What the heck is the “Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae” of ps.Athanasius??

Enthusiasts for the authenticity of the “Three Heavenly Witnesses” passage in 1 John 5:7 are well aware that no Greek manuscript contains it.  But as I remarked in a previous post, they point to a work by Athanasius, the Synposis Scripturae Sacrae (“Summary of the Holy Scriptures”) as evidence that it was part of the text in his day.  But what on earth is this work?  And how has it reached us, and what scholarship has been done upon it?

Let’s look at how we got this text, and then we can talk about what it contains.

The work is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum under CPG 2249.  It has reached us in a single manuscript, which remained unknown until 1895, hidden in the prestigious surroundings of Eton College, where it has the shelfmark Codex Etonensis 144 (formerly B. l. 5. 13).  J. Armitage Robinson published it in that year in Texts and Studies 3, “Euthaliana”, p.106-120, with a collation of the manuscript against the PG text.[1]  The manuscript was written by Ducas the Notary, among others, at the end of the 14th or start of the 15th century.

Other manuscripts seem to exist. The Pinakes database gives a list, which contains four manuscripts that look like full-length texts: Tübingen Mb 10 (16th c.), Vienna theol. gr. 249 (16th c.) and two 18th century Greek manuscripts – but I am not aware of any publication that deals with them.

The work was first published by P. Felckmann in Operum sancti patris nostri Athanasii archiepiscopi Alexandrini, t. II, Heidelberg 1600, p. 61-136, with a Latin translation by Wolfgang Musculus.[2]  Regular readers will remember Musculus from my post Apocryphal and then some: The so-called “Synopsis” of so-called Dorotheus of Tyre.  The Eton manuscript bears the marks of use as an exemplar for this edition.  But the manuscript then disappeared, and all subsequent editions based themselves on Felckmann.  Here’s the start of Felckmann’s text:

Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae in Felkmann’s edition of Athanasius (1600).

The text was edited again by Montfaucon, and reprinted by J.-P. Migne in the Patrologia Graeca vol. 28, cols. 281-438.  There is no critical edition of the text, and the only translation is that of Musculus into Latin.  The opening section of the work has been translated into English by Michael D. Marlowe and placed online here.

Studies of the work have been few.  The only serious study, until a decade ago, was undertaken by Theodor Zahn in Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons, 1890, Band 2, Hälfte 1, p.302-318.[3]

Zahn established that the work is not an original literary composition.  Rather it is a collection of materials about the books of the bible and their contents, assembled from pre-existing sources in a pretty raw manner.  The work contradicts itself; at one time it describes the Old Testament apocrypha as useful for reading; at another it states that they are not to be read.

The work has always been recognised as spurious.  Montfaucon in his preface listed some reasons why:

  •  No work of this title is attributed to Athanasius in any ancient or medieval source.  We have detailed lists of his work in Jerome (de viris illustribus 87) and Photius (codd. 32, 139, 140).
  •  It is not found with any other work of Athanasius in the manuscript.
  •  It contradicts what Athanasius says about the canon in his 39th Festal Letter, and ignores the Shepherd of Hermas, so dear to Athanasius’ heart.

The Synopsis takes material from the genuine Festal Letter 39.  A section on the translation of the Old Testament is taken word-for-word from Epiphanius.  Another section belongs to the strange book of Josephus Christianus.  The content for Leviticus, Paralip., Esra, Prov., Job, Esther, Judith, Tobit, Sapientia Sal. is almost literally identical with corresponding sections of the Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae of ps.Chrysostom, another confused text of the same genre, which appears to be older than the ps.Athanasius.

Zahn concludes:

We cannot give be more precise on the period when the Athanasian Synopsis was written. For the time being there is nothing to be found in the relation to Josephus Christianus; for 1) the original affiliation with the parallel section on synopsis is highly doubtful, 2) that Josephus, whose work is nothing more than a compilation of very different books, may as well have drawn this passage from our synopsis, but conversely, 3) the time of Josephus is a very unknown or at least uncertain thing.

The dependence of our synopsis on that of Chrysostom, on the 39th festal letter of Athanasius, on a fifth-century Palestinian canon, and probably also on Epiphanius, places us in a monastery or church library in which these diverse spirits were united as equally venerable authorities.

The compilation certainly did not come into existence before the sixth century, perhaps even later.[4]

Zahn wrote more than a century ago, and nobody has ventured to touch the work since.  The only subsequent work is by Gilles Dorival in 2005, but this I have not seen and know only from a review.[5]

Work has been done on the related ps.Chrysostom Synopsis.  But that’s another story.

The text is related in some way to the Euthalian materials which appear in the margins and between books in medieval Greek bible manuscripts.  So we are dealing with a mass of non-literary material about the bible, changed by every hand that touched it, incarnate in a variety of versions, and attributed to a variety of authors, none of them genuine.  It’s really very like the Vitae Prophetarum Fabulosa that we encountered in ps.Dorotheus.

  1. [1]Online here.
  2. [2]Online here.
  3. [3]Online here.
  4. [4]Genauere Bestimmungen über die Abfassungszeit der athanasianischen Synopsis wage ich nicht zu geben. Auf das Verhältnis derselben zu Josephus Christianus ist vorläufig nichts zu gründen; denn 1) ist die ursprüngliche Zugehörigkeit des mit diesem parallelen Abschnitts zur Synopsis höchst zweifelhaft, 2) kann jener Josephus, dessen Arbeit nichts als eine Compilation aus sehr verschiedenen Büchern ist, diesen Abschnitt ebensogut aus unserer Synopsis geschöpft haben, als umgekehrt, 3) ist die Zeit jenes Josephus eine sehr unbekannte oder doch unsichere Sache. Die Abhängigkeit unserer Synopsis von derjenigen des Chrysostomus, vom 39. Festbrief des Athanasius, ferner von einem palästinensischen Kanon vielleicht des 5. Jahrhunderts und wahrscheinlich auch von Epiphanius versetzt uns in eine Kloster- oder Kirchenbibliothek, in welcher diese verschiedenartigen Geister als gleich ehrwürdige Auktoritäten vereinigt waren. Vor dem 6. Jahrhundert ist die Compilation gewiß nicht entstanden, vielleicht noch später.
  5. [5]Gilles Dorival, “L’apport des Synopses transmises sous le nom d’Athanase et de Jean Chrysostome à la question du Corpus Littéraire de la Bible?”, In : Gilles Dorival (ed.), Qu’est-ce qu’un Corpus Littéraire ? Recherches sur le corpus biblique et les corpus patristiques, Paris-Louvain-Dudley, 2005, p. 53-93; and a further article 94-108. Reviews on Persee here, which reads “G. Dorival (pp. 53-93), dans un texte très dense, fouillé même, dont notre résumé ne rend qu’imparfaitement compte, traite de l’apport des «synopses» de la Bible transmises sous les noms d’Athanase et de Jean Chrysostome à la connaissance de la constitution des corpus néo- et vétéro-testamentaires. La première est connue par quatre manuscrits divergents entre eux ; G.D. en nie l’authenticité, contre Montfaucon, pour en situer la rédaction entre le début du Ve siècle et la fin du vie ; le classement y est fait selon trois « genres » : historique, exhortatif et prophétique. La seconde, rédigée entre 500 et 600 et faussement attribuée à Athanase, n’est plus conservée que dans un seul manuscrit (cod. Eton. B 1 5 13) ; elle distingue entre les livres canoniques et les livres lus (άναγιγνωσκόμενα), et propose une liste des livres contestés (αντιλεγόμενα) et des apocryphes (απόκρυφα) qui ne correspond pas à la distinction précédemment établie. Dans une seconde étude (p. 95-108), G. Dorival s’intéresse à la synopse contenue dans le codex Barberinianus gr. 317, qui dépend en grande partie des deux synopses étudiées plus haut, mais qui offrent aussi quelques traits originaux, qui font regretter qu’elle n’ait pas été étudiée pour elle-même par les canonistes.”

10 thoughts on “What the heck is the “Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae” of ps.Athanasius??

  1. Thank you – very interesting!

    Can we say we have a possible 6th-c. source including a presumably earlier source showing a Greek text of the “Three Heavenly Witnesses” passage in 1 John 5:7?

  2. I don’t think so; a 6th century source that *might* refer to a Greek text of the Three Heavenly Witnesses (I’ve not got into the arguments about whether it does), and may be based on an earlier source.

  3. Josephus Christianus also known as Josephus Hypomnesticus,
    His sole extant work, the Hypomnesticon, is a compilation of OT history, mostly drawn from Josephus the Jewish historian (hence the author’s names Christianus or Hypomnesticus).
    Josephus Christianus was once thought to be a fourth or fifth century figure (e.g. Jewish convert, Josephus of Tiberias etc), probably because of a misunderstanding of the title, which basically means “notes from Josephus”. The Hypomnesticon is now assigned to an anonymous author from the 9th or 10th century.
    It’s quite interesting to see how the author was given a life story and used as an authority until more rigorous analysis showed it was a late compilation.

  4. Thank you so much IG for these notes. This review also covers the item: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1584323

    I might write up this material as a post, including your own notes. There seems to be a single manuscript, a 1733 publication, and the Grant/Menzies edition and translation. I’ve been trying to get hold of the latter, but no luck so far.

  5. Not a problem, Roger. I had never heard of this guy or work before but it turns out he may be quite useful for something I am writing at the moment! I look forward to your post.

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