Ulfilas (c. 311–383), also known as Ulphilas and Orphila, all Latinized forms of the Gothic 𐍅𐌿𐌻𐍆𐌹𐌻𐌰 Wulfila, literally "Little Wolf", was a Goth of Cappadocian Greek descent who served as a bishop and missionary, is credited with the translation of the Bible into the Gothic Bible, and participated in the Arian controversy. He developed the Gothic alphabet – inventing a writing system loosely based on a combination of a Runic alphabet and the Greek alphabet – in order for the Bible to be translated into the Gothic language. Although traditionally the translation of the Bible into the Gothic language has been ascribed to Ulfilas, analysis of the Gothic text indicates the involvement of a team of translators, possibly under his supervision.
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, after seven years as missionary, Ulfila was expelled from the Gothic region in order to escape religious persecution by a Gothic chief, probably Athanaric. This incident can certainly have a political nuance, probably the Goth saw Ulfilas's activity as a form of Roman infiltration. Ulfilas obtained permission from Constantius II to migrate with his flock of converts from Northern Danube to Moesia and settle near Nicopolis ad Istrum in modern northern Bulgaria. There, Ulfilas devised the Gothic alphabet and presided over the translation of the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language, which was performed by a group of translators. Fragments of the Gothic Bible 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 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.
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.