Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Apostle of the Goths

We must now turn aside for a little while from the direct course of our history to tell the story of a Goth who, in the midst of all the confusion of this age of turbulence and bloodshed, spent his life in quietly doing good, and whose influence on the future history of his nation was quite as powerful as that of any of the soldiers and statesmen of his time. Milton expressed a sad truth when he said that the victories of peace are less renowned than those of war; but although the name of Wulfila the Bishop is not so famous as those of many men far less worthy to be remembered, it will no doubt be familiar to many readers to whom the names mentioned in the preceding chapters were altogether unknown.

It seems that Wulfila was born about the year 310 or 311, but where his birthplace was in the wide tract of country then inhabited by the Goths, we do not know. It is said that he was not of pure Gothic descent, for his grandfather was a native of Cappadocia—one of those unfortunate prisoners whom the Goths carried away from their homes when they ravaged Asia Minor about the year 267. However this may be, his parents gave him a Gothic name and his whole life proves that he was a thorough Gothic patriot at heart.

You may remember, that after their king Araric had been defeated in battle, the Goths made a treaty of alliance with the emperor Constantine; and in the year 332 they sent ambassadors to the imperial city to settle the conditions of peace. How it came to pass that the young Wulfila accompanied this embassy we can only guess. Perhaps the grandson of the Cappadocian captive had learned to speak Greek as well as Gothic in his own home, and so was, useful as an interpreter; or perhaps he may have been one of those young Goths who, along with King Araric's son, were to be left in the emperor's hands as security for the treaty being faithfully kept. Whether by his own choice or not, we know that he remained at Constantinople, and received a good education, learning to speak and write Latin as well as Greek.

But Wulfila was like Moses, who, though "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," and living in comfort and honour in Pharaoh's court, could not be content while his own people were in misery. Whether Wulfila was a Christian before he went to. Constantinople we do not know; certainly there had been some few Christian Goths before his time. But if he was not already a Christian, he very soon became one, and his mind was filled with a burning desire to go as a missionary to convert his countrymen from their cruel heathen ways. With this end in view he became a priest, and when he was thirty years old the bishops assembled at the Council of Antioch ordained him bishop of the Goths dwelling north of the Danube.

For seven years after this Wulfila was preaching the gospel to his countrymen in Dacia, and gained vast numbers of followers in spite of bitter opposition from Athanaric. The persecution at last became so fierce that Wulfila wrote to the emperor Constantius asking him to let the Christian Goths have a home in the Roman lands, where they could be safe from the fury of their oppressors. The permission was granted, and Wulfila, with many thousands of his converts, crossed the Danube, and settled near Nicopolis in Moesia, at the foot of the Balkan mountains. Constantius had a great admiration for Wulfila, and often used to speak of him as "our second Moses." The people whom Wulfila led into Moesia (the Lesser Goths, as they were called), continued to dwell there for some centuries, peacefully cultivating their lands, and taking no part in the fierce wars that raged all around them.

But all the Christian Goths did not leave Dacia along with Wulfila, and their numbers grew so fast that about the year 369 Athanaric thought it necessary to resort to cruel measures in order to suppress them. His rival, Frithigern, however, was either a Christian himself, or at any rate favourable to the Christians, and when Athanaric, as we described in our last chapter, went away into the Transylvanian "highlands" there was no longer any resistance to the spread of the gospel. In a very few years nearly the whole people, Visigoths and Ostrogoths alike, learned to call themselves Christians.

It may be well to explain here that those Christians from whom Wulfila had received his religious teaching at Constantinople belonged to what was called the Arian sect: that is, they differed from the general body of the Church in believing that the Son of God was a created being. The Goths, who were converted to Christianity through the preaching of Wulfila and his disciples, naturally became Arians too. It is important to remember this, because many of the troubles of the Goths in later years arose from the fierce mutual hatred that existed between Arians and Catholics. The two parties often thought each other worse than heathens, and persecuted each other cruelly. As for Wulfila himself, however, he cared a great deal less about the harder questions of theology than he did about the plain and simple truths which help men to act kindly and justly towards one another, and to look up with love and reverence to the Giver of all good.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


For three and thirty years Wulfila lived among his people in Moesia, teaching the newly converted heathens the lessons of Christian faith and life, and training clergymen to carry on his work after his death. But in addition to these labours he had imposed on himself an important and difficult task, which must have occupied a large portion of his life. He perceived clearly that if Christianity was to take deep root amongst the Goths, and to continue to be held by them in its purity, it was necessary that they should be able to read the Scriptures in their own tongue. And therefore he set himself to work to produce a translation of the Bible into Gothic.

Before, however, Wulfila could give his countrymen the Bible, he had to teach them to read, and, in fact, to reduce their language to a written form. It is true that, as we have already said, the Goths had already an alphabet of their own. But Wulfila probably thought that the Runic alphabet was better forgotten, because of the heathenish things that were written in it; at all events he chose to write his Gothic Bible in Greek letters—large capitals, such as were commonly used in books at that time. There were, however, some Gothic sounds which could not be correctly expressed by means of the Greek alphabet, and for these Wulfila adopted the Runic characters, altering their shapes, however, so as to give them as far as possible the general appearance of Greek letters. Our earliest manuscripts of the Gothic Bible were written about 150 years after Wulfila's time, and probably the forms of the letters had before then undergone a little change, but it is still quite easy to see that the Gothic alphabet is merely the Greek alphabet with half a dozen new signs.

Wulfila's translation was a wonderful piece of work for the age in which it was written. It cannot have been very easy, in the fourth century, for a Goth to acquire such a thorough knowledge of Greek as to enable him accurately to understand the text of the Scriptures; and to make a faithful translation out of one language into another requires a mind trained in habits of exact thinking. But there are very few passages in which Wulfila appears to have misrepresented the sense of his original. Many of the words which occur in the Bible had nothing properly corresponding to them in Gothic, because they denoted objects or actions peculiar to civilized life, or ideas belonging to Christian ways of thinking, which were quite strange to the minds of people who had been brought up in heathenism. The way in which Wulfila got over these difficulties is often very curious. The word he uses for "writing," for instance, meant properly "painting" or "marking," and to express the meaning of "reading" he used the word "singing"—no doubt because in reading the Bible it was customary to adopt a chanting tone. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors expressed these ideas in a different way: they retained the old words that had been used in the days when people carved the runes on pieces of wood. Our word "write" properly means to scratch or engrave, and our word "read" meant originally to guess or give the answer to a riddle, just as "rune" itself meant a secret or mystery which it required a clever man to unravel. Wulfila seems to have avoided these expressions on purpose, because he regarded Christian writing as altogether a different kind of thing from heathenish rune-carving.

Here is the Gothic Lord's Prayer as it is in Wulfila's Bible, with a word-for-word translation, which will show how much, even yet, our language resembles that of the Goths. The English words that are in italics are of the same origin as the Gothic words which they translate.

Atta unsar thu in himinarn, weihnai namb thein.

Father our thou in heaven, be hallowed name thine.

Qimai thiudinassus theins.

Come kingdom thine

Wairthai wilya theins, swe in himina yah in sirthai.

Be done will thine, as [so] in heaven also in earth.

Hlaif unsarana thana sinteinan gif uns himma daga.

Bread [loaf] our the continual give us this day.

Yah aflet uns thatei skulans siyaima, swn swe yah weis

And forgive [off -let] us that which debtors we are, so as also we

afletam thaim skulam unsaraim

forgive [off-let] the debtors our.

Yah ni bringais uns in fraistubnyai, ak lausei uns of thamma ubilin.

And not bring us in temptation, but loose us from [of] the evil,

Unte theina ist thiudangardi, yah mahts, yah wulthus in aiwins.

For thine is kingdom, and might, and glory in ages.

We do not know how much of the Bible Wulfila translated into Gothic. One ancient writer says that he translated all but the books of Kings, which he left out because he thought that the stories of Israel's wars would be dangerous reading for a people that was too fond of fighting already. It is quite in accordance with what we know of Wulfila's character that he should have felt some uneasiness about the effect that such reading might have on the minds of his warlike countrymen; but one would have thought that the books of Joshua and Judges would have been even more likely to stimulate the Gothic passion for fighting than the books of Kings. Probably the truth is that Wulfila did not live to finish his translation, and no doubt he would leave to the last the books which he thought least important for his great purpose of making good Christians.

The part of Wulfila's Bible that has come down to us consists of a considerable portion of each of the Gospels, and of each of St. Paul's Epistles, together with small fragments of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Six different manuscripts have been found. The most important of these was discovered in the sixteenth century in a monastery at Werden in Germany. After having been in the possession of many different owners, it was bought in 1662 by the Swedish Count de la Gardie, who gave it the binding of solid silver from which it is commonly called the Codex Argenteus, or Silver Book; it is now in the University of Upsala, and is regarded as one of the choicest treasures possessed by any library in Europe. It is beautifully written in letters of gold and silver on purple-parchment, and contains the fragments of the Gospels. Of the other five manuscripts one was discovered in the seventeenth century in Germany, and the rest in Italy about seventy years ago.

Wulfila visited Constantinople in the year 360, and was present at a church council held there. In 381, when he was seventy years old, he was sent for by the emperor Theodosius to dispute with the teachers of a new sect that was gaining many converts among the Goths. But almost as soon as he had arrived at Constantinople he was seized with the illness of which he died. His last act was to write out, as his "testament," a profession of his Christian faith, which his disciple Auxentius has affectionately preserved.