Some notes on the commentary on the psalms by Asterius the Sophist

This morning a Greek text of the remains of Asterius the Sophist’s Commentary on the Psalms came into my hands.[1]  The editor’s preface is quite interesting on this obscure writer, and I thought that I would transcribe a few remarks from it.

But who was this fellow?  Asterius was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, but during the Great Persecution, led by Maximinus Daia, Lucian was martyred, and Asterius agreed to sacrifice to the pagan gods.  He was never ordained, in consequence, but after the Council of Nicaea, he seems to have come to support the Arian party.[2]  In consequence he wrote a booklet, the Syntagmation, promoting Arian ideas and circulated it industriously.[3]  He also wrote a now-lost refutation of Marcellus of Ancyra, who defended the Nicene definition ineptly, plus some commentaries, of which only material on the Psalms has been recovered.   He died around 341 AD.

Jerome thought him important enough to be listed in his De viris illustribus as follows:

He wrote during the reign of Constantius commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, on the Gospels and on the Psalms and also many other works which are diligently read by those of his party

In Letter 112:20 Jerome adds that Asterius of the Sophist was one of the writers known to him who had written a commentary on all of the psalms.

Marcel Richard discovered that there are considerable remains of this commentary in the catena of type VI on Psalms 1-50.  This catena was composed in Palestine in the 6th century, and the selections from Asterius cover various verses of Ps. 1, 4-7, 10, 14-20, 34, 36 and 38.

In addition, in many of the manuscripts which transmit to us the homilies of John Chrysostom on the psalms, there is also a collection – in whole or in part – of 31 homilies on the psalms which are clearly not by Chrysostom.  Excerpts from some of these homilies also appear in the catena type VI, and are there labelled as being by Asterius the Arian.  There seems no pressing reason to reject the identification made by the catenist to seven of these homilies.  The homilies show no sign of Arian ideas, and doubtless belong to the ante-Nicene phase of Asterius’ life.  Other homilies in the same collection fit less well with Asterius, but Richard thought it best to edit the whole collection, plus the catena fragments, and let others decide which homilies were authentic.  In his edition, which follows the order of the manuscripts, homilies 4 and 5 (on Ps.4), homily 6 (on Ps.5), homily 12 (on Ps. 6), homily 13 (on Ps. 7), homily 19 (on Ps. 10), and homily 29 (on Ps.18) are definitely authentic.  Richard suggested that homily 10 may be by Origen; while homily 22 perhaps from an Apollinarist writer, while he notes that 26 actually attacks Arius and Eunomius; but his co-worker made a case that all the homilies are Asterian, and the attack is merely an ancient interpolation.

A number of the homilies are plainly intended for delivery as panegyrics on the eight days of Easter.  These are homilies 8, 9, 11, 14-16, 22, 30, and 31.

Asterius was an orator, and his style is “very exuberant”.  Richard suggests that, among the uncounted mass of pseudo-Chrysostomica, there are probably further examples of his style, perhaps in material on Romans, or on the Gospels.

The manuscripts of the collection mentioned by Richard are as follows:

A = Athos Magna Laura Θ 210, 17th century (Richard thinks 14-15), paper.  Complete, but missing homilies 1-2 and first part of 3.  The only witness to homilies 30 and 31, and the last few folios of 31 are lost because of damage to the manuscript.  The ms. has suffered from damp at the top, affecting the first 3 lines of the text.  The text contained in it is of good quality.

B = Paris suppl. gr. 266, f. 93-155v, 17-18th century.  The Greek text is followed by a Latin version of homilies 4-18, and 20:7-23:5.  Referred to by Montfaucon as “my manuscript, copied at the Escorial”.  It seems to be a copy of a manuscript with Latin material, made by a certain Fr Gabriel of St Jerome, which itself was copied from ms. Scorialensis I.Δ.11 (previously II.K.13), destroyed in the fire of 1671.  The Escorial ms. contained homilies of Chrysostom, and homilies 1-29 of this collection, and was “very ancient” according to surviving descriptions.

This Fr. Gabriel belonged to the monastery of the Escorial.  He intended to publish an edition of unpublished works of Chrysostom preserved in the mss of the Escorial, and submitted his work to the printer Cotelier.  The submitted text was in two parts; the first containing 23 homilies on the psalms, while the other contained the remaining 4 homilies, plus a commentary on Daniel.  However Cotelier was interested only in the second part, which he had purchased by Colbert, and published in 1661.  The manuscript of Fr Gabriel’s second part passed into the Bibliotheque Nationale, where it is today Ms. Paris gr. 659.  None of this material is related to our collection.

The manuscript of the first part contained 23 of the 27 homilies from Scorialensis I.Δ.11.  The Escorial ms. in fact contained still more homilies; but Fr Gabriel was naturally interested only in material which was unpublished.  Consequently he omitted the authentic homilies of Chrysostom on Ps.4-12, and also the Asterian homilies 1-3 and 25-27, because these 6 homilies were translated into Latin and printed in that form by G. Hervet, in 1549, and so were frequently reprinted with other translations of Chrysostom.

The manuscript of Fr. Gabriel’s edition ended up in Rome, where Montfaucon saw it, and made a copy.  Richard was unable to locate Fr. Gabriel’s manuscript in Rome, but Montfaucon’s copy was found at the BNF by R.P.A. Wenger, and Richard inspected it the very next morning!  The ms. is unbound, and has lost folios from the front.  But the text in it is important.

P = Paris gr. 654, a luxury manuscript from the second half of the 10th century.  It contains the end of homily 1 and homilies 2-18.  A couple of folios were lost from the front before the 13th century. The current first folio is a 13th century leaf, a palimpsest, which contains the whole of homily 1, but copied from another manuscript.  This leaf is labelled Q.

V = Vatican gr. 524, 11th century.  It only contains homilies 12-22, 25, 26-27, and 28.

C = Caesenatensis Malatestianus Plut. D XXVIII, 2.  Copied by a monk named Leo who finished on 4 September 1027.  Parchment.  Homilies 1-3, 25-27.

The 5 other manuscripts listed by Richard only contain selected homilies.  Interestingly, some of these come via copies of a manuscript once annotated by Photius.  There are also 4 mss which are only copies of other manuscripts, and 1 which is a copy of the text in Savile’s edition.  Richard also discusses the catena fragments.

The early editions naturally reflect the manuscripts.  I will only give selected details here, but Richard details the lot.

G. Hervet, D. Ioannis Chrysostomi vere aureae in psalmos homiliae…, Venice, 1549, prints a Latin translation of homilies 1-3 and 25-27, made from Ms. Vat. Ottob. 95, itself a copy of C.  This was reprinted at Anvers in 1552 and 1582, and then in all the general Latin editions Chrysostom from that of Venice, 1549, until that of Anvers in 1614.

Henry Savile’s 1612 edition of Chrysostom also included the first Greek edition of homilies 3 and 5 (in vol. 8, 1, and vol. 7, 431).  These he based on various late copies.

Homilies 6-13 were first printed with a Latin translation by J.B. Cotelier in Ecclesiae Graecae Monumenta, vol. 2, Paris, 1681, p.1-81.

Montfaucon’s edition of Chrysostom includes 3, 5 and 25, based on preceding editions, somewhat corrected.

The Patrologia Graeca reprinted Cotelier as vol. 40, col. 389-477, and Montfaucon in vol. 55, col. 35-39 (hom. 3), 539-544 (hom. 5), and 549-558 (hom. 25).

There was then no interest until Richard and Skard started work in 1949.  Richard also lists editions of the catena fragments, and a mess they are too.

My own interest in all this is concerned with homily 21, and its mention of Matt.27:25.  Sadly it looks as if it is neither Asterian, nor published other than by Richard in Greek (without a translation of any sort!)

UPDATE: See a few more notes in my next post, here.

  1. [1]Asterii Sophistae.  Commentariorum in Psalmos quae supersunt. Accedunt aliquot homiliae anonymae. Ed. Marcel Richard. In: Symbolae Osloenses fasc. suppl. 16, Oslo: Brogger, 1956. P.3-245.
  2. [2]Indications to this effect may be found in Philostorgius, HE, book 2, 15; and book 4, 4; so Richard, p.iii.
  3. [3]Athanasius, De synodis 18, and De decret. 8.

10 thoughts on “Some notes on the commentary on the psalms by Asterius the Sophist

  1. Very surprised (and glad) to hear about Asterios ! Indeed, there are (very) few papers about him. Though for many centuries scholars supposed he was a strict arian,(becaus of what Athanasius reports) it seems that he was first something like “homeousian”… and that he may have been nicean at the end.
    You may have a look at “Astérios le sophiste” in the french wikipedia : i placed some external links that may interest you. (The very 1rst paper on my blog is a part of Hom 14 of Asterios, and i began preparing a short article on him 2 weeks ago…)
    Before Richard and Skard, there is also a complete chapter about Asterios (and the list of the fragments about Marcelus of Ancyra and Asterios) in Bardy’s “Recherches sur saint Lucien d’Antioche et son école”, 1936

  2. Aha!! I am delighted to learn of your interest. I will go and look at the Astérios le sophiste article. Do you have a link to your post of homily 14?

  3. Excellent. I have today read material by Kinzig on Asterius suggesting that these homilies are not by Asterius the Sophist but by some other person named Asterius.

  4. I’m glad you noted Kinzig’s work, which is crucial to distinguish among the several persons going by the name of Asterius in the 4th century. It should also be noted that Asterius the Homelist (or Asterius Ignotus, as Kinzig also calls him) was probably a late 4th century resident of Syria or Palestine. In my book on the reception history of Luke 23:39-43, I traced several places where he seems to depend on the interpretations of Ephrem the Syrian.

  5. My pleasure…

    Requested bibliographic information follows…

    If you’d like a copy to review in a journal, Roger, let me know, and I’ll send you one.

    As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23, 39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, Cahiers de Biblia Patristica 13 (Strasbourg: Centre d’Analyse et de Documentation Patristiques, University of Strasbourg; Turnhout: Brepols, 2013) [ISBN 978-2503550497].

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