In 2005 a bored PhD student, left hanging around the catalogue desk at the Vlatades Monastery in Thessalonika, looked through the catalogue and discovered a previously unknown Greek manuscript of the works of the 2nd century medical writer, Galen. The Ms. Thessalonicensis Vlatadon 14 contained complete Greek texts of several works previously known only from fragments or translations into Arabic, as well as a new and important work, the Peri Alupias (On Grief), about which I have written elsewhere.
One of the works whose complete Greek text is now accessible is On my own opinions. Immediately after the prologue, we find that Galen discusses his opinion of the gods, as I learn from an interesting article by A. Pietrobelli. The passages are also extant in Latin, translating an Arabic version now lost; and in Hebrew, also translating a different Arabic version, also now lost.
The Latin version, made from Arabic, is entitled De sententiis, made at Toledo in the school of Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century AD. There are five manuscripts of this work, all mutilated at the end. (Another Latin translation does exist, made from Greek; but it only covers the last two sections of the work, whereas our material is from the beginning.)
The Arabic version, from which the Latin was made, is lost.
Hunain Ibn Ishaq was a 9th century Nestorian Christian writer. He was commissioned with others to translate Greek technical works into Arabic. The method used was to translate the Greek texts into Syriac, as there were well-established procedures to do this. Then the Syriac, a semitic language, could easily be translated on into Arabic.
Hunain tells us, in his work on the translations of Galen, that two Syriac translations of Galen’s On my own opinions existed at that time. The first was made by “Job”, presumably Job of Edessa, the second by Hunain himself for his son Ishaq. Thabit ibn Qurra then translated the latter version into Arabic. In addition a 13th century Hebrew translation exists, again made from someArabic version.
But the text has undergone some revision in transmission. Let’s have a look at the different versions, and see how. Pietrobelli gives the text and a French translation – I have rendered the latter into English so that we can see what is said.
Here’s the first passage:
Whether the universe is uncreated or created, whether there is something after it or outside it or indeed nothing, because I say that I am in ignorance faced with such questions, I also do not know of course what is the nature of the creator of all things in the universe, if he is incorporeal or corporeal, and more, in what place he resides.
So I say that I do not know whether the world is created, if there is something outside of it or not. And because I say I do not know these things, so it is clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in this world, whether he is corporeal or incorporeal, nor where he is located, namely the divinity, or rather the power of the divinity. This power is of him whose works are revealed in this world through acts that can only come from a creator. Thus these themselves demonstrate God.
He said: I do not know if the world is created or not, and if there is something else outside of it, or nothing. And as I say that I am ignorant about these things, it is also clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in the world, whether he is a body or incorporeal, nor what is the place of his residence. As for God and the divine powers, that is to say the powers whose activities are manifested in the world, they can only come from the Creator, so they reveal Him and they are attributed to Him.
In this case, the text has been augmented, somewhere along the line. Somebody has added some extra explanatory text on the end. Where Galen is ambivalent about the Creator, etc, the editor has firmly asserted the existence of a creator.
Here’s the second:
Is it only about the gods I also affirm that I am in uncertainty, as Protagoras said, or in fact that I say about them that I am ignorant of their essence, while recognizing their existence from their works? For the constitution of living beings is the work of the gods, and also all the warnings that they send, by omens, signs and dreams.
And I will not speak like Pictagoras who denied having any knowledge about them, but I say that I have no knowledge of their essence; but that such powers exist, I know through their works because the organization of living beings is their doing, and they are revealed by divination and dreams.
I do not say of them like Protagoras: “I do not know anything about them,” but I say I do not know what is their essence. That they exist, on the other hand, I know from their activities, and from their activities appear the composition of animals and that which is manifested through divination, omens, and the interpretation of dreams.
These three are more similar – although the name Protagoras has turned into Pictagoras! All the same, the change is subtle. A question that Galen leaves open becomes a positive statement.
Here’s the third passage adduced by Pietrobelli:
The god who is honoured at home in Pergamum has shown his power and providence on many other occasions but especially on the day he nursed me.
At sea, I experienced not only the providence, but also the power of the Dioscuri.
In fact, I do not think it is wrong for men to be ignorant of the essence of the gods, although I decided to honour them by following the ancient custom, in the manner of Socrates who advised people to obey the precepts of Pythios.
That is my position regarding the gods.
Concerning the works of God in us … † † they appeared by his power, because he nursed me once through an illness I had and because he manifests himself at sea in delivering those who are about to be wrecked thanks to the signs that they see and those who firmly believe in their salvation. That clearly indicates an admirable power that I have myself experienced. And I do not see what is harmful for men if they ignore the essence of divinity, and I see that I must accept and follow the law on this point and accept what Socrates prescribed who expressed himself quite strongly on this subject.
That’s what I have to say about the deity.
And among the actions of God, blessed and praised be He, which reveal his power and his providence for his creatures, there is the fact that He healed me from an illness I had, and what can be seen at sea after the rescue of those who embark on the ships; after believing they will be shipwrecked and drowned, <they are saved> by the signs that they see and that they believe and by which they are saved. This gives a clear indication of a great power, and I do not think that does harm to people if they do not know what is the essence of the divine powers. That’s why I think I need to exalt and praise them, as religion ordains.
The differences here are considerable. Galen’s own text acknowledges the favour of Asclepius, the god of Pergamum, Galen’s home city; of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, and the teachings of Apollo (Pythios). All this pagan material has been removed, in favour of acknowledgement of the intervention of God.
Furthermore, the Hebrew reveals yet more intervention – “God, praised and blessed be He” has a distinctly Islamic flavour.
What are we to make of all this?
The changes may have been made at any point in the transmission. Without a general knowledge of changes of this kind in the Arabic translation movement, we cannot say if any of this reflects the Greek text before Hunain and Job; or is conventional, in Syriac translations; or is their own work, in adapting a medical textbook for the needs of a capricious Muslim despot; or is the work of later Arabic editors, or indeed of the Latin and Hebrew translators in Europe. But somewhere along the line, someone got creative.
The changes, in fairness, are mild. They adjust paganism to monotheism, and remove an irrelevant irritant for the reader. They are probably no worse than some modern editors are doing to old but politically incorrect childrens’ classics like Biggles.
All the same, it does highlight that the transmission of texts is sometimes less than faithful, on ideological grounds. It would be most interesting to see if there is any general pattern available in the data. I suspect that there might be.