The persecution under Severus
1. When Severus, in his turn, was instigating persecution of the churches, the champions of true religion achieved glorious martyrdoms in every land. These were most numerous at Alexandria, to which, as to a huge arena, God’s noble champions were conducted from the whole of Egypt and the Thebaid. There, by their heroic endurance of every kind of torture and every form of death, they were wreathed with the crowns laid up with God. Among them was Leonides (usually referred to as the father of Origen), who was beheaded, leaving his son quite young. How devoted to the word of God Origen was from the start it will not be inappropriate to describe in brief, especially in view of the story about him that has received such wide publicity. 2. There would be a great deal to say if one tried to give a full-length account of his life in writing: the record of his doings would fill a whole book. However, for the present I shall cut down most parts of the story to the fewest possible words, and mention only a few features of his career. The facts here set forth are drawn from some of his letters and from the recollections of those of his friends who have lived on till my own time.
Origen’s boyhood training; his early success as a preacher
Origen’s story deserves, I think, to be told right from the cradle. It was the tenth year of Severus’ reign; the governor of Alexandria and the rest of Egypt was Laetus; and as archbishop of that province Julian had just been succeeded by Demetrius. When the flames of persecution were fanned to a great blaze and untold numbers were being wreathed with martyrs’ crowns, such a longing for martyrdom possessed the soul of Origen, boy as he was, that his one ambition was to come to grips with danger and charge headlong into the conflict. Indeed, he was within a hair’s breadth of arriving at the end of his days, when for the benefit of mankind the providence of Almighty God used his mother to defeat his ambition. She first appealed to him in words, begging him to spare his mother’s feelings for him; then, when the news that his father had been arrested and imprisoned filled his whole being with a craving for martyrdom, and she saw that he was more determined than ever, she hid all his clothing and compelled him to stay at home. He, in the grip of an ambition extraordinary in one so young, could not remain silent: he did the only thing possible, and sent his father a letter pressing him strongly on the subject of martyrdom, and advising him exactly in these words: ‘Mind you don’t change your mind on our account.’
This may serve as the first evidence of Origen’s boyish sagacity and the perfect sincerity of his devotion to God. For already he had laid firm foundations for the understanding of the Faith, trained as he was from early childhood in the divine Scriptures. He had toiled at these assiduously, his father insisting that in addition to the normal curriculum he should pursue the study of Holy Writ with equal vigour. He constantly urged him not to give any time to secular subjects till he had steeped himself in religious studies, and every day required him to learn passages by heart and repeat them aloud. This was not at all distasteful to the boy: indeed, he gave himself up too completely to these tasks and, not content to read the sacred words in their simple and natural sense, looked for something more, and young as he was devoted himself to profounder investigation; so that he worried his father with questions as to the meaning and intention that underlay the inspired Scripture. His father would make a show of scolding him to his face, advising him not to look for anything beyond his understanding, or any meaning other than the obvious one, but in private he was delighted and profoundly grateful to God, the Author of all good things, who had deemed him worthy to father such a son. It is said that often when the boy was asleep he would bend over him and bare his breast, and as if it was the temple of a divine spirit would kiss it reverently and count himself blest in his promising child. These stories and others like them are told of Origen as a boy.
But when his father had found fulfilment in martyrdom he was left destitute with his mother and as many as six younger brothers while still in his seventeenth year. His father’s property had been seized for the imperial treasury, so that he and the rest of his family now lacked even the necessities of life. But being deemed worthy of God’s loving care, he was received into the comfortable house of a lady who was extremely wealthy and very distinguished in other ways; she was, however, a devotee of a notorious heretic, one of those then flourishing at Alexandria. An Antiochene by birth, he was the adopted son of the lady in question, who kept him at her house and was utterly devoted to him. Origen could not help associating with him, but from the start he gave clear proofs of his doctrinal orthodoxy. Crowds of heretics, and of our own people too, might gather to hear Paul, as the man was called, because his arguments seemed so convincing: never once was Origen induced to join with him in prayer, keeping from his earliest years the rule of the Church and ‘abominating’ – the very word he uses somewhere himself – all heretical teachings. Thanks to his father, he had made good progress in secular subjects: after his father’s death he devoted himself entirely and with growing enthusiasm to the humanities, so that he acquired considerable ability as a literary man; in fact, his father had not long found fulfilment, before his devotion to these studies enabled him to enjoy a standard of life beyond the means of most young men.
3. So while Origen devoted himself to teaching, since at Alexandria there was no one dedicated to elementary Christian teaching (as they had all fled the threatened persecution), he was approached by some pagans who wished to hear the word of God. Of these the first to be named is Plutarch, whose noble life was crowned with divine martyrdom. The second was Plutarch’s brother Heraclas, who by his own efforts furnished a remarkable example of the philosophic life and discipline, and was chosen Bishop of Alexandria in succession to Demetrius. Origen was seventeen when he became principal of the school of elementary instruction: at the same period he came to the fore during the persecutions under Aquila the governor of Alexandria, when he won a resounding reputation among all adherents of the Faith by his eagerness to lend a helping hand to all the holy martyrs, known or unknown. For not only when they were in prison, or were being cross-examined, up to the final sentence, but even when they were afterwards led away to execution, he was at the side of the holy martyrs, displaying astonishing fearlessness and meeting danger face to face. As he boldly approached and fearlessly greeted the martyrs with a kiss, again and again the maddened crowd of pagans that surrounded him were on the point of stoning him, had he not found the right hand of God ever ready to help him, so that he escaped when it seemed impossible.
The same divine and heavenly grace protected him again and again on other occasions too many to count; for because of his fearlessness and extreme enthusiasm for the word of Christ he was at that time the target of plotters. So bitter was the hostility of unbelievers to him that they actually collected groups of soldiers and posted them round the house where he was living, because of the number of those whom he was instructing in the rudiments of the Holy Faith. Thus the persecution directed against him grew daily hotter, so that there no longer was room for him anywhere in the city. He moved from house to house, driven from pillar to post, in revenge for the number of those whom he had brought to hear his religious teaching. For in a quite amazing way his actions displayed to the full the fruits of the most genuine philosophy. His deeds matched his words, as the saying goes, and his words his deeds. That was the chief reason why, aided by the power of God, he led men in thousands to share his enthusiasm.
Responsibility for elementary instruction had been entrusted by Demetrius, prelate of the church, to Origen alone, who soon saw pupils coming to him in increasing numbers. He decided, however, that the teaching of literature did not harmonize with training in theology, and promptly broke off his lectures on literature, as useless and a hindrance to sacred studies. Then, with the worthy object of making himself independent of other people’s assistance, he parted with all the volumes of ancient literature which had hitherto been his most cherished possessions, and if the purchaser brought him four obols a day he was satisfied.
For very many years he persisted in this philosophic way of life, putting away from him all inducements to youthful lusts, and at all times of the day disciplining himself by performing strenuous tasks, while he devoted most of the night to the study of Holy Scripture. He went to the limit in practising a life given up to philosophy; sometimes he trained himself by periods of fasting, sometimes by restricting the hours of sleep, which he insisted on taking never in bed, always on the floor. Above all, he felt that he must keep the gospel sayings of the Saviour urging us not to carry two coats or wear shoes1 and never to be worried by anxiety about the future.2 He displayed an enthusiasm beyond his years, and patiently enduring cold and nakedness went to the furthest limit of poverty, to the utter amazement of his pupils and the distress of the countless friends who begged him to share their possessions in recognition of the labours that they saw him bestow on his religious teaching. Not once did his determination weaken; it is said that for several years he went about on foot without any shoes at all, and for a much longer period abstained from wine and all else beyond the minimum of food, so that he ran the risk of upsetting and even ruining his constitution.
Pupils who became martyrs; Potamiaena
By setting such an example of the philosophic life to those who saw him he naturally kindled a similar enthusiasm in many of his pupils, so that even among pagan unbelievers and those who had been to schools and colleges there were persons of distinction who were won over by his teaching. Thanks to him, men like this with all their heart honestly embraced faith in the word of God, and came into prominence in the persecution that broke out at that time, some of them being arrested and finding fulfilment in martyrdom.
4. The first of these was Plutarch, to whom I referred a little while ago. As he was on the way to execution, the subject of these pages stayed with him to the end, and again barely escaped lynching at the hands of the martyr’s fellow-citizens, as being obviously to blame for his death, but on that occasion, too, God’s will kept him safe. After Plutarch, the second of Origen’s pupils to be revealed as a martyr was Serenus, who gave proof by fire of the faith he had received. From the same school the third to be martyred was Heraclides, who was still under instruction, and the fourth Hero, lately baptized: both were beheaded. In addition to these, a fifth member of the school was proclaimed a champion of true religion: a second Serenus, who – after showing the greatest patience under torture – died, there is reason to believe, under the axe. Of the women, Herais – still under instruction – received, as Origen himself records somewhere, the baptism of fire, and so departed this life.
5. Seventh among them must be reckoned Basilides, who led the renowned Potamiaena to execution. The praises of this woman are even today loudly sung by her own people. Endless the struggle that in defence of her chastity and virginity, which were beyond reproach, she maintained against lovers, for her beauty – of body as of mind – was in full flower. Endless her sufferings, till after tortures too horrible to describe she and her mother Marcella found fulfilment in fire. It is said that the judge, Aquila, subjected her whole body to dreadful agonies, and finally threatened to hand her over to the gladiators for bodily insult. She reflected for a moment, and when asked what she intended to do, gave an answer which offended their religious prejudices. She had hardly spoken when she heard sentence pronounced, and Basilides, a member of the armed forces, seized her arm and led her away to execution. As the crowd tried to plague her and insult her with obscene jests, Basilides thrust them back and drove them away, showing the utmost pity and kindness towards her. Potamiaena accepted his sympathy for her and gave him encouragement: when she had gone away she would ask her Lord for him, and it would not be long before she repaid him for all he had done for her. This said, she faced her end with noble courage – slowly, drop by drop, boiling pitch was poured over different parts of her body, from her toes to the crown of her head. Such was the battle won by this splendid girl.
Not long afterwards Basilides was for some reason asked by his fellow-soldiers to take an oath, but he insisted that he was unable to swear in any circumstances,1 as he was a Christian and made no secret of the fact. At first they thought he was joking, but when he stuck doggedly to his assertion he was brought before the magistrate, who, as he made no attempt to hide his convictions, committed him to prison. When his brothers in God visited him and asked the reason for this amazing impulse and determination, he is said to have declared that three days after her martyrdom Potamiaena stood before him in the night, put a wreath about his head, and said that she had prayed for him to the Lord, had obtained her request, and before long would place him by her side. At this the brethren bestowed on him the seal of the Lord,2 and the next day, nobly witnessing for his Lord, he was beheaded. The records state that at this period many other citizens of Alexandria accepted the teaching of Christ in a body, as Potamiaena appeared to them in dreams and called them.
Clement of Alexandria: Jude the author
6. Pantaenus was succeeded by Clement, who remained principal of the school of instruction at Alexandria long enough to include Origen among his pupils. Observe that when he put together his Miscellanies, Clement set out a chronological table in Volume 1, making the death of Commodus a key date. It is clear then that he composed the work in the reign of Severus, whose times are the subject of these pages.
7. At the same period Jude, another author, wrote a treatise on Daniel’s seventy weeks, bringing his account to an end in the tenth year of Severus. He believed that the much talked-of advent of antichrist would take place at any moment – so completely had the persecution set in motion against us at that time thrown many off their balance.
Origen’s headstrong act
8. About the same time, while responsible for the instruction at Alexandria, Origen did a thing that provided the fullest proof of a mind youthful and immature, but at the same time of faith and self-mastery. The saying ‘there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’ he took in an absurdly literal sense, and he was eager both to fulfil the Saviour’s words and at the same time to rule out any suspicion of vile imputations on the part of unbelievers. For in spite of his youth he discussed religious problems before a mixed audience. So he lost no time in carrying out the Saviour’s words, endeavouring to do it unnoticed by the bulk of his pupils. But however much he might wish it, he could not possibly conceal such an act, and it was not long before it came to the knowledge of Demetrius, as head of the diocese. He was amazed at Origen’s headstrong act, but approving his enthusiasm and the genuineness of his faith he told him not to worry, and urged him to devote himself more keenly than ever to the work of instruction.
That was the line he took at the time, but when a little later the same worthy saw him prosperous, great, eminent, and universally esteemed, he yielded to human weakness and wrote to the bishops throughout the world in an attempt to make Origen’s action appear outrageous, just when the most respected and outstanding bishops of Palestine, those of Caesarea and Jerusalem, judged him worthy of position in the Church and of the highest honour, and ordained him presbyter. As he had thus attained to a great name and reputation, and everyone everywhere esteemed him highly for his virtues and wisdom, Demetrius, for want of any other charge to bring against him, slandered him viciously for what he had done years before as a boy, and even dared to extend his accusations to those who had advanced him to the presbyterate.
This incident occurred somewhat later. At the time we are speaking of, Origen was busy at Alexandria with the work of imparting religious knowledge to all without exception who came to him, night and day, and devoted the whole of his time unsparingly to religious teaching and the demands of his pupils.
Narcissus and Alexander
After eighteen years as master of the Empire, Severus was succeeded by his son Antoninus.1 It was at this time that Alexander – one of those who faced persecution so manfully and openly confessed the Faith, yet by the providence of God were kept safe – was rewarded for his bold confessions of Christ by being appointed Bishop of the Jerusalem church, mentioned a few pages back. The appointment was made while his predecessor Narcissus was still alive.
9. Many stories of miracles wrought by Narcissus, handed down by generations of Christians, are told by members of the community. Among these they narrate the following tale of wonder. Once during the great all-night-long vigil of Easter, the deacons ran out of oil. The whole congregation was deeply distressed, so Narcissus told those responsible for the lights to draw water and bring it to him, and they obeyed him instantly. Then he said a prayer over the water, and instructed them to pour it into the lamps with absolute faith in the Lord. They again obeyed him, and, in defiance of natural law, by the miraculous power of God the substance of the liquid was physically changed from water into oil. All the years from that day to our own a large body of Christians there have preserved a little of it, as proof of that wonderful event.
Among the many interesting anecdotes from the life of Narcissus is recorded the following. His energy and conscientiousness were more than some insignificant nonentities could bear. Knowing themselves guilty of a long series of misdemeanours, they were afraid that conviction and punishment awaited them. To avoid this, they devised an intrigue against him and smirched him with a horrid slander. Then, to convince their hearers, they bolstered up their accusations with oaths. One swore: ‘If it isn’t true, may I be burnt to death!’ Another: ‘May my body be wasted by a foul disease!’ A third: ‘May I lose my sight!’ But no amount of swearing made any of the faithful take any notice, for no one could fail to see the unshakeable integrity and blameless character of Narcissus. But he himself was greatly distressed by their dastardly allegations, and in addition he had long ago embraced the philosophic life; so, turning his back on the church community, he fled into a remote and desert area, where he remained in hiding for many years. However, the great eye of Justice did not remain unmoved by these events, but very soon brought upon those perjured scoundrels the curses with which they had bound themselves. The first saw the house which he occupied ablaze from top to bottom for no other cause whatever than a tiny spark that settled on the roof in the night, and he and all his family were burnt to ashes; the second felt his entire body from head to toe permeated by the very disease he had named as his penalty; the third, seeing the fate of the others and dreading the inescapable judgement of all-seeing God, publicly confessed his share in the intrigue, but in his remorse he wore himself out with so many lamentations, and poured out such a flood of tears, that he lost the sight of both eyes. Such was the price these men paid for their lies.
10. As Narcissus had withdrawn, and there was no knowledge of his whereabouts, the heads of the neighbouring churches decided to proceed to the appointment of a new bishop. Dius was his name. After a short time as prelate, he was followed by Germanion, and he by Gordius. In his time Narcissus appeared from nowhere, as if restored to life, and was invited by the brethren to resume his prelateship, for he was admired by all even more than before because of his withdrawal and philosophic life – above all because of the judgement by which God had vindicated him.
11. When he had reached such an advanced age that he could no longer carry out his duties, the Alexander already mentioned, then holder of another bishopric, by the providence of God was summoned to share the duties with Narcissus, by means of a revelation given to him at night in a vision. Thereupon, as if in accordance with an oracle, he journeyed from Cappadocia, his original see, to Jerusalem, in order to worship there and to examine the historic sites. The Christian community welcomed him most warmly and would not let him return home again, for they, too, had received a revelation in the night, proclaiming a single unambiguous message to the most devout among them. It bade them go outside the city gates to welcome the man already chosen by God to be their bishop. This done, they forced him to remain, with the unanimous approval of the bishops who had charge of the churches round about. Alexander himself, in a personal letter to the Antinoites, which is still in my possession, mentions Narcissus as sharing the episcopal throne with him, using these exact words at the end of the letter:
Narcissus, who preceded me as bishop of this diocese, and now at the age of 116 shares my responsibility for public worship, wishes to be remembered to you. He is as anxious as I am that you should agree among yourselves.
Serapion and his extant works
Turning now to Antioch, we note that when Serapion entered into rest he was succeeded as bishop by Asclepiades, who confessed his Lord with equal boldness during the persecution. His appointment, too, is mentioned by Alexander in a letter to the Antiochenes:
Alexander, a servant and prisoner of Jesus Christ, to the blessed church of Antioch, greeting in the Lord. The Lord made my fetters light and easy to bear, when news reached me in my cell that by God’s providence the bishopric of your holy church of Antioch had been entrusted to Asclepiades, an excellent choice in view of his wonderful faith.
This letter was conveyed by Clement, as is shown by the final sentences:
I am sending you these lines, my dear brothers, by Clement the blessed presbyter, whom you have already heard of and will now get to know. The providence of the Master has so ordered it that during his stay with us this virtuous and estimable man has both strengthened and enlarged the Church of the Lord.
12. It is probable that other short works from Serapion’s pen are in the keeping of other people: none has come into my hands but those addressed to Domnus, a man who at the time of the persecution had fallen away from faith in Christ to Jewish will-worship,1and to the churchmen of Pontius and Caricus, together with letters to other people and a pamphlet of his composition entitled The So-Called Gospel of Peter. This he wrote to refute the lies in that document, which had induced some members of the Christian community at Rhossus to go astray into heterodox teachings. It will be worth while to quote from this work a few sentences which explain his attitude to the book:
We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. When I visited you, I assumed that you all clung to the true Faith; so without going through the ‘gospel’ alleged by them to be Peter’s, I said: ‘If this is the only thing that apparently puts childish notions into your heads, read it by all means.’ But as, from information received, I now know that their mind had been ensnared by some heresy, I will make every effort to visit you again; so expect me in the near future. It was obvious to me what kind of heresy Marcian upheld, though he contradicted himself through not knowing what he was talking about, as you will gather from this letter. But others have studied this same ‘gospel’, viz. the successors of those who originated it, known to us as Docetists and from whose teaching the ideas are mostly derived. With their comments in mind, I have been able to go through the book and draw the conclusion that while most of it accorded with the authentic teaching of the Saviour, some passages were spurious additions. These I am appending to my letter.
The works of Clement
13. Of Clement’s works the Miscellanies, all eight books, are in my possession, bearing the title he chose for them – Titus Flavius Clemens’ Miscellanies: Gnostic Publications in the Light of the True Philosophy. There are eight volumes again of the work he entitled Outlines, in which he names Pantaenus as his teacher. In these he has expounded his own interpretations of Scripture alongside the traditional. There is also a work of his addressed to the Greeks – the Exhortation; the three volumes of the work entitled The Tutor; The Rich Man who finds Salvation, as another work of his is entitled; the monograph on The Easter Festival; the discourses on Fasting and on Slander; the Exhortation to Patience, or For the Newly Baptized; and the work entitled Canon of the Church, or An Answer to the Judaizers, dedicated to Alexander, the bishop already mentioned.
In the Miscellanies he has woven a tapestry combining Holy Writ with anything that he considered helpful in secular literature. He includes any view generally accepted, expounding those of Greeks and non-Greeks alike, and even correcting the false doctrines of the heresiarchs, and explains a great deal of history, providing us with a work of immense erudition. With all these strands he has blended the arguments of philosophers, so that the work completely justifies the title Miscellanies. In it he has made use also of evidence drawn from the Disputed Writings – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, the ‘Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach’, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and those of Barnabas, Clement, and Jude; and he refers to Tatian’s Against the Greeks and to Cassian, the compiler of another Chronological Record – also to Philo and Aristobulus, Josephus, Demetrius, and Eupolemus, Jewish authors whose writings all helped to prove that the first appearance of the Greeks did not go back as far as Moses and the Jewish people. Choice passages from many other writers fill the pages of this work. In Book 1 he shows that he himself was almost an immediate successor of the apostles: farther on he promises to write a commentary on Genesis.
In his work The Easter Festival he declares that his friends insisted on his transmitting to later generations in writing the oral traditions that had come down to him from the earliest authorities of the Church; he refers also to Melito, Irenaeus, and some others, whose statements he has reproduced.
14. In the Outlines, to put it briefly, he has summarized all canonical Scripture, even including the Disputed Books, namely the Epistle of Jude and the other Catholic Epistles, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the ‘Revelation of Peter’. The Epistle to the Hebrews he attributes to Paul, but says that it was written for Hebrews in their own language, and then accurately translated by Luke and published for Greek readers. Hence, in the Greek version of this epistle we find the same stylistic colour as in the Acts. The usual opening – ‘Paul, an apostle’ – was omitted, with good reason. As Clement says:
In writing to Hebrews already prejudiced against him and suspicious of him, he was far too sensible to put them off at the start by naming himself… Now, as the blessed presbyter1 used to say, the Lord, the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews; so through modesty Paul, knowing that he had been sent to the Gentiles, does not describe himself as an apostle of the Hebrews, first because he so reverenced the Lord, and secondly because he was going outside his province in writing to the Hebrews too, when he was an ambassador and apostle of the Gentiles.
In the same volumes Clement has found room for a tradition of the primitive authorities of the Church regarding the order of the gospels. It is this. He used to say that the earliest gospels were those containing the genealogies, while Mark’s originated as follows. When, at Rome, Peter had openly preached the word and by the spirit had proclaimed the gospel, the large audience urged Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been said, to write it all down. This he did, making his gospel available to all who wanted it. When Peter heard about this, he made no objection and gave no special encouragement. Last of all, aware that the physical facts had been recorded in the gospels, encouraged by his pupils and irresistibly moved by the Spirit, John wrote a spiritual gospel.
So much for Clement’s writings. Clement himself is mentioned, along with Pantaenus, in a letter to Origen written by the Alexander referred to above, who knew them both. He writes as follows:
This, as you know, is indeed God’s will, that the friendship we have inherited from our forebears should not wane, but rather grow warmer and more enduring. For we have found true fathers in those blessed ones who trod the road before us, with whom we shall soon be reunited – Pantaenus, my truly blessed friend, and holy Clement, my friend and helper, and others like them. Through them I came to know you, who are in every way my best friend and brother.
Origen’s labours on Holy Writ: Symmachus the translator
When Zephyrinus was head of the Roman church, Adamantius – hitherto referred to as Origen – states in one of his writings that he himself visited Rome, anxious, as he says, to see the ancient Roman church. After a short stay in Rome he went back to Alexandria and took up again with enthusiasm his work of instruction there, as the bishop of the diocese, Demetrius, still pressed and almost begged him to continue unabated his efforts to assist the brethren. 15. But he saw that he could not find time himself for the more profound study of theology and the scrutiny and translation of sacred documents if he continued to instruct those who came to him and allowed him no time to breathe, batch after batch thronging his school from dawn to dusk. He therefore divided them up, and picking out Heraclas from his pupils, a keen theologian and in addition very well informed and a promising philosopher, gave him a share in the instruction. The introductory lessons for the beginners he entrusted to Heraclas: the higher education of the advanced pupils he reserved to himself.
16. So meticulous was the scrutiny to which Origen subjected the Scriptural books that he even mastered the Hebrew language, and secured for himself a copy, in the actual Hebrew script, of the original documents circulating among the Jews. Moreover, he hunted out the published translations of Holy Writ other than the Septuagint, and in addition to the versions in common use – those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion – he discovered several alternative translations. These had been lost for many years – I don’t know where – but he hunted them out of their hiding-places and brought them to light. These were wrapped in mystery, and he had no idea who wrote them: the only thing he could say was that he had found one at Nicopolis near Actium and the other at some similar place. Anyway, in his Hexapla of the Psalms, after the four familiar versions he placed in parallel columns not only a fifth but a sixth and seventh translation; in the case of one, he has added a note that it was found at Jericho in a jar during the reign of Antoninus, the son of Severus. All these he combined in one volume, breaking them up into clauses and setting them side by side in parallel columns, along with the original Hebrew text. Thus he has left us the copies of the Hexapla, as it is called. In a separate publication he put the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion alongside the Septuagint, in his Tetrapla.
17. Of these translators it should be observed that Symmachus was an Ebionite. The adherents of what is known as the Ebionite heresy assert that Christ was the son of Joseph and Mary, and regard Him as no more than a man. They insist also that the law ought to be kept more in the Jewish manner, as I mentioned earlier in this history. Pamphlets also by Symmachus are still extant, in which he inveighs against the Gospel according to Matthew, apparently in order to bolster up his heresy. These, together with other comments on Scripture by Symmachus, Origen states that he received from a woman called Juliana, on whom, he says, Symmachus had himself bestowed them.
18. At the same period, Ambrose – who shared the heretical opinions of Valentinus – was refuted by the truth which Origen expounded, and, as if light had dawned on his mind, accepted the orthodox teaching of the Church. Many other educated people were so impressed by Origen’s universal renown that they came to his school to benefit by his skill in biblical exegesis; while innumer able heretics and a considerable number of the most eminent philosophers listened to him with close attention, as he instructed them not only in theology but to some extent in secular philosophy too, for he introduced any pupils in whom he detected natural ability to philosophic studies as well. First he taught them geometry, arithmetic, and the other preparatory subjects; then he led them on to the systems of the philosophers, discussing their published theories and examining and criticizing those of the different schools, with the result that the Greeks themselves acknowledged his greatness as a philosopher. He found time also to give many less gifted persons a general grounding, declaring that it would stand them in very good stead for the examination and study of Holy Writ. He therefore thought it most important that he himself should be skilled in secular and philosophic studies.
References to Origen
19. Testimony to his success in these endeavours is paid by the Greek philosophers who flourished in his time, in whose writings I have found many references to him. Sometimes they dedicated their works to him, sometimes they submitted their own labours to him, as to a master, for criticism. Far more significant is the case of Porphyry, who in my own time settled in Sicily and in an attempt to traduce the Holy Scriptures published a long treatise attacking us, in which he refers to those who have interpreted them. He finds it quite impossible to bring any damaging accusation against our doctrines, so for lack of arguments he turns to abuse and traduces the interpreters. His special target is Origen, whom he claims to have known as a young man and attempts to traduce, little knowing that he is actually commending him. When he cannot help it, he tells the truth; when he thinks he will not be found out, he tells lies. Sometimes he accuses him as a Christian, sometimes he enlarges on his addiction to philosophic studies. Listen to his actual words:
In their eagerness to find, not a way to reject the depravity of the Jewish Scriptures, but a means of explaining it away, they resorted to interpretations which cannot be reconciled or harmonized with those scriptures, and which provide not so much a defence of the original authors as a fulsome advertisement for the interpreters. ‘Enigmas’ is the pompous name they give to the perfectly plain statements of Moses, glorifying them as oracles full of hidden mysteries, and bewitching the critical faculty by their extravagant nonsense… This absurd method must be attributed to a man whom I met while I was still quite young, who enjoyed a great reputation and thanks to the works he has left behind him, enjoys it still. I refer to Origen, whose fame among teachers of these theories is widespread. He was a pupil of Ammonius, the most distinguished philosopher of our time. Theoretical knowledge in plenty he acquired with the help of his master, but in choosing the right way to live he went in the opposite direction. For Ammonius was a Christian, brought up in Christian ways by his parents, but when he began to think philosophically he promptly changed to a law-abiding way of life. Origen on the other hand, a Greek schooled in Greek thought, plunged headlong into un-Greek recklessness; immersed in this, he peddled himself and his skill in argument. In his life he behaved like a Christian, defying the law: in his metaphysical and theological ideas he played the Greek, giving a Greek twist to foreign tales. He associated himself at all times with Plato, and was at home among the writings of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes, Longinus, and Moderatus, Nicomachus, and the more eminent followers of Pythagoras. He made use, too, of the books of Chaeremon the Stoic and Cornutus, which taught him the allegorical method of interpreting the Greek mysteries, a method he applied to the Jewish Scriptures.
Such are the allegations made by Porphyry in the third book of his treatise against the Christians. He tells the truth about Origen’s teaching and wide learning, but plainly lies – for opponents of Christianity are quite unscrupulous – when he says that he came over from the Greek camp, and that Ammonius lapsed from the service of God into paganism. For Origen clung firmly to the Christian principles his parents had taught him, as this record has already shown; and Ammonius’ inspired philosophy remained pure and intact to the very end of his life. To this, surely, his literary labours bear witness, for the works that he bequeathed to posterity have won him a very wide reputation – for instance the book entitled The Harmony of Moses and Jesus, and the many other works treasured by discriminating readers.
These facts suffice to prove the untruthfulness of Origen’s calumniator and his own perfect familiarity with Greek learning. Defending himself against critics who condemned his pre-occupation with such studies, he writes thus in one of his letters:
When I was giving all my time to the word, accounts of my ability went about, and brought sometimes heretics, sometimes men who had been trained in Greek learning, particularly philosophy; so I decided to examine the notions of the heretics, and also the supposed qualifications of philosophers for speaking about truth. In doing this I followed in the footsteps of one who helped many before my time – Pantaenus, a real expert in these questions; and of one who now has a seat in the presbytery of Alexandria – Heraclas, whom I found with the director of philosophical studies. He had already stayed with him five years before I attended my first lecture on the subject, and because of him he put off the normal dress he had hitherto worn, and donned a philosopher’s garb, which he retains to this very day, while he devotes himself unceasingly and enthusiastically to the study of Greek literature.
That is what he says in defence of his Greek training. But at this period, when he was resident in Alexandria, one of the military arrived with letters from the ruler of Arabia to Demetrius, the bishop of the diocese, and to the governor of Egypt, asking them to send Origen at the earliest possible moment to confer with him. He did in fact visit Arabia, but he soon completed his business there and returned to Alexandria. Some time later a violent campaign blazed up in the city, so he slipped out of Alexandria and went to Palestine, where he settled in Caesarea. There he gave public lectures to the church on biblical exegesis, at the invitation of the bishops of the province, though not yet ordained to the presbyterate. The truth of this is evident from what Alexander and Theoctistus, bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea, in writing about Demetrius, say in their own defence:
He included in his letter a statement that it was an unheard-of, unprecedented thing that where bishops were present laymen should preach – a statement that is glaringly untrue. In cases where persons are found duly qualified to assist the clergy, they are called on by the holy bishops to preach to the laity; e.g. in Laranda, Euelpius; in Iconium, Paulinus; in Synnada, Theodore were called on respectively by Neon, Celsus, and Atticus, our blessed brother-bishops. Probably there are other places too where this happens, unknown to us.
Such was the respect paid to Origen while still a young man, not only by his own countrymen but even by the bishops in another land. But when Demetrius sent first a letter recalling him, then deacons of the church to hasten his return to Alexandria, back he came and resumed his labours with all his old enthusiasm.
Works of the period: notable bishops
20. Prominent at that period were a number of learned churchmen, who penned to each other letters still surviving and easy of access, as they have been preserved to our own time in the library established at Aelia by the man who then presided over the church there, Alexander – the library from which I myself have been able to bring together the materials for the work now in hand. Of these writers Beryllus, Bishop of the Arabians at Bostra, in addition to letters left us compositions of the highest literary merit, as did Hippolytus – a prelate like Beryllus, though his see is unknown. I have also read a dialogue which Gaius, a man of the greatest learning, published at Rome in Zephyrinus’ time as an answer to Proclus, the champion of the Phrygian heresy. In this, while reining in the audacity of his opponents in compiling new scriptures, he refers to only thirteen of the epistles of the holy Apostle, not including that to the Hebrews with the rest; for then as now there were some at Rome who did not think that it was the Apostle’s.
21. When Antoninus had reigned seven years six months, he was succeeded by Macrinus. Macrinus having lasted only a year, the Roman Empire was next entrusted to another Antoninus.1 In his first year, the Bishop of Rome, Zephyrinus, departed this life, after holding office eighteen years in all. After him Callistus took over the episcopate, but survived him by only five years, leaving his office to Urban. Alexander was the next to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire, Antoninus having lasted no more than four years. It was at this time that in the church of Antioch Asclepiades was succeeded by Philetus.
The emperor’s mother Mamaea was one of the most religious and high-principled of women, and when the fame of Origen spread so far that it came to her ears, she set her heart on securing an interview with him and testing his universally admired skill as a theologian. By good luck she was staying in Antioch, so she sent a bodyguard of soldiers to fetch him. He stayed with her for some time, revealing to her many things to the glory of the Lord and of the virtue of the divine message. Then he hurried back to his ordinary duties.
22. At that same period Hippolytus, author of many other short works, composed the essay The Easter Festival, in which he worksout a system of dates and suggests a scheme for a sixteen-year cycle for Easter, relating his dates to the first year of Alexander’s reign. Of his other essays I am acquainted with The Six Days, The Sequel to the Six Days, Against Marcion, The Song, Parts of Ezekiel, The Easter Festival, and Against all the Heresies. Many others are probably to be found in various private collections.
Origen’s enthusiasm: his call to the presbyterate
23. It was at this period that Origen started work on his Commentarieson Holy Scripture, at the urgent request of Ambrose, who not only exerted verbal pressure and every kind of persuasion, but supplied him in abundance with everything needful. Shorthand-writers more than seven in number were available when he dictated, relieving each other regularly, and at least as many copyists, as well as girls trained in penmanship, all of them provided most generously with everything needful at Ambrose’s expense. And not only that: in the devoted study of the divine teaching he brought to Origen his own immeasurable enthusiasm, the most powerful inducement to the composition of the Commentaries.
Meanwhile, after eight years as Bishop of the Roman Church, Urban was succeeded by Pontian, and at Antioch Philetus’ place was filled by Zebennus. During their episcopate, the necessity of settling questions affecting the Church forced Origen to set out for Greece via Palestine. In Caesarea he was ordained presbyter by the Palestinian bishops. This made him the subject of an agitation on which the prelates of the churches passed judgement; but like the impact which, having reached his prime, he made in other ways on the exposition of God’s word, these matters deserve a book to themselves; so in the second volume of my Defence of Origen I have dealt with them at some length.
Commentaries written by him at Alexandria; references to the canonical Scriptures
24. To this I must add that in the sixth book of his Commentary on John’s Gospel he mentions that he wrote the first five while still at Alexandria, but of his work on the whole of this same gospel only twenty-two books have come into my hands. And in the ninth book of his Commentary on Genesis – there are twelve altogether – he makes it clear that at Alexandria he wrote not only the first eight but also his Commentary on Psalms i–xxv, as well as the Commentary on Lamentations, of which I possess five books. In these he refers to his Resurrection, a work in two books. In addition he wrote his On First Principles before leaving Alexandria, and compiled the ten volumes entitled Miscellanies in the same city, while Alexander was on the throne, as is proved by the notes prefixed to them by the author himself.
25. In his commentary on Psalm i he wrote out a list of the Old Testament books, in the following terms:
It should be noted that the Canonical Books, according to Hebrew tradition, number twenty-two, like the letters of their alphabet… The twenty-two books of the Hebrew canon are these:
GENESIS, as we call it: the Hebrews (from the opening word) call it BRESITH (i.e. in the beginning)
EXODUS – OUELESMOTH (i.e. these are the names)
LEVITICUS – OUIKRA (and he called)
NUMBERS – AMMESPHEKODEIM
DEUTERONOMY – HELEADDEBARIM (these are the words)
JESUS SON OF NAVE – JOSHUA BEN NUN
JUDGES, RUTH – with the Hebrews, one book, SOPHETIM
KINGS 1 and 2 – with them a single book, SAMUEL (the called of God)
KINGS 3 and 4 – one book, OUAMMELCH DAVID (i.e. the kingdom of David)
THE OMITTED BOOKS 1 and 2 – one book, DABREIAMIN (i.e. accounts of days)
ESDRAS 1 and 2 – one book, EZRA (i.e. helper)
BOOK OF PSALMS – SPHARTHELLIM
PROVERBS OF SOLOMON – MELOTH
ECCLESIASTES – KOELTH
SONG OF SONGS (not, as sometimes thought, Songs of Songs) – SIR ASSIRIM
ESAIAS – IESSIA
JEREMIAS, WithLAMENTATIONS and THE LETTER in one book – JEREMIAH
DANIEL – DANIEL
EZEKIEL – EZEKIEL
JOB – JOB
ESTHER – ESTHER
Excluded from the list is MACCABEES, entitled SARBETH SABANAIEL.
These statements he inserted in the treatise referred to above. In the first part of his Commentary on Matthew, when defending the canon of the Church, he testifies that he knows four gospels only. This is what he says:
I accept the traditional view of the four gospels which alone are undeniably authentic in the Church of God on earth. First to be written was that of the one-time exciseman who became an apostle of Jesus Christ – Matthew; it was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Aramaic. Next came that of Mark, who followed Peter’s instructions in writing it, and who in Peter’s general epistle was acknowledged as his son: ‘Greetings to you from the church in Babylon, chosen like yourselves, and from my son Mark.’1 Next came that of Luke, who wrote for Gentile converts the gospel praised by Paul. Last of all came John’s.
In Book v of his Commentary on John’s Gospel Origen has this to say about the epistles of the apostles:
The man who was enabled to become a minister of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit, Paul, proclaimed the gospel from Jerusalem, in a wide sweep as far as Illyricum.1 But he did not write to all the churches he had taught; and to those to which he did write he sent only a few lines. Peter, on whom is built Christ’s Church, over which the gates of Hades shall have no power,2 left us one acknowledged epistle, possibly two – though this is doubtful. Need I say anything about the man who leant back on Jesus’ breast, John? He left a single gospel, though he confessed that he could write so many that the whole world would not hold them.3 He also wrote the Revelation, but was ordered to remain silent and not write the utterances of the seven thunders.4 In addition, he left an epistle of a very few lines, and possibly two more, though their authenticity is denied by some. Anyway, they do not total a hundred lines between them.
Again, in his Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews he makes this comment:
In the epistle entitled To the Hebrews the diction does not exhibit the characteristic roughness of speech or phraseology admitted by the Apostle himself,5 the construction of the sentences is closer to Greek usage, as anyone capable of recognizing differences of style would agree. On the other hand the matter of the epistle is wonderful, and quite equal to the Apostle’s acknowledged writings: the truth of this would be admitted by anyone who has read the Apostle carefully… If I were asked my personal opinion, I would say that the matter is the Apostle’s but the phraseology and construction are those of someone who remembered the Apostle’s teaching and wrote his own interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as Paul’s, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive Church had every justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became Bishop of Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and the Acts.
Heraclas Bishop of Alexandria: what the bishops thought of Origen
26. It was in the tenth year of Alexander’s reign that Origen made the move from Alexandria to Caesarea, leaving to Heraclas the school of elementary instruction for those in the city. Not long afterwards Demetrius, Bishop of the Alexandrian church, died, having completed forty-three years in that office; he was succeeded by Heraclas.
27. At this time Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, paid a remarkable tribute to Origen, showing such admiration for him that at one time he would invite him to his own region to assist his churches, at another he would go all the way to Judaea to see him and spend some time with him, in order to deepen his own spiritual life. In the same way the head of the Jerusalem church, Alexander, and Theoctistus of Caesarea listened attentively to him at all times as their only teacher, leaving to him the interpretation of Holy Writ and all other branches of religious instruction.
Persecution under Maximin
28. When after reigning thirteen years the Roman emperor Alexander died, Maximin Caesar succeeded him. Through rancour against Alexander’s house, which consisted mainly of believers, he instigated a persecution and ordered the leaders of the churches alone, as being responsible for the teaching of the gospel, to be destroyed. It was then that Origen composed his Martyrdom, dedicating his treatise to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the Caesarean diocese, both of whom had had a terrible time in the persecution, a time in which it is on record that they were fearless in the confession of their faith throughout Maximin’s reign of three years only. This time for the duration of the persecution was noted by Origen in Section xxii of his Commentary on John’s Gospel, and in various letters.
Fabian miraculously designated by God as Bishop of Rome
29. Gordian having succeeded Maximin as Roman emperor, Pontian, after six years as Bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Anteros, and he, after filling the office for a month, by Fabian. It is said that after Anteros’s death Fabian came with a party from the country and paid a visit to Rome, where by a miracle of divine and heavenly grace he was chosen to fill the place. When the brethren had all assembled with the intention of electing a successor to the bishopric, and a large number of eminent and distinguished men were in the thoughts of most, Fabian, who was present, came into no one’s mind. But suddenly out of the blue a dove fluttered down and perched on his head (the story goes on), plainly following the example of the descent upon the Saviour of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. At this, as if moved by one divine inspiration, with the utmost enthusiasm and complete unanimity the whole meeting shouted that he was the man, and then and there seized him and set him on the bishop’s throne.
At about the same time, Zebennus, Bishop of Antioch, departed this life, and Babylas succeeded to his position; while at Alexandria – where, following Demetrius, Heraclas had been appointed to the office – the school of elementary instruction was taken over by Dionysius, another of Origen’s old pupils.
Men who became Origen’s pupils
30. While Origen was performing his normal tasks at Caesarea, his services were in constant demand not only by the local people but also by innumerable foreign students who had left their own countries. The most distinguished names known to me are those of Theodore – who was none other than that illustrious bishop of my own day, Gregory – and his brother Athenodore. They were passionately devoted to Greek and Roman studies, but he implanted in them a love of true philosophy and induced them to exchange their old enthusiasm for a theological training. Five whole years they spent with him, making such remarkable progress in theology that while still young both were chosen to be bishops of the churches in Pontus.
31. At this time, Africanus – author of the work entitled Cesti – was another eminent writer. A letter which he wrote to Origen has survived. In it he cast the gravest doubt on the authenticity of the story of Susanna in Daniel. Origen wrote a very full reply. From the same author there has also come into my hands a five-volume Dictionary of Dates, compiled with unsparing devotion to accuracy. In it he says that he made a special journey to Alexandria, in view of the great reputation of Heraclas, who – as already stated – after showing himself an outstanding exponent of philosophy and other secular studies, had been elevated to the bishopric of the church there. Another of his letters has survived: it is addressed to Aristides, and deals with the alleged discrepancy between Matthew and Luke on the subject of Christ’s genealogy. In it he demonstrates the harmony of the evangelists most convincingly, from an account which has come down to him and which I have found it convenient to reproduce earlier, in Book 1 of the present work.
Commentaries written by Origen at Caesarea
32. Origen himself was busy at that time putting together his Commentary on Isaiah, and at the same time that on Ezekiel. On the third section of Isaiah, as far as the vision of the beasts in the desert,1 thirty books have come into my hands, and on Ezekiel twenty-five, covering the entire book. It was during a visit to Athens at that stage that he completed the Commentary on Ezekiel and began that on the Song of Songs, getting as far as Book v before leaving Athens and returning to Caesarea, where he wrote the remaining five books. But this is not the time to give a detailed list of all his works, which would be a task in itself. I have already included one in my Life of Pamphilus, the holy martyr of my own day, in which, to show the intensity of his devotion to theology, I mentioned the list of books in the library he had built up of the works of Origen and the other Church writers. From these anyone who wishes can learn all about the extant works of Origen. But now I must go on to the next stage in the story.
The deviation of Beryllus
33. Beryllus, who was mentioned some pages back as Bishop of Bostra in Arabia, perverted the true doctrine of the Church and tried to bring in ideas alien to the Faith, actually asserting that our Saviour and Lord did not pre-exist in His own form of being before He made His home among men, and had no divinity of His own but only the Father’s dwelling in Him. Accordingly, a large number of bishops questioned and argued with him; then Origen was sent for, with several others. He began by getting into conversation with him, to find out what his ideas were. Then, having acquainted himself with his assertions, he straightened out his unorthodox ideas, and argued so convincingly that he set him on the right doctrinal path and brought him back to his former sound opinion. We still possess accounts of Beryllus and the synod that he made necessary; these, in addition to the questions put to him by Origen and the discussions held in his own see, record everything done at that time.
A great many other traditions about Origen have been passed on orally by the older men of our day, but I think I will omit them, as irrelevant to the present work. All that it is important to know about him can be gathered from the Defence of Origen written by myself and that holy martyr of our time, Pamphilus – a joint effort, a labour of love undertaken as an answer to carping critics.
The reign of Philip: Heraclas succeeded by Dionysius
34. After six years as Roman emperor Gordian died, and Philip long with a son of the same name succeeded him. He, there is reason to believe, was a Christian, and on the day of the last Easter vigil he wished to share in the prayers of the Church along with the people; but the prelate of the time would not let him come in until he made open confession and attached himself to those who were held to be in a state of sin and were occupying the place for penitents. Otherwise, if he had not done so, he would never have been received by him in view of the many accusations brought against him. It is said that he obeyed gladly, showing by his actions the genuine piety of his attitude towards the fear of God.
35. It was in Philip’s third year that Heraclas departed this life, after presiding for sixteen years over the Alexandrian province, and Dionysius took office as bishop.
Other works written by Origen
36. At this period of rapid expansion of the Faith, when our message was being boldly proclaimed on every side, it was natural that Origen, now over sixty and with his abilities fully developed by years of practice, should, as we are told, have allowed his lectures to be taken down by shorthand-writers, though he had never before agreed to this. During the same period, he wrote his eight books to refute the attack made on us by Celsus the Epicurean in his True Doctrine; also the twenty-five books of his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, and his Commentary on the Minor Prophets, of which I have laid my hand on twenty-five books only. We possess also a letter of his to the Emperor Philip himself, another to his consort Severa, and others to various other persons. These have been preserved here and there by various persons: all that I have succeeded in collecting I have stored methodically in separate bundles, to prevent them from being dispersed again. He also wrote to Bishop Fabian of Rome and to the heads of many other churches about his orthodoxy. You will find all this set out in Book vi of my Defence of Origen.
Unorthodox beliefs in Arabia: the Helkesaite heresy
37. While he was thus engaged, a new group appeared on the Arabian scene, originators of a doctrine far removed from the truth, namely, that at the end of our life here the human soul dies for a time along with our bodies and perishes with them; later, when one day the resurrection comes, it will return with them to life. At this crisis, a synod was convoked on a large scale, and Origen was again invited. On arrival he opened a public debate on the question at issue, and argued so forcibly that he compelled those who had previously gone astray to change their views.
38. At the same time another distorted idea was started by the ‘Helkesaite’ sect, but it was no sooner started than it was extinguished. It is referred to in a published sermon by Origen on Psalm lxxxii:
A man has recently come forward who prides himself on his ability to uphold a blasphemous and most impious theory – known as that of the Helkesaites – which has lately reared its head against the churches. The pernicious suggestions of that theory I will make clear to you, for fear you may be carried away by it. It rejects parts of every book of the Bible, though it makes use of passages from every Old Testament book and every gospel: the Apostle it rejects altogether. It says that to deny the truth does not matter, and that in case of need the sensible man will deny it with his lips but not in his heart. They produce a book, alleging that it fell from heaven: anyone who hears it read and believes will receive forgiveness for his sins – forgiveness other than that which Jesus Christ won for us.
What happened under Decius
39. Philip, after a reign of seven years, was succeeded by Decius. Through hatred of Philip he started a persecution against the churches, in which Fabian found fulfilment in martyrdom at Rome, where Cornelius succeeded him as bishop.
In Palestine, Alexander, Bishop of the Jerusalem church, was again brought before the governor’s court at Caesarea, and as for the second time he boldly confessed the Faith, he endured imprisonment, though crowned with ripe old age and venerable white hairs. After bearing splendid and glorious witness in the governor’s court, he fell asleep in his prison, and Mazabanes was named as successor to the Jerusalem bishopric. Alexander’s fate was not unique, for at Antioch Babylas confessed the Faith and departed this life in prison, Fabius being made head of the church there.
As for Origen, the terrible sufferings that befell him in the persecution, and how they ended, when the evil demon, bent on his destruction, brought all the weapons in his armoury to bear and fought him with every device and expedient, attacking him with more determination than anyone he was fighting at that time – the dreadful cruelties he endured for the word of Christ, chains and bodily torments, agony in iron and the darkness of his prison; how for days on end his legs were pulled four paces apart in the torturer’s stocks – the courage with which he bore threats of fire and every torture devised by his enemies – the way his maltreatment ended, when the judge had striven with might and main at all costs to avoid sentencing him to execution – the messages he left us after all this, messages full of help for those in need of comfort – of all these things a truthful and detailed account will be found in his own lengthy correspondence.
What happened to Dionysius
40. What happened to Dionysius I will make clear by quoting his letter directed against Germanus, in which he gives this account of himself:
I speak as in the presence of God, who knows whether I am lying. I did not act on my own judgement or without God when I made my escape; but even before that, when Decius announced his persecution, Sabinus then and there dispatched a frumentarius to hunt me out, and I stayed at home four days waiting for him to arrive. But though he went round searching every spot – roads, rivers, fields – where he guessed I was hiding or walking, he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house; he never imagined that when an object of persecution I should stay at home! It was only after four days, when God commanded me to go elsewhere, and by a miracle made it possible, that I set out along with the boys and many of the brethren. That this was indeed the work of divine providence was proved by what followed, when perhaps we were of use to some.
After dealing with various other matters, he describes what happened to him after the flight:
About sunset, my companions and I were caught by the soldiers and taken to Taposiris; but by the purpose of God it happened that Timothy was absent and was not caught. When he arrived later, he found the house empty except for a guard of servants, and learnt that we had been captured without hope of release… And how was God’s wonderful mercy shown? You shall hear the truth. As Timothy fled distracted, he was met by one of the villagers on his way to attend a wedding-feast – which in those parts meant an all-night celebration – who asked why he was in such a hurry. He told the truth without hesitation, whereupon the other went in and informed the guests as they reclined at table. With one accord, as if at a signal, they all sprang to their feet, came as fast as their legs would carry them, and burst in where we were with such terrifying shouts that the soldiers guarding us instantly took to their heels. Then they stood over us, as we lay on bare mattresses. At first, God knows, I thought they were bandits who had come to plunder and steal, so I stayed on the bed. I had nothing on but a linen shirt; my other clothes that were lying near I held out to them. But they told me to get up and make a bolt for it. Then I realized what they had come for, and called out, begging and beseeching them to go away and let us be. If they wanted to do me a good turn, they had better forestall my captors and cut off my head themselves. While I shouted like this, they pulled me up by force, as the companions who shared all my adventures know. I let myself fall on my back on the floor, but they grasped me by hands and feet and dragged me out, followed by those who witnessed the whole scene, Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul, who picked me up and carried me out of the village, set me on a donkey bareback, and led me away.
This is the account Dionysius gives us of his adventure.
Martyrs who suffered at Alexandria and elsewhere
41. In his letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, he gives this account of the ordeals of those who were martyred at Alexandria under Decius:
It was not the imperial edict that set the persecution in motion against us: it had already been going on for a whole year, and the nameless prophet and worker of mischief for this city was the first to stir up and incite the heathen masses against us, fanning the flames of their local superstition and working them up, till they seized on every available authority for their unholy deeds and convinced themselves that the only true religion was this demon-worship – thirst for our blood.
First they seized an old man named Metras, and ordered him to utter blasphemous words; when he refused, they beat him with cudgels, drove pointed reeds into his face and eyes, took him to the suburbs, and stoned him to death. Next they took a female convert named Quinta to the idol’s temple and tried to make her worship. When she turned her back in disgust they tied her feet and dragged her right through the city over the rough paved road, bumping her on the great stones and beating her as they went, till they arrived at the same place, where they stoned her to death. Then they all ran in a body to the houses of the Christians, charged in by groups on those they know as neighbours, raided, plundered, and looted. The more valuable of their possessions they purloined; the cheaper wooden things they threw about, or they made a bonfire of them in the streets, making the city look as if it had been captured by enemies. The Christians retired and gradually withdrew; like those to whom Paul paid tribute, they took with cheerfulness the plundering of their belongings.1 I do not know of anyone, except possibly one man who fell into their clutches, who up to now has denied the Lord.
Next they seized the wonderful old lady Apollonia, battered her till they knocked out all her teeth, built a pyre in front of the city, and threatened to burn her alive unless she repeated after them their heathen incantations. She asked for a breathing-space, and when they released her, jumped without hesitation into the fire and was burnt to ashes.
Serapion they arrested in his own house. They racked him with horrible tortures and broke all his limbs, then threw him down head first from the upper floor.
No road, no highway, no alley was open to us, either by night or by day; always and everywhere, everybody was shouting that anyone who did not join in their blasphemous chants must at once be dragged away and burnt. For a long time the terror remained intense, but the wretched men were suddenly plunged into faction and civil war, which turned the savagery of which we had been the victims against its authors. For a little while we breathed again, as they were too busy to vent their rage on us, but very soon the change from the reign that had been kinder to us became generally known, and the threat to our safety filled us with horrible foreboding. And the edict indeed arrived, almost exactly as foretold by our Lord in His truly terrifying words: ‘So as, if possible, to trip up even the elect.’2 Anyway, terror was universal, and of many public figures some at once came forward through fear, others who were in state employment were induced by professional reasons, others were dragged forward by the mob. Summoned by name, they approached the unclean, unholy sacrifices. Some came white-faced and trembling, as if they were not going to sacrifice but to be sacrificed themselves as victims to the idols, so that the large crowd of spectators heaped scorn upon them and it was obvious that they were utter cowards, afraid to die and afraid to sacrifice. Others ran more readily towards the altars, trying to prove by their fearlessness that they had never been Christians. Of these, the Lord had declared long before with complete truth that they would be saved with difficulty.1 Of the rest, some followed each of these groups, others tried to get away; some were caught, and of these some allowed themselves to be chained and imprisoned (in some cases remaining confined for weeks), and then, even before coming into court, renounced their faith, while others held out for a time under torture but in the end gave up.
But the unbending, blessed pillars of the Lord, strengthened by Him and receiving power and endurance deservedly and in proportion to the vigorous faith that was in them, proved wonderful martyr witnesses of His kingdom. Of these the first was Julian, a sufferer from gout, unable to stand or walk, who was brought to trial with two others to bear him. One of the two at once denied his Master; the other, Cronion by name but nicknamed Good fellow, and the aged Julian himself, confessed the Lord and were taken right through the city, which as you all know is immense, mounted on camels and whipped while perched aloft. Finally, while the whole population milled around, they were burnt up with quicklime. A soldier who was standing by as they were led away protested at the insults, and roused the mob to fury: he was brought to trial, Besas the gallant warrior of God, and having fought like a hero in the great war for the Faith, was beheaded. Another man, of Libyan stock, true both to his name Macar2 and to the Beatitude, in spite of all the efforts of the judge to make him deny the Faith, stood firm and was burnt alive. After these came Epimachus and Alexander, who after remaining in prison a long time endured numberless agonies from scrapers and whips, and like the others were destroyed with quicklime.
With them were four women. Ammonarion, a most respectable young woman, in spite of the savage and prolonged torture inflicted on her by the judge because she had already made it clear beforehand that she would never say any of the things he ordered her to say, kept true to her promise and was led away. The others were Mercuria, a very dignified old lady, and Dionysia, the mother of a large family but just as devoted to her Lord. The governor was ashamed to go on torturing without results and to be defeated by women, so they died by the sword without being put to any further test by torture: this Ammonarion, foremost in the fight, had taken on herself for them all.
Three Egyptians, Hero, Ater, and Isidore, together with a boy of about fifteen called Dioscorus, were informed against. The judge began with the lad, trying to trick his unformed character with words, and to break down his feeble resistance by torture, but Dioscorus would neither obey nor give in. The others he tore in pieces with the utmost savagery, and when they held out they too were consigned to the flames. But Dioscorus behaved so splendidly in public, and gave such wise answers when questioned in private, that he astonished the judge, who let him go, saying that in view of his youth he would allow him time to come to his senses. And the saintly Dioscorus is with us still, having survived for a more prolonged ordeal and a more lasting conflict.
Nemesion, another Egyptian, was falsely reported to be in league with bandits. No sooner had he cleared himself before the centurion of such an absurd accusation than he was denounced as a Christian, and brought in chains before the governor. He, with gross injustice, subjected him to twice the tortures and floggings inflicted on the bandits, and burnt him between them, honouring him – blest indeed! – with a resemblance to Christ.
A whole squad of soldiers, Ammon, Zeus, Ptolemy, and Ingenuus, with an old man, Theophilus, were standing in court. When a man accused of being a Christian was on the point of denying Christ, they ground their teeth as they stood by, grimaced, stretched out their hands, and gestured with their bodies. All eyes were turned towards them, but before anyone could stop them they made a dash for the dock, saying that they were Christians. The governor and his fellow-judges were filled with alarm; in contrast to the panic on the bench, the accused all showed a complete disregard of the sufferings to come; they marched out of the court in triumph, proud of their witness, their fame gloriously spread abroad by God. 42. Many others in cities and villages were torn to pieces by the heathen. One example will suffice. Ischyrion was the salaried agent of one of the magistrates. His employer ordered him to sacrifice. When he refused, he insulted him; and when he persisted, he heaped abuse on him. Having failed to shift him, he took a stout stick, drove it through his bowels and internal organs, and so killed him.
Need I speak of the vast number who wandered over deserts and mountains1 till hunger, thirst, cold, sickness, bandits, or wild beasts destroyed them? The survivors pay tribute to those chosen to be victors, but one incident I must bring to your notice as showing what kind of men they were. Chaeremon, the very aged Bishop of Nilopolis, fled with his wife to the mountain region of Arabia. He never came back, and despite a thorough search, the brethren failed to find either them or their remains. In that same mountain region very many were enslaved by the half-civilized Saracens. Some of them with difficulty and at great cost were ransomed; others never to this day.
This long account, brother, I have given in no idle spirit, but in order that you may know the extent of the terror to which we have been subjected. Those more deeply involved could tell you more about it…
Thus even the divine martyrs among us, who now sit by Christ’s side as partners in His kingdom, share His authority, and are His fellow-judges, opened their arms to their fallen brethren who faced the charge of sacrificing. Seeing their conversion and repentance, they were sure that it would be acceptable to Him who does not in the least desire the death of a sinner, but rather his repentance; so they received them, admitted them to the congregation as ‘bystanders’, and allowed them to take part in services and feasts. What then, brothers, is your advice to us in this matter? What must we do? Shall we take our stand in full agreement with them, uphold their merciful decision, and deal gently with those they pitied? Or shall we condemn their decision as improper, and set ourselves up as judges of their attitude, wound their gentleness, and turn their practice upside down?
Novatus, his character and his heresy
43. Dionysius had good reason to argue thus, bringing up the question of those who had shown weakness at the time of the persecution, for Novatus, a presbyter of the Roman church, regarded them with lofty contempt: there was no hope of salvation for them now, even if they did everything in their power to prove their conversion sincere and their confession wholehearted. So he set himself up as leader of a new sect, whose members in the pride of their hearts entitled themselves the ‘Pure’. To deal with the situation a synod on the largest scale was convened at Rome, and was attended by sixty bishops and a still greater number of presbyters and deacons, while in the other provinces of the Empire the local pastors considered separately what was to be done. The result was a unanimous decree that Novatus, his companions in presumption, and any who thought fit to approve his attitude of hatred and inhumanity to brother-Christians, should be regarded as outside the Church, but that those brothers who had had the misfortune to fall should be treated and cured with the medicine of repentance.
I have had access to a letter from Bishop Cornelius of Rome to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, giving an account of the Synod of Rome and the decisions reached by the representatives of Italy, Africa, and the neighbouring regions; and another, written in Latin, from Cyprian and his companions in Africa, making it clear that they too agreed that those who had been tempted should be helped, and that it was right and fair to expel from the Catholic Church the leader of the sect and to deal in the same way with all who had erred with him. Attached to these was a second letter from Cornelius, about the resolutions of the synod, and yet a third, about the conduct of Novatus; from this I will quote certain passages to enable readers of this book to know the facts about him. Enlightening Fabius as to the character of Novatus, Cornelius writes thus:
It is essential that you should know that years ago this fine fellow set his heart on becoming a bishop, and kept this consuming ambition of his bottled up inside, cloaking his crazy notion with the support that from the start the Confessors had given him. Maximus, one of our own presbyters, and Urban, who by confessing their faith had twice won the highest renown; Sidonius; and Celerinus, a man who by the mercy of God had endured torture of every kind with unshakeable determination, fortifying the weakness of the flesh by the strength of his faith, and had crushingly defeated the adversary – these four men observed him, and detecting his unscrupulousness and shiftiness, his perjuries and prevarications, his self-centredness and hollow pretence of friendship, returned to Holy Church. All the artifices and dirty tricks that he had long kept out of sight they revealed publicly in the presence of several bishops and presbyters and a crowd of laymen, weeping penitently for their folly in listening to this treacherous, malignant beast and for a time deserting the Church…
It is remarkable, dear brother, what a complete transformation we saw in him a little while later. This admirable person, who swore terrible oaths to convince us that to be a bishop was the last thing he desired, suddenly appears as a bishop as if he had been catapulted into our midst. For this doctrinal purist, this champion of the Church’s teaching, in his attempt to grab and filch the bishopric not given to him from above, chose as his accessories two men who had renounced their own salvation, and sent them to an obscure corner of Italy to deceive three bishops of the region, uneducated and simple-minded men, and trick them into coming. He declared emphatically that their presence in Rome was urgently necessary, on the ground that the difference of opinion that had occurred might be completely resolved by their mediation, with the help of other bishops. As already stated, they were too simple-minded to cope with the schemes of unscrupulous rogues, so on their arrival they were shut up by some men as disorderly as himself, and in the late afternoon, when they were hopelessly drunk, he forcibly compelled them to make him a bishop, by a counterfeit and invalid consecration, so acquiring by craft and rascality an office not his by right. Not long afterwards one of the three returned to the Church, frankly and tearfully confessing his fault. We admitted him as a layman, since all the laity present pleaded for him. As for the other two, we appointed successors and sent them to occupy the vacant positions.
Thus the vindicator of the gospel was unaware that there can be only one bishop in a Catholic church, in which, as he knew perfectly well, there are forty–six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty–two acolytes, fifty–two exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers, and more than fifteen hundred widows and distressed persons. All these are supported by the Master’s grace and love for men. But this vast community, so necessary to the church, a number by the providence of God both rich and growing, together with laymen too numerous to count, did not suffice to turn him from such a hopeless, crazy ambition and recall him to the Church…
Well now, I had better say next what activities or policies emboldened him to claim the episcopate. Did he make this claim because from the start he had spent his life in the Church, had endured many ordeals on her behalf, and had often been in the greatest danger for the sake of his religion? Not at all. The occasion of his becoming a believer came from Satan, who entered into him and stayed with him for a considerable time. While the exorcists were trying to help him he fell desperately ill, and since he was thought to be on the point of death, there as he lay in bed he received baptism by affusion – if it can be called baptism in the case of such a man. And when he recovered he did not receive the other things of which one should partake according to the rule of the Church, in particular the sealing by a bishop. Without receiving these how could he receive the Holy Ghost?…
The man who through cowardice and love of life at the time of the persecution denied that he was a presbyter! The deacons begged and besought him to come out of the chamber in which he had shut himself, and to help his brothers, in danger and in need of assistance, in every way right and possible for a presbyter; but so far was he from answering the deacons’ appeal that he actually went right away in a rage, declaring that he did not want to be a presbyter any longer: he was in love with a different way of thought…
This fine fellow left the Church of God, in which after becoming a believer he was accepted for the presbyterate, by favour of the bishop who ordained him to presbyter’s orders. The whole clerical body, and many laymen too, objected that the rules did not permit anyone baptized in bed by affusion owing to illness, as in the present case, to receive any orders, so the bishop asked leave to lay hands on this man only.
Now we come to something else, the vilest of the man’s misdemeanours:
When he has made the offerings and is distributing to each his share and handing it over, he compels the unfortunate worshippers to take an oath instead of praising God. He takes the hands of those who have received in both his own, and does not let go until they take this oath – I quote his own words: ‘Swear to me by the Blood and Body of the Lord Jesus Christ never to desert me and turn to Cornelius.’ And the wretched man does not taste unless he first calls down a curse on his own head, and instead of saying Amen as he receives that Bread, he says: ‘I will not go back to Cornelius.’…
You will be glad to learn that now he has been stripped of support and left by himself, as every day Christian people are deserting him and coming back into the Church. And when Moses, the blessed martyr who so recently bore noble and wonderful witness while yet in the world, saw his crazy impudence, he broke off all contact with him, and with the five presbyters who like him had cut themselves off from the Church.
At the end of the letter he has listed the bishops who met at Rome and condemned the fatuity of Novatus, indicating both their names and their respective sees. Those who were absent from the Rome meeting but assented in writing to the decision of those already mentioned are also named, along with the cities from which they severally wrote. All this information was included in the letter from Cornelius to Bishop Fabius of Antioch.
Dionysius’ story about Serapion
44. Fabius, who inclined a little towards the schism, received another communication – this time from Dionysius of Alexandria, who in his letter to him wrote a great deal about repentance, and described with particular care the ordeals of those recently martyred in Alexandria. In the course of his story he describes a quite amazing incident, which I must on no account omit:
I will tell you of one instance that occurred here. Among our number was an old believer named Serapion, whose conduct for most of his life had been beyond reproach, but who had lapsed when trial came. Again and again he pleaded, but no one listened – he had sacrificed. He fell sick, and for three days on end remained speechless and unconscious, but on the fourth day he was a little better, and called his grandson to his bedside. ‘How long, child,’ he asked, ‘are you all determined to keep me alive? Do please hurry, and let me go quickly! You go yourself, and bring me one of the presbyters.’ After saying this, he became speechless again. The boy ran to fetch the presbyter. But it was night time, and he was unwell and unable to come. I had, however, given instructions that those departing this life, if they desired it, and especially if they happened to have pleaded before, should be absolved, so that they could depart in sure hope; so he gave a portion of the Eucharist to the little boy, telling him to soak it and let it fall drop by drop into the old man’s mouth. The boy returned with it to the house, but before he could enter, Serapion rallied again and said: ‘Is that you, child? The presbyter could not come, but you must do as he told you, and let me depart.’ The boy soaked it, and poured it into the mouth of the old man, who after swallowing a little immediately died. Was he not plainly preserved and kept alive until he was released and, his sin blotted out, could be honoured for his many good deeds?
Letters of Dionysius to Novatus and others
45. Now let us see the sort of letter the same Dionysius indited to Novatus at the time when he was upsetting the Roman brother-hood. When Novatus blamed his apostasy and schism on some of his fellow-Christians on the ground that they had coerced him into behaving thus, this is how Dionysius writes to him:
My dear Novatian,
If, as you say, you were led on unwillingly, you can prove it by retracing your steps willingly. You ought to have been ready to suffer anything whatever rather than split the Church of God, and martyrdom to avoid schism would have brought you as much honour as martyrdom to escape idolatry – I should say, more. For in the latter case a man is martyred to save his own single soul, in the former to save the whole Church. Even now if you were to persuade or coerce your fellow-Christians into unanimity, your fall would count for less than your recovery – the first will be forgotten, the second applauded. If they will not listen, and there is nothing you can do, by all means save your own soul.
Hold fast to peace in the Lord, and may every blessing be yours.
46. To the Egyptians he wrote a letter on repentance, in which he explained his views on those who had fallen into sin, distinguishing degrees of guilt. To Bishop Colon of Hermopolis he sent a personal letter, still extant, on repentance; another, calling for a change of heart, to his own flock at Alexandria. The surviving letters include the one to Origen on martyrdomr. To the Christians of Laodicea under their bishop Thelymidres, and to those of Armenia, whose bishop was Meruzanes, he wrote further letters on repentance. In addition to all these, he wrote to Cornelius of Rome, after receiving his letter against Novatus. In this answer he made it plain that he had been invited by Bishop Helenus of Tarsus in Cilicia, and the others with him – Firmilian in Cappadocia and Theoctistus in Palestine – to attend the Antioch Synod, at which an attempt was being made to strengthen the schism of Novatus. He further stated that he had been informed that Fabius had fallen asleep, and that Demetrian had been chosen to succeed him as Bishop of Antioch. He also referred to the Bishop of Jerusalem, in the following terms:
That wonderful man Alexander was put in prison, and is now at rest with the blessed.
Next to this there is another extant letter, a helpful letter from Dionysius to the Romans, carried there by Hippolytus. To the same church he addressed a second on peace, and a third on repentance. He also sent one to the confessors there while they still adhered to the views of Novatus. This was followed by two more after their return to the Church. He communicated similarly by letter with many others, leaving a rich reward to those who still study his writing with attention.