Ulfilas Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Gothic Christian bishop{$I[g]Asia Minor;Ulfilas} An apostle to the Goths, Ulfilas developed an alphabet for the Gothic language and made the first Gothic translation of the Bible.{$IBible;Gothic} He was also instrumental in converting the Goths to Arianism, leading to conflicts once these peoples settled inside the predominantly Nicene Roman Empire.

Early Life

Not much is known about the early life of Ulfilas (UHL-fuh-las). Tradition has it that his grandparents were taken as slaves from Cappadocia into the Gothic settlements north of the Danube. This same tradition suggests that his father was a Goth. “Ulfilas” itself is a Gothic term meaning “little wolf.”

Ulfilas was fluent in three languages: Greek, Latin, and Gothic. He must have learned something of all three in his youth, for in 332 he was sent to Constantinople, perhaps as an emissary of the Goths to the Romans, or perhaps as a hostage to the court of the emperor Constantine. While there, Ulfilas either acquired or further developed his mastery of Greek and Latin. By the time he was thirty, he had risen to the position of lector, which required that he be able to read and speak in all three languages to the Gothic Christians inside the Empire.

The adult Ulfilas was an Arian rather than a Nicene Christian. When he embraced this position has been debated since antiquity. Orthodox and Arian historians alike tended to advance dates more important for their partisan positions than for their historical accuracy; modern scholars are convinced that it was around 330, during his time at the court of Constantine, since Arianism was the predominant theological position there. Whatever the accurate date, in 341, during the reign of the Emperor Constantius II, Ulfilas was consecrated a bishop by the Arian bishop Eusebius. He would spend the remaining forty years of his life as an apostle to the Goths.

Life’s Work

The Visigoths were a tribal people who, though nominally under a king, usually vested local control in the hands of “judges.” In the region where Ulfilas began his preaching, the local judge, Athanaric, was a pagan. After Ulfilas had been preaching for seven years, Athanaric began to persecute both Arian and Nicene Christians. The danger became so great that Ulfilas sought refuge inside the Empire on the near side of the Danube. The emperor at the time, Constantius, also an Arian, granted his request for asylum. Ulfilas and his band of followers settled in Moetia, in modern Bulgaria.

A second, more severe persecution followed, lasting from 369 to 373. Many more Arians fled to Ulfilas’s community. Apparently, Athanaric feared that Christianity was undermining the tribal nature of his society and threatening the old religion. If Ulfilas’s community is any example, this would certainly have been the case. They remained steadfastly loyal to Rome and devoutly Arian Christian even in the following century, when they refused to join the whole remaining body of the Visigoths who, fleeing the Huns, entered and subsequently looted the falling Roman Empire. Indeed, the community Ulfilas had founded in Moetia was still there in the middle of the sixth century when Jordanes, a Gothic historian, distinguished them from the other, more warlike Goths.

In the midst of the persecution of 368, a civil war erupted between Athanaric and another chieftain, Fritigern. Fritigern, at first defeated, sought Imperial assistance. The emperor Valens, an Arian, was prepared to assist; Fritigern, in return, was prepared to convert to Arian Christianity along with all of his followers. With Valens’s help, Athanaric was defeated. From his location on the Imperial side of the mountains, Ulfilas seems to have attempted to convert both peoples. In 376, when Fritigern’s Visigoths entered the Empire fleeing the Huns, Ulfilas is said to have accompanied his embassy to the emperor in order to plead their case.

Ulfilas’s specific activities in the remainder of his life are not well documented. That he was preaching and teaching the Goths and Romans in Moetia, and perhaps beyond, seems clear. Additionally, he must have devoted much of his time to developing the Gothic alphabet, which he used for his translation of the Greek Bible. He also must have instructed his followers in the use of the alphabet. Subsequently, his text was copied and disseminated among other Gothic groups. The only remaining copy of Ulfilas’s translation, a fragment of some 118 pages of the New Testament preserved at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, was made in Ostrogothic Italy about a century after Ulfilas’s death. It is known as the Codex Argenteus because its uncial letters are of silver on blue velum. A few additional manuscript fragments exist that bear a striking resemblance to the work of Ulfilas, but it is not possible to determine with certainty that they are his. Finally, there are later references to the text that include quotations from the Psalms as well as passages from Genesis. It was his intention to translate the entire Bible with the possible exception of the Book of Kings, which he said was too much about war for the Goths’ own good. In all likelihood, he completed the major portion of his work....

(The entire section is 2161 words.)