Eznik of Kolb: the Avesta was not transmitted in writing but orally

A tweet by @BLAsia_Africa led me to a neglected passage in Eznik of Kolb, the 5th century Armenian writer, and a quotation from Paul the Persian!  From it I learned that:

…the Avesta was transmitted orally and not written down!

The author drew this conclusion after reading some remarks by R. C. Zaehner in 1955[1]:

However, whatever our view on the evidence of Paulus Persa, we have two other testimonies which can leave us in little doubt as to the fluidity of Zoroastrian dogma in Sassanian times. These are supplied by the Armenians Eznik of Kolb and Elise Vardapet. Eznik, like the nameless heretic of the Denkart, was struck by their inconsistency. ‘Their foolishness’, he says, ‘is enough to refute them from their own words which are mutually exclusive and self-contradictory’;[7] and again, repeating the oft-made charge that they had no books, he says: ‘Since their laws are not in books, sometimes they say one thing with which they deceive, and sometimes another with which they seduce, the ignorant.’[1]

[7] Ed. Venice, 1926, bk. ii, §2, p.128; Langlois, ii, p.375; Schmid, p.94.
[1] Venice, 1926, ii, 9, p.156; Langlois, ii, p.381; Schmid, pp. 111-12.

(Langlois = V. Langlois, Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l’Arménie, 2 vols, 1867: p.179-251; Schmid = J.M. Schmid, Wardapet Eznik von Kolb: Wider die Sekten. Aus den Armenischen ubersetzt…, Vienna, 1900. Online here.)

There is actually a complete English translation, and I used to have a copy but it was mislaid.  So let’s use Langlois, and just check the context of that quote.  It appears in column 1 on p.381, in about the middle of the page:

En second lieu, pour cacher cette honteuse action, [Zoroastre] publie que pour le besoin des jugements [Ormizt et Arhmèn] ont créé [le soleil].  Aussi comme les dogmes religieux ne sont pas écrits, tantôt ils disent une chose, et se trompent, tantôt ils en disent une autre, et ils trompent les ignorants. Cependant si Ormizt était Dieu, il pouvait tirer les autres du néant, comme il avait créé les cieux et la terre, et non pas au moyen d’un commerce infame, ou bieu en raison de l’absence d’un juge.

Secondly, in order to conceal this shameful act, [Zoroaster] set forth that [Ormazd and Ahriman] created [the sun] to perform judgements.  Also as the religious teachings are not written down, sometimes they say one thing, and are deceived, sometimes they say another about this, and deceive the ignorant.  However if Ormazd was god, he could brings the others out from nothing, like he created the heavens and the earth, and not by means of an infamous commerce, or because there was no judge.

That does seem like a pretty clear statement that the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, did not exist in written form at this date as far as Eznik knew; and that in consequence Zoroastrian teaching was pretty fluid.  I have seen popular claims that Christianity borrowed from Zoroastrian sources; but if there really are similarities, chronology would suggest that the borrowing is in the other direction.

  1. [1] Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1955; 128-9.  Google Books preview here.

Upcoming: translation (offline) of Bar Hebraeus’ “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum”

The 13th century Syriac writer Bar Hebraeus wrote before the Mongol invasions that devastated the Near East and reduced it to the backward condition in which it has languished ever since.  The same events also brought an end to the production of Syriac literature, and caused the loss of vast amounts of what already existed.

Among his works are two histories.  The second is the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, an encyclopedia of Syriac people, both Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East, with details of their lives and works.  This was printed with a Latin translation, but has never been translated into English.  Until now.

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that he has translated it, and has now received the proof copy from Gorgias Press, who are issuing it.  I would imagine that it is an essential purchase.  Here’s the blurb:

The Ecclesiastical Chronicle of the Jacobite polymath Bar Hebraeus (†1286), an important Syriac text written in the last quarter of the 13th century, has long been recognised as a key source for the history of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East.  Bar Hebraeus describes the eventful history of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches, as they were then called, from their earliest beginnings down to his own time, against the background of christological controversies, Roman‒Persian wars, the Arab Conquest, the Crusades and the 13th-century Mongol invasions.  Two continuators bring the story down to the end of the 15th century, shedding valuable light on a relatively obscure period in the history of both Churches.  The Ecclesiastical Chronicle was translated into Latin between 1872 and 1877, but has never before been fully translated into English.  Gorgias Press is proud to publish the first complete English translation of this influential text, by respected Syriac scholar David Wilmshurst.

This elegant translation of the Ecclesiastical Chronicle, six years in the making, captures the distinctive flavour of Bar Hebraeus’s style, and is complemented by a facing Syriac text.  Wilmshurst also provides a detailed introduction, setting the chronicle in its historical and literary context.  His translation is accompanied by five maps, showing the dioceses of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches and the towns, villages and monasteries of Tur ‘Abdin and the Mosul Plain.  A helpful bibliography and index are also provided.

David Wilmshurst was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, where he took a D Phil degree in Oriental Studies (1998).  He has spent much of his life in Hong Kong, and is one of the few modern scholars of the Church of the East who can read Syriac, Arabic and Chinese.  He is the author of The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318–1913 (Louvain, 2000), a study of the Christian topography of Iraq and Iran, and The Martyred Church (London, 2011), a general history of the Church of the East. Both books have been warmly praised by leading scholars.

I hope that the price is reasonable.

HMML microfilmed manuscripts in Syriac and Christian Arabic

The Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, under Fr Columba Stewart, has been photographing manuscripts in the East for quite a few years now, and creating microfilms of them.  How necessary this work is, has been shown graphically in recent weeks by the barbaric destruction of Assyrian monuments in Iraq by Muslim thugs, apparently out of sheer savagery.

This evening I learned by accident that the microfilms are being uploaded to Archive.org, as the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Texts, complete with catalogues.  For instance, the catalogue of microfilms of manuscripts from the Coptic Patriarchate is here:

Unfortunately the collection is very badly organised, at least to a newcomer.  Thus I know that manuscripts of the 13th century Christian Arabic writer al-Makin’s History are in this collection.  And indeed a search of the PDF – the online reader is unusable for black and white – reveals a mention of al-Makin, and some mysterious references:

Jirjis aI-Makin Ibn al-‘Amid:

Excerpts from the history of Agapius of Manbij falsely ascribed to him: CMA 7-13-12.
Kitab al-ta’rikh: CMB 8-15; 12-5; 13-3.
Ta’rikh al-Muslimin: CMB 12-16.

Erm, right.  I think we want the second one, the Kitab al-Tarikh.  So what is CMB 8-15?  More to the point, how do I find the microfilm of this on Archive.org?  Here I ran into difficulty.

I learned from the catalogue that CMB means volume B of some other catalogue of the mss of the Coptic Museum.  So far so good.  It looks as if this is connected to the name of the uploaded PDF.  CMD10-8 is https://archive.org/details/CMB10-8, for instance.  So …  no luck with al-Makin, then.

But perhaps it will come.  In the mean time, look around.  There are also Slavonic texts up there.  It is a huge treasure chest – if we can find anything.

Translation of Bar Hebraeus “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum” to appear later this year

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that he has reached agreement with Gorgias Press and that his translation of the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum of Bar Hebraeus will appear in print before the end of 2014.

This is excellent news.  All our knowledge of Syriac literature – who wrote what, and when – is based on this work.  It is a scandal that it has remained untranslated for so long.

What happened to the bindings of the Syriac manuscripts at the British Library

A very interesting post on this here:   The Syriac manuscripts in the British Library: what happened to the bindings? (Liv Ingeborg Lied).

Basically they were mostly discarded and rebound.

H/T Paleojudaica.

Welcome to Christophe Guignard’s “Marginalia” blog

The excellent Christophe Guignard has started his own blog (in French), on details of ancient Christian literature and its Graeco-Roman context.  It’s called Marginalia.

He’s just done a post in both English and French on a “new” uncial fragment of John’s Gospel (0323).

He’s also interested in Syriac mss. at Sinai.

I think I shall add it to my RSS feed.

Do Syriac historians care about getting their dates right?

A correspondent points out some very different attitudes towards chronological accuracy between Greek and Syriac historians.

In his monster-sized world chronicle, Michael the Syrian (12th c.) quoted frequently from earlier historians.  I will let my correspondent describe what he found.

“One of the sources Michael used was Ignatius of Melitene, whose preface he reproduced in full (iii. 115).

“Ignatius of Melitene was charmingly offhand about dates and their importance:

If anyone finds that some of the dates in my chronicle are either slightly high or slightly low, he should not blame me. Sometimes, when a king died, his successor had to wait around six months or a year before he ascended the throne. Similarly, when a patriarch died, a year or thereabouts might elapse before his successor was ordained. As a result, some events have become confused with others. As a matter of fact, this kind of thing does no great harm, as all scholars will readily admit.

“Ignatius demonstrates his insouciance later in Michael’s narrative by giving a date for the accession of one of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchs that is six or seven years out.

“Michael himself, though I think he did his best, knew that some of his dates would be questioned, and wisely covered his back in his own preface (i. 2):

In my opinion, scholars should not waste their energy in trying to calculate dates with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. As the Saviour truly said, ‘The Father has kept for himself the knowledge of times and dates.’ For example, there are many divergences between the Septuagint and the translation possessed by the Syrians, which was first made by King Abgar and was later revised by Ya‘qob of Edessa, who pretended to convert to Judaism so that the Jews would not hide the truth from him.

“When one thinks of how much care Thucydides took to get his dates right, and the stress that he rightly laid on accuracy (akribeia), the sloppiness of the Syriac writers is all the more remarkable.”

Interesting indeed.

Ephraim the Syrian on the Borborites / Phibionites

A rather baffling reference to “Ephraem the Syrian, Contra Haereses 79″[1] turns out to be a reference to Hymns against Heresies 22, 4, which, by happy chance, was translated for us a while back here.  Here’s the relevant section:

4D

The Arians, because they added and erred;
The Aetians, because they were subtle;
The Paulinians, because they acted perversely;
The Sabellians, because they acted with guile;
The Photinians, because they were cunning;
The Borborians, because they were defiled;
The Katharaites, because they kept themselves pure;
The Audians, because they were ensnared;
The Mesallians, because they were unrestrained.

Response: May the good one turn them to his fold!

(This stanza has no main verb: it seems to be a list of why these groups are considered heretics.)

This does not tell us much.  But it would seem that this was written before Epiphanius wrote the Panarion, as Ephraim died on 9th July 373 AD,[2] and the Panarion was written as a continuation of the Ancoratus (374 AD), and was in progress in 375 and completed in 377.[3]  If so, it must be independent of it.

The same source also refers to “Pseudo-Ephraim, Testament 58″.  I have not been able to discover what this text is, unfortunately.

  1. [1] Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of early Christianity, 2nd ed.
  2. [2] S. Brock, A brief outline of Syriac literature, Moran Etho 9, Kottayam:SEERI, 1997,  p.22.  One wonders how so precise a date is known.
  3. [3] Panarion 1, 2; Panarion 66, 20; Quasten, Patrology III, 386 and 388.  I do not know how the Anchoratus is dated, however.

Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur online!

A correspondant kindly drew my attention to an online resource for Islamic manuscripts.  The address is here:

http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/

The site includes all five volumes of Graf’s GCAL.  It may be 60 years old but it is still the only handbook of Christian Arabic literature.

The site also has a vast array of manuscript-related catalogues and resources.

Syriac and Manichaean-related materials on a British Library blog

Via MedievalEgypt on Twitter I learn of a valuable post on Manichaean-related materials in the British Library, here, by Ursula Sims-Williams:

One of the most important sources in the British Library is the Syriac manuscript Add.12150 which contains the treatise Against the Manicheans by Titus (d. 378) of Bostra (Bosra, now in Syria), translated from Greek. This codex is additionally important, being the oldest known dated Syriac manuscript, in near perfect condition, and copied in Edessa in the year 723 of the Seleucid era (AD 411).

bl_add_12150_titus_end

The final page of Titus of Bostra’s treatise Against the Manicheans. Vellum, dated AD 411 (Add.12150, f.156r).

The article goes on to discuss the manuscript of the Prose Refutations by Ephraim the Syrian, and the efforts of Charles Mitchell to edit these.  I well remember digitising his translation and uploading it, years ago.  He was a casualty of WW1.

I hope that the BL Asian and African Studies blog will do more on Syriac materials!