An Ethiopic Legend: Abba Garima copied the Bible in a Single Day

Here’s an interesting one, which I came across today.  There is an early set of gospels in Ethiopia, at the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia’s Tigrai Highlands.  An article in the Independent 6 July 2010 by Jerome Taylor tells us:

The monks have their own legend about how the gospels came into their possession. They believe they were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who arrived in what was then the kingdom of Axum in 494 and went on to found the monastery. According to the monks, Abba Garima finished his exquisite work in a single day because God stopped the sun from setting while he worked.

This claim is repeated in many places, often based on Wikipedia’s wording, which references the Independent article:

According to tradition, Abba Garima wrote and illustrated the complete Gospels in a single day: God stopped the sun from setting until the Saint completed his work.

“Tradition” is a weasel word.  We have no traditions, not in the modern age, handed down from father to son orally.  What we have are books.  So whenever we see “tradition” mentioned, we need to ask what the literary source is.

Fortunately information is not far to seek.  In Judith McKenzie and Francis Watson, The Garima GospelsEarly Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia, Oxford (2016), (preview here), we find the following statement, p. ix, n.25:

23 There is a tradition that while Abba Garima was copying the Gospels, God stopped the sun so that he might complete the task in a single day (Heldman 1993: 129). This incident is not included in Carlo Conti Rossini’s edition of the text, where it is reported instead that, while he began the task, angels completed the work for him in four hours (Conti Rossini 1897: 161-62). There is, however, an illustrated manuscript at the monastery showing in a single miniature Abba Garima copying the Gospel below both a full and a setting sun, under the inscription “As Abba Garima wrote the Gospel in the land of Atäret” (fig 20 here). Atäret is one of the places said to have been granted to the monastery by Gabra Masqäl (A. Bausi, “Ǝnda Abba Garima,“ EAE 2: 284:. I am grateful to Denis Nosnitsin and Nafisa Valieva for their assistance in the identification of this story.

– M. Heldman, “The Heritage of Late Antiquity,” in: R. Grierson (ed), African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia, (1993), pp. 117-32, esp. 129-30.
– C. Conti Rossini, “L’omilia di Yohannes, vescovo d’Aksum in onore di Garimâ,” in: Actes du Onzième Congrès des Orientalistes. Paris – 1897. Quatrième section. Hébreu – Phénicien – Aramée – Éthiopien – Assyrien, Paris (1898), pp. 139–177.

The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia, p.18, fig.20.

I was only able to access the preview, but this extraordinarily interesting book must be the source for what appears online.  But let’s look deeper into the references.

The Heldman reference is as follows:

According to tradition, the monastery from which this manuscript [=Abba Garima Gospels I] takes its name was founded by Isaac, also known as Abba Garima, one of the Nine Saints who came to Ethiopia from the Roman Empire in the late fifth century. Monks of Abba Garima’s monastery reported to Donald Davies that Abba Garima himself had copied this manuscript, and that he had completed the task in a single day. God stopped the sun’s course one afternoon so that Abba Garima could finish copying his Gospels before night fell.[1]

  1.  Conversation between the author and Donald Davies, 1986.

So the story is circulating in just this form in Ethiopia currently.

The Rossini “section 4” is at Gallica here.  The article turns out to be the publication of a text in Ethiopic, the Gadla Abba Garima, called by Rossini the “Homily of Yohannes, bishop of Axum, in honour of Garima.” He printed it from a manuscript in the French National Library (A = Paris BNF et. 132, 19th c.) and one in Berlin (= B, with an impenetrable shelfmark, 16th c.).  The oldest MS is 15th century.  “Yohannes” is of course John, and a bishop of that name did arrive in Ethiopia from Egypt around 1439.[1]

Unfortunately the homily is given without translation (!).  The best the editor could do was to give a summary of what it says.  Basically Abba Garima was a Byzantine prince named Isaac, who came to Ethiopia and took the name of Garima, and is one of the Nine Saints who appear in Ethiopian literature in the 14-15th century and are unknown before then.[2]

I’ve run Rossini’s summary over into English.  Rossini states:

Here is a brief summary of the narration contained in the homily:

And then we get this:

After years of historic marriage, Masfyânos, king of Rome, and Sefengyà, his pious wife, have a son, Yeshâq, «whose name means “pearl”»; while the patriarch is baptizing him, a great supernatural light foretells his future glories (v. 14-36.) — At the age of twelve the child is sent to school, where he progresses rapidly: still growing up, his parents would like to give him a wife, but a celestial vision distracts them (v. 36-48).— With the death of Masfyânos, reluctant Yeshâq is placed on the throne. After seven years of peaceful reign, he secretly flees to Ethiopia, called there by a letter from the saint Pantalêwon of Somâ`t: the angel Gabriel transports him there in four days, while the messengers of Pantalêwon take ten months to return and four days. There Yeshâq received the monastic habit from Pantalêwon, and he remained with his teacher for a year (v. 48-108) — Then, having heard of his departure, Liqânos of Constantinople, Yem`atâ of Qosyât, Schmâ of Antioch, Gubâ of Cilicia, Afsê of Asia, Malâ` of Romyâ, and `Os of Caesarea also went to Ethiopia, and with great abstinence, and in great holiness, live in the same house with Pantalêwon and Yeshâq (v. 108-122). — While they are like this, a governor of Aksum announces to them how the country is dominated by a huge snake, Arwè, venerated as a God, and to which, in addition to infinite animals, a girl is given daily: assured of the fact thanks by sending of Yeshâq and `Os, who was very frightened at the sight of the monster, the nine saints with great prayers obtain from God the death of the serpent (v. 123-284). — Then Ethiopia is filled with tumults and disorders; until God, seeing the righteousness of the faith of that land, and hearing the prayers of the saints, invoking a king of David’s lineage, places Kâlêb on the throne. (v. 285-288). —  After thirteen years, and many prodigies performed by them, a poor monk, Melkyânos, joins them, whose humility they despise; whereupon, to punish them, God takes away from them a mysterious face, which used to come down to illuminate their meals. Having obtained the pardon of this, the saints divided, and Yeshâq retired to Madarâ (v. 288-309). — There he performs great miracles: he frees a possessed person, heals a woman who has been suffering for thirty years from an uninterrupted flow of blood, etc., etc.

At the same time he is made head of the priests of Madarâ (v. 310-345). — One day, he sows a grain of wheat: in a short time this germinates, grows, produces a very rich harvest, which the saint distributes to the poor (v. 346-355). — Another day, having ceased writing in order to pray, the angels, who always served him, copy for him the gospel and his interpretation of it (v. 356-360). — Heals a girl invaded by an evil spirit (v. 360-442). — Visited by two monks, he feeds them, but puts away his portion, whereupon, a little later, invited, he celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice, for which, his companions not knowing that he was still fasting, he is accused to Pantalêwon. The latter calls him to an interview, and, having met, he invites him, in order to be able to take him back in secret, to have his companions leave: «not only men, but let the trees of the wood and the stones move away from us!» exclaims Yeshâq: the trees and the stones obey, so, recognizing his innocence, Pantalêwon shouts: «Garamkani, you have amazed me!» and from this Yeshâq takes the name of Garimâ (v. 443-491). — Returning to the convent, one day Garimâ stops the sun to be able to fulfill his prayers (v. 492-496). —  The donkey that used to serve him and bring him the gospel and food having died, he mourns him bitterly (v. 497-507). — After writing under a tree and having spat on a large stone, he makes a healthy spring gush forth (v. 507-511). — Having come across a village that does not observe Sunday rest, he scolds them, is badly beaten, and launches terrible curses against it (v. 512-527)» — King Gabra Masqal, hearing the saint’s wonders, visits him in Modani or Bèta Masqal, receives his blessing, has a church erected there in honour of the saint, and to this and to the convent of Garimâ he donates the land of Tâfâ, `Adwâ, Mesâh(?), Sebe`ito(?), and Maya Lehekuet (v. 528-556). —  One time the saint sows a grape: immediately it germinates, and he draws the juice for the mass. Gathered around him many men, he gives rules and precepts for the community (v. 557-665). —  Having descended into the heart of the mountain, he causes a wonderfully healthy spring to gush from it (v. 566-569). — When his pen falls while he is writing, it becomes a plant (v. 569-571). — Informed of all this, the king gives him the land of Atarêt and seven other cities (v. 571-575). —  The saint, while going with Yem’âtâ, stops a large boulder, which Satan rolls against him to kill him, meets one last time with Pantalêwon, by whom he is comforted for the beatings given to him by the violators of Sunday rest (v. 576-592). — And finally, warned by God of his imminent end, he obtains from Him great promises for those who venerate him, bids farewell to his brothers and disappears on the 17th of the month of Sene (v. 593-640). — One of his disciples then has a vision of future painful events in the locality sanctified by Garimâ, where a wicked people will settle (v. 641-645).[3]

It is a pity that we do not have a translation of pp.161-2, because the summary does NOT give us the story as Judith McKenzie summarises it.  I expect that Dr. McKenzie is correct.  But note how this 15th century text has two episodes that each have part of the story, rather than just one?  This suggests that the narrative we have today was assembled somewhere since this text was written.  Hagiography is often revised over time.

I was unable to discover whether any of the Lives of the Nine Saints have been translated into any western language.  If not, this is rather a shame.  The Life of Garima is 23 pages; surely not beyond the powers of any native English speaker who knows Ethiopian?  Is there anybody out there?

  1. [1]Or so I gather from a rather marvellous article: Stuart Munro-Hay, “Saintly Shadows”, in: Walter Raunig, Steffen Wenig (edd.), Afrikas Horn, Series: Meroitica 22, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, (2005) 137-168; p. 162 (preview here).
  2. [2]Stuart Munro-Hay, p.140.
  3. [3]

    Ecco un breve compendio della narrazione, contenuta nell’ omilia :

    Dopo anni di storile matrimonio, Masfyânos, re di Roma, e Sefengyà, piissima sua moglie, hanno un figlio , Yeshâq, «il cui nome significa mar­garita»; mentre il patriarca lo battezza, una grande luce soprannanaturale ne preannuncia le future glorie (v. 14-36.) — A dodici anni il fan­ciotto è mandalo a scuola, ove rapidamente progredisce: cresciuto ancora, i suoi genitori vorrebbero dargli moglie, ma una visione celeste ne li dis­toglie (v. 36-48).— Morto Masfyânos, Yeshâq riluttante è posto sul trono. Dopo selle anni di pacifico regno, fugge di nascosto in Etiopia, chiama­tovi da una lettera del santo Pantalêwon di Somâ`t: l’angelo Gabriele ve lo trasporta in quattro giorni, mentre i messi di Pantalêwon impiegano nel ritorno dieci mesi e quattro giorni. Colà Yeshâq receve da Pantalêwon l’abito monacale, e col suo maestro rimane un anno (v. 48-108) — Allora, avuta notìzia della sua andata, passano in Etiopia anche Liqânos di Costantinopoli, Yem`atâ di Qosyât, Schmâ di Antiochia, Gubâ della Cilicia, Afsê dell’ Asia, Malâ` di Romyâ, `Os di Cesarea, e con grandi astinenze, e in grande santità vivono in una sola casa con Pantalêwon e Yeshâq (v. 108-122). — Mentre così stanno, un governatore di Aksum annuncia loro come il paese sia dominato da un immane serpente, Arwè, venerato come un Dio, e in pasto al quale, oltre a infiniti animali, si dà giornalmente una fanciulla: sinceratisi del fatto mercè l’invio di Yeshâq e di `Os, il quale ultimo assai si spaventa alla vista dei mostro, i nove santi con grandi preghiere ottengono da Dio la morie del serpente (v. 123-284). — L’Etiopia allora si empie di tumulti e di disordini; sino a che Dio, vedendo la rettitudine della fede di quella terra, ed esau­dendo le preci dei santi, invocanti un re della stirpe di Davide, pone sul trono Kâlêb. (v. 285-288). — Dopo tredici anni, e compiuti da loro nu­merosi prodigi, un povero monaco, Melkyânos, si unisce ad essi, i quali ne vilipendono l’umiltà; onde, per punirli, Dio lor toglie una face mis­teriosa, che soleva scendere a illuminarne i pasti. Ottenuto di ciò il per­dono, i santi dividonsi, e Yeshâq ritirasi in Madarâ (v. 288-309). — Ivi egli compie grandi miracoli: libera un ossesso, guarisce una donna, da trenta anni sofferente per ininterrotto flusso di sangue, ecc., ecc.

    Intanto, è fatto capo dei sacerdoti di Madarâ (v. 310-345). — Un gior­no, egli semina un acino di grano: in breve ora questo germina, cresce, produce una ricchissima messe, che tutta il santo distribuisce ai poveri (v. 346-355). — Un altro giorno, avendo cessato di scrivere per pregare, gli angeli, che sempre lo servivano, gli copiano l’evangelo e la sua in­terpretazione (v. 356-360). — Sana una fanciulla invasa dallo spirito ma­ligno (v. 360-442). — Visitato da due monaci, egli dà loro da mangiare, ma ripone la sua parte, onde, poco di poi, invitato, celebra il sacrifizio eucaristico, di che, ignorandosi dai suoi compagni com’ egli si conservasse digiuno, è accusato presso Pantalêwon. Questi lo chiama a colloquio, e, incontratolo, lo invita, per poterlo riprendere in segreto, a far allontanare i suoi compagni: «non gli uomini soltanto, ma gli alberi del bosco e le pietre si scostino da noi!» esclama Yeshâq: gli alberi e le pietre obbe­discono, onde, riconosciuta l’innocenza, Pantalêwon grida: «Garamkani, mi hai stupito!» e da ciò Yeshâq trae il nome di Garimâ (v. 443-491). — Tornato al convento, un dì Garimâ ferma il sole per poter compiere le sue preghiere (v. 492-496). — Essendo morto l’asino che soleva ser­virlo e portargli l’evangelo ed il cibo, lo piange amaramente (v. 497- 507). — Stando a scrivere sotto un albero e avendo sputato su un gran sasso, ne fa sgorgare una fonte salutare (v. 507-511). — Imbattutosi in un villaggio che non osserva il riposo domenicale, lo redarguisce, è in malo modo percosso, e contro di esso lancia terribili maledizioni (v. 512- 527)» — Il re Gabra Masqal, intesi i prodigi del santo, lo visita in Modani o Bèta Masqal, ne riceve la benedizione, fa in onore del santo colà erigere una chiesa, e a questa ed al convento di Garimâ dona la terra di Tâfâ, ‘Adwâ, Mesâh(?), Sebe`ito(?), Maya Lehekuet (v. 528-556). — Una volta il santo semina un acino d’uva: subito questo germina, ed egli ne trae il succo per la messa. Adunatisi intorno a lui molti uomini, egli dà regole e precetti per la comunità (v. 557-665). — Sceso nel cuor del monte, fa da esso zampillare una fonte mirabilmente salutare (v. 566- 569). — Cadutagli la penna mentre sta scrivendo, essa diviene una pianta (v. 569-571). — Informato di tutto ciò, il re gli dona la terra d’Atarêt ed altre sette città (v. 571-575). — Il santo, mentre va con Yem’âtâ, ferma un grande macigno, che Satana, per ucciderlo, gli roto­lava contro, incontrasi un’ultima volta con Pantalêwon, dal quale e confortato per le percosse dategli dai violatori del riposo domenicale (v. 576-592). — Ed infine, avvertito da Dio della prossima sua fine, e ottenute da Lui grandi promesse per quelli che lo venereranno, sa­luta i suoi fratelli e scompare al 17 del mese di sanê (v. 593-640). — Un suo discepolo ha, poscia, una visione circa futuri dolorosi eventi della località santificata da Garimâ, ove si stabilirâ un popolo malvagio (v. 641-645).