There are three important versions of the Life of St. Paul: (1) the Latin version ( H ) of St. Jerome ; (2) a Greek version ( b ), much shorter than the Latin; (3) a Greek version ( a ), which is either a translation of H or an amplification of b by means of H . The question is whether H or b is the original. Both a and b were published for the first time by Bidez in 1900 ("Deux versions grecques inédites de la vie des s. Paul de Thébes", Ghent ). Bidez maintains that H was the original Life. This view has been attacked by Nau, who makes b the original in the "Analect. Bolland." of 1901 (XX, 121-157). The Life, minor details excepted, is the same in other versions.
When a young man of sixteen Paul fled into the desert of the Thebaid during the Decian persecution. He lived in a cave in the mountain-side till he was one-hundred-and-thirteen. The mountain, adds St. Jerome, was honeycombed with caves.
When he was ninety St. Anthony was tempted to vain-glory, thinking he was the first to dwell in the desert. In obedience to a vision he set forth to find his predecessor. On his road he met with a demon in the form of a centaur. Later on he spied a tiny old man with horns on his head. "Who are you?" asked Antony. "I am a corpse, one of those whom the heathen call satyrs, and by them were snared into idolatry." This is the Greek story ( b ) which makes both centaur and satyr unmistakably demons, one of which tries to terrify the saint, while the other acknowledges the overthrow of the gods. With St. Jerome the centaur may have been a demon ; and may also have been "one of those monsters of which the desert is so prolific." At all events he tries to show the saint the way. As for the satyr he is a harmless little mortal deputed by his brethren to ask the saint's blessing. One asks, on the supposition that the Greek is the original, why St. Jerome changes devils into centaurs and satyrs. It is not surprising that stories of St. Anthony meeting fabulous beasts in his mysterious journey should spring up among people with whom belief in such creatures lingered on, as belief in fairies does to the present day. The stories of the meeting of St. Paul and St. Anthony, the raven who brought them bread, St. Anthony being sent to fetch the cloak given him by "Athanasius the bishop " to bury St. Paul's body in, St. Paul's death before he returned, the grave dug by lions, are among the familiar legends of the Life. It only remains to add that belief in the existence of St. Paul seems to have existed quite independently of the Life.
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