Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“The Scriptures Destroyed by Fire” ~ An official Roman transcript from the Great Persecution of AD 304

Modern depiction of the Library of Alexandria aflame ~
not by Christians but by Julius Caesar in 48 BC.
It is a common theme in our post-Christian age to tar the early Church with certain atrocities against philosophy and science. One of the accusations most commonly trotted out is that the Christians burned the world-famous library at Alexandria. This "perniciously persistent" myth is tidily demolished by David Bentley Hart in a 2010 article in First Things. But even if the myth were true, the Roman Christians had a model to follow in that Hellenistic pagans themselves consigned Christian books to the flames during the persecutions. For a period of about eight years in the early 4th century AD, it was mandated by law that Christian books be burned, and Roman authorities went door-to-door in certain cities searching for them.

During the earliest phase of the Great Persecution under the emperors Diocletian and Galerius, beginning an AD 303, an edict was promulgated demanding that all Christian books be burned. Here is the mention of this edict from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, written about 20-30 years after the event:
"It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian's reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour's Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire...
Early Christian churches often housed libraries of valuable scriptural, catechetical, and historical works. But because churches were easy targets for persecutors, copies of Christian Scriptures and other books were dispersed in the homes of the minor orders: subdeacons, lectors and even grave-diggers.

Young man holding a codex.
Fresco from the catacomb of
Sts. Peter and Marcellinus,
Rome, 3rd century AD.
We know that the burning of Christian books by imperial mandate did happen thanks to notices in other historical sources, including a fascinating Roman legal report taken in the city of Cirta in the province of Numidia. This report was read out during a trial in AD 320 and is drawn from the municipal acts of Cirta recorded by the curator Munatius Felix, a pagan.

This transcript is interesting for at least three reasons. First, it corroborates that the persecution initiated by Diocletian and Galerius in the east, took place in Africa as well, which was a province under the control of the co-Augustus of the west, Maximianus. Second, it reveals the level of thoroughness and stark detail that went into Roman legal reporting. Third, it demonstrates quite clearly that not all Christians died heroic deaths during the persecution--indeed, many became "traditores" who willingly handed over the Sacred Scriptures to save their own lives.

Here is the full transcript dated May 19, AD 304:
In the consulate of Diocletian the Eighth, and Maximinian the Seventh, on the nineteenth of May, from the Acts of Munatius Felix the perpetual flamen, the guardian of the colony at Cirta.

When they came to the house in which the Christians were accustomed to assemble, Felix the flamen and guardian of the state said to Paul the Bishop: "Bring out the Scriptures of the Law, and anything else that you may have here, as has been commanded, that you may obey the order."

Paul the Bishop said: "The lectors have the Scriptures. But we surrender what we have here."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Paul the Bishop: "Show us the lectors or send to them."

Paul the Bishop said: "You all know them."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "We do not know them."

Paul the Bishop said: "The public officers know them—that is Edusius and Junius, the notaries."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "Let the matter of the lectors stand over. They will be pointed out by the public officers. Do you surrender what you have."

In the presence of Paul the Bishop (who remained seated), of Montanus and Victor of Deusatelium, and Memorius priests, Mars and Helius the deacons, Marcuclius, Catullinus, Silvanus and Carosus the subdeacons standing by with Januarius, Meraclus, Fructuosus, Migginis, Saturninus, Victor and the rest of the grave-diggers, Victor of Aufidus made this brief inventory against them.

Two golden chalices, also six silver chalices, six silver pots, a silver chafing vessel, seven silver lamps, two torches, seven short brass candlesticks with their lamps, also eleven brass candlesticks with their chains, eighty-two women's garments, thirty-eight veils, sixteen men's garments, thirteen pair of men's shoes, forty-seven pair of women's shoes, eighteen pattens for the country.'

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius, Silvanus and Carosus the grave-diggers: "Bring forth whatever you have."

Silvanus and Carosus said: "All that was here we have thrown out."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius, Silvanus and Carosus: "Your answer is set down in the Acts."

After the cupboards in the bookcases had been found to be empty, Silvanus brought forth a silver casket, and a silver candlestick, for he said that he had found them behind a jug.

Victor of Aufidus said to Silvanus: "Had you not found these things, you were a dead man."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Silvanus: "Search more carefully, lest anything else should have been left behind."

Silvanus said: "Nothing has been left behind. This is all----what we have thrown out."

And when the dining-room was opened, there were found in it four casks and six jugs.

Felix the perpetual flamen and life-guardian of the state said: "Bring forth whatever Scriptures you have, that we may obey the precepts and commands of the Emperors."

Catullinus brought forth one very large codex.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius and Silvanus: "Why have you given us only one codex? Bring forth the Scriptures which you have."

Catullinus and Marcuclius said: "We have no more, for we are sub-deacons, but the lectors have the codices."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius and Catullinus: "Show us the lectors."

Marcuclius and Catullinus said: "We do not know where they live."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Catullinus and Marcuclius: "If you do not know where they are living, tell us their names."

Catullinus and Marcuclius said: "We are not Traitors, behold we are here. Order us to be killed."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "Let them be taken into custody."

And when they came to the house of Eugenius, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Eugenius: "Bring forth the Scriptures which you have, that you may obey the decree."

And he brought forth four codices.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Silvanus and Carosus: "Show us the other lectors."

Silvanus and Carosus said: "The Bishop has already told you that the notaries Edusius and Junius know them all. Let them point out their houses to you."

Edusius and Junius said: "We will point them out to you, my lord."

And when they came to the house of Felix, the worker in marbles, he brought forth five codices. And when they came to the house of Victorinus, he brought forth eight codices. And when they came to the house of Projectus, he brought forth five large and two small codices.

And when they came to the house of Victor the Grammarian, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to him: "Bring forth whatever Scriptures you have, that you may obey the decree."

Victor the Grammarian brought forth two codices, and four quinions. Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Victor: "Bring forth the Scriptures. You have more."

Victor the Grammarian said: "If I had more, I would have given them."

And when they came to the house of Euticius of Caesarea, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Euticius: "Bring forth the Scriptures which you have, that you may obey the decree."

Euticius said: "I have none."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Euticius: "Your statement is set down in the Acts."

And when they came to the house of Coddeo, his wife brought forth six codices.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state then said: "Look and see whether you have not got more. Bring them forth."

The woman said: "I have no more."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Bos the public official: "Go in and search whether she has not any more."

The public official said: "I have searched and have not found anything else."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Victorinus, Silvanus and Carosus: "If anything has been kept back, the danger is yours."
This translation of the text is taken from Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (1917). More background information on this transcript and how it came down to us may be found there.

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