Monday, January 14, 2013

Saint of the Month: Saint Barbasceminus!

There's no telling what St. Barbasceminus looked like, and no artistic
tradition for him as far as I know.  But here are the impressive ruins of the
royal palace at Ctesiphon, which could conceivably have been the
setting of his martyrdom and which are, in any event, pretty cool
in their own right.*

St. Barbasceminus

AKA: Barbasymas, Barba'shmin, Barbascemin
Feast Day: January 14.

Really Existed? Almost certainly.
Timeframe: Died January, 346.
Place: Persian Empire.

Credentials: Recognized by Tradition.
Martyrdom: Long imprisonment in a “in a loathsome dungeon” followed by beheading.

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

The Saint of the Month is chosen without a lot of pre-screening, so when I picked St. Barbasceminus I didn’t realize that his story would have so much in common with last July’s Saint Barhadbesaba. I fear we may have a little trouble keeping them straight.

He was “Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, Greece in 342,” one online site begins, and has already dropped the ball. Seleucia and Ctesiphon were nowhere near Greece. Seleucia was an important city in modern Iraq, not all that far from ancient Babylon or modern Baghdad, and Ctesiphon was a smaller town nearby. Modern Iraq was a chunk of the Persian Empire in the fourth century, and Ctesiphon was the summer capital, kind of a Versailles to Seleucia’s Paris.

So, St. Barbasceminus was Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, in the Persian Empire, in 342. He was a brave chap to take the job. As we discussed last July, Christianity was increasingly unpopular with the Zoroastrian Persian establishment.  This was not a point of theological principle -- it almost never is -- but  a matter of Christianity being the state religion of the aggressive, powerful, and increasingly erratic empire to the west, Rome. St. Sadoth, possibly Barbasceminus’ brother, had been the previous bishop, and had apparently been put to death rather grimly with 128 fellow Christians. Barbasceminus must have taken over knowing that, as a representative of the religion of an old and bitter enemy of his country, the odds were awfully good that he would meet a similar end.

How do we know all this? Well, most of our information on the persecutions of Persian Christians in the 340s comes from the Acts of the Persian Martyrs, a text written by (or possibly ghostwritten for) St. Maruthas, one of the leading figures in the Syrian Christian church a few generations later. From St. Maruthas, the information gets into the English-language tradition via the ubiquitous Rev. Alban Butler, whose eighteenth century Lives of the Saints is one of the great landmarks of vernacular hagiography.

Whether Barbasceminus was able to do anything productive with his time in office is lost to us, as far as I can tell. St. Maruthas focused on the story of his martyrdom, which consisted first of being arrested with sixteen church elders and, after refusing to renounce his faith, being imprisoned. Butler writes that the Persian King, Sapor II, “confined him almost a year in a loathsome dungeon, in which he was often tormented by the Magians with scourges, clubs, and tortures, besides the continual annoyance of stench, filth, hunger, and thirst.” This went on for eleven months, after which Sapor did what might be thought of, from a certain point of view, as the decent thing: he tried to buy Barbasceminus off. Sapor offered a golden cup full of money, plus a good government job, if Barbasceminus would agree to “worship fire and water.” St. Barbasceminus – again, apparently a very brave and steadfast fellow – stuck with his Christianity, and was beheaded along with his companions. It would be 20 years, or perhaps 40, before Seleucia and Ctesiphon would have a bishop again.

Now, you might be thinking it unlikely that a Persian Emperor would get so involved in the administrative minutiae of suppressing religious dissent. If there was some way to actually reconstruct the events of this tale, it wouldn’t surprise me enormously to find Sapor’s part in the story acted out by a lesser functionary.  On the other hand, Barbasceminus was operating right there in his summer capital, so it’s not inconceivable that the emperor might have taken an active hand. The golden cup full of money seems unnecessary from Sapur’s point of view and maybe a bit too convenient for Marutha’s desire to tell a good story, but who knows.

The bits in this story and in St. Barhadbesaba’s about Christians being compelled to worship fire and water, though, are pure baloney. Zoroastrians worship a deity and fear a second, lesser diety, not unlike those Christians who are invested in the idea of Satan. Fire and water are used in their ritual, but to describe this as “worshipping fire and water” is either ignorance, propaganda, or poor translation. Whether the fib belongs to the Reverend Butler, to St. Marutha, or to the chain of storytellers between the event and St. Marutha’s pen, would be very hard to say. It seems to me, though – although it is not my habit to publicly call out men of the cloth from the three centuries back –  it does seem like a fellow of Rev. Butler’s erudition should have known better.

* This is a very minor quibble indeed, but the flatness and high water table of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, as highlighted in this photograph, makes me wonder if there were really any "loathsome dungeons" as such.  It doesn't seem like a part of the world where basements would be very practical.  But I'm just guessing.

Also, it's fun to think that, for the foreseeable future, this picture of the Ctesiphon ruins will be the image people get if they try to look up St. Barbasceminus.


Jenners said...

Is he the patron saint of people with hard to spell names?

Michael5000 said...

You are thinking of Blessed Ladislaus Batthyany-Strattmann. Not to be confused with the patron of people with hard to pronounce names, St. Cynwl.