Archive for November, 2006

Useful books or peddling hate?

I learned from the bar of advertisements at the top of this page that a certain R.J.Hoffmann has published a translation of the fragments of Julian the Apostate Against the Galileans (i.e. Christians), through Prometheus Press.

Hoffmann published first a translation of Celsus’ work against the Christians, as reconstructed from the quotations in Origen’s Contra Celsum, which has often been translated in full. This was published by Oxford University Press, but received only two scholarly reviews, one nominal and the other which accused him of rewriting the text to ‘improve’ it and make Celsus Philosophus sound like a modern atheist. The translation is very punchy. But I had occasion to examine a couple of passages, and found that Hoffmann’s version did not represent the text in Origen at all accurately. On the other hand these passages were extremely acceptable to the lower forms of online atheist.

Next up was a translation of Porphyry’s lost work against the Christians. This in fact consisted not of a translation of all those fragments but only of those which came from the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes. In other words, he was translating only what already existed in an English version. The general accuracy of translation is better, and the book only let down by poor editing and the omission of all the material for which at that time no English translation existed. It seems to have attracted less scurrilous use than the first.

In 2004 the new book appeared. The fragments originally come from Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum, which unfortunately does not exist in English; but Dr. H. has only translated those portions which have already been translated. Again he has used Prometheus Press. It will be interesting to see if the book is listed in l’Annee Philologique, since the Porphyry was not.

A good translator is a benefit to us all. A translator who shares the religious sympathies of his subject can be a great boon, and can make a text far more accessible. I have long believed that Tertullian should only be translated by young men, who can relate to the fire of his thought! Those influenced by the flower-power generation are ideal to translate those muddled-mystic gnostic texts, which sensible people like myself can only yawn over. We all benefit, and no-one is the worse for the enterprise.

But there is also the risk that shared sympathy can go too far. An early 20th century Italian priest-translator of Tertullian introduced into De praescriptione haereticorum a phrase which completely changed the meaning of the sentence in a papalist direction. No doubt the change was an honest mistake, but an editor of a different confession would have preserved him from it. This problem is still more acute when it comes to shared hatreds.

Dr Hoffmann has a talent for expressing ancient anti-Christian writing in an accessible way. But so long as he continues to rewrite ancient polemic while omitting material not already translated, certain doubtless unworthy suspicions will continue to fester. Do any of these books serve any pleasant or scholarly purpose? I would like to hope so. But if so, what?

Learning Syriac

I’m going to have a go at learning Syriac.  It’s rather a lot of years since I left full-time education, so I face the prospect with trepidation.  An academic here in the UK is going to run 4 intensive Saturdays for us, starting in December.  The bad news is 5 weeks of homework between the first and the second. It will be most interesting to see if I can learn anything. I wonder if other people would like to recount their experiences of picking up a language as a mature student outside the education system.  I don’t agree with the idea that no-one is entitled to use an ancient text unless they can read it in the original — how many academics even can consult most oriental languages (Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, etc) in this manner?  But I think that we can all agree that we would rather be able to!

Dionysius Exiguus and AD/BC

Isn’t the web wonderful?  I’ve long wondered why there was no English translation of the work in which Dionysius Exiguus first stated the date using AD and BC.  Indeed it should have been translated, surely, as part of the millennium celebrations, I thought.  But quite by chance I find that a certain Michael Deckers has translated a large chunk of it, which appears on a Russian site here.  A link to the full Latin text is also on that page.  I have written to Dr Deckers to ask permission to include it in the Additional Fathers, and perhaps I will translate some more of the work.