Translation – The History of the Egyptian Solitaries


This is a translation from French of a  Greek manuscript containing the History of the Egyptian Solitaries. This post contains the French translator’s introduction, and the first of the Apothegmata. Of course many or most of these are known to us. But I want to have a translation of these texts that I have myself into modern English and that I can use for various other purposes myself.



This title, borrowed from the Syriac version, corresponds to the Latin Vitae Patrum and seems to us preferable to the epigraph “Apophthegms of the Holy Elders” (Verba Seniorum) that our Greek text bears. Indeed, we will find not only the good words (Apophthegms) pronounced by the Elders, but, most often, stories of monks narrated by the author or at least recorded from stories that have been told to him. These stories preserved in so many Greek manuscripts are of two kinds: some are explicitly named after their hero or author: “Macarius was … Macarius told …”, the others do not have a proper name: “There was a brother who was … an old man was telling …”. Early in the day, most stories with an author’s name were extracted and transcribed separately in alphabetical order. The most important of these alphabetic collections was published by Cotelier. Almost everything else is new.

We have read the manuscripts from Paris in the hope – a little disappointed – of finding many interesting holy stories. As early as 1900, we were able to point out to Mr. Léon Clugnet two stories of Daniel of Scete and since then the story of St. Marina and some interesting stories from the ms. Greek-1596. We have published ourselves the stories of the monk Anastasius of the Sinai Fathers and the stories of another Anastasius (no doubt the patriarch of Antioch), we have translated all these stories in the Review of The Catholic Institute (1902), and we have again published the history of Thais and the chapter about the holy anchorites. Finally, we have published the analysis of the Greek ms 1596 which appeared to us to contain one of the most interesting compilations.

Apart from these few interesting stories that are found in the mass of apophthegms, it had always seemed important to us to complete Cotelier’s publication. But the most important mss., such as Coislin 127 (and 108) that first attracted us, are often recent compilations of various origins that have once again collected alphabetic apophthegms with others under various categories. It is recognized by this fact that the fathers mentioned are arranged in alphabetical order, and that the stories of Daniel of Scetis (sixth century) are lost among the others. This is the case in mss. Coislin 127 and 108. The ms. London, Burney 50, which is composed of two volumes, is a more recent compilation, because it contains a good number of accounts of the monk Anastasius about the Sinai Fathers and cannot be earlier than the eighth century since the monk Anastasius wrote about the middle of the seventh century.

We also studied small compilations, like that of ms. Coislin 282, fol. 1-96; they have the great advantage of resembling those which have been translated into Latin from the sixth to the sixth century and which constitute the Vitae Patrum.Their resemblance to Latin is a guarantee of antiquity, but part of their stories, those which contain their own names, have been extracted from them to appear in the alphabetical apophthegms and have been edited by Cotelier, to publish them again would be a duplication, it follows that an edition intended to complement that of Cotelier without doing double the work was made by the author of the compilations contained in M. Coislin No. 126, from the tenth to the eleventh century, after having transcribed the apophthegms alphabetically (fol.1-158), he then collected all those who did not appear in this first part. It did not follow any order, the few titles barely correspond to any of the histories which follow. The author seems to have had only one concern, that of being complete, and this is what makes his compilation valuable, for, to complete Cotelier, we need only to edit it.

Purpose and mode of this publication. We do not bother to look for sources, to study the relative antiquity or the credibility of our stories, because these critical studies can not become definitive until after a complete publication of the texts; we therefore only intend to prepare for these studies and not to produce them here.

We publish as is, the second part of ms. Coislin 126 (A), fol. 158 sqq., The first of which was edited by Cotelier. We hastily added a French translation for those readers of the Revue de l’Orient Chretien who do not read Greek. The anecdotes relate to all kinds of subjects and, although written to edify, the critical reader could sometimes find something at the expense of some unfortunate monks. They must be read with the spirit in which they were written. Moreover this edition is not a work of popularization: it is intended only for the academic and it will not be made a separate print.

To prepare a little for the critical study of the apophthegms, we add their concordance, which we have noted, with the old Latin and Syriac versions and with some Greek manuscripts from Paris.

The Latin version of the fifth century to the sixth century (mostly at least) is contained in particular in the Latin Patrology of Migne, T. LXXIII, cols 707 to 1066. We will refer to it by the letter M, followed by the column and history.

The Syriac version, also ancient, since it is contained in manuscripts of the sixth century, is preserved in various collections as well as Latin translations. We will refer: a) to the London manuscript add. 12173, from the sixth to the seventh century (L), from which we have been able to make a detailed analysis; b) to the edition given by the Reverend Father Bedjan (B), which is a compilation of the Paradise of the Fathers composed by Enanjesus in the seventh century, and other stories collected by R. P. Bedjan in various ancient mss. Syriacs; c) to the Paradise edition of the Fathers of Enanjesus (E) published with English translation by Mr. W. Budge.

As will be seen, the Latin or Syriac translations of many of these stories have already been published. These stories themselves have been quoted or summed up by a multitude of authors. It is therefore not too early to finally publish the original Greek text.

F. Nau 1907

The Sayings of the Elders

1. Our holy father Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, was asked: How is the Son equal to the Father? He answered: As the sight in two eyes.

2. Our holy father Gregory the Theologian was asked: How are the Son and the Holy Spirit equal to the Father? He answered: If three suns were near one another, the deity is like the unique mixture of (their) light.

3. The same says: God asks of every baptized man the following three things: the right faith of the spirit, the truth of the tongue and the purity of the body.

4. Two brothers after the flesh dwelt in Scete, and it came to pass that one fell ill. His brother went to the congregation and asked the priest for communion (for the one who was sick). The priest said to the brothers: Let’s go visit (the one who is sick). So they went there and went away after praying. The following Sunday the priest asked him how his brother was going. He answered, Pray for him. The priest took the brothers and went with them to the sick man. When they arrived, as they sat, the one who was sick was on the point of death. The brethren were discussing him and some said, He was blessed with the Holy Spirit, while the rest doubted, and his brother, seeing them, said to them, Why do you argue among yourselves? Do you want to know who has the power? – Then he turned to his brother and said to him: Are you going away, O my brother? The one who was sick said: Yes, but pray for me. And he said to him, I will not allow you, my brother, to go before me. Then he turned to the brethren who were seated there and said to them: Give me a little mat and a rug. He took them, bowed his head and gave up his spirit first, then it was the (turn of the) one who was sick. The fathers, burying them both at once, took them away and interred them with joy because they had received the intelligible light.

5. Two brothers lived together in the desert. One of them, remembering the divine judgment, went wandering alone in the desert. The other looked for him, and after much hard work, when he found him, he said to him, Why are you fleeing outside? Have you committed the sins of the world alone? The brother said to him: Do you think that I do not know if my sins have been remitted to me? Certainly, I know that God has remitted my sins, but I give myself all this trouble to see at the last judgment those who will be judged.

6. Two brothers were neighbors, and one of them hid what he had – either a small coin or a piece of bread – and threw it into his neighbour’s house. The other did not notice, but was surprised to see his house fill up. One day, however, he took the other to task, raised it with him and said: By your worldly gifts, you have made me lose spiritual gifts. He promised to stop doing it and so he forgave him.

7. A brother made a false key; he opened the cell of an old man and took his earnings. The old man wrote on a paper Lord, my brother, whoever you are, do me the charity to leave me half of my goods. Then making two shares of his earnings, he put the paper close by. The other entering again, tore up the writing and took the whole; after two years he died and his soul would not come out (from his body); So he called the old man and said to him, Pray for me, father, because I stole your earnings. The old man said: Why did not you say this before? Then he prayed and forgave him.

8. A brother had an old man (for a companion), and seeing that he was burying the dead in an astonishing manner, he said to him: When I am dead, will you bury me in this way? He answered him, I will bury you until you say, It is enough. Soon after the disciple died and what was said was realized. For the old man who had buried him piously said to him before all, Are you well buried, my son, or is there still something missing? And the young man answered, It is well, O father, for you have done what you have said.

9. Abba Besarion says that a man withdrew from the world having a wife and also a girl who was a catechumen, but nevertheless Christian. He divided his property into three parts. In the meantime, his daughter dying while only being a catechumen, the father, for her ransom, gave her share to the poor as well as that of his wife and his own. He kept praying to God for his daughter. A voice was heard as he prayed: Your daughter has been baptized, do not be discouraged. He did not want to believe it. The invisible voice said again: Dig up the grave to see if you’ll find her. He went to the tomb, dug and did not find her because she had been placed with the faithful.

10. And an old man said, Behold the voice that cries to the man unto his last breath: Be converted t0day!

11. Abba Theodore says: Do not condemn the one who is given over to indulgence if you are continent, because you also transgress the law. He who said, You shall not fornicate, has also said, You shall not judge.

12. A man possessed by a demon once came to Scetis, and for a long time he was not healed. One of the old men, taken with compassion, made the sign of the cross over the demoniac and healed him. The demon became angry and said to him, You are driving me away, I am coming to you. The old man replied: Come then, it makes me happy. The old man spent twelve years keeping the demon and mortifying it; he ate only twelve dates each day. Then the demon escaped and left him. The old man seeing him go, said to him, Why are you running away? Stay longer. The devil answered him and said to him: God will tame you, because he alone has power over you.

13. It was said of an old man in Egypt that he lived in a single-room cell. A brother and a virgin used to come to see him. One day, therefore, both arrived at the same time near the old man. When evening came, he unrolled a mat and lay down in the middle. The brother was tormented and joined the virgin and they sinned together. The old man noticed it and did not speak to them; in the morning he dismissed them without showing them any sadness. While they were on their way, they wondered if the old man had noticed it or not. They returned to him full of repentance and said to him, Abba, have not you seen how Satan has trampled upon us? He replied: Yes. They said to him, Where was your spirit at this hour? He answered them, At that time my spirit was watching and weeping where Christ was crucified. They accepted the penance imposed on them by the old man, went away, and became vessels of election.

14. Abba Zoile, the priest, who was from Tamiathis, said that he had heard Abba Nathael say that seven other senators had wanted to imitate Abba Arsene and lead the monastic life at Scetis. They had given up all their possessions, devoted themselves to the work of the reeds, formed simple implements of clay, and said: It is for the great God to see, to take pity and to forgive us our sins.

15. It was said of Abba Arsene that no one could follow his way of life.

16. It was said of Abba Macarius the Great that he went every day for four months to a brother at Scetis and not once did he find him idle. He went once more, stopped by the door outside and heard the brother crying and saying, Lord, if your ears do not hear me cry out to you, have mercy on me because of my sins, because on my side I do not tire of calling you to my aid.

17. A novice wanted to renounce the world. He said to the old man: I want to become a monk. The old man replied: You can not. This novice said: I can. The old man says: If you want it, go, give up the world, then come and stay in your cell. He went away, gave away what he had, kept one hundred coins, and came to the old man. The old man said to him, Go, stay in your cell. He went to stay there. While he was there, his thoughts told him: The door is old and needs to be replaced. So he went to tell the old man: My thoughts tell me: The door is old and it needs to be replaced. The old man replied: You have not yet given up the world, go, give up the world and stay here. He went away, gave ninety coins, hid ten, and came to tell the old man, I have given up the world. The old man said to him, Go, stay in your cell. He went to stay there. While he was there, his thoughts told him: The roof is old and needs to be replaced. He went to tell the old man: My thoughts tell me: The roof is old and needs to be replaced. The old man said to him: Go and give up the world. He went away, gave the ten coins, and came to say to the old man, I have given up the world. While he was there his thoughts said to him, Everything is old here; the lion will come and eat me. He exposed his thoughts to the old man, who said to him, I wish that everything should fall upon me, and that the lion would come to eat me, that I might be delivered from life. Go, stay in your cell and pray to God.

18. An old man said to another who was charitable and met with the monks and laity: The lamp illuminates many (men), but burns his own mouth.

19. It was said of an old man that he was walking in the wilderness, and behold, two angels went with him, one on the right hand and one on the left. They happened to find a corpse along the road and the old man stopped his nose because of the stench; the angels did the same. When they had advanced a little, the old man said to them, Do you feel that too? They answered: No, it is because of you that we have plugged our noses too: we do not feel the impurities of this world and they do not reach us, but we sense the souls that stink in their sins.

20. There was an old man who ate three biscuits every day. A brother came to him and when they sat down to eat he served him three biscuits; as he had not had enough, he gave him three more. When they were filled and arose, the old man condemned the brother and said to him: We must not yield to the flesh. The brother made repentance to the old man and went away. The next day, when the moment of the old man’s meal arrived, he served himself the three biscuits according to his custom, he ate them, then he was still hungry and resisted this desire. It was the same the next day. He began to weaken and he knew he had been abandoned by God. He prostrated himself with tears before God, and asked him about the abandonment in which he was found; An angel came to him saying, It happened to you because you condemned your brother. Recognize, therefore, that whoever can resist or do any good does not do it of his own strength; but it is divine goodness that strengthens man.

21. It is said of a certain old man of the cells that he was reclusive and did not even go to the assembly. He had a brother according to the flesh who lived in another cell. The latter fell ill and sent for the other to come and see him before his death. He replied: I cannot go there because it is my brother according to the flesh. And he said to him again, Come at least this night for me to see you, and he said, I can not; otherwise my heart will not be found clean before God. And the brother died without it being known that they knew each other.

22. The fathers reported that there was a certain leader of the community whose servant became careless and left the monastery to go to another place. The old man was constantly going out to find him and beg him to come back, but he did not want to. The old man did this for three years and the servant, finally persuaded, returned to the monastery. The old man instructed him to pick straw. While the servant was doing it, by the operation of Satan, he lost an eye. The old man was very saddened and comforted him while he was in pain, but the servant said to him, I am the one who caused it, I suffer for having caused you so much fatigue. After a while, he was delivered from suffering – the affliction remaining to him – and the old man again ordered him to pick palm leaves. While he was working, by the operation of the enemy, one branch fell upon him and took his other eye. He came to the monastery and lived in silence without doing anything. The hegoumen of the monastery became ill and when his his death was near, he knew it in advance, he gathered all the brothers and said to them: My call is near, make plans for yourself. Everyone began to say: To whom do you entrust us, Abba? The old man was silent, summoned the blind man alone, and announced his call. He wept and said, To whom do you trust me, who am blind? The old man says: Pray that I may find favor with God, and I hope that on Sunday you will preside over the assembly of the faithful. A few days after his death the blind man regained his sight and became the father of the community.


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