From my diary

It’s hard to say what I have done this year, yet I have been very busy with personal stuff.

The low-level disruption of life caused by the plague, and by the measures taken to avert it, has tended to drain my energies.  I keep reminding myself that this is true for all of us, and we cannot expect to achieve what we might normally do.  I think we must take care to avoid feeling guilty at doing less.  It is inevitable.  Thankfully the darker evenings and colder nights will help.

I wish that I had done some travelling this year.  But it is still very hard.  The ever-changing entry and return requirements are quite a barrier, except to those happy folk who have a PA to do the hard work for them!  I did consider going to Rome, but the urge went away when I looked at the obstacles.  I gather Malta might be easier.

At long last I am starting to feel an urge to get back to Latin translation.  Various part-done projects sit on my desktop, looking at me.  It is a good feeling to want to do some of that again.


An 1850 photograph of the Palatine and Meta Sudans by Rev. John Shaw Smith

This interesting item was posted on Twitter here.

Rev. John Shaw Smith, View of the Arch of Constantine, the Meta Sudans, and the Palatine Hill. 1850.

Photographs of the Meta Sudans are always welcome.  This one is at an unusual angle and indicates that the destruction facing the Colosseum was not flat 180°, as it often appears in photographs, but nearer 150°.

The photographer, the Rev. John Shaw Smith, was an Irish clergyman who travelled in the Mediterranean around this time over a period of a couple of years, in the relaxed fashion of the day.  Photography was new, and everything he took is probably valuable.

There must be a wealth of photographs and other material in Italian archives, but sadly inaccessible.  Google increasingly is turning into a commercial portal instead of a search engine, so I doubt this will improve soon.


St Jerome on “Christmas Trees” in Jeremiah 10

There is an interesting claim that circulates online – one of many – that Jeremiah 10:2-5 condemns the use of Christmas trees.  Helpfully this site, “Watch Jerusalem” [1] gives the claim plainly:

The Book of Jeremiah (written around 600 B.C.E.) states the following:

“Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen …. 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 ….” (10:1-5, King James Version)

Here we see a tradition during the time of Jeremiah of cutting down a tree out of the forest, bringing it home, fastening it upright, and covering it with various decorations. The tradition is quite clearly identified as a pagan one that should not be followed.

This website is operated by the followers of Herbert W. Armstrong, who created “The Worldwide Church of God”, a heretical American group, in the middle of the last century.  The claim perhaps originates with the Armstrongites, although a search is inconclusive, and apparently is popular with the “Hebrew Roots” groups that appeared in the 1980s.

The claim is present in this article from a KJV-Only website, “Christmas Trees” by a certain John Hinton.

Jeremiah 10:2 KJV Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 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. 4* They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 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.

… The Christmas tree is a blatant affront to God, but many, if not most, professed Christians put one up. Most that do not, do not because it is inconvenient, not because they are convicted by the Bible.

The modern perversions hide this warning by perverting this passage by disguising the adorned tree as an ordinary idol. I have seen many Christmas trees through the windows of churches all across America, even Baptist churches. This is as strong a statement that they could make about what kind of church they are, and should be a warning to all with any spiritual discernment at all.

Modern translations make it much clearer that what is in view here is an idol – possibly an Asherah pole – rather than a tree.  The cutting down of the tree is to obtain the wood in order to make it.  So it seems that this particular teaching is an instance where the old language of the KJV tends to mislead a modern reader.

I thought that it would be interesting to see what an older commentator on Jeremiah made of this passage.  Origen, in his Homilies on Jeremiah, does not discuss this section of Jeremiah 10.  But Jerome, writing in 414 AD, does!

Here is what he says.  We’re using the Michael Graves translation published by IVP, p.66:[2]

10: 1-3a: Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor he dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are false.”

Strictly speaking, he says this against those who worship celestial bodies and things that have been set as signs for years, times, calculations and days, and who suppose that the human race is governed by these celestial bodies and that earthly affairs are ordered according to celestial causes. And when he says “the customs (or statutes) of the people are false,” he shows all human wisdom to be futile and to have nothing useful within it.

10:3b-5: “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart”—or “will not move.” “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”

This is a description of the idols that the nations worship. “A tree from the forest,” he says, “is cut down”—thus, the material out of which idols are made is cheap and perishable; “worked … by the hands of a craftsman”— since the craftsman is mortal, mortal also are the things that he fashions; “Men deck it with silver and gold,” so that by the glow of each of these materials the simple may be deceived. This same error has been passed down to us, in that we judge people’s religion by their wealth. “They fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart,” or “will not move.” How great can the power of idols be, if they are not capable of standing up unless they are fastened with hammer and nails? “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree*—they have the beauty of metalwork and have been decorated through the art of painting, but they do not possess usefulness, such as would provide some benefit to the craftsman. “And they cannot speak,” for there is nothing alive about them, as it is written: “They have mouths but do not speak . . . they have ears but do not hear.”232 “They have to be carried”—the one who does the carrying is stronger than the things that are carried; indeed, in the one there is the capacity to think, bur in the other there is a physical form without the capacity to think. “Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” For most of the nations regularly worship demons, in some cases to prevent them from doing harm and in other cases to entreat some favor. Whence also is the Virgilian phrase: “a black sheep to the storm god, a white to the favoring Zephyrs.”239

Whatever we have said about idols can also be applied to all teachings that are contrary to the truth. For false teachings promise great things and fabricate from within them an image for empty worship. They make grand claims, and they hamper the reasoning of the unskilled by their golden theories and their eloquence that glows with the splendor of silver. They are propped up by those who invent them, and they have no usefulness. The cultivation of such teachings belongs properly to the nations and to those who are ignorant of God.

The references are to Ps. 115:5-6 and Vergil, Aeneid 3.120 (in the Loeb text).

So we see that Jerome, like any sensible man, reads the text as referring to the process of manufacturing a wooden idol.

Christmas first appears in the historical record in 336 AD, in the Chronography of 354.  But there is no record, for more than a thousand years, that anybody ever celebrated Christmas with a tree, until 1521, when a register in the town hall in Séléstat in  German-speaking Alsace records the first appearance of the Christmas tree, decorated with communion wafers and red apples.  A few years later, a blight forced the use of artificial glass apples instead of real ones, and the Christmas tree “bauble” familiar to ourselves was born.

But in 414 AD, quite naturally, the Christmas tree is entirely unknown to St Jerome.

  1. [1]Christopher Eames, “Christmas Trees – in the Hebrew Bible?”, December 24, 2020.
  2. [2]Jerome: Commentary on Jeremiah, tr. Michael Graves, IVP 2012.

The Pratum Spirituale / Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus

Yesterday I quoted a story from the Acts of Nicaea II (787) where a monk was told it would be better to visit every brothel in the City rather than abandon worshipping the images of Christ and his Mother.  This is attributed to Sophronius, but a kind correspondent pointed out that it is in fact taken from the Pratum Spirituale (“Spiritual Meadow”) of John Moschus, where it is chapter 45.

The Pratum Spirituale (CPG 7376, BHG 1441-1442) is a collection of lively hagiographical stories of eastern monks and hermits, today divided into some 219 chpaters, composed by the author during the reign of Heraclius during and after the capture of Jerusalem by the Sassanid Persians in 614 AD.  Composed in Greek, it exists in Latin, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian (from the Arabic), Ethiopian, and Old Slavonic – the last named version being of considerable importance for the text.

As with all hagiographical texts, there is considerable variation in the manuscripts, and in this case the edition of Migne (PG 87 vol. 3, columns 2852-3112) is rather a mess.  Fortunately there is an article which analyses the manuscripts for us, by P. Pattenden, “The text of the Pratum Spirituale“, JTS 26 (1975), 38-54.  From this I learn that there are over 100 manuscripts, although many contain only parts of the text – sometimes just a single chapter.  Pattenden divides them into three groups.

  • The φ group is best represented by Florence, Mediceo-Laurenziana, Plutei x. 3 (12th century) (= F), which gives the text in 301 numbered chapters in the same order as Migne except that chapters 7 and 8 are reversed.
  • The π group is represented by Paris Graecus 1596 (12th century) (= P), which contains Moschus in three separate series interspersed with other ascetic texts including Anastasius of Sinai.
  • The μ group is a condensed version of the π group text, represented by Marcianus Graecus II, 21 (middle of 10th c.) (= M).  The archetype of this group of manuscripts seems to have been a rather careless copy of a lost manuscript belonging to the π group.

Photius in his Bibliotheca, cod. 199, refers to two versions of the Pratum Spirituale, one of 304 chapters, one of 342.  It is likely that these two versions are the φ and π groups.

The φ group – i.e. F and related manuscripts – seems to be the more authentic version, and is more attentive to getting the names right.  It is supported by the Old Slavonic version, which follows the text of F in numbering and text, but with an additional 35 chapters on the end, taken from some other collection of ascetic stories.

A critical edition of the φ text is apparently in progress, by Marina Detoraki of the University of Crete, according to an article at Dumbarton Oaks here. It does not seem to have appeared as yet, so we are left with Migne’s text, which again is traced by Pattenden.

The Pratum Spirituale first became known in the West through a translation into Latin made by the careful and intelligent Ambrogio Traversari around 1420-30.  This was based on a Greek manuscript sent to him by the Archbishop of Crete.  Traversari’s translation by printed in 1558 by Lipomannus, who reorganised it into 219 chapters.  This text was included in the 1615 Vitae Patrum by Heribert Rosweyd, and reprinted by Migne as PL 74, col. 119-240.

A copy of the Rosweyde volume found its way into the hands of a retired (now deceased – 25th August 2004) Welsh priest named Benedict Baker who translated extensive chunks of it, including the Pratum, and placed them online at his site Vitae Patrum (index here, the Pratum begins here).  This translation has appeared in various places on the web.

The Greek text was first printed by Fronton du Duc (Fronto Ducaeus) at Paris in 1624, with a parallel Latin translation.  This contained only 115 chapters, however. Duc does not state clearly which manuscripts he used, but Pattenden has identified that he used Vatican gr. 738, 12th c. (= R), a mixed manuscript of φ and π, for many chapters, and another manuscript which seems to have eventually been bought by Sir Thomas Phillips, ms. 1624, and in Pattenden’s day was in Berlin as ms. 221 of the East German Deutsche Staatsbibliothek.

A better and more complete Greek edition appeared in Paris in 1681 by Jean Baptiste Cotelier,  who located a Greek text of most of the remaining chapters of Traversari and printed it, with a new parallel Latin version of his own. Cotelier used four main Paris manuscripts, Paris Gr. 916, 11th c. (= A), from the φ group; Paris gr. 1605, 12th c. (= X) from the π group, and two manuscripts of extracts.

The Cotelier text, with some additions was the text given by Migne in PG 87.  But Migne omits the prologue, or life of Moschus, given by Duc and Rosweyde.

It is apparently noticeable that Traversari’s translation is based on a much better Greek text than either of the editions.

The Migne PG 87 Greek text has been translated by John Wortley, The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale), Cistercian Studies 139, Kalamazoo (1992).  Let us look at chapter 45, which is on p.35-6:


One of the elders told us that Abba Theodore the Aeliote said that there was a certain recluse on the Mount of Olives, a great warrior against whom the demon of sexual desire waged battle. One day when <the demon> attacked with vehemence, the elder began to give up in despair and to say to the demon: ‘How much longer are you not going to let me go? Desist from growing old together with me’! The demon appeared to him in visible form, saying: ‘Swear to me that you will never reveal to anybody what I am about to tell you and I will no longer wage war against you’. The elder swore: ‘By Him who dweUeth in the heavens I will not tell anybody what you say’. The demon said to him: ‘Desist from venerating this icon here and I will call off my war against you’. The icon in question bore the likeness of our Lady Mary, the holy Mother of God, carrying our Lord Jesus Christ. The recluse said to the demon: ‘Let me go and think about it’. The next day he sent for Abba Theodore the Aeliote (the one who told us this story) for at that time he was residing at the Lavra of Pharon. When Abba Theodore came, the recluse told him all there was to tell and received this reply: ‘In fact you were ensnared when you swore, abba. But you are quite right to speak out. It were better for you to leave no brothel in the town unentered than to diminish reverence from our Lord Jesus Christ and from his Mother’. Abba Theodore strengthened and comforted the recluse with many words and then returned to his own place. The demon re-appeared to the recluse and said to him: ‘What is this then, you wicked old man?’ Did you not swear to me that you would not tell anybody? Why then have you revealed everything to the man who came to see you’! I tell you, you wicked old man, you will be tried as an oath-breaker at the day of judgement’. The recluse answered: ‘I know that I gave my oath and broke it, but it was with my Lord and Creator that I broke faith; you I will not obey. As the initiator of evil counsel and of the oath-breaking, you are the one who will have to face the inescapable consequences of the misdeeds you brought about’.

The version by Revd Benedict Baker is as follows:

Chapter XLV. The life of an anchorite MONK on the Mount of Olives, and his veneration of an icon of MARY, the most holy birthgiver of God.

Abba Theodorus Aeliotes told us about an anchorite on the Mount of Olives, a great (spiritual) athlete, battling strenuously with the spirit of fornication.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” he cried with a loud moan one day when the demon was attacking him particularly strongly. “You’ve been with me all my life. Get away from me!”

The demon suddenly appeared visibly before him.

“Swear to me,” he said, “that you won’t tell anyone what I am about to say to you, and I won’t bother you any further.”

“By him who lives in the high heavens,” he replied, “I swear not to tell anyone what you say to me.”

“Stop venerating this icon,” the demon said, “and then I will stop attacking you.”

Now this icon consisted of a lifelike painting of our holy lady Mary the birthgiver of God carrying our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Give me time to think about this,” said the anchorite.

The next day he let this same abba Theodorus know about it. He told him everything that had happened. Theodorus was at that time living in the Laura of Pharan.

“It was very wrong of you, dear abba,” the old man said to the anchorite, “to swear an oath to the demon. Nevertheless you have done the right thing in telling me about it. What you need to do now is to make sure you have no truck with any dealings in that realm, lest you renounce the worship of God, our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother.” He went on to say a great deal more to strengthen and comfort him before leaving him in his cell.

The demon appeared to the anchorite once more.

“What’s this, you wicked old man?” he said. “Didn’t you swear to me that you would not tell anybody? So why have you told all to that person who visited you? I’m telling you, you will be condemned as a perjurer in the day of judgment.”

“I know that I have sworn an oath and broken it,” the anchorite replied, “but that oath sworn in the name of my God and Creator I have broken in order that I should not be obedient to you. But as for you, the prime source of false counsel and perjury, you will not be able to escape the punishment prepared for you.”

It is noticeable that Mr Baker’s version does not contain the striking line about the brothel, but instead this:

What you need to do now is to make sure you have no truck with any dealings in that realm, lest you renounce the worship of God, our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother.

In fact Mr Baker seems to have paraphrased, with the intention of making the text easier to read and both accessible and edifying.  This is an entirely legitimate approach to an ancient text, so long as the reader is aware of it.  Indeed Mr Baker’s translation is really rather moving at points, and may be recommended to those wishing to read what was, after all, intended as a devotional text.


Better to visit every brothel in the city than deny the worship of images? A quote from Nicaea II?

A curious claim on Twitter a couple of days ago, here:

“It is better to admit all brothals into a city than deny the worship of Images.”

-John, legate of the Greeks at the Second Council of Nicaea

The quotation is clearly corrupt, genuine or otherwise.  But where does it come from?  Was this really said in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, the council that approved the worship – or veneration – of images?

The immediate source for this statement seems to be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This passage, in the English translation edited by John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster John Knox Press (1960), volume 1, chapter 11, section 14 (“Childish arguments for images at the Council of Nicaea (787)”), p.116 (preview here):

… a double marvel that everybody did not cry out against them with greatest loathing. But it is expedient that this wicked madness be publicly exposed, that the pretense of antiquity which the papists allege may at least be torn away from the worship of images. Theodosius, Bishop of Amorium, pronounces anathema against all who are unwilling that images be adored. Another imputes all the misfortunes of Greece and the East to the crime that images had not been adored. What punishments do the prophets, apostles, martyrs, deserve, in whose day no images existed? Thereafter they add: if the image of the emperor be approached with perfume and incense, much more do we owe this honor to the images of saints. Constantius, Bishop of Constance in Cyprus, professes to embrace images reverently, and affirms that he is going to show toward them the same worship and honor that is owed to the life-giving Trinity. Anyone who refuses to do the same he anathematizes and relegates among the Manichees and Marcionites. And lest you think this the private opinion of one man, the rest agree. Indeed, John, the legate of the Easterns, moved by even greater heat, warned that it would be better to admit all brothels into the city than to deny the worship of images. Finally, it was determined by the consent of all that the Samaritans are worse than all heretics, yet image fighters are worse than the Samaritans. Besides, lest the play should go unapplauded, a clause is added: let those who, having an image of Christ, offer sacrifice to it rejoice and exult. Where now is the distinction between latria and dulia, by which they are wont to hoodwink God and men? For the Council accords, without exception, as much to images as to the living God.

This is word for word the same as our “quote”, so this is not a direct quote from the Acts, but reported speech.  The editor indeed informs us (p.114, n.28) that:

28. In secs. 14-16, written in 1550, Calvin derives his data from the Libri Carolini, the four books prepared at Charlemagne’s direction in response to the action of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787, and adopted by the Synod of Frankfort, 794. An edition of the Libri Carolini by Jean du Tillet had appeared in 1549. The passages referred to are: Libri Carolini I. 7, 9, 10, 13, 23, 24, 28, 30; II. 5, 6, 10; III. 7, 15, 17, 26, 31; IV. 6, 18. The work may be consulted in MPL 98, where these passages are in cols. 1022 f., 1027 ff., 1034 f., 1053 f., 1057 ff, 1061 f., 1065 f., 1071 ff., 1075 f., 1127 ff., 1142 f., 1148 f., 1170 ff., 1180 ff., 1197 ff., 1221 ff. The notes in OS III. 103 f. provide the references to the text in Monumenta Germaniae Historica Leges III. Concilia II. The editors here indicate two instances in which Calvin has erroneously ascribed to “John, the Eastern legate” (who spoke frequently at the council) words that should be attributed to others present. Calvin’s quotations are otherwise in accord with the text.

The reference in the Libri Carolini is to book 3, chapter 36 (col. 1179 f.), and the exact passage in f. 1181 C, where “an abbot”  (a “mad abbot” in the heading) says that “Commodius tibi est omnia in civitate lupanaria ingredi, quam abnegare adorationem imaginis Domini aut eius sanctae genitricis”, “It is better for you to visit every brothel in the city, than to deny the adoration of the image of God or of his holy mother.”  This is followed, quite properly, by expressions of disgust at this disregard of the biblical injunction about joining the body of Christ to a whore.

But is this in the Acts of Nicaea II?

Well, we are fortunate that at least two complete English translations of the Acts of Nicaea II exist.  There is an 1850 version, by John Mendham, with notes helpfully from the Libri Carolini, which was produced in response to the Oxford Movement.  This is curiously impossible to find by Google, but is here.  There is a Liverpool University Press two-volume set, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), translated by Richard Price, which appeared in 2020, to which I have no access.

So let’s use Mr Mendham’s 1850 text, with its interesting footnotes.

Page 186 (here), overparagraphed by me, and English modernised:

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Glory be to you, O God, who has wrought miracles by means of holy images.”

EUSTATHIUS: Monk Presbyter and Abbot of the Monastery of Maximin said: “ I also, holy fathers, have brought thither a book of the same father containing the lives of many holy men ; and if it be agreeable to your holy Assembly let it be read.”

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Let it be read.”

STEPHEN the Monk, having received the book, read a passage from the “ Spiritual Meadow” of St. Sophronius:—

“Theodore Abbot, of Aelia, said there was a certain recluse in the Mount of Olives a perfect champion. This man was sorely assaulted by the demon of fornication. One day, when the demon was more than usually hard upon him. the old man began to lament and to cry out to the demon, ‘Why will you not spare me—leave me for the future: you have grown old with me.’

On which the demon, having made himself visible, said to him, ‘Swear to me that you will tell no man that which I am now about to say to you, and I will trouble you no more.’ And the old man swore to him, saying, ‘By Him who dwells above, never will I tell to any what now you may declare to me.’ Then the demon said to him, ‘Worship that image no more, and I will no more contend with you.’

Now, he had there a picture representing our Lady, the holy Mary, Mother of God, bearing in her arms our Lord Jesus Christ. The recluse gave answer to the demon, ‘Go, and I will consider of it.’

On the morrow he revealed the whole matter to Theodore Abbot, of Aeliota, then living in the Laura of Pharan, for the Abbot came to him and he told him all. And the aged man said to the recluse, ‘Really, father, have you been so imposed upon as to swear to a demon? However, you have done well to consult me about it; for it were better for you not to pass by a single brothel in yon city without entering into it, than that you should refuse to worship our Lord and God Jesus Christ with His own Mother represented in a picture.’  Having confirmed and strengthened him with many other exhortations the aged man went to his own abode.

Again the demon appears to the recluse and says to him, ‘What now, you old sinner, did you not swear to me that you would tell no man? How have you dared to tell all to him who came to you? I tell you, you vile old man, you shall be judged for this in the day of judgment as a perjurer.’ The recluse answered him, saying, ‘What I have sworn, I have sworn; and that I have foresworn myself I know; but I have not foresworn my Lord and Maker; and, therefore, for you I care not.’ ”

CONSTANTINE Bishop of Constantia: “Like to links in a chain of gold, so harmonious are the testimonies brought by our God-inspired fathers in favour of images.”

JOHN Legate of the East: “ The discourse of our Father Sophronius teaches us another lesson also—namely, that it is better for him that hath sworn to foreswear himself rather than to regard any oath tending to the destruction of holy images; and this we say because there are some to-day who feel unsettled on account of the oath they have taken.”

TARASIUS: “Because the old man knew the goodness of God and also how ready He is to receive the penitent, therefore he determined to violate his sinful oath. Whence it appears that those who have taken an oath in favour of this heresy (if they have no other sin laid to their charge), have a reasonable precedent, and may plead this in their own defence; but.should they have fallen into other sins, they must for these endeavour to propitiate God for them, as well as to supplicate Him for the remission of this their unlawful oath.”

THEODORE Bishop of the Subritenses: “ Peter, chief of the Apostles, denied his Master; but, having repented, he was received again into favour.”

So the idea is found, not in the Acts, but rather in a colourful story quoted during the sessions, mainly to show that those who had sworn oaths against icons could validly break them.

Mendham helpfully translates the Libri Carolini passage as a footnote on p.186-7:

* This history is so great a favourite with this Council that it is narrated a second time in the next Session. It is intended in both to serve very important purposes—in this Session to teach that no wickedness is so great as the neglect of image-worship, and that no oath tending to the renunciation of this worship is to be regarded : in the next, it does not appear for what purpose it is brought forward except to show that the Devil was an Iconoclast. In the “Caroline Books” (lib. iii. cap. 31) it is treated according to its merits as being Deliramentum errore plenum:—

“Often in the course of this our work we are compelled to declare that no example should be taken from things really bad in themselves; and we are compelled so often to repeat this caution because we find them so ready to act thus in order to confirm their error. Nor is this wholly inconsistent; for, as the example of good acts do form evermore a support to good acts, so they, from erroneous acts, seek a support for their erroneous doings. Thus, to support their error, they bring forward the example of a certain recluse, who, if he really did that which in the history he is said to have done, was guilty of no less than three signal faults—viz., (1). That he should voluntarily have engaged in a conference with the devil; (2). That he should have been beguiled by the same to bind himself under on oath; and (3). That he should violate that oath: all which things, so far from being any example to a Catholic, should by him be utterly renounced as being forbidden by many testimonies of the divine law.”

Here follow the texts which are condemnatory of each of these faults ; after which it is continued as follows—

“The recluse having committed these three faults, his Abbot, so far from correcting what be had done amiss, actually points out to him a way still worse, saying, ‘It were better for thee to go into every brothel in yonder city than to refuse to worship the image of our Lord or that of His holy Mother.’ O incomparable absurdity! O pestilent evil! O folly surpassing many follies! He declares that it were better to do that which is forbidden alike by the Law and in the Gospel than to abstain from that which is not commanded either in the Law or in the Gospel! He declares that it is better to perpetrate crime than to abstain from crime! He declares that it is better voluntarily to plunge oneself in the mire than to walk unblameably in the right path! He declares that it is better to defile the temple of God than to despise the worship of things without sense! He declares that it is better to take the members of Christ and to make them the members of an harlot than to despise the worship of the work of some artificer!

Let him then tell us (if he can) where the Lord hath said, ‘You shall not refuse to worship images’, as plainly as He has said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Let him then tell us, if he can, anywhere find that the Lord has said, ‘If you see an image and do not worship it you have sinned,’ as plainly as he has declared. ‘If you look on a woman to lust after her you have committed adultery with her already in your heart.’ And if he can never discover anything of this kind, let him reflect how great his error is in granting a licence to do that which is absolutely disgraceful rather than to omit that which is altogether unprofitable; for, while the Lord in the Law and in the Gospel commands us in many ways to the observance of chastity, nowhere is there found any such injunction relative to the worship of images.

As this same Abbot, who ought to have led this recluse into the way of salvation, did, on the contrary, give the rein to his lust—as he who ought to have recovered his fellow from the snare into which he had fallen in having sworn to the devil did rather rush together with him into the abyss of error by telling him that it was better for him to commit a grievous crime— beyond all doubt he has fulfilled that saying in the Gospel. ‘If the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch.’ And any one who would endeavour to prove any argument by any such example as this would manifest that his madness was of no ordinary kind, but even surpassing that of others.’

The footnote continues by quoting the response of “Adrian” – i.e. Pope Hadrian – to previous criticism on this point, which those interested can read at the link above.

So back to our starting point.  We have found:

  • The “quote” is from Calvin, not from the Acts of Nicaea 2
  • Calvin is quoting the Libri Carolini representation of a passage in the Acts, rather than the Acts themselves.
  • The sentence is found in a hagiographical text of dubious authenticity, quoted (like many others, some heretical) during the sessions of Nicaea 2.
  • The delegates at the Council do not even discuss the idea of brothels being better than iconoclasm – surely a colourful image rather than a serious argument – but concentrate on the idea that an oath made to the devil need not be kept, and so breaking an oath made to heretics was not wrong.

In reality, the “quote” is bogus.  Nicaea 2 did not endorse any such position.

It is interesting to see the appearance of the “oaths to heretics are not binding”.  This evil principle was used as a justification to burn John Hus at the Council of Constance, despite his pass of safe-conduct.  Knowledge of this tendency caused protestants in general to regard catholics – especially Jesuits – as untrustworthy liars.  Curiously enough the hagiographer knew better: that breaking even an oath to the devil was a sin.

UPDATE: A kind correspondent has pointed out that the story by Sophronius is in fact chapter 45 of the Pratum Spirituale or Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus.  I have written a further post about this here.


Copying old floppy disks – an adventure in time!

Yesterday I inherited a couple of cases of old 3.5″ floppy disks.  Most of them were plainly software, of no special relevance.  But it was possible that some contained files and photographs of a deceased relative, which should be preserved.

My first instinct was to use my travelling laptop, which runs Windows 7, and a USB external floppy drive which is branded as Dell but seems to be display the label TEAC FD-05PUB in Devices and Printers.  This seems to be the one USB floppy drive available under various names.  But when I inserted the first floppy, Windows told me that the floppy needed to be formatted.  Obviously it could not read the disk, so no good.

At this end of the game, I think I understand why.  The reason seems to be that the floppy was an original 3.5″ 720kb unit, while later 3.5″ drives were formatted for 1.44 mb.  The TEAC FD-05PUB driver is badly written and only understands the latter format.  So it supposes that the 720k disk is not formatted.  This is shoddy work by somebody, and needs to be fixed.

At least the floppy drive does work with Windows 7.  Apparently it often does not work with Windows 10, thanks to an attempt by Microsoft to drop support for it.  There are various workarounds, such as this one.  But it didn’t help me read that disk.

However I still have all the laptops that I have ever bought, since I started freelancing in 1997.  Surely the older ones would have a built-in floppy drive?

A twenty-year old Dell Inspiron 7500 peeks out from under a monitor.

The oldest machine is a Compaq – remember them?  But this refuses to boot, complaining about the date and time.  The internal CMOS battery is long flat, it seems.  Unsure what to do, I leave this.

Next up is a chunky Dell Inspiron 7500.  This too refuses to boot, but – more helpfully – offers to take me into Setup, for the BIOS.  I go in, and, acting on instinct, set the date and time and invite it to continue.  And … it works!  I did have some hard thoughts about whoever decided that a flat battery should prevent Windows booting, mind you!

Anyway it boots up in Windows 98.  A swift shove of the disk into the floppy drive, and … I can see the contents.  In fact the disk does contain some useful files.  I copy them into a file on the desktop.

Next problem – how do I get the files off the machine and onto something useful?

This proves to be quite a problem!  The machine does not have a built-in CD writer.  It does not have a network port, although it does have serial and parallel ports.  (I had visions at this point of using dear old, slow old Laplink!)  It was once connected to the internet – by dialup!  It does have some PCMCIA card slots.  I toy with seeing if I could get a PCMCIA-to-USB card – they do exist.  PCMCIA is 16 bit, tho.  I think you can do this sort of thing, although not for USB.

Maybe I could get a PCMCIA network card!  They’re all long out of production, of course.  I used to have one, in fact, I vaguely recall.  I also recall throwing it out.  I am not looking forward to trying to configure networking anyway.

I don’t suppose there is a Wifi interface built in?  Not likely.  But anyway I right-click on My Computer, Properties, and look at the Devices tab.  And I forget all about Wifi when I see the magic words … Universal Serial Bus.  Yup – that’s USB!  So there is support there.  But why?  There’s no USB port.  I hunt around the rear once more… and spy… a USB port!!!  Hidden where it won’t be seen!  Yay!

But I am not home yet.  Oh no.  When I stick a USB2 key drive in, it demands a driver!  It seems that Windows 98 did not recognise USB drives by default.  You have to install a driver.  Luckily there is one.  You download nusb36e.exe from the web on your main computer, burn it to a CDR – a normal 700Mb one will do -, and then read that in the CD drive that – thankfully – is built in to the machine.  Full instructions are here.  You remove all the existing USB drivers, install the patch, restart, and get an extra USB driver.

I shove a USB2 key drive in, and up it comes as drive E.  Magic!

But I am still not home and dry.  When I click on it, it demands to format it!!  The reason for this is that modern keydrives use the NTFS file system, whereas Win98 was still using the old FAT32 system.  So I go ahead – it’s an empty drive.

Finally it works.  The USB drive opens in Windows explorer, I copy the files, pull the drive out and insert it into my main machine.  And …. I can see the files!!!  Phew!

Now to sift through all those floppies…. yuk!

Pretty painful, I think you’ll admit.  Only just possible.  In a few years those floppies will be useless to anybody but a laboratory.  But they have retained their formatting well, for more than 20 years.

So don’t assume the worst, if you can’t read a floppy in your nice new machine.  It may not be the floppy.


A plea for prioritisation of translation of foreign literatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where does the Vulgate use the word “unicorn”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 28:6:

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

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

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

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

Psalm 77:69: (based on the LXX)

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

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

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

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

Psalm 91:11: (based on the LXX)

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

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

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

Isaiah 34:7:

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

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

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

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

New blog on later Neoplatonism – the Unhistorize blog

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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