An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation

An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation

The Scholia in Apocalypsin

Panayiotis Tzamalikos, the editor and translator of An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation, explains his work on the Scholia in Apocalypsin.


In July 2008 a ‘miracle’ happened: I was almost through with proofing my book exploring the Scholia in Apocalypsin, which Adolph Harnack had falsely ascribed to Origen a century ago. Up until that time, my two-year exertions in order to be granted access to the Codex that incorporates the sole manuscript of the Scholia had been unsuccessful. Suddenly, though, an unexpected chain of events brought it about that the door of the Great Meteoron monastery was opened to me and I found myself studying the precious Codex and its palaeographical texts.

The rock complex of Meteora in Thessaly, with impressive monasteries ‘in the air’, perched on the summits and in the caves of the gigantic rocks, is regarded by some as a second Athos. This is a token of Byzantine monasticism, which inspires pilgrims to scale the heights in order to visit the monastic settlements at Meteora. Their origin was the Scetis of Doupiani, in the early fourteenth century. Yet the real story began in the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Athonite monk and hesychast Athanasius settled on the Broad Rock (Platys Lithos) and founded there what was soon to become the Monastery of Metamorphosis, the Great Meteoron, which currently preserves Codex 573.

This Codex of the Great Meteoron (the Metamorphosis Convent) has been surmised to be a tenth-century one, but my own opinion is that this is an early ninth-century manuscript. Of its nearly three hundred pages, only the last ninety were related to my topic at that time. Hence, on the last day of my study, I came to examine the book as a beautiful artifact of an ancient epoch, when I noticed the rubric on top of the initial page of this elegant book. “The book of monk Cassian the Roman”. Below that, a header introduces to the first text comprising this collection: “By monk Cassian the Roman, To Bishop Castor On the Rules and Regulations of the Coenobia in the East and Egypt”. It was only then that a phrase on the upper right side of folio 290r, written by a later hand, made some sense. “By monk Cassian the Roman.”

The rubric, beautifully adorned, informs the reader that this is ‘the Book of monk Cassian the Roman’. The title of the first work follows: this is the beginning of the work addressed to bishop Castor about the Institutions of the monasteries ‘in Egypt and in the East’. Therefore, all of the volume is ‘Cassian’s book’. In order that no doubt should remain to any future reader, an anonymous hand added to the top of the last page advising posterity that the Scholia represent Cassian’s teaching. Folio 290r has a note in the upper margin going thus: ‘monk Cassian the Roman’.

In all probability this manuscript was copied from a book belonging to Cassian himself and my comparative studies have brought it about that the reproduction took place at the scriptorium of the Laura of Sabas. The unknown later reader who made the note on top of folio 290r confirms that this was the Book of Cassian, as indicated on the first-page rubric, as well as on the internal face of the front cover. It seems that this reader knew that the anonymous Scholia were written by Cassian himself, hence the note on folio 290r.

By that time, I had reached the conclusion that the Scholia in Apocalypsin were a compilation by an Antiochene, who probably was Theodoret of Cyrrhus heavily quoting from the lost Commentary on the Apocalypse by Didymus the Blind, as well as from his own work on the Book of Paralipomenon, plus a portion from Clement of Alexandria. It turned out that the author was Cassian, yet not the one known from the Latin account about him, but another Cassian: a Sabaite monk, who was a spiritual offspring of the great Antiochene doctors (Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus) and of St Sabas himself. An intellectual of Antiochene extraction, who was born in Scythopolis in c. 470 and died an abbot of the renowned Laura of Sabas on 20th July, 548 AD.

Up to that moment, my education had instructed me that Theodoret was the last scholar of Late Antiquity. I now believe that the Antiochene tradition lasted for another hundred years and Cassian himself was a great scholar, who took part in the local synod of Constantinople in 536, at a time when he lived and wrote at the monastery of the Akoimetoi. His texts tell us important things about Aristotle and Aristotelian tradition, about the Neoplatonism of Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius, as well as about Dionysius Areopagite, whom Cassian had definitely met personally. Cassian is also the author of a number of texts currently known as ‘spuria’ under the names of great Christian theologians. In like manner the monastic texts of the present Codex have been attributed to Athanasius. He is the author of the text ascribed to Caesarius, the brother of Gregory of Nazianzus, as much as he is the author of De Trinitate, which has been falsely ascribed to Didymus the Blind. In Cassian’s text there is an abundance of instances revealing an immensely erudite scholar, who knew Plato as much as Aristotle; he was aware of Classical poetry and prose in-as-much as he had read oriental writings, such as those by Hermes Trismegistus or the Oracula Sibyllica. Exploration of the text by Cassian, which occupies the first 118 folia of the Codex, reveals much the same readings and liabilities of the author as the last 45 folia of the same Codex, where the Scholia in Apocalypsin are located. Above all, he is a distinctly Antiochene scholar, who also shows himself a devout student of the Alexandrians –Origen, Didymus, Cyril. For indeed to this mainly Antiochene community Origen was as much part of their patrimony as his detractors, Diodore of Tarsus. Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret were as much so as Cyril, whereas the daemonization of Nestorius as well as Severus of Antioch had not touched them at all.

It was then necessary for two books to be published first, before the Scholia in Apocalypsin appear. This happened in June 2012, when an edition volume and the accompanying monograph appeared.


A Newly Discovered Greek Father,

Cassian the Sabaite  eclipsed by ‘John Cassian’ of Marseilles

A critical edition of an ancient manuscript with commentary and an English translation,

Brill, Supplements to Vigiliae Christiane, v. 111, 2012


The Real Cassian Revisited

Monastic Life, Greek Paideia, and Origenism in the Sixth Century

A critical study of an ancient manuscript,

Brill, Supplements to Vigiliae Christiane, v. 112, 2012


Following these, it was possible for the edition volume for the Scholia to appear:


An Ancient Commentary on The Book of Revelation

A critical edition of the Scholia in Apocalypsin with commentary and an English translation, Cambridge University Press, 2013


Once Cassian’s texts are scrutinized, one finds an entire library, both Christian and Greek, condensed in his succinct statements. In this library, the leading role is played not only by Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, but also by Lucian of Samosata, Origen, Didymus, Evagrius, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Plutarch, Galen, Proclus, Simplicius, Damascius, John Philoponus. The writer clearly intended a return to intellectualism. In terms of philosophy, this means a return to the Greek patrimony. In terms of theology, this meant revisiting Origen.

What makes Cassian’s scholarship interesting is that he felt free to glean from all streams of Christian tradition, actually from all streams of thought, including the Greek patrimony and the Oriental lore. This means that despite specific streams of thought traced here and there in his writings, he actually saw one tradition available to him, which was the treasure of Christian and Greek patrimony. Cassian’s work is a novel fusion. In what follows, it will be argued through evidence that this could have happened only during the first half of the sixth century. For we are faced with a new sort of style defiantly drawing on Greek lore, with no inflated despise against the very source of its own spiritual inspiration. Not only was Cassian familiar with Proclus’ theology, but he was also immersed in the Neoplatonic currents of his own day. His aim however was not to row against the persecuted resplendence of Damascius and Simplicius. Rather, he sought to equip himself with the oars of that fresh Neoplatonic wisdom in order to formulate fresh Christian formulations, which were called for by the sixth-century challenges. These challenges were not seen as mere doctrinal ones. The decline of the civic ethos was only a mirror of the decline of the monastic ethos, which ought to be a source of inspiration and yet it was not. If these writings emit an aroma of munificence, this is so because the author takes this virtue into counsel against covetousness, vainglory, greed, pride, -in short, passions that flourished in society only because they burgeoned within monasteries in the first place. Put differently, the veracity of Cassian’s purpose cannot be assessed apart from the alimentary social setting and chain of events, which at his time both nourished and were nourished by the decline of the monastic ethos. His purpose, therefore, is to contribute to adjudication of the ravages of his time by supplying not only a nursery of prototypal monastic paradigm and rigour, but also an operative exemplar for a way out of this exigency by means of both righteous ethos and enlightenment.

With Cassian’s texts we come upon an unabashed revolt against the official state renouncing Classical Greek lore. This is availed of to the extreme, thus marking an audacious revival of the spirit of acquiescence to these sages of the ‘outsiders’ that had been condemned in the person of Origen. Despite the hostility that was aired in the official environment of his epoch, Cassian’s work turns out to be a milestone marking a decisive shift from the professed anti-Hellenism of Justinian’s era towards a spirit openly embracing the Greek patrimony –a process that culminates with Photius and, later still, with Michael Psellus. This process resulted in the empire’s physiognomy transformed into a Greek one. It is an irony of history that this course, though clandestine and risky, was initiated during Justinian’s reign. The monastery of the Akoimetoi was the isolated milieu where the eggs of this bold and libertarian attitude were hatched. Justinian himself was aware of this fatal process. Even though he issued his Novellae in Greek, he refers to Latin as the ‘language of our fathers’ in a sentiment of nostalgia, indeed with a taciturn mourning for the Roman character of the empire doomed to be lost to the Greek. He was of course the source of all power, which was actually put to use: the Akoimetoi were written off and after 534 their monastery entered a process of decline, which resulted in ruin. However, the present texts reveal that much of their treasure was rescued by the amiable environment of the monastery of Studios, with Theodore Studites being the intellectual who saw the value of their heritage, and the importance of Cassian himself.

The text of the Revelation and the Scholia are part of a cursive manuscript included in Codex 573, conserved in the monastery of Metamorphosis, in Meteora, Thessaly. This Codex is an exquisite piece of art: the ‘Book of Cassian’ is made of fine leafs of parchment; the binding is wood-plates covered with leather, whereas the clip keeping the book closed is also a fine bronze buckle. There are 290 folios (dimensions: 0,12 x 0,185), which also contain other noteworthy material, such as Hippolytus’ On the Blessings of Jacob (ascribed to Irenaeus in the title of this MS). The text of Revelation occupies folios 210r to 245r. The Codex is considered to be a tenth-century manuscript, yet my own assessment is that this is an early ninth-century one.

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About the Author: Panayiotis Tzamalikos

Panayiotis Tzamalikos is the editor and translator of An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation. He is Professor of Philosophy at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece....

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