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Sinai Fly-By

Nice piece in the LA Times on the efforts of monks at St. Catherine’s to preserve their ancient heritage.

the oldest continuously operating monastery in Christendom … St. Catherine’s is entering the Age of Technology — with the help of Father Justin Sinaites, a 57-year-old American monk from El Paso, and Hemeid, the 23-year-old son of a Bedouin camel driver. They are implementing a digital photography project that will make high-resolution images of the library’s closely guarded manuscripts available to scholars all over the world.

Consisting of 3,300 manuscripts in 11 languages — many of them richly illuminated in gold leaf and bright, jewel-like colors — the library’s collection is second in number and importance only to the trove at the Vatican. With manuscripts made as early as the 6th century, the Sinai cache consists mainly of scriptures, sermons and texts for religious services, but it includes classical Greek literature and a few medical texts with herbal remedies for various afflictions.

Read more.

Or read a book (with color pictures): St. Catherine of Sinai and the Monastery Named After Her.

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O Salutary Ostia

On the street where I live, it’s very cold. The great contemporary artist Lea Marie Ravotti tells me by email that the only sane thing to do in this weather is to read good books and visit virtual Christian antiquities. Here’s a site Lea likes, and so do I — a well-stocked online museum from the town of Rome’s ancient port, Ostia. Be careful, though. Hours spent on this site will pass like minutes.

Ostia is dear to the heart of every patristics nerd. It’s the place where Augustine bade his mother earthly farewell — a climactic scene in his Confessions. Late last year, Robert Louis Wilken treated of that scene in a short review of John Peter Kenney’s The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Re-Reading the Confessions. Wilken sees Augustine’s narrative as apologetic in its intention. Augustine wants to distinguish Christian contemplation and mysticism from the phenomena touted by his former chums, the neoplatonists.

And the apology has to do not only with religious ideas but also with the practices of a concrete community. Kenney shows that the Confessions displays a self-conscious ecclesiology, that Christian contemplation is rooted in the Church’s Scriptures and life. Which leads him to the neglected final books of the Confessions, which seem to have little to do with the Platonism of the central books. By the time Kenney has finished his analysis, the ascension passages in the middle of the book seem less the fulcrum of the Confessions than one piece in a much fuller argument whose meaning is discovered only at the end. In the latter books, the “vocabulary of audition” anchors contemplation more explicitly in the Scriptures. “I listened, Lord, my God; I sucked a drop of sweetness from your truth.” The delights of contemplation can be achieved, says Augustine, by adhering to the “solid firmament of your Scripture,” for there God holds conversation with us.

In book thirteen, the final book, the Church, “your spiritual people,” is the vehicle and context for Christian contemplation. But it is Augustine’s treatment of Monica that seals the argument. She is, writes Kenney, “an unpromising candidate for high contemplation in the Plotinian style.” The famous vision at Ostia was not that of the solitary seeker-it was an experience shared by Augustine and Monica. And the reason Monica was capable of intense and total concentration was that she had made continual confession of her faults and of her Savior. Her contemplation, writes Kenney, “is an ecclesial moment” that “emerged in the schoolhouse of souls that is the Church.”

Wilken says that The Mysticism of Saint Augustine is a book worth reading; and I believe him.

Here’s the famous painting of Augustine and Monica’s Ecstasy at Ostia.

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Ethiopian Antiquities

Speaking of rarities … we turn to the ancient Fathers of the Ethiopian Church — and their paper trail. At SBL Forum, Steve Delamarter writes about his work with Previously Unknown and Uncatalogued Ethiopian Manuscripts. (Hat tip: Apocryphicity.) Here’s a sample:

We are now also in a position to see the scope of the contents of the collection. Of the biblical books, there are fully forty-seven Ethiopian Psalters in the SGD collection. This gives something of an idea of how significant the Psalter has been in the life of the Ethiopian Orthodox community. Each Ethiopian Psalter contains five works: the 151 Psalms of David, the fifteen Biblical Canticles, the Song of Songs, the Praises of Mary, and the Gate of Light. There are also seven copies of the Gospel of John and a copy of the General Epistles to Revelation.

Of service books, there are a dozen manuscripts that are listed as Antiphonaries (2), Anaphoras (5), or Missals (5). There are five works that contain either services for a funeral and/or the work called the Bandlet of Righteousness. There are also calendars and timetables. There are Hymns and Greetings and Prayers of all sorts and several works devoted to Mary. One of the most common is the Prayer of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Golgotha, which is witnessed in six copies.

Of theological works, there are six copies of the Mystagogia, four of the Sword of the Trinity. Miracle stories are very popular. Three codices contain Miracles of Mary and another three contain Miracles of Jesus. But there are also miracles of Mercurius, Täklä Haymanot, and Saint George. When it comes to a genre known as the Image, the codices contain a bewildering array of images to Mary (10), Jesus (6), the Trinity (3), the Savior of the World (2), the angel Michael (5), the angel Gabriel (3), the angel Raguel (1), Saint George (3), and John the Baptist (1), as well as to various Ethiopian figures, for example, Gäbrä Mänfäs Qeddus (3), Fasilides (1), Täklä Haymanot (2), Kiros (2), Mercurius (1), Mäzra’tä Krestos (1), Arägawi Zä-Mika’el (1), and others.

All coming soon, we may hope, in translation!

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‘Trix and Treats

Maureen is too kind to us. At her audio blog, Maria Lectrix, she posted some rare treats. How about “On the Ruin of Britain” by St. Gildas the Wise? Gildas plays a starring role in my book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. He’s an ur-source for information on the times (maybe) of King Arthur.

But that’s dessert. She’s serving more of her standard menu items, too: Pastoral Care by St. Gregory the Great and Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus of Lyons.

At Maureen’s typing blog, Aliens in This World, you’ll find fascinating translations from the Irish Martyrologies.

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In the last week I’ve been inundated by spam comments, and some of them are getting through. If you’ve had to read any of that sewage, I’m very sorry. I apologize, too, to the handful of people whose comments got caught in the filter and flushed away. I glimpsed a couple of legit comments just as they were vanishing into oblivion. The more I scanned the stuff in the filter, the more depressed I got. So, finally, I just hit “delete all.” If you repost your comments, or email them to me, I’ll make sure they stick this time.

And I’ve upped security. I know the added steps are a nuisance, but I can’t see any alternative.

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Fiddler on the Rock

The God-Fearin’ Fiddler is a recent convert to Catholicism and an ardent blogger on matters related to the Church Fathers. His recent post on Eusebius and apostolic succession is quite good. I hope you’ll drop in and tell him what you think.

An excellent — though extremely rare — book on the same subject is Apostolikos Thronos: The Primacy of Rome as Reflected in the Church History of Eusebius and the Historico-Apologetic Writings of Saint Athanasius the Great. It’s by the great contemporary Irish patrologist Vincent Twomey. I understand that the book is Father Twomey’s doctoral dissertation, which he started under Joseph Ratzinger, but completed under another advisor when Dr. Ratzinger got called away to Rome. Followers of the Fathers know Twomey’s name from his other works: Studies in Patristic Christology, for example, and The Mystery of the Holy Trinity in the Fathers of the Church. And I see that he has a new book just out, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age. Watch for Eusebius in the footnotes!

UPDATE: God-Fearin’ Fiddler just followed up his Eusebius post with Part II.

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This Just In

It just arrived in the comments field. I thought it worth a front-and-center treatment. Their existing website, The Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, is outstanding.

We would like to announce a new scholarly resource on the Second Temple Jewish literature preserved in the Slavic Milieux:

The site is developed by the scholars from the Theology Department at Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA). The resource provides original manuscripts, translations, and extensive bibliographies to the following pseudepigraphical materials preserved in Slavonic language:

Slavonic Life of Adam and Eve
Adam Octipartite
2 Enoch
Sataniel Text
Apocalypse of Abraham
Testament of Abraham
The Ladder of Jacob
Joseph and Aseneth
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
Testament of Job
Life of Moses
Apocryphal Fragments about David, Solomon, and Elijah
Ascension of Isaiah
3 Baruch
4 Baruch
Pseudo-Danielic Fragments
Apocalypse of Zosimus
The Word of the Blessed Zerubabel
The Josippon
Palaea Historica
Interpretive Palaea
Palaea Chronographica
and some other materials

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Meet the Real Gnostics

In The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities, Darrell Bock has produced a much-need orthodox introduction to the major texts produced by the ancient heretics usually described as “Gnostic.” Until now, the most accessible introductions to Gnosticism and its “gospels” have been written by scholars who are sanguine toward the heresies and critical or dismissive of orthodox Christianity. Mainstream Christian scholars have mostly watched this game from the sidelines (or from the ivory tower), while the likes of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman have scored repeatedly on the bestseller lists.

Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, comes into the game late, but well trained for the task. He begins by giving non-academics a fascinating tour of the last century’s scholarship related to “early Christianities.” He outlines the particular problems related to the study of the ancient world in general and Gnosticism in particular. The term is indeed difficult to apply with consistency, since the polymorphous groups we usually call “Gnostic” recognized no earthly authority and produced no visible hierarchy. Still, Bock, like many scholars, is able to settle on a minimal list of attributes common to all Gnostic texts (the Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene, for example). Similarly, he is able to distill a minimal list of attributes common to all texts associated with proto-orthodox Christianity (the canonical New Testament and the apostolic fathers). Drawing from both sets of texts, he compares and contrasts both groups’ doctrines of God, Christ, salvation, and sin.

Though the book is measured and nonpolemical, Bock’s conclusion frankly confronts the limitations of the scholars who are re-imagining and promoting ancient heresies. They are dealing with comparatively late texts (second and third centuries) from a fringe movement that never quite gained momentum — and it fizzled out not because it was crushed by orthodoxy, but because it was singularly unappealing. When we see the Gnostic books as they are — as Dr. Bock has opened them up for us — we know why they went out of print after only one edition.

In stark contrast, may this book and its author prosper.

UPDATE: Someone asked how Dr. Bock’s book differs from Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, by N.T. Wright, which I reviewed last month. Bock’s book focuses particularly on the Nag Hammadi library, the large gnostic cache that was discovered in Egypt in the 1940s, while Wright’s book is a surgical strike on the more recently discovered Gospel of Judas. Wright’s book is also a more direct response to the modern Gnostic revival, and so is more immediately useful for apologetic purposes. The two books complement one another. A Christian who reads both is well prepared for the discussions that come up whenever the newsmags decide to trumpet Judas over Jesus.

I have longer reviews of both books appearing in Touchstone magazine. You really should subscribe.

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Hello, Out There in TV-Land

I just found out that the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) will — this very weekend — begin airing the sixth series I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to tape with my friend Scott Hahn. It’s titled “Letter and Spirit,” and it airs Sundays at 6:30 a.m. (Eastern Time) and Mondays at 9 p.m. Over thirteen weeks, Scott and I will discuss the relationship between Scripture and liturgy, drawing often from the Fathers. Our discussion will begin with Scott’s recent book, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy. If you haven’t read it, don’t deny yourself any longer. It begins with Anthony of Egypt and ends with the great mystagogues, Ambrose and Cyril and Theodore. In between, Scott calls to witness the martyrs, Fathers, bishops, rabbis, and monks of the Great Tradition. In short, the book rocks.