A plea for prioritisation of translation of foreign literatures

The world is wide and the languages within it, living and dead, are numerous beyond counting.  None of us can know enough to read more than a fraction of what has been written.  But if the texts are not in English, then few of us will ever read any of them.

The first step in understanding any culture is to read the primary sources.  In particular, we must read the histories written by themselves, and any catalogues of their own literature.  From there any study can broaden out.  But these are the pathways into the land.  Without them, any explorer finds himself in a pathless jungle.  This means that, for most of us, these texts must be translated into English, our own language.

This is not a profound observation.  I would hope that it is pretty obvious.  Yet whenever I come to look at some new language group or culture, even one studied widely, I find that this basic principle is neglected.

When I came to look at Arabic Christian studies, I learned that there were five major historical texts; Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one other.  I quickly found that not one of them existed in English.  Translations did exist of the first two, into other western languages.  It has been left to me, an amateur with no Arabic sitting in a bedroom, to prepare an Engish version of these.  The third item, al-Makin, has not even been printed.  Yet there are quite a few scholars of Arabic Christian literature.  They do a  valuable job.  Yet … what the heck is going on here?  Why has the edition and translation of these texts not been prioritised?

Yet Arabic Christian literature is a small subject.  Much may be excused to scholars working in a severely underfunded subject.

But what on earth can excuse the failure to translate the historical literature of China?  This evening I find that the Hou Hanshou, the “Book of the Later Han”, does not exist in English other than in short excerpts.  I have not conducted any serious biblographical search, but it looks to me as if it doesn’t exist in French or German either.

Why does it not exist in translation?  Our universities swarm with scholars of Chinese.  There are a billion chinese out there, a very large percentage of whom can speak at least some English.  Western nations, laughably, even give the Chinese regime cash under one pretext or another.  Western megabusinesses draw heavily upon the manpower and factories of China.  It can hardly be argued that the problem is one of resources!

Some of this may be due to scholarly malfeasance.  I can think of one scholar whose career has involved writing books about patristic works for which no modern-language translation exists, without ever creating one. It is perhaps good to be the expert on a book that nobody has read.  I doubt that this man is alone.

Some of this is certainly due to academic culture.  To create a translation is to open yourself to the sneers of your peers.  To be identified as a “translator” is to degrade oneself, to be seen as someone incapable of “serious research”.  The funding model in some nations indeed actively discourages those who create the tools by which scholarship can be done.  It is not that long since that a bright young scholar created the first ever handbook on the ancient scholia, only to be punished by losing her post and being forced to emigrate to England.  Yet her work was of infinite value.

I have no influence over how the world is run.  But if you read these words, and you do, please do what you can.  We need complete translations of all the key texts in major language groups.  Without them we are all in the dark.


Where does the Vulgate use the word “unicorn”?

In the King James Version of the bible, the unicorn is mentioned in Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9,10, Psalms 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10, and in Isaiah 34:7.  As I understand it, in 1611, in current English, the words “unicorn” and “rhinoceros” referred to the same, vaguely known, animal.  The two go back to the Latin bible, the Vulgate, which uses both in these passages, to represent the two Greek words “monokeros” (“one-horn”) and “rhinokeros” (“nose horn”), again both referring to the same obscure animal.[1]  The KJV translators knew that a single Hebrew word, rē’em, lay behind both words, and (correctly) chose to use just one term.  Unfortunately they chose the “wrong” word, at least as viewed from our own days, because subsequent science instead standardised on “rhinoceros” for this odd animal.  At least, this is what I have read, although I could wish for more confirmation of this.

A correspondent asked me just which passages in the Vulgate used “unicorn”.  This was harder work to discover than I should have liked.

The standard critical edition of the Latin Vulgate is the Weber-Gryson 5th edition of the Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgata, versionem, which appeared in Stuttgart in 2007.  Thankfully a number of copies may be found at Archive.org here.  It’s not the right version to use for general reading, if you want a Latin bible.  But it is certainly the right one to use for scholarly purposes.

A search in a text-file version of the Vulgate (I found one here) revealed a number of references, which are below.

Note that St Jerome made two versions of the  Latin translation of the Psalms, one based on the popular Greek translation, the Septuagint (the “versio iuxta LXX” or Gallican psalter), and one based directly on the Hebrew (“versio juxta Hebraicum”).  The former is the normal version found in Vulgate bibles, for historical reasons.

I link to Bible Gateway with parallel Douai translation.  Bible Gateway uses the LXX-based psalter found in the Clementine text, as it says here.

Psalm 21:22: (both the LXX and Hebrew versions)

Salva me ex ore leonis, et a cornibus unicornium humilitatem meam.

Save me from the lion’s mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.

The apparatus gives variants of unicornorum, unicornuum, and unicornuorum.  This is clearly not a common word in Latin.

Psalm 28:6:

et comminuet eas, tamquam vitulum Libani, et dilectus quemadmodum filius unicornium.

And shall reduce them to pieces, as a calf of Libanus, and as the beloved son of unicorns.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

et dispergit eas quasi vitulus Libani et Sarion quasi filius rinocerotis.

Psalm 77:69: (based on the LXX)

Et aedificavit sicut unicornium sanctificium suum, in terra quam fundavit in saecula.

And he built his sanctuary as of unicorns, in the land which he founded for ever.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

Et aedificavit in similitudinem monoceroton sanctuarium suum, quasi terram fundavit illud in saeculum.

Psalm 91:11: (based on the LXX)

Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum, et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.

But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.

But the Hebrew-based psalter has “monocerotis” in place of “unicornis”.

Isaiah 34:7:

Et descendent unicornes cum eis, et tauri cum potentibus; inebriabitur terra eorum sanguine, et humus eorum adipe pinguium.

And the unicorns shall go down with them, and the bulls with the mighty: their land shall be soaked with blood, and their ground with the fat of fat ones.

It’s useful to know.  But it’s also a reminder that the biblical “unicorn” is merely a Latin form of “one horned animal”, rather than the dainty creature of Disney.

  1. [1]Allen H. Godbey, “The unicorn in the Old Testament”, American Journal of Semitic Languages 56 (1939), (JSTOR) 290: “literature. But Jerome’s half-and- half division again means that the Christian scholarship of his time considered monokerôs and “rhinoceros” identical.”

New blog on later Neoplatonism – the Unhistorize blog

Thanks to a link-back, I came across the Unhistorize blog. This seems to have started this summer.

The blog has posts about What Orphica did the late Neoplatonists read? and Proclus on Atlas and the Pleiades (and the Muses) etc.  There is also Attis-related material, curse-tablets, and excerpts from Sallustius.

The author has made the first English translation of the anonymous On Herbs: An Anonymous Greek Poem, the first English translation of the so-called Carmen de herbis, of which he she posts some extracts here.

All very useful, and very welcome.  I hope the author persists!


The translators of the KJV speak! What they did about obscure words etc

The Translator’s Preface to the Authorized Version is online here, yet few are aware of it, or refer to it.  It begins with many tedious pages justifying their task.  But then it becomes more interesting.

First, on p.25, they discuss marginal notes, or variants as we would call them.  I’ve over-paragraphed and modernised the language slightly.

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though “whatever things are necessary are obvious,” as St. Chrysostom says; and, as St. Augustine, “In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found, that concern faith, hope, and charity.”

Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their every where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his Divine Providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain,) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with St. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground,) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis: “It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to argue about those things that are uncertain.”

There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak,) so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.  Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts, and precious stones, &c. concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something, than because they were sure of that which they said, as St. Jerome somewhere says of the Septuagint.

Now in such a case, does not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification, and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good ; yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.

We know that Sixtus Quintus expressly forbids that any variety of readings of their vulgar edition should be put in the margin; (which though it he not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way;) but we think he has not all of his own side his favourers for this conceit. They that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other. …

Their point about obscure technical terms is well-taken.  This seems to be the reason that the King James Version uses the word “unicorn” for what we today would call a “rhinoceros”.  The translators in 1611 had no way to know how best to render the Hebrew, and lacked our dictionaries of species, which were yet to be compiled.  So they preserved what came down to them, and rendered the Greek “monokeros”, “one horn”, as “unicorn”.  I have read that in 1611 there was no agreed term for this animal, nor any certainty as to what it looked like, although I have not been able to locate a source for it.  But it is quite possible that this is so.  A.H. Godbey, “The Unicorn in the Old Testament”, in: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 56 (1939) 256-296 (JSTOR) states that in antiquity “monokeros” and “rinoceros” were understood to mean the same thing; and that monokeros was the older Greek usage.  No doubt the KJV translators just made a stab at finding an English word for this odd creature, and chose “unicorn”.  Unfortunately for subsequent readers the word for it that actually won out, in English, was “rhinoceros”.  I would prefer to have a proper source for this last point, though.

They then discuss whether the same English word should always be used for the same Hebrew or Greek word in the original.  This is quite hard to ensure, even today.  They defend themselves against this criticism as follows:

Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places, (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where,) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty.

But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by “purpose”, never to call it “intent”; if one where “journeying”, never “travelling”; if one where “think”, never “suppose”; if one where “pain”, never “ache”; if one where “joy”, never “gladness”, &c. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist, than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?! Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free? use one precisely, when we may use another no less fit as commodiously?  A godly Father in the primitive time shewed himself greatly moved, that one of newfangledness called “krabba/ton”, “ski/mpouj”, though the difference be little or none; and another reports, that he was much abused for turning “cucurbita” (which reading the people had been used to) into “hedera”. Now if this happen in better times, and upon so small occasions, we might justly fear hard censure, if generally we should make verbal and unnecessary changings. …

…we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself; therefore he using divers words in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if we will not be superstitious, may use the same liberty in our English versions out of Hebrew and Greek, for that copy or store that he hath given us.

It’s an interesting position, although their practice may have been better than their position.  Every reference to “unicorn” in the KJV translates the same Hebrew word, whereas the Latin vulgate mostly used “rhinoceros” and used “unicorn” only in the Psalms.  It’s clear that they did at least attempt some consistency.  So this is perhaps mainly intended to deflect captious criticism.

Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put “washing” for “baptism”, and “congregation” instead of “Church”: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their azymes, tunike, rational, holocausts, prepuce, pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sense, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

Here we see a conscious decision not to depart from the ecclesiastical language that had grown up over the centuries.  Opinions on this may vary, of course.


A high-quality 1865 photograph of the Meta Sudans, via Rome Ieri Oggi

The incredible Roma Ieri Oggi website continues to post old photographs on the web.  This one here is a view of the piazza of the Colosseum, but looking up the Sacred Way to the Arch of Titus.  It’s high quality, and can be zoomed in to an amazing extent.

I’ve snipped the portion showing the Meta Sudans, the now-demolished ancient fountain that once stood next to the Colosseum.  Only the core of the lower half remained by 1865, when Altobelli and Molins made this image.

1865 image of the Meta Sudans. Via Roma Ieri Oggi.


Ancient references to Jewish attitudes to abortion

There seem to be very few statements in ancient literature on Jewish attitudes to abortion.  Here is what I have been able to find.  I have not included material from the Mishnah or Talmud, which I may include in a separate post.

For reference, here’s the Masoretic text of Exodus 21:22-25 (RSV).

22 “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The Septuagint version (NETS) is slightly different:

22 Now if two men fight and strike a pregnant woman and her child comes forth not fully formed, he shall be punished with a fine. According as the husband of the woman might impose, he shall pay with judicial assessment. 23 But if it is fully formed, he shall pay life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Philo, The Special Laws, book 3, 108-9, 117-8 (online here):

(108) But if any one has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct Shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; (109) for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world.

XX. (110) On account of this commandment he also adds another proposition of greater importance, in which the exposure of infants is forbidden, which has become a very ordinary piece of wickedness among other nations by reason of their natural inhumanity; (111) for if it is proper to provide for that which is not yet brought forth by reason of the definite periods of time requisite for such a process, so that even that may not suffer any injury by being plotted against, how can it be otherwise than more necessary to take similar care of the child when brought to perfection and born, and sent forth…

(117) Therefore, Moses has utterly prohibited the exposure of children, by a tacit prohibition, when he condemns to death, as I have said before, those who are the causes of a miscarriage to a woman whose child conceived within her is already formed. And yet those persons who have investigated the secrets of natural philosophy say that those children which are still within the belly, and while they are still contained in the womb, are a part of their mothers; and the most highly esteemed of the physicians who have examined into the formation of man, scrutinising both what is easily seen and what is kept concealed with great care, by means of anatomy, in order that, if there should be any need of their attention to any case, nothing may be disregarded through ignorance and so become the cause of serious mischief, agree with them and say the same thing. (118) But when the children are brought forth and are separated from that which is produced with them, and are set free and placed by themselves, they then become real living creatures, deficient in nothing which can contribute to the perfection of human nature, so that then, beyond all question, he who slays an infant is a homicide, and the law shows its indignation at such an action

Josephus, Antiquities book 4, 278 (at Lacus Curtius here, as chapter 8, 33):

He that kicks a woman with child, so that the woman miscarry, (29) let him pay a fine in money, as the judges shall determine: as having diminished the multitude by the destruction of what was in her womb: and let money also be given the woman’s husband by him that kicked her: but if she die of the stroke, let him also be put to death. The law judging it equitable that life should go for life.

Josephus, Against Apion book 2, 202 (Lacus Curtius here, ch. 25) (which begins with an interesting statement on homosexuality also):

The law moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring: and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten; or to destroy it afterward. And if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child; by destroying a living creature, and diminishing human kind.

In the Sentences of pseudo-Phocylides, verses 184-5 (via Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, de Gruyter (2005) p.187):

184 A woman should not destroy an unborn babe in the womb, 185 nor after bearing it should she cast it out as prey for dogs and vultures.

The Sybilline Oracles, book 2 (via Sacred Texts here, Milton S. Terry, 1899):

315 … and the godless furthermore
Shall to all ages perish, all who did
Evils aforetime, and …

345 And all who loosed the girdle of the maid
For secret intercourse, and all who caused
Abortions, and all who their offspring cast
Unlawfully away; and sorcerers
And sorceresses with them, and these wrath
350 Of the heavenly and immortal God shall drive
Against a pillar where shall all around
In a circle flow a restless stream of fire;

There are further quotations on when an unborn child gains a soul, or is legally considered a separate person, but I have not included these here.  A number of these are listed in Gorman, The Early Church and Abortion, IVP (1982), repr. Wpif & Stock (1998).


From my diary

My last post, on an attempt by greedy Italian officials to charge for every photograph uploaded to the web, reminded me of a story about another curious foreign custom, told to me by my father, a retired serviceman, some years ago.

In the 1950s my father was a young man in military service.  He was posted for a time to Turkey, mainly working in Istanbul.  It was quite an exotic posting for a young man who had grown up on a farm in a rural area.  At that time Turkey was not the tourist destination that it now is.  Indeed the country was emerging from a rather strained transformation from a medieval Islamic state into a modern(ish) nation that was part of NATO.  It was a strange time and place to be there.

On arrival, he and the other servicemen received a very strict briefing.  In the event that any of them found themselves in an altercation – as young servicemen sometimes do -, the Turkish police would simply arrest *everyone* without bothering about who was at fault.  The police would then leave them in prison indefinitely.  Any questions of what to do, who was innocent or otherwise, would be delayed for months or years.  In practice the locals would simply bribe the officials and be released, but foreigners would stay there until they rotted.  So, they were told, that if this should occur, they should NOT wait around for the police.  Instead they should travel as fast as possible to the airport, where a plane was on standby to take them out of the country to some nearby safe place.

I have no idea whether this is still true, for this is now nearly seventy years ago.  But the principle holds.  We live in an age of massive homogenisation, brought about by US influence and media.  But we must always remember that things are done differently overseas, in different lands with a different history and culture.  If you go there, you are not in Kansas any more.

Here the summer is coming to an end.  The evenings are drawing in fast.  It’s hard to blog much in the summer, when it’s hot.  To hunch over a screen seems unnatural.  So I’ve not done very much.

However I still want to finish off the translation work that I did in the spring on the councils of Hippo and Carthage.  I have files connected with that process spattered all over my desktop, some containing translations of one bit or another.  So when things cool down, I shall try to restart that process and finish it up.

I see that abortion is once more a live issue in US politics, and I have been avoiding all the shouting as best I can.  I have noticed for some time that over the last few years various groups with control of the media have started to use the “big lie” technique as a way to get what they want.  They simply create a lie, and then drown out everyone else with endless repetition.  And it works, as Dr Goebbels knew.  If people only hear one thing, then many people will simply accept it.  One group of activists have started what seems to be a coordinated campaign asserting that the bible does not condemn homosexuality: a claim that would have astonished every reader of the Old Testament and the New whose native language was Hebrew or Greek, and every subsequent reader until a handful of years ago. I don’t feel the need to write about that.

But I have also seen posts of a similarly coordinated kind asserting that in antiquity the Jews did not object to abortion, or even claiming it as a part of Jewish religion.  So I think that it would be interesting  and useful to collect together the passages from ancient authors that discuss the Jewish attitude.  There seem to be very few indeed, as is often the case on any subject on which we consult the primary sources of antiquity.  I have drafted a post, but I have some more reading to do.  None of it endorses the claim made, of course.

Over the summer I’ve been collecting various topics about which I might write something.  Maybe I will actually go and look at these at some point, and do something about them!

Meanwhile, let us enjoy the last of the summer as we can.


Italian government: “You took some photographs of ancient art!? PAY ME!”

Among the monuments of Mithras is CIMRM 584, a relief showing the tauroctony, Mithras killing the bull.  It was probably found in Rome, but is today in Venice, as part of the Zulian bequest.  I came across a photograph online, and added it to the catalogue of Mithraic monuments.

CIMRM 584, tauroctony of Mithras from the museo archeologico at Venice.

While googling, I found another photograph at Wikimedia commons here, taken by some visitor to the museum.  But on the page was this extraordinary claim:

With this claim:

This image reproduces a property belonging to the Italian cultural heritage as entrusted to the Italian government. Such images are regulated by Articles 106 et seq. of the Italian Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape under Legislative Decree No. 42, dated January 22, 2004, and its subsequent amendments. These regulations, unrelated to copyright regulations, establish a system for the protection of Italy’s historic and artistic heritage and its standards of dignity. Among other things, these regulations provide for the payment of a concession fee by those who intend to benefit economically from reproductions of property belonging to the Italian cultural heritage. Reproduction of this image is permitted for personal use or study. A further authorization by the Italian Ministry of Heritage and Culture is required for reproduction for any other purpose, and particularly for commercial use. Such commercial use includes, but is not limited to, use in (a) any form of advertising, and (b) any company name, logo, trademark, image, activity, or product.

It is quite extraordinary stuff.  An ancient Roman carves a relief; a modern man takes a snap of it with a digital camera; and somehow the officialdom of the modern Italian state (created 1870) must receive a fee?  How nice for them.

In practice, I am sure, this is largely ignored.  One feature of corrupt states is that they pass endless oppressive laws that are only enforced when some powerful or greedy individual chooses.  In this way the police can always find an excuse to arrest someone, because everyone is per force guilty of something.  In practice it impoverishes everyone.

So the next time you go to Italy and take a photograph of the forum, remember this curious edict.  Whether you abide by it, of course, is another matter.


Two pages of lost ancient text the “Orphic Rhapsodies” found in Sinai palimpsest

I learned today via the Austrian Academy of Sciences (@oeaw) of a very exciting discovery indeed at the monastery of Mount Sinai in Egypt.  There is a rather good article about it at the OEAW site here, with photographs.

A previously lost Greek classical text in hexameters has been found in a palimpsest, as the under-text on two sheets.   The material is about the childhood of the god Dionysus.  The discoverer believes that it is a portion of the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies.

This work will be familiar to few.  The Hieroi Logoi was a compilation of Orphic poems known in late antiquity.  It gave a theogony: an account of the origin of the gods, especially Dionysus.  The neo-platonist Damascius is the first to mention these ῥαψῳδίαι Ὀρφικαί in his work De principiis 123, where he describes the book as συνήθης Ὀρφική θεολογία, i.e. “the standard orphic theogony” (Job) or “the current [form of] the Orphic theology” (Ahbel-Rappe).[1]  The work is hard to date.  It has been dated to the Hellenistic period (2nd c. BC – 1st c. AD), which seems to be the mainstream opinion.  But it has also been dated to the 4-5th c. AD, on the basis that the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus was then added to existing Orphic material under the influence of Christian theology.[2]

The work was previously known entirely from quotations in later writers, either neo-Platonist or Christian.  These were collected and published by Otto Kern as Orphicorum fragmenta, Berlin (1922) (online here).  James R. Van Kollenburg has a neopagan website, hellenicgods.org, and usefully he has gathered or provided English translations of many of the fragments here.

The new discovery gives for the first time a substantial chunk of the original text.

The ancient manuscript of the Hieroi Logoi from which these sheets come was written in Egypt in the 5-6th century AD.  But in the 10th century it was recycled, the pages erased and turned into blank parchment.  A text of more use to the owners, an Arabic text of the lives of the Palestinian saints, was written on the pages at the monastery of Mar Saba.  (I have not seen any information on which text precisely this is).  The new volume was originally some 300 pages.  It migrated to Sinai, where it was reduced to fragments by the removal of leaves, sold to European libraries.  The remains now have the shelfmark Ms. Sin. ar. NF 66.  The relevant leaves are f. 2v + frg. 7v + frg. 8r, and presumably their reverse.

There is an obvious question here.  Do other pages of the Hieroi Logoi also exist, under the text of the other leaves of the Arabic volume, now in European libraries?  Does anybody know which leaves are where?  Is anybody going to shine a multi-spectral imaging scanner on them?

After all, if the monks got a pile of blank parchment from breaking up the old book, it is possible that more than two sheets got used to make the Arabic manuscript.

Returning to the discovery: here is an image from the OEAW site of part of the palimpsest, taken under multi-spectral imaging:

Multi-spectral imaging photo with false colour, showing the Arabic over-text and (in red) the Greek undertext of the Orphic Rhapsodies. Via the OEAW site.

The discovery has been published, although I have not seen the article: Giulia Rossetto, “Fragments from the Orphic Rhapsodies? Hitherto Unknown Hexameters in the Palimpsest Sin. ar. NF 66”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 219 (2021), 34-60.  Dr Rossetto has an Academia.edu page here, which gives the following summary:

The palimpsest manuscript Sin. ar. NF 66 is one of the treasures of the Monastery of Saint Catherine located in the Sinai Peninsula. Nowadays it consists of a few fragmentary parchment sheets, but originally it was a larger codex of ca. 300 folia. Some of these leaves have been purloined from the Sinai and are now kept in Cambridge, Leipzig, and Saint Petersburg, while others have been lost. The codex contained the Lives of Palestinian monastic Saints in Arabic translation and was copied at the Monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem in the first quarter of the 10th century. It was later brought, under unknown circumstances, to the Sinai. All preserved folia are palimpsests, with scriptiones inferiores in Greek and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. This article focuses on one of the Greek erased texts – a previously unknown classical text in hexameters of mythological content – and offers its editio princeps. Based on an analysis of codicological and palaeographical features, combined with that of linguistic and stylistic elements, it will be suggested that the Sinai hexameters might originate from the Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies, i.e. the longest lost Orphic poem we know of.

The find is part of the Sinai Palimpsests project (website here).  Let us hope they make many more splendid discoveries!

  1. [1]An English translation exists: Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Oxford University Press (2010) ISBN: 978-0-19-515029-2.  This description is found on p.415, chapter 123.1.
  2. [2]Most of this information I take from Marek Job, “The rule of Dionysus in the light of the Orphic theogony (Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies)”, in: Filip Doroszewski, Dariusz Karłowicz (eds), Dionysus and Politics: Constructing Authority in the Graeco-Roman World, London (2021), chapter 10, p. 161-176.

It was twenty years ago today: 20 years of Rob Bradshaw and “Theology on the Web”

A tweet by the excellent Rob Bradshaw alerts me to the fact that he has been plugging away and uploading scholarly material to the web for twenty years now, at a range of sites run by himself, including BiblicalStudies.org.uk, EarlyChurch.org.uk, and many others.  The hub site is https://theologyontheweb.org.uk/. The material available is now in excess of 45,000 articles and books.

His own email newsletter (here) gives a list of sites and subjects, too long to quote.  It includes all sorts of very useful material, including the isssues of Religion in Communist Lands published by Keston College during the Cold War, which most of us will never have seen.

It is something to have achieved this, by ceaseless labour.  Well done, Mr Bradshaw.  You are a hero!