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Bishop Abercius Marcellus

His hagiography (by Symeon the Metaphrast) in the Middle Ages made him well-known and popular; the archaeological discovery of his epitaph in Phrygia by Sir William Ramsay in the late 19th century has brought him much scholarly attention. This text is full of syncretic allusions commonly accepted as Christian, through some consider them pagan. Described in the textual tradition as opposing Montanism - actually Chrestianity - he is an example of a Chrestian bishop and his epitaph is thus a means of informing us of what this was in the second century, once the Herodian thug Saul had become the divine man Paul of Tarsus.

Abercius of Hieropolis (Greek Αβέρκιος, died ca. 167) was a bishop of Hierapolis (modern Castabala) at the time of Marcus Aurelius, also known as Abercius Marcellus. He was supposedly the successor to Papias.

He is said to have evangelized Syria and Mesopotamia, and is on that basis referred to as one of the Equals-to-the-Apostles. He was imprisoned under Marcus Aurelius, and died about 167.

His feast day is celebrated on October 22 (for those churches which follow the Julian Calendar, October 22 occurs on the Gregorian Calendar date of November 4).

Several works are ascribed to him:

    1. An Epistle to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, of which Baronius speaks as extant, but he does not produce it
    2. A Book of Discipline (Greek Βίβλος διδασκαλίας) addressed to his clergy; this too is lost.[2]

He is also the subject, and probable author, of the Inscription of Abercius, preserved in the Vatican Museum.

With the time and place established, let us consider what Chrestianity was and was not in the life of Abercius.
  • This is the cult founded by Saul, the Herodian thug as described by Josephus, whose forebear was General Costobarus, hereditary priest of the temple of Kos, which had become Hellenised as a solar divinity, and the general's wife was Salome, sister of Herod I the Great. We learn from the epistles and Josephus how his congregation was the provincial elite with connections to the imperial court (Poppaea Sabina and Epaphroditus, and through them to freedman Felix, procurator of Judea 52-58, and Vespasian and his son Felix). His theology is designed to appeal to the Hellenised elite of the region (as we see in Adiabene), promoting the Jewish Patriarchs but not Jewish Law.
  • The proto-gospels such as we see in Dura fragment 24 (dated to the early 3rd century) have not yet appeared (by 167), as far as we know. The divine man of this cult is Paul of Tarsus and "IS" - known today as Jesus - may not have appeared, yet alone been adopted by Chrestianity.
  • It is centred on the Chi-Rho and thus, magical resurrection through baptism, possibly riverine as in Egypt. This related Chrestianity closely with the Isis cult. Saul and his cult is connected to Alexandria through Alexander the Alabarch, his brother Philo, and Alexanders two sons, Marcus who married the Herodian princess Berenice, and Tiberius Julius, who became a Jew-hating best friend of Titus. One must remember too that General Costabarus, in the treason that brought his downfall, was an agent for Cleopatra VII.
  • Hellenism across the civilised world, from India to Egypt, allowed this new cult to syncretically incorporate elements from many sources. The magic was from pharaonic Egypt, Chaldea (Mesopotamia) and Pythagoreanism; there was the pharaohs crosier, the title episkopos/bishops came from the Persian court ("King's Eye") via Philip II of Macedonia; the trinity was Egyptian, though common elsewhere. Other cults also worshipped the Patriarchs. These syncretisms were appearing in numerous cults.
  • Explicitly Chrestian archaeology is soon to be produced in Phrygia, so we know the cult is about to flourish. This cult is quite open, not at all covert, so it is neither hidden, nor illegal, but imperially-sponsored.
  • The relationship of Marcion of Sinope to Pauline literature, and the finding of a Marcionite 'synagogue' near Damascus dated securely to the early-4th century, suggests that Marcion was to become the leader of Chrestianity. By then, it had spread across the Levant.

The epitaph:
I, the citizen of a distinguished city, have made this
while still living so that I might have at the appropriate
  time a place here for my body.
My name is Abercius, disciple of the holy shepherd
who feeds his flocks on mountains and plains,
who has great eyes that look into everything.
For he taught me the Faithful scriptures of life.
He sent me to Rome to make articulate the kingdom and
   to see a queen with a golden robe and golden sandals.
And there I saw a people with a splendid seal.
And I saw the plain of Syria and passed through all the cities,
having crossed the Euphrates. Everywhere I had companions
Paul . . . and faith was everywhere my guide and
everywhere she laid before me food, fish from a fountain
  the very great, the pure, which a holy virgin seized,
and she gave this to friends to eat forever,
having a goodly wine, giving it mixed with water, with
These things I, Abercius, dictated to be inscribed here
  while standing by.
Truly I was seventy-two years old.
Let everyone in harmony who understands this pray for Abercius.
Do not, however, let anyone place another in my tomb;
otherwise he shall pay to the Roman treasury two thou-
sand pieces of gold,
and to my goodly fatherland, Hieropolis, one thousand
pieces of gold.

In keeping with the Discipline of the Secret, the Epitaph of Abercius is crowded with information on matters of faith and religious practice enshrined in mystical and symbolical terms that were readily understood by the baptized, but remained unintelligible to the average pagan reader. (Eucharistic Belief Manifest in the Epitaphs of Abercius and Pectorius, taken from the October 1954 issue of "The American Ecclesiastical Review."
This Discipline of the Secret is a good indicator as it is hardly likely to be Christian:
Disciplina arcani (Latin for "Discipline of the Secret" or "Discipline of the Arcane") is the custom that prevailed in Early Christianity, whereby knowledge of the more intimate mysteries of the Christian religion was carefully kept from non-Christians and even from those who were undergoing instruction in the faith.

This is typically Greco-Roman for this period:
Mystery religionssacred mysteries or simply mysteries, were religious schools of the Greco-Roman world for which participation was reserved to initiates (mystai). The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the ritual practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders. The most famous mysteries of Greco-Roman antiquity were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were of considerable antiquity and predated the Greek Dark Ages.
The mystery schools of Greco-Roman antiquity include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries. Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, for instance, Egyptian Isis, Persian Mithraic Mysteries, Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, and Phrygian Cybele.
The Roman Senate sought to ban Dionysian rites throughout the Empire, restricting their gatherings to a handful of people under special license in Rome. However, this only succeeded in pushing the cult underground. They gained further notoriety due to claims that the wife of Spartacus (leader of the Slave Revolt of 73BC) was an initiate of the Thracian Mysteries of Dionysus and considered her husband an incarnation of Dionysus Liber. The Mysteries were revived in a tamer form under Julius Caesar around 50 BC, with his onetime ally Mark Antony becoming an enthusiastic devotee and obtaining popular support. They remained in existence (along with their carnivalesque Bacchanalian street processions) until at least the time of Augustine (A.D. 354–430) and were an institution in most Romanised provinces.

The claim within the textual tradition for Christianity being forced into hiding and secrecy in likely to be a poor reflection of the mystic character of Chrestanity and its congregation. Some of the Pauline epistles may well be largely historical, while some, scholars admit, are more obviously late; even so, they reveal a different faith to that of the synoptics, one of a mystery religion:
In his letters, Paul also focuses on mental activities, but not in the same way as the Synoptics, which equate renewing the mind with repentance. Instead, Paul sees the renewal of our minds as happening as we contemplate what Jesus did on the Cross, which then opens us to grace and to the movement of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Like John, Paul is less interested in knowledge, preferring to emphasize the hiddenness, the "mystery" of God's plan as revealed through Christ. But Paul's discussion of the Cross differs from John's in being less about how it reveals God's glory and more about how it becomes the stumbling block that turns our minds back to God. Paul also describes the Christian life as that of an athlete, demanding practice and training for the sake of the prize; later writers will see in this image a call to ascetical practices.

The syncretisms
 In 1894 G. Ficker, supported by O. Hirschfeld, strove to prove that Abercius was a priest of the morther goddess Cybele. In 1895 A. Harnack offered an explanation which was sufficiently obscure, making Abercius the representative of an ill-defined religious syncretism arbitrarily combined in such a fashion as to explain all portions of the inscription which were otherwise inexplicable. In 1896, Dieterich made Abercius a priest of Attis.

These pagan hypotheses are partly correct, for Chrestianity is a pagan and synretic faith, and thus Christian scholars are also correct in pointing out that they are flawed, but they then fail to correctly identify the faith of Abercius, who can be Christian only by looking backwards and superimposing Christianity upon the older faith. We must do the opposite.

1. The holy shepherd.
The shepherd motif goes back to Ancient Egypt and the shepherd's crook derived from the iconography of Andjety, who was the local god of the Delta town named Djedu. He was represented in human form with two feathers on his head and holding the crook and flail in his hands At a very early date in Egyptian history, Andjety, who had a close relationship with kingship from the earliest of times, was absorbed into Osiris of Busiris, who became a national god known simply as Osiris.
The crook was a sceptre in the shape of a shepherd's crook. Its name is related to the verb HqA, to rule, the substantives HqA and HqA.t, ruler, and the divine epithet HqA used in connection with Osiris.

The Good Shepherd motif:
In ancient Greek cult, kriophoros (Greekκριοφόρος) or criophorus, the "ram-bearer," is a figure that commemorates the solemn sacrifice of a ram. It becomes an epithet of HermesHermes Kriophoros.
Not all ancient Greek sculptures of sacrifiants with an offering on their shoulders bear young rams. The nearly lifesizemarble Calfbearer (moschophoros), of ca 570 BCE, found on the Athenian Acropolis in 1864 (illustration, left) is inscribed "Rhombos", apparently the donor, who commemorated his sacrifice in this manner. The sacrificial animal in the case is a young bull, but the iconic pose, with the young animal across the sacrifiant's shoulders, secured by fore legs and rear legs firmly in the sacrifiant's grip, is the same as many kriophoroi. This is the most famous of the Kriophoros sculptures and is exhibited at the Acropolis Museum

Lewis R. Farnell placed this Hermes Kriophoros foremost in Arcadia:

"As Arcadia has been from time immemorial the great pasture-ground of Greece, so probably the most primitive character in which Hermes appeared, and which he never abandoned, was the pastoral. He is the lord of the herds,epimélios and kriophoros, who leads them to the sweet waters, and bears the tired ram or lamb on his shoulders, and assists them with the shepherd's crook, the kerykeion."

The Kriophoros figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb, simply as a pastoral vignette, became a common figure in series denoting the months or seasons, characteristically March or April.

The shepherd's crook becomes the bishop's crosier and the Good Shepherd is, of course, the religious leader who, in return for guarding his flock from outsiders, fleeces the sheep as required.

2. The queen in Rome with the golden sandals and robe
This is not a person, but the institution of the Roman Church. Far from being the home of The Poor, its presence in Rome and the gold tell us something very important: it is not covert, illegal, hidden, as the textual tradition claims for itself; quite of opposite: it is headquartered in the heart of the empire, in the capital itself. This should have always been obvious to all, for this is the only way such a widespread movement could be managed; it has a structure, an organisation, with officers, monasteries, publications and congregations.
The gold of the golden sandals and golden robe also hints at great wealth, such as we see even today, with the Roman Church owning billions, with an aristocratic hierarchy, and officers living in palaces, driven in chauffeured limousines. Look at their vestments, in imperial purple and gold - they are resplendent, not at all The Poor.
The Roman Church is a descendant of the Pharaohs, Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors, with all their secular power, money and divine authority.

3. people with a splendid seal
This, everyone agrees, is the (metaphorical and metaphysical) mark of baptism. Baptism began as the riverine Osiris resurrection ritual, which was celebrated symbolically every year in Egypt and copied by Hadrian with Antinous; it is also a parody of the ritual cleansing practised in Judaism, none so fanatically or famously as those Messianic Jews at Qumran.
Most of the archaeology we have today for Chrestianity is associated with baptism, much of it marked with the Ptolemaic Chi-Rho.

4. Paul
This is a direct reference to the divine man Paul of Tarsus, the chrestic incarnation of the Herodian thug Saul, kinsman of Costobarus and thus descendant of General Costobarus and Salome, sister of Herod I, the Great. The males of this family were the hereditary high priests of the temple to Kos.
The textual tradition - including the sacred texts - describe in detail how Saul used his missionary work as cover to recruit his own followers; from the Dead Sea Scrolls, where he is called "The Spouter of Lies", we also learn more how he did this. He is almost certainly one of the two missionaries to Adiabene, arguing how circumcision was not needed to convert to Judaism.
This verse is missing a word or two, which has created problems for translators and interpreters. Specifically, the wording is missing a crucial copulative object describing what capacity Paul serves with respect to Abercius. It can be argued how the sense seems best suited to possessing the power or spirit of Paul working through Abercius - perhaps through his hands as a healer. This would suit well the understanding of Chrestianity in this period being run by and for a collection of self-employed mystics, gaining money as they could through such activities as exorcism, fortune-telling (as seen in the Chrest Magus bowl) and faith-healing, much like Simon Magus (probably a pseudonym of Saul/Paul).

5. fish from a fountain
The sacred texts make much of fish. The four fishermen apostles of Galilee are 'fishers of men' rather than fish. Their nets are the "nets of Belial:
Also in The Dead Sea Scrolls is a recounting of a dream of Amram, the father of Moses, who finds two 'watchers' contesting over him. One is Belial who is described as the King of Evil and Prince of Darkness. Belial is also mentioned in the Fragments of a Zadokite Work (which is also known as The Damascus Document (CD)), which states that during the eschatological age, "Belial shall be let loose against Israel, as God spoke through Isaiah the prophet." The Fragments also speak of "three nets of Belial" which are said to be fornication, wealth, and pollution of the sanctuary. In this work, Belial is sometimes presented as an agent of divine punishment and sometimes as a rebel, as Mastema is. It was Belial who inspired the Egyptian sorcerers, Jochaneh and his brother, to oppose Moses and Aaron. The Fragments also say that anyone who is ruled by the spirits of Belial and speaks of rebellion should be condemned as a necromancer and wizard.
No doubt you can see how the New Testament works this as parody.
Şanlıurfa/ancient Edessa: according to tradition, Nimrod had Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre,
but God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. The pool of sacred fish remains to this day.

6. a holy virgin seized, and she gave this to friends to eat forever, having a goodly wine, giving it mixed with water, with bread.
The consensus is that is is the Eucharist:
The fish was the symbol of Christ and of the eucharistic banquet: Christ is the "'ichthus' of exceeding great size and pure whom the spotless virgin brought forth from a spring" (v. 14). The faithful on their part are, in the language of Tertullian, "little fishes": "Nos pisciculi secundum 'ichthun' nostrum Jesum Christum in aqua nascimur." The spotless Virgin who caught the Fish from the spring is, according to the symbolism of the time, the Virgin Mary who conceived the Savior. The eucharistic food, then, is Christ Himself, the great and pure 'ICHTHUS': which is given only to the initiated and is administered under both species of bread and wine-the Body and Blood of Our Savior: "administering the mixed drink with bread" (v. 16). The "mixed drink" (Gr.: 'kerhasma') doubtless refers to the cup of wine mixed (tempered) with water; together with bread it constitutes the eucharistic <oblata.>

7. my goodly fatherland, Hieropolis

The New Testament is a textual artefact of the 4th century:
The Greek noun εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning "thanksgiving", is not used in the New Testament as a name for the rite, however, the related verb is found in New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, including the earliest such account:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me". (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)

Early Christian sources

The Didache (Greek: teaching) is an early Church treatise that includes instructions for Baptism and the Eucharist. Most scholars date it to the early 2nd century, and distinguish in it two separate Eucharistic traditions, the earlier tradition in chapter 10 and the later one preceding it in chapter 9.

The oldest version we have of this was discovered in 1873, dated to 1056 CE precisely.

The historical origins of the feast are much older, older even than Christianity:

Agape feast

The expression The Lord's Supper, derived from St. Paul's usage in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 may have originally referred to the Agape feast (or love feast), the shared communal meal with which the Eucharist was originally associated.The Agape feast is mentioned in Jude 12. But The Lord's Supper is now commonly used in reference to a celebration involving no food other than the sacramental bread and wine.

Fresco of an Agape feast from a catacomb. There are many such.
These feasts were banned by the Roman Church because they were orgies of excessive food, drink and drugs, in which 'Love' was understood as 'free love' - sex. They have an older origin still:
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, based on various ecstatic elements of the Greek Dionysia. They seem to have been popular, and well-organised, throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula. They were almost certainly associated with Rome's native cult of Liber, and probably arrived in Rome itself around 200 BC but like all mystery religions of the ancient world, very little is known of their rites.
Bacchus on a Lion and Silenos on a Camel - Roman Mosaic

They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries...
Legislation of 186, known as the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, brought the Bacchanalia under control of the senate, and thus of the Roman pontifices. The existing cult chapters and colleges were dismantled. Congregations of mixed gender were permitted, but were limited to no more than two men and three women, and any Bacchanalia gathering must seek prior permission from the Senate. Men were forbidden Bacchus' priesthood.

The parallels with the worship of Dionysus have long been obvious to numerous scholars:

The earliest discussions of mythological parallels between Dionysus and the figure of the Christ in Christian theology can be traced to Friedrich Hölderlin, whose identification of Dionysus with Christ is most explicit in Brod und Wein (1800–1801) and Der Einzige (1801–1803).

Modern scholars such as Martin HengelBarry PowellRobert M. Price, and Peter Wick, among others, argue that Dionysian religion and Christianity have notable parallels. They point to the symbolism of wine and the importance it held in the mythology surrounding both Dionysus and Jesus Christ; though, Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.

Birth of Dionysus, on a small sarcophagus that may have been made for a child (Walters Art Museum)

Scholars of comparative mythology identify both Dionysus and Jesus with the dying-and-returning god mythological archetype. Other elements, such as the celebration by a ritual meal of bread and wine, also have parallels. Powell, in particular, argues precursors to the Catholic notion of transubstantiation can be found in Dionysian religion.

Another parallel can be seen in The Bacchae where Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity which is compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.

Related, on March 28 was held the Initium Caiani, sometimes interpreted as initiations into the mysteries of the Magna Mater and Attis at the Gaianum, near the Phrygianum sanctuary at the Vatican Hill.

From at least 139 CE, Rome's port at Ostia, the site of the goddess's arrival, had a fully developed sanctuary to Magna Mater and Attis, served by a local Archigallus and college of dendrophores (the ritual tree-bearers of "Holy Week").
The Vatican Phrygianum, a pagan shrine dedicated to the Phrygian goddess Cybele (the Great Mother)
Various inscriptions from the end of the 4th century consist of dedications to Cybele by the last holdouts of the pagan aristocracy, suggesting that perhaps the temple was still in use in this period, and recording that the ritual of the taurobolium – being bathed in bulls’ blood – was taking place here. Perhaps this is where Abercius went to see his "queen".

Ground preparations for the building of St Peters' basilica on the Vatican Hill uncovered a shrine, known as the Phrygianum, with some 24 dedications to Magna Mater and Attis. Many are now lost, but most that survive were dedicated by high-status Romans after a taurobolium sacrifice to Magna Mater. None of these dedicants were priests of the Magna Mater or Attis, and several held priesthoods of one or more different cults.

Lastly, as concerns the epitaph: pay to the Roman treasury two thousand pieces of gold, and to my goodly fatherland, Hieropolis, one thousand pieces of gold.
This is an extraordinarily-large amount of money in any period of time, not fitting well with a bishop of The Poor, but better with a cult for the imperial elite.

Right: Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 CE. Getty Museum


Why should Abercius be Chrestian, when the consensus says Christian? And if not Christian, why not one of the other Phrygian cults?

We saw how the decision to label him Christian is loosely based: the epitaph alludes to things such as baptism, a virgin and a feast which became Christian, so he probably is. There is nothing definite, even if one believes the textual tradition placing Christianity in this period.

But the fact is, there is no Christianity in the second century; Abercius cannot be a Christian. If there was anything certain in the epitaph to make him Christian, there would be no discussion.

Our starting point therefore is this: the faith of Abercius has similarities to Christianity, centuries before that religion came into being; his divine man is Paul and there is no mention of Jesus (or "IS"); the mark of this faith is baptism.

Phrygia produces a number of faiths, notably that of Cybele and - as we see in the Tembris Valley - Chrestianity. Both are Hellenised and thus we must expect both to have remarkable similarities. There is also - from Egypt - the Hellenised worship of Isis. Syncrertism is fusing the whole lot ever-closer together. There is another, important theological point: the sun.

Left: Zeus Ammon. Roman copy of a Greek original from the late 5th century BCE. The Greeks of the lower Nile Delta and Cyrenaica combined features of supreme god Zeus with features of the Egyptian god Ammon-Ra. Staatliche Antikensammlungen Munich.

The Greeks had Helios, the Egyptians had Zeus-Ammon, the Romans had Sol; and in the Levant, Baal (and Kos) had become solar. Everyone agreed how the sun was central to their magic.Hadrian demonstrated his divine authority to Rome by standing in the Pantheon on the Spring Equinox so the suns rays shone through the oculus onto him.

Shortly after Abercius, the Severans came to power and married into the hereditary priesthood on the solar Baal in Emesa (Homs in Syria). They would take the holy stone to Rome and declare a new solar theology for the empire.

Right: Roman aureus depicting Elagabalus. The reverse reads Sanct Deo Soli Elagabal (To the Holy Sun God Elagabal), and depicts a four-horse, gold chariot carrying the holy stone of the Emesa temple.

Abercius was Chrestian because no other faith had Paul and baptism, but it would not look anything like Christianity as we know it, despite some similarities. Rather, Chrestianity in this period would look like the numerous other Hellenised, solar faiths using magic and with a divine man to call upon. That's how syncretism worked then.
John Bartram,
3 Jul 2014, 22:03
John Bartram,
2 Jul 2014, 05:11