Some notes on the sermon of Nectarius of Constantinople on the martyr Theodore Tiro (CPG 4300 / BHG 1768)

On the first Saturday of Lent, the Greek church prescribes the reading of two sermons from the Fathers, both of them in praise of an obscure saint, Theodore Tiro, of Amasea.  The first sermon is by Gregory of Nyssa;[1] the second by the much more obscure Nectarius of Constantinople (d. 397 AD).  The latter work is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum as #4300; and in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca as #1768.

Nectarius is a very obscure figure.  A few of his letters appear among the correspondence of Gregory Nazianzen, itself largely untranslated.  Apparently the subject is arguments about Apollinarism.  The only other work known to me is this homily, which praises a miracle of St Theodore in the time of Julian the Apostate.  It appears in Migne in PG 39, 1821-1840, reprinted from the edition of Gallandius.

According to the story – that seems like the right word – the Christians were fasting for Easter in the town.  After a week, they were hungry.  Julian then gave orders that all the food in the market should be offered to idols or sprinkled with the blood of sacrificed animals.  In a dream, on 17th February, St Theodore revealed that the Christians should stay home and boil grain and season it with honey, creating a dish named koliva or kolyba, still part of Orthodox ritual today.

Is this story genuine?  Well nobody today would deny that spiteful people do try to think up ways to force Christians to violate their conscience.  One need only think of the bakers in the USA, targeted by gay activists, who demanded that the Christians bake a cake promoting unnatural vice.  When they refused, the activists dragged them into court and had them punished.  Such things are increasingly common in these unhappy times; and they must have been common in the Roman empire also.  Spite is spite.

But even one as unacquainted with hagiographical narratives as myself knows that they routinely tend to contain stuff like this.  I don’t really like the sound of the story.  It sounds apocryphal.  I have not seen the text of BHG 1768, but apparently this marks the sermon as spurious.

We may also ask: is the sermon of Nectarius genuine?  It’s always a question, with these liturgical or hagiographical sermons, copied endlessly as part of service books.  To this I do not know the answer.

The question was posed to me by Jack Lake, who did a fairly extensive literature search – more than I have been able to do -, without finding very much.  L. Petit, in “La grande controverse des Colybes”,[2] suggested that the narrative might have been invented as a way to move a pre-existing feast of St Theodore from 17th February to the first Saturday of Lent.  The reason for this, he argues, is that St Theodore and his kolliva was popular; but 17 February often fell within Lent.  Feast days that fall in Lent are not celebrated, unless they appear on Saturday and Sunday.  So Petit suggested that someone invented the whole thing, and back-projected it onto the obscure Nectarius.

I don’t think that I can resolve that one.  No critical edition exists, so we can’t even rely on statements in older authors that “all the manuscripts” attribute it to Nectarius.

Jack Lake has kindly translated the conclusion of the homily for us, from the Patrologia Graeca 39, cols. 1837-8 and 1839-40.  This is a reprint of the older edition of Gallandius.  Here it is:

We with these concordant praises follow the martyr [Theodore]. And, always carrying around the source of a recent miracle for us [i.e., his relic], let us always proclaim the extraordinary victory of the martyr: O splendor of the martyrs and beauty of the saints, O gift of God indeed, O guardian and invincible defender of the faithful! Do not forget our poverty and dejection; but always interceding for us, do not tire, O wonder-worker. O most glorious one, do not despise our souls, attacked every day with spiritual warfare by the spiritual Julian [viz., Satan, who is compared to Julian the Apostate], who both was once and is now the enemy and author of all evils. For we have believed also that you live after death, as the Lord says: ‘He that believers in Me, although he be dead, shall live’ [Jn. 11:25]. But you, not simply believing, but also submitting to death for Him, O martyr worthy of all praise, live that life in God, which does not know the feebleness of age or an end. Since, therefore, living in Christ, and specially assisting Him, deliver to His servants this favor by your prayers, that through you we may be snatched from these calamities and brought to a partaking of those goods, by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion now and forever, and unto ages of ages.

Thank you.

  1. [1]CPG 3183.
  2. [2]Échos d’Orient 2, 1899, 321-331; p.324. Online here.

3 thoughts on “Some notes on the sermon of Nectarius of Constantinople on the martyr Theodore Tiro (CPG 4300 / BHG 1768)

  1. As a rule works of obscure authors tend to gravitate the names of more famous authors, not the other way around.

    Nectarius actually chaired the final sessions of the 2nd Ecumenical Council after the retirement of Gregory of Nazianzus and the death of Meletius of Antioch. However, he has no reputation as an author whatsoever.

    FYI – John Haldon has just translated 5 texts associated with Theodore Tiron in Translated Texts for Byzantinists. It appears that it wasn’t good enough for Theodore to be just a recruit so Byzantine aristocrats reimagined him as a ‘general’.

  2. That is a good point about Nectarius – thank you.

    The Haldon volume seems to be this one: “A Tale of Two Saints: The martyrdoms and miracles of Saints Theodore ‘the Recruit’ and ‘the General’. Translated with commentary by John Haldon.” 2016, ISBN: 9781781381663.

    Thankfully the site lists the texts included, which are:

    • Text 1: Encomium of Chrysippos, priest of Jerusalem, on the holy martyr Theodore, together with a partial account of his miracles (BHG 1765c)
    • Text 2: The passion of St Theodore the Recruit (BHG 1761)
    • Text 3: The life and upbringing of the holy martyr Theodore (BHG 1765)
    • Text 4: The life before the martyrdom and the upbringing and growing-up and the wondrous miracles of the holy and most glorious megalomartyr Theodore (BHG 1764)
    • Text 5: The martyrdom of the holy and glorious megalomartyr of Christ Theodore the general (BHG 1752)
  3. Just a bit more follow up – According to Gregory of Nyssa Julian sprinkled the markets of Constantinople with blood so the miracle took place there and not in Theodore’s home town of Euchaita. This is more evidence to suggest a bishop of Constantinople would have likely promoted the veneration of Theodore Tiron.

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