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E01883: Gregory of Nyssa in his Life of *Gregory the Miracle-Worker (bishop and missionary in Pontus, S00687), of the late 370s or the 380s, reports that, after the end of a persecution in the mid 3rd century, the saint established yearly celebrations for the martyrs in Neocaesarea of Pontus (northern Asia Minor), as a novel practice, aimed to facilitate the transition from paganism to Christianity. Written in Greek in Asia Minor.

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posted on 2016-10-01, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Gregory the Miracle-Worker (CPG 3184, BHG 715-715b), 94

For the context of this passage, see $E01878

94. Tῆς δὲ τυραννίδος ἐκείνης ἤδη κατὰ θείαν συμμαχίαν λυθείσης καὶ πάλιν εἰρήνης τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διαδεξαμένης ζωὴν καθ᾽ ἣν ἄνετος ἦν κατ᾽ ἐξουσίαν προκειμένη πᾶσιν ἡ περὶ τὸ θεῖον σπουδή, καταβὰς πάλιν ἐπὶ τὴν πόλιν καὶ πᾶσαν περινοστήσας ἐν κύκλῳ τὴν χώραν προσθήκην ἐποιεῖτο τοῖς ἁπανταχοῦ λαοῖς τῆς περὶ τὸ θεῖον σπουδῆς τὰς ὑπὲρ τῶν ἐνηθληκότων τῇ πίστει πανηγύρεις νομοθετήσας. καὶ διαλαβόντες ἄλλος ἀλλαχῇ τῶν μαρτύρων τὰ σώματα κατὰ τὴν ἐτήσιον τοῦ ἐνιαυσιαίου κύκλου περίοδον συνιόντες ἠγάλλοντο τῇ τιμῇ τῶν μαρτύρων πανηγυρίζοντες. καὶ γὰρ δὴ καὶ τοῦτο τῆς μεγάλης αὐτοῦ σοφίας ἀπόδειξις ὅτι πρὸς καινὸν βίον μεταρρυθμίζων πᾶσαν ἀθρόως τὴν κατ᾽ αὐτὸν γενεὰν οἷόν τις ἡνίοχος ἐπιστὰς τῇ φύσει καὶ τοῖς τῆς θεογνωσίας χαλινοῖς ἀσφαλῶς αὐτοὺς ὑποζεύξας ἐνεδίδου μικρόν τι τῷ ζυγῷ τῆς πίστεως δι᾽ εὐφροσύνης ὑποσκιρτᾶν τὸ ὑπήκοον. συνιδὼν γὰρ ὅτι ταῖς σωματικαῖς θυμηδίαις τῇ περὶ τὰ εἴδωλα πλάνῃ παραμένει τὸ νηπιῶδες τῶν πολλῶν καὶ ἀπαίδευτον, ὡς ἂν τὸ προηγούμενον τέως ἐν αὐτοῖς μάλιστα κατορθωθείη τὸ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἀντὶ τῶν ματαίων σεβασμάτων βλέπειν, ἐπαφῆκεν αὐτοῖς ταῖς τῶν ἁγίων μαρτύρων ἐμφαιδρύνεσθαι μνήμαις καὶ εὐπαθεῖν καὶ ἀγάλλεσθαι ὡς χρόνῳ ποτὲ κατὰ τὸ αὐτόματον πρὸς τὸ σεμνότερόν τε καὶ ἀκριβέστερον μετατεθησομένου τοῦ βίου καὶ πρὸς ἐκεῖνο καθηγουμένης τῆς πίστεως. ὅπερ δὴ καὶ ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖς ἤδη κατώρθωται πάσης θυμηδίας ἀπὸ τῶν τοῦ σώματος ἡδέων πρὸς τὸ πνευματικὸν τῆς εὐφροσύνης εἶδος μετατεθείσης.

After the end of persecution, Gregory returns from his hiding place to Neocaesarea:

‘94. When that tyranny had been broken by God’s help and peace returned to human affairs, under which religion was free for all to practice as they pleased, he [Gregory] came again down to the city and, visiting all the surrounding countryside, he made an addition to the religious life of congregations everywhere, by establishing festivals for those who had contested [as martyrs] for the faith. And they distributed the bodies of the martyrs – one here, one there – and on a yearly basis held joyful gatherings, feasting in honour of the martyrs. Indeed, this was also a proof of his great wisdom, because, as he converted to a new way of life his whole generation at once, he took charge of their nature, as it were, like a charioteer, and having harnessed them safely by the reins of the knowledge of God, he allowed his subjects to cavort a little in the yoke of the faith through merriment. For he was aware that, on account of bodily pleasures, the immature and undisciplined part of the multitude remained stuck in the error of idolatry. Therefore, in order that at least the main goal might be achieved in them, namely to look to God rather than to vain objects of worship, he allowed them to delight on the memorial days of the holy martyrs, and indulge and amuse themselves, so that, at some point, with the passage of time and by the power of habit, their ways would be transformed towards greater decency and discipline, as the faith would be leading them to that. And this has indeed been achieved already for the majority, since all delight has been shifted from the pleasures of the body to the spiritual form of joy.’

Text: Heil 1990 (paragraph numbers Maraval 2014).
Translation: Efthymios Rizos (using Slusser 1998).


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martyrs, unnamed or name lost : S00060 Gregory the Miracle-Worker (Thaumatourgos), bishop and missionary in Pontus, ob. c. 270 : S00687

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint Literary - Sermons/Homilies


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

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

Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Service for the Saint

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Activities Accompanying Cult

  • Feasting (eating, drinking, dancing, singing, bathing)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Other lay individuals/ people

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


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. Gregory wrote the Life of Gregory the Miracle-Worker in 379 or in the 380s. The text is preserved in 133 manuscripts, on which see: (accessed 02/02/2017) Heil, Cavarnos, and Lendle 1990, lxxxvii-cxxxiii (G. Heil)


For a discussion of the whole text, see E01878 Since the legend of Gregory the Miracle-worker is essentially a schematic foundation narrative of the Church of Neokaisareia/Neocaesarea and its region, it is of special interest that it records the moment of establishment of the cult of martyrs, which is thus the last landmark in the development of the Church of Neocaesarea outlined by our text. Ascribed to the personal initiative of Gregory in the aftermath of a great persecution, the festivals at the burial sites of the martyrs are described as a novel addition to the religious life of the Christian communities, provided by the bishop mainly for pastoral and evangelising purposes. The cult of the martyrs, so central in the late 4th century church of Cappadocia, is described by Gregory of Nyssa as a concession, a less sophisticated form of worship, provided by Gregory the Miracle-Worker for the sake of the simpler members of his community, who still understood religion as an excuse to feast and have fun. In order that these people be prevented from joining pagan feasts, feasts of martyrs were established as a Christian alternative. Interestingly, the cult is described as appearing in both the city and the countryside at the same time, since the establishment of the festivals is recounted in the context of general visitation of Gregory to the city of Neocaesarea and its environs. Another possible reason for emphasising the role of Gregory in establishing feasts for the martyrs may be related to the issue of Gregory’s peaceful death, and of the fact that he survived the persecution (this persecution is not named, but having died in c. 270, the historical Gregory would have survived both those of Decius in 250 and Valerian in 257-260). The legend reproduced by Gregory of Nyssa is centrally preoccupied with defending the hero of the text against possible doubts concerning his conduct during the persecution. This can be recognised in paragraphs 79-93 (the section immediately preceding the text quoted here), which assert that: - Gregory did not seek martyrdom in a voluntary manner, but he did not attempt to avoid it either, since the persecutors did seek to arrest him. If he survived, it was due to divine will, which preserved him in a miraculous way (79-87). - In the meantime, people were arrested and suffered martyrdom in the city. Although absent, the bishop was spiritually with them at their martyrdoms, and invisibly supported them in their struggle (the vision of Troadios) (88-89). The text discussed here may add a further point to that agenda: Gregory not only supported the martyrs spiritually by his prayers, but he also honoured their memory and established their posthumous veneration. This passage presents some difficulties in interpretation and translation, especially with regard to the phrase διαλαβόντες ἄλλος ἀλλαχῇ τῶν μαρτύρων τὰ σώματα. Pierre Maraval in his French translation interprets it as referring to relics being transferred from place to place for veneration. This is probably unlikely. The verb διαλαμβάνω may refer here to spotting and marking out the burial places, or to the burial of the bodies on different sites and the establishment of yearly festivals at various local shrines. Similar difficulties appear with translating the phrase περὶ τὸ θεῖον σπουδή (peri to theion spoudē), literally meaning ‘zeal/care/provision with regard to the divine’. We interpret it as a periphrastic term for religion, religious life, and the practice of worship.


Text: Heil, G., Cavarnos, J.P., and Lendle, O. (eds.), Gregorii Nysseni Opera X.1: Gregorii Nysseni Sermones II (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 4-57 (G. Heil). Translations and commentaries: Maraval, P., Grégoire De Nysse, Éloge De Grégoire Le Thaumaturge; Éloge De Basile (Sources Chrétiennes 573; Paris: Cerf, 2014). Slusser, M., St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: Life and Works (Fathers of the Church 98; Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1998), 41-87 Leone, L., Gregorio di Nissa. Vita di Gregorio Taumaturgo (Rome, 1988). Further reading: Abramowski, L., "Das Bekentniss des Gregor Thaumaturgus und das Problem seiner Echtheit," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 87 (1976), 145-166. Mitchell, S., "The Life and Lives of Gregory Thaumaturgus," in: J.W. Drijvers and J.W. Watt (eds.), Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium, and Christian Orient (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 137; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 99-138. Starowieyski, M., "La plus ancienne description d’une mariophanie par Grégoire de Nysse," in: H.R. Drobner and C. Klock (eds.), Studien zu Gregor von Nyssa und der christlichen Spätantike (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 12; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 245-253. 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): 20–24. Silvas, A.M. Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83; Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1-57.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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