What the heck is the “Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae” of ps.Athanasius??

Enthusiasts for the authenticity of the “Three Heavenly Witnesses” passage in 1 John 5:7 are well aware that no Greek manuscript contains it.  But as I remarked in a previous post, they point to a work by Athanasius, the Synposis Scripturae Sacrae (“Summary of the Holy Scriptures”) as evidence that it was part of the text in his day.  But what on earth is this work?  And how has it reached us, and what scholarship has been done upon it?

Let’s look at how we got this text, and then we can talk about what it contains.

The work is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum under CPG 2249.  It has reached us in a single manuscript, which remained unknown until 1895, hidden in the prestigious surroundings of Eton College, where it has the shelfmark Codex Etonensis 144 (formerly B. l. 5. 13).  J. Armitage Robinson published it in that year in Texts and Studies 3, “Euthaliana”, p.106-120, with a collation of the manuscript against the PG text.[1]  The manuscript was written by Ducas the Notary, among others, at the end of the 14th or start of the 15th century.

Other manuscripts seem to exist. The Pinakes database gives a list, which contains four manuscripts that look like full-length texts: Tübingen Mb 10 (16th c.), Vienna theol. gr. 249 (16th c.) and two 18th century Greek manuscripts – but I am not aware of any publication that deals with them.

The work was first published by P. Felckmann in Operum sancti patris nostri Athanasii archiepiscopi Alexandrini, t. II, Heidelberg 1600, p. 61-136, with a Latin translation by Wolfgang Musculus.[2]  Regular readers will remember Musculus from my post Apocryphal and then some: The so-called “Synopsis” of so-called Dorotheus of Tyre.  The Eton manuscript bears the marks of use as an exemplar for this edition.  But the manuscript then disappeared, and all subsequent editions based themselves on Felckmann.  Here’s the start of Felckmann’s text:

Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae in Felkmann’s edition of Athanasius (1600).

The text was edited again by Montfaucon, and reprinted by J.-P. Migne in the Patrologia Graeca vol. 28, cols. 281-438.  There is no critical edition of the text, and the only translation is that of Musculus into Latin.  The opening section of the work has been translated into English by Michael D. Marlowe and placed online here.

Studies of the work have been few.  The only serious study, until a decade ago, was undertaken by Theodor Zahn in Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons, 1890, Band 2, Hälfte 1, p.302-318.[3]

Zahn established that the work is not an original literary composition.  Rather it is a collection of materials about the books of the bible and their contents, assembled from pre-existing sources in a pretty raw manner.  The work contradicts itself; at one time it describes the Old Testament apocrypha as useful for reading; at another it states that they are not to be read.

The work has always been recognised as spurious.  Montfaucon in his preface listed some reasons why:

  •  No work of this title is attributed to Athanasius in any ancient or medieval source.  We have detailed lists of his work in Jerome (de viris illustribus 87) and Photius (codd. 32, 139, 140).
  •  It is not found with any other work of Athanasius in the manuscript.
  •  It contradicts what Athanasius says about the canon in his 39th Festal Letter, and ignores the Shepherd of Hermas, so dear to Athanasius’ heart.

The Synopsis takes material from the genuine Festal Letter 39.  A section on the translation of the Old Testament is taken word-for-word from Epiphanius.  Another section belongs to the strange book of Josephus Christianus.  The content for Leviticus, Paralip., Esra, Prov., Job, Esther, Judith, Tobit, Sapientia Sal. is almost literally identical with corresponding sections of the Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae of ps.Chrysostom, another confused text of the same genre, which appears to be older than the ps.Athanasius.

Zahn concludes:

We cannot give be more precise on the period when the Athanasian Synopsis was written. For the time being there is nothing to be found in the relation to Josephus Christianus; for 1) the original affiliation with the parallel section on synopsis is highly doubtful, 2) that Josephus, whose work is nothing more than a compilation of very different books, may as well have drawn this passage from our synopsis, but conversely, 3) the time of Josephus is a very unknown or at least uncertain thing.

The dependence of our synopsis on that of Chrysostom, on the 39th festal letter of Athanasius, on a fifth-century Palestinian canon, and probably also on Epiphanius, places us in a monastery or church library in which these diverse spirits were united as equally venerable authorities.

The compilation certainly did not come into existence before the sixth century, perhaps even later.[4]

Zahn wrote more than a century ago, and nobody has ventured to touch the work since.  The only subsequent work is by Gilles Dorival in 2005, but this I have not seen and know only from a review.[5]

Work has been done on the related ps.Chrysostom Synopsis.  But that’s another story.

The text is related in some way to the Euthalian materials which appear in the margins and between books in medieval Greek bible manuscripts.  So we are dealing with a mass of non-literary material about the bible, changed by every hand that touched it, incarnate in a variety of versions, and attributed to a variety of authors, none of them genuine.  It’s really very like the Vitae Prophetarum Fabulosa that we encountered in ps.Dorotheus.

  1. [1]Online here.
  2. [2]Online here.
  3. [3]Online here.
  4. [4]Genauere Bestimmungen über die Abfassungszeit der athanasianischen Synopsis wage ich nicht zu geben. Auf das Verhältnis derselben zu Josephus Christianus ist vorläufig nichts zu gründen; denn 1) ist die ursprüngliche Zugehörigkeit des mit diesem parallelen Abschnitts zur Synopsis höchst zweifelhaft, 2) kann jener Josephus, dessen Arbeit nichts als eine Compilation aus sehr verschiedenen Büchern ist, diesen Abschnitt ebensogut aus unserer Synopsis geschöpft haben, als umgekehrt, 3) ist die Zeit jenes Josephus eine sehr unbekannte oder doch unsichere Sache. Die Abhängigkeit unserer Synopsis von derjenigen des Chrysostomus, vom 39. Festbrief des Athanasius, ferner von einem palästinensischen Kanon vielleicht des 5. Jahrhunderts und wahrscheinlich auch von Epiphanius versetzt uns in eine Kloster- oder Kirchenbibliothek, in welcher diese verschiedenartigen Geister als gleich ehrwürdige Auktoritäten vereinigt waren. Vor dem 6. Jahrhundert ist die Compilation gewiß nicht entstanden, vielleicht noch später.
  5. [5]Gilles Dorival, “L’apport des Synopses transmises sous le nom d’Athanase et de Jean Chrysostome à la question du Corpus Littéraire de la Bible?”, In : Gilles Dorival (ed.), Qu’est-ce qu’un Corpus Littéraire ? Recherches sur le corpus biblique et les corpus patristiques, Paris-Louvain-Dudley, 2005, p. 53-93; and a further article 94-108. Reviews on Persee here, which reads “G. Dorival (pp. 53-93), dans un texte très dense, fouillé même, dont notre résumé ne rend qu’imparfaitement compte, traite de l’apport des «synopses» de la Bible transmises sous les noms d’Athanase et de Jean Chrysostome à la connaissance de la constitution des corpus néo- et vétéro-testamentaires. La première est connue par quatre manuscrits divergents entre eux ; G.D. en nie l’authenticité, contre Montfaucon, pour en situer la rédaction entre le début du Ve siècle et la fin du vie ; le classement y est fait selon trois « genres » : historique, exhortatif et prophétique. La seconde, rédigée entre 500 et 600 et faussement attribuée à Athanase, n’est plus conservée que dans un seul manuscrit (cod. Eton. B 1 5 13) ; elle distingue entre les livres canoniques et les livres lus (άναγιγνωσκόμενα), et propose une liste des livres contestés (αντιλεγόμενα) et des apocryphes (απόκρυφα) qui ne correspond pas à la distinction précédemment établie. Dans une seconde étude (p. 95-108), G. Dorival s’intéresse à la synopse contenue dans le codex Barberinianus gr. 317, qui dépend en grande partie des deux synopses étudiées plus haut, mais qui offrent aussi quelques traits originaux, qui font regretter qu’elle n’ait pas été étudiée pour elle-même par les canonistes.”

Sunday, the Sabbath, and ps.Athanasius’ De Sabbatis et Circumcisione

The church does not celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, but rather on Sunday, as we all know.  Those interested in why this is so collect patristic testimonia and among these are some attributed to Athanasius, from a work entitled On the Sabbaths and Circumcision.  For instance this website and this tell us:

345 AD. Athanasius: “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s day as being the memorial of the new creation” (On Sabbath and Circumcision 3).   

Much the most interesting link supplied by my correspondent was Sabbatum Redivivum: Daniel Cawdrey and Herbert Palmer.  This discusses a 1651 work Sabbatum Redivivum: or The Christian Sabbath Vindicated.[1], where he quotes Athanasius:

‘The Lord transferred the Sabbath to the Lord’s day.’11 (=Athanasius, Homily de Semente, cited in Sabbatum, p. 476. [In fact referencing a “Hist. of Sab. part 2. p.8]])

‘God did not primarily give the Sabbath that man should idly rest upon it; for if he had so intended it, he would never have commanded the Levites to kill and offer sacrifices. For if rest or idleness do sanctify it, manifests that work defiles.’ And again, ‘The Sabbath doth not signify rest, but the knowledge of the Creator; Therefore the Sabbath was given for knowledge sake, not for idleness, so that knowledge was more necessary than rest.’12 (= Athanasius, On Sabbath and Circumcision, cited in Sabbatum, p. 19. [Second part, p.19, in fact])

A search of the online copy for Athanasius quickly brings these up.  The authors quote the Greek also in the margin, as we see.  But it looks very much as if they are requoting from someone else, possibly Bellarmine (and maybe translating?)

Both works quoted are in fact dubia or spuria, and are listed as such in the great 18th century Benedictine edition of the works of Athanasius, conveniently reprinted by Migne as the Patrologia Graeca volume 28.  De sabbatis et circumcisione may be found on columns 133-141, preceded by a note on the doubtfulness of the text; then there follows a note on the doubtful character of de semente, and then the text.

De sabbatis et circumcisione is listed in the CPG as 2244.  9 manuscripts are listed in the Pinakes database, and no doubt more exist.  The CPG editor notes its status, but adds that Karl Holl argued for its authenticity in Studien uber das Schrifttum und die Theologie des Athanasius, Freiburg i. Br., 1899, p.102 ff. (I was unable to locate this online).  Richard Bauckham mentions the work in his Collected Essays II (2017) p.425 here, but advises that Willy Rordorf in Sabbat et Dimanche dans l’Eglise ancienne (1972) p.91 n.1 thinks otherwise.

De semente is CPG 2245, equally spurious, and the text is in PG 28, 143-168.  The CPG indicates the existence of a study of the tradition, and a discussion of its authenticity by no less than Marcel Richard.  UPDATE: There is in fact a text and German translation of this work accessible online here.[2]  Some have seen this work as by Marcellus of Ancyra (see comment below).

The quotation from De semente is indeed to be found in that work, in the opening words of chapter 1:

at Dominus diem Sabbati transtulit in Dominicam: neque nos auctoritate nostra Sabbatum vilipendimus; sed propheta est, qui illud rejicit ac dicit, [then Isaiah 1:13].

The quotations from De sabbatis et circumcisione are also there, but rather condensed.  The first is in col.135, part of chapter 2:

Non enim otii praecipue causa, hominibus Sabbatum Deus dedit, qui ait… [bible quotes].  Si enim cura illi esset de otiositate, non praecipisset Levitis proponere, offere, mactare.

The second one is condensed more straightforwardly from the start of chapter 3.

3.  Nequaquam igitur Sabbatum otium designat, sed tum cognitionem Conditoris, tum cessationem a figure huius creationis… [more bible quotes].  Cognitionis ergo et non otii causa datum est Sabbatum: ita ut sit cognitio magis necessaria quam otium.

I’ve chosen to give the Latin rather than the Greek, in case those looking at this should want to locate the passages in the PG more easily, and perhaps experiment with some Latin translation tools.

Considering the references to these texts down the centuries – since 1651!! – it is odd to find no trace of an English translation or either work.  I might commission one of  the first, as it is short.

  1. [1]Daniel Cawdrey and Herbert Palmer, Sabbatum Redivivum: or The Christian Sabbath Vindicated, London: Printed by Thomas Maxey for Samuel Gellibrand and Thomas Underhill in Paul’s Church-yard, 1651/2.  Online here
  2. [2]Annette von Stockhausen, “Die pseud-athanasianische Homilia de semente. Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung”, in: Von Arius zum Athanasianum. Studien zur Edition der »Athanasius Werke«. Berlin: De Gruyter (2010) p. 157-203. (Series: Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur v. 164).  Online here.  How wonderful to have this!

A Greek Christian Text on the Seven Sages: Ps.-Athanasius, “On the Temple at Athens” now online in English

In 1923 A. Delatte published a strange, short Greek text which consists of sayings predicting Christ attributed to the Seven Sages.[1]  There are quite a number of collections of “sayings” in later Greek literature, which are studied under the intimidating title of “gnomologia” (i.e. “wisdom sayings”).  Most remain inaccessible and untranslated.  The sayings are usually attributed to some important sounding individuals.  There is a class of this literature which consists of sayings predicting Christian teaching and the events of the New Testament and attributed to pagan philosophers.  In this way the medieval Greeks had both Jewish and pagan predictions of Christ, a twofold testimony.

It is unfortunate that sayings literature is a low form of literature, in which the apophthegms are routinely transferred from one name to another.  The closest modern parallel is perhaps the joke book, in which many a joke ends up attributed to Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde.

Delatte’s text is one of this class.  He found it in a Vatican manuscript, Ms. Vatican graecus 1198 (16th century), which was published by the Benedictine Fathers and reprinted by Migne.[2].  A manuscript in Athens, B.N. 431 (18th c.), fol. 79r ff, also contains the text.  Attributed to Athanasius, the date of the text must be later and is supposed by Delatte to be 5th century A.D., as he believed it to be a fragment of the lost work of Aristocritus, the Theosophy.

Adam McCollum has kindly transcribed the Greek and translated the text into English for us, with useful notes.  I have placed his PDF and the .RTF file at Archive.org, here.  But I thought the bare translation might usefully appear here.  Enjoy it!

* * * *

On the Temple, Schools, and Theatres in Athens
Commentary of Athanasius the Great on the Temple in Athens

1. Those who do not understand the divine scriptures we ought to persuade concerning the knowledge of God further from the nature of things itself, for we see certain essences in creation that cooperate  with each other not naturally but supernaturally. As an example I mention the essence of water, a nature that is flowing and having a downward tendency: how, then, do we see the so-called water-spouts carrying water up out of the sea to the clouds? But more surprising is the fact that [what had been] salty, as it returns to the earth, comes down through the rain as something sweet. And again, how does the nature of bodies, naturally sinkable, appear unsinkable and unsubmergeable in the waters of the Pentapolis of Marmarica?  Not only this, but at one time in Lycia on the mountain called Olympus nature was also the reverse of both water and fire  at the same time, as countless people have seen, and even to the present [people] witness this, and countless other paradoxes are seen and marveled at in creation, things that would not thus be destined to be supernatural, were it not for some essence of God mastering them and commanding them not to oppose each other. O children of the Greeks! How, when there is severe thunder, does all human nature tremble, shudder, and stop dumbfounded, declaring through that bearing that it is under [the power of] a master who effects the thunder?

2. While these things bring examples for the knowledge of God to the simpler ones among the Greeks, to the wise among them certain wise men of the Greeks from among the old and able philosophers declared many testimonies concerning reverence for God, and they even dimly declared beforehand the economy of Christ. For many years before the arrival of Christ, a certain wise man, Apollo by name — moved, I believe by God — founded the temple in Athens, having written on its altar, to the unknown god. In this [temple], then, were gathered the first philosophers of the Greeks, that they might ask him about the temple and about prophecy and reverence for God. Their names, we will say, are these: first Titon, second Bias, third Solon, fourth Cheilon, fifth Thucydides, sixth Menander, seventh Plato. These seven philosophers spoke to Apollo: “Prophesy to us, O prophet Apollo: what is this temple, and whose is this altar behind you?” Apollo said to them: “Whatever pertains to virtue and good order, arise to do, [and] do it! For I announce the triune ruler on high, whose ineffable Logos will be conceived in a free  girl. Like a fire-bearing bow, he will bring a gift to [his] father that, [instead of killing], has taken captive the whole world. Mary is her name.”

3. This is the explanation of the prophecy: The first saying has to do with the temple. He says to do what pertains to the good order of the temple along with practicable beauty: do things pleasing to God and to people. For I take [God] to be a great king on high in three persons in heaven: its  God without beginning, and Logos becomes flesh in an unmarried girl, and he will appear like a fire-bearing bow — or something more powerful — to the whole world, fishing for people as for fish from the depth of unbelief and ignorance, people whom he will offer as a gift to his own father. Mary is her  name. Apollo said these things in prophecy.

4. Titon said, “There will come a young girl who has progeny for us, the heavenly child of [our] God and Father. The girl conceives without a man.” Bias said, “He has come from the heavens, an exceeding, immortal fire of flame, at whom, heaven, earth, and sea tremble, [together with] the hells  and the demons of the deep, [the one who is] self-engendered  and thrice-happy.” Solon said, “Eventually at some time will God drive on  to this much-divided earth and without error become flesh; in the bounds of his inexhaustible divinity he will destroy the corruption of incurable sufferings, the ill-will of people will become bitter toward him, yet when he has been hung up like one condemned to death, he will humbly persuade each one.” Cheilon said, “He will be the inexhaustible nature of God, and [as] Logos he will derive from him [God] himself.” Thucydides said, “Honor God and learn! Do not seek who he is and how, for either he is or he is not: as he is, honor him!” Menander said, “The old is new and the new ancient, the father progeny and progeny a father. The one is three and the three one. Fleshless is of flesh. Earth has given birth to the heavenly king.” Plato said,  “Since God is good, he is not responsible for everything, as many people say; rather, for many things he is not responsible. We say that he and no other is responsible for good things: only of what is beautiful, hardly of what is bad.” In turn these seven spoke:  they were concerned with the economy of Christ and with the holy trinity.

5. Another Greek sage, called Asclepius, along with some others, asked Hermes, more philosophical than all the philosophers, to give them a saying about God’s nature. Hermes took a pen  and wrote as follows: “Except for some providence of the Lord of all, he would be wishing neither to reveal this saying, nor to occupy you with such deeds, that you ask about them, for it is not possible for such things to be handed over to the uninitiated, but [as for you], listening with the mind, listen! There was only one: intellectual light before intellectual light, and it had unity from the mind in light and spirit. All things are from him and to him.  One fertile, having come down from [another] fertile one onto fertile water,  made the water pregnant.”

6. You know how the children of the Greeks prophesied and declared beforehand the God who is before all eternity, his Son and Word likewise without origin, and his co-reigning and consubstantial Spirit, and declared beforehand the costly sufferings of the cross. To him be glory and power along with the Father without beginning and the all-holy Spirit forever and ever, amen!

  1. [1]A. Delatte, “Le déclin de la Légende des VII Sages et les Prophéties théosophiques”, Musée Belge 27 (1923): 97-111.  An extremely poor copy of this was sold to me by the British Library for an exorbitant price some years ago.
  2. [2]PG 28, col. 1428 f.

Athanasius on the cult of the martyrs

Skimming through the Coptic letters of Athanasius in my last post but one, I came across this interesting letter (letter 41, p.41f.) from 369 AD discussing the habit of digging up the bodies of the martyrs to create cult objects.  Considering that the Coptic church was to do a lot of this, Athanasius’ remarks are interesting.  (I have translated the French of Lefort).

In fact they [the Meletians] don’t leave the bodies of the martyrs, who fought nobly, in the earth, but they have begun to place them on beds and trestles, so that any who wish to do so may contemplate them.  They do this ostensibly to honour the martyrs, but in reality it is an insult; and they do it for despicable purposes.  Although they possess no body of a martyr in their own town, and not knowing what a martyr is, they have plotted to steal their bodies and remove them from the cemetaries to catholic churches.  In fact, when the reproach of having denied … [some kind of typo here].  They beg the bodies of the martyrs and confessors from those who come to bury them, they move them so that, even with their bodies, they have the means to deceive those whom they mislead.  But “error is not the part of Israel” and our Fathers have not handed down such a custom; on the contrary, they consider that such a practice is illegitimate.

Superstition, it seems, is a powerful force in the 4th century, after the legalisation of Christianity.  It is telling that Athanasius believes that the Fathers condemned such practices.