The sixteenth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (282-300).
Theonas was a contemporary of Roman emperors Carus (282-283), Numerianus (283-284), and DIOCLETIAN (284-305). After the death of Patriarch Maximus, it took the faithful some months to find a worthy successor. Finally they elected Theonas, who was the head of the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, succeeding DIONYSIUS THE GREAT (Historia ecclesiastica 7.32). At the time, Egypt seems to have been experiencing a breathing space from outright persecution under Emperor Probus, who treated the Christians leniently and allowed them to practice their religion undisturbed.
Probus was rather more interested in the maintenance of the deteriorating public works in the country than fighting the spread of Christianity. Unhappily, he was assassinated by some of his own legionaries in 282, the year of Theonas’ succession to the See of Saint Mark. But his policies of appeasement survived him under the rule of his son Numerianus, whose reign unfortunately did not last long, for he was murdered at Chalcedon after an abortive Persian expedition.
From the atmosphere of intrigue and conspiratorial strife prevailing in the Roman empire emerged a new successor in the person of Diocletian in 284. The opening years of his reign were marked by tolerance, while in his later years he became the severest of all persecutors of Christians. Had Diocletian died before the year 303, he would have passed into history as a pagan sponsor of Christians. Had Diocletian died before the year 303, he would have passed into history as a pagan sponsor of Christians. It was those early years of tolerance that coincided with Theonas’ episcopate. The Egyptians were encouraged by his early leniency to aspire not only to more religious tolerance but also to political freedom from Rome, a movement that in the long run brought forth immeasurable calamities on the Egyptian people.
The political freedom movement found a leader in a Christian by the name of Achilleus, from the Thebaid in the interior of Upper Egypt. Later, Achilleus was made a presbyter in Alexandria, and it is said that he was nominated to head the Catechetical School (Historia ecclesiastica 7.32.30), which tied the church more closely to the nascent drive toward liberty.
On the religious front, the growing enfranchisement of the Christians enabled Theonas to contemplate openly the establishment of a new cathedral in Alexandria, which was built within sight of the pagan populace. He dedicated this new church to Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos), thereby inadvertently inviting trouble from hostile citizens, who feared for their idols.
The situation called for action from Rome. In fact, Diocletian organized two separate expeditions against Alexandria. The first, swift and relatively mild, aimed at stifling the tendency toward liberty and independence. This was accomplished without difficulty, and the leader Achilleus fled from Diocletian, who then retired from Alexandria to devote his attention to reorganizing the empire and to dealing with barbarian incursions on his distant frontiers. This provided the Christians with a period of respite, during which the patriarch aimed at courting favor with the state by the issuance of a conciliatory epistle to a Christian notable named Lucianus in the imperial administration.
Lucianus held the position of high chamberlain (praepositus cubiculariorum) at the imperial court, and Theonas wanted through him to designate the patriarchal guidelines for all Christians in the service of the state, with an eye on loyalty to the emperor in order to ensure freedom of worship for his flock and eventually terminate Christian persecutions. First published in the seventeenth century by a certain DArchy, this interesting document has since been reproduced in translation by others (see Neale, 1897, pp. 85-88; Butcher, 1897, Vol. 1, pp. 112-14). A survey of its contents throws light on the diplomatic skill of Theonas and the situation of the Christians during his episcopate. Its preamble reads: “The peace which the churches now enjoy is granted to this end, that the good works of Christians may shine out before pagans, and that thence our Father which is in heaven may be glorified.”
He maintained that a Christian in office should carry out his duties in all humility as a model in the sight of the prince and all other authorities. He must avoid bribery, avarice, unworthy gain, and duplicity. He should never use evil or immodest language, but deal with others kindly, courteously, and with justice. He must fulfill his tasks with fear toward God and love toward the emperor. He must put on patience as a robe.
After a chain of exhortations, Theonas enters into the details of the expected performance of a Christian subject in a specific post. The keeper of the privy purse should meticulously retain a full record of his accounts, “never trusting to memory.” The keeper of the robes and ornaments must have a complete register of his trust with the ability to find the whereabouts of every article without difficulty. The patriarch then devotes some space to the post of palace librarian, which seems to have been vacant at the time, in the hope that it might be filled by a Christian. The candidate should be knowledgeable about books and all details pertaining to librarianship.
He should be acquainted with the principal orators, poets, and historians of antiquity, in readiness to furnish the emperor with his requirements. The librarian should aim at the acquisition of such tomes as the Septuagint and the manuscript codices of works related to Christ, in the hope that he might be summoned to read them for the emperor and other authorities, thereby introducing the true faith to the inner circles of the imperial court. All the Christian servants in the administration must always be clean, neat, “bright faced,” and respectful.
In fact, it would seem from this epistle that a considerable number of Christian civil servants filled the departments of the imperial government in the early years of Diocletian’s reign. The same seems to apply to the army, where many legionaires were converted to Christianity. The tide of conversions seems to have been on the increase since Emperor Gallienus issued his edict of 259 placing Christianity among the religiones licitae (permitted religions), thus giving Christians for the first time legal status in the eyes of Roman authorities. Notables in the imperial house such as Dorotheus and Gorgonius were highly respected members of the imperial administration and both were pious converts (Historia ecclesiastica 7.1).
Even within the domestic life of the imperial house, Diocletian’s wife, Prisca, and his daughter, Valeria, aroused questions among people when they refrained from appearing at the state functions of sacrifice to the idols. News of their possible conversion to Christianity began to circulate freely among pagan onlookers at these official ceremonies. Indeed, the last years of Theonas’ episcopate could have passed as a golden interlude of tolerance toward Christians under Roman paganism. Thus we begin to see Christians emerging from their habitual concealment to hold open meetings and build churches.
From another perspective, however, this period appears as the calm before the gathering storm. First, the pagan populace, which was still in a majority, began to show signs of discontent and unrest toward the temerity of their Christian neighbors, who constituted a real danger to the official gods. Second, the release of some of the pressure on the Christian congregations seems to have broken the unity that had brought them together as a forceful front in the face of their common oppressors. In Christian ranks, heretofore unknown problems started to emerge, such as envy, lack of concern for past troubles, and heretical argumentation, which weakened the church.
Third, authorities who remained faithful to the old pagan gods succeeded in prevailing upon the emperor to turn the tide of tolerance toward the Christians into a policy of brutal repression in defense of the official religion of the empire. Fourth, the freedom movement led by Achilleus in Alexandria, which was largely identified with the Christian church, left no room for Diocletian to avoid striking a deadly blow against the Egyptian metropolis, which was gradually becoming a fortress for the faith. His two expeditions against Alexandria ended in the total defeat of the rebels, who were subsequently subjected to the most rigorous punishment for their insubordination and for their religion. Thus Diocletian issued his memorable edict of 23 February 303, signaling the inauguration of the worst of all the persecutions, which bathed the latter years of his reign in Christian blood until his abdication. But this bloody chapter belongs to the next patriarchate, of PETER I, who lost his head in the persecution and became identified as the “Seal of the Martyrs.”
Apart from the building of numerous churches to cope with the expanding congregations, the internal activity of Theonas is demonstrated by his support of the Catechetical School, which he had headed at one time. His appointee to its presidency, Pierius, who succeeded the famous Theognostus, proved to be a tremendous force in upholding the faith and in homiletic and theological activities. JEROME called Pierius “Origen Junior” (De viris illustribus 76), who shook the metropolis with his resounding homilies.
His written works include On the Beginning of Osee, On the Gospel of Luke, On the Mother of God, and The Life of Saint Pamphilus. The last work was a great eulogy of one of his old pupils who was martyred in the presecution of Diocletian. Some reports indicate that Pierius passed his later years in Rome, while others claim that he won the crown of martyrdom in Alexandria in the reign of Diocletian.
After approximately nineteen years at the head of the church, Theonas died in bed. He is commemorated in the Coptic SYNAXARION on 2 Kiyahk, which was probably the date of his death.
- Altaner, B. Patrology, trans. Hilda Graef. London, 1958. Bardenhewer, O. Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, 3 vols. Freiburg, 1902-1912.
- Butcher, E. L. The Story of the Church of Egypt, 2 vols. London, 1897.
- Duchesne, L. Early History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, pp. 341ff. London, 1909.
- Jerome. De viris illustribus, trans. E. C. Richardson. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1892.
- Neale, J. M. The Patriarchate of Alexandria. London, 1897. Quasten, J. Patrology, 3 vols, Utrecht and Antwerp, 1975.
- Smith, W., and H. Wace. Dictionary of Christian Biography, 4 vols. New York, 1974.
AZIZ S. ATIYA