University of Oxford

File(s) not publicly available

E01808: Gregory of Nyssa in the 380s composes his Encomium on *Basil (bishop of Caesarea, ob. 379, S00780), which he delivers during the saint’s festival on 1 January. Basil’s memory is added to a series of major feasts, namely Christmas, *Stephen (the First Martyr, S00030), and the Apostles *Peter (S00036), *James (S00108),*John (S00042), and *Paul (S00008). The author argues that Basil deserves to be honoured after these figures. He mentions miracles during Basil’s life. Written in Greek in Cappadocia (central Asia Minor).

online resource
posted on 2016-08-12, 00:00 authored by erizos
Gregory of Nyssa, Encomium On Basil (CPG 3185, BHG 244)

(paragraph numbers are after Maraval 2014)

‘Saint Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, Encomium on the great Basil, his brother’

1. Καλὴν ἐπέθηκεν ὁ θεὸς τὴν τάξιν ταῖς ἐτησίοις ταύταις ἡμῶν ἑορταῖς, ἃς διά τινος τεταγμένης ἀκολουθίας κατὰ τὰς ἡμέρας ταύτας ἤδη τε ἠγάγομεν καὶ πάλιν ἄγομεν. ἡ δὲ τάξις ἡμῖν τῶν πνευματικῶν ἐστι πανηγύρεων, ἣν καὶ ὁ μέγας Παῦλος ἐδίδαξεν ἄνωθεν τῶν τοιούτων τὴν γνῶσιν ἔχων. φησὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνος ἐν πρώτοις μὲν τοὺς ἀποστόλους τε καὶ τοὺς προφήτας τετάχθαι, μετ᾽ ἐκείνους δὲ τοὺς ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους. συμβαίνει τοίνυν τῇ ἀποστολικῇ ταύτῃ ἀκολουθίᾳ ἡ τάξις τῶν τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ πανηγύρεων. ἀλλὰ τὴν πρώτην οὐ συναριθμῶ ταῖς ἄλλαις· ἡ γὰρ ἐπὶ τῇ θεοφανείᾳ τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ χάρις ἡ διὰ τῆς ἐκ παρθένου γεννήσεως ἀναδειχθεῖσα τῷ κόσμῳ οὐχ ἁπλῶς ἐστιν ἁγία πανήγυρις, ἀλλὰ ἁγίων ἁγία καὶ πανήγυρίς ἐστι πανηγύρεων. οὐκοῦν τὰς μετ᾽ αὐτὴν ἀριθμήσωμεν. πρῶτον ἡμῖν ἀπόστολοί τε καὶ προφῆται τῆς πνευματικῆς χοροστασίας κατήρξαντο· τὰ δύο γὰρ πάντως περὶ τοὺς αὐτούς ἐστι χαρίσματα, τό τε ἀποστολικὸν πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ τῆς προφητείας. εἰσὶ δὲ οὗτοι· Στέφανος, Πέτρος, Ἰάκωβος, Ἰωάννης, Παῦλος. εἶτα μετὰ τούτους φυλάξας τὴν ἑαυτοῦ τάξιν ἐξάρχει τῆς παρούσης ἡμῖν πανηγύρεως ὁ ποιμὴν καὶ διδάσκαλος. τίς οὗτος; εἴπω τὸ ὄνομα, ἢ ἀρκεῖ καὶ ἡ χάρις ἀντὶ τοῦ ὀνόματος δεῖξαι τὸν ἄνδρα; διδάσκαλον γὰρ καὶ ποιμένα μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους ἀκούσας ἐνόησας πάντως τὸν μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους ποιμένα τε καὶ διδάσκαλον· τοῦτον λέγω, τὸ σκεῦος τῆς ἐκλογῆς, τὸν ὑψηλὸν βίῳ τε καὶ λόγῳ Βασίλειον, τὸν ἀστεῖον τῷ θεῷ ἐκ γεννήσεως, τὸν τοῖς ἤθεσι πολιὸν ἐκ νεότητος, τὸν παιδευθέντα μὲν κατὰ Μωϋσέα πάσῃ σοφίᾳ τῶν ἔξωθεν λόγων, τοῖς δὲ ἱεροῖς γράμμασιν ἐκ βρέφους καὶ μέχρι τῆς τελειώσεως συντραφέντα καὶ συναυξηθέντα καὶ συνακμάσαντα· ὅθεν διδάσκων πάντα ἄνθρωπον ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ τῇ θείᾳ τε καὶ τῇ ἔξωθεν, οἷόν τις ἀριστεὺς περιδέξιος δι᾽ ἑκατέρας παιδεύσεως τοῖς ἀντιτεταγμένοις ἑαυτὸν ἀνθοπλίζων, ᾕρει δι᾽ ἀμφοτέρων τοὺς προσπαλαίοντας ὑπερέχων ἐν ἑκατέρῳ τοὺς ἐν θατέρῳ τινὰ Κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας ἰσχὺν ἔχειν νομίζοντας, τοὺς μὲν ἐκ τῆς αἱρέσεως τὰς γραφὰς προβαλλομένους ταῖς γραφαῖς ἀνατρέπων, Ἕλληνας δὲ διὰ τῆς ἰδίας αὐτῶν συμποδίζων παιδεύσεως. ἡ δὲ κατὰ τῶν ἀντιπάλων νίκη οὐ πτῶσιν ἐποίει τῶν ἡττημένων, ἀλλ᾽ ἀνάστασιν. οἱ γὰρ ἡττώμενοι τῆς ἀληθείας νικηταὶ καὶ στεφανῖται κατὰ τοῦ ψεύδους ἐγίνοντο.

2. Τοῦτον οὖν ἔχομεν καὶ ἡμεῖς νῦν τὸν διατιθέντα ἡμῖν τὴν παροῦσαν πανήγυριν, τὸν γνήσιον ὑποφήτην τοῦ πνεύματος, τὸν γενναῖον τοῦ Χριστοῦ στρατιώτην, τὸν μεγαλόφωνον κήρυκα τοῦ σωτηρίου κηρύγματος, τὸν ἀγωνιστήν τε καὶ πρόμαχον τῆς ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ παρρησίας, ᾧ τὰ δευτερεῖα μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους ὁ χρόνος δίδωσι μόνον. (…)

‘1. God has arranged in a beautiful way the order of these yearly festivals of ours, which we have already celebrated and are still celebrating according to a certain established sequence. This order is, for us, that of the spiritual celebrations, which the great Paul himself has taught, having knowledge of them by divine inspiration: for he says that first come the apostles and the prophets, and after them the shepherds and teachers (1 Cor 12.28; Eph 4.11). The sequence of the festivities of the year, then, follows the order of this apostolic teaching. Of course, I do not count the first one alongside the rest: because the grace of the Divine Revelation of the Only-Begotten Son, which emerged in the world by His birth of the Virgin, is not just a holy festival, but the holy of holies and feast of feasts. So let us number those which follow after it. First, apostles and prophets have opened our spiritual dancing, for the same people possessed both the charisma of apostolicity and prophecy: and these men are Stephen, Peter, James, John, and Paul. Then, keeping his place after them, our shepherd and teacher is leading this celebration. Who is that? Shall I tell his name or is his splendour enough to indicate the man? Indeed, having heard about a teacher and shepherd after the apostles, you have immediately understood who this shepherd and teacher after the apostles is: I mean him, the vessel of election; Basil, who was sublime in both ways and words; who was attached to God from his birth; who had the gravitas of an elderly man since his youth; who, like Moses, was educated in all the wisdom of worldly learning, and who was nurtured, grew, and flourished in the divine letters from his infancy to his end. Hence he educated everyone in full erudition, both divine and worldly, and, like an ambidextrous champion, he armed himself against his opponents with both kinds of learning, and defeated his attackers, excelling in both domains over those who believed that they possessed some strength against truth in either of these fields: overturning by means of the Scriptures the heretics who based their fallacies on the Scriptures, and tripping up the Hellenes [=pagans] by their own learning. Yet his victory over his opponents did not cause the downfall of the defeated, but their rising. For the defeated became victors of truth and champions over falsehood.

2. We, then, have now him who has set up this festival for us, the genuine expounder of the Spirit, the brave soldier of Christ, the loud herald of the saving proclamation, the champion and defender of freedom of speech for Christ, whose being second to the Apostles was a result of time alone (…).’

2-3. Basil would have been a follower of Paul, had he lived in the apostle’s time. The saints must not be assessed hierarchically according to the antiquity of their life, but according to their virtue which is not liable to the laws of time. The grace of the Holy Spirit is common to all of them, and more recent saints are not inferior to earlier ones. Moses lived long after Abraham, while Samuel, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Paul lived even later, and Basil lived long after Paul.

4. Abraham revealed the real God against the astrological philosophy of the Chaldeans, while Moses revealed the folly of the magical religion of Egypt.

5. Samuel kept Israel united through a time of anarchy and prepared the way and laws for its kingship. Elijah averted the idolatry of Ahab.

6. John taught the Israelites the baptism of repentance, lacking nothing in holiness in comparison to the earlier figures.

7. Similarly, Paul demonstrated to the Jews their own blindness with regard to truth, and preached the faith to the whole world.

8. Since no one makes distinctions among the earlier and later of these saints, it makes no sense to make a distinction against a contemporary saint of the present generation: Basil.

9-10. The purpose of his emergence in this particular historical moment is manifest: although paganism was almost entirely defeated, the Devil revived it through the heretical doctrines of Arius, Aetius, Eudoxius of Antioch, and Eunomius. The whole world was converted to heresy with the support of the emperors and the authorities. Basil stood against them like Elijah against Ahab, defending the faith before emperors, prefects, and generals, fearing no exile, converting many back to orthodoxy, and writing numerous letters like Paul. Following the example of the martyrs, he once laughed at a praetorian prefect who threatened him with torture and execution.

11-12. Thus his virtue does not fall short of the earlier saints, and it makes no sense to regard his commemoration as inferior to the festivals of the other saints:

Τί τοίνυν αὐτοῦ τὸ μεθ᾽ ἑτέρους ἁγίους ἐπιδημῆσαι τῷ βίῳ κατασμικρύνει τὴν κατὰ θεὸν εὐδοκίμησιν, ὡς διὰ τοῦτο τῶν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἁγίοις ἑορτῶν ἐλάττω δοκεῖν εἶναι τὴν ἐπὶ τούτῳ πανήγυριν; σκόπησον γάρ, εἰ δοκεῖ, πρὸς ἕνα τινὰ τῶν προλαβόντων ἁγίων τὸν τούτου βίον ἀντεξετάζων.

‘In what way, then, does the fact that he lived in this world later than other saints diminish his excellence before God, so that his assembly should appear to be lesser than the feasts of the saints? Consider, if you like, and compare his life to each one of the earlier saints.’

Gregory invites his audience to make a comparison between Basil and biblical figures. Several parallels are drawn between Basil and the life of Paul the Apostle. Their most distinctive common aspect is their lifelong attachment to the love of God.

13-14. Basil also resembles John the Baptist in his strict asceticism and monastic leadership, in his brave resistance against the emperor Valens, just like John stood against Herod.

15-18. Parallels are drawn also with Elijah: the prophet once miraculously caused a draught to occur, while Basil caused a draught to stop by his prayers.

19. Just like Samuel was born after the prayer of his mother, Basil was also born after the prayers of his father. When Basil was ill during his youth, his father prayed and had a vision of Christ announcing him the cure of his son. As priests, both Samuel and Basil offered sacrifices of peace, fighting against foreigners and heretics respectively.

20-23. Gregory compares Basil with Moses, the absolute model of virtue, especially in the way of their upbringing. He also mentions a miraculous light shining over the house of Basil, while he was praying, which recalls the burning bush of the story of Moses. Basil led and saved the people by his teaching, like Moses led and saved the Israelites out of Egypt. Since Basil is comparable to all these figures, it is fitting to keep his memory after their festivals.
24-26. There is no reason to compose for him an encomium according to the rules of traditional eulogies, praising his origins, family and homeland, since he disdained the flesh and the world. The only true and fitting encomium for Basil is to imitate his life and study his wisdom.

Text: Lendle 1990, 107-134. Translation and summary: E. Rizos


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Basil, bishop of Caesarea, ob. 379 : S00780 Stephen, the First Martyr : S00030 Paul, the Apostle : S00008 Peter the Apostle : S00036 James the Apostle, son of Zebedee, ob. 1st c. : S00108 John the Evangelist : S00042

Saint Name in Source

Βασίλειος Στέφανος Παῦλος Πέτρος Ἰάκωβος Ἰωάννης

Type of Evidence

Literary - Sermons/Homilies


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Nȳsa Kaisareia/Caesarea in Cappadocia

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Nȳsa Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia Kaisareia/Caesarea in Cappadocia Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Uncertainty/scepticism/rejection of a saint

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Healing diseases and disabilities Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Miraculous sound, smell, light Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


Gregory of Nyssa was born in the late 330s as one of the youngest of a leading Christian family of Cappadocia. His siblings included important figures of church life, namely Basil of Caesarea, the ascetic Makrina the Younger, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory was trained in philosophy and rhetoric mainly by his brother Basil, who, in 371 or 372 ordained him bishop of the Cappadocian township of Nyssa. In 376, Gregory was deposed from his see, to which he was able to return in 378, and, from then onwards, he was one of the protagonists of church politics in the East Roman Empire. He played an important role during the Council of Constantinople (381) and was very close to the imperial family of Theodosius I. He was sent on missions to Armenia and Arabia in order settle problems in local churches. Gregory died after 394. He left a large literary heritage on philosophical, theological, ascetical, catechetical and homiletic works. On the manuscript tradition of this oration, see: Heil, Cavarnos, and Lendle 1990, ccxix-ccxxxvii (O. Lendle), and


This sermon reflects the earliest phase of Basil’s cult, in the first decade after his death, and long before he was established as a major saint. At this point, it is probable that his memory was confined to Cappadocia only, of which he had been metropolitan from 370 to 379. It seems that yearly commemorations of deceased bishops were regularly kept by the Christian communities, but were regarded as inferior to the feasts of the martyrs and biblical saints. This was most probably the attitude of some of Gregory’s audience towards the memory of Basil. The author’s arguments seem to be addressed to these sceptics, and his aim is to raise the status of Basil’s commemoration day to that of a proper festival like those of the other saints, and to add his brother's memory to the sequence of the feasts of New Year. Thus this sermon reflects a crucial moment in the development of the cult of Basil. Gregory of Nyssa gave this oration during the festal commemoration of Basil of Caesarea at some point in the 380s. Jean Daniélou (1955, 351-353) argues that it was delivered at Kaisareia/Caesarea on 1 January 381, on the second anniversary of his brother's death (P. Maraval [1988] believes that Basil, in fact, died in September 378, but his arguments are not conclusive; it is probably safer to stick to the traditional date). This, however, cannot be easily deduced from the text itself. There is nothing to suggest that the sermon was given at Basil’s resting place. The oration presents differences from the other funerary orations written by the author himself and by Gregory of Nazianzus. In length, structure, and spirit, it is closer to orations given at ecclesiastical festivals rather than at memorial celebrations. The opening paragraph suggests that the occasion was understood or promoted as an integral part of the festivals of late December: Basil’s day was a panēgyris (πανήγυρις) of equal rank to the festivals preceding it. Basil’s commemoration day was 1 January. It thus followed the feasts of Christmas (25 December), *Stephen the First martyr (26), the Apostles *Peter, *James, *John, and *Paul (27 and 28). By the 380s, these feasts were celebrated widely, and they are recorded by both the Hieronymian and Syriac Martyrologies. It seems that they marked the beginning of the cycle of stable feasts of the Christian year. In our text, Gregory of Nyssa calls these festivals ‘festivities of the year’ (tou eniautou panegyreis / αἱ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ πανηγύρεις), probably meaning that they marked New Year. Gregory has left three orations on these feasts, which are thought to have been delivered at Nyssa in the 380s (Daniélou 1955, 365-368; see E01830 and E01831). How widely the feast of Basil was observed is unknown. The contemporary or slightly later Asterius of Amasea gave a homily reproaching the gambling customs of the Kalends of January, in which he mentions that the pagan festivities coincided with a Christian festival which "teaches us about the union with God and the virtue of pure life" (Asterius Amas. Homily IV, 1). Could this refer to the commemoration of Basil? The central point of this oration is Gregory’s arguments for Basil’s status of sanctity in relation to the figures of the Bible. Comparisons of deceased people with biblical figures can also be found in other funerary orations, but the statements Gregory of Nyssa makes here for his brother are much bolder than anything known from other texts: Basil was a ‘vessel of election’ (Acts 9:15), namely his life was chosen and used by God for the purpose of keeping the world in the true faith, much like the lives of the Prophets and Apostles. Basil’s struggle to defend orthodoxy against the Arians is comparable to the struggles of Abraham, Samuel, Elijah, John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle. If his position is regarded as secondary, that is only due to the fact that this lifetime was more recent (Lendle, p. 110-111). The argument against distinctions of seniority among the saints recalls a thesis first formulated by the early 3rd-century author of the Latin Martyrdom of *Perpetua and *Felicitas (E01666), according to which, the lives of both ancient and contemporary saints are manifestations of the same work of the Holy Spirit through the ages, and, consequently, distinctions of seniority by antiquity among the saints cannot be justified. A notable aspect of Gregory’s arguments is his interpretation of Paul’s references to the hierarchy of charisma (1 Cor 12.28; Eph 4.11) (in Lendle, p. 109-110). Although the apostle refers to categories of charismatic leaders and ministers of the living church of his time, Gregory uses the same categories referring to dead saints of the past. This is a meaningful shift of understanding, lying at the heart of the cult of saints and its theology: the references of Paul to Christians as living saints are frequently understood by ecclesiastical authors from the 4th century on as references to dead saints in heaven. With regard to Basil’s biography, Gregory provides only a very few details. Reproducing a thesis formulated by Basil himself in his hagiographical sermons, Gregory states that an oration honouring the life of a man who disdained the world and the flesh cannot conform to the rules of traditional eulogy writing, which required elaborate praises for the home and family of the deceased person. In this particular case, the saint’s home and family happen to be the same as those of the speaker, since Gregory and Basil were brothers. The only element of traditional funerary oratory preserved in our text is the comparison of the deceased with illustrious figures of the past, which here becomes the central theme for the speaker, but with the declared purpose of arguing for Basil’s high status as a saint. We also should single out the references to some miracles associated with the life of Basil. Miracles were not central in Basil’s life and claim to sanctity, and Gregory indeed has very few to recount. Finally, it should be noted that the festival of the Circumcision of Christ, which was later established to be celebrated on 1 January, appears to be unknown to our author.


Text: Heil, G., J. P. Cavarnos, and O. Lendle, eds. Gregorii Nysseni Opera X.1: Gregorii Nysseni Sermones Ii. Leiden: Brill, 1990, 107-134 (O. Lendle). French Translation and commentary: Maraval, P. Grégoire De Nysse, Éloge De Grégoire Le Thaumaturge ; Éloge De Basile. Sources Chrétiennes 573. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2014. Further reading: Daniélou, J. (1955), ‘Chronologie des sermons de Grégoire de Nysse’, Revue des Sciences Religieuses 29.4, 346-372. Limberis, V., Architects of Piety: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Cult of the Martyrs (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Maraval, P. (1988), 'La date de la mort de Basile de Césarée,' Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes 27, 25-38. Voicu, S. J. ‘Feste di apostoli a la fine di Dicembre.’ Studi sull’ Oriente Cristiano 8.2 (2002), 47-77. On Gregory of Nyssa: Dörrie, H., “Gregor III,” in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 12 (1983), 863-895. Maraval, P., ‘Grégoire, évêque de Nysse’, in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 22 (1988): 20–4. Silvas, A. M. Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2007, 1-57.

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



    Ref. manager