Archive for the ‘Sozomen’ Category

Ulfila and Early Church Priorities

April 29, 2014

Ulfila (also sometimes written as Ulfilas, Ulphilas, Uliphilus, or the like) is possibly the most famous of the Goths in church history.  For those caught up in the terminology of today, no we’re not talking about Emo types, but the Germanic warriors who dominated a big chunk of Europe toward the end of the Roman Empire.

Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History 6:37 at 11 (Heather et al. translators of this and other works in “The Goths of the Fourth Century,” p. 100) describes Ulfila in this way:

As a matter of fact, he had given the greatest proof of his courage, resisting many dangers on behalf of the faith at the time when the Goths were still worshiping in pagan fashion. He was also the original inventor of their letters, and translated the holy books into their native language. It is for this reason, then, that the barbarians from over the Danube in general adhere to the doctrines of Arius.

I’m certainly not supportive of any of the anti-Nicene groups that existed in the fourth century (especially not those associated with Arius).  Nevertheless, it is notable that it was a priority even at that time to translate the Bible into the language of the people as a predicate to evangelizing them.  Likewise, keep in mind that Nicaea in the fourth century did not necessarily have the prestige it now enjoys.  Heather et al. explain (p. 131):

To take up Sozomen’s second point, the fact that Ulfila was not a declared opponent of Nicaea does not make him a supporter of it — if indeed this whole way of seeing the matter is not anachronistic. One suspects that in the fluidity of the first ‘post-Nicene’ generation adherence to that settlement was not the touchstone of orthodoxy that it later came to be.

Philostorgius’ Church History 2.5 (Heather et al. pp. 134-35) provides a similar report to that of Sozomen (and Sozomen may, in fact, be reliant on Philostorgius, see pp. 96-97):

It was this Ulphilas who led the exodus of the pious ones, being the first bishop appointed among them. He was appointed in the following circumstances: sent with others by the ruler of the race of the Goths on an embassy in the time of Constantine (for the barbarian peoples in those parts owed allegiance to the emperor), Ulphilas was elected by Eusebius and the bishops of his party as bishop of the Christians in the Getic land. Among the matters which he attended to among them, he was the inventor for them of their own letters, and translated all the Scriptures into their language — with the exception, that is, of Kings. This was because these books contain the history of wars, while the Gothic people, being lovers of war, were in need of something to restrain their passion for fighting rather than to incite them to it — which those books have the power to do for all that they are held in the highest honour, and are well fitted to lead believers to the worship of God.

One interesting point to note about this is that clearly Ulfila (or more likely his group, rather than just him personally) had a pretty clear concept of the canon of Scripture.  We can’t accurately judge that canon today, because the Goths were non-Niceans (and generally classified therefore as Arians) and consequently most of their literature was destroyed by the dominant orthodox.
Heather et al. explain (chapter 5, p. 124):

The precarious survival of these texts is a reflection of the thoroughness with which the victorious ‘orthodox’ church of the fourth and later centuries succeeded in eliminating the writings, and in large part the reputation, of its opponents.

Indeed, a similar fate awaited the Gothic translation of the Scriptures.  Very few manuscripts survive and much of the evidence we have for the text is based on the fact that parchment was expensive and consequently reused (Heather et al., p. 147):

It is noteworthy that all these texts, like the Codex Carolinus referred to above, are preserved as palimpsests, that is to say on pages of parchment cleaned of their Gothic texts and re-used, but still decipherable beneath the later writing: we can easily imagine how, as the Gothic kingdom of Italy was replaced by Byzantine domination, copies of the Gothic Bible would become superfluous and join the stocks of discarded books whose materials were available for re-use.

Not only were Gothic Bibles not useful to non-Gothic-speakers, they were suspected.  Salvian, in De Gubernatione Dei 5.2.6 (Heather et al., pp. 156-57) argues:

They read the same things, you say, that are read by us. But how can they be the same, when they were written in the first place by bad authors, and are badly interpolated and badly translated? They are not really the same, because things can in no sense be called the same when they are defective in any part of themselves. Things that have lost their completeness do not keep their integrity, nor do they retain their authority in any way when they are deprived of the power of the sacraments. It is only we who posses the holy scriptures full, inviolate and complete: for we either drink them at their very source, or at least as drawn from the purest sources through the service of a pure translation.

Heather et al. again (p. 148):

To summarise, no part of the Gothic Bible survives complete, though the relatively extensive remains of the New Testament that we do possess are perhaps the most useful from a historical point of view, because of the Graeco-Roman terminology which they contain; in a manner of speaking, this replicates the Goths’ own experience in confronting the Roman empire and its institutions. Enough fragments of the Old Testament survive to attest to its existence in Gothic; the absence of the Books of Kings from the surviving fragments is consistent with Philostorgius’ assertion that these books were not translated by Ulfila, but obviously insignificant as evidence, given the tiny quantity of the Old Testament text that does survive.

In short, the Bible was an important priority in the early church, even for those “Christians” whose theology included serious Trinitarian errors.  Lord willing, I’ll address some of those errors in a subsequent post.



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