p. 500 B.—The Festal Letters, and Their Index,
The latter document is from the hand, it would seem, of the original collector of the Easter Letters of Athanasius (yet see infr. note 6a). He gives, in a paragraph corresponding to each Easter in the episcopate of Athanasius, a summary of the calendar data for the year, a notice of the most important events, and especially particulars as to the Letter for the Easter in question, viz., Whether any peculiar circumstances attended its publication, and whether for some reason the ordinary Letter was omitted.
The variations of practice which had rendered the Paschal Feast a subject of controversy from very early times (see Dict. Christ. Antiq. Easter) had given rise to the custom of the announcement of Easter at a convenient interval beforehand by circular letters. In the third century the Bishops of Alexandria issued such letters (e.g. Dionysius in Eus. H. E. vii. 20), and at the Council of Nicæa, where the Easter question was dealt with (ad Afros. 2), the Alexandrian see was requested to undertake the duty of announcing the correct date to the principal foreign Churches as well as to its own suffragan sees. (This is doubted in the learned article Paschal Letters D.C.A. p. 1562, but the statement of Cyril. Alex. in his Prologus Paschalis is express: cf. Ideler 2, 259. The only doubt is, whether the real reference is to Sardica, see Index xv. and Ep. 18.) This was probably due to the astronomical learning for which Alexandria was famous 3812 . At any rate we have fragments of the Easter letters of Dionysius and of Theophilus, and a collection of the Letters of Cyril 3813 .
The Easter letters of Athanasius were, until 1842, only known to us by allusions in Jerome (de V. illustr. 87) and others, and by fragments in Cosmas Indicopleustes purporting to be taken from the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 22nd, 24th, 28th, 29th, 40th, and 45th. Cardinal Mai had also shortly before the discovery of the Corpus unearthed a minute fragment of the 13th. But in 1842 Archdeacon Tattam brought home from the Monastery of the Theotokos in the desert of Skete a large number of Syriac mss., which for over a century European scholars had been vainly endeavouring to obtain. Among these, when deposited in the British Museum, Cureton discovered a large collection of the Festal Letters of Athanasius, with the Index, thus realising the suspicion of Montfaucon (Migne xxvi.) that the lost treasure might be lurking in some Eastern monastery. Another consignment of mss. from the same source produced some further portions, which were likewise included in the translation revised for the present volume 3814 .
(1) Number of Festal Letters of Athanasius.—This question, which is of first-rate importance for the chronology of the period, must be regarded as settled, at any rate until some discovery which shall revolutionise all existing data. The number 45, which was the maximum known to antiquity 3815 , is confirmed by the Index, and by the fact that the citations from Cosmas (see above) tally with the order of the Letters in this Syriac version in every case where the letter is preserved entire, while Letter 39, preserved by a different writer, also tallies with the reference to it in the Index. It is therefore unassailably established on our existing evidence that the last Easter letter of Ath. was his 45th, in other words that 45 is the full or normal number of his festal letters. This clinches the reckoning of the Index and Hist. Aceph. that he was bishop for 45 Easters (329–373 inclusive), i.e. for parts of 46 years (328–373 inclusive). Moreover it corroborates, and is rivetted firm by, the statement of Cyril. Alex. Ep. 1, that Athan. graced the see of Alexandria fully 46 years. Il le dit en voulant faire son eloge: de sorte quil y a tout lieu de croire quil na point passé les 46 ans: car pour peu quil fust entré dans la 47me année, S. Cyrille auroit dû naturellement luy donner 47 ans 3816 . So Tillemont (viii. 719), whose opinion is all the more valuable from the fact that he is unable to harmonise it with his date for the accession of Ath., and accordingly forgets, p. 720 (sub. fin.), what he has said on the previous page.
But we observe that many of the 45 Letters are represented in the corpus by blanks. This is doubtless often the result of accidental loss. But the Index informs us that in several years, owing to his adversities, the Pope was unable to write. This however may be fairly understood to refer to the usual public or circular letter. Often when unable to write this, he sent a few cordial lines to some friend (Letter 12) or to the clergy (17, 18) or people (29? see notes there) of Alexandria, in order that the true Easter might be kept (cf. the Arian blunder in 340, Ind. xii, with the note to Serapion Letter 12 from Rome). But occasionally the Index is either corrupt or mistaken, e.g. No. xiii, where the Pope is stated to have written no letter, while yet the Corpus contains one, apparently entire and of the usual public kind. We may therefore still hope for letters or fragments for any of the missing years.
p. 501 (2) The Festal Letters are fully worthy to rank with any extant writings of Athanasius. The same warmth, vigour, and simplicity pervades them as we find elsewhere in his writings, especially in such gems as the letter to Dracontius (Ep. 49). Their interest, however (apart from chronology), is mainly personal and practical. Naturally the use and abuse of Fast and Festival occupy a prominent place throughout. Repeatedly he insists on the joyfulness of Christian feasts, and on the fact that they are typical of, and intended to colour, the whole period of the Christians life. We gather from Ep. 12 that Lent was kept less strictly in Egypt than in some other Christian countries. He insists not only upon fasting, but upon purity and charity, especially toward the poor (Ep. 1. 11, cf. Ep. 47. 4, &c.). We trace the same ready command of Scripture, the same grave humour in the unexpected turn given to some familiar text (Ep. 39) as we are used to in Athanasius. The Eucharist is a feeding upon the Word (4. 3), and to be prepared for by amendment of life, repentance, and confession of sin (i.e. to God, Ep. 7. 10). Of special importance is the Canon of Holy Scripture in Ep. 39, on which see Prolegg. ch. iv § 4.
It should be observed that the interval before Easter at which notice was given varied greatly. Some letters (e.g. 1, 2, 20) by a natural figure of speech, refer to the Feast as actually come; but others (17, 18) were certainly written as early as the preceding Easter. Letter 4 was written not long before Lent, but was (§ 1) unusually late. The statement of Cassian referred to below (note to Ep. 17) is therefore incorrect at any rate for our period.
(3) The Index to the Festal Letters.—This chronicle, so constantly referred to throughout this volume, is of uncertain date, but probably (upon internal evidence) only somewhat later (Hefele, E. Tr. vol. ii. p. 50) than Athanasius himself. Its special value is in the points where it agrees with the Hist. Aceph. (supr. Prolegg. ch. v.), where we recognise the accredited reckoning of the Alexandrian Church as represented by Cyril and Proterius (see Tillem. ubi supr.). The writer undoubtedly makes occasional slips (cf. Index iii. with Letter iv. and p. 512, note 1, Index xiii. with Letter 3817 xiii.!), and the text would be a miracle if it had come down to us uncorrupt (see notes passim): but on the main dates he is consistent with himself, with the Chron. Aceph. and (so far as they come in contact) with the notices of the Alexandrian bishops above mentioned.
The writers method, however, must be attended to if we are to avoid a wrong impression as to his accuracy. Firstly, his year is not the Julian but the Egyptian year (infr. Table C) from Aug. 29 to Aug. 28. Each year is designated by the new consuls who come into office in the fifth month. Secondly, in each year he takes a leading event or events, round which he groups antecedent or consequent facts, which often belong to other years. Two or three examples will make this clear. (α) Year Aug. 30, 335–Aug. 28, 336: leading event, exile of Athanasius (he reaches CP. Oct. 30, 335, leaves for Gaul [Feb. 7], both in the same Egyptian year). Antecedent: His departure for Tyre July 11, 335, at end of previous Egyptian Year. (β) The eventful year Aug. 337–Aug. 338: leading event, triumphant return of Athanasius from Gaul, Oct. 21, 337. Antecedent: death of Constantine on previous 22nd of May (i.e. 337 3818 ). (γ) Year 342–3: leading event, Council of Sardica (summons issued, at any rate, before end of Aug. 343). Consequent events: temporary collapse of Arian party and recantation of Ursacius and Valens (344–347? Further examples in Gwatkin, Studies, p. 105). Bearing this in mind, the discriminating student will derive most important help from the study of the Index: when its data agree with those derived from other good sources, they must be allowed first-rate authority. This is the principle followed in the Prolegomena (ch. v.) and throughout this volume. On the main points in dispute, as strewn above, we have to reckon with a compact uniform chronological system, checked and counter-checked by careful calculations (Hist. Aceph.), and transmitted by two independent channels; in agreement, moreover, as concerns the prior and posterior limits, with the reckoning adopted by the successors of Athanasius in the see.
N.B.—The translation of the Index and Festal Letters is revised by Miss Payne Smith from that contained in the Oxford Library of the Fathers. A German translation by Larsow was published at Berlin 1852. The Latin Version (from an Italian translation) of Card. Mai is in Migne, xxvi. 1351 sqq.
After the final settlement of Egypt by Augustus as a province of the Roman Empire, the use of the Julian form of computation was established in Alexandria, the first day of the new Calendar being fixed to the 28th of August, the 1st of Thot of the year in which the innovation took place; from which period, six, instead of five, supplementary days were added at the end of every fourth year; so that the form of the Alexandrian year was as follows. The months from Phamenoth 5 (Mar. 1) onwards are unaffected by leap-year.
N.B.—In leap-years, the Diocletian year (see p. 503, note 4) began on the previous Aug. 30, which was accordingly the First of Thot, owing to the additional epagomenon which preceded it. Accordingly all the months to Phamenoth inclusive begin a day late. Then, the Julian intercalary day coming in as Feb. 29, Pharmuthi and the succeeding months begin as shewn above. (See Ideler, vol. I, pp. 161, 164, also 140, 142.)
p. 502 Table D. Of the Chronological Information Given in the Index to the Paschal Letters.
N.B.—The Year of our Lord, the Golden Numbers, and Dominical Letter, and the date of Easter according to the Modern Reckoning, are added. The age of the Moon on Easter-day is apparently given from observations or reckoned by some lost system (see Index x. xxii.); in about one case out of three it varies from the modern reckoning, perhaps once or twice from corruption of text. The Epact is a day too little for 342, 344, 361, 362, 363 (see Galle in Larsow;. F.B. 48, sqq.).
3819 15 April
3820 30 March
3821 26 March
The very late Arabic Life of Ath. alone gives 47 (Migne xxv. p. ccli.), a statement which we may safely ignore in view of the general character of the document which is crowded with incredible trivialities and follies (Montf.), outbidding by far the unparalleled rubbish (id.) of the worst of the Greek biographies (see Migne xxv. p. liv. sq.).500:3816 501:3817
Some phenomena might suggest (Hefele, ii. 88, note) that the Index was originally prefixed to another collection of the letters, and was copied by a collector or transcriber of our present corpus; cf. Index xiii., note 17b, and p. 527, note 1.501:3818 502:3819 502:3820 502:3821 502:3822
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