[A holy woman of the fourth century or later whose remains are interred in the Church of Santa Sophia (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (feast day: 5 Tut). There are several versions of her story.]
The Jacobite Tradition
The Jacobite-Arabic SYNAXARION, preserved in a seventeenth-century copy (restored in the nineteenth century) in the National Library, Paris (Arabe 4869), tells the story of a Saint Sophia of Jerusalem, which at first seems to lack chronological references. An earlier account had certainly existed in Coptic. According to the Jacobite account, a patrician named Theognostus and his wife, Theodora, were attached to the court of the emperor Arcadius in Constantinople in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.
They were rich but had no children. The emperor, who was related to them, referred them to Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, patriarch of Constantinople, who anointed them with oil from the sanctuary. Nine months later the child Sophia (“Wisdom”) was born. When she was five years old, her parents built for her a lofty golden chamber, full of precious stones, with a gold cross in the middle so that she could pray. Later, she married the patrician Castor, and they had three children, Stephen, Mark, and Paul.
Then her husband and her parents died, and Sophia, left with the three children, did not know what to do: “If I remain a widow, I shall be remarried because of my three children. God will hate me and I shall be humiliated before my parents and my husband. But if I go to the convent the children will come and burn down the convent because of me.” So she took counsel from John Chrysostom, who quoted the gospel to her. At night as Sophia prayed, the Virgin appeared to her and said, “I am Mary, mother of Light. If you wish to please God, he will call you no more in this town. Arise and follow me, I shall cause you to speak to my Son.” The next day, Sophia found herself miraculously transported near the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The children, deprived of their mother, went to John Chrysostom, who could only sympathize.
Theodore, patriarch of Jerusalem, for his part, sent a letter to the emperor, explaining the circumstances of Sophia, but it took three months to reach him. When the letter arrived, the children left for Jerusalem, a journey requiring six months. Meanwhile Sophia was imposing the harshest penances on herself. On 11 Tubah, the exhausted Sophia fell ill. The Virgin appeared to her saying, “You will come and rest with me, but you will see your three sons before you die. They will bear your body to Constantinople and place it in the golden pavilion. They will turn your house into a church, dedicated to my Son, and it will be the emperor’s principal church forever.” At dawn on 21 Tubah, surrounded by soldiers, the sons arrived and Sophia died. Her venerated body was brought back to Constantinople and placed in a golden pavilion, which was consecrated by John Chrysostom. It was called the Church of Saint Sophia, the name that it still bears.
This legend is significant in several respects, when examined in relation to the denial of the monophysite doctrine after the time of John Chrysostom. The patriarch Theodore of Jerusalem is certainly the adversary of Juvenal, patriarch of Jerusalem after Chalcedon. The date of 21 Tubah is that of the Dormition of Mary, which, according to the Panegyric by Saint MACARIUS OF TKOW, served as a rallying point for the MONOPHYSITES, gathered at Gethsemane against Juvenal.
Nor is that all. At the beginning of the former cycle of the Dormition, on 8 August, there was inaugurated in Jerusalem a Church of Wisdom, of Saint Sophia, on the site of Pilate’s house, between Mount Zion and the Temple (Garitte, 1958, pp. 296-98). Wisdom is thus placed at both dates of the Coptic cycle of the Dormition, and topographically, in both holy places of the Dormition that served as symbols in the dissidents’ liturgy— Gethsemane and Mount Zion. As one reads it today, the legend supposes a restoration at Constantinople at a time when monophysitism was triumphant, from about 512 to 518.
But the greatest interest lies in the fact that this Jacobite legend in no way constitutes the fruit of the unbridled “imagination” which often can be assumed about Coptic literature. In fact, the Greek Passion of Saint Sophia and her three daughters, Agape, Pistis, and Elpis (the theological virtues of charity, faith, and hope), attests that well before the Copts, the Byzantines had used a similar type of literature. A Syriac version dates from the fifth century. The Greek legend of Saint Sophia is a Passion intended to provide Constantinople with credentials in competition with those of ancient Rome. This Passion takes place in the second century under Hadrian. The Latins placed the Passion of Sophia, mother of the three Virtues, on 1 August, one of the most stable dates in the history of the calendars, for it was always dedicated to the seven Maccabaean brothers and their mother, Shamounit. There are versions of this legend where the mother—Shamounit, the eighth, or Ogdoad—exhorts each of her sons to sacrifice himself by invoking them as the seven days of the creation. This gnosticizing structure, then, took its historical character from the Passion of the Maccabees. To avoid ambiguity, the Passion of Wisdom and the three theological Virtues were added, incorporated in a harsh story of persecution.
By adopting the same symbolic style, the Coptic legend of Sophia of Jerusalem affirms that at the time of Arcadius, under John Chrysostom, the faith had not yet been injured by the odious denial of the Virgin’s title “Theotokos” because of subtle distinctions of two different natures in Christ. In Jerusalem Sophia loses her anguish and wins eternal life. Sophia’s sons are naturally called to continue the work of Arcadius in the shadow of the imperial throne. But the death of their parents makes it difficult to continue those beautiful days of Byzantine orthodoxy.
Far from being a strange fabrication of Coptic imagination, the legend of Sophia is the direct extension of a language already familiar in Byzantium for the famous Saint Sophia. Moreover, through this little Coptic tale, we can understand better why Justinian wanted to rebuild Saint Sophia. As in the case of so many churches enumerated in the Peri Ktismaton of Procopius, the problem was not to build new things, but, under cover of an enterprise of consolidation, to supplant certain links in a doctrinal chain and thus break the connection with theological interpretations that would be unacceptable in the future.
- Esbroeck, M. van. “Le Saint comme symbole.” In The Byzantine Saint, ed. S. Hackel. Chester, 1981.
- Garitte, G. Le Calendrier palestino-géorgien du sinaiticus 34. Brussels, 1958.
MICHEL VAN ESBROECK
The Arabic Tradition
According to the Copto-Arabic Synaxarion, Sophia was one of the most famous martyrs of Upper Egypt. Attracted to Christianity by her neighbors, she was baptized by the bishop of Memphis and later denounced for her conversion to the Roman governor Claudius, who questioned her. When she fearlessly defended her faith, Claudius had her body flogged, her joints burned, and her tongue cut out. Then he put her in prison and sent his wife to coax her to recant with promises of reward. Eventually he had her decapitated. Christians bribed the imperial guards to save her body, which they wrapped in precious shrouds and placed in her home. There it was reported to be the occasion of miraculous healings, to emit the scent of incense, and to be enveloped in a halo of light. When Constantine became the first Christian emperor in 312, he had her body removed to Constantinople and placed under the altar of the Church of Santa Sophia, which he built for it.
- Holweck, F. G. A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints. London, 1924.
- O’Leary, De L. The Coptic Saints of Egypt in the Coptic Calendar. London, 1937.
AZIZ S. ATIYA