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E07082: The Greek Life of *Aberkios (bishop of Hierapolis, S02695) recounts the story of a bishop who supposedly converted Hierapolis in the 2nd century. It describes his miracles, including the exorcism of the emperor’s daughter in Rome, and missionary journeys in Syria, Cilicia, and Mesopotamia, for which he was styled Isapostolos, ‘equal to the Apostles.’ He died peacefully and was buried in a tomb with an inscription. Written in Hierapolis of Phrygia (west central Asia Minor) in the late 4th or 5th century.

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posted on 09.11.2018, 00:00 by erizos
The Life of Aberkios (BHG 2, 3)

(sections after Nissen’s edition of BHG 2)

The conversion of Hierapolis
1-6. During the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Verus an edict was promulgated which ordered all the citizens of the empire to perform sacrifices and offer libations to the gods. Publius Dolabella, governor of Phrygia Salutaris, enforced the edict in his province. Aberkios, who was bishop of the city of Hierapolis, saw some citizens celebrating these pagan rituals, and prayed to God in order to free the city from the abomination of pagan cults. While sleeping, Aberkios had a vision of a young man, instructing him to smash the culprits of the situation. He then entered the temple of Apollo and destroyed the statues of the gods. He instructed the priests to report the event to the city council. Next day, an assembly was held in the pagan temple. People thought Aberkios had accomplices, while some councillors suggested arresting them and sending them to the governor for trial. The common people, seeing the destruction, were infuriated and wanted to burn Aberkios in his house.

7-11. Aberkios was warned by his disciples about the mob, and was advised to flee. Instead, he decided to preach the gospel openly, went out to a square named Phragellion (flagellum) or Phrougin (Phrygium), and started preaching. At this point, the angry mob arrived, but, as it was about to lynch him, thee young men possessed by demons emerged, asking of Aberkios not to torment them. Aberkios prayed and exorcised them, hitting them with his staff.

12-19. The crowd was astonished, and many were converted. Aberkios gave a speech, exhorting them to abstain from evil, confess and convert. At the ninth hour, he cured some sick people and returned home, followed by a crowd who spent the night outside his door. Early in the morning, he came out and found them there. He took them to church and baptised them, in total 500 men. His fame grew and many people from Phrygia and the neighbouring provinces of Asia, Caria, and Lydia visited him, asking to be cured and baptised.

20-23. Aberkios cured a blind woman named Phrygella, mother of Euxeinianos, son of Pollion, an important man and friend of the emperor. She was cured of her blindness when she converted and was baptised, after which she donated half of fortune to the poor.

24-30. While he was preaching, another three blind old women came to him. While he prayed on them, a miraculous light surrounded them. Each of the three women had a different vision, seeing an handsome old man, a beardless young man, and a child. After the miracle, Aberkios returned home, said the prayers of the ninth hour and had a meal.

31-38. Euxeinianos, the son of Phrygella, visited Aberkios, in order to thank him for healing his mother and offer him money. They have a philosophical discussion about human nature and freedom to choose between good and evil.

39-40. Aberkios and his disciples visited villages around the city, curing sick people. While visiting a site called Agros, he prayed and caused a spring of hot water to gush forth from the ground. He instructed the locals to dig deep holes and bathe in the waters.

The emperor’s daughter
41-43. A demon took the form of a woman and approached Abercius. The saint recognised that the woman was a demon and, turning away from her, he hit his foot on a rock. The demon took his normal form and mocked Aberkios, announcing that he was much more powerful that the other demons which Abercius had driven away. He then entered a young man who was nearby, but Aberkios exorcised him. The spirit warned Aberkios that he would force him to go to Rome against his own will. Dismayed by this, Aberkios fasted and prayed for seven days, till he had a vision which reassured him that he would go to Rome by God’s will, in order to support the local faithful.

44-45. Meanwhile, the powerful demon went to Rome and possessed the daughter of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, named Lucilla. Her mother Faustina and her father Antoninus were in pain for her, especially because of her imminent wedding with Lucius Verus. Lucius was fighting in the east against Bulogesos, king of the Parthians, and it was planned that he would meet his co-emperor Antoninus at Ephesus, and marry Lucilla at the temple of Artemis later that year. Fearing that Lucius would not marry his daughter while she was possessed, Antoninus postponed the meeting, adducing an invasion of Germans as an excuse. Lucius received the letter and went to Antioch.

46-49. Antoninus called various pagan priests and augurs who tried unsuccessfully to free his daughter from the demon. The spirit said that he would not leave the girl unless Aberkios came. At the suggestion of Prefect Cornelianus, the emperor wrote to his friend Euxeinianos, and asked him to send Aberkios to Rome, because he had heard that this Christian bishop could cure people possessed by demons.

50-55. The magistriani Valerius and Bassianus went to Hierapolis to deliver the emperor’s letter. They arrived in Hierapolis at the ninth hour, and by coincidence met Aberkios who was returning home. They asked Abercius where Euxeinianos was. He asked back why they were looking for him, and one of them tried to hit him. However, his hand was miraculously paralysed. Aberkios healed it, and led them to Euxeinianos who read the letter and asked Aberkios to go to Rome. Aberkios accepted and asked the emperors’ envoys to leave without him, foretelling that they would meet him at Portus in exactly 40 days.

56-59. Aberkios set off by land, taking some bread, oil, wine and vinegar in a bag. On the way, he met a farmer named Trophimion, and asked him to join him. While travelling, a miracle happened. Every time Trophimion opened the bag, either wine or oil or vinegar came out, according to the needs of the moment. They arrived in Attaleia in Pamphylia, where they took a ship for Rome and arrived in Portus, three days before the magistriani. They led Aberkios to the Prefect Kornelianos and the empress Faustina, since the emperor was on a campaign against the Germans.

60-66. Faustina implored Aberkios to free her daughter from the demon, promising him gifts. When he met the girl, the demon mocked him saying that he had succeeded in bringing him to Rome. The girl was taken out to the hippodrome, where Aberkios exorcised her, ordering the demon to take a heavy marble altar from the hippodrome and set it up by the south gate of Hierapolis. The spirit left the girl and lifted up the altar, as ordered. The girl was left speechless, so that Faustina feared that she had died, but Aberkios showed them that the girl was fine. Faustina offered again gifts to Aberkios. He asked that a thermal bath be built at the site where he had caused the thermal spring to appear, and that three thousand modii of grain be distributed to the poor of Hieraopolis. From that moment, the spa was called Agros Thermon (‘Field of Hot Baths’). The distribution of grain continued till Julian the Apostate abolished it.

Missions in the East and return to Hierapolis
67-71. Aberkios stayed in Rome for a long time, teaching in the local churches and restoring their unity. Then, he had a vision of God telling him to go to Syria, and convinced Faustina to let him go. He visited Antioch, Apamea, Seleucia and all the cities in the region, reconciling the churches of the region, which were divided by the Marcionite heresy. Then, he crossed the Euphrates and did the same to the churches near Nisibis and in Mesopotamia. Many people wanted to give him gifts, but he refused them all. Then a certain Barchasanes, who was very rich, proposed to have him declared 'equal to the Apostles' (isapostolos), for no one had gone so far by land and by sea for the benefit of Christians apart from the Apostles. This was how Aberkios took this title. Then, Aberkios went to Cilicia, Lycaonia, Pisidia, till he reached Synnada, the capital of Phrygia Minor.

72-73. Setting off for Hierapolis, he arrived in a place called Aulon, where some farmers were winnowing grain. As they refused to talk to him and give him some water, Aberkios cursed them to never to have food sufficiency again, which indeed has happened.

74-75. At Hierapolis, a great crowd gathered to welcome him. Soon, he started to go around the city again preaching the Gospel, baptising, healing the sick and exorcising demoniacs. He also wrote a book on Christian doctrine. One day, while he was on a mountain with his disciples, he prayed and a spring came out. They called that site Gonyklisia (‘genuflection’).

76-77. After some time, he had a vision of God telling him that he would die. He had a quadrangular mausoleum built for himself, and set up on it the altar which he had forced the demon to bring from Rome. On the stone there was an epigram which was understood in a different way by Christians and pagans.

78-80. Aberkios called the clerics and faithful and gave a speech, announcing his imminent death and asking them to elect a new bishop. They unanimously chose their chief presbyter, also named Aberkios. After a while, the saint raised his hands to the sky, praised God, and died. According to the Roman calendar, it was 22 October.

Text: Nissen 1912.
Summary: Giovanni Hermanin De Reichenfeld and Efthymios Rizos.

History

Evidence ID

E07082

Saint Name

Aberkios, bishop of Hierapolis, ob. 2nd c. : S02695

Saint Name in Source

Ἀβέρκιος

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives

Language

Greek

Evidence not before

363

Evidence not after

450

Activity not before

363

Activity not after

450

Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Hierapolis

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Hierapolis Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Punishing miracle Miracles causing conversion Material support (supply of food, water, drink, money) Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Exorcism Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future) Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Pagans Women Monarchs and their family Aristocrats

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body

Source

For the manuscript tradition of the saint's hagiographical dossier, see: http://pinakes.irht.cnrs.fr/notices/saint/3/

Discussion

The Life of Aberkios is an important hagiographical work of Phrygia, probably produced in the later 4th century. The reference to Julian the Apostate in paragraph 66 gives a terminus post quem of the emperor’s death in 363. The text also uses a theologically archaic formula, referring to Jesus as the Servant (pais) of God (BHG 2, ch. 11). Originally deriving from Acts (4.26; 3.13; 3.26), this phrase occurs in early hagiographic texts from Anatolia, but fell out of use during the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries. Finally, the whole narrative shares several common themes with other 4th c. hagiographic legends about miracle-working bishops from Anatolia, especially the Lives of *Polycarp of Smyrna (E00453), *Gregory the Miracle Worker (E01878), and *Athenogenes of Pedachthoe (E02993). The Life of Aberkios certainly reflects a similar style of writing on the subject, and employs the same topoi and motifs as these vitae, especially with regard to the types of miracles performed by the hero. Our text is also closely related to, and very probably contemporary with another piece of Phrygian hagiography, the Martyrdom of Areadne of Prymnessos (E02474). They share a similar episode of destruction of pagan temples and subsequent conversion of pagans en masse, and, most importantly, both of them use early Roman inscriptions as a source of information. Much like the Martyrdom of Areadne, our text is sufficiently well informed about the early Roman historical context it purports to reflect. The author knows the names of Marcus Aurelius’ family, is aware of Lucius Verus’ wars against Vologases IV, king of the Parthians, and of his marriage with Marcus’ daughter, Lucilla at Ephesus in AD 164. All this, of course, is anachronistically understood in late antique terms, as Marcus Aurelius is described as emperor of the West, and Lucius Verus as his co-emperor of the East; Aberkios is summoned to Rome by magistriani/veredarii, which is an office established in the early 4th century; the author constantly refers to the local province as Phrygia Salutaris, which was created under Diocletian. The role of inscriptions as a source for composing a convincing 2nd c. setting for the story is the salient feature of the text. The most important of these documents was an epitaph from a tomb outside the town of Hierapolis, which, as the author states, was understood in a different manner by pagans and Christians. A fragment of an inscription preserving much of the text quoted by the Life of Aberkios was discovered by Willian Ramsay in the 19th century. Since then, there has been a long debate among scholars as to whether the inscription was indeed Christian or not. The so-called inscription of Abercius is still regarded by many as the earliest extant Christian inscription. In all likelihood, however, that is not the case. The piece discovered by Ramsay was not dedicated by an Aberkios, but by an Alexandros. It seems that the hagiographer of Aberkios worked just like the author of the Martyrdom of Areadne. He partly copied an early Roman inscription, unrelated to Christianity, and used it as the basis for constructing a narrative about his hero. As P. Thonemann (2012) has argued, the text provides a Christian narrative justifying a number of monuments and sites around the city, and creating a narrative of Christian rebirth for the entire civic community. It is unknown whether the memory of bishop Aberkios has a historical basis. The hero’s presumed missionary journeys in the East are evidently based on the early Roman epitaph. It is possible that the figure of Aberkios of Hierapolis was based on Avercius Marcellus (Auirkios Markellos), the recipient of an anti-Montanist letter which is quoted in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (5.16.3). Avercius Marcellus is otherwise unattested and it is unknown whether he was a bishop and where he was based. His interest in Montanism favours his association with Phrygia, and it is possible that the memory of this early Christian figure furnished the protagonist of the legend of Aberkios of Hierapolis. The narrative is otherwise based on hagiographical topoi of the period, the local topography of the city and surroundings of Hierapolis, and inscriptions. The text is also thought to quote extensively from a lost Greek version of the Acts of Peter, an apostolic apocryphal text of the 3rd century.

Bibliography

Text: Nissen, T. Sancti Abercii Vita (Leipzig, 1912). https://archive.org/details/saberciivita00aber Further reading: Döhler, M. Acta Petri. Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den Actus Vercellenses (Berlin, 2018). Mitchell, M. M. “Looking for Abercius: Reimagining Contexts of Interpretation of the ‘Earliest Christian Inscription,’” in: L. Brink and D. Green (ed.), Commemorating the Dead, Texts and Artifacts in Context: Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials (Berlin/New York, 2008), 303-335. Thonemann, P. "Abercius of Hierapolis: Christianization of social memory in late antique Asia Minor," in: B. Dignas, and R.R.R. Smith (eds.), Historical and Religious Memory in the Ancient World (Oxford, 2012), 257-282.

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