A fuller extract from Gregory of Nyssa on the evils of slavery

A few years ago I found online an extract from Gregory of Nyssa against slavery which I wrote about here.  Today I came across the full text of the translation, and the passage is rather longer than I had thought, and well worth giving in full.

The passage appears in the Homilies on Ecclesiastes, homily 4.  Gregory is working his way through the text of Ecclesiastes, and the various ways in which Solomon attempted to fill his life with stuff, rather than with God.  In Ecclesiastes 2:7 he starts listing his possessions, which include slaves.

Note that the biblical Greek text on which Gregory commented is sensibly translated at the head of the passage, as it is not always the same as our modern texts which are based on the Hebrew.

Ecclesiastes 2:7 –

I got me slaves and slave-girls,
and homebred slaves were born for me,
and much property in cattle and sheep became mine,
above all who had been
before me in Jerusalem.

334.5. We still find the occasion for confession controlling the argument. The one who gives an account of his doings relates one after another almost all the things through which the futility of the activities of this life is recognized. But now he reaches as it were a more serious indictment of things he has done, as a result of which one is accused of the feeling of Pride. For what is such a gross example of arrogance in the matters enumerated above – an opulent house. and an abundance of vines, and ripeness in vegetable-plots, and collecting waters in pools and channelling them in gardens – as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? I got me slaves and slave-girls, he says, and homebred slaves were born for me.

Do you notice the enormity of the boast? This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all (Ps 119/118,91). So, when someone [p335] turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?

335,5. I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.

335,11. You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen, 1,26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? You have subjected all things to man, declares the word through the prophecy, and in the text it lists the things subject, cattle and oxen and sheep (Ps 8,7- 8). Surely [p336] human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock? Irrational beasts are the only slaves of mankind. But to you these things are of small account. Raising fodder for the cattle, and green plants for the slaves of men, it says (Ps 1041 103,14). But by dividing the human species in two with ‘slavery’ and ‘ownership’ you have caused it to be enslaved to itself, and to be the owner of itself.

336,6.  I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

336,20. How too shall the ruler of the whole earth and all earthly things be put up for sale? [p337] For the property of the person sold is bound to be sold with him, too. So how much do we think the whole earth is worth? And how much all the things on the earth (Gen 1,26)? If they are priceless, what price is the one above them worth, tell me? Though you were to say the whole world, even so you have not found the price he is worth (Mat 16,26; Mk 8,36). He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul. Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room. Presumably, then, the property belonging to him is up for auction too.  That means the earth, the islands, the sea, and all that is in them. What will the buyer pay, and what will the vendor accept, considering how much property is entailed in the deal?

337,13. But has the scrap of paper, and the written contract, and the counting out of obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? What folly! If the contract were lost, if the writing were eaten away by worms, if a drop of water should somehow seep in and obliterate it, what guarantee have you of their slavery? what have you to sustain your title as owner? I see no superiority over the subordinate [p338] accruing to you from the title other than the mere title. What does this power contribute to you as a person? not longevity, nor beauty, nor good health, nor superiority in virtue. Your origin is from the same ancestors, your life is of the same kind, sufferings of soul and body prevail alike over you who own him and over the one who is subject to your ownership – pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death. Is there any difference in these things between the slave and his owner? Do they not draw in the same air as they breathe? Do they not see the sun in the same way? Do they not alike sustain their being by consuming food? Is not the arrangement of their guts the same? Are not the two one dust after death? Is there not one judgment for them? a common Kingdom, and a common Gehenna?

338,14. If you are equal in all these ways, therefore, in what respect have you something extra, tell me, that you who are human think yourself the master of a human being, and say, I got me slaves and slave-girls, like herds of goats or pigs. For when he said, I got me slaves and slave-girls, he added that abundance in flocks of sheep and cattle came to him. For he says, and much property in cattle and sheep became mine, as though both cattle and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.

The Greek text translated is that in the modern Gregorii Nysseni Opera (GNO) series, (volume 5), and page and line numbers are indicated.

The translation itself is by the excellent Stuart G. Hall, and Rachel Moriarty.[1]  The latter contributes a preface indicating that unfortunately the translation has been tampered with in order to make it “gender neutral”.  The translation of the homilies is followed by a series of useful studies, and I could wish that others adopted such a format.

It’s obvious, in context, that Gregory is not preaching an abolitionist sermon, but an expository one.  He’s not calling for the institution of slavery to be abolished.  Indeed his hearers might not have been prepared for anything that radical.  But Gregory is worrying away at the idea.  The germ of the idea that led to abolition is present.

Useful to have this, and it is perhaps not as well-known as it might be.

  1. [1]S. G. Hall, Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on Ecclesiastes. An English Version with Supporting Studies. Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa. (St Andrews, 8 -10 September 1990).  De Gruyter, 1993, pp.72-4.

Matthieu Cassin on the chapter titles of Contra Eunomium I

In the Sources Chretiennes edition of Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium,[1] there is an annex which is of wider interest.  Annex II — p.359-364 — was written by Matthieu Cassin, and summarises rather nicely the question of indices and chapter titles in the manuscripts of this work. 

I know that French is a closed book to rather too many anglophone scholars, so, in the interests of wider access, here is my own English translation of portions of it. 

The kephalaia of book I

Immediately preceding the text of Contra Eunomium, the majority of the manucripts include a list of chapters of book 1, either as a summary or a table of contents.  The numbers of these chapters are then given in the margins of the text, at the location corresponding to the beginning of each chapter.  Some manuscripts, whether or not they preserve the table at the front, also give the title of the chapter, either in the body of the text or in the margin.  Finally others, which don’t include any portion of the chapters titles anywhere, still retain traces of marginal numerals.  The antiquity of this system of structuring the work is confirmed by the witness of the indirect tradition: in fact the Treatise against Damian written at the end of the 6th century by Peter of Callinicus, patriarch of Antioch, furnishes us with ample citations of the Contra Eunomium of Gregory, and specifies the chapter from which the passages come. These indications correspond, in the vast majority of cases, with the system which appears in the Greek manuscript tradition, except around the great lacuna in the later parts of the book. In fact the text which Peter knew had not yet suffered this loss, and the numbering accordingly had not been disturbed in this area by the loss of an important section of the text.

The following table gives in the first column the number of the chapter, in the second the paragraph where the chapter begins; if the latter does not begin at the start of a paragraph, the difference is signalled by + or – and specified in a note, giving page and line from the edition of W. Jaeger. The following columns, which each correspond to one of the witnesses of the text, indicate if the chapter mark is present (+) or absent (-) from the manuscripts, or if it has not been possible for me to determine its status (?); signalled by a ≠ is a reported difference from the norm. The indication ‘mut.’ is utilised when the manuscript is mutilated for this portion of the text; ‘lac.’ signals the lacuna of chapters 29-31.

The copies of manuscripts where the original is extant are not represented in this table, except for D, which allows us to fill in some of the lacunas of S. B. (Lesbiacus 6), to the extent that it gives a single chapter numeral (κβ’), on f. 340v, in its usual place in the text.

The manuscripts not cited do not include any indication of chapters: mostly these are recent copies, except for V (Vaticanus gr. 447, 12th c.). The latter manuscript, on the other hand, indicates the position of chapters for book III, and for the Refutation; the manuscript from which it was copied, like L, had undoubtedly deteriorated since it was written, and the marks of the chapters were no longer visible. Two manuscripts could not be consulted (Hagion Oros, Mone Vatopediou, 541; Sinai, Mone tes Aikaterines, Metochion 8). Another, equally inaccessible to me, signals the beginning of chapters and their numeral, according to the catalogue which describes it (Brescia, Bibl. civica Queriniana, A IV 3).

There then follow five pages of data on the chapters, which may be conveniently viewed in the SC edition itself. Dr Cassin resumes the story afterwards as follows:

The editio princeps of 1618, based upon recent manuscripts which did not specify the positions of the chapters, could not indicate them. Fr. Oehler, who was in a position to consult manuscripts which carried the numbers of the chapters in their margins, such as L or M, did not report them in his edition, which appeared in 1865. W. Jaeger, whose position on this point is less than clear, chose not to indicate their position, believeing that the manuscripts did not agree among themselves, even though he had access to the majority of the witnesses of the text.

All this is of great interest.

Firstly the work of Peter of Callinicus indicates that by the 6th century at least, the chapter titles were as we see them. Since the transmitted text is likewise equipped, this must be strong evidence that the titles, divisions, and numerals are authentic. Secondly the tendency of scribes to interfere with them seems to be shown — it’s not quite clear from the article — by tinkering with the numbering once a lacuna had appeared in chapters 29-31.

If the summary, the chapter titles, and the marginal numerals are all authorial — and it looks like it — then we have to ask whether this is an innovation by Gregory; or whether, in fact, he is merely adopting a trend active in his own time.

Speculating, I would suggest the latter.  Half a century earlier, Eusebius of Caesarea had given summaries in his Ecclesiastical History (doubtless based on earlier Greek histories which did the same), but also in his theological works like the Praeparatio Evangelica.  It is less clear whether these items had made it into the text, or whether there were numerals.  But who can say?  The influence of the EH on all Greek patristic literature means that possibly this was the catalyst.  Is it possible that the division of theological books into chapters with numbers and marked in the body of the text is a 4th century innovation?  And that it spreads to the Latin world in the 5-6th centuries?

How valuable the SC series is!  For increasingly I notice that they include a section of just what the manuscripts actually contain.  As Dr C. rightly observes, editors simply ignored this stuff.  Those days, thankfully, must be behind us.

  1. [1]Gregoire de Nysse, Contre Eunome I, SC 524, 2010: Greek text by W. Jaeger from WNO I.1, translation by Raymond Winling.

Gregory of Nyssa on chapter titles

In his work De hominis opificio (On the making of man), in the praefatio, Gregory alludes explicitly to a list of chapter titles for the work:

…and for clearness’ sake I think it well to set forth to you the discourse by chapters, that you may be able briefly to know the force of the several arguments of the whole work.[1]

The Greek text of Migne does not print any chapter titles, but the English translators embedded them following this sentence.

The word rendered “chapters” is, of course, kephalaia.  Here at least we see that Gregory is familiar with the idea of a work which may be summarised in this way. 

  1. [1]PG 44, col. 128B.  English translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, which then inserts a translation of the chapter headings which do not appear at this position in the Greek text of Migne.

Chapter divisions in Gregory of Nyssa’s “Contra Eunomium”

There is a paper on the web by Matthieu Cassin, discussing the context of the three books of the Contra Eunomium of Gregory of Nyssa.[1]  In the middle of it (p.112) he discussed the divisions in the text, as it has been transmitted.  It’s fascinating stuff.

Besides the division of Book III, the different manuscripts present a list of titles for the different chapters (κεφλαια). A large number of manuscripts indicate the chapters of Book I in the margins, proposing converging positions for them.(16) Furthermore, it is acknowledged that the chapters of Book I are by Gregory himself,(17) and I have shown that their position goes back at least to the sixth century. If this is accurate, it would be a very valuable testimony to the way Gregory understood his own text. However, the chapters of the other books are obviously not by the same hand.

(16) Matthieu Cassin, L’écriture de la polémique à la fin du IVe siècle: Grégoire de Nysse, Contre Eunome III (Thèse de doctorat, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne, 2009), vol. I, 135–7.
(17) See J. A. Röder, Gregor von Nyssa, Contra Eunomium I, 1–146, eingeleitet, übersetzt und kommentiert (Patrologia 2; Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1993), 73–4.

This is interesting, and I wish I could see the references!  For if so, this is evidence of 4th century authorial chapter titles.  The thesis does not seem to be online; while no-one on earth could access the Röder volume unless they live near a research library.

I will write to Dr Cassin and see if I can get a peek at his pages 135-7!

  1. [1]Matthieu Cassin«Text and context : the importance of scholarly reading. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium», dans S. Douglas, M. Ludlow (éd.), Reading the Church Fathers, Londres, 2011, p. 109-131 et 161-165.

A bibliography of scholarship on Gregory of Nyssa

A correspondent has drawn my attention to a treasure online: a site maintained by Matthieu Cassin, which consists of a bibliography of articles about Gregory of Nyssa, in reverse date order.

What makes this special is that some of the articles are linked.  This includes translations of texts by the man himself:

M. Cassin, « Grégoire de Nysse, Sur la divinité du Fils et de l’Esprit et sur Abraham », Conférence 29, 2009, p. 581-611.

and this interesting article, which also discusses the titles and chapter divisions of Gregory’s work against Eunomius.  Whether the chapter divisions are authorial in late antique texts is a discussion which remains to be clarified, but the paper contributes to it.

M. Cassin, « Text and context : the importance of scholarly reading. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium », dans S. Douglass, M. Ludlow (éd.), Reading the Church Fathers, Londres, 2011, p. 109-131 et 161-165.

There are other treasures too:

P. Géhin, « Fragments patristiques syriaques des Nouvelles découvertes du Sinaï », Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 6, 2009, p. 67-93.

P. Géhin, « Manuscrits sinaïtiques dispersés II : les fragments théologiques syriaques de Milan (Chabot 34-57) », Oriens christianus 91, 2007, p. 1-24.

although some of the links are just to pay-journals, unfortunately, or to Google books.

There are further interesting items linked from his CV, among them:

A. Binggeli, M. Cassin, « Recenser la tradition manuscrite des textes grecs : du Greek Index Project à Pinakes », dans La descrizione dei manoscritti : esperienze a confronto, éd. E. Crisci, M. Maniaci, P. Orsini, (Studi e ricerche del Dipartimento di filologia e storia 1), Cassino, 2010, p. 91-106.


Gregory of Nyssa fails to adapt to then contemporary attitudes on slavery

Look at who is linking to you, and you can find some interesting things!  One was this post, and of course I shall have to read this blog some more!

Another of these is an extract from Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on Ecclesiastes here (over-paragraphing by me).  This is from Homily 4, on Ecclesiastes 2:7.

‘I got me slave-girls and slaves.’ For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God?

God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller?

To God alone belongs this power; or, rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom.

But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

This from St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes; Hall and Moriarty, trs., de Gruyter (New York, 1993) p. 74.

It is a pity that only the page reference to the translation is quoted, not the text reference with homily, chapter, etc.  But it is in fact I find from Homily 4, in the Greek p.335,4 – 338,22.[1]

What a world away this is, from the attitudes expressed in Martial, a man whose idea of a pleasant afternoon is to summon one of his slaves, and the girl-slave that the lad loves, and rape both of them.

  1. [1]As given in the Hall translation pp.73-4.  The edition translated is In Ecclesiasten homiliae. Edidit Paulus Alexander in Gregorii Nysseni opera. Auxilio aliorum virorum doctorum edenda curavit Wernerus Jaeger. Volumen V (Leiden 1986), pp. 195-442.

A famous passage of Gregory of Nyssa… but where from?

Everyone has read this:

Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing.

But… where in his works does Gregory of Nyssa say this?  And does an English translation exist?

UPDATE: From the discussion in the comments (which includes the Greek), I learn that the work is his Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiriti Sancti, (= Oration on the deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit) which is printed in PG 46, and the passage is on col. 557, section B.   (It’s in the modern 1996 edition of Gregory’s works also, but of course no normal person would have access to that.[1])  An offline (!) German translation of the whole treatise exists in V. H. Drecoll and M. Berghaus (eds.), Gregory of Nyssa : The Minor Treatises on Trinitarian Theology and Apollinarism (Brill 2011).  But … a complete French translation exists, made by Matthieu Cassin, and is online! The direct link is here, and a PDF at the bottom contains the whole article. Our phrase is on p.11 of the PDF, p.591 of the article.   (For those without French, be aware that Google Translate does French-to-English very well.)  Thank you to everyone who contributed!

  1. [1]“De deitate filii et spiritus sancti et in Abraham” in Gregorii Nysseni Opera vol. X part 2 (ed. E. Rhein), Brill, 1996.