A Greek Christian Text on the Seven Sages: Ps.-Athanasius, “On the Temple at Athens” now online in English

In 1923 A. Delatte published a strange, short Greek text which consists of sayings predicting Christ attributed to the Seven Sages.[1]  There are quite a number of collections of “sayings” in later Greek literature, which are studied under the intimidating title of “gnomologia” (i.e. “wisdom sayings”).  Most remain inaccessible and untranslated.  The sayings are usually attributed to some important sounding individuals.  There is a class of this literature which consists of sayings predicting Christian teaching and the events of the New Testament and attributed to pagan philosophers.  In this way the medieval Greeks had both Jewish and pagan predictions of Christ, a twofold testimony.

It is unfortunate that sayings literature is a low form of literature, in which the apophthegms are routinely transferred from one name to another.  The closest modern parallel is perhaps the joke book, in which many a joke ends up attributed to Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde.

Delatte’s text is one of this class.  He found it in a Vatican manuscript, Ms. Vatican graecus 1198 (16th century), which was published by the Benedictine Fathers and reprinted by Migne.[2].  A manuscript in Athens, B.N. 431 (18th c.), fol. 79r ff, also contains the text.  Attributed to Athanasius, the date of the text must be later and is supposed by Delatte to be 5th century A.D., as he believed it to be a fragment of the lost work of Aristocritus, the Theosophy.

Adam McCollum has kindly transcribed the Greek and translated the text into English for us, with useful notes.  I have placed his PDF and the .RTF file at Archive.org, here.  But I thought the bare translation might usefully appear here.  Enjoy it!

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On the Temple, Schools, and Theatres in Athens
Commentary of Athanasius the Great on the Temple in Athens

1. Those who do not understand the divine scriptures we ought to persuade concerning the knowledge of God further from the nature of things itself, for we see certain essences in creation that cooperate  with each other not naturally but supernaturally. As an example I mention the essence of water, a nature that is flowing and having a downward tendency: how, then, do we see the so-called water-spouts carrying water up out of the sea to the clouds? But more surprising is the fact that [what had been] salty, as it returns to the earth, comes down through the rain as something sweet. And again, how does the nature of bodies, naturally sinkable, appear unsinkable and unsubmergeable in the waters of the Pentapolis of Marmarica?  Not only this, but at one time in Lycia on the mountain called Olympus nature was also the reverse of both water and fire  at the same time, as countless people have seen, and even to the present [people] witness this, and countless other paradoxes are seen and marveled at in creation, things that would not thus be destined to be supernatural, were it not for some essence of God mastering them and commanding them not to oppose each other. O children of the Greeks! How, when there is severe thunder, does all human nature tremble, shudder, and stop dumbfounded, declaring through that bearing that it is under [the power of] a master who effects the thunder?

2. While these things bring examples for the knowledge of God to the simpler ones among the Greeks, to the wise among them certain wise men of the Greeks from among the old and able philosophers declared many testimonies concerning reverence for God, and they even dimly declared beforehand the economy of Christ. For many years before the arrival of Christ, a certain wise man, Apollo by name — moved, I believe by God — founded the temple in Athens, having written on its altar, to the unknown god. In this [temple], then, were gathered the first philosophers of the Greeks, that they might ask him about the temple and about prophecy and reverence for God. Their names, we will say, are these: first Titon, second Bias, third Solon, fourth Cheilon, fifth Thucydides, sixth Menander, seventh Plato. These seven philosophers spoke to Apollo: “Prophesy to us, O prophet Apollo: what is this temple, and whose is this altar behind you?” Apollo said to them: “Whatever pertains to virtue and good order, arise to do, [and] do it! For I announce the triune ruler on high, whose ineffable Logos will be conceived in a free  girl. Like a fire-bearing bow, he will bring a gift to [his] father that, [instead of killing], has taken captive the whole world. Mary is her name.”

3. This is the explanation of the prophecy: The first saying has to do with the temple. He says to do what pertains to the good order of the temple along with practicable beauty: do things pleasing to God and to people. For I take [God] to be a great king on high in three persons in heaven: its  God without beginning, and Logos becomes flesh in an unmarried girl, and he will appear like a fire-bearing bow — or something more powerful — to the whole world, fishing for people as for fish from the depth of unbelief and ignorance, people whom he will offer as a gift to his own father. Mary is her  name. Apollo said these things in prophecy.

4. Titon said, “There will come a young girl who has progeny for us, the heavenly child of [our] God and Father. The girl conceives without a man.” Bias said, “He has come from the heavens, an exceeding, immortal fire of flame, at whom, heaven, earth, and sea tremble, [together with] the hells  and the demons of the deep, [the one who is] self-engendered  and thrice-happy.” Solon said, “Eventually at some time will God drive on  to this much-divided earth and without error become flesh; in the bounds of his inexhaustible divinity he will destroy the corruption of incurable sufferings, the ill-will of people will become bitter toward him, yet when he has been hung up like one condemned to death, he will humbly persuade each one.” Cheilon said, “He will be the inexhaustible nature of God, and [as] Logos he will derive from him [God] himself.” Thucydides said, “Honor God and learn! Do not seek who he is and how, for either he is or he is not: as he is, honor him!” Menander said, “The old is new and the new ancient, the father progeny and progeny a father. The one is three and the three one. Fleshless is of flesh. Earth has given birth to the heavenly king.” Plato said,  “Since God is good, he is not responsible for everything, as many people say; rather, for many things he is not responsible. We say that he and no other is responsible for good things: only of what is beautiful, hardly of what is bad.” In turn these seven spoke:  they were concerned with the economy of Christ and with the holy trinity.

5. Another Greek sage, called Asclepius, along with some others, asked Hermes, more philosophical than all the philosophers, to give them a saying about God’s nature. Hermes took a pen  and wrote as follows: “Except for some providence of the Lord of all, he would be wishing neither to reveal this saying, nor to occupy you with such deeds, that you ask about them, for it is not possible for such things to be handed over to the uninitiated, but [as for you], listening with the mind, listen! There was only one: intellectual light before intellectual light, and it had unity from the mind in light and spirit. All things are from him and to him.  One fertile, having come down from [another] fertile one onto fertile water,  made the water pregnant.”

6. You know how the children of the Greeks prophesied and declared beforehand the God who is before all eternity, his Son and Word likewise without origin, and his co-reigning and consubstantial Spirit, and declared beforehand the costly sufferings of the cross. To him be glory and power along with the Father without beginning and the all-holy Spirit forever and ever, amen!

  1. [1]A. Delatte, “Le déclin de la Légende des VII Sages et les Prophéties théosophiques”, Musée Belge 27 (1923): 97-111.  An extremely poor copy of this was sold to me by the British Library for an exorbitant price some years ago.
  2. [2]PG 28, col. 1428 f.

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