AGATHON OF HOMS (AGATHON OF HOMS)
A twelfth-century author and a bishop of Homs (Homs), and mentioned by the encyclopedist Abu al-Barakat IBN KABAR (d. 1324) in Chapter 7 of the Misbah al-Zulmah (Misbah al-Zulmah) (“Lamp of Darkness”). He classes him among the Coptic medieval authors after SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘, Michael of Damietta, and Butrus of Malij, and before CYRIL III ibn Laqlaq (Samir, 1971, p. 315, no. 4). Concerning him, Ibn Kabar says, “He is the author of the book of the ‘Account of the Faith and the Sacrament of the Priesthood.’ He composed this work in order to justify his request to be freed of the bishopric of Homs without being deposed from his rank.”
Graf first mentioned Agathon among the Melchites (Graf, 1947, p. 71, no. 3), but then classed him more certainly among the Jacobites (Graf, 1947, p. 270, no. 4). Nevertheless, Agathon was probably a Melchite; it is unlikely that he was a West Syrian or Jacobite, and he was not a Copt. Haji-Athanasiou (pp. 120-21) has supported the Melchite thesis, because of the lack of importance given the title of metropolitan, the use of a biblical version close to the Septuagint, and the mention of the canons of the Council in Trullo of 692. Another evidence is Agathon’s reference to Anastasius I, Greek patriarch of Antioch (593-599).
Agathon began life in Antioch as a layman called Iliyya and nicknamed (Ibn al-Ashall) Ibn al-Ashall. He probably lived at the end of the eleventh century or at the beginning of the twelfth century, but at least before 1178, the date of the earliest known manuscript (the information given by Paul Sbath in Fihris, no. 2537, according to which Niqulawus Nahhas of Aleppo (Niqulawus Nahhas) possessed a manuscript dated A.D. 1128, is not trustworthy). A delegation of prominent citizens of Homs came to visit him and proposed that he should become their bishop. He complied with their request, was ordained a priest, and then consecrated metropolitan of Homs in Syria.
With reference to his works and manuscripts, according to the manuscript of Nahhas (Nahhas), Agathon composed a “Priests’ Invitation.” This information cannot be checked, as the manuscript of Nahhas is no longer accessible.
Agathon’s only certain work, mentioned by Ibn Kabar, is known today from a single complete manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford, Huntington 240, (fols. 131r-60v). Copied by a Copt of Cairo in 1549, it was purchased the same year by ABU AL-MUNA, parish priest of the Coptic church of Qasriyyat al-Rayhan (Qasriyyat al-Rayhan) in Old Cairo, who ornamented it and added seven folios.
A second manuscript, much more ancient, is found at the Byzantine monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai (Sinai Arabic 483, fols. 357r-80v). It was copied by the priest Yusuf ibn Barakat of the unidentified village of Qalhat, on the commission of the priest Yuhanna ibn Abi al-Hasan, in June 1178. Unfortunately, between fols. 361 and 362 there is a lacuna of an estimated twelve folios, which eliminates one-third of the text, corresponding to fol. 135r, line 21, to fol. 135v, line 2, in the Huntington manuscript.
In this work, Agathon, after exercising his ministry for a certain time, expresses his discouragement in light of the scandal caused by certain priests and bishops, and feels unworthy of his heavy charge. He offers his resignation. Criticized by his people, he defends his right not to be stripped of his priesthood. He supports his point of view by mentioning three famous examples (cf. fol. 132r): Saint Gregory the Theologian, who resigned in 381; Narcisius, patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 212); and Anastasius I, patriarch of Antioch (593- 599). This is the introduction (fols. 131r-33v).
He then explains the essence of the priesthood: “The priesthood is to become similar to God as far as is possible.” It is like true philosophy, which also consists of “becoming similar to God as far as is possible,” since God is the Wise One par excellence (fols. 133v-34r). This is required of every Christian, but especially of a priest (fols. 134r-34v). The bishop is at the same time “god,” “father,” “mediator,” “illuminator,” and “guardian of the Law” (fols. 134v-36v).
Man is created in the image of God. Just as God is threefold, so also man is threefold, being composed of intellect, word, and soul, corresponding to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (fols. 137r-39v). To become the image of God, priesthood is necessary. God has instituted it in order to remit sins and in this way to preserve or restore the image of God in man. Thus the priest is the mediator, and for this task he must resemble God by his purity, illumination, and mercy, and men by his humility.
As for the conditions for the priesthood, they are also three, according to the image of the Trinity: (1) a specific, visible criterion: to be at least thirty years old; (2) tangible, visible criteria: equilibrium, dignity, and a pleasant, radiant countenance; and (3) spiritual criteria: purity, kindness, mercy, intelligence, etcetera, and all the virtues mentioned by Paul to Timothy and Titus.
This text is one of the few reflections we possess in Arabic on the role and nature of the priesthood. It was relatively well known to the Copts of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It is as yet unpublished, although M. Haji-Athanasiou (1978, p. 118, n. 1) has prepared an edition and a translation of it.
- Haji-Athanasiou, M. “Agathon d’Emèse et son traité sur le sacerdoce.” Parole de l’Orient (1978):117-40.
- Samir, K., ed. Misbah al-Zulmah/fi Idah al-Khidmah, li-Shams al- Riyasah Abi al-Barakat al-ma‘ruf bi-Ibn Kabar. Cairo, 1971.
- Sbath, P. Al-Fihris (Catalogue de manuscrits arabes), Vol. 1. Cairo, 1938.
KHALIL SAMIR, S.J.