How a fourth-century bishop preserved the most extensive text on Phoenician religion that has survived to this day

Naval action during the site of Tyre, painting by Andre Castaigne, 1899 photo public domain in Wikimedia Commons

It is shocking that from the people who invented the alphabet and by extension taught the world to write, the Phoenicians, nothing of their literature has reached us except three fragments of papyrus.

It is true that some 10,000 inscriptions in stone and fragments of ceramics are preserved, but no literary, historical or other work in Phoenician language survives. One of the possible reasons for this is that the Phoenicians wrote on papyrus or parchment, both perishable supports, and for some reason they were not as well preserved as those of other peoples such as the Egyptian.

Phoenician writers and works are known from quotations and mentions made by later Greek-Roman authors. Perhaps the most outstanding case is that of Sanchuniaton (in Phoenician 𐤎𐤊𐤍𐤉𐤕𐤍, SKNYTN, pronounced Sakun-yaton), author of three historical-mythological works that were translated into Greek and published by Philo of Byblos in the 1st century AD.

Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos (11th century BC), where the oldest inscription with Phoenician characters was found / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Philo’s translations did not survive either, but they are profusely quoted by an unsuspected fourth-century author: Eusebius of Caesarea, bishop and father of Christian history. He does so in his Praeparatio Evangelica in order to discredit the Phoenician religion, but the quotations are so extensive that by assembling the fragments it has been possible to reconstruct part of Sanchuniato’s original work. In such a way that they conform the most extensive text that we have on mythology and Phoenician religion.

Now, the historian of this subject is Sanchuniaton, an author of great antiquity, and older, as they say, than the Trojan times, of whom they give testimony of having been approved by the exactitude and the truth of their Phoenician history. Philo of Byblos, not the hebrew one, translated all his work from the Phoenician language into Greek, and published it.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica I-IX
Saint Eusebius of Caesarea resurrecting three people, painting by Rafael / photo José Luis Bernardes Ribeiro in Wikimedia Commons

As can be seen, Eusebius did not doubt the historical quality of Sanchuniaton’s text, but he used it to discredit Phoenician beliefs. In fact, his Praeparatio Evangelica, which is made up of 15 books, is made up of 71 percent quotations from other authors that serve the bishop to document his arguments.

According to Ignasi Vidiella, in his March 2016 lecture at the IV Ganimedes Congress of the University of Valencia, the criterion followed by Eusebius to cite the authors is the consideration they deserve him. Thus, he quotes Diodorus of Sicily, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Plato, and many others.

From Sanchuniaton points, quoting Porphyry:

Of the affairs of the Jews the truest history, the one most in keeping with their places and names, is that of Sanchuniathon of Beirut, who received the records of Hierombalos, the priest of the god Yeuo [Yahweh]; he dedicated his story to Abibalus, king of Beirut, and it was approved by him and by the investigators of truth in his time. Now, the times of these men fall even before the date of the Trojan War, and approach almost the times of Moses, as evidenced by the successions of the kings of Phoenicia. And Sanchuniathon, who made a complete collection of ancient history from the records of the various cities and temples, and wrote in Phoenician language with love of truth, lived in the reign of Semiramis, the queen of the Assyrians, who according to records lived before the war of Troy or at those same times .

Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica I-IX
Punic inscription / photo Habib M’henni in Wikimedia Commons

That Sanchuniaton had lived in the pre-Homeric era before the Trojan War seems unlikely, especially when he once quotes Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC. In fact, many modern experts thought that he might never have existed except as a mythological-legendary character, and it was even suggested that Philo of Byblos himself would have been the true author of the work, attributing it to an ancient writer in order to make it more credible.

Eusebius also quotes Philo himself:

Being these things so, Sanchuniaton, who was a man of much learning and great curiosity, and eager to know the oldest history of all nations since the creation of the world, searched with great care the history of Tauthus, knowing that of all men under the sun Tauthus was the first to think of the invention of letters, and began to write records; and laid the foundation of his history, so to speak, beginning with him, whom the Egyptians called Thoyt and the Alexandrian Thot, translated by the Greeks as Hermes.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica I-IX
Terracotta statue of the god Baal-Hammon / photo AlexanderVanLoon in Wikimedia Commons

But in 1952 the German theologian Otto Eissfeldt, a specialist in comparative religious history of the Middle East, demonstrated that the text incorporates Semitic elements backed by Ugaritic mythological texts excavated in Ras Shamra, Syria, since 1929.

The current consensus is that Sanchuniaton really existed and wrote his work between the times of Alexander the Great and the 1st century BC.

There are several editions that compile fragments of Sanchuniaton’s work taken from Eusebius. For the Praeparatio Evangelica we used the English translation of E.H.Gifford, which is in the public domain (see link in the sources). The fragments of Sanchuniaton are found mainly in book X.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 11, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo un obispo del siglo IV conservó el texto sobre religión fenicia más extenso que ha llegado a nuestros días


Praeparatio Evangelica (Eusebius of Cesarea) / Historiarum Phoeniciae (Sanchuniaton) / The Theology of the Phoenicians: from Sanchoniatho / Homero en la Praeparatio Euangelica de Eusebio de Cesarea (Ignasi Vidiella Puñet) / Wikipedia