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 25thdec.info, here), p.16. 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?
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, tend to resist the term “forgery”. 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, 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.
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. ; Ep.ad 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:
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:
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!
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:
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.
- D – A fourth version, which I venture to call “D”, was discovered by Dom André Wilmart. 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”.
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. 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.
- A modern transcription is online here. Blayney refers to a work in two volumes by “Perkins”, but I don’t know what this was.↩
- 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.↩
- 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.↩
- Daniel P. McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea…”, p.188.↩
- 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.↩
- Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen (1889), vol. 4, p.274. Online here.↩
- 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.↩
- 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.↩
- 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.↩
14 thoughts on “Did Theophilus of Caesarea in 190 AD state that Christmas must be observed?”
Apologies for the typo in the title: it should be 190, not 196.
Thanks Roger. Always impressive! Happy New Year.
You’re very welcome!
Daniel P. McCarthy and Aidan Breen published a translation of Anatolius of Laodicea in 2003 under the title ‘The Ante-Nicene Christian Pasch “De ratione paschali”: The Paschal Tract of Anatolius, Bishop of Laodicea.’ from a Latin translation from Ireland. Until I read you post I had no idea that it might be a forgery. However there is an extensive section trying to explain why the quote from Anatolius in Eusebius doesn’t match the Irish text.
I simply assumed it was a ‘lost text’ that had been rediscovered.
Thank you for clarifying this with your expert scholarship!
It does leave me with one question – where did the Irish get their Easter date from?
Thank you – I didn’t know about this publication!
I’m not going anywhere near the Easter date stuff! 🙂
The introduction to the Acts of the Caesarean Synod is a very different piece of writing than the rest of the document. The historical recitals in the introduction, with the exception of the reference to 12/25 being observed by the Gauls, are all confessedly true. Only the date and observance of the Nativity is challenged,as false and this only upon the basis that the Chronograph of 354 “proves” the Christmas date originates sometime after Aurelian in 274. But this has been shown false by Professor Steven Hijmans who has shown that there was no ancient observance of 12/25 among the Romans and that it was introduced by Aurelian, perhaps to counter the already well-established and popular date of 12/25 observed by Christians. https://www.academia.edu/968841/_Sol_Invictus_the_Winter_Solstice_and_the_Origins_of_Christmas_Mouseion_Number_47_3_2003_377_398
But if the basis for rejecting the historicity of 12/25 among the Gauls (a separate issue from the authenticity of the Theophilus epistle itself) has been shown to be spurious, why should we not accept that the historical account of observing 12/25 is accurate? The point of the Theophilus forgery is the methoding of computing the date of Easter, not to establish Christmas. There would be no reason to include the date of 12/25 and its observance among the Gauls if it was not authentic and known generally to be so. No forger would include a date known to be false. My feeling is that the reference to 12/25 being observed by the Gauls is likely correct and authentic.
It is an interesting idea that the prologue might have a different origin to the rest of the text. I must think about this.
The text references the Church History of Eusebius (written by 325) by name, so is certainly later than that. Being Latin, they’re probably quoting Theophilus from Jerome, ca. 390 (?) rather than Eusebius. (Xmas is found in the list of martyr’s days from 336 in the Chronography of 354, around the same time.)
The text is quoted by Bede in De ratione temporum in 725, so it existed by then. In some manuscripts of the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d.636) the text is inserted in book 6, just after title 10 on Easter, according to the Arevallo edition on 1798 (?).
The Annals of Ulster editor makes the point that the “Acts” cannot be early and Greek, and must be western and Latin, because they use a Roman calculation rather than a Greek one.
So I would guess that the reference to the Gauls is probably not an independent early reference to xmas.
I looked at the text printed from the Isidore manuscript last night, and it has the Xmas reference. I am beginning to get suspicious of Krusch’s classification into 4 versions, and his “critical edition” doesn’t describe what I’m finding, limited as my search is. It looks as if we really do need a new, modern critical edition.
But it is possibe that there is more information in a book that Charles W. Jones did on Bede. Until I can look at that, this must all be provisional.
Re: resisting the term “forgery” — Um… because it might not have been meant to come across that way.
We have a fair number of law textbooks, and poetry textbooks, of the Irish monastic and poetic schools. And a lot of them have little Just-So Stories in them, which explain the reasoning of X or Y.
And most of them include historical or Biblical personages, and most of them aren’t even vaguely pretending to be anything but historical fiction that makes it easier to remember the fact or meme embedded in it.
For example, there’s this whole poet school textbook story of how the druidic poets of Babel founded a university to study linguistics after the sundering of the tongues, and how Irish was deliberately constructed of the most beautiful sounds found in all languages.
Which seems to be a story about “It’s okay that Irish doesn’t have exactly the same sounds as Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, and also we shouldn’t feel bad about Irish not being one of the sacred tongues of the Bible.”
(And there might be more to it, because Ars Memoriae was a bigger thing for the Irish than for most other medieval cultures, and it’s hard to tell what was going on without a memory arts guide. And this was part of a bardic textbook, and the poets had to memorize ridiculous amounts of everything.)
So if I see a scholarly Irish story about obscure historical personages, with all kinds of spirited speeches about different topics, I would tend to assume it’s a teaching story from a monastic textbook.
The whole thing with the kalends sounds like a mnemonic device, for instance.
I forgot to mention another example. Several of the law textbooks have elaborate stories about how St. Patrick set up the secular Irish law code in a big council together with the Irish kings and high-king, when very clearly he was never in any position to do this. But it’s very good for getting you to remember the details of all kinds of laws, and how they are applied.
The Introduction to the Senchus Mor talks a lot about St. Patrick’s role in all this particularly; but the big point of it is saying that pre-Christian laws that were in concord with the natural law, and did not conflict with the Bible or the consciences of Christians, were allowed to be kept; and that the natural law and the Holy Spirit spoke to pre-Christian poet/judges.
So again, there are some big points to remember, and the framing story just seems to be there to dress up the reasonings. It’s a genre.
Now, whether or not all readers understood this… well, probably a lot of people outside the Irish schools did not. Apparently Bede didn’t, which isn’t surprising, since he was English-schooled in a time when there were no longer a ton of English monks studying in Ireland. But a lot of English once upon a time had studied there, and probably would have brought back copies of texts and stuck them in monastic libraries. Possibly without adequate explanations, especially after the Yellow Plague killed off a ton of people who might have remembered.
It’s not totally ridiculous that a law code was worked out fairly early by influential Irish Christians, and Patrick could have had a hand in it. Senchus Mor is obviously pretty early in its language. But the whole grand council thing seems unlikely, and especially the whole framing story about it being called up specifically to punish the murderers of St. Odran the chariot driver. I mean, you don’t just sit down and write up a law code in a few days.
These are all good points. Thank you for taking the time to share them! As you say, forgery is a word that implies motives that we have no means of knowing.