into memories for life?

The answers to this will vary for each of us, Christian or not.  All of us remember the books of our childhood, even if we didn’t know what they were at the time.  Many in later life try to track down those books which left images in their minds, and I confess that I have done the same.  We know, even if we don’t acknowledge it, that what we read affects us greatly.

So what should we read?  Reading anything and everything that interests us is perhaps something that most people reading this site do.  But should we limit it in certain directions?

At the moment at bedtime I am reading Paupers and Pig Killers: the diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1799-1818.[1]  This I read because it consists of short entries, and is rather soothing really.  That isn’t likely to affect my mood or outlook greatly in any direction; although his consistent hostility to “Methodists” does highlight the poor reputation that the “Ranters” or Primitive Methodists had in the period, which is something that I had not known.

No book will leave us unmoved, you see, if we love it and read it repeatedly.

I shall leave out of my life books dedicated to cruelty and obscenity.  Indeed I have become stricter on this, in the last couple of years.  I do not wish to experience either, nor to enjoy the depiction of it as entertainment, nor to become dead to it if I happen to witness such evils.  I prefer my faculties to remain acute and unmarred.  I wish to remain capable of appreciating ordinary things, and milder sensations.  So do we all, in our saner moments.

But it’s not just what we avoid.  What do we choose?

The proponents of the English classics would step forward at this moment and recommend a course of reading.  (I do not, of course, refer to whatever rubbish has been advanced since 1970, but to the real classics).

There is merit in this.  To learn how the best writers expressed things, to learn to enjoy what the best of men enjoyed… these are good things.

Yet even here we may divide.  Dickens may be a classic, but the portraits of Victorian misery do nothing to cheer my heart.  I avoid them for that reason.  Jane Austen is more to my liking.  Walter Scott is something I can handle in small doses.

What should we read?  With that, I am reminded of Philippians 4:8 (ESV):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.[2]

I’m not sure whether that takes us to anything specific; but it’s a great starting rule.

  1. [1] Ed. Jack Ayres, Alan Sutton publishing, 1995.
  2. [2] I was rather cross to discover, when I looked up the exact text, several “translations” of the bible which rendered this “brothers and sisters”.  Shame on those who can’t tell the difference between translation and interpretation!

How the church changed after Constantine

Seen on Twitter this week, via David Walsh:

Jesus: ‘If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek’.
Chrysostom in 387AD: ‘Slap them in the face!’
– something lost in translation there.

It is always good practice to verify your quotations, but this is entirely genuine.  The reference is to the Homilies on the Statues, 1, 32.  In the NPNF version this reads:

32. But since our discourse has now turned to the subject of blasphemy, I desire to ask one favor of you all, in return for this my address, and speaking with you; which is, that you will correct on my behalf the blasphemers of this city.

And should you hear any one in the public thoroughfare, or in the midst of the forum, blaspheming God; go up to him and rebuke him; and should it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so.

Smite him on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify thy hand with the blow, and if any should accuse thee, and drag thee to the place of justice, follow them thither; and when the judge on the bench calls thee to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels!

For if it be necessary to punish those who blaspheme an earthly king, much more so those who insult God. It is a common crime, a public injury; and it is lawful for every one who is willing, to bring forward an accusation.

Let the Jews and Greeks learn, that the Christians are the saviours of the city; that they are its guardians, its patrons, and its teachers.

Let the dissolute and the perverse also learn this; that they must fear the servants of God too; that if at any time they are inclined to utter such a thing, they may look round every way at each other, and tremble even at their own shadows, anxious lest perchance a Christian, having heard what they said, should spring upon them and sharply chastise them.

When I first read this, without considering the context, it looked like the utmost expression of arrogance, of the attitude of those in power.  But this is to ignore the circumstances.

In 387 the emperor Theodosius imposed an extraordinary tax on the city of Antioch, and the enraged citizens rioted and threw down the statues of the emperor.  The emperor then threatened to destroy the city, and negotiations took place between the emperors representatives and the townsfolk.

Paganism was still the official religion of the empire.  But it seems that pagans and Jews were taking advantage of the crisis to jeer at the Christians of the city, and perhaps even at the religion of the emperor.  This in turn couldn’t help the negotiations, when the survival of the city is at stake.   This is a reaction to a threat to everyone, not a gratuitous attack on unbelievers.  The citizens are appealing to the feelings of a Christian emperor – and, he reflects, these people are screwing it up!  Slap them in the face if they won’t pipe down.  It’s politics, in other words, and John Chrysostom speaks as the bishop of the city, almost in Byzantine terms as the ethnarch, rather than personally.

But Christ did not give his teaching conditionally.  Christians often feel a great deal of reluctance to endorse the actions of the church, post-Nicaea.  This is one reason why.  Here we have a popular preacher, and a gifted expositor of the bible, who, faced with a pagan reaction, incites his congregation not to turn the other cheek but instead to go out and do battle in the streets, for the benefit of the community as a whole.  It’s understandable; but somehow we are not in the same world any more.

Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]
.

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.

A previously unpublished ancient Greek lexicon

A few months ago I wrote a post summarising the lexica that have reached us from antiquity.  Often ancient material is embedded in the Byzantine lexica, which were also included.

Via Peter Head at ETC I learn today that a previously unpublished Byzantine lexicon has made it into print, in an inexpensive edition: Eva Villani, Il lessico Ambrosiano inedito ΑΝΤΙΧΕΙΡ (C 222 inf., ff. 207r-208v).   Milano:  EDUCatt, 2014.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 9788867800865.  €15.00 (pb).

The work is reviewed by Eleanor Dickey – the go-to scholar on lexica – at BMCR, in a review which is itself incredibly useful.

This critical edition of a hitherto unpublished Byzantine (Greek-Greek) lexicon, originally the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Messina, consists of a brief introduction (pp. 7-50, of which nearly half is occupied by a list of abbreviations), the edition proper (pp. 51-210), and extensive indices (pp. 211-48). The edition is presented with a brief critical apparatus and a detailed apparatus of parallel passages….

No translation is provided; a reviewer can hardly complain about this, since editions of ancient scholarly lexica never do include translations, but I wonder if that custom is sensible in today’s world. Would the interesting information these lexica contain be more widely appreciated if editors provided translations?

Villani provides no commentary, so all the discoveries that could be made about these new entries are open to everyone to make. In order to illustrate the possibilities available and the type of new material found in this lexicon, I reproduce below a few of the new entries from this lexicon, using Villani’s text and my own translations and comments:

Κ 75: κρύφαλα αἱ πέτραι αἱ κεκρυμμέναι παρὰ τῆς ἁλός·
Κρύφαλα (are) rocks hidden by the sea.’ [As far as I can tell, this information is new to modern as well as ancient and Byzantine scholarship. LSJ’s entry on κρύφαλον reads only ‘κρύφαλον· σαβάκανον, Hsch.’, a definition that does not get us much further since σαβάκανον is unattested elsewhere; the entry is bracketed as corrupt in Latte’s edition of Hesychius (where it is entry κ 4259). The other dictionaries I consulted have no entry for κρύφαλον at all.]  …

In short, this work is good and useful and provides scholars with the rare opportunity to explore a previously unknown text containing a significant amount of ancient material; it would be lovely if there were more dissertations of this type.

Emphasis mine.

These items would indeed be infinitely better known to scholarship if translations were provided.  Full marks for raising the question!

It increasingly seems that Eleanor Dickey combines a rare knowledge of ancient scholarship with the ability to see what the world needs in this area, and the gumption to do something about it.  We need someone like her, working with these awful technical texts.  Everything she does makes the path far, far easier for everyone else.  An example is that she published this review in BMCR.  Because that is well-known and online, her notice has been read and noted in scholarly blogs; because she provided some sample translations, she has aroused interest in the world in general, such as myself.  This in turn builds support for scholarship, and the need to fund it.

I rarely take an interest in academic careers but … gentlemen of Oxford and Cambridge, you need to find this lady a chair.  She will do you a power of good in the fight for funding and notice in the next twenty years.

Primary sources for the Eleusinian mysteries

At Eleusis stood the most important temple of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the crops and fertility.  The mysteries there were famous.  But what happened there?

Needless to say there is a load of hogwash available in printed and web form averring that it was all exactly like a Christian ceremony, or maybe slightly like, or some other form of anachronistic drivel.  It would seem that some US scholars even encourage this kind of mental confusion, which tells us something about the state of US universities.  So where do we start, to get hold of reliable information?

As ever, the first thing to do, if we want to examine the question, is to look at the primary sources.

It seems that a website has collected all the primary sources, mingled with ancient testimonia about the myth of Demeter (which bulks them out a bit).  They are here:

The site is not a scholarly one, but the author has gone to some trouble to collect these materials, and deserves our gratitude.  The labour must have been considerable!

UPDATE: It looks as if the sources have been copied from elsewhere, and perhaps derive from George Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, 1961.  Apparently this is a compilation of data, and was the life’s work of the author.  I couldn’t find a PDF, tho – anyone got one?



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