zaterdag 16 maart 2013

The Letter of Nicea to the Church in Egypt

The Letter of Nicea to the Church in Egypt

by Dr Boris Paschke

Heliopolis, Egypt, 15 March 2013


1.     Sources of the Letter
1.1   Athanasius
1.2   Socrates
1.3   Gelasius
1.4   Theodorus Lector
1.5   Theodoret
1.6   Cod. Veron. 60 (Latin translation)

2.     Reading of the Letter (Athanasius)

3.     Introductory Questions Concerning the Letter
3.1   Authors
3.2   Place of Composition
3.3   Time of Composition
3.4   Recipients
3.5   Genre

4.     Outline of the Letter
4.1   Letter Opening
4.1.1      Prescript
4.1.2      Proem
4.2   Letter Body
4.2.1      Concerning Egypt  Arius  Melitius  Summary
4.2.2      Concerning Other Canons and Degrees
4.2.3      Concerning the Celebration of Easter
4.3   Letter Closing

5.     Interpretation of the Letter




The creed of Nicea has received a lot of scholarly attention.[1] Tanner writes: “The council’s greatest achievement was the definition of the faith composed in the form of a creed.”[2] However, according to scholarly reconstructions of the Arian controversy, not the creed but the synod’s so-called letter to the church in Egypt is to be considered the first official document that was produced by/during the Council of Nicea. Nevertheless, so far, this letter has not received any scholarly attention. A combined search of terms like “Nicea”, “letter”, “Egypt” etc. (and their German and French equivalents) yielded no results in the standard search engines for scholarly theological articles (esp. the index theologicus of Tübingen University). Therefore, it is for the first time in research history that the letter of Nicea to the church in Egypt receives due attention.      

1. Sources of the Letter
“Der Brief wird nach Athanasius von Sokrates I 9,1 überliefert, von dem wieder Gelasius II 34,2 und Theodorus Lector (Cod. Marc. gr. 344 fol. 31b) abhängig sind. Theodoret h.e. I, 9, 2 wird eine von Athanasius unabhängige Quelle benutzt haben, ebenso die lateinische Übersetzung des Cod. Veron. 60 (= Ver.).”[3]

1.1   Athanasius
·      “When Alexandrian bishop Alexander went to the Council of Nicea to argue the trinitarian case against Arius and his followers, he took with him a young assistant named Athanasius, who was only in his twenties and yet showed great promise as a theologian. It is unlikely that Athanasius played any significant role in the council, but afterward he was groomed by Alexander to become his heir as leader of the Alexandrian see. When Alexander died in 328, the thirty-year-old Athanasius succeeded him in that pivotal ecclesiastical position.”[4]
·      “Athanasius served as archbishop and patriarch of Alexandria for forty-five years until his death in 373.”[5]
·      De decretis Nicaenae synodi 36: Datierung dieser Schrift nach Rowan Williams: späte 40er bzw. 50er Jahre des 4. Jhds. (RGG4, Sp. 872).

1.2   Socrates
Von Athanasius abhängig (Opitz). Sokrates von Konstantinopel (der Beiname oder inoffizielle Titel Scholasticus ist nicht überliefert); ca. 380–443; Vf. einer Kirchengeschichte (h.e.) für die Zeit von Konstantin (305) bis in die unmittelbare Gegenwart unter Theodosius II. (439). RGG4

1.3   Gelasius
Gelasius von Cyzicus (nach 475), anonymer Vf. einer Kirchengeschichte der Zeit Konstantins in drei Büchern. “Flickwerk” aus bekannten KG (Eusebius; Sokrates; Theodoret von Cyrus). Der Name G. Ist nirgends bezeugt und erst in der ersten Druckausgabe (1599) auf das Titelblatt gesetzt (RGG4, sp. 596). 

1.4   Theodorus Lector
Vorleser an der Hagia Sophia, folgte Makedonius II. 511 ins Exil nach Paphlagonien, woe r beauftragt wurde, die Kirchengeschichte des Theodoret von Cyrus, Sozomenus und Sokrates von Konstantinopel in einem Korpus zu vereinen. Das Ergebnis ist (bis 361) überliefert, die zweite Hälfte und eine selbständige Fortsetzung (bis 518) nur in Exzerpten und Frgm. (RGG4, Sp. 245).

1.5   Theodoret
Independend from Athanasius (Opitz). Theodoret von Cyrus (Kyrrhos); 393–466 n.Chr.; mit seiner Historia ecclesiastica schreibt er das Werk des Eusebius von Cäsarea bis in das Jahr 428 fort (RGG4, Sp. 243).

1.6  Codex Verona LX (Latin translation)
Independend from Athanasius (Opitz).
die lateinische Übersetzung des Cod. Veron. 60 (= Ver.)
discovery: 18th century in the Chapter library of Verona
date: around 700 A.D.
126 leaves: 1-35 (= A); 36; 37-126 (= T)
Leaves 70a–71b: “A unique Latin version of the synodal letter of the council of Nicaea to the churches of Egypt. It lacks the last section, which deals with Easter observance.”[6]
Literature: W. Telfer, “The Codex Verona LX(58),” Harvard Theological Review 36/3 (1943): 169–246.  

2. Reading of the Letter (Athanasius; ed. Tanner)

Text Editions:
       Socrates, H.E. I 9 (English translation in: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, pp. 12–13 
       Greek, Latin, and English version in: Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V. London / Washington D.C.: Sheed & Ward / Georgetown University Press, 1990, pp. 16–17.

2      Introductory Questions Concerning the Letter

2.1  Authors
“The bishops assembled at Nicaea, who constitute the great and holy synod”
Constantine considered himself “bishop of all the bishops” and the “thirteenth apostle.”[7]
How many bishops were present?
·      Eusebius: more than 250
·      Eustathius of Antioch: 270
·      Athanasius: about 300
·      Gelasius of Cyzicus: more than 300
·      Hilary of Pontiers: 318; figure became traditional but seems to be symbolic (cf. Gen 14:14; cf. also Synod of Alexandria in 318 AD).
“Recent research has been less generous, and detailed examination of such lists as we do possess has failed to yield more than about 200 names. The contradictions may be partly explicable by exaggeration … or by late arrivals, early departures, and irregular attendance at sessions, in the time-honoured tradition of councils, episcopal and otherwise. It is fairly likely at least that a good many more than 200 were present. Eusebius of Caesarea’s estimate of about 250 is probably as near as any.”[8]

2.2  Place of Composition
Palace of the imperator (RGG4, “Arius”: “kaiserlicher Palast”) in Nicaea / Nizäa / Nikaia; heutiges Iznik; modern Turkey; belongs to the Roman province Bithynia; capital of Bithynia, Nicomedia, close by. (RGG4).
“[I]t was originally intended to hold the ecumenical council at Ancyra. Emperor Constantine however summoned the bishops to Nicaea, as that city afforded easier access for the western bishops, and was not far from the imperial residence at Nicomedia.”[9]
“the reasons for this change had to do chiefly with convenience and the pleasantness of the climate of Nicaea.”[10]

2.3  Time of Composition
Council opened not on 20 May (so the consensus until recently) but on 19 June 325[11]
“The council lasted two month.”[12]
Cf. Opitz: June 325: The Letter (= Urkunde 23) was even written before the Nicean Creed (= Urkunde 24; 19th June 325 C.E.). According to Opitz’s order of Urkunden, the letter is the first official document that was produced at the council. 
“Recent scholarship has generally accepted the order and dating proposed by Opitz for the documentary remains of the early days of the crisis.”[13]

2.4  Recipients
“the church of the Alexandrians … and the beloved brethren in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis”
Thus, the title “to the Egyptians” (cf. also conference program) is not really accurate!
·      Alexandria: Christianization during 1st century AD; Origen; Arian controversy originated in Alexandria
·      Egypt: Christian Egypt under control of bishop of Alexandria
·      Libya: Roman province; between 2nd and 4th century Christianisation; bishops were their from the 3rd century onwards (RGG4); Arius was born in Libya; “Arius’ two most consistent Episcopal supporters in later years were Secundus and Theonas, bishops respectively of Ptolemais (or ‘the Pentapolis’, in some texts) and Marmarica: Ptolemais was the chief city of western or ‘upper’ Libya, the older Cyrenaica, whose five major coastal settlements gave the district its familiar name of the Pentapolis. Marmarica or ‘lower Libya’ (sometimes Libya sicca) was the destert area between Cyrenaica and the fines Alexandriae, the border of the urban area of Alexandria at the western end of the Mareotis.”[14]
·      Pentapolis: Greek settlement at the Eastcoast of Libya; consisted of the following five cities: Cyrene, Apollonia, Barkè, Euhesperidis (Benghazi), Teuchira (RGG 4, vol. 5, Sp. 327)

2.5  Genre: Letter
pro_j u9ma~j e0piteqh~nai gra/mmata
e0piteqh~nai is an aorist infinitive passive of the verb e0piti/qhmi
BDAG: transfer to
gra/mmata is plural form of gra/mma which can mean letter (i.e., ABC etc.), writing, document, letter, book, report
Concerning writing: “meist im Pl., auch von einzelnen Exemplaren” (BA, Sp. 330).
BDAG: “mostly in pl., even of single copies”
Translations: Latin: litteras; German: “einen Bericht” (ed. Brennecke); English: “a letter” (Tanner); French: “une lettre” (Socrate, SC).  

3      Outline of the Letter[15]

3.1  Letter Opening
3.1.1      Prescript
adscriptio / adscription: addressees’ names in the dative ( / tois)
superscriptio / superscription: senders’ names in the nominative (hoi)
salutatio / salutation: greeting in the infinitive (chairein) 
cf. James 1:1; Acts 15:23; 23:26
“A l’Église des Alexandrins, sainte et grande par grâce de Dieu, et aux frères bien-aimés d’Égypte, Libye et Pentapole, les évêques rassemblés à Nicée et constituant le grand et saint concile, salut dans le Seigneur” (Socr. h.e. I 9,1; SC 477).  

3.1.2      Proem
= preface, prelude
“Between the letter prescript and the main body of the letter containing the actual content for which it was written, we frequently find stereotypical, longer or shorter transitional expressions which we can classify as the letter proem, even though this cannot always be delineated clearly.”[16]
“The bishops were allowed to travel by the imperial postal service, the cursus publicus, and were entertained in Nicaea at the emperor’s expense.”[17]
“Apparently Constantine placed himself on a throne raised above the meeting hall where the bishops sat.”[18]

3.2  Letter Body
“The council sent a synodical letter to the church of Alexandria, which was still disturbed by the Meletian schism. The letter condemned the schism, and added a few words about the Arian and paschal questions.”[19]

3.2.1      Concerning Egypt  Arius (prōton)  Melitius (eleipeto; from leipō)  Summary (“These are the chief and most important decrees as far as concerns Egypt and the most holy church of the Alexandrians”)
3.2.2      Concerning Other Canons and Degrees
3.2.3      Concerning the Celebration of Easter (= “the holy pasch”)

3.3  Letter Closing
Welcome bishop Alexander – Pray for us all – Amen.

4      Interpretation of the Letter

Very polemical against Arius; very hagiographic concerning Constantine (picture of the empire is here probably too positive).
“Constantine lived as a pagan and died as an Arian. Hardly an admirable curriculum vitae for ‘the first Christian emperor’!”[20]
“the ‘conversion’ of the Roman Empire to Christianity.”[21]
“he [Constantine] remained Pontifex Maximus, or high priest, of the official pagan religion of the empire until his baptism just before his death in 337.”[22]
“impiety” and “lawlessness” of Arius and his followers is contrasted with “the most pious emperor Constantine”
“his impious opinion”
“his blasphemous terms and expressions which he has blasphemously applied to the Son of God”

Two “anathema” form an inclusio around the teachings of Arius
Term a)na/qema is taken from the New Testament (cf. Gal 1:8 f.; 1 Cor 16:22)
“It was unanimously agreed that anathemas should be pronounced against his impious opinion and his blasphemous terms and expressions which he has blasphemously applied to the Son of God, saying …”
“The anathemas and the homoousion [of the creed] have been attributed to Ossius of Cordova.”[23]

“unanimously” ?
“Philostorgius [ca. 368–425] records the names of twenty-two bishops sympathetic to Arius at the council. If this list is reliable, Arius’ support was still quite strong: one bishop in ten, in a council full of people with no very deep theological commitment one way or the other, is a promising base to work from.”[24]
“The emperor required all bishops to sign the new creed or to be deposed from their sees and sent into exile. Several Arian bishops signed it reluctantly. Only two refused to sign it, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea.”[25]

Quotations from Arius
·      “he is from things that are not”
·      “before he was begotten he was not”
·      “there once was when he was not”
·      “that by his own power the Son of God is capable of evil and goodness”: “Alexander accused Arius of teaching that the Logos could have fallen like Satan.”[26]
·      “calling him a creature and a work”

Closing of the inclusio
“Against all this the holy synod pronounced anathemas, and did not allow this impious and abandoned opinion and these blasphemous words even to be heard.”

The Fate of Arius and Others
·      “In its letter to the Egyptian and Libyan churches, the council recorded its condemnation of Arius’ views and Arius’ person: he was excommunicated and probably degraded from the presbyterate; and Secundus and Theonas shared his fate. All three, together with at least one of Arius’ Alexandrian colleagues, the deacon Euzoius, were exiled by Constantine at the conclusion of the council.”[27]
·      Arius
·      Theonas of Marmarica
·      Secundus of Ptolemais

See PPT.

“The council also dealt with the date of Easter. It is certain that the Antiochene custom of following the Jewish reckoning was condemned, but the fathers do not seem to have agreed to an alternative or passed a decree on the matter.”[28]

Holy Spirit
“The first Nicene Creed, which did not include the third article on the Holy Spirit and the church.”[29]
“The creed and council had failed to explain the correct distinction between Father and Son and had neglected the Holy Spirit almost altogether.”[30]
“Athanasius … verfaßte ferner eine bedeutende Reihe von Briefen ... über die Göttlichkeit des Hl. Geistes” (RGG4, Sp. 871).




[1] Provide some literature.
[2] Tanner, 2.
[3] Athanasius Werke, vol. 2, part 1, ed. Hans-Georg Opitz, p. 35.
[4] Olson, History, 161.
[5] Olson, History, 161.
[6] W. Telfer, HTR 36/3 (1943): 181.
[7] Olson, 138.
[8] Williams, 67.
[9] Tanner, 1.
[10] Williams, 67.
[11] Tanner, 1.
[12] Olson, 152.
[13] Williams, 48.
[14] Williams, 29.
[15] For the following cf. Klauck, Ancient Letters and the NT, 17–25.
[16] Klauck, Ancient Letters and the NT, 21.
[17] Williams, 67.
[18] Olson, 152.
[19] Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, p. 3.
[20] Olson, History, 164.
[21] Olson, 137.
[22] Olson, 138.
[23] Tanner, 2.
[24] Williams, 67.
[25] Olson, 156.
[26] Olson, 145.
[27] Williams, 70.
[28] Tanner, 4.
[29] Olson, 155.
[30] Olson, History, 163.

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