Mithras: how scholarship really should be done

John R. Hinnells begins his paper on Cautes and Cautopates[1] by articulating precisely what he is going to do and how he is going to do it.   It’s a massive step forward from the random theorising of the Cumont era.

Instead of starting with a mess of factoids and assembling them into a theory, Hinnells is determined to start with cold, hard, facts.  He’s not going to waste time on theories about what things might mean — too often presented as facts themselves —  but instead intends to catalogue precisely what is actually known.

Just listen to this!

This study is an attempt to apply to the study of Cautes and Cautopates principles of method in the interpretation of Mithraic iconography for which I have argued previously. I wrote: ‘the proper place to begin a study of Mithraism is with the Roman material, then and only then may one begin to consider which, if any, are the appropriate traditions with which to compare one’s data‘ (1975b: 343). Studies of Mithraism have generally proceeded from the basis of external parallels. In the case of the torchbearers, attention has been given to the search for the Iranian origins of their names. That search is ignored in this article in a deliberate attempt to analyse the Mithraic iconography with as few presuppositions as possible. To that end all previous studies of the iconography are left out of consideration. The article has a clearly defined and limited aim — to collect and analyse the Roman Mithraic iconography of the torchbearers. A subsequent article will attempt to interpret that inconography and will consider the various theories which have been advanced. Here the only subject of discussion is the iconography of the monuments.

Emphasis mine.

I have a feeling that those words could usefully appear on the wall of any scholar tasked with analysing a subject based on scanty and confusing sources.   Any paper assembled on these principles cannot avoid being of permanent value.

Cumont’s work was excellent in its day.  But the analysis of the data was always subjective, and never resolved anything, and never provided a methodology by which anything could be further examined.

By contrast Hinnells shows the way in which scholarship had developed, and had devised methods to ensure objectivity.

Distinguishing between data and deduction, basing oneself conservatively on the data, and ignoring the woolliness of older and less careful scholarship in favour of precise, measurable facts … that is what scholarship means.  Any fool can write an essay that is really merely decorated with facts.

  1. [1]John R. Hinnells, The iconography of Cautes and Cautopates I: the data, Journal of Mithraic Studies 1 (1976), p.36-67 plus plates.

The perils of marrying an ignorant woman (however hot)

Ibn Abi Usaibia tells the story of an Egyptian physician and scholar, who evidently married a woman of no education, as some scholars have been led to do, down the centuries.  The consequences of this particular mistake have been pleasantly depicted by no less a hand than Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice.[1]  Here is what Ibn Abi Usaibia tells us of Ibn Fātik[2]:

Al-Mubashshir bin Fātik, i.e., the Emir Mahmūd al-Dawlah Abū ‘l Wafā’ al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik al-Amirī, was one of the most eminent emirs and most distinguished scholars of Egypt. He was always busily occupied, loved learning and was fond of meeting scholars, debating with them and putting to use what he imbibed from them. One of those with whom he associated and from whom he learnt a great deal about astronomy and mathematics was Abū `Alī Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haitham. He was also acquainted with Shaikh Abū ‘l-Husayn, known as al-Āmidī under whom he studied many philosophical disciplines. Moreover, he applied himself to medicine, keeping company with the physician Abū ‘l-Hasan Alī ibn Ridwān.

Al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik was the author of excellent works on logic and other philosophical disciplines, which have become renowned among specialists. He also engaged assiduously in copying books; I have seen numerous volumes in his handwriting, containing works by ancient authors. He acquired a huge number of books, many of which are still extant, but the color of their leaves has changed owing to immersion in water.

Shaikh Sadīd al-Dīn al-Mantiq told me in Cairo: “The Emir Ibn Fātik was eager to acquire knowledge and possessed a collection of books. On coming home, he spent most of his time with them, finding no better occupation than reading and writing and convinced that this was the most important pursuit. He had a wife of noble descent like him, of the family of one of the state dignitaries. After his death — may Allāh have mercy upon him — she betook herself with her maids to his library. She bore a grudge against the books, since her husband had devoted himself to them and neglected her. While bewailing him, she, together with her maids, threw the books into a large water basin in the center of the building. Later the books were retrieved and this is why the many books of Ibn Fātik which have been preserved are in such a state.”

I say: Among the pupils of al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik was Abū ‘l- Hair Salāma ibn Rahmūn.

Ibn Fātik wrote the following books:

1) “K. al-Wasāya wal-Amtāl wal-Mūgaz min Muhkam al-Aqwāl.”
2) “Choice Maxims and Best Sayings.”
3) “The Book of the Beginning,” on logic.
4) A book on medicine.

(After some thought I have refrained from posting an image of an “ignorant but hot” woman as an illustration.  I have a feeling it might give the wrong message).

  1. [1]Chapter 42: “Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.
  2. [2]Translated L. Kopf, p.705-6.

From my diary

In to town, to hand back Vermaseren’s Mithras: the secret god.  No sign yet of two British Library loans of other Mithras books.  I was relieved to discover that the local library was open, as I had feared that it might not be — there is a public sector workers strike today.

I am still reading Grant’s book on Greek and Roman authors, one entry at a time.  I am learning things from it, that’s for sure.

Not everything in such books is sound.  In the entry for Athanasius, for instance, he refers to the existence of a possible autograph letter of Athanasius to the monk Paphnutius.  It seems that this was published in 1924 by H. I. Bell in Jews and Christians in Egypt, and bears the shelfmark Papyrus London 1929.  But a Google search revealed that Tim Barnes, for instance, in his Constantius and Athanasius, considered that there was no evidence that the “Athanasius” of this letter was the same as the famous archbishop.  The letter was found together with others which suggested that Paphnutius may have been a Meletian.  It is slightly frustrating that I was unable to locate Bell’s work online.

A chance visit to Wikipedia yesterday revealed another poor soul there being bullied and harassed there by a gang of other users, and being treated with little respect or mercy.  (I didn’t agree with his edits, but I could see what was being done to him).  The ploy seemed to be to bully him until he left, and then, if he returned under another name, block him for “sock puppeting”.  I suspect that bullying is endemic in Wikipedia, in truth, and that it is concealed merely because Google doesn’t make it easily possible to search the endless pages in which it is taking place.  It’s not a safe place to visit, and it needs to be placed under proper management, and scrutiny.

Meanwhile the task of OCR’ing Ibn Abi Usaibia grinds on.  I’ve now passed page 700; only another 250 pages to go!  The low light conditions at this time of year, and the short days, leave me feeling very sleepy much of the time, and it’s not that easy to gather the energy to buckle down and do things.

So … what shall I do this afternoon?


Not quite what they had in mind

On a visit to the Cranmer blog this evening, I was confronted with a confusing piece of advertising:[1]

Now what does “Passionate about Ajax?” convey to your mind?

Is it this?

Or even this?

I fear that the IT recruitment company responsible might get some strange replies ….

  1. [1]Image edited to remove the name of the company responsible.

Something to dip into

A few days ago I came across a bargain online.  It was a copy of Michael Grant’s “Greek and Latin Authors: 800 B.C.-A.D.1000”, which, including postage, came to a princely $6.  It arrived this morning, a big heavy book, ex-library.

I had rather hoped, from the title, that authors would be listed in chronological order, but not so. Instead they are appear in name order.  This is unfortunate, for it means that the book cannot easily be read through.  At least if authors are in chronological order, you can read the whole as a story.

But it does mean that the book is ideal to dip into.  Indeed I propose to consume it in just such a manner.   It might be a valuable resource to read on the loo, for instance.

I have forgotten the author who recommended the purchase of small page, cheap editions of the Latin poets, for use in such a circumstance.  Each page would be a poem or two, and a man with normal innards would read and absorb a few poems at a sitting.  After that, it was suggested, the pages just read could be torn out and, in this, pre-toilet-paper age, devoted to a different but convenient purpose.  Certainly editions of that period were printed on absorbent paper.  In this way, he advised, a great store of learning could be acquired during a portion of the day otherwise wasted.  Was it, perhaps, Lord Chesterfield who advised thus?

Grant’s book consists of short entries on authors, plus a list of works and short bibliography.  It’s the kind of work that has been superceded by Wikipedia, in many ways; and yet Kiddipedia, as we might equally call it — “the encyclopedia that any child can edit!” — is not nearly as good.  The labour in compiling the book must have been considerable, but Grant makes a good job of it.

I had never heard of the book, in truth, but came across it accidentally, mentioned on some website.  I got it, because I love handbooks of solid information.  They can be valuable companions at bed-time as well, for again, that is an occasion in which to read a few pages, and then drift off.


Should we update Quasten?

In my last post I mentioned how Quasten’s Patrology is becoming rather out of date.  For me, the most annoying thing is that I find myself looking at works thinking “that would be interesting to translate”, only to find that translations have come along since he wrote.

Looking at Amazon I discover that it is published by Thomas More Publishing, who turn out to be an imprint of Ave Maria PressThis website lists their imprints, which include “Christian Classics”, the name that appears inside my own copies.

After a bit of thought, I wrote to the general enquiries email at Ave Maria Press, asking that they pass the email to the directors.  I asked whether they do, in fact, own Quasten; whether they have considered updating it; or whether they would consider it.

Would it really be such a big task to improve the book?  The bibliographies of translations could be updated, perhaps, relatively easily, with the assistance of l’Année Philologique and the internet.  Probably most of us could do this, given some secretarial assistance, and it might be interesting to do.  Much of the text doesn’t really need changing.

But then again I mainly use volume 3, on Greek writers.  Volumes 1 and 2 are thin, and really in need of expansion, particularly in the light of the Nag Hammadi discoveries.  This element really requires a professional scholar.

Revising Quasten is not “research”, so I can foresee problems in finding a scholar willing to do it.  “Research” is everything, in the current climate, and those who fail to publish it find their jobs at risk.  But surely we ought to be able to do something?

What sort of changes, I wonder, would we make to Quasten, if we could?


Chrysostom’s “Quod Christus Sit Deus”

Yesterday’s post on Chrysostom and the Jews led to some interesting questions about his other work, Against the Jews and Pagans that Christ is God.  These I have pursued in the comments thread.

A look at Quasten’s Patrology says that the work is untranslated; but Quasten was getting tired by the time he did volume 3, and it is nearly 50 years old in any event.  Isn’t it time that someone revised the work and brought it up to date?  It’s not as easy as it might be to see who owns the book; but since it has remained in print ever since, it ought to be in everyone’s interest to update it.

The work seems to have been translated into French as long ago as the 1860’s, in Bareille’s translation of all of Chrysostom’s works.[1]  A lot of these are on, repackaged as just the translations, and volume 1 contains the work under the title La divinité du Christ [2].

Much more important is the unpublished dissertation of Fr. Norman G. McKendrick, S.J., in 1966.[3].  This not merely included an English translation, but also what P.W.Harkins described as an excellent critical Greek text.  This was based on a fresh examination of the manuscripts.  McKendrick drew up a stemma, dividing the manuscripts into 2 families.  The thesis is accessible from UMI, if you have $37 to spare, and is evidently an important work.  McKendrick himself died in 2002.

The final event in the history of the text was a published translation by P.W.Harkins, in 1985 as the second item in a volume in the Fathers of the Church series.[4]  Harkins had already produced the first published translation of the Eight homilies against the Jews in FOC 68.  He decided to rename the work to omit mention of Jews, however, which is perhaps less than ideal, and has certainly hampered at least one correspondent of mine!

So the work is out there, and there is even a study of the manuscripts.

Isn’t it a pity, tho, that US dissertations remain locked inside a commercial company’s database?  Once Proquest were providing a valuable service, in that they produced print-offs of what would otherwise be entirely inaccessible.  You could order these from anywhere.

But in the age of the internet, there is no need for the paper versions, and PDF’s of the theses could usefully (and at almost no cost) appear on the web.

  1. [1]J. Bareille, Oeuvres completes de S. Jean Chrysostome, 19 vols, Paris, 1865-73.
  2. [2], p.478.
  3. [3]Norman G. McKendrick, “The ‘Quod Christus Sit Deus’ of John Chrysostom”, PhD dissertation, Fordham University, 1966
  4. [4]John Chrysostom Apologist, Fathers of the Church 73, CUA Press, 1985, p. 153 f.  A google books preview is accessible here.

Chrysostom and the Jews uploaded

An email from a correspondent revealed to me that the anonymous translation of John Chrysostom’s Eight homilies against the Jews was no longer accessible at the Fordham University site.  This is a nuisance.  What to do?

Back in 1998 Paul Halsall created the Medieval Sourcebook site there.  He included this translation which he found online on anti-Jewish sites.  The origins of the translation are unknown; it is not the standard translation found in the Fathers of the Church series. But Dr Halsall has long since moved on to other things, and the site seems rather neglected.

I have notified Fordham that the page is missing. But since the site is no longer actively maintained, even if the page should reappear, there is a considerable possibility that it will vanish again.  If it remains missing, people looking for the text will be forced to find it in strange places.

Lately US universities have acquired a reputation for political intolerance and censorship.  I have no way of knowing how true this is, but if it is correct, I can imagine that students and lecturers might find it unsafe or impossible to access the extremist sites on which copies of this translation presumably may still be found.  Indeed might even referring to such a URL in an essay not place an unwary student at risk of official victimisation from an ill-disposed person?  The Fordham site has a page indicating that there were calls for censorship, and suggesting that Dr Halsall displayed some professional bravery in placing it on his site.

In the circumstances I have felt that it would serve everyone best to add the anonymous translation to my own collection of translations of the Fathers, where it may be safely consulted by everyone, and sits next to other works of Chrysostom not found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection.  It is here:

The enquiry that reached me was in fact searching for a translation of Chrysostom’s sermon “Against Jews and Pagans, that Christ is God”.  This has never been translated, as far as I know, which is a pity.  It would be nice to complete the list of Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish works.

UPDATE: The Fordham page has mysteriously reappeared.  The URL is different, tho:


Chub’s preface to Methodius now online

I’ve been translating from Russian the preface to a group of works by Methodius, as I mentioned here.  It’s no work of scholarship, but the end product, from some Google Translate and the kind help of Maureen in the comments, is now online here:

It’s public domain as usual: do whatever you wish with it.

Someone has just emailed me to ask where they can find the Eight Homilies against the Jews by John Chrysostom.  For years these have lived at a Fordham University page, but today I find them gone.  The archiver gives June 2011 as the last version.  It’s probably just a glitch; but if not, I shall have to consider including them in my own collection.

UPDATE: It seems to be a great day for stuff to vanish from the web.  The Cyprian Project lists of PG and PL volumes also seem to have gone.


Ve haf vays of meking you translate … not you Google, sit down!

Michael Gilleland has been trying out German on Google Translate, with mixed results.

I used to tell students, “This passage makes sense in Latin, and your English translation has to make sense, too. It isn’t nonsense in Latin, and it can’t be nonsense in English.” Google Translate’s version of Wilamowitz’s German seems to fail the “intelligibility” test.

Does Microsoft’s Bing Translator do any better?

I wasn’t aware of the existence of Bing Translator (which for some reason makes me think of defunct US sit-com Friends) , but the more the better, in my experience —  you can sometimes get part of the meaning from one, and part from another.

German IS a problem in Google translate.  Part of the reason for this is the involuted word order, for which, I believe we have Martin Luther to thank.  Part of the reason is the lengthy sentences that German literature written by scholars tends to favour.

What I have found is that often you can get enlightenment by breaking down a sentence into bits.  If you put each clause on a separate line, and do the same with what looks like the main verb at the end, it helps.  You’ll often do better to translate one such sentence into more than one English sentence anyway.

But in the end, you will still need some knowledge of the language.  These toys do not do all the job for you.  But they help considerably.

I’m having difficulties with a (paid) translator at the moment.  The following neatly sums up the problem:

This passage makes sense in Latin, and your English translation has to make sense, too. It isn’t nonsense in Latin, and it can’t be nonsense in English.

Well said, Mr. G.