Extracts from Peter of Alexandria (d.311) and the original copy of the Gospel of John

In the 10th century one or more scribes created what is now a parchment manuscript with the shelfmark Vatican gr. 1941 (scanned microfilm online here).  The majority of the pages today (folios 19r-290v) are occupied by an anonymous chronicle of the 7th century, written, as it tells us, by a contemporary of Heraclius.  This world chronicle is known today as the Chronicon Paschale, bcause the manuscript starts with a long preface dedicated to discussing differing methods of calculating Easter.  The only copies known to us of the work are three of the 16th century – Munich 557 (written 1573), “Holmensis e. 30. I. 21, and Upsala 2; and there are some extracts in two manuscripts of the 15th and 18th century, Ambrosian 814 f.1-14, and Athos mon. Lavra 1866, f. 265-279.[1]  But largely the work was ignored.[2]

The text, including the prefatory material about Easter, was edited by L. Dindorf under the title “Chronicon Paschale” in the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (=CSHB) series in Bonn in 1832, with the Latin translation of Du Cange.  Vol. 1 is online here. Dindorf basically reprinted Du Cange’s Paris edition of 1688 (reprinted in Venice in 1729), and made corrections from the Vatican manuscript.[3]  This is most noticeable in the page of Greek text at the start, where there is no Latin translation.

But the start of the work contains something else altogether.  The horrible microfilm is too poor for me to make out what is actually in the Vatican manuscript.  The work starts with an extract from Philo, On the Life of Moses, book 3.  Then it says, “So much for Philo”, and tells us that after the fall of Jerusalem under Vespasian, various church writers discussed the question of the date of Easter, including Peter of Alexandria, an unknown Tricentius, the great Athanasius, and Epiphanius. (p.4, ll.1-5).  We then pass into material on the subject itself, which Du Cange headed as being by Peter of Alexandria from his lost work on Easter.  This has all been translated in the ANF 6, where it appears as fragment 5, ending in the CSHB on p.12, line 7.  What follows seems to be editorial, and then there is material from Hippolytus and then Apollinaris.

Nothing in the text actually identifies this material as being by Peter of Alexandria, but it is a reasonable inference – by Du Cange? – from the list of names just before it.

One portion of the text, however, is very interesting, on page 11, lines 5-10:

ἤ δὲ παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα· ὥρα ἦν ὡσεὶ τρίτη”· καθὼς τὰ ἀκριβῆ βιβλία περιέχει, αὐτό τε τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ, ὅπερ μέχρι νῦν πεφύλακται χάριτι θεοῦ ἐν τῇ Ἐφεσίων ἁγιωτάτῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν πιστῶν ἐκεῖσε προσκυνεῖται.

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.[4]

The evangelist here is John.  This is a claim that the autograph copy of John’s gospel was preserved at Ephesus at the time of the writer.

The context is the discrepancy between Mark 15:25, which says that Jesus was crucified at the third hour; and John 19:14, which says that Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at the sixth hour.  [5]

Peter is saying that the text of John 19:14 is corrupt, and should read “third hour”, rather than “sixth hour”; and he is appealing to the original copy of John’s gospel.This is extraordinary!

This passage was mentioned in a controversial article by Craig Evans, “How Long were Late Antique Books in Use?”, in: Bulletin of Biblical Research  (BBR) 25.1 (2015), 25-37.  I have no access to this, but it drew excited responses such as this by G.W. Schwendner[6] and this by Brice C. Jones.  Evans suggested, I believe that this was evidence that the autographs of the NT were accessible for centuries and were used to correct the text.

In a way, the statement of Peter of Alexandria is inscrutable.  It says what it says.  What can we make of it?

Firstly, Peter does not say that he has seen the autograph.  Rather he says that it is the treasured possession of the church of Ephesus.

There is nothing at all improbable about this.  Indeed modern cathedrals across Europe preserve a great many relics of the apostles, such as their heads, and other body parts.  The authenticity of many of these may be doubtful – and indeed should be subject to DNA testing – but they do boast of holding such relics.  No doubt the church of Ephesus did indeed boast of such a thing.

Did they actually have the autograph, in the late 3rd century?  The autograph would have been a papyrus roll, perhaps; and by that date would have been rather fragile.  But it could be.  If it did exist, possibly it perished during the persecution of Diocletian, when such things were sought out.

But does the testimony of Peter actually suppose that this item existed in his time?  I think of Tertullian referring to the Acts of Pilate, probably copying Justin Martyr.  Peter may simply be using the testimony of a now lost earlier writer, such as a lost work of Origen.  He’s not saying he saw it himself.  Likewise his testimony as to what the reading of this passage was may be derived from his source.  But if we suppose that his source was around 200 AD – picking a random date – there is nothing at all impossible about supposing that the autograph existed at that date.

Was this reading really to be found in it?  Who can now tell?  But let us guess that the volume existed.  If so, it would be treasured, and it would be frail.  Anybody with any experience of dealing with “treasures” will know how the keepers would respond to requests to see it; with hostility.  In such a situation I would imagine that an “authorised” copy of the original might be made available in the church, to save wear and tear on the frail original.  Such a copy, “guaranteed” to be an “exact copy”, is what visitors would have access to.  The actual accuracy of the copy might be less than perfect.

In the end it is all speculation.  But it is certainly interesting to reflect on the longevity of ancient books.

  1. [1]Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica (Berlin 1958) i. 241-2.
  2. [2]Whitby and Whitby, Chronicon Paschale: 284-628 AD, TTH7 (1989), p.xiv.
  3. [3]As indeed he states on p.4.
  4. [4]ANF 6 p.280 translation.  The references given in the ANF are very strange.  They read, “5 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 1, seqq., edit. Venet., 1729.” and “31 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 175, D.”  The introduction, on the other hand, says “(4) A passage from the Sermo in Sanctum Pascha, or from some other work of Peter’s on the same subject, is given in the Diatriba de Paschate, prefixed to the Chronicon Alexandrinum S. Paschale, and published separately in the Uranologion of Petavius, fol. Paris, 1630, p. 396.”  P.396 of the Uranologion can be found here, but only contains a Greek text. No work of Galland entitled “Ex Chronico Paschal.” exists, and the truth is that the translator was actually working from the Patrologia Graeca, vol. 18, col. 512, where the following screen shot explains all: The actual source used by the translator is the PG; the 1729 edition mention in it is not by Galland, but simply the reprint of Du Cange’s edition of the Chronicon Paschale that we saw earlier. This error has confused others; the same mistake is found on p.67 in Sacha, Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE, Clarendon, 2001, p.67, in the otherwise excellent footnote 261: “261.  This letter, preserved in the preface of the Chronicon Paschale, was published separately by Migne, PG 18. 512 b—520 b, following Galland, Ex Chron. Pasch. (Venice, 1729), which itself follows Du Cange’s first edition of the Chronikon Paschale (Paris, 1688), and on which was based the English translation by Hawkins (1869: 325-32). However, a better edition of this text, based on MS Vat. gr. 1941, was published by Dindorf (1832) and followed by Migne, PG 92. 73 b-c.”
  5. [5]Stephan Witetschek, “The hour of the Lamb? Some remarks on John 19:14 and the hour of Jesus’s condemnation and crucifixion”, in: P. N. Anderson &c, John, Jesus, and History, Volume 3: Glimpses of Jesus through the Johannine Lens, SBL Press, 2016, p. 95f.  Preview here.
  6. [6]This also repeats the “Galland” mistake.  It is terrifying to consider just how many publications must have trusted that lazy editor from the ANF06!

Primasius and his Commentary on Revelation

Few will have heard of Primasius, bishop of Hadrumetum in Vandal Africa.  What little we know about him comes from the obscure chronicle by Victor of Tunnuna (who is NOT Victor of Vita),[1] and from Isidore of Seville (De viris illustribus 22).  The Italian continuation of Quasten’s Patrology published by Marietti (Patrologia IV: I padri latini (secoli V-VIII)) tells us:

On Primasius we are informed by Victor of Tunnuna and Isidore (Vir. Ill. 22).  Bishop of Hadrumetum, he was among the African bishops summoned to Constantinople in 551 because of the controversy over the Three Chapters.  Initially he took a position against Justinian and did not participate in the council of 553.  In consequence he was exiled to a monastery.  But then, according to Victor, in order to obtain the position of primate of the late Roman province of Byzacena, roughly equivalent to modern Tunisia, he sided with the emperor and began to persecute the defenders of the Three Chapters.

His Commentarius in Apocalypsin in five books is also mentioned by Cassiodorus (Inst. I, 9).  This is presented in the prologue as a work of compilation, based upon Augustine – although Primasius notes that Augustine had never written a commentary on Revelation as such – and Tyconius.  Tyconius had been a Donatist, so Primasius took care to declare this, and that he had selected the best bits, taken the gem out of the dung, etc.  …

Apparently Primasius also wrote three books on Heresies, to bring up to date the catalogue of Augustine.  Cassiodorus knew the first book of this, but it has not reached us.  The work under his name in PL 68 is the commentary of Pelagius on Paul, reworked by Cassiodorus, and supplemented by a work by Halberstadt.

CPL 873-4; PL 68, 793-936; PLS 4, 1208-1221; A.W.Adams, Commentarius in Apocalypsin CCL 92 (1985). …

Which is useful stuff as far as it goes.

The commentary only survived in seven manuscripts.  Strangely it is easier to find one of these in Google than anything else.  This, the oldest manuscript, is Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, which is late 7th century.  A page of it, fol. 4r, following the preface and the capitula for book 1, is shown here at the British Library website; the ms. is online here and here.

I have not been able to find any trace of a translation into any language, which is most curious.  However a reconstruction of Tyconius, by Roger Gryson, largely extracted from Primasius, has been translated into both English and French.  I do not object; but it does seem odd that a hypothetical book should receive translation while a real book does not.

  1. [1]The chronicle has been translated in John R. C. Martyn, Arians and Vandals of the 4th-6th centuries, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Did King James issue instructions to the bible translators to change the text to hide his own sins?

An interesting discussion on twitter led me to a man who roundly asserted that King James I issued a list of instructions to the translators of the King James version of the bible, with an eye to getting his own sins omitted from it.  It sounded quite improbable.  In fact it is complete nonsense; but it drew my attention to the matter.

The King James Version or KJV has long been obsolescent and is now little used in England.  In some ways this is rather a pity; but it is now quite unfit for daily use by any other than antiquarians.  But it stands forever as a classic of the English language.

In 2005 Cambridge printed a version of the KJV, edited by David Norton, who also produced a book on the subject, his A Textual History of the King James Bible.  Norton inevitably emphasises that the “original” 1611 edition has become changed in little ways as the centuries have passed; for, of course, he was producing his own edition.  But the book contains much interesting information.

We know only a little about how the KJV was made.  King James did not, of course, supervise the work personally, deputising to Bancroft, Bishop of London.  But we do have three copies of a set of rules which seem to have been circulated among the translators.  These are extant in manuscript.  Norton tells us that British Library Add. 28721, fol. 24r; BL Harley 750; and BL Egerton 2884 fol. 6r contain the text.  The first two omit rule 15, suggesting that it was an afterthought.  Here is the text as he gives it, modernised from BL Add. 28721:

1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.
2. The names of the prophets, and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.
3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz.: as the word ‘Church’ not to be translated ‘Congregation’ etc.
4. When a word hath diverse significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place, and the Analogy of Faith.
5. The division of the chapters to be altered either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot without some circumlocution so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.
7. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down as shall serve for fit reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself where he think good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their part what shall stand.
9. As one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful for this point.
10. If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, shall doubt or differ upon any place, to send them word thereof, note the place and withal send their reasons, to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company, at the end of the work.
11. When any place of especial obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgement of such a place.
12. Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them of this translation in hand, and to move and charge as many as being skilful in the tongues have taken pains in that kind, to send his particular observations to the company, either at Westminster, Cambridge or Oxford.
13. The directors in each company to be the Deans of Westminster and Chester for that place, and the King’s Professors in the Hebrew and Greek in each University.
14. These translations to be used where they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible, viz.: Tyndale’s. Matthew’s. Coverdale’s. Whitchurch’s. Geneva.
15. Besides the said directors before mentioned, three or four of the most ancient and grave divines, in either of the universities not employed in the translating, to be assigned by the Vice-Chancellors, upon conference with the rest of the heads, to be overseers of the translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the fourth rule above specified.

These rules were not followed rigidly, but contain much good sense.  The “Bishop’s Bible” was in general use; the Puritans wanted to use the Geneva edition, which contained much anti-monarchical material in its notes, and translated words like ecclesia as “congregation” rather than “church”.

The translators then did not want any of this new-fangled nonsense.  Instead they wanted a bible which was not radically different from what had gone before.

This was very sound thinking, in practice if not in theory.  It is entirely possible to produce a bible which is quite uninspired, at least in a literary sense, and no more than a collection of printed pages.  Anybody who has encountered the old “New English Bible” will know what I am talking about.

Norton also tells us that:

… one of the translators, Samuel Ward, gave an account of the work to the Synod of Dort (20 November 1618). The account includes specimens of the rules, beginning with a paraphrase of rules 1, 2 and 6, and then, as if they were rules, moves on to the following matters of practice.

He then quotes an abbreviated version, which he references to “Pollard, p. 142”, i.e. Pollard, A. W., ed., The Holy Bible. A Facsimile in a Reduced Size of the Authorized Version Published in the Year 1611. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911.[1]

Pollard is online here.  The opening 142 pages reprint a great collection of useful primary documents relating to the creation of the English bible from 1525 to 1611.  The material from the Synod of Dort is given in the original Latin and in English:

The theologians of Great Britain offered a written explanation of the design and plan in accordance with which the business of the very accurate English version was instituted by the most Serene King James, of what plan was observed in distributing the work, and what rules were laid down for the translators ; with the intent that any points which might be judged useful to us might be taken from it.  A copy of this document is subjoined.

Method which the English Theologians followed in the version of the Bible.

The theologians of Great Britain, unwilling to give a sudden and unconsidered answer to so important a question, considered it their duty to hold an early consultation, and since honourable mention has been made of the very accurate English translation lately set forth, with great care and at great expense, by the most Serene King James, to notify to this numerously attended Synod the design and plan with which this sacred business was furnished by his most Serene Majesty.

Firstly, in the distribution of the work he willed this plan to be observed: the whole text of the Bible was distributed into six sections, and to the translation of each section there were nominated seven or eight men of distinction, skilled in languages.

Two sections were assigned to certain London theologians; the four remaining sections were equally divided among the theologians of the two Universities.

After each section had finished its task twelve delegates, chosen from them all, met together and reviewed and revised the whole work.

Lastly, the very Reverend the Bishop of Winchester, Bilson, together with Dr. Smith, now Bishop of Gloucester, a distinguished man, who had been deeply occupied in the whole work from the beginning, after all things had been maturely weighed and examined, put the finishing touch to this version.

The rules laid down for the translators were of this kind :

In the first place caution was given that an entirely new version was not to be furnished, but an old version, long received by the Church, to be purged from all blemishes and faults ; to this end there was to be no departure from the ancient translation, unless the truth of the original text or emphasis demanded.

Secondly, no notes were to be placed in the margin, but only parallel passages to be noted.

Thirdly, where a Hebrew or Greek word admits two meanings of a suitable kind, the one was to be expressed in the text, the other in the margin. The same to be done where a different reading was found in good copies.

Fourthly, the more difficult Hebraisms and Graecisms were consigned to the margin.

Fifthly, in the translation of Tobit and Judith, when any great discrepancy is found between the Greek text and the old vulgate Latin they followed the Greek text by preference.

Sixthly, that words which it was anywhere necessary to insert into the text to complete the meaning were to be distinguished by another type, small roman.

Seventhly, that new arguments should be prefixed to every book, and new headings to every chapter.

Lastly, that a very perfect Genealogy and map of the Holy Land should be joined to the work.

All very interesting indeed.  The royal backing for the KJV is naturally emphasised.  But what we see, in fact, is a cautious and conservative approach, resisting innovation.

The outcome of all this was the standard English bible for 400 years.

I’d like to end with a word about the context of all this.

The original tweeter was not truly interested in any of this.  Rather he intended his readers to suppose a theological claim: that the KJV was not inspired by God.

It is a very common thing to encounter arguments of this sort: that claim to be historical, but where the intention is to insinuate a theological claim that won’t bear examination.  The claim is usually a strawman, something that no Christian actually believes.  It’s always worth trying to get the insinuated claim out into the open for scrutiny.

In this case the insinuated claim is something like “human beings decided the exact words of the KJV, and some of them were wicked men, therefore this proves that your God” – said with a sneer – “did not inspire the bible”.

Basically the claimant is asserting that he knows what an inspired bible “must” look like.  It must fall from the sky, written on tablets of gold, or something.  No human hand may be involved in any way.

A cynical man might ask how the claimant knows this.  This is a statement about God; so how does he know? did he get a prophecy that tells him this?

But this claim is not what Christians believe about the scripture.  It is merely a strawman, designed to require something that does not exist and never did exist.  Jesus himself talked about the rolls of the law as inspired; but these were written by men.  However divine inspiration works, it can certainly cope with spelling mistakes, human error, and all the business of living in an imperfect world.  If it could not, it could not exist.

The claim is not that the bible is not inspired, but a theological claim that inspired books are impossible in an imperfect world.  This won’t do.

  1. [1]Norton p.366, where the date of publication is amusingly given as 1611, not 1911.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Canon of the New Testament

Why on earth would anybody suppose that the Second Council of Nicea / Nicaea in 787 was responsible for deciding which books went into the bible?  It’s absurd on the face of it, considering the vast mass of patristic testimony and physical bibles that survive.

However I keep seeing ignorant people online who either state this, or seem genuinely uncertain whether they mean the First or Second councils of Nicaea.  There is a much more common myth that the canon was decided at the First council in 325, but that’s another story.

Quite by accident today I found what seems to be the source.  It is none other than Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003.  It’s a popular book, not a scholarly work, so it probably circulates among atheists.  The reference I was given was to pages 41-43, in which Ehrman talks about the apocryphal Acts of John, as an example of works in which celibacy is praised.  In chapter two, pages 41-42 we find this interesting statement:

A comparable message appears in another of the Apocryphal Acts, the last we will consider in this chapter. The Acts of John narrates the legendary adventures of John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples in the New Testament Gospels. He continues to be an important figure after Jesus’ death, according to the early chapters of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, but he quickly drops out of sight in that narrative as the book turns its entire attention to the missionary activities of Paul. Later Christians, not content with the silence shrouding John’s later life, filled the gap with numerous stories, some of which have made it into this second-century Apocryphal Acts of John.23  Once again we are handicapped by not having the complete text. It was, of course, a noncanonical book, and parts of it were theologically dubious to the proto-orthodox. It was eventually condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century, so that most manuscripts of it were either destroyed or lost.24

(Highlighting is mine) Buried at the back, on p.262, where few will read them, are the notes:

23. It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–4. For a translation of some of the more intriguing accounts of the Acts of John, see the excerpts from Elliott in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 93–108; that is the translation I am following here.

24. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–7.

This, I suspect, is indeed the source for the modern legend.  Because of course if the Second council was condemning the Acts of John, it’s “obvious” to a certain type of mind that they were discussing what should be in the New Testament.

Looking at Elliot’s excellent single volume on the NT Apocrypha, we find that the Acts of John are first attested with Eusebius in the 4th century.  On the date of the work, Elliot states (p.306):

This is normally given as late second-century, but some scholars (e.g. Zahn) who argued that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria [6] gave an earlier date. Modern scholars tend to agree that there is no firm evidence that the Acts of John was known before Eusebius.

Schneemelcher concurs (vol. 2, p.152):

It is not possible to demonstrate any use of the Acts of John in the Christian literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries.

On page 305, Elliot states:

(e) The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) are contained in several Greek and Latin manuscripts, and also in the Latin version by Anastasius.5 Citations in them from the Acts of John 27-8, 93-5, and 97-8 are valuable for establishing the Greek text at these points (see Junod and Kaestli CCA, pp. 344-68).

The condemnation of the Acts of John by the Second Council of Nicaea meant that the ancient Acts could only survive in clandestine copies after 787. Parts survived in the rewritings of the story of John found in Pseudo-Prochorus, and (in Latin) in Pseudo-Abdias and Pseudo-Melito.

The footnote:

5. J. C. Thilo, Colliguntur et commentariis illustrantur fragmenta actuum S. Johannis a Leucio Charino Conscriptum, i. in Universitatis Literariae Fridericianae Halis consociatae programma paschale (Halle, 1847), 14f.

This suggests that Elliot is also repeating from elsewhere, just as Ehrman was.  Is it possible that nobody ever actually looks at the statements of Nicaea II?

Schneemelcher is rather clearer:

The most important evidence of all is provided by the Nicene Council of 787, already mentioned. Its fifth session dealt, among other matters, with the Acts of John, to which the Iconoclastic Council of 754 had appealed. Here AJ 27 and the first half of AJ 28 were read out from the pseudepigraphical ‘Travels of the Holy Apostles’ as a document hostile to images, together with a large part of AJ 93-98 as a general indication of the book’s heretical character.42

Footnote:

42.  Con. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi XIII, cols. 168D-172C); critical edition of the quotations from the Acts of John in Junod/Kaestli 361-365 (Greek text) and 366-368 (Latin translation of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).  [‘Junod/Kaestli’ is the standard edition, Acta Johannis, in the Corpus Christianorum, series apocryphorum, vols 1-2, Turnhout 1983]

This gives us the reason why the book was discussed – that it had been used in the Iconoclast disputes – and a source for the council text.  There is actually an English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), under that title in two volumes, from Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 68 (2018), translated by Richard Price, and available for only $175.  Unfortunately this is inaccessible to me, or we might hear what the council said.

The older pre-critical text of Mansi is thankfully available online here, in a very poor scan from microfilm.  Col. 167 has a section starting Ex falsis superscriptionibus itinerariorum sanctorum apostolorum, (On the false attributions of the “itineraries of the holy apostles”).  But the good stuff appears in column 171C, and continues to 175.  The delegates read out some short quotes which contradict the Gospel of John, and so must be heretical. Especially good:

Gregory of Neocaesarea said, “This codex is worthy of every condemnation and dishonour.  And they produced out of it testimonies against images!! which were copied by Lycomedes!”

John the most reverend monk and vicar of the oriental patriarchs, said, “Lycomedes brings in the crowned images of the apostles as if they were pagan idols!”

Basil bishop of Ancyra said, “God forbid that St John seem to speak contrary to his own well-established gospel!”

I don’t know who Lycomedes was – evidently an iconoclast leader – but I don’t think they liked him.

The section ends with:

John, most reverend monk and vicar of the orient pontiffs said, “If it please this holy and universal synod, let this be the sentence, that nobody henceforth shall make copies of this sordid book.”

The holy synod said, “Let nobody make a copy: not only this, but we judge that it is right that it must be thrown in the fire.

Let’s finish, for the benefit of Ehrman readers, with another quotation from him about the formation canon of the NT.  This time it’s from Truth and Fiction In The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.74:

Teabing’s conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. … (75) … It was a process that took many years—centuries, actually. It was not (contrary to Teabing’s view) the decision of one person, or even just one group of persons (for example, a church council); …

Indeed so.

A few months of interesting links

For some months I’ve been collecting bits and pieces.  Mostly I have nothing much to add, but they shouldn’t be lost.

Cool 9th century manuscript online as PDF

Via Rick Brannan I learn that a downloadable PDF of the Greek-Latin St Gall 9th century manuscript of Paul’s letters is online and can be downloaded as a single PDF:

Note the link on this page where you can download a PDF of what appears to be the entire Codex Boernerianus. It is beautiful.

And so you can.  It’s at the SLUB in Dresden here, where it has the shelfmark A.145.b.  It also contains Sedulius Scottus, I gather.

Nice to see the interlinear, isn’t it?

Codex Trecensis of Tertullian online

A correspondent advised me that the Codex Trecensis of the works of Tertullian has appeared online in scanned microfilm form at the IRHT.  Rubbish quality, but far better than nothing.  The ms is here.  De Resurrectione Carnis begins on 157r and ends on 194r.  De Baptismo begins on folio 194r and ends on 200v.  De Paenitentia begins on folio 200v.

Saints lives = Christian novels?

A review at BMCR by Elisabeth Schiffer of Stratis Papaioannou, Christian Novels from the ‘Menologion’ of Symeon Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 45. Harvard University Press, 2017, caught my eye.   This contains 6 lives from Metaphrastes collection.

Even though hagiographical texts are among the most frequently translated Byzantine sources, little effort has been made so far to translate parts of Symeon Metaphrastes’ Menologion. This is primarily due to the generally unfortunate editorial situation of these texts: They are transmitted relatively standardized, but in a vast number of liturgical manuscripts.

In addition to summarizing the status of research on Symeon’s rewriting enterprise, Papaioannou explains in his introduction why he calls the texts in focus “Christian novels.” It is not unproblematic to apply this modern term, as he himself states, but he decided to do so because of the fictionality of these narratives and because of their resemblances to the late antique Greek novel. When saying this, it is important to emphasize—as Papaioannou explicitly does—that these texts of novelistic character were not understood as such by their audience. On the contrary, the Byzantines regarded these texts as relating true stories, written for edification and liturgical purposes (see pp. xiv-xviii).

It’s an interesting review of a neglected area of scholarship where the tools for research – editions and translations – are not available.

Full-text of the Greek Sibylline Oracles online for free

Annette Y Reed broke the story on Twitter: it’s J. Geffcken, Die Oracula Sibyllina, Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1902, which has turned up at Archive.org here.   A useful transcription, rather than the original book, is also online here.

All known mss in the Bodleian library – detailed in online catalogue

Ben Albritton on Twitter shares:

This is awesome – “This catalogue provides descriptions of all known Western medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, and of medieval manuscripts in selected Oxford colleges (currently Christ Church).” Sharing ICYMI too.

It also has direct links to the for Greek mss!

Where did the Byzantine text of the New Testament come from?

Peter Gurry at the ETC blog asks the question, and suggests that Westcott and Hort are no longer the authorities to consult.

How to respond to politically motivated persecution

Since the election of President Trump I have noted on Twitter a new form of anti-Christian posting.  There has been an endless stream of anti-Christian jeering online, demanding “how dare you support Trump”?  It is surreal to see how people who hate Christians suddenly have become expert theologians on what Jesus would do.  Thankfully a certain Kurt Schlichter writes *Sigh* No, Being A Christian Does Not Require You Meekly Submit To Leftist Tyranny:

Everyone seems to want to tell Christians that they are obligated to give in. There’s always some IPA-loving hipster who writes video game reviews when he’s not sobbing alone in the dark because no one loves him tweeting “Oh, that’s real Christian!” whenever a conservative fights back. I know that when I need theological clarification, I seek out the militant atheist who thinks Christ was a socialist and believes that the Golden Rule is that Christians are never allowed to never offend anyone.

It’s a good article, and sadly necessary in these horribly politicised times.  It’s worth remembering that, were times different, rightists would most certainly adopt the same lofty lecturing tone.

A quote for pastors from St Augustine

Timothy P. Jones posted on twitter:

“If I fail to show concern for the sheep that strays, the sheep who are strong will think it’s nothing but a joke to stray and to become lost. I do desire outward gains–but I’m more concerned with inward losses” (Augustine of Hippo).

Queried as to the source, he wrote:

It’s from Sermon 46 by Augustine–the entire message is an outstanding exposition of what it means to be a shepherd of God’s people…. I translated the above from thisHere’s a good English translation as well.

Artificial Intelligence in the Vatican Archives

I knew it.  It’s alive!!!

Well, not quite.  This is a piece in the Atlantic, Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives: A new project untangles the handwritten texts in one of the world’s largest historical collections:

That said, the VSA [Vatican Secret Archives] isn’t much use to modern scholars, because it’s so inaccessible. Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.

But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time.

They’ve found a way around the limitations of OCR by using stroke recognition instead of letter recognition.  They open-sourced the manpower by getting students (who didn’t know Latin) to input sample data, and started getting results.

All early days, but … just imagine if we could really read the contents of our archives!

Kazakhstan abandons Cyrillic for Latin-based alphabet

Via SlashDot I read:

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style favored by the West. The change, announced on a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-February, was small but significant — and it elicited a big response. The government signed off on a new alphabet, based on a Latin script instead of Kazakhstan’s current use of Cyrillic, in October. But it has faced vocal criticism from the population — a rare occurrence in this nominally democratic country ruled by Nazarbayev’s iron fist for almost three decades. In this first version of the new alphabet, apostrophes were used to depict sounds specific to the Kazakh tongue, prompting critics to call it “ugly.” The second variation, which Kaipiyev liked better, makes use of acute accents above the extra letters. So, for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan, which would in the first version have been Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy, is now Qazaqstan Respyblikasy, removing the apostrophes.

The article at SlashDot instinctively opposed a change, which can only benefit every single Kazakhstani, by making a world of literature accessible.  Ataturk did the same, and for the same reason.

Tell Google that a book is in the public domain

Sometimes Google misclassifies books.  But there is a way to tell it that actually the book is public domain.  The Google link is here.  From It’s surprisingly easy to make government records public on Google Books:

While working on a recent story about hate speech spread by telephone in the ’60s and ’70s, I came across an interesting book that had been digitized by Google Books. Unfortunately, while it was a transcript of a Congressional hearing, and therefore should be in the public domain and not subject to copyright, it wasn’t fully accessible through Google’s archive….

But, as it turns out, Google provides a form where anyone can ask that a book scanned as part of Google Books be reviewed to determine if it’s in the public domain. And, despite internet companies sometimes earning a mediocre-at-best reputation for responding to user inquiries about free services, I’m happy to report that Google let me know within a week after filling out the form that the book would now be available for reading and download.

What does it mean to speak of an authorial/original/initial form of a Scriptural writing when faced with tremendous complexity in the actual data itself?

Back at ETC blog, Peter Gurry discusses this with Greg Lanier here.

Some of the difficulty, one senses, is because the interaction of the divine with an imperfect world is always inherently beyond our ability to understand.  It requires revelation, which is not supplied in this case.

And with that, I think I’ve dealt with a bunch of interesting stories which didn’t deserve a separate post.  Onward!

English translation of Fortunatianus of Aquileia’s Commentary on the Gospels is online at De Gruyter!

Back in 2014, I learned that the lost 4th century Latin commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia had been rediscovered by Lukas J. Dorfbauer!  This was very wonderful news, and I wrote about it here.  The exegesis follows the allegorical model common in Alexandria, rather than the more literalist format of Antioch.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the good news that an English translation had been made by Hugh Houghton, and was being published by De Gruyter.  This was good news, as the first translation of any ancient text is.  However I assumed that this would only be accessible to researchers, and looking at the website did nothing to make me think otherwise.

But today I happened to see a tweet from the De Gruyter twitter account that the translation was available “open access”.  Back I went to the site.  And, after a mighty struggle, I found … that it is indeed available for download!

The trick, guys, is to look for the link on the left to “Content”, and click that.  It then gives you a list of the sections of the book, each with a PDF.

Download it!  Now!!

This is really excellent news, and we must all be grateful to Dr H., and also to De Gruyter for making this accessible to ordinary mortals.

The publisher’s PR men have been pushing the book to major newspapers, and accounts have appeared online from them.  I think that it is right for me to say something about these.

It would be very easy to look down on some of the press coverage.  The old saying is that there is no such thing as bad publicity (although in the age of Trump this theory is being tested severely, as is the trust of the public in the mainstream media).  If people get the wrong idea, at least they get some idea.  Does it matter if people who will never read a book get a mistaken idea?  Probably not.

Some of the press reports have adopted a very stale “sensationalist” line: “This new discovery by [insert name here] rocks the foundations, yes, the foundations of Christianity!!!  Just like the last one we reported singularly failed to do!!!  But this time it’s real!!!”.   I must confess that this type of reporting – always false – simply irritates the heck out me.  It positively smells of the 1890s.

In this case the line is “This discovery proves the early Christians did not understand the bible literally, unlike those Christian scum of today”.  The first such report that I saw was in the Daily Telegraph, by a certain Olivia Rudgard, online here.  The heading screamed “‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels”; but the rather confused article does not substantiate this claim, and the journalist plainly knew little about early Christian exegesis.  One feels sorry for Dr Houghton, who doubtless did his best.  By “taking the bible literally”, the newspaper means “believe any of it”; which has nothing to do with the subject, but is how the ordinary reader will understand it.  Other reports of the same sort appear in other newspapers.

A certain amount of spite must be involved in all this.  The Telegraph would hardly report any early Islamic discovery in these terms, after all.  But in the main it’s just a tired journalistic trope, for which Dr. H. is in no way responsible.  A sensible response by Peter D. Williams appears here.

How should we respond to misrepresentations of this kind?  I think there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.

What all of us want to see is the new discovery enter the mainstream, and get read.  The most likely non-scholarly readers for a commentary on the gospels are the Christians.  This is why the attempt to position the discovery, in the minds of the general public, as anti-Christian, is really rather poisonous.  It poisons the well.  It puts off readers.  Almost nobody reads anti-Christian literature.  No Christian wastes time on the “stunning discoveries” of liberal theologians.

So I think it is important to say that this discovery is not anti-Christian, and does NOT prove that the early Christians did not take the bible literally (i.e., believe it).  The early Christians believed that the bible was the inspired word of God, just as modern Christians do.  They understood it in various ways, just as we do today.  They took it just as literally as we do, and for the same reasons.  But they also sought “inner meanings”.  We do not lack people seeking to do the same today, as anyone who has listened to attempts to explain the prophecies in the book of Daniel will know.

In the early church there was the idea that the bible could be understood as a story with an allegorical meaning.  This idea is associated with the great name of Origen especially, and continued to be influential throughout antiquity.  Whether correct or not, it could give some interesting insights into biblical passages.

For those who feel doubtful, we should remember that Origen’s own sermons on Ezekiel could be preached today, with minor modifications.  There is not really such a great gap between these early Christians and ourselves.

So do read Fortunatianus.  His interpretation is a commentary.  It may be right or wrong; but it is not maliciously wrong.

And … thanks to De Gruyter for making it available online.  And especial thanks to Hugh Houghton for undertaking the not inconsiderable task of making the first translation of an ancient text.  Well done, both of you!

UPDATE: I misspelled the guy’s name!  FortunAtianus, not FortunANtianus.  Apologies!

Origen: a very early copyist of Matthew made a mistake…

Alex Poulos has posted what may be the most interesting blog post that I have seen for a very long time: Textual criticism and biblical authority in Origen’s Homily on Ps. 77.  It’s the text and translation of the first section of Origen’s first homily on psalm 77, with comments.  And by golly it’s interesting!

Origen:

We regularly say that the psalms with the prefix “of understanding” use this superscription to direct the listener to investigate carefully what has been said, as they need interpretation and explication, since every psalm with this prefix has dark sayings, riddles, and parables. This is indeed the case here, for we have the superscription, “of understanding, by Asaph” and immediately it says in the psalm, “I shall open my mouth in parables, I shall speak riddles as from the beginning.” (Ps. 77:2).

One must know that Matthew mentions this saying– writing about how the Savior spoke in parables, he said, “so that the passage may be fulfilled ‘I shall open my mouth in parables; I shall speak in riddles as of from the beginning’ or rather, ‘ <I shall declare things hidden> since the establishing of the world’. (1) Though Matthew paraphrased with those sorts of words what was said in this way here, there occurred a scribal error in the copies of the gospel, for it says, “so that what was said through the prophet Isaiah may be fulfilled, ‘I will open my mouth in parables’”.

It’s likely that one of the very first scribes found the text, “so that what was said through the prophet Asaph,” and supposed that it was an error because he did not realize that Asaph was a prophet. This caused him rashly to write “Isaiah” instead of “Asaph” because of his unfamiliarity with the prophet’s name.

And then he continues, with some very excellent thoughts about the scriptures, and how the devil attacks them, and uses them to attack us.  On this, Alex Poulos comments:

There’s quite a bit that’s fascinating in this passage. Origen has a problem: his copies of Matthew attribute this passage to Isaiah, when it clearly comes from the psalms. His solution is text critical: he posits an emendation to change the name from Isaiah to Asaph. He even goes a step further and speculates on the reason for the change: a scribe didn’t realize who Asaph was, and substituted the name of a prophet he did know.

The situation in the mss is quite different. All of the early minuscules simply say “the prophet” without specifying a name, with one notable exception: Sinaiticus. It seems likely, however, that “Isaiah the prophet” was the reading in all of Origen’s manuscripts, as he has to resort to emendation. Not only that, he supposes that it was one of the very first scribes that made the mistake (τὶς τῶν ἀρχῆθεν γραφόντων). Perhaps the “Isaiah” reading was widespread in Caesarea in the 3rd century. Someone who knows more about the textual history of Matthew can no doubt elucidate this better than I. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the error arose because of the formulaic nature of the clause. Matthew cites Isaiah again and again; it would be quite easy for a scribe to insert the name by accident where it doesn’t belong. As one who’s memorized portions of Matthew, I can say that keeping straight the various subtle changes from one “fulfillment formula” to the next is not easy.

But I won’t steal Alex’s thunder – read it all.  It’s excellent stuff.  I’ve saved a copy locally, and I doubt that I will be the only one.

This is the first fruits of Marina Molin Pradel’s marvellous 2012 discovery of a bunch of previously unknown homilies by Origen in Munich (Ms. Monacensis Graecus 314) and the excellent decision by Lorenzo Perone to publish quickly in 2015.  Who can doubt that the words above are indeed the voice of Origen?

I think we must be grateful to Alex Poulos for sharing this – it is truly excellent stuff.

A few thoughts on handling miraculous passages in ancient texts

While I was thinking about Geza Vermes’ The Nativity, I realised that part of his difficulty with the text was his starting assumption that miracles did not happen.  But this didn’t just affect the miraculous bits of the text.  It actually led him into a strange wilderness of subjectivism, even with respect to non-miraculous events. The end result was a mess that rendered his book worthless as anything but a guide to its author’s beliefs and wishes.

That author grew up during a time when materialism was endemic in academia.  Miracles did not happen.  We are less certain of that, these days.  But we might ask ourselves how we would deal with an ancient or medieval historical text that contained them, where we really didn’t believe that any of them were true.

Say that we had before us the biography of some Muslim holy man, or Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana.  I think that all of us would be inclined to regard all the miracles in the text as fake; for such is the climate of our times, and perhaps our predisposition.  Say that we did so regard them.  How then do we deal with the text?  How do we get at the useful content?  What methods might we adopt?

 Firstly, we might simply omit the miracles, or see if they could be related to some natural event of the time that would “explain” why contemporaries saw a miracle.  We would adopt a minimal approach to the problem, and hold onto everything we could.  The author of the work is not a modern writer, with reference textbooks and the internet to keep him straight, but a man who could do little more than collect what he was told, or what he saw.  So we could comfortably say that some of his sources were storytellers, and that he lacked the judgement to recognise them.  Of course some of the non-miraculous material will be fiction too.  Even an eyewitness will be likely to include material from others.  St Adomnan wrote the Life of St Columba and knew the man personally. But Adomnan continued to collect material and augment the work throughout his life.  Not everything in that life is from personal knowledge.

But we could accept everything which we don’t have positive evidence against, and which is not miraculous.  That is a workable position.

Secondly we might simply reject the work in toto, as a piece of fiction.  If it contains miracles, everything in it is unreliable.

Now that’s fine, but presumably there is a reason why we are reading this thing at all.  We need historical data.  Something is causing us to read this text.

The difficulty with this approach becomes acute when you find clear references to historical events and personages, which are probable, attractive, and hard to resist including.  In the latter case it will be very hard to justify using any material, and very hard to justify not doing so.  Which inevitably means that we will end up with the third way.

 And the third way? Well, there isn’t one.  Or rather, there isn’t one that can be operated objectively.  The third way is to pick and choose what suits you, assert how excellent your own judgement is (and that of your allies, if you have started a school) and just blame the poor quality of the author as an excuse for ignoring inconvenient but non-miraculous material.  This approach is adopted by nearly all polemicists.  Indeed we saw Vermes do just this in The Nativity, where he rejected all sorts of stuff – in Matthew and Luke – that he didn’t like, while using the Protevangelium of James without even a whisper of critical warning.  But the method leads to the outcome.  It’s just fiction.

Anyone seeking objectivity will inevitably try to avoid this mess of subjectivism.  He will seek to have some objective reason for his choice, some principle that has evidence behind it.  There is a very good reason why some writers go for the first option; that it is consistent.  There seems no satisfactory way, unfortunately, to do anything else.  The alternative is simply subjectivism.

Once we have a text, produced by the first method, I think we probably need to treat it with the same respect that we would any other ancient source.  It will of course contain errors and mistakes, as every work of man does.  But we ought to treat our output as an artefact, as something that actually exists.  Rushing on, rushing to point out other failures, is where we are liable to come unstuck.  Producing a text which is non-miraculous is one step.  After that, we can listen to it, and see what if anything it has to teach us.  Let’s keep the two stages very distinct.

Is scholarly scepticism about Gallio a modern legend?

The presence of Seneca’s brother, Gallio, in Corinth, during the period when Acts 18:12-17 refers to him, is attested by an inscription.  The French excavators in the late 19th century found vast numbers of fragments, and Emile Bourguet in 1905 published a group, which contained a letter of Claudius, mentioning Gallio as proconsul.

However, floating in the back of my mind is the idea that, prior to this publication becoming known, some scholars questioned whether Acts was in fact in error at this point, and whether Gallio was ever in Corinth.  I find this idea appears, without reference, in Anthony Thistleton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (2011), p.25, where the caption reads:

Prior to 1905 there was some scepticism about this Gallio allusion in Acts, but in 1905 four fragments of a letter of the Emperor Claudius relating to Lucius Junius Gallio were discovered.  They were published in 1913.

The details of publication are not in fact accurate – Bourguet certainly printed them in 1905, and they were discovered earlier -, but it does confirm that the idea of a previous scepticism is not a figment of my own imagination.  The same author wrote a much longer commentary in 2000, which mentions Gallio on p.29-32; but does not mention the scepticism.

Is this true?  Or is it just an urban legend?

I have spent much of the last 24 hours searching older materials online for someone to express this scepticism, but I have drawn a complete blank.  Even F.C. Baur in his Paulus seems to accept that the apostle appeared before Gallio in Corinth.

I am no expert on NT criticism.  If any reader of this blog can identify a reference to some scholar questioning whether Gallio was there, I would be grateful to be told.  The comments are open!

Review: Geza Vermes, “The Nativity: History and Legend”

For my sins, which are clearly far more substantial than I had realised, I agreed last week to read through and comment on Geza Vermes’ book The Nativity: History and Legend, which I should otherwise never have read.  Since it is directed to the educated layman, this educated layman feels free to offer his opinion of it.

Anyway I’ve written the desired review, so I may as well make it available here:

I wasn’t very impressed.  The sort of book that consists of debunking the bible never seems like more than a piece of spite to me, whatever it professes.  Why write it otherwise?

Indeed Vermes even goes so far as to sneer at the popular celebrations of Christmas.  That piece of cheek towards those who paid his salary would have brought down upon him the wrath of the tabloids, had any of them bothered to read it.  I’ve never forgotten  seeing one of them yell on the front page “This child taught Christmas joy is evil!”, attacking some poor humble little sect that didn’t celebrate Christmas.

It’s always best to write about your enthusiasms.  I am deeply glad that I am not a book critic!  It must be a profession that tends to make you sneery.

But writing all this did give me a chance to think about how to deal objectively with evidently legendary or miraculous passages in historical texts in general.  I will try to write a post about this.