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Ulfilas, or Gothic Wulfila (also Ulphilas. Orphila) (ca. 310 – 383;), bishop, missionary, and Bible translator, was a Goth or half-Goth who had spent time inside the Roman Empire at the peak of the Arian controversy. Ulfilas was ordained a bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his people to work as a missionary. In 348, to escape religious persecution by a Gothic chief, probably Athanaric he obtained permission from Constantius II to migrate with his flock of converts to Moesia and settle near Nicopolis ad Istrummarker, in what is now northern Bulgariamarker. There, Ulfilas translated the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language. For this he devised the Gothic alphabet.Socrates of Constantinople, Church History, book 4, chapter 33.
The Gothic alphabet was a modified Greek alphabet; see Wright, Joseph A Primer of the Gothic Language with Grammar, Notes, and Glossary, p. 2.
The most complete Gothic texts borrow elements from the Roman alphabet; see Bennett, William H. An Introduction to the Gothic Language, p. 126.

Fragments of his translation have survived, including the Codex Argenteus, in the University Library of Uppsalamarker in Swedenmarker.

A parchment page of this Bible was found in 1971 in the Speyer Cathedralmarker.

His parents were of non-Gothic Anatolian origin but had been enslaved by Goths on horseback. Ulfilas converted many among the Goths, preaching an Arian Christianity, which, when they reached the western Mediterranean, set them apart from their Orthodox neighbors and subjects.

Historical sources

There are five primary sources for the study of Ulfilas's life. Two are by Arian authors, three by Catholics.

There are significant differences between the stories presented by the two camps. The Arian sources depict Ulfilas as an Arian from childhood. He was then consecrated as a bishop around 340 and evangelized among the Goths for 7 years during the 340s. He then moved to Moesia (within the Roman Empire) under the protection of the Arian Emperor Constantius II. He later attended several councils and engaged in continuing religious debate. They date his death in 383.

The accounts by the Catholic historians differ in several details, but the general picture is similar. According to them, Ulfilas was an orthodox Christian for most of his early life. He was only converted to Arianism somewhere around 360, and then only because of political pressure from the pro-Arian ecclesiastical and governmental powers. The sources differ in how much they credit Ulfilas with the conversion of the Goths. Socrates Scholasticus gives Ulfilas a minor role, and instead attributes the mass conversion to the Gothic chieftain Fritigern, who adopted Arianism out of gratitude for the military support of the Arian emperor. Sozomen attributes the mass conversion primarily to Ulfilas, though he also acknowledges the role of Fritigern.

For several reasons, modern scholars depend more heavily on the Arian accounts than the Catholic accounts. Auxentius was clearly the closest to Ulfilas, and so presumably had access to more reliable information. The Catholic accounts differ too widely among themselves to present a unified case. Debate continues as to the best reconstruction of Ulfilas's life.

The Creed of Ulfilas

The creed of Ulfilas, which concludes a letter praising him written by his foster-son and pupil the Scythian Auxentius of Durostorum (modern Silistramarker) on the Danube, who became bishop of Milan, distinguishes God the Father ("unbegotten") from God the Son ("only-begotten"), who was begotten before time and who created the world, and the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son:

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 illuminating 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.

Maximinus, a 5th century Arian theologian, copied Auxentius' letter, among other works, into the margins of one copy of Ambrose's De Fide; there are some gaps in the surviving text.


Wulfila Glaciermarker on Greenwich Islandmarker in the South Shetland Islandsmarker, Antarcticamarker is named for Bishop Ulfilas.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Bennett, William H. An Introduction to the Gothic Language, p. 23.
  2. Mastrelli, Carlo A. Grammatica Gotica, p. 34.
  4. For an overview and evaluation of the historical sources, see Hagith Sivan, "Ulfila’s Own Conversion," Harvard Theological Review 89 (October 1996): pp. 373–86.
  5. Heather and Matthews, Goths in the Fourth Century, p. 143.
  6. Heather and Matthews, Goths in the Fourth Century, pp. 135-137.

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