Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ulfila and Early Church Priorities

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.



Ken said...

Thanks for this informative article -

"It is for this reason, then, that the barbarians from over the Danube in general adhere to the doctrines of Arius."

What was "the reason" why the Goths/barbarians were Arians? The quote does not exactly say, (we have to guess from implication), yet by itself implies that because Ulfilas was courageous, and translated the Bible into their language, yeah, invented their writing forms; - that for that specific reason, they were Arian.

The reason seems to be that because Ulfilas himself was Arian, and that his translation may have had bias toward Arianism. How did he translate John 1:1 and other passages on the eternality and Deity of Christ? (John 17:5, Philippians 2:5-8, John 20:28, etc.)

Ken said...

I learned his name as "Ulfilas" back in 1982.

It seems that Ulfilas was appointed and sent out as a missionary to the Goths by Eusebius of Nicomedia, who seems to have been "semi-Arian". (?) (signed the Nicean Creed, but others report that deep down, he didn't agree with it in his heart, and that reality came out later, it seems.) (this is not the same person as Eusebius of Caesarea (which Casearea? - Caesarea of central Anatolia, where Basil is from; or Caesarea on the coast of Israel, or Caesarea Phlippi ? I googled and tried to discover, but have not found which one yet), who is the famous historian who wrote the first history of the Church and was also at the Council of Nicea, etc. The other Eusebius is also accussed of not being fully Nicean and suspected of being Arian, given the events after the Council.

Your main point is good, the priority of translating the Bible into other languages. I remember in 1982, seeing a video of the history of missions, and Ulfilas was highlighted as the first missionary to the Goths, and translated the bible into ancient Gothic, leaving out the book of Kings - the film had a cartoon character of Ulfilas saying, "they already know enough about war!". But they continued in their war-like state and attacks, it seems.

A problem is that the Goths and other Barbarians (Ostro-Goths, Vandals, etc.) learned Arian theology and when the Vandals came to North Africa, and fully conquered North Africa - 400s - early 600s AD - they were fully Arian, except for the Coptic Church in Egypt, when Islam swept across in 634 - 732 AD - one of the reasons the North African church did not survive was that they were already Arian, (no Deity of Christ), when Islam came; so they accepted Islam easily, because they were not really Christians, and did not hold to the Deity of Christ or the Trinity. The true Christians were either killed or put under Dhimmi status.

Turretinfan said...


You wrote: "How did he translate John 1:1 and other passages on the eternality and Deity of Christ? (John 17:5, Philippians 2:5-8, John 20:28, etc.)"

I think those passages would have been translated more or less identically. He called Jesus "God," but just made him derivative in some sense because he was "begotten" whereas the Father is not begotten. His treatment of the Holy Spirit was more concerning.

You can browse a Gothic Bible online here:


I'm not sure how much of that is based on manuscripts and how much is speculative interpolation or modern translation based on knowledge of the Gothic language.