Did Aristocritus identify Zoroaster and Christ?

In a previous post here we discussed a medieval Christian Arabic collection of apocryphal oracles by pagan philosophers, predicting the coming of Christ.  Much of this material was discovered in 2007 by Andrew Criddle, who had a further suggestion relating to it, and what follows is his work.  I post it here because it should not be lost, and currently it survives only in an archive of a now defunct message forum.[1]

The saying with which we were concerned was one which attributed to Zoroaster a famous saying of Christ.  In the manuscript Mingana Syr. 481, it took this form:

Zoroaster the Magian said to his disciples in the Book of the Elements of Science:[3] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, will remain in me and I in him.

Dr C. notes that this is rather like another apocryphal saying, attributed this time to Augustus, which is found in several places; in the Syriac language in Bar Hebraeus, and Dionysius bar Salibi; and in the Greek language a version of it appears in John Malalas, Chronicle, book 10, chapter 5, when Augustus consults the oracle at Delphi, and gets no reply.  Asking why, the priestess replies:

The Pythia made him the following reply, “A Hebrew child ruling as god over the blessed ones bids me abandon this abode and return to Hades. (232) So now depart from our leaders”.[2]

The oracle is also found in Ms. Mingana Syr. 481:

Augustus the wise said in the Book of Astrology: There must appear a Hebrew youth, who will be called Christ and is eternal in His essence. The Eternal will make a public appearance, having the lordly power in His hand. He will raise the dead and clean the lepers and loosen the mute tongues.

The use of pagan prophecies by Syriac writers – the Arabic is just a version of this – was studied by Sebastian Brock in a couple of articles.[3]  He believed that the various Syriac versions derived from Greek, probably translated more than once.

But Sebastian Brock also suggested that most of this “pagan oracles predicting Christ” material all goes back to a single Greek work.  This was composed around 500 AD, and had the title Theosophia.  The work was in 11 books.  The work is lost, but an excerpt is preserved in one Greek manuscript, known as the “Tübingen Theosophy”, and there are fragments in other later Greek collections based upon the Theosophia.[4]

None of the remains refer to Zoroaster.  But in the Tübingen Theosophy, there is the following remark about a now lost portion of the work.

In the fourth (or eleventh) [chapter] he mentions the oracles of a certain Hystaspes, (ChRHSEIS hUSTASPOU) who, as he said, was an extremely pious king of the Persians or Chaldeans and therefore received the revelation of the divine mysteries about the incarnation of the Savior.

A section devoted to “oracles” by a Persian is precisely where we might expect to find mention of Zoroaster.

This lost work, the Theosophia, may be the same as a work of that name by a certain Aristocritus, who is known only from a medieval Greek list of anathemas, written around 1000 AD, directed at Manichaeans.  This suggestion was first made by A Brinkmann, “Die Theosophie des Aristokritos”, in Rheinische Museum fur Philologie N F 51 (1896), p. 273-80.    Not every scholar has agreed apparently.

The list of anathemas that mentions Aristocritus is known as The Long Anathema.  The text is edited with a translation by Samuel Lieu.[5]  Here is the English (p.253):

(1468A) (l anathematize) also the book of Aristocritus, which he entitled Theosophy, in which he tries to demonstrate that Judaism, Paganism. Christianity and Manichaeism are one and the same doctrine, and so that what he says will appear plausible, he attacks Mani as evil.

But this work is itself derived from a recently 6th century work, anonymous but probably by Zacharias of Mitylene, known as the Seven Chapters.  It was found in 1977 by Marcel Richard on Mount Athos, in Ms. Vatopedianus 236.  Lieu edits and translates this (p.252):

In addition to all these I anathematize in the same way that most atheistic book of Aristocritus which he entitled Theosophy, through which he tries to demonstrate that Judaism, Paganism and Christianity and Manichaeism are one and the same doctrine, with no other ulterior motive than to make all men Manichaeans, as far as he can.   For indeed he, like Manichaeus, in it makes Zarades a God who appeared, as he himself says, among the Persians and calls him the sun and Our Lord Jesus Christ, even if for the sake of deceiving and ensnaring those who come across his book which it would be more appropriate to call his “Heretical infatuation” (theoblabeia) and at the same lime his “Derangement” (phrenoblabeia), he gives the appearance of upbraiding Manichaeaus.

Dr C. comments:

This clearly indicates that Aristocritus (whether or not really a Manichaean) regarded Zoroaster and Christ as the same divine being making it plausible that in his Theosophia he would attribute things to Zoroaster originally attributed to Christ.

This then may be the original source of our saying from the Mingana manuscripts.

Interesting idea!  My thanks to Andrew Criddle for this very learned suggestion.

  1. [1]Link here:  http://bcharchive.org/2/thearchives/showthread6a92.html?t=216293&page=13
  2. [2]The Chronicle of John Malalas, Byzantina Australiensia 4, p.123
  3. [3]S. Brock, “Some Syriac Excerpts from Greek Collections of Pagan Prophecies”, Vigilae Christianae 38 (1984) pps 77-90 and “A Syriac collection of Prophecies of the Pagan Philosophers”, Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica XIV Leuven (1983). Reprinted in Studies in Syriac Christianity (1992).
  4. [4]See H Erbse, Fragmente griechischer Theosophien, Hamburg (1941), and Theosophorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Teubner (1995).
  5. [5]Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeusm in Mesopotamia & the Roman East, Brill (1999).

Did Mithras say “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood…”?

In 1999 two journalists named Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy published a book called The Jesus Mysteries:  Was the “original Jesus” a pagan god?  The book appealed to a “new atheist” demographic, and material from it could be found online throughout the 2000’s.

On p.49 they made the following claim, in the middle of a series of claims about similarities between Mithras and Jesus:

An inscription reads: He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.[183]

The footnotes reads “Godwin J. (1981), 28”.  Freke and Gandy liked this so much that they repeated it in abbreviated form on the first page of their book.

The claim is actually false.  In 2007 in a now defunct message forum, the question was explored.  Dr Andrew Criddle did most of the work, and posted his findings.[1]  I wrote up a page of notes which somehow vanished from the web.  I have restored it here, but it’s rather dense, and disappears into various rabbit holes.  So let’s go through the key points.


Our first port of call is the reference, which turns out to J. Godwin, Mystery Religions of the Ancient World, 1981.  It seems that Freke and Gandy did not trouble to read carefully, for Godwin’s words are:

A Persian Mithraic text, amazingly reminiscent of Jesus’s words, states that ‘he who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.’

But there is no footnote.

The Actual Source – Vermaseren

The actual source is a publication by the Mithraic scholar, M. Vermaseren, The Secret God, London (1963).  On p.103-4 appears the following claim:

Justin records that on the occasion of the meal the participants used certain formulae (μετ’ ἐπιλόγων τινῶν) comparable with the ritual of the Eucharist, and in this connection mention may be made of a medieval text, published by Cumont, in which of Christ is set beside the sayings of Zarathushtra. The Zardasht speaks to his pupils in these words: ‘He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation….’ Compare this with Christ’s words to his disciples: ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.’ In this important Persian text lies the source of the conflict between the Christians and their opponents, and though of later date it seems to confirm Justin’s assertion.

There is no footnote.

This is a poor English translation of the original Dutch text, a popular paperback, Mithras de geheimzinnige god, Elsevier (1959), which on pp.82-3 reads:

Justinus vermeldt dat de maaltijd gepaard ging met enige formules (met’ epilogoon tinon).” Ook deze kunnen veel gelijkenis vertoond hebben met die van het Avondmaal. Een middeleeuwse tekst, welke door Cumont werd gepubliceerd, is in dit verband bijzonder interessant. Want hierin wordt de waarheid van Christus gesteld tegenover het woord van Zarathustra; deze Zardasht sprak nog tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie niet van mijn lichaam zal eten en van mijn bloed zal drinken, zodat hij zich met mij vermengt en ik mij met hem vermeng, die zal het heil niet hebben…’. Maar Christus sprak tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie Mijn Lichaam eet en Mijn bloed drinkt, zal het eeuwig leven hebben.’ Deze belangrijke tekst plaatst ons midden in de strijd tussen de Christenen en hun tegenstanders en kan, hoewel laat in datum, misschien de bewering van Justinus bevestigen.

Note how the original Dutch speaks of “this Zardasht” (“deze Zardasht”), where the English translation reads “the Zardasht”, which makes it sound like a book, perhaps the Zardusht-nama; and “this important text” (“Deze belangrijke tekst”), not “this important Persian text”.  There are other errors to mislead the reader.

The Cumont Article

Andrew Criddle discovered that the unnamed article used by Vermaseren was F. Cumont, “Un Bas-Relief Mithriaque du Louvre”, Revue Archeologique 25 (1946), 183-195.   At the end, on p.193-5, he refers to an Arabic manuscript in Syriac characters (Garshuni) in the Mingana collection in Birmingham:[2]

Un passage étrange d’une œuvre tardive vient peut-être suppléer à la réticence de Justin, qui s’est fait scrupule de reproduire les formules païennes. Un manuscrit arabe en caractères syriaques (karshounî) de la Bibliothèque de Birmingham [3] contient une homélie ou une lettre pastorale, dont le thème est de mettre en parallèle les prétentions fausses des Juifs et des Mages et la puissance véritable du christianisme. Le motif qui y est reproduit avec une rigueur monotone est que le démon a fait accomplir aux infidèles une série de prodiges, mais qu’à ces faux miracles, Dieu en a opposé de vrais.

Venait à parler des Mages, l’auteur inconnu assure que Zoroastre ayant fondé des pyrées, exhorta ses sectateurs à se jeter dans le feu, et qu’ils semblèrent y périr dans les flammes; puis qu’en étant sortis sains et saufs, ils parurent ressusciter, mais ce n’était là qu’une illusion produite par des sortilèges. Or le Christ se mesura avec Zoroastre et, en ressuscitant réellement les morts, rendit vaine la propagande des Mages dans le monde entier.

Puis l’écrivain chrétien ajoute : « Ce Zardasht dit encore à ses disciples : Qui ne mangera pas de mon corps et ne boira pas de mon sang, de manière qu’il se mélange à moi et que je me mélange à lui, celui-là n’aura pas le salut… Mais le Christ dit à ses disciples : Qui « mange mon corps et boit mon sang, aura la vie éternelle. »

3. A. Mingana, Catalogue of the Mingana collection of manuscripts (Birmingham. Selley Oak colleges library) Cambridge. 1933. Ms. Mingana, n° 142, ff. 48 à 61. — Notre attention a été attirée sur ce manuscrit par le Père Vosté, dont l’érudition d’orientaliste nous a une fois de plus fait profiter de ses découvertes. Notre ami M. Levi délia Vida a bien voulu se charger de traduire pour nous, avec sa compétence éprouvée, l’ouvrage Karsunî qui nous intéressait, et qu’il s’est réservé d’étudier plus en détail au point de vue de ses sources et de sa date. La guerre a malheureusement interrompu ses recherches ; provisoirement, espérons-le.
1. Nous reproduisons ici la traduction de ce que dit des Mages cette œuvre difficilement accessible, et parfois peu compréhensible ; F. 158 b : …

In English:

A strange passage in a late work may perhaps compensate for the reticence of Justin, who scrupled to reproduce the pagan formulae. An Arab manuscript in Syriac characters (Karshuni) of the Library of Birmingham [3] containing a homily or pastoral letter, the theme of which is to put side by side the false pretentions of the Jews and Magians and the true wisdom of Christianity. The motif which is repeated with monotonous rigour, is that the devil has accomplished a series of miracles among the unbelievers, but, to these false miracles, God has opposed true ones.

Speaking about the Magi, the unknown author asserts that Zoroaster, having built pyres, exhorted his followers to throw themselves into the fire, and that they would seem to perish in the flames; and then coming out safe and well, they would appear to have come back from the dead, but this was only an illusion produced by magic spells. But Christ measured himself against Zoroaster, and by really bringing people back from the dead, made the propaganda of the Magi in the whole world pointless.

Then the Christian writer adds: “This Zardasht again says to his disciples: whoever does not eat of my body and does not drink of my blood, so that he mixes with me and I mix with him, he will not have salvation… But Christ says to his disciples: Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

3. A. Mingana, Catalogue of the Mingana collection of manuscripts (Birmingham, Selley Oak colleges library) Cambridge, 1933. Ms. Mingana, n° 142, ff. 48 – 61. — Our attention was drawn to this manuscript by Fr. Vosé, whose erudition as an orientalist has again allowed us to profit from his discoveries. Our friend Mr. Levi della Vida agreed to undertake to translate the Karshuni work which interested us, with his proven competence, and he proposed to study in it more detail and determine its sources and date. The war has unfortunately halted his research; let us hope, only temporarily.

I have highlighted the important bits.

The source – Ms. Mingana Syr. 142, ff.48-61

Cumont tells us nothing much about the text other than that it is a) Christian, b) written in Arabic.  This is because he doesn’t know.  He is reliant on Giorgio Levi della Vida for his information.  In fact della Vida did send him a typewritten translation, on 6 pages, of which the first 4 pages are preserved among Cumont’s papers at the Academia Belgica in Rome.  The other two pages – the interesting ones – were no doubt tucked into a book by Cumont and are now lost.

The Mingana catalogue tells us that the manuscript itself was written around 1690, but that tells us nothing about the date of the text.  It also tells us that the text contains apocryphal quotations from Aristotle.

Back in 2008 I contacted the Mingana library, and obtained a copy of the text, and a translation was made for us by Martin Zammit.  Here are the materials:

Since we have an English translation, we can look at it.  Here is the relevant section:

As regards the sect of the Magians, we also mention to you what Zoroaster did in the days of ‘Adyūn (sic), the eighty-second king since Adam. He opened the temples of fire and made manifest miracles which attracted souls to obey him. Among his signs (he used to do the following): he used to be where the people were, so that they find themselves in the temples of fire, and those who look on think that they got burnt. All that was an act of magic. After (some) time the people were seeing that they (f. 59a) were at fault when they were in their temples, as attested in the Book of ZBHR and in other books of the Magians. Zoroaster also said this to his disciples: “Whoever does not eat my body and drink my blood, and mixes with me and I mix with him, he shall not have salvation.” When his deeds became great and his call spread throughout existence, they boiled him and drank his brew (?). Christ the Lord, the Saviour of the world, opposed them with the true resuscitation of the dead, the healing of sicknesses and diseases, the cleaning of the lepers and the evildoers, the healing of the chronically ill and the disarticulated, the expulsion of demons and the annulment of the works of Zoroaster from all existence. At the end, our Lord said to his disciples: “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood, he shall have perpetual life.”

This is all very weird stuff.  But we can certainly see that none of this has anything to do with Mithras.

The only question remaining is what on earth this quotation from “Zoroaster”, found in a medieval Arabic Christian text, actually is.

A related Cumont Article

By 1946 Franz Cumont was a very old man.  In fact his last article was published posthumously, and Andrew Criddle discovered that, just like the previous article, it contains material about strange Arabic Christian texts.  This illuminates what we are dealing with.

The article is F. Cumont, “The Dura Mithraeum”, in: J. R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies 1 (1971), p.151 ff.  On page 181, note 171, Cumont refers back to his 1946 article above:

171.  Justin, Apol. 1.66 (cf. TMMMM 1, p.230). On this parody of the Eucharist see my article in RA 1946 pps 183f, especially 194, where I discuss a Syriac text in which certain Magi have apparently substituted the body of Zoroaster for the flesh of the bull in their sacrificial feast. The text in question is entitled The Book of the Elements (στοιχεῖα) of the World note that precisely these elements are represented in the Mithraic versions of the banquet.

I mentioned earlier that I wrote to the Academia Belgica to locate the translation by Giorgio Levi della Vida.  But they also found a letter written by orientalist P. J. de Menasce to Franz Cumont.  It was where he had left it, tucked inside his own offprint of the 1946 RA article.  Here it is, and I’ll give a translation in a moment.


After reading the fine article in the Revue Archaeologique which you had the great kindness to send me, for which I thank you very much, I dug out some photocopies of some Mingana manuscripts which I had made in 1938, and I found a letter of yours of 3rd December 1938 where, concerning Mingana Ms. 142, you already outlined the parallel with the famous text of Justin.

Please permit me two observations:

1. One relates to the translation (of Mr. Levi della Vida) quoted in your note 1 on page 194: with the text before me, I think that it should be translated:

“After some time, the people believed that they were resurrected, and that they were found in their houses.”  The text does not say ‘house of fire’ as it says it in the phrase where the expression is, quite rightly, translated by ‘pyrée’. This signifies, I think, that, by a magical operation they were made to come back to them. However this is of no importance… No more important is the detail that numbered the folios of the manuscript 158b and 159a instead of 58b and 59a, where, for the first letter of the name of the king contemporary with Zardasht, a ‘c’ has been substituted for the ‘ (ayin).

2. The second relates to another Karshuni text of the Mingana collection, Ms. Syr. 481, which contains a parallel text which I translate for you here:

folio 225b lines 17-20: “And Zardusht the Mage says, in the Book of the Elements of the World, to his disciples: He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I remain in him.”

This mention of the book of “stoixeia” is more suggestive than the mysterious “z b h r” of manuscript 142, but may help explain the latter.

The Greek word passed into Syriac and into Arabic (istaqis or istuqus) and remains in the language of classical philosophy down to Avicenna. It is very interesting to see these texts of such late origin throw some light on the archaeology of Mithraic monuments and connect them to the literary tradition of Hellenised mages. I hope, this winter, to go to Rome and to have the opportunity to visit the Mithraea of which you speak in your article of the Academie des Inscriptions.

In offering you my thoughts here once again, I hope that you find here, Sir, assurance of my most profound respect.

Fr. P. J. de Menasce O. P.

I cannot read Cumont’s scribble, but the reference to “the book of elements” in Ms. Mingana 481 is clear enough.

This, then, is the source for Cumont’s vague statement in the 1971 “Dura Mithraeum” article.

The second Mingana manuscript – Ms. Syr. 481, ff. 221v-225v

From all this we learn that we have a second Mingana manuscript, containing much the same idea. Maybe this could clarify what we are dealing with?

The Mingana collection catalogue (page 890) tells us that there are various items in the manuscript, which is not dated.  Ours is described as follows:

Again I contacted the Mingana collection at Birmingham University, and obtained images of the relevant pages of the manuscript.  From this a transliteration and translation was kindly made by Sasha Trieger.

Here’s a short bit:

Aristotle said also in his letter to Alexander the king: Be earnest, o king, in the pursuit of the water of life. You shall not find water of life except in a Man (225v) who is to appear in the world, clothed in this world’s clothes. If you find Him, you will find the water of life with Him. He will feed you with His food from the eternal Tree of Life. Water of life will be flowing from His hands.

He said in his treatise entitled the Book of Treasures: The treasure of life is the God Adonai, who is to appear in the universe. Those in the graves will hear His voice and will rise.

Yanfus the wise said: Glory (?) to you, o thrice-blessed, who is God the eternal (?), who shall die and abolish death clearly, when He will rise after three days.

Plato the wise said: No, by Him who sent me, verily they do not know what they speak, nor what they do. By this he means the priests of the sons of Israel who deny his words cited above.

Zoroaster the Magian said to his disciples in the Book of the Elements of Science:[3] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, will remain in me and I in him.

To the Awesome Father, and to the Son who helped and assisted, and to the Holy Spirit who perfected may there be Glory now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen.

This, no doubt, is the source for the material in Ms. Syr. 142, which, as the Mingana catalogue noted incorporates “apocryphal sayings” of Aristotle.  Clearly the words of “Zoroaster” are likewise taken from a collection of apocryphal sayings, just like this one.

About Sayings of the Pagan Philosophers concerning the coming of Christ

“Sayings” literature is a very specialist interest.  Some medieval Greek manuscripts that have come down to us contain collections of “sayings” of “wise men” of the past.  These collections, or different ones, also exist in Syriac, Coptic and Christian Arabic.  These “sayings” are known as “gnomologia” and much of the material in the past was printed in German.  Both the subject name and the language of scholarship have probably ensured obscurity.  The collections belong, not to the literary elite but to vulgar Greek culture.  The names of the authors on each saying could be changed, or lost.  The closest modern parallel is perhaps the joke book, where every saying tends to be attributed to Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde after a while.  Authenticity is of no importance compared to impact.

Now part of the proof of the Christian gospel in the middle ages was that Jewish writers predicted the coming of Christ.  During this period, however, a second line of prophecy develops, from pagan philosophers.  Consequently there are collections of sayings, specifically for this purpose.  Sadly the “quotations” are all bogus.  But naturally these find their way into contemporary literature, and this seems to be exactly what has happened here.

This is already a long post, so it would not be useful here to discuss the gnomologia much further.  However there is a catalogue of unpublished Arabic Christian gnomologia in the standard handbook of Arabic Christian litterature, Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. 1, on pp.483-6, which I placed online and translated here.  This he introduces with the following words (translation mine):

The apologetical literature of the Christian orient used the doubtful evidence of falsified statements of ancient pagan authors and invented oracular sayings to confirm the divinity of Christianity and the truth of its teaching, as was also done to an almost indeterminable extent by Greek and late antique apologists.  Collections of such proofs of differing extent and with changing text also were taken into the Arabic language in theological works, where they appear both among collections of quotations and patristic citations or separately in the manuscripts.

He then lists the manuscripts that contain some of the collections.  Among these is …. Ms. Mingana Syr. 481, as given above.

Graf also gives other authors who make use of these collections.  Among these is John ibn Saba, The precious pearl, who also gives the Zoroaster quote.  Fortunately John has been printed in the Patrologia Orientalis 16.4, with a French translation.

Here’s the relevant bit, from chapter 19

Similarly, the spirit of Saturn (Zohal) appeared to a man named Zoroaster (Zarâdacht). His doctrine has been spread for one thousand five hundred years. He sent out on a mission seventy men on whom seventy spirits coming from the spirit of Saturn had come down and who invited the people to the worship of this star. Zoroaster said to them in the hour of his death: “If you do not eat my body and do not drink my blood, you will have no part in salvation.” After his demise, his disciples did therefore boil his body and drank of this turbid fluid. He thus obtained the accomplishment of what he had said to them.

It’s the same quote, transplanted into yet another unrelated work.


The claim made by Freke and Gandy is false.  No source ever suggested that Mithras uttered any such words.

Instead what we have is a medieval saying, falsely attributed to Zoroaster, preserved in Arabic.  The saying originates from a process where “quotations” were copied, edited, and “improved”, and, in the end, created a collection of sayings of pagan philosophers apparently predicting the coming of Christ.  There is no reason to attribute these words to anybody other than a too-credulous medieval Christian.  They originate in the gospel, not precede it.

UPDATE: I have just discovered a review by H.-C. Puesch, in Revue de l’histoire de religions 134 (1947), 242-244 online here, in which he makes many of the same points about this “saying”.  Puesch says that he received a letter from … Fr. P.J. de Menasce!  De Menasce apparently told Cumont about this in 1938.  He offers various corrections to the text printed by Cumont from Ms. Mingana Syr. 142, and states that the “lost Mazdaean text” referred to by Cumont was none other than the “Book of the elements” in Ms. Syr. 481.

  1. [1]The thread is archived here: http://bcharchive.org/2/thearchives/showthread6a92.html?t=216293&page=13
  2. [2]I have overparagraphed this for ease of reference.

Life of Aesop, translated by Anthony Alcock

Anthony Alcock has deviated from his usual work in Syriac and Coptic to translate one of the ancient Lives of Aesop.  His full introduction explains which, and based on what manuscripts.  This work belongs to the genre of “sayings” or “wisdom” literature (gnomologia); but I presume might also relate to the genre of Saints’ lives.

This is therefore very valuable to have.  Thank you!


A collection of sayings attributed to Ammonius/Amun

Dr Anthony Alcock has translated for us all a collection of sayings, some Syriac, some Greek, which are attributed to St Ammonius, or Amun, a disciple of the desert father St Anthony.  These take the form of short anecdotes.

It’s lovely to have these in English!  The PDF is here:


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.

On giving too much

Adam McCollum’s blog HMMLOrientalia came back to life a few months ago, and unfortunately I did not notice.  But he is now posting some very useful material indeed, with good bibliographies, and each post contributes measurably the increasing the quality of information online.

But this post caught my eye for other reasons:

At the beginning of CFMM 306 are a few maxims, first in Syriac, then in Arabic (Garšūnī) …

  • Don’t believe everything you hear.
  • Don’t tell* everything that you see.
  • Don’t say everything that you know.
  • Don’t do everything that you are able to do.
  • Don’t give all you possess.

These are maxims of reticence or prudent withholding, all of this basic theme, and they reflect the experience of those who, having given too freely of their means or knowledge, have gotten into trouble, lost relationships, and more.

I suspect those of us who blog, who contribute online, have all encountered these problems, from being too generous. 

All of us who give of ourselves must know our limits.  More, we must recognise that only we can enforce them.  There are any number of people who go around making demands of others.  Which of us has not received some ill-spelled and preremptory demand for information, evidently from a child too lazy to do his homework? 

To remain in good health, we must politely but firmly decline to exceed our boundaries, whether in response to sudden enthusiasm on our own part, or to urgent importunity from others.  The troll who seeks to lure you into an interminable correspondence is not your friend.  Have the courage to dismiss him.  To do otherwise is violate our boundaries, and to haemorrage ourselves for those who will do nothing for us. 

Often, too often, we find that those for whom we have sacrificed our time and energy suddenly go silent, without even a “thank you”; leaving us feeling flat, sore and abused.  Occasionally we even find that our labours are thrown back in our faces by those who could not have done anything without us, yet decline even to acknowledge their indebtedness. 

So … let us know our limits.

But Adam then goes on to make a valuable point about sayings literature, or gnomologia as some anti-populariser dubbed it:

There are, of course, notable traditions of maxims and proverbs spanning ancient near eastern and classical literature (at least Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin), and the sentiments indicated above are hardly unique among those traditions.

And he then references a number of these.

Arabic sayings literature — or, more accurately Christian Arabic sayings literature — seems largely inaccessible and unexplored.  We really could do with a corpus of the material listed in Graf (vol. 1, p.482 f.).  Little of it has even been published.


Gnomologia on the web

Everyone knows that the Arabs had collections of the “sayings of the poets and philosophers” with which they bored each other at those lengthy dinner parties during the middle ages while they were waiting for the crusades to begin.  Few perhaps realise that collections of this kind actually start with the Greeks, and are extant in substantial chunks from the 3rd century on.

The sayings are mostly bogus, but some creep into editions of fragments, probably by mistake.  The sayings change shape, as the various editors “improved” them for wit and delivery.  They change author too!  And they exist in Greek, in Syriac, and in Arabic, and probably in other languages also.   In fact they constitute “pop literature” — a literary form used for enjoyment by people who should have been cleaning toilets or enrolling at the academy.  They’re a pig to work on, and getting a critical text is a nightmare.

In the past, scholars have recognised that the world needs to be protected from these things, and have cunningly named the subject “gnomologia”.  Literally it means “wisdom sayings” — but hey, that would make too much sense and might attract unwanted attention.  The term “gnomologia” is just the thing to make most people go cross-eyed and move quickly on.

Another ploy has been to have only German scholars work on it, and get them to do it a century ago in obscure publications, usually without translation.  After all, if you provide a translation, who knows who might start looking at this stuff?  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

In this way this material has remained largely unexplored except by specialists.  And thank goodness, for it combines tedium with inauthenticity in a manner not normally found outside the speechs of Episcopalian bishops.

Charlotte Roueché of Kings College London has unfortunately broken through all this and started the SAW project — Sharing Ancient Wisdoms.  She’s linked up with Denis Searby, who published a massive Greek collection, the Corpus Parisinum, and who broke with tradition and actually provided a translation.  (Shocking!)  She’s also roped in some experts in Arabic to get stuck into that area as well.  The idea is to use web-based technology to explore the lot and publish them online:

With the support of a team at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, and the Cente for e-Research at King’s, Charlotte Roueché will be working with experts on such collections in Greek (Denis Searby, of Uppsala) and in Arabic (Stephan Prochazka and Elvira Wakelnig, of Vienna). The aim is to publish several collections online, using technology to express and display their relationships – with the ancient texts on which they drew, with later texts which drew on them, and also with one another, since collections were frequently translated.

It all looks very bad for the old way of doing things.  Soon people will actually be able to learn about this form of literature, and start to relate it, as a source, to the classical and patristic tradition.  Whatever will become of us?

But enough joking.  Dr Roueché and her team are doing something that has needed doing for a century at least.  Everything they touch will be of value.  I hope the results will be freely accessible online.  Few enough people are interested in these curious texts anyway.

I myself commissioned translations of some Arabic Christian collections of these things; enough to realise their nature.  I shall offer these to the project.

(via: David Meadows)

UPDATE (6/5/14): Updated link to website of SAW.


The decline of the legend of the Seven Sages and theosophical prophecies

A. Delatte begins his article of the above title with the following words:

Never did anyone prophesy so much, in the special form known as prophecy post eventum, as in the first centuries of Christianity.  The rapid conquest of souls by the new ideal and the solid establishment of the Christian churches showed the hand of God, and this transfiguration of the face of the world so stirred some spirits that in order to explain it they felt obliged to fall back on the idea of a preparation stage for the gospel.  Similarly some were unable to believe that the brightest and most inspired of the pagans did not have some presentiment or secret revelation of the mystery of the Redemption. 

In order to satisfy this longing of faith, some people who were well-intentioned but too little scrupulous of their choice of methods composed new Sybilline oracles, and placed in circulation prophecies that had previously come, so they said, from the sanctuaries of Apollo, announcing the coming of the messiah.  They also began to search the books and the biographies of the philosophers for features and doctrines that could easily be misinterpreted as disguised evidence of foreknowledge of the great event. 

Did they find them?  Some apostles of dissident Christian groups, those whose followers were of limited education and unable to detect the fraud, did not hesitate to resort to the falsification of ancient literary works to nourish the faith of their followers.  It might seem, moreover, that this was an excellent means of propaganda among those lingering in paganism, who were not fleeing the embrace of Christianity so much as clinging to the debris of the too mystical teachings of the magi, astrologers, and the theurgists, and were therefore ill-equipped to detect imposters.

Perhaps for Christianity to become universal, it had to appeal to the irrational element in every society, as well as the rational and devout; to the people who waste their time on New Age frauds in our day, as well as to the university-educated who make up most evangelicals in our day.  The thought is an interesting one, and the parallel also.  But let us return to Delatte, who is not so far footnoting these comments, unfortunately.

But in putting Christianity back among paganism, in making Orpheus, Pindar, Plato, Hermes Trismegistus and many others be Christians before the fact, the Orthodox faith was at great risk of diminishing itself, or even being contaminated.  The church was cautious; some of these theologians  to the troubled soul learned this to their cost. 

A certain Aristocritus (5th century) used all the resources of an uncertain science and the powers of a too supple spirit of conciliation to compose a book entitled Θεοσοφία.  He wanted to show that the most eminent souls among the Hebrews and the Greeks had, by the grace of God, the divination of the mysteries and prior knowledge of certain Christian doctrines, but in the opinion of orthodox theologians he only succeeded in demonstrating the identity of the doctrines of Judaism, Hellenism and Christianity, which was a hopeless error.  This system of accomodation which resembles the methods practised by the Stoics in handling previous philosophies was not to the liking of the strong-minded and clear-minded.  As a result the book of Aristocritus features among the works tainted with the Manichaen heresy which are anathematised in an ancient formula used for renouncing Manichaeism.

Accomodation is indeed the chronic hazard of the apologist; to be coloured by the views of those you oppose, to insensibly move to resist certain views and unknowingly accept others equally fatal to your position.

Delatte then goes on to review the scattered remains of Greek texts which preserve supposed extracts from philosophers predicting the coming of Christ.  I won’t repeat all this here, in what is already too long a post.  But these texts deserve to be gathered and made more readily available.


Piles of paper on the side and a rainy day at home

I doubt that I am alone in possessing piles of photocopies from books and articles.  Like blocks of stone they rise on every side.  Made by my own hands, mostly, the photocopies were paid for in time and money.  Many a trip to the university library has ended in a session at home reading through the products of my labours with excitement.  Then the photocopies were laid aside, as I might want them again, and never seen again.

A soft and rainy day is the perfect day to try to rediscover your furniture.  Mine has bowed under the weight of these toppling piles for years.  A whim moved me to sort some of them out, and transfer at least some of them to the cupboard, where dust does not darken nor the cleaners condemn.

Of course I have these urges every few years.  The last time was when I got a fast modern Fujitsu scanner and converted quite a lot into PDF’s.  But I couldn’t remember why a certain pile had survived.

Inspection revealed that it contained mostly materials relating to the Eusebius project.  As I looked through it, there were print-outs of catalogue entries; books that I had once sought, mostly successfully, sometimes in vain.  Cordier’s catena was listed, a reminder that I sat in Duke Humphrey’s Library once and looked through it for Eusebian material.  I can remember the hardness of the chair, and getting caught in a rainstorm outside.  I had not realised, in truth, how long the Eusebius project has been part of my life and a focus for my efforts.  I tend to think that it is only for a year or two; but in truth I have probably spent much of the last decade on it.  So our lives slip away, while we play with this or that.

Among the items I found was a copy of A. Delatte, «Le déclin de la Légende des VII Sages et les Prophéties théosophiques», Musée Belge 27 (1923), p. 97-111.  I got this when I was looking at material in Arabic derived supposedly from patristic sources.  There were all these collections of “Sayings”, often by philosophers or the like, predicting the coming of Christ, or other “wisdom” type sayings.   Such collections of sayings were analogous to the volumes of “Wit and Wisdom” that populate shops selling remaindered books.  The accuracy of attribution and quotation is probably about the same.  These collections are called gnomologia. 

Delatte’s article discussed the twilight of the classical tradition of the Seven Sages.  In Late Antiquity this unfixed myth was found useful by people such as theosophists to provide a frame for their ideas.  Consequently it connects to the idea of “famous sayings of the philosophers.”

Delatte also published in the article one of the texts feeding into this tradition, which was why I got it.  No translation, tho.  Don’t you hate it when people do that?  It’s four and a bit pages of Greek; almost worth commissioning a translation of it and giving it away.

I might try and reacquaint myself with this paper this afternoon.  I’ve created a PDF, and run it through the OCR software.  My sofa will now help me understand it!


Wit and wisdom in the ancient world

Last night I read a truly splendid article by R. Van Den Broek, Four Coptic Fragments of a Greek Theosophy, Vigiliae Christianae, 32 (1978), 118-42.  It’s on JSTOR here.  If you have JSTOR access, don’t try to read it on-screen, because it will make your eyes hurt; print it on paper and read it that way.

What’s great about it, I hear you ask?  Well, the first three pages provide a really good overview in English of a subset of gnomologia; ancient collections of pagan prophecies predicting the coming of Christ.  Most of these have never been translated into English, and all are  hard to access and understand.

It seems that in late antiquity, as the temples were being demolished, the Christians of the period justified this to educated pagans by appealing to quotations from the philosophers predicting that the temples would fail and become unnecessary. 

This gives us a date for the origin of this kind of literature; the 5th century, when paganism was far from dead among the aristocracy, and such arguments could be useful.   The ‘quotes’ themselves tend to be a bit bogus; dodgy people like Hermes Trismegistus are invoked.  Oracles of the gods themselves are included. 

There’s a few of these sayings in Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum.  But the big 5th century collection is an anonymous Greek “Theosophy”.  This is lost, except for a longish chunk of book 11, containing quotes from the Sybilline oracles.  But a long abstract has been preserved, known as the Tübingen Theosophy and published by H. Erbse in Theosophorum Graecorum Fragmenta.  (This is not one of those monster tomes, but a smallish book).  This tells us about the content.  The first few books were dedicated to describing the true faith, and the next few to predictions of Christ of this kind.

The fragment of the “Theosophy” tells us that the quotes come partly from Lactantius.  As might be expected, manuscripts of the fathers are the main source, and probably even glosses on those manuscripts were used as if by pagan authors — after all, without quotation marks, who could be sure?

Later collections play down oracles by the gods — now relegated to history — but instead start using pagan predictions to parallel those from the Old Testament.  An example of this is John ibn Saba’s Precious Pearl.

The actual research in the article is four more bits of ‘prophecy’, this time from Coptic sources.  Sebastian Brock published some from Syriac.  My own site contains text and translation of a few from Arabic. 

Sayings literature was a popular genre.  Consequently maxims and sayings spread all over the literate world.  It would be interesting to learn whether any made their way into Persian or Indian!