Friday, November 5, 2010

The Seventy-Third Letter (Item 127): Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria to Pope Mark

Well, a week turned into four, but I have finally risen from the dead, or at least from the greater part of my job applications. It’s time to get back to work.

I know Part I of Pseudo-Isidore has provided you with absolutely hours of entertainment, but I’ve decided to jump ahead to Part III, at least for now. We’ve been hanging out among those early popes for a while and I think we’ve gotten the feel of the place. We haven’t found all the hidden treasure, not a by a long shot – but the complexities of Part III have been beckoning for some time, and I we should at least make an exploratory foray.

Part II of Pseudo-Isidore, you’ll remember, is nothing but church councils from the HGA: Our forgers have given these texts a healthy working-over, but it doesn't look like they've added any outright forgeries. Papal decretals resume on the other side of this conciliar material, in Part III, and here everything is different. In Part I things have been pretty simple: There’s no corresponding section in the HGA and Pseudo-Isidore just makes everything up. In Part III, Pseudo-Isidore switches hats; he becomes less of an outright fabricator and more of a compiler. To be sure, a lot of the stuff he adds to the HGA is perfectly fake, but he also brings in loads of genuine stuff, including earlier forgeries that Carolingian-era clerics accepted as authentic. Part III, in other words, is a lot more complicated, because at this point Pseudo-Isidore is working to expand an existing law collection.

It also helps to keep an eye on chronology: Part I ends with a single decretal from Pope Miltiades (dated to 314, the year of Miltiades’s death: we’ll get to this someday, I promise), Sylvester’s successor; Part II starts with Nicaea (A.D. 325) and goes up to Seville II (618/9). In Part III we backtrack, following the HGA. Right after the chapter list there’s a short text (I'm not going to bother with it) that has a rubric calling it the Excerpta quaedam ex synodalibus gestis Silvestri papae. This is a fake, but it doesn't seem to be Pseudo-Isidore's fake: according to Duchesne it's of a piece with the Symmachean forgeries. Beyond this piece Pseudo-Isidore doesn’t seem all that interested in Sylvester. His own forgeries don’t pick up until the pontificate of Mark in 336. Pseudo-Isidore, in other words, lets twenty-two crucial years in the history of Christianity slip by with nary a fake decretal.

Now he’s got to make up for lost time, and we get fireworks right away: The first forged letter of Part III is written not in the name of a pope, but of the bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. Apparently Athanasius’s notorious and intractable opposition to Arianism made him an attractive figure to our forgers – as good an historical hook as any for one of their more outlandish fictions. Together with his fellow Egyptian bishops, Athanasius writes to Mark to complain about the persecution that he and the rest of the orthodox have been suffering at the hands of “heretics,” particularly Arians. The Arians are problematic because they have burned all the bishops’ stuff: They have burned their books, Athanasius says, their liturgical vestments, their church decorations and associated utensils. But mainly they have burnt all their books, utterly destroyed their libraries. Not one iota has been left intact. Naturally this includes Athanasius’s copy of the decrees enacted at Nicaea in 325.

Pseudo-Athanasius casts his mind back eleven years, when he was still a deacon serving under his predecessor, Alexander I of Alexandria. Athanasius clearly remembers that the canons enacted at Nicaea were sent to Pope Sylvester at Rome through the priests Victor and Vincentius, apocrisiarii of the Apostolic See (he gets these names and the background from the preface to the Nicene acta found in the Quesnelliana). Athanasius thus reasons that Sylvester’s successor, Mark, is sure to have the canons. Nor is that all that Pseudo-Athanasius remembers – and here he gets around to the real purpose of this letter. Eleven years ago, Athanasius maintains, the 318 holy fathers gathered at Nicaea came up with a total of eighty canons; he says that forty were proposed by the Greek contingent and drawn up in Greek, and another forty were proposed by the Latin bishops, written in Latin. This posed a problem for Alexander I of Alexandria and the Roman apocrisiarii, who thought there should only be seventy canons, to commemorate the seventy disciples and the seventy languages of the world. (Isn't it just great how Pseudo-Isidore makes the absent bishop of Rome a prime mover at Nicaea, right up there with the  Alexandrian patriarch?) Thus they decided to nix ten of the canons and merge their content with the other seventy, to yield the necessary total. It was a copy of these seventy canons, Athanasius reiterates, that the nefarious heretics have burned. He has every confidence Mark will help him out and send a copy straight away. The concluding rhetoric isn’t very interesting; it’s spliced together primarily from acta of the Roman council of 721, with a few lines from a letter of Justinian and the 418 Council of Carthage.

Now I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the fathers gathered at Nicaea enacted only twenty canons, not seventy (though I am reminded that recensions with more than twenty canons circulated). As we saw a while ago, the preface to Pseudo-Isidore also insists that the fathers at Nicaea issued seventy canons, and before long we’ll get a forged decretal of Pope Julius I citing some of these additional decrees. Don’t hold your breath – they all turn out to be on typical Pseudo-Isidorian themes. As I speculated last time this came up, it seems our forgers weren’t feeling quite bold enough to actually interpolate Nicaea, so they took a different and more creative approach, essentially inventing a bogus indirect tradition that just happens to witness this additional (and mysteriously lost) legislation.

For those of you keeping score at home: Part II of Pseudo-Isidore’s decretals starts out with the Council of Nicaea, which Pseudo-Isidore passes on intact from the HGA. So Pseudo-Isidore invents this correspondence about seventy Nicene canons, but his own collection presents only the authentic twenty-canon version.


Recipient: Pope Mark

Date: 336, because that was the only year Mark was pope. No consuls and no dating clause, of course, because there’s no underlying Liber Pontificalis entry (though I guess, if our forgers were really committed, they could’ve just borrowed them from Mark’s biography in the LP)

Sources: the Historia Ecclesiastica Tripartita commissioned by Cassiodorus (VI.22 really forms the backbone of this letter); the Quesnel preface to Nicaea, a letter of Leo the Great (ep. 14), the preface to the council of Rome of 721, the 418 Council of Carthage; a letter form Justinian I to Pope John II

Words: 530

1 comment:

  1. Should you expand a bit on the contents of the Hist. tripartita? A condensation of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret (5th-cent Greek church historians), tr. into Latin, concerned with the history of the church in the 4th cent. The three historians overlap and condensed by selecting chapters from each. WG


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