Saturday, April 23, 2016

Abercius Epitaph

Abercius Marcellus was a bishop of the city of Hierapolis in Phrygia around the mid-2nd century A.D., during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Abercius was from the same city that the celebrated apostolic bishop Papias had flourished. Echoes of the original teachings of the disciples of Christ were still ringing in the ears of the early Christians at that time, in that particular region of Asia Minor wherein the Apostle John had last preached.

Abercius was a very well traveled man who had advanced to a ripe old age of seventy two before his passing. He had traveled to Rome, Syria, Mesopotamia, and has even had conversation with the ancient Christians in the illustrious city of Nisibis, north of Syria, near Edessa in modern day Turkey. 

Abercius confessed his love of learning of the Holy Scripture and uses language that is very much similar in style to that of the Book of Revelation. It must be noted that the reason for why the epitaph uses such a cryptic language was that fact that in the Roman world, Christianity was a religio illicita, a "forbidden religion" and hence it was banned under the threat of imprisonment or even death. it was important that the inscription resorted to a highly veiled and pictaresque imagery not at all dissimilar to those of the New Testament. The language is clearly in the genre of apocalyptic, and therefore intelligible only to the "initiated," i.e. the early Christians.

Abercius is said to have been a Christian apologist, preacher, and even a healer. In the inscription he is said to have been an assossiate of Paul during his travel across the Euphrates, it is not clear, however, whether a different man of the same name is meant, or that the apostle himself or even his companions. Abercius, according to tradition, died around 167 A.D., being martyred by the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was buried in Hierapolis whose ancient epitaph survives to this day. Below is the translation followed by some few comments of mine.

The citizen of a notable city I made this (tomb) in my life-time; that in due season I might have here a resting-place for my body. Abercius by name, I am a disciple of the pure Shepherd, who feedeth His flocks of sheep on mountains and plains, who hath great eyes looking on all sides; for He taught me faithful writings. He also sent me to royal Rome to behold it and to see the golden-robed, golden-slippered Queen. And there I saw a people bearing the splendid seal. And I saw the plain of Syria and all the cities, even Nisibis, crossing over the Euphrates. And everywhere I had associates. In company with Paul I followed, while everywhere faith led the way, and set before me for food the fish from the fountain, mighty and stainless (whom a pure virgin grasped), and gave this to friends to eat always, having good wine and giving the mixed cup with bread. These words I Abercius, standing by, ordered to be inscribed. In sooth I was in the course of my seventy-second year. Let every friend who observeth this, pray for me. But no man shall place another tomb above mine. If otherwise, he then shall pay two thousand pieces of gold to the treasury of the Romans, and a thousand pieces of gold ot my good fatherland Hierapolis.

"citizen of a notable city..." It starts off with a formulaic funerary epitaph where the city is firstly identified to mark the social-status of the deceased. Note the similarity of Paul's statement to the Roman commander who had delivered him from the violent mob in Jerusalem: "I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city" (Acts 21:39). Cilicia was also in Asia Minor, a city that was once governed by the famous orator from Rome, Cicero. the original word in Greek for "notable" is eklektes, which literally means the "chosen," the "elected."

"I am a disciple of the pure Shepherd..." Now that's when he gives out his true and indubitable identity as a Christian. There is only one true shepherd, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who feedeth His flock and leads them through the gate to the sheepfold. The "mountains and plains" are all the various regions of the world. Christians, however scattered on completely different terrains of the globe, are one and united in Jesus. The pure Shepherd is omni-present and guides the Christians all across the wide world.

"for He taught me faithful writings..." Jesus was the one who had opened the eyes of his disciples so that they could understand the Scriptures. The phrase "faithful writings" or in the original ta grammata pista is the bible of the early Christians - the New and Old Testaments. Abercius would have access to all the Four Gospels, the epistles, and for sure the book of Revelation.

"He also sent me to Rome..." Jesus promises His followers: "lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). the "golden slippered and golden robed Queen" probably refers to the church in Rome, which was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul who had been martyred there. The emperors and their queens would bedeck themselves in such sumptuous and flamboyant attire, but it was the Church of Christ, the bride of Christ, who possessed true spiritual and lasting royalty.

"And there I saw the people bearing the splendid seal..." most indubitable signifies "having received the seal of baptism." The Greek word here is sphragis, which means to "seal up to make something secret" - again with the cryptic language - but that word, a verbal derivative of it, is also found in Ephesians 1:13: "in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise." It was the baptism that came from the Holy Spirit and the regeneration as Sons of God not according to the flesh but to that of the Spirit of God.

"while everywhere faith led the way..." Abercius of Hierapolis had the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ always before him, which enabled him to do all things in His name. He was never far from home as long as he kept his mind in the faith of the fathers.

"And set before me for food fish from the fountain..." What a beaituful imagery in referring to the teachings of Jesus. The fish is undoubtedly the teachings of the apostles, fish here, ichthys, is an ancient Christian symbol, an anogram that reads: "Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter," which is "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour." But more specifically, the fish here recalls the scene from the gospels where Jesus feads the multitude of thousands with two loaves and five fish; to the scene where Jesus feads His disciples some fish by the Sea of Galilee; to the scene where the disciples give some "broiled fish" to Jesus when He was resurrected. Jesus made His disciples the "fishers of men." We have such a splendid abundance of fish referenced to in the New Testament. and what could the fountain be except for the wellspring of eternal life: "but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. but the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life" (John 4:6). The fountain is the source - Jesus Christ - and the fish are His teachings.

"which the pure virgin grasped..." This signifies that there was no stain of sin about the teachings and no trace of heresy or some outlandish corruption of the original teachings of the apostles. The faith had been kept pure and the soil of faith kept virgin. 

"mixed cup with bread..." this surely refers to the cup of the Eucharist (i.e. of "thanks-giving;" i.e. of the communion). The "mixed" here, kerasis, refers to the wine/fruit of the vine mixed with water, recalling the biblical scene of the death of Christ on the cross, when having been pierced with a spear "blood and water gushed out from His side" (John 19:34). 

That is my two cents on this most monumental historical artifact of the Christian faith. How ancient does is ring, and yet how simple and beautiful.

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