Back to Agapius

I know that various people are interested in the translation of Agapius, so they may be pleased to learn that I am still working on this.  In fact I did some more this afternoon.  What a pleasant change it was, after fighting with Firmicus Maternus. 

There must be something wrong with the text of the latter, I think.  Comparing my own effort to that of Clarence Forbes, the ACW translator, I noticed a distinct tendency to paraphrase at points.  He had to fight with the text to get some sense out of it at various points.

But I’ve ordered the French edition of Turcan, and with luck that will address some of the textual issues.  In the mean time, it is nice to work on a translation that doesn’t involve squeezing your mind or feel like chopping wood; where you can just translate like breathing.

Agapius has an interesting comment on the book of Ruth:

In year 5 of the same [=Samson], the story of Ruth the Moabite took place, i.e. originating from the tribe of Moab. Boaz married her and fathered by her Obed, grandfather of the prophet David. The story of Ruth contains 246 verses; her book is so beautiful, that it was translated from Greek into Arabic.

Agapius is one of the earliest Christian Arabic writers, so it seems that Ruth was translated earlier still.  Note that the translation was from the Septuagint.


How to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before

Ever wanted to learn about Syriac literature?  Or Persian?  Or Chinese? Or whatever?  It can be a daunting prospect, can’t it?  Why would we want to, anyway?

Well, the need to do so comes about like this; during an interesting discussion, on an interesting subject, someone refers to some geezer from some other language group whom no-one has ever heard of.  And everyone thinks, “What? Who?”.  People who talk about the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus will be familiar with this; people start talking about “Agapius”, and everyone wonders who this might be.  Someone says “Arabic Christian”, everyone nods, and tries to get on without taking things further.

But really, what we want then is to get some kind of overview of that branch of literature.  How much of it is there?  What sorts of writing?  Starting and ending when?  How much published?  Who are the big names?  What did they write?  When did they live?

If we’re lucky, there are handbooks that list all the authors and their works.  For the Fathers, you start with Quasten’s Patrology.  For Arabic Christian literature, with Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur (and curse the lack of an English version).  And so on.  For Islamic literature one would start with Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (if one can get access to it; and curse the lack of an English version).  But how does one explore these massive multi-volume tomes? 

It’s like entering an unknown country, through a pass in the mountains.  How do we move forward, and get an idea of the whole country?

What I tend to do is to look for the histories.  By this I mean the works in which authors of the new land write about their own people, and times, and past.  These seem to me like the backbone of the literature.  They will mention all the people whom the author thinks are important, and why, and when, and thereby act as a guide to the world of that language group.

For instance, once you know that there are five Arabic Christian histories, to 1500, the mass of literature in which to take an interest reduces to manageable proportions.  Once you know that Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History is the key text for early Christian literature, plus continuators such as Socrates and Sozomen and Evagrius Scholasticus, you have something manageable, which will put all the rest in context.

This is how I do it. If I ever read up on Persian literature, I will find a handbook, and go through it and mark out the histories.

The other works of interest are things like a catalogue of writers; something like Ebedjesu’s 13th century catalogue of Syriac writers known to him, what existed, who wrote what.  (I’ve made sure that an English version of this is online)

For Arabic Christian literature there is a similar list, by Abu-l Barakat, and I’m taking an interest in that again.  There is an old edition and German translation by Riedel.  Apparently Samir Khalil Samir has made an edition also.  And someone tells me that a French version exists in the Patrologia Orentalis 20, although I’m not sure about that.

These are the planks from which we will build our wagon; the materials with which to make our star-map; the tools whereby we can go where no-one ever seems to  go very often!


Agapius – three quarters done

I have now translated 75% of the 10th century Arabic Christian historian Agapius, from the French of A. A. Vasiliev.  Of course the translation has no scholarly value — more in the way of research notes.  But there are a considerable number of people who do not read French easily, if at all, and so to make this version has utility.  I hope also to trigger a “virtuous circle”: the existence of this translation may inspire someone to make an English translation direct from the published Arabic.  This in turn would lead someone to get an ultra-violet photograph of the Florence manuscript, fill the lacunae, and make a full scholarly critical edition and translation.

I’m typing this while scanning the page images of the remaining part; scan, turn page, scan, etc.  Each quarter is around 150 pages of the Patrologia Orientalis.  I’m working on a chunk of no more than 50 pages at a time.  Any more than that, and I get oppressed by the size of the task before me, and depressed.

So far I have done part 3, part 4 and part 1.  Now to begin part 2.


End procrastination, but not yet

Isn’t it remarkable how much you can get done, doing it in odd moments?  And how little gets done, when you sit down to it with a full day ahead of you?

Here I am, on Bank Holiday Monday.  I have the whole day off.  It’s grey outside, so no real reason to go anywhere.  I have Agapius before me, and am getting close to the end of translating another quarter of the text.  And my mind wanders.  Compare that with when I was working on it last, in odd moments, and got some 300 pages done.

Of course then I start reading the blogs, pop over to the shop, and so on.  In the process I came across bits and pieces.  At ETS I learn (who get it from Archaic Christianity) that a photographing expedition by CSNTM has put several more new testament manuscripts online.   

I also see this truly revealing comment on a political blog, here.  Defending the a political leader from a smear, he writes:

Take a bow – the guy’s son has just died and you are attempting to smear him for doing what every 19 year old student does, or at least should do – getting an STD test. Scumbag.

Every 19 year old is fornicating with such abandon that they all take a test for the clap?  God help our rotting society, if so.  But one must remember that this is written by a student politician, and such people are notoriously self-seeking, self-indulgent, and devoid of any morals, and were even in my day. Probably this one is merely projecting his own vice onto others, or repeating what he believes true. 

For the last 30 years the ruling class in this society has sought to debauch the young by every means possible.  It has failed, of course, since few are that self-destructive!  But they would be pleased to learn that their efforts have been so fruitful as this, that even a conservative could write like that.  All of us rely on our families, in sickness and in health, to help us through life.  Yet what family life is possible in these circumstances, when no permanent attachments can be formed?  No wonder the divorce rate is ato 50%.  Those from stable homes, with wealth and opportunity, will suffer only emotional damage thereby, and be corrupted in their sense of right and wrong.  The less fortunate have their lives destroyed, as may be observed on every TV programme jeering at trailer trash. 

This is all self-limiting, of course.  Every society rests on the labours of those who do the real work.  When the Roman peasantry was destroyed, replaced by the slave-run latifundia and encouraged to drift into Rome to become parasites, the Roman state did not immediately collapse.  But when that state faced the stresses of the 5th century, no-one made much effort to save it.  Self-indulgence is utterly destructive.  Why risk your pleasures for others, when you’ve never done so before?  It was not Gothic strength, but Roman weakness that destroyed the Western Empire.  Augustine chronicles that when the refugees from Rome came to Africa, their first question was not how to fight back, but what games were planned at the public entertainments.  As the rulers trash the ruled, the state crumbles from within.  When a war comes, as come it will, such a people will not fight.  The state will be destroyed, the corrupt attitudes replaced by those of the victors.  The diseased portion of the body drops off. Thus is the sickness contained.  That is why God allows wars to take place; because, in times of peace, the moral rot sets in.

Back to avoiding Agapius… maybe a diet coke would help.  And I need to wash my hands.  Perhaps I should turn the heating on.  Not long to lunch, now.  Perhaps I’ll have a lie-down after lunch.  Is there anything on the box?


Agapius can be tedious

I hope no-one ever tries to translate Agapius from Arabic by starting at the beginning.  I started my translation from French at the time of Jesus, mid-way.  That’s not too bad, and the material to the end is moderately interesting.

But the first quarter of it… yuk!

I expected it to be largely based on embellished versions of biblical narratives.  But I had not expected it to go round and round, repeating calculations of the years from the creation to the time of Christ again and again.  I’ve now seen the same material come round three times, and my patience is beginning to fray.  And in each case, he attacks the Jews for forging their Old Testament, in comparison to the “genuine” Torah of the Septuagint. 

Obviously it’s wrong in point of fact; but I could cope with that.  However I’m currently wading through a long fictitious story, told with obvious glee, about how Constantine consulted with the bishops and the Jews and “discovered” the truth.   It’s unbelievably tedious.

So advice for future translators; leave the first quarter until last, or you may never get further.


Agapius on a boat

I’m still translating the world history of the 10th century Arabic Christian writer Agapius.  I’ve just come across this:

This sea contains also on the coast of Persia a gulf which is called the Persian Gulf;  its length is 1,400 miles, its width at the beginning is 500 miles and its end is 150 miles.  Between these two gulfs is the country of Hedjaz and Yemen;  the distance between the gulf of Aylah and the Persian Gulf is 1,500 miles.

Today we encounter Arabs determined to rename the Persian gulf as “the Arabian sea.”  But here is evidence that in the Middle Ages they had no such qualms.

He also mentions Britain!


Help with some French

I’m trying to understand a passage of Agapius.  Here is the French translation: can anyone tell me what it means?

Il faut que nous sachions d’abord que la terre est ronde comme une boule; son centre cul­tivé et habité représente une élévation; ses côtés touchent les quatre parties qui sont situées en bas; à cause de son élévation le centre est plus rapproché du cours du soleil dans la partie orientale de la terre, c’est-à-dire la région de la terre brûlée. A mesure que l’homme passe et avance par son intelli­gence et sa pensée jusqu’à la région septentrionale vers les extrêmes limites de la terre et l’examine attentivement, il trouve que l’augmentation de la longueur du jour s’y fait constamment à la montée du soleil sur la voie sep­tentrionale des douze signes du Zodiaque au signe du Cancer, et l’augmen­tation de la longueur de la nuit – à le descente du soleil au Zodiaque du sud; il le percevra par son intelligence et le comprendra.


It is necessary to know first that the earth is round like a ball;  its cultivated and inhabited centre represents an elevation;  its sides touch the four parts which are located below;  because of its elevation the centre is closer to the course of the sun in the Eastern part of the earth, i.e. the area of the scorched earth. As a man moves and advances in his mind and thought from the northern area towards the extreme limits of the earth and examines it attentively, he finds that the increase in the length of the day ??? there constantly from the rise of the sun on the northern way of the twelve signs of the zodiac to the sign of Cancer, and the increase of the length of the night – to the descent of the sun to the Zodiac of the south;  he will perceive this by his intelligence and will understand it. 


Agapius and the Syriac Old Testament

I’m still translating Agapius.  In part 1.1, while discussing the length of the lives of the Patriarchs, he performs a calculation based on the Septuagint.  He then gives the values from the Jewish Torah, commenting on how the Jews changed the text after Christianity came long.  He then says:

The Syriac Torah depends on the Torah (of the Jews), because it was translated from Hebrew after Christianity and the deterioration (of the text).

I’m not sure whether modern scholars are certain of when the Old Testament was translated into Syriac, which makes this testimony interesting.


Agapius 1.1 online at has several volumes of the Patrologia Orientalis, but not PO5 which contains the first part (of 4) of Agapius.  Today I uploaded the relevant fascicle of PO5 – the only bit I possess – to  It’s here.

I hadn’t realised that we could contribute scanned books.  I think that I will start doing so.


Eusebius, Agapius project news

Long term readers of this blog will know that I commissioned a translation into English of Eusebius of Caesarea’s book about differences between the gospels and their solutions (Quaestiones ad Stephanum/Marinum).

The Greek remains of this text are now almost entirely translated.  The last few fragments from catenas remain; but almost all of the mass of fragments in Migne (reprinted from Mai, which is what we are using) are done.

There is no progress on the Syriac or Coptic front, tho, which is disappointing.  I’m considering asking my Greek translator to do the other minor works of Eusebius — the epitomes of the Commentary on Luke, On Easter — while we wait.

Once the work is complete, the intention is still to publish it myself and sell copies to people to cover the translation costs; and, when that is done, to make it available online.

I think a book about problems in the gospels and how to overcome them ought to have a popular market as a paperback among Christians.  Not sure what to call the book, tho.  Maybe:

Eusebius of Caesarea
Commentary on the Gospels
A fourth century writer resolves differences between them

What do people think?

I’ve also begun to translate the first half of the world history of the 10th century Arabic Christian writer, Agapius.  This looks very likely to be of considerable interest.