Monday, August 26, 2013


Walter T. Wilson, The Sentences of Sextus. Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World 1. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. Pp. xiv, 478. ISBN 9781589837195. $51.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Adam C. McCollum, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (

Version at BMCR home site


The Sentences of Sextus (or Sixtus, or Xystus) has held the attention of readers, translators, scribes, editors, and commentators almost from the time its author brought them together, apparently in the late second century. The work's popularity is unquestionable. Written in Greek, there are translations of it into Coptic (Nag Hammadi XII,1), Latin (by Rufinus, with a prologue), Syriac, Armenian (found among works attributed to Evagrius Ponticus and structured as a century, like the centuries of Evagrius, with some supplementary sentences), and in a much narrower selection into Georgian (22 sentences translated from Armenian, not Greek) and Gəʿəz (in the Book of the Wise Philosophers [Mäṣḥafä fälasfa ṭäbiban], translated from an Arabic collection of sayings). Only two Greek manuscripts, designated Π (10th cent.) and Υ (14th cent.), contain the work, although neither has the whole, and there are differences in arrangement, with the Coptic, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian versions generally agreeing with the order in Υ. In terms of dates and witnesses to the Sentences, it is worth underlining that the manuscripts of the work in Coptic (late fourth century, and thus the earliest witness), Syriac (more than one manuscript from the sixth century, with several later), and Latin (earliest manuscript from the seventh or eighth century) predate the Greek manuscripts, in some cases considerably.

The Greek, Latin, and Syriac texts have been studied and used in varying degrees by Johann Gildemeister and Anton Elter in the nineteenth century, and by Henry Chadwick, whose 1959 edition of the Greek and Latin is the standard, in the next century. In their train now comes Wilson, who naturally relies much on his predecessors, but on several occasions goes his own way, for example, by making some differences to Chadwick's grouping of sayings together by topical section and by pointing to new and more likely sources for Sextus's words. The Sentences in their original form number 451 sayings, 31 of which are further subdivided into individual sayings, thus bringing the total actual number of sayings to 490. Some witnesses among the versions also have appendices of additional material adding 159 more sayings, but Wilson treats only the original 451. Citing the fact that Origen is the earliest writer known to show familiarity with the work, as well as the numerous connections apparent between the Sentences and the works of Clement of Alexandria, Wilson points to Egypt as the likely birthplace of the book (11); he might well have called as further evidence the earliest manuscript, the Coptic Nag Hammadi witness.

This volume inaugurates a new series from the Society of Biblical Literature, and it is a fine beginning. It consists of an introduction (not too long) and then the text of the Sentences, Greek and English, divided into 52 sections, with commentary for each sentence within each section. The end matter is made up of the bibliography and indices of Greek words, texts cited, authors, and subjects.

The introduction covers the witnesses to the text in terms of Greek manuscripts and of the versions (but with little said about the Armenian, Georgian, and Gəʿəz). More attention is given to the Greek texts most closely related to the Sentences, namely The Sentences of the Pythagoreans (of which there is also a Syriac version), The Sentences of Clitarchus, and Porphyry's Letter to Marcella, all of which provide ample comparative material to the work attributed to Sextus in terms of genre (γνῶμαι), literary structure, and wording. Wilson's commentary provides, sentence by sentence, what is probably the most complete list of parallels, both conceptual and verbal, from these three and other gnomological, philosophical, and theological literature: for example, from Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Evagrius, Plutarch, Philo, Iamblichus's Life of Pythagoras, Seneca, and the Bible. Selections of these parallels mentioned in the commentary are often quoted in full (sometimes in the original language, sometimes in translation, sometimes in both), and in many cases several more references without quotation are given. These lists will be a boon to every reader engaged with textual traditions of wisdom literature in antiquity.

Wilson marks the distinctive features of the Sentences as follows: 1. the work is "one of our earliest and longest examples of Christian Wisdom Literature" (1), 2. its ascetic outlook, and 3. the notable Pythagorean tone amid its otherwise eclectic stance. He groups the sayings into the aforementioned 52 sections on the basis of both theme and literary considerations, such as keywords and structure (e.g. inclusio). In a few of these groupings, as Wilson acknowledges, the division is more convenient than natural, but in general readers may easily follow his reasons and may thus better appreciate the book's arrangement.

At the beginning of each group of sayings comes the Greek text, which seems to follow Chadwick exactly (or almost so). Following the English translation then comes a simple apparatus, based mainly on the two Greek manuscripts, but also on Rufinus, the Syriac, and the Coptic (surviving only for sayings 157-180 and 307-397), and Wilson offers occasional remarks on this or that reading in the commentary.

The giving of quotations in Greek, English, or both is inconsistent, and the rationale dictating the choice is not apparent. Many readers will appreciate that he often gives the Greek, with or without an English translation, but of course some readers would prefer there always to be an English translation. A discussion of the degree of apparent Christianness in the Sentences would have been a valuable contribution to the introduction. Both Chadwick and Wilson seem ready to accept it as a Christian work, and, on the one hand, it certainly has many parallels with biblical and patristic passages, but, on the other, it has parallels with many a non-Christian text as well. The Sentences have much to say throughout about the sage's relationship with God, but nothing at all about the church (at least under that term), Jesus, the prophets, patriarchs, or apostles (as Jerome was happy to point out in an extended barb against Rufinus). Another possible question to address about the work, not necessarily in a lengthy scope, is that of how the Sentences were used: who was reading them, where did their value lie for their readers, and the like. Answers to questions like these might be gleaned from here and there in the commentary, but some paragraphs to that end in the introduction would go even further toward orienting the reader to the work.

Readers of different backgrounds and interests will find different places of value in the commentary, and likewise different points of contention or emendation. I would like to bring attention to some details with reference to sayings 27-31. Wilson (66-67) rightly points out that sayings 27-29 appear in The Martyrdom of Babylas. (His reference to Bolland 1734, 574 does not seem to be correct; in any case, this hagiographic work is usually cited from A. Papadopoulos-Kerameus, Συλλογὴ Παλαιστίνης καὶ Συριακῆς ἁγιολογίας I (St. Petersburg, 1907), 75-84 (= BHG 205), the passage in question here on 77-78.) The point to be made here is that it is not only 27-29, but actually 27-31, that is put into the mouth of the martyr, who is answering his persecutor's question:

Νουμεριανὸς εἶπεν· Τί ἐστι Θεός; τί δὲ ἡ προσηγορία αὕτη ἑρμηνεύεται; Βαβυλὰς εἶπεν· Θεοῦ μέγεθος οὐκ ὰν ἐξεύροις οὐδὲ πτεροῖς πετόμενος· καὶ θεοῦ ὄνομα ζήτεις, ὁ οὐχ εὑρήσεις· πᾶν γὰρ τὸ ὀνομαζόμενον ὑπὸ τοῦ κρείττονος ὀνομάζεται, ἵνα τὸ μὲν καλῇ, τὸ δὲ ὑπακούῃ. Τίς οὖν ὁ ὀνομάσας θεόν; Θεὸς οὐκ ὄνομα θεοῦ, ἀλλὰ δόξα θεοῦ. Μηδὲν οὖν ἐν θεῷ ὃ μὴ δύνασαι ζήτει· θεὸς γὰρ ὁδὸς σοφή, τοῦ ἐναντίου ἀνεπίδεκτος, καὶ ὁ θεὸς, ὅσα ἐποίησεν, ὑπὲρ ἀνθρώπων ταῦτα ἐποίησεν.

Unexpectedly, there are small variations, such as δόξα περὶ θεοῦ in Sextus 28, but δόξα θεοῦ in Babylas, and αὐτά in Sextus 31 (absent from Π), ταῦτα in Babylas. Of more substantive interest is saying 30, where Sextus has αὐγή but Babylas ὁδός. Since both words are of feminine gender, the following adjective is the same in both texts (σοφή). Whatever the meaning of this difference in the context of the martyrdom narrative, this reading deserves mention in the commentary, if not in the apparatus. We have, then, five Sextine sentences quoted in The Martyrdom of Babylas, not three.

Thankfully, the book is priced such that it is beyond almost no one's budget. The type, both Greek and Latin, is well-set and pleasant to read, and I noticed no errors. Wilson has made a valuable contribution not only to the Sentences of Sextus as a text in and of itself, but also to the gnomological literature of late antiquity in general. Reading the Sentences alongside Wilson's commentary makes for an invitation to travel innumerable paths of enquiry in the wisdom literature of the period and of late antique philosophy (Greek, Jewish, and Christian and admixtures thereof). If the volumes that follow in the series are similar to this one, then students and scholars of classical literature generally, and of philosophy, theology, and early Christianity, including monasticism, will gladly add another noteworthy resource to their bookshelves.

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