A bibliography of the various collections of the Apothegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers)

The Apothegmata Patrum is a collection of around 2,500 sayings in total.  These are attributed in the manuscripts to one or another of the Desert Fathers; monks and hermits living in the Egyptian deserts from the mid-4th century onwards.  Originally passed from mouth to mouth, they were then gathered into small collections which appear in manuscripts, and then gathered into larger collections and translated into all the languages of ancient Christianity.  A volume of sayings may be known as a Paterikon, or even a Gerontikon!

The sayings date from the mid-4th century onwards.  The attributions may be imperfect, and the wording may have been polished in transmission.  Like all “sayings” literature, the nearest analogy is the modern joke book, where every saying tends to be attributed to Churchill or Groucho Marx, and the wording varies as the editor thinks fit to improve it.

The original sayings were transmitted orally, in many languages.  But the first written form of these was in Greek, and all the other language versions are derived from the Greek written material.

There are two major Greek collections.  These are distinguished by the order in which the material is presented:

  • alphabetical-anonymous: A collection by author name, in alphabetical order, with an appendix of sayings which are anonymous.
  • systematic or topical: A collection in 20 chapters, organised by subject matter – the monastic virtues -, containing both named and unnamed sayings.  Each chapter contains named sayings in alphabetical order, followed by anonymous sayings.

Earlier authors believed that there were three collections, not two, because the anonymous collection was edited separately from the alphabetical collection.  This was entirely the fault of the first (and only) editor of the alphabetical collection, Cotelier, who printed his work in 1677.  He printed the collection only from Paris manuscript graecus 1599.  This does not contain the anonymous sayings, and even the preface to the collection, which states clearly that a section of anonymous sayings is at the end, is damaged.  Sadly texts were often printed from a single manuscript in this period, and if it was a damaged ms., then so be it.  In consequence the two parts have been edited and translated separately.  No complete edition of the anonymous sayings has ever been made, but a complete French translation – made direct from five manuscripts – does exist.

Other collections do exist in Greek, but are derived from the “big two”.

Here are the two Greek collections:

Collectio Alphabetica-Anonyma

This has been edited in two parts.  It is normally preceded by a short prologue in which the compiler states that others have made smaller compilations of sayings before him (see PG 65: 72-76; esp. 73A).

[AP] G – Collectio Graeca Alphabetica, the Alphabetical-order Collection. (CPG 5560).  No critical edition exists.

Edition: J.-B. Cotelier, Ecclesiae graecae monumenta I, Paris 1677; reprinted in PG 65, 72-440.
Translation: Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the desert fathers: the alphabetical collection, 1975.  The edition and translation reflect a single manuscript, Paris gr. 1599. But Butler tells us that a more complete version of this collection exists in the British Library, Ms. Burney 50.[1] Dom Lucien Regnault, Les sentences des Peres de desert: Collection alphabetique, Solesmes, 1981. ISBN 2-85274-051-6 (Blurb).  John Wortley, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Series: Popular Patristics 52, SVS Press, 2015.

[AP] GN – Collectio Graeca Anonyma, the Anonymous Collection (CPG 5561).

Partial Edition (from cod. Coislin 126): F. Nau, “Le chapitre περὶ τῶν ἀναχωρητῶν ἁγίων et les sources de la vie de S. Paul de Thebes”, Révue de l’Orient Chrétien 10 (1905); F. Nau, Apophthegmata Patrum (collectio anonyma) (e cod. Coislin. 126), ed. F. Nau, “Histoires des solitaires égyptiens,” Révue de l’Orient Chrétien 12-14,17-18: I.e. 12 (1907): 48-68,171-181, 393-404; 13 (1908): 47-57, 266-283; 14 (1909): 357-379; 17 (1912): 204-211, 294-301; 18 (1913): 137-146.
Translations: Benedicta Ward, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers: Systematic Sayings from the Anonymous series of the Apophthegmata Patrum, 2nd ed., SLG Press, 2001; John Wortley, The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation, Cambridge 2013; Complete French translation:  Lucien Regnauld, Les Sentences des Pères du Désert, série des anonymes, Solesmes and Bellefontaine, 1985.  This is mainly from Cod. Sinaï 448 and Cod. Coislin 126, but working directly from 5 manuscripts.[2].

Collectio Graeca Systematica

[AP] GS – This is the subject-order collection (CPG 5562), and has been edited in the Sources Chrétiennes series.

Edition and French Translation: Jean-Claude Guy, Les apophtegmes des pères, Series: Sources Chrétiennes 387 (1993: chapters i-ix), 474 (2003: chapters x-xvi), and 498 (2005).  498 (2005). English translation of the Guy edition: John Wortley, The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Systematic Collection, Collegeville, Minn., 2012. Wortley writes here that “An earlier translation by Dom Lucien Regnault, Les chemins de Dieu au desert: collection systematique des Apophtegmes des Peres, Solesmes 1992, is particularly useful as it includes some items from the various “oriental versions” (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic etc.), not found elsewhere.”

There are other collections extant in Greek.

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Latin collections

The 5 Latin collections are all derived from the Greek.

[AP] PJ – Collectio Latina Systematica (CPG 5570).  Latin translation attributed to Pelagius and John.  Made in the 6th century.  Chapter headings preserved in Photius.

Edition: H. Rosweyde, Vitae Patrum V- VI, Antwerpen 1615, 1623; reprinted PL 73: 851-1022; 1060-1062.
Translation: Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, London and New York, 2003.  Les Apophtegmes des Pères (Recension de Pelage et Jean). Introduction de Dom L. Regnault. Traduction de Dom J. Dion et Dom G. Oury, Solesmes, 1966 (Review).

[AP] PA = Collectio a Paschasio Dumiensi = Collection by Paschasius of Dumio, disciple of Martin of Braga, under the title Verba Seniorum (CPG 5571).  Pa = the short recension in PL 73.

Edition: J. Geraldes Freire, A versao latino por Pascasio de Dume dos Apophthegmata Patrum, I, Coimbra 1971; PL 73: 1025-1062 (shortened version).
Translation: Lucien Regnault, Le Livre des Anciens. Recueil d’apophtegmes des Pères du désert traduit du grec en latin par le bienheureux Paschase, Solesmes. Blurb.

[AP] M = Collectio a Martino Dumiensi (CPG 5572) = Martin of Braga’s collection.

Edition: C. W. Barlow, Martini episcopi Bracarensis opera omnia, New Haven 1950; PL 74: 381-394, under the title Martin of Braga, Aegyptiorum Patrum Sententiae.

[AP] CSP = Collectio Commonitores Sanctorum Patrum (CPG 5573).

Edition: J. Geraldes Freire, Commonitiones sanctorum patrum, Coimbra 1974.

[AP] R = Collectio a pseudo-Rufino (CPG 5574).  This is a rag-bag compilation of material from the others (see CPG entry for details).

Edition: H. Rosweyde, Vitae Patrum III. Antwerpen 1615; PL 73: 739:810.

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Other languages

There are also collections in other languages, all derived from the Greek.

[AP] S = Collectio Syriaca, recensio Enaniesu = Syriac version by the Nestorian Anan-Isho / Ananjesus (CPG 5577).  An unpublished older translation is listed as CPG 5578.

Edition: P. Bedjan. Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum VII, Paris 1897; E. A. W. Budge, The Book of Paradise, I-II. London 1904 (with English translation).

[AP] A = Collectio Armeniaca, recensiones A & B (CPG 5582 + 5583).

Edition: Liber qui dicitur Patrum Vitae, ed. Gregorius Hierosolymorum patriarcha et Iohannes eparchus, Constantinople 1721; Vitae Patrum, I, Venice 1855. Louis Leloir, Paterica Armeniaca a P.P.Mechitaristis edita (1855) nunc latine redditat, CSCO 353, 361, 371, 379; 1974-6.

[AP] Sa = Collectio Sahidica (CPG 5588).  The Sahidic Coptic version.

Edition: M. Chaine, Le manuscrit de la version copte en dialect sahidique des “Apophthegmata Patrum”, Bibliotheque d’etudes coptes VI, Cairo 1960.  This version is preserved in a single manuscript, now scattered across five different libraries.  See T. O. Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, 1983, p.146.

[AP] Bo = Collectio Bohairica (CPG 5589).  The Bohairic Coptic version.

Edition: E. Amelineau, Histoire des monasteres de la Basse-Egypte (AMG 25), Paris 1894.

[AP] E = Collectio Ethiopica (CPG 5597 + 5598).  Ethiopic Collection.

Edition: V. Arras, Collectio Monastica (CSCO 238-239), Louvain 1963; V. Arras, Patericon Aethiopice. (CSCO 277-278), Louvain 1967.

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Nor is this all the language versions!

There are also Georgian versions of each of the two main Greek collections (CPG 5593 and 5594), discussed in M. Dvali, Anciennes traductions georgiennes de recits du moyen age. Vol. 1: Traduction par Euthyme l’Hagiorite d’une ancienne recension du Patericon, d’apres un manuserit du XIe siecle, Tiflis: Institut des Manuscrits, 1966.

There is also a “very rich” Arabic tradition.

Joseph-Marie Sauget, Une traduction arabe de la collection d’Apophthegmata Patrum de `Ananisho. Etude du ms. Paris. ar. 253. CSCO 495, Louvain, 1987.  See also articles listed in CPG 5602-4.

For an Old Slavonic version of the Greek Systematic Collection see William R. Veder, “The Systematic Collection of Apophthegmata patrum: The Life of Its First Greek Codex from ca. 500 to 885”, Ohio Slavic Papers 9 (2009), 375-386, online here.

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The standard study is Wilhelm Bousset, Apothegmata. Studien zur Geschichte des ältesten Mönchtums, Tübingen 1923, although unfortunately I was only able to obtain a few pages of this and it is less than clear.  This has around 100 pages of discussion, followed by extensive tables of what saying appears in what collection.

The Greek manuscripts and tradition is discussed in J.-C. Guy, Recherches sur la tradition grecque des “Apophthegmata Patrum”, Series: Subsidia hagiographica 36; Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1962.

An article by Samuel Rubenson, “Formation and Reformations of the Apophthegmata Patrum”, Studia Patristica 55.3 (2013), 5-22, is online here.


There is a rather wonderful database of sayings, texts (in various languages) and translations in Sweden, at Lund University at http://monastica.ht.lu.se/.  This is incomplete as yet, according to the home page, but is obviously of great value.

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So there you have it. I’ve referred a couple of times recently to Benedicta Ward’s translation of one form of the Apothegmata Patrum (also Apophthegmata!), or Sayings of the Fathers.  This evening I have spent some time trying to establish what other versions of this collection of sayings may exist, so I thought that I would share it with you.[3]  The material in the patrologies is sadly inadequate.  So… I hope this is helpful.

UPDATE: I find that there is an upcoming volume by John Wortley, More Sayings of the Desert Fathers : An English Translation and Notes, Cambridge, 2019, with intro by Samuel Rubenson.  Blurb: “Most of the Tales and Sayings of the Desert Fathers (apophthegms) have survived in Greek and most of them are now available in English, almost 2500 in number. A further six hundred items in six languages have been available in French for some time, but often in second- and even third-hand translations. These have now been newly translated directly from the original languages by scholars skilled in those languages and are presented, alongside an Introduction and brief notes, to the English reader…”  The Wortley volumes are pricey, however.  The reference to the French probably refers to Lucien Regnault, Les Sentences des Pères du désert – Troisième recueil & tables, 2005 (blurb: which says that this is material from the two Greek collections not found in the printed texts, and translated directly from manuscripts).  A further item from the abbey of Solesmes is rather mysterious: Les Sentences des Pères du désert – Nouveau recueil. Apophtegmes inédits ou peu connus rassamblés et présentés par dom Lucien Regnault, traduits par les moines de Solesmes.(Blurb)

UPDATE (11th Oct. 2018): I had intended to give the manuscripts of the Greek in a separate post, but it seems better to add them in here.  The Pinakes database lists hundreds of manuscripts for both the Alphabetical-Anonymous collection and the Systematic collection; but Guy, who edited the latter and prepared to edit the former, has a rather more useful discussion in his Recherches.[4]

Manuscripts of the Greek Alphabetical-Anonymous Collection

  • A = Paris, Coislin 126, fol. 1-158. (10-11th century).  Mutilated at the start, missing title, prologue, and start of the text as far as “Antony” 17.  Also mutilated at the end.
  • B = Berlin, Phillipps 1624 (12th c.).  Starts with “Isaiah 5”.
  • C = Paris, Coislin 232 (11th c.)  Mutilated at the start, but missing part replaced in 14-15th century with not very good material.
  • D = Paris gr. 1599 (12th c.)  Does not contain the anonymous sayings.  The basis for the Cotelier edition.  The prologue has a lacuna.
  • E = Paris gr. 916 (11th c.) Does not contain the anonymous sayings.  Water damaged.
  • F = Athens, bibl. nat. 504 (12th c.)
  • J = Sinai, St Catherine 448 (1004 AD).  The only complete manuscript.  The subscription at the end is now difficult to read.
  • K = Paris, Coislin 283 (11th c.) Contains only the anonymous sayings.
  • L = London, British Library Addit. 22508 (12th c.).  Starts with “Gelasius 1”.
  • N = Paris, Coislin 126, fol. 158-313v.
  • P = Paris gr. 890 (11th century). Contains only the anonymous sayings.
  • c = Paris, Coislin 257 (11th century) Abbreviated version.
  • d = Sinai, St Catherine 450. (12th c.) Contains only the anonymous sayings.
  • m = Milan, Ambros. F 100 sup. (1113 AD)  Abbreviated version.
  • (G = the printed edition of the Alphabeticon, edited by Cotelier, reprinted in PG 65: 71-440).

ABCEFJL tend to agree in their readings over against D, which is the base of the printed text G, even though they disagree among themselves.

There is also an abbreviated version of the collection preserved in 4 manuscripts.

Manuscripts of the Greek Systematic Collection

  • H = Milan, Ambros. C 30 inf (12th c.)
  • M = Paris, Coislin 282 (11th c.)
  • Q = Paris gr. 917 (12th c.)
  • R = Paris gr. 914 (12th c.)
  • T = Athens, bibl. nat. 500 (12th c.)
  • V = Vatican, Ottoboni 174 (10-11th c.)
  • W = Athos, Lavra B 37 (970 AD)
  • Y = Athos, Protaton 86 (9th c.) Mutilated.
  • (PJ = Latin translation of the collection edited by H. Rosweyde, reprinted PL 73: 855-1022).
  1. [1]Cuthbert Butler, Lausiac History of Palladius, Cambridge, 1898, Part I, p.209, n.2.
  2. [2]So Wortley, here and n.11
  3. [3]The following list is based on Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of Saint Anthony, Fortress Press, 1995, and augmented somewhat by me.
  4. [4]See p.4 for sigla, p.16 for mss.

Epiphanius on reading the scriptures? An item from the Apothegmata Patrum

A quotation via Twitter:

Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin…It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the Divine Law…Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” – Epiphanius of Salamis/Cyprus

Very sound… but it doesn’t sound like Epiphanius.  It is, in fact, taken from the modern Engish translation of the Apothegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Fathers, from the version known as the “Alphabetical Collection”, in the translation published by Benedicta Ward.[1]  The Greek text may be found  in the Patrologia Graeca 65, cols. 71-440, which reprints the edition of Cotelerius, itself a transcription from Codex Paris gr. 1599 (12th c.).  In the PG the text is listed as an “appendix” to Palladius’ Lausiac History; but the material is organised in order of the letters of the Greek alphabet:

The saying comes from the section on Epiphanius, sections 4-12.  Here’s the context.  (PG 65, col. 164C; Ward p.58):

4. One day Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, ‘Come, and let us see one another before we depart from the body.’ When he came, they rejoiced in each other’s company. During their meal, they were brought a fowl; Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, ‘Forgive me, but since I received the habit I have not eaten meat that has been killed.’ Then the bishop answered, ‘Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.’ The old man replied, ‘Forgive me, your way of life is better than mine.’

5. The same old man said, ‘Melchizedek, the image of Christ, blessed Abraham, the father of the Jews; how much more does truth itself, which is the Christ, bless and sanctify all those who believe in it.’

6. The same old man said, ‘The Canaanite woman cries out, and she is heard; (Matt. 15) the woman with the issue of blood is silent, and she is called blessed; (Luke 8) the pharisee speaks, and he is condemned;(Matt. 9) the publican does not open his mouth, and he is heard.’ (Luke 18)

7. The same old man said, ‘David the prophet prayed late at night; waking in the middle of the night, he prayed before the day; at the dawn of day he stood before the Lord; in the small hours he prayed, in the evening and at mid-day he prayed again, and this is why he said, “Seven times a day have I praised you.'” (Ps. 119.164)

8. He also said, ‘The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.’

9. He also said, ‘Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.’

10. He also said, ‘It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the divine law.’

11. He also said, ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.’

12. The same abba said, ‘The righteous sin through their mouths, but the ungodly sin in their whole bodies. This is why David sings; “Set, Ο Lord, a watch before my mouth and keep the door of my lips.” (Ps. 141.3) And again, “I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue.” ‘ (Ps. 39.1)

Good sound stuff, of course.

The attributions in any collection of “sayings” literature should all be taken with a pinch of salt, as this is not a literary genre, where the original form matters, but a practical one, where whatever is useful is included and attributed to whoever.  The same process in modern times gives us the vast number of sayings all attributed to Winston Churchill.

  1. [1]Benedicta Ward (tr.), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection, 1975.