The Festal Letters

It was customary for bishops of Alexandria to write a Festal Letter as Easter approached, and two recent studies have done much to solve the chronological problems posed by the Festal Letters which Athanasius wrote for the Easters during his long episcopate, from the Easter of 329 to the Easter of 373.' In 1986 Rudolf Lorenz published a facsimile of the Syriac text of Letter X with a German translation, preceded by a brief but incisive discussion of the editorial process which lay behind the Syriac and Coptic corpora and followed by a consideration of the theological content of the letter.2 In the same year Alberto Camplani presented a thesis at the University of Rome which was subsequently revised and published as a substantial monograph in 1989: it contains a full treatment of the direct and indirect transmission of the Festal Letters, of the compilation of the two corpora and the chronology of the Letters, and of the value of the Letters as a historical source.3 Fortunately, the most important chronological conclusions at which Lorenz and Camplani (and the present writer)4 arrived independently of each other largely coincide; hence a summary exposition of the problems of the Festal Letters will suffice.

Two basic propositions must be set out starkly and very clearly at the start:

(1)the numbering and the chronology of the Festal Letters in the Syriac and Coptic corpora reflect the decisions of an editor or editors who collected the Letters after Athanasius" death;

(2) the Festal Letters proper, which Athanasius wrote for circulation in Egypt shortly before each Easter, must be distinguished from the brief notifications of the date of the next Easter which he circulated long in advance, probably a few weeks after the preceding Easter.

It is one of the greatest merits of the studies of both Lorenz and Camplani that these fundamental points are allowed due weight.

The original Greek of Athanasius' Festal Letters has perished except for a few brief quotations in Cosmas Indicopleustes (10.3-13) and a large part of Letter XXXIX, pre served in Greek collections of canon law because it lists the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments (PG 26.1434-1440).5 Apart from quotations, in Syriac and Armenian as well as in Greek, the letters survive in Syriac and Coptic translations, each of which is incompletely preserved:6

(1) A Syriac manuscript in the British Library (Add. ms. 14569) preserves the first half of a corpus of the letters together with a scholarly apparatus supplied by an Alexandrian editor not long after Athanasius's death. The text of this manuscript was published by William Cureton in 1848 in a disordered state: it had been acquired by the British Museum in two batches and arrived in London not as a continuous manuscript, but as a collection of single leaves in two instalments.7 In 1853 Cureton's text, restored to its proper order, was reprinted by Cardinal Mai, together with a Latin version made by Mai on the basis of a literal rendering into Italian by a Maronite scholar in Rome.8 This Latin version, subsequently reprinted by J. P. Migne (PG 26.1351-1432), became the standard 'text' of the Letters used in scholarly writing about Athanasius. Unfortunately, Cureton originally overlooked two leaves of the manuscript, which he consequently omitted from his edition. Although he soon noticed his oversight and drew the two leaves to the attention of Henry Burgess, who printed their text as an appendix to his English translation of 1854,9 the missing portions of Letters X and XI were unknown to Mai, and, since Migne too omitted them, they remained unknown outside the English-speaking world until recently, so that far-reaching deductions have sometimes been based on the supposed lacunae.10 English-speaking scholars have avoided the error because for them the most easily accessible and most widely used version of the Festal Letters has long been Jessie Payne Smith's 1892 revision of Burgess's translation, which had already in 1854 incorporated the contents of the two leaves omitted by Cureton.11

The manuscript, which breaks off suddenly in the middle of Letter XX, has normally been dated to the eighth century or so,12 but Camplani has produced cogent paleo-graphical grounds for dating it to the tenth century.11 The translation itself, which renders the Greek very literally and uses matres leetiotiis to reproduce almost all the vowels of the Greek proper names, appears to have been made in the sixth or seventh century.'4

(2) Fragmentary Coptic codices preserve large parts of seventeen letters throughout the collection which overlap both with the Greek fragments and with the Syriac version of Letters I-XX. The fragments known in 1955 were edited with a French translation by L. T. Lefort,15 whose edition has recently been supplemented with further fragments from the same codices.16

Camplani now provides a useful conspectus of the Coptic fragments of the Festal Letters which, though dispersed in more than half a dozen modern libraries, come from three manuscripts from the White Monastery, and he uses codicological criteria to place the fragments of letters transmitted without a number.17 The Coptic translation, Camplani argues, was made during the second half of the fifth century shortly after the death of Shenute of Atripe to be read for edification during Lent and at Easter ('come catechesi prepasquale e pasquale').18

Lefort's edition (it should be noted in passing) must be used with some caution. It includes the text of two leaves published in 1938 as part of the Festal Letter for Easter 364, which have a different provenance from the manuscripts which preserve the Festal Letters.19 It has been recognised for some time that the content of one of these two fragments (CSCO 150.69-70; 151.26-27) indicates that it cannot have been written by Athanasius at all,20 while Camplani shows that the other (CSCO 150.70-71; 151.27-

28) probably comes from a non-festal letter written by Athanasius at Antioch in the winter of 363/4.25

The Syriac corpus numbered the Festal Letters from 1 to XLV, but not continuously: the numbers are correlated with the years between 329 (I) and 373 (XLV), but a number was simply skipped wherever a letter was not included for the Easter of the relevant year: hence, in the fully preserved section of the corpus, there are no Letters VIII, IX, XII, XV, XVI. Besides the letters themselves, the Syriac corpus includes three scholarly aids:

(1) Before each letter stands a heading which states (a) the day and month of the Easter for which the letter was written according to both the Egyptian and Julian calendars; (b) the year of the Dioclerianx era; (c) the consular date; (d) the name of the prefect of Egypt in office at the time; (e) the indiction-year.

(2) Each letter is immediately followed by a subscription, which usually has the form 'here ends the mh Festal Letter of holy Athanasius the Patriarch*.

(3) Prefixed to the whole collection is 'an index of the months of each year, and of the days, and of the indictions, and of the consulates, and of the governors in Alexandria, and of all the epacts, and of those (days] which are named "of the gods," and the reason [a letter) was not sent, and the returns from exile.'

The individual entries in the index often also furnish information about Athanasius' activities during the year preceding the relevant Easter (such as: in this year he went through the Thebais' {2J).

The Syriac corpus of the Festal Letters thus comprises elements of quite disparate origin and value: the letters themselves were written or dictated by Athanasius himself as bishop between 328 and 373, but the introduction (or Festal Index), the heading to each letter, and the subscriptions came into existence during a process of editing after Athanasius' death. Since the text of the extant letters nowhere states in any form the year in which it was written, the number and the date of each letter must reflect editorial judgement. There are some patent contradictions between the Index and the corpus of letters to which they are prefixed,22 and both Cosmas Indicopleustes (10.6) and Severus of Antioch (CSCO 102.216) quote from Letter XXIX, written for Easter 357, although the Index states that Athanasius wrote no Festal Letter for the Easters of 357,358,359, and 360 (29-32). Hence a serious question inevitably poses itself: are the dates assigned to the Festal Letters in the Syriac corpus invariably correct?

The transmitted chronology of the Festal Letters stood unchallenged until 1913, when Adolf Jiilicher adumbrated a proof that some of rhe letters must be wrongly dated, a proof which Eduard Schwartz restated clearly and succinctly in 1935." Whereas most of Athanasius* Festal Letters either speak of 'the fast of forty [days]' or assume a pre-Easter fast of that duration, a few assume that the fast preceding Easter commences on the Monday of Holy Week {Letters I, IV, V, XIV). Since it is impossible that the church of Alexandria varied its practise in this matter inconsistently from year to year, the Festal Letters which prescribe a pre-Easter fast beginning on the Monday of Holy Week must be all earlier than those which prescribe or assume a fast of forty days—despite the numbers and dates assigned to them by the ancient editor or editors.

Schwartz explained how the editorial process of producing a corpus almost inevitably led to chronological errors. The editor or editors deduced the date of each Festal

Letter from the only evidence available—the date of the forthcoming Easter stated in its text, which was collated with a table of the dates at which Easter was celebrated in Alexandria between 329 and 373. Such collation with a Paschal cycle sufficed to establish the dates of some letters with complete certainty. Since during these years the Alexandrian Easter fell on 11 Pharmouthi = 6 April in 329 alone and on 7 Pharmouthi s 2 April only in 332, Letters I and IV must belong to these years. For most letters, however, two or more Rasters were theoretically open. The ancient editor or editors were thus compelled to invoke other criteria and to exercise judgement, so that it is in no way surprising if the resulting choice of year was occasionally mistaken.

Ten years after Schwartz had systematically redated the Festal Letters, F. L. Cross surveyed the progress of modern scholarship on Athanasius and proclaimed that Schwartz had for the firs: time rendered an 'intelligent reading* of the Letters possible.24 Schwartz, however, worked almost entirely from the Syriac translation of the Index and Letters I-XX. In 1953 L. T. Lefort argued that the Coptic fragments furnish a decisive refutation of his attempt at redating.25 For the Coptic Letter XXIV, transmitted with the date of 352, prescribes a forty-day fast with Easter on 24 Pharmouthi = 19 April. Between 329 and 373 the Alexandrian Easter fell on 19 April only in 330, 341, and 352: hence Letter II, which refers to 'the fast of fort)' [days|,' cannot be redated to 352, as Schwartz wished, since the only other possible year (341) is securely occupied by Letter XIII, which states that it was written in Rome.

Lefort's arguments against Schwartz held the field for thirty years,26 even though an embarrassing fact seriously damages their cogency. The lemmata to a series of quotations from the Festal Letters by Timothy Aelurus, preserved only in Armenian, identify a passage which occurs in the Coptic Letter XXIV as coming from Letter II of the forty-sixth year of the Diocletianic era (329/30), which would be its correct numbering and date—were Schwartz's redating of the Syriac Letter II from 330 to 352 justified. Similarly, the same source identifies a passage which occurs in the Syriac Letter XIV as coming from Letter III of the forty-seventh year of the Diocletianic era—the very date (330/1) and original numbering to which Schwartz assigned it.27 Lefort disallowed th:s evidence as unreliable by attributing to Timothy Aelurus the method which Schwartz attributed to the editor of the corpus and by accusing him of employing it carelessly.28

In his edition of Festal Letter X, Lorenz invalidated Leforr's central argument and thus established beyond doubt that some letters are wrongly dated in the Syriac corpus (as Jiilicher and Schwartz had argued). Lorenz analysed the formulaic wording which Athanasius uses to announce both the six-day and the forty-day fast and showed, on form-critical grounds, that the reference to a forty-day fast in Letter XXIV is a later interpolation.29 Presumably, the editor noticed the discrepancy over the length of the pre-Easter fast between this letter and those immediately preceding it and adjusted the text accordingly. It should be accepted, therefore, that the western practise of observing a forty-day fast before Easter was introduced into Egypt after Athanasius had written Festal Letter V for Easter 333, and hence that Festal Letters II and III must be redated to reflect this fact. It is a minor matter that opinions still differ on whether the change occurred between 335 and 338 or as early as 333/4.30

Lorenz offered a brief 'attempt at an insight into the redaction-history of the collection of festal letters,' in which he stressed the contradictions between the Festal Index and the actual contents of the collection of letters which it purports to describe.31 These contradictions were noted very soon after the publication of the Festal Index and Festal

Letters: as early as 1853 C. J. Hefele deduced that the Index 'originally belonged to another collection of the Festal letters now lost, but was combined with and set at the head of the surviving collection by a later copyist,'32 and the relevant sentence is repeated virtually word for word in his classic history of church councils.33 In 1892 Archibald Robertson accepted Hefele's inference and asserted that 'some phenomena might suggest that the Index was originally prefixed to another collection of the letters' (one which lacked Letters XIII and XIV), and he deduced from the subscription to Letter VII (which states: 'there is no eighth or ninth [letter], for he did not send them') that 'the present collection of letters has undergone a recension since its union with the index.'34 It is only quite recently, however, that the full significance of the contradictions has been appreciated. In 1961 V. Peri noted that the Index for 340 relates to the notification of the date of Easter 346: in 345 Athanasius declared that the next Easter should be celebrated on 30 March, not 23 March (Festal Letter XVIII), but the Index states that it was in 340 that 'the Arians proclaimed [Easter] on 27 Phamenoth [= 23 March], and were much ridiculed on account of this error' until they changed the date to 4 Pharmouthi [= 30 March) and in the event celebrated Easter on the same date as the catholics (Index 12).35

Camplani has now made the contradictions the cornerstone of a bold and original reconstruction of the process of collecting and editing and of the subsequent transmission of the Festal Letters, which appears to explain all the phenomena, especially the discrepancies.36 He argues that the Syriac corpus reflects a fusion of two originally separate editions of the Festal Letters, and he reconstructs the history of the two original collections as follows:

In Athanasius' lifetime

(1) his Festal Letters and brief notifications of the date of Easter were preserved in Alexandria with the exception of certain letters sent from exile;

(2) elsewhere, perhaps at Thmuis, were kept and collected the two notifications (XVII and XVIII) and various letters, including some sent from exile and the Letter to Serapion.

After Athanasius' death

(1) the letters preserved in Alexandria were collected and put in sequence with the transposition of the notifications for the Easters of 340 (now lost) and 346 (Festal Letter XVIII);

(2) the letters preserved elsewhere were also collected and put into sequence with some transpositions (III and XIV, II and XXIV), and this collection began to circulate in Egypt.

About 400

(1)the Index was added to the Alexandrian collection;

(2) headings were added to each of the letters in the other collection.

In the second half of the fifth century

(1) Timothy Aelurus quoted from a copy of the collection available to him in Alexandria;

(2) the other collection was translated into Coptic but without the heading to each letter;

(3) someone prefixed the Alexandrian Index to the other collection.

On this hypothesis, the numbering of the Festal Letters in the Syriac corpus derives from an editor outside Alexandria, so that Timothy Aelurus, the bishop of Alexandria, could quote letters with correct numbers and dates, whereas Severus of Antioch and Cosmas Indicopleustes repeated incorrect ones from the non-Alexandrian collection. The Syriac corpus of which the first half survives is translated from an edition which combined the Alexandrian Index with the other collection of letters—a collection significantly different from the one for which it was originally composed.

In the present context, it is not necessary to decide on the correct date of every Festal Letter of which the whole text or significant fragments survive. It will suffice to tabulate, separately for the brief notifications of the date of the next Easter which survive and the Festal Letters proper, the following information:37

(1)the number of the Letter in the corpus (numbers are omitted for letters which are totally lost),

(2) the Easter to which the late fourth-century editor or editors assigned it,

(3) the other years between 329 and 373 when the celebration of Easter in Alexandria fell on the same day,38

(4) either the correct date of the Letter where this appears to be certain or the alternative dates adopted by Schwartz, Lorenz, and Camplani where they disagree.

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