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October 22, 2012

The Epitaph of Saint Abercius of Hierapolis

Abercius of Hierapolis was a bishop of Hierapolis at the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was the successor to Papias and is said to have evangelized Syria and Mesopotamia; on this basis he is referred to as Equal-to-the-Apostles. He was imprisoned under Marcus Aurelius, and died around the year 167. His feast is celebrated on October 22.

Abercius at one point left his episcopal city and visited Rome. On his way home he traveled through Syria and Mesopotamia, and was received with great honors in various places. He died shortly after his return to Hierapolis, but not before he had composed his own epitaph, conveying a most vivid impression of all he had admired during his stay in Rome.

In 1882 the English traveller William Ramsay discovered at Kelendres, near Synnada, in the Roman province of Phrygia Salutaris (in Asia Minor, modern Anatolia), a Christian stele (inscribed slab) bearing the date of the year 300 of the Phrygian era (AD 216). The inscription in question recalled the memory of a certain Alexander, son of Anthony. De Rossi and Duchesne at once recognized in it phrases similar to those on the epitaph of Abercius. On comparison it was found that the inscription in memory of Alexander corresponded, almost word for word, with the first and last verses of the epitaph of the Bishop of Hierapolis; all the middle part was missing. Mr. Ramsay, on a second visit to the site of Hierapolis, in 1883, discovered two new fragments covered with inscriptions, built into the masonry of the public baths. These fragments, which are now in the Vatican Christian Museum, filled out the middle part of the stele inscribed with the epitaph of Abercius.

It now became possible, with the help of the text preserved in the Life, to restore the original text of the epitaph with practical certainty. Certain lacunae, letters effaced or cut off by breaks in the stone, have been the subject of profound discussions, resulting in a text which may henceforth be looked on as settled, which it may be useful to give here.

The capital letters at the beginning and end of the inscription represent the parts found on the inscription of Alexander, the son of Anthony, those of the middle part are the remaining fragments of the epitaph of Abercius, while the small letters give the reading according to the manuscripts of the Life which contain the epitaph:

The citizen of a chosen city, this [monument] I made [while] living, that there I might have in time a resting-place of my body, [I] being by name Abercius, the disciple of a holy shepherd who feeds flocks of sheep [both] on mountains and on plains, who has great eyes that see everywhere. For this [shepherd] taught me [that the] book [of life] is worthy of belief. And to Rome he sent me to contemplate majesty, and to see a queen golden-robed and golden-sandalled; there also I saw a people bearing a shining mark. And I saw the land of Syria and all [its] cities; Nisibis [I saw] when I passed over Euphrates. But everywhere I had brethren. I had Paul as my companion ... faith everywhere led me forward, and everywhere provided as my food a fish of exceeding great size, and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain and this it [faith] ever gives to its friends to eat, it having wine of great virtue, and giving it mingled with bread. These things I, Abercius, having been a witness [of them] told to be written here. Verily I was passing through my seventy-second year. He that discerneth these things, every fellow-believer [namely], let him pray for Abercius. And no one shall put another grave over my grave; but if he do, then shall he pay to the treasury of [the] Romans two thousand pieces of gold and to my good native city of Hierapolis one thousand pieces of gold.

The bishop's journey to Rome is merely mentioned, but on his way home he gives us the principal stages of his itinerary. He passed along the Syrian coast and possibly came to Antioch, then to Nisibis, after having traversed the whole of Syria, while his return to Hierapolis may have been by way of Edessa. The allusion to St. Paul the Apostle, which a gap in the text renders indecipherable, may originally have told how the traveller followed on his way back to his country the stages of St. Paul's third missionary journey, namely: Issus, Tarsus, Derbe, Iconium, Antioch in Pisidia and Apamea Cibotus, which would bring him into the heart of Phrygia, or it could mean the writings of the Apostle Paul.

The inscription bears witness of no slight value to the importance of the Church of Rome in the 2nd century. A mere glance at the text allows us to note:

- The evidence of baptism which marks the Christian people with its dazzling seal;
- The spread of Christianity, whose members Abercius meets with everywhere;
- The receiving of Jesus, the Son of God, in the Eucharist, born of the Virgin;
- The receiving of the Eucharist under the species of Bread and Wine.

Read more here.