Archive for July, 2008

Ho ho ho, it’s summer

I had an email yesterday from someone at a German periodical, Antike Welt.  Nothing wrong with that; indeed somewhat flattering. 

Apparently they’re doing a Christmas article.  As we all know, the only reference to a pagan festival on 25 December is in the Philocalian calendar, part 6 of the Chronography of 354, which I have online here

This work was published in bits; some bits in the CIL, some in Monumenta Germanica, some images in yet another publication, and so on.  So my edition was quite a bit of work, to reassemble a load of obscure publications.

Anyway, Antike Welt want to use some of it, which is very flattering indeed.   They’d like to use the photography of the illustration of ‘December’, and the page of the calendar for the same month.

Mind you, it then gets a bit weird.  They’d like me to rescan the image at a higher resolution, and could I type the calendar page into Illustrator for them?  I don’t know that I have any higher resolution images, and I certainly have other things to do than do free typing for people!  I’ve suggested that they get a nice, new, colour image of the illustration from the Vatican manuscript, and do their own typing.

PS, two days later: They never replied to my email.  Hum.

The Times and the Codex Sinaiticus

I was interested to see that Codex Sinaiticus of the bible is to be digitised.  Articles in the Times here, and an opinion piece by Ruth Gledhill here are very welcome.

The article has a facility for comments on it, which I used to express support for the digitisation and to query when the remaining 50,000-odd manuscripts will be digitised.  Amusingly the Times chose not to publish my comment.

Agapius and Archive.org scanned book quality

I was interested to find many volumes of the Patrologia Orientalis online at Archive.org.  Three of the four volumes that contain Agapius are among these.  So I downloaded PO7, which contains the section of Agapius from the birth of Christ (part 3 of 4), and printed a few pages. 

Now I’ve been doing some business trips lately. There isn’t a lot to do in a hotel during the evening, so I found myself scribbling an English translation in the margins.  I’ve decided to buy a PDA, in fact, to save myself the trouble of retyping.

However I began to get concerned at the quality of these (colour) prints.  In some cases the letters were not too clear.  At a couple of points, Agapius starts quoting Greek; and I couldn’t make out the letters!  The actual resolution seems to be 120 dpi at best.  This is way below the 400 dpi at which I scan everything myself, and isn’t really enough.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but if not, we have a problem, especially with texts in exotic alphabets.

We all know Agapius as containing an odd version of the Testimonium Flavianum.  This became widely known from an article by Shlomo Pines.  The version contained in the PO did not agree with my memory, so I went and looked up the Pines article.  It seems that Pines supplemented the PO text with quotations of Agapius in the later Arabic Christian historian, Al-Makin.  The version in Al-Makin is longer than that in the Florence ms, which alone contains this part of Agapius, and contains extra sentences.  Strictly we should refer to this as the Al-Makin version of Agapius, perhaps.

Should we call for biblical studies to be reformed?

Rather a lot of people mistrust biblical scholars.  Other scholars look at them sideways.  Christians treat them with suspicion, because they so often appear on TV in the UK bashing the Christians.  Since few outside of Christianity are much interested in biblical studies, the curious effect is that the discipline in general is brought under suspicion of being biased against its subject matter.

It is, perhaps, a sensitive subject.  Those who raise it often find themselves being screamed at.  Cynics may feel that the discipline might incur less odium if it made more of an effort to be objective, and to steer clear of religious and political controversy, and there is probably truth in that, at least in the UK.  I’m not sure whether that is entirely fair, however.

But quite by accident today I saw this post which advertises a historical Jesus seminar.  I’d like to look at the abstract of the first paper, as an example of the sort of thing that makes me quite uneasy about biblical studies.  I don’t know who wrote that abstract, and I certainly don’t want to pillory the author who doubtless reflects the college he comes from.  But I have seen the same sort of attitude, expressed or insinuated more subtly, on a number of occasions.  Here’s the start:

“‘How did Jesus cure?’ … It has become common in NT studies to avoid such questions by either declaring them inadmissible or providing supernaturalist explanations which would be unacceptable in any other discipline and are not usually considered appropriate when looking at comparable figures with reputations as healers in antiquity.”

The author is plainly not a Christian; but that’s fine.  He appeals to objective standards, and so is that.  But somehow this distills the essence of much of my unease.  To the author, the only objective way to study Christianity is on the basis that it is untrue.

Now one might have various things to say about this.  But this is not a value-neutral position!  It is, in fact, the intrusion of a prejudice as an axiom.

I must ask whether this is how we want to study any ancient text?  Do we define in advance that, in every important element, the text before us is wrong, and its authors mistaken, duped or dishonest?  I would feel deep unease at any study of any book that started on that foot.  We might draw that conclusion at the end of our studies; but hardly in advance.

There is genuine difference of opinion among the educated on questions such as whether miracles happen.  Is it the place of scholarship to answer that?  If it is — which seems doubtful — is it right to do it, not by debate, but by means of subterfuge and insinuation?  It seems to me that the above sentence does just this. For instance, are we not invited to acquiesce in the belief that either we must hold that every ancient superstition was genuine, or else we must reject Christianity? Likewise does it not insinuate that Jesus is no different from any other healer in antiquity? Both of these might be discussed, although not here, but they can hardly be assumed, or treated as ‘objective’.  I feel that this sort of thing is rather common.

It is certainly quite possible that Christianity is not true.  Let us frankly admit this.  But is it the job of biblical studies to take a position that it is not, before starting work?

The real issue is how we do scholarship.  On any subject, I want to see the data gathered, conclusions drawn cautiously from it, and a general refusal to speculate or introduce extraneous political or religious opinions, on which people may well have differing opinions.

Let’s look at that paper in this light.  What data exists on ‘how Jesus cured’?  Jesus heals a leper; but neither Jesus nor the leper is available for interview. No archaeological evidence exists or indeed is conceivable.  We’re reliant solely on the accounts in the New Testament, perhaps leavened with a bit of patristic quotation from Celsus.

And what do these say?  Well, it hardly matters: because we have already decided that any testimony they give to supernatural events must be rejected without discussion, and every last source suggests that supernatural means are involved.  But if that is the case, surely we have nothing further to discuss, not based on data and deductions from it!  All the data gives one answer.

Disentangling some core of truth from a book that is (on this hypothesis) a complete and persistent set of lies must be impossible without some further external data.  All that is left is silence.  But we’re not offered silence; so we must be looking at unevidenced speculation which is contradicted by the only literary source.  Is that scholarship?   If it is, then I would treat scholarship as a fraud on the taxpayer and on the public.

But I think better of scholarship than this, despite my scientific training and the contempt for the humanities that Oxford instills.  This is merely bad scholarship, where a theory takes the place of the data, and prejudice substitutes for evidence.  Haven’t we all seen this habit, in all sorts of fields of scholarship?

I tend to wonder whether biblical studies, as a discipline, needs to be reformed.  After all, to whom — outside of the few in the field — is it currently convincing?  There is much genuine scholarship around in biblical studies.  One has only to look at NA27, or at Metzger on the Text of the NT, to see that at once.  But then there is stuff like this.

But if biblical studies should be reformed, how should it be carried out?  What measures will restore the confidence of the public in the discipline?  What measures would convince the academy at large that biblical studies is a genuine, objective discipline, and not merely an excuse for peddling religion (or, in fear of that accusation, its reverse)?

Or is it easier to scream at anyone who asks whether the emperor has any clothes?

Unsavoury authorities: the corruption of the church started when?

I have been reading Cathleen Medwick’s biography of Teresa of Avila.  This describes how St. Teresa founded a series of Carmelite convents in the Spain of Philip II.  Each was a return to the primitive Carmelite rule, rather than the rather more comfortable ‘relaxed’ rule then in vogue, and motivated by sincere desire to do what God wanted.

But I was most interested in the mention at the end of a Genoese merchant-turned-friar, Nicholas Doria, who began to be useful as a man of business to Teresa in her last years.  His contacts in Rome proved useful to her; but he also had a talent for conspiracy.  It seems that this capable man, after Teresa’s death, induced her close friend Fr. Gracian to promote him to the second position in the order.  He then outmanouvered the naive Gracian, took over the order himself, and expelled Gracian from St. Teresa’s own order.  Thus within a few years the reformed Carmelite order was in the hands of a man who had arrived right at the end, who had taken no real part in its struggles and whose only claim to belong was that his worldly skills had been useful on a couple of occasions to the saint.

Down the centuries, whenever Christian organisations have come to control property or acquired reputation, there have been individuals who have made their way into them for their own advantage.  Such people are often very effective politicians; and every organisation that exists in this world has to be aware of politics.  But their loyalty is to themselves, not to God.

I believe that something rather similar happened to Methodism after the death of John Wesley; that men who don’t even feature in Wesley’s journal then tried to seize his empire.

Many Christians believe that the church became corrupt during the years after the first council of Nicaea.  Once Constantine had legalised the church, being a bishop was rather less risky, and much more profitable.  Indeed this process had already begun in the time of Diocletian.  Eusebius records in the History of the Martyrs of Palestine, in a sentence often abused to try to prove him a liar, that he proposes to record only those events which are edifying, or that show that the church deserved the persecution.

When the Arian controversy arose, it was a local matter between Arius and his bishop.  It was Eusebius of Nicomedia who made it a contest across the whole Christian world.  Eusebius had some links with the emperor Licinius, but he had not suffered in the persecutions and became, first bishop of Berytus and then of Nicomedia in 318 AD.  Arius appealed to Eusebius for help; and Eusebius deluged the East with letters demanding that bishops support Arius (and, by implication, himself).  His quest for power had a set-back at Nicaea, where the vote went against him and he was exiled, but he was soon back — as such flexible men always are.  In the years that followed he arranged for the removal of stalwarts of the Nicene party such as Marcellus of Ancyra, on one pretext or another, and the replacement of bishop after bishop with his partisans.  He crowned his career by being the bishop who baptised Constantine on his death bed.

Yet within 50 years Arianism was dead.  It was never truly an issue.  The whole matter was perhaps merely the excuse for the pursuit of power of a man with little interest in what God wanted.

Is the old position correct, that the legal church soon became a corrupt church?  There are many who would disagree, not least Catholics and East Orthodox.  But when one looks at some of the 5th century councils, the spectacle of worldly men fighting like rats over the church is hard to stomach.  If we do not simply take this view — that all of this is merely the triumph of the world over the church — then how do we explain this business?

Ancient sayings literature

I collect joke books.  Most evenings I get home, tired, and I’m not really in the mood to read something heavy.  Instead I pick up a joke book, open it anywhere, read a few lines and always find something to make me smile.

Anyone who has bought joke books will be familiar with the way that the exact wording can change.  The contents of any book will vary, depending on what the author had access to.  Some jokes are attributed to famous people in one book, and are anonymous in others. 

Collections of wit and wisdom are not modern inventions.  Someone has invented the horrible term ‘gnomologia’ – literally ‘words of wisdom’ – to describe these things.  That’s enough to put anyone off!  But it means the same.  These are ancient collections of wit and wisdom.

I’ve been reading Denis Searby’s edition of the Corpus Parisinum (although the library have seen fit to only send me volume 1, the Greek text!).  I am struck by the way in which the contents of this monstrous 9th century collection of sayings, anecdotes, apophthegms (a long word for ‘bits of sage wisdom’) follow these rules also.

Joke books are a low-brow form of literature in our day, but a very popular one.  Likewise collections of sayings and wit were a popular form of literature, and occur all over the place in the manuscripts.  It is worth considering that one of Caxton’s first publications in English was a translation of an Arabic collection of wit and wisdom.  Doubtless he printed it primarily because he believed that he could sell it readily.

Some versions of the collection omit some or all of the names of the authors to whom each saying or story is attributed (the jargon for this is the ‘lemma’).  But clearly it is the wit of the saying which is important, not the specific person as a rule.  We would never criticise a joke book author for changing attribution, if it made the joke funnier, after all.

As the Greek language changed, sayings had to be rewritten.  An archaic word might dull the point of some saying; it would have to be rephrased.  Translations into Syriac and Arabic were initially very literal.  But quickly they would be rephrased or rewritten in order to work in their new context.  Impact is everything with a joke or anecdote; without it, it loses its point.  Unfunny jokes are not repeated.

Modern jokes are usually delivered orally.  There is thus an oral stage to transmission, particularly with the Arabic material, where the culture favours quotations of sententious wisdom and so is favourable to exactly this form of literature.

Other volumes are collections of anecdotes.  After-dinner stories can be  bought in most bookshops.  Again, Bar Hebraeus compiled a volume of anecdotes, published by E. Wallis Budge as “The laughable stories.”  These follow the same sorts of rules.  Many a modern story is attributed to Churchill, or Oscar Wilde.  Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle.

Dr Searby makes a couple of interesting points about the transmission of these works.  For one thing, if we are trying to produce a critical edition, precisely what is the autograph?  In what sense is there an original?

Secondly he suggests that, within the limits given above, the transmission of the content of sayings is quite faithful. 

It’s clearly a mistake to treat these sayings collections as if they were literary works like a poem or a history.  Their nature means that they must be transmitted differently, the text is expected to be altered, is expected to have additional material added.  There is no fraud or dishonesty in this; merely the nature of the genre.

PS: After writing this I began to read the “Laughable stories”.  Saying 56: “A rich man wrote above the door of his house, ‘No evil thing may enter.’  Diogenes said, ‘Fine; but how is your wife to come in, then?’”

Cyril of Alexandria and I: Waiting for Nestorius?

Aren’t links wonderful?  Someone on TheoGreek has noticed my work with Cyril of Alexandria, and asks questions about it, and why I’m writing about him.  I’m flattered!  But rather than write a long comment there, I thought I’d blog about it here.

I suppose that I have been looking at Cyril’s works a lot lately.  As part of my hobby to digitise patristic works, sooner or later I was going to reach Cyril.  His big commentaries on Luke and John and the anti-Nestorian works published in the Library of the Fathers were all silently omitted from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, despite there being available translations which could be pirated for the series.  Perhaps that says something about his reputation in the west!  Naturally I have scanned these, and indeed found snippets of genuine pastoral wisdom in the sermons on Luke.  He may be a bit of a dodgy character, to us, but he is widely revered in the Greek orthodox and eastern orthodox churches, as my correspondence shows.  I’m trying to keep an open mind.

His controversial works from the Nestorian period are mostly untranslated.  This is a shame.  I have commissioned a translation of one of them, the Apologeticus ad imperatorem, as I said elsewhere.  The others ought to be available, and I have a translator, but whether I can afford to do it I don’t know!  It’s not as if I really want to read De recta fide after all.  But… access is all.

The other text that really should exist in English is his reply to Julian the Apostate’s attack on Christianity.  Contra Julianum needs to be translated and online.  A critical text is being prepared in Switzerland, and I hope to do something with this in due course.  This work would cost around $10,000 to translate. Ouch!  But it really, really must be done.

Then there is Norman Russell’s excellent book on Cyril.  Tellingly it starts by quoting a sermon by Theodoret written after the death of Cyril in which he hopes that someone will bury Cyril under a large rock, in case he comes back again!  Apparently the sermon is probably spurious, tho.

Was Cyril corrupt?  Politically he was, in his role as Mob-boss of Alexandria.  But… is it quite fair to condemn a man for using the methods necessary to get his way in a corrupt society?  It is easy for Christians today to say that it was.  The means corrupt the end.  We all know this.  And yet, we live in a society in which the Christians are being forced out of the churches by those willing to use corrupt means.  Cyril would have suggested that we were simply wimping out, I think.  It will be interesting to see if he indicates anything like this in the Apologeticus, defending his conduct.

I don’t pretend to know.  But it is useless to attempt to evade the fact that some churchmen have been wicked men, and others who are revered have been accustomed to methods that we find disgusting.  We know that the church has become corrupted whenever it wields political power, as the Borgia Pope proves.  But however we think about the past, we need to recognise the reality of sin, in the history of the church and in the lives of too many of its most eminent men.  Let us avoid their mistakes, let us pray for them, and also for ourselves: “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”.  If Tertullian could invite the prayers of the newly baptised for “Tertullian, a sinner” in De baptismo, we need not shrink from doing the same.

J.H.Newman and the Library of the Fathers

I mentioned earlier the possibility of a lost English translation of Chrysostom’s letters.  Today I got hold of Dessain’s edition of the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. 5.  Sure enough on p.380 it indicated that John Jebb was translating De sacerdotio, not the letters; which seems to dispose finally of the legend.

Reading the surrounding letters brought me into contact with the scheme to translate the Fathers.  Newman said that translators should be paid 20 pounds per hundred pages; revised a day or two later to 25 pounds.  This was in 1838, but if we consider that in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility a curate might live on a salary of 50 pounds a year, we see at once that the fees were not small.  Clearly Newman and Pusey were not poor men.

I only read a selection of the letters, but I was forcefully struck by how clerical they were.  Newman was interested only in the clergy, and the gentry.  The laity, for all I could see, could go hang.  The church for Newman consisted only of the clergy, it seems.

Many years ago I remember reading the Everyman “Century of English Letters” in a punt on the Cherwell at Oxford in a volume which had lost its cover and been replaced with brown paper.  I have it still.  There I came across a couple of the essays of Augustine Birrell. On buying volumes of Birrell’s essays, full of charm and intelligence as they are, I came face to face with Newman.  Birrell had heard the Cardinal preaching at the Birmingham oratory, and gives us a picture of the great standing of the man in the society of his day.  The presence and attractiveness of the man and the preacher in person was clearly considerable; considerable enough to reach us through Birrell, over a century later.  Does snapdragon still grow under Newman’s study window in Trinity, I wonder?

In Ipswich market there used to be a bookstall, where huge numbers of books were offered at a very low price.  The stall vanished years ago, defeated by the determination of the borough council officials to relocate the market to somewhere that customers would not go.  But there I found a tatty paperback of Newman’s Apologia pro sua vita.  Mindful of the charm in Birrell’s essay, I bought it.  The publisher, imprudently, began the volume with two letters of Charles Kingsley to Newman.  In these I learned for the first time that Newman was often accused of being disingenuous, of arguments that were more clever than honest.  Newman’s replies were also printed.  These I read, and I read the Apologia

The end result was that I was convinced — by Kingsley!  Newman’s arguments were precisely as Kingsley represented them.  They seemed to me to exhibit precisely the jesuitry that Newman was accused of.  I placed the book in the pile destined for disposal and never thought of the man again.

Reading the collected letters today reminded me of this.  At one point Newman is asked for his views on the old and evil Act of praemunire, which was invented to subordinate church law to the state.  Newman gives his opinion as to how opposition to the law might be expressed; and follows with his real grounds and intentions.  In another he refers by efforts by the Christians in the Church of England to raise money to build more churches in London, and their natural request to the bishop that these should be served by Christian ministers.  None of this is of interest to him, and he has no interest in building churches himself; let them be served by the Christians who built them, and he would simply attempt to pervert those ministers to High Church views.  It is difficult not to find this cynical.  In yet another he refers to ‘dissent’; that is, those whom the state-appointed and corrupt bishops of Charles II’s reign forced out of the Church under an Act of Parliament which they boasted would damn half the country and starve the other half.  To Newman all this is nothing; let dissent be referred to simply as a “sin” and left there.

Perhaps it is unfair to condemn a man for his private correspondence.  The letters do have interest and charm, more than I expected.  But… I still feel no urge to read his Apologia.  J.H.Newman, unfortunately, remains outside of my sympathies, which is a pity.

Cyril of Alexandria after Ephesus

At the Council of Ephesus in 433, Cyril obtained the condemnation of his rival Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople for heresy.  The vote was taken before the eastern bishops who supported Nestorius could arrive.  When they did arrive they excommunicated Cyril.  Both sides then appealed to the imperial government, then run by the eunuch Chrysaphius, who wisely deposed them both.  After a campaign of letter writing and bribery, Cyril was allowed to return and the decisions of the synod endorsed.  The Nestorian schism had begun, and has still not been resolved to this day.

After the synod, Cyril’s reputation was tarnished.  Isidore of Pelusium wrote to him that, while he agreed with Cyril theologically, a lot of people thought that the Alexandrian Archbishop had behaved like a jerk.

At this time Cyril wrote a number of theological treatises justifying his position.  Three treatises De recta fide (On the true faith) were addressed to the emperor and his female relatives.  Another Apologeticus was directed to emperor justifying his behaviour.  None of these have been translated into English as far as I am aware.  Probably the need to understand some fairly complicated theology has deterred many.

I have now found a translator with the right area of interest to work on the Apologeticus.  This should cost me around $600.   The intention would be to sell printed copies, to recover some of the money, and then release the translation into the public domain.  If this works, the other three works might also be done.

There is a text in Migne, of course.  P. E. Pusey edited it again in the 1870′s.  According to Quasten the best text is in Edward Schwartz’ series Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum.  This series has been republished by DeGruyter, here.  The series has an unusual structure; the series consists of 4 ‘tomes’ each divided into a number of volumes, and each volume is divided into half a dozen parts.  Each part is a separate physical volume, and costs around $200.  I need tome 1, volume 1, part 3, it seems, so have requested an ILL.

It will be interesting to see how this goes.

Euripides lost and found

We tend to forget that our collection of plays by Euripides is very incomplete.  The Byzantine school syllabus had various set texts and standard collections of classical works.  Any text not in that subset stood a very good chance of being lost in one of the dislocations of culture that have occurred down the centuries. 

The most notable of these is the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the renegade army originally hired for the Fourth Crusade.  In the 9th century Photius had many texts unknown to us; afterwards we have much less evidence of now lost texts.  The capture of the city by the Turks in 1453 did dispose of the complete Diodorus Siculus in the Imperial Palace at Blachernae, reported by some of the early humanists, however. 

In the 1890′s a large fragment of one of the lost plays by Euripides was recovered from mummy wrappings in Egypt.  This consisted of a papyrus of the 3rd century BC.  Of course the man who made use of the old roll for packaging had no idea that this text would not survive otherwise, that all the library copies would die out, that his copy was the only one that would reach the far future.  But so it proved.  It highlights the role that pure chance plays in our access to the literature of antiquity.

In addition two pages from a manuscript written ca. 500 AD also contain portions of the text.  Did more exist at the time?

The text is fragmentary even so.  But a performance of the reconstructed text has just been given in the theatre at Ephesus as part of the 22nd Izmir International Festival, and the event will run for most of this month.   By such narrow shaves are treasures saved from going into the night.



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