Ulfilas (c. 311–383), also known as Ulphilas and Orphila, all Latinized forms of the Gothic Wulfila, literally "Little Wolf", was a Goth of Cappadocian Greek descent who served as a bishop and missionary, translated the Bible, and participated in the Arian controversy. He developed the Gothic alphabet in order to translate the Bible sans Kings due to the war narratives he feared would entice the Goths, into the Gothic language.
Ulfilas' parents were of non-Gothic Cappadocian Greek origin but had been enslaved by Goths, and Ulfilas may have been born into captivity or made captive when young. Philostorgius, to whom we are indebted for much important information about Ulfilas, was a Cappadocian. He knew that the ancestors of Ulfilas had also come from Cappadocia, a region with which the Gothic community had always maintained close ties. Ulfilas's parents were captured by plundering Goths in the village of Sadagolthina in the city district of Parnassus and were carried off to Transdanubia. This supposedly took place in 264. Raised as a Goth, he later became proficient in both Greek and Latin. Ulfilas converted many among the Goths and preached an Arian Christianity, which, when they reached the western Mediterranean, set them apart from their orthodox neighbours and subjects.
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 Istrum in modern northern Bulgaria. There, Ulfilas translated the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language and devised the Gothic alphabet. Fragments of his translation have survived, notably the Codex Argenteus held since 1648 in the University Library of Uppsala in Sweden. A parchment page of this Bible was found in 1971 in the Speyer Cathedral.
According to 17th century scholar Carolus Lundius, Ulfilas created the Gothic alphabet based on the Getae's alphabet, with minor alterations. Carolus is quoting Bonaventura Vulcanius' book, De literis et lingua Getarum sive Gothorum, (Lyon, 1597) and Johannes Magnus, Gothus, Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus, Roma, 1554, a book in which it has been published, for the first time, both the Getic alphabet, and the laws of the Getae legislator Zamolxis.
There are five primary sources for the study of Ulfilas's life. Two are by Arian authors, three by Imperial Roman Church (Nicene Christianity) authors.
- Arian sources
- Life of Ulphilas in the Letter of Auxentius
- Remaining fragments of Historia Ecclesiastica by Philostorgius
- Nicene Christianity sources
- Historia Ecclesiastica by Sozomen
- Historia Ecclesiastica by Socrates Scholasticus
- Historia Ecclesiastica by Theodoret
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 seven 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. His death is dated from 383.
The accounts by the Imperial Church 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 and converted to Arianism only around 360 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 Ullingswick but also acknowledges the role of Fritigern.
For several reasons, modern scholars depend more heavily on the Arian accounts than the Imperial Church accounts. Auxentius was clearly the closest to Ulfilas and so presumably had access to more reliable information. The Nicene accounts differ too widely among themselves to present a unified case. Debate continues as to the best reconstruction of Ulfilas's life.
Creed of Ulfilas
The Creed of Ulfilas concludes a letter praising him written by his foster son and pupil Auxentius of Durostorum (modern Silistra) on the Danube, who became bishop of Milan. It distinguishes God the Father ("unbegotten") from God the Son ("only-begotten"), who was begotten before time and 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's letter, among other works, into the margins of one copy of Ambrose's De Fide; there are some gaps in the surviving text.
Wulfila Glacier on Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after Bishop Ulfilas.