Arabic Christian Historians: Yahya ibn Sa`id al-Antaki

When the early Muslims conquered the Near East, they subjugated large areas populated by Christians, politically part of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire, but speaking either Syriac or Coptic.  Over time these were forced to adopt Arabic, and to translate their literature into that language from the 9th century onwards.  This multi-lingual environment produced the Translation Movement, which translated Greek science into Arabic.  Arabic Christian literature is little known, but voluminous.

There are five major historians prior to 1500.  These are Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki, Al-Makin, and Bar Hebraeus.  I always find it hard to remember the barbarous-sounding Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki – it means John, son of Said, of Antioch – and, having managed to remember, I thought I would say a few words about him.

TLDR: He was an Egyptian who went to Antioch and wrote a continuation of the Annals of Eutychius covering the years 938-1028.

I think we’d better start with the entry in Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur vol. 2 (1947), p.49 f.  (Written 76 years ago!)  I’m not bothering with the dots and accents here.

14.  Yahya (Yuhanna) ibn Said ibn Yahya al-Antaki.  According to Ibn Abi Usaibia, he was a relative of Eutychius, and composed his annals under the title “The Book of the Appendix” (Kitab ad-Dail) for the years 938-1027-8 AD.  He wrote the majority of the work before his move to Antioch in 1015, but then corrected, supplemented and expanded it based upon the archival documents which he found there. Apart from presenting Byzantine history, it is above all an important source for the history of Fatimid rule in Egypt and Syria. It is also rich in valuable details about ecclesiastical conditions and events in the eastern countries.

We then get some very elderly bibliography, which I will abbreviate a bit.

Ibn Abi Usaibia, vol. 2, 87.  Krumbacher 368.  … An excerpt on the seige and capture of Antioch by the Byzantines in 967-8 was printed in translation by Alfred von Kremer, Beiträge zur Geographie des nördlichen Syriens, Wien 1852, p. 4-6.  … (Russian publication) deals with, among other things, the Christianization of the Russians and the history of the Bulgarians at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century, with a different perspective to that in Byzantine sources.  The first complete edition of the Arabic text was  part of the publication of Eutychius by L. Cheikho &c in CSCO, Scriptores Arabici, textus, series III, t. VII (Beirut 1909), p.89-273, and taken from Ms. Paris ar. 291 (17th century), folios 82v-137v, and a manuscript of the collection of excerpts by the deacon Paul az-Za`im of Aleppo (17th century), itself derived from a copy of Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki’s text made in Cairo in 1291.

A new edition with French translation was made in the Patrologia Orientalis series, volumes 18 pt 5 and 23 pt 3.  …. using various rather late manuscripts.

This is online so I will skip Graf’s remarks about it, and give links:

Three other works of the same author also exist, although I have no idea whether any have been printed, or even exist now.  These remarks are from 1947.

Three theological works by the same author, “Abu’l Farag Yahya ibn Sa`id ibn Yahya al-Antaki” are in manuscripts in a private collection in Aleppo:

  • Treatise (maqala) on the truth of the (Christian) religion, catalogued in Sbath, Fihris 2527 (13th c.)
  • Refutation of the Jews, 2528.
  • Refutation of the Muslims, 2529.

An English translation of the historical work does exist.

J.H. Forsyth “The Chronicle of Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki”, Univ. of Michigan Ph.D. thesis, 1977.

This is even online here but…. only if you belong to the University of Michigan!  Otherwise a copy of the same PDF will cost you $40 from ProQuest.  If anybody reading this can access this thesis, I’d be grateful of a copy.

An Italian translation also exists, and selections from this are available online at the publisher’s website!  I do approve of that practice.

Yaḥyā ibn Sa’ïd, al-Anṭākī, Cronache dell’Egitto fāṭimide e dell’impero bizantino : (937-1033) (PDF). Translated by Bartolomeo Pirone, (3rd ed. heavily revised and corrected), Milan: Jaca Book (1998).  Series: PCAC 3.  The publisher has a page for it here.

Since I don’t have the English translation, why don’t we let Google translate give us the first couple of sections of the Italian of Bartolomeo Pirone?  (Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq = Eutychius).

1.   In the name of God, the Merciful, the Merciful!  A book composed by Yaḥyā Ibn Saʿīd al-Anṭākī, a continuation of the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq.  I propose, with this book, to narrate those past events and present events of which I have come to know, and which I believe to be true, starting from the time at which the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq, patriarch of Alexandria, end, to the present day, thus taking care to oblige myself towards the one who asked me to compose and write it, encouraging me to draft it and arrange the parts in good order. May God guard him, and preserve him, too, from what he fears!

2.  Now Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq stops, in the Annals that he wrote, at the fifth year of the caliphate of al-Rāḍī, i.e. in the year 326 of the hegira, while he himself died in the year 328 of the hegira. The day and the month of the year in which he died, I will mention them at the right place in this book of mine. I will classify the material I have collected following the same classification criterion he adopted and, in doing so, I will stick to the methods he followed. For my part, I will add the names of all the caliphs and all the rulers that have come to me and I will define the period of government completed by each of them; to this I will add everything I have learned about their deeds, their lives and the events that took place in their days, avoiding, in doing so, giving in, at the same time, to verbosity of exposition and excessive conciseness, following, at the on the contrary, somewhere in between. Indeed the minds of men more often seek, and pursue with greater desire, knowledge of events close to their own time.

Few of us, perhaps, will ever have reason to venture into this book.  But it is useful to have some idea of what is out there, and how to find it.


Al-Makin: Critical edition and English translation published!

Arabic Christian literature is little known to most of us.  It is the literature of the Christian communities of the Near East, the Syriac and Coptic worlds, after they were overrun by Islam, and their languages started to fade under the pressure of the dominant Arabic-speaking culture.  Naturally much of it begins with translations from the original languages, and consequently there is a strong connection to Greek and Byzantine literature.

Within Arabic Christian literature there are the five big histories: those of Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki, Al-Makin, and Bar-Hebraeus.   All these need work, to make them accessible, and I have done things with Agapius and Eutychius.  But none has been neglected like al-Makin.  He wrote in the 13th century, but he is known in mainstream circles, if at all, today because of a 1971 article, Shlomo Pines, “An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications.”  In this Pines gave a version of the Testimonium Flavianum from Agapius, which he mangled using the unpublished text of Al-Makin.

Like most such chronicles, Al-Makin divided his work into two halves; the first containing history until the appearance of Islam, and the second covering the Islamic period up to his own time.  The second half was printed back in 1625 with a Latin translation by Erpenius.  A French translation of part of this appeared in 1955.  I myself made attempts to create an Arabic text, which proved futile.  The first half was never even printed.

But… today I received an email from Dr Martino Diez, who has … produced a critical edition, with parallel English translation, of the opening section of the first half!

Martino Diez, al-Makīn Ǧirǧis Ibn al-ʿAmīd: Universal History. The Vulgate Recension. From Adam to the End of the Achaemenids.  Leiden: Brill (2024). Pages: xxii, 1115 pp. 

Dr Diez is professor of Arabic language and literature at the Catholic University of Milan, and has written a number of excellent papers on the subject.  Here’s what he says:

I am happy to announce that the first part of al-Makin Ibn al-Amid’s Universal History is now available in critical edition with parallel English translation.

This part covers from Adam to the end of the Achaemenids. Unfortunately this means that for the Testimonium Flavianum you will have to wait a little longer, but I am supervising a PhD student and we have already established the Arabic text.

In the introduction, apart from the Ibn al-‘Amid’s life and the different recensions in which his book has been handed down, I discuss the sources and the fortune of the work.

The link leads to the Brepols site, which has a PDF of the table of contents.  This indicates an extensive and very interesting-looking introduction.  There are two versions of the text in existence, as is also the case with other Arabic-laanguage histories, and he has rightly chosen to work with the most commonly encountered “vulgate” edition.

The Brepols site adds:

When the 13th-century Coptic official al-Makīn Ibn al-ʿAmīd was thrown into prison by Sultan Baybars, he set out to compile a summary of Biblical, Graeco-Roman, and Islamic history for his own consolation. His work, which drew from a vast array of sources, enjoyed enduring success among various readerships: Oriental Christians, in Arabic-speaking communities but also in Ethiopia; Mamluk historians, including Ibn Ḫaldūn and al-Maqrīzī; and early modern Europe.

Obviously I have not seen the book itself, but this is an enormously welcome volume.  It is very good news that Martino Diez has a second volume in progress!

It’s well worth reading these sorts of chronicles, to see what sort of things they contain.  After all, if you’re working with Byzantine histories, in Greek or Syriac, you are basically working with the same material which finds its way into the Arabic language.  You need to know what that material looks like, a century or two further down the line.  The pre-islamic half of Al-Makin is entirely derived from Byzantine and Syriac sources, and consequently of great interest to anyone looking into those sorts of Chronicles.



Where do I find a list of the Melkite patriarchs of Alexandria?

Recently something or other drew my attention to a mysterious saint named “John the Merciful”.  A google search took me to a dreadful Wikipedia article – since modified – which merely repeated anecdotes from his Life, itself online elsewhere.  He was described as “John V” and patriarch of Alexandria.

With some effort, I discovered that he was in fact the Melkite patriarch – not the Coptic patriarch – at the time of the Sassanid Persian occupation of Egypt under Heraclius.  He was the state appointed patriarch in a hostile land, and he sensibly legged it straight out of Dodge when the Persians arrived, along with Nicetas the governor.  He’s a saint in the Greek orthodox world, although curiously he may also be a Coptic saint – the online material is confusing.  There is an account of him in Butler’s The Arab Conquest of Egypt, although this is very old.

This lead me to wonder where I could find a reliable, scholarly list of bishops of Alexandria.  It isn’t easy to answer that question, whichever episcopal see you are interested in.  You can find such things online, but never referenced, and you never know quite what you’re looking at or how reliable it might be.

After some googling around, for quite some time, I did find some sort of answer.  There is a list in Walter Eder, Chronologies of the Ancient World: Names, Dates, Dynasties, Leiden (2007), which is supplement 1 for Der Neue Pauly.  Section XIII, p.315-332, gives lists of bishops and patriarchs, for Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, together with a “synoptic chart”, a table of dates and bishops showing who was presiding where at what time.  Each section has a brief bibliography.  The Melkite patriarchs of Alexandria are in there.  The series ends with the Muslim conquest, when the Melkite patriarch, a state official, sensibly disappeared off to Constantinople.  A figurehead “Greek Orthodox Patriarch” was re-established about a century later, to serve the needs of visitors, with the consent of the Muslim rulers, and this post still exists today.

The same question could reasonably be asked of other sees.  Name any ancient see.  Now consider: just where would I find a reliable list of bishops?  Ideally with primary source references?  Surely this must exist?


Review: Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends

Stratis Papaioannou, Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends (Dumbarton Oaks medieval library 78), Harvard (2023).  ISBN 9780674290792.  $35.  Introduction online hereBuy at here.

The medieval religious folk-stories known as the “Lives of the Saints” are an under-studied form of medieval literature.  The stories themselves often arise from the people, and are expressed in popular language.  They reach us in medieval handwritten copies, like everything else, but these are not literary texts.  The story, rather than the text, is what is important, and so the actual words are freely modified.  Several versions usually exist.  Thankfully we have the index of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (= BHG; online here), which  assigns numbers to the various texts.  Students often find it difficult to work out how to relate to this material, but the urban legend is perhaps the nearest modern equivalent.

There has been an increase in interest in hagiography in recent years.  Yet even now few of the source texts have been critically edited, and still fewer have been translated into any modern language.  One obstacle to doing so is that most of these texts are shorter than book length.  Each would make an edition and translation suitable for publication as a journal article, and indeed we find that, a century ago, scholars such as François Nau routinely published texts in this way.  If necessary, they split them over multiple issues.  But it is doubtful that a modern journal editor would print such an article.  It would be declined on the grounds that it is “not research.”

Instead the only way to publish such translations is to collect together a number of texts, and publish them in book form, with some kind of connecting link.  Sadly there are no obvious series of translations into which such a book would naturally fall without some wrestling.  What is needed is a series made up of translations of Saints’ Lives, rather like the New City translations of all of Augustine.  But this perhaps must await a renewal of interest in medievalism in the wider public, for otherwise who would buy them?

Thankfully the excellent Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series has produced this volume, and they have kindly sent me a review copy.  The physical book is well made and manufactured, and sold at a very modest price.  It is a true hardback, sewn rather than glued.  There is even a sewn-in book mark, so this is quality indeed.

The volume contains seven texts in Greek, with fluent English translations on facing pages.  These seemingly disparate texts are linked together by the editor in his introduction in a reasonably convincing way.  The introductory discussion may be read on here.  This is very well done, and well-referenced.  The discussion is perhaps a little dense for anyone new to hagiography.  Unfortunately the footnotes have been banished to the end of the introduction, which makes it hard to use them.

What makes this volume truly invaluable is the translations.  As knowledge of ancient languages diminishes, the translations make these texts more accessible than ever.   It seems likely that all these texts will attract more scholarly interest over the next few years.  The texts included, and the BHG number for each, are:

  • 1) Boniphatios of Tarsus (BHG 279-280);
  • 2) Alexios the Man of God (BHG 51n);
  • 3) Markos the Athenian (BHG 1039-1041);
  • 4) Makarios the Roman (BHG 1005);
  • 5) Christopher, the Cynocephalus (BHG 309);
  • 6) George the Great Martyr (BHG 670a), together with the miracles about his slaying the Dragon (BHG 687) and capturing the Demon (BHG 687k);
  • 7) Niketas, son of Maximian (redaction related to BHG 1346d)

All these texts appear in English for the first time.  Each is given with a Greek text and English translation on facing pages, in the format familiar to readers of the Loeb series.  This is really praiseworthy.  The Greek font chosen is very readable, and the reader of the English translation may well find his eye stray across the page to the Greek to see just what English word lies behind this or that wording.  Even someone with little Greek can spell out a word or two, and look it up online; and the format positively encourages such activity.  The text has been well paragraphed, which assists this useful opportunity for those with little Greek of learning more.

Words quoted from the scriptures are placed in italics.  This works well in the English, without the need for obtrusive footnotes.  Curiously it looks a bit strange in the Greek text, however.  At first I wondered if my eyes were having trouble!

The translation given of each text is very readable, which is absolutely right and proper.  At points it drops into colloquialisms, such as the use of “you’re” instead of “you are”.  This is a bit of a shock – we’re all used to formal language -, but it will hardly deter the reader.  The effort involved in producing the first English translation of any text is considerable, and usually underrated except by those who have done it.  This is a fine effort.  Translationese has been avoided, and the result is impressive.  Dr Papaioannou tells us in the preface that he got the translation read by native English speakers.  It is a very difficult task to make a satisfactory translation into any language that is not your mother-tongue, even for those really fluent. So he did wisely, and I hope his statement here will encourage others to do the same.

One oddity about the book, which may mislead the reader, is that the information about the Greek text that has been printed is found, not before the text itself, but instead at the back, on pages 281 f., and the critical notes following that, as endnotes, on p.293 f.  The casual reader of the book is very likely to miss this invaluable material, as I did initially.  This is especially so for a reader interested only in a single text – which will be quite often the case.   I can only presume that this arrangement, adding in the extra material, was an afterthought; but if so, it was a happy one.   The editor first indicates the principles of his edition.  In general he has tried to retrieve an early version of the legend, and print something not otherwise available.  Faced with such a mass of hagiographical material, this seems like the only possible approach for any editor to take.  He then lists the manuscripts and existing editions that he used.  Everything in the bibliography is useful, and it could well have been longer.

The version of the legend of St George translated here (BHG 670a, summary of story at CSLA here) is very similar to the Latin text which I translated elsewhere on this site, and therefore is also likely to be a very early form of the legend.  St George dies four times, at the hands of an increasingly angry but non-existent emperor Dadianus.  Later revisions of the legend tended to correct the name, and reduce the legend to a somewhat more believable form.  The evil magician introduced has the name of Athanasius, which naturally leads the reader to wonder whether the text was produced as a satire by a 5th century Arian.  A useful addition is a translation of two of the miracle stories.  The ones chosen are major ones: St George and the Dragon, and St George and the Demon.

The Passion of Nicetas son of Maximian (a version related to BHG 1346d) – two other Nicetas’ are mentioned in the BHG – references the emperor Dadianus, so shows knowledge of the St George legend. Portions of this are rather comic: the demon Beelzebub appears, and, tortured by the saint, he explains just how he leads the faithful astray and foments arguments.  Later he reappears, encounters Nicetas again, and “when the demon saw the saint staring at him, he said, “Oh dear!  He wants to catch me again!” And vanishes at once.

In this legend, I must mention my one gripe about the book.  Native English readers will wince at the use of the barbarous-looking “Niketas,” rather than the usual Nicetas.  While “Niketas” is bearable, the usage becomes absurd on p.251 where a woman’s name is given as “Iouliane”.  This collection of vowels did make me rub my eyes a bit, until I realised that the name is simply “Juliana”, an ordinary Latin name, given in the text in its Greek version – naturally -, and transliterated rather than translated back.   I am aware that an elitist fad has arisen lately for transliteration rather than translation.  But editors need to resist this trend, in the interests of everybody.  Nobody needs to mentally retranslate words.  Readers need no barriers to understanding.  We need Greek legends made more accessible, rather than filled with strange and uncouth words.

I have nothing special to say about the other texts, although it is wonderful to have them.  The Life of Macarius the Roman (BHG 1005) is a very different text for these two: an imaginary journey into darkest Africa!  The Passion of Boniphatios (or Boniface, in English) is a straightforward story of a dissolute man who is sent to the Greek East to collect some relics of the martyrs for his mistress, but is converted and martyred himself.  The ease of the translation is particularly notable here.

All in all, this is a very valuable volume to have.  If this was the first book on hagiography that a novice reader came to consult, he would most certainly know a great deal more than he did at the beginning, and would have a good solid feel for hagiographical texts.  Recommended.


Another AI Translation Experiment: Old Slavonic

This post at Three Pillars Blog came to my attention yesterday.  Scott Cooper is experimenting with Google Translate and ChatGPT AI to see whether we can get anything useful out of Old Church Slavonic.

As you can see, Google’s language detection isn’t entirely useless with OCS. Apparently early Cyrillic and it’s modern Bulgarian equivalent, as well as some of the vocabulary, are similar enough that Google “detects” Bulgarian and renders both individual words and some complete sentences. In a pinch, it seems there are OCS dictionaries one could slog through, cobbling together what Google can’t. That sounds rather miserable. ChatGPT, as we’ll see, was able to use my description of the text as Old Church Slavonic, and produce a full translation. What follows is information on the source text, an of outline the results, and a comparison to an actual human translation.

He’s picked an Old Slavonic text which is online, and indeed already has an English translation online, and run ChatGPT against it.

Obviously we have to ask – is that translation already in the ChatGPT database?  If so, the AI translation will not in fact be doing anything much.  What we need is some u untranslated Old Slavonic.

But very interesting!


Ephrem Graecus – Published English translations coming soon

Ephrem the Syrian is the most famous of the Syriac writers; but there is a mass of material in Greek attributed to him.  Some of it is translations of the Syriac, but most is clearly not.  It looks as if there was a fashion for writing in his style at one point.

Unfortunately this large splodge of unexplored material has never been critically edited.  Instead it was collected by Assemani in the 18th century from manuscripts, and more or less printed as he found it.  Some of the texts are clearly excerpts from others of the texts.  Assemani gave a Latin translation.

Since then we’ve had Phrantzolas reprint the text in 1988-98 in 7 volumes, with a modern Greek translation.  That was a step forward.

But now I read that a complete English translation is in progress!  An English translation is indeed the obvious next step.  Making it easier to dip into the texts will cause more young scholars to start doing so, and in turn to start creating scholarship about it.  Little by little Ephrem Graecus is being opened up!

Via the St Ephrem: The Greek Corpus site:

Published Translations of Ephrem Graecus Coming Soon

That’s it. That’s the news. A translation of the Greek writings attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian is currently underway with St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. They are currently working on vol. 1 (of seven). Look for it probably in 2024.

The site owner told me:

A friend of mine here in the US is working on it. I had planned to do a volume of the most (historically) “important” texts, but he was inspired to do the whole collection, so I yielded to him. It will be very good to finally put out there

This is massively good news.  Wonderful!


Latin translations of the Greek fathers in Dark Ages monastic manuscript inventories

How widely known were the Greek fathers in the Latin world during the Dark Ages?  How accessible were they?

One possible source of information is the surviving inventories of medieval libraries.  A collection of these was printed by G. Becker in 1885 as Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqui, and it makes interesting reading indeed.  In fact if you want to get an idea of what a medieval library looked like, this is the best thing you can read.  Catalogue after catalogue, monastery after monastery.

If we do a search on “Origen”, we start finding results almost at once.  The seventh catalogue, from Fontanelle, ca. 823-33 AD, has four volumes of his homilies as entries 78-81.  The next catalogue (8), from Reichenau, at much the same time, is better still:

Homilies of Chrysostom on Matthew; Origen on Genesis, on Romans; and books from the Clementine Recognitions.  All of these are, of course, Latin translations.  It raises the question of just what the Latin world of that period had access to.

Back in 2021 an interesting article appeared in the Downside Review by Scott G. Bruce: “Veterum vestigia patrum: The Greek Patriarchs in the Manuscript Culture of Early Medieval Europe”.[1]  The abstract is worth quoting:

This article draws attention to the availability of Latin translations of Greek patristic literature in western reading communities before the year 800 through a survey of the contents of hundreds of surviving manuscripts from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods. An examination of the presence of the translated works of eastern church fathers in the 8th-century florilegium known as The Book of Sparks (Liber scintillarum) and monastic library catalogs from the early 9th century corroborates the impression left by the manuscript evidence. Taken together, these sources allow us to gauge the popularity of particular eastern authors among Latin readers in early medieval Europe and to weigh the influence and importance of Greek patristics in the western monastic tradition.

But the abstract is too modest: the author has surveyed nearly 1,800 Latin manuscripts created before 800 AD – a massive task.  His conclusion:

In conclusion, the legacy of the ancient fathers, in particular those of Greek origin, was an important aspect of the intellectual history of early medieval monasticism that has received little attention in modern scholarship. This article has laid the foundation for the study of the reception of the Greek fathers in the medieval Latin tradition. Its survey of the nearly 1800 Latin manuscripts created before or around the year 800 has shown that doctrinal, devotional, and historical works attributed to eastern Christian authors survived in relative abundance in western monastic libraries. Latin reading communities favored especially the biblical commentaries of Origen, the salvation history of Eusebius, and the homilies and sermons of John Chrysostom, but other Christian Greek authors like Basil of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ephrem the Syrian, and Gregory of Nazianzos informed their thinking as well. An examination of the early 8th-century Book of Sparks and Carolingian book inventories from the first decades of the 9th century corroborated the evidence of the manuscripts, and also uncovered the presence of lesser known works of Eastern origin that attracted a western audience, including a spiritual guide by Evagrius of Pontus. … The Christological controversies of the late 8th century raised the currency of the Greek fathers even higher among Latin readers like Alcuin, who looked back to the 5th-century east for a language of authority with which to defend traditional Christian doctrine against the misguided interpretation of Christ’s nature put forward by the Adoptionists.

The article is very readable, and is recommended.

Note the presence of Ephraim the Syrian?  This is CPG 4080 = CPL 1143, De die judicii, on the Day of Judgement, found in the catalogue of St Riquier (Becker 11, p.27).  There’s an English translation online here.

Looking in Becker, I find mention of a Discourses to Monks in Whitby ca. 1180 (Becker 109, p.226), but all is not as it seems.  for Becker gives his source:

Edwards. Memoirs of libraries. (London 1859.) p. 109-111 excerpsit ex Young History of Whitby and Streoneshald Abbey {1817} p.918-920.

and the latter is accessible online.  On p.919 here we find that the entry is merely “Effrem” – the rest is speculation by the 19th century editor.  The work supposed here is CPG 3942 Exhortation to the Monks of Egypt (Sermones paraenetici ad monachos Aegypti), the first ten of which are online in English here.  (The translation site has gone, and is now preserved only at

Later in Becker there is yet another “liber, qui vocatur Ephrem” – a book which is called ‘Ephrem’ – as entry 37 of Stederburg (Becker 124, p.253, 12th c.).

It’s very useful to know just what was available in Dark Ages Europe.

  1. [1]Vol. 139, p.6-23.  DOI: 10.1177/0012580621994704

Cyril of Alexandria on posthumous anathemas

Letter 72 of Cyril of Alexandria, To Proclus, Bishop of Constantinople, is an interesting item.  The Greek is in PG77, column 344, and there is an English translation by John McEnerny in FOC77, p.72 f.  Nestorius has been deposed and exiled, and the hapless Proclus installed in his stead as bishop of Constantinople.  Cyril has won his civil war, and is now concerned to solidify his victory.

But throughout the East some were exceedingly vexed at this, not only of the laity but also of those assigned to the sacred ministry. … Yet by the grace of God either in pretense or in truth they speak and preach one Christ and anathematize the impious verbiage of Nestorius. In the meanwhile things there are in much tranquillity and they run toward what is steadfast in the faith day by day, even those who once were tottering.

But victory in civil war is always arrogant.  Some of Cyril’s supporters have arrived in Constantinople and asked the emperor to use his power to condemn the long-deceased scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia as well.

But his name in the East is great and his writings are admired exceedingly. As they say, all are bearing it hard that a distinguished man, one who died in communion with the churches, now is being anathematized.

Of course Nestorius was indeed following the ideas of Theodore, but Cyril is nothing if not a politician.  An exposition written by Theodore had been condemned at an Eastern synod; but the name of Theodore was not mentioned:

But while condemning those who think in this way, in prudence the synod did not mention the man, nor did it subject him to an anathema by name, through prudence, in order that some by paying heed to the opinion of the man might not cast themselves out of the churches.

The translation is somewhat awkward, or, more likely, Cyril’s prose is itself convoluted.  But what Cyril means here is that, if the synod had understood that Theodore was being condemned, they might have refused to go along with Cyril’s plans.  Cyril calls disagreement with himself “casting yourself out of the church.”  He adds:

Prudence in these matters is the best thing and a wise one.

Then to the matter:

(4) If he were still among the living and was a fellow-warrior with the blasphemies of Nestorius, or desired to agree with what he wrote, he would have suffered the anathema also in his own person. But since he has gone to God, it is enough, as I think, that what he wrote absurdly be rejected by those who hold the true doctrines, since by his books being around the chance to go further sometimes begets pretexts for disturbances.

The second sentence is hard to understand, so I took a look at the PG.

I couldn’t make anything of that either, unfortunately.  The parallel Latin is somewhat obscure also:

Quoniam vero ad Deum abiit, sufficit, ut ego puto, ea quae absurde ab ipso scripta sunt rejici ab iis qui recte sentiunt, cum iis, qui in ipsius libros incidunt, etiam ulterius progredi tumultuum occasiones nonnunquam pariat.

But since he has gone to God, it is sufficient, as I think, for the things which are absurdly written by him to be rejected by those who think rightly; to go still further with these things, which they meet with in his books, may sometimes create the occasions for disturbances.

Not sure about the Latin of the last bit – shout if you can see it better!

And in another way since the blasphemies of Nestorius have been anathematized and rejected, there have been rejected along with them those teachings of Theodore which have the closest connection to those of Nestorius. Therefore, if some of those in the East would do this unhesitatingly, and there was no disturbance expected from it, I would have said that grief at this makes no demands on them now and I would have told them in writing.

I have read this several times.  I think Cyril is saying that, if the Easterners were happy about rejecting Theodore, then nothing need be done about him; and that Cyril would be happy to say so in writing to them; a writing that could be held in evidence against him, in the putrid politics of the time.

(5) But if, as my lord, the most holy Bishop of Antioch, John, writes, they would choose rather to be burned in a fire than do any such thing, for what purpose do we rekindle the flame that has quieted down and stir up inopportunely the disturbances which have ceased lest perhaps somehow the last may be found to be worse than the first?

This seems to mean that he has heard from “the most holy John”, his political foe, that the Easterners are NOT happy about rejecting Theodore, and if they have to do so, may reject Cyril’s settlement entirely, and go back to supporting Nestorius.

And I say these things although violently objecting to the things which Theodore, already mentioned, has written and although suspecting the disturbances which will be on the part of some because of the action, lest somehow some may begin to grieve for the teachings of Nestorius as a contrivance in the fashion of that spoken of by the poet among the Greeks, “They mourned in semblance for Patroclus but each one mourned her own sorrows.”

He thinks the Easterners will rally around the name of Theodore, while meaning Nestorius.

(6) If, therefore, these words please your holiness, deign to indicate it, in order that it may be settled by a letter from both of us. It is possible even for those who ask these things to explain the prudence of the matter and persuade them to choose to be quiet rather and not to become an occasion of scandal to the churches.

So, he continues, please tell my partisans from me to shut up, stop rocking the boat, and let the Easterners get used to the idea of rejecting Nestorius.

It is obviously unfair to condemn a man who died in the peace of the church for saying things that were later turned into a big argument.  Cyril says something of the sort, but I’m not sure that this is the thrust of his argument  His appeal is instead to politics and prudence.  Principles are for free men, and the world that he lived in was not such a society.

On the other hand it’s easy to be unfair to Cyril.  He was effectively the political leader of Egypt, as his predecessor had been, and as his successors were to be.  His life was entirely a matter of politics.  Politics is the art of the possible.  Cyril did not think that condemning Theodore at this time was possible, even though he would have liked to.


Some thoughts about interpolation in patristic texts

The term “Theotokos” (“Mother of God”) becomes the subject of fierce controversy in the 5th century AD.  The dispute was perhaps more political than religious – Constantinople versus Alexandria – but was fought with great ferocity, and lavish bribery, and ended in the victory of Cyril of Alexandria and the exile of Nestorius and indeed a great number of others.  Failure to use the term for Mary was a sign of Nestorianism, which could be fatally bad for you.  The use of the term is still held with passion by  Eastern Orthodox even today.

Therefore, when searching the TLG for the earliest usages of this word, it was something of a surprise to find it in Greek patristic texts from 300 onwards.  It appears in Athanasius, but also before.  Of course there is no reason why the word might not be used, and it need not imply any of the doctrines associated with it in the 5th century.  But all the same it seems odd.

Could these usages be later interpolations?  How could we tell?

I am very much opposed to alleging interpolation as a way to dispose of inconvenient evidence.  In general the texts that have reached us from antiquity do so in a very reasonable state, as far as we can tell.  The main reason for this is, of course, the prosaic one.  Anybody who put himself to the considerable trouble of copying a literary text did so precisely because he wanted a copy of that text.

But once politics and bigotry appear, then the incentive to forgery appears.  Cyril of Alexandria himself refers, in letters 39 and 40, to tampering with a letter of Athanasius:

8.  But when some of those accustomed “to pervert what is right” turn my words aside into what seems best to them, let your holiness not wonder at this, knowing that those involved in every heresy collect from the divinely inspired Scripture as pretexts of their own deviation whatever was spoken truly through the Holy Spirit, corrupting it by their own evil ideas, and pouring unquenchable fire upon their very own heads. But since we have learned that some have published a corrupt text of the letter of our all-glorious father, Athanasius, to the blessed Epictetus, a letter which is itself orthodox, so that many are done harm from it, thinking that for this reason it would be something useful and necessary for our brothers, we have sent to your holiness copies of it made from the ancient copy which is with us and is genuine. – Letter 39 (FOC 76 translation), p.152


25. … For the most God-fearing Bishop of Emesa, Paul, came to me and then, after a discussion had been started concerning the true and blameless faith, questioned me rather earnestly if I approved the letter from our thrice-blessed father of famous memory, Athanasius, to Epictetus, the Bishop of Corinth. I said that, “if the document is preserved with you incorrupt,” for many things in it have been falsified by the enemies of the truth, I would approve it by all means and in every way. But he said in answer to this that he himself had the letter and that he wished to be fully assured from the copies with us and to learn whether their copies have been corrupted or not. And taking the ancient copies and comparing them with those which he brought, he found that the latter have been corrupted; and he begged that we make copies of the texts with us and send them to the Church of Antioch. And this has been done. – Letter 40 (FOC 76 translation), p.166-7.

Much later, at the Council of Florence, the Greeks and the Latins arguing over the filioque found examples on both sides of interpolation.

This is human nature.  Once a behaviour is incentivised, through advantage or fear, then it will appear.

We know something of “forced speech” in these days.  If you look at a job advertisement from most official or academic sources, each and every one will include some reference to “diversity”.  The word is pretty much meaningless of itself; but we all know that it is a code-word, indicating loyalty to a particular political agenda.  A job advertisement that did not contain it might be dangerous!  It might leave the clerks open to an accusation of failure to endorse this policy or that.  Far safer to murmur the code-words.

In the 5th century, failure to use “theotokos” might carry the same risks for any writer.  Once certain views are obligatory, and failure to conform is dangerous, then it becomes important to use the code-words.  “Theotokos” was most certainly a code-word.

A little while ago I was looking at the catena fragments which preserve bits of Origen.  These use the word “theotokos”, but I gather that scholars do not think this part of Origen’s text.  This is not unreasonable.  A catena is a literary work of itself, composed of chains of quotations from the fathers, adapted to form a continuous commentary on a passage of scripture.  I really do not see why a writer would not introduce “theotokos” when composing his catena.  It wouldn’t be wrong, or misrepresentation.  Rather it would be a case of adapting the older writer to contemporary needs.

Likewise a copyist of an integral work might add “theotokos” in the margin, as a note.  Because omissions were also written in the margins, this could easily be mistaken for a copyist omission, and become part of the text when next copied.

But all of this is speculation.  We need to ask whether there is any actual evidence that this did actually happen?  Did later copyists introduce “theotokos” into 4th century texts?  How can we tell?

One obvious way to assess this is to find copies of the patristic texts prior to 400 AD, and look.

This leads to the next question: do we have any copies of the writings of patristic writers like Athanasius prior to 400?  How could we find out?

I’m not sure that this is a very easy question to answer.  For Latin texts we have E.A.Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores.  But to the best of my knowledge this is safely offline and inaccessible.  And anyway we need Greek.  There might be papyri.  These might be safely dated; or not.  But how do we find out?  A critical edition of a specific work ought to tell us at least something.  Probably that’s the way to go.

But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had no 4th century manuscripts of 4th century fathers.  Surviving 4th century manuscripts are few.

So how can we detect any such process of interpolation of “code-words” into patristic texts?

At the moment, I suspect, all we can do is be cautious in this area.