Agapius can be tedious

I hope no-one ever tries to translate Agapius from Arabic by starting at the beginning.  I started my translation from French at the time of Jesus, mid-way.  That’s not too bad, and the material to the end is moderately interesting.

But the first quarter of it… yuk!

I expected it to be largely based on embellished versions of biblical narratives.  But I had not expected it to go round and round, repeating calculations of the years from the creation to the time of Christ again and again.  I’ve now seen the same material come round three times, and my patience is beginning to fray.  And in each case, he attacks the Jews for forging their Old Testament, in comparison to the “genuine” Torah of the Septuagint. 

Obviously it’s wrong in point of fact; but I could cope with that.  However I’m currently wading through a long fictitious story, told with obvious glee, about how Constantine consulted with the bishops and the Jews and “discovered” the truth.   It’s unbelievably tedious.

So advice for future translators; leave the first quarter until last, or you may never get further.


Errors in Cramer’s catena publication

I’ve made use of the medieval commentary published by J. A. Cramer for fragments of Eusebius, but some of the attributions have seemed a bit odd.  Quite by accident today I was skimming through volume 6 of the Journal of Theological Studies, when I came across an article by Claude Jenkins on p.113-116 about the Origen citations in the portion of Cramer from 1 Corinthians. 

The author notes that Cramer was dependent on copyists for access to the manuscripts, which he could not inspect himself.  Comparison of Cramer with his source, Paris Cois. gr. 204 (a copy of Vat. gr. 762, unknown to Cramer) reveals that Cramer’s text routinely assigns passages to Origen which are clearly assigned to Chrysostom in the manuscript.  The article assigns the blame for miscopying a very clear 16th century manuscript to the scriba Parisinensis whom Cramer was obliged to use.

Some of the fragments assigned to Eusebius in the catena on the gospels that I have had translated have looked very like portions of Chrysostom.  So this is probably a general problem.

What this means, of course, is that we cannot depend on Cramer.  We urgently need someone to correct the text and reissue it.


Choose your career wisely

We all hate going to work on Mondays, but in a way most of us are fortunate.  For example, on the way in to work today, I passed a van labelled “Sparkles mobile dog wash.” 

Just imagine what that job must involve.  It’s a job which means driving all over the place to wash dirty dogs.  Imagine leaning over the tub, bog-brush in hand, trying to clean the backside of some unfamiliar poodle, while the vicious little bugger tries to bite you.  “Look, he likes you!” squeals the silly owner, as you wrestle with her rottweiler, trying not to lose any fingers.

It makes you wonder what kind of alternatives the school careers advice were suggesting to him.

On the positive side, he must be the only man for whom an armoured cod-piece is a legitimate tax-deductible expense.


Academic books are doomed

Ever wanted to consult a text or translation of an ancient author in volume of the Sources Chrétiennes and then realised that the library is closed, or doesn’t have it?  Or to look up an author in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum?  It’s a pain, isn’t it? 

I have here a volume of Isidore of Pelusium’s letters, and I’ve just had to walk down to the library and renew the loan this morning.  That was a pain.  And I’ll still have to return it, to lose access to it, in due course.  I can’t afford to buy a copy, not with the recession and all. 

But I have a scanner; why don’t I just copy the pages I want?  Hey, why don’t I just scan the whole thing and make a PDF which I can keep forever? (In my case, I actually just don’t have time; but work with me on this a bit, hmm?) 

Those thoughts must occur to an awful lot of people.  They must occur to every student.  They must occur even more to every post-graduate, or young PhD.  All of them have no money, and lots of need for the book, and they have the means to do something about it.

I’ve gradually become aware that people are making PDF’s of these copyright but unobtainable books.  More, that little networks exist whereby people swap them around.  We’re all aware that this happens with music, and how upset it makes the big recording companies.  But music mp3’s are a luxury.  Access to a complete collection of the Sources Chretiennes, whenever you want, wherever you are?  That’s essential, for many people.

At the moment, the only people buying these books are the major libraries.  This is natural.  But the question is, why bother to buy them, why bother to have libraries other than as museums, when in fact the books are being pirated to PDF?  The only reason is so that those who don’t have the right contacts, who don’t know the right bootlegger, can still access the text.  Well, I myself am such a person.  But I don’t suppose for a moment — recalling my own student days, and illegal music swapping — that people at college are using them.  Most of them must be accumulating huge collections of books, reference books, articles, lexica, in PDF form.

If this is how people want their information, is there any point in taking a PDF, sending it to a publisher, having it typeset and printed, sending out copies to libraries, borrowing the paper copies, scanning it back in again, and OCR’ing it, and storing it on your hard disk?  Why do this?  Why not just sell the PDF?

It’s over.  The whole process of publishing an edition, translation, study — still more a handbook or patrology — is finished.  The whole business of having a library is finished too — why bother?  Just ask around, see if anyone has a PDF.

This must be how things are now.  Every year, this will get more so.  Why should it not?  It’s easy convenient, and superior in almost every respect for the user.  Why pay to produce things that are inconvenient?

There are a couple of teething problems with this model of book circulation.  For instance, some books can’t be read onscreen.  You really do need a printed copy of (e.g.) Fabricius, as I remarked earlier this week, to master it.  The PDF’s that I have seen aren’t of good enough quality to send to a print-on-demand service.  But I imagine this is the next step.  People will make sure they scan b/w PDF’s at 400 dpi.  Give it a couple of years.

The next step must be to start supplying books in electronic-only form. One problem is that the editorial process of producing a book markedly enhances the quality of the content.  This is true for novels as well as textbooks — I have seen early drafts of books, prior to a professional editor working on them, and the difference is amazing.  If this is cut out of the loop, something must replace it; and so far there is nothing.  The mechanisms of modern publishing are not just an overhead; we all benefit from some of them.

Finally authors need to publish books in order to get jobs.  A mechanism to replace this is needed, and dead-tree printing will continue until this is solved.  But the printers will find sales dropping, as occasional sales to scholars pretty much cease.  Probably this will make little difference, as they mainly sell to libraries.  But their clock will be ticking.  The financial viability of the old model is draining away.  Stupid publishers will try to pass laws to stop all this.  It won’t work, of course, because the incentive to pass around books in PDF is so enormous.  At most it might retard scholarship in some areas and some countries.

So I think that this chicken must be dead. It just hasn’t realised it yet. 


Kiss the sword, infidel

From FiveFeetOfFury I learn of this report.  It seems that a UN “human rights council” has passed a resolution “urging passage of laws around the world to protect religion from criticism.”  Of course they have one particular religion in mind here: yes, they want to ensure that if Osama bin Laden blows up your home in the name of Allah, and, emerging from the wreckage you utter some contemptuous phrase about him and his god, then the police will arrest you.  Nice!

I’m a Christian.  I don’t want laws that treat ideas as if they were people, and endow them with “rights”.  Such laws are always used to persecute real people.  It was in the name of “diversity” that the student union, backed by the university, orchestrated a ban on Exeter Christian Union, seized its assets, and attempted to distribute them to the donors, set up a mock “trial” with a tame QC, in order to try to drown them in legal bills, and so on.  Only widespread publicity defeated the nasty little game, and as far as I know the perpetrators were never brought to justice.  Similar attacks have taken place on Catholic societies.  What happens in our universities today happens in society tomorrow.

So imagine how this new idea would work.  Would I myself end up getting arrested for posting Isidore of Pelusium’s letters about the sleazebag bishop Eusebius?  After all, who’s to say that this wouldn’t amount to “criticism”?   Would large and rather corrupt church denominations like the Episcopal Church of America start employing lawyers to sue any church member who dared to object to their policies?  (They do already, but only to seize property).  “Calculated to incite hatred of the <insert name here> church”, or some such charge?  The effect would be to chill discussion, for fear of the consequences.

Do we care what the UN says?  Not much; but it shows how the wind blows.  We need to fight for freedom of speech, and we need to do it now.


Manuscripts of the history of al-Makin

The 13th century Arabic Christian chronicle of George Al-Makin or Ibn Amid has never been published in full, or translated into any other language.  However it contains a version of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum, based on that in Agapius.  Some access to this text is desirable, therefore.  It’s a big text, in two halves.  The first need is to get hold of copies of manuscripts.

This has drawn my attention before.  I ended up ordering copies from a Paris manuscript, which cost a lot and turned out to be wretchedly poor quality; too poor to be usable.  I’ve gone back to them, and we’ll see if they will send me something useful.

In the meantime a scholarly friend has been going through this, listing the sections and how long they are, so that we can get an idea of contents.  The poor state of the Paris microfilm has become very apparent during this process.

According to Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. 2, p. 349, the following manuscripts exist of the first half:

  • Vatican arab. 168 (16th c.).  215 folios.
  • Borg. ar. 232 (in Karshuni, 1659 AD)
  • Paris ar. 294 (14th century) – of which I received so poor a copy at so very high a price
  • Paris ar. 4524 (1672 AD; “sehr fehlerhaft”)
  • Paris ar. 4729 (19th century). 176 folios.
  • Bodleian ar.683 (Pococke 312 = DCLXXXIII).  170 folios.  AD 1591.  Catalogued here.
  • Bodleian ar.773.
  • Bodleian ar.789.
  • Gotha ar. 1557 (karshuni, 1661 AD)
  • Breslau, Stadtbibliothek ar. 18 (ca. 1270 AD) – Graf leaves it unclear whether this is merely extracts of two lives.
  • Munich ar. 376, by the same copyist as the Oxford ms.
  • Vienna or. 884.
  • St. Petersburg or. 112 (1672)
  • Cairo 572 (1685)
  • Coptic patriarchate 1103, 1 (1876)
  • Sarfeh syr. 16/4 (karshuni)
  • Sbath 1938 (13th century) but only pp. 155-168 so is an extract.

Manuscripts exist of the second half, as does a printed text, Thomas Erpenius Historia Saracenica (1625) with Latin translation.

  • Paris ar. 295 (1854) breaks off at 1023 AD – I got a somewhat better microfilm of this.
  • British Library ar. 282, I (17th century)
  • Bodleian ar. (Uri) 715, 735.
  • Leiden or. 758
  • Leipzig university or. 643 (17th century), containing fragments on 1123-1259 AD.
  • Beirut 6 and 7 (18th century)
  • St. Petersburg As. Mus. ar. 161 (but probably copied from Erpenius, as several other copies are)

I need to have another go at getting manuscript copies from the Vatican. Last time my email was ignored.  I don’t know that the Bodleian has changed its policy of charging the customer vast prices for full-colour images, but only supplying him low-grade monochrome derivatives.  Being poor, such a policy amounts to prohibiting access.  But it may be possible to obtain images from some of the other institutions.

Isn’t it odd, what a struggle it is to just obtain access?

UPDATE (16th Dec. 2013).  I have added some notes from Martino Diez, “Les antiquities greco-romaines entre al-Makin ibn al-`Amid et ibn Khaldun”, Studia Graeco-Arabica, 3, (2013) 121-140.


Scum in the church: Isidore comments

The scumbag ecclesiastic is a perennial figure, his hands ever grasping the property of others, ever active in promoting evil, mouth ever open against any who dare to suggest that his life and actions are condemned by Christ.  Bishop Eusebius of Pelusium has ordained one of his sidekicks, a man named Zosimus, conspicuous for his evil life.


In your letter, you express your astonishment: how can the unworthy consecration of Zosimus appear right to the man who has illegally ordained him?  I reply: your indignation, being of the kind that arises from a horror of wickedness, is legitimate, no-one can deny that!  But I advise you to keep your tongue free of all evil-speaking.  Although that man does indeed deserve a thrashing a thousand times over, as you write — because instead of being improved by his responsibility, he has taken on the priesthood as a tool to serve his vices and to do the intolerable — you mustn’t soil your mouth while exposing his shameful deeds and scabrous morals to the public.