6. Sulpicius Severus and Fra-Paola
A Vindication by Edward Gibbon

On the subject of the imminent dangers which the Apocalypse has so narrowly escaped, (36) Mr. Davis accuses me of misrepresenting the sentiments of Sulpicius Severus and Fra-Paolo, (37) with this difference, however, that I was incapable of reading or understanding the text of the Latin author; but that I wilfully perverted the sense of the Italian historian. These imputations I shall easily wipe away, by showing that, in the first instance, I am probably in the right, and that, in the second, he is certainly in the wrong.

1. The concise and elegant Sulpicius, who has been justly styled the Christian Sallust, after mentioning the exile and Revelations of St. John in the Isle of Patmos, observes (and surely the observation is in the language of complaint),

"Librum sacrae Apocalypsis, qui quidem a plerisque aut stulte aut impie non recipitur, conscriptum edidit."

I am found guilty of supposing plerique to signify the greater number; whereas Mr. Davis, with Stephen's Dictionary in his hand, is able to prove that plerique has not always that extensive meaning, and that a classic of good authority has used the word in a much more limited and qualified sense. Let the Examiner therefore try to apply his exception to this particular case. For my part, I stand under the protection of the general usage of the Latin language, and with a strong presumption in favour of the justice of my cause, or at least of the innocence and fairness of my intentions; since I have translated a familiar word, according to its acknowledged and ordinary acceptation.


"if I had looked into the passage, and found that Sulpicius Severus there expressly tells us, that the Apocalypse was the work of St. John, I could not have committed so unfortunate a blunder, as to cite this Father as saying, That the greater number of Christians denied its Canonical authority." (38)

Unfortunate indeed would have been my blunder, had I asserted that the same Christians who denied its Canonical authority, admitted it to be the work of an Apostle. Such indeed was the opinion of Severus himself, and his opinion has obtained the sanction of the Church; but the Christians whom he taxes with folly or impiety for rejecting this sacred book, must have supported their error by attributing the Apocalypse to some uninspired writer; to John the Presbyter, or to Cerinthus the Heretic.

If the rules of grammar and of logic authorise, or at least allow me to translate plerique by the greater number, the Ecclesiastical History of the fourth century illustrates and justifies this obvious interpretation. From a fair comparison of the populousness and learning of the Greek and Latin Churches, may I not conclude that the former contained the greater number of Christians qualified to pass sentence on a mysterious prophecy composed in the Greek language? May I not affirm, on the authority of St. Jerom, that the Apocalypse was generally rejected by the Greek Churches?

"Quod si eam (the Epistle to the Hebrews) Latinorum consuetudo non recipit inter Scripturas Canonicas; nec Graecorum Ecclesiae Apocalypsim Johannis eadem libertate suscipiunt. Et tamen nos utramque suscipimus, nequaquam hujus temporis consuetudinem, sed veterum auctoritatem sequentes." Epistol. ad Dardanum, tom. iii. p. 68.

It is not my design to enter any farther into the controverted history of that famous book; but I am called upon (39) to defend my Remark that the Apocalypse was tacitly excluded from the sacred canon by the council of Laodicea (Canon LX.) To defend my Remark, I need only state the fact in a simple, but more particular manner. The assembled Bishops of Asia, after enumerating all the books of the Old and New Testament which should be read in churches, omit the Apocalypse, and the Apocalypse alone; at a time when it was rejected or questioned by many pious and learned Christians, who might deduce a very plausible argument from the silence of the Synod.

2. When the Council of Trent resolved to pronounce sentence on the Canon of Scripture, the opinion which prevailed, after some debate, was to declare the Latin Vulgate authentic and almost infallible; and this sentence, which was guarded by formidable Anathemas, secured all the books of the Old and New Testament which composed that ancient version,

"che si dichiarassero tutti in tutte le parte come si trovano nella Biblia Latina, esser di Divina è ugual autorita." (Istoria del Conciio Tridentino, 1. ii. p. 147. Helmstadt (Vicenza) 1761.)

When the merit of that version was discussed, the majority of the Theologians urged, with confidence and success, that it was absolutely necessary to receive the Vulgate as authentic and inspired, unless they wished to abandon the victory to the Lutherans, and the honours of the Church to the Grammarians.

"In contrario della maggior parte dè Teologi era detto . . . chequesti nuovi Grammatici confonderanno ogni cosa, e sarà fargli giudici e arbitri della fede; e in luogo dè Teologi e Canonisti, converrà tener il primo conto nell' assumere a Vescovati e Cardinalati de pedanti." (Istoria del Conciio Tridentino, 1. ii. p. 149.)

The sagacious Historian, who had studied the Council, and the judicious Le Courayer, who had studied his Author (Histoire du Concile de Trente, tom. i. p. 245. Londres 1736) consider this ridiculous reason as the most powerful argument which influenced the debates of the Council: But Mr. Davis, jealous of the honour of a Synod which placed tradition on a level with the Bible, affirms that Fra-Paolo has given another more substantial reason on which these Popish Bishops built their determination, That after dividing the books under their consideration into three classes; of those which had been always held for divine; of those whose authenticity had formerly been doubted, but which by use and custom had acquired canonical authority; and of those which had never been properly certified; the Apocalypse was judiciously placed by the Fathers of the Council in the second of these classes.

The Italian passage, which, for that purpose, Mr. Davis has alleged at the bottom of his page, is indeed taken from the text of Fra-Paolo: but the reader who will give himself the trouble, or rather the pleasure, of perusing that incomparable historian, will discover that Mr. Davis has only mistaken a motion of the opposition, for a measure of the administration. He will find, that this critical division, which is so erroneously ascribed to the public reason of the Council, was no more than the ineffectual proposal of a temperate minority, which was soon over-ruled by a majority of artful Statesmen, bigotted Monks, and dependent Bishops.

"We have here an evident proof that Mr. Gibbon is equally expert in misrepresenting a modern as an ancient writer, or that he wilfully conceals the most material reason, with a design, no doubt, to instil into his Reader a notion, that the authenticity of the Apocalypse is built on the slightest foundation."(40)
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