Shlomo Pines, Agapius and Elmacin (Al-Makin)

Shlomo Pines published a curious version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, taken from the Arabic Christian writer Agapius.  But rereading his article, and comparing this text with the Patrologia Orientalis version of Agapius, we quickly find that there is a problem.

Pines’ text is not that given by the Florence manuscript, which alone preserves Agapius.  However the CSCO text also gives quotations from the later Arabic Christian historian, Al-Makin or Elmacin.  These Pines has used to supplement the text, and thereby produce his version.

Now in a way this is rather dubious.  After all, we know that texts expand in transmission.  The Testimonium is perhaps more prone to this than any other bit of Josephus, as the reference in Photius shows, which gives a bit about Jesus otherwise quite unknown.  Glosses on this text were always going to occur, and be incorporated.  So treating the manuscript as epitomised is unusual.

The real question is whether Al-Makin generally expands on his authorities.  If he does, then the extra material must be worthless, and Pines’ version with it.

But there is no complete edition of Al-Makin at all; none that contains this passage at all; no critical text of any of it; no real translation of any value in any language (unless we include Ethiopic).  The text is pretty much inaccessible.

I believe that the Agapius Testimonium is not as we have been led to believe.  I suggest that Agapius merely gave a rough summary of the contents, rather than a quotation; the text rather reads like that anyway.  Until we have a real understanding of Al-Makin’s text and its sources and handling of them, I think we ought to place Pines’ version on the shelf marked ‘to be verified’.


Visit Leptis Magna in Libya using Google Maps

The magnificent Roman city of Leptis Magna is one that few have visited. Fewer still have walked across the silted-up harbour basin to the eastern wharves, or visited the lighthouse at the tip of the western mole, because the site is so large.

So I was delighted to find that we can all go now, thanks to Google maps! (Although pasting this into a blog post is quite tricky, since the visual editor corrupts the tags…)

So let’s visit the city and take a tour! Below the overview image, I’ve noted some sights. Click on the links to open Google maps on the relevant area!

View Larger Map

Note the circular blob to the right of the scrambled area — that’s the mighty amphitheatre, hewn out of a quarry in a hill. The seats are so steep that I felt quite ill standing at the top!

Above it in the same picture is a stadium, in the characteristic oval shape, with a spine down the middle. Apparently substantial remains stood here until the 17th century, when a French adventurer used it as a quarry for stone.

The scrambled area runs along the eastern wharf and covers the harbour entrance and lighthouse. West of it is the harbour; west of that is the main city, with the old forum, and the unbelievably splendid new forum and basilica of Septimius Severus (which includes an inscription recording his campaign in Britain).

Also there is the nymphaeum, whose broken concrete tanks show that this temple of the water deities fronted the city reservoir. The enormous baths are well preserved to a considerable height, complete with toilet block and marble seats; the corner of two streets is in the same picture.

At the entrance to the city is the reconstructed triumphal arch of Septimius Severus. Back inside the city is the theatre; to the east of that some shopping areas and an arch of Titus.


Wit and wisdom in the ancient world

Last night I read a truly splendid article by R. Van Den Broek, Four Coptic Fragments of a Greek Theosophy, Vigiliae Christianae, 32 (1978), 118-42.  It’s on JSTOR here.  If you have JSTOR access, don’t try to read it on-screen, because it will make your eyes hurt; print it on paper and read it that way.

What’s great about it, I hear you ask?  Well, the first three pages provide a really good overview in English of a subset of gnomologia; ancient collections of pagan prophecies predicting the coming of Christ.  Most of these have never been translated into English, and all are  hard to access and understand.

It seems that in late antiquity, as the temples were being demolished, the Christians of the period justified this to educated pagans by appealing to quotations from the philosophers predicting that the temples would fail and become unnecessary. 

This gives us a date for the origin of this kind of literature; the 5th century, when paganism was far from dead among the aristocracy, and such arguments could be useful.   The ‘quotes’ themselves tend to be a bit bogus; dodgy people like Hermes Trismegistus are invoked.  Oracles of the gods themselves are included. 

There’s a few of these sayings in Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum.  But the big 5th century collection is an anonymous Greek “Theosophy”.  This is lost, except for a longish chunk of book 11, containing quotes from the Sybilline oracles.  But a long abstract has been preserved, known as the Tübingen Theosophy and published by H. Erbse in Theosophorum Graecorum Fragmenta.  (This is not one of those monster tomes, but a smallish book).  This tells us about the content.  The first few books were dedicated to describing the true faith, and the next few to predictions of Christ of this kind.

The fragment of the “Theosophy” tells us that the quotes come partly from Lactantius.  As might be expected, manuscripts of the fathers are the main source, and probably even glosses on those manuscripts were used as if by pagan authors — after all, without quotation marks, who could be sure?

Later collections play down oracles by the gods — now relegated to history — but instead start using pagan predictions to parallel those from the Old Testament.  An example of this is John ibn Saba’s Precious Pearl.

The actual research in the article is four more bits of ‘prophecy’, this time from Coptic sources.  Sebastian Brock published some from Syriac.  My own site contains text and translation of a few from Arabic. 

Sayings literature was a popular genre.  Consequently maxims and sayings spread all over the literate world.  It would be interesting to learn whether any made their way into Persian or Indian!


Looking for ancient texts in Arabic

It’s a bit of a treasure hunt, nosing around in some of the minor language groups of the ancient world. You’re always looking for some text that will tell you a bit more about antiquity, give a bit more primary data than you get from the standard texts.

And what does every treasure-hunter need?  A treasure map!!!  Ideally you get a list of ancient authors and what they wrote, written in antiquity before lots of it was lost.

According to Georg Graf’s modern route-map, the Geschichte der arabischen christlichen Literatur, such a thing does exist for Arabic Christian literature.  It’s by a chap called Abu’l-Barakat, and is a list of Arabic Christian literature, names and works.

It was published with a German translation by Wilhelm Riedel, Der Katalog der christlichen Schriften in arabischer Sprache von Abu’l-Barakat, in Nachrichten der K. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Philologisch-Hist. Klasse, 1902 (Heft 5), pp. 636-706.

Interestingly volumes of this journal are online at  But not, of course, this one.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this was online, in English?


Cyril of Alexandria and the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum

Looking through Quasten’s Patrology, at the works of Cyril of Alexandria, it’s obvious that most of the works relating to the Council of Ephesus in 433 have never been translated into any modern language.

These aren’t just any old texts.  These are the ones that defined the shape of christology from then on.  He wrote a whole series of works to various people, De recta fide — on the correct faith.  After the council he was obliged to write a justification of his actions there to the emperor; Apologeticus ad imperatorem.

That last one isn’t too big and I’ve commissioned someone to translate it into English for about $600.  It’s in the Patrologia Graeca, of course.  But the best text of all these works is a critical edition done by E. Schwartz in a series, the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum

After a mighty struggle with the interlibrary loan system, today I got a copy of the volume I want — “Tome 1, Volumen 1, Pars 3” (yes, the series really is subdivided like that).  It contains Greek only, with critical apparatus, of all sorts of letters and documents relating to the council.  Frankly it’s quite amazing what is in there, in only 100 pages.  If I were a millionaire, I think I’d commission a translation of the lot!

Because the schism with the ‘Nestorians’ is not history; it’s been a fact for 15 centuries now.

Of course translating the stuff requires a theological education in all the issues.  You have to understand why Nestorius objected to calling Mary “Mother of God”; and why Cyril considered that objection tantamount to claiming that Jesus was not God. 

But shouldn’t it be in English?


A. Cleveland Coxe

Many of us have seen this name at the bottom of the title pages of the Ante Nicene Fathers volumes.  I’ve compiled from Google Books a rather extensive Wikipedia article on the chap.  He was second episcopalian bishop of New York.  His poems sold well in his own time.

Yet on reading his life, I felt only melancholy.  He was a busy, busy man; and yet, how little of what he did matters now!  His poems, “assured” of a place in American literature, are forgotten.  The diocese he laboured to build, a century on has fewer parishes now (66) than it did in 1868 (76) and espouses beliefs that the bishop would not recognise as Christian, never mind Anglican.

Nisi dominus frustra… without the Lord, all is in vain.  How much of what we do today will matter in 2108? 


Errors in the transmission of the Koran

The following article from Almasry Alyoum sheds an interesting light on claims that manuscripts of the Koran are without error.

Koran Copies Full of Mistakes on the Markets
By  Ahmed el-Beheiri    12/8/2008 

Several flawed copies of the Koran are put on sale from time to time and several of these copies have recently appeared on the markets. Some suras (chapters) are completely missing, while some have been completed with others.

This is described as a great negligence on the part of publishing and distribution houses in dealing with the act of pressing and collecting the verses of the Holy Koran.

Al-Masry al-Youm has obtained one of these copies full of mistakes. It was published by a publishing and distribution house (“Al-Misriya lil Nashr wa al-Tawzie”) that had been authorized by the Islamic Research Academy to print and distribute 40,000 copies.

The copies contain several mistakes in the collection and arrangement of the papers.

Speaking to al-Masry al-Youm, the director of the department in charge of research and composition, Abdel Zaher Abdel Razek, said that the house staff had made mistakes in collecting and arranging the papers of the Koran. As a result, he said, some suras had disappeared while others were completed with others.

He put the blame for the mistakes on the publishing house owner, as the copies were not reviewed once again before being launched on the markets.

“We will have no leniency on the publishing house owner and the others who made the same mistake” he added. “We will send him a strong letter to warn him and call on him to commit to precision and preserve the sacredness of the Holy Koran when printing it, otherwise he will lose his license to print it”. 


How useful are the scanned books at

I’ve downloaded the Patrologia Orientalis volume 7 from, and started to translate the French text of Agapius into English.  This is very easy French, as it was written by a Russian, so not his first language.

A real scholar would probably throw up his hands in horror.  The very idea of making a translation from a translation, rather than from the original text, is something that scholars would try not to do.

But hardly anyone knows 9th century Christian Arabic.  Quite a lot of people know French; quite a lot don’t.  I don’t know how much of the text I will translate.  But whatever I do translate should help to make the work better known, so it seems like a worthwhile task to me.

What I’ve been doing is printing off the pages and scribbling a translation in the margin.  Today I typed up a fortnight’s scribblings, which was tedious but necessary.  But…

I can’t help noticing that the 200dpi resolution of the pages isn’t really high enough.  The text is quite faint, even when printed in colour.  The footnotes are hard to read.  Was that Daniel chapter 9, or chapter 4?  Even in the text there can be problems.  Was that 5,500 years, or 3,300 years?

A couple of weeks ago I decided to buy a printed copy of that fascicle of PO 7.  My thinking was that the French was just so easy, that the machine translators might do it perfectly (which was untrue, but never mind).  It arrived yesterday.  I scanned part of it today.  But I couldn’t avoid noticing that letters that I had great difficulty reading, when it was part of the PDF, were perfectly clear now.

This is worrying.  The last thing I want to do is to discourage the digitisation of these volumes.  But at the same time, shouldn’t we ask for higher resolution?

Publishers will be pleased, tho.  Consultation for the odd bit may be OK, but for serious work, I had to go and buy a copy!