Anthony Alcock continues his series of translations from the Coptic. This new item consists of 10th century AD Coptic songs – folk-stories – which mention Solomon.
- solomon_alcock_2017 (PDF)
Thank you, Dr A., for sharing this with us!
Anthony Alcock continues his series of translations from the Coptic. This new item consists of 10th century AD Coptic songs – folk-stories – which mention Solomon.
Thank you, Dr A., for sharing this with us!
A previously unknown Temple of Mithras was discovered last week at Lucciana in Corsica, during road improvement work. The location is somewhere near or in the Roman city of Mariana, itself founded by Gaius Marius. The archaeology suggests a third century date. The usual cult benches on either side are present, and three fragments of a tauroctony. I’ve not found any pictures of that, however. My notes on the find, from a Corsican newspaper site, are here.
Readers will have noticed that I have resumed working on the translation of the 10th century Arabic chronicle, the Annals of Eutychius, whose Arabic name was Sa`id ibn Bitriq. I’m stuck at home in the poor weather, so I will probably do quite a bit more of this, as time permits.
I’ve continued to look at the Sudan as a possible travel destination, not least because it is 30 C out there right now. But although the weather looks lovely, it seems clear that there is very little in Khartoum for the tourist; mysteriously so, considering its history. Getting there involves a really long flight via Addis Ababa, or somewhere equally improbable. Being there involves a tour of 8-9 days through the desert, which might well be a bit much for me.
I do like the Arab countries, but I do wish that it was possible to visit safely more of them. I also wish that they had better weather at this time of the year. A week of sunshine would be just the thing!
My book-shredding activities have come to an end. There are no more obvious candidates for conversion into PDF. I am beginning to wonder whether all the series of trashy fantasy novels really need to be in paper form. That said, I do worry about my eyes, when it comes to reading novels on a screen. I notice that sitting all day looking at my phone screen is not good for them. They may take up space, but the novels are better for me in paper form, and I can take them to bed with me.
Free speech online is becoming a distant memory, and the recent polls in the UK and US have led to a series of profoundly ill-advised initiatives (by the losers) to restrict it still further, and worse. Indeed I have seen posts on Twitter by British police threatening to arrest any who dare express certain views. It still seems incredible to me that this can happen in the land that gave us Sherlock Holmes. Yet there are certainly people in prison in Britain right now for no more serious crime than insulting some powerful woman. Likewise even jobsworths in Human Resources departments surf the web, seeking to find out anything about us that might be “damaging”. At the same time more and more information appears online about us.
In the light of this, it is wise for most of us to consider ways to reduce our online footprint. This article offers a few suggestions. I have long since renamed my Twitter account to something other than my name; and then created a new Twitter account with my name and with nothing in it, just to ensure nobody else does. I don’t put my photograph on my social media accounts, preferring images like those above.
Mind how you go, people.
The murder of Omar was followed by the murder of Othman. The next caliph, Ali, was unable to master the large realm that he had inherited and was swiftly murdered also.
Caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Talib (35-40 / 656-661)
1. After Othman there was made caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib b. Abd al-Muttalib b. Hashim b. Abd Manaf – his mother was Fatimah, daughter of Asad ibn Hashim b. Abd Manaf – in the month of Dhu’l-hiğğa in the thirty-fourth year of the Hegira, in the fourth year of the reign of Constantine, the son of Constantine. He then went to Basra and the battle of the Camel took place. Then he went to Kufa, aimed at Syria and the battle of Siffin took place there. He returned and there took place the battle of al-Khazrawiyyah, in Nahrawan. He returned to Kufa, where he was killed by Abd ar-Rahman ibn al-Mulğam al-Muzadi, ten days before the end of the month of Ramadan of the fortieth year of the Hegira. He was killed at the age of sixty-three years. The funeral prayer was held by his son al-Hasan. His caliphate lasted four years and ten months. He was of a dark complexion, with a big belly and he had a bushy beard that touched his chest. Gray hairs had in no way altered his features. He was buried in al-Ghariyyān, others say in an-Nawbah: it is in fact uncertain where he was buried. The head of his bodyguard was Ma’qil Qaysi ibn az-Zibāgi, and his ‘hāgib’ was the freedman Qanbar.
After the murder of Omar, the Muslims elect Othman. The Muslim conquests continue. The Byzantines don’t make much resistance, apparently. Othman too is murdered after drawing up an edition of the Koran and destroying all the other copies.
Lots of theological letters in this section of Eutychius. We also see the appearance of “Misr” for the first time – Cairo.
Caliphate of Othman ibn Affan (23-35 / 644-656)
1. Othman ibn’ Affari b. Abi’l-‘As b. Umayya b. Abd Shams was made Caliph – his mother was Umayyah bint Kawbarā b. Rabi’a – three days after the death of Omar, at the turn of the month of Dhul-hiğğa. His caliphate began in the new moon of the month of al-Muharram, in the twenty-fourth year of the Hegira, the twenty-fourth year of the reign of Heraclius, King of Rum. He held the caliphate for twelve years. In the third year of his caliphate George was made by Patriarch of Antioch. He was a Maronite. He settled in Constantinople and remained there five years without ever going to Antioch. He died in Constantinople and was buried there. In the tenth year of his caliphate Macarius was made patriarch of Antioch. He was a Maronite. He was invested with the office in Constantinople and remained there for eight years and never entered Antioch. He died and was buried in Constantinople. In the ninth year of his caliphate Peter was made Patriarch of Constantinople. He was a Maronite. He held the office for six years and died. In the fourth year of his caliphate Peter was made Patriarch of Alexandria. He was a Maronite. He held the office nine years and died. In the eighth year of his caliphate died Honorius, patriarch of Rome, who had professed the doctrine of Maron, thus giving rise to different opinions within the church. After his death a man named Sadinus was chosen and was made patriarch of Rome. He held the office for six months and died. After his death a man of proven virtue named John was chosen. Made aware of the origin of the doubts that were snaking about within the church – the sovereigns of Constantinople were then Heraclius and his brother Constantine – the Patriarch John wrote them a letter in which he passed under review the reasons for such doubts, taking the side of his predecessor Honorius, patriarch of Rome. The letter began:
2. “Pope John, Patriarch of Rome, to Heraclius and Constantine, ruling brothers, to whom are entrusted the church of Christ, true God, whose light appeared in the darkness, who has delivered us from the power of darkness with his wonderful light, the light of truth uncontaminated by any darkness, so that with the blood of his cross peace is restored between heaven and earth, who ever guards his church. It is given to you, O emperors, to ensure that in his church are raised the best and noblest invocations and that people believe according to the perfect faith and stay close to him. Something has happened that it is necessary to set forth, for him to understand who loves and cultivates justice, so that the truth can shine again as brightly as it once did. I have come to know the state of the controversy, also, and the doubts that are circulating in the West. I received news of all of this by a letter of our brother Honorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and from others. And it is our duty to explain how things are, because He knows everything. The beginning of the story is this. About eighteen years ago Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, professed the doctrine of Maron, according to which in Christ, our Lord, there are two natures, one will and one operation. He heard about Sophronius, who became Patriarch of Jerusalem, who disputed with him, getting the better with his arguments. Then Sophronius went to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and perceived that he spoke the same way as Cyrus, affirming also that Honorius, patriarch of Rome, professed his doctrine. From Constantinople Sophronius went to Jerusalem. Later when he became Patriarch of Jerusalem – it was in fact because of the righteousness of his faith that the inhabitants of Jerusalem made him Patriarch of Jerusalem – he wrote a book on the faith that was welcomed by the people of this world. When Honorius, patriarch of Rome, heard this and that Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, had lied about him [Honorius], saying that he [Honorius] was a Maronite, he wrote a letter in which he said: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the source of life, was born without sin, because the eternal Word, by whom all things were made, coming down from heaven, he took a body from the Virgin Mary and became like us as to the nature, but not in the will of sinners. Because Paul says that he took the similitude of us sinners, i.e. the body, without sin, with a rational soul and intellect. And similarly, he was pleased to take the single will for his humanity, not as we know it, who have two contrary wills, one of which is centred in the intellect and the other in the body, opposed to each other, which takes place in every human being who is subject to sin, and because none [of us] is exempt from the sin of rebellion. But the body of Christ, our Lord, did not in itself have two contrary wills nor was the will of his intellect contrary to the will of his body and he who had come to take away the sin of the world had no sin. Away from him be such a thing! In Christ our Lord there was never sin, not even one, either in his birth or in his incarnation. We profess and confirm that there was only one will to which was conformed his sacred humanity, and we do not accept at all that there were in him two contrary wills, one in his intellect and the other in his body”. So wrote Honorius, patriarch of Rome, to Sergius, the patriarch of Constantinople.
Now, with regard to our own natures, we recognize two contrary wills, the intellect and the body, and some, bending this fact to their fallacious doctrines, thought that Honorius, patriarch of Rome, was saying that there was one and the same will in the divinity and humanity of Christ our Lord. Now I ask those who advocate this doctrine: “In what nature can we say that Christ God had only one will? If only in his divinity, then his humanity had no will, so therefore he was not a perfect man. If they say that this will alone was in the humanity of Christ, we ask them: “How could he then be perfect God?” And if you respond that there are two natures with one will, this would not be possible at all. We profess the incarnation of Christ and therefore we do not deny the two wills of his two natures, nor alter in any way the peculiarities of each of them. But let’s say that each of the two natures of Christ, the incarnation of the one and only person, has a will. We do not say that there are two persons, like the much-execrated Nestorius [said]. As for those who claim to be two natures and one will, common to the deity and humanity of Christ, and a single operation, well they are known to be in error, like the maligned Marone. As for those who claim there to be one nature, one will and one operation, well we also know that they are in error, like the execrated Eutyches, Dioscorus and Severus, since this is the doctrine of the Jacobites. But sound and manifest doctrine is that which [our] masters professed, namely that in Christ our Lord there are two natures, two wills and two operations in one person, for it is impossible that one who has two natures can have only one will. If he had only one will, he would also have only one nature. But if he has two natures then he must have also two wills. We therefore ask you to tear up the parchment in which are accused Leo, patriarch of Rome, and the council of Chalcedon, so that it is not widely read and not understood in the hands of weak minds so as to shake their faith. We ask Christ our Lord to look upon you with his mercy, his forgiveness and his help and to subdue the nations with his invincible strength.”
3. When John, patriarch of Rome, had thus finished his letter, he affixed his seal and sent it by entrusting it to a remarkable man named Barsiqā, archdeacon of the Church of Rome. He went to the sovereigns Heraclius and Constantine, but he found that Constantine had died. The ministers and army generals revolted against Heraclius, and killed him, because they thought that he was the cause of the disaster that had hit them – they had indeed lost Egypt and Syria – and also because he was a Maronite. In his place they elected king the son of the late brother Constantine and called him Constantine, with the name of his father. This was in the eighth year of the Caliphate of Othman. This new king, Constantine, was a godly man. When Barsiqā handed him the letter of John, Patriarch of Rome, the king took it, read it and was amazed at the insight of the Patriarch of Rome. Then he ordered that his answer should be written in these terms:
4. “We welcome, Your Excellent Holiness, your instruction. We profess and believe in Christ our Lord there are two natures, two wills, two operations and a single person and anathematise anyone who dares contradict anything. We also believe in what the Six hundred and thirty bishops gathered in Chalcedon said, and anathematise anyone who dares act against them. We have complied with the order that you gave to tear up the parchment where is slandered Leo, the holy patriarch of Rome, and the Council of Chalcedon, and we gave it to the fire. We remain steadfast in your teaching, which is the teaching of truth, and ask that you invoke upon us salvation, and preservation from every calamity.”
5. Barsiqā set off, carrying the letter of King Constantine in order to hand it over to John, patriarch of Rome, in response to his letter. When he arrived in Rome, he found that the patriarch John was now dead and in his place had come a man of proven virtue named Theodore. Barsiqā presented himself, let him know what the king had willingly accepted, informed him of his orthodoxy and handed him the letter that King Constantine sent him in response to the letter that John had sent to the two sovereigns. The Patriarch Theodore took it, read it and remained comfortable with the orthodoxy of the king. He answered him in these terms:
6. “To King Constantine, singularly faithful to pure orthodoxy, from the patriarch of Rome, Theodore. Almighty God, who protects his church, gave us the economy of his mercy by the event of your orthodox faith and has given us the opportunity to talk to you with joy and fervour in order to manifest this grace. Because you have received your authority as vicars of the holy Apostles in order to defend orthodoxy and make manifest the true religion, not as Heraclius did who does not deserve to be called King because of his wickedness, and to be left out of the truth, nor as Sergius, Honorius, Paul and Peter, the patriarchs of Constantinople, who opposed the truth making themselves worthy of anathema, and that they deserved to be deprived of the place they occupied within the church, for the falsity of their doctrine and for the doubts that they spread among the people. As for you, most excellent king, know that the true orthodox faith is the fruit of paradise and it is your job, most excellent king, to protect it, fight for it and make it manifest to the people. We ask this through Christ our Lord to grant this with his blessing by his generosity.” Patriarch Theodore affixed his seal to the letter and sent it to King Constantine in response to the letter he had sent to John, patriarch of Rome. When he received the letter, King Constantine felt great pain to learn the news of John’s death. Then he opened the letter and remained extremely pleased with the response that the patriarch Theodore gave him in place of the deceased John. Then he ordered a reply. When the king’s messenger came to Rome, he found that Theodore had died and that Martin had been made Patriarch of Rome.
7. In the time of Othman ibn Affan, King Constantine sent an eunuch named Manuel with a large army by sea and captured Alexandria. Amr ibn al-As was at Misr [i.e. Cairo]. Amr ibn al-As came out against him accompanied by the Copts and other people of Misr. Al-Muqawqas was with them who provided them money, housing, weapons and provisions. They met at the gates of Alexandria in a furious battle carried on fighting for several days. Eventually the eunuch Manuel fled along with all the Rum that were with him, they embarked and returned to Constantinople.
8. During the times of Othman ibn Affan were conquered Africa, Armenia and Khurasan. Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan ruled Damascus in the name of Othman ibn Affan. Mu’awiya made a pact of friendship with the people of Cyprus in the twenty-eighth year of the Hegira, the fourth year of the caliphate of Othman ibn Affan, for a tribute of seven thousand, two hundred dinars to be paid to Muslims each year, forever. The same amount they gave to the king of Rum. Othman had the Koran drawn up, beginning with the longest suras and ending with the shorter ones; he had seven copies made and ordered the destruction of all the others. This was in the thirtieth year of the Hegira. The people revolted against Othman ibn Affan and he was killed. Those who killed him were Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, Ammar ibn Yasir and Kinana ibn Bishr, on the eighth day of Dhul-hiğğa (others say “the eighteenth of Dhu’l-higğa”) in the thirty-fifth year of the Hegira. He was eighty years old. They buried him three days later. He was of medium height, handsome of face, dark, had a thick and braided beard, and his teeth were linked together with gold frames. His influential adviser was Marwan ibn al-Hakam. He was buried in Medina in a place called ‘gisr Kawkab’. The head of his bodyguard was Abdullah ibn Fahd al-Adawī and his ‘hāgib’ was the freedman Hamdan.
While I was thinking about Geza Vermes’ The Nativity, I realised that part of his difficulty with the text was his starting assumption that miracles did not happen. But this didn’t just affect the miraculous bits of the text. It actually led him into a strange wilderness of subjectivism, even with respect to non-miraculous events. The end result was a mess that rendered his book worthless as anything but a guide to its author’s beliefs and wishes.
That author grew up during a time when materialism was endemic in academia. Miracles did not happen. We are less certain of that, these days. But we might ask ourselves how we would deal with an ancient or medieval historical text that contained them, where we really didn’t believe that any of them were true.
Say that we had before us the biography of some Muslim holy man, or Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. I think that all of us would be inclined to regard all the miracles in the text as fake; for such is the climate of our times, and perhaps our predisposition. Say that we did so regard them. How then do we deal with the text? How do we get at the useful content? What methods might we adopt?
Firstly, we might simply omit the miracles, or see if they could be related to some natural event of the time that would “explain” why contemporaries saw a miracle. We would adopt a minimal approach to the problem, and hold onto everything we could. The author of the work is not a modern writer, with reference textbooks and the internet to keep him straight, but a man who could do little more than collect what he was told, or what he saw. So we could comfortably say that some of his sources were storytellers, and that he lacked the judgement to recognise them. Of course some of the non-miraculous material will be fiction too. Even an eyewitness will be likely to include material from others. St Adomnan wrote the Life of St Columba and knew the man personally. But Adomnan continued to collect material and augment the work throughout his life. Not everything in that life is from personal knowledge.
But we could accept everything which we don’t have positive evidence against, and which is not miraculous. That is a workable position.
Secondly we might simply reject the work in toto, as a piece of fiction. If it contains miracles, everything in it is unreliable.
Now that’s fine, but presumably there is a reason why we are reading this thing at all. We need historical data. Something is causing us to read this text.
The difficulty with this approach becomes acute when you find clear references to historical events and personages, which are probable, attractive, and hard to resist including. In the latter case it will be very hard to justify using any material, and very hard to justify not doing so. Which inevitably means that we will end up with the third way.
And the third way? Well, there isn’t one. Or rather, there isn’t one that can be operated objectively. The third way is to pick and choose what suits you, assert how excellent your own judgement is (and that of your allies, if you have started a school) and just blame the poor quality of the author as an excuse for ignoring inconvenient but non-miraculous material. This approach is adopted by nearly all polemicists. Indeed we saw Vermes do just this in The Nativity, where he rejected all sorts of stuff – in Matthew and Luke – that he didn’t like, while using the Protevangelium of James without even a whisper of critical warning. But the method leads to the outcome. It’s just fiction.
Anyone seeking objectivity will inevitably try to avoid this mess of subjectivism. He will seek to have some objective reason for his choice, some principle that has evidence behind it. There is a very good reason why some writers go for the first option; that it is consistent. There seems no satisfactory way, unfortunately, to do anything else. The alternative is simply subjectivism.
Once we have a text, produced by the first method, I think we probably need to treat it with the same respect that we would any other ancient source. It will of course contain errors and mistakes, as every work of man does. But we ought to treat our output as an artefact, as something that actually exists. Rushing on, rushing to point out other failures, is where we are liable to come unstuck. Producing a text which is non-miraculous is one step. After that, we can listen to it, and see what if anything it has to teach us. Let’s keep the two stages very distinct.
The Arab conquest of Egypt continues the story of the reign of Omar. The small bands of Arabs naturally see their conquest of Egypt as merely a chance to loot. But faced with the enormous wealth of Egypt, Omar realises that if he can extract protection money on a continuing basis, this would be better for him than simply ruining the place. The Egyptian corn supply is now diverted to Medina, and the ancient canal to the Red Sea is dug out again to make this easier. Then the Muslims continue west, capturing Tripoli in Libya. Meanwhile Omar’s reign comes to a sudden end when he is murdered while at the morning prayers.
15. After occupying Alexandria, Amr ibn al-As pursued the Rum who had retreated into the desert. Then the Rum who had fled by sea returned to Alexandria and killed the Muslims who were there. Hearing this, Amr ibn al-As hastily returned to Alexandria. He engaged in a fierce battle at the citadel, but finally captured it and the Rum fled again by ship. Amr ibn al-As then wrote to Omar ibn al-Khattab saying: “I have conquered a city, but I will not describe here what is found there. I will tell you only that I have found there four temples, four baths, forty thousand Jews who pay the personal tribute, four palaces for kings and twelve thousand sellers of fresh green vegetables. I conquered by force without any promise of peace.” In the letter he let him know that the Muslims were asking to divide up these things. Omar ibn al-Khattab replied, condemning this opinion, and ordered him not to sack the city or to divide up what was there, and to provide that the proceeds of the kharag (Islamic land-tax) would serve as a strength and sustenance for Muslims in the Holy War against their enemies. Amr then left the city as he had found it, he counted the villages and imposed on them the kharag. All Egypt was placed under the protection of Muslims in exchange for two dinars kharag for every man, without anyone being asked more for his person, unless it was someone who possessed more: in which case he was taxed in proportion to the lands and the cultivated fields that he possessed. The people of Alexandria were treated differently: they would have to pay the property tax as well as the personal tax that would have been asked by their administrators, because Alexandria had been conquered through war without any promise and no covenant, since there was no treaty or guarantee with its inhabitants. Alexandria was captured on Friday the new moon of the month of Muharram in the year twenty of the Hegira, in the twentieth year of the reign of Heraclius, the eighth year of the caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab.
Amr ibn al-As sent Uqba ibn Nafi, who went as far as to Zawīlah. The territory between Barqah and Zawīlah became a territory of the Muslims. At that time none of the collectors of poll tax came to Barqah because people sent in their own personal tribute at the appropriate time.
In those days a severe food shortage fell upon the inhabitants of Medina. Omar ibn al-Khattab then wrote to Amr ibn al-As, informing him of the state of collapse and famine in which the people were struggling. Amr sent camels laden with flour. The caravan was an uninterrupted line: when the first camel arrived in Medina the last one was still in Egypt. Omar ibn al-Khattab wrote to Amr ibn al-As to dig out a channel to reach the Red Sea, so as to make the wheat transport easier. Amr then ordered a canal dug, which is in the territory of al-Qantarah, known by the name of the Canal of the Prince of the Believers. The boats transported wheat, barley and cereals from al-Fustat to the Red Sea through the canal, and from the Red Sea to Medina.
16. Amr ibn al-As then conquered Tripoli in Africa, in the twenty-second year of the Hegira, the twenty-second of the reign of Heraclius and tenth of the caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab. In Fustat in Egypt Amr constructed the great mosque.
17. Omar ibn al-Khattab was murdered at Medina, while he was at the morning prayer. He was killed by Abu Lu’lu’a, the slave of Ibn al-Mughira Shu’ba, on the twenty-seventh of the month of Dhul-hiğğa, in the twenty-third year of the Hegira, the twenty-third year of the reign of Heraclius. He was sixty-three. He had delegated the election of his successor to a committee consisting of six companions of Muhammad, i.e. of Othman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Talha, az-Zubayr ibn al-Arrām, Abd ar-Rahman ibn Urf az-Zahri and Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas. The funeral prayer was recited by Suhayb ar-Rumi and he was buried in the house where Muhammad had been buried. His caliphate lasted ten years and nine months. During his caliphate Omar made the pilgrimage to Mecca nine times. He was of a reddish complexion, left-handed, bald, and his hair and beard were dyed with henna. The head of his bodyguard was Abd Allah ibn Abbas and his hāgib was the freedman Barqa.
The presence of Seneca’s brother, Gallio, in Corinth, during the period when Acts 18:12-17 refers to him, is attested by an inscription. The French excavators in the late 19th century found vast numbers of fragments, and Emile Bourguet in 1905 published a group, which contained a letter of Claudius, mentioning Gallio as proconsul.
However, floating in the back of my mind is the idea that, prior to this publication becoming known, some scholars questioned whether Acts was in fact in error at this point, and whether Gallio was ever in Corinth. I find this idea appears, without reference, in Anthony Thistleton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (2011), p.25, where the caption reads:
Prior to 1905 there was some scepticism about this Gallio allusion in Acts, but in 1905 four fragments of a letter of the Emperor Claudius relating to Lucius Junius Gallio were discovered. They were published in 1913.
The details of publication are not in fact accurate – Bourguet certainly printed them in 1905, and they were discovered earlier -, but it does confirm that the idea of a previous scepticism is not a figment of my own imagination. The same author wrote a much longer commentary in 2000, which mentions Gallio on p.29-32; but does not mention the scepticism.
Is this true? Or is it just an urban legend?
I have spent much of the last 24 hours searching older materials online for someone to express this scepticism, but I have drawn a complete blank. Even F.C. Baur in his Paulus seems to accept that the apostle appeared before Gallio in Corinth.
I am no expert on NT criticism. If any reader of this blog can identify a reference to some scholar questioning whether Gallio was there, I would be grateful to be told. The comments are open!
For my sins, which are clearly far more substantial than I had realised, I agreed last week to read through and comment on Geza Vermes’ book The Nativity: History and Legend, which I should otherwise never have read. Since it is directed to the educated layman, this educated layman feels free to offer his opinion of it.
Anyway I’ve written the desired review, so I may as well make it available here:
I wasn’t very impressed. The sort of book that consists of debunking the bible never seems like more than a piece of spite to me, whatever it professes. Why write it otherwise?
Indeed Vermes even goes so far as to sneer at the popular celebrations of Christmas. That piece of cheek towards those who paid his salary would have brought down upon him the wrath of the tabloids, had any of them bothered to read it. I’ve never forgotten seeing one of them yell on the front page “This child taught Christmas joy is evil!”, attacking some poor humble little sect that didn’t celebrate Christmas.
It’s always best to write about your enthusiasms. I am deeply glad that I am not a book critic! It must be a profession that tends to make you sneery.
But writing all this did give me a chance to think about how to deal objectively with evidently legendary or miraculous passages in historical texts in general. I will try to write a post about this.
The Muslims capture Babylon fortress; but the fighting between the Arab force and the Roman force takes them both all over the place. Eventually the Muslims have to besiege Alexandria.
13. ‘Ubāda ibn as-Samit then returned to Amr ibn al-As and made him aware of what had happened. When the Muslims heard that there were only a few men in the citadel, they moved the field of action to the area that is now known by the name of Souq al-Hammam, and subjected the citadel to catapult and ballista fire. Az-Zubayr leaned a ladder againt the side of the citadel on the side of Souq al-Hammam and climbed up. No one noticed until az-Zubayr was on top of the citadel, and shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Others were already climbing up the ladder. The Rum stopped fighting, they embarked [on ships] and joined their companions on the island. The Muslims conquered the citadel, killing and making prisoners, and obtained great spoil. When the Rum realized what al-Muqawqas had done, namely, that he had betrayed them and had made them go out of the citadel, delivering it to the Muslims, they were afraid, they embarked, and went off to Karm Sharik. Al-Muqawqas later had an interview with Amr ibn al-As to enter into a communal agreement and agreed that all the Copts of Egypt, of Upper and Lower Egypt, would pay two dinars per head as a personal tribute, whether they were nobles or commoners, as long as they were adults. The old, boys still not grown up, and women were not required to pay anything.
14. They then made a census of the Copts, especially of those who were required to pay the tribute. The number counted was six thousand men and the tribute to be levied was therefore estimated at twelve thousand dinars. [Amr] therefore commanded them to pay these dinars in exchange for the protection that had been granted to them. Then al-Muqawqas went to Amr ibn al-As and said: “With the Rum I have nothing to do, my religion is not their religion nor is my doctrine the same as theirs. I was just afraid that they would kill me, so I kept hidden from them my religion and my doctrine, taking care not to leak such a thing. However, I have to ask you three things.” Amr said: “And what would they be?” He answered: “First, do not separate me from the Copts, consider me one of them and even impose on me what you impose on them because we decided this by mutual agreement and I am their guarantor. The Copts will observe the covenant which you have made with their friendship and with which you engaged with them. Second, if in the future the Rum ask you to make friends with them, do not do it until you have destroyed them and reduced them to slavery, because they deserve it. Third, when I am dead, command them to bury me in the Abu Yūkhannas church in Alexandria.” Amr gave him what he asked, provided that he undertook to repair both the bridges, to shoulder the burden of building houses and refreshment stations, and markets, and to build bridges in all the territory between Fustat and Alexandria. And so they did. In fact, the leaders of the Copts gathered their men, they repaired the road, and they built for them bridges, markets and houses. The Copts were then of great help to the Muslims in the war against the Rum. Amr then departed attacking the Rum at Karm Sharik. They fought for three days. Eventually the Rum retreated to escape, and they clashed again at Salstas, where they fought for nineteen days, then at al-Karyūn where they fought bitterly. The Rum were defeated and fled back to Alexandria where they entrenched. The Arabs then became like lions and continued to fight against the inhabitants of Alexandria without giving respite and harshly. The Rum made sorties from the gates every day and engaged in battle. Many were those on both sides who were left on the field. One day the fighting was so violent that the Arabs were able to storm the citadel of Alexandria engaging in fierce combat with those who were there. But the Rum managed to contain the onslaught and expelled them all from the citadel, making prisoners of Amr ibn al-As, Maslama ibn Mukhallad, Wardan, the freedman of Amr, and another man. The Rum, however, did not know who they were. The patrician told them: “You are now our prisoners, tell us what you want from us”. Amr said to them: “Either embrace our religion or pay us the personal tribute, or we will not cease fighting you until you or we are destroyed.” Then a Byzantine said to the patrician: “I have the impression that this man is their leader; kill him.” He alluded to Amr ibn al-As. Wardan understood what he said, because he knew Greek. So he seized Amr violently and gave him a slap, saying, “Who are you to dare to talk like this to the presence of the leaders? There is no one more vile and less important than you among the soldiers. Leave it to others to talk and keep quiet.” The patrician then said to himself: “If this man were their commander, he would not allow anyone to yank him like that and slap him.” Maslama ibn Mukhallad said: “Our prince had already decided to cease all fighting against you, and in fact the prince of believers, Omar ibn al-Khattab, had written to our commander, wanting to send you ten of our most prominent and wise leaders, so that we could reach, some kind of agreement with which all would be satisfied, and so we were left alone here. We ask, therefore, if you are of this opinion, to let us go because returning to our commander we can report how humanely you have treated us, then send to him the ten leaders and everything stops between us and you, as pleases us and pleases you, and so leave you in peace.” The patrician thought that these words corresponded to the truth. So he let them go free, hoping that the ten chiefs would present themselves. He would have them killed, and then the Arabs would be at his mercy. So he granted them permission to leave. As soon as they were outside, Maslama said to Amr ibn al-As: “O Amr, you were saved by the slap of Wardan!” Then they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and the Rum, discovering that the prisoner was Amr himself, repented of letting him go. Next [the Muslims] advanced, shouted out against the Rum, and engaged in a fierce battle. The Rum were put to flight. Some of them reached the sea and took ship, others took off into the desert. The Muslims thus came into Alexandria after having besieged it for fourteen months.
The Islamic raiders have now reached Egypt, and approach Babylon fortress, on the Nile. The bitter ideological infighting of the past century has left the country and its rulers at odds, and both hate the Emperor Heraclius. The Persian war has stripped the country of soldiers, and left societal bonds weakened. So the Prefect of Egypt is willing to cut a deal for his own corrupt ends with the handful of tribal raiders before him.
The “prefect al-Muqawqas” is not named by Eutychius, nor is his exact office given, and for good reasons. In fact his name was Cyrus, the augustalis or viceroy, and, far from being a Jacobite, he was Eutychius’ predecessor as the Melkite patriarch from 628-643. There is more about him in al-Tabari and Abu Salih.
11. In Egypt the prefect al-Muqawqas was receiving the kharāğ on behalf of King Heraclius. He was a Jacobite and he hated the Rum. But it had never crossed his mind to express his Jacobitism for fear of being killed. He had also not sent to Constantinople the money that he had collected in Egypt during the siege of Constantinople by Kisra, and therefore he was afraid that, if he fell into the hands of King Heraclius, he would surely be put to death. So he tried to deceive the Rum by saying to them: “The Arabs have had reinforcements, we cannot do anything against them, and we will find no way out if they besiege us. They will kill us for sure. Let’s open the gates of the citadel, and gather the fighters, then go out from the citadel and get out onto the island. There we will encamp and the sea will make us an effective defensive barrier.” The Rum went out, with al-Muqawqas and a group of Coptic notables, from the southern gate of the citadel, while others stayed to fight against the Arabs. They embarked on the boats, came onto the island – today a place of artisans – and cut the bridge that was used when the Nile flooded. Then al-Muqawqas sent word to Amr ibn al-‘As and said: “You came into our country and we have fought for a long time. For too long a time you have now been in our territory. You are surrounded by the Nile and you are prisoners at our mercy. Send us therefore one of your men who is your representative so that we can hear what you have to say and maybe reach an agreement that satisfies us and you, and so put an end to this war. ” When the messengers of al-Muqawqas presented themselves to Amr ibn al-As, he sent them back to al-Muqawqas along with Obaida ibn as-Samit. Obaida was of black complexion. When he came to al-Muqawqas, he led him to a seat and said: “What do you want from us, now, tell us.” Obaida replied: “For how things are done between us, there are only three possibilities, and it’s up to you to choose the one you like the most. This my chief has ordered me to repeat, and the prince of believers ordered him to say this. You may embrace our religion, namely Islam, and in this case you will become our brothers, we shall be united in good as well as in bad times. If you do this, we will stop fighting against you and will not let anyone do you harm or dare to go up against you. If you refuse to do this, you will pay us the tribute that we deem convenient, every year and forever, and we will defend you from all those who attack or try to harass you by laying claim upon your territory, upon you and upon your property. But if you accept our guarantee we will give you a deal which we deem legal. If you refuse even this, there will be between us and you only the judgment of the sword. We are all willing to die, to the last, in order to obtain what we want from you.”
Al-Muqawqas replied: “To embrace your religion is not possible [for us]; I myself personally, and my Coptic friends, can agree to accept a peace pact, but the Rum have refused to agree to make peace with you, saying: ‘We never do such a thing!'”Al-Muqawqas behaved in this manner because of treachery and deceit, in order to drive out the Rum from the citadel and then accept peace, in order to keep the money that he had collected.