“Scriptor Syrus”, the scholiast on Dionysius bar Salibi: oft-quoted, but from where?

Something that comes around every year at this time is a quotation from a certain “Scriptor Syrus,” supposedly about the origins of Christmas.  Often it is supposed to be 4th century. This is the usual wording.

It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.

There is an excellent post at Andrew McGowan’s blog here about this “quote”, and the many errors and falsehoods involved, and a mention by Tom Holland.  It is, in fact, a marginal note by an unknown Syrian writer (= “scriptor syrus”) in a manuscript of the works of Dionysius bar Salibi, a 12th century Syriac author.

There is a somewhat fuller translation by Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale (1997), p.155:

A twelfth-century Syrian bishop explained,

“The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration [of Epiphany] to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christians to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of lights.”[8]

p.244, 8.  Dionysius Bar-Salibi, bishop of Amida, whom I quote from the Latin of G. S. Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2 (Rome 1721) 164; and compare such other festivals as that of the Natale Petri of February, particularly in Fevrier (1977) 515, who protests against apologetic arguments to insulate the choice of date from any pagan antecedents or competition.

The overt polemical purpose of the modern author needs no discussion. But the reference is a useful entry-point to try to find the actual source.

What work are we talking about?  What manuscript?

Assemani was an Eastern Christian who published a whole series of extracts from eastern authors, in the original language, in his Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, with commentary and translation in Latin.  These are now online, and volume 2, page 164 may be found at Google books here.  The text is in two columns.  The original language is given, a text in italics is the translation, and Assemani’s own words are in normal text.

Page 164 from Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, vol. 2 (1721)

Assemani introduces our scholiast thus (Google translate follows):

Hunc tamen Armenorum ritum, quem hic rejicit Bar-Salibaeus, anonymus nescio quis Syrus probare contendit in margine apud eundem Bar-Salibaeum fol. 43. a tergo, his verbis:

However an anonymous Syrian, I don’t know who, tries to prove this Armenian rite, which Bar-Salibaeus here rejects, in the margin in the same Bar-Salibaeus fol. 43. on the back, in these words:

Then follows the Syriac text, and then the Latin translation prepared by Assemani:

Mense Januario natus est Dominus eodem die quo Epiphaniam celebramus, quia veteres uno eodemque die festum Nativitatis & Epiphaniae peragebaret, quoniam eadem die natus & baptizatus est. Quare hodie etiam ab Armenis uno dic ambae festivitates celebrantur. Quibus adstipulantur Doctores, qui de utroque festo simul loquuntur. Causam porro, cur a Patribus praedicta solemnitas a die 6. Januarii ad 25. Decembris translata fuit, hanc fuisse ferunt. Solemne erat ethnicis hac ipsa die 25. Decembris festum ortus solis celebrare; ad augendam porro diei celebritatem, ignes accendere solebant: ad quos ritus populum etiam Christianum invitare & admittere consueverant. Quum ergo animadverterent Doctores ad eum morem Christianos propendere, excogitato consilio eo die festum veri Ortus constituerunt; die vero 6. Januarii Epiphaniam celebrari jussere. Hunc itaque morem ad hodiernum usque diem cum ritu accendendi ignis retinuerunt. Et quoniam sol duodecim gradus ascendit Dominus natus est hac die tertiadecima, & sicut S. Ephram docet, Solis justitiae & duodecim Apostolorum ejus mysteria repraesentat. Numerus, inquit S. Doctor, denarius perfectus est. Die decima Martii uterum intravit. Numerus item senarius perfectus est. Die 6. Januarii utramque partem nativitas ejus reconciliavit.

In the month of January, the Lord was born on the same day on which we celebrate the Epiphany, because in the olden days the festival of Nativity and Epiphany was held on the same day, since he was born and baptized on the same day. Therefore, even today, both festivals are celebrated by the Armenians. The Doctors [of the Church] support this, who speak of both festivals at the same time. Furthermore, the reason why the aforesaid solemnity was transferred by the Fathers from the 6th of January to the 25th of December, they say was this. It was traditional for the pagans to celebrate the birth of the sun on this very day, the 25th of December; to further enhance the celebration of the day, they used to light fires: to which rites they were accustomed to invite and admit even Christian people. When, therefore, the Doctors noticed that the Christians were inclined to that custom, they devised a plan and established on that day the feast of the true Resurrection; but on the 6th of January they ordered that the Epiphany be celebrated. So they have kept this custom to this day with the ritual of lighting fires. And since the sun has risen twelve degrees, the Lord was born on this thirteenth day, and as St. Ephraim teaches, he represents the mysteries of the sun of justice and his twelve apostles. The number, says the Holy Doctor, is a perfect denarius. On the tenth of March he entered the womb. The same number is perfect. On the 6th of January his birth reconciled both parties.

I don’t understand the bit about “denarius”; is it a typo for “senarius,” which seems to mean “a multiple of six”?  But it doesn’t matter for our purposes.  Assemani then continues his work by introducing a different extract from fol. 125 concerning Caiaphas, of no relevance here.

So these words, by the anonymous “syrian writer”, are on folio 43v of the manuscript used by Assemani.

But what is this a manuscript *of*?  What text?

Looking up to page 161, I see that Assemani is quoting material from folio 37v of this manuscript of a work by Dionysius bar Salibi, about the “progenitores” of Christ, from Luke’s gospel:

Quos Lucas refert Christi progenitores, eos ex Africano, Eusebio, Nazianzeno,Sarugensi, Graecisque & Syriacis Codicibus sic enumerat fol.37. a tergo:

He enumerates those whom Luke gives as progenitors of Christ, from Africanus, Eusebius, Nazianzen, [Jacob of] Sarug, from Greek and Syriac manuscripts, on fol. 37v:

He then continues with a passage from folio 161, on the nativity of Christ, before adding the material above from the scholiast.  It’s odd that this jumps about like this.

On pp.157-8, it all becomes clear.  Assemani is giving extracts from the Commentary on the Four Gospels by Dionysius bar Salibi, and he is extracting this material from a Vatican manuscript:

Commentaria in Testamentum Vetus & Novum. Et quidem expositio in quatuor Evangelia exstat in Cod. Syr. Vatic. 11. & in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16. a fol. 27. usque ad fol. 263. ejusque duo exemplaria in Bibliotheca Colbertina haberi testatur Renaudotius tom. 2. Liturg. Orient. pag. 454.

Commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. And a certain exposition on the four Gospels exists in Cod. Syr. Vatic 11. And in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16, from fol. 27. up to fol. 263. Renaudius testifies, Liturg. Orient. vol. 2, page 454 that two copies of this are held in the Bibliotheca Colbertina [i.e. now in the French National Library].

So… let’s take it further.  A lot of Vatican manuscripts are online.  But when I use the excellent Wiglaf guide to Vatican mss, and look at Vatican. Syr. 11, and Vaticanus Syr. 16, – I don’t think there is a “Clementine” subdivision of Syriac manuscripts – I find that neither has scholia on fol. 43v.  Someone has messed up the numbering of the manuscripts since!  It turns out that Assemani and his son did so, later in life, in the 1750s.  The marvellous Syri.ac website tells me of a concordance by Hyvernat, “Vatican Syriac Mss Old And New Press Marks” (1903), online here.

But this too is useless.  The old “Vat. Syr. 1” became Vat. Syr. 19, online here, but there is still no marginal note on folio 43v.  Hyvernat does not explain the “Clem.” collection at all.

Thankfully Hyvernat tells us about a catalogue composed by Assemani and son, and Syri.ac gives links to text-searchable PDF’s!

Looking at these, if we do a text search for “Salib”, we find that manuscript 156 contains Dionysius bar Salibi.  But… no scholion on fol. 43v.  In fact the manuscript has been divided into two parts, and part 2 is also online here.

The catalogue for Vat. Syr 156 says the Luke portion begins on fol. 188, which doesn’t sound right.  But at the end it says “see ms 155, fol. 161v”  And when I look at the catalogue entry for Vat. Syr. 155 – it too contains Dionysius bar Salibi!  The text search had missed it.   Are these two, perhaps, the two manuscripts that Assemani used, now placed side by side?  Hyvernat says look at the start of the catalogue entry, there may be the old shelfmark there.  And…

CLV. Codex in fol. bombycinus, foliis constans 294. Syriacis recentioribus literis exaratus, inter Syriacos Codices, a nobis in Vaticanam Bibliothecam inlatos, olim Decimus sextus: quo continentur:

150.  Folio manuscript on cotton-paper, consisting of 294 leaves, written in modern Syriac letters, one of the Syriac manuscripts brought by us into the Vatican Library, once the Sixteenth: which contains:

So this is indeed the one-time manuscript Vat. Syr. 16!   Hyvernat expresses himself bitterly toward the authors of the catalogue – “of no practical use” -, and, after more than two hours working on this, I too am less than chuffed with them.  The manuscript was never simply “Vat. Syr. 16”; prior to the reorganisation it was, in fact, Vat. Syr. Assemani 16; and the other manuscript, 156, was Vat Syr. Assemani 46.  Aaargh!

But … viewing Vat. Syr. 155 on folio 43v – there is a long scholion!  We’re there!  It matches!

Vatican Syr. 155, folio 43v – the scholion on Dionysius bar Salibi, Commentary on Luke, discussing the date of Christmas

One last wrinkle.  The catalogue (part 3, p.297) tells us that Luke is on fol.160v onwards.  That’s is item 23 in this manuscript, which contains various texts.  So what is fol. 43v part of?  Well, item 21 is the commentary on Matthew, starting on folio 32, and continuing to fol. 148v.  Not Luke, as anyone would infer from the original in the Bibliotheca Orientalis, unless they were very careful.

So this passage by “Scriptor Syrus” is, in fact, a scholion by some unknown person, on a passage in the Vatican Syr. 155 copy of Dionysius bar Salibi’s Commentary on Matthew.

It would be most useful to know exactly which passage of Dionysius bar Salibi is so annotated.  But there we must leave this.

Update: 24 Dec. 2023.  A useful comment from Syriacist Grigory Kessel is that Dionysius bar Salibi’s commentary on the gospels was printed in the CSCO series, with a Latin translation; and that the annotation above is against Dionysius’ comments on Matthew 2:1 (“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,…”), and the relevant passage is here.  I imagine it relates to the paragraph on p.67, l.12 onwards, where 25 December is specified.  Thank you!


Working with Bauer’s 1783 translation of Bar Hebraeus’ “History of the Dynasties”

Following my last post, I’ve started to look at the PDFs of Bauer’s 1783-5 German translation of Bar Hebraeus’ History of the Dynasties.

It must be said that the Fraktur print is not pleasant to deal with.  But it could be very much worse!  I’ve seen much worse.  Here’s the version from Google Books:

And here is the same page from the MDZ library:

I’ve tried running both through Abbyy Finereader 15 Pro.  Curiously the results are better, on the whole, from the higher resolution MDZ version.  I had expected that the bleed-through from the reverse might cause problems – and it may yet!  Even more oddly, the OCR on the “Plain Text” version of Google Books is better still.

But there is a problem with using Google Books in plain text mode.  There is no way to start part way through the book.  You will always be placed at the very start, and you can only navigate by clicking “Next page” or whatever it is.  This is not good news if you have 100 pages to click through before you get to where you want to be.

The opening portion of these world chronicles is always a version of the biblical narrative about the creation, followed by material from the Old Testament, combined with apocryphal material.  I may be alone here, but I have always found these parts of the narratives unreadable.  When I translated Agapius, I started with the time of Jesus, part way through.  I did the same with Eutychius. I only did the opening chapters at the end, after I had translated all the way from Jesus to the end of the book first.  I recall that it felt like wading through glue. I might have given up, except that I had already invested so much time in the project.

Starting in the time of Jesus immediately introduces us to familiar figures.  On page 88 of volume 1, the “Sixth Dynasty” starts, with Alexander the great.  It ends on page 98 with Cleopatra.  Each section starts with a familiar name, one of the Ptolemies in most cases.

On page 99, dynasty 7 begins, after an introduction, with Augustus.  The dynasty ends on p.139 with Justinian.  Each ruler gets a paragraph, often only a few sentences.

It’s all do-able, clearly.  I’m not sure that I want to get into working on this book seriously, with the St Nicholas project still in mid-air.  But it’s not hard work, which is something!


The “Historia Dynastiarum” or “History of the Dynasties” by Barhebraeus

The last of the five big Arabic Christian histories is the Historia Dynastiarum (Tarikh Mukhtasar Ad-Duwal) of Bar Hebraeus.  This is a revision, abbreviation, and expansion, of his Syriac world history, the Chronicum Syriacum.  There seems very little evidence in Google that the Historia Dynastiarum has received very much attention.

Here is a Google Translate version of the relevant parts of his entry in Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur, vol. 2.  This is of course very old now.  First the man himself (p.272):

92. Gregorius Abu ‘l-Farag ibn al-`Ibri, almost universally referred to in the Western scholarly world with the Latinization of the nickname Barhebraeus, the most important writer of the Jacobites [=monophysites], is one of the most important of his diverse writings, which cover all areas of profane and theological knowledge extends to Syrian literary history. Only two works that certainly came from his pen were written in Arabic from the start. The days of his life fell during the difficult time of the Mongol invasions.

Barhebraeus was born in Melitene in 1225-6 as the son of a Christian doctor who had been converted from Judaism and was given the baptismal name Johannes. After his parents moved to Antioch, he took lessons in logic and medicine from a Nestorian in Tripoli, Syria. Consecrated bishop under the name Gregorius in 1246, he successively held three bishoprics, most recently Aleppo, and in 1264 became Maphrian of the East, i.e. the Deputy of the Patriarch in the East Syrian-Persian church area with changing residence. He died in Maraga on July 30, 1286, highly revered by Muslims and all Christian parties, and was buried in the Monastery of Matthew (Deir Matta) near Mosul.

Graf states that Barhebraeus only composed two works in Arabic.  The first is a work on the Soul.  The second is the History of the Dynasties.

The crowning achievement of Barhebraeus’s life’s work is his Arabic history entitled the “History of the Dynasties”, which he wrote at the request of Muslim friends and completed shortly before his death. It is a partly abridged, partly expanded adaptation of his secular history (chronography), which he had previously written in Syriac, and which was accompanied by a church history in the same language. The additions to the Arabic abstract include, above all, valuable information about scientific and literary figures, including older Arabic sources. He reports events based on the ruling personalities, which are arranged in groups of 10 “dynasties”, these are the (Old Testament) patriarchs (al-auliya’), the judges, the Israelite and Chaldean kings, the kings of the Magi (Medes ), the. the pagan Greeks (Alexander to Cleopatra), the Franks (in the sense of Westerners: Augustus to Justinian II), the Christian Greeks (Tiberius II to Heraclius), the Muslim Arabs (Muhammed to al-Musta’sim) – by far the most extensive and most detailed part of the entire work – and the kings of the Mongols from Hulägu until the death of Ilkhan Argun in 1285.

Editions: Edvardus Pocockius, Specirnen historiae Arabum etc., Oxonii 1650, excerpts, beginning with the history of the Arabs before Islam, in Latin. Translation and notae. Complete: Historia compendiosa Dynastiarum, authore Gregorio Abul-Pharajio Malatiensi medico . .. Arabice edita, et latine versa, Oxonii 1663. Antun Salhani, Ta’rih muhtasar ad-duwal, Beirut 1890. German translation: Georg Lorenz Bauer, Des Gregorius Abulfaradsch kurze Geschichte der Dynastien, oder Auszug der allgemeinen Weltgeschichte (= Gregorius Abulfaradsch’s short history of the dynasties, or excerpt from general world history), 2 vols., Leipzig 1783 and 1785. Cf. J. H. Hottingeri Promtuarium; Sive, Bibliotheca orientalis, Heidelbergae 1658, pp. 80-82.

Manuscripts: Paris ar. 296 (15th century); 297 (1554 AD); Additions in the margins and on the endpaper: historical, geographical and chronological notes on the city of Amid, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and lists of the Jacobite Primates up to 1493 and the Nestorian Catholicoi. Par. ar. 298 (1598 AD); 299 (1693 AD); 6501 (1355 AD).  Leiden or. 759; 760.  Vatican Borg. syr. 59 (Karshuni, 1688 AD, written in Rome by Athanasius Safar, Bishop of Mardin). Copenhagen or. 8 (1663/4 AD; see John Erichsen, Udsigt over den gamle Manuscript-Samling i det store Kongelige Bibliothek [= Overview of the old Manuscript Collection in the great Royal Library], Copenhagen 1768, p. 5).   Petersb. Inst. or. 37 (1605/6 AD). Sbath 50 (Kars., 17th century), incomplete; Fihris 61.

The 1663 edition by Pococke is available online in many places.  Here are a few:

Bauer’s 1783-5 German translation – printed in Fraktur -, the Des Gregorius Abulfaradsch kurze Geschichte der Dynastien, is also online:

Because of the awkward Fraktur text, this looks rather intimidating to the English reader, unless you view the copy in Google Books.  There you can click on the “gearwheel” at top right, and select “plain text”.  This will give you the text, already OCR’d into a Roman font.  If you do this in Chrome, your browser will then automatically translate it into some sort of English.  Curiously, if you copy the German plain text into Google Translate, you get a much better English translation!

By this process, we get this for Bauer’s rather charming preface (slightly cleaned up by me):

I do not think that I need to make an apology by daring to present to the public a German translation of an Arab historian, of Gregorius Abulfaradsch’s Brief History of the Dynasties. At a time when everything with healthy hands is eager to give every product of the mind, no matter how poor, a German robe if it is stamped with the name of a Briton or a Frenchman; At a time when translation factories for Greek and Latin classics are being set up everywhere, I thought that the dear public, which always shows a fair amount of patience, should not make a sheepish face and reject me out of hand if I ever do produce an Arab, and ask for his favor and protection for him.

Or does the Arab have less right to do this than the Romans and Greeks? “But Pocock has already appended a Latin translation to the edition of Abulfaradsch?” But there are also Latin translations from old Latin and Greek authors that are just as pleasant to read and clear as the one from my hero, and yet one explains it those German translations are not superfluous; And here it is also the case that Pokock’s work is rare, expensive and certainly in few hands of historians and history lovers.

Or do only the Greeks and Romans deserve to appear in German garb for the sake of the important content? It is true that the Oriental historian does not write as gracefully as a Herodotus or not after. The history of a people whose religion arose after the Christian one and has well over half of the human race among its followers; of a people whose language surpasses most of the world in terms of wealth, culture and spread across vast lands; of a people who had never been subjugated, but who were seized by religious enthusiasm and, as a result, a desire for conquest, subjugated almost the entire world and founded an immense empire that even exceeded the Roman one in size; a people who have done so many harm to the Christian religion, with whom the Christians in Spain, Italy and France, the Greek emperors in their provinces, and later the Western Christians fought so many bloody wars during the Crusades; of a people that embraced the sciences and translated the Greek philosophers, historians and poets into their mother tongue, while Christian Europe was covered in stark darkness by monkery and pfaffery.  Shouldn’t the history of such a people deserve to be known, and shouldn’t the author be important, who can be used as a source in its study?

Anyone would be ashamed not to know anything about the ancient Persians and their kings, about the Greeks and Romans. But in the history of the equally famous empires of the Khalifs and the Mogols, which overthrew them and which are so close to us in time and other circumstances, one did not want to count oneself to be a disgrace? I have often been surprised that the name of the Khalifs and their empire was something completely unknown to many a self-studied and not ignorant man. And if the names of great scholars who are respected by the world can serve to justify my undertaking, I can also refer to the fact that Mr. D. Dache in Leipzig, and my former excellent teacher in oriental languages, Prof. Nagel, too Altorf, honored my project with your approval, and expressed his consideration for me, which I have always enjoyed to the fullest extent, and as a grateful student I boast here with true reverence, that he also supported me from the stock of his library.

This, I thought, should protect me from criticism for publishing a German translation of Abulfaradsch, which mainly provides the history of the Khalifs and Mogols. For those who do not already know him or are familiar with Pocock’s work, I note that he is a native of Malatia, a city on the west side of the Euphrates, where his father, Aharon, was a famous physician, and that he in the XIII. century lived. He himself was very experienced in the science of medicine, which is why he reveals many predilections for doctors in his book and weaves in some nice anecdotes about them. He has written several works, such as: a Syriac grammar and a Chronicon Syriacum, which Asseman published in his Bibliotheca Oriental. Tom. II. p. 308. Wherever one finds more from our author, and among other things the opinion expressed in the preface by Pokock that our Abulfaradsch is the same person as Abulfaradsch Abdallah Ibn Attajeb (a Nestorian monk) is refuted. By religion he was a Christian, and of the Jacobite sect. The accuracy of his reports results from their comparison with other proven historians, such as Abulfeda, Eutychius, Al Makin. He was partly a contemporary and eyewitness to the events under the Mogol government. He continued his story of the creation of the world, according to the custom of Eastern historians, up to the year of Christ 1283. I was surprised that he wasn’t often missing from the oldest story and, despite its brevity, that he included many a pleasant anecdote. His style is simple and completely unadorned, the tone of his narrative is uniform and dull, still more bearable than Eastern pomp. Compare the preface by Mr. Ritter Michaelis to his Arabic grammar.

I also ask that the reader keep in mind when reading the translation that I could not embellish the original. The respect he was held in because of his learning is demonstrated by the titles given to him in the title of the book: He was the greatest scholar, the king among scholars, the model and phoenix of his age, the pride of the wise. How important his reports are is demonstrated by the frequent use which the authors of the General World History, in the 19th and 20th parts, in the history of the Muslim empire, have made of him.**

In my translation I tried to express exactly the meaning of the original, and I flatter myself that, through comparison with other writers, I have mostly hit the mark. Wherever errors have crept in that did not escape my eyes, I have corrected them in the following notes, and I will diligently point these out to the reader. If I had immediately at hand the subsidies of several Arabic writers, as I received them later, I could certainly have given my translation greater perfection, which the second part will certainly contain. As for the explanatory and corrective notes, I was advised by a respected scholar that most of the sheets had already been printed, so they had to be appended at the end. The time I was granted was short, which is why I only briefly touched on the bare essentials. But because I feel that it is more convenient if the notes are always placed under the text, where they belong, I will give them this more appropriate placard for the second part if the audience receives this first attempt with indulgence and care. “Why I didn’t deliver the Abulfaradsch in its entirety right away?” Someone might also ask about the translation of an Arabic book!

– Written in Nuremberg, March 21, 1783.

I would have given the opening of Barhebraeus’ preface also, but there are some OCR errors there which would make this harder work!

Update (19 Dec 2023): In the comments, Diego points out that the mysterious reference to the “General World History” must refer to volumes 19 and 20 of “Allgemeine Weltgeschichte von der Schöpfung an bis auf gegenwärtige Zeit” (Leipzig 1765-1808, 29 vols.). This was a German translation/adaptation of W. Guthrie and ‎J. Gray’s “A General History of the World, from the Creation to the Present Time” (1764-7).  Thank you!


An adventurer in Arab Christian Studies – Prof. Bartolomeo Pirone

None of the histories of Arabic Christian literature – Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki, Al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus – exist in English translation.  This site has made some modest efforts to remedy this, by turning the French translation of Agapius and the Italian translation of Eutychius into English, and posting them online.  Judging from queries received, the effort has been worthwhile, and has drawn attention to both.  It was difficult to obtain a copy of the Italian translation, but eventually I located  and purchased one over the web from the Franciscan bookshop in Jerusalem, where it had plainly sat and gathered dust for many years.  The translator was a certain Bartolomeo Pirone, of whom I knew nothing.

Indeed how many of us are that aware of material in Italian?  Even though Google Translate handles Italian very well these days, few of us have any idea what is out there.  Yet there are invaluable translations of otherwise inaccessible patristic material.

A few days ago I became aware of a series of translations into Italian of Arabic Christian literature, the PCAC series.  This includes 30-odd texts from the literature of the Christians in the Near East, such as Theodore Abu Qurrah.  The region was occupied by Islam in the 7th century, and they were obliged to write in Arabic from the 9th century onwards, as the cultural pressure became irresistible.  But it is, at that period, a branch of Byzantine literature, and full of interest.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that the series was edited by none other than the same Dr Bartolomeo Pirone.  Now retired but still active, he was a full professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale, and lectured in Cairo and Beirut.  Judging from a google search, he has dedicated a portion of his life to making this literature known, in the most obvious way possible; by translating it into the vernacular, and gathering other scholars to do likewise. Indeed I have at this very instant just discovered that he also made a translation of Agapius into Italian![1]  But this does not exhaust his work, which also includes Muslim literature, and the interaction between Christianity and Islam.

Much of his work was published by the Franciscan Province of the Holy Land, known as the “Custody of the Holy Land“.  This in turn explains why a copy of his standalone translation of Eutychius was available in their bookshop in Jerusalem.  There is an article from 2018 at the Franciscan website here, celebrating his 40 years of research.

Prof. Bartolomeo Pirone

I would imagine that very few people in the English-speaking world have ever heard of Dr Pirone and his immensely valuable work on an area of literature known to very few.  But if you are at all interested in Arabic Christian literature, and especially if you – like myself – do not know any Arabic, then you need to know about his work.

  1. [1]Agapio di Gerapoli, Storia universale, Terra Sancta (2013), ISBN 9788862401647.

Getting manuscript reproductions in the UK – important and useful court judgement?

Via Dr Bendor Grosvenor on Twitter, I learn of an interesting court case about “image fees”.  According to Dr. G, this is very good news for manuscript researchers, and historians in general, and also for those who want to download and post online images of out-of-copyright material.  Here’s his thread:

Those of us who’ve had to pay image fees will know the system relies on museums claiming copyright in their photos – irrespective of whether the art they’re photographing is itself in copyright. (In the UK, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the artist).  In other words, a painting by John Constable may be long out of copyright, but taking a photo of it creates a new copyright in that photo. By restricting the taking or sharing of other photos, museums force us to use their own photos for publication, and thus charge large sums.

Copyright is the glue which holds the system together, otherwise, we’d be able to either take a photo from the museum’s website, or use a photo someone else has already paid for. The ‘copyright licence’ we buy prevents us from sharing the image for wider re-use.

In the UK, this copyright claim has for long been contentious. For example, under the 2019 EU Copyright Directive (Article 14), it is not possible to claim copyright in a straightforward reproduction of a work of art which is itself out of copyright (older than 70 years).  The relevant bit of Art. 14: “when the term of protection of a work of visual art has expired, any material resulting from an act of reproduction of that work is not subject to copyright or related rights unless the material resulting from that act of reproduction is original in the sense that it is the author’s own intellectual creation.”

In other words, take a straightforward photo of the Constable painting = no new copyright in your photo. But pose something in front of it, add an extra cow in Photoshop = new copyright in your photo.

For many of us, that EU Directive looked like the end to image fees in the UK – but Brexit happened just before ratification was required in member states.

In the UK, museums and image libraries relied on the UK’s Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which appeared to give copyright to your photo of the Constable simply because of the effort you took in taking it. This was called the ‘sweat of the brow’ concept.  In other words, you did not need to demonstrate any creative effort, or add any personal touch, to claim your copyright. BUT, since 1988, various EU and UK judgements have eroded the ‘sweat of the brow’ concept.

But the situation was still not entirely clear, until now. In an Appeal Court judgement this November (THJ v Sheridan [2023] EWCA Civ 1354). Here’s the full judgement.

Click to access ewca_civ_2023_1354.pdf

(And here (to which I am indebted) is Prof. Eleonora Rosati @eLAWnora  commentary on the judgement.)


Para 16 rules that, for copyright to pertain: ‘What is required is that the author was able to express their creative abilities in the production of the work by making free and creative choices so as to stamp the work created with their personal touch.”

So, taking a straightforward photo does not count, nor does getting the lighting right or other labour of a ‘technical’ kind.

What does this mean for the image fee system which strangles so much art historical scholarship, prevents the public learning about the art they own, and acts as a tax on knowledge? In the UK, it means it’s over.  In fact, because in THJ v Sheridan, the judges said the ‘skill and labour’ test has not been valid *since 2004*, it suggests that all those ‘image licences’ which have been sold relying on copyright have been invalid, and (I suspect?) mis-sold.

Those of us who’ve been campaigning against image fees have been arguing (with hard evidence) that the system doesn’t raise meaningful revenue for museums (and in many cases, costs them money).  But to little avail, as far as museums are concerned. They just carried on charging, insisting they had copyright, which encouraged publishers to insist we kept buying ‘licences’. And now we know that for historic, 2D artworks it’s basically been a scam.

What do we do now? I suppose museums can carry on restricting the availability of decent photos. That’s why Tate’s website only lets us see low-res photos (of the art we own).  But without the glue of copyright, the system must collapse, because there’s nothing to stop images being re-used.  So, if you’re able to take a tolerably good photo of a historic artwork from online for your publication, do so.  Don’t let publishers and journals bully you into buying ‘licences’. Don’t agree to label photos (C) when no copyright exists.  And if you’re a museum director or trustee, think hard about your museum mis-selling licences for the last two decades.

Note that this is clearly downstream of the EU ruling.  This now leaves the USA behind, at least until some public-spirited person clarifies the law there.

The actual court case was about whether a GUI could be copyrighted, so it isn’t really the same thing.  But the case is about “originality” in copyright, and this is what lies behind the claim of museums that a photograph is an “original work” and therefore in copyright. There is discussion of the case on these sites:

UK Court of Appeal rules on copyright in GUIs

Originality in copyright – a review of THJ v Sheridan

Let us hope that the judgement does indeed mean what Dr G. says that it does, and frees up public domain material for the use of us all.  I suspect the foot-dragging will be immense, tho.


A new Mithraeum at Aquincum / Budapest, Hungary.

The Roman military site of Aquincum near Budapest in Hungary is already known for five temples of Mithras.  A housing development in the area has uncovered a sixth temple, discovered in the summer and just now reported by Oliver Kovács in a Hungarian archaeological website, Muemlekem.hu.  There are a number of photos with the article!  More excavation is planned for the spring, but we must hope that the site is preserved.  There is some doubt whether the Hungarian authorities have done enough to ensure this.

Mithras expert Dr T. Csaba Szabó has written more about this here.

A votive item, made out of lead, showing figures wearing Phyrgian caps – possibly Mithras and the torchbearers?
A painted altar stone with TRA(N)SITO on it.
Fragments of fresco, showing Mithras himself?



A modern “quote” from St Nicholas?

On various websites you can find the following quotation, attributed to St Nicholas of Myra:

The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic God’s giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.

No source is given, however.

A google search revealed no results prior to 2015, when it appeared in Carol Kelly-Gangi, 365 Days with the Saints: A Year of Wisdom from the Saints, New York: Wellfleet Press (2015) ISBN 978-1-62788-963-6, p.257 (Google Books Preview).  Here’s a screen grab of the top of the page, which gives an idea of the kind of book that this is:

The next result was in December 2016, when it appeared in an article in the Christian Post.  Since then it has spread to various other sites.

The author of the 2015 book, Carol Kelly-Gangi, appears to be a professional writer, who works for publishers, and has turned out a number of books of this sort.  In this kind of hack-work, the book is commissioned by the publisher, and the format prescribed, and the writer compiles the thing from whatever sources they have.

In this case the format seems to require a quotation of some sort in italics.  I wonder whether in this case the “quote” was simply composed by the writer?

At all events there is no sign of the quotation prior to this book.


Arabic Christian Historians: Yahya ibn Sa`id al-Antaki

When the early Muslims conquered the Near East, they subjugated large areas populated by Christians, politically part of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire, but speaking either Syriac or Coptic.  Over time these were forced to adopt Arabic, and to translate their literature into that language from the 9th century onwards.  This multi-lingual environment produced the Translation Movement, which translated Greek science into Arabic.  Arabic Christian literature is little known, but voluminous.

There are five major historians prior to 1500.  These are Agapius, Eutychius, Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki, Al-Makin, and Bar Hebraeus.  I always find it hard to remember the barbarous-sounding Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki – it means John, son of Said, of Antioch – and, having managed to remember, I thought I would say a few words about him.

TLDR: He was an Egyptian who went to Antioch and wrote a continuation of the Annals of Eutychius covering the years 938-1028.

I think we’d better start with the entry in Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur vol. 2 (1947), p.49 f.  (Written 76 years ago!)  I’m not bothering with the dots and accents here.

14.  Yahya (Yuhanna) ibn Said ibn Yahya al-Antaki.  According to Ibn Abi Usaibia, he was a relative of Eutychius, and composed his annals under the title “The Book of the Appendix” (Kitab ad-Dail) for the years 938-1027-8 AD.  He wrote the majority of the work before his move to Antioch in 1015, but then corrected, supplemented and expanded it based upon the archival documents which he found there. Apart from presenting Byzantine history, it is above all an important source for the history of Fatimid rule in Egypt and Syria. It is also rich in valuable details about ecclesiastical conditions and events in the eastern countries.

We then get some very elderly bibliography, which I will abbreviate a bit.

Ibn Abi Usaibia, vol. 2, 87.  Krumbacher 368.  … An excerpt on the seige and capture of Antioch by the Byzantines in 967-8 was printed in translation by Alfred von Kremer, Beiträge zur Geographie des nördlichen Syriens, Wien 1852, p. 4-6.  … (Russian publication) deals with, among other things, the Christianization of the Russians and the history of the Bulgarians at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century, with a different perspective to that in Byzantine sources.  The first complete edition of the Arabic text was  part of the publication of Eutychius by L. Cheikho &c in CSCO, Scriptores Arabici, textus, series III, t. VII (Beirut 1909), p.89-273, and taken from Ms. Paris ar. 291 (17th century), folios 82v-137v, and a manuscript of the collection of excerpts by the deacon Paul az-Za`im of Aleppo (17th century), itself derived from a copy of Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki’s text made in Cairo in 1291.

A new edition with French translation was made in the Patrologia Orientalis series, volumes 18 pt 5 and 23 pt 3.  …. using various rather late manuscripts.

This is online so I will skip Graf’s remarks about it, and give links:

Three other works of the same author also exist, although I have no idea whether any have been printed, or even exist now.  These remarks are from 1947.

Three theological works by the same author, “Abu’l Farag Yahya ibn Sa`id ibn Yahya al-Antaki” are in manuscripts in a private collection in Aleppo:

  • Treatise (maqala) on the truth of the (Christian) religion, catalogued in Sbath, Fihris 2527 (13th c.)
  • Refutation of the Jews, 2528.
  • Refutation of the Muslims, 2529.

Some sources refer to a supposed English translation of the historical work:

J.H. Forsyth “The Chronicle of Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Antaki”, Univ. of Michigan Ph.D. thesis, 1977.

But this is now online here, and in fact is only a study.

An Italian translation does exist, and selections from this are available online at the publisher’s website!  I do approve of that practice.

Yaḥyā ibn Sa’ïd, al-Anṭākī, Cronache dell’Egitto fāṭimide e dell’impero bizantino : (937-1033) (PDF). Translated by Bartolomeo Pirone, (3rd ed. heavily revised and corrected), Milan: Jaca Book (1998).  Series: PCAC 3.  The publisher has a page for it here.

Since I don’t have the English translation, why don’t we let Google translate give us the first couple of sections of the Italian of Bartolomeo Pirone?  (Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq = Eutychius).

1.   In the name of God, the Merciful, the Merciful!  A book composed by Yaḥyā Ibn Saʿīd al-Anṭākī, a continuation of the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq.  I propose, with this book, to narrate those past events and present events of which I have come to know, and which I believe to be true, starting from the time at which the Annals of Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq, patriarch of Alexandria, end, to the present day, thus taking care to oblige myself towards the one who asked me to compose and write it, encouraging me to draft it and arrange the parts in good order. May God guard him, and preserve him, too, from what he fears!

2.  Now Saʿīd Ibn Baṭrīq stops, in the Annals that he wrote, at the fifth year of the caliphate of al-Rāḍī, i.e. in the year 326 of the hegira, while he himself died in the year 328 of the hegira. The day and the month of the year in which he died, I will mention them at the right place in this book of mine. I will classify the material I have collected following the same classification criterion he adopted and, in doing so, I will stick to the methods he followed. For my part, I will add the names of all the caliphs and all the rulers that have come to me and I will define the period of government completed by each of them; to this I will add everything I have learned about their deeds, their lives and the events that took place in their days, avoiding, in doing so, giving in, at the same time, to verbosity of exposition and excessive conciseness, following, at the on the contrary, somewhere in between. Indeed the minds of men more often seek, and pursue with greater desire, knowledge of events close to their own time.

Few of us, perhaps, will ever have reason to venture into this book.  But it is useful to have some idea of what is out there, and how to find it.

Update (9 December 2023): The Forsyth “translation” does not exist; it is merely a study.