The Life of Severus of Antioch – part 4

The pagan Asclepiodotus has passed off the illegitimate child of a priestess of Isis as the child of his sterile wife, claiming that Isis had cured her.  The student Paralios, vacillating between his pagan friends, and Stephen, the friend of his Christian brother Athanasius, has learned the story.

Paralios, believing that this story was true, made it known to his brother, and to those who were with him, as a remarkable thing.  He said that this demonstration from facts had greater force than any argument from logic, and he gloried in it as an obvious pagan miracle.  The divine Stephen, having heard the story of this nonsense, said to Paralios, “If a sterile woman, my friend, has given birth, she will also have milk, and the pagans must verify the matter, by the intermediary of an honourable lady of a family known at Alexandria.  She can see it and establish this prodigy and miracle, and so it will not seem that the daughter of an important official of Caria, and the wife of a philosopher, is insulted (?).”  This language seemed reasonable, and Paralios forwarded the proposal of the monks to the pagan philosophers.  But these, thinking that nobody could be allowed to impugn this fabulous story, said to Paralios, “How dare you demand the impossible!  Do you think to persuade people [the philosophers] who remain unshakeably attached to the truth, and who don’t waste time on things of this sort?”  But as it seemed ……………. sent …………….. so the outcome for Paralios was that he moved away from the teachings of the pagans.

He produced yet another fact, which is as follows.  While at Menouthis, Paralios saw Isis, i.e. the demon who this goddess represents, who said to him in a dream, “Beware of that one, he’s a magician.”  Now it happened that the man in question had also come to learn grammar, and studied with the (same) master and that the demon revealed to him (the same thing) about Paralios, when he went to Menouthis.  Each made his vision known to his friends at the school of Horapollon, and each learned what his fellow-pupil said about him, and each was persuaded that he was telling the truth and that his fellow-pupil was lying.

Also Paralios recalled the teaching of the great Stephen; he remembered that both Stephen and Athanasius had spoken long discourses with him on the evils of the malevolent demons, telling him that these were in the habit of stirring up men, one against another, because they enjoyed wars and fighting and were the enemies of peace.

However Paralios wanted to know the truth about these things.  Indeed he reflected on what was the custom of the demon, and about the error, and about what went on in these places.  Until then he believed that his companion was lying.  So he returned to Menouthis.  He offered the customary sacrifices to the demon and prayed that he would let him know by an oracle if it was himself who was a magician, or his enemy, and whether such an oracle had really been given to both of them.   The demon, not tolerating the idea that the oracles in question might be tainted by contradiction and wickedness, did not deign to reply.  Paralios then begged the demon for a number of days not to leave the question unanswered because, he said, he wouldn’t try to refuse him, or the other gods, his submission and honours if he received entire satisfaction on this subject.  The demon persevered in his silence, and didn’t even give him sight of the customary illusion of his epiphany.  After waiting for a long time and offering many sacrifices, Paralios grew angry, and had no more doubts about the wicked teaching of the demons.  He praised the great Stephen, who had really told him the truth, and he prayed, as the latter had told him to do, “Creator of all things (etc.)”, adding these words by the great Stephen, “Show me your truth and do not let me be seduced by this demon who loves fighting, who arms men against each other and who stirs up quarrels; nor by the other evil demons like him.”  In fact he had been advised to address a prayer to the creator of everything, because it was desired to get rid of, immediately, the invocation of the gods of the pagans and the demons, of Chronos, Zeus, Isis, and names of that sort, and to accustom him little by little to the truth of the teachings [of the gospel]; it was desired that he should recognise no other creator of everything than our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the Father made the world, the principalities, the powers, and the dominations, as it is written, “All things were made by him,” says the Theologian, “and nothing was made without him.”  After this prayer, Paralios returned to Alexandria.  He uttered many words against the gods of the pagans, saying with David, “All the gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord is the creator of the heavens.”

He mocked Horapollon, Heraiscus, Ammonius, and Isidore (who finished up being recognised as a manifest and troublesome magician) and the rest of the pagans, (jeering) at what went on at Menouthis, the impurities of all kinds and the lubricity of the priestess of Isis, affirming that she engaged in debauchery with anybody who wanted to, that she was no different to a prostitute who gives herself to the first man who comes along.

The pupils of Horapollon, who were attached to the follies of the pagans, could not bear the sarcasm and  reproaches of Paralios.  So they fell upon him in the very school where they were studying.  They waited for the moment when few Christians were present and when Horapollon had left.

It was the sixth day of the week, which is called Friday, during which all the other professors, so to speak, used to teach and expound at home.  Paralios was beaten up; his head was a mass of bruises and his whole body was covered with some kind of injury.  After succeeding, with difficulty, in getting a little away from them — he had a robust constitution — he sought refuge and assistance with the Christians, while a mob of pagans surrounded him and kicked him.  Now we were present at that moment, having a philosophy course.  The philosophers as well as Horapollon used to teach in the school on Friday as normal.  There were three of us; myself, Thomas the sophist, who loved Christ in all things (he is with me in Gaza), and Zenodotus of Lesbos.  As we were constantly in the churches with those who are called (at Alexandria) Philoponoi, and in other places are called “zealots”, and in still others “companions”, and as we appeared rather redoubtable (to the pagan pupils) to some degree, we approached the troublemakers, who were many, and told them that they were not doing well at all, in making someone suffer so who wanted to become a Christian.  It was, indeed, what Paralios was shouting.  The pagans wanted to deceive us and soothe us with their claims, saying, “We’ve no quarrel with you, but we will avenge ourselves on Paralios as an enemy.”

Since Christianity was the state religion, and paganism was illegal, there must have been a definite undercurrent here.  Ancient states were not policed, so a great deal could go on that was in theory illegal.  So it came down to pressure. Zacharias and his friends were implicitly saying, “You don’t want us to report you as pagans to the authorities here, do you?”  And the pagans were saying, “This isn’t a Christian-pagan thing; this guy has insulted us and is getting some payback.”

It’s notable that Zacharias does not disguise that Paralios had indeed provoked a riot, and was now playing “the religion card”.   This might have been unintelligible a century ago.  Sadly it is not so now.

We’re all familiar with how the “race card” can be played today by unscrupulous members of ethnic minorities.  Indeed I recall a Nigerian IT contractor in one job, who had consistently refused to do what he was told and kept interfering with an important computer system.  My boss of the time, a very diffident and somewhat leftist man, had no choice other than to sack him and have him escorted off site, or else be sacked himself.  The security staff arrived to march the Nigerian to the exit; whereupon the latter suddenly discovered that he was a victim of “racism”, and shouted this claim all the way to the gate.   It was a false claim, but one that gave him power.  Sadly for him his misconduct was inarguable.

Likewise anybody who has read the History of the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria will recognise how disputes between individuals often led to one side claiming to be Moslems in order to bring down the state on their foes.

It seems that, when equality before the law is lost, when the rulers of a state privilege some group on ideological grounds, non-members of that group will continually endure injustice on all sorts of occasions from the unscrupulous.  Clearly something similar prevailed in the 6th century in Alexandria.

Did Paralios really convert at Menouthis?  The story indicates that there was only his word for it.  I suspect that we may reasonably doubt it; and we may reasonably suppose that he merely claimed this later.   Probably he was still vacillating when he came back to Alexandria, but was very annoyed with the shrine at Menouthis and its supporters.  On this theory, once in a dispute with his fellow pagans that he was going to lose, the lure of the “Christian card” was too strong to resist.  It would take a man of more principle, than Paralios then was, not to use it while being beaten up!

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