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November 17, 2009

Fifty Philosophers and Rhetoricians Who Converted to Christianity


The rhetors who before were in error stood firm,
Through death by fire they found a crown.

On November 17 we celebrate the memory of 50 philosophers and rhetors (some sources say they were 150) who were converted to Christianity from Paganism following a debate with the wise Katherine of Alexandria, whose memory is celebrated on November 25. At this time the emperor Maximinus was himself in Alexandria for a pagan feast day and ordered its citizens to offer a sacrifice to the idols. Katherine refused and the emperor sought her conversion. Because of her God-given wisdom the emperor was unable to persuade her so he called for 50 of the most learned men. The emperors plan backfired. Following their conversion they were immediately martyred for their new Christian faith. Seven days later St. Katherine also was brutally martyred for her Christian faith.

Below is the account of the debate between St. Katherine of Alexandria and the 50 philosophers and rhetors who sought to persuade her to deny her Christian faith, as written by St. Dimitri of Rostov:

The Emperor commanded that Katherine be brought before him. Entering his presence, she prostrated herself, rendering him due homage. Then she said boldly, "Know, O Emperor, that you have been led astray by the demons, for the idols you serve are lifeless and subject to corruption. Great is the shame of the blind, foolish men who worship such vile things! Accept the words of your wise philosopher Diodorus, who says that your gods were once impious men and that because of the notable deeds they worked during their lifetime, the people raised up pillars and statues in their honor. Later generations were unaware of the intention of their forefathers, who erected these things only as memorials. Counting the statues as worthy of reverence, the people began to worship them as gods. Know also that the famed Plutarch of Cheronea considered that your gods were not divine, and reviled them. Believe the words of your teachers, O Emperor, and do not make yourself guilty of the perdition of many souls. In this way you may escape the eternal torment that awaits you. Come to know the one, true God, Who is ever-existent, unoriginate, and immortal, and became man in the last times for our salvation. By Him kings reign and nations are ruled, and the whole world is sustained. He created and upholds all things by His word, for He is the almighty and all-good God, Who has no need of your sacrifices and takes no delight in the slaughter of innocent beasts but commands only that we steadfastly keep His commandments."

Hearing this, the Emperor was greatly enraged, remaining speechless for a long time. Unable to reply to Katherine’s words, he said only, "Leave us now to offer sacrifice, and we will hear you at another time."

After his vile festival had come to an end, the impious Emperor commanded that Katherine be brought to his palace. He said to her, "Tell us, maiden, who you are, and repeat what you said before."

"I am the daughter of one of the previous emperors," the saint replied, "and my name is Katherine. Formerly I was engaged in the study of rhetoric, philosophy, geometry, and the other sciences, but now I have abandoned these things as vain and useless and have betrothed myself to the Master Christ, Who said through the prophet, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and do away with the understanding of the prudent'."

The Emperor marvelled at Katherine’s wisdom, and seeing how fair she was, imagined that she was not the daughter of mortal parents but some goddess born to the deities whom he worshipped. He could not believe that a maiden of such indescribable loveliness could be the child of earthly parents, and wounded by her beauty, began to speak lustful words to her. The saint perceived that the Emperor’s thoughts had turned to iniquity, and said to him, "The demons whom you revere as gods lead you astray and tempt you with foolish desires. But I know that I am mere dust and earth. God has created me in His image and likeness, adorning me with comeliness so that the people might marvel at the bounty of the Creator, Who has deigned to bestow wisdom and beauty upon what is corruptible and worthless."

Katherine’s words annoyed the Emperor, who said, "Say no evil of the gods, for their glory is immortal!"

"If you wish to dispel the darkness and gloom of the deception that has ensnared you, understand that your gods are nothing, and come to know the true God. The mere sound of His name or the sight of His Cross traced in the air suffice to drive away and destroy your gods. If you wish, I shall prove to you the truth of my words," declared Katherine.

Afraid to be overcome and put to shame by the maiden’s bold and wise words, the Emperor replied, "It is not proper for the Emperor to dispute with women. Instead, I will assemble learned philosophers to debate you. Thus you will learn how groundless are your speculations and accept our beliefs."

The Emperor commanded that the holy virgin be kept under close guard and immediately sent the following decree to every city in his dominions: "The Emperor Maxentius to all the learned philosophers and orators in the lands under my rule: Hail! Come to me, all you who serve the most wise god Hermes and call upon the Muses as patrons of erudition, and stop the mouth of a certain learned maiden who has appeared as of late and mocks our gods, calling their histories myths and fables. Come, that you may display your knowledge of the wisdom of the ancients, be acclaimed by men, and receive from me gifts as rewards for your labors!"

Fifty chosen rhetoricians, skilled in debate and mighty in declamation, assembled in Alexandria. The Emperor addressed them thus: "Prepare yourselves diligently and carefully to contend with the maiden and to prevail in dispute with her concerning the gods. Do not be slack in your efforts because it is with a woman that you debate, but make every effort to overcome her as though she were the mightiest of opponents and the wisest of orators. Display all your learning, for I have tried her and found her to be wiser than Plato; strive your best in debate against her, sparing no exertion. If you prevail over her, I will bestow upon you rich gifts, but if you are vanquished, you shall be rewarded only with a bitter death."

One of the most learned and renowned of the orators answered the Emperor, saying, "Have no fear, O Emperor, for although the maiden may possess a keen mind, it is not possible that she has attained the highest degree of learning or perfection in rhetoric. Command her to stand before us, and you will see her quickly put to shame by the mere sight of such an assembly of philosophers and rhetoricians."

Hearing the philosopher’s declaration, the Emperor grew calm and was filled with joy, hoping that the vile, boastful tongues of his orators would prevail over the divine wisdom of the meek maiden. He straightway ordered that the saint be brought before him, and a great multitude of people assembled in the arena, eager to witness the debate. Before the messengers arrived, the archangel Michael came from heaven and said to the saint, "Fear not, O maiden chosen by the Lord! The Lord shall add to your wisdom even greater wisdom, and you will prevail in debate over fifty orators. Through you they and many others shall come to believe and receive the crown of martyrdom."

When the messengers arrived, they took Katherine and led her before the Emperor and the philosophers, to be made a spectacle unto all. The vainglorious philosopher who answered the Emperor immediately began to boast before Saint Katherine and asked, "Is it you who shamelessly and foolishly reviles our gods?"

"It is I," the saint answered meekly. "But I do not revile them shamelessly and foolishly as you say. I speak the truth gently and lovingly, proclaiming that your gods do not exist."

"The great poets refer to our divinities as ’the most high gods,’" said the orator. "How then can you insolently blaspheme the deities that have bestowed upon you wisdom and permitted you to taste of their sweet gifts?"

Katherine replied, "It was not your gods but my God, Who alone is true, that vouchsafed me wisdom; for He is Himself Wisdom and Life. He who fears Him and keeps His divine commandments is indeed a true philosopher. However, the deeds of your gods and the stories that are told of them are truly worthy of laughter and ridicule, and are full of deceit. But tell me, which of your great poets called your deities gods, and what did they say concerning them?"

The orator answered, "First of all, the most wise Homer prayed to Zeus, exclaiming, ’O most glorious Zeus, thou great god, and ye other immortal gods!’ The renowned Orpheus likewise gave thanks unto Apollo, crying, ’O son of Leto, thou who loosest thine arrows from afar! Mighty Phoebus, who lookest down upon all and rulest over mortals and immortals, 0 sun that soarest on wings of gold!’ Thus do the most eminent and celebrated of the poets refer to the gods, speaking of them as immortal. Therefore, do not be deceived, nor worship the Crucified One as God, for the wise men of old never called Him a god, nor indeed did they know of Him."

"But did not your Homer say in another place that Zeus, the greatest of your deities, was a liar and a wicked deceiver, and that other gods, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena, would have bound him had he not fled?" said Katherine. "Your books are full of similar things which show your gods to be disreputable. Although it is not fitting that vain, disrespectful enquiry be made concerning the Crucified One (since He is the true God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, sun, moon, and stars, and the whole race of man), yet because you say that none of the teachers of antiquity confess Him to be God, I shall bring forth testimony to refute you, thus confirming the truth. Hear how the most wise Sybil witnesses to His divine Incarnation and saving Crucifixion: ’In the latter times One shall come Who will take on flesh, but without sin. He shall destroy the corruption of the incurable passions by the boundless omnipotence of His divinity, and the unbelieving people will hate Him. Upon a high place shall He be hung, as though He were worthy of such a death.’ Hear also how your Apollonius, compelled by Christ’s power, speaks the truth, although unwillingly, confessing Him as the true God. He says, ’He Who dwells in the heavens constrains me to speak. He is the triune light, the God Who undergoes suffering (although His divinity does not suffer), for He is both mortal according to the flesh and a stranger to corruption. He is at once God and a man Who endures all things at the hands of mortals: the Cross, revilement, and burial.’ Thus spoke Apollonius concerning the true God, Who is coeternal and of one essence with Him Who begot Him. He is the source, the root, the fount of every blessing; He it is that brought the world from nothingness into being and continues to uphold it. Consubstantial with the Father, He became man for our sake and walked on the earth, instructing, teaching, and benefiting men. He also submitted to death for us, to abolish our former condemnation and to vouchsafe us the sweetness and blessedness that were once ours. Then, having opened for us the gates of paradise, closed by evil, He rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, from whence He came. He sent down the Holy Spirit upon His disciples, and they went about preaching His divinity, in which you also, O philosopher, ought to believe, so that you may become His true servant. For He is merciful and summons all who have sinned, saying, 'Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Believe, then, your own teachers and gods, Plato, I say, Orpheus, and Apollonius, who although unwillingly, plainly confessed Christ to be God."

Hearing the wise Katherine say these things and much else besides, the philosopher was amazed and fell silent. The Emperor saw that his champion had been vanquished and left speechless, and commanded the other rhetoricians to enter into dispute with the holy virgin, but they refused, saying, "We are unable to withstand the truth. If the most learned of our number was overcome and silenced, what can we hope to accomplish?"

The Emperor was moved to wrath and ordered that a great fire be prepared in the middle of the city to burn alive all the philosophers and orators. When they learned of the sentence pronounced upon them, they fell at the saint’s feet, beseeching her to pray for them to the one true God so that He might forgive them the sins they had committed in ignorance and deem them worthy of Holy Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The saint responded joyfully, "Truly you are blessed, for you have abandoned darkness and come to know the true Light! Having forsaken an earthly emperor, subject to corruption, you have come unto the King of heaven, Who knows no corruption. Believe firmly that the fire with which the impious threaten you shall serve as your Baptism and be a ladder leading you up to heaven. In that fire you will be cleansed of every defilement of flesh and spirit, and you will be presented pure and radiant as the stars before the Lord of glory, Whose beloved friends you shall become."

While saying this, Saint Katherine traced over each of the philosophers and orators the sign of Christ’s sacred Cross. Full of hope and gladness, they went joyfully to their martyrdom. It was the seventeenth day of the month of November when the soldiers cast them into the fire. That evening, pious Christians collected their bodies, which remained whole: even their hair was untouched by the fire. Many turned to the truth because of this miracle, and the relics were reverently buried in a fitting place.

The Emperor could think of nothing but how he might bring Saint Katherine to accept his impious beliefs. Unable to accomplish this through philosophic debate, he sought to lead her astray by flattery and deceit.