The Apophthegmata Patrum

For Lent this year, I am translating the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Fathers, the alphabetical series, best known these days through Sr Benedicta Ward’s excellent translation in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

The text I’m using is the same base text that she used, that of Migne PG 65:71-440, as found in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG catalog no. 2742-001), both of which come from manuscript Paris Gr.1599. Sr Benedicta’s translator notes in the beginning of her volume mention that she also utilized P. Guy’s Recherches sur la Tradition Greque des Apophthegmata Patrum, which corrects and supplements the manuscript in several places. I don’t intend to include the extra sayings in Guy unless it turns out that such are numerous, and/or the text hideously corrupt.

I will make no excuses for mistakes, and would rather appreciate to have them called to my attention when they occur. I am going to try to be a bit more paraphrastic in this translation than I was in my rather literal translations of Jerome’s Prologues to the Vulgate, not least because I do want to finish the entire work during Lent, and so intend not to spend days agonizing over how best to render a particular phrase literally (oh yes, reader, indeed I did!). For this reason, I won’t be as focused on maintaining a vocabulary equivalence. You will see, for instance, the extremely common ασκησις and related words rendered in a variety of ways,
depending on the context: “ascetic struggle,” “ascetic feat,” “struggle,” and so on. I trust it will make good reading. I’ll use the numbers of the various sayings included in the text, rather than the Migne and TLG column and line numbers. This will make it easier for readers to compare my translation to Sr Benedicta’s. Hopefully all will be edified in the process.

I dearly love the translation by Sr Benedicta Ward of the Apophthegmata Patrum alphabetical series. I’ve gained much from it. This is as much a tribute to her work, an imitation in gratitude if not flattery, as an educational experience and a kind of ascetic endeavor on my own part. As I fast, I feast. As I translate, I expect to learn these sayings better than I ever have before, and to enjoy a taste of the desert. For those who are sympathetic, I crave your prayers.

So, we begin with the prologue.


In this book is written an account of the virtuous ascetic struggle, amazing life, and sayings of the holy and blessed Fathers, for the emulation and instruction and imitation of those wishing to establish a heavenly citizenship, and those wanting to progress in travelling the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven. You must know that the holy Fathers, who were zealous followers and instructors of the blessed life of the monks, entirely aflame with divine and heavenly love, counting as nothing all that among men is beautiful and valued, endeavoured to do nothing at all for display, but escaping notice, and keeping most of their virtuous deeds hidden through their great humility, thus travelled along the Way toward God. Thus no one has been able to outline exactly for us this virtuous life, for those who have done the most work concerning these have handed down in writing only a few of some of their virtuous words and deeds, not so as to gain favour for them, but they were eager to stir up those in the future to eager imitation. Thus many at various times have set forth these sayings and virtuous deeds of the holy elders in the form of tales, in a simple and unadorned style, for in this they saw only to help many.

(to be continued)


  1. I am a beginner to “The Sayings,” and found your website by happy chance. I would love to bother you with my list of questions:

    1. Is this the same as “The Sayings of the Fathers” as often referred to in devotional literature?
    2. Is the author still unknown?
    3. Was the original (or the oldest manuscript) written in Latin?
    4. What do we know about the historical context of the document?
    5. Does “Apophthegmata Patrum” mean “Sayings of the Fathers?”

    You are kind to leave yourself open for primitive questions like mine.

    Thank you for your good work.

    John Wires

  2. Hi John! It’s no bother at all. I’m happy to help.

    Here are some answers for you:
    1.) Yes, this is the same “Sayings of the Fathers” mentioned in much devotional literature. The ones I started translating (and have to continue with) are from the Alphabetical collection (where the sayings are grouped by name of the speaker or person who they’re about), but there is also the Systematic collection (wherein the sayings are grouped by subject matter).

    2.) Yes, the author is unknown for this collection, as in his preface he left no trace of his identity. It is a fine collection, however!

    3.) This collection is preserved in Greek, and the original sayings were in Greek, and perhaps Coptic which was very early translated into Greek. The Systematic collection, titled the Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Fathers, is in fact preserved only in Latin, but not this one. The manuscript of this translation dates only to the 12th century, though there are others which are earlier, but not as complete.

    4.) We don’t have much historical context for this particular manuscript, unfortunately, only general suppositions. Many monasteries each had a Paterikon, a collection of sayings of the fathers of the monastery. This collection seems to have combined several covering different Egyptian and Palestinian fathers’ sayings.

    5.) Yes, indeed, Apophthegmata Patrum means Sayings of the Fathers. But the word for sayings is that for instructive sayings, not just a plain word for speech, as just “sayings” in English could be taken.

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