Moses the Black: A Fake Quote?

The following quotation has begun to spread online through “quotation” websites:

You fast, but Satan does not eat. You labor fervently, but Satan never sleeps. The only dimension with which you can outperform Satan is by acquiring humility, for Satan has no humility. – Saint Moses the Black.

Indeed this was posted on Twitter yesterday, with the comment: “An absolute banger of a quote from Moses the Black.”  The source is the OurChurchSpeaks site, also on Instagram.

But is it genuine?

Moses the Black, also known as Moses the Robber, is one of the Desert Fathers who appears in the various collections of sayings and lives.

The Apothegmata Patrum collection exists in two versions, the “alphabetical” collection, and the “systematic” collection (there is a third version, of anonymous sayings, known as the “anonymous” collection).  The “alphabetical” collection was translated by Sr Benedicta Ward, “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers – The Alphabetical Collection” (1984), and Moses the Black is on p.138-143.  But this contains nothing like our quotation.

The “Systematic” collection was translated by John Wortley, The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection, (2012).  This contains a number of sayings by Moses the Black, but not ours.

The “Anonymous” collection was also translated by John Wortley, The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cambridge (2013).  The section on humility does not contain our saying.

The “Lausiac History” of Palladius also devotes a section to Moses the Black, here known as Moses the Ethiopian.  The ACW 34 (1965) translation gives this on pp.67-70.  But this too contains nothing like our quotation.

This raises questions about whether the saying is authentic.

A search in Google Books produces no results.  This is surprising, because books of sayings and quotations are in there.  It tends to suggest that this is a very recent coinage, and from an online source.

A Google search using a custom date range produced decent results only from 2022 onwards.  There were a few hits before then, but these seemed in fact to date later or otherwise be illusory.

In the absence of definite evidence, I would recommend caution.  But it looks like a fake quote.

Update: My thanks to Dr Sever Voicu who points out in the comments that this is indeed a saying of the desert fathers, although not attributed to Moses the Black.  It can be found in the “Systematic Collection”, chapter 17, paragraph 32, and is translated by John Wortley thus:

32. The fathers used to say, “The devil can imitate everything. As for fasting, he never ate; as for watching, he never slept. But humble-mindedness and love he cannot imitate. So let there be a great effort on our part to have love within us and to hate pride, through which the devil fell out of heaven.” – John Wortley, p.308.

So the saying is authentic – obviously paraphrased slightly – but the attribution is not.

Thank you, Dr V.!

I had forgotten, but I found that in 2018 I wrote a bibliographical post on the various collections of sayings.  It’s here.


11 thoughts on “Moses the Black: A Fake Quote?

  1. TLG =
    2. APOPHTHEGMATA Eccl. et Gnom. Apophthegmata patrum (collectio systematica) (cap. 17-21) {2742.013} Chapter 17 paragraph 32 line 2

  2. I have run into problems like this before. Online quotations tend to never be properly cited or sometimes even paraphrased or altered. I wouldn’t trust anything that cannot be sourced.

  3. Nor me! But interesting if it is indeed there! (I can’t access the TLG so trying to find out what edition that reference is based on – anybody know?).

  4. Found it: it’s the SC edition, SC 498, which I do have access to. It’s on p.33, where the Greek is given with French facing translation. It’s not attributed to anyone, but it’s plainly the same bit. I will update the post.

    Here’s the SC French, with the Google translate of it and the real translation by John Wortley.

    Les pères disaient: «Le diable peut tout imiter et pour le jeûne, car lui-même n’a jamais mangé, et pour la veille, car lui-même ne ‘s’est jamais couché. Mais l’humilité et la charité, il ne peut pas les imiter. Il nous faut donc beaucoup lutter pour avoir en nous-mêmes la charité et
    haïr l’orgueil à cause duquel le diable déchut des cieux.»

    The fathers said: “The devil can imitate everything and for fasting, because he himself never ate, and for waking, because he himself never went to bed. But humility and charity he cannot imitate. We must therefore struggle a lot to have within ourselves charity and
    to hate the pride because of which the devil fell from heaven.” – Google translate

    32. The fathers used to say, “The devil can imitate everything. As for fasting, he never ate; as for watching, he never slept. But humble-mindedness and love he cannot imitate. So let there be a great effort on our part to have love within us and to hate pride, through which the devil fell out of heaven.” – John Wortley, p.308.

    The TLG canon entry is:

    10. Apophthegmata patrum (collectio systematica) (cap. 17-21) {2742.013}Eccl., Gnom.J.-C. Guy, Les apophtegmes des pères. Collection systématique, chapitres xvii-xxi [Sources chrétiennes 498. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2005]: 12-214.Word Count: 21,084Breakdown
    Chapter 17, pp. 12-36
    Chapter 18, pp. 38-136
    Chapter 19, pp. 138-154
    Chapter 20, pp. 156-198
    Chapter 21, pp. 200-214

    Thank you, Dr Voicu!

  5. Dear Roger,
    Indeed, the quote is genuine, though maybe not to be attributed to St Moses the Ethiopian… I know it through the coptic apophtegmata of St Macarius the great, once in
    Macaire copte 6.
    Un jour qu’Abba Macaire se rendait de l’oued à sa cellule, portant des palmes, le diable le
    rencontra sur le chemin avec une faux, il cherchait à la lever et ne pouvait pas. Il lui dit : “ta
    violence ! Macaire, je ne peux rien contre toi, voici ce que tu fais, je le fais aussi : tu jeûnes, et
    moi je ne mange pas du tout ; tu veilles, et moi, je ne dors pas du tout ; il n’y a qu’une chose
    par laquelle tu l’emportes sur moi.” Abba Macaire lui dit : “Qu’est-ce ?” Il lui dit : “C’est ton
    humilité. A cause de ton humilité, je ne peux rien contre toi.” Et lorsqu’il eut étendu ses
    mains, le diable disparut.
    and once in the “Virtues of St Macarius”
    Vertus d’abba Macaire 2.
    Un jour qu’abba Macaire allait de l’oued à sa cellule, portant des palmes, le diable le rencontra
    sur le chemin avec une faux qu’il chercha à faire tomber sur lui. Ne le pouvant pas, il lui dit :
    “Ô violence ! Toi, Macaire, je ne peux rien contre toi ; car voici, ce que tu fais, je le fais aussi
    tu jeûnes et je ne mange jamais, tu veilles et je ne dors pas du tout ; il n’y a qu’une chose en
    laquelle tu me surpasses.” Abba Macaire lui dit : “Quelle est cette chose ?”
    Il lui dit : “C’est ton humilité : à cause de ton humilité je ne peux rien contre toi.” Et lorsque le
    saint eut étendu ses mains, le démon disparut et le saint marchait, rendant gloire à Dieu.

  6. A curiosity: there is a similar passage in the Liber de modo bene vivendi, attributed in the past to St. Bernard (PL184 1262B):

    (Interrogatio.) Frater dilecte, dic mihi si aliquid timeat diabolus. (Responsio.) Soror amabilis, nihil est quod diabolus tantum timeat, quantum concordiam et charitatem. Nam si totum quod habemus, damus propter Deum; hoc diabolus non timet, quia ipse nihil habet. Si jejunamus, hoc diabolus non timet, quia ipse nunquam comedit; si vigilamus, hoc diabolus non timet, quia ipse nunquam dormit: sed si charitatem et concordiam tenemus, hoc diabolus vehementer timet. Quare? Quia hoc tenemus in terra, quia ipse in coelo tenere noluit.

    This sounds like an echo of that saying, substituting concordia for ταπεινοφροσύνη (humility). I don’t know if there are other instances of its survival in the Western tradition. Perhaps it was included in the Latin collections of sayings?

  7. Transcribed the Greek from the SC:

    Ἔλεγον οἱ πατέρες ὅτι ὁ διάβολος πάντα δύναται
    μιμήσασθαι· περὶ νηστείας, αὐτὸς οὐδέποτε ἔφαηεν· περὶ
    ἀγρυπνίας, αὐτὸς οὐδέποτε ἐκοιμήθη. Ταπεινοφροσύνην δὲ
    καὶ ἀγάπην, αὐτὸς οὐ δύναται μιμήσασθαι. Πολὺς οὖν
    ἀγὼν ἡμῖν ἔστω τὴν ἀγάπεν ἔχειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς καὶ μισῆσαι
    τὴν ὑπερηφανέαν δἰ ἧς ὁ διάβολος ἐξέπεσεν ἐκ τῶν

  8. A kind commenter sent me an email with some comments:

    As regards the quote that has been circulating as originating from Saint Moses the Black/Ethiopian (Aethiops in Greek means ‘dark-skinned’), I found it also as a quote by Saint Gabriel the fool for Christ and Confessor who resided on the Holy Mountain…

    He too had quoted those words almost identically (below), but, without
    being absolutely sure, I think they are words found either in the Bible, or
    were quotes by one of the major Fathers such as Chrysostom or an Apostle.
    I can dig around to find out for you, if you wish….

    We will not be saved by our virtues; the devil is not afraid of our virtues:
    Do you fast? Well, the devil never eats… at all.
    Do you pray during all-night vigils? Well, the devil never sleeps.
    Do you believe? Well, the devil also believes in God, and he trembles at His name.
    Do you have love?
    Do you give love?
    Do you have humility?
    You will not be saved by your virtues, your pilgrimages, and the prayers that you know by heart…
    Your acts of kindness will save you – your love towards your fellow man…

    (Reposted by Hieromonk Nikon, Elder of the Sacred Hut of the Holy Apostles, at the Skete belonging to the Xenophon Monastery of the Holy Mountain)

    I Googled with various key words in Greek, and one response that seemed promising was a book pdf titled “SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE”, in which I caught a fleeting glimpse only on page 99 after searching with the (classic) command of CTRL-F with key words. If I am not mistaken, Saint Nicodemos appeared.

    Below is the excerpt that I spotted in the aforementioned pdf:

    The devil also has many virtues, of the kind that we strive to acquire with our spiritual struggle; for example if we fast, the devil never eats, if we keep vigil at night, he never sleeps, if we are temperate, the devil is more virginal than us, because even if he wants to commit fornication he cannot, since he has no body.

    One only is the virtue that he does not have, which is why all the others have gone to waste – that of humility – when he was overcome by pride and sought to ascend the throne of God, hence his fall from the angelic state and becoming a devil.

    That is why we too should never boast about the virtues that we cultivate, lest we too fall into the same great mistake, despite the efforts that we may have made.

    I just got a reply from the monastery that I collaborate with. The monk, fr. Michael, said that the story is found in the very old MEGALO GERONDIKO (Major Book of Elders), which contains a compilation of experiences by ascetic fathers that were recorded during the beginning of the 6th century as spiritual lessons for posterity (which you probably already know):

    84. One time Abba Makarios happened to be returning from Elos to his cell, holding some wild shoots (for sustenance), when he suddenly encountered the devil on the road, holding a sickle/scythe in his hand. He made a move to strike him with it but was not successful, and he said to him:
    “There is far too much resistance in you Makarios, because my power is inactive on you. Whatever you do, I also do: you fast, I also fast; you keep vigils, I don’t sleep at all. There is one thing only by which you surpass me.”
    “And what is that?” Abba Makarios asked him.
    “Your humility” he replied “and that is why I can’t win”.

    84. Πήγαινε κάποτε ο αββάς Μακάριος από το Έλος στο κελί του κρατώντας βλαστούς.
    Και ξαφνικά τον συναντάει ο διάβολος πάνω στον δρόμο μ΄ένα δρεπάνι στο χέρι.
    Έκανε να τον χτυπήσει αλλά δεν το κατόρθωσε και του λέει:
    – «Πολλή αντίσταση υπάρχει σε σένα, Μακάριε, γιατί η δύναμή μου δεν ενεργεί επάνω σου.
    Ό,τι κάνεις, κάνω κι εγώ, εσύ νηστεύεις, νηστεύω κι εγώ, εσύ αγρυπνείς, εγώ δεν κοιμάμαι
    Ένα πράγμα μόνο είναι στο οποίο με νικάς».
    – «Και ποιο είναι αυτό;» τον ρωτάει ο αββάς Μακάριος.
    – «Η ταπείνωσή σου -απαντά- και γι΄αυτό δεν μπορώ να σε νικήσω»

    από το μέγα Γεροντικό.

  9. @Albocicade: sorry – the spam filter caught your commment for some reason. Thank you for this! It’s the same idea again.

    Maybe it’s connected to James 2:19: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.

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