Biblical, Patristic and Magisterial Teaching on Usury (Michael Hoffman, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from, Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Not, 2013.


No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.1 (Matthew 6:24)

Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?…He that does not ask interest on his loan, and cannot be bribed to victimize the innocent. (Psalm 15:1, 5)

The upright man is law-abiding and honest…He never charges usury on loans, takes no interest, abstains from evil…It is Yahweh who speaks. (Ezekiel 18:5, 8-9)

Orthodox icon of Thucidides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)
Orthodox icon of Thucydides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)

“The natural form therefore, of the art of acquisition is always, and in all cases, acquisition from fruits and animals. That art, as we have said, has two forms: one which is connected with retail trade, and another which is connected with the management of the household. Of these two forms, the latter is necessary and laudable; the former is a method of exchange which is justly censured, because the gain in which it results is not naturally made, but is made at the expense of other men. The trade of the petty usurer is hated most, and with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process (i.e., of exchange) which currency was meant to serve. Currency came into existence merely as a means of exchange; usury tries to make it increase (as though it were an end in itself). This is the reason why usury is called by the word we commonly use (the word tokos, which in Greek also means breed or offspring); for as the offspring resembles its parent, so the interest bred by money is like the principal which breeds it and it may be called ‘currency the son of currency.’ Hence we understand why, of all modes of acquisition, usury is the most unnatural.” (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part 10, 350 BC)

To understand how extreme is usury, let us recall that God did not intend that His people would be indebted for ten or twenty years even if the loans were interest free. Under the Biblical concept of Jubilee, no indebtedness would last longer than the sabbatical seventh year. In the year after the last of seven such sabbatical years (7 x 7 = 49 years + 1), a Jubilee was to be declared and all debts cancelled. Jesus Christ declared that He came to proclaim the Jubilee (the “acceptable year”).

Usury is derived from the Latin word usura, defined as “a sum paid for the use of money” (Oxford Latin Dictionary). The Fathers are unanimous in regarding all interest as usury, and, therefore as a species of robbery: “Whatever exceeds the amount owed is usury” (St. Ambrose, De Tobia).The condemnation of interest taking was part of the unanimous consensus partum…It was not until the 16th century that ‘usury’ was redefined as high interest rates.


St. Clement of Alexandria: The issue of usury made its first appearance in Christian literature in Clement’s Paidagogos (circa 197 AD), an instruction for new converts on Christian conduct in daily matters. Concerning the ‘just man,’ Clement quotes Ezekiel: ‘His money he will not give on usury, and he will not take interest.’ This subject is taken up again some years laeter in the second book of his major work Stromateis.2

Tertullian: He considers the subject of interest in his treatise on the theology of the New testament, Adversus Marcionem, where he teaches that the Gospel does not abolish the law of the Old Testament, it exceeds it. Tertullian writes of the just man, “He hath not…put out his money at interest, and will not accept any increase—meaning the excess amount due to interest, which is usury.”3

St. Cyprian of Carthage: Offers proofs in his Testimoniorum (Ad Quirinum) that interest taking is prohibited by the law of God.4

Council of Elvira: In the early fourth century, Canon 20 of this Council prohibited all clerics and laymen from participating in the sin of taking interest on loans, under penalty of excommunication.5

St. Jerome: In his Commentaria in Ezechielem he stated that the prohibition against usury among the Israelites had been made universal by the New Testament. He affirmed that all interest on money is forbidden. “One should never receive more than the amount loaned.”6

St. Hilary of Poitiers: In his Tractatus in Psalm XIV: “If you are a Christian, why do you scheme to have your idle money (otiosam pecuniam) bear a return and make the need of your brother, for whom Christ died, the source of your enrichment?”7

St. Basil the Great: In his second Homily on Psalm 15 (LXX): “This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils,8 and the Law specifically forbids this practise: ‘You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.’9 And again the Scripture says, ‘Guile upon guile, and interest upon interest.’10 A certain Psalm says, regarding a city that prospers amidst a multitude of evils, ‘Interest-taking and guile are never absent from its snares.’11 And now the prophet identifies this very thing as the characteristic of human perfection, saying, ‘They do not lend money at interest.’

“…for those who set rates of interest, their money is loaned and bears interest and produces even more…It is from this tendency to multiply that this kind of greed derives its name …loans are said to ‘bear’ interest on account of the great fecundity of evil…The offspring of interest one might even call a ‘brood of vipers’…you should have nothing to do with this monstrous creature.”12

St. Basil then launches into an extended admonition against borrowing money, on the responsibility to repay a loan, and the virtues of frugality and living within one’s means. He further states: “Listen, you rich people, to the kind of counsel I am giving…on account of your inhumanity…If you must seek a return on your investment, be satisfied with what comes from the Lord…You should expect the characteristics of philanthropy from the true Philanthropist. As it is, the interest you receive back shows every characteristic of extreme misanthropy…”

“Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,’ and ‘do not lend your money at interest;’ these commandments from the Old and New Testaments13 were given so that you might learn what is for your benefit, and thus depart to the Lord with a good hope, receiving there the interest upon your good works, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion forever and forever.”14

St. Gregory of Nyssa: In Contra usurarios (ca. 379 AD), he calls down on him who lends money at interest the vengeance of the Almighty. He further states, “…lending at interest can be called ‘another kind of robbery or bloodshed…since there is no difference in getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest.” St. Grgeory describes the lender at interest as a “poisonous serpent” and an evil, beast-like spirit. Referring to the words of the Pater Noster prayer of Jesus Christ—“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—Gregory asks, “How can you pray like this, oh usurer? How can you make a request from God in good conscience since he has everything and you do not know how to give?”

In De beneficentia, St. Gregory excoriates evil-doers who hypocritically practice outward acts of piety such as fasting. In doing so he employs terms associated with usurers: “Renounce dishonest profits! Starve to death your greed for Mammon! Let there be nothing in your house that has been acquired by violence or theft. What good is it to keep meat out of your mouth if you bite your brother with wickedness…What kind of piety teaches you to drink water while you hatch plots and drink the blood of a man you have shamefully cheated?”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus: For this saint, the usurer is a sinful parasite, “gathering where he had not sowed and reaping where he has not strawed” (Oratio). Cataloguing a list of mortal sins, Gregory of Nazianzus states, “One of us has oppressed the poor, and wrested from him his portion of land, and wrongly encroached upon his landmark by fraud and violence, and joined house to house, and field to field, to rob his neighbor of something, and been eager to have no neighbor, so as to dwell alone the earth. Another has defiled the land with usury and interest, gathering where he had not sowed…” (Oration 16)

St. Ambrose of Milan: In his aforementioned work De Tobia, written in 380 AD, he declared that the taking of interest on loans of money is equivalent to murder. He declared usury to be a mortal sin in De officiis ministrorum and De Nabuthe. In De bono mortis Ambrose stated that usurers will suffer eternal damnation. In De Tobia  Ambrose described the usurer as a “monster” and “devil” even when lending at 1% interest (“the hundredth”): “Money is given, it is called a loan; it is termed money at interest, it is designated capital; it is written down as debt; this huge monster of many heads causes frequent executions; the usurer names the bond, he speaks of the signature, he demands security, he talks of a pledge, he calls for sureties; he claims the legal obligation, he boasts of the interest, he praises the hundredth…The devil is a usurer…the Savior owed nothing but He paid for all…The usurer of money…exacts his hundredth…the Redeemer came to save the hundredth sheep, not to destroy it.”

This “devil” epithet is etymologically justified. As we have noted, in Old Testament Hebrew Neshek, from the root NShK means to “bite” and signifies usury; Nahash, from the root NkHSh denotes serpent.

St. John Chrysostom: The saint taught that usury was shameless: “What can be more unreasonable than to sow without land, without rain, without plows? All those who give themselves up to this damnable culture shall reap only tares. Let us cut off these monstrous births of gold and silver, let us stop this execrable fecundity.”

St. Leo the Great: In his encyclical Ut nobis gratulationem, of 444 AD: “Some people put out their money at usury in order to become wealthy. We have to complain of this, not only with regard to those in clerical office, but we likewise grieve to see that it holds true of lay people who wish to be called Christians. We decree that those who are found guilty of receiving this turpe lucrum (shameful gain) should be severely punished.”

St. Augustine of Hippo: The saint denounced the sin of interest on money in De consensus evangelistarum.

Charlemagne: In 789AD, Charlemagne in his Admonitio Generalis prohibited usury by all people, laymen as well as clerics, throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, citing the following authorities: “(1) the Council of Nicea, (2) the above mentioned letter of Pope Leo, (3) the Canones Apostollorum, and (4) Scripture.” The Catholic Council of Aix-la-Chapelle promulgated Charlemagne’s Admonitio Generalis as church doctrine.

In Charlemagne’s Capitulary of Nijmegen of March, 806, he defines usury in clause 11 as “claiming back more than you give; for instance, if someone has given 10 solidi and asks for more than 10 in return, that is usury.” Clause 16: “Lending (foenus) consists in providing something; the loan is fair and just when one demands no more than what he provided.”

Charlemagne imposed heavy fines for usury.

King Alfred the Great: He ordered that the charging of interest on loans of money was illegal throughout England. Those who received revenue from usurious loans were to forfeit their property. Christian burial was denied to them.

St. Edward the Confessor, King of England: “Usury is the root of all evil”15 As monarch, St. Edward (ca. 1003-1066), the last Saxon King of England, banished all who charged interest on loans. Usurers who remained in England were subject to the confiscation of their property and declared to be outside the protection of the law (i.e., outlaws).16

Unanimous Teachings of Popes and Councils Before 1500

The unanimity of the Early Church Fathers brought about a crystallization of hostility to interest-bearing loans into numberless decrees of popes, councils, monarchs and legislatures throughout Christendom. The Canon law was shaped in accordance with these prohibitions, which were enforced by the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Nicea in 325: “Because many of the Ecclesiastical Order, being led away by covetousness and desire of base gain, have forgotten the Holy Scripture which saith, ‘He gave not his money upon usury,’ do exercise usury, so as to demand every month a hundredth part of the principal and one half of the principal for interest, or contrive any other fraud for filthy lucre’s sake, let him be deposed from the clergy and struck out of the list”17 (Council of Nicea, Canon XVII).18

Although it is claimed ny apologists for usury that the Nicean Council only condemned usury among clerics and not the laity, Canon XVII also quoted Psalm 15: “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? He that hath not put out his money to usury.” Psalm 15 does not qualify God’s criterion for who shall dwell with Him. Anyone who practices usury will not be admitted. It was not by accident that the Council of Nicea referenced Psalm 15’s total rejection of any usury practiced by anyone.

The 12th Canon of the Council of Carthage (345) and the 36th Canon of the Council of Aix (789) declared it to be sinful for anyone to charge any interest on money. Every great assembly of the Church, from the Council of Elvira in 306 to that of Vienne in 1311, condemned lending money at interest. The fount of Canon Law in the Middle Ages totally banned all interest on loans.

A few months before his death, Edward’s usury-free England, “was a rich and prosperous kingdom… Later generations did right to appeal to the good old laws of life which refused to die…” King Edward was canonized in 1161. His feast day on the traditional Roman Catholic calendar is October 13.


  1. “Mammon is derived from the Aramaic word for riches (mamona) occurring in the Greek text of Matt. vi. 24 and Luke xvi. 9-13, and retained in the Vulgate. Owing to the quasi-personification in these passages, the word was taken by medieval writers as the proper name of the devil of covetousness…From the 16th century onwards it has been current in English, usually with more or less of personification, as a term of opprobrium for wealth regarded as an idol or as an evil influence” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  2. Ante-Nicene Fathers 2, pp. 233, 366.
  3. Ante-Nicene Fathers 3, pp. 372-373.
  4. Ante-Nicene Fathers 5 p. 546.
  5. If any clergy are found engaged in usury, let them be censured and dismissed.  If a layman is caught practicing usury, he may be pardoned if he promises to stop the practice.  If he continues this evil practice, let him be expelled from the church.”
  6. Commentary on Ezekiel, Translation by Thomas P. Scheck
  7. NPNF 02-09
  8. Ezekiel 22:12
  9. Deuteronomy 23:20
  10. Jeremiah 9:6 (Septuagint)
  11. Psalm 55:12 (Septuagint)
  12. On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (SVS Press, 2009), pp. 89-90; 95 (emphasis added).
  13. Matthew 5:42; Psalm 15:5 (Septuagint).
  14. On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (op. cit.), pp. 97-99.
  15. Leges ecclesiasticae.
  16. Leges Edwardi Confessoris (ca. 1130), cap. 37, De usaraiis.
  17. The phrase “a hundredth part of the principal” connotes a 1% interest rate.
  18. In The Rudder, Nikodemos the Hagiorite interprets this Canon: “Various Canons prohibit the charging of interest on money, but the present one expressly ordains this, to wit: Since many canonics, or clergymen, being fond of greed and shameful profits, have forgotten the saying in the Psalm of David which says that the chosen man is one “who hath not lent out his money at interest,” meaning the righteous man who is destined to dwell in the holy mountain of the Lord, or, in other words, in the heavenly kingdom, and in lending money have been exacting a percentage charge from their debtors, consisting, for example, of twelve cents, or pennies, say, per hundred (or per dollar), which was an excessive interest — because, I say, clergymen were actually doing this, this holy and great Council deemed it right and just that if hereafter any clergyman should be found to be charging interest, or treating the matter as a commercial proposition, or turning it to his own advantage in any other way (while pretending not to charge interest, that is to say, when lending his money to those in need of it, yet agreeing with them that he too is to receive some part of the interest and profit accruing from the money, thus calling himself, not a lender, but a sharetaker or partner), and be caught doing this, or demanding a commission (or half the percentage, which would amount, in this case, to six cents, or six pennies, instead of the twelve comprised in the full amount of total interest, i.e., of interest at 12%), or should invent any similar means of making a shameful profit, any such person shall be deposed from the clergy and shall be estranged from the canonical order. Read also Ap. c. XLIV.”



Religion and Geography in the Early Middle Ages (Natalia Lozovsky, 2009)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 32nd  chapter of Science, Religion & Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy, pp. 283-289:

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Geographical studies in medieval Europe, like other branches of knowledge in that period, developed by incorporating scientific and philosophical achievements of classical Greece and Rome into the framework of Christianity. Geographical interests formed an important part of medieval education and worldview, but geography was not instituted as a separate discipline and geographical studies did not yet have a distinctive name. The term geographia was used very rarely until the fifteenth century, and special geographical texts usually bore titles such as Cosmographia (Cosmography) or De Orbis Terrae (On the Earth). Different genres could accommodate geographical information: biblical commentaries, encyclopedias, histories, special geographical treatises, and accounts of pilgrimage.

St. Brendan’s ship on the back of a whale, and his men praying.

Many scholars, from the eighteenth century to modern times, have pointed to the tight connections between geographical material and the Christian worldview characteristic of medieval thought as the main cause of the decline of geographical studies in the Middle Ages. This view, however, is anachronistic. Medieval geographical studies did not pursue the same goals as modern geography, and they used different methods of collecting and evaluating information. Medieval maps, unlike their modern counterparts, did not always accompany geographical texts, and until the arrival of the portolans, or sea charts, in the thirteenth century, they were not meant for practical use in the modern sense. Thus mappamundi, or maps of the world, which ranged from schematic drawings to large and detailed pictures, presented the same worldview as medieval geographical writings, compiling information from biblical and classical sources and sometimes adding contemporary data.

Geography in the System of Christian Knowledge

Medieval geographical studies, as practiced by Christian scholars, described the earth as part of the material world created by God. Christian scholars believed that God was both the source and the ultimate goal of all knowledge and that studying the Bible was the best way to approach the understanding of the divine. The tradition of using classical knowledge in Christian culture originated in the first centuries of Christianity in the works of the fathers of the church, although they disagreed on the extent and exact contents of the classical learning useful to Christians. In their influential works, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) endorsed the use of classical knowledge and set up models for the Middle Ages to follow. Augustine explained that in order to understand the Bible and to attain an understanding of divine things (sapientia), a good Christian needed some knowledge of secular subjects (scientia), including geography. Augustine also demonstrated how to use classical geographical information in the Christian contextin his own biblical commentaries. Augustine’s ideas, expressed in Latin, formed the foundation of learning and education in Western Europe, where Latin was the language of learning. Basil’s Hexameron was a commentary in Greek on the biblical account of the first six days of creation. In his discussion of the biblical text, Basil used and adapted geographical and physical concepts of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. His ideas strongly influenced discussions of geographical questions in Greek-speaking Byzantium. Translated into Latin by Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397), Basil’s Hexameron also became influential in the West.

Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation).
Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation).

The program of Christian studies and the classification of knowledge proposed by Augustine was further developed in the West by Cassiodorus (c. 490–580) and Boethius (480–524). They fully incorporated the program of the seven liberal arts, inherited from antiquity, into Christian education. This program consisted of the verbal arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Geography did not explicitly appear in any medieval classifications, but it had a place within the studies of the created world (scientia), to which the liberal arts belonged. Cassiodorus included geographical readings in the program of education that he proposed for his monks. During the later centuries, medieval schools also taught geography, often as part of geometry, in the context of the quadrivium. Medieval historians also included geographical material in their books, often dedicating special sections to the description of the world and its regions. Thus geography functioned in various contexts, all ultimately serving the goals of edifying Christians.

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus

Because Christian authorities endorsed the use of classical learning, the main features of Greek and Roman geography were preserved and transmitted to posterity. Among these were theoretical ideas, such as the conception of the spherical earth, the division of the earth into climatic zones, and the existence of three continents. Christian Europe also inherited descriptions of the regions based on old Roman provinces, as well as ethnographic tales about barbarians and monsters who lived at the edges of the earth. The Latin West acquired its knowledge of classical geography from books by Pliny the Elder and Pomponius Mela (both wrote in the first century), Solinus (third century), Macrobius (c. 400), and Martianus Capella (fifth century). Also popular was the geographical description of the known world with which Orosius, a Christian scholar of Spanish origin, began his Histories against the Pagans (written around 416). Orosius’s geographical introduction was entirely based on classical sources. The Greek-speaking East had access to classical geography in the book written by Strabo (first century), as well as in the writings of the fathers of the church. Manuscripts transmitting these works were copied throughout the Middle Ages, and Christian scholars used them to study and teach geography and as sources of data in composing their own treatises.

Paulus Orosius, shown in a miniature from the Saint-Epure codex.
Paulus Orosius, shown in a miniature from the Saint-Epure codex.

The Christianization of the Picture of the World

Early medieval scholars borrowed from the previous tradition the essential features of the classical picture of the world, placed them in a Christian context, and adapted them to the biblical worldview. To reconcile classical information with Christian doctrine, scholars proposed various theories about geographical matters. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Byzantine merchant, wrote his Christian Topography in Greek between 535 and 547. In this book he offered a thoroughly Christianized vision of the world, refuting the theory of the spherical shape of the earth and debating with classical Greek authorities. In his view, the world is shaped like the Tabernacle of Moses; the earth is flat and rectangular and surrounded by the ocean. In addition to theoretical ideas, Cosmas included descriptions of places that he had visited during his trade expeditions. Some manuscripts of Cosmas’s book include maps that represent his ideas: some of them show the rectangular earth, surrounded by the ocean; others demonstrate the great mountain located in the north that he thought accounted for the setting and rising of the sun.

World map, by Cosmas Indicopleustes. The map is oriented with north to the top.

Modern scholars often cite Cosmas’s work to demonstrate the decline of geography in the Middle Ages due to the pernicious influence of religion. But Cosmas is an isolated example. His book did not enjoy wide circulation; it was little known in Byzantium and inaccessible to the Latin-speaking West. Thus, the theory of a flat earth remained marginal to medieval geography, whereas the mainstream adopted classical ideas of the spherical world.

World picture from Christian Topography.

Classical geographical ideas entered the mainstream of Christian thought and education via compendia of Christian knowledge, which followed the influential model established by Isidore of Seville (c. 570–636). In his Etymologies, Isidore collected information from classical authorities and placed it in a Christian context. He presents information about peoples and languages, rivers and seas, regions of the earth, and measurements of distance. His geographical outline of the world in its details follows Pliny, Solinus, and Orosius, but it is structured and complemented by biblical references in such a way as to create a Christianized picture of the world. His earth is spherical, and his account of its regions begins with Paradise and ends with Hell. In between he lists the old provinces of the Roman Empire and follows the classical division of the earth into three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. Throughout his encyclopedia, Isidore provides etymological explanations of names and words, borrowed from classical and Christian sources. Isidore’s encyclopedia, transmitted in hundreds of manuscripts, influenced later geographical accounts both in its material and its method.

This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidoor's Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham).
This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidoor’s Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham).

Hrabanus Maurus in his encyclopedia On the Natures of Things (De Rerum Naturis), composed between 842 and 847 as a reference tool for reading scripture, continued Isidore’s tradition and went even further in his Christianization of the classical geographical material. Borrowing both the contents and the etymological method from Isidore, Hrabanus adds to them the exegetical methods of biblical commentaries. He looks for symbolic meanings behind the physical world. For instance, the division of the earth into the three continents, according to Hrabanus, signifies the Trinity. Structuring his account of the regions along Christian lines, he places Jerusalem at the center of the earth, and in describing Palestine he often associates places with biblical events.

Rabanus Maurus (left) presents his work to Otgar of Mainz
Rabanus Maurus (left) presents his work to Otgar of Mainz

In the second half of the ninth century, John Scottus Eriugena, the first major medieval philosopher in the West after Augustine, included theoretical geographical material in his magisterial synthesis of Christian knowledge, On Natures (Periphyseon). When discussing the created world, he treated in detail the shape and size of the earth and reported the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes’s calculations of the earth’s circumference. Analyzing the symbolism of the numbers in Eratosthenes’s result, John Scottus connected these calculations to Pythagoras’s idea of numerical and musical proportions underlying the structure of the world. He concluded that all these numbers and proportions reveal the structure and harmony of the world as being entirely in accordance with the scriptures.


In subsequent centuries, the compendia of Christian knowledge followed the same pattern, including geographical information among other data about the created world and drawing on established authorities, both Christian (Isidore and Orosius) and pagan (Pliny). Among these encyclopedias were Honorius of Autun’s Imago Mundi (c. 1110), Lambert of St. Omer’s Liber Floridus (1112–1121), Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia (1211–1214), Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Maius (c. 1260), and Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius (1266–1267).

Optic studies by Bacon

While working with classical information, medieval scholars were particularly concerned to reconcile it with the Bible. Many geographical concepts and places mentioned in the Bible and particularly important to Christianity had little or no equivalent in classical geography. One such place was Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, described in Genesis 2:8–14, and not mentioned in classical descriptions of the world. According to the biblical account, the Garden of Eden, where God put the first man, was located in the East. It pleasantly abounded with trees, and a great river ran through it. Be yond its boundaries, the river divided and became four rivers, named the Phison, the Geon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Since Genesis implies that the Garden of Eden was located on earth but does not specify where, it left abundant room for Christian scholars to speculate on the location. The predominant medieval geographical and cartographical tradition, from Isidore of Seville on, placed Paradise in the East. It also usually identified the biblical river Geon as the Nile and the Phison as the Ganges, but some remarkable exceptions placed the Phison in Europe and thus connected Paradise to that part of the world. A biblical commentary composed in Canterbury between 650 and 750 displayed rather vague ideas about European geography, suggesting that the Phison was the same river as the Rhône, which in turn was the same as the Danube. The cosmography of Pseudo-Aethicus, composed between the fifth and the eighth centuries, mentions a river Geon beginning in the fields of Gaul. One ninth-century monastic history claims that the Geon is the same river as the Seine, where the monastery was located.

Psalter Map (1265). Paradise is the little circle at the top, at the eastern edge of Asia, with the faces of Adam and Eve inside.

Medieval scholars also used classical information to explain and elaborate on other biblical passages, which in their turn endorsed classical concepts. Thus, an account in Genesis 9:18–19 reports that after the Flood, the earth was populated by the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Christian writers, turning to classical geography, explained that when Noah distributed the earth among his three sons, Shem received Asia, Japhet Europe, and Ham Africa. The tripartite division of the earth, inherited from Greek and Roman geography, thus received a biblical explanation and justification and was widely used in geographical descriptions and maps. In accordance with Ezekiel 5:5, many medieval maps and geographical accounts place Jerusalem at the center of the earth, combining this biblical postulate with depictions and descriptions borrowed from classical geography. The biblical accounts of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 39:2 and Revelation 20:8), two figures or apocalyptic nations that were to bring devastation in the end of times, were combined with the classical tradition and produced the story of Alexander the Great enclosing these dangerous nations behind a wall. The lands of Gog and Magog found their place in medieval texts and maps, among other Christian and classical information. Throughout the Middle Ages, particularly feared peoples, such as the Mongols, were identified as “Gog and Magog.”

Al-Idrisi’s World Map (12th c.) with Gog & Magog behind the wall and circled in red. This map is oriented to the south so here Gog & Magog are in the proximity of China.
The Building of Alexander’s Gates from an early Arabic manuscript.

Pilgrimage and Descriptions of the Holy Places

Pilgrimage was a way for medieval people to share in the sacred. Travel to the holy land allowed people to see the locations where biblical events occurred, to pray there, and thus to approach a better understanding of the Bible, this ultimate source of Christian wisdom. According to the medieval tradition, travel to places that witnessed the activity of the saints or contained their relics, such as Rome, Canterbury, or Santiago de Compostela, brought people in direct contact with the power of the saints, which they believed could heal their bodies and save their souls. Numerous pilgrims who traveled to the holy land, such as Egeria (late fourth or fifth century), Bernard (ninth century), and John of Würzburg (twelfth century), left detailed accounts of their journeys, enumerating the holy places and recalling connected places in scripture. Some accounts conveyed firsthand experience; others were based on literary sources and other people’s travels. Adomnan in his On Holy Places (De Locis Sanctis) recorded the pilgrimage of Arculf, around 683–684, while Bede (673–735) composed his book of the same name using Adomnan’s text and other sources. Useful reference tools, such as Eusebius’s Onomasticon in Greek and its Latin translation by Jerome, focused on etymologies and the biblical significance of place names. Bede’s book, based on Jerome’s Latin version of the Onomasticon and the history by Josephus Flavius, performed the same service.

While pilgrims’ accounts described specific sights, there also existed special itineraries and guidebooks composed for pilgrims to help them find their way to the holy places. The anonymous Bordeaux Itinerary (333) lists the routes leading from Bordeaux to the holy land, also mentioning the number of miles on each leg of the journey, important stations, and changes of direction. The twelfth-century pilgrims’ guide to Santiago de Compostela, written in French, indicates several routes leading to the shrine from different places in Europe and gives information about the locations and peoples they pass through.

Medieval maps often included various holy places, from Jerusalem to European shrines. The mosaic map from the church in Madaba (sixth century) represents the holy land at the Byzantine period and quotes passages from the Bible corresponding to locations. With east on the top, it places a plan of Jerusalem with several important churches in the center. The map also contains plans of several other cities. Like other medieval maps, this one was not drawn to scale and was not meant as a practical guide for travelers. Rather, this representation of the holy land and the surrounding areas, laid out on the floor of the church as it was, may have served as a symbol of the earthly space within the cosmic space symbolized by the entire church building.

The Madaba map, 542 AD, Madaba, Jordan)
The map is dated to the sixth century, during the time of Emperor Justinian (527 – 565). It is the oldest known map of Palestine

Geography continued to develop in the context of religion throughout the almost one thousand years of the medieval period. Its main theoretical postulates and the principles of place descriptions remained remarkably stable and changed only little. However, it would be wrong to conclude that medieval geography was slavishly dependent on the classical and Christian traditions. Medieval authors complemented the traditional information with new data and thus modified the picture of the world. Two ninth-century writers, Dicuil in On the Measurement of the Earth (De Mensura Orbis Terrae) and an anonymous author in On the Location of the Earth (De Situ Orbis), built on the classical tradition, but each chose and reorganized the classical data in such a way as to shift the emphasis from the Mediterranean area, the focus of Roman geography, to the European regions closer to home. Dicuil, an Irish scholar who worked at the courts of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, gives an account of world geography with particular attention placed on dimensions and distances. He meticulously compared the data of classical sources and criticized some of them because they contradicted his own experience or the experience of other people. He also supplemented information drawn from books by reports of travelers about northern islands and the Nile.

Reconstruction of Pomponius Mela’s world map by Konrad Miller (1898).

A tenth-century historian, Richer, when describing France, complemented the classical account of Gaul composed by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE with contemporary names of the regions. Explanatory notes left by medieval scholars in the margins of manuscripts updated classical information by filling in contemporary names for peoples and locations. Scholars such as Bede and Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), while relying on authorities, used their own observations of the natural world. The creators of the Hereford Map (1300) based their large and detailed map of the world on classical information but also included some recent and local data.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi of 1280, drawn by Richard de Haldingham and Lafford
The Hereford Mappa Mundi of 1280, drawn by Richard de Haldingham and Lafford

The main principles of medieval learned geography in Europe, its reliance on authorities, its essentially bookish character, and its tight connection to a religious worldview were to give way only in the course of the great social, cultural, and intellectual changes that Europe experienced between 1400 and 1700. These changes, brought about by geographical explorations and discoveries and the new value placed on experience and observation, would transform medieval knowledge about nature, separate it from religion, and ultimately turn it into modern science. The processes that took place during the course of the medieval centuries, the growing extent of travel, the overseas expansion, and the rising interest in new knowledge paved the way for this transformation.

Illustrated map of Constantinople


  • Beazley, Charles R. The Dawn of Modern Geography: A History of Exploration and Geographical Science. 3 vols. London: Frowde, 1905.
  • Edson, Evelyn. Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed Their World. London: British Library, 1997.
  • Friedman, John Block, Kristen Mossler Figg, and Scott D. Westrem, eds. Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. New York: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
  • Harley, J.B., and David Woodward, eds. The History of Cartography. Vol. 1, Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Kimble, George H.T. Geography in the Middle Ages. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
  • Lozovsky, Natalia. “The Earth Is Our Book”: Geographical Knowledge in the Latin West ca. 400–1000. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Letter II to Gregory: On the Monastic Life (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: St. Basil is attempting to induce St. Gregory of Nazianzus to join him by explaining the practices of the monastic life. The letter was written about 358, shortly after St. Basil’s retirement to the Pontus.

It should be noted, however, that when one becomes a novice in one of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, they soon learn that though the monastic texts are important, they are essentially irrelevant: the most important thing, and the only concern for a monastic, is what their Geronda or Gerondissa say (and many times, their teachings can be quite contrary to traditional monasticism). The only two things that exist for the monastic are God and the Elder. The main purpose  of the monastic’s life becomes the concern of how to give rest to the Elder because the Elder’s disposition “controls” God’s disposition: “if you give rest to your Elder, you give rest to God. If you sadden your Elder, you sadden God.” The Elder can be rancorous, cantankerous, even a drunkard or fornicator (things which a disciple must learn to ignore or even justify). A disciple’s only concern is complete, blind obedience and filial, slavish devotion to the Elder; everything else is irrelevant as these subordination is taught to take care of all the commandments and virtues.

St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen

1 – I recognised your letter, as one recognises one’s friends’ children from their obvious likeness to their parents. Your saying that to describe the kind of place I live in, before letting you hear anything about how I live, would not go far towards persuading you to share my life, was just like you; it was worthy of a soul like yours, which makes nothing of all that concerns this life here, in comparison with the blessedness which is promised us hereafter. What I do myself, day and night, in this remote spot, I am ashamed to write. I have abandoned my life in town, as one sure to lead to countless ills; but I have not yet been able to get quit of myself. I am like travellers at sea, who have never gone a voyage before, and are distressed and seasick, who quarrel with the ship because it is so big and makes such a tossing, and, when they get out of it into the pinnace or dingey, are everywhere and always seasick and distressed. Wherever they go their nausea and misery go with them. My state is something like this. I carry my own troubles with me, and so everywhere I am in the midst of similar discomforts. So in the end I have not got much good out of my solitude. What I ought to have done; what would have enabled me to keep close to the footprints of Him who has led the way to salvation — for He says, “If any one will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me” — is this.

The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme
The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme

2 – We must strive after a quiet mind. As well might the eye ascertain an object put before it while it is wandering restless up and down and sideways, without fixing a steady gaze upon it, as a mind, distracted by a thousand worldly cares, be able clearly to apprehend the truth. He who is not yet yoked in the bonds of matrimony is harassed by frenzied cravings, and rebellious impulses, and hopeless attachments; he who has found his mate is encompassed with his own tumult of cares; if he is childless, there is desire for children; has he children? anxiety about their education, attention to his wife, care of his house, oversight of his servants, misfortunes in trade, quarrels with his neighbours, lawsuits, the risks of the merchant, the toil of the farmer. Each day, as it comes, darkens the soul in its own way; and night after night takes up the day’s anxieties, and cheats the mind with illusions in accordance. Now one way of escaping all this is separation from the whole world; that is, not bodily separation, but the severance of the soul’s sympathy with the body, and to live so without city, home, goods, society, possessions, means of life, business, engagements, human learning, that the heart may readily receive every impress of divine doctrine. Preparation of heart is the unlearning the prejudices of evil converse. It is the smoothing the waxen tablet before attempting to write on it.

The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme2

Now solitude is of the greatest use for this purpose, inasmuch as it stills our passions, and gives room for principle to cut them out of the soul. For just as animals are more easily controlled when they are stroked, lust and anger, fear and sorrow, the soul’s deadly foes, are better brought under the control of reason, after being calmed by inaction, and where there is no continuous stimulation. Let there then be such a place as ours, separate from intercourse with men, that the tenour of our exercises be not interrupted from without. Pious exercises nourish the soul with divine thoughts. What state can be more blessed than to imitate on earth the choruses of angels? to begin the day with prayer, and honour our Maker with hymns and songs? As the day brightens, to betake ourselves, with prayer attending on it throughout, to our labours, and to sweeten our work with hymns, as if with salt? Soothing hymns compose the mind to a cheerful and calm state. Quiet, then, as I have said, is the first step in our sanctification; the tongue purified from the gossip of the world; the eyes unexcited by fair colour or comely shape; the ear not relaxing the tone or mind by voluptuous songs, nor by that especial mischief, the talk of light men and jesters. Thus the mind, saved from dissipation from without, and not through the senses thrown upon the world, falls back upon itself, and thereby ascends to the contemplation of God. When that beauty shines about it, it even forgets its very nature; it is dragged down no more by thought of food nor anxiety concerning dress; it keeps holiday from earthly cares, and devotes all its energies to the acquisition of the good things which are eternal, and asks only how may be made to flourish in it self-control and manly courage, righteousness and wisdom, and all the other virtues, which, distributed tinder these heads, properly enable the good man to discharge all the duties of life.

The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme3)

3 – The study of inspired Scripture is the chief way of finding our duty, for in it we find both instruction about conduct and the lives of blessed men, delivered in writing, as some breathing images of godly living, for the imitation of their good works. Hence, in whatever respect each one feels himself deficient, devoting himself to this imitation, he finds, as from some dispensary, the due medicine for his ailment. He who is enamoured of chastity dwells upon the history of Joseph, and from him learns chaste actions, finding him not only possessed of self-command over pleasure, but virtuously-minded in habit. He is taught endurance by Job who, not only when the circumstances of life began to turn against him, and in one moment he was plunged from wealth into penury, and from being the father of fair children into childlessness, remained the same, keeping the disposition of his soul all through uncrushed, but was not even stirred to anger against the friends who came to comfort him, and trampled on him, and aggravated his troubles. Or should he be enquiring how to be at once meek and great- hearted, hearty against sin, meek towards men, he will find David noble in warlike exploits, meek and unruffled as regards revenge on enemies. Such, too, was Moses rising up with great heart upon sinners against God, but with meek soul bearing their evil-speaking against himself. Thus, generally, as painters, when they are painting from other pictures, constantly look at the model, and do their best to transfer its lineaments to their own work, so too must he who is desirous of rendering himself perfect in all branches of excellency, keep his eyes turned to the lives of the saints as though to living and moving statues, and make their virtue his own by imitation.

The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme
The Painted Cave Churches of Goreme

4 – Prayers, too, after reading, find the soul fresher, and more vigorously stirred by love towards God. And that prayer is good which imprints a clear idea of God in the soul; and the having God established in self by means of memory is God’s indwelling. Thus we become God’s temple, when the continuity of our recollection is not severed by earthly cares; when the mind is harassed by no sudden sensations; when the worshipper rites from all things and retreats to God, drawing away all the feelings that invite him to self-indulgence, and passes his time in the pursuits that lead to virtue.

Cappadocian caves.
Cappadocian caves.

5 – This, too, is a very important point to attend to, — knowledge how to converse; to interrogate without over-earnestness; to answer without desire of display; not to interrupt a profitable speaker, or to desire ambitiously to put in a word of one’s own; to be measured in speaking and hearing; not to be ashamed of receiving, or to be grudging in giving information, nor to pass another’s knowledge for one’s own, as depraved women their supposititious children, but to refer it candidly to the true parent. The middle tone of voice is best, neither so low as to be inaudible, nor to be ill-bred from its high pitch. One should reflect first what one is going to say, and then give it utterance: be courteous when addressed; amiable in social intercourse; not aiming to be pleasant by facetiousness, but cultivating gentleness in kind admonitions. Harshness is ever to be put aside, even in censuring. The more you shew modesty and humility yourself, the more. likely are you to be acceptable to the patient who needs your treatment. There are however many occasions when we shall do well to employ the kind of rebuke used by the prophet who did not in his own person utter the sentence of condemnation on David after his sin, but by suggesting an imaginary character made the sinner judge of his own sin, so that, after passing his own sentence, he could not find fault with the seer who had convicted him.

Cappadocian caves.
Cappadocian caves.

6 – From the humble and submissive spirit comes an eye sorrowful and downcast, appearance neglected, hair rough, dress. dirty; so that the appearance which mourners take pains to present may appear our natural condition. The tunic should be fastened to the body by a girdle, the belt not going above the flank, like a woman’s, nor left slack, so that the tunic flows loose, like an idler’s. The gait ought not to be sluggish, which shews a character without energy, nor on the other hand pushing and pompous, as though our impulses were rash and wild. The one end of dress is that it should be a sufficient covering alike in winter and summer. As to colour, avoid brightness; in material, the soft and delicate. To aim at bright colours in dress is like women’s beautifying when they colour cheeks and hair with hues other than their own. The tunic ought to be thick enough not to want other help to keep the wearer warm. The shoes should be cheap but serviceable. In a word, what one has to regard in dress is the necessary. So too as to food; for a man in good health bread will suffice, and water will quench thirst; such dishes of vegetables may be added as conduce to strengthening the body for the discharge of its functions. One ought not to eat with any exhibition of savage gluttony, but in everything that concerns our pleasures to maintain moderation, quiet, and self-control; and, all through, not to let the mind forget to think of God, but to make even the nature of our food, and the constitution of the body that takes it, a ground and means for offering Him the glory, bethinking us how the various kinds of food, suitable to the needs of our bodies, are due to the provision of the great Steward of the Universe. Before meat let grace be said, in recognition alike of the girls which God gives now, and which He keeps in store for time to come. Say grace after meat in gratitude for gifts given and petition for gifts promised. Let there be one fixed hour for taking food, always the same in regular course, that of all the four and twenty of the day and night barely this one may be spent upon the body. The rest the ascetic ought to spend in mental exercise. Let sleep be light and easily interrupted, as naturally happens after a light diet; it should be purposely broken by thoughts about great themes. To be overcome by heavy torpor, with limbs unstrung, so that a way is readily opened to wild fancies, is to be plunged in daily death. What dawn is to some this midnight is to athletes of piety; then the silence of night gives leisure to their soul; no noxious sounds or sights obtrude upon their hearts; the mind is alone with itself and God, correcting itself by the recollection of its sins, giving itself precepts to help it to shun evil, and imploring aid from God for the perfecting of what it longs for.


Discourses on Ascetical Discipline (St. Basil the Great, 4th c.)

NOTE: Most of the concepts in these discourses have been rendered obsolete and unnecessary in contemporary Greek-American monasticism where all emphasis is on blind obedience and the Jesus Prayer. Geronda Ephraim emphasizes in the homilies and faxes to his monasteries that “we are the monks of the last days.” In one homily he states, “It is prophesied that in the last days the monks will be like laymen and the laymen will be like demons.” The Desert Father prophecies about the monks of the last days not attaining great spiritual heights, or accomplishing great spiritual feats, but rather, as Geronda Ephraim states, “are weak and useless,” are used to excuse all the worldiness and secularization that exist in the monasteries here. Geronda Ephraim has stated in both homilies and faxes to his monasteries that “as monks of the last days, we will be saved only through obedience, humility and the Prayer.” [and in some homilies he also adds “and patient endurance of temptations”].

basil family

How the monk should be equipped

FIRST AND FOREMOST, the monk should own nothing in this world, but he should have as his possessions solitude of the body, modesty of bearing, a modulated tone of voice, and a well-ordered manner of speech. He should be without anxiety as to his food and drink, and should eat in silence. In the presence of his superiors, he should hold his tongue; before those wiser than he, he should hearken to their words. He should have love for his equals, give charitable counsel to his inferiors, and keep aloof from the wicked, the carnal, and the officious.

He ought to think much but speak little, be not forward in speech nor given to useless discoursing, not easily moved to laughter, respectful in bearing, keeping his eyes cast down and his spirit uplifted, not answering contradiction with contradiction, docile. He should work with his hands, be ever mindful of his last end, joyful in hope, patient in adversity, unceasingly prayerful, giving thanks in all things, humble toward everyone, hating pride, sober and watchful to keep his heart from evil thoughts. He ought to heap up treasure In heaven1 by observing the commandments, examining himself as to his daily thoughts and actions, not entangling himself in the occupations and superfluities of the world. 2

It ill befits him to concern himself about those who lead careless lives; he should emulate the life of the holy fathers, rejoicing with those who are successful in the practice of virtue and not envying them. He must sympathize with the suffering and weep with them,3 sorrowing deeply for these, but not on any account should he condemn them, nor upbraid him who has renounced his sin, nor ever justify himself. He should, above all, confess before God and men that he is a sinner. It is his duty, moreover, to admonish the undisciplined, encourage the faint-hearted, minister to the sick, wash the feet of the saints/ and be mindful of the duties of hospitality and fraternal charity. He must preserve peace with the members of the household of the faith, shun the heretic, read the canonical Scriptures, but have nothing at all to do with apocryphal books.

It befits him not to dispute about Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but he should freely confess in thought and word the uncreated and consubstantial Trinity and say to them who put this matter to question that we ought to be baptized according to the tradition we have received, and hold the belief in which we have been baptized, and worship according as we have believed. He should spend his time in good words and deeds, swear not at all, nor lend money for interest, nor sell grain and wine and oil for profit. He must refrain from reveling and drunkenness and have nothing to do with secular concerns, converse without deceit, speak no word against anyone, and neither gossip nor take pleasure in listening to gossip. He should not be quick to trust evil report of anyone, nor be mastered by ill temper nor overcome by despondency. He ought not become angry with his neighbor without cause, nor nurse wrath against anyone, nor return evil for evil. It behooves him to be reviled rather than to revile, to be struck rather than to strike, to be wronged rather than to do wrong, to be despoiled rather than to despoil.

Before all else, also, the monk must abstain from the society of women and from wine-bibbing because wine and women will cause even the wise to fall away.5 He must not grow weary in observing the precepts of the Lord to the best of his ability, but he should await reward and praise from Him, continuing in his desire for the enjoyment of everlasting life, keeping ever before his eyes the words of David, and saying: ‘I set the Lord always in my sight; for he is at my right hand, that I be not moved.’ 6 Moreover, he should love God as a son, with his whole heart and strength and mind and with all the power that is in him; 7 but as a servant he should reverence, fear, and obey Him and work out his salvation in fear and trembling,8 fervent in spirit,9 girt about with the full armor of the Holy Spirit. He must run not as without a purpose and fight not as beating the air,10 overthrowing his adversary in weakness of body and poverty of spirit, doing all things commanded him, and confessing that he is an unprofitable servant. 11 He should give thanks to God, aweful, glorious, and holy, and do nothing in a spirit of contention and vainglory12 but for God’s sake and to please Him; ‘for God hath scattered the bones of them that please men. 13 He ought never to glorify himself nor speak in his own praise, nor take pleasure in hearing praise from another; but serve in all things secretly, not acting with a view to display before men, but seeking praise from God alone and meditating on His coming, glorious and terrible, as well as upon his own passing out of this world, upon the good things laid up for the just and also on the fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.14

But, over and above all this, he must be mindful of the words of the Apostle : Tor the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us;15 and in anticipation proclaim with David that, for those keeping the commandments, there is a great reward,16 munificent recompense, and crowns of justice, everlasting dwellings, life without end, joy unspeakable, an imperishable mansion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit who is true God in heaven, manifestation face to face, dances in company with angels, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, and with all those who have been well-pleasing to God from all eternity. Among these let us eagerly strive to be numbered, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be power and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Βυζαντινές λαξευτές εκκλησίες στην Καππαδοκία.


  1. Luke 12.38.
  2. 2 Tim. 2.4.
  3. 12.15.
  4. 1 Tim. 5.10.
  5. 19.2.
  6. 15.8.
  7. Luke 10.27.
  8. 2.12.
  9. 12.11.
  10. 1 Cor. 9.26.
  11. Luke 17.10.
  12. 2.3.
  13. 52.6.
  14. 25.41.
  15. 8.18.
  16. 18.12.

On the Holy Forty Martyrs (Saint Basil the Great)

NOTE: The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste were a group of Roman soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning) whose martyrdom in 320 for the Christian faith is recounted in traditional martyrologies. The earliest account of their martyrdom is given by St. Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea (370-379), in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs (Hom. xix in P.G., XXXI, 507 sqq.). His eulogy on them was pronounced about fifty or sixty years after martyrdom.

Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)
Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)

SHALL he that loves the Martyrs ever be satiated with celebrating their memory? The honor that we fellow‐servants render to these stalwarts is the proof of our affection towards our common Master. For assuredly, he that lauds courageous men, in similar circumstances will not fail to emulate them himself. Wholeheartedly bless the sufferings of the martyrs so that you might become a martyr by your volition, and, without persecution, without fire, without scourging, you might be shown worthy of recompenses in no way differing from theirs.

In the year 313 AD, Saint Constantine the Great signed a law decreeing freedom of religious faith. His co-ruler, Emperor Licinius seconded this law; however, in the provinces subject to him, the persecution of the Christians continued as before.
In the year 320 AD, these holy Martyrs, who came from various lands, were all soldiers under the same general, who tried to force them to bring a sacrifice to the idols, which they refused to do. Taken into custody for their faith in Christ, and at first interrogated by cruel means, they were then stripped of their clothing and cast onto the frozen lake which is at Sebastia of Pontus, at a time when the harsh and freezing weather was at its worst. This torment was made more difficult for them, since a warm vapour-bath was placed on the shore of the lake to tempt them to leave the freezing water.

They endured the whole night naked in such circumstances, encouraging one another to be patient and singing holy hymns to God until the end. He that guarded them, named Aglaius, who was commanded to receive any of them that might deny Christ, had a vision in which he saw heavenly powers distributing crowns to all of the Martyrs, except one. The one who abandoned the contest hurried into the bath, but as soon as the warm air touched his body he died. Seeing this, Aglaius professed himself a Christian and joined the Martyrs on the lake, and the number of forty remained complete. In the morning, when they were almost dead from the cold the torturers broke the martyrs’ shins with mallets and cast them into fire, after which their remains were thrown into the river.
The torturers, however, almost left one of the martyrs behind. Although he was practically lifeless, yet still breathing, his mother took her son on her shoulders putting him on the cart together with his companions so that he would be burned with them and thus complete his martyrdom.

Even though these Martyrs had completed their martyric struggle by having been burned alive, and then having their incinerated relics cast into a river, these relics shone from the depths of the waters as a witness to the incorruptibility of their bodies and the immortality of their souls.

Three days later, the torturers came to Bishop Peter of Sebastia and recounted their deeds. Bishop Peter gathered the bones of the martyrs and buried them with honour.

Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)
Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)


The so-called Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste is in many ways an extraordinary document. Allegedly an encyclical letter written by Meletius, Aetius, and Eutychius, three of their group, this document presents itself as the last words of this famous and hugely popular group of martyrs. In their letter they express their will as to what should happen with their remains. These should be buried ‘in the town of Sarim, below the city of Zelon’; they should be buried there all together in one place. Furthermore they ask their readers that nobody should take a particle of the remains for himself. As to the young man Eunoicus, it is stipulated that he should be buried together with them but, if he should survive the trial and persecutions, he is urged to devote himself in all freedom to the tomb of the Forty. After a more general parenetic part to live a Christ-centred life, the letter closes with a long list of greetings.1

This document stands out in several ways: as to literary genre it is unique among the late antique martyrial literature, and while there are some other documents written by the martyrs themselves, such as (part of) the Passio Perpetuae and, possibly, the Martyrium Pionii2 such texts remain exceptions. Doubts regarding the text’s authenticity and historicity have been brought forward without decisive argument pro or contra emerging.3

While the possibility of the text’s authenticity cannot be entirely excluded, it can certainly also easily be made sense of as having originated later than the early fourth century, at a time that the cult of the Forty, and the creation of a literary tradition around them, was in full swing. The theme of the unity of the Forty and the idea that the powerfulness of each particle of their remains equals that of those of the entire group is a stock theme also present in other late fourth century texts about the Forty.4

And besides, for its edifying value in the parenetic part the Testament may have been written to bolster the claim of the town of Sarim as an early (though probably not the original) burial place of the Forty, maybe even in competition with bigger centres of the veneration of the Forty that had established themselves.5

The most startling aspect of this text with regard to the purpose of this contribution, however, is that this is the only relatively early martyr text I know in which the heroes of the story themselves dictate what should happen with their own bones. Generally, this is the duty of the community or its leaders. In this text, though, the roles are reversed: the martyrs themselves are indicating who of the community members are to be responsible for the care for their remains and they say what should happen with them. In that it gives precedence to the group of individual martyrs over against the ‘normal’ course of events in which community members or leaders after the martyr’s death take the initiative to start a cult, the Testament can be considered as the expression of an exceptional form of individualization in the late antique cult of the martyrs.

Unusual as it may be, the Testament has introduced us to the main (f)actors in the martyr cult: the centrality of the martyr’s relics, the role of the community, and of the leaders of the community.

Xeropotamou monastery was founded in the 10th century, and is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.
Xeropotamou monastery was founded in the 10th century, and is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.


  1. Text in Musurillo 1972, 354–9 [this text is a reprint of that in the 1892 Bonwetsch edition].
  2. See on this issue the recent contribution by Hilhorst 2010.
  3. The most complete defence of the text’s authenticity (against Buckle 1921) was by Franchi di Cavalieri 1928, 173–9(‘merita ogni fede’).
  4. Vinel 1997
  5. Maraval 1999; van Dam 2003, 136
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and Four Men in the Fiery Furnace 15th century, Novgorod School Tempera and gesso on linen
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and Four Men in the Fiery Furnace 15th century, Novgorod School Tempera and gesso on linen

On Gluttony and Secret Eating (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: The following is excerpted from St. Basil the Great’s homily, On Renunciation of the World. It should be noted that in the monasteries, not much emphasis is put on the virtue of fasting other than observance of the required days (Mon., Wed., Fri., throughout the year, the two 40-day Lents, the Theotokos and Apostles’ Fast, etc.). All the emphasis is placed on blind obedience and the Prayer. Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi sates that this “emergence of economia in our contemporary age is generally not due to a violation and scorn for the Patristic Canons, but rather due to a deterioration of the physical capabilities of contemporary man.” This is why many monastics have an obedience to eat “everything on their plate”–not to mention it is taught in the monasteries that fasting and excessive fasting are the quickest ways to pride and delusion. The eating of desserts and sweets daily in the monastery is also said to be an economia as the monastics have given up so many other things in this life, a little bit of pleasures are not a big deal. In the monasteries, all the weight is put on blind obedience because it is taught that all the other virtues and ascetic practices are worthless if they are done out of self-will and without blind obedience a monastic will go to hell, despite everything else he/she may have done. Geronda Ephraim frequently tells a story from The Salvation of Sinners where a very virtuous nun ended up in hell because she hid a thought from her Gerondissa…


The vice of gluttony is wont to display its proper force not with regard to a great quantity of food, but in the appetite for a little taste. If, therefore, desire of some bit of food succeed in making you subject to the vice of gluttony, he will give you up to destruction without further ado. For, as the nature of water that is channeled along many furrows causes it to make verdant the whole area around the furrows, so also the vice of gluttony, if it issue from your heart, irrigates all your senses, raising a forest of evils within you and making your soul a lair of wild beasts. I have seen many who were slaves to vice restored to health, but I have not seen this happen in the case of even one person who was given to nibbling in secret or gluttonous. Either they abandon the life of continency and are destroyed by the world, or they attempt to remain undetected among the continent and fight in league with the Devil by leading a luxurious life. They are liars, profane, perjurors, quarrelsome, pugnacious, noisy, given to disavowing their gluttony, mean, effeminate, querulous, prying, lovers of darkness, and deliberately hostile to every virtuous mode of life; in their efforts to cover up the vice of gluttony they are caught in a swarm of evils. In appearance, indeed, they seem to be among the number of the saved, but by their conduct they are included with the reprobate.


[Note: In the monasteries, the sin of “secret eating” mainly occurs with those who work in the kitchen, i.e., the cook, trapezari, etc. Monastic cooks tend to nibble and try all the food which they may have a blessing to taste. However, meting out portions or sampling other food and desserts which may not be on the menu is not always blessed. However, the sin of “secret-eating” in the monasteries also occurs when a monastic will go and steal food to eat either at that moment, or to save for later in their cells. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this primarily happens with desserts—chocolate, baklava, etc., or normal food during the longer fast periods—halva, nuts, etc. In other cases, there is the phenomenon of “stretching a blessing.” This is where a monastic may have a blessing to have a snack during the day, but the snack becomes an entire meal, or instead of halva, a honey bun or piece of fasting chocolate cake will be taken. Thus instead of protein and nourishment the pleasure of taste dictates the monastic’s actions. Each monastery has its own issues with food-related sins.

Unworthy clerics and monks are led to hell (19th c. fresco)
Unworthy clerics and monks are led to hell (19th c. fresco)

See that the Adversary does not seduce you into the sin of our first parent and cast you with all speed out of the paradise of delight. He who lured Adam from the life in paradise by causing him to steal food1 and expected to catch even Jesus off His guard2 will be far bolder in preparing as a drink for you this first cause of evil, knowing that it is a strong poison. The vice of gluttony is wont to display its proper force not with regard to a great quantity of food, but in the appetite for a little taste. If, therefore, desire of some bit of food succeed in making you subject to the vice of gluttony, he will give you up to destruction without further ado. For, as the nature of water that is channeled along many furrows causes it to make verdant the whole area around the furrows, so also the vice of gluttony, if it issue from your heart, irrigates all your senses, raising a forest of evils within you and making your soul a lair of wild beasts. I have seen many who were slaves to vice restored to health, but I have not seen this happen in the case of even one person who was given to nibbling in secret or gluttonous. Either they abandon the life of continency and are destroyed by the world, or they attempt to remain undetected among the continent and fight in league with the Devil by leading a luxurious life. They are liars, profane, perjurors, quarrelsome, pugnacious, noisy, given to disavowing their gluttony, mean, effeminate, querulous, prying, lovers of darkness, and deliberately hostile to every virtuous mode of life; in their efforts to cover up the vice of gluttony they are caught in a swarm of evils. In appearance, indeed, they seem to be among the number of the saved, but by their conduct they are included with the reprobate.

Bulgaria, Rila, mural detail, demons with chained sinners.
Bulgaria, Rila, mural detail, demons with chained sinners.

This vice of gluttony delivered Adam up to death; by the pleasure of the appetite consummate evil was brought into the world. Through it Noah was mocked,3 Cham was cursed,4 Esau was deprived of his birthright and married into a Canaanite family.5 Lot became both his own son-in-law and father-in-law, by marrying his own daughters; the father was husband, and the grandfather, father thus making a double mockery of the laws of nature.6 Gluttony, also, made the people of Israel worshipers of idols and strewed the desert with their bodies.7 Gluttony caused a certain Prophet, sent by God to upbraid an impious king, to become the prey of a wild beast, and him upon whom King Jereboam with all his royal might could not wreak vengeance was taken captive by his treacherous appetite and fell victim to a miserable death.

To sum it all up, if you gain the mastery over your appetite, you will dwell in paradise; if you do not, you will die the death.

εξορια απο του παραδεισου

Be a safe treasure house of virtue and keep as its key the tongue of your spiritual father. Let this open your mouth for the taking of bread and let this also close it. Do not admit the Serpent as your counselor, since he desires to take you captive in return for his good advice. Be on your guard against the sin of eating in secret, even to tasting with the tip of the tongue; for, if he will succeed in defeating you in a small matter, he has already overthrown you in the combat and holds you bound with his chains.


[Note: Although the patristic maxim, “You should always leave the table feeling you could’ve eaten a little more,” is taught in the monasteries, many monastics develop a habit of stress-eating. As well, many monastics become so absorbed in their own thoughts and worries at the table that they develop a sort of auto-pilot mechanism for eating, in which they end up devouring everything very quickly. Similar to prison and the military, the meals have a time limit. If one eats breakfast quick, they’ll get back to their cell earlier to have more time to sleep—or in the case of monasteries that eat after the morning Liturgy, they’ll have few extra minutes free time in their cell. Lunch and dinner are timed. Though there is usually enough time to finish a meal, monastics tend to devour everything quickly and are done long before the lay people are finished. In some monasteries, food is used as “a consolation.” Thus, when there has been a lot of pressure, the abbot/abbess may bring home Burger King Fish burger combos for everyone—in the beginning it was McDonald’s but then it was discovered they use lard and monastics cannot eat meat products, unless their Elder gives them an obedience to, then it is not their sin. Other times, the Elder/Eldress may take out the monastics for an ice cream cone. After the St. Anthony’s Feast Day of 1997, Geronda Ephraim took all his monastics to Dairy Queen. It became a tradition in New York after the St. Nektarios Feast Day for Fr. Germanos to take all the visiting monks out to Red Lobster or Olive Garden, etc. depending on which way the vote went. In some monasteries, when the monastics have to go out for the day, they’ll pack a lunch and snacks for the road to limit their worldy contacts and also eat healthier. In other monasteries, the monastics have a blessing to eat out. This usually entails potato chips and junk from the gas station stores, and lunch at Burger King or some other fast food restaurant that doesn’t use lard. Some monastics look forward to going out on errands solely for the fact of eating out, others for the anticipated rest from hard labor].

εξορια απο του παραδεισου 1

End Notes:

1 Gen. 3.1-6.

2 Matt. 4.3.

3 Gen. 9.21.

4 Gen. 9.25.

5 Gen. 25.33; 36.2.

6 Gen. 19.35.

7 Num. 14.29ff.

8 1 Kings 13.24.

See St. Basil the Great’s The Long Rules for more teachings on fasting, gluttony, and secret-eating:


On the Vice of Laughter (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: When Geronda Ephraim starts to break into fits of laughter, he starts doing the sign of the Cross over his mouth, and all his monastic subordinates, as mimics of his every action and affectation, also do this. The action of signing their lips with the Cross is rooted in Gerontikon stories of demons trying to make monastics laugh, as well as, Patristic teachings about laughter being demonic and unmonastic.  The monastics believe that invisible demons are invisibly inciting them to laugh which is a sin for them. As monks should be in a perpetual state of mourning and repentance, joking and laughter are generally not accepted actions in their calling.  Some monastics who lack the self-control to guard their mouth from sarcasm, joking, fits of laughter, etc. will many times receive large penances (prostrations, deprivations, the Lity, etc.) to help correct them of this fault. The superiors and second-in-commands are generally exempt from reprimand for these kinds of behavior. The only time that monastics generally don’t get in trouble for laughing is during group homilies when Geronda Ephraim—or in individual monasteries the Abbot or Abbess—tell jokes or center out a monastic and mock them.


Q. 17. That laughter also must be held in check.

R. Those who live under discipline should avoid very carefully even such intemperate action as is commonly regarded lightly. Indulging in unrestrained and immoderate laughter is a sign of intemperance, of a want of control over one’s emotions, and of failure to repress the soul’s frivolity by a stern use of reason. It is not unbecoming, however, to give evidence of merriment of soul by a cheerful smile, if only to illustrate that which is written: ‘A glad heart maketh a cheerful countenance’;1 but raucous laughter and uncontrollable shaking of the body are not indicative of a well-regulated soul, or of personal dignity, or self-mastery. This kind of laughter Ecclesiastes also reprehends as especially subversive of firmness of soul in the words: ‘Laughter I counted error,’2 and again: ‘As the crackling of thorns burning under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.’3 Moreover, the Lord appears to have experienced those emotions which are of necessity associated with the body, as well as those that betoken virtue, as, for example, weariness and compassion for the afflicted; but, so far as we know from the story of the Gospel, He never laughed. On the contrary, He even pronounced those unhappy who are given to laughter.4 And let not the equivocal sense of the word laughter’ deceive us, for it is a frequent practice in the Scriptures to call joy of spirit and the cheerful feeling which follows upon good actions, ‘laughter.’ Sara says, for instance: ‘God hath made a laughter for me,’5 and there is another saying: ‘Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh’;6 likewise, the words of Job: ‘And the true mouth he will fill with laughter.’7 All these references to gaiety signify merriment of soul instead of hilarity. He, therefore, who is master of every passion and feels no excitement from pleasure, or at least, does not give it outward expression, but is steadfastly inclined to restraint as regards every harmful delight, such a one is perfectly continent but, clearly, he is also at the same time free from all sin. Sometimes, moreover, even acts of a permissible and necessary kind are to be abstained from, when the abstinence is dictated by consideration of our brother’s welfare. Thus, the Apostle says: ‘If meat scandalize my brother, I will never eat flesh.’8 And even though he could have gained his livelihood from preaching the gospel, he did not take advantage of this privilege lest he should offer any hindrance, as it were, to the Gospel of Christ.9


Continency, then, destroys sin, quells the passions, and mortifies the body even as to its natural affections and desires. It marks the beginning of the spiritual life, leads us to eternal blessings, and extinguishes within itself the desire for pleasure. Pleasure, indeed, is evil’s special allurement, through which we men are most likely to commit sin and by which the whole soul is dragged down to ruin as by a hook. Whoever, then, is neither overcome nor weakened by it successfully avoids all sin through the practice of continency. If, however, a man escape almost all incitements to sin, but falls prey even to one, such a man is not continent, just as he is not in health who is suffering from only one bodily affliction and as he is not free who is under the authority of anyone, it matters not whom. Further, the other virtues are practiced in secret and are rarely displayed to men. But continency makes itself known as soon as we meet a person who practices it. As plumpness an a healthy color betoken the athlete, so leanness of body and the pallor produced by the exercise of continency mark the Christian, for he is the true athlete of the commandments of Christ. In weakness of body, he overcomes his opponent and displays his prowess in the contests of piety, according to the words, ‘when I am weak, then am I powerful.’10 So beneficial is it merely to behold the continent man making a sparing and frugal use of necessities, ministering to nature as if this were a burdensome duty and begrudging the time spent in it, and rising promptly from the table in his eagerness for work, that I think no sermon would so touch the soul of one whose appetites are undisciplined and bring about his conversion as merely his meeting with a continent man. Indeed, the reason we are enjoined to eat and drink to the glory of God11 is, probably, so that our good works may shine forth even at table to the glory of our Father who is in heaven.12

Hieromonk Joseph (TX)
Hieromonk Joseph (TX)


  1. Prov. 15.13.
  2. Eccle. 2.2.
  3. Eccle. 7.7.
  4. Luke 6.25.
  5. Gen. 21.6.
  6. Luke 6.21.
  7. Job 8.21.
  8. 1 Cor. 8.13.
  9. 1 Cor. 9.12.
  10. 2 Cor. 12.10.
  11. 1 Cor. 10.31.
  12. Matt. 5.16.
Fr. Alexios (NY)
Fr. Alexios (NY)