A Coptic life of Severian of Gabala (!)

Severian of Gabala was the enemy of John Chrysostom.  The latter’s importance necessarily involved Severian’s eclipse, and all the accounts of their quarrel are written from John’s point of view.  Or so I thought.  But an email from Albocicade, a correspondent of this blog, reveals a “Life of St. Severian of Gabala”, in the Arabic Synaxary of the monophysites.

It is understandable that the Copts would preserve some kind of account.  For although they also revere Chrysostom, it is also a fact that Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, was also an enemy of Chrysostom, and is also revered as a saint.  The rehabilitation of Severian is a necessary consequence of that of Theophilus.

Interestingly there is a mention of a Montanist congregation at Gabala.  It is perhaps doubtful that the life is anything but fiction, however.

This text was published by René Basset with a French translation in the Patrologia Orientalis 1 (1907).  It is short, so I shall give an English version from the French here.  The life of Severian follows that of “Saint Dioscorus”.

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7th day of Tut (= 4th September)

On this day rested in the Lord the Holy and Virtuous Father Severian, bishop of Gabala.  The name of his father was Valerian.  He studied profane philosophy at Athens, and went to Caesarea where he studied the sciences.  Then he returned to Rome, where he studied the ecclesiastical sciences, and learned by heart all the ancient and modern books, in a few years.  After this his parents died, leaving him a considerable and immeasurable fortune.  He wished to give this to Christ, in order to receive a hundred-fold reward in its place.  He built a hospice for strangers, the unfortunate, and the poor; he placed attendants there, to receive the money for the poor, such that even today these places are called by his name.  His uncle was the governor of the town; he complained about him to the emperor Honorius, because he had dissipated his fortune saying, “I give it to our Lord Christ in order to receive the equivalent [in heaven], as he said in his gospel.”  The emperor admired this, and ordered him not to separate himself from him in his palace, to go with him to church and to pass the entire night in prayer.  For the emperor also was a righteous man: he led the life of a monk and wore a hair-shirt under his royal robe.  The patriarch (pope) of Rome was then St. Innocent; he learned from God that Severian was doing good to huge numbers, and began to honour and venerate him.  The saint [Severian] was loved by the masses; his reputation reached Theodosius, who was reigning at Constantinople.  When the saint saw the respect in which he was held, he feared that his trouble was in vain, and decided to leave secretly.  An angel of the Lord appeared to him, and ordered him to go to the town of Gabala, where he would lead many souls.  He left by night, accompanied by his disciple Theodosius, to whom he had given the monastic habit.  The Lord sent him a light in the form of a wheel which preceded him until he arrived at Gabala.  There was there a convent at the head of which was a holy man.  He learned in a dream about St. Severian.  He went out to meet him, and made known to him his vision, and the saint was extremely surprised.  His history followed him to this place, and an innumerable crowd gathered around him.  The emperor Theodosius sent abbots to grow the convents which he founded, after an angel of the Lord had determined the place where they should be.  These became a refuge for many souls, and the Lord worked by him many miracles.

Among these, the daughter of the governor of Gabala had a demon in her, who said to her father, “If you make Severian leave this place, I will go out of her.”  When the father went to find Severian and told him about the matter, asking him to heal her, the saint wrote a note in which he said, “In the name of Jesus, the Christ, you shall go out of her.”

A troop of Samaritans and other people attached themselves to the soldiers, and wanted to get into the convent.  The saint made darkness come upon them and they remained for three days without sight, until they implored him with many tears, and he sent them away.

Likewise all the monks who were under his authority prayed over anyone who was ill and they were healed.  He encouraged and instructed each of them so well that they became like angels.

The bishop of this town was named Philadelphus.  He learned in a dream sent by God that the saint would occupy his place.  He sent to almost all the communities and recommended them to support him in order (to fulfil) the intention of God and, following the opinion of the righteous rulers and leaders, he was made bishop and began with a great struggle to protect his flock.

In that town there was a Jew named Saktar, very learned and proud that he was possessed of the law of Moses.  He went to find the saint and disputed with him, but no word was able to come out of his mouth.  Then the Lord informed him [Severian] in a dream that this man [Saktar] would be part of the blessed flock.  When Saktar returned to his house, he saw in a dream places of torment, and a voice saying, “Here are the faithless Jews and those who don’t believe in our Lord the Messiah.”  The next day he went to find St. Severian, fell at his feet and asked to become a Christian.  He baptised him, him and all the people of his house.  When the other Jews learned that their leader had become a Christian, they believed, were baptised, and became Christians as if they had been born into the religion of Christ.

Likewise there is another sect of magicians who are called Montanists.  When the saint asked them to enter the faith, they did not do so, because they had confidence in their art.  In fact, when a man came towards them, they would throw dust in his face and he would see nothing.  Then the saint asked our Lord the Messiah, with many tears, to bring them into the holy flock.  The Lord sent upon them, but not on the Christians, various illnesses like those with which the Egyptians were affected before.  They recognised that this was the consequence of their disobedience towards the saint.  They went to find him and became Christians.  The town formed but a single flock.  The demon screamed in pain and cried out, in the form of an old man with torn clothing, “I am tormented on all sides: Egypt is filled with holy monks; at Rome, there is Innocent; at Constantinople, John Chrysostom; This place remains to me, and Severian has taken it from me.”

The Persians sent a message to the kings Theodosius and Arcadius, wishing to make war.  They sent the letter to the saint.  When he learned of it, he wrote to them to comfort them: “We belong to Christ; our realm comes from Christ; we have therefore no need of arms, lances or men”; and he reminded them one by one of all the things that God had done to kings, before the forty-day fast; and the Persians went away.

As for the business of John Chrysostom with the empress, the saint came with all the bishops.  He addressed all kinds of remonstrances to the empress, saying that John Chrysostom had done nothing which deserved exile.  When she did not listen, he returned to his town.

He composed discourses, exhortations and sermons which are copied in the church down to the present.  He grew old and attained the age of 100.  Ten days before he died, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and invited him to leave.  He made his recommendations to his flock, and fell asleep in the Lord.  His death happened two years before that of St. John Chrysostom, who died the same year as Epiphanius of Cyprus.  The body of the blessed Severian was buried fittingly; funeral orations and panegyrics were made, and he was laid to rest in the tomb.  May his prayer be with us.  Amen.

5 Responses to “A Coptic life of Severian of Gabala (!)”


  1. Albocicade

    In fact, i wonder if the details of the first part may not be genuine : the name of his parents, the places where he studied, and even his hospice for the poor… I mean, it is not because there is no memory of who Severian was in the byzantine historians that there shall be none in the whole world.
    Of course, we shall be very carefull in this matter.
    The arabic-french edition of Basset can be read here :
    https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaorient01pari#page/240/mode/2up

    One thing interesting is that this text deals with the “business of Chrysostom”, though it shows Severian as a protector of John. If you have a look at the very same coptic synaxarion about Theophilos (18th of Babeh) , the name of John is not even mentionned (here : https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaorient01pari#page/344/mode/2up or in english, here : http://st-takla.org/Full-Free-Coptic-Books/Coptic-Synaxarium-or-Synaxarion_English/02-Babah/Coptic-Calendar_18-Baba.html ) nor in the “history of the patriarchs of Alexandria (here : https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaorient01pari#page/425/mode/1up )…

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for the links!

    Interesting about Theophilus!

    I fear that none of the data is likely to be genuine. Such details could easily be invented, and hagiography is more like folk-tale than history, or so I am told.

  3. Albocicade

    Indeed, that is often the case… but …
    On the other subject, I had a look also at what is said of St John Chrysostom in the coptic synaxarion (on Hatur 17th).
    We find there that “Eudoxia gathered a council of bishops whom St. John had previously excommunicated for their evil deeds” and then, after a firts exile, “the bishops gathered again and exiled him in Armenia”.
    Not a word about Theophilus, or Severian…
    The arabic text with french transaltion is here : https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaorien03pari#page/302/mode/2up
    and an english translation (made from a text a bit different) here :
    http://st-takla.org/books/en/church/synaxarium/03-hatoor/17-hator-john.html

  4. Roger Pearse

    Interesting – thank you.

  5. Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts

    […] Commentaries on Genesis 1-3: Severian of Gabala (IVP Academic), reviewed by Roger Pearse. Severian of Gabala? Pretty much the only “curious flat-earth theory” you will read this year.  Pearse has an updated bibliography on Severian and a summary of a Coptic life of Severian. […]