Friday, 15 January 2010

a rather sadder chapter

The shocking conduct of Greek clergy among the Alans, including extortion rackets, observed by Bishop Theodore in 1233 (sent three centuries after the nation had been baptised) was part and parcel of the general neglect and intolerance of non-Byzantine believers or seekers. The Bishop of Cherson even objected to Theodore’s ultimately vain attempts to properly preach to and disciple the Alans, crying,

‘“The Devil take the godless Alans who are even worse than the Scythians [Mongols]!” … In the eighteenth century, when Russia was conquering the Northern Caucasus, General Eropkin found in the Baxan village of Kabarda a decrepit codex of the Gospels in Greek. The locals explained that they knew only one way to apply it: they used to put it on a sick man’s head. This is an ironic epitaph to Byzantine missionary efforts in the Alania.’ 

Sergey A. Ivanov, ‘Mission Impossible: Ups and Downs in Byzantine Missionary Activity from the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Century’, in Jonathan Shepherd, ed., The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), pp.251-66 (p.261).

Of course, whether or not one believes that the application of a book to the forehead is 'a good thing' does depend on one's perspective. In the hagiography of one Iakovos, a Greek shepherd who was killed by the Turks in 1520, we read of a local Muslim woman of high renown who was cured of a nasty illness by having  copy of the gospels held above her head.

N.M. Vaporis, Witnesses for Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period 1437-1860 (Crestwood, NJ: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000)., p.58.

So, if you're a critical modern historian (or me) you might be tempted to sneer at such practices, but if you're an 18th century priest collecting uplifting stories of Orthodox life under oppression (or even if you're simply republishing them in the 20th century) then such things can apparently form part of a rounded approach to Christian witness...