Pagans, a Pope, & the Fall of Sauron: How We Got New Year’s Day (Dwight Longenecker, 2013)

NOTE: This abridged article is taken from

The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Then about the time of Father Abraham, the new year was heralded not in mid winter, but at the Spring equinox in mid-March. Following these already ancient customs, the first Roman calendar had ten months and also recognized March as the beginning of the year. This is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March they were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.

The second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius added January and February to the calender1 and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Years’ Day. The change was decreed for civil reasons (the consuls began their term at that time) but many people still recognized March as the start of the year.2


When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar3 in 46 BC with a solar calendar,4 he also formally established the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell and Europe transitioned to the new religion and rule of Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Years’ Day at the beginning of January was officially eliminated at the Council of Tours5 in 597,  and across Europe the start of a new year was celebrated variously at Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.

The date of March 25 not only connected with the most ancient celebrations of the new year at the Spring equinox, but in the Christian calendar March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation–the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. The date of March 25 was determined by the Jewish belief that great men were conceived on the same day of the year as their death. Jesus Christ died on March 25, (so the theory goes) which means he was conceived on March 25. Incidentally this is also the origin for the traditional date of Christmas–nine months from March 25.

Medieval Christians understood that the beginning of the life of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary’s womb was the beginning of God’s work among mankind, the restoration and redemption of the world and the beginning of a new creation. It was therefore theologically fitting that March 25 or Ladyday (in honor of the Virgin Mary) should be celebrated as New Years’ Day. And so it was for a thousand years.

Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations, the date of Easter had been drifting and the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to re-establish January first as New Years’ Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox rejected the reform.6 Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, the Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923. The monks of Mt Athos still hold on to the Julian calendar.7

13 days

What about the fall of Sauron—the nemesis in The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R.Tolkien was very sly in the way he wove Christian symbolism into his epic myth. He records the dates of the great events in the cycle of the ring, and we discover that it is on March 25 that the ring of power is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and so the destruction of Sauron heralds a new beginning for Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien gives a nod to the medieval Christian tradition that March 25 is the true New Years’ Day.

As you celebrate New Years’ Day remember that for one thousand years the welcoming of a new year was not just a calendar event, but a culturally religious event which linked the renewal of nature with the redemption of the world.


  1. By tradition, Numa promulgated a calendar reform that adjusted the solar and lunar years, introducing the months of January and February (Livy’s History of Rome, 1:19).
  2. The January Kalends came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.
  5. In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, March 25 had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice. Medieval calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months running from January to December, despite their readers reckoning the transition from one year to the next on a different day.
  7. Though all the monks on Mt. Athos follow the Old Calendar, there is a divide between those under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (new calendar) and those who adhere to other ecclesiastical jurisdictions not in communion with the churches that follow the new calendar.

New Controversy Surrounds Alleged ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ (Tia Ghose, 2015)

NOTE: Archaeology is a science that is viewed cautiously and, in some cases, apprehensively, by more traditional Orthodox Christians. Because Scriptures are viewed as God-inspired and true, anything that contradicts them is usually dismissed as false or demonic. There are varying views in the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. A common view is, “We don’t need western scholars to interpret our Scriptures, we have the God-bearing Fathers.” More generally, there is a circular reasoning argument that exists: When science backs or supports something mentioned in Scriptures or the Fathers, this is used as a proof or validation of orthodoxy. When something contradicts, it is wrong. When it comes to archaeology, if it is a matter of objects dated to the right time period, it is used as validation.  If the dating disagrees, then carbon dating methods are criticized as an inaccurate science, or, “The Bible isn’t meant to be read as a scientifically or historically accurate book.” There are also many other “arguments” used–which lack any basis or evidence–to “validate” the inaccuracies contained within Scriptures and the writings of the Orthodox Church Fathers. This article is taken from Live Science, April 09, 2015:

A new piece of evidence is reigniting controversy over the potential bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

A tomb in a suburb of Jerusalem excavated in 1980 contains bone boxes with names of some of Jesus' family members. Some historians believe this tomb may have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, though others are skeptical. Here, an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb. Many believe the inscription reads "Yeshua son of Yehosef," or "Jesus son of Joseph."
A tomb in a suburb of Jerusalem excavated in 1980 contains bone boxes with names of some of Jesus’ family members. Some historians believe this tomb may have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, though others are skeptical. Here, an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb. Many believe the inscription reads “Yeshua son of Yehosef,” or “Jesus son of Joseph.”

A bone box inscribed with the phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is potentially linked to a tomb in Talpiot, Israel, where the bones of people with the names of Jesus’ family members are buried, according to a new chemical analysis. Aryeh Shimron, the geologist who conducted the study, claims that because it is so unlikely that this group of biblical names would be found together by chance, the new results suggest the tomb once held the bones of Jesus. Historians place Jesus’ birth at some time before 4 B.C. in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee.

“If this is correct, that strengthens the case for the Talpiot or Jesus Family Tomb being indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth,” said Shimron, a retired geologist who has studied several archaeological sites in Israel.

If true, the idea that Jesus was buried on Earth would undermine one of the central tenets of Christianity — that Jesus was physically resurrected and rose bodily to heaven after his crucifixion.

But many historians are skeptical. They say the names on the bone boxes (inside the Talpiot tomb) don’t all match with those of Jesus’ family. In addition, the current research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the experts say. [See Photos of the Controversial Bone Boxes]

Family of Jesus

In the time of Jesus, people buried the dead initially in a shroud, but once the flesh had rotted away, they often took the remaining bones and collected them in a small limestone box, called an ossuary, said Mark Goodacre, a New Testament and Christian origins scholar at Duke University in North Carolina who was not involved in the current study. [See Images of the Jonah Ossuary]

One of these bone boxes, the James Ossuary, made headlines in 2002, when it was first revealed. The first-century box is inscribed with Aramaic text that translates to “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If it’s authentic, the ancient artifact could potentially be the only known relic from the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

The James Ossuary, which was held by a private collector since 1976, contains the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." New evidence suggests the bone box came from a tomb where other bone boxes with family names of Jesus of Nazareth are found.
The James Ossuary, which was held by a private collector since 1976, contains the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” New evidence suggests the bone box came from a tomb where other bone boxes with family names of Jesus of Nazareth are found.

But in 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority argued that the “brother of Jesus” text was forged, and the collector, Oded Golan, was later tried for fraud. After seven years, an Israeli judge concluded that Golan was not guilty of forgery, in part because Golan produced a photograph of the box sitting on his shelf in 1976, and would therefore have not had an incentive to forge the inscription many years before he went public with the discovery.

Tomb raiders

In 1980, another group of researchers unearthed a first-century tomb in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. The tomb was flooded with a reddish soil called rendzina, and buried in this soil were 10 boxes, six of which were inscribed with names such as Jesus, Mary, Judah, Joseph and Yose. [Photos: 1st-Century House from Jesus’ Hometown]

The house seen here is one of two houses in Nazareth that date to the first century AD. Research reveals that people in the Middle Ages believed that Jesus grew up in this home.
The house seen here is one of two houses in Nazareth that date to the first century AD. Research reveals that people in the Middle Ages believed that Jesus grew up in this home.

The tomb came into the public spotlight with the 2007 documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” written by Israeli journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, and produced by “Titanic” producer James Cameron. In recent years, Jacobovici has put forward the theory that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb — and that the tomb was the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. But most archaeologists were skeptical of that claim, Goodacre said.

In the new study, Shimron took scrapings from several places on the James Ossuary and the Talpiot tomb ossuaries. He then compared the traces of chemicals — such as aluminum, magnesium, iron and potassium — from those boxes with about 30 to 40 randomly chosen ossuaries collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority. (Some bones were analyzed for DNA but could not be studied thoroughly because they were quickly reburied after excavation, as Jewish law forbids disturbing Jewish burials, Shimron said.)

Shimron found that the chemical signatures from the James Ossuary matched those from the Talpiot bone boxes.

“The flooding of [the] tomb was caused by this earthquake which hit Jerusalem in [A.D.] 363,” Shimron told Live Science. “That soil and mud that flooded the tomb also buried the ossuaries.”

Because both of the boxes contain chemical signatures associated with this soil, the findings suggest the James Ossuary originally came from the Talpiot tomb, Shimron said.

What’s in a name?

If true, the new findings could strengthen the case for the Talpiot tomb containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. In this interpretation,  after Joseph of Arimathea initially buried Jesus in an empty tomb, his body may have later been laid to rest in this family plot, said James Tabor, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has worked in the past with Jacobovici, who financed the current research. [8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

Altogether, ten bone boxes were unearthed during the 1980 excavations of the Talpiot tomb, though one mysteriously disappeared. Six of those boxes have inscriptions, many with names that match those of Jesus' family members. However, critics say that not all the names are a match. Here, some of the boxes from the Jesus family tomb.
Altogether, ten bone boxes were unearthed during the 1980 excavations of the Talpiot tomb, though one mysteriously disappeared. Six of those boxes have inscriptions, many with names that match those of Jesus’ family members. However, critics say that not all the names are a match. Here, some of the boxes from the Jesus family tomb.

The trouble is proving that the tomb belongs to Jesus of Nazareth and his family, rather than a completely different Jesus. The argument for the former theory rests on statistics — namely, that it would be incredibly unlikely that names associated with Jesus of Nazareth’s family would occur by chance for another unrelated Jesus, according to Jacobovici. Adding in another ossuary with names associated with Jesus — namely, the James Ossuary — would potentially buttress that statistical case.

But many experts say that statistical case doesn’t hold up. For one, almost all the names in the tomb were common at the time. In addition, some of the inscriptions, such as the name for Jesus, are hard to read, said Robert Cargill, a classics and religious studies professor at the University of Iowa in Ames, who was not involved in the study.

What’s more, some of the names found on ossuaries from the tomb have no historical precedent — such as “Judah, son of Jesus.”

“There’s no evidence at all that Jesus had a son at all, let alone a son called Judah,” Goodacre said.

One of the boxes is inscribed with what may be “Mariamne” or, alternatively, “Mary and Mara,” Goodacre added. While Jacobovici argues that the name corresponds to one of Jesus’ followers, Mary Magdalene, early Christians didn’t call Mary Magdalene “Mariamne” — rather, she was just called Mariam or Marya, Goodacre said.

When those inconsistencies are also considered, the statistical case for the names matching those of Jesus’ family falls apart, Cargill said.

Jacobovici disagrees with their interpretation of the statistics.

“The fact is that this tomb has more evidence going for it now than probably any other archaeological artifact on the planet. The names are not common and some of the versions of the names are unique e.g., ‘Yose’ (which corresponds to one of the brothers of Jesus),” Jacobovici said in an email to Live Science.

Debate heats up

Another inconsistency comes in the timing of the discoveries. The James Ossuary was in a collector’s hands by 1976, but the tomb wasn’t discovered until 1980, Cargill said.

The A.D. 363 earthquake opened up the tomb centuries ago, so it’s possible that the box was closer to the entrance of the tomb and was partly visible from the surface, whereas the other boxes were still submerged and hidden. Someone could have seen it and quickly absconded with it, without having discovered the other tombs, Tabor said.

In addition, Tabor argues that, as a Jewish man of his day, Jesus of Nazareth was more likely to be married with kids, rather than celibate. So the mention of Jesus’ son Judah is not problematic for their theory, even if Judah were never mentioned in historical documents, Tabor added.

The James ossuary was first revealed to the public in 2002, but the Israel Antiquities Authority later said that the latter part of the inscription - "brother of Jesus," was a forgery. After a seven-year trial, a judge cleared the Oded Golan, who owned the box, of forgery. Now, a new geological analysis says it has the same chemical signature as ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb.
The James ossuary was first revealed to the public in 2002, but the Israel Antiquities Authority later said that the latter part of the inscription – “brother of Jesus,” was a forgery. After a seven-year trial, a judge cleared the Oded Golan, who owned the box, of forgery. Now, a new geological analysis says it has the same chemical signature as ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb.

Theological questions

The new findings are incredibly controversial because they deal with one of the most polarizing figures in history — Jesus of Nazareth. Traditional Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven after he was crucified and returned to walk on Earth, Tabor said.

“If you find the bones of Jesus, the resurrection is off,” Tabor told Live Science. Conservative Christians “see it as an attack on Christianity and also a refutation of the faith of Christianity.”

But Goodacre and Cargill said theological questions don’t factor into their skepticism. Rather, the real issue is that the scientific standards have not been met, Cargill said.

Ossuaries, or bone boxes, were fairly common during the time of Jesus. Families would typically bury people in a linen shroud, and once the flesh had rotted away, the bones would be collected and placed in a limestone or chalk box. Here, the ossuary thought to hold the bones of Caiaphas family. According to the New Testament, Caiaphas was a Jewish high priest who masterminded the plot to kill Jesus.
Ossuaries, or bone boxes, were fairly common during the time of Jesus. Families would typically bury people in a linen shroud, and once the flesh had rotted away, the bones would be collected and placed in a limestone or chalk box. Here, the ossuary thought to hold the bones of Caiaphas family. According to the New Testament, Caiaphas was a Jewish high priest who masterminded the plot to kill Jesus.

The Sect of the Flagallents (George Ryley Scott, 1968)

NOTE: This article is taken from The History of Corporal Punishment, pp. 109-115.

The History of Corporal Punishment

Every student of sociology is well aware of the inherent gregariousness of man. It goes far beyond the gregariousness of animals or birds, which is purely physical. In mankind it is physical, spiritual and mental. It is just as dominant a force, this gregariousness, in man’s make-up today as it was in the earliest stages of civilization, and in the Middle Ages. This gregariousness, which was at the root of those manifestations which, in past ages, have shown themselves as various communal manias, such as mass dancing, demonology, witchcraft, religious crusades, and in many other ways, is similarly at the root of many present-day mass phenomena such, for instance, as national advertising campaigns, the radio, television, the cinema, the Popular Press.

The response of masses of men and women to suggestion has always been the basis of every religious, political or social movement. The actions or responses of an individual member of society to given stimuli can never be foreshadowed with any degree of certainty; the actions or responses of mankind in the mass can be predicted with mathematical exactitude. It is to this more than to any other fact that charlatans, quacks, political mountebacks, dictators, revivalists, and other merchants of much, owe their success.

Now, of all movements which owed their inspiration to waves of emotion, none has ever transcended in spectacularness, fanaticism and (to observers in other ages) incredulity, the successive waves of voluntary flagellation which punctuated the annals of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.


There seems to be some doubt as to where precisely the first public flagellating movement broke out, or who exactly was the individual responsible for the actual genesis of the idea; but certainly St. Anthony seems to have had a good deal to do with it. Unless the chroniclers of the age lie, he went about the country preaching to sinners about the wrath of God, on the need for repentance and atonement, much in the manner of a modern drum-banging revivalist; and, in the early twelve hundreds, he appears to have set in motion the first serious organised procession of men and women beating each other with the express object of establishing themselves in the good books of their God and earning a pass to Heaven.

Around the year 1260, fresh impetus was given to the movement through the efforts of an Italian hermit and fanatic by name Ramier, a Dominican. Italy at the time was passing under a black cloud. Her list of misfortunes, through one cause and another, was apparently endless. Ramier, in the true religious spirit of the age, argued that penance was the only way to avert disaster, and, at that, penance of such a widespread nature as would surely suffice to atone for all that was inducing the anger of Jehovah.

Men, women and children in their birthday suits, and carrying nothing but thongs of hide, walked in solemn procession, praying to God for forgiveness, weeping, groaning, and, every few moments, lashing the persons nearest them with the scourges they carried. These processions of penitents were everywhere. The priests, carrying banners and wearing crosses, made up the van of the procession. To the tune of ten thousand eager souls, they marched, these fanatics, through Italy; they crossed the Alps; they ‘invaded’ Bavaria, Alsace, Bohemia, Poland, and at every step and in each country, they gathered recruits, swelling their ranks enormously and rapidly. “Those who were at enmity with one another became friends. Usurers and robbers hastened to restore their ill-gotten riches to the rightful owners. Criminals confessed. The doors of the gaols were opened and the prisoners released, those who had been banished from the country were allowed to return. In short, Christian charity, humility and good will prevailed.”

Procession of flagellants during the Middle Ages.
Procession of flagellants during the Middle Ages.

But despite its remarkable popularity with the masses, the movement met with a good deal of opposition from the leaders of other and rival faiths. It met with a good deal of ridicule too. All this is not to be wondered at, being the common lot of most new religious cults. It has been the lot of the Mormons, of the Perfectionists, of the Spiritualists, of the Theosophists, of the Christian Scientists, of the Dukhobors, of the Shakers, et al. Two thousand years ago, it was the lot of Christianity itself.

In 1349 the movement swept through Germany like a whirlwind, however. At that particular time the country was being ravaged by a plague known as the Black Death. The German movement was apparently initiated in the town of Spira, where the Flagellants went through their ritual in full view of the onlookers who gathered to watch them. Divesting themselves of all their clothes except their shirts, they lay on the ground in various postures, and were whipped, either by the priest in charge or by one another, to the accompaniment of psalm-singing, prayers to God against the plague, and other appeals. When the flagellating performance was concluded, says Albert of Strasbourg, a contemporary historian:

“One of the brotherhood rose, and with a loud voice read a letter, which he pretended had been brought by an angel to St. Peter’s Church, in Jerusalem; the angel declared in it that Jesus Christ was offended at the wickedness of the age, several instances of which were mentioned, such as the violation of the Lord’s Day, blasphemy, usury, adultery, and neglect with respect to fasting on Fridays. To this the man who read the letter added, that Jesus Christ’s forgiveness having been implored by the Holy Virgin and the angels, he had made answer that in order to obtain mercy, sinners ought to live exiled from their country for thirty-four days, disciplining themselves during that time.”

The flagellants at Doornik in 1349
The flagellants at Doornik in 1349

From Spira they moved to Strasbourg, recruits joining, solidly and enthusiastically, on the way, so that by the time the procession left the latter town, it numbered all of a thousand strong.

After this, however, the sect met with constantly increasing opposition from influential quarters. The Pope opposed the movement; the Inquisition tortured and executed its leaders.

And so, for a time, the Flagellants were compelled to pursue their cult in secret and as best they could, until, towards the close of the 16th century, the movement again burst into activity. In France, in particular, the cult spread throughout the whole country, infecting Paris itself and attracting the attention of many influential personages. Then, with the conversion, first of the Queen-Mother to their tenets, and later of King Henry III himself, the supremacy of the Flagellants was complete and their standing assured for the time being. There were soon many different bands or branches operating in various parts of France. The King, in 1585, formed a new band known as the Brotherhood of the Annunciation Day, with the Cardinal of Lorraine, the Duke of Mayenne, the Cardinal of Guise, the leading courtiers and ministers, and other members of the aristocracy, as principal officials. The Cardinal of Lorraine, after one of the public demonstrations, took to his bed and died within a few days, and the tale is told that his fatal illness was due to severe whipping and exposure.

Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification
Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification

Following the example of their lords and masters, the women took up public flagellation, joining the processions. At first, the more bashful among them, it is true, waited until darkness provided a protective screen for their performances; others, with official approval, wore masks; others again contented themselves with the mere carrying of whips; but as the number of females, and especially of aristocratic ladies, taking part in these processions increased, they shed all decorum and bashfulness, in the end entering into the performance with all the zest and vigor of men. “After the death of the Guises,” says Cooper, “the fanatical mania for fleshly mortification revived, and this time women and maidens, naked to the shift, ran about with whips. Noble ladies showed themselves to the populace in a semi-nude state, and gave themselves the discipline, in order to encourage others by their example” [William M. Cooper, A History of the Rod, 1868, p. 111].

But although the cult was blessed with royal support, as it happened, this did not suffice to render it impregnable. King Henry III of France, his royal blood notwithstanding, was no Czar able to flaunt hostile criticism with impunity, or possessing the power to consign to prison, or to exile, those who failed to genuflect to him in word and deed. There was, at the time, an opposition element of some power, and the members of this opposing party did not fail both to criticize and to heap scorn upon the antics of the King and his associates. Also, as was natural, there was once again a good deal of opposition from the leaders of the orthodox religion. One opponent, John Gerson, no less a personage than Chancellor of the University of Paris, published a treatise pointing out the evils of flagellation, which he alleged was a cruel and an evil practice, contending that it should be held by the authorities to be as unlawful as castration or mayhem.


Others hymned the same tune until, in response to the gathering trend of public opinion, in the early sixteen hundreds, Parliament took action, prohibiting public flagellation and proclaiming all members of the sect to be heretics.

This, so far as France was concerned, was the beginning of the end. There were, true enough, for the finding, scattered remnants of the once powerful bands. These practiced their cult surreptitiously and behind closed doors, but no public demonstrations or processions flourished or were even attempted. In other parts of Europe there were sporadic efforts to revivify the movement, but they met with little success. Cooper mentions that Father Mabillion claimed to have seen “a scourging procession of the Flagellants at Turin on Good Friday 1689;” that in 1710 there were processions still to be seen in Italy; that Colmenar “mentions a procession taking place in Madrid;” that as late as 1820 Flagellants appeared in public in Lisbon [ibid.]. Long after this, too, private ‘whipping clubs’ flourished secretly, but it is highly probable that these were then, as certain somewhat similar ‘societies’ of today are now, using the cloak of religion to cover purely erotic purposes.

And so passed into oblivion as strange a manner of stimulating religious ecstasy and fervor as the world has ever seen.

In marvelling, in these supposedly enlightened days, over the survival for centuries of such a remarkable religious phenomenon, one must never overlook the fact that all religions owe much of their success to their spectacularness. The dramatic has always been an essential feature of any religious cult, and the more effective the show presented, the greater the success of the cult. All through the ages we see examples of this in the flourishing of half a hundred different faiths, all presenting the same fundamental quackeries, decked out in half a hundred different gaudy wrappings, and presented on half a hundred different dramatic stages. The Protestant faith always depended much on its ceremonial, its rubric, its empiricism, its ritual; the Roman Catholic faith outdid it, and thus scored a wider and a more lasting success. In the early days of Christianity, there was nothing else in the way of appeals to the dramatic that could, so far as the masses were concerned, move them to admiration and acceptance as did the shows staged by the Churches. Even today, when religion in Europe and America seems to be moribund or even gangrenous, any temporary flare-up that it is able to stage is connected with the putting on of a new and a free show. The showmanship of the Revivalists, of the Aimee MacPhersons, Billy Sundays, Woodbine Willies, Faith Healers, Billy Grahams, and so on, succeed in filling the temples, stadiums and arenas, spasmodically at least, simply because the old, old act is being staged in a new dress.


It will surely be evident that with the rivalry of the cinema, television, and a score of other appeals to the dramatic, the shows that the Churches can stage are, in the main, old-fashioned and crude. Moreover, the increased prosperity of the masses has largely negated the appeal of free entertainment. They prefer to pay to go to the theater or a night-club rather than accept anything which the Churches have to offer for nothing (except what is put in the collection plate).

The influence of suggestion still exists. It is still powerful. But it works in different ways; it calls for different modes of presentation. Newspaper and television campaigns, with their strong emotional appeals, today have largely taken the place once held almost exclusively by religion.

Looking back through the centuries, as history depicts them, it is easy for the student of sociology to understand which exhibitions of self-flagellation had upon the masses. Its dramatic element, and its suggestive powers, were considerable. Its reputed painful nature merely served to increase its dramatic effects. And much of the anguish associated with it was apocryphal. The ancient pedlars of religion staged their shows with all the skill of the moderns. There is a deliciously ironical suggestion about the account given by an eye-witness of one of the flagellating services held during Lent in the Church of the Cravita in Rome. The service lasted a quarter of an hour, during which time the church was in total darkness, and judging from the sounds, some worshippers were using whips and others their hands. “Hundreds,” says this writer, “were certainly flogging something, but whether their own bare backs, or the pavement of the church, we could not tell” [James Gardner, The Faiths of the World, p. 901].


Also see: The practice of scourging one’s self unknown to the early Christians  and Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s Saying: “The cane is the remedy for every passion”

Flagellation in Monasteries and Nunneries (George Ryley Scott, 1968)

NOTE: This article is taken from The History of Corporal Punishment, pp. 91-97.


The story of flagellation is inextricably mixed up with the story of religion. The heads of every religious order existent in ancient days punished severely any breaking of the rules prescribed by their order, whether by the priests, the monks or the nuns associated with it; and the favorite form which this punishment took was that of whipping. The only difference between the judiciary whipping of the vagrants and criminals of the world, and that administered to religious disciples by their superiors, was that while in the one instance it was something to be eluded if at all possible, in the other it was a punishment to be welcomed as a just discipline. So true was this that, as we shall see later, many officials connected with the religious orders inflicted this punishment upon themselves in the form of self-flagellation, as a penance for real or imaginary sins. Especially was this true of the saints and martyrs, with the doings of which the annals of religion are so plentifully besprinkled.


The early historians are in agreement respecting the custom in many lands of whipping worshippers on certain feast days, and all bear out the fact that these worshippers accepted the punishment resignedly, and that in some cases they even appeared to welcome it—a statement well in accord with the fanaticism on the one hand and the submission on the other hand, which were such marked features of the religious zeal with which followers of all early religious cults were plentifully endowed. Plutarch, referring to the customs of the Lacedaemonians, mentions that as the Feast of Flagellations, held once a year, before the altar of Diana, boys were whipped for hours at a stretch. He says “they suffer it with cheerfulness, and even with joy: nay, they strive with each other for victory; and he who bears up the longest time, and has been able to endure the greatest number of stripes, carries the day.” Other writers, notably Mozonius and Cicero, bear out all this, the latter asserting that “I several times heard it said that boys had been whipped to death.”


According to Herodotus, at the festival Isis, held each year at Busiris, thousands of people of both sexes “beat one another,” apparently with an industry which well matched their enthusiasm.

There can be little doubt that in all monasteries and nunneries, from the days of their foundation, flagellation was common, so common indeed as to call for little comment in the writings of the earliest of the chroniclers; but, as early as the year 508 there appears to have been a ruling by Saint Cesarius d’Arles definitely prescribing whipping as the form of punishment for nuns failing to observe the regulations of their order. By the eighth century, however, most of the religious orders issued specific rules respecting offences and their punishment.

There was the rule which the Bishop of Usez, Saint Ferreol, made for the prevention and punishment of theft: “let him be chastised with the whip, and with great rigour too. The same punishment ought to be inflicted upon him as upon a fornicator, since it may be justly suspected that his lewdness has induced him to commit theft.” Somewhat similar was the rule of the Bishop of Braga, Saint Fructuosus, for dealing with a liar or a thief: “That if, after being warned by the elder monks he neglects to mend his manners, he shall, on the third time, be exhorted in the presence of all the brethren, to leave off his bad practices. If he still neglects to reform, let him be flagellated with the utmost severity.” Anything in the way of sexual indulgence was looked upon as an even greater crime than theft and the like, as this same Bishop of Braga’s ruling shows: “If a monk is used to tease boys and young men, or is caught in attempting to give them kisses, or in any other indecent action, and the fact be proved by competent witnesses, let him be publicly whipped.” Even to so much as look at a woman was a dangerous practice for a monk in those early days; to speak to one was enough to earn him a mild whipping at any rate; to be alone with one was punished by two hundred lashes or living “on bread and water for two days.”


Saint Colombanus, Saint Macarius, Saint Benedict, Saint Benoit, Saint Pacome, Saint Aurelian and others, all drew up rules and regulations respecting the punishments to be inflicted for various offences, in some cases stipulating a prescribed number of lashes for the offence in question, in others leaving the severity of the whipping to the discretion of the abbot or superior in charge of the monastery. In addition to the offences already noted, attempts to escape from the monastery, swearing gambling, any indecorous behavior, exhibitions of anger, failure to observe the rules of silence, lewd conversations, immoderate drinking, indulging in noisy conversation or laughter, revealing to outsiders any secrets of the order, and many other piccadilloes, were sufficient to ensure a sound whipping; and any attempts to escape such punishment by the parading of extenuating circumstances or excuses, often merely served to ensure a double dose. In fact here the vindictiveness of the religious leaders showed itself plainly—thus: “If the brothers who have been excommunicated for their faults, persevere so far in their pride as to continue, on the ninth hour of the next day, to refuse to make proper satisfaction to the abbot, let them be confined, even till their death, and lashed with rods.” So literally, indeed, were these orders taken, and so rigorously were they carried out, that it was no uncommon thing for a monk to be whipped to death where he stood, or to die later from the injuries sustained during the chastisement.

In fact, the abuses connected with the administration of the ‘discipline’ caused Cesarius, Bishop of Arles, to remind the abbots and priors that “if the flagellations they inflicted were continued too long upon offenders, so that they died in consequence thereof, they were guilty of homicide.”

St. Caesarius of Arles
St. Caesarius of Arles

Although the Bishop of Arles himself, and certain of his brethren, restricted the number of lashes to that prescribed in the laws of Moses, such restriction was by no means general. According to the author of The History of the Flagellants, not only was “the punishment of flagellation extended to almost every possible offence Monks could commit,” but “the duration of the flagellations was left pretty much to the discretion of the Abbot, either in consequence of the generality of the terms used in the Statutes, or in consequence of some express provision made for that purpose. In the ancient constitutions of the Monastery of Cluny, for instance, which Saint Udalric has collected in one volume, different kinds of offence are mentioned, for the punishment of which it is expressly said, “that the offender shall be lashed as long as the Abbot shall think meet.”

There were two forms of flagellation in use in the monasteries and nunneries, known respectively as the ‘superior discipline’ and the ‘inferior discipline.’ The first named was restricted in its area of application to the upper half of the back and shoulders; the ‘inferior discipline’ was confined to the buttocks and belly. It is worthy of note that the ‘inferior’ form was by far the less dangerous, especially if it was restricted to the fleshy parts of the posterior, well removed from the interior and more vulnerable organs.

The flogging itself was often carried out by the abbot or superior personally, though he had the power of entrusting the work to other hands. The universality of the practice and the anticipation that every monk would be whipped for some offence or other, real or imaginary, are indicated by the custom, in many monasteries, of wearing a special shirt which opened at the back to as to facilitate the uncovering of the lower part of the body in preparation for flagellation. In certain cases the monk to be whipped was compelled to divest himself of all his clothing in preparation for flagellation, which was performed in full view of all the inmates of the monastery. Thus, by order of Pope John XII, a monk named Godescal was publicly whipped, among those present being Bishop Otger and Charles the Bald.

In those days women received little respect, and were looked upon as the property of the men to whom they were given in marriage. It is not to be wondered at therefore that in the convents they were considered to be deserving of no more consideration or respect than were the monks in the monasteries. Flagellation was common in the nunneries, and for the most trivial of offences, such as the conversing about worldy matters, carelessness on the carrying out of their duties, entering the speaking-room without obtaining permission, and the like.

One of the oldest ecclesiastical writers to prescribe the whipping of nuns was Cesarius: “It is just that such as have violated the institutions contained in the rule should receive an adequate discipline; it is fit that in them should be accomplished what the Holy Ghost has in former times prescribed through Solomon.” Saint Benedict similarly says: “If a sister that has been several times admonished, will not mend her conduct, let her be excommunicated for awhile in proportion; if this kind of correction proves useless, let her be chastened by stripes.”


It was the custom in many nunneries for the abbess or superior to undertake the necessary castigation herself, often in a private room, but sometimes in public. In some convents, however, specially selected members of the order were trained in the art of whipping, and in all such cases the punishment was of a more severe character than where an untrained hand administered the discipline. In some cases the sadistic nature of the flogger led to the devising of special whips for adding to the severity of the punishment, in addition to increased skill in the wielding of the scourge. It is said that one such, Jeanne de France, daughter of Louis XI, with fiendish ingenuity, devised a five-spiked silver cross for attaching to the whip, resulting in each stroke inflicting five terrible wounds.

Sometimes the flagellation, as in the case of the monks, was not looked upon as a punishment at all, but as a pleasure, giving rise to hallucinations, sexual ecstasy and masochistic love of God. Thus the Carmelite nun, Maria Magdalena of Pazzi, who lived in Florence towards the close of the 16th century, found pleasure in being publicly whipped on her naked buttocks. On one occasion she cried: “Enough! Fan no longer the flame that consumes me: this is not the death I long for; it comes with all too much pleasure and delight.” Another similar case was that of Elizabeth of Genton, who, during the flagellation for which she craved, would cry: “O Love, O eternal Love, O Love, O you creatures! Cry out with me: Love, Love!” [See Kraft-Ebing, Psychopathia, Sexualis, English adaptation of the 12th German edition, p. 36 ]. In these, and similar instances, much of the pleasure experienced was undoubtedly due to stimulation of the gluteal glands in individuals whose sexual repressions were of such a nature as to induce pathological conditions. The part which flagellation plays in sex will, however, be made clear in a subsequent chapter.

Not always was the whipping of the nuns carried out by their own sex. It was no unusual thing for the priests of the order to handle the thong themselves, and it was in such instances that so very often there entered into it the sexual element to which I have referred.

Nuns used the whip on the buttocks of the monks; and in turn the monks flagellated the nuns. It was indeed a merry and a libidinous game.

The Jesuits in particular were addicted to whipping. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the order, used the whip himself, and, if historical records are anything to go by, he used it to some tune too. Peter Gerson, not content with flagellating those who came to receive the discipline in the ordinary way, according to Cooper, “fell upon the country girls at work in the fields and flagellated them” [See William M. Cooper, A History of the Rod, 1868, p. 97].


A peculiar form of flagellation, known as grave-whipping, is referred to by a correspondent in Notes and Queries (March 13, 1852):

“Excommunicated persons were formerly restored to the Church, according to the old Rituale Romanum, by the ceremony of whipping their graves. When it was resolved the dead party should be restored to the communion of saints, it was ordered that the body should not be disentombed, but that the ‘graves shall be whipped, and while the priest whip the grave, he shall say, “By the authority which I have received I free thee from the bond of excommunication, and restore thee to the communion of the faithful.”’”

1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.
1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.

Also see Corrections of a flagellatory kind, inflicted by force, by Bishops and the heads of Monasteries.

Nationalism in Greek Orthodoxy (Sir Steven Runciman, 1968)

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book, The Great Church in Captivity.

The Great Church in Captivity

In the East money making has never, as it was in the feudally minded West, been considered to be incompatible with aristocracy. A moneyed nobility began to emerge among the Greeks, closely knit by common aim and interests and by intermarriage, but open to newcomers. These rich families were ambitious. Authority among the Greeks was in the hands of the Patriarch. It therefore became their object to control the Patriarchate. Calling themselves “Archontes” of the Greek nation, they built their houses in the Phanar quarter of Constantinople, to be close to the Patriarchal buildings. They obtained for their sons positions in the Patriarchal court; and one by one the high offices of the Great Church passed into lay hands. Their members did not enter the Church itself. That was considered to be beneath their dignity. The bishops and the Patriarch himself continued to be drawn mainly from bright boys of humbler classes who had risen through intelligence and merit. But by the end of the seventeenth century the Phanariot families, as they were usually called, dominated the central organization of the Church…. But the Patriarchate could not do without them; for they were in a position both to pay its debt and to intrigue in its favor at the Sublime Porte. (Pgs. 361-362)

Sir Steven Runciman
Sir Steven Runciman

It was good for the Church to have to meet an intellectual challenge; but the challenge was too abrupt. The strength of the Byzantine Church had been the presence of a highly educated laity that was deeply interested in religion. Now the laity began to despise the traditions of the Church; and the traditional elements in the Church began to mistrust and dislike modern education, retreating to defend themselves into a thickening obscurantism. The cleavage between the intellectuals and the traditionalists, which had begun when Neo-Aristotelianism was introduced into the curriculum of the Patriarchal Academy, grew wider. Under Phanariot influence many of the higher ecclesiastics followed the modernist trend. In the old days Orthodoxy had preferred to concentrate on eternal things and modestly to refuse to clothe the faith in trappings of modish philosophy. The Phanariots in their desire to impress the West had no use for such old-fashioned notions. Instead, seeing the high prestige of ancient Greek learning, they wished to show that they were, by culture as well as by blood, the heirs of ancient Greece. Their sons, lively laymen educated in the new style, were now filling the administrative posts at the Patriarchal court. As a result the Patriarchate began to lose touch with the great body of the faithful, to whom faith meant more than philosophy and the Christian saints more than the sophist of pagan times.

Sir Steven Runciman Street in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sir Steven Runciman Street in Sofia, Bulgaria

Above all, the Phanariots needed the support of the Church in the pursuits of the ultimate political aim. It was no mean aim. The Megali Idea, the Great Idea of the Greeks, can be traced back to the days before the Turkish conquest…With the spread of the Renaissance a respect for the old Greek civilization had become general. It was natural that the Greeks, in the midst of their political disasters, should wish to benefit from it. They might be slaves now to the Turks, but they were of the great race that had civilized Europe. It must be their destiny to rise again. The Phanariots tried to combine the nationalistic forces of Hellenism in a passionate if illogical alliance with the ecumenical traditions of Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. They worked for a restored Byzantium, a New Rome that should be Greek, a new center of Greek civilization that should embrace the Orthodox world. The spirit behind the Great Idea was a mixture of neo-Byzantinism and an acute sense of race. But with the trend of the modern world the nationalism began to dominate the ecumenicity. George Scholarius Gennadius had perhaps unconsciously, foreseen the danger when he answered a question about his nationality by saying that he would not call himself a Hellene though he was a Hellene by race, not a Byzantine though he had been born at Byzantium, but, rather, a Christian, that is, an Orthodox. For, if the Orthodox Church was to retain its spiritual force, it must remain ecumenical. It must not become a purely Greek Church.


The price paid by the Church for its subjection to the Phanariot benefactors was heavy. First, it meant that the Church was run more and more in the interests of the Greek people and not of Orthodoxy as a whole. The arrangement made between the Conquering Sultan and the Patriarch Gennadius had put all the Orthodox Church within the Ottoman Empire under the authority of the Patriarchate, which was inevitably controlled by Greeks. (Pgs. 377-379)

If any Orthodox Palestinian wished for advancement he had to learn Greek and entirely identify himself with Greek interests; and the Patriarch (of Jerusalem) himself spent much of his time at Constantinople or in the Principalities. The Greeks were not prepared to let this luscious plum fall into other hands. Yet it is doubtful whether in the long run the Greek nationalism that was being increasingly infused into the whole Orthodox organization was beneficial to Orthodoxy. It was not in the old Byzantine tradition. Though within the Empire itself a knowledge of Greek was necessary fro any official position, there had been no distinction of race; and the Byzantines had encouraged vernacular liturgies and had been cautious in trying to impose a Greek hierarchy upon other peoples. But the Great Idea encouraged the Greeks to think of themselves as a Chosen People; and chosen peoples are seldom popular, nor do they fit well into Christian life.


This attempt to turn the Orthodox Church into an exclusively Greek Church was one of the outcomes of Phanariot policy. It lead also to a decline in spiritual values, by stressing Greek culture as against Orthodox traditions and seeking to turn the Church into a vehicle of nationalist feeling, genuine and democratic up to a point, but little concerned with the spiritual life. At the same time it place the Patriarchate on the horns of a moral dilemma. It involved the Church in politics, and subversive politics. Was it not the duty of the Church to render unto Caesar the things which were Caesar’s? Could a Patriarch justifiably jettison the agreement reached between the Sultan and his great predecessor Gennaidus? Could he abjure the oath that he had sworn to the Sultan when his election was confirmed? On a more practical level, had he the right to indulge in plots which if they failed would undoubtedly subject his flock to ghastly reprisals? The more thoughtful hierarchs could not lightly support revolutionary nationalism. Yet if they failed to join in the movement from a sense of honor or from prudence or from spiritually minded detachment, they would be branded as traitors to Hellenism. The Church would lose its hold over the livelier and more progressive elements of his congregation. The rebirth of Greece was to involve a gallows erected at the gate of the Patriarchate and a Patriarch’s corpse swinging thereon. (pp. 382-384)