Severus of al-Ashmunein, Zoroaster and the “Book of the Councils” 2

In a Cairo manuscript there is a 4 page passage not present in the published text of the “Book of the Councils” by Severus of al-Ashmunein. A translator has been working on this for me, for 10 cents a word.

The first two pages have now arrived. Unfortunately they do not seem to be in English as it is normally understood. Here are a couple of examples.

“If his speech is right, grant him words and mysteries, so if he keeps that so it would be considered as a supplication. The truth testified and said also the sun was eclipsed and the eclipse from the sixth hour of the day till the ninth hour. It was not the time of eclipse but because of the afflicted. … There is also this saying from Hermes talk’s till the coming of Christ will be one thousands and five hundreds years.”

This, mind you, is from an academic with a substantial publication record. But the ‘translation’ is gibberish.

I shall have to push back and ask for it to be improved. Suggestions as to how I handle this are welcome.


Sir Walter Scott, on ancient obscenity

Yesterday I was reading the collected letters of C.S.Lewis, and saw a description of Boswell as the best biography ever written.  As it is a favourite of mine, I concur.  But Lewis also gave second place to Lockhart’s “Life of Sir Walter Scott”. 

I’m not a great fan of much of Scott’s writing, but of course that is neither here nor there as regards the biography.  So today I went to Google Books and had a look for a copy.  Turning at random to p.140 of a one-volume version, I came across the following letter to Mr. Ellis:

“My principal companion in this solitude is John Dryden.  After all, there are some passages in his translations from Ovid and Juvenal that will hardly bear reprinting, unless I would have the Bishop of London and the whole corps of Methodists about my ears.  I wish you would look at the passages I mean. One is from the fourth book of Lucretius; the other from Ovid’s Instructions to his Mistress. They are not only double-entendres, but good plain single-entendres — not only broad, but long, and as coarse as the mainsail of a first-rate. What to make of them I know not ; but I fear that, without absolutely gelding the bard, it will be indispensable to circumcise him a little by tearing out some of the most obnoxious lines. Do, pray, look at the poems and decide for me.”

Of course this was in a period when being accused of indecency was not the mild thing that it is today, but more like being accused of racism — something that could ruin a career. 

I’ve ordered a copy of the old Everyman edition of Lockhart.  It cannot fail to be of interest, I think.


The epigrams of Martial

If I look around the web for English translations of ancient texts, I am quickly struck by the degree to which patristic texts are commonplace, while classical ones are rare.  The difficult-to-use Perseus site continues its well-funded progress, it is true.  But amateur collections seem few.

These ruminations were provoked by the need to consult the epigrams of Martial recently in order to discuss some elements of the Roman book trade.  They were inaccessible.

This was not due to the lack of an out-of-copyright translation.  Other texts, such as the historical anecdotes of Valerius Maximus, have only recently received an English translation.  But for Martial, a version exists in the 19th century Bohn library.   A PDF does exist of this online.  I have started to OCR the pages, to produce something useful and searchable, although the scan was so poor that I find it is slow work.

Nevertheless, it is my first encounter with Martial.  As a long-time devotee of Juvenal, I am rather enjoying the picture it gives of the days of Domitian.  But how many people have read Martial, these days?

While reading this, there was a reference to the plays of Plautus.  But again, where do I go to read these?

My own projects consume already more time than I have available.  But I wish someone would create something free and accessible, an English version of the Latin Library site.


Severus al-Ashmunein, Zoroaster and the “Book of the Councils”

For some time I have been tracking down references in Arabic Christian texts to the idea that Zoroaster said something like “He who doesn’t eat my body and drink my blood will not know salvation”.  (The actual idea is fairly clearly bogus).

One of the possible witnesses is a passage in Severus ibn Mukaffa’, Book of the Councils.  Severus is one of the first Christian writers to write in Arabic, and he was bishop of Al-Ashmunein (formerly Hermopolis) in Egypt in the 9th century.  He is best known for starting the collection of biographies of patriarchs which forms the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.

Unfortunately the printed text was from a manuscript which doesn’t include this passage, but the passage can be found in a Cairo manuscript.  Georg Graf gives the following description:

“Severus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ of al-Ashmûnain (10th century) in his polemical “Book of the Councils” (= S) 2…[2] In Cairo 111 (1544 AD), ff. 268v-270v. This portion was not included in the printed edition in Patrologia Orientalis III, 2.” (Graf vol. 1. p-483-6)

A kind friend told me that Graf (almost always) refers to the Cairo MSS via the numeration of his own catalogue. This catalogue combines material from both the Coptic Patriarchate and the Coptic Museum.  Graf nr 111 is found in the Coptic Museum. Its shelf number there is Theol. 196. It is also described in Simaika’s catalogue under nr. 53. In the film collection at Brigham Young University , it is found in Roll A15-4.

I never have a lot of luck communicating with people in Egypt.  Even today the Coptic Museum isn’t on the internet!  So I tried emailing various people at BYU.

Gary Gillum of BYU has tracked down this microfilm, found someone who knows Arabic, located the relevant pages and emailed me jpgs of them, all without charge.  I am deeply grateful to him.  I think the world of scholarship owes more than we ever realise to all the people out there like Gary, who make it all possible. 

I’ve now commissioned someone to transcribe and translate the pages, which I will place online in the public domain.  Interestingly I am finding it easier to locate Arabists willing to translate than either Greek or Syriac translators.


Eusebius translation: progress 4

No more bits have arrived. I spent last week discussing issues with Mr. A, the translator of the Greek. He is a bit prone to switch the order of the clauses in a sentence without obvious need, and this needed to be addressed.

One interesting thing: in order that we could discuss chunk 6, he produced a very literal version with words in the same order as the Greek. This was very helpful, and a good technique to allow the editor to assess the translation level. We then went through it and discussed how the translation should be, with me generally pulling in the direction of greater literalness. It was interesting to see how one sentence had little meaning unless paraphrased. Another displayed signs of the epitomator at work; two ideas compressed into one sentence.

I’ve been paying Mr. A by cheque for each chunk, and collecting receipts. The joys of paperwork!

I’m beginning to worry about the lack of response from Mr. C, my Syriac translator. He did one chunk, one transcription, and I’ve heard no more. Dr E, to whom I sent these for review almost a fortnight ago, has not responded either. I shall have to nag them, and, if necessary, readvertise.

Just managing the project is quite wearying in some ways. You would think that if you drop money in, that a translation would pop out. ‘Tis not so…


New Syriac mss finds in the Nitrian desert

An article in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog points up a find of another stray page from British Library Additional 12150, which dates from 411 AD.

The manuscript was bought from the Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Suryani) (St. Mary Deipara) in the Nitrian desert by Archdeacon Henry Tattam in the 1840’s, but his agent kept trying to cheat him. However this page was clearly a stray, and has been found in the monastery.

Details can be read at this link:

and this:


Eusebius translation: progress 3

We’re now at Question 6 ad Stephanum, but an interesting question has arisen. What do we do about scripture quotations?

Where these are verbatim, we ought to use some recognised version. But which one? Worse, I have heard rumours that some copyright holders demand money to allow their version to be used; the RSV was mentioned, rightly or wrongly.

Suggestions please…


Eusebius translation: progress 2

The review by Dr. B of the first chunk of the translation of the Greek has arrived.  Generally it presses for greater literalness.  My own ‘soundings’ into the text and translation did rather suggest a need for this, so I agree.

Unfortunately Dr. B has found the job too time-consuming and withdrawn.  So I shall need another reviewer for the Greek text.  It’s about 26,000 words, so I was offering $520 for the job.  I’ll do some hunting next week, I think.   Just running the project is more tiring than one might think!


Al-Majdalus, “Commentary on the Nicene Creed”; the Bibliotheque orientale in Beirut, etc

I’ve mentioned before my investigation into Arabic witnesses to the idea that Zoroaster said “Whoever does not eat my body and drink my blood…”.  One of these may be the 9th century Melkite “Commentary on the Nicene creed” by the otherwise unknown Al-Majdalus. 

A little while ago, I experimented with getting a commercial translator in Beirut to have a go at this.  The text is unpublished, so I obtained monochrome images of the pages of two manuscripts from the Bibliotheque Orientale at Saint-Joseph’s University, and passed them to him.  Of course I asked for a sample, of the first page.  This has now arrived, and looks a bit inadequate.  But I’m passing it to a gentleman who has helped me in the past, and we’ll see.

The BO managed to put my images on a dodgy CDROM.  Two of the jpg files arrived being zero bytes long.  However there are other unpublished Arabic texts which might be relevant, so I’ve asked them for some of these.  This time they’ve invented some bureaucracy — a form full of talk about rights etc.  Quite how many people can read these mss, or care, I do not know — it seems to be a very small number! How they would enforce this does not seem to have occurred to them either.  I fear that this is merely officialdom protecting itself against criticism.  It’s a bit sad to see, really. 

But I’m looking forward to the images.  All I need now is someone who is competent in Christian Arabic of the medieval period, and willing to work for 10 cents a word.  There must be someone!  I can’t even find any email lists dedicated to scholars in this field; which is rather curious.


Progress on the Eusebius translation

I’ve been thinking about blogging on the progress of this work (I think I need a new category for the translation of Eusebius ‘Quaestiones’, actually). But I don’t want to use real names for the people involved, so I will identify them

The Greek translation is well under way, and the first four questions ‘To Stephanus’ have been translated by a gentleman whom I will call Mr. A. He is currently doing a ‘question’ a week, but he tells me that he will need a sweep-up phase to look up a few specialist terms. He’s working from Zamagni’s Greek text which I printed and sent to him. I don’t think he’s had a lot of luck getting the PDF’s from the website. I’m sending him money by cheque, as each question is done, and getting a receipt for each and logging the payments so I can claim them back when sales commence.

Dr B., the reviewer of the Greek text, has received question 1 (from me) but hasn’t been able to even find the page on the website. I shall be sending him a print-off and a CD. One frustrating aspect has been that he only checks his email once or twice a week.

The Syriac translator, Mr C, has sent me the first fragment from Beyer. I’ve also specified a transcription of the Syriac, in case I want to print it, but this has not yet arrived. I’ve asked for a chunk a week. On the positive side he’s on Paypal!

I have not yet got a Syriac reviewer. However I have sent chunk 1 to someone I know, Dr. E, who will check it over this weekend.

I’ve experimented with uploading a volume in PDF form to and ordered a printed copy; it will be interesting to see what comes back.

Mr A has published translations from the Greek before, so has put me in contact with a major academic publisher. The question, however, is whether I can publish through them and still make the money side work.