Gregory Thaumaturgus, Canonical Epistle VII

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Concerning Christians who have joined with the barbarians invading the empire

Name of the author: 
Gregory Thaumaturgus
258 CE to 262 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Canonical Epistle
Canon VII

For a general introduction to Gregory Thaumaturgus, see the commentary on the Address of Thanksgiving to Origen.

During Gregory’s episcopate in Neocaesarea, Pontus (modern Niksar, Turkey ( in the mid-third century, he experienced both the edict of Decius (249/250 CE) and the subsequent persecution of Christians who refused to participate in the required universal sacrifice to the Roman gods (on this, see the discussions of Papyrus Rylands 112a and 12), and the invasions of Goths and other so-called “barbarians” in the 250s CE. It is these latter events which are the subject of the Canonical Epistle (an epigram from Paphlagonia denouncing multiple rapes by “barbarian hands” may well be referring to similar episodes to those which Gregory’s text refers to: SEG 34.1271; see also the epigrams connected with Gothic attacks on the Didyma sanctuary, which are briefly discussed in Joseph Eddy Fontenrose, Didyma: Apollo’s Oracle, p. 23-24; on the Gothic incursions see further, for example, David Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, p. 244-246; Maciej Salamon, “The Chronology of the Gothic Incursions”; Erich Kettenhofen, “Die Einfälle der Heruler ins Römische Reich”). The present letter responds to questions posed to Gregory by a neighbouring bishop, possibly the bishop of Trapezus, about the behaviour of Romans during and following the invasions of Pontus, and the dissolution of social order and lawbreaking which accompanied them. In the words of Peter Heather and John Matthews, the Epistle is a “powerful evocation of the general circumstances relevant to…Romano-Gothic relations in the mid-third century” (The Goths in the Fourth Century, p. 4). In the eleven canons which make up the Epistle, Gregory must provide some guidance regarding how the Christian community should deal with the issues presented by the barbarian invasion, including how to treat women who had been violated, and as in the present canon, the attitude which should be taken to Christians who had used the invasion to their own advantage, by joining in the plundering to enrich themselves. His advice is essentially based on the Bible, as we see at the end of the present passage.

As Heather and Matthews discuss, the Gothic invasions were the result of broader pressure mounting on the Danube frontier of the Roman empire in the third century (The Goths in the Fourth Century, p. 1). It seems that some Goths served in the Roman army in the east during the third century (an inscription dated to 208 CE seems to be the earliest evidence for this; see Michael Speidel, “The Roman Army in Arabia,” p. 712-716; we also have rabbinic sources evidencing Goths in the Roman army, something which the rabbis present very negatively; see Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, p. 235; an inscription dated to 263 CE honours a man who had apparently returned from the Barbarians after a six month period: see Louis Robert, Hellenica, Vol. 6 121, p. 117). Heather and Matthews argue that such recruitment of Goths in the Roman military might be indicative of movement of these and other peoples south and east from central Europe into the northern land of the Black Sea at the start of the third century. This migration would then result in conflict not only between Goths and Romans, but between Goths and other peoples as well (The Goths in the Fourth Century, p. 1-2). In 238 CE, the pillaging of the city of Histria at the mouth of the Danube was the first major breach of Roman territory by the Goths (see Zosimus, New History I.27, 31-6, who describes these events and the ensuing raids during the 250s CE based on the account of Dexippus’s Skythika). The mention in the present passage of Christians pointing out roads and houses to the barbarian invaders might be compared to the much later account of similar behaviour of Romans after the Gothic crossing of the Danube in 376 CE by Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History XXXI.6.6-7, who describes how certain Romans who were unhappy with paying taxes supported the barbarians by showing them hidden grain stores and hiding places, to the degree that nowhere was safe from destruction.

In this section of Gregory’s epistle, the subjects of the discussion seem to be Christians originally taken by the barbarians as prisoners, but who have subsequently chosen to remain in their forces (“forgetting that they were from Pontus”) committing atrocities against their own people (ὁμόφυλος/omophylos) in Pontus. There is literary evidence which suggests that certain Gothic tribes increased their numbers by making prisoners full members of their groups, but according to Heather and Matthew, this was not the case with the captive Christians described in this passage. Rather, they argue, Gregory is here concerned with Christians who only remained with the barbarians while they were in Roman territory, as this way they remained under Roman episcopal jurisdiction (The Goths in the Fourth Century, p. 8, n. 20). Their suggestion is supported by the fact that the passage concludes with Gregory’s recommendation that such individuals ought not to be allowed in the public congregations until the local church councils (and the Holy Spirit) have properly decided how best to deal with them (Acts 15: 22-28 is seemingly drawn upon here, which describes the sending of Silas and Judas, two members of the church council in Jerusalem, with Paul and Barnabas to the Gentile churches in order to ensure the council’s instructions are being adhered to).

Unlike the individuals that Ammianus Marcellinus describes as helping the barbarians in the fourth century (whom he describes as reacting to their taxation situation under the imperial regime), Gregory’s third century Christians seem rather to have been caught up in the commotion and ‘mob mentality’ of the barbarian invasions. It is not suggested that we have here any particular intention from the Christians of Pontus to join in the violence and ransacking out of specific dissatisfaction with imperial power, as despite having potentially witnessed/experienced a certain degree of persecution following Decius’s edict, it is made clear by Gregory that it is really just their fellow citizens of Pontus who bear the brunt of their violence. Rather, it appears that some Christians were simply among those citizens of the empire who saw some opportunity in engaging in the rioting which was happening around them, in some cases after they had been taken captive by the barbarians. That they are still described as needing to be dealt with by the local church councils, however, tells us that at least some of these Christians were only willing to go so far, and apparently still wished to remain within their communities after having engaged in atrocities during barbarian invasion.

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Gregory Thaumaturgus, Canonical Epistle VII
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 18:54
Visited: Tue, 04/23/2019 - 06:51

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