Ulfilas bigraphy, stories - Bishop and theologian

Ulfilas : biography

310 – 383


Ulfilas, or Gothic Wulfila: little wolf (also Ulphilas. Orphila)Bennett, William H. An Introduction to the Gothic Language, p. 23. (ca. 310 – 383;), bishop, missionary, and Bible translator, was a Goth or half-Goth and half-Greek from Cappadocia 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 AthanaricMastrelli, Carlo A. Grammatica Gotica, p. 34. 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. 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, 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.http://www.goruma.de/Wissen/KunstundKultur/WelterbestaettenUNESCO/Unesco_Welterbestaetten_Deutschland/kaiser_mariendom_speyer.html According to Karl Lund (see Carolus Lundius, Zamolxis, Primus Getarum Legislator, Upsala 1687), Ulfilas created the Gothic alphabet based on the Getae’s alphabet, with minor alterations. Karl Lund 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.

Ulfilas parents were of non-Gothic Anatolian origin, likely Cappadocian, but had been enslaved by Goths and Ulfilas may have been born into captivity or made captive when young. Raised as a Goth, he later became proficient in the Greek and Latin languages. 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.


Wulfila Glacier on Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after Bishop Ulfilas.

Historical sources

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

  • Arian sources
    • Life of Ulphilas in the Letter of Auxentius
    • Remaining fragments of Historia Ecclesiastica by Philostorgius
  • Catholic 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 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.