Paphnutius of Thebes
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|Saint Paphnutius of Thebes|
Paphnutius of Egypt. Etching from the 16/17th century. Collection Anton Cos.
|Died||4th century AD|
|Honored in||Eastern Orthodox Church;
Greek Catholic Church;
Roman Catholic Church
Paphnutius of Thebes, also known as Paphnutius the Confessor, was bishop of a city in the Upper Thebaid in the early fourth century, and one of the most interesting possible members of the First Council of Nicaea in 325. He was a disciple of Saint Anthony the Great.
Paphnutius had been persecuted for his Christian beliefs, and had suffered mutilation of the left knee and the loss of his right eye for the Faith under the Emperor Maximinus, and was subsequently condemned to the mines. According to some reports, at the First Council of Nicaea, he was greatly honoured by Constantine the Great.
Some ancient church historians claim that he took a prominent, perhaps a decisive, part in the debate at the First Ecumenical Council on the subject of the clerical celibacy. It seems that most of the bishops present were disposed to follow the precedent of the Council of Elvira prohibiting conjugal relations to those bishops, priests, deacons, and sub-deacons, who were married before ordination. Paphnutius, so certain ancient authors tell us, earnestly entreated his fellow-bishops not to impose this obligation on the orders of the clergy concerned. He proposed, in accordance "with the ancient tradition of the Church", that only those who were celibates at the time of ordination should continue to observe continence, but, on the other hand, that "none should be separated from her, to whom, while yet unordained, he had been united". The great veneration in which he was held, and the well known fact that he had himself observed the strictest chastity all his life, gave weight to his proposal, which was unanimously adopted. The council left it to the discretion of the married clergy to continue or discontinue their marital relations. In addition, Paphnutius was a zealous defender of Orthodoxy in the face of the Arian heresy.
The very existence of Paphnutius is contested by the historian Friedrich Winkelmann, because he is never mentioned by Athanasius, who also battled against arianism. Also, the Church History of Socrates Scholasticus, our earliest source on Paphnutius, is one of the very few references for him in general.
His participation in the First Ecumenical Council was disputed several times, among others by such a respected canon law historian as Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler. Stickler's objection is that Paphutius' presence at the council was never mentioned by the council's historian Eusebius of Caesarea, and he also disproves Socrates' statement that he personally spoke to a participant of the council as Socrates was supposedly born too late to know personally anyone who had taken part in it. Stickler's main argument against Paphnutius' story is that the Synod of Trullo (691) failed to mention the Paphnutius story when they allowed matrimony for priests, which was done, as Stickler claims, under the Emperor's pressure. The Council of Trullo, rather erroneously, referred only to the decrees of the Council of Carthage. However, Eusebius does not mention many things that certainly did happen, we are not sure when Socrates of Constantinople was born, and the Council of Trullo might have invoked several other canons from the past, but it did not care to do that.
On the other hand, there have also been several prominent scholars who defended the veracity of the Paphnutius story. The main arguments were laid down already by Karl Josef von Hefele in his Conciliengeschichte (1855), and were taken up by his successor at the Tübingen Catholic faculty of theology Franz Xaver von Funk, as well as by some other eminent historians as Elphège Vacandard in the article on celibacy in the pretigious Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (1905) and Henri Leclercq in an article in the Histoire des conciles (1908). Vacandard's position found wide acceptance among the scholars, but here we shall cite only the original argument by Hefele that more conspicuously emphasizes the distinctive practices of the Eastern Church (since Paphnutius' appearance at the First Ecumenical Council is of paramount importance for the question of clerical celibacy, we shall quote Hefele in full length):
If this account [the Paphnutius story] be true, we must conclude that a law was proposed to the Council of Nicaea the same as one which had been carried twenty years previously at Elvira, in Spain; this coincidence would lead us to believe that it was the Spaniard Hosius who proposed the law respecting celibacy at Nicaea.
The discourse ascribed to Paphnutius, and the consequent decision of the Synod, agree very well with the text of the Apostolic Constitutions, and with the whole practice of the Greek Church in respect to celibacy. The Greek Church as well as the Latin accepted the principle, that whoever had taken holy orders before marriage, ought not to be married afterwards. In the Latin Church, bishops, priests, deacons, and even subdeacons, were considered to be subject to this law, because the latter were at a very early period reckoned among the higher servants of the Church, which was not the case in the Greek Church. The Greek Church went so far as to allow deacons to marry after their ordination, if previously to it they had expressly obtained from their bishop permission to do so. The Council of Ancyra affirms this (c. 10). We see that the Greek Church wishes to leave the bishop free to decide the matter; but in reference to priests, it also prohibited them from marrying after their ordination.
Therefore, whilst the Latin Church exacted of those presenting themselves for ordination, even as subdeacons, that they should not continue to live with their wives if they were married, the Greek Church gave no such prohibition; but if the wife of an ordained clergyman died, the Greek Church allowed no second marriage. The Apostolic Constitutions decided this point in the same way. To leave their wives from a pretext of piety was also forbidden to Greek priests; and the Synod of Gangra (c. 4) took up the defence of married priests against the Eustathians. Eustathius, however, was not alone among the Greeks in opposing the marriage of all clerics, and in desiring to introduce into the Greek Church the Latin discipline on this point. St. Epiphanius also inclined towards this side. The Greek Church did not, however, adopt this rigour in reference to priests, deacons, and subdeacons, but by degrees it came to be required of bishops and of the higher order of clergy in general, that they should live in celibacy. Yet this was not until after the compilation of the Apostolic Canons (c. 5) and of the Constitutions; for in those documents mention is made of bishops living in wedlock, and Church history shows that there were married bishops, for instance Synesius, in the fifth century. But it is fair to remark, even as to Synesius, that he made it an express condition of his acceptation, on his election to the episcopate, that he might continue to live the married life. Thomassin believes that Synesius did not seriously require this condition, and only spoke thus for the sake of escaping the episcopal office; which would seem to imply that in his time Greek bishops had already begun to live in celibacy. At the Trullan Synod (c. 13.) the Greek Church finally settled the question of the marriage of priests.
Baronius, Valesius, and other historians, have considered the account of the part taken by Paphnutius to be apocryphal. Baronius says, that as the Council of Nicaea in its third canon gave a law upon celibacy it is quite impossible to admit that it would alter such a law on account of Paphnutius. But Baronius is mistaken in seeing a law upon celibacy in that third canon; he thought it to be so, because, when mentioning the women who might live in the clergyman's house--his mother, sister, etc.--the canon does not say a word about the wife. It had no occasion to mention her, it was referring to the συνεισακτοι whilst these συνεισακτοι and married women have nothing in common. Natalis Alexander gives this anecdote about Paphnutius in full: he desired to refute Bellarmin, who considered it to be untrue and an invention of Socrates to please the Novatians. Natalis Alexander often maintains erroneous opinions, and on the present question he deserves no confidence. If, as St. Epiphanius relates, the Novatians maintained that the clergy might be married exactly like the laity, it cannot be said that Socrates shared that opinion, since he says, or rather makes Paphnutius say, that, according to ancient tradition, those not married at the time of ordination should not be so subsequently. Moreover, if it may be said that Socrates had a partial sympathy with the Novatians, he certainly cannot be considered as belonging to them, still less can he be accused of falsifying history in their favour. He may sometimes have propounded erroneous opinions, but there is a great difference between that and the invention of a whole story.
Valesius especially makes use of the argument ex silentio against Socrates. (a) Rufinus, he says, gives many particulars about Paphnutius in his History of the Church; he mentions his martyrdom, his miracles, and the Emperor's reverence for him, but not a single word of the business about celibacy. (b) The name of Paphnutius is wanting in the list of Egyptian bishops present at the Synod. These two arguments of Valesius are weak; the second has the authority of Rufinus himself against it, who expressly says that Bishop Paphnutius was present at the Council of Nicaea. If Valesius means by lists only the signatures at the end of the acts of the Council, this proves nothing; for these lists are very imperfect, and it is well known that many bishops whose names are not among these signatures were present at Nicaea. This argument ex silentio is evidently insufficient to prove that the anecdote about Paphnutius must be rejected as false, seeing that it is in perfect harmony with the practice of the ancient Church, and especially of the Greek Church, on the subject of clerical marriages. On the other hand, Thomassin pretends that there was no such practice, and endeavours to prove by quotations from St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome, Eusebius, and St. John Chrysostom, that even in the East priests who were married at the time of their ordination were prohibited from continuing to live with their wives. The texts quoted by Thomassin prove only that the Greeks gave especial honour to priests living in perfect continency, but they do not prove that this continence was a duty incumbent upon all priests; and so much the less, as the fifth and twenty-fifth Apostolic canons, the fourth canon of Gangra, and the thirteenth of the Trullan Synod, demonstrate clearly enough what was the universal custom of the Greek Church on this point. Lupus and Phillips explained the words of Paphnutius in another sense. According to them, the Egyptian bishop was not speaking in a general way; he simply desired that the contemplated law should not include the subdeacons. But this explanation does not agree with the extracts quoted from Socrates, Sozomen, and Gelasius, who believe Paphnutius intended deacons and priests as well.
- Friedrich Winkelmann: 'Paphnutios, der Bekenner und Bischof.' In: P. Nagel (Hg.): Probleme der koptischen Literatur. Halle 1968, p. 145-153. And idem: 'Die Problematik der Entstehung der Paphnutioslegende.' In: J. Herrmann: Griechenland - Byzanz - Europa. Berlin 1985, p. 32-42 - (Berliner Byzantinische Arbeiten; 52).
- Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler: The Case for Clerical Celibacy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.
- Karl Josef von Hefele (Bishop of Rottenburg): Conciliengeschichte. 7 vols. Freiburg, 1855-74. English translation: History of the Councils of the Church, 7 vols, 1871-1882.
- Conciliengeschichte, 1855, vol. I, pp.436 ff.