February 26, 2014

Saint Porphyrios of Gaza and the World of Late Antiquity

By Anastasios Philippides

On February 26th our Church celebrates the memory of Saint Porphyrios, Bishop of Gaza in Palestine. Saint Porphyrios came from Thessaloniki and lived between 350 and 420. His Life, among the most ancient lives of a saint after the cessation of persecution, was written by his disciple Deacon Mark and is one of the most eloquent hagiographical texts we have, as it is inspired by the vibrancy of the narrative in the first person, who was an eyewitness.

For three years now Greek readers have been fortunate to read the Saint's Life in an elaborate edition published by Zitros, with an Introduction and Modern Greek translation by Monk Porphyrios of Simonopetra. As the editor notes, there are various ways of reading the life of a saint. The main purpose of course is the spiritual benefit of the reader, and the imitation, when possible, of the saint. In this article, however, we will limit ourselves to some historical data which we gather from the Life and reframe them in the broad context of the era, as it has been studied by leading contemporary historians.

In the last thirty years an exciting new branch has emerged in international historiography: the study of "Late Antiquity". This branch examines the period from around 200 or 300 AD to 600 or 700 AD. It is a time formerly characterized as the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", but today it has become accepted that the only thing that happened was the change of political administration in a part of the western provinces of the Empire, while the rest remained standing and thriving. Therefore the interest of historians has shifted from the analysis of the causes of the "fall" to the consideration of changes in the single "Late Roman Empire". The decisive change of the period was the dominance of Christianity. Freed from the narrow-mindedness of the Enlightenment, modern historians have ceased to ascribe such a complex social phenomenon as the rise of Christianity, with the "rise of superstition" and "decline of rationalism", in comparison with the classical Greco-Roman world.

Undoubtedly the biggest portion in this revolution in historiography has been brought by Peter Brown, who is today a professor at Princeton University. The views of Peter Brown are now internationally accepted and younger historians are working according to the methodology introduced by him. In this article we will focus on two key findings of Brown and we will see how it is verified in the Life of Saint Porphyrios. The first is the acceptance of the saint by the local community and his distinction from the sorcerer, in a society where every version of religion and belief co-existed. The second is the emergence of the saint as "patron" of the province, in a position of previous wealthy Roman "patrons". To interpret the transition from the ancient religion to Christianity, Brown does not resort to simplistic interpretations of the "rise of superstition" and "decline of rationalism" (nor "state violence", as some neo-pagans say only in Greece). Rather, he notes from the sources that the people of the 4th-5th-6th centuries were equally as rational as their ancestors.

Moreover, in an age of the co-existence of opposing beliefs people were trained to distinguish between the imposter, the sorcerer and the saint. He writes: "Thus, far from drawing on unlimited reserves of undifferentiated credulity, a Late Antique man faced the supernatural with a set of cosmic beliefs that had filled his mind with a meticulous and exacting questionnaire as to the alternative sources of any manifestation of the supernatural" (The Making of Late Antiquity, p. 19). "Thus armed, he was always prepared to give his gift horse a long and critical look in the mouth.... Men believed in both 'miracles' and 'magic'. This was not because their credulity was boundless. It was rather so that they should feel free to exercise a choice as to which wielder of supernatural power they would acclaim as a holy man and which they would dismiss as a sorcerer" (p. 19).

The colossal change, as detected by Brown, concerned the appointment of the saint in the role of intermediary between heaven and earth. Unlike previous intermediates, the saint was a physical presence and his action brought tangible results. While previously the ill had to rely on Asclepius, a figure whom no one had seen except in their dreams, now they went to the saint, a man just like themselves, who demonstrated by his life that he had "boldness" before God. A striking example of the period, for Brown, was Saint Symeon the Stylite, to whom thousands of people fled for his prayers. In small cities and provinces of the empire, where most people knew each other personally, the acceptance of someone as an "intermediate" was not simple: "A society prepared to vest certain humans with such powers was ever vigilant. Men watched each other closely for those signs of intimacy with the supernatural that would validate their claim. Holiness itself might be quantifiable" (p. 13).

In the Life of Saint Porphyrios we encounter many verifications of Brown's theory, especially since Gaza was still a pagan center around 400 AD, so there was fierce competition between 'beliefs'. We will mention two examples. First, there was a prolonged drought that did not end, despite all the invocations of the pagans to Zeus. The rain came only when Bishop Porphyrios and the few Christians, numbered to be about 280 according to Deacon Mark, prayed with fasting, vigil and procession. This practical demonstration of the possibility of contact with the true God converted 35 pagans. To the populous of Gaza, both then and now, with the always threatening nearby desert, rain was the greatest gift of God to the people.

As a second example, a woman named Aelia from a rich pagan family, was about to give birth, and during her difficult labor she was in danger of losing the child. Relatives pleaded with soothsayers and exorcists, offered sacrifices, but to no avail. Her nurse, a faithful Christian, ran to Bishop Porphyrios. He indicated that she should speak to those relatives gathered and then cry out before Aelia: "Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, makes you well. Believe in Him and you shall live." Indeed, the nurse did this and the baby was born alive. The next day all the relatives went to the Bishop and asked to be catechized in order to receive baptism and become Christians. A total of 64 people were baptized due to this event.

As Brown notes, it is interesting that in the environment of Late Antiquity those committed to superstition and irrationality were mostly not the uneducated but some conservative scholars. He writes: "The minus signs we might use, to the effect that certain claims or beliefs were 'superstitious' or 'irrational'; were frequently applied by groups that maintained securely vested traditions of learning, by doctors, by legislators, and by philosophers" (p. 21). In our era we essentially repeat the same phenomenon, since, after 200 years of domination by the Enlightenment and rationalism, alternative religions and superstitions are flourishing exactly where Christian faith diminishes.

The second major change that Brown observes is the emergence of the patron saint in a local community (see his famous study The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, now in his book Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity). This period diminishes the presence of the wealthy Roman "patron" of the city or province. Until then, the great patron cared for allocating precious water, extinguishing a debt, settling disputes between peasants and mediating regional central power for the satisfaction of their just demands.

Within the social and economic upheavals of the fourth and fifth centuries, the class of the wealthy patrons of the provinces disappeared and local communities were faced with a void. To fill this position there emerged saints, often against their will - as they had chosen the lonely and the eremitic path - responding to calls from the local community. Thus we see saints negotiating with attackers, with envoys of the emperor, etc., representing the people of their region. Moreover, the saints, having won the confidence of the people of their province, often were called to act as mediator, or arbitrator, in local disputes.

In the Life of Saint Porphyrios we see a prime example of such a role of the saint. This is not so much of an arbitrating role, since Gaza was still inhabited by a pagan majority, but as an envoy of the local community to the central power. Gaza was probably a special case at the time, as the Christian minority was continuing to be oppressed by the majority. They were not able to assume political office, nor to farm the land - and all this at a time when Arcadius ruled in Constantinople and the "most venerable" John, that is Chrysostom, sat on the archiepiscopal throne. Bishop Porphyrios was sent to the capital as a representative of the Christian community in order to defend their rights, asking the help of the central government. Indeed, after meetings with both the Patriarch and the Empress, he accomplished his mission of bringing imperial aid to Christians in Gaza.

The Life of Saint Porphyrios offers many more interesting examples, both historically and theologically. In the second there is a striking similarity in the lives of the saints throughout the ages. Living with complete landlessness, fasting and prayer, Saint Porphyrios was made worthy of great gifts, such as the gift of wonderworking and foresight. Regarding landlessness it is worth mentioning that when he followed the monastic life he distributed his entire large property in Thessaloniki. Deacon Mark, who had undertaken this process, notes that the realization of assets gathered from this was over 4,500 gold coins. (This compares to an annual income of a mason in those days which drew in only 10 gold coins). And, as happens constantly in every era, the Bishop, because of his position, faced various difficult problems with believers. Instead of making immediate decisions, Saint Porphyrios devoted at first time to fasting and prayer and then left the matter to the will of God, which was manifested in many ways. So with his practical example, he showed the right attitude of every Christian, regardless of time and place.

Reading the lives of the saints always has spiritual benefits, regardless of the time or distance that separates us from their earthly presence. In our times, we have the special blessing of the circulation of many such books in an understandable language. Let us pray that they urge us all to imitate the life of these admirable people who glorified human nature and were glorified by God.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΠΟΡΦΥΡΙΟΣ ΓΑΖΗΣ ΚΑΙ Ο ΚΟΣΜΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΥΣΤΕΡΗΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΤΗΤΑΣ", February 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.