UCL/FLTR - Département d'études grecques, latines et orientales (GLOR)

Oriental Institute:
Centre for the Study of Gregory of Nazianzus
- Presentation -


Aim and Method:

Gregory of Nazianzus was a writer of the 4th cent. A.D., from the cultivated area of Cappadocia which dominated the cultural world of the period, and was involved in the political and ecclesiastical affairs which marked the start of the Byzantine Empire. He wrote discourses, poems and letters which immediately had an enormous success in the Byzantine Empire. The quality of his writing was such that Gregory became and still remains today one of the most important authors of the Hellenic world, and the greatest theologian of the Greek church.

Immediately after the death of Gregory of Nazianzus, his works began to be translated into the various languages of the ancient Christian Orient, first into Coptic, Syriac and Armenian, then into Arabic, Georgian, Slavonic and Ethiopian; the texts were even translated into some of these languages several times. An ancient Latin version, made while the author was still alive, must be added to the list. Each of these translations were quickly and widely distributed, and exerted, within these various areas, a similar influence to that exerted by the Greek text among the Byzantines. The works of Gregory of Nazianzus became, therefore, a treasure shared among different peoples, a patrimony around which these various different nations, languages, traditions and cultures came together around shared ideas which constituted the basis of the unity of the Christian Orient and which are still at the base of European culture today.

The Greek Tradition

The circulation of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus in Greek began while the author was still alive, and continued uninterrupted up to the Renaissance period, resulting in an exceptionally high number of copies: almost 1500 manuscripts dating from before 1500 AD are preserved thereby constituting one of the most abundant Greek traditions. Each copy contains scribal errors and minor modifications to the text, so much so that the text preserved at the end of this chain contains notable differences to that of the author's original text. The editor's task consists of deconstructing the error mechanisms and modifications to reconstruct the original text as closely as possible to that written by Gregory of Nazianzus himself.

Moreover, the transmission of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus took several forms. The works were copied either individually or as a group. In the first case, Gregory's discourses were integrated into larger collections; for example the panegyrics of saints in collections of the lives of saints written by various authors (hagiographic collections, menologies, etc.). In the second case, Gregory's works were themselves grouped into collections - partial or complete - and presented as the author's Collected Works. Each of these groupings underwent their own individual histories, and each probably corresponds to a particular stage in the evolution of the text. Thus, the editor must also trace the history of these collections and identify the various stages of the texts.

For reasons inherent to the history of writing and of Greek culture, almost all Greek manuscripts earlier than 850 AD have disappeared. In the case of Gregory of Nazianzus, the editor is therefore obliged to establish the history of a body of text for which he has no direct witness between the end of the 4th cent. - date of the writing - and the end of the 9th cent. - date of the oldest preserved Greek copies.

He does have, however, indirect witnesses in the oriental translations to which the text was subjected since some of these translations were made before the 9th cent. and thus allow us to go back to a stage of the Greek text earlier than the oldest preserved Greek manuscripts.

The Oriental Traditions

In parallel to the riches of the Greek tradition, the abundance and complexity of the oriental versions form one of the essential particularities of the history of the work of Gregory of Nazianzus. The interest is twofold: firstly, the date and fidelity of these translations make them indirect witnesses which are older than the first preserved Greek manuscripts of the works of the Nazianzen; secondly, the assimilation of the text into the Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic and Ethiopian worlds is a typical example which allows us to analyse the integration of varied mentalities into the cultural unity of the Christian Orient.

The philological interest should especially draw our attention. The oriental versions occupy a prime position in the programme of the critical edition of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus. From the very start of the project, the heuristics of the oriental manuscripts were started in parallel to the search for Greek witnesses. This phase has now been completed for all of the translations. This has allowed us to gain a precise idea of the way in which the text circulated in the various oriental worlds.

An initial distinction must be made between the languages into which only fragments of the corpus were translated, and the languages into which the complete works of the Nazianzen were translated.

The Coptic Version

The Coptic file is both the oldest and the most limited: it contains, on the one hand, fragments, in the Sahidic dialect, of Discourse 21 (On Saint Athanasius), 43 (On Saint Basil) and 45 (On Easter); on the other hand, the complete text, in the Bohairic dialect of the Delta, of Discourse 14 (On Love for the Poor).

These texts were translated in the high period, certainly before the Arab conquest and doubtlessly in the 5th cent. among the followers of Abbot Chenoute. The translation is quite close to the Greek model as far as the general meaning is concerned, but it is often laboured and clumsy: in fact, one has to imagine the difficulty experienced by the translator to render a Greek text as dense and highly worked as that of Gregory of Nazianzus into a language as unstructured as Coptic.

The Armenian Translation

The Armenian corpus represents the oldest complete oriental version of the Discourses. The heuristic analysis has identified more than 150 Armenian manuscripts of Gregory of Nazianzus, to which we can add an abundant indirect tradition, made up of quotations and above all commentaries. To judge by the success of the Gregorian works in the Armenian world and by the considerable number of commentaries and annotations which Armenian scholars dedicated to Gregory in the Middle Ages, he is without any doubt one of the Greek authors who most influenced the evolution of Armenian culture.

The Armenian translation is anonymous and can neither be dated nor located with precision. However, a detailed linguistic analysis has demonstrated that the language used in this translation is earlier than that of the work of the Armenian Hellenophile School. It is for this reason that the translation can be situated in the second half of the 5th cent., at the latest around the year 500 AD.

Apart from this antiquity, two of its characteristics render the Armenian translation particularly useful to the history and edition of the Greek text. On the one hand, it is in the Armenian that the oldest witnesses on the sequences of homilies and the collections are preserved, notably the theological and liturgical collections. It is in this way, for example, that the Armenian groups together: the Irenic discourses and their sequence (Discourses 6, 23, 22); the Discourses on the Son (Discourses 29 and 30); Discourses 38, 39, 40, 1, 45, 44, 41; the Apologetical Discourses 2, 12, 9; the Panegyrics (Discourses 7, 8, 18). The Armenian translation is very close to the Greek without being its slave; that is, the Greek model is respected without detriment to the quality of the Armenian language, thereby constituting a very old and very precious witness rich in information on the textual characteristics of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus. The Armenian version represents, therefore, a considerable aid in the establishment of a critical Greek text.

The Syriac Translation

The discourses of Gregory of Nazianzus occupy a choice position in what has been conserved of the Greek patristic literature translated into Syriac. As in the Armenian, the Gregorian text has been abundantly glossed and commented. Unlike the Armenian, however, the Syriac translation technique favoured the literal at the expense of the literary quality of the translation, to such an extent that the translation is often incomprehensible unless refers back to the model. This concern for the literal is not a static factor in the Syriac field: on the contrary, it represents the result of an evolution in the mentality of the Syriac world. This can be verified in the case of Gregory of Nazianzus. In fact, the Syriac translation of the Discourses, the first stage of which dates back to the second half of the 5th cent. (Edessa), underwent - like that of the Bible - a continual process of revision based on the Greek. The most important and systematic revision is that of Paul of Edessa, finished in 623/624 AD.

The preserved manuscripts of the Syriac translation represent several writings, none of which correspond perfectly to the pure model of text to which they are attached (S1 and S2): among the 23 relevant manuscripts, there are some which present an ancient stage of the text which is already a revised stage; other witnesses conserve a medium recension; the rest have retained the revised stage of Paul of Edessa, sometimes further accompanied by later corrections. Such a succession of editorial layers complicates the editor's task who cannot therefore content himself with editing a single text but rather must endeavour to reconstruct in parallel the initial state and that of Paul of Edessa. Some poems were also translated into Syriac.

The Georgian Translations

The complexity of the Syriac tradition has an equivalent in the Georgian field wherein certain texts underwent four different translations. Another originality of the Georgian is to have preserved, apart from the Discourses, some letters and a large number of poems (Carmina).

The oldest Georgian translation - anonymous - includes Discourses 38 and 39 in a translation made between the 7th and the 9th cent. The other translations can be attributed to particular translators. The first of these is Gregory of Ochki (Grigol Ochkeli = of Ochki, a locality of Tao-Klardjeti), who translated Discourses 7 and 27 in the second half of the 10th cent. A second series of Discourses was translated by David Tbeli (Discourses 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 24, 28, 34, 26, Epist. 101), in the same period.

The two other Georgian translations - the largest - are presented in the form of complete collections of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus. The first is the work of Euthymius the Hagiorite, a monk and superior of the Iviron monastery on Mount Athos, where he conducted his activities as translator from 975 AD to his death in 1028 AD. Euthymius translated 22 discourses. The second collection is that of Ephrem Mtsire or Ephrem the Less, a monk and superior of the monastery of Castana on the Black Mountain near Antioch (11th cent.). Ephrem's intention was to constitute, using his own translations and those of his predecessors, a complete corpus of 50 pieces; to achieve this, he retranslated 16 of the discourses already translated by Euthymius, he himself also translated 17 other discourses, and he completed the collection by adding to it some discourses in one of their ancient versions (Euthymius or David).

The Georgian manuscript tradition, which also adds a large number of inauthentic pieces to the corpus, numbers almost 200 witnesses. As in the Syriac, the edition must envisage the parallel publication of the different versions of each piece.

The Arabic Translation

The last oriental tradition presenting a real philological interest to the editing programme is the Arabic edition. The Discourses of Gregory of Nazianzus was subjected to two successive translations, both during the 10th cent. The first, the work of a certain Antonios, is not yet very refined and presents a rudimentary Arabic language marked by Hellenisms. A collection of 30 Discourses was later retranslated into Arabic by the protospatharios Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna of Antioch before the end of the 10th cent., using Antonios' version and referring back to Greek texts and doubtlessly the Syriac, which differentiates the Arabic translation from the other oriental translations. This translation underwent a rapid and widespread diffusion, giving rise to different types of Arabic collections, attested by manuscripts some of which date back to the 13th cent. However some discourses which appear isolated in homilies could represent another Arabic translation. The Arabic manuscript tradition includes almost 160 witnesses, the analysis of which has allowed us to determine where and how the Arabic collection of discourses was born - a process in which the Sinai Centre has played an important role.

The Slavonic Translations

Three translations were made in Old Slavonic. The first, dating back to the 11th cent. and which could be based on an 8th cent. Greek text, includes 13 discourses. A second version, from the 14th cent., corrects 8 discourses of the first translation and adds a new translation of 8 other discourses. A third edition was made during the 15th - 16th cent. The works of Gregory of Nazianzus had a profound influence in the Slavonic world, starting from the period of Saints Cyrill and Method.


The works of Gregory of Nazianzus underwent, through their translations, an exceptional distribution throughout the whole Ancient and Medieval Christian Orient. The totality of these translations perfectly reflects the cultural evolution of the Middle East Christian world, from the point of view of both chronology and of Christianisation, and cultural assimilation.

Firstly, from the chronological point of view, each of the oriental translations was made to fulfil the religious and intellectual needs of the nations neighbouring Byzantium which shared with the City a large number of common values. Each of these nations, desiring to nourish themselves at the store of Greek patristic works, gave birth to specific schools of translation, each with their own technical methods. The dates of the various translations of Gregory of Nazianzus correspond to the 'floruit', to the respective flowering of these schools: 5th cent. Egypt, Syria and Armenia in the second half of the 5th cent., in Georgia and the Georgian centres of Athos and Palestine in the 10th and 11th cent., in the Arab Christian world of Syria in the 10th cent.

Secondly, from the viewpoint of the assimilation of cultural values, the Christian Orient of the Byzantine period was a veritable "commonwealth" of ideas. Nothing demonstrates this reality more clearly than the success experienced by the works of Gregory of Nazianzus within the various nations. The indications are numerous but the most evocative is the speed with which each of these nations attributed original texts to the Greek theologian which were not Greek translations but were original products of Armenian, Syriac, Arabic or Georgian thinking. In parallel, the high number of commentaries to which Gregory's work was subject in each of the oriental languages, demonstrates to what degree the thinking of Gregory the Theologian had entered into the cultures of the Christian Middle East and had profoundly and lastingly influenced them.

The Icongraphical Tradition

The works of Gregory of Nazianzus also gave rise to a rich iconographical tradition, which also testifies, in its manner, to the success and influence of the works of the Theologian. This tradition is manifested in two principal forms.

Firstly, the manuscripts on which these works were copied were decorated with various ornamental designs: full or half page illustrations (marginal or in-text), marginal designs, ornamented and/or figurative initial letters. All of these designs maintain a particular relationship with the text: they can be a simple illustration of a neighbouring text, or foreign to the text; they may make reference to themes not linked to Gregory (e.g. biblical themes), evoke the life or period of Gregory, or even refer to the period of the manuscript, thus proposing a sort of update to the text. All of these designs reflect an understanding of the text and in their own way propose an interpretation, a key to the text, which one must learn how to decipher today.

Secondly, Gregory of Nazianzus himself was the subject of numerous illustrative representations, on all supports (manuscript illuminations, church frescoes, etc.), which testify to the way in which the author was considered in different periods and different environments.

It should also be noted that the works of Gregory of Nazianzus were able to exert a strong influence on the iconography of biblical or theological themes in frescoes (for example, as was shown in the frescoes of the Byzantine churches of Southern Italy).

A systematic analysis of these designs should be carried out in parallel with the study of the textual tradition in order to detail the evolution of the "Rezeptionsgeschichte" of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus.


The importance of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus is demonstrated by the exceptionally high number of preserved manuscripts, in Greek and in the oriental translations; by the wealth of quotations and commentaries made by later authors, whichever ancient nation of the world they belonged to; and by the richness of the iconographical representations. No critical edition of these texts, however, exists, neither in Greek nor in the oriental languages; nor is there any study of the impact of Gregory of Nazianzus on the cultures of the Christian Orient.

To meet such an objective requires an interdisciplinary team of specialists capable of:

The objective of the current project is to develop this programme in its various fields: textual history, edition, study of language and translation schools, circulation of texts and ideas, iconography.

At the same time, its objectives include the creation of the technical tools indispensable for performing these tasks: the conservation of the specialised film library and the creation of computerised lexicological tools.

From its beginnings, the programme dedicated to Gregory of Nazianzus has built up, on behalf of the Institute of Oriental Studies, a collections of microfilms and photographs of Greek and oriental manuscripts of Gregory's Discourses. Currently, the collections include some 260,000 photographs of Greek manuscripts and 50,000 photographs of oriental manuscripts.

Moreover, a systematic study of the texts and the relevant languages applied to a corpus reaching almost half a million words (by language) requires precise and comprehensive instruments. The programme has been moving in this direction for the last ten years. Collaboration with the CETEDOC (director Prof. P. Tombeur) has enabled the creation of a computerised and lemmatized concordance to the Greek text of the complete works of Gregory of Nazianzus; the Armenian has been the subject of collaboration with the University of Leiden. Similar instruments must be created one by one as the editions appear for the other languages, and should result in the creation of multi-lingual instruments (a partial Greek-Armenian concordance is already in preparation).

A network has formed around UCL to establish an international programme for the critical edition of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus. Over the last ten years, the initial group has been joined by the collaboration of German, Austrian, British, Georgian, Greek and Dutch colleagues; close relationships are also maintained with colleagues in the United States, France, Italy, Lebanon, etc. The Centre for Gregory of Nazianzus Studies, recognised by UCL since 1980, co-ordinates the work of various teams and ensures their publication in two collections specially created for this purpose: the Corpus Nazianzenum (dir. B. Coulie, J. Mossay, M. Sicherl) within the Corpus Christianorum. Series Graeca (Turnhout, Brepols; 3 vol. published, 1 vol. at the printer's), and the Forschungen zu Gregor von Nazianz (dir. J. Mossay, M. Sicherl) forming part of the Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums (Paderborn, Munich, Vienna and Zurich, Schöningh; 11 vol. published, 2 vol. at the printer's). Numerous articles have been published in various reviews, especially in the review of oriental studies, Le Muséon (dir. B. Coulie).

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