From Greek to Slavonic: St Athanasius of Alexandria in Translation

Viacheslav V. Lytvynenko

Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

The present essay is a guest contribution from Dr Viacheslav Lytvynenko, a specialist in the textual transmission of patristic theology in the medieval Slavonic world. The dissemination of the writings of the Church Fathers in Bulgaria, Serbia, and beyond forms a vital and integral part of the broader patristic legacy, and especially the Orthodox Christian tradition. The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to Dr Lytvynenko for graciously sharing his research on the writings of St Athanasius in Slavonic and providing this valuable overview of the reception of the Fathers in the wider Byzantine Commonwealth.


In contrast to the attention patristic scholars have given to the ancient translations of St. Athanasius in Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Latin, scarcely any effort has been dedicated to identifying and exploring translations into Old Slavonic, the medieval Slavic tongue most famously associated with Saints Cyril and Methodius.[1] This is presently changing with a number of new editions and studies of Slavonic Athanasius that have been published since 2015. My own work has focused on editing the genuine writings of Athanasius in Slavonic. In collaboration with several colleagues (Irina M. Gritsevskaya from Russia and Vittorio S. Tomelleri from Italy), I am preparing and editing a corpus of Pseudo-Athanasian writings in Slavonic.

The only known illumination of Athanasius in a Slavonic manuscript (Moscow, Russian State Library, F. Bolshakov collection, F. 37, 156, Seventeenth Century, f.8r).

The Fathers in Old Slavonic

What do we know about the translation of patristic authors into Slavonic, and what is the reason for the lack of interest in Slavonic translations of Athanasius?[2] One reason that the Slavonic translations have not attracted enough attention from scholars is that they were made much later than most other translations. The earliest translations go back to the ninth century when the two brothers from Thessalonica, Cyril and Methodius, introduced the Slavonic alphabet in their mission to the Slavs in 862/3.[3] Their ministry was centered on Great Moravia (today’s Czech Republic, Slovakia, and parts of several neighboring territories), where they came at the request of Prince Rostislav (846–870). They used the new alphabet to translate most of the Bible, as well as some liturgical and patristic texts. After Methodius’s death in 885 (Cyril died earlier in 869), his disciples were banned from that region by the Carolingian missionaries (who had worked there before) and continued their translation work in Bulgaria, a pagan kingdom newly converted to Christianity through the efforts of Constantinople.

Cyril and Methodius, Patristic
Basilica of Saints Cyril and Methodius in a Moravian village: Velehrad, Czech Republic. Velehrad is believed to be the place of Methodius’s death in 885.

Baptism of Khan Boris, Patristic
Baptism of Khan Boris ('Synopsis Chronike' of Constantine Manasses, in Vat. Slav. 2, dated to 1344–45, f.263v).

The period between the baptism of the first Christian Khan Boris (852–889) in 864/5 and the incorporation of Bulgaria into the Byzantine Empire in 1018 is considered to be the golden age of medieval Bulgarian culture and the most fruitful period of Slavonic translations. It corresponds to the First Bulgarian Empire, with two translation centers in Preslav (Eastern Bulgaria) and Ochrid (today’s North Macedonia). During this time, the translations that were produced included mainly the classic writings of the Church Fathers from the fourth to the eighth centuries. To name just a few, these included Methodius of Olympus’s dialogue On the Resurrection (of which only fragments survive in Greek, while the Slavonic contains the complete text), Athanasius’s Orations against the Arians, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures and Mystagogic Catecheses, Basil of Caesarea’s Homilies on the Hexaemeron, Gregory of Nazianzus’s sixteen selected Orations, numerous homilies of John Chrysostom (the Slavs’ most cherished Church Father), the Apophthegmata Patrum, John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, and others.

After the Bulgarian revolt in 1185 and the crowning of Kaloyan (1197–1207) in 1204, there began a second phase of translation work with its center in Tarnovo (central Bulgaria). This period is known as the Second Bulgarian Empire, flourishing between 1204 and the capture of Tarnovo by the Ottoman Turks in 1393. The peak of translation activity in this period occurred in the fourteenth century; and it was the hesychastic authors and the Church Fathers who had inspired them, that were translated: Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, John Climacus, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, and others. On a smaller scale, Slavonic translations were also made in Serbia, Constantinople, Mount Athos, Russia, and even as far away as Sinai. Almost all of these were made from Greek, whereas the dominant languages from which most translations were made in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were Hebrew, Latin, Polish, German, Dutch, and French. Most of the translations from these latter languages were made in Russia, which began to emerge as a new Christian center in the Eastern Orthodox world after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and which today houses the largest number of Slavonic manuscripts in the world. Slavic tradition never knew the Western model of medieval universities (the first Slavic Greek Latin Academy emerged as late as the seventeenth century), and it was mainly the monks who made translations, copied books, and read them.

Hilandar Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece, a major center of Slavonic manuscript copying and translation in the fourteenth century.

Athanasius in Slavonic

But what of the translations of Athanasius into Slavonic? All of his works were translated from Greek, except for the Epistle to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms, which was translated from Latin. Of the sixty-odd works preserved from the genuine writings of Athanasius,[4] there are ten that were translated into Slavonic.[5] They include his two most famous works, the three Orations against the Arians and the Life of Antony, as well as a number of others: the Epistle to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya (known as the Fourth Oration in the Slavonic corpus), the Epistle to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms, the “Biblical canon” from Festal Epistle 39, the Epistle to Emperor Jovian (along with Jovian’s Epistle to Athanasius), the Epistle to Rufinianus, and the Epistle to Amun.

Contra Arianos, Athanasius, Patristics
The First Oration against the Arians, one of the two earliest copies produced in Novgorod, Russia in 1489 (Moscow, Russian State Library, Collection of Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery, F. 113, 437, f.1r).

Contra Arianos, Athanasius, Patristic
Lytvynenko, ed. Oratio III contra Arianos, PO 253 (58.1) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021).

Of these ten writings, only the Orations against the Arians have been published in critical editions at this point.[6] The Orations were translated into Slavonic by Methodius’s disciple, Constantine of Preslav, in Bulgaria in 906/7. Today this text is preserved in ten manuscripts dated from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.[7] Significant parts of this text follow the best and oldest Greek codex from the tenth century (Atheniensis gr. 428), while also offering their own unique readings not found in the extant Greek manuscripts. A very important feature of the Slavonic translation is that it offers a very literal rendering of the Orations, making it an immensely helpful witness for reconstructing the initial form of the Greek text.

Contra Arianos, Athanasius, Patristic
Piscator edition of Athanasius (Paris, 1627).

The significance of the Orations can be seen from the fact that it was translated two more times after the initial translation. In the year 1113, Euthymius Zigabenus (c. 1050–1122) incorporated extensive quotations from the Orations into his Dogmatic Panoply, and in the fourteenth century (most likely), the entire text was rendered into Slavonic by Bulgarian translators.[8] The Orations were translated once more in 1656 by Epifaniy Slavinetskiy (16001675) in Moscow, this time in response to a lack of patristic literature in Russia during the reforms that resulted in the division between the followers of the state Church and the group known as Old Believers.[9]

Interestingly, the reception of the Orations reveals that they were called on to serve specific polemical purposes. For instance, the initial copying of the Orations in Russia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was intended to guard the Orthodox Church against the so-called heresy of the Judaizers active in Great Novgorod and Moscow. Like the Arians in Athanasius’s time, this group rejected the doctrine of the Trinity (among other things). To counter these heretics, the newly prepared copies of the Orations were sent to the main monasteries in Russia, where monks (such as Joseph of Volokolamsk, 1439–1515)[10] used it to compose their antirrhetic treatises.

Solovetsky Monastery, Patristic
Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in northern Russia, home to one of the surviving copies of the Slavonic Orations and a major monastic center of medieval Russia.

In the mid-sixteenth century, there appeared a similar teaching that likewise denied the doctrine of the Trinity. A monk by the name of Zinoviy Otenskiy (d. 1571/2) from Novgorod used the Orations to construct his own arguments against the heresy. Zinoviy is the best Athanasian scholar in the Slavonic tradition, and his Trinitarian and Christological writings will soon be available in English through the efforts of my colleague, Mikhail Shpakovskiy, and myself.[11]

Zenobius of Novgorod, Patristic
Zinoviy Otenskiy, a monk of Novgorod, working on his treatise against the anti-Trinitarian heretics active in the mid-sixteenth century.

Another example of reception can be seen in the notes (or marginal glosses) made by Russian scribes next to the text of the Orations in two manuscripts dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[12] These notes contain statements in defense of icons, Christ’s divinity, and deification, as well as some polemical statements against Luther and the Filioque, reflecting the growing presence of Protestantism (a radical strand of it stemming from Poland and Lithuania) in Russia. The last time the Orations were copied (in 1734 in Serbia), they were placed in a codex with a set of polemical writings, this time directed against Roman Catholic doctrines.[13]

Russian manuscript, Patristic
Marginal gloss of a Russian scribe on Oration III, 4.15–6.11 (Moscow, Historical State Museum, Synod., Uspensky Great Menaion 994, f.125v.): “On worshiping Christ’s icon and the icons of all the saints in whom Christ was formed in his own image.”

The Pseudo-Athanasian Corpus in Slavonic

While the Orations were indeed crucial for dogmatic and polemical purposes, it was the corpus of Pseudo-Athanasian writings that enjoyed the greatest popularity among the Slavs. Most of these texts are much shorter and easier to read and understand. My co-author, Irina M. Gritsevskaya, and I have been able to identify over fifty such writings in Slavonic, covering a wide range of genres: dogmatic, didactic, legal, ascetic, hagiographic, homiletic, exegetical, and polemical.[14] In some cases, we have discovered texts that have never been identified before,[15] while in other cases, we have been able to find the Greek sources of specific Slavonic writings.[16] Yet our continuing task remains to identify and make available the entire Pseudo-Athanasian corpus.

Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, Patristics
The oldest Slavonic manuscript containing the Questions to Antiochus, in Izbornik 1076 (St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Hermitage Museum 20, dated to 1076, f. 114v [228]).

Undoubtedly, the most widely read Pseudo-Athanasian text among the Slavs was the Questions and Answers to Antiochus the Duke (CPG 2257; PG 28:597–700). Composed some time before 750, it deals with questions of daily Christian life and basic points of doctrine. Some questions discussed in this text reflect concerns that would seem trivial to a modern Christian, but surely not to the original audience:

“If a person drowns and is eaten by fish, the fish by person, and the person by lions, how is such a person resurrected in his body?”

“Can a sorcerer kill a person?”

“Why do people die at night?”

“Does showing mercy cleanse us of all sins?”

“Is practicing asceticism necessary, especially if a person is old?”

The Questions and Answers proved to be an important didactic resource for Byzantine and Slavonic Christians, and it can be found in numerous miscellanies and translations. An extremely complex textual tradition continues to pose a great challenge to scholars seeking to produce a critical Greek edition, though our efforts to understand the Slavonic tradition (which is almost as complex) has lately made considerable progress.[17]

Current Efforts

Disputation with Athanasius, Patristic
Uncial codex from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, containing four leaves with the Pseudo-Athanasian Disputation with Arius (St. Petersburg, Russian National Library, F. 906 (gr.) 050, Granstrem 75, eighth/ninth centuries).

Among the Pseudo-Athanasian texts on which I am currently working is the Disputation of Athanasius with Arius (CPG 2250; PG 28.439–502).[18] Composed in the form of a dialogue that supposedly took place between Athanasius and Arius during the Council of Nicaea, it makes use of Athanasius’s key arguments from the Orations against the Arians and is an exceptional example of the reception of Athanasian thought in Byzantium. The Disputation was translated into Slavonic four times, from both Greek and Latin. Today, it is preserved in over forty Greek manuscripts (including an uncial codex dated to the eighth/ninth century) and in about thirty Slavonic manuscripts. Together with my colleagues, Irina M. Gritsevskaya and Vittorio S. Tomelleri, we are preparing a critical text of the Slavonic version. I am also working on the Greek edition of the Disputation for the “Athanasius Werke” series (De Gruyter).

The Slavonic translations of St Athanasius of Alexandria are of critical interest, not only for the reception of patristic theology in Bulgaria, Rus’, and beyond, but also for the study of Athanasius himself, whose writings are in some cases preserved only in Old Slavonic.


[1] Among recent examples where Slavonic Athanasius is not recognized in patristic studies are Ken Parry, ed., The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2015); David M. Gwynn, Athanasius of Alexandria: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father, Christian Theology in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Peter Gemeinhardt, ed., Athanasius Handbuch (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating, Athanasius and his Legacy: Trinitarian-Incarnational Soteriology and its Reception (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). All of these works address the issue of Athanasius’s reception in the Byzantine and Latin traditions with some discussion of Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Latin translations. But none of them make any mention of Slavonic Athanasius despite the references to these translations in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum.

[2] For an overview of the translation activity during the time period considered here, see Francis Thomson, “Continuity in the Development of Bulgarian Culture during the Period of Byzantine Hegemony and the Slavonic Translations of the Three Cappadocian Fathers,” in Международен Симпозиум 1100 години от блажената скончина на св. Методий, vol. 1, ed. H. Кочев (Sofia: Синодално изд-во, 1989), 140–153; L. Sels, J. Fuchsbauer, V. S. Tomelleri, I. de Vos, Editing Medieval Texts from a Different Angle: Slavonic and Multilingual Traditions Together with Francis J. Thomson’s Bibliography and Checklist of Slavonic Translations (Leuven: Peeters, 2018), 43–128.

[3] On the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, see Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).

[4] For the list of Athanasius’s genuine works, with references to CPG and critical editions, see P. Gemeinhardt, ed., Athanasius Handbuch, 465–467.

[5] For a discussion of these writings, their manuscript tradition, and editions, see V.V. Lytvynenko, I.M. Gritsevskaya, “Сочинения Афанасия Александрийского в славянской традиции. Часть I: Подлинные сочинения [“The Writings of Athanasius of Alexandria in Slavonic Tradition. Part I: Genuine Writings”], Byzantinoslavica 75 (2017): 5–29.

[6] The edition of the First Oration (based on two manuscripts) was published by Adelin Vaillant, Discours contre les Ariens de Saint Athanase. Version slave et traduction en français (Sofia: Académie des sciences de Bulgarie, 1954) (now being re-edited by a group of Bulgarian scholars). The Second and Third Orations (based on two manuscripts) were published by Pirinka Penkova, Второ слово против арианите [Second Oration against the Arians], vol. 1 (Sofia: Изд-во Валентин Траянов, 2015) and Трето слово против арианите, vol. 2 (Sofia: Изд-во Валентин Траянов, 2016). My own works include the edition of the Second and Third Orations (based on all existing manuscripts) in V.V. Lytvynenko, Oratio II Contra Arianos: Old Slavonic Text and English Translation, Patrologia Orientalis 248 (56.3) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019) and Oratio III contra Arianos: Old Slavonic Version and English Translation, Patrologia Orientalis 253 (58.1) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021).

[7] V.V. Lytvynenko, “Οld Slavonic Translation of Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos: Reasons for Translation and the Issue of Transmission,” Europa Orientalis 36 (2017): 83–96.

[8] The Slavonic translation of the Orations in the Dogmatic Panoply is placed in the “Chapter against the Arians” (ch. 9 and part of 11 in PG 130.365–1362). The provenance and name of the Slavonic translator of the Dogmatic Panoply remain in dispute.

[9] V.V. Lytvynenko, “Epifanij Slavinetskij’s Translation of Athanasius’ Orations against the Arians: Thalia Fragments as a Case Study,” Slavia 89.4 (2019): 383–413.

[10] V.V. Lytvynenko, “Slavonic Quotations from Athanasius’ Orations Against the Arians in Iosif Volotsky and Metropolitan Daniil,” Slovene (forthcoming).

[11] V.V. Lytvynenko, M. V. Shpakovskiy, Zinoviy Otenskiy and the Trinitarian Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Russia: Introduction, Texts, and Translation, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions: Texts and Sources (Brill, forthcoming).

[12] V.V. Lytvynenko, “Athanasius’ Orations against the Arians: Theological Glosses in Two Slavonic Manuscripts,” In Преславска книжовна школа, vol. 19 (Shumen, Bulgaria: Изд-во Фабер, 2019), 77–101.

[13] V.V. Lytvynenko, “Athanasius of Alexandria in Old Slavonic: Context and Transmission,” Communio Viatorum LXI/2 (2019): 192–195. The Third Oration from this codex is now edited by P. Penkova, Буквалният превод на Трето слово против арианите от Атанасий Александрийски по ръкописа на Гаврило Стефанович Венцлович [The Literal Translation of Athanasius of Alexandria’s Third Oration against the Arians in the Codex of Gavrilo Stefanovich Ventslovich] (Sofia: Изд-во Валентин Траянов, 2021).

[14] I.M. Gritsevskaya, V.V. Lytvynenko, “Сочинения Афанасия Александрийского в славянской традиции. Часть II: Spuria [“The Writings of Athanasius of Alexandria in Slavonic Tradition, Part II: Spuria”], Byzantinoslavica 76/1–2 (2019): 161–194; V.V. Lytvynenko, I. M. Gritsevskaya, “Athanasius in Slavonic,” Studia Patristica 127.24 (2021): 67–80.

[15] E.g., I.M. Gritsevskaya, V.V. Lytvynenko, “Pseudo-Athanasian Homily on the Man Born Blind: Slavonic Sermon from an Unknown Greek Original,” Scrinium16 (2020): 188–213.

[16] E.g., V.V. Lytvynenko, I.M. Gritsevskaya, “Pseudo-Athanasius’ De Diversis Modis Salutis et Poenitentiae in the Greek and Slavonic Traditions,” Scrinium (forthcoming).

[17] I.M. Gritsevskaya, V.V. Lytvynenko, “Афанасий Александрийский и Псевдо-Афанасий в переводах Епифания Славинецкого” [“Athanasius of Alexandria and Pseudo-Athanasius in Slavonic Translation by Epifaniy Slavinetskiy”], Palaeobulgarica 44 (2020): 89–90. See also Lara Sels, “On Editing the Slavonic Pseudo-Athanasian Quaestiones ad Antiochum Ducem with an Edition of QQ 39–41 as an Example,” in Translations of Patristic Literature in South-Eastern Europe: Proceedings of the Session Held at the 12th International Congress of South-East European Studies (Bucharest, 2–6 September 2019), 59-81, ed. L. Taseva and R. Marti (Braila: Académie Roumaine, 2020).

[18] Annette von Stockhausen, “Die pseud-athanasianische Disputatio contra Arium. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit ‘arianischer’ Theologie in Dialogform,” Von Arius zum Athanasianum. Studien zur Edition der “Athanasius Werke,” ed. A. von Stockhausen and H.C. Brennecke (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010): 133–155.