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, here.  But I thought the bare translation might usefully appear here.  Enjoy it!

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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.