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, 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!

Ancient sayings literature

I collect joke books.  Most evenings I get home, tired, and I’m not really in the mood to read something heavy.  Instead I pick up a joke book, open it anywhere, read a few lines and always find something to make me smile.

Anyone who has bought joke books will be familiar with the way that the exact wording can change.  The contents of any book will vary, depending on what the author had access to.  Some jokes are attributed to famous people in one book, and are anonymous in others. 

Collections of wit and wisdom are not modern inventions.  Someone has invented the horrible term ‘gnomologia’ – literally ‘words of wisdom’ – to describe these things.  That’s enough to put anyone off!  But it means the same.  These are ancient collections of wit and wisdom.

I’ve been reading Denis Searby’s edition of the Corpus Parisinum (although the library have seen fit to only send me volume 1, the Greek text!).  I am struck by the way in which the contents of this monstrous 9th century collection of sayings, anecdotes, apophthegms (a long word for ‘bits of sage wisdom’) follow these rules also.

Joke books are a low-brow form of literature in our day, but a very popular one.  Likewise collections of sayings and wit were a popular form of literature, and occur all over the place in the manuscripts.  It is worth considering that one of Caxton’s first publications in English was a translation of an Arabic collection of wit and wisdom.  Doubtless he printed it primarily because he believed that he could sell it readily.

Some versions of the collection omit some or all of the names of the authors to whom each saying or story is attributed (the jargon for this is the ‘lemma’).  But clearly it is the wit of the saying which is important, not the specific person as a rule.  We would never criticise a joke book author for changing attribution, if it made the joke funnier, after all.

As the Greek language changed, sayings had to be rewritten.  An archaic word might dull the point of some saying; it would have to be rephrased.  Translations into Syriac and Arabic were initially very literal.  But quickly they would be rephrased or rewritten in order to work in their new context.  Impact is everything with a joke or anecdote; without it, it loses its point.  Unfunny jokes are not repeated.

Modern jokes are usually delivered orally.  There is thus an oral stage to transmission, particularly with the Arabic material, where the culture favours quotations of sententious wisdom and so is favourable to exactly this form of literature.

Other volumes are collections of anecdotes.  After-dinner stories can be  bought in most bookshops.  Again, Bar Hebraeus compiled a volume of anecdotes, published by E. Wallis Budge as “The laughable stories.”  These follow the same sorts of rules.  Many a modern story is attributed to Churchill, or Oscar Wilde.  Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle.

Dr Searby makes a couple of interesting points about the transmission of these works.  For one thing, if we are trying to produce a critical edition, precisely what is the autograph?  In what sense is there an original?

Secondly he suggests that, within the limits given above, the transmission of the content of sayings is quite faithful. 

It’s clearly a mistake to treat these sayings collections as if they were literary works like a poem or a history.  Their nature means that they must be transmitted differently, the text is expected to be altered, is expected to have additional material added.  There is no fraud or dishonesty in this; merely the nature of the genre.

PS: After writing this I began to read the “Laughable stories”.  Saying 56: “A rich man wrote above the door of his house, ‘No evil thing may enter.’  Diogenes said, ‘Fine; but how is your wife to come in, then?'”

Corpus Parisinum of the Greek Gnomologia finally published

Collections of sayings by philosophers and other bums are known as gnomologia – the idea being that they contain gnomic wisdom.  These things exercised quite a bit of influence in antiquity.

One of the most famous collections of these is the Corpus Parisinum, so called because it is preserved in a massive manuscript (Ms. Paris graecus 1168) in the French National Library.  It’s never been published, but it’s a central witness if you are trying to trace the history of a saying.

 Well, it has now been edited!  Dennis Searby has made a critical edition, with English translation, and Dimitri Gutas supplied a preface.  I only wonder how I can get a look at a copy!

PS: There’s a table of contents here.  One section (CP2) is pagan prophecies of the coming of Christ which didn’t make it into Maximus the Confessor.  Dr Searby kindly sent me his intro to that section.  The book is 1,000 pages, in two volumes, and looks like a treasure trove of valuable information.