Friday, July 20, 2012

Saint of the Month: Saint Barhadbesciabas!

If you go looking for images relating to St. Barhadbesciabas, you
mostly find images from recent posts in this blog.

St. Barhadbesciabas

AKA: Barhadbesaba
Feast Day: Almost certainly July 20th, although also given as July 21st and July 15th by prominent online saint lists.

Really Existed? Maybe, in some form or other.
Timeframe: Died July 20, 355, or 354.
Place: Persia.

Credentials: Recognized by Tradition in the Catholic Church.
Martyrdom: Racking and clumsy beheading.

Patron Saint of: No known tradition of patronage.
Symbolism: May lack symbolic tradition.

Obviously St. Barhadbesciabas is not one of the big-name saints, and only the most comprehensive online sources have anything to say about him beyond his name. Catholic Online offers the typical thumbnail: he was a deacon in Arbele, who was caught up in the persecutions of Sassanid King Shapur II, and was tortured when he failed to convert.

Which is to say, the typical thumbnail tells us nothing. A deacon in where? Caught up in what? Tortured why? Since the gory details (see below) are offered without context, all that this kind of thing tells us is that there was a saint somewhere who fit the template of a saint: he suffered and stayed true to his faith under pressure. But geez, we could have guessed that much from the “St.” in front of his name. The problem is, most popular saint-summaries are clumsily digested from enormously learned Victorian and pre-Victorian sources that assume their reader has a classical education and an inclination to consult a history of the Persian Empire to fill in any gaps in their existing knowledge. Eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship, often quite awesome on its own terms, does not generally water down very well.

Fortunately, you’ve got me, and I’ve got the internet, eclectic interests, and considerable training and experience in the evaluation and interpretation of textual sources! Or at the very least, I’ve got enough get-up-and-go to track down the mysterious “Arbele,” which is more familiar nowadays the largely Kurdish city of Erbil in Northern Iraq. It’s an old town – one of the oldest in the human community, in fact! And in Barhadbesciabas’ time, it was a city in the western reaches of the Persian Empire.

You might remember that the Persians were, broadly speaking, those perennial eastern competitors of the Greco-Roman world. They were also, before the advent of Islam, Zoroastrian. I don’t know a ton about Zoroastrianism, but in general it conceptualizes the universe as locked in struggle between a purely good creator and a competing, purely evil destructive force of nearly equal power – it is, I think, not entirely unlike the branches of Christianity that yield a starring role to “the devil.”

OK, but what’s a “Sassanid King Shapur II?” Well, “Sassanid” is the specific embodiment of Persian empire that was around from the third to the seventh centuries. Shapur II was one of its most effective kings, reigning from 309 to 379 (although during the first several years he wasn’t making a lot of key decisions, since he was crowned before birth for reasons of dynastic expediency).

Now then, what else is happening in the fourth century?  Over to the west, Emperor Constantine spends the first third of the Century converting the Roman Empire to Christianity and moving its center of power eastward from Italy to modern Turkey. We can speculate that, for Sassanid King Shapur II, having a revitalized Rome that was undergoing a new and aggressively monotheistic religious revival suddenly challenging his sphere of influence was probably seen as troubling! And while this doesn’t make religious persecution inevitable, nor morally defensible by anything like modern standards, it certainly gives us a little bit of context to understand why Barhadbesciabas might have raised the ire of the local political establishment, and why it was a brave thing for him to continue a mission of Christian leadership in the climate of the day.  A contemporary Greek source -- albeit one who might have been tempted to err on the side of making the Persians look bad -- estimated that 16,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs during Shapur's reign.

The Rev. Alban Butler, an 18th century scholar, tells us that Barhadbesciabas was tortured at the rack:
Whilst he was tormented, the officers continually cried out to him: “Worship water and fire, and eat the blood of beasts, and you shall be immediately set at liberty.” But the blessed deacon Barhadbesciabas showed by the cheerfulness of his countenance, that the interior joy of his happy soul overcame the torments he felt in his body.
…which, if true, is certainly a impressive display of sang-froid. After a certain point, the authorities ordered a guy named Aghaeus, or Aghæus, or Aggai, to finish him off. This guy is always called an “apostate Christian,” but it isn’t clear if that means he had renounced Christianity and embraced Zoroastrianism or vice versa. Reverend Butler, and the sources that have cribbed from him, report that Aghaeus was unable to behead Barhadbesciabas, and after seven chops just gave up and stabbed him to death with a sword. This would have been another big test for Barhadbesciabas’ cheerfulness, of course, but it shouldn’t be construed as something miraculous. Even professional headsmen often took quite a few whacks to finish a beheading – if a neck was such a fragile thing all as that, after all, human anatomy as we know it wouldn’t have panned out. An amateur like you or me, handed an axe and a victim, would be unlikely to do any better than Aghaeus.

St. Barhadbesciabas is remembered today for being on the list of saints, and that’s pretty much it. I have come across no evidence that he is commemorated by anything or anyone, anywhere, and if he were a practical joke cooked up by the good Rev. Butler the world would be none the wiser. A Google search yields the three sources I looked at in preparing this write-up and a brief Wiki article, and then quickly degenerates into my teaser posts from earlier this week and competing websites all asserting that they are the best place at which to find St. Barhadbesciabas’ address, phone number, and email address. These latter seemed suspect to me.

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