While browsing through Payne Smith’s catalogue of the Syriac manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, I came upon an interesting reference to an ascetic text attributed to Stephen of Thebes, which seems to be unknown. The short text features in MS Marsh. 465 (no. 150 of the catalogue), a Garshuni (Arabic written with Syriac characters) codex tentatively dated by Payne Smith to the 16th century.
The Oxford codex contains mainly verse homilies by Isaac of Antioch, but also ascetical writings by various authors. According to Payne Smith’s description, fol. 255 features a brief text by “abbatis Stephani Thebani.” As I am interested in this author (I prepare the editio princeps of the Ethiopic version of his Sermo asceticus), I asked Salam Rassi (Oxford) if he could provide me with a copy of this folio. A few days ago, he kindly sent me the text so I could finally compare it against the other known writings of Stephen of Thebes.
But first of all, who is Stephen of Thebes? Unfortunately, we do not possess any historical information about this author, except that he may have been from Thebes (Upper Egypt), as his name seems to indicate. In any case, it is certain that he and Stephen the Sabaite are not the same person, as his first modern editor, K. I. Dyobouniotis, wrongly asserted. Jon F. Dechow and Enzo Lucchesi have theorized that Stephen could be the one cursorily mentioned by Palladius in Historia Lausiaca 55.3. It also seems reasonable to believe that he is identical to Stephen the Anchorite, whose writings feature in the catalogue of Coptic books in the library of the Monastery of Apa Elias of the Rock. I have also found that a certain Stephen the Anchorite is celebrated on May 7 in the calendar provided by Abū al-Barakāt in his Lamp of Darkness.
Are these one and the same person? I am not sure but be that as it may, it seems to me that Stephen of Thebes must belong to the great generation of Egyptian ascetics of the late 4th or 5th century CE.
As I already pointed out in a recent post, the following writings have survived under Stephen of Thebes’ name:
- Sermo asceticus (Greek, Sahidic Coptic, Arabic, Gǝʿǝz, Georgian)
- Diataxis (Greek, Slavonic)
- Entolai (Greek, Slavonic, Romanian)
- On the All-Night Vigils (Slavonic)
- Sermon on Penitence (Arabic)
- Sermon on Daniel and Moses (Arabic)
Notably, the Oxford text does not correspond to any of these. Although it comprises ascetic gnomai very similar to the Sermo asceticus, Diataxis and the Entolai (Rules), it stands out as a different text.
The manuscript is in Serto characters, but here I give a transcription of the incipit in Estrangela, ܐܢ ܐܢܬ ܫܝܬ ܐܢ ܬܕܟܼܠ ܐܠܚܝܐܗ ܘܬܿܬܿܢܝܚ ܡܥ ܟܿܐܦܗ̈ ܐܠܩܕܝܣܝܢ ܘܝܟܿܬܒ ܐܣܡܟܿ ܦܝ ܣܦܪ ܐܠܚܝܐܗ ܘܬܿܩܣܡ ܦܝ ܩܝܐܡܗ̈ ܐܠܐܛܗܐܪ., (“If you want to enter life and rest with all the saints and write your name in the book of life and have a portion in the resurrection of the pure…”). After the introductory phrase follow eleven commandments, all of them starting with “Do not be called etc” (ܠܐ ܬܟܿܘܢ ܬܿܕܿܥܝ). Here are the first and the last in Garshuni and Arabic transcription:
ܦܠܐ ܬܿܕܿܥܝ ܡܣܬܿܟܿܒܪ ܒܠ ܬܿܕܿܥܝ ܡܬܿܘܐܛܼܥ.
فلا تدعى مستكبر بل تدعى متوطع
“Do not be called arrogant, but be called modest”
ܠܐ ܬܟܿܘܢ ܬܿܕܿܥܝ ܐܠܡܟܼܐܠܦ ܒܠ ܐܠܚܐܦܛܼ ܠܘܨܐܝܐ ܐܠܠܗ.
لا تكون تدعى المخالف بل الحافظ لوصايا الله
“Do not be called offender, but keeper of the commandments of God”
I would not jump to the conclusion, however, that these new Rules of Stephen of Thebes are completely unknown, as it often happens, especially in ascetic literature, that the same text is attributed to more than one author. It is possible, therefore, that these rules survived in some ancient language under a different authorship. For example, this is the case with the Diataxis which, although attributed to Stephen of Thebes in Greek and Old Slavonic, is nothing else than a compilation of extracts from the Logoi 3 and 4 of Isaiah of Scetis.
Here I would simply not that although more research is required before finally attributing the Garshuni rules of the Oxford manuscript to Stephen of Thebes, the first results suggest that this is a new addition to his ascetic corpus.
 R. Payne Smith, Catalogi codicum manuscriptorum bibliothecae Bodleianae part 6: Codices syriacos, carshunicos, mendaeos, complectens (Oxford: E. Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1864) 484b.
 Kudos to Adam McCollum for putting me into contact with him.
 This possibility has been convincingly refuted by J. Darrouzès, “Etienne le Thébain,” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique vol. 4 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1961) 1525-1526.
 J.F. Dechow, Dogma and Mysticism in Early Christianity. Epiphanius of Cyprus and the Legacy of Origen (North American Patristic Society. Patristic Monograph Series, 13; Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1988) 167; E. Lucchesi, “Vers l’identification d’Étienne de Thèbes,” Analecta Bollandiana 116 (1998) 106. Lucchesi revisited his hypothesis later in “Retractatio à propos de l’identification d’Étienne le Thébain,” Analecta Bollandiana 125 (2007) 15-16.
 As suggested by Lucchesi, “Retractatio,” 15. This ostracon is preserved on an ostracon which is kept in the French Institute in Cairo (Ostracon IFAO 13315). The text is available in several editions, the latest being that of R.-G. Coquin, “Le catalogue de la bibliothèque du couvent de Saint-Élie ‘du rocher’ (ostracon IFAO 13375),” Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 75 (1975) 207-239.
 E. Tisserant, Martyrologes et ménologes orientaux. Le calendrier d’Abou’l-Barakât (Patrologia Orientalis, 10/3; Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1913) 27.