Anchorite (feast day: 16 Ba’unah). The figure of Saint Onophrius (in Arabic Abu Nufar) enjoyed the widest diffusion among the Egyptian desert fathers both in religious literature and in worship and art, both in Egypt and outside. His life was not transmitted independently, but inserted with others into a pilgrimage narrative destined for edification, attributed to a certain Paphnutius. Sometimes his text is preceded by a title presenting it as the life of Onophrius; this was certainly added later. The life of Onophrius occupies only half of the story of Paphnutius.
The Coptic recension is preserved in three complete manuscripts (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M580, pp. 1-36, from al- Hamuli in the Fayyum, dated to A.D. 889-890, unpublished; British Library, London, Oriental 7027, fols. 1-21v, from Idfu, 1004; and a Bohairic manuscript [the others are in Sahidic], Vatican Library, Coptic 65, fols. 99-120v, dated 978-979). Several fragments of codices have been preserved, among them two papyrus leaves, one of the seventh century, formerly at Louvain but destroyed in a fire in 1940 (ed. Lefort, 1945, pp. 97-100), the other of the sixth (?) century in Vienna (ed. Orlandi, 1974, pp. 158-61); the agreement in text between these two papyrus leaves and the other witnesses provides assurance of the antiquity of the story of Paphnutius. The White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH) at Suhaj possessed a codex containing this life; two leaves were published by Till (1935, Vol. 1, pp. 14-19); and the National Library, Paris, preserves several unpublished fragments of it.
In Greek, the manuscripts are numerous but unpublished except for the part of the Paphnutius story concerning Onophrius (Acta sanctorum, 1969, pp. 527-33). A reworking is found in some collections of APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM. A summary is inserted in the Greek SYNAXARION at 12 June, sometimes at 10 or 11 June.
In Latin several editions have been listed, of which three have been published. One makes Onophrius the son of a king of Persia, and adds several novelistic episodes. A notice was inserted in the Roman martyrology by Baronius in 1584.
Paphnutius’ place of origin is not indicated, but he entered very young into a cenobium near Hermopolis. Onophrius is struck by the talk of the elders of this monastery, which presents the hermit life as much superior to the cenobitic. Desiring to follow this more perfect way, he leaves his cell by night and goes off into the desert where he is guided by an angel. At the end of six or seven miles, he finds a cave occupied by a hermit, who retains him for some days to instruct him, then leads him, after four days walking, to a hut near a date palm. The hermit remains with him at this spot for a month to initiate him, then leaves him alone. Every year, however, they meet again, until the day of the old man’s death.
Onophrius describes to Paphnutius his sufferings and his struggles, his sustenance miraculously brought by angels or supplied by the date palm, the communion that an angel gives him each Saturday and Sunday, and his visions. The story does not speak of any particular combats with the demons. At the beginning of his meeting with Paphnutius, Onophrius describes his life “walking in the mountains like wild beasts and living from the plants and the trees.” In fact, Paphnutius first finds Onophrius two or three miles from his hut. They go there together, and after a spiritual conversation, bread and water are mysteriously placed near them. The following morning, on 16 Ba’unah, Onophrius expresses his last wishes for his body and for his annual commemoration that is to be marked by an offering in his name and an agape. To those who shall take care of it he promises that the Lord “will lead them to the first hour of the thousand years.”
Paphnutius expresses the desire to remain there after the death of Onophrius, but the latter replies that his vocation is to make known the life of the desert hermits. Onophrius dies, and his soul is carried away by angels. Paphnutius lays his body in a cavity in the cliff and covers it with stones. At this moment the hut and the date palm crumble away, thus showing Paphnutius that it was not the will of God for him to stay in that place. At the end of his journey in the desert, he meets some monks, who transcribe his story and send it to Scetis to be deposited in the church.
This life is characteristic of a certain wandering hermitism, the witnesses to which are fairly numerous in Middle Egypt. It is significant that Onophrius should say to Paphnutius “return to Egypt,” for this indicates that he considered himself in exile in the desert, probably near the oasis of Oxyrhynchus.
It is very probably he who is represented on a fresco of DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara, beside a palm tree and clothed only in his long hair and beard, although the name is obliterated, along with MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN, Apollo of Bawt, and probably Phib. At DAYR ANBA MAQAR he is also portrayed in the north side chapel. At Faras in Sudan a fresco from the end of the tenth century presents him near an oratory and a palm tree.
In Byzantium, two oratories were consecrated to him, and his head was preserved in the church of Saint Akindinos. He appears in a painting from around the year 1100 in Cyprus. Several pictures in Italy, two of them from the fourteenth century, testify to his popularity. The icons representing him are numerous throughout the entire Christian East.
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