The Life of Severus of Antioch – part 10

Let’s continue reading Zacharias Rhetor’s eye-witness account of the life of Severus of Antioch.  The date is the late 5th century.  The two friends have now gone to Beirut (ancient Berytus) to study law.

Shortly afterwards, the man of God (=Severus) came to me.  He greeted me cheerfully and said, “God has sent you to this city because of me.  Tell me how I may be saved.”  I raised my eyes to heaven with joy and thanked God that He had inspired this thought and made him think about his salvation.  Then I took his hand and said, “Since your question relates to matters of faith, I will take you to the temple of the Mother of God, and there I will tell you what the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers have taught me.”  When he heard these words, Severus asked me if I had with me the books of the great Basil, the illustrious Gregory, and of the other teachers.  I told him that I was carrying many of their works.  So then he came with me to the temple of the Mother of God.

First he recited with me the necessary prayers.  Then he put to me the same question (as before).  Beginning with the book of Genesis, written by the great Moses, I made him see the concern of God for us; how He had created all that exists, and likewise took us from nothingness, and had placed our first ancestors in the paradise; how He had given them, as beings endowed with reason and masters of themselves, the law of salvation, concerning what they should do; and how they despised the sovereign commandments, by the deception of the serpent, and lost this blessed life and exchanged immortality for death, of which the law had warned them in advance.

Saying all this to him, I showed him Adam and Eve — they was a painting of them in the temple — clad in tunics of skin, after their expulsion from paradise.  I then showed him the numerous miseries that resulted from this, all caused by the cunning and power of the demons, which we had voluntarily unleashed against ourselves, in obeying he that was at the head of all rebellion.  Then I mentioned the mercy of God towards us.   In His goodness He did not allow his creature to perish, which had been incorruptible, which would never have been subject to the miseries of human nature, once born to enter the hereafter, which would have received immortality superior to its nature, if it had kept the law of God.

Then I continued, “After the natural law, God also gave us the written law, by the intermediary of Moses.  He also came to the assistance of nature through the intervention of many holy prophets.  But when He saw that the wound required a stronger medicine, the Word of God and the Creator God came to us, having been made man by the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Rising sun, he shone, onto the high places where we sat  in the shadows and in the shadow of death!  He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the flesh, and by the power of the Holy Spirit came from a virgin and immaculate womb.  He left his mother with her virginity.   This was the first proof that He gave of His divinity: by a miracle He produced a conception without seed and without sin, and a birth above nature.  He then tried to separate us from the power of the devil, the rebel to whom we had sold our soul, and voluntarily accepted the cross in His body for us.  He gave His body to death as the price of our ransom, and rose again on the third day, having broken the tyranny of the devil and the perverse demons, his assistants, and the power of death. He raised us with him, made us sit down with him in Heaven, as the Scripture says, and showed us the new way of salvation which leads to Heaven.  He conquered the whole earth through His apostles, and He abolished the oracles of pagan magic, and the sacrifices of demons, established a single catholic church over all the world, and taught us to repent and to seek refuge in Him through the redemptive baptism, which symbolises the burial of three days and the resurrection of the saviour of us all, Christ.”

When I had also produced numerous other proofs (of the divinity of Christ), of which the gospels are full, I said to Severus, “It is therefore necessary, my friend, for all intelligent people to seek refuge in Him by means of the life-giving baptism.”

— “You have said well,” he said, “but we must stop at this point.  Because I am busy here with the study of law.”

— “If you listen to me,” I said, “or rather, if you listen to the holy Scriptures and the universal teachers of the church, first flee from the shameful shows, the horse-racing and the theatre, and those where we see wild beasts pitted against some wretched men.  Then, keep your body in a state of purity, and every day, after you finish studying law, offer to God the evening prayers in the holy churches.  In fact it is right that we who know God should do evening duty in the churches, while others usually spend their time playing dice, wallowing in drunkenness, drinking with prostitutes and even degrading themselves completely.”

Severus promised to do this and observe this (habit).  “Only,” he said, “you will not make a monk out of me.  Because I am a law student, and I greatly love the law.  Now, if you want something else, say so.”

I think that’s enough for the moment.  How accurately this dialogue is reported might be questioned, of course.  But no doubt something of the kind passed between them.

Note the reference to combat between wild beasts and poor men.  One does not think of the arena as being in operation ca. 500 AD, but it must have been, for otherwise the observation would lack point.

The description of the variety of student life in the evening — some praying, others drinking or degrading themselves in various ways — is probably typical of university life, even today.  It is remarkable how little change there is, in some ways!


4 thoughts on “The Life of Severus of Antioch – part 10

  1. You may remember that St. Gregory Thaumaturgus and his brother went to Berytus to study law, too, which is how they ran into Origen and became his students. (Albeit this would have been generations before.)

    “….cause and occasion for my journeying to these parts arose from the city Berytus, which is a city not far distant from this territory, somewhat Latinized, and credited with being a school for these legal studies….our other friends and connections thought well of it, and made it out to promise no slight advantage, as we could thus visit the city of Berytus, and carry out there with all diligence our studies in the laws.”

    Of course, he says that Rome was the best place to study Roman law in his day.

  2. From St. Gregory Thaumaturgus’ “Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen,” Argument V.

    Someday I’ll learn to cite reflexively!

  3. No, I hadn’t recalled – thank you! It testifies to the persistence of the school, tho, over a period of centuries.

    But I suppose the ancient preference for antiquity over novelty would always tend to cause any school, once established, to sit tight and just grow in reputation merely by existing for a longer and longer time!

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