Stephen The Theban


A monk. Nothing is known about Stephen the Theban other than that he was a monk. His literary heritage has been transmitted to us in Greek, Arabic, and Georgian, and not in Coptic or any other language. The Greek tradition, according to the research carried out by Jean Darrouzes, attributes three works to him: Asketikos, Entolai, and Diataxis. The latter two texts were edited by K. I. Dyobouniotis in 1913 under the name of Stephen the Sabaite. In fact, the Diataxis is composed of extracts from Sermons 3 and 4 of Isaiah of Gaza. As for the Entolai, they seem to be no more than extracts from the Precepts of Saint Antony the Great and Abbot Isaiah.

It would appear that Stephen can claim authorship of only the Ascetic Sermon, the Greek text of which was edited in 1969 by Etienne des Places on the basis of an eleventh-twelfth-century manuscript in the National Library, Paris (Greek 1066; not collated with Lavra Greek 248) with a French translation. The Georgian text was published in 1970 by Gérard Garitte, on the basis of a tenth- century manuscript (Sinai Georgian 35; this version corresponds sometimes with the Greek against the Arabic, and sometimes with the Arabic against the Greek).

Darrouzès observes of the content, “[This] work is a rather loose collection of counsels addressed to the author’s spiritual son who is being initiated into monastic life: he must renounce the world, practice the ascetic life by developing the virtues, stay in his cell, and dismiss bad thoughts” (Darrouzès, 1961, col. 1525, bottom).

The Ascetic Sermon is well attested in Arabic at an early date in several South Palestinian and Egyptian manuscripts (Vatican Library, Arabic 71, parchment, at the monastery of Saint Saba in A.D. 885, fols. 226b-34a, A in J.-M. Sauget’s edition; Sinai Arabic 571, copied on Sinai in the twelfth century, fols. 216a-22b, C in Sauget; Sinai Arabic 236, copied on Sinai in 1298, fols. 208a-15b, logoi 57-109 are missing, B in Sauget; and National Library, Paris, Arabic 253, in Egypt in the fourteenth century, fols. 246a- 50v, D in Sauget). Vatican Arabic 695 is a copy of Vatican Arabic 71 made in Rome in the eighteenth century. Thus the Arabic manuscript tradition is older and far better attested than the Greek or Georgian traditions.

In Arabic this collection is divided into 109 sections. It was published by J.-M. in 1964 on the basis of the four manuscripts mentioned above, with a French translation and a Greek-Arabic index of the spiritual terminology. This Arabic text is translated directly from the Greek, without an intermediary translation. The translator does not always render the same Greek term with the same Arabic equivalent; his language is rather rough and his is excessively reminiscent of the Greek original.

Sinai Arabic 235 ( on Sinai in 1570) also contains (fols. 37b-38b) a brief text attributed to Stephen the Theban with the following incipit: “If you [pl.] wish to enter into life, and rejoice [sing., sic] with all the saints. . . .” This recalls logos 78 that begins: “My son, if you wish to enter the kingdom of heaven . . .” (Sauget, 1964, p. 392), although the content is quite different. It is also quite different in the Greek text, and also in the Georgian, both of which are occasionally different from the Arabic. These two pages of the Sinai manuscript have not yet been edited.

The Ascetic Sermon was certainly known to the Copts at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Around 1230, ibn al-‘Assal summarized it in an epitome (mukhtasar). This epitome has not yet been edited, but it is attested in two fifteenth-century manuscripts (Vatican Library, Arabic 398, Egypt, fols. 102a-4a; and the Paris Syriac 239, fols. 137b-39b).

Concerning the text, writes (p. 371): “Comparison of the two manuscripts demonstrates that the text is one and the same, despite what says, and that far from being extracts from the recension witnessed by the above-mentioned manuscripts this text offers in a decidedly more “literary’ style a very abbreviated and summarized version of the “normal recension.'”

In conclusion, Graf (1944, Vol. 1, p. 413) attributes to Stephen the Theban texts that actually belong to another Stephen.

  • Atiya, A. S., and J. N. Youssef. Catalogue raisonné of the Mount Sinai Arabic Manuscripts (in Arabic). Alexandria, 1970.
  • Darrouzès, J. “Etienne le Thébain.” In Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Vol. 4. cols. 1525-26 (with bibliography). Paris, 1961.
  • Des Places, E. “Le “Discours Ascétique’ d’Etienne de Thèbes. Texte grec inédit et traduction.” Le Muséon 82 (1969):35-59.
  • Garitte, G. “Le “Discours ascétique’ d’Etienne le Thèbain en géorgien.” Le Muséon 83 (1970):73-93.
  • Sauget, J.-M. “Une Version arabe du ‘sermon ascétique’ d’Etienne le Thébain.” Le Muséon 77 (1964):367-406.