The Miracle of St Euphemia

Sometimes it is necessary to go beyond theological discussion and consider the hagiographical matrix which develops to support our interpretations. What do I mean? It is that often those who think that they might disagree about some theological issue do not engage in the necessary and generous dialogue which would allow the nature of such a disagreement to become clear, if it exists. Rather, depending on hagiographical accounts and incidents, it is assumed that the disagreement is already beyond any discussion, since the objection to some other community has been made eternally manifest by the intervention of God in some miracle or by his saints. I am sure that it was with such an understanding of the importance of the hagiographical tradition that a senior Eastern Orthodox priest once told me that he was not interested in what I believed, he already knew that I was a heretic.

Such an attitude, though perhaps respectful of what has been received, does not strike me as being Christian at all. I find myself very much interested in what the Eastern Orthodox believe as a whole, and what any Eastern Orthodox Christian with whom I correspond believes in particular. There is no risk or harm in being very interested in what others believe, as it is only by such an open-hearted conversation that we discover both how close we are, to each other and to God, and what might truly separate us.

Therefore, when the miracle of St Euphemia is presented as having established once and for all that the non-Chalcedonian communion are in error, and perhaps rejected by God, and when this is taken as meaning that no further discussion is required, then it is proper for those condemned by such a miracle to require that it be investigated in some depth, since so much seems to hang upon it. When we make hagiography a part of theological controversy then it is properly liable to scrutiny as much as any theological statement. This miracle account says both too much and too little. Too much, in that an entire communion of  Christians are condemned on the basis of one incident, whatever they might believe. And too little, in that it is not ever made clear what is objectionable in the non-Chalcedonian faith.

We should perhaps begin with St Euphemia herself. Little historical information is available about her. She was a young martyr in the city of Chalcedon, executed with others in the early 3rd century. Many hagiographical details were added to the little that was known. Certainly, by 318 AD, when the Western pilgrim Egeria passed through the area, she was shown the place where she had been martyred. It is interesting that St Euphemia the martyr is commemorated in the Coptic Orthodox calendar on Abib 17th, which is July 11th, the date of the commemoration of the miracle in the Eastern Orthodox communion. That this is the same saint can be determined from the identity of the Governor who was responsible for her death. In the Eastern Orthodox account, taken from the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese website, we read,

Chalcedon Governor Priscus circulated an order to all the inhabitants of Chalcedon and its surroundings to appear at a pagan festival to worship and offer sacrifice to an idol of Ares, threatening grave torments for anyone who failed to appear…

In the Coptic Orthodox Synaxarium, for Abib 17th, we read,

On this day, St. Euphemia, was martyred. When Barsiros (Briskos), one of the deputies of Diocletian, was passing down the road, there were with him some of the saints with iron chains round their necks like dogs. This saint saw them and her heart waxed hot. She was sorry for them and she wept. Then, she cursed the Emperor, his idols, and admonished the Governor saying, “O you whose heart is like a stone, do you not have compassion on these holy men! or are you not afraid that their God might destroy you?” The Governor became enraged and informed the Emperor about what she had done and said. The Emperor brought her and asked her about her belief. She confessed that she was Christian. He tortured her severely by beating and burning until she delivered up her pure soul in the hand of the Lord.

Briskos and Priscus are clearly the same person, and the co-incidence of July 11th, the commemoration of the miracle of St Euphemia, and Abib 17th, her commemoration in the Coptic Orthodox calendar, make it certain that St Euphemia is honoured by the Coptic Orthodox Church. Of course it is unusual that a controversial saint, who is used to prove that the non-Chalcedonians are rejected by God, should be commemorated by the Coptic Orthodox, and on the same day as the miracle associated with her is honoured. This would seem to me to indicate several reasonable conclusions. In the first place, St Euphemia was already commemorated on Abib 17th/July 11th before the division between the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. Secondly, the account of the miracle was not originally associated with her hagiography. Thirdly, the miracle account must reasonably have been added after the separation of the communities took place, long after Chalcedon and perhaps after the Islamic invasion, so that the different account then being proposed by the Chalcedonians on the same day no longer had any effect on the non-Chalcedonian veneration of the saint. It does not seem reasonable that St Euphemia would have remained on the Coptic Orthodox calendar if the account of the miracle had been current in the immediate aftermath of Chalcedon.

When we come to the account of the miracle itself, we find that the Synaxarion for this event says,

When Marcian reigned together with Pulcheria, he ordered for an Ecumenical Synod to take place in Chalcedon in the year 451. Thus six-hundred and thirty Bishops gathered together. They wrote down both positions, the Orthodox and the cacodox Monophysite, in two tomes, namely books. And opening the box in which was the honorable relic of Saint Euphemia, they placed both books on her chest and shut it. Then after a determined amount of days they opened it, and what they saw astonished them. They saw the heretical tome cast towards the ground below the feet of the Saint, and the Orthodox tome, which contained the definition and decision of the Holy Synod, they saw the Martyr holding it in her embrace. When this took place, everyone marveled at this tremendous incident. And the Orthodox were made firm in their faith and glorified God, who daily does great and paradoxical things in order to cause the return and correction of many. The heretical Monophysites were put to shame. The Synaxis and Feast of this Saint Euphemia is celebrated in her martyric Temple, which is in the so-called Antiochus [the Hippodrome], near Lauson.

This seems rather convincing until we begin to investigate more closely. Such a significant and theologically important miracle could not have escaped the historical record. The record of the miracle appears in the Synaxarion of Constantinople, from the 10th century. But it should be expected that it would have been reported elsewhere, and contemporaneously to the council of Chalcedon. Indeed, it is suggested that the correspondence of Leo of Rome describes this miracle, and therefore the two relevant letters must be considered. The first is Letter XCVIII, from the Council  to Leo, as found in the Nicene Library series. It says,

For it was God who worked, and the triumphant Euphemia who crowned the meeting as for a bridal, and who, taking our definition of the Faith as her own confession, presented it to her Bridegroom by our most religious Emperor and Christ-loving Empress, appeasing all the tumult of opponents and establishing our confession of the Truth as acceptable to Him, and with hand and tongue setting her seal to the votes of us all in proclamation thereof.  These are the things we have done, with you present in the spirit and known to approve of us as brethren, and all but visible to us through the wisdom of your representatives.

What is immediately apparent is that there is no mention at all of the miracle of St Euphemia as described in the much later Synaxarion of Constantinople. It will be useful to break apart this passage into clear points, but if they Council had wished to describe the miracle as it was later presented then they have  manifestly failed to do so. If we consider the passage closely we see…

  • The triumphant Euphemia crowned the meeting as if it was a wedding
  • She took the definition of Faith as her own confession
  • She presented it to Christ through the agency of the Emperor and Empress
  • She concluded or sealed the votes of the bishops with her hand and tongue

Now the first point says no more, since no more is said, than that the meeting was honoured by the presence as a spiritual and saintly figure of St Euphemia. This is to be expected. The council itself took place in her Church in Chalcedon. At first, those with St Dioscorus sat on one side, while those opposing him sat on the other. There was a Gospel placed in the middle of them all and those who addressed the council did so from the front of the building. The reliquary of St Euphemia was there, and so it is in this sense that she crowned the meeting. It is certainly not possible to say that this sentence describes the miracle as recorded, since it it were intended to do so then Leo, the recipient of the letter, would have been left entirely ignorant of what had happened.

The second point would seem to have more in connection with the miracle as it is described. But again, there is no information about the miracle presented here at all, when it would be entirely expected. It is not an acceptable argument to say that this one sentence stands for the complex miracle account that is found in the 10th century Synaxarion. It is not possible to get from this letter to the miracle, it is only possible to read the miracle back into this sentence in the letter.

In the third point we see that in some unclear manner the Emperor and Empress presented this confession of Faith to God on behalf of St Euphemia. This again does not reflect the miracle account, and is certainly not a clear description of the miracle as it was later represented. And finally, St Euphemia is described as in some manner having concluded the votes of the bishops by her hand and tongue. The reference to her hand might be stretched into some conformity with the miracle account, but there is no reference in the later Synaxarion to St Euphemia having spoken at all.

If this were the only connection with the miracle, it would be considered very weak authority indeed. But in fact at the same time, Archbishop Anatolius of Constantinople also wrote a letter to Leo of Rome. In regard to St Euphemia, where we might expect him to describe this important and significant miracle, he says, in Letter CI,

But since after passing judgment upon him we had to come to an agreement with prayers and tears upon a definition of the right Faith; for that was the chief reason for the Emperor’s summoning the holy Synod, at which your holiness was present in the spirit with us, and wrought with us by the God-fearing men who were sent from you; we, having the protection of the most holy and beautiful martyr Euphemia, have all given ourselves to this important matter with all deliberateness.  And as the occasion demanded that all the assembled holy bishops should publish a unanimous decision for clearness and for an explicit statement of the Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ the Lord God who is found and revealed even to those who seek Him not, yes, even to those who ask not for Him, in spite of some attempts to resist at first, nevertheless showed us His Truth, and ordained that it should be written down and proclaimed by all unanimously and without gainsaying, which thus confirmed the souls of the strong, and invited into the way of Truth all who were swerving therefrom.  And, indeed, after unanimously setting our names to this document, we who have assembled in this ecumenical Synod in the name of the Faith of the same most holy and triumphant martyr, Euphemia, and of our most religious and Christ-loving Emperor Marcian, and our most religious and in all things most faithful daughter the Empress Pulcheria Augusta, with prayer and joy and happiness, having laid on the holy altar the definition written in accordance with your holy epistle for the confirmation of our Fathers’ Faith, presented it to their pious care; for thus they had asked to receive it, and, having received it, they glorified with us their Master Christ, who had driven away all the mist of heresy and had graciously made clear the word of Truth.  And in this way was simultaneously established the peace of the Church and the agreement of the priests concerning the pure Faith by the Saviour’s mercy.

What do we find in this other letter? St Euphemia is mentioned as giving her protection to the council, as we would expect it to be said of the saint in a place where such a meeting was taking place. But we do not find that there is any mention of two documents being written. On the contrary, Anatolius is quite clear, there was a unanimous decision, and this unanimous faith was written down and proclaimed by all unanimously. And then all the bishops unanimously added their names to the document. Now his would have been an excellent opportunity to describe how two documents had been written and that the one written by St Dioscorus had been rejected. But Anatolius makes no mention of this at all, quite the opposite. There was one document and it was accepted unanimously and signed by all.

We do then see that this document was not placed in the reliquary of St Euphemia, but it was laid on the altar in her church. And then, having been received in a metaphorical sense by St Euphemia, it was presented to the Emperor and Empress. This is what is being described in the more incoherent letter sent from the Council. It makes no sense at all that the miracle would be passed over in silence by the Council and by Anatolius when they wrote to Leo. It would have been of the utmost significance. And if it is barely possible to read back into the first letter some unusual circumstance, because of the lack of clarity in what is being said, there is no such possibility with the contemporaneous letter of Anatolius. He makes it very clear. After St Dioscorus had been deposed there was only one document written, and it was accepted unanimously and signed by all. It was then symbolically placed on the altar in the Church of St Euphemia, before being received by the Emperor and Empress.

But perhaps there were reasons why the miracle was not clearly described in this correspondence with Leo of Rome. Nevertheless, it would surely appear in the Acts of the Council, and in some other historical records and accounts.

In the Acts of Chalcedon, using the recent and authoritative edition produced by Richard Price, there are many references to the Martyrium or Church of St Euphemia, indeed it is mentioned in the record of every session as the location of the meetings. But in the 1076 pages of Price’s very exhaustive edition, there is no mention at all of the miracle which is said to have taken place. Yet almost everything else that took place at Chalcedon was recorded in great detail. Price does note that where there was contention the minutes become rather vague or are even absent, such as the discussion that must have taken place when Ibas of Edessa was brought into the council. But it is incomprehensible, even inconceivable, that a miracle which confirmed the council in such a manifest manner should not be recorded at all in the Acts.

But we also have the Acts of the Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. It might be expected that the miracle of St Euphemia would be remembered when the Council of Chalcedon was mentioned. Richard Price has also produced an authoritative edition of the Acts of this Council with other associated texts. Again, we find reference to St Euphemia in these Acts also, but only in reference to her Church. Vigilius of Rome had to take refuge there when he refused to condemn the Three Chapters. The Church is often referred to in the Letters, Documents and Acts produced at the time of the Council, but not a single reference even mentions in passing the miracle which was supposed to have happened there. It is inconceivable that it should not be discussed, because it would entirely have supported the position of Vigilius, imprisoned in the Church of St Euphemia, for what he understood as the defence of Chalcedon. But he does not mention the miracle at all.

The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, written in the 6th century, in about 593 AD, gives a detailed description of the Church of St Euphemia. Evagrius was a Chalcedonian, and an important member of the elite in Antioch. He clearly has first hand knowledge, and begins his description saying,

The place of meeting was the sacred precinct of Euphemia, the martyr, situated in the district of Chalcedon in Bithynia, and distant not more than two stadia from the Bosphorus. The site is a beautiful spot, of so gentle an ascent, that those who are on their way to the temple, are not aware of their immediate approach, but suddenly find themselves within the sanctuary on elevated ground…

He continues in this manner, with a personal experience of the location and layout of the Church and its associated buildings. After describing these various buildings, he draws attention to one,

Within the domed building, towards the Eastern part, is a splendid enclosure, where are preserved the sacred remains of the martyr in a long coffin (it is distinguished by some persons by the term “long”) of silver, skilfully worked. The wonders which have at certain times been wrought by the holy martyr, are manifest to all Christians. For frequently she has appeared in a dream to the bishops of the city from time to time, and even to certain persons whose lives have been otherwise distinguished, and has bid them visit her and gather a vintage at her sanctuary.

We see that the Church of St Euphemia was well-known in the very late 6th century. St Euphemia was renowned there for having performed miracles by appearing in dreams to the bishops of the city and other important figures. It might be expected that someone who supported Chalcedon, and had visited the Church of St Euphemia itself would be well acquainted with the miracle that was much later reported to have happened there at the Council of Chalcedon. There is indeed a miracle which is reported by Evagrius. He says,

There is an aperture in the left side of the coffin, secured with small doors, through which they introduce a sponge attached to an iron rod, so as to reach the sacred relics, and after turning it round, they draw it out, covered with stains and clots of blood. On witnessing this, all the people bend in worship, giving glory to God. So great has been the quantity of blood thus extracted, that both the pious sovereigns and the assembled priests, as well as the congregated people, all share in a liberal distribution, and portions are sent to those of the faithful who desire them, in every place under the sun. The clots also are permanent, neither does the appearance of the sacred blood undergo any change. These divine manifestations occur not at the recurrence of any definite period.

He reports that this miraculous appearance of blood occurs when the bishop or some other important person receives a dream of St Euphemia. The blood is not given on a regular basis but in accordance with these dreams and the good character of the bishop of the city. But more than that, as a normal matter of course, Evagrius says that whenever someone visits the shrine of St Euphemia,

He is filled with an odour surpassing in sweetness every perfume with which mankind are acquainted, for it resembles neither the mingled fragrance of the meadows, nor that which is exhaled from the sweetest substances, nor is it such as any perfumer could prepare: but it is of a peculiar and surpassing kind, of itself sufficiently indicating the virtue of its source.

So we understand that there is a perfume which comes out from the shrine of St Euphemia, and this is the ordinary experience of all those who visited the Church. This all serves to underline the importance of the Church of St Euphemia and her shrine. It is a place where miracles take place often. But Evagrius, just where a description of the miracle which the later Synaxarion commemorates would be expected, even demanded, does not speak of it at all. There is not even a hint, and this is inconceivable both in the context of such a description, and when the account is being provided by one who had visited the shrine himself.

In another historical text, The History of Theophylact Simocatta, written in the middle of the seventh century, there is reference to the Church of St Euphemia. Again, he mentions the miracle of the blood becoming liquid, but now he says that it happens every year on the anniversary of her martyrdom. His account is as follows,

Let not the wonderful events at that time concerning the martyr Euphemia escape those who love knowledge, but let us extend our account a little. For descriptions which have attained divine illumination bestow their great inherent benefit on the souls of their listeners. Chalcedon is a city situated at the mouth of the Pontus, on the opposite shore from the city of the Byzantines. In it there is situated a church of the martyr Euphemia, where ancient report has established that the most holy body of the martyr is placed in a sepulchre. Now every year on the day of her martyrdom, on account of the superabundance of that divine activity, there appears a most wonderful sign, one which is, in short, most incredible to those who have not witnessed it. For although the body has lain in the tomb for four hundred years or so already, on the aforesaid day, before the eyes of the throngs, the leader of the priestly church of those parts draws up with sponges founts of blood from the dead body. And you may see, as if from a newly slain body, the blood mingled with flux from wounds and blended with certain natural aromatics, and the priest performing the distribution of these to the throngs in little vessels made out of glass.

In this reference we see the same miracle being described, now happening on her anniversary and not when there is some special sign in a dream. This would be exactly the place to record the even more significant and important miracle which was later said to have taken place at the Council of Chalcedon. Indeed, Theophylact records that the Emperor Maurice doubted this miracle and thought that it was due to human agency,

Accordingly, the grave was stripped of its silver ornament, and the tomb was guarded by seals, for such was the counsel  of bold disbelief. But when the appointed day had arrived, the secret was tested, the mystery examined, the miracles investigated, and through the miracles she became an indubitable witness to her own power: once again rivers of aromatic blood sprang from the tomb, the mystery gushed with the discharges, sponges were enriched with fragrant blood, and the martyr multiplied the effluence. For when God is disbelieved, he is not accustomed to begrudge knowledge.

This would again be just the right place to remind his readers of the more famous miracle of St Euphemia, one which had established the Faith. But there is no reference to it at all. Indeed, in the earliest Passio Euphemiae, or Life of St Euphemia, written between the Council of Chalcedon and the early sixth century, the miracle of Chalcedon does not appear, though there is an account of her arrest, torture and martyrdom. It is not at all reasonable that a text written so soon after the events are purported to have taken place at Chalcedon would not have alluded to this miracle, especially since the opposition to the Council of Chalcedon remained so active.

Where do we read about this miracle? It appears in the Synaxarion of Constantinople, already mentioned as the present source of the account for most of those who refer to it. This is probably a 10th century text, although several scholars argue it may be as early as the 8th century. It is also found in the Mercati Anonymus, an 11th century Latin translation of a Greek text and from an equally late date. It does seem that whether it is 8th century or 10th century it provides the earliest account of the miracle of St Euphemia at Chalcedon.

So what does this evidence point to? It is that there is no evidence at all that the miracle of St Euphemia ever happened. It is not mentioned in any sources at all, whether historical, canonical or hagiographical. Not a single mention at all. There is only one possible, one reasonable conclusion. It is that the miracle did not take place. It was created in the 8th-10th century in Constantinople, and introduced into the liturgical cycle in Constantinople, from whence it diffused into the wider Chalcedonian movement as the Constantinopolitan tradition replaced the other, and more ancient local traditions.

Oriental Orthodox, non-Chalcedonians, need not feel that this miracle of St Euphemia disadvantages them in the theological discussion concerning Chalcedon. If the miracle is being presented as a theological proof then it must be examined in detail. And being examined in detail, it ceases to exist.

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