Saturday, June 15, 2013

Trial By Fire in Early Christianity

Regular readers of this blog will recall our periodic reference to 'trial by fire' in early Christian sources.  I have always thought it went back to an ancient 'baptism by fire' recorded in many sources and associated with heretics.  Polycarp is perhaps the earliest example, but the literature associated with the Marcosians reports many more examples from near the same period.  The most interesting narrative was that recorded in the Coptic History of the Patriarchs by Severus involving the late second century 'Pope' (although we are not sure that term was used then) Demetrius.  Demetrius was married which shocked the church.  So in order to prove that he and his wife did not have carnal relations a 'test of fire' was arranged.  Another example from a later period is recorded here:

On one occasion I (i.e. Copres, a holy man) went down to the city (Hermopolis Magna), and there I found a certain Manichaean who had been leading the people astray. As I was unable to make him change his mind by debating with him in public, I said to the crowd of listeners, 'Light a large fire in the streets and both of us shall enter the flames, and whichever one of remains unhurt, he shall be the one with true faith.' At this the crowd eagerly lit the fire and dragged us towards the flames. But the Manichaean said, Ixt each of us go in by himself and you should be the first one since you suggested it'. Then, having made upon myself the sign of the Cross in the name of Christ, I went into the fire. The flames parted asunder this way and that and did not harm me for the half hour which I spent in the fire. At the sight of this miracle, the crowd made a loud acclamation and compelled the Manichaean to go into the fire. But he dragged his feet as he was frightened and the crowd took hold of him and pushed him into the middle of the fire. He suffered serious burns all over his body and the crowd expelled him from the city in disgrace,21 shouting: 'The deceiver should be burnt alive.' As for me, the crowd carried me with them to the church, ascribing praises to God as they went.
This story is found in the Greek Historia monachorum in Aegypto, X, 30- 35 [190-225], in A.-J. FESTUGIERE (ed.), Historia monachorum in Aegypto, Subsidia Hagiographica and the original Greek text is here.

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