Journal of the American Oriental Society – The Life of Simeon Stylites

[Saint Simeon Stylites]Article

The Life of Saint Simeon Stylites: A Translation of the Syriac Text in Bedjan’s Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV., by the Rev. Frederick Lent, Ph. D., of New Haven, Conn.

This famous saint was born near the close of the fourth century at Sis, near Nicopolis, in Northern Syria. Long before Simeon lived, there had been at the sanctuary of the goddess Attar’athe, in Hierapolis, a tall pillar, on which a man stood seven days twice a year for communion with the gods (Lucian, De dea Syria c. 28 sq.). But, as Noldeke points out (Sketches from Eastern History, Trans. London 1892, ch. VII), Simeon probably had never heard of it; the practice had died out long before he was born. Theodoret, an educated Syrian, regarded Simeon as the father of all who adopted life upon pillars. Besides the sketch of Simeon’s career given by Theodoret (see Migne, Patrologia Graeca, v. 82, Theodoretus 3), the historian Evagrius gives a short notice of his life. Another Greek biography, said to be written by Anthony, a disciple of Simeon, Noldeke refers to a late date, on account of its extravagances.

The Syriac biography with which we are concerned was probably written shortly after Simeon’s death, which occurred in 459 A. D. There are three known manuscripts of this Syriac Life. The Vatican MS. was published by S. E. Assemani, Acta Sanctorum Martyrum (Rome, 1748), Vol. II, pp. 273 -394. The two other MSS. are in the British Museum. Bedjan, in preparing the Life of Simeon for publication in his Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, first copied the text of Assemani. Then he collated it with the MS. B. M. Add. 12174, and so discovered that this text not only gave the facts in a different order, but contained material not found in Assemani’s text. As one or two leaves of this MS. are lacking, he made use of another still older, Add. 14484, which gave the same facts in the same order as 12174, but more soberly and concisely. Because of its. simple, beautiful style, and because of its order |104 of events, which appears more logical than that of Assemani’s edition, Bedjan regarded the text of this MS. 144.84 as the oldest of the three. One important passage (p. 643), containing a very friendly allusion to the Emperor Leo, but altered in Assemani’s text by the erasure of the eulogistic words (p. 393), caused Bedjan to conclude that this MS. was written before Monothelitism invaded Syria, that is, before the seventh century A. 13. It is the text of this MS., B. M. Add. 14484, which is given in Bedjan’s Acta, vol. IV, pp. 507-644, and which is here translated. (See Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Leipzig, 1894; vol. IV, Preface pp. XI-XIV.)

What relation does the version represented in Assemani’s text bear to that given by Bedjan?1 The two texts, when they report the same incident, use practically the same words. The variations in language are, however, too numerous to mention. One text may employ a synonym for the term used in the other, or a whole sentence may occur in one which is not in the other, or a scripture quotation may be peculiar to one text. But in spite of these differences, the wording is substantially the same in the two texts. The differences, however, are sufficiently numerous and striking to show that neither text was copied from the other. Furthermore, the differences between Bedjan’s and Assemani’s texts exclude the possibility that both could have been derived from one common MS. We have here two quite independent recensions, as is shown by the variation in the order of events narrated. If we number the paragraphs in Bedjan’s text, beginning with page 532, consecutively, and then attach the same numbers to the same incidents as given in Assemani’s text, the order in the latter is as follows: 31-57, 21-30, 32, 2-11, 58, 59, 61, 62, 64, 66. This shows how differently the same material is grouped in the two texts, and makes it evident that they represent different recensions, neither one derived from the other. This opinion is strengthened by the presence of the material found in Bedjan’s text which is not in the other. |105

This matter peculiar to Bedjan’s text is found in seven sections. The first is p. 507 from the beginning to p. 508, l. 5. This opening paragraph is simple and natural, written in the usual manner of introduction to the life of a famous man. It is extremely unlikely that an author presenting for the first time an account of the Saint’s career would begin as abruptly as Assemani’s text does, without a single reference to the readers for whom it was intended. That the biographer had such readers in mind is shown later (e. g. on p. 548, Bedjan; Assemani, parallel passage) by a direct address to them. The fuller text is probably the more original in this instance.

The second section, Bedjan, p. 512, l. 14-p. 514, l. 17, is an account of a raid made by Isaurian bandits who took captive some people of Sis, Simeon’s native village. The Saint was instrumental in delivering the captives, whom he rescued by miraculously paralysing the arm of the robber chief. He also procured water by miracle. There is no reference in the context to make the inclusion of the story necessary. Assemani reads smoothly, omitting it. On the other hand, such a raid was probable, and the account is sober and quite in keeping with the context. There is nothing to render it suspicious, or to mark it as a later addition. No motive is apparent for its introduction, if it did not stand in the original account. Section three, Bedjan, p. 520, l. 3-p. 521, l. 11 (see Assemani, p. 28, 1. 12) tells how, when other monks had finished the nocturns and gone to rest, Simeon would stand weighed down with a stone hung to his neck, keeping vigil. When it was time for the others to arise, he would remove the stone and join in the prescribed service. One night, as he was putting the stone on his neck, he fell asleep. Deeply chagrined at thus yielding to what he regarded as Satanic temptation, he procured a rounded piece of wood, on which he stood thereafter during the nightly vigil, in order that, if he should fall asleep, the wood, rolling, might awaken him. These severe practices aroused the hostility of the monks, who would have him to do only as the rules enjoined. Now, although Assemani does not have this section, his text does have the story of the rounded piece of wood, given in another connection where it is quite irrelevant. After Bedjan, p. 521, 5th line from the bottom, Assemani (p. 280) inserts this paragraph:

“The manner in which the monks afflicted him, and harassed him, |106 in order that he should conform to their mode of life, is beyond description. For many times they assembled and said to the abbot, ‘If he will not conform to the same mode of life as the brethren, let him. leave the monastery!’ But the abbot did not act on their protest, because he loved Simeon greatly, since he saw his labor and toil, and knew that envy prompted them to say, ‘Let him conform to our mode of life.’ For by night Simeon made a piece of wood round, and stood, on it,” etc.

Then follows material, part of which is found earlier in Bedjan. It can hardly be doubted that Bedjan’s account is here the more original. The section is orderly and natural, while the other text has introduced in a disjointed manner the one item it preserves. In this instance, again, the longer text is the preferable.

The fourth section is found in Bedjan, p. 525, l. 15-p. 526, l. 5. By comparison with Assemani (p. 185) it will be seen that the latter gives a different account of Simeon’s exit from the monastery, and the context does not require for smooth reading the material given in Bedjan, although Assemani’s text omits the motive for the prayer it records, viz. ‘If it is Thy will that I perform the Lenten fast in this place, direct me.’ Bedjan’s text gives this, by stating in exact chronology that the time was just before Lent, in the year 458 of the Antiochan Era. The entrance into the monastery at this time, marked an important crisis in Simeon’s life. That a careful and intimate biographer should preserve the date of this entrance into Telneshe, is therefore just what we should expect. The account contains no exaggeration, but just a simple story of faith and divine guidance, which suggests no motive for its arbitrary insertion by a later hand. Here again, therefore, the longer account may be regarded as original and preferable.

The fifth section, Bedjan, p. 538, l. 19-p. 539, l. 3, contains a brief description of the Saint’s clothing, together with a general statement that he glorified God. The absence of this paragraph in Assemani’s text does not mar the story, but its presence in Bedjan’s text gives vividness to the account, and it is reasonable to suppose that his biographer would have mentioned just such a fact as is here recorded. The failure to do so is against the originality of Assemani’s text.

The sixth section is the longest one peculiar to Bedjan’s text, extending from p. 548, l. 21 to p. 555, l. 2. It contains |107 a descriptive resume of Simeon’s monastic life from the day he entered upon the practice of standing on a stone in the mandra, and began to immure himself during the Lenten fast. Then follow stories of various miracles of healing. The section is fittingly introduced by a general eulogy on Simeon’s healing-powers, and a direct address to the reader, with a promise to give an account of some things selected from many, sufficient to illustrate the Saint’s miraculous activity. The section is followed by further similarly illustrating material, which would seem out of place if this section were omitted. In Bedjan’s text, the reason for the introduction of any incident is always clear. Stories which illustrate a phase of Simeon’s life are grouped together. Assemani’s text, on the contrary, is disjointed, and shows no such orderly and logical arrangement. The general scheme of the life as given in Bedjan seems to demand that this section should be given here.

The last section, Bedjan, p. 643, l. 15-p. 644, l. 12, is the closing paragraph of the life. All it records was evidently known to the writer of MS. B. M. Add. 12174 (see Bedjan, p. 643, Note), and its absence gives a very abrupt termination to Assemani’s text. Evagrius was evidently familiar with this longer ending paragraph, and it seems more natural than Assemani’s version. On the expunging of the words applied to Leo, (Bedjan, p. 643, Assemani, p. 393) Assemani has this note (p. 412, Note 47):

“Haec iisdem plane verbis leguntur apud Evagrium lib. 1, cap. 13, pag. 271. Leonis autem Imperatoris nomen ex codice nostro expunctum est, fol. 77, colum. 1, l. 17, a quonam vel quo concilio, nescio. Suspicior, nebulonem quemdam Jacobitam in odium Catholici hujus Imperatoris, qui Chalcedonense Concilium acerrime propugnavit, ejus nomen abrasisse.”

There is nothing in Bedjan’s closing paragraph to mark it as anything but the original. Thus a comparison of the whole text of Bedjan with that of Assemani leads us to regard the former as in every respect the superior and earlier version. If a later editor added the paragraphs which are peculiar to the longer version, we might expect to find some differences of vocabulary and idiom in the added paragraphs. But Bedjan’s text is a unit in point of style, and as we have seen, the verbal agreement with the shorter life in the narration of the same incidents is very marked. Some readings in Bedjan’s text are |108 obviously preferable: e. g., “Timothy, the disciple of Paul”, 2 where the other text reads, “disciple of Simeon”. Assemani’s text betrays its author’s distance from the age of Simeon, e. g., “As said his acquaintances and those familiar with him from his youth” (p. 269, 1. 16, 17; cf. Bedjan, p. 508, last line), but Bedjan’s text never hints at any dependence upon hearsay. It is consistent with the statement, more than once repeated, that the writer or writers learned directly from Simeon the facts of his life not immediately known by observation.

Bedjan is right in thinking that the more logical order found in his text points to the original composition, and not to editorial work. As we have indicated, Bedjan’s version is orderly in its groupings of material. Both Assemani’s and Bedjan’s versions agree, in the main, in the narration of the story of Simeon’s early life. But when once he has begun his monastic career, and all that follows is descriptive of his mode of life and illustrative of his activities, as ascetic and miracle worker, as prophet and beholder of visions, Bedjan’s material is logically arranged, every incident finding its proper place under an appropriate heading. For example, if the announcement is made, “Now concerning the visions which Simeon saw”, all the material introduced is relevant. In Assemani’s text, on the contrary, no such order is observed, as may be readily seen by a glance at the numbers which show the different placing of the same incidents in the two recensions. It can scarcely be doubted that the logical arrangement is more original than the haphazard and disjointed method followed in the shorter version.

Of the two recensions, then, Bedjan’s text represents the original story, and that of Assemani a later and shorter version. As we have noticed, the shorter recension has omitted nothing which is vitally important in giving a correct impression of the saint’s life. We gain the same view of his career and estimate of his personality in the shorter as in the longer account. Probably the omitted material was purposely left out by an early editor. In one instance, at least, he composed a paragraph, substituting it for the omitted section, in order to give a motive for what followed (p. 280, Assemani, explains that the envy of the monks led to persecution, see above, |109 p. 105 f.). The opening and closing paragraphs of the longer recension add nothing to the story. The man who undertook the copy did not have the same interest in his readers that the original author had. His attention is riveted to Simeon’s career, so he passes at once to the narrative. Being further removed from the age of the saint than the author, he can not feel, as the author did, when he lovingly penned the closing sentences, that Simeon’s influence and prayers still brood over the whole creation. So the copyist omitted this, to him, unnecessary paragraph. None of the material peculiar to the longer recension adds to our knowledge of Simeon. It could be left out without seriously damaging the narrative.

A later writer who was well acquainted with this abridged life, but having no text before him, wrote as he remembered, and gave us the story as it stands in Assemani’s text. Memory could not preserve the logical orderly arrangement of the original story, but could hold nearly every incident and almost keep the writer to a literal reproduction of the history. Some things he could recall without remembering the exact connection, as, for example, the story of Simeon’s vigils kept by standing on a piece of rounded wood. This impressed him as a meritorious act, and was mentioned, while he forgot that the saint was led to adopt the practice because he fell asleep one night while tying the stone weight to his neck. So, too, he remembered that Simeon entered the monastery of Telneshe, but he forgot the year and the exact season. The fact was for him more important than the connection.

There is no improbability inherent in the supposition that a man could write thus from memory. Parallels not a few may be found in all literatures, and particularly among Orientals of the first Christian centuries, when memory was more tenacious than in an age of many books. Even in modern times, Arab writers can tell with astonishing verbal exactness, from memory, stories much longer than that of Simeon the Stylite. In Codex Vaticanus Clx. the Life of Simeon is followed by a letter from the Elder, Cosmas, to Simeon. To the letter is appended a colophon (Acta Martyrum, Assemani, II. 394ff. copied in Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum IV. 648f.), in which we read

“May God and his Christ remember for good Simeon bur Apollon, and Bar Hatar the son of ‘Udan, who assumed the labor of making this book, ‘The Glorious Deeds of Mar Simeon |110 the Blessed’. They made it by the toil of their hands and the sweat of their brows. — — — This book was finished in the month of Nisan, on the 17th of the month, on the fourth day of the week, in the year five hundred and twenty-one, of the Antiochian chronology. — — — And let everyone who reads it pray for those who undertook the work and made this book, that God may give them everlasting forgiveness of sins. Amen and Amen. Let everyone who reads and makes, pray for him who wrote. — — — Farewell in our Lord; and pray for me.”

Assemani thought that Cosmas composed the life of Simeon, and that the date here given (521 of the Antiochan reckoning = 473 A. D.) was that of the transcription of this MS.; he regarded Simeon bar Apollon and Bar Hatar as those who requested, or aided in, the writing of the life. Wright thought they were the paid copyists of this portion of Codex Vat. Clx. Noldeke (Sketches, etc. p. 225), Bedjan (Acta Mart. IV. p. xiii), Torrey (Letters of Simeon, p. 2741), and Duval (La Lit. Syriaque, p. 160) regard these two men as the original authors, and 473 A. D. as the date of the composition of the Life.

It seems to the present writer more probable that the names given in this colophon are those of the men who reproduced the abridged Life from memory, “by the toil of their hands and the sweat of their brows.” It is much more difficult to suppose that the colophon contains matter which stood originally at the end of the longer Life, but which has been lost from there. As it stands in the Vatican Codex, it is a whole, and evidently in its original place. It was added to the MS. containing the abridged life and the letter of Cosmas. 473 A. D., therefore, is the date when the text of Codex Vat. Clx. was written from memory by these two men, Simeon bar Apollon, and Bar Hatar, son of ‘Udan. The original Life, composed by one of Simeon’s disciples, was accordingly written between the Saint’s death, in 459 A. D., and 473 A. D., when the two men made their memory recension of the abridged story. Bedjan’s “Life” was probably written shortly after 459 A. D. The MS. B. M. Add. 14484 is written on parchment in the Estrangelo character, and was dated by Wright as of the sixth century.

The text of this Syriac composition is a model of its kind. Noldeke has cited Assemani’s edition more than two hundred |111 times in his grammar, in illustrating classical Syriac usage (see Noldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar, Trans. Crichton, London, 1904, p. 333). Thus will he seen the importance of the text for the student of Syriac. Of no less interest to the general student, we trust, will prove this “Life of Simeon the Stylite”, here translated into English for the first time.

MLA Citation

  • “Journal of the American Oriental Society – The Life of Simeon Stylites“. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 January 2014. Web. 20 November 2017. <>