A “beautiful allusion” to palimpsests in John Chrysostom, and the less beautiful task of verifying it

In 1866 a lecture was given by a certain Dr Charles William Russell (d.1880), President of Maynooth College, with the title, “Cardinal Mai and the Palimpsests”.  This contained the following statement, which has been repeated in some form now for 160 years.

The practice [of palimpsesting] continued, in a greater or less degree, under the later emperors ; and there is a beautiful allusion to it in one of St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies,+ in which he compares the mind upon which evil impressions had once been made to a palimpsest parchment in which, however carefully the old characters and lines are sure to appear peeping the new writing.

It appears from the introduction of the editor that the text of the lecture was discovered, unpublished, among the papers of the author.  So it was printed in the Irish Monthly 38 (1910), p.301-315, more than forty years after it was delivered.

These words have had a literary afterlife quite disproportional to their origin.  When the claim is quoted, a reference is given to the homilies on Matthew, if at all.  But there is no sign that the reference has been verified.  Indeed a correspondent, Prof. Johnnie Gratton, formerly of Trinity College Dublin, wrote to me a week ago and raised the question, which drew my attention to the matter.

Our first port of call is the original article, which is in JSTOR here.  This gives a footnote, which reads, in its entirety, “Matth. xxvi. 4.”  But there is no homily of Chrysostom on that verse; indeed Chrysostom only refers to the verse once, according to the Biblindex database, and that in his 15th homily on Romans.

I then came across a possible answer, in a Ukrainian paper, of all possible sources.  The article has an English abstract and is Daria Morozova, “The school of Antioch and its pedagogical metaphors”,  in: Мultiversum: Philosophical almanac 1 (2020),188-201 (online here).   Thankfully Google Translate handles this well. Dr. Morozova begins:

In Antiochian authors, as in all Byzantine patristic in general, several pedagogical metaphors of ancient origin compete, which in very different ways – and in diametrically opposite ways – represent the nature of the educator’s influence on the child. Perhaps the most common pedagogical metaphor until now is the image of a blank sheet (tabula rasa), on which he outlines his meanings …  If the metaphor of a blank sheet comes from the materialist psychology of Aristotle (De anima, III, 4, 429b – 430a), …

Then on p.191 we find this:

Tabula rasa or palimpsest?

Chrysostom refers to the first paradigm – tabula rasa – very often, but it has a slightly more complex configuration. Instead of a “blank sheet”, John imagines a palimpsest with many layers of text, where each new recorded text hopelessly hides everything from sight. In one of the exegetical sermons (In Matt. 11.7), John rebukes his (adult) listeners for treating worship as a sad duty and not as a fascinating learning process in which the teachers are “prophets, apostles, patriarchs. and all are righteous. ” After singing a few psalms, they carry home “empty charters” (κενὰς… δέλτους), which, however, are not really empty. After all, at home the faithful allow passions and all the hustle and bustle of life to flood their hearts with “spam”, which makes them deaf to the divine lessons of the liturgy.

“That is why,” John complains, “when I take your charters (δέλτους), I cannot read them. I do not find the letters that we write down for you on Sundays (…), but I find others instead – meaningless (ἄσημα) and distorted. We, wiping them (ἐξαλείψαντες), write what is from the Spirit, and you, leaving here, surrender your hearts to the devil’s actions (διαβολικαῖς ἐνεργείαις), and again give him the opportunity to rewrite.” (In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200).

Therefore, Chrysostom asks his children: “Wipe away the letters or, more precisely, the imprints (χαράγματα) that the devil has engraved (ἐνετύπωσέ) in your soul, and bring me a heart free from all the confusion of life, so that I can write freely, to him that ho-chu”.

Spiritual education in this description resembles a certain information war, where opponents tirelessly rewrite texts on the tablets of hearts (“others against others”, ἕτερα ἀνθ ‘ἑτέρων). Thus, within the usual metaphor of a blank sheet, pedagogy is no longer presented as a one-time path from zero to 100% completeness, but as a virtually endless process of editing.

Note that I don’t know a letter of Ukrainian, nor even the Cyrillic alphabet, so all this is from Google Translate.  It’s remarkably good, isn’t it?

Here, I think, we have a modern researcher independently reading Chrysostom and concluding that a palimpsest is involved.  Better still, we have references!  Let’s see what they say.

The first reference is to “In Matt. 11.7”. But don’t be misled here – this is not about Matthew chapter 11, verse 7!  This refers to “Homilies on Matthew, homily 11, chapter 7”.   This can be found in the Patrologia Graeca text, PG 57, col. 200.  And “Homily 11 on Matthew” is commenting on Matthew 3:7.

The second reference is to “In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200”; but this is, again, in fact homily 11, chapter 7.  I assume “7:7” is a typo for “11:7”.  The material for both references seems to be from the same passage, as we shall see.

Luckily we have a complete translation of the Homilies on Matthew.  They were originally translated for the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers of the Catholic Church series.  Sir George Prevost made the translation, and it was published as volumes 11 and 15 in 1843, and vol. 34 in 1851.  These were then pirated for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, and slightly revised to update the language, formatting and footnotes.  The translation was made from a different edition, in which the material is in chapter 9.  The LFC may be found here.  Here’s the NPNF:

And yet our teachers here are more in number and greater. For no less than prophets and apostles and patriarchs, and all righteous men, are by us set over you as teachers in every Church. And not even so is there any profit, but if you have joined in chanting two or three Psalms, and making the accustomed prayers at random and anyhow, are so dismissed, you think this enough for your salvation. Have ye not heard the prophet, saying (or rather God by the prophet), This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me?

Therefore, lest this be our case too, wipe out the letters, or rather the impressions, which the devil has engraven in your soul; and bring me a heart set free from worldly tumults, that without fear I may write on it what I will. Since now at least there is nothing else to discern, except his letters — rapines, covetings, envy, jealousy.  Wherefore of course, when I receive your tablets, I am not able so much as to read them. For I find not the letters, which we every Lord’s day inscribe on you, and so let you go; but others, instead of these, unintelligible and misshapen. Then, when we have blotted them out, and have written those which are of the Spirit, you departing, and giving up your hearts to the works of the devil, give him again power to substitute his own characters in you. What then will be the end of all this, even without any words of mine, each man’s own conscience knows. For I indeed will not cease to do my part, and to write in you the right letters. But if you mar our diligence, for our part our reward is unaltered, but your danger is not small….

The use of the word “impressions” confirms that we are dealing with the passage that Dr Russell had in mind.

The translator, Sir George Prevost, has rendered δέλτος as “tablet”, meaning a writing tablet.  Likewise the modern Latin translation in the PG edition renders it as “tabula”.  The wonderful Logeion site here confirms this understanding.

Here’s the PG text, bottom of col. 200.  I’ve highlighted the δέλτος:

My correspondent also drew my attention to a passage in the next chapter, where we have the phrase “the tablet of the mind”:

But in order that the same may not happen again — that you may not, having here admired what is said, go your way, and cast aside at random, wherever it may chance, the tablet of your mind, and so allow the devil to blot out these things — let each one, on returning home, call his own wife, and tell her these things, and take her to help him

The nearly unreadable PG in column 202, lines 19-20 gives δέλτον τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν, rendered in the Latin as “mentis vestrae tabula”.

Nowhere is the word “palimpsest” used, tho.  The text refers solidly to a youth’s tablet, used for writing, where the text can be erased and fresh text written.  The idea of half-erased impressions is definitely present – but refers to wax tablets, not to parchment erased and rewritten.

    *    *    *    *

Not every reader of this blog will be familiar with Roman wax tablets.  These are well known, and many resources for them exist online.

A thin wooden frame contained a central surface of wax.  The writer used a stylus with a pointed end to write.  The other end was flat, in order to erase it.  A depiction from 480 BC of just such a tablet in use is known to us: (h/t Michel Lara)

A modern reproduction looks like this:

With luck we can now put an end to the “Chrysostom talked about palimpsests” myth.

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Chrysostom quote: “How is it that you come to be rich?”

Today I saw an interesting quotation attributed to John Chrysostom, which reads as follows:

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century preacher and bishop of Constantinople, wrote, “Tell me then, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom did he transmit it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor, He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?”

Searching on the first words, “Tell me then, how is it you are rich?”, the source appears to be Shane Claiborne &c, Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, for May 14 – annoyingly the pages are unnumbered.[1]  But the authors give no source for this supposed quotation.  The quote has now started to appear in Twitter, and will doubtless circulate.

A Google Books search reveals earlier use of those words; e.g. in 1978 by Mary Evelyn Jegen & ‎Bruno V. Manno, The Earth is the Lord’s: Essays in Stewardship, p.40.  Unfortunately all the results listed are in snippet form only.

It sometimes helps to use later words in a quote, so I did a search on “The root and origin of it must have been injustice”, and … bingo!  It appears in the 1843 translation of the homilies of Chrysostom on Timothy, Titus and Philemon, published in the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers series, on p.100: in homily 12, on 1 Timothy.  This reads, in the NPNF series of homily 12:

Tell me, then, whence art thou rich? From whom didst thou receive it, and from whom he who transmitted it to thee? From his father and his grandfather. But canst thou, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning made not one man rich, and another poor. Nor did He afterwards take and show to one treasures of gold, and deny to the other the right of searching for it: but He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

At some point somebody modernised these words – not too arduous a task, since the original translator seems to have abandoned his thee’s and thou’s after the first couple of sentences, and reverted to the English of his own day in which he no doubt actually first wrote his translation – and that modernised version has been quoted and requoted.

So there we have it.  It is from Homily 12 of Chrysostom’s Homilies on 1 Timothy.

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  1. [1]Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, Zondervan, 2010.

New translation of Chrysostom’s 3 sermons on the devil now available

Bryson Sewell has finished making a new translation of the three sermons De diabolo temptatore (CPG 4332) by John Chrysostom.  These are now available here:

And I hope they will become available also at Archive.org in due course, but their uploader seems to be having an off-day.

The sermons are really quite interesting and relevant, and there are useful pointers to the Christian in them.

These were commissioned by mistake.  There is already an existing translation in the NPNF series, a mere 150 years ago.   This is the peril of commissioning material late in the evening after a long, tiring day, when you are not as alert as you might be!  But an updated translation is well worth having anyway, and Bryson has also translated the Latin introduction by Bernard de Montfaucon for us.  The text used was, inevitably, the Patrologia Graeca.

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From my diary

I’ve spent today driving up to Cambridge to visit the university library.  My object was to obtain some articles by R. Delmaire on the subject of Chrysostom’s letters.  For the most part I was able to obtain these; although I was disappointed to discover that the latest available volume of one serial was not shelved or accessible.  I’m reading into them at the moment.  R. Delmaire’s 1991 study examined the letters, and reordered them by date.  The order in the Benedictine edition (and the PG) isn’t even that of the manuscripts!

The Letters of Chrysostom project is not mine, so I won’t say a lot about this.  But I have also discovered a list of the opening words of all of the letters at the Sources Chretiennes site here (PDF).

Equally useful, I have discovered a list of the works of Chrysostom at the same site, with the Clavis Patrum Graecorum number for them all, here (PDF).

I’ve also received from the Lebanese typist the next 10 pages of the transcription of al-Makin’s world history.  This is taken from the 1625 Erpenius edition, which has the merit of being printed.  Once we get to the end of this – for Erpenius died before he could complete editing the text – I shall have to try the typist on a PDF of a microfilm manuscript.

An email has arrived today from the Bibliothèque Nationale Français, containing an estimate for reproductions of two manuscripts of al-Makin.  They require 50 euros each, plus 10 euros for “shipping” (why?) plus M. Hollande’s tax on top of that, totalling around 130 euros, or nearly $190!  Quite a bit for 2 PDF’s!  Worse still, they propose to supply me with scans from microfilms — at least, I hope these are scans, for the estimate says only “microfilm”.  And these will be black and white, and quite possibly unreadable.  I have a lot of time for the BNF, but this is shameful.  For that price they could at least photograph the things with a consumer digital camera and supply me with some decent images!  I shall have to pay the blackmail – it is, at least, less than the Bodleian is demanding – but it is a salutary reminder, in these days of digitisation, how bad things were and still are in some places.

Onward!

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Chrysostom, De terrae motu (on the earthquake) now online in English

Bryson Sewell has kindly translated for us all the short homily by John Chrysostom, De terrae motu (on the earthquake; CPG 4366, PG 50 713-6).

It’s here in HTML form.  I have placed the PDF and Word forms at Archive.org here.

The translation is public domain: use it freely for personal, educational or commercial use.

If you’d like to support me in commissioning translations of previously untranslated patristic material, you can buy a CD here, or make a donation using the button on the right.

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(Ps.)Chrysostom, Homily on the Nativity, now online in English

Bryson Sewell has kindly translated for us a homily transmitted under the name of Chrysostom on Christmas.  This is not the better known Christmas homily, but a second one whose authenticity was defended by C. Martin.

The translation of the homily may be found here:

As usual, the translation is public domain; do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

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Chrysostom’s Christmas sermons – now online in English

Maria Dahlin has done us all a favour, and made available her translation of five sermons by John Chrysostom!  Here’s what she says:

Now available at http://archive.org/details/ChrysostomsChristmasSermonsTranslatedAndExamined are the translations of 5 of Chrysostom’s sermons on Christmas:

  • In Christi Natalem Diem,
  • In Christi Natalem,
  • In Natalem Christi Diem,
  • In Natale Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, and
  • In Natale Domini et in Sanctam Mariam Genitricem

and a 20 page essay on the important status that Chrysostom gives to Christmas.

The file is a Word .doc file.  A PDF is here:

I have always wanted to see English versions of these made available.  Thank you so much, Maria!

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Chrysostom, Against the games and the theatres, now online in English

Mark Vermes has completed for us an English translation of Contra ludos et theatra (PG 56, columns 261-270), which I have put in the public domain.  I’ll make an HTML version later, but you can get a PDF and a DOCX from Archive.org here:

http://archive.org/details/ChrysostomAgainstTheGamesAndTheTheatres

As always, you are free to use or distribute this for any purpose, personal, educational or commercial.  I hope it’s useful!

 

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Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon — an online mystery

At the Trevin Wax blog today I read the following, Hell was in turmoil:

Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.

Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed.
Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.

Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered Heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.

This was attributed to Chrysostom, “An Easter sermon”, as translated by Andre Lavergne at Worship.ca.  The full version is here, and references a translation by  Frank Dobbs.

I think most of us are somewhat wary of unreferenced material of this nature, splendid and true though the statements are.  A PG reference would be so much nicer!

I find in Quasten (III, p.455) a reference to two Easter sermons, PG 50, cols.433-442, Contra ebriosos et de resurrectione, and PG 52, 765-772, described as “of doubtful origin”.

But surely Chrysostom must have preached more than 2 sermons at Easter?  In the CPG, vol. 2, p.573, I find a number of entries:

  • 4605, Sermo catecheticus in pascha, PG 59, 721-724.
  • 4606, In sanctum pascha sermo 1, PG 59, 723-726; followed by 6 more sermons of the same kind, all published by P. Nautin in Sources Chretiennes 36, SC27 and SC48.

Hmm.  Let’s look these up.  And we find … yes, the first item is the source.

It’s very short fragment of only a couple of pages, plainly mutilated.  Both the Lavergne and Dobbs translations translate the whole of Migne’s text.  It is placed by Migne, the PG editor, among the spuria, and the other sermons likewise.

A PDF of the Greek text, probably from the TLG, can be found here.  A manuscript of the text is online, BL Add. 14066, on f.4.

Let’s see what Nautin has to say about these items.

In SC 36, he discusses sermones 1-3 (CPG 4606-8).  All this material is transmitted under the name of Chrysostom.  But both Henry Savile and Bernard Montfaucon rejected this authorship.[1]  And Nautin states that the 7 homilies are not by the same author.  Homily 6 is attributed to a pseudo-Hippolytus; but there are several authors in the collection.  He does feel that the works must date from the late 4th – early 5th century.  Unfortunately he does not discuss our text.

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  1. [1]SC36, p.26.

From my diary

Home, with piles of electronic gear.  But when will I get time to set it up?  That said, being unable to use my main machine is becoming increasingly irksome. 

I’ve been looking for possible Greek texts to get translated.  There’s a little pile of sermon material by Chrysostom.

Most interesting of these are three items which appear in Migne in very truncated form.  De Regressu Sancti Joannis (PG52, col. 421), De Recipiendo Severiano (col. 423), and Severian’s reply De Pace (col. 425).  All three are given in Latin, and seem far too short to be full versions.  Now I know that the Greek exists of Severian, and indeed a full version of it.  But I am unclear about the others.

It turns out that I did enquire of a scholar who had published about these, and got the response that I should look in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum vol. 2, from 4438 onwards, and also in the supplement.  I believe that there are oriental translations of this stuff also.

And that, dear reader, is why I am annoyed that I can’t access my main machine, on which resides my copy of CPG2!

There are also some short tracts by Epiphanius of Salamis, in which he expresses strong antipathy to icons.  These would be of general interest: but it turns out that a translation exists already, by Stephen Bigham, in Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? (2008).  Of course this is offline (drat).

Never mind.  There are still lots of Chrysostom sermons!

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