Scribes removing paganism from Galen’s “On my own opinions”?

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.[1]  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,[2] 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[3], the second by Hunain himself for his son Ishaq.  Thabit ibn Qurra then translated the latter version into Arabic.[4]  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:

Original Greek:

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.[5]


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.[6]


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.[7]

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.[8]


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.[9]


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.[10]

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.[11]


Concerning the works of God in us … † †[12] 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.[13]


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.[14]

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.

  1. [1]The material for this article is found in A. Pietrobelli, “Galien agnostique: un texte caviardé par la tradition,” Revue des Études Greques 126 (2013), 103-135.
  2. [2]Details here.  John Lamoreaux has since made an English translation, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq on His Galen Translations, BYU (2015).
  3. [3]Pietrobelli suggests alternatively a “Job le tacheté” of whom I can discover absolutely nothing – in Lamoreaux’s translation, Job is Job of Edessa.
  4. [4]Pietrobelli states that both Syriac versions were translated into Arabic, the first by Thabit ibn Qurra, the second by Isa ibn Yahya, a disciple of Hunain; Lamoreaux gives the passage as: “What He Believes by Way of Opinion [B113]  This book consists of a single volume. In it he describes what is known and what is not known. Job has translated it into Syriac. <I translated it into Syriac> for my son Ishaq. Thabit translated it into Arabic for Abu Jafar Muhammad Ibn Musa.” and “A adds: Isa Ibn Yahya translated it into Arabic, which Ishaq collated with the original and corrected, for Abd Allah Ibn Ishaq. “
  5. [5]Que l’univers soit incréé ou créé, qu’il y ait quelque chose après lui au dehors ou bien rien, parce que j’affirme être dans l’ignorance face à de telles questions, j’ignore aussi évidemment quelle est la nature du créateur de toutes choses dans l’univers, s’il est incorporel ou corporel, et bien davantage, en quel lieu il réside.
  6. [6]J’affirme donc ne pas savoir si le monde est créé, s’il existe quelque chose à l’extérieur de lui ou pas. Et parce que je dis que je ne sais pas ces choses, il est donc clair que je ne sais pas, à propos du créateur de toutes les choses qui sont dans ce monde, s’il est corporel ou incorporel ni où il est situé, à savoir la divinité, ou plutôt le pouvoir de la divinité. Ce pouvoir est de ceux dont les oeuvres sont révélées dans ce monde par les actes qui ne peuvent provenir que d’un créateur. Ainsi ils indiquent eux-mêmes Dieu.
  7. [7]Il dit : j’ignore si le monde est créé ou pas, et s’il y a quelque chose d’autre en dehors de lui ou rien. Et puisque je dis être ignorant sur ces choses, il est aussi évident que j’ignore, à propos du créateur de toutes les choses qui sont dans le monde, s’il est un corps ou incorporel  ni quel est le lieu de son séjour.  Quant à Dieu et aux pouvoirs divins, c’est-à-dire les pouvoirs dont les activités se manifestent dans le monde, ils ne peuvent que provenir du Créateur, c’est pourquoi ils Le révèlent et ils Lui sont attribuées. 
  8. [8]Est-ce donc qu’au sujet des dieux j’affirme également que je suis dans l’incertitude, comme Protagoras le disait, ou bien qu’à leur sujet j’affirme être ignorant de leur essence, tout en reconnaissant leur existence d’après leurs oeuvres?  Car c’est l’oeuvre des dieux que la constitution des êtres vivants, ainsi que tous les avertissements qu’ils envoient par des présages, des signes ou des songes.
  9. [9]Et je ne parlerai pas comme Pictagoras qui niait avoir une connaissance à leur sujet, mais j’affirme que je n’ai aucune connaissance de leur essence; mais que ces pouvoirs existent, je le sais à travers leurs oeuvres parce que l’organisation des êtres vivants est leur fait et qu’ils sont révélés par la divination et les rêves.
  10. [10]Je ne dis pas d’eux comme Protagoras : « Je ne sais rien du tout à leur sujet », mais je dis que j’ignore quelle est leur essence. Qu’ils existent en revanche, je le sais d’après leurs activités et à leurs activités appartiennent la composition des animaux et ce qui se manifeste à travers la divination, les augures et l’interprétation des rêves.
  11. [11]Le dieu qui est honoré chez moi à Pergame a montré sa puissance et sa providence en bien d’autres occasions mais particulièrement le jour où il me soigna. En mer, j’ai fait l’expérience non seulement de la providence, mais aussi de la puissance des Dioscures. Non vraiment, je ne pense pas que cela fasse du tort aux hommes d’être ignorants de l’essence des dieux, bien que je sois décidé à les honorer en suivant la coutume ancestrale, à la façon de Socrate qui conseillait d’obéir aux préceptes de Pythios. Voilà ma position en ce qui concerne les dieux.
  12. [12]Note 25. V. Nutton proposes to restore the text thus : “Concerning the workings of God in us +having come+ into deep trouble, +how much clearer+ have they appeared in their power!”
  13. [13]En ce qui concerne les oeuvres de Dieu en nous †…† elles sont apparues par son pouvoir, parce qu’il me soigna une fois d’une maladie que j’avais et parce qu’il se manifeste en mer en délivrant ceux qui sont sur le point de faire naufrage grâce à des signes qu’ils aperçoivent et qui leur font croire fermement à leur salut. Voilà qui indique manifestement un pouvoir admirable don’t j’ai moi-même fait l’expérience.  Et je ne vois pas ce qu’il y a de nuisible pour les hommes s’ils ignorent l’essence de la divinité et je vois que je dois revendiquer et suivre la loi sur ce point et accepter ce qu’a prescrit Socrate qui s’est exprimé assez fermement sur ce sujet. Voilà ce que j’ai à dire sur la divinité.
  14. [14]Et parmi les actions de Dieu, béni et loué soit-Il, qui révèlent son pouvoir et sa providence pour les créatures, il y a le fait qu’Il m’a guéri d’une maladie que j’avais et ce qui peut être vu en mer d’après le sauvetage de ceux qui s’embarquent dans des navires; après avoir cru faire naufrage et couler, <ils sont sauvés> par le signe qu’ils voient et auquel ils croient et par lequel ils sont sauvés. Cela donne une indication claire d’un pouvoir merveilleux, et je ne pense pas que cela fasse du tort aux gens s’ils ne savent pas quelle est l’essence des pouvoirs divins. C’est pourquoi je pense que je dois les exalter et les louer, comme l’ordonne la religion.

7 thoughts on “Scribes removing paganism from Galen’s “On my own opinions”?

  1. I presume the Vladaton manuscript is medieval?

    If that is so then the scribe would have been a Christian.

    The interesting question is why they didn’t see the need to edit Galen ‘s text. I suspect Orthodox scribes weren’t as easily shocked or their beliefs threatened by pagan works.

  2. Good point. But of course a copyist can blindly copy. A translator is more involved in the text.

  3. I think I am right in saying that Judaism (today and in the past) does also have a custom of inserting praises of God into texts when His name is mentioned. It just is not as rigid a custom as the Islamic one.

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