Three common mistakes when consulting the Fathers

While looking through Google Books, I came across a valuable footnote in Paul A. Hartog, The Contemporary Church and the Early Church: Case Studies in Ressourcement (Wipf & Stock, 2010). There seem to be no page numbers in the preview, but the note is linked to here.  The underlining is mine.

88. … To his credit, Bercot does list several “common mistakes” in his Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: first, the danger of proof-texting; second, to assume that early Christian writers “were making dogmatic theological pronouncements every time they spoke”; third, “We also must be careful not to read technical or post-Nicene meanings into theological terms used by the pre-Nicene Christians.” Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, xii-xiii.

This struck me as a beautifully brief summary of some obvious pitfalls.

Dr Bercot actually wrote at more length (p.xii):

Perhaps the most common mistake would be to employ this resource as a database for proof-texts. It would be tempting to sift through it, noting quotations that bolster our personal beliefs and discarding those that do not fit. Such an approach, however, inevitably misuses the early Christian writings. By selectively choosing quotations, we make it appear that the early Christians believed exactly as we do (which is sometimes not the case). In short, instead of learning from those close to the apostles in time and spirit, we simply use them for our own designs.

Another common mistake is to read the early Christian writers as though these writers were making dogmatic theological pronouncements every time they spoke. Generally, the pre-Nicene Christian writers were not attempting to define precise points of dogma for the rest of the church. Most of their theological discussions come up in the context of either (1) explaining to outsiders what Christians believed or (2) contrasting the tenets of particular heretics with what the general body of Christians believed. They were not normally trying to convince other “orthodox” Christians what to believe.

We also must be careful not to read technical or post-Nicene meanings into theological terms used by the pre-Nicene Christians. Very rarely did “orthodoxy” (itself a fifth-century term) in the early church turn on the issue of using this word instead of that word. The early Christians understood orthodoxy in terms of general concepts, not meticulous theological definitions. As Clement of Alexandria put it, “Those who are particular about words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture” (ANF 2.347). Although theology was important to the early church, it took a back seat to living the Christian life.

Well said.


Did Theophilus of Caesarea in 190 AD state that Christmas must be observed?

Now here’s an interesting claim! It is rather seasonal, and was posted on Christmas Day, and is here:

Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine writes: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen. – Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, De origine Festorum Christianorum.”

The same words with the same references float around the web, and also in book form, but they are much older.  It appears word-for-word in ‘Pastor Fido’s (= Allan Blayney’s) Festorum Metropolis (1652: downloadable from, here), p.16.[1]  There are all sorts of fake claims that circulate.  When a quote is only referenced to early modern sources, and no ancient source is ever mentioned, then it is usually wise to be suspicious.  Not infrequently even the references are wrong in these things.

Firstly, Theophilus of Caesarea is historical, although those dates are uncertain, and I have seen as late as 195 AD mentioned.  He’s mentioned by Jerome (De viris illustribus 43), who got a short quotation from Eusebius of a now lost work on Easter (HE 5, c.23, 25).  But we have no works of this Theophilus.  So how can the quote be genuine?

The answer is a slightly strange one.  I’ve looked up the references, and they are real.  But neither reference indicates where the words come from.  With a lot of googling, I have discovered that there is an early medieval forgery, written in Ireland around 600 AD, which purports to be the record of a synod at Caesarea, led by this Theophilus, discussing how to calculate the date of Easter.  These words come from one version of this obscure text.

There is no agreed title for this work.   We might call it pseudo-Theophilus, De Pascha; or maybe De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem, (On the arrangment of Easter festivals by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria) since that is the title under which a shorter version of it was first published, back in 1537.  The title does not seem to correspond to anything in the manuscripts, so was presumably dreamt up by the editor.  It’s not in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum, because the editors gave up once they reached the spuria of the Venerable Bede, among which it is sometimes found.

So that is our source.  The quote is not genuine – Theophilus never said it -, but it is not modern either.  This material is an abbreviated quote from a 7th century Irish text on the date of Easter.

That’s the conclusion.  So what is it based on?

The references

Let’s start with the references.  They are quite genuine, and they are reputable sources, although very elderly.

The first source is none other than the mighty Centuriae Magdeburgensese, the Magdeburg Centuries. This early modern history of Christianity dedicated a volume to every century of Christian history. It appeared between 1559-74.  The work was  rather a pioneer in the use of primary sources.  Volume 2 (1759) covered the second century, and in chapter 6, page 126-7, we find a section De festis Christianorum, ac primum de Paschate(On Christian holidays, and first, on Easter).  It’s online here.

The relevant section reads as follows:

Cum contra Galli diem vnum anniuersarium, qui fuit VIII. calend Aprilium, obseruarent, in quo pascha celebrarent dicentes, vt THEOPHILVS indicat: Quid nobis necesse est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis pascha facere? Quin sicut Domini natalem quocunque die VIII Calendarum Ianuarii venerit: ita et VIII Calend Aprilis quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus pascha celebrare.

While on the other hand the Gauls were observing one day annually, which was the 8 kalends of April (March 25), on which they were celebrating Easter, saying, as Theophilus indicates, “Why is it necessary for us to make an Easter calculation of the moon with the Jews?  In fact, just as we ought to celebrate the birthday of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January  (25 December) shall fall, so also (we ought to celebrate) the Easter of Christ on the day of 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.

The second source is Rudolf Hospinian, in his Festa Christianorum (1593), chapter 25, De Natali Domini ac Servatoris.  His account of starts on folio 109v – for the book is not paginated but foliated.  On f.110 here he writes:

Celebrata fuit à nonnullis 25 die Decembris, iam inde ab antiquißimis temporibus. Intelligitur hoc ex Theophilo Cæsareae Palestinae Episcopo qui docet, Gallos diem vnum anniuersarium qui fuit 8 Calend Apriliam in celebratione Paschatis obseruasse idque, hac ratione defendisse: “Sicut Domini Natalem quocunque die 8 Calend. Ianuari venerit, ita & 8. Calend. Aprilis, quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus Pascha celebrare.” Ex Caßiani verò argumento Epistolarum Theophili libris Paschalibus praefixo, apparet, Ægyptios Natiuitatem Domini & Baptismum eiusdem, eodem die quem Epiphaniam appellat, celebrasse: quod etiam Hugo in cap 1 Matthaei de Armenijs testatur.

It has been celebrated by some on the 25th December, indeed, from the most ancient times.  This is understood from bishop Theophilus of Caesarea in Palestine who teaches that the Gauls observed one day annually which was the 8 kalend April in celebration of Easter, and defended it by this reason: “Just as (we ought to celebrate) the nativity of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January shall fall, so also we ought to celebrate Easter on the 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.”  However from Cassian, from the argument of the letters of Theophilus prefixed to the Paschal Books, it appears that the Egyptians celebrated the nativity of the Lord and also his baptism on the same day called Epiphany: as also Hugo gives as evidence in chapter 1 of Matthew to the Armenians (?).

Hospinian, then, is the immediate source of our quotation.  Most likely he is just paraphrasing the Magdeburg Centuries.  But neither the Centuriators nor Hospinian give any primary source for this text.

It is worth noting the mention of the customs of Gaul as if they were a source of authority.  A bishop of Caesarea in Palestine would not tend to see things this way.   This is a first sign that something is not quite right with this text.

My next step was to start googling for the Latin words quoted.  This led me to the Bainton article in JSTOR – of which more below.  But Bainton was extremely vague about just what text it was that he was quoting.  He referenced a book by a 19th century independent scholar, Paul de Lagarde, and his too brief reference – “Mitteilungen” – was a mis-spelling of the actual printed title, “Mittheilungen”, which effectively concealed the source.  The curse of poor referencing had struck again.  But once I had de Lagarde, then I learned that this text belonged to a group of texts, all forged, created in Ireland around 600 AD.

The Irish computistical forgeries.

To understand what we are dealing with here, we have to spend a bit of time on these texts as a group, and the circumstances that created them.

In early Dark Ages Ireland there was great interest in computus, the study of the calculations of Easter.  But in the same period, a new method for calculating the date was being propagated from Rome, based on the methodology of Dionysius Exiguus.  This caused disputes, which were resolved in the end at the Synod of Whitby, in 689.  There the Roman method prevailed.

In order to create a dossier to support the existing local Irish traditions, around 600 AD somebody composed a number of short works, attributed to early fathers of the church.  The texts are known as the “Irish forgeries” – although Irish scholars such as Daniel McCarthy and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, who have done a great deal of excellent work in this area,[2] tend to resist the term “forgery”.[3]  The works include those known as pseudo-Anatolius, pseudo-Athanasius, the letter of pseudo-Cyril, and one referred to as pseudo-Theophilus, our own text.

I can’t go into these computistical texts, not least because I don’t understand computus.  But I notice that another of the text, pseudo-Anatolius, also refers to practices in Gaul,[4] and also was  built around a short quotation from Jerome (using Eusebius) from the genuine but obscure Anatolius, which the forger modified for his cause.

There is no reason why real ancient authors in the civilised Greek eastern Mediterranean would appeal to the customs of little backward old Gaul.  But there is every reason why a forger in Ireland, Christian only for a short time, and outside the Roman empire, would see Gaul as the nearest point of the civilised world.  The presence of this in both texts seems suspicious.

It is only fair to add that there was recently a valiant attempt by Daniel P. McCarthy to assert that the Liber Anatoli de ratione paschalis is genuine, and that it is Eusebius’ quotation that is corrupt.  As a layman I cannot really evaluate this, but it seems improbable, because this text appears to link closely to other texts of precisely the same sort.[5]

Just to digress a moment, it is a common situation with falsifications, that the texts rely on not being compared with other works of the same kind.  Individually they can deceive.  Once seen as a group, they are nothing.  Thus Edgar Goodspeed did rightly to collect and study together the “modern apocrypha” in his book of the same name.  Individually these modern fake gospels seemed impressive.  Once they were lined up in a row, it became obvious that each was an example of a genre, with a common set of methods and characteristics.  They had a certain smell about them, a certain common way of doing things, once you’d seen a few.  Another example is modern books about “the real Jesus”.  Back in the 90s I remember searching a CDROM of reviews in the Times for books about Jesus.  I read a number.  After a while, it became clear that the books reviewed were really all the same.  The claims made in the books varied wildly, but each and every one used the same tactics to advance their cause and dodge investigation.

The editor of the Annals of Ulster vol. 4, had occasion to discuss the Irish computistical forgeries, which he did with verve.  From him I learn that these little texts were known to, and used by the Venerable Bede, in his De ratione temporum (On the Reckoning of Time) in 725 AD.  Indeed when we look at the manuscripts, we find that these forgeries often accompany works of Bede or Isidore.  Bede uses pseudo-Theophilus in chapter 47.  The pseudo-Anatolius text caused some real trouble ( p.cxv f.):

For textual distortion, resourceful invention and vituperative scorn, the spurious Anatolius stood peerless in the field of fabrication. Nor was his triumph confined to his own time. Columbanus quoted his dicta as binding on a Pope; the defenders of rival Paschal methods appealed to him in support of their respective contentions ; Bede(5) vainly taxed his skill to reconcile the contradictions of the “holy man”….

5. Bede.—De temp. rat. vi., xiv., XXX., XXXV., xlii. ; Wic. PL. 90. 599sq.

I won’t go further into the other texts, but that editor notes:

As the Acts of the Caesarean Council, convened at the instance of Victor by Theophilus, in the matter of the Quartadecimans, are lost, the fabricator may have known that his work was not likely to be detected by collation with the original. Be that as it may, he fatally betrayed himself in one particular: March 25 was the Roman, not the Eastern, equinoctial date.

What does Pseudo-Theophilus say?

The pseudo-Theophilus text is extant, we are told, in four different versions, and at least 36 manuscripts.  I’ll look at these in a moment. They do not all include the words in which we are interested.  In fact these words come from recension A, the long version

Here is the start of the A-text, as reprinted by wild-boy independent scholar Paul de Lagarde who printed both the A-text and the B-text on facing pages:[6]

Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent, per universum orbem diversa erant ieiunia. nam omnes Galli unum diem anniversarium VIII. Kal. April. Pascha celebrabant dicentes: Quid nobis est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis facere Pascha? sed sicut domini natalem, quocunque die venerit, VIII. Kal. Ianuarii, ita et VIII. Kal. Aprilis, quando resurrectio traditur Christi, debemus Pascha tenere, orientales vero, sicut historia Eusebii Caesariensis narrat, quocunque die mense Martio quartadecima luna evenisset, Pascha celebrabant. In Italia autem alii plenos quadraginta dies ieiunabant, alii triginta: alii dicebant, septem diebus, in quibus mundus concluditur, sibi sufficere ieiunare: alii, quia dominus quadraginta diebus ieiunasset, illi horas quadraginta deberent, cum haec ergo talis diversa esset observatio, maeror erat sacerdotum, quod ubi erat una fides, dissonarent ieiunia. Tunc papa Victor Romanae urbis episcopus direxit, ut daret auctoritatem ad Theophilum Caesariensem Palaestinae provinciae episcopum, quia tunc non Hierosolyma metropolis videbatur, ut inde paschalis ordinatio proveniret ubi Christus fuisset in corpore versatus.

English translation of this by Roland H. Bainton from 1923, who also translated the start of the B-text:[7]

When all the apostles had gone from this life, fasts were differently observed throughout the world, for all the Gauls kept the Pascha on one day, March 25th, saying: “Why should we keep the Pascha with the Jews according to the moon? But as the birth of the Lord on whatever day it falls is kept on December 25th, so we ought to keep the Pascha on March 25th, when Christ is said to have risen.” The Orientals indeed, as the history of Eusebius relates, keep the Pascha on the fourteenth day of the moon on whatever day of March it might fall. But some in Italy fasted full forty days, some thirty; others said that seven days in which the world was made would do; others because the Lord fasted forty days kept forty hours. Since there was such variety of observance, the clergy were astonished that where there was a unity of faith there should be such diversity of practice in fasting. So Papa Victor, bishop of Rome, ordered that authority should be given to Theophilus of Caesarea, bishop of the province of Palestine, because Jerusalem was not then the metropolis, that the paschal rule might come from that region in which Christ lived.

The text continues, as the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, around 190 AD.  Indeed some of the literature refers to the text as such.

This, clearly, is where the Centuriators got their text, even though they did not say so.

Mind you, they were clearly hot stuff.  At the time of the Centuries, the A-text was unpublished.  One of the Centuriators must have been aware of a manuscript of the A-text, probably in Switzerland, and used that.  It is hard not to be impressed by this.

The other common version, the B-text, does not contain this remark about the nativity.

The versions of the text and where they may be found

It’s now time to talk about the various versions of the text.  In our internet-enabled age, much may be found online.

The classic study is that of B. Kursch, Studien zur christlich-mittelalterlichen Chronologie: der 84jährige Ostercyclus und seine Quellen, Leipzig (1880), p.303 f. (Online here)  In his time three versions of the text were known.  I will summarise what he says, and add a few bits of my own.  Here are the recensions that he gives.

  • A (the long version).  This was first printed by Baluzius, Nova Collectio Conciliorum (1683), in columns 13-16 (online here).  The text begins with these words (the “incipit”): “Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent…”.  Baluzius based his text on 1) a manuscript from St Gall.  Krusch thought this was St Gall 251, a 9th century MS., but that is in fact a B-text, as may be seen below.  2) a “codex Colbertinus”, which must be in the French National Library, if we could identify it.  He also knew of a third manuscript, from England, through a scholarly contact.  The same recension of the text also appears in Ms. Bern 645, from the end of the 7th century, on folios 72-74, where it is headed “incipit tractatus ordinis”.  Sadly this is not online.

Although most of our versions are transmitted with the works of Bede, another witness to the A-text can be found in volume 3 of the 1798 Arevallo edition of the works of Isidore of Seville.  This appears in his manuscript, after book 6, chapter 18, title 10, on p.272, where he gives a note about the “Acta concilii Caesariensis” interpolated at this point. Arevallo prints the interpolation – a text of ps.Theophilis – on p.515 here. In his edition it is appendix 8, “Ad lib. 6. cap. 17 Synodus Caesariensis de Paschate”.  He is using manuscripts from Rome; a “codex Albanius 4” (not sure what that is), Ms. Ottobonianus lat. 221 (sadly not online), and an unspecified “Caesenatum recentiorem”.  He also has compared it to the text printed by Muratori, the C-text, but this is clearly not the Muratori text.  And here it has the first sentence, missing from the Baluzius edition but found in the B-text.  I did look at at couple of online Isidore manuscripts (St Gall 237, f.98, and Karlsruhe Aug. pap. 103, f.122v), but these did not contain the interpolation.

  • B (the short version).  This was first printed by Johannes Bronkhorst, who called himself Noviomagus, as you would if you had a name like that.  The title is Beda Venerabilis: Opuscula complura de temporum ratione diligenter castigata, Cologne (1537) (online here).  Our text is on folio xcix, here, with the title “De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem ac reliquorum episopum synodum”.  The opening words are: “Post resurrectionem uel/ac ascensionem domini saluatoris…”.  The editor worked from two Cologne manuscripts, 103 (9th c. – online here, ff.190v) and 102 (11th c.).  The first has no title in the manuscript, and it looks as if the title was invented by Mr Bronkhorst-Noviomagus.  This being the case, there seems no reason not to use it for the text generally.

The B-text was reprinted by Bucherius, De doctrina temporum, Antwerp (1633) on p.469, online here. On the previous page he lists the work as “Philippi cuiusdam de concilio Caesariensi, anno Christi vulgari 296 habito”.  He heads the text “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and says that in the MSS it was called the “Epistola Philippi”, but he doesn’t know who that might be.

Krusch suggests that this “Philippus” must be a mistake for “Theophilus”.  I would like to suggest that perhaps “Theophili” became abbreviated to “Phili” by a scribal error, and was then “corrected” to this otherwise unknown and irrelevant “Philippi” by another copyist.

Nothing further is known of the manuscript of Bucherius.  But it is interesting that a Google search reveals another B-text manuscript, Ms. Geneva 50 (ca. 825 AD), fol. 132r (online here; catalogue here) which has this title “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and even has a modern marginal note to the page number of the Bucherius edition!

Ms. Geneva 50, f.132r. Epistola Philippi de pascha

Krusch reports on another manuscript of the B-text, Vaticanus Reginensis lat. 586 (online here), second half of the 10th century.  Folio 1 begins with “Incipit epistola thophili epi | Post resurrection & ascensionem dni salvatoris”.  The text ends with “vobis iustum est celebrare”.

A google search reveals that St Gall 251 page 14 here contains the B-text:

St Gall 251, page 14: epistola philippi de pascha

Further google searches reveal B-text copies at:

  • Vaticanus lat. 3123 (13th c., online here) on fol. 32v also has an (untitled) copy of the B-text.
  • British Library Cotton Caligula A XV (1073 AD) on fol. 80v, here.
  • Paris, BNF lat. 16361 (12th c.), page 240 here.  The title is written in the  margin in a modern hand – there is a division but no title in the main text.
  • A catalogue online here tells me that the St Gall 459 manuscript also contains a copy of the B-text, with the usual incipit, on pages 112-4 and 127-142 (?).

These catalogues also reference a “Clavis Patristica Pseudepigraphorum Medii Aevi” – “CPPM III A vol. A n. 656, 722, 832”, but this is something to which I have no access.

There are doubtless many more manuscripts of the B-text.

  • C (interpolated version).  This is a copy of the A-text, into which phrases from the B-text have been interpolated.  Krusch lists all three texts in parallel on p.306, which demonstrates this nicely.  It was printed by Muratori, Anecdota Latina 3 (online here), p.189-191, based on Ms. Ambrosianus H. 150 inf, fol.64-66.  This is a 9th century manuscript from Bobbio – an Irish foundation – containing computistical texts.  Sadly it is not online.
Kursch, Studien, p.325. Comparing the A-text, B-text and C-text.
  • D – A fourth version, which I venture to call “D”, was discovered by Dom André Wilmart.[8]  Sadly I have no access to this – why is Studi e Testi not online? – so I can say nothing about it.

Nor is this all.  A google search reveals yet another very short version of the text, in Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, from Lorsch (8th c.).  The text begins on f.90v (online here), under the title “Item Computus”.  Extensive details are here.  The text differs again from the standard A-text, beginning “Cum omnes apostoli de hac luce migrassent, error erat in populo: alii ieiunabant XX diebus, alii uero VII, alii XL horas … “.  It seems to derive from the A-text, but chunks have been omitted, thereby creating a bishop “Eusebius of Jerusalem”.

Ms. Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, f.90v.

Critical edition

There is supposedly a critical edition of the text, based on the A-text, in Kursch’s Studien.  But Kursch produced no stemma, and I rather doubt that he had access to more than a handful of manuscripts and early editions. He does not describe the manuscript tradition.  He does not mention the Isidore tradition.  His text looks very much to me like a conflation of the Baluzius edition and a B-text.

Clearly it is time that a proper edition needs to be made, using a wider range of manuscripts.  I have read in a 2017 article that Leofranc Holford-Strevens is preparing one.[9]  Let us hope that it is so.


In conclusion, we have travelled from a supposed quote from the second century into the scholarship of the 17th century and the science of the 7th.  I think it was a worthwhile journey, don’t you?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Update (8 May 2023): Kurt Simmons has made a text and translation of the letter of Theophilus, which is very welcome.  Thank you!  It’s here.  He has prefaced it with an essay giving his own thoughts on this subject.

  1. [1]A modern transcription is online here.  Blayney refers to a work in two volumes by “Perkins”, but I don’t know what this was.
  2. [2]D. Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318 f.  Online here.
  3. [3]See also O.M.Cullen, A question of time or a question of theology: A study of the Easter controversy in the Insular Church, PhD: Maynooth (2007), online here, p.135, n.75: “… see James Kenney, The Sources for the Early History and Bartholomew MacCarthy, Annals of Ulster, Vol. IV, for a discussion of the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, both these writers claim that the texts are deliberate Irish falsifications. It seems likely today that these texts were never intended to be deliberate falsifications. For the purpose of this work, it is the theological ideas that they contain that are of interest. Bede obviously thought of these documents as genuine.”  The Annals of Ulster vol 4, p.cxv, may be found online here and provides an excellent discussion of these curious texts.
  4. [4]Daniel P. McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea…”, p.188.
  5. [5]Daniel P.McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea and the Celebration of the Christian Pasch” in: Young R. Kim, The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea (2021), p.177-201.Google books preview here.
  6. [6]Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen (1889), vol. 4, p.274.  Online here.
  7. [7]Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation”, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 42, No. 1/2 (1923), pp. 81-134. See p.112.  JSTOR.
  8. [8]André Wilmart: Un nouveau texte du faux concile de Césarée sur le comput pascal, in: Analecta Reginensia. Extraits des manuscrits latins de la reine Christine conservés au Vatican (Studi e testi 59), (1933), p. 19-27.
  9. [9]Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318, n.45.

Did ancient writers say that Jeremiah 10:3-5 was about Christmas trees?

There is an idea that circulates in certain fringe groups in the USA that Jeremiah 10:3-5 (KJV here) condemns the use of Christmas trees. Here’s the bible passage, in the KJV (as is invariably used):

3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

As everybody knows, Christmas – or the Nativity of the Lord – is first attested in church festivals in 336 AD, in a document, the Depositio martyrum, included in the Chronography of 354 (online here).  Ancient paganism has come to an end by about 500 AD, more or less.  But no ancient or medieval text records any celebration of Christmas with a tree until the end of the 15th century when it appears in Germany in a number of places. So it would be rather a surprise if it was what Jeremiah had in mind!

All the same, I thought that it would be interesting to see what ancient writers commenting on the passage have to say. I made use of the Biblindex search engine to produce a list.  Here are all the results.  There is a grand total of four writers who comment on the passage.

Clement of Rome (ps.), Clementine Recognitions, book 4, chapter 20. (Edition: GCS 51, 1965, p.156, l.9)  Online here:

20. “And yet who can be found so senseless as to be persuaded to worship an idol, whether it be made of gold or of any other metal? To whom is it not manifest that the metal is just that which the artificer pleased? How then can the divinity be thought to be in that which would not be at all unless the artificer had pleased? Or how can they hope that future things should be declared to them by that in which there is no perception of present things? …

Cyprian, Ad Quirinum, book 3, chapter 59.  Online here:

59. Of the idols which the Gentiles think to be gods.

…. Also in the 134th Psalm: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have a mouth, and speak not; they have eyes, and see not; they have ears, and hear not; and neither is there any breath in their mouth. Let them who make them become like unto them, and all those who trust in them.” Also in the ninety-fifth Psalm: “All the gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord made the heavens.” Also in Exodus: “Ye shall not make unto yourselves gods of silver nor of gold.” And again: “Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor the likeness of any thing.” Also in Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord, Walk not according to the ways of the heathen; for they fear those things in their own persons, because the lawful things of the heathen are vain. Wood cut out from the forest is made. the work of the carpenter, and melted silver and gold are beautifully arranged: they strengthen them with hammers and nails, and they shall not be moved, for they are fixed. The silver is brought from Tharsis, the gold comes from Moab. All things are the works of the artificers; they will clothe it with blue and purple; lifting them, they will carry them, because they will not go forward. Be not afraid of them, because they do no evil, neither is there good in them. ….” 677

677 Jer. x. 2-5, 9, 11, ii. 12,13, 19, 20, 27.

Eusebius, Commentary on Isaiah, on 44:12-20. (Edition GCS, p.285 l.30).  From Armstrong translation (IVP 2013), p.233:

[44:12-20] Why, then, did you never reason among yourselves and ask what is the nature of those “godmakers” who fashion inanimate statues for you? For is it not plain for all to see that the gods are the works of “artisans”?11 They have been fabricated with axes and augurs and such tools. They are the contrivances of poor day laborers, who, because of their need for food in order to pursue their work, promote the business of idolatry for the bread of leisure. And why did you not ask what is the nature of God, and whether God needs food, and whether he will become hungry if you do not offer sacrifices, and whether [286] God will also become weak if he is not nourished, or according to Symmachus: He will become hungry and weak and exhausted, and he will not drink water. And why does he say he will not drink water, unless he had actually been in need of water? And if he will neither eat nor drink, is he not in fact worse off than an irrational animal:’ How, then, have you been deceived, O vain people, when such a state of reality proves the impotence of the statues?

11. Cf. Hos 13:2;Jer 10:3.

I have already discussed Jerome, In Hieremiam prophetam libri V, book 2, c. 85-6, here.

Biblindex also gives a reference as Theodoret, Interpretatio in Jeremiam – I have no access to the English translation –  text found in PG 81, column 565.  But a quick look will show that he only discusses Jeremiah 10:2 and then 10:7.

Those are all the ancient writers who discuss this passage.  As may easily be seen, all of them think it’s about idols.  Not one thinks that the worship of a tree is involved.

The claim that the Christmas tree is pagan  is often made by people familiar with Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife (1853), a farrago of assertion and misinformation heaped up willy-nilly.  The claim may be found on p.139 of this 1862 edition here.  This volume still exerts an unholy fascination in some parts of US Protestantism.  But the link with Jeremiah 10 only appears in the 20th century, or so it seems from a Google search, and is closely identified with Herbert W. Armstrong and those movements derived from his Worldwide Church of God such as the Hebrew Roots movement.

Unfortunately it is completely false.  As a reading in context will show, the Bible is talking about the manufacture of a wooden idol.

Correction: an earlier version of this article asserted that the link between Jeremiah 10 and the Christmas tree originates in Hislop.  I am happy to correct this mistake.

Update (15 Dec 2021):  I have since come across an extremely good article on a Seventh Day Adventist website, here, which I will quote in slightly abbreviated form, for the benefit of those who still wonder about Jeremiah 10:

I am a Seventh-day Adventist… According to Jeremiah 10:1—5, we are told to “learn not the way of the heathen” [KJV], by bringing evergreens into our homes and “deck” them with silver and gold. … God was wroth with the Israelites when, after fashioning the golden calf, they proclaimed, “We shall make a feast unto the Lord”! Since when do we as God’s children offer Him pagan feasts?

I believe we need to ask seriously whether Jeremiah was describing the Christmas tree or something like it in the passage you quoted. First, notice that though you have identified the wood brought into the home as an evergreen, the Bible text does not do so. It merely refers to a tree.

Second, what then is done with the tree? Are silver and gold hung on its branches? The New American Standard Bible (NASB)—a conservative and quite literal translation—renders verse 3 this way: “The customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool.” It doesn’t take a craftsman to cut down a tree. Even I can do that! So why a “craftsman”?

I believe the reason is that after felling the tree, the craftsman carved it into an idol, which the people then decked with silver and gold. This carving of an idol—not the mere cutting down of the tree—required a craftsman’s work. Verse 5 actually makes this quite explicit. Again I’ll quote from the NASB:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they,
And they cannot speak;
They must be carried,
Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them,
For they can do no harm,
Nor can they do any good.

This is describing an image, a representation of a god, and comparing it to a scarecrow, something that you shouldn’t be afraid of! Isaiah 44:9-17 presents a parallel picture, but with more of the detail.

Despite the superficial similarities, Jeremiah 10 is not describing a Christmas tree nor what people do with a Christmas tree. I have seen people in a Catholic church genuflect before the images and before the altar as an act of respect and worship. But I have never seen anyone offer any such homage to a Christmas tree, and probably you haven’t either. So having a Christmas tree in the church is not an issue of false worship.

Indeed not.


Parallelomania, Bad Scholarship, and Fake History

There are pyramids in Egypt.  Indeed if we know anything about Egypt, we know it has pyramids.  Almost as well-known are the massive pyramids of Mexico.  This tells a certain sort of person that the two are connected!  Either the Mexicans travelled to Egypt, or the Egyptians sailed to Mexico, or … inevitably … a now vanished continent in mid-Atlantic held a civilisation notable for its pyramids.  This Atlantis would, of course, have a high technology.  Inevitably spacefaring aliens must be involved.  It is easy to find examples online.[1]

All of this is twaddle, based on nothing more than a vague perception of similarity.  If we look at the details, the two sorts of pyramids are different in almost every way beyond the general shape.  The Mexican pyramids are temples, while those of Egypt are tombs, and so on.  But our friend is not influenced by this.  “They’re both pyramids,” he will cry, and no amount of information will shake his conviction that the two “must” be connected.  The lack of any evidence will be met with reiteration, elaboration and rhetoric.

In a way he is right.  There is a connection.  But the connection is human nature plus gravity.  Human beings find it convenient to build stuff out of square blocks.  They also find it convenient to pile up building materials.  Because of gravity these piles will always tend to a pyramidal shape.  There is no need for any more complex explanation.

This type of mad argument from a “parallel” has been named “parallelomania”.  Broadly it states that if this looks like that, then this IS that, and that this, if later, is copied from that, or otherwise connected directly to it.

Obviously this is bunk.  The similarities are often trivial.  Often they are very selectively chosen!  Two things may have certain similarities, arising quite independently, because of human nature. And even if two things are indeed similar, this is no evidence of connection or derivation, unless the parallel is nearly unique.  It’s a false way to argue.

For instance, some parallelomaniacs like to claim that the Christian communion meal “must” be the same as pagan ritual meals. A few days ago one of them kindly informed me that Christmas “must” be borrowed from paganism because Christmas involves a big meal and ancient events like Saturnalia – they thought – did also.

The parallelomaniac will never reflect that human beings will naturally come together for a meal while doing something else, without any need to copy the idea from others.  I wonder if they could be convinced that the modern business breakfast is copied from communion?  Or the other way around?  But of course these “parallels” are deployed only selectively, and for convenience.

Indeed nothing is funnier than watching a parallelomaniac trying to force the facts into a parallel in which they will not fit.  He may start with “Christmas is a stolen pagan holiday.  Jesus was not born on 25 Dec.”  If you call his attention to the fact that in 336, when Christmas is first recorded, there is no record of any Roman holiday, he will merely respond with “around the time of the solstice”; for thereby he can introduce Saturnalia!  If you point out that Saturnalia was not a solstice festival, because it was originally one day, on December 17, he will engage in further slipperiness.  Christmas must be “stolen” from Saturnalia.  And from “Yule”.  If you a little cynical, and ask our friend to tell us whether Yule is stolen from Saturnalia, or the other way around, on the same grounds, then you will get no answer.  That isn’t the point, you see.

It is easy to laugh at such antics.  Most parallelomaniacs are lacking in education, and not a few are lacking in good faith either.  But many are perfectly sincere, especially on things like pyramids, and simply lacking the education that we are lucky enough to possess.  We need not always presume bad faith.

As a method, parallelomania is a subset of the general way in which fake history deals with historical data.  This is:

  1. Selection.  Only those bits of data that fit the argument will be used.
  2. Omission.  Those bits that don’t will be discarded.  Arguments will be found to ignore them.
  3. Misrepresentation.  Of course the pyramids in Mexico are like those in Egypt.

These failures will be found in very many older academic works.  Again, these are not always undertaken in bad faith.  But they are a failure of methodology.

This is one reason why arguments based on a claim that a literary text is interpolated are made less often today.  In the 19th century the claim was very often made, based on subjective grounds, as a way to dispose of evidence.  But it was always made selectively.  The same arguments were not made about text that the writer found convenient.  Thus in Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy, which created a fantastical picture of early Christianity in the near east, the testimony of Eusebius was against him.  So Bauer calmly claimed that the relevant passage was interpolated.  In fact it was not, as can be shown from 5th century Syriac witnesses that he knew about but conveniently neglected to consult.  We have reached the more sensible position of never asserting interpolation without compelling evidence.

It is the same with any case of parallels.  A parallel must be very limited, very striking, and clearly non-trivial.  Even then, I find, today we usually comment that it is “interesting”, rather than a basis for argument.  Otherwise we introduce parallelomania.

  1. [1]Jon Rogers, “SHOCK CLAIM: Ancient Egyptians did NOT build the pyramids,” Daily Express, Oct 2 2017. Online here: “HISTORIANS has thrown doubt on the Ancient Egyptians ever having built the Great Pyramids of Giza instead claiming the monuments could have been built by a lost civilisation.”

Cyril of Alexandria’s lost “Commentary on Hebrews” now available in English!

Last year we heard that the lost Commentary on Hebrews by Cyril of Alexandria had been rediscovered in three Armenian manuscripts in the Matenadaran library in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.  The publisher has now produced an edition in Armenian with facing English translation!

The price is about $60, which is not expensive.  It is available from here.  Details:

Item number: 100702
Title: Commentary on the Letter to Hebrews (Classical Armenian with English translation) / Մեկնութիւն Եբրայեցւոց թղթոյն (գրաբար բնագիր և անգլերեն թարգմանություն)
Author: Cyril of Alexandria
Language: Classical Armenian, English
Publication date: 2021
Publisher: Ankyunacar Publishing

This is the first English translation of the newly found Armenian manuscript of Cyril of Alexandria, which is his most comprehensive text of the Commentary on the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews. It contains the full commentary by Cyril of the first three chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Only fragments from the Greek original and Armenian and Syriac translations of the Commentary of the Letter to Hebrews by St. Cyril of Alexandria (†444) were known until now.

The present Armenian critical text and the English translation are placed on facing pages.
The book has an index for both Armenian and English texts.

ISBN 978-9939-850-51-1
395 pages
size 13.5×21 cm

Cover of Cyril of Alexandria, “Commentary on Hebrews”

This is excellent news!  It means that anybody who buys this will be among the first to read the work since ancient times, and certainly among the first ever English-speakers to read it.

Maybe I shall get myself a copy for Christmas!


Five stray canons of the Council of Hippo (393) – canon 1

The canons of the council of Hippo in 393 are lost.  Indeed at the third council of Carthage in 397, delegates complained that many had never seen the canons.  This point was grimly noted by the presiding bishop, Aurelius of Carthage, who thereafter ensured that everything was written down.  Since he held annual councils for twenty years, this created quite a body of church law!  But the most that he could do for Hippo was to issue a summary, the Breviarium, which we were working on earlier this year.

However in 1968 Charles Munier published five canons of Hippo, which had somehow been preserved in a manuscript, Vercellensi 165, on folio 199v.  My copy of his publication has not yet arrived, but I have translated the canons anyway from the CCSL 149 pp.20-21 text.  Here’s the first one.

     *     *     *     *

(1) Aurelius episcopus dixit: Sancti fratris Elesii nobis suggestio plenam sollicitudinem ac diligentiam oportet incutiat, ut omnis omnino cavillatio amputetur, cunctisque excusationibus aditus omnino claudatur.

Bishop Aurelius said: It is right that the suggestion of the holy brother of Elesium should instill solicitude and diligence in us, so that every cavil may be entirely lopped off, and the pathway to any excuses entirely removed.

Quare censendum est, si placet vestrae caritati, ut semper filii sint in potestate parentum, adque disciplinae regulam ab ipsis vel maxime episcopis seu clericis redigantur, nullum in minoribus annis filium debere ab episcopo vel clerico emancipatione a potestate patria liberari, nisi tantummodo illum cuius vitam moresque probaverit, ut iam legibus cum fuerit et voluntatis suae arbiter, peccato ipse proprio possit astringi, ne eius malae conversationis macula quisquam episcopus vel clericus pergatur.

Wherefore it must be decreed should be established, if it pleases your Charity Charities, that young men shall always be under the authority of their parents, and that they shall draw up be instructed in the rule of discipline by themselves, or better with by the bishops or clergy; [that] no young man who is a minor ought to be released from his father’s authority by a bishop or clergyman, unless he himself only has proved his life and morals, so that, when he is in law also the arbiter of his own wishes, he can be made responsible for made an accessory his own sins in his own mistakes, lest any bishop or clergyman shall be drawn into the dishonour stain of his evil way of life.

I’m not sure about “astringi” as “made an accessory”, the Oxford Latin Dictionary meaning 10, but none of the others seem to fit.  [UPDATE:  from the comments: In the passive “astringere” should be “made responsible”, lit.”be bound”.]

Si quidem praeceptum, ut manentibus in errore ‘cibum cum his minime capiatur’, nec filiis debent de facultatibus suis aliquid derelinquere, quia melius est unus timens Deum quam mille filii.

For the commandment is, that, for those remaining in error, “with these do not even eat”, (1 Cor. 5:11), nor ought they to leave anything to the young men from their property, because “better is one fearing God than a thousand [ungodly] children.” (Ecclus. 16:3)

I have understood “si quidem” as “siquidem”, and “est” as the main verb.

We lack the context of this canon, but perhaps the sense of the sentence is for the bishops and clergy not to end up acting as replacement parents, in loco parentis, to junior clergy who then go bad, and bailing them out from church funds?

Comments and corrections are welcome.  I had quite a bit of difficulty with this one, I might add, which is why it did not appear in the summer!

More in my next post.


A modern myth: St Boniface and the Christmas Tree

Christmas first appears in the historical record in 336, in Rome.  But there is no trace of anybody having a “Christmas tree” until 1521, when a record of trees being cut for this purpose appears in a town register in Séléstat in Alsace.  The tree was decorated with red apples and unconsecrated communion wafers.  When a frost killed off the apples, these were replaced with glass imitations, the origin of our baubles.  Previously Catholics had had a nativity scene, but these were considered superstitious by the Reformers.  However this objection did not apply to the Christmas tree, which therefore spread throughout Germany.  The custom was brought to England in the 1840s by Prince Albert, adopted by the aristocracy, and from there spread to America and the world.  All this is fairly well-known to anyone who has investigated at all.

But there is a curious legend in circulation which is as follows:

One of the earliest stories relating to the Christmas tree, the eighth-century Catholic missionary, Saint Boniface, is said to have cut down an oak tree sacred to the pagan god Thor. An evergreen fir tree grew in its place, which he said symbolised the everlasting nature of Jesus.  (See on Twitter here)

This story is to be found all over the web, mainly in Catholic websites such as this or this, composed by Fr. William P. Saunders.  Indeed the exact words of Boniface, usually slightly abbreviated, are quoted again and again:

This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven.

What do we make of this?

Well, it is certainly the case that St Boniface destroyed a mighty oak that was dedicated to horrible old Thor.  This is recorded in the Life of St Boniface by Willibrand.  Unusually there is a useful Wikipedia page on the destruction of the oak here.  A complete translation of this text was made in 1916 by George W. Robinson, and this may be found at Hathi here.  The Latin was published in the MGH series as “Vitae Sancti Bonifatii archiepiscopi Moguntini” and is here.

Here’s what it says (Robinson, 63-4):

…others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practised inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things. With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary’ size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a divine blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious dispensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree a wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.

When by the favor of God’s will all that we have told was fulfilled and accomplished, the saint went on to Thuringia. And he addressed the elders of the…

There is no mention of the Christmas tree.

A brief search of Google books leads back to 1905 through a trail of quotations, where the name varies slightly: Wilfrid, Winfrid, Winfried are all attested.  But curiously it does not give the original, which I found indirectly.

The words of Boniface above in fact originate in a short story: Henry van Dyke, “The Oak of Geismar”, published in Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 10, July-December (1891), p.681-7, with an illustration by Howard Pyle.  The volumes of Scribner’s Magazine can be found here, and the right volume is here.

Here is the relevant section (p.686).  A child is about to be killed with an axe as a sacrifice to Thor at the oak.  Boniface intervenes.

“Hearken, ye sons of the forest! No blood shall flow this night save that which pity has drawn from a mother’s breast. For this is the birth-night of the white Christ, the son of the All-Father, the Saviour of mankind. Fairer is he than Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wine, kinder than Freya the Good. Since he has come sacrifice is ended. The dark Thor, on whom ye have vainly called, is dead. Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. And now on this Christ-night ye shall begin to live. This Blood-tree shall darken your land no more. In the name of the Lord I will destroy it.”

He grasped the broad axe from the hand of Gregor, and striding to the oak began to hew against it. Then the sole wonder in Winfrid’s life came to pass. For, as the bright blade circled above his head, and the flakes of wood flew from the deepening gash in the body of the tree, a whirling wind passed over the forest. It gripped the oak from its foundations. Backward it fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder in four pieces. But just behind it, and unharmed by the ruin, stood a young fir-tree. pointing a green spire toward the stars.

Winfrid let the axe drop, and turned to speak to the people.

“This little tree a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree to-night. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child ; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”

So they took the fir-tree from its place, and carried it in joyful procession to the edge of the glade, and laid it on one of the sledges. The horse tossed his head and drew bravely at his load, as if the new burden had lightened it When they came to the village, Alvold bade them open the doors of his great hall and set the tree in the midst of it. They kindled lights among its branches, till it seemed to be tangled full of stars. The children encircled it wondering, and the sweet smell of the balsam filled the house.

Then Winfrid stood up on the dais at the end of the hall, with the old priest sitting at his feet near by, and told the story of Bethlehem, of the babe in the manger, of the shepherds on the hillside, of the host of angels and their strange music…

The story was a success and the publisher reissued it in book-form in an enlarged version as The First Christmas Tree: A Story of the Forest (1897), with additional illustrations. It is available at Gutenberg here.  But interestingly this form of the story does not seem to have influenced the transmission of the modern legend, for the words of Boniface are always given in the form taken from the magazine.  Here is the expanded text:

“And here,” said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree, standing straight and green, with its top pointing towards the stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, “here is the living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Let us call it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to the chieftain’s hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame.  You shall keep them at home, with laughter and song and rites of love. The thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is coming when there shall not be a home in all Germany where the children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in the birth-night of Christ.”

An abbreviated version of the magazine story appears in a school book, William F. Webster and Alice Woodworth Cooley, Language, Grammar and Composition, (1905), p.52.  No doubt this spread the legend further.

Modern novelisations seem to be a fertile source of false quotations, as is perhaps inevitable.  This is, then, another example.


Looking for the vanished North Gate of Ipswich

The Suffolk town of Ipswich has almost no historical monuments, or historical feel, despite being one of the oldest towns in England.  Indeed it was founded in the early Anglosaxon period.  Three gates are preserved in street names – west, north and east – and there is certainly evidence for two of the medieval gates, the West Gate and the North Gate, both destroyed around 1800.  It seems to have had at least some stone walls, various town ditches, and there is still a street known as “Tower Ramparts”.

The West Gate is relatively well-known from pictures and an 1960s excavation.  But the North Gate is very much more obscure.

The actual position of the North Gate is very obvious on Google Maps, at the head of Northgate Street, where the Halberd Inn projects on the street facing another building.  Note the position of the chimney stacks, in line.

Aerial view of the site of Ipswich North Gate (St Margaret’s Gate / Old Bar Gate)

A correspondent sent me a view, looking out of the town into Crown St, towards the later Baptist Church.  The Halberd Inn is on the left.  The “Alexandra Hair Artists” sign is on the other building.  This is mainly timber-framed but it has a very solid wall facing Northgate Street, seemingly of large stones.

Here is the view looking in:

Ignore the chimney low-down on the right – the Halberd Inn chimney is higher up, and behind the roof.

There is only one drawing known to me of the North Gate.  I have not seen the original, but a reproduction appeared in a slim rectangular self-promoting booklet issued by an antique shop named Green and Hatfield.[1]  The shop seems to have ceased trading in 1970.  Part of the text reads:

FROM early times the town of Ipswich was bordered by a rampart and ditch—demolished by the Danes and later repaired and fortified in the- reign of King John. The town was divided into LETES or Wards, four in number, each named after the four gates of the town. These gates in the ramparts were named after the four principal points of the compass – the NORTH GATE being the northern boundary of Northgate Lete and the exit to St. Margarets Plain, Christchurch, and the hills and country beyond.

Little evidence now remains of the old North Gate but the drawing on this page is a reproduction of a contemporary pencil sketch— “The demolition of the North Gate, in the latter part of the eighteenth century.” This rare and unique record was found in an old portfolio by Mr. W. E. Hatfield and is carefully preserved in the premises of Green & Hatfield.

It is of particular interest to them as their large ANTIQUE SHOP occupies the corner and site to the East of the old North Gate — part of the premises being built over the actual ramparts and ditch of the old town’s northern boundary. Until fairly recently fragments of the Tower Ditches, St. Margaret’s Ditches and the Rampart remained with the line of the fosse clearly marked, the sites now being located by Crown Street Car Park, an Omnibus Garage, and other buildings.

To many people all over the globe the ANTIQUE SHOP of GREEN & HATFIELD is well known and their homes contain Constant reminders of their visits to these interesting premises with their multitude of showrooms packed with ANTIQUES and decorative objects gleaned principally from old East Anglian homes;…

The illustration is signed L.R.S. – which is Leonard R. Squirrell (the double-l spelling is correct).  The Ipswich Society web site here has another illustration of Ipswich from the same source, which it attributes also to the same artist.

The view in this illustration is, I think, from without, looking toward the town. The street visible behind the gate is Old Foundry Road.  The gate was, as usual, a stone rectangle, with an arch, and a chamber above the arch.  It is clear that two walls extended forward from the stone rectangle.  The figures are in scale, and the buildings look correct.  The building at front left is now vanished.

But notice the two chimneys, again.  These indicate precisely the position of the gate.  (It looks from the aerial photo as if the Halberd Inn was extended after this date, adding an extra roof without a chimney in front of the existing one.)

We can see that the render was peeling off the wall of the other building where it faced the Halberd Inn.  Underneath are what look like large stone blocks, rather than bricks.  The edges of the “blocks” are, in fact, just about visible on Google Streetview through the render.  Could this be part of the North Gate?

East internal wall of the Ipswich North Gate?

Possibly this is over-optimistic, but it is clear from the drawing that the building on that side of the gate suffered damage, and it is conceivable that the owner made use of a nice firm standing wall, exactly as high as it was left in the sketch above.  The upper storey of the building, and most of the rest of it, is timber, I should add.

However research by members of the Ipswich Society (whom I emailed) suggests otherwise:

There is no building stone in Suffolk therefore, when the Northgate was demolished I’m pretty sure the stones would have been used elsewhere. (The West Gate was sold for the value of the stones).

However it is equally likely that the foundation stones were not dug out of the ground, the foundations of the West Gate caused a great deal of interest amongst Museum staff when they dug a nearby sewer. I also have heard the Halberd cellar story but I’ve never been down.

Leonard Squirrel was born 1893, died 1997 so didn’t ever see the Northgate, therefore his sketch is from other source material.

The stones for the North Gate would have been hewn, not saw cut, ie with a rough surface rather than an ashlar finish.

There is another interesting drawing available, which appeared with an article by Felix Walton, “16th Century Ipswich: Northgate Street Continued”, East Anglian Daily Times 16th March 1923:

For many years controversy has raged round the Old North Gate, or St Margaret’s Bar Gate as it was originally named, and I am afraid many people possess water-colour sketches of a tall building, red-tiled, over an elliptical arch showing a church spire in the distance, which is supposed to be the Tower Church, but by no ingenuity could a view of that edifice be obtained from the position of the artist.  These however were reproduced in numbers – I have three or four – by the late Hamlet Watling, and labelled “The Old North Gate.”  Some time ago, looking through a book of views of towns in France, I came across this very picture, described as “The Gateway to a French Town.”  It is perfect in detail, and what induced Watling to adapt it to Ipswich is a mystery.  John Clyde mentions it in his “Illustrations of Old Ipswich,” but doubts its authenticity.  A pencil sketch, however, exists, done by a lady in 1794, when the workmen were actually engaged in demolition of the Gate. Fred Pocock made a water-colour sketch from this in the early days of his career, and this I was fortunate enough to purchase some years ago. The colours, however, were so faded that it was impossible to obtain a photograph from it so I employed Mr. Leonard Squirrell to copy it in pen-and-ink, and the picture reproduced here is the result . The view of the French gate by Hamlet Watling being disposed of, I think we may safely assume this gives a correct representation of the Gate in the last stages of its existence. Its exact position we know, because its foundations were found still in the ground some years back during excavations; it crossed the street (then called Brook Street, remember), forming the junction between the Tower Ditches, and St. Margaret’s Ditches. These facts form another instance of the difficulty the historian meets with when trying to unravel the truth about past times.

East Anglian Daily Times 16th March 1923.  Supposedly the Ipswich North Gate, 1794, and redrawn in 1923 from a watercolour of a contemporary pencil sketch.  Probably not, tho.

This drawing shows a wide gateway and low surrounding buildings.  But the height of the Halberd Inn is actually about the same as the width of the site, so this looks wrong.  The buildings around the gate do not seem to be those visible today, nor as visible in the other illustration.  The human figures are small compared to the gate.  So I think that we may question whether this is what it is supposed to be.  Indeed it has more in common with the 1776 drawing of the West Gate.

I have no idea where the originals of these drawings might be found.  An enquiry at the Ipswich Museum was unrevealing.

The North Gate was also known as St Margaret’s Bar Gate, as an advertisment from December 1763 (online here in a curiously titled volume of “Suffolk notes from the year 1729”, p.63) makes clear:

In John Glyde, “Illustrations of Old Ipswich” (1889), p.8, in the middle of discussions of the West Gate, we find this interesting paragraph:

It is somewhat singular that whilst the form of the “ West Gate “ is preserved in several engravings and drawings, no authenticated engraving or drawing of the “North Gate* is known—although George Frost, to whom we are indebted for so many sketches of our picturesque antiquities, resided in the Town long before its demolition. On this subject Mr. H. C. Casley has favoured us with some details. The “ North Gate,” or, as it was frequently called St Margaret’s Barr Gate, stood across the upper part of Northgate Street, the contracted point between “The Halberd” and the opposite house plainly indicating its position. It is believed that no trustworthy representation of this gate, either in its pristine condition or in its venerable decay, exists, although sketches purporting to depict it are to be found in the hands of some collectors. The basis for them all is believed to have been an oil painting offered for sale by the late Mr. William Mason, a broker of this town. It gave the prospect from N. to S. of a lofty structure in rough stone with high pitch tile roof, having a central archway for road traffic with foot gates on either side. Through this middle arch could be seen the street, in those days called “ Brook Street,” with a Church spire in the distance. Making every allowance for an artist’s licence, Ipswich readers scarcely need to be reminded that the only spire in early days in this vicinity was that of the Municipal Church of St. Mary at the Tower, and it would have been perfectly impracticable to have viewed the present spire—a much more imposing structure than its predecessor—looking through the gateway in any position, but the old spire stood several feet further to the north-west, and was destroyed by lightning in 1661, whilst the picture was certainly not 150 years old. It is somewhat strange, too, that the painting did not show either of the premises against which the Bar abutted, although the maps of the day evidence that those on both sides of the street were in great part in existence, whilst the picturesque gateway of Archdeacon Pykenham’s former palace (1471) is likewise ignored—and no provision is seen for the brook which until comparatively recent years ran down the centre of the street.

Probably if the truth could only be known, St. Margaret’s Barr Gate, like the “Lose” and the “Bull” Gates, had little about it that found favour in the artistic eye, which would account for no perfect delineation of the edifice having been handed down to us. It was a great obstruction to the highway, and its demolition was one of the first acts of the old Paving and Lighting Commission, after they obtained their Act in 1793. A dated pencil sketch by a lady, in the possession of the contributor, represents it in July, 1794, when the workmen were engaged upon the demolition of the wing walls, the Gate-house chamber being already gone. There is certainly little that is attractive in the fragment thus depicted. Specimens of the rough stone of which it was constructed may still be seen in the lower part of the “Halberd Inn.”

Claims in modern books often need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but this paragraph in Susan Gardiner, “Secret Ipswich” (2015), chapter 11: Gates and Walls, is interesting, although unreferenced:

Northgate Street takes its name from the gate – also known as St Margaret’s Gate – in the town’s ramparts that stood at the top of the road, where P. J. McGinty’s pub, is. Until quite recently, McGinty’s was called the Halberd Inn. A halberd was a type of weapon, a combination of a spear or pikestaff and an axe – the kind of thing that is only used for ceremonial military displays by the yeoman of the guard at the Tower of London now. The original building is much older than it appears, and dates from the seventeenth century, although the exterior was rebuilt in the nineteenth. The Halberd Inn itself is aligned with the old tower ramparts and their remains can be seen in the walls of the south side of the building. More old stonework can be found inside the bar and the cellar of the pub, and are said to be what is left of the old St Margaret’s Gate itself.

The reason for the demolition of the North Gate is not known to me.  Possibly the town records might say.  But probably the reason is the same as with the gates of Norwich, demolished around the same time: that the gates were actually very small and had become a constant nuisance to those passing in or out of the town.  Even without the gate house, the entrance to Northgate Street is very narrow.

  1. [1](No author), Green and Hatfield, Ipswich: Ancient House Press (not dated).  A copy is held by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, filed in a box at Suffolk Record Office / The Hold, reference T4721 box 23, location L3/V/54, in the envelope “Ipswich West Gate”.