The life of Severus of Antioch by Zacharias Rhetor – part 1

Tidying your desktop can be perilous.  I found a PDF with the French translation of the Vita of Severus of Antioch on mine.  I had forgotten how interesting a work this was.

I know that there is an English translation out there somewhere, but of course it is inaccessible to most of us.  So I feel no compunction in translating some of the French!

Here follows the biography of holy Mar Severus, patriarch of Antioch, which was written by Zacharias the Scholastic, who studied [grammar and rhetoric] along with Severus at Alexandria, and law at Beirut.

— Where are you coming from today, O friend and comrade?

— From the Royal Portico (=στοά), my dear chap.  I have come to see you to clarify some questions that I want to put to you.  In fact I have just been upset by a libel, which appears to have a Christian as its author, but who in reality seems rather to flout Christian teaching.

— And how is that?  Tell me all.  And how did you come to read this libel?

— I was looking at the books of the booksellers who are set up at the Royal Portico — hey, you know my passion for books! — when one of those who was sitting there and selling books gave me the libel in question to read.  In this book a philosopher is defamed, slandered, jeered at and abused.  You knew him at the start of his career.  He has since distinguished himself in the episcopate and is outstanding even now by his conduct and learning of the holy scriptures.  I mean Severus, whose reputation is great among those who appreciate the good without bias.  And that’s why I feel cruelly afflicted.

— But my friend, if you have so good an opinion of Severus, why do you worry about his slanderer and defamer, whoever he may be?  It seems, in fact, from what you say, that he is only a Christian in form, and by hypocrisy, that in reality he has taken on the task instead of glorifying the pagans, and aspires only to cover them with praise, insulting the kind of people who are valued for their virtue and to whom it has been given to serve God for so many years already by this beautiful philosophy which they have shown us.

— It is not because doubt has come over me, or because I have given credence to stories made up out of malevolence, that I have come to you today.  No! But I feel afflicted, as I said.  I am afraid that readers of a simple spirit may by mischance acquire a negative opinion of the patriarch.  Also, if you really want to know — and you do — please tell me the life of Severus since his young, for the glory of God Almighty and of our saviour Jesus Christ, in whom rest those who are dedicated to the priesthood and to philosophy; I mean the true philosophy.  Please tell me from what city he was, of what people, of what family, if you do actually know these details.   Please tell me above all about his conduct, and what have been his opinions on God since his youth.  Because the slanderer has attacked him not only for his life, and his conduct, but also because, at the start of his career, he worshipped malevolent demons and idols.  In fact he said, “He was also caught offering pagan sacrifices, in Phoenicia, at the time when he was studying literature and the law.”

— But if someone defames the life of another, collecting futile and false stories about him, we must not worry about this, unless what is said contains an element of truth.  For the wicked demons and their friends slander easily the conduct of those who have conquered in virtue.  We mustn’t be astonished if the servants of Christ, God of the universe, are treated like Satans by Satan, since, when the efficient and creative cause of all things had come among us, he caused the Jews to blaspheme and to say, “It is by Beelzebub, prince of demons, that he expelled the demon.”  However, since you have told me that you believe that this libel may harm some simple souls, I will, out of respect for truth and love for you, recount the life of Severus, with whom I was, in his first youth, at Alexandria and in Phoenicia, hearing the same masters as him and sharing the same occupations.  Those who studied with us and are still alive — their number is very considerable — can attest the truth of my narrative.

We need not take this literary frame too seriously.  But Severus was an active figure in the controversies of the late 5th and 6th century, and there can be little doubt that his enemies used the pleasant methods of Byzantine controversy to undermine him by means of personal accusations.

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