The Sentences of Sextus by Walter T. Wilson. Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World 1. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
The Sentences of Sextus (Greek: Σεξτου Γνώμαι) is a fitting text for the inaugural volume in the Society of Biblical Literature’s series “Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World.” A second-century collection of 451 maxims, the Sentences was originally composed in Greek; later translations were made into Coptic, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian with additional selections rendered into Georgian, Arabic, and Ge’ez. The text’s popularity is further confirmed by the testimony of prominent early Christians: Origen praises the Sentences as a work that “the multitude of Christians read” and as “a book referred to by many as trustworthy” (Against Celsus 8.30, Commentary on Matthew 15.3); Jerome recounts that “it is read in many provinces” (Commentary on Jeremiah 4.41).
First edited in 1873 by Johann Gildemeister, the Greek Sextus has undergone numerous treatments. Henry Chadwick’s The Sentences of Sextus: A Contribution to the History of Early Christian Ethics (1959) text is the most authoritative, presenting not only critical editions of the Greek and Latin but also four short topical essays and a very brief commentary. In The Sentences of Sextus (1981) Richard Edwards and Robert Wild take into account minor variants introduced by the witness of Nag Hammadi and offer a modern English translation. Here Walter T. Wilson presents a study of Sextus that updates the works of his predecessors. An edition of the Greek text, an English translation, and an extensive commentary comprise the bulk of Wilson’s volume; this material is flanked by front matter—chiefly an introduction—and back matter—a bibliography plus four indices.
The introduction situates the text historically and literarily. Concurring with Chadwick’s conclusion that Sextus was a Christian redactor of pagan source material, Wilson suggests that “the study of Sextus’s sayings can help us better understand how and why the ancient church developed its own wisdom traditions, appropriating and adopting existing traditions to suit the distinctive needs of early Christian communities” (pp.1-2). He goes on to argue that the Sentences is “a particularly fascinating test case for understanding how such appropriations would have been negotiated, especially at the practical level… Sextus does not simply replicate his source material but creatively adapts it to a new setting” (p.4). Sextus, then, augments our understanding of how early Christians interacted with the larger Greek and Roman intellectual culture of the Mediterranean world.
Wilson’s introduction is at its best when engaging in source criticism. He rightly acknowledges that “one of Chadwick’s major contributions was to explicate Sextus’s dependence on two generically similar collections of Pythagorean sayings:” the Sentences of the Pythagoreans and the Sentences of Clitarchus (p.11). Chadwick also highlighted the gnomic similarities with Porphyry’s letter To Marcella and posited that Sextus and Porphyry had each independently mined the two Pythagorean gnomologies. Noting its unsatisfactory explanation for “the parallels (and partial parallels) that Sextus has with the Ad Marcellam apart from what the two have in common with Clitarchus and the Pythagorean collection,” Wilson refines Chadwick’s theory by hypothesizing that “now-lost editions” of the Sentences of the Pythagoreans and the Sentences of Clitarchus were “utilized independently by Sextus and Porphyry” (pp.23-4).
Less useful is the survey of the Sentences’ versions and manuscript tradition. The two Greek witnesses are discussed in some detail, but the Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and especially Armenian receive little treatment (pp.4-7). The partial translations into Georgian and Ge’ez receive only passing mention in a footnote and Sextus’s presence in Arabic not even that (p.6, n.19; for the Arabic see Gutas 1975: 236, 240-241, 249-251). Although the two extant Greek manuscripts, as well as many of the non-Greek manuscripts, testify to 159 additional sayings over three appendices, Wilson limits his study to the original 451. Readers interested in the Sentence’s translations, appendices, and overall reception will have to look elsewhere (the appendices, for example, are edited in Chadwick 1959: 64-72).
Superseding earlier studies of Sextus, the commentary that Wilson provides is his greatest contribution. Rather than present the text of the Sentences as a single unit, Wilson divides the collection into internal sections based upon rhetorical devices like catchword and inclusio (pp.29-32). Each section first offers a critical edition of the Greek text accompanied by a basic apparatus; the two Greek manuscripts naturally form the basis of this apparatus, but the Latin, Coptic, and Syriac versions are consistently featured. The Greek text is followed by an English translation, smooth and accurate. Each individual maxim (or unit of maxims) then receives an individual commentary. Wilson’s notes are detailed but not exhaustive, and his edition is certainly the more accessible for it. The strength of the commentary is in the connections it draws to earlier and contemporary material, although the occasional mention of a maxim’s later reception is present as well (e.g. nos. 27-29, 231).
Wilson’s treatment of Sextine analogues within the Sentences of the Pythagoreans, the Sentences of Clitarchus, and Porphyry’s To Marcella is comprehensive. He regularly identifies thematic parallels with other gnomic works; authors like Plato, Seneca, Plutarch, and Clement; Biblical passages (especially Proverbs, Ben Sira, and Matthew); gnostic tracts; and Rabbinic literature. Wilson’s familiarity with Philo of Alexandria and the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (a gnomic poem written in Greek by a Hellenistic Jewish author of the diaspora which, like Sextus’s collection, illustrates the appropriation and adoption of existing traditions) is evident and enriching. “The Sentences,” Wilson writes, “is as fully practical as it is expressly instruction;” his commentary exemplifies how a study of Sextus—and wisdom literature in general—reveals the intertwining of Greek, Jewish, and Christian thought as “actual ‘life’” in Late Antiquity (p.2).
A bibliography and indices of Greek words, texts cited, authors, and subjects conclude the volume. The bibliography is a welcome update to previous scholarship and the indices are wider-ranging than their counterparts in Chadwick. The index of texts cited, which includes ten subsections ranging from “Old Testament” and “Deuterocanonical Writings” to “Josephus and Philo” and “Ancient Egyptian Writings,” encapsulates Sextus’s “eclectic intellectual profile” and the varied areas in which wisdom literature “can contribute to our knowledge” (pp.3-4). Wilson’s volume sets the standard for additional research into the Sentences of Sextus, especially its non-Greek renditions and reception history.
Zachary Domach is a PhD Candidate in Late Antique Christianity at Columbia University.
Chadwick, Henry, ed. The Sentences of Sextus: A Contribution to the History of Early Christian Ethics. London: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
Edwards, Richard A., and Robert A. Wild, eds. and trans. The Sentences of Sextus. Texts and Translations 22: Early Christian Literature Series 5. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981.
Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Wisdom Literature in Arabic Translation: A Study of the Graeco-Arabic Gnomologia. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1975.