SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH (ca. 456-538)
A Saint and patriarch. The sources for the life of Severus, anti-Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch from 512 to 518 a.d., are many and varied; among these sources are his letters and his cathedral homilies, which number 125. His friend Zechariah Scholasticus wrote the first biography of Severus from his early years to his ordination as patriarch. This biography survived only in Syriac. John, abbot of the Monastery of Beith Aphthonia, composed the second biography.
It survived in a Syriac translation, and some fragments survived in Coptic. The third biography is ascribed to one of Severus’ successors, Athanasius of Antioch (594-630 or 631), which has come down to us in Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic fragments. In addition, several apocryphal works ascribed to Severus reflect some traditions related to the life of Severus, especially in Egypt, such as the homily on Claudius of Antioch wherein the Pseudo-Severus narrated that he visited Upper Egypt up to the cataract and returned Via Assiut and Qossia.
Severus was born around 456 a.d. in Sozopolis (Pisidia) to a well-to-do family. His grandfather, according to Athanasius of Antioch, was a bishop who attended the Council of Ephesus. After the death of his father in 485, Severus and his two older brothers were sent by their mother to Alexandria to study grammar and rhetoric. He studied law in Beirut in 488. Severus was baptized in the Church of the Martyr Leontius at Tripolis. He became a monk in the area around Gaza in an anti-Chalcedonian monastery. Severus used the wealth of his parents to build a monastery around Gaza, which was consequently confiscated by the Chalcedonians. Severus was obliged to go to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor. While Severus was in Constantinople, he refuted a work of a Chalcedonian by his book the Philalethes, or “Friend of Truth.”
The Philalethes is a classic Christological work from the anti-Chalcedonian side. Because a florilegium is by its very nature selective, it was Severus’s aim in this work to prove that by selectively citing the Patriarch Cyril, the Chalcedonians had made the great Alexandrian to be a proponent of the two-nature Christology: “The historical development of Cyril was in fact so ambivalent that his works could be a common arsenal for contrary Christologies depending upon what one sought in them.” It was precisely this ambivalence that was to cause Severus from this point on to take up his pen repeatedly to defend Cyril’s understanding of Christ. He played a pivotal role for the deposition of Macedonius, the patriarch of the city. Emperor Anastasius appointed him Patriarch of Antioch in 512. During his patriarchate, Severus delivered his 125 cathedral homilies.
Among Severus’s first official duties would have been the dispatch of synodika or a letter to other bishops containing the new patriarch’s profession of faith and a list of anathemas. The addressees of this letter then replied with their own professions of faith and lists of anathemas, if they agreed to enter into communion with him. Severus sent his letters to John of Alexandria with the aim of reestablishing communion with Egypt. Extracts of the letters of the patriarchs of Alexandria, as well as those of Severus, survived only in Arabic translation in the book of the Profession of the Fathers.
After the death of Emperor Anastasius, Justin became emperor in 518. In the same year, Severus was exiled. On his arrival in Egypt, Severus was welcomed by Patriarch Timothy and went to the Monastery of Enaton outside Alexandria, where the deposed Bishop of Halicarnasus, Julian, also sought refuge. After his flight, some of the Antiochene clergy accused Severus of several crimes. However, he maintained excellent relations with other Antiochene clergy, as is demonstrated in his correspondence. Severus spent the next 20 years in exile. It was a difficult and dangerous period for him. Nobody knew where he was living except those who brought him the necessities of life; he was forever on the move, sometimes changing his abode when some disturbing news reached him.
In the winter of 534-535, in response to repeated invitations from Justinian (that may have been prompted by Theodora), Severus finally went to Constantinople, accompanied by a large group of anti-Chalcedonians, and took up residence in one of the imperial palaces. He probably did not hold out much hope of a successful outcome, as he supposedly remarked before leaving Egypt. After Severus’s death, Theodosius became the acknowledged leader of the anti-Chalcedonian party, directing it from Constantinople for the next 30 years.
Severus has a special place in the Coptic Church. His name is always mentioned after St. Mark, the founder of the Church, as a second founder. In the Coptic calendar, he has three feasts. He also wrote many liturgical hymns.