The seventeenth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (300-311).
Peter succeeded THEONAS (282-300) and, according to tradition, he was the last or the “seal” of the martyrs. The accounts of his turbulent and tragic archiepiscopate comprise a fascinating and important source for early Church history. Peter not only defended the orthodox faith against schism but also opposed the edicts of the emperors DIOCLETIAN and Maximin Daia proscribing Christian services, and further expounded upon his theological position while in prison awaiting execution.
MELITIUS, bishop of Lycopolis (Asyut), figures prominently in the many ancient references to Peter. As an advocate of leniency and terms of penance for those Christians who paid homage to the pagan gods after Diocletian’s edict of 303 (the lapsi), Peter ran afoul of the more stringent Melitius, who favored excluding them from communion with the church. Peter went into hiding to escape persecution, but finally came to trial and was executed on 25 November 311, during the reign of Maximin Daia.
Almost nothing is known of Peter’s early life, including his date of birth, but it is probable that he was from Alexandria. Peter’s life, including the account of his incarceration and his execution, a section known as the Passio, is the subject of an Encomium attributed to ALEXANDER (312-326), his second successor. The encomium, highly hagiographical and legendary in nature, survives in Sahidic (Orlandi, 1970, pp. 247-62), in Bohairic (Hyvernat, 1882; Vivian, 1988, pp. 78-84), and in a considerably different Arabic version written by the tenth-century Coptic bishop of al- Ashmunayn, SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ (History of the Patriarchs, vol. 2). Various other texts in several languages have more detailed accounts of the Passio (Telfer, 1952; Spanel, 1979-1982, pp. 97-99; Haile, 1980).
The Bohairic version of the Encomium is the most informative.
Several blatantly contrived statements render its historical value suspect; nonetheless, it remains the sole source of Peter’s childhood and early career. It begins with Alexander’s comparison of Peter’s virtues to those of John the Baptist, Aaron, the apostles Peter and Paul, and others, and goes on to praise Peter as “the one who closed the mouth of the heretics” (Hyvernat, 1882, pp. 247-48).
Peter was allegedly the son of Theodosius, first presbyter of Alexandria, and Sophia. Through the intervention of saints Peter and Paul, the infant Peter was born to the barren Sophia and was named after the first apostle by the archbishop, who predicted that he would be a “mighty foundation of the orthodox faith and a protector for all Christians,” thus recalling the Lord’s pun on the apostle Peter’s name (Mt. 16:18; Jn. 1:42).
The narrative, continues with the education of the young Peter in Alexandria under the tutelage of the archbishop. His first important encounter ostensibly came when he was sent by the patriarch to repulse the heretic Sabellius, who, according to Alexander, was “a transgressor who confined the Deity to a single hypostasis and to a single person” (Hyvernat, 1882, pp. 248-53). This anachronistic passage exemplifies the Encomium’s limited value as a historical document. Sabellius was active in the mid-third century, considerably before Peter’s time.
In a fragment of the Sahidic Encomium (Orlandi, 1970, p. 163; Spanel, 1979-1982, pp. 88-90), Peter’s promotion to the rank of presbyter came about as a result of his successful contending with the Sophist “philosopher” Diogenes. On his deathbed, Theonas urged the assembled clergy and populace to accept Peter as his successor, a selection, he said, that was ordained by God Himself in a dream (Hyvernat, 1882, pp. 255-57).
Although these accounts are probably fanciful, church tradition does indeed connect Peter very closely with Theonas, who is often referred to as Peter’s “father” and as “the one who raised him.” In the Arabic version, the assembled presbyters approved the choice by a laying on of hands (History of the Patriarchs, Vol. 2, p. 383). This passage has been cited as evidence for papal election by the presbyters of Alexandria up to the election of Alexander, whom the bishops chose (Telfer, 1949; Kemp, 1955, pp. 133, 138-40; Stevenson, 1957, pp. 378-79).
Almost from the beginning of his office, Peter was beset with difficulties. In 303, Diocletian issued his first edict of persecution, which contained orders for destruction of churches and the scriptures. Not long thereafter, the heads of the churches were imprisoned and made to sacrifice at risk of torture. The fourth edict, issued by Galerius in 304, required all Christians to pay homage to the pagan gods, failure to comply being punished by death. A passage of highly questionable historicity in the Bohairic Encomium has a confrontation between Peter and the heretic ARIUS, who claimed that the Son was inferior to the Father. According to Arius, Christ was created by God and therefore was not consubstantial with Him (Hyvernat, 1882, pp. 260-61).
Although the Encomium states explicitly that Peter excommunicated Arius, no independent and unequivocal confirmation exists for a meeting between the two, much less the excommunication. Arius was surely a nuisance only after Peter’s death, during the archiepiscopates of ACHILLAS and ALEXANDER I (Bell, 1924; Gregg and Groh, 1981).
What Peter most certainly faced was the Melitian schism.
Melitius, bishop of Lycopolis, refused to accept Peter’s schedule for the readmission of the lapsi as promulgated in the Canonical Letter issued in the third year and after the fourth Easter since Diocletian’s edict. This remarkable document, extant in Greek (PG 18, pp. 467- 508) and in two Syriac fragments (Schwartz, 1904, pp. 164-87; Lagarde, 1856, pp. 46-54, 63-73, 99-117), is a splendid witness to Peter’s humanity. Peter set the following terms for the various types of Christians who had deferred to Diocletian’s order (Vivian, 1988, pp. 185-92):
- Those who lapsed after incarceration and torture were given forty days’ penance because “they have not come to their present condition by choice, but because they were betrayed by weakness of the flesh, and . . . some of them now show on their bodies the marks of Jesus “
- Those who lapsed after incarceration but were not tortured had to spend one more year in atonement. “This time of penance suffices because, actually, they too gave themselves to be punished for the name of Christ, even if they did have in prison the great benefit of aid and comfort from their brothers “
- Those who lapsed but were neither incarcerated nor tortured and then repented also had to spend a year in penance; thereafter, readmission would be discussed.
- Those who lapsed and had not repented were banished. “What is crooked cannot be adorned, and what is lacking cannot be numbered”
- Those who lied or ignored services to escape persecution or sent non-Christians to pay homage instead had to spend six months in penance.
- Those who were slaves and made to sacrifice had to spend a year in penance.
- Those who were free and forced Christian slaves to sacrifice in their place had to spend three more years in atonement under scrutiny.
- Those who lapsed after arrest and then repented and were tortured were to be received immediately.
- Those who neither hid (nor confessed) were to enjoy immediate readmission.
- Those clergymen who lapsed and then repented were to be kept from the priesthood because they were the most shameful of They had showed themselves to be “like the one who laid the foundation and was not able to finish it.” Nonetheless, they were to be readmitted to the communion of the church so that they would have no excuse for “violent departure” nor reason “to slacken once more from the faith.”
- Those who lapsed during incarceration or punishment for their sympathy with the martyrs were to be readmitted, although no schedule was set.
- Those who avoided persecution by payment incurred no punishment.
- Those who “gave up everything for the safety of their lives and withdrew, even if others were detained because of them,” also incurred no punishment.
- Those who lapsed only after severe torture “and no longer had the strength to speak or even to utter a sound or to make any movement of resistance” were to be received immediately.
- The fourth and sixth days of the week were set as times of Peter’s charity is perhaps best illustrated by a statement in the eleventh canon: “we are mindful of the many miseries and troubles they have undergone in the name of Christ; not only have they repented, but they also mourn for what they did when they were betrayed by the weakness and mortality of the flesh. Furthermore, they testify that they, as it were, have been disenfranchised from the faith. Let us pray with them and plead together for their reconciliation and for other proper things, through Him who is our Advocate with the Father.” The Canonical Letter raises the question whether a penitential system such as that known to Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus and Saint Basil existed in Alexandria in Peter’s day (PG 10, p. 1048; Basil, Epistle 199).
Although one can trace the slow development of a penitential system in the letters of saints Cyprian and Dionysius and through the canons of the pre-Nicene councils of Elvira and Ancyra, it is not clear that Peter knew of such a system. ORIGEN (Homily on Leviticus and Numbers) knew of sacerdotal absolution and penance, which shows that the institution of penance at Alexandria goes back to the early second century. Peter, along with Cyprian and Dionysius, shows the bishops’ insistence on episcopal authority. All three insisted that only the bishop (and not the “confessors,” those who had confessed the faith under persecution) had the right to forgive sins and to set terms of penance.
When Peter fled to escape persecution, Melitius went to Alexandria and usurped his office. Upon his return, Peter excommunicated Melitius, who, nonetheless, plagued the Alexandrian church for years to come (Hyvernat, 1882, p. 260; Bell, 1924, pp. 38-99; Stevenson, 1957, pp. 379-81, 385-86; Barnard, 1973). Shortly thereafter, Peter was apprehended and sentenced to death.
The different versions of the Passio vary in their accounts of Peter’s execution (Telfer, 1949). In the “short” Latin version by F. Laurentius Surius, Peter is beheaded in his cell. In another “short” version contained in the Arabic translation, Peter is decapitated in the street outside the prison. The Arabic edition of the Passio also contains the single extant “long” version, in which Peter is taken from his cell, allowed to pray at Saint Mark’s tomb, and then executed.
One partially published collection of letters in Sahidic (Orlandi, 1975) and two unpublished homilies in Sahidic and Bohairic have been attributed to Peter. Fragments of works perhaps written by Peter and others about him are numerous (Orlandi, 1970, pp. 155-56; Orlandi, 1975, p. 129). In addition to his Canonical Letter, several other excerpts of Greek translations of works attributed to Peter survive (PG 18, pp. 509-522). Although the authenticity of these writings has been questioned, some may be genuine, and the existence of additional texts in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and other languages remains possible.
It is probable that most of the fragments come from one of two works by Peter, On the Godhead and On the Soul and the Body. Most of these fragments were preserved by later anti-Origenists (among them the emperor JUSTINIAN), which has led most scholars to conclude that Peter was also an anti-Origenist. This is difficult to prove, but at least Peter appears to have been correcting certain Origenist teachings, such as that of the preexistence of the soul.
All the letters were written during Peter’s archiepiscopate. The second and third have special value because they indicate a correspondence with Diocletian over the edicts. Unfortunately, these letters are quite fragmentary. A broken passage in the Sahidic translation of Alexander’s Encomium on Peter may derive from these letters. Neither the authenticity nor the historicity of these letters has been established.
One of Peter’s unpublished homilies, preserved only in the Sahidic text of the manuscript (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, MS 611), concerns the baptism of Jesus, that is, it is an epiphany homily. The other, a long work in Sahidic and Bohairic editions and in several Sahidic fragments, is generally known as the Encomium on the Archangel Michael, although the passages pertaining to the namesake are not in a majority and may be interpolations. The homily is in all likelihood an address on riches, with the Michael material making up an Encomium that was added later.
This homily addresses three topics: teaching, resurrection, and the archangel. The work is well crafted; Peter moves smoothly from one subject to the next. It is not a mere florilegium of miscellaneous sermonettes. If the autobiographical material goes back to Peter, the original homily was written during his period of hiding. “I am hidden [on account of] the severity of the persecution of the emperors who have [risen] against the church” (9). This passage recalls the thirteenth canon, in which Peter sets no punishment for those who fled the persecutions.
Several other passages in the homily corroborate the charitable spirit manifest in the Canonical Letter. Peter tempers his stern admonitions with hopes for the welfare of his congregation. In the introduction, he addresses a theme very much on his mind, the absolution of the sins of the lapsi: “Correct [the sinner], rebuke [him], [that] he might be reproved in [the presence] of everyone and be saved” (3); “Comfort him [the sinner who despairs of forgiveness], saying, “There is repentance.’ Speak to him of the oath that the Lord swore to Ezekiel the prophet, “I have sworn . . . ,’ says the Lord Almighty, “that I do not wish the death of the sinner as [much as I wish] him to turn away from his evil way and live'” (4). After rebuking wealthy persons and encouraging them toward charity, he writes, “I tell you these things [because] I want . . . your sweet smell to travel far on account of your good works” (47).
Two fine statements succinctly summarize Peter’s humility and pragmatism: “there is a greater [responsibility] for the one who teaches than [for] the one who learns” (12) and “I will not teach anyone “Have mercy on the one who is in need’ while forgetting myself as the one who is in need; otherwise, will I be able to exhort anyone “Love your fellow as yourself’ while I myself am an enemy to my fellow and to my brother?” (71). The first passage underscores Peter’s disappointment, expressed in the tenth canon, with the lapsed clergy, who set bad examples for their congregations.
Peter’s works show that he was one of the great moderates of the church, like Cyprian and Dionysius before him, who, although living in times of great turmoil and danger, nevertheless advocated forgiveness and leniency. He, as they, opposed the rigorists in and out of the church who insisted that the faithful be perfect and unstained. As such, he reflects the spirit of philanthropy (Canon 11 of NICAEA) found among the majority of the early fathers of the church.
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DONALD B. SPANEL TIM VIVIAN