Ancient literary sources for St Nicholas of Myra

It is Christmas Eve, and so what better time to ask the question: what, if anything, does the historical record tell us about a supposed 4th century bishop of Myra named Nicholas?

Every Christmas there is a flood of articles in the press and online about the origins of “Santa Claus”.  It is a curious reflection on our society, however, that these consist entirely of unreferenced hearsay.

I’d like to make a small difference this Christmas.  For some this means feeding the homeless and other useful things.  We book-lovers can’t do that kind of work; but here’s something we can do.

Let’s begin the process of collecting whatever primary sources there might be.  I am conscious that I probably don’t have the right reference literature.  I don’t know my way around the hagiographical texts.  So this can only be a first effort at the problem, and I intend to highlight my ignorance!  Feel free to contribute.  What we want here, surely, is primary sources.[1]

If there was such a person as Nicholas, bishop of Myra, during the time of Constantine, he left no literary works behind him.  Quasten’s Patrology for the period does not even mention him.

There are various lists in circulation, of various dates, of the bishops who attended the First Council of Nicaea.  Some of them supposedly include a Nicholas of Myra.  I have not seen any indication of which ones, however.

The orations of 5th century bishop Proclus of Constantinople[2] are supposed to contain a sermon praising Nicholas.  This item is listed in the CPG 5890, Laudatio S. Nicolai, but among the spuria.  It is BHG 13640, incipit: Adelfoi/ mou~, pate/rej kai\ te/kna. A text is offered: G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos I, Leipzig, 1913, 429-433.  This seems to be at Google Books here, but I cannot access it.  Apparently it denies that the text is really by Proclus; but as I say, I can’t look and see.  If anyone can, please let me know.

In the 6th century Procopius, De aedificiis book 1, chapter 6 (at Lacus Curtius), tells us that Justinian constructed a church in his honour:

Further on he established a shrine to St. Priscus and St. Nicholas, an entirely new creation of his own, at a spot where the Byzantines love especially to tarry, some worshipping and doing honour to these saints who have come to dwell among them, and others simply enjoying the charm of the precinct, since the Emperor forced back the wash of the sea and set the foundations far out into the water when he established this sanctuary.[3]

I don’t know enough hagiography to know if this really does refer to Nicholas of Myra.  It sounds like a pair of linked saints, however.

Our next port of call is the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graecorum (BHG), vol. 2, p.139-151, nn. 1347-64 n.  This tells us the following:

  • BHG 1347: A Vita exists, published by Anrich (p.3-55), but previously by N.C. Falconius Sancti Nicolai … acta primigenia, Neapoli, 1751, 1-29. (Falconius is online here).
  • BHG 1348:  A second Vita per Michaelem, by Michael the Archimandrite (or by Methodius, bishop of Patar.), is again in Falconius 39-55, and Anrich.
  • BHG 1348b:  Another vita praemetaphrastica, of which the start is lost, and only part of it appears in Anrich.

Following this, there are several pages listing material.

Returning to Jones, however, I learn that 4 vitae originating in the 9th-10th century are known; the vita per Michaelem (start of 9th c.), “an epistolary composition, Methodius ad Theodorum (842×6)”, a Latin vita and miracles by John, a deacon of Naples (3rd quarter of the 9th c.; the Legenda aurea of James of Voragine, d. 1298, is based on this version), and a vita by Simon Metaphrastes (second half of 10th c.).

11 chapters of the Vita per Michaelem exists in English here.  The site states:

John Quinn, professor of classical languages, Hope College, Holland, Michigan, was doing the first English translation of the text for us when he suddenly and unexpectedly died while out jogging on June 19, 2008. His as yet unfinished translation is offered as a memorial to his work.

They add:

When an appropriate and willing scholar is found the translation will be completed.

I feel that somebody ought to do this.  It serves the interests of everyone to do so.  I suspect Anrich’s book — what a nuisance that this is inaccessible! — is the text used.

The Methodius ad Theodorum is BHG 1352y, and appears only in Anrich vol. 1, 140-150 and again in vol. 2 546-556.

Doubtless the Latin of John of Naples is to be found in the BHL, but I have no access to this.

The Metaphrastes version is BHG 1349, and may be found in Falconius p.86-108 and Anrich, and also in the PG 116, 317-356.  This last makes it very accessible.

I think that’s enough for the moment.

What we now need, I would have thought, is some translations of some of these; and some evaluations of them.  Unfortunately I have been unable to access either Anrich or Falconius!  It seems likely that Anrich will contain commentary.  How infuriating that a 1913 book is inaccessible, a century after publication!

Postscript: I have discovered that Anrich is at Hathi trust here; but only for US readers.

UPDATE: I have now managed to access the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church[4].  This tells me (p.1148):

[Tradition says he] was present at the Council of Nicaea. The latter supposition is most improbable, as he is not in any of the early lists of bishops present at the Council. The earliest evidence for his cult at Myra is found in the contemporary Life of
St Nicholas of Sion, who lived in the reign of the Emp. Justinian (d. 565). Episodes from the Life of St Nicholas of Sion were later transferred to the Life of his namesake.
Justinian himself built a church in Constantinople dedicated to St Priscus and St Nicholas.

The Life of St Nicholas of Sion is ed., with Eng. tr., by I. and N.P. Sevcenko (The Archbishop Iakovos Library of Ecclesiastical and Historical Sources, 10; Brookline, Mass. [1984]).

Perhaps we need to look at Nicholas of Sion next.

  1. [1]A valuable secondary source pointing to the literature is Graham Jones, “St Nicholas, Icon of mercantile virtues: transition and continuity of a European myth,” in Myths of Europe (ed. Richard Littlejohns), 2007, 73-88; 75.
  2. [2]Listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum vol. 3, entry 5800 and on.
  3. [3]I obtained this reference from the otherwise useless entry in W.Smith and H. Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography, vol. 4, 1887, p.41.  This does tell us that his “saints’ day” is December 6; important for looking up material.  The other reference is to “Surii Hist. Sant.”; I have had no luck with this yet.
  4. [4]3rd edition, 1997.

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