The stories about the miraculous icon of Berytus and the statue of Christ in Caesarea are presented for their historical, social and documentary context not for religious or their prejudicial information.
The Miraculous Icon of Berytus (Beirut) that Bled
The Sources of Christian Doubt
The Syriac Melkite historian Agapius reported that in the year 593, the eleventh year of the emperor Maurice, an Antiochene Jew rented a Christian's house, and finding a Virgin icon, urinated on it. In the resulting uproar, the Jews were expelled from the city.1 Twenty or thirty years later, the anonymous Miracle of Berytus told a similar tale, but with a very different ending. This time, the Jew renting a Christian's house found a Christ icon, upon which he and his fellow Jews reenacted the crucifixion. But when the Jews pierced Christ's side, the icon bled, a miracle that persuaded them to convert.2
What motivated the anonymous author to rework the Jews' expulsion into conversion?3 The answer lies in Miracle's paradoxical revelation of Christ's strength from seeming weakness. The injuries that the Jews inflicted on Christ called forth his power and were the very means by which they were forced to concede defeat. "Struck, he received all those who witnessed [his] powers and his amazing miracles."4 The Jews' conversion confirmed that Christ needed no human allies to expel his enemies; he defended himself by turning the outrages of his enemies against themselves.
Miracle's assurance that Christ could redress infidel outrages was self-conscious, a direct response to a military, political, and spiritual crisis within eastern Christendom. Even as Miracle was being written, infidel Slavs, Avars, Persians, and Arabs not only desecrated Christ's icons but also burnt his churches, murdered his clergy and faithful, sacked his cities, and trampled on his "God-beloved" empire.5 But Christ's victory over the Jews in Miracle held out hope of victory over these "others" as well, for the Jew personified all infidels. The Jew's defeat was a "refutation of every unbelieving infidel," and a "confirmation of those who have believed in [Christ] in the truth."6
But even such works as Miracle could not pacify its audience for long. As heathen victories mounted, patience waned in the ravaged provinces. Some began to wonder why, if Christ's power was so great, he withheld it from his sorely oppressed followers. Some Christians began to worry that perhaps it was Christ's power, not his weakness, that was the mirage. A seed of doubt was planted, and a shrill note of desperation began to enter the sources as Christian authors tried to confront it.7
Some today might find it strange that Christians would measure Christ's power by his followers' material successes and reverses. But as A. D. Nock explained sixty years ago about the late antique religious sensibility, "Sotereia and kindred words carried no theological implications; they applied to deliverance from perils by sea and land and disease and darkness and false opinions."8 Nock rightly recognized that material well-being was one of religion's prime concerns, but he failed to distinguish his own modern definition of abstract theology from theology in late antiquity. It would be far more accurate to say that protection from material peril was a theological subject. Christians and pagans were scrupulous judges of a god's powers; claims of Christ's material power fill early Christian literature. Men sought, as Peter Brown wrote, "where exactly this 'divine power' was to be found on earth and, consequently, on what terms access to it could be achieved."9 Such power was needed to confront a nasty and brutish world, to gain "powers over the demons, and so over the diseases, the bad weather, the manifest disorders of a material world ruled by demons."10 Christians saw Christ's will in every material accident and expected the power behind that will to be exercised on their behalf. This conjunction of natural and supernatural led them to seek divine causes for material events, and to expect divine resolution of material disasters. Just as uninterrupted victory confirmed Christ's power, unrelieved defeat raised doubts precisely because religion encompassed politics and history.
For this reason, "religious" as well as "secular" writings exhibit the same social, political, and psychological symptoms of defeat. The Miracles of St. Demetrius, written around 615-20 by John, the archbishop of Thessalonica, offers a sad testament to the city's futile requests for aid and to imperial impotence.11 A generation earlier, Roman soldiers had held the Danube against Avars, Bulgars, and Slavs. Now John narrated how Christ's soldier Demetrius alone held them at bay. This was unusual -- demons, not barbarians, were a saint's traditional opponents. But Demetrius's preoccupation with barbarians was an understandable concession to seventh-century conditions.12
This record of imperial collapse, barbarian threats, famine, and plague makes for depressing reading. It is painfully clear that its audience found bare survival miraculous. Bewildered, John's flock asked why they were subjected to an "all-consuming, all-destroying plague, transgressing beyond measure, by its abundance of evil, any previous lesson that God has sent." John could only answer, "Our provocations are worse; for if we are subjected to a punishment that causes us innumerable sufferings, still we do not have a punishment equal to our sin.13 The only way to regain divine favor and restore the past would be "if one turns to repentance and admission of sin, and...lives a virtuous and Christ-loving way of life."14
But even John was forced to concede that divine punishments made some despair rather than repent:
For the soul, weakened and suffering with various and assorted ills of the body, [at first] made ardent with the memory of God, ultimately becomes increasingly weaker in the faith, and falls, from a feeling of frustration into anger, even uttering and murmuring abominations against [God], the one giving him instruction, as the prophet says, "in judgment and not in wrath."15
The admission that for many God's pedagogy was too severe reveals all too clearly the mood at Thessalonica.16 It was typical that Miracles's continuator judged John's death just before an earthquake as an indication of God's singular favor; one's best hope was to die undisturbed.17
Thessalonians could at least take solace that God preserved them from the barbarians. Jerusalem was not so lucky. Antiochus Monachus, whose Fall of Jerusalem to the Persians in 614 recorded the siege, fall, and sack of the city, was even more explicit than John about the corrosive effects of defeat on Christian morale:
For the devil stands and tempts your hearts...and says to you, "Oh Christians, how you err and fool yourselves; for Christ has washed his hands of you and ignored you.... For you are hated by him and are his enemies, not his friends; for did he not aid your enemies and strengthen them more than you, and strip you of his armour, and take away from you his protection?"
Defeat meant Christ had failed to protect his faithful, and at least some Christians concluded that weakness was the reason. Thus, we should not be surprised to hear from Antiochus that "a few weak-minded" Christians renounced Christ.
Defeat not only tested a Christian's faith, but also led many to test their neighbors'. Maximus the Confessor's fanatical defense of Dyotheletism accompanied the conviction that the emperor's Monotheletism ensured defeat. Theological debate over Christ's energies and wills also urged either imperial unity or schism between Rome and Constantinople when the empire desperately confronted foreign invaders. Brought to trial, Maximus claimed that he was persecuted for his belief; his opponents asserted the defense failed, revealing a faith so integrated into the intellectual, social, and political fabric of the imperial system that it could not survive its fall. Our task is to investigate the interweaving of Christianity and the contexts; only in the seventh did George of Pisidia and Theophylact Simocatta, "in their clumsy way, [reach] a synthesis of contemporary Christian thinking and their classical heritage." Christianity triumphed "as the 'Roman' side of imperial ideology fell away," and "it gion,...not a cultural ideal," and Christians and pagans differed little about what defined culture. For both, the term paideia meant not simply culture, but the education that distinguished the cultured. This education was almost exclusively rhetorical and literary; students learned.18-22
On a final note, it is useful to mention that it is said that Nicodemus, mentioned in the New Testament, was the one who painted this icon.23
Agapius of Menbidj. Kitab al-'Unvan. Trans. A. A. Vasiliev. PO 8. Paris, 1912. [ PO 8 ], 438-39; see also John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow, PG 87, t.3:2861, for fighting between Christians and Jews. 2.
Agathias. Historiarum libri quinque. Ed. R. Keydell. Berlin, 1967.
Ammianus Marcellinus. Res Gestae. Ed. C. V. Clark. 2 vols., Berlin, 1910-15.
Anastasius Apocrisarius. Relatio motionis inter Maximum et principes. PG 90:109-29.
Anastasius Sinaites. Sermo iii in imaginem dei. PG 89: 1152-80.
Anonymous. Acta sancti Anastasii Persae. Ed. H. Usener. Prgramm, Bonn, 1894.
Anonymous. Dialogue between a Christian and a Jew entitled Antibolē Papiskou kai Philōnos Ioudaiōn pros monaxon tina. Ed. A. C. McGiffert. New York, 1889.
Anonymous. The Dialogues of Athanasius and Zacchaeus and of Timothy and Aquila, [ Analecta Oxoniensia, 1. 8 ]. Ed. F. C. Conybeare. Oxford, 1898.
Anonymous. Disputatio Gregentii cum Herbano Iudaeo. PG 86. Anonymous. Die griechische Daniel-Diegēsis. Ed. K. Berger. Leiden, 1976.
Anonymous. Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati [The Doctrine of Jacob the Newly Baptised]. Ed. N. Bonwetsch. [ Abhandlungen der Koenigen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Goettingen, phil.-hist. Klass, n.s. 13 ] Goettingen, 1910.
Anonymous. Histoire de la conversion des Juifs habitant la ville de Tomei en Egypte d'après d'anciens manuscrits arabes. Trans. R. Griveau. ROC 13 [ ser. 2, 3 ] ( 1908): 298-313.
Anonymous. Das sogennannte Religionsgespraech am Hof der Sassaniden. Ed. E. Bratke . [ Texte und Untersuchungen 4 ]. Leipzig, 1899.
Anonymous. Sermo de Miraculo Beryti. PG 28: 797-805. Anonymous. Les Trophées de Damas, controverse judéo-chrétienne du VII e siècle. Ed. G. Bardy . [ PO 15 ]. Paris, 1927.
Antiochus Monachus. Epistle to Eustathius. PG 89: col. 1421-28.
Antiochus Monachus. La Prise de Jerusalem par les Perses, [ Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, scriptores georgi 203 ]. Ed. and trans. G. Garitte. Louvain, 1960.
"L'Apocalypse de Zerubabel." Ed. and trans. I. Levi. Revue des Études Juives 68 ( 1914): 131-60.
"Une apocalypse Judéo-arabe." Ed. and trans. I. Levi. Revue des Études Juives 67 ( 1914): 178-82. Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria. Quaestiones ad Antiochum
Anonymous, Sermo de Meracula Beryti, PG 28 : 797-805. 3.
Possibly, Agapius's report 1 ( Paris, 1979); ibid., 102.31, 120.1-4; see 106.6 for the threat of famine, 112.11-20 for the threat of civil war. 12. Ibid., 51.15. See P. Brown, "A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclast Controversy," Society and the Holy, 276-84. 13.
ucem. PG 28: 597-709. Bar-Penkayē ( Sources syriaques, vol. 1). Ed. and trans. A. Mingana. Leipzig, 1908.
"New and Old in Christian Literature," The Seventeenth International Byzantine Congress: Major Papers ( New Rochelle, 1986), 48.
Av. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ( London, 1985), 23. Cameron explains that they "could free themselves only with difficulty." M. Whitby on the seventh-century historian.
Hans Belting. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Of the Statue of Christ in Paneas which Julian (360-363 A.D.) overthrew and made Valueless; he erected his own Statue; this was overthrown by a Thunder-Bolt and destroyed. Fountain of Emmaus in which Christ washed his Feet. Concerning the Tree Persis, which worshiped Christ in Egypt, and the Wonders wrought through it.
Among so many remarkable events which occurred during the reign of Julian, I must not omit to mention one which affords a sign of the power of Christ, and proof of the Divine wrath against the emperor.
Having heard that at Caesarea Philippi, otherwise called Paneas, a city of Phoenicia, there was a celebrated statue of Christ which had been erected by a woman whom the Lord had cured of a flow of blood, Julian commanded it to be taken down and a statue of himself erected in its place; but a violent fire from heaven fell upon it and broke off the parts contiguous to the breast; the head and neck were thrown prostrate, and it was transfixed to the ground with the face downwards at the point where the fracture of the bust was; and it has stood in that fashion from that day until now, full of the rust of the lightning. The statue of Christ was dragged around the city and mutilated by the pagans; but the Christians recovered the fragments, and deposited the statue in the church in which it is still preserved. Eusebius relates, that at the base of this statue grew an herb which was unknown to the physicians and empirics, but was efficacious in the cure of all disorders. It does not appear a matter of astonishment to me, that, after God had vouchsafed to dwell with men, he should condescend to bestow benefits upon them.
It appears that innumerable other miracles were wrought in different cities and villages; accounts have been accurately preserved by the inhabitants of these places only, because they learned them from ancestral tradition; and how true this is, I will at once show. There is a city now called Nicopolis, in Palestine, which was formerly only a village, and which was mentioned by the divine book of the Gospel under the name of Emmaus. The name of Nicopolis was given to this place by the Romans after the conquest of Jerusalem and the victory over the Jews. Just beyond the city where three roads meet, is the spot where Christ, after His resurrection, said farewell to Cleopas and his companion, as if he were going to another village; and here is a healing fountain in which men and other living creatures afflicted with different diseases wash away their sufferings; for it is said that when Christ together with His disciples came from a journey to this fountain, they bathed their feet therein, and, from that time the water became a cure for disorders.
At Hermopolis, in the Thebaïs, is a tree called Persis, of which the branches, the leaves, and the least portion of the bark, are said to heal diseases, when touched by the sick; for it is related by the Egyptians that when Joseph fled with Christ and Mary, the holy mother of God, from the wrath of Herod, they went to Hermopolis; when entering at the gate, this largest tree, as if not enduring the advent of Christ, inclined to the ground and worshiped Him. I relate precisely what I have heard from many sources concerning this tree. I think that this phenomenon was a sign of the presence of God in the city; or perhaps, as seems most probable, the tree, which had been worshiped by the inhabitants, after the pagan custom, was shaken, because the demon, who had been an object of worship, started up at sight of Him who was manifested for purification from such agencies. It was moved of its own accord; for at the presence of Christ the idols of Egypt were shaken, even as Isaiah the prophet had foretold. On the expulsion of the demon, the tree was permitted to remain as a monument of what had occurred, and was endued with the property of healing those who believed.
The inhabitants of Egypt and of Palestine testify to the truth of these events, which took place among themselves.
Philost. vii. 3, who was eyewitness.
Eus. H. E. vii. 18.
Luke xxiv. 13. And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.
Isaiah 19.1. The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.
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