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Agapius, Universal History (1909) Preface to the online edition



Who was Agapius?

When the first Moslems began raiding into Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia in the 630's AD, they encountered little resistance.  Twenty years of incessant fighting between the Eastern Romans and the Sassanid Persians had left both militarily prostrate.  Greatly to their surprise, the Arabs found themselves quickly victorious and accepting the surrender of wide lands and great cities of a wealth and culture utterly beyond their own.  Their response was to seize whatever money and power they could, and otherwise leave things alone.

In all these lands, the majority of the population was Christian, at least in name.  Under Moslem rule the bishops continued to exercise the considerable authority that they had acquired in late Antiquity.  They became responsible for supplying the ruling race with money, but otherwise were left largely alone.

The political disputes of the Eastern Empire had taken the form of theological dispute.  Real political activity was illegal, but the Greeks of the empire had discovered that theological dissent was tolerated, that councils could be held, votes taken, anathemas pronounced, and enemies demonised, excluded and exiled. In short all the activities associated with Greek city politics could take place under another form. 

Consequently every dispute clothed itself as a disagreement over some obscure point of Christology, and the issues were fought with all the fervour that today leads people to organise demonstrations and run smear campaigns. Even the philosophical arguments could be transplanted into theology, with the result that all the works of Aristotle were translated during the 5-6th centuries into Syriac; indeed not just once, but twice, by different factions, because of the universal employment of his methods and vocabulary in the disputes of that period.  To this activity we owe the transmission of Greek science and philosophy to the Arabs, and hence to ourselves.

The first group to be excluded were known as Nestorians.  These were expelled from the church after 433, and found safety in the Persian empire, and still exist today.  The struggle between the Monophysites, who had expelled them, and the Chalcedonians is the history of the Eastern Empire for a century from 451 onwards.  Most of the people in Syria, Palestine and Egypt belonged to the monophysites.  After their defeat in the mid-sixth century, they organised themselves into a rival hierarchy, which also exists today.  Those in these lands who followed the Chalcedonian position were known as Melkites -- "kingsmen" -- indicating their support for the imperial government.  While the Eastern Emperor ruled these lands, placemen and timeservers would be Melkites.  After the Moslem invasion, this link could be a source of peril to them.

The Christian populations retained their culture and their languages; Greek, Coptic and Syriac.  But over time, they were increasingly obliged to adopt Arabic, the language of the rulers.  The struggles of the Copts against this, and their efforts to retain their own language, are lamented in the Apocalypse of Simon of Kalamoun, elsewhere on this site.  The Melkites were some of the earliest to adopt Arabic, doing so from the ninth century on.

Agapius, son of Constantine, was Melkite bishop of Menbidj in Syria during the 10th century AD, as he himself tells us.  The town had a famous history as a monophysite centre; known as Mabbug in Syriac, it had been the home of Philoxenus.  In Greek it had been called Hierapolis, and been a pagan centre.

Little is known of Agapius' life.  He is one of the earliest Christian writers to use Arabic, but his work is full of material derived from Syriac sources, and thereby from Greek chroniclers in translation.  He has left us a history of the world from the Creation down to his own times.  The work was divided into two parts, split at the time of Christ.

The first part of his work exists in several manuscripts.  The second half exists only in a single water-damaged copy in the Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana in Florence.  The work seems to have originally ended in 941 AD, as we can see from a casual reference to 330 AH in part 2 (footnote 28); but the Florence manuscript is incomplete, and ends in the second year of the Caliph al-Mahdi, almost two centuries earlier.  There are also quotations of Agapius' work in the thirteenth century Arabic Christian history by  al-Makin ibn-Amid.  This has never been completely or adequately published, however.

The first part of the work draws uncritically on whatever sources were available to the author.  Apocryphal legends are mingled with biblical stories, excerpts from Josephus, Eusebius, all through whatever summarised form was available at the time.  The work is naturally of more historical interest when it deals with the Islamic period.

The text was published by Alexander Vasiliev in the Patrologia Orientalis series in four fascicles, in PO 5, 7, 8 and 11 (1910-1915).  This was accompanied by a French translation, which is the basis for these pages.  In 1912 an edition based mainly on Beirut manuscripts was produced by Louis Cheikho in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series, without a translation.  This included material derived from manuscripts of al-Makin as an appendix.  However the CSCO edition was produced in 1907, and printing delayed.

About this translation

The only translation that exists of Agapius is the French translation of Alexander Vasiliev.  This is available online at Archive.org, but there are a very large number of people who do not know French.

What we need is a new edition of the text, which uses modern technology to read all the passages illegible to Vasiliev, with an English translation.  But as the last work on this text was done in 1915, there seems no reason to suppose this will happen soon.

So I have taken the time to turn the translation of Vasiliev into English.  Vasiliev was a Russian writing in a foreign language, and his version is therefore in simple French.  It works quite well with the Google machine translator; and I have fixed the inevitable errors.  

This version has no scholarly value whatever.  It is more in the nature of research notes facilitating access. The specialist will of course go directly to the Arabic text.  But it is hoped that it will help people who might never otherwise read any work of Arabic Christian literature to access this work, and thereby encourage people to explore this almost unexplored region of late antique studies.  I hope, indeed, that the availability of this version may stir some Arabist to undertake the task of making a proper edition and translation!

I would like to thank Stephen C. Carlson who generously sent me a version that he had prepared for his own use of the first 50 or so pages of part 2, and inspired me to translate the whole thing! 

Agapius, the Testimonium Flavianum, and Papias

The work of Agapius would be purely a matter of interest for specialists were it not for two passages which have attracted wider attention.  In part 2, Agapius quotes a portion of the lost work of the early 2nd century Christian writer Papias of Hierapolis, which seems to mention the pericope from John 7 where Jesus meets the woman accused of adultery. 

The other passage is also in part 2, and consists of a version of the famous Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus; the longer passage in which Josephus describes Christ.  Attention was drawn to this in a famous publication by Shlomo Pines in 1971, and discussion has raged since as to whether the words attributed by Agapius to Josephus are in some way more authorial than the slightly strange-sounding version today found in all the Greek manuscripts, and which has attracted so much unfavourable comment down the years.  Pines used the text as printed in the CSCO edition, augmented from al-Makin. 

Note about the page numbering in part 1

The reader will probably wish to refer from this text back to the pages of the Patrologia Orientalis edition, from which it is translated.  The first part was published in two fascicles; 1.1 in PO vol. 5 and 1.2 in PO 11.  Each page of each fascicle had two page numbers.  The pages in each fascicle were numbered from 1-150; and also there was a continuous page number.

The editors of the Patrologia Orientalis edition unfortunately made several mistakes in numbering the pages of the edition, in the continuous numbering which we use here.  There are no faults in 1.1, which ends on page 135.

1.2 should therefore begin on page 136.  Unfortunately the compositor started the continuous numbers in the prefatory material of the fascicle -- title pages, etc --, causing a gap.  The first page is actually p.147.  This is unfortunate; but worse is to come.

Mid-way through 1.2, the page numbers go from 226 to 217!.  Consequently there are two sets of pages, both numbered 217-226.  The reader who wishes to refer to each set of these would be best advised to signal which is which; 217 (1) and 217 (2).  This approach has been taken here.  The HTML bookmarks are #p217 for page 217 (1) and #p217_2 for 217 (2).

Note about terms in brackets

There seems to be no real consistency in the PO text as to what is bracketed and what is not.  I have followed what the edition gives.


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This text was written by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2008. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

Greek text is rendered using unicode.


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