Saints of the Week: Acindynus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidophorus and Anempodistus of Persia

Here they are in a very Byzantine icon.

Today on All Saints Day, I bring back the saint of the week. And this week, you get five-for-one! These five saints are martyrs commemorated on 2 November in the Orthodox Church. I am uncertain whether they are remembered by the Miaphysite communions and the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East, but I expect they are, given the year and location of their martyrdom.

The typical version of church history we all know and love paints a fairly grim picture of life before Constantine (which wasn’t as bad as you’d think) and then transpires the Peace of the Church. Persecution is over! Churches can be built publicly — even at public expense! Bishops can live in the open — with tax exemptions! And so on and so forth.

There is a debate as to whether the Peace of the Church was a good thing or not.

But you know whom it did not necessarily profit?

Christians outside the Roman Empire.

Christians within the Empire became a protected species. And the Roman Emperor came to see himself as the great patron of all Christians, whether they were his subjects or not. At times, this meant telling the Persian Emperor what to do, which was not the sort of thing that went down well with Persian Emperors — particularly Shapur II ‘the Great’, the longest-reigning Sassanian monarch (r. 309-379).

It also meant that when hostilities between the two Empires ramped up (a frequent occurance), Christians in Persian lands could become targets of the Sassanian monarchy — seen as foreign sympathisers. Christians often felt safer within Roman territory; thus, when the city of Nisibis fell to the Persian army in 363, St Ephraim the Syrian and a group of Syriac-speaking ecclesiastics moved the School of Nisibis to the city of Edessa in Roman territory.

During Shapur’s golden era, the Christians of Persia encountered persecution just as their siblings of Roman lands had in years past. For the most part, it seems that Shapur’s targets were high-level ecclesiastics such as Shemon Bar Shabbae or Bishop Acepsimas of Hnaita.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Persian Christianity in Late Antiquity or the sources for Byzantine hagiography to corroborate the story of the five martyrs for this week, so what I’m telling you about the events of 376 should be taken with caution — I take it from abbamoses.com. In fact, I’ll just reproduce it here for you:

Acindynus, Pegasius and Anempodistus were courtiers to King Shapur II of Persia. When the king began a fierce persecution of Christians, the three withdrew from court to a private house and, fearless of their own safety, openly exhorted their fellow-Christians to stand firm in their faith. For this they were arrested and brought before their former lord, who subjected them to many cruel tortures, from which they emerged miraculously unscathed. Seeing this, one of the king’s soldiers, named Aphthonius, embraced the Faith and was immediately beheaded. The former courtiers were then put to further tortures, but their only effect was to convince Elpidophorus, a distinguished nobleman, and seven thousand other Persians to faith in Christ. All were beheaded, but not before receiving holy Baptism. The trials of the three continued, but once again they were preserved, and even the king’s mother was led to the true faith. Finally they were killed (the account does not say how), receiving the crown of martyrdom along with the king’s mother and twenty-eight others.

This could likely be true. It’s at least the same sort of story as we find about martyrs under the Romans. Again, I have no knowledge of the sources for this quintet of martyrs so cannot say one way or the other. The Persian persecutions serve to remind us of the wider world of Christianity, not just today, but throughout all generations. It is common to remind people that Christianity was not born in Europe — it is also worth keeping in mind that the missions and growth of the Church in the Patristic period did not restrict themselves to the Roman Empire.

They also remind us that Christians in the lands of the former Persian Empire face persecution to this day, whether from the likes of ISIS or the legitimised government of Iran.

A Story Involving Relics from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor

In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:

After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)

According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.

This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).

Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.

Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.

Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.