MACARIUS OF TKOW, SAINT (d. 451/452)
A bishop of Tkow noted for poverty, sanctity, and healing powers who was martyred for opposing the Council of CHALCEDON (feast day: 27 Babah). The chief source for his life is the Panegyric on Macarius, Bishop of Tkow by Pseudo-Dioscorus of Alexandria. This work cannot have been composed earlier than the second quarter of the sixth century. It appears to be based on episodes dealing with Macarius drawn from the Life of Dioscorus by Pseudo-Theopistus of Alexandria, which the author of the Panegyric amplified and to which he added other traditional stories. Internal evidence indicates that the Panegyric was composed in Greek in or around Alexandria. It survives in Sahidic and Bohairic translations, and several unedited manuscripts of Arabic versions are extant.
The Panegyric tells nothing about Macarius’ early life or how he came to be a bishop. His diocese of Tkow (Antaiopolis; Qaw al- Kabir) is located in Upper Egypt roughly halfway between ASYUT and AKHMIM. The Panegyric is meant to be a discourse delivered by DIOSCORUS I, patriarch of Alexandria, to a group of monks who have come to visit him in exile at Gangra in Paphlagonia on the Black Sea. While still in Alexandria, Dioscorus is brought news by the abbot Paphnutius of the brutal death of Macarius for refusing to subscribe to the decrees of the Council of CHALCEDON and the Tome of Pope LEO I, which the emperor had submitted to the bishops of Egypt to sign.
Dioscorus then begins a long reminiscence about Macarius, beginning with their meeting on the docks of Alexandria, as he and the Egyptian bishops prepare to embark for Constantinople at the command of the emperor Marcian. Macarius is portrayed as a self-effacing man who is poor, who is accompanied by a single companion, and who speaks and understands only Coptic. Dioscorus must converse with him through an interpreter. When Dioscorus’ companion, Theopistus, makes a disparaging remark about the inability of Macarius to speak Greek and calls him “this mouthless one,” Dioscorus reprimands him and threatens to censure him unless he begs Macarius’ pardon. Then in a speech using Old Testament holy war imagery, Dioscorus predicts that Macarius will play a preeminent role in the defense of Egyptian orthodoxy.
Because all the other bishops are able to escape the trip to Constantinople by bribing the imperial messenger, Dioscorus and Macarius embark without them. During the journey, Macarius heals a blind man and miraculously produces evidence that clears an Egyptian sailor who is falsely accused by his non-Egyptian shipmates. During the journey, Dioscorus compels the companion of Macarius, Pinoution, to recount for him some of the bishop’s outstanding virtues and miracles, including his victory over demons who inhabited a pagan temple in his diocese. Pinoution also recounts the vision of Abbot SHENUTE, in which the abbot saw Macarius as a champion of orthodoxy, who, because of Shenute’s advanced age (he is 109), will fight in his stead at the coming council.
Upon their arrival in Constantinople, Dioscorus has a vision, in which he learns that Macarius will be buried beside the bodies of Saint JOHN THE BAPTIST and the prophet Elisha. When Dioscorus is summoned to the imperial presence, Macarius is denied entrance by a chamberlain because of his shabby attire, which he refuses to change for an earthly ruler. When he is finally admitted through the intervention of Dioscorus, he is unable to participate in the ensuing debate about doctrine because he can find no one to interpret for him. Meanwhile, Dioscorus presents a rousing defense of Egyptian orthodoxy before Marcian and the empress PULCHERIA, convincing the assembled bishops of the correctness of his position.
After this session, an informant tells Dioscorus that there is a plot to murder Macarius, and he reluctantly sends the bishop back to Egypt. Thus, it would seem that Macarius really never gets to attend the Council of Chalcedon but only some sort of preliminary meeting in Constantinople.
Time passes, during which Dioscorus is removed from his see by the Council of Chalcedon and sent into exile by the emperor. An imperial courier arrives at Alexandria and summons the bishops of Egypt to subscribe to the decrees of the council and to the Tome of Leo. When Macarius refuses to accept these documents because he does not judge them to be in conformity with the Council of NICAEA, the courier kicks him so savagely that he dies on the spot.
His body is prepared for burial amidst a great outpouring of devotion on the part of the Alexandrian populace, and he is laid to rest next to the bodies of John the Baptist and Elisha, as had been prophesied. A cripple who touches his bier is healed, as is a deaf- mute child, who then recounts that he has seen a vision of John the Baptist and Elisha receiving the soul of Macarius. This, in synopsis, is what we are told of the life of Saint Macarius.
Very little of the life of Macarius as set out in the Egyptian sources can be called historical in the modern sense. Like his contemporary, Shenute, he seems to have made no impression outside the anti-Chalcedonian circles of Egypt and Syria. That he existed at all and was bishop of Tkow, fought against paganism in his diocese, supported Dioscorus’ stand against the Council of Chalcedon, and, perhaps, met a violent end because of his beliefs, are all possibilities, but they cannot be corroborated from sources outside the pool of Egyptian orthodox tradition.
The relics of Saint Macarius the bishop, still venerated at DAYR ANBA MAQAR together with those of MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN and MACARIUS ALEXANDRINUS, are probably meant to be those of Macarius of Tkow, but this is uncertain. Their proximity to the recently discovered reliquaries of John the Baptist and Elisha at the same monastery may tie in with the tradition that is found in the Panegyric about the burial of Macarius next to these two holy men. The presence of the relics of the three Macarii at Dayr Anba Maqar is first attested in a list made by Mawhub ibn Mansur near the end of the eleventh century.
More significant, however, for Egyptian church history than the details of his life is the role created for Macarius by the pseudonymous author of the Panegyric. This work is characteristic of most early Christian hagiography in that it is less interested in historical accuracy and more intent on exhorting its audience to virtuous behavior through the example of the saint. The Panegyric can be best characterized as a hagiographical romance situated in a context of anti-Chalcedonian polemics. The author, in spite of an undercurrent of prejudice against the Coptic language and culture, sets out to make Macarius a model Egyptian orthodox hero for the period immediately following the Council of Chalcedon.
First of all, he establishes his saintliness. Macarius is portrayed as someone who practices evangelical poverty, reminiscent of that practiced by the early monks of the desert. He is poorly dressed by choice and carries almost no money when about to sail for Constantinople. When in trouble, he places his trust in God, who delivers him. He has the ability to read men’s hearts and to guide them effectively toward repentence and virtue. He has the power to heal the sick, even after he is dead, and is able to drive out demons. He is devoted to orthodoxy and willing to risk his life for the faith in contrast to other bishops who put personal gain and bodily comfort before orthodoxy. In short, he is a Christ-like figure, suitable for imitation.
Second, his credentials as a spokesman for the Coptic-speaking church are established by the vision of Abbot Shenute, the premier Coptic-speaking religious leader of the period. Macarius is also associated with Paphnutius, a Pachomian abbot who himself has ties to Shenute. Thus Macarius is linked to the sources of the two most important traditions of Coptic-speaking Egypt, men who themselves can look back to their close ties with Saint CYRIL I and the Council of EPHESUS. Finally, the author links Macarius to the Greek-speaking patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor and the defender of his teachings.
Thus, the work welds these two elements, Coptic and Greek- speaking Egyptian Christianity, into a united front against the perceived heterodoxy of the followers of Chalcedon. Whether the work was composed to foster such ethnic unity, or whether it merely reflects and fortifies what was already the case in sixth-century Egypt, is uncertain and must await the further study of Egyptian church history in the period after 451.
A Saint Macarius the bishop (not otherwise specified) is commemorated in various liturgical texts of the Coptic church. It is not possible to confirm that this is Macarius of Tkow, but the identification seems probable. The Exegesis on the Feast Day of Michael the Archangel (Pierpont Morgan Library, Codex 592) is attributed to Macarius of Tkow.
- Nau, F. “Histoire de Dioscore.” Journal asiatique, ser. 10, no. 1 (1903):5-108, 241-310.
DAVID W. JOHNSON, S.J