‘Wuli, what is the matter?’
‘Mama, the boys said you aren’t Goths.’
‘Come Wulfila, come and sit down and I will explain some things to you.’
Many years ago my dear, your father and I lived in our home in Cappadocia. We were happy there, but one day the Gothic warriors came to our land and we were taken captive. They brought us to this land and we now live with the Goths.’
‘Mama, am I a Goth?’
‘Yes dear, you were born here, so you are a Goth born of Cappadocian parents.’
‘Is that bad Mama?’
‘Oh no dear. We are now Goths too and we love these people.’
‘I love them too, but the boys were mean about you.’
‘Yes, boys can say mean things, but you just treat them kindly and ignore their words.’
‘Mama, is this why we speak Greek at home?’
‘We speak Greek as well as Goth because we wanted you to learn both languages. You have something the other boys don’t have.’
The child smiles. ‘Oh I do, don’t I?’
‘Yes dear, but you must not boast about it. Remember, our religion tells us we are to be humble like Jesus.’
‘And Mama, you can read Greek can’t you? The Goths can’t read.
‘That’s true son. We read Greek, but there is nothing in Gothic for anyone to read. They don’t write anything because they don’t have an alphabet.’
‘Will you teach me to read Greek?’
‘We will ask your father when he comes home. Now go out and play. Say nothing to the boys, just be nice to them.’
Later that evening, the family gather together for worship. After a prayer and discussion, Wulfila remembers he has a question for his father.
‘Dada, will you teach me to read Greek?’
‘Well, well. You want to learn to read. I guess if you want to start learning, that is fine with us, isn’t it my dear?’
‘Yes, it will be good if Wulfila learns to read Greek early in his life. Maybe one day he can teach the Goths to read.’
‘Oooh Mama, do you think I could be a teacher?’
‘You could be, but you could also be a missionary and teach them about Jesus.’
‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’
‘There are not many Christian Goths among us, so they need a missionary to teach them.’
The years pass by quickly. Wulfila has great natural talents and he has learned his lessons well. He can now read Greek as efficiently as his parents.
‘Mother, it would be wonderful if we had a Bible. I would like a Bible of my own.’
‘Yes, that would be lovely, but we are not wealthy. It takes a long time for men to write out the words of the Bible and so they cost a lot of money.’
That evening, the subject is mentioned in private. ‘Ammosius, it would be lovely if Wulfila could have a Bible of his own.’
‘You are right, but they are expensive.’
‘We have a little money saved. Would it be enough for a Bible?’
‘No, but perhaps the New Testament. I will make enquiries.’
Some weeks later, Ammosius tells his wife and son he is going away for a while.
‘Father, where will you go?’
‘I am going to Antioch.’
‘Why will you go to Antioch my father?’
Mother replies, ‘Wulfila, your father has a task to perform in that city and when he returns he will tell you.’
‘Oh, okay.’ 1
During the time of Constantine, Christianity had multiplied throughout the Roman world. Many of the barbarian tribes had opportunity to learn of Christ, and often when taking captives, Christians were among them. 2
The Goths had overrun Europe, crossed into Asia, Galatia, Cappadocia, and had carried off many captives. This “captive and pious crowd” the fourth century historian Philostorgius stated, “had turned not a few of the barbarians” to a life of piety and a Christian way of thinking. 3
A letter was written by Dionysius bishop of Rome to the church in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, consoling them with their losses and sufferings during the Gothic raids. He sent envoys to “redeem the brethren who were captives.” 4 Not all were returned to their homes in Cappadocia.
In their new home, the Christians were found “healing the sick… holding a noble and blameless conversation, and overcoming their reproach by the manly walk. The barbarians marvelled at the men,
their life and wonderful works, and acknowledged that they themselves would be wise and win the favour of God… if they shewed themselves to be better men and were to serve the Right.” 5
The rise of Christianity among the barbarians often struggled for its very existence, but when Wulfila was just a boy, Christianity was thriving in Syrian Antioch.
In two weeks, Ammosius returns to his home. After worship that evening, Wulfila asks, ‘Father, are you going to tell me why you went to Antioch now?’
‘Yes son.’ He leans behind the chair and brings out his gift from Antioch. Wulfila’s eyes are wide as Ammosius hands it to his son.
‘This is for you my son, from your mother and me.’
Wulfila can hardly believe his eyes. It is a New Testament Bible.
‘Oh father... Mother… Is it for me?’
‘Yes son. It is your very own Bible.’
‘It must have cost a lot of money. It is very precious. Thank you so much.’
‘Now son, I want to remind you that most of the Goths are pagans and they do not understand the value of God’s Book, so I would not speak of it to your friends. It is between us as a family that you have a Bible. Do you understand son?’
‘Yes father, but one day I want to teach them.’
‘Yes, I understand that, but when you are older. Now is the time for you to learn.’
‘Oh yes and I will learn. We can read the Bible for our worship and you can teach me what it means.’
‘Son’ says Ammosius, ‘we are going to allow you to learn from Theophilus the Scythian who is staying in Dacia for some time.’
Wulfila is excited. ‘Oh thank you my father. And Mama, thank you.’
After some years learning from Theophilus, Wulfila’s parents send him to Constantinople to learn from Auxentius, an Arian bishop. The young lad bids goodbye to his dear parents and heads for the big city. 6
Now that he is in the world of learning, Wulfila decides to use the Latin form of his name Ulfila, rather than his Gothic name Wulfila, meaning ‘little wolf.’ 7
Ulfila learns much as he travels. He meets many people. One name he hears everywhere is ‘Arius’. People are talking about him and his banishment. Many want to know what he believes and why he was banished.
On his arrival in Constantinople, Ulfila is introduced to Auxentius II, the Arian bishop of Dorostorus. He will be his teacher for Bible and Latin. 8
Many years later, Ulfila wrote of Auxentius, “A man whom I am not competent to praise according to his merit, yet altogether keep silent I dare not. One to whom I, most of all men, am a debtor, even as he bestowed more labour upon me. For from my earliest years he received me from my parents to be his disciple, taught me the sacred writings and manifested to me the truth… and both physically and spiritually brought me up as his son in the faith.” 9
Auxentius spoke of Ulfila as his ‘foster son’ and disciple, and “verily a confessor of Christ, a teacher of piety and a preacher of truth”. Ulfila had become a man who never hesitated to preach the gospel to people of all ranks, even in dangerous circumstances. 10
One day Ulfila met Eusebius of Nicomedia who related to him the proceedings of the council at Nicaea. Ulfila had his own thoughts on the two controversial words, and told Eusebius he believed that neither homoousios or homoiousios should be used to describe the relationship between God the Father and His Son.
For some years Ulfila was a lector (reader) in the church at Constantinople. In AD341, when he was 30, Ulfila was ordained by Eusebius of Nicomedia as ‘bishop of the Gothlands’. 11
Constantius then commissioned him to travel to Dacia as a missionary to the Goths. It was the work he had longed to do. His parents had since passed away, but the Goths were still in great need of the gospel of Christ. 12
Ulfila worked successfully for seven years among the Gothic people until an impious overlord by the name of Athanaric came into leadership. He was an “irreligiosus et sacrilegus judex”, who began a cruel persecution. “Satan”, as Auxentius put it, “was eager to work mischief”. 13
Ulfila fled for his life. Many of his Gothic converts gave their lives in martyrdom, but others were able to flee with their leader. He “sought and obtained leave from the Emperor Constantius to move his flock across the Danube and settle with them in Moesia.” 14
While living at the foot of Mount Haemus in Moesia, Ulfila’s missionary work continued among the Goths. It was an opportunity to share Jesus north of the Danube.
Realising the need for a Bible, Ulfila made a decision to form a Gothic alphabet and translate the Bible into the Gothic language.
Being a man of action, he took up the work with zeal, reducing Gothic sounds to writing. Being fluent in Greek, Latin and Gothic made the task relatively easy. Only a few letters needed to be borrowed from other sources, such as Latin or Runic. He devised a new alphabet to capture accurately the sounds of spoken Gothic, using a total of twenty-seven letters adapted from examples in the Greek and Roman alphabets.15
Ulfila translated all the books of the Bible, except the two books of Kings. He thought the narratives of military exploits would not help a people who were especially fond of war. 16
The Old Testament was translated from the Greek Septuagint and the New Testament from Lucian’s Greek text.
Ulfila’s Bible became a bond for the Gothic people. It was the first book in the Gothic language, the earliest in a Germanic language, predating the Latin Vulgate by decades.
Going back to Dacia in AD348, Ulfila continued his work to bring the Goths to Christ. 17
In AD360, Ulfila was summoned by Emperor Constantius to the Council of Constantinople as a delegate. The council brought forward a compromise creed that included both the Nicene and Arian formulas, but it was refused by those who were strong on both sides. 18
In AD370, a new persecution broke out and many Gothic converts fled to the Roman Empire, where the Arian Emperor Valens protected them. Shortly after, a Gothic chief by the name of Frithigern became an Arian Christian. His whole tribe followed his example and accepted Christ. Sometime later, Athanaric himself was won to the Lord. 19
Ulfila taught the Scriptures with gladness, “giving thanks to God the Father through Christ.” He impressed upon the Gothic people a simple, democratic Christianity. 20
“It was a brave, simple-hearted people, panting for the treasure, the comfort, and the secure sustenance to be found only within the Roman Empire. To them Christianity came with winning grace, with gifts in her hand of knowledge of power and of peace.” 21
The Goths were won to the gospel in a relatively short time, not by the persuasion of Rome, but by one dedicated man. “While the church at Rome was grasping after secular power, these churches among the Goths were alive with missionary zeal.” 22
Not only did Ulfila teach them the relationship of Christ to His Father, but he taught them pious living, pointing them to Jesus as their example. The greatest struggle for the Goths was not their idolatry, but their war-like tempers. 23
But Christ won the victory and their change of character became evident.
Athanasius mentions in his history that both Scythians and Goths who received the gospel of Christ, “changed their lives” and “abandoned cruelty and massacre. Even wars they no longer loved, but had betaken themselves to peaceful pursuits, and the hands that had grasped the sword they now stretched out in prayer. Nay, so strong was their faith, they even despised death, and some of them had already become martyrs for Christ.” 24
The change was evident when Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome. He gave orders that fire was not to be applied to any of the buildings and the right of asylum would be respected.
Augustine, the well-known Catholic scholar and missionary, wrote that this was “contrary to all custom of war in previous wars”, and it was honourably observed. Even the heathen took advantage of the asylum in the churches.
On one occasion, a soldier burst into a house and found an aged nun in charge of the great sacred vessels of the church of St Peter and St Paul. Amazed at the value of his discovery, but warned by their guardian that to lay hands on them would be at his peril, he sent word to Alaric.
The Gothic chief dispatched at once an escort of soldiers by whom the vessels were protected as they were transferred across the city to the place of asylum. The gold and silver vessels were borne on the shoulders of men, the Gothic escort closed in on either side and behind. The city rang with the shouts and chants of the Christians and pagans who followed in the procession. 25
We might say war, conquest, and plunder should have been shunned by a Christian people, but an ancient historian states that this is “a shallow criticism”, as it was impossible not to do so in ancient history. Instead, “the spirit of the early savagery should be weighed against the testimony of changed lives and modified behaviour in the Gothic war-tempered soldiery.” 26
Historians note that when “the Goths poured over Italy and even captured Rome, they came as Christian people, reverencing and sparing churches, and abstaining from those barbarities that accompanied the invasion of Britain by the heathen Saxon.” 27
It is apparent that the Gothic Church in Gaul had a well-developed organisation, “providing for its adherents throughout the kingdom, the offices and ministers of a regularly established Christian Church…
And while the Arian Church thus strove to present itself as highly organised and as efficient for ministering to its adherents… it did not neglect opportunities for propagating its tenets among the neighbouring peoples.” 28
The gospel was carried from Goth to Goth, from Goth to Suevi and from Suevi to others. When large numbers of Huns crossed the Danube into the Empire, “Ulfila’s Arian Gauls with their Gothic Bibles were prepared to convert the Gothic newcomers, who now included not only a few remaining Visigoths, but the Ostrogoths, Vandals and Gepids as well.” 29
One antagonist wrote, “Sidonius reports having seen one Modaharius ‘brandishing darts of heresy’, working as a missionary of the Arians among the Burgundians.” 30
The acceptance of the gospel by the Goths was not only an outward profession. They transmitted the Faith and the form together to their brethren the Ostrogoths, to the Vandals, and other Teutonic tribes, as well as their own posterity.
“Moreover, rather than abandon the form, they sacrificed opportunities such as were offered to no other barbarian race, foredoomed themselves to failure in the noblest and most patient struggles to invigorate the effete (worn out) Roman race and decaying Empire, and accepted the ruin of one kingdom after another, though it had been erected with an infinitude of patience.” 31
There are a few names we remember from the barbarian history of Europe – Attila the Hun, Alaric the Visigoth, Odoacer the Heruli, Genseric the Vandal, Theodoric the Ostrogoth. We know them by achievements as kings, chieftains, generals and conquerors.
But one name is remembered for standing on a different foundation – the Word of God – Ulfila, the Goth.
His translation of the Bible has been of inestimable value to scholars. A few chapters of his Old Testament are still in existence. Of the New Testament, the greater portion of the gospels have been maintained in the beautiful Silver Codex, a purple vellum with silver and gold letters. Of the 336 leaves, only 188 remain.
With the exception of one leaf, discovered in 1970 in the cathedral of Speyer in Germany, the Silver Codex, known as Codex Argenteus, is preserved at the university library of Uppsala Sweden. 32 Another is the Codex Carolinus, discovered in the library of Wolfenbuttel in 1756; published in 1762-63.
Fragments of five codices were discovered in the Ambrosian library at Milan by Angelo Mai, and published in 1819-38. These are Ulfila’s translations of Paul’s epistles. 33
Scholars frequently refer to Gothic words gleaned from Codex Argenteus when describing the cultural and social structure of the early Goths. Without Ulfila’s work, scholars would know far less about them.” 34
In AD381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople by the Emperor. A dispute was taking place among the Arians. Ulfila was asked to meet with those involved and either by argument or influence to induce them to surrender their opinions to dispel the dispute.
Ulfila set out for Constantinople, but on reaching the city, he became sick. He had worked tirelessly as a missionary for 40 years and his body was tired.
Within a few days Ulfila died at the age of 70. 35 His profession of faith was placed on his tombstone.
“I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord; I believe in one God the Father, the only unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like Him [so that one alone among all beings is God the Father, who is also the God of our God]; and in one Holy Spirit, the illumining and sanctifying power, as Christ said after his resurrection to his apostles: ‘And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be clothed with power from on high’ [Luke 24:49] and again "But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you" [Acts 1:8]; being neither God [the Father] nor our God [Christ], but the minister of Christ... subject and obedient in all things to the Son; and the Son, subject and obedient in all things to God who is his Father... [whom] he ordained in the Holy Spirit through his Christ.” 36
This is the Faith taught by Ulfila to the Gothic people.
When considering the life of Ulfila, the Catholic Encyclopaedia stated, “Had he not sided with the losing party in the crucial theological controversy of his day, Ulfilas would certainly have been known as one of the greatest saints in history.” 37
Again from another Catholic source, “Had Arianism won out, Wulfila… would most certainly have been canonized as a leading saint and would be celebrated today as one of the giants of Christian history. That his name has survived at all, witnesses to the stature of the man and his contribution.” 38
Sadly, neither history nor tradition has done justice to Ulfila or the Gothic people.
“Their enemies are their chroniclers. Their own records have perished. Yet, when all the shreds of information regarding them are pieced together, even in the poor tapestry that results, we see indubitable marks of greatness, the indelible qualities of race. We see in a marked degree the presence of vitality, of tenaciousness, and the power of initiative.
These three qualities reveal themselves conspicuously, as in the race, so in the representative man. Two great monuments of Gothic history are the memory of Ulfilas, and the fragments of his book.” 39
At various times in the fourth and fifth centuries, Gaul was predominantly Arian with Suevi, Visigoths, Lombards, and Burgundians; Italy was largely Arian with the Ostrogoths; Spain was Arian with the Visigoths; and north Africa was Arian with the Vandals.
Three of the ten tribes were not Arians. The Franks became Catholic under Clovis. Many years later the Alemanni became Celtic Christians until they converted to Catholicism. The Saxons were won to the Catholic faith by Augustine.
Of the seven Arian tribes, the Visigoths, the Suevi, the Burgundians and the Lombards were won to the Catholic Faith, either by persuasion or force. The remaining three were cut off without giving up their Faith – the Heruli, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths.
Today the map of Europe bears no trace of the Christianity they stood for, yet for two centuries they professed the Christian Faith. The evidence that there ever was a church among the barbarians is almost gone, except for fragments scattered among the writings of their enemies.
In the book ‘Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed’, the editors stated, “One of the major stumbling blocks in an attempt to get a better understanding of Arianism, its emergence and subsequent formation, is the nature and character of our evidence, which is extremely fragmentary and biased.
Although Arian authors produced numerous theological treatises and biblical commentaries, in which they displayed their uncompromised theological stance, not a single complete Arian tract from the fourth century came down to us. All that survives of this wave of Arian creativity is a pile of fragments, and a plethora of biased (and in many respects intentionally twisted) citations in the works of orthodox polemicists.
As often happens with heresies and unorthodox beliefs, our knowledge of Arian theology derives almost exclusively from the writings of orthodox figures, such as Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, and several less familiar anti-Arian authors, all of whom wrote ferociously and spitefully against a belief they deemed heretical…” 40
Catholic writer David New, put it this way. “Because the Catholic version of Christianity eventually won out, wherever possible all traces of the Arian ‘heresy’ were erased from memory. History was rewritten to Catholic advantage, for history – the power of the pen – belongs to the victor. Arian literature was searched out and destroyed…” 41
Today the barbarians, together with all the martyrs of history, are crying, “How long, O Lord….”
The answer is given lovingly by Jesus.
“Rest yet a little while…”
Their blood remains unavenged, but they are not forgotten. A loving God has their pain and suffering recorded in His books of record, and everything will receive its just reward.
Other persecutions must take place, and other martyrdoms.
“Rest”, says the Saviour, “until your fellow servants also and your brethren are killed as you were…” 42 Revelation 6:11.