MYSTERIES OF GREEK LETTERS
A mystic treatise on the symbolical interpretation of the letters of the Greek alphabet possibly written by an Egyptian or Palestinian monk in the fifth or sixth century.
The complete title of the work is given in Arabic: Sharh Ihtijaj qalahu al-qass anba Saba al-Sa’ih fi sirr falsafat Allah al-maknun fi huruf alfa wita (“Explanation of a defense pronounced by the priest Anba Saba the Hermit concerning the mystery of the philosophy of God hidden in the letters of the Greek alphabet”).
This work is still very little known. E. Revillout mentioned it in 1873 in connection with the Gnostic literature of the first centuries. A. Hebbelynck gave rather more precise details in a brief account published in 1896. It was not until 1900-1901 that his edition of the Sahidic text was finally published, accompanied by a short study and a translation in French. This text is known from a bilingual Sahidic Coptic and Arabic manuscript preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Huntington 396). It contains 119 folios and was described by John Uri in 1787, as number 55 of the Coptic manuscripts.
The Sahidic text is certainly translated from the Greek. In 1989 Joseph Paramelle, S. J., who had discovered the original Greek version of this text, was preparing its publication. The Sahidic text comes to a halt on folio 113. What follows (15 pages, fols. 113v-119v) is exclusively in Arabic. This Arabic version was made by the copyist of the manuscript himself, who does not give his name but who records that he completed his work on 14 Bashans 1109 A.M./9 May 1393. The Arabic version is as yet unpublished, as is the fifteen-page supplement that would seem to have been composed by the translator himself. G. Graf limits himself to mentioning the text in passing (Geschichte der christlichen-arabischen Literatur, p. 662, lines 30-32).
The author of the treatise wrote in Greek, but he knew Syriac and Hebrew. He lived after Epiphanius of Cyprus, from whom he quotes the following authors, (according to Hebbelynck 1900-01): CLEMENT OF ROME, Dionysus the Areopagite, Irenaeus of Lyons, Epiphanius of Cyprus, the HEXAPLA, and also the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.
The author’s name is given several times in the Arabic version (e.g., fol. 114a) as being the hieromonk Saba. The fact that he knew Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew suggests that he lived in Palestine. He may have been the person, born in 439 and died in 531, who founded several Palestinian monasteries.
This is not a Gnostic or magic work but belongs to a branch of Egyptian literature concerned with the hidden meanings of letters. “From the fourth century onward,” writes Hebbelynck, “Egypt offers remarkable examples of the branch of literature. The writings, of which St. Jerome has given us a Latin version entitled Monita S. Pachommi, SS. Pachomii et Theodori Epistolae, Verba mystica (S. Pachomii), contain a series of admonitions and pronouncements, each one more enigmatic than the other, based on the occult significance of the alphabet” (Hebbelynck, 1900, pp. 9-10; cf. Patrologia Latina 23, cols. 61-100). Hebbelynck gives other examples (pp. 10-11) of this kind of literature as well. This view leads to a different hypothesis concerning the identity of the author. Saba might have been an Egyptian hieromonk trained in Alexandria, who composed his treatise directly in Greek.
- Hebbelynck, A. “Une Page d’un manuscrit copte intitulé ‘Les mystères des lettres grecques’ (Description cosmogonique).” In Mélanges Charles de Harlez, pp. 127-32. Leiden, 1896.
- . “Les mystères des lettres grecques d’après un manuscrit copte-arabe de la Bibliothèque bodléienne d’Oxford.” Le Muséon 19 (1900):5-36, 105-36, 269-300; 20 (1901):5-33, 369-414, and plates 1-3.
- Revillout, E. Première étude sur le mouvement des esprits dans les premiers siècles de notre ère. Vie et sentences de Secundus, d’après divers manuscrits orientaux. Les analogies de ce livre avec les ouvrages gnostiques. Paris, 1873.
- Uri, J. Bibliothecae Bodleianae codicum manuscriptorum orientalium . . . catalogus, Vol. 1, p. 327 (no. 55). Oxford, 1787.
KHALIL SAMIR, S.J.