THE SENTENCES
 of  SEXTUS
c. 190 ?
 

 



Adapted from two reviews of Henry Chadwick's edition of The Sentences of Sextus
 


SEXTUS” is a mysterious figure from around the end of the second century who assembled 451 sentences in a kind of ethical-religious handbook or manual of self-cultivation. This work became widely popular throughout the church, from Britain to Syria and Armenia, and was copied and recopied for centuries. Rufinus of Aquileia translated it into Latin; others into Syriac and Armenian.  Various appendices were added, including, (in Greek) sayings 452-610. There were other collections, which Chadwick offers in his edition of the Sentences: Clitarchus (144 sayings) and the Pythagorean sentences (123).

The author would appear to have been a Christian who adapted a pagan ethical collection and edited it, retouching it here and there and thus “Christianizing” its teaching; at the same time he took sayings from the gospels, or composed sayings based on the gospels and the rest of the New Testamentgiving them the appearance of philosophic (pagan) gnomic counsels. The collection is fascinating, and throws unexpected light in several directions. If this was the “wisdom literature” of the early church (Chadwick suggests) it helps us to understand better the tone and standards of ethical action in the early centuries. If compositions of this sort were popular (as we believe they were), it helps us to understand the strange kind of writing newly turned up in the Coptic Gnostica, the so-called Gospel of Thomas. These people, orthodox and gnostic alike, did not hesitate to create sayings which they believed to sum tip or epitomize the true teaching of Christ, his apostles, and the church.



Like Clement of Alexandria (as Chadwick notes), Sextus took Pythagorean-Platonic ethical aphorisms and lightly Christianized them. His method is especially conspicuous at points where his original referred to the wise man or sage and his version speaks of the believer. Something more might be said about the environment in which Sextus lived and wrote. Fairly close parallels to Sentences 24, 28, 82d, 450, and especially 166 can be found in the first book of Theophilus to Autolycus, and the two writers share a concern for ethics which is sometimes called Jewish Christian (though Sextus is more ascetic than Theophilus is). Again, in Sextus we find, as Chadwick says (p. 98), both “Know thyself” and the notion that the kingdom of God is within; and these ideas are combined in the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag-Hammadi in Egypt (earlier, but not identified, in Oxy-rhynchus Papyrus IV, 654). This Gospel, which H.-C. Puech would date “in its oldest redaction” about 140 or later in the second century (Comptes rendus de ΓAcadémie des inscriptions, Paris, 1957, 164), is partly Gnostic, but the Saying which links self-knowledge with the inner kingdom is not necessarily Gnostic at all. Sextus shows us that it can be taken in a sense at least semi-philosophical.

The significance of the Sentences lies in the explicit manner in which they make concrete the eclectic statement of Justin that “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us” (a statement reiterated by Clement of Alexandria). They mark the starting point of the process which produced the vast Byzantine and mediaeval collections of aphorisms for Christian use. And they show the way in which the Cynic-Stoic (—Pythagorean-Platonic) ideal of the sage (already enunciated by Paul’s opponents at Corinth) became progressively more important in Christian antiquity (in this connection we note the word “Cynic” in the appended Sentences 461-464 and in Pythagorean Sentence 54).

 


 


Adapted from E.A. Livingstone, Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford, 2000
 

 


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