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Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (1917). Introduction to book 7. pp. 269-274.


At first sight there appears to be some question as to the genuineness of this Seventh Book. But on examination it becomes practically certain that the great bulk of the Book was written by St. Optatus several years after he had closed his original work with the striking metaphor on bird-catching to be found at the end of Book VI. Some slight doubt still remains concerning two passages in the first chapter, and one paragraph in the second chapter. But these are almost certainly (were it not for the opinion of Ziwsa, to which we shall shortly allude, we should write quite certainly) spurious. Accordingly----in this following the example of Du Pin----we have separated them from the text, and marked them A, B, C.1

Du Pin indeed tells us in his Preface to his Edition of St. Optatus that until he had examined the MSS. he was inclined to reject all the Seventh Book as spurious, in consequence of the following considerations:

(I)  St. Optatus himself gives the argument of his work as a whole, and says that he had divided it into six Books.2 Moreover, St. Jerome writes expressly that St. Optatus wrote six Books against the Donatist calumnies.3

(II)  In his First Book St. Optatus terms the sins of Betrayal and Schism, duo mala pessima.4 In certain parts of the Seventh Book, on the contrary, all kinds of excuses----some of them very far-fetched----are made for the sin of Betrayal, and the writer endeavours to tone down its guilt by all the means at his command. |270 

(III) It seemed to Du Pin at first that there was a certain difference of style between the Seventh and the first six Books.

But on discovering that the Seventh Book was found (without A, B, C) in all the manuscripts which he was able to consult, Du Pin was led to revise his opinion as to its genuineness.

The difficulty arising (I) from the fact that St. Optatus has himself mentioned his intention of writing six Books vanished upon further consideration, for (a) it is certain (as we have already stated 5) that Optatus made additions to his original work in the time of Pope Siricius, and further (b) in the opening words of Book VII its author himself distinctly states that this Book is an afterthought, due to the fact that the Donatists did not profess themselves satisfied by that which he had already written. With regard to (II) the change of tone concerning the sin of Betrayal----which had been Du Pin's chief difficulty ----it is only to be found in the passages marked A and B. These Du Pin unhesitatingly rejects (whilst, in the end, with no less hesitation accepting the rest of the Book) as the work of a Donatist interpolator, referring to them in his Index as pseudo-Optatus. 

As for (III) the dissimilarity of style, Du Pin remarks that this too is only to be observed in A and B. Indeed far from being dissimilar in style there is a very remarkable similarity in this respect between Book VII, speaking generally, and the other six Books; whilst for myself I fully agree with Ziwsa in thinking that even A and B are quite Optatian in style. From this point of view they seem to me to be clever forgeries----skilful imitations of the genuine work of St. Optatus, with which their author was evidently familiar.

The only remaining difficulty arises from the statement |271 of St. Jerome to which we have already alluded. But is it not possible that St. Jerome was only acquainted with the First Edition of St. Optatus? 6 However this may be, Du Pin meets the difficulty by suggesting that when St. Jerome wrote, that which we now read as a connected whole, and call the Seventh Book of St. Optatus, was principally to be found in the shape of Appendices or additions,, not to the completed work, but to several of the other Books regarded separately. To illustrate this idea, Du Pin points out that the Donatists very likely objected that two statements----both of them to be found in the First Book----that their Fathers were Betrayers, and that yet they were the Brethren of Catholics----were markedly inconsistent and even destructive of one another. 'If our Fathers were Betrayers,' we can well imagine that they urged, 'why do you call us Brethren, and why invite us to Communion?' 7 To this objection St. Optatus made his reply in the first three chapters of the Seventh Book.

All that we read in the two following chapters concerning 'flies about to die' and about Jamnes and Mambres should be referred to the end of the Second, or perhaps rather to the Fourth Book, where Donatist calumnies of a similar character are refuted.

The last two chapters (6 and 7) belong to the Third Book, to which they are an addition. As this seems to be, in the judgement of all, a fact established beyond doubt, I have already printed the translation of those chapters in their proper place at the end of Book III. |272 

I have thought it safer, however, (in this following not only Ziwsa but Du Pin himself,) to keep the first five chapters in the form of a separate Book, as we find them in the existing manuscripts.

A, B, C, etc., stand in a different position from the rest of the Book, not merely from the fact that they are wanting in most of the MSS.,8 but above all from their character. Ziwsa indeed hesitates and thinks that they may perhaps be a kind of retractation by St. Optatus of the severe things which are to be found in his work, especially in his First Book. Everything written by Ziwsa concerning Optatus deserves, and must always receive, the most serious and respectful consideration. But it is certain that there is no sign whatever in Book VII (apart from A and B) of anything that expresses toning down or apology, much less retractation, by the author. There is no recognition of any contrast between previous and present statements. Ziwsa's theory must therefore remain, what after all he states it to be, a bare possibility and unverifiable hypothesis. Moreover, not only do A and B contradict the argument concerning the wickedness of Betrayal, which has been brought forward again and again in the previous Books, but they are also in opposition to the clear statement made in the Seventh Book itself at the end of its first chapter:

'Tradere peccatum est.'

They seem to me to be in their poverty of thought, lack of argumentative force, and general perversity of expression, quite unworthy of St. Optatus (as well as contrary to the consistent expression of his mind), and to be just what a cunning Donatist, if he had the opportunity, would be glad to insert in the work of his great adversary----or possibly they may have come from the hand of some unscrupulous Catholic, who, in his desire to make the |273 reconciliation of the Donatists as easy as possible, allowed himself to forget for the moment that no end, however good and desirable in itself, can justify the employment of dishonest means for its attainment. In any case, whatever their history, we may be quite sure that A and B failed of their purpose. They remain merely as a somewhat wearisome curiosity.

Ziwsa, who has no doubt as to the genuineness of the rest of Book VII, observes that in many places it is carelessly written, and partakes rather of the nature of a rough sketch, or of notes not yet worked up, than of a finished composition. But we must not press this too far, for, as Du Pin reminds us, St. Optatus in all the Books is very unequal in the polish of his work. Still, even though we bear this fact in mind, we shall have to admit that, if Book VII is really to be considered as a whole (and not a collection of chapters to be added to preceding books), the conclusion----wherever we place it (whether at the close of Chapter 5 or of Chapter 7)-----is exceedingly abrupt and furnishes the most marked contrast in this respect to the highly polished termination of Book VI. That this was the end of the work as originally written, there can (as we have already stated) be no doubt.

With regard then to Book VII, problems exist with reference to its exact purpose and original arrangement which will never admit of certain and definite solution, but that (apart from A and B) it is the work of St. Optatus is no longer questioned by any critic. The MSS. evidence is too clear, and the similarity of thought and expression too striking, for doubt to be possible. For example, who that has ever read the undoubted

'Igitur negare non potes scire te in urbe Roma Petro primo Cathedram episcopalem esse conlatam,'

of ii, 2, can hesitate as to the

'Cathedram Petri . . . poteris adprobare mendacium?' |274 

of vii, 5? This question of the Seventh Book is simply the echo of the statement of the First Book. Non potes negare = poteris adprobare? (id est, non poteris adprobare) mendacium. We have here St. Optatus' summing up ----his final cry of triumphant gladness. No forger could have had the first sentence of St. Optatus so stamped upon his mind, with its unmistakable ring, as to be able to change its form and yet reproduce it with such apparent unconsciousness and lack of effort, as forgery would here involve. And many similar instances might be adduced, which prove that, even independently of the weight of MSS. authority, this Seventh Book comes from the same brain and personality to which we owe the first six Books of St. Optatus against the Donatists.

[Footnotes moved to the end and renumbered]

1. 1 Three other short passages, which I have printed in square brackets, are in the same position as A, B, C (see p. 310).

2. 2 i, 7.

3. 3 Lib. de viris illustribus, Cap. cxxi.

4. 4 i, 13.

5. 1 See Preface, p. xxii.

6. 1  St. Jerome's words are as follows: 'Optatus Afer Episcopus Milevitarms ex parte Catholica scripsit sub Valentiniano et Valente Principibus adversus Donatianae partis calumniam Libros sex.' We know that, on any hypothesis, St. Optatus wrote only six Books 'in the time of the Emperors Valentinianus and Valens.' (Cf. Preface, p. xxii.)

7. 2  Cf. vii, 1: 'video adhuc vestras vel vestrorum provocationes pullulare, quas vos audio dicere, ad unam communionem non oportuisse quaeri, cum filios traditorum vos esse constiterit, ad ea pauca respondeam.'

8. 1 They are only to be found in C and in the Codex Tilianus.

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