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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis

Abercius ( Ἀβέρκιος, Ἀουίρκιος, Ἀουέρκιος, etc.; Lat. Avircius, or Avercius; on the form and origin, see Ramsay, Expositor , ix. (3rd ser.), pp. 268, 394, and Zahn, art. "Avercius," Realencyclopädie für protest. Theol. und Kirche , Hauck). The Life of the saint, described as bp. of Hierapolis in Phrygia in the time of M. Aurelius and L. Verus, as given by Symeon Metaphrastes and in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum , Oct. 22, is full of worthless and fantastic tales. But the epitaph which the Acts incorporate, placed, according to the story, on the altar brought from Rome by the demon whom the saint had driven out of the emperor's daughter, is of great value, and the discovery of some of the actual fragments of the inscription may well be called "a romance of archaeology." For this rediscovery our thanks are due to the rich labours of Prof. Ramsay. The fact that Abercius was described as bp. of Hiera polis at the time mentioned above had contributed to hesitation as to the genuineness of the epitaph. But Ramsay (Bulletin de correspondance hellénique , Juillet 1882) pointed out that Hiera polis had been frequently confounded with Hiero polis; and he also published in the same journal a metrical and early Christian epitaph of a certain Alexander (A. D. 216), discovered at Hiero polis, and evidently copied from the epitaph of Abercius, as given in his Life . As to the copying, there can be no doubt, for the third line of the epitaph of Alexander, son of Antonius, will not scan, owing to the substitution of his name for that of Abercius (Lightfoot, Apost. Fathers 2 , i. p. 479; Headlam in Authority and Archaeology , pp. 307 ff., 1899). Ramsay's attention being drawn to the earlier epitaph, he collected various topographical notices in the Life of the saint, which pointed to Hier o polis, near Synnada (not Hiera polis on the Maeander), and he further established the case for the former by finding, in 1883, in the bath-room at some hot springs near Hiero polis, a small portion of the epitaph of Abercius himself on the fragment of an altar-shaped tomb; the hot springs in their position near the city exactly correspond with the position of the hot springs described in the Life . We have thus fortunately a threefold help in reconstructing the text of the whole epitaph—(1) the text in the Life; (2) the rediscovered fragments in the stone; (3) the epitaph on the tomb of Alexander.

There is much to be said for the identification of Abercius with the Avircius Marcellus (Eus. H. E. v. 16) to whom the extracts of the anonymous writer against Montanus are dedicated. We cannot be sure as to the date of these extracts, but there is reason to place them towards the close of the reign of Commodus, 180–192, and the epitaph of Abercius must at least have been earlier than 216, the date of the epitaph of Alexander. But the writer of the extracts addresses the person to whom he dedicates his work as a person of authority, although he does not style him a bishop (but see Lightfoot, u.s. p. 483), who had urged him a very long time ago to write on the subject. Avircius Marcellus might therefore have well flourished in the reign of M. Aurelius, and might have visited Rome at the time mentioned in the legend, A.D. 163. Further, in the extracts mention is made by the writer of one Zoticus of Otrous, his "fellow-presbyter," and Otrous was in the neighbourhood of this Hieropolis (for the identification, see further Lightfoot and Zahn, u.s.; Headlam, u.s.; Ramsay, Expositor , ix. (3rd ser.), p. 394). Against the attempt of Ficker to prove that the epitaph was heathen, Sitzungsberichte d. Berl. Akad. 1895, pp. 87–112, and that of Harnack, Texte und Untersuchungen , xii. 4b , p. 21, to class it as partly heathen and partly Christian, see Zahn, u.s. , and further in Neue Kirchliche Zeitschrift , 1895, pp. 863–886; also the criticism of Ramsay, quoted by Headlam, u.s. Both external and internal evidence are in favour of a Christian origin, and we have in this epitaph what Ramsay describes, C. R. E. pp. 437 ff., as "a testimony, brief, clear, emphatic, of the truth for which Avircius had contended—the one great figure on the Catholic side produced by the Phrygian church during this period," a man whose wide experience of men and cities might in itself have well marked him out as such a champion. The faithful, i.e. the sacred writings, the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, the miraculous birth of our Lord (the most probable reference of παρθένος ἁγνή ), His omnipresent and omniscient energy, the fellowship of the members of the church, not only in Rome but elsewhere—all these (together with the mixed cup, wine and water; the prayer for the departed; the symbolic ΙΧΘΥΣ, one of its earliest instances) have a place in the picture of early Christian usage and belief gained from this one epitaph; however widely Abercius travelled, to the far East or West, the same picture, he assures us, met his gaze. We thus recover an instructive and enduring monument of Christian life in the 2nd cent., all the more remarkable because it is presented to us, not in any systematic form, but as the natural and simple expression of a pure and devout soul. For full literature, see Zahn, u.s.; for the development of the legend from the facts mentioned in the epitaph, and for the reconstruction of the text by Lightfoot and Ramsay, see three articles by the latter in Expositor , ix. (3rd ser.), also Ramsay's Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia , ii. 722. In addition to literature above, cf. art. by Lightfoot in Expositor , i. (3rd ser.), pp. 3 ff.; and Farrar, Lives of the Fathers , i. pp. 10 ff. Prof. V. Bartlet discusses Harnack's hypothesis in the Critical Review , April 1896, and regards it as at present holding the field; though he finds Harnack's elimination of any reference to Paul the Apostle in the inscription quite unintelligible. Even Schmiedel (Encycl. Bibl. ii. 1778) refers unhesitatingly to the inscription as Christian. See futher Dr. Swete's art. J. T. S. July 1907, p. 502, on Avircius and prayers for the departed.

The following is a translation of the epitaph:

"Citizen of a chosen city I have made this (tomb) in my lifetime, that I may have here before the eyes of men ( φανερῶς v.l. καιρῷ ) a resting-place for my body—Avircius by name, a disciple of the pure Shepherd, who on the mountains and plains feedeth the flocks of His sheep, who hath eyes large and beholding all things. For He was my Teacher, teaching me (διδάσκων, so Ramsay, omitted by Zahn) the faithful writings; who sent me to Rome to behold the King ( βασιλῆαν, so Ramsay, but Lightfoot βασίληαν, Zahn, βασιλῆ ἀναθρῆσαι ), and to see the Queen in golden robes and golden sandals, and there, too, I saw a people bearing a shining seal (a reference to Baptism). And I saw the plain of Syria and all its cities, even Nisibis, having crossed the Euphrates, and everywhere I had fellow-worshippers (συνομήθεις, so Lightfoot and Ramsay; συνοδίτην , Zahn, referring to Paul). With Paul in my hands I followed (i.e. the writings of Paul, Ramsay; but Lightfoot and Di Rossi apparently 'with Paul as my comrade'; whilst Zahn conjectures ἔποχον , or rather ἐπ᾿ ὀχῶν instead of ἑπόμην ), while Faith everywhere led the way, and everywhere placed before me food, the Fish from the fountain, mighty, pure, which a spotless Virgin grasped (Ramsay refers to the Virgin Mary, but see also Lightfoot and Farrar). And this she (i.e. Faith) gave to the friends to eat continually, having excellent wine, giving the mixed cup with bread. These words, I, Avircius, standing by, bade to be thus written; I was in fact in my seventy-second year. On seeing this let everyone who thinks with him ( i.e. who is also an anti-Montanist, so Ramsay; Lightfoot and Farrar simply 'fellow Christian') pray for him ( i.e. Avircius). But no one shall place another in my tomb, but if so, he shall pay 2000 gold pieces to the Romans, and 1000 gold pieces to my excellent fatherland Hierapolis " (so Ramsay, vide Expositor , ix. 3rd ser. p. 271, for a justification of this reading).


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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