Isidore de Peluse: Lettres. Volume I. Letters 1214-1413.
Professor Evieux. begins here what will be a series of volumes giving the first critical edition of the 2000 numbered letters of Isidore of Pelusium. His long and detailed introduction explains the problems. First is the historical reality of the author and the works. Are these the genuine letters of an actual Isidore, a monk living in or near Pelusium, active in the earlier decades of the fifth century and notorious for some abrupt notes to Cyril of Alexandria lovingly preserved in hostile collections; or, are they (as a number of sceptical voices have suggested) products of an elaborate forgery which created both the letters and the person of their author? The question seems to be now settled by the present editor. The names of the addressees, the milieu, and the historical events hinted at or alluded to, are all consistent with the reality of an author whose writings did not begin to enjoy a wide vogue until well after his death (placed by the editor somewhere about 435/440). The ancient Lives are confused but together with what may be deduced from the letters themselves they outline the figure of a teacher of rhetoric and official sophist of Pelusium, educated at Alexandria and with a devoted band of disciples consisting of former pupils, now passed out of his hands into their respective careers, with whom he remained in touch. He seems to have been priested and given the role of didascalos by the Bishop, Ammonios. Difficulties with Ammonios' successor, Eusebius (Alas! A familiar pattern of Church life) led to his retirement to a monastery in Nitria, where he perhaps became the proestos and seems to have resided, till his death, still maintaining his contacts and his correspondence. The second problem is the formation of the literary legacy in antiquity. The likelihood is that a collection of 2000 numbered letters by their former master was brought together by his pupils on his death. The number 2000 is not entirely certain: Severus mentions 3000, Rusticus, in 564, says 2000, but the divergence is explained by the editor as due to the presence in early copies of duplicates. From this collection Of 2000, various letters passed into smaller collections including the Latin translation by Rusticus and a Syriac version. The manuscript tradition is fairly extensive indeed. These are pieces which were valued for their spiritual message and their pointed expressiveness. As for editions in modern times, the story is somewhat unhappy. What appears in the Greek Migne vol. 78 is a reprint of seventeenth century editions based upon successive finds of manuscripts. The order of the letters is correct there until number 1213, after which it goes awry. For this reason Professor Evieux starts this edition from letter 1214.
It will be good to have the full corpus of such lively and striking pieces complete with their excellent translation and helpful notes. There is much more to come, including some longer letters on questions of Christian apologetics and doctrine. These presently edited give a foretaste of pieces which will vividly document Egyptian provincial Church life. Their writer was a skilled master of belles lettres, cutting in his observations on the defects of the clergy, able to find unhackneyed phrases to convey the simple truths that the Christian life is often hard and that the hardships must be borne with perseverance, and with interesting things to say on Biblical interpretation. Letter 1265, for example, expounds Philippians 2, 6 f. in a way that is perhaps worth rediscovering. Harpagmon is equated with harpagma, and glossed with heuraion and heurema: his `being equal with God' was not, for Christ, an unexpected privilege, like a slave's being freed or someone's being adopted; it was his by birth, and hence could be freely surrendered without loss of dignity (or insult to the gift). Why the letters should be numbered in the way they are, remains a puzzle. Is the order (roughly) chronological? And can these be letters as they were actually sent: they have no opening or closing salutations, and are often exceedingly abrupt? They look much more like `highlights' from, or the gist of, what would actually have been longer pieces. However that may be, they are fine specimens of the genre, and we have good cause to be grateful to their editor for making them now readily accessible.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Theological Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1998|
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