MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL, SAINT
In Coptic Christian tradition, Saint Michael the Archangel holds an important place, comparable to that of the Virgin Mary. Of the Eastern churches, only the Copts and the Ethiopians have developed devotion to the archangel to the same degree. Among the archangels, Michael is explicitly named in the Old Testament (Dn. 10:13, 21; 12:1) and in the New Testament (Jude 9 and Rev. 12:7). The cult of angels developed very rapidly in the early church (Barbel, 1941). The most famous (shrine of Michael) was at Khonai, between Colossae and Hierapolis in Asia Minor, but recently a building of the same type was discovered at Apamea in Syria; similar buildings existed from the early fourth century in Constantinople and other towns (Canivet, 1979, pp. 364-65).
The principal functions ascribed to Michael are the presentation of the prayers of the righteous before God, acting as a psychopomp (one who welcomes the souls of the dead to heaven), achieving victory over the devil, and serving in the cosmological role of Angel of the Lord. All these functions are to be found in the rich Coptic documentation concerning Michael.
Two festivals stand out in the SYNAXARION: 12 Ba’unah, the festival of the dedication of his church, and 12 Hatur, the festival of his investiture in heaven. There is also a festival of Saint Michael on the twelfth of each month. This triple liturgical program will be illustrated with the help of some literary texts. Then follows a survey of the principal Coptic texts that speak of Saint Michael.
The Dedication of the Church of Saint Michael
The festival of 12 Ba’unah has the following story in the Synaxarion. A pious woman named Euphemia was married to a man who gave alms generously. They celebrated three festivals every month—on the twelfth, Saint Michael; on the twenty-first, the Virgin; and on the twenty-ninth, the Nativity. When the husband was dying, he made the wife promise to continue this practice. In token of this faithfulness, he left her an icon of Saint Michael. Satan, in the form of a monk, tormented the woman, trying to seduce her and make her give up her pious practices. On 12 Ba’unah, Satan appeared to her in the guise of Michael himself. But the woman recognized him because he did not make the sign of the cross.
When Satan tried to strangle her, the true Michael appeared and vanquished him. He then said to the woman, “Prepare yourself, for today you are going to leave this world!” The woman gave away all that she had to the poor, embraced the icon of Saint Michael, and expired. Euphemia suggests Saint Euphemia, a fourth-century martyr who was claimed by both sides of the dispute at the Council of Chalcedon.
The Synaxarion then explains the date of 12 Ba’unah. In Alexandria, there was a great temple built by Queen Cleopatra and dedicated to Saturn. Inside was a horrible bronze statue still honored on 12 Ba’unah by human sacrifice. ALEXANDER I, patriarch of Alexandria in the early fourth century, wanted to destroy the statue, but the people of Alexandria opposed him, asserting that eighteen patriarchs had already held the see without coming to this point. Alexander suggested as a compromise that the temple become a church dedicated to Saint Michael. The church is usually called the Caesarion. It was later the site of a fateful scene in which the anti-chalcedonian radical Saint MACARIUS OF TKOW was killed by a kick from the emissary of Constantinople.
The etiological part of this account can be confirmed by the tenth-century chronicle of Sa‘id IBN AL-BITRIQ, which, however, speaks of the god Hermes; by al-Maqrizi, who speaks of Saturn (zuhal); and by JOHN OF NIKIOU, who specifies that the Caesarion had been built by Cleopatra in honor of Caesarion, the son she bore to Julius Caesar. According to Athenaeus, the second-century author of the Deiphosophistes, there was a temple of Cronus (a Greek agricultural god identified with the Roman Saturn) in Alexandria. A homily attributed to PETER I, patriarch of Alexandria from 300 to 310, says that the cult of Saint Michael dates to the time of his immediate predecesser, THEONAS. A number of manuscripts or fragments of this homily exist (see Hyvernat, 1922; Crum and von Lemm, 1907 and 1908; Simon, 1935).
In fact, the substitution of the cult of Saint Michael for that of Cronus is considered to have occurred in the early second century, a period when astrology and syncretism were popular. Michael was sometimes identified as the successor of Cronus, whose cult was already celebrated in Greece on 12 Hekatombaion, and with Cronus- Aion-Zurvan, an amalgamation of Cronus with two lion-headed Mithraic gods associated with time. The representation of this divinity, a man with a lion’s head whose body was tightly encircled by a snake devouring its tail, justifies the adjective “horrible” in the Synaxarion account.
Moreover, the name of the idol, Boz or Boh in Coptic, is comparable to that of the Egyptian god Bes, who had a lion head. At other times Michael was identified as the successor of Hermes-Thoth, an amalgam of Greek and Egyptian gods of learning, who was also a psychopomp. At one time the Jews gave the name Michael to Wednesday, the day of Mercury (the Roman version of Hermes). This identification is strongly supported by G. Lanczkowki but corresponds only in a limited way to Michael’s functions.
Through Michael’s connection with Mithraism, he may be seen as one of seven archangels in a much older syncretism arising from the Zoroastrian reform of the Indo-Iranian pantheon (Dumezil, 1945). This kind of syncretism evolved into the personality of Sol Invictus, or Mithra, the Iranian warrior god of light and trust, the focus of Mithraism, which had much in common with Christianity. These Mithraic features suggest a possible assimilation to Michael even before Patriarch Alexander’s official founding of the Church of Saint Michael (Nilsson, 1974, pp. 449-519).
Saint Michael’s Investiture in Heaven
The other festival of Saint Michael in the Synaxarion, 12 Hatur, concerns his investiture in heaven as the replacement for Mastema, or Satan, who had been thrown out of heaven for refusing to worship Adam newly emerged from God’s hands. The Synaxarion underlines Michael’s cosmological role, notably in his connection with the flooding of the Nile, and describes a miracle illustrating Michael’s fidelity to his devotees. The archangel asks Dorotheus and his wife Theopista to spend on the archangel’s festival all they possess except their clothes. When they comply, Michael goes to their house and has them open the belly of a fish, where they discover a purse full of gold.
The festival of Michael’s investiture in heaven is described in an apocryphal work attributed to Saint John the Apostle, The Book of the Investiture of Michael, preserved in its entirety in Sahidic and almost completely in Fayyumic (published by C. D. Müller, 1962). The work was attacked by Saint John, bishop of Parallos, shortly before 600 (published by A. van Lanschoot, 1946) for making Michael chief of the angels only after the devil’s fall and for giving the festival a precise date, 12 Hatur. The Book of the Investiture is related at many points to the Transitus Mariae, a body of apocryphal works about the death of the Virgin Mary dating from the fifth century.
In the Book of the Investiture Michael is responsible for transplanting to earth the Tree of Life stolen by Mastema. The Ethiopian text of the Transitus (Arras, 1973, pp. 3-6), incomprehensible without the help of the Book of the Investiture, explains the origin of evil by the refusal of Saklabaoth, greatest of the angels, to worship man. He becomes chief of the demons, and Michael is enthroned in his place. In heaven he describes a series of souls, among them that of the paralytic healed by Saint Peter (Acts 14:8) on 12 Hatur. This text, however obscure and incoherent in its details, is a remarkable witness to the cult of Saint Michael.
A homilitic text attributed to Saint John Chrysostom (Vatican Library, Coptic Codex 58, Simon, 1934) is an exemplary demonstration of the monthly celebration of the archangel. His appearances on earth are described as follows: on 12 Ba’unah he visits Abraham as one of three angels including Christ and Gabriel; on 26 Ba’unah he appears to Lot to save him from Gomorrah and also to Joshua when the walls of Jericho crumble; on 12 Baramhat, he speaks to Jacob at Bethel; on 24 Bashans, he announces Samson’s birth to Manoah; on 24 Baramudah, he urges Nebuchadnezzar to attack Jerusalem and later speaks to Daniel in prison; on 12 Bashans, he seizes Habakkuk by the hair to feed Daniel in the pit; on 29 Baramhat (Easter) he sits on the Savior’s tombstone; on 23 Amshir, he blesses the fruits of the earth; on 12 Baramudah, he delivers Peter from Herod’s prison; on 12 Babah, he appears to the centurion Cornelius; on 10 Baramhat, he appears to Constantine, giving him victory over the Persians; on 12 Hatur, he smashes the idol Boz under Saint Eumenius, patriarch of Alexandria. This series of anniversaries is the occasion of the monthly devotion.
There are a great many other homilies on Saint Michael preserved in Coptic. A homily attributed to Saint Eustathius of Antioch, later exiled to Thrace, was delivered in a sanctuary built in honor of Saint Michael by Saint John Chrysostom during his legendary exile in Thrace (actually in Armenia). The Bohairic text was published and translated by E. A. W. Budge (1894), the Sahidic text by A. Campagnano (1977). The homily belongs to a series of works with an anti-Chalcedonian tendency. Thrace (in modern Greece and Bulgaria) was where the archangel Michael helped the emperor Constantine conquer the Persians, according to a later application to Michael of a legend about Mercury, and it was said to be where John Chrysostom took refuge.
The homily relates the story of pious Euphemia with a host of detail that the Synaxarion passes over in silence. She is given senatorial rank through her husband, who is called Aristarchus (“excellent general”), a man who was loyal to the emperors Honorius and Arcadius.
A homily attributed to Saint Macarius of Tkow (Lafontaine, 1979) is an anti-Chalcedonian text on Saint Michael in his church on his feast day. It mentions John Chrysostom as persecuted by the Empress Eudoxia, Arcadius’ wife. A homily attributed to the patriarch Severus of Antioch preserved in Sahidic and Bohairic (Budge, 1894) tells of the foundation of Saint Michael’s Church in Thrace by John Chrysostom.
A homily attributed to the fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria Timothy II Aelurus is the closest to the Book of the Investiture. Even if the writers were thinking of Timothy I, the content agrees perfectly with the visions of Saint John the Apostle in the Book of the Investiture. Also attributed to Timothy II Aelurus is a homily on Abbaton, the fallen angel whom Michael replaced (Budge, 1915).
Opposing these strongly anti-Chalcedonian works were homilies that followed the example of John of Parallos’ attack. The homily of Saint Theodosius I, sixth-century patriarch of Alexandria (Budge, 1904, in Bohairic; Budge, 1914, in Sahidic) criticizes formulations like those in the Book of the Investiture, which it suggests redating to the early sixth century. It tells a highly developed version of the story of Dorotheus and Theopista in the Synaxarion. A homily attributed to Gregory the Theologian, written in response to Eusebius, bishop of Armenia (Lafontaine, 1979), keenly opposes the position taken by the Book of the Investiture.
Not all the homilies on Michael necessarily belong to one side or the other of the Chalcedonian dispute. A homily attributed to Saint Athanasius I, fourth-century patriarch of Alexandria (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M 602; Orlandi, 1981) describes a visit from Saint Pachomius to Athanasius and, through the intercession of Saint Michael, the detection of a deacon who is a murderer. The same codex contains two homilies attributed to Saint Basil the Great (Orlandi, 1975). There Saint Michael is seen making a fortress against the Persians in Lazique—no doubt a late adjustment for the legendary Thrace. The same manuscript contains two other homilies of Athanasius in which Saint Michael occurs in the title.
Other homilies are preserved more or less complete under the name of Saint Severian of Gabala or Saint John Chrysostom (Pierpont Morgan Library, M 592, fols. 1-7), and there are many fragments. There are, in addition, innumerable appearances of Saint Michael at the end of the martyrs’ torments (see the inventory in Müller, 1959, which includes the magic papyri, amulets, and everything written in Coptic that contains the name of Saint Michael). This evidence, less literary, shows clearly the impact of devotion to the archangel in everyday life. The texts in the Pierpont Morgan Library come from the Monastery of Saint Michael at Hamuli, and therefore, it is not surprising that a great many texts have been saved.
Finally, in the literature of the Transitus Mariae, the function of Saint Michael seems to be divided between the role of an angel created from the beginning as chief of the heavenly hosts and the role of the third creature, after the first creature, Mastema, and the second, Adam (or more exactly the body of the Virgin from which Christ would be born). This “Manichaean” notion is explicitly related to the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews in the Coptic homily attributed to Saint Cyril, fourth-century bishop of Jerusalem (Budge, 1915, p. 59). However disconcerting the Coptic literature on Michael may at first appear, it contains strictly historical information about the movement of ideas among the different parts of the church in Armenia and Egypt.
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MICHEL VAN ESBROECK