Who was Severian of Gabala? And do we care?
In Gennadius’ continuation of Jerome’s On Famous Men, c. 31, we read:
Severianus, bishop of the church of Gabala, was learned in the Holy Scriptures and a wonderful preacher of homilies. On this account he was frequently summoned by the bishop John [Chrysostom] and the emperor Arcadius to preach a sermon at Constantinople. I have read his Exposition of the epistle to the Galatians and a most attractive little work On baptism and the feast of Epiphany. He died in the reign of Theodosius, his son by baptism.
As we learn from Socrates (book 6, c.11-16) Severian was from Syria, and spoke in a definite but pleasant Syrian accent. His abilities as a preacher made him welcome in Constantinople at the end of the 4th century AD, when John Chrysostom was Bishop. Among his friends was the empress Eudoxia. Unfortunately he fell out with one of Chrysostom’s subordinates, the administrator Serapion, a man who could make enemies with a blink of an eye. Even the pro-Chrysostom Socrates writes:
But Serapion’s arrogance no one could bear; for thus having won John’s unbounded confidence and regard, he was so puffed up by it that he treated every one with contempt. And on this account also animosity was inflamed the more against the bishop.
On one occasion when Severian passed by him, Serapion neglected to pay him the homage due to a bishop, but continued seated [instead of rising], indicating plainly how little he cared for his presence. Severian, unable to endure patiently this [supposed] rudeness and contempt, said with a loud voice to those present, `If Serapion should die a Christian, Christ has not become incarnate.’
Serapion, taking occasion from this remark, publicly incited Chrysostom to enmity against Severian: for suppressing the conditional clause of the sentence, `If Serapion die a Christian,’ and saying that he had made the assertion that `Christ has not become incarnate,’ he brought several witnesses of his own party to sustain this charge. But on being informed of this the Empress Eudoxia severely reprimanded John, and ordered that Severian should be immediately recalled from Chalcedon in Bithynia.
He returned forthwith; but John would hold no intercourse whatever with him, nor did he listen to any one urging him to do so, until at length the Empress Eudoxia herself, in the church called The Apostles, placed her son Theodosius, who now so happily reigns, but was then quite an infant, before John’s knees, and adjuring him repeatedly by the young prince her son, with difficulty prevailed upon him to be reconciled to Severian. In this manner then these men were outwardly reconciled; but they nevertheless continued cherishing a rancorous feeling toward each other. Such was the origin of the animosity [of John] against Severian.
From this we learn that Severian was the victim of an intrigue in which he was banished by Chrysostom, and restored by the efforts of the empress. Severian became an enemy of Chrysostom, which led him into bad company. He took part in the Synod of the Oak, organised by the evil Theophilus of Alexandria, which deposed and exiled Chrysostom in 403 AD. He died some time after 408.
Some of Severian’s works have reached us, although it is not quite clear what. It seems that some work is needed in this area! The commentary on Galatians is lost, unless some fragments are preserved in catenas. Quasten states that around 30 sermons are extant. The Clavis Patrum Graecorum vol. 2 assigns CPG 4185-4295 to Severian.
Most of the works were preserved, ironically, under Chrysostom’s name. There are at least 15 homilies in Greek, and probably the same again in Armenian, not all genuine.
The most important of his works now extant are the 6 sermons On the Six days of Creation. According to Quasten these take a very literal approach, to the point of absurdity. They are printed in PG 56, 429-500, and also in Savile’s edition of Chrysostom, in vol. 7, p. 587-640. Fragments also exist in later writers, including Cosmas Indicopleustes, who tells us that the author was Severian, not Chrysostom. A Coptic version of Sermon 6 exists; fragments also exist in Armenian; and 7 sermons (not 6!) in Christian Arabic. CPG 4217 is the remains of a further sermon on the same subject, and it seems that the Arabic seventh sermon is a translation of the full text of this.
The CPG list seems the most comprehensive. It also lists three unpublished sermons. There’s also a Syriac sermon on the Nativity of Our Lord, which might be interesting for the history of Christmas considering its early date.
There was interest in producing a critical edition of his works. The article to read is apparently C. Datema: “Towards a critical edition of the Greek Homilies of Severian of Gabala“, Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 19, 1988, 107-115. I’ve not seen this, tho, and it does not seem to be in JSTOR. The project was to be continued by Karl-Heinz Uthemann, and published by GCS. Holger Villadsen in Denmark was to do the homilies on Genesis, and did collect 11 manuscripts in microfilm, but had to pull out.
A christological treatise was edited by Michel Aubineau in Cahiers d’orientalisme n° 5 (1983). The BBKL bibliography is probably fairly up-to-date, although I always find their articles hard to read!