ULPHILAS (c. 311-381)
The Apostle of the Goths, who was responsible for the conversion of the Goths to Arian Christianity (see ARIANISM). According to the ecclesiastical historian Philostorgius (Historia ecclesiastica 2.5), the Goths descended on the eastern provinces of the empire and crossed the Bosporus to Asia Minor and Cappadocia in the third century, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus. After ravaging these provinces, they returned to Dacia with many prisoners, including Ulphilas, who happened to be Arians.
These Cappadocians eventually became missionaries of Arian Christianity amid their barbarian masters. Ulphilas is known to have been born in Dacia to Cappadocian parents around 311, and he labored all his life among the Goths, whose language he mastered in addition to his native Greek.
Little is known about the life of Ulphilas beyond the gleanings collected from Philostorgius and a newly discovered manuscript of an Epistle written by his former pupil Auxentius, Arian bishop of Dorostorum (Silistria) in the Louvre, Paris. Apart from his preaching of the gospel in Dacia he was selected by the Gothic monarchs to go to Constantinople as their ambassador around 340, apparently because of his knowledge of Greek. It was during his visit to the Byzantine capital that Ulphilas was elevated to the rank of bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was also a follower of ARIUS. Afterward he returned to Dacia, where he resumed his missionary activity.
In 360, Ulphilas is said to have been in Constantinople to attend a synod where the Acacian party (see ACACIAN SCHISM) scored a triumph in devising a middle-of-the-road formula intended to bring orthodox Christians and Arians closer together and end their quarrels over the nature of Christ. A new term, homoios, was devised as a substitute for the terms homoousios and homoiousios, where the root of the trouble lay.
The “Homoeans” maintained that the Son was “like” the Father, and this similarity was confirmed by Ulphilas, who described Jesus as the image of the invisible God. This led to the creation of a new party of orthodox “semi-Arians” who seem to have suffered, perhaps temporarily, a wave of local persecution at the hands of the Arian Athanaric the Goth during the period 372-375. This persecution affected Ulphilas until Arianism was completely restored among the Goths before their final descent into the Roman empire.
On the authority of Auxentius, Ulphilas found time to write a number of literary and theological treatises that are all lost save a Latin Homoean Mass creed and a baptismal creed reproduced in the Epistola of Bishop Auxentius. His masterpiece was the monumental translation of the Bible into the Gothic tongue, which has survived and is available in print. Noteworthy in the text of the Gothic Bible is Ulphilas’ omission of the Books of Kings, which he deliberately left out in order not to encourage the warlike nature of the Goths through the example of scripture.
The latter years of the life of Ulphilas are shrouded in obscurity. He is said to have returned to Constantinople in 380 on an unknown mission and died early in 381.
- Altaner, B. Patrology. Trans. H. Graef. London, 1958.
- Bardenhewer, O. Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, Vol. 3. Freiburg, 1912.
- Friedrichsen, G. W. S. The Gothic Version of the Gospels. Oxford, 1939.