New College, University of Edinburgh

Apa Aphou: Scribal Error and a Doctrinal Dispute

At SBL last year, I attended a review session of Lincoln Blumell and Thomas Wayment’s helpful book, Christian Oxyrhynchus (Waco, Baylor University Press, 2015). During the discussion, someone mentioned that it was the first time The Life of Apa Aphou, Bishop of Pemje (= Oxyrhynchus) had ever been translated into English (they mention this on p. 641 as well). 

I had read The Life of Apa Aphou a couple months before and came across an interesting story about scribal error and heresy: 

Aphou was only a monk in Oxyrhynchus in 399 when Theophilus of Alexandria issued a festal letter that year. The letter no longer survives, but we do know that it was not received well by a number of monks due to the statement, “This image that we bear is not the image of God” (Blumell-Wayment, pp. 644–645). 

 In a vision, Aphou was commanded by an angel to travel to Alexandria to confront Theophilus about the statement. There, Aphou said to Theophilus, 

Let my lord Bishop command that the [original] copy of the sermon (ᵉmphison ᵉmptašeoeiš) be read to me in this place, because I heard an expression that was not in harmony with the Scriptures inspired by God. I did not believe that it had come from you, but I wondered if the scribes made a mistake (ᵉnta ᵉnsungrapheus šōfᵉt) when they wrote this thing on account of which a number of pious people have taken offense so that they are very troubled. (Blumell-Wayment, pp. 644–645) 

Two interesting things to note here: 

  1. Aphou first gave Theophilus the benefit of a doubt, assuming (hoping?) that the troublesome statement was a scribal mistake and not something that the archbishop himself intended to say.
  2. Aphou appealed to an authoritative copy of the sermon to prove whether or not Theophilus did indeed make the statement before engaging in a theological dispute. Whether or not Aphou referred to the original copy of the sermon could be debated, I suppose. The word used is the Greek loanword ἴσον, “equal”, but it can mean “copy.” Whether or not this copy is the original one, Aphou was clearly referring to an authoritative copy—one that was presumably free from (uncorrected) scribal error.


The story continues with the dispute between Aphou and Theophilus after it was clear that the controversial statement was not the result of scribal error. In the end, Theophilus admitted his error, reconciled with Aphou and sent a letter of retraction “throughout all the country” (p. 649). When the bishop of Oxyrhynchus died three years later, Theophilus himself insisted that the monk Aphou be ordained as the new bishop. 


Written by Elijah Hixson

  • CSCO Team,
  • 28th September 2017


  • John Bainbridge, 29th September 2017 at 7:24 am | Reply

    Very interesting!

    I’m not sure we can ever presume a completely error-free copy of a handwritten text (remember no two identical copies even of extant Scriptural manuscripts)

  • andy, 25th November 2020 at 9:32 pm | Reply

    This is indeed the first full translation, but Florovsky’s work also has a translation of a vast majority of the text. All the same it is extremely nice to have the whole thing at long last!

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