SAINT THEOGNOSTA

A fifth-century virgin who introduced Christianity to Georgia (feast day: 17 Tut). (Caucasian Georgia). The legend of the conversion of Georgia to Christianity has in Coptic one of its most complex and impressive witnesses. But as often happens in Coptic sources, the legend, unrecognizable in the scattered Sahidic fragments, is not told in its entirety in a coherent manner, except in the succinct résumé of the Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION of Mikha’il Malij. In the remarkable case of Theognosta, to read only this Arabic résumé, which mentions India, would not suggest that it concerned the Caucasus. Here, then, is a general survey of the legend for 17 Tut in the Synaxarion.

Theognosta lived during the reigns of the great emperors Honorius and Arcadius (395-408). Representatives of the king of India come to Constantinople and on the way back seize the virgin Theognosta, who is engrossed in a book. In her country of exile, she is placed at the head of the royal family’s gynaeceum as a prisoner. The king’s son, when ill, is cured by the sign of the cross. The captive’s reputation causes her to leave the rank of mere servant.

In the course of a campaign the king is caught in fog, but, when he has made the sign of the cross according to the saint’s rite, a wind scatters the fog, restores the light, and allows the king to win a victory over his enemies. Immediately on his return, he asks the virgin for the grace of baptism. She refuses to baptize him herself. A delegation is sent to Honorius asking him to send a priest. A hermit is chosen, ordained, and sent. He baptizes them all and builds a monastery where Theognosta and many virgins live.

The emperor rejoices at the conversion of the kingdom and gives them the hermit as bishop. They build a huge church by borrowing the pillars from a neighboring pagan temple. Through the virgin’s prayer, the pillars are transported to the church. Thus the people of the country come to the knowledge of God (theognosia). The virgin lives and dies in peace surrounded by other religious women.

The Coptic fragments of the legend are preserved in very scattered conditions. There are at least three manuscripts.

  1. I. Guidi first published in 1893 two leaves from the Coptic Borgia 162, which have the original pagination 151-52 and 161-62. In 1899, O. von Lemm first noticed that the country Tiberia mentioned there has nothing to do with the town Tiberias, but represents Iberia, preceded by the Coptic feminine article. In 1934 W. Till found two other leaves from the same codex in the Rainer collection in Vienna (K 9622 and 9452, with the pagination 147-50). Finally H. published folios 135-36 of the same codex, according to the Cairo fragments 9236/7 in his catalogue (published in 1916, pp. 39-42). This alone restores twelve consecutive columns, then after ten missing pages, four more columns.
  2. In 1906, Von Lemm took up the subject again and published a leaf from Paris (1321, fol. 13), badly mutilated, but including the title of the piece and the upper part of the first four columns.
  3. In the same article, Von Lemm published a codex, still more mutilated (Tischendorf’s no. 3 at the Hermitage; Leningrad, dated A.D. 952), of which only some passages are really legible, although twelve columns can be identified.

In spite of the very poor condition of the fragments, it is clear that this third manuscript does not reproduce exactly the legend that is summarized by the Synaxarion, whereas the first two correspond perfectly.

From these fragments, one learns that the story takes place under Honorius and Arcadius. The letter from the Georgian princes is addressed to Honorius alone, and part of it is preserved. The hermit’s name is Theoplanes. Honorius summons him personally and speaks to him at length, then has him ordained in the town. Then they all set off for Iberia, to the archon of the country, without Honorius. Taken to the Blessed Theognosta, they hear from her of the miracles worked by the Cross of Christ, and notably the luminous cross that appeared in the darkness and led the king toward the town.

Theophanes then gives a discourse on the creation, fall, and redemption. Following the gap in the manuscript Theophanes is seen ordained as in the town of Honorius, which is not named. The new prelate returns to Iberia and finds the church built, and he is told how it was constructed, thanks to Theognosta’s prayer and the power of Christ and His cross. Theophanes immediately sends a letter to the emperor, telling the story of the two pillars from the temple of Apollo that nobody could move. The fragment ends at this point.

By contrast, the third text appears to presuppose a martyrdom, though whose is unclear. Theognosta is engaged in burying dead bodies. The bishop who sends Theognosta is called Eustathius. The placename Iberia does not appear.

The constituted by the account written by Rufinus in his supplement to the Latin translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius (10.2), written about 402 and reproduced by the Socrates (1.20), is striking. The same story is inserted in the Greek Synaxarion for 27 October. But there the captive’s name is not given, nor that of the hermit. In this tradition all place the event under Constantine, and therefore also under the bishop Eustathius of Antioch, according to the third Coptic manuscript.

There is, therefore, reason to question the most widespread Coptic account. There is no doubt about its age. The JOHN OF NIKIOU, in the seventh century, inserted it into his Ecclesiastical History (pub. Zotenberg, 1883, p. 201), where Iberia, doubtless through the medium of Ethiopic, is already transformed into the Yemen or India. The principal account contains an anomaly. It is virtually later than 408, the death of Arcadius, for Honorius is the only protagonist in the exchanges of letters and the sending of the priest, then of the bishop.

At this time Honorius was in Ravenna, the plaything of Alaric, and was to die in 423 without ever having anything whatever to do in the Eastern empire. One can only remind oneself that Rufinus had his account from General Bacurius, a Georgian prince, who fought in 393 in the West beside Theodosius and Honorius, and thanks to a providential north wind, won a decisive victory over the pagan usurper in September 394. From 395, on the death of Theodosius, Honorius necessarily became the interlocutor of Bacurius.

The Coptic legend that mentions Honorius and Arcadius seems to be a rereading and updating of an older account that mentioned Constantine, from which the Tischendorf fragment and Rufinus have preserved only a little.

It is difficult to sum up here the Georgian sources, properly so-called, because their considerable complexity makes interpretation of the collection still more delicate. In Georgia, the virgin is always called Nino, and the captive of Rufinus becomes a king’s daughter. But the problems raised by Georgian historiography are beyond the scope of this article.

  • Guidi, I. “Di alcune pergamene saidiche della collezione Borgiana.” Rendiconti della real accademia dei Lincei, ser. 5, 2 (1893):525-28.
  • Kekelidze, K. “Die Bekehrung Georgiens zum Christentum.” Morgenland 18 (1928):1-51.
  • Lemm, O. von. “Kleine koptische Studien.” Bulletin de l’Académie des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg 5, 10 (1899):416-34.
  • . “Iberica.” Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg 8, 7 (1906):19-32.
  • Munier, H. Manuscrits coptes. Catalogue générale des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire 9201-9304 [Vol. 74]. Cairo, 1916.
  • Till, W. Koptische Pergamente theologischen Inhalts, pp. 45-50. Vienna, 1934.
  • Zotenberg, H. “Mémoire sur la chronique byzantine de Jean, évêque de Nikiou.” Journal asiatique ser. 7, 10 (1877):451-517; 12 (1878):245-347; 13 (1879):291-386.

MICHEL VAN ESBROECK