Document: Letter 40
Date: 388
Addressee: Theodosius
English Translation: FC 26.6-19
Summary of Contents: Plea to not rebuild the synagogue at Callinicum

I am continually beset with almost unending cares, O most blessed Emperor, but never have I felt such anxiety as now, for I see that I must be careful not to have ascribed to me anything resembling an act of sacrilege. I beg you, therefore, give ear with patience to what I say. For, if I am not worthy of a hearing from you, I am not worthy of offering sacrifice for you, I to whom you have entrusted the offering of your vows and prayers. Will you yourself not hear one whom you wish heard when he prays in your behalf? Will you not hear one who pleads in his own defense, one whom you have heard plead for others? And do you not fear for your own decision that, if you think him unworthy to be heard by you, you will make him unworthy of being heard for you?

It is not fitting for an emperor to refuse freedom of speech, or for a bishop not to say what he thinks. There is no quality in you emperors so popular and so lovable as the cherishing of liberty even in those whom you have subdued on the battlefield. In fact, it spells the difference between good and bad emperors that the good love liberty; the bad, slavery. And there is nothing in a bishop so fraught with danger before God, so base before men, as not to declare freely what he thinks. Indeed, it is written: “And I spoke of your precepts in the presence of kings and I was not ashamed, and elsewhere: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel,” in order, it is said, “that if the just man shall turn away from his justice and shall commit iniquity, because you have not given him warning,” that is, not told him what to guard against, “his righteousness shall not be remembered, and I will require his blood at thy hand. But if thou warn the righteous that he sin not, and he does not sin, the righteous shall surely live because you have warned him, and you will deliver your soul.”

I would rather, O Emperor, have partnership with you in good deeds than in evil. Therefore, the bishop’s silence should be disagreeable to your Clemency; his freedom, agreeable. You are involved in the peril of my silence, but you are helped by the boon of my freedom. I am not, then, intruding in bothersome fashion where I have no obligation; I am not interfering in the affairs of others; I am complying with my duty; I am obeying the commands of our God. This I do, first of all, out of love for you, in gratitude to you, from a desire to preserve your well-being. If I am not believed or am forbidden a hearing, I speak, nonetheless, for fear of offending God. If my personal peril would set you free, I should offer myself patiently, though not willingly, for you, for I would rather you were acceptable to God and glorious without peril to me. But, if the guilt of silence and untruthfulness should weigh heavily upon me and set you free, I had rather that you think me too bothersome than useless and dishonest. Indeed, it is written in the words of the holy Apostle Paul, whose teaching you cannot disprove: “Be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, entreat, rebuke with all patience and teaching.”

We have one whom it is more perilous to displease, especially since even emperors are not displeased when each man performs his task, and you patiently listen to each as he makes suggestions in his own sphere; in fact, you chide him if he does not act in accordance with his rank in service, Can this seem offensive in bishops, the very thing you are willing to accept from those who are in your service, since we are saying, not what we wish, but what we are bidden to say? You know the passage: “When you will stand before kings and governors, take no thought of what you are to speak; for what you are to speak will be given you in that hour. For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you.” If I were speaking in a case involving the commonwealth (even though justice must be maintained there), I would not feel such dread if I were not given a hearing. But in a case involving God, whom will you listen to if not the bishop, who sins at a greater peril? Who will dare tell you the truth if the bishop does not?

I know that you are God-fearing, merciful, gentle, and calm, that you have the faith and fear of God in your heart, but often some things escape our notice. Some persons have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Care must be taken, I think, lest this condition steal upon pious souls. I know your devotion to God, your leniency toward men. I myself am indebted to you for many kind favors. Therefore, I fear the more, I am the more anxious lest you condemn me later in your judgment for the fault you did not avoid, because of my want of openness and my flattery of you. If I saw you sinning against me, I would not have to be silent, for it is written: “If your brother sins against you, first take hold of him, then rebuke him before two or three witnesses. If he refuse to hear you, tell the Church.” Shall I, then, keep silence in the cause of God? Let us then consider wherein lies my fear.

It was reported by a count of military affairs in the East that a synagogue was burned, and this at the instigation of a bishop. You gave the order for those who were involved to be punished and the synagogue rebuilt at the bishop’s expense. My charge is not that you should have waited for the bishop’s testimony, for bishops quell disturbances and are eager for peace unless they deeply feel some wrong against God or insult to the Church. But suppose that this particular bishop was over-impetuous in burning the synagogue, and too timid at the judgment seat; are you not afraid, Emperor, that he may comply with your pronouncement and do you not fear he may become an apostate?

Are you not afraid of what will perhaps ensue, his resisting the count in so many words? Then he [the count] will have to make him either an apostate or a martyr, either alternative very different from this era of your reign, either one equivalent to persecution if he is forced to apostatize or undergo martyrdom. You see what the outcome of this case will be. If you know that the bishop is firm, beware of making him a martyr if he becomes more firm; if you consider him inconstant, have no part in the downfall of one who is frail. He incurs a heavier obligation who compels the weak to fall.

I am supposing that in the present state of affairs the bishop will admit that he spread the fires, gathered the crowd, and brought the people together in order not to lose the chance of martyrdom and to present a strong individual instead of many weak ones. O happy falsehood, which wins acquittal for others and for himself grace! This, I ask, O Emperor, that you rather take your vengeance on me, and, if you consider this a crime, attribute it to me. Why pronounce judgment on those who are far away? You have someone at hand, you have someone who admits his guilt. I declare that I set fire to the synagogue, at least that I gave the orders, so that there would be no building in which Christ is denied. If the objection is raised that I did not burn the synagogue here, I answer that its burning was begun by God’s judgment, and my work was at an end. If you want the truth, I was really remiss, for I did not think such a deed was to be punished. Why should I have done what was to be without one to punish, and without reward? These words cause me shame but they bring me grace, lest I offend the most-high God.

Let no one call the bishop to task for performing his duty: that is the request I make of your Clemency. And although I have not read that the edict was revoked, let us consider it revoked. What if other more timid persons should, through fear of death, offer to repair the synagogue at their expense, or the count, finding this previously determined, should order it to be rebuilt from the funds of Christians? Will you, O Emperor, have the count an apostate, and entrust to him the insignia of victory, or give the labaruni, which is sanctified by Christ’s name, to one who will rebuild a synagogue which knows not Christ? Order the labarum carried into the synagogue and let us see if they [the Jews] do not resist.

Shall a place be provided out of the spoils of the Church for the disbelief of the Jews, and shall this patrimony, given to Christians by the favor of Christ, be transferred to the treasuries of unbelievers? We read that, of old, temples were reared for idols from the plunder taken from the Cimbrians and from the spoils of the enemy. The Jews will write on the front of their synagogue the inscription: “The Temple of Impiety, erected from the spoils of the Christians.”

Is your motive a point of discipline, O Emperor? Which is of more importance: a demonstration of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law should be secondary to religion.

Have you not heard how, when Julian had ordered the Temple of Jerusalem rebuilt, those who were clearing the rubbish were burned by fire from heaven? Are you not afraid that this will also happen now? In fact, you should never have given an order such as Julian would have given.

What is your motive? Is it because a public building of some sort has been burned, or because it chanced to be the synagogue there? If you are disturbed by the burning of a very unimportant building (for what could there be in so mean a town?), do you remember, O Emperor, how many homes of prefects at Rome have been burned and no one has exacted punishment? In fact, if any of the emperors wanted to punish such a deed more severely, he only aggravated the cause of all who had suffered such a great loss. If there is going to be any justice at all, which is more fitting, that a fire on some part of the building of Callinicum be avenged, or one at Rome? Some time, ago the bishop’s residence at Constantinople was burned, and your Clemency’s son pleaded with his father, begging you not to punish the insult done to him, the emperor’s son, in the burning of the episcopal residence. Do you not think, O Emperor, that if you were to order this burning to be punished, he would again plead that it be not so? It was very suitable for your son to gain that favor from his father, for it was fitting that he first forgive what was done to him. Besides, there was a good division of grace there, since the son made the entreaty regarding his injury, and so did the father for the son’s. Here is nothing for you to waive in your son’s behalf; be careful, then, to derogate nothing from God.

There is really no adequate cause for all this commotion, people being punished so severely for the burning of a building, and much less so, since a synagogue has been burned, an abode of unbelief, a house of impiety, a shelter of madness under the damnation of God Himself. For we read by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord our God speaking; “And I will do to this house in which my name is called upon, and which you trust, and to the place which I have given you and your father, as I did to Silo. And I will cast you away from before my face, as I have cast away all your brethren, the whole seed of Ephraim. Therefore do not pray for this people, nor show mercy for them and do not approach me for them; for I will not hear you. Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah?” God forbids us to make intercession for those that you think should be vindicated.

If I were pleading according to the law of the nations, I would mention how many of the Church’s basilicas the Jews burned in the time of Julian, two at Damascus one of which is scarcely yet repaired, and that at the expense of the Church, not of the synagogue while the other basilica is still a rough heap of unsightly ruins. Basilicas were burned at Gaza, Ascalon, Beirut, in fact, almost all over that region, and no one demanded punishment. A basilica of surpassing beauty at Alexandria was burned by heathens and Jews, but the Church was not avenged, and shall the synagogue be avenged?

Shall the burning of the temple of the Valentinians also be avenged? What is it but a temple where the heathens gather? Although the heathens worship twelve gods, the Valentinians worship thirty-two Aeons, whom they call gods. I have found out that a law was passed and orders given for the punishment of some monks to whom the Valentinians denied the right of way as they sang the psalms by an ancient custom and practice, going on their way to the feast of the martyrs, the Machabees. In anger at their effrontery they [the monks] burned their hurriedly built shrine in some country village.

How many can entertain such hope when they remember that in the time of Julian a man who had thrown down an altar and disturbed the sacrifice was sentenced by the judge and suffered martyrdom? The judge who heard the case was never considered other than a persecutor. No one ever thought him worth meeting or saluting with a kiss. And if he were not dead, I would be afraid, O Emperor, that you would punish him, although he did not escape heaven’s vengeance, for he outlived his heir.

But it is said that a trial of the judge was demanded and the decision handed down that he should not have reported the deed, but punished it; and money chests which had been taken had to be restored. I shall omit any other details. The churches’ basilicas were burned by the Jews and nothing was restored, nothing was demanded in return, nothing was required. Moreover, what could a synagogue in a distant town contain, when everything there is not much, is of no value, is of no account. In fine, what could those scheming Jews have lost In this act of plunder? These are but the devices of Jews wishing to bring false charges, so that by reason of their complaints an extraordinary military inquiry may be demanded and soldiers sent who will perhaps say that was said here some time before your accession, O Emperor: “How will Christ be able to help us who are sent to avenge Jews? They lost their own army, they wish to destroy ours.”

Furthermore, into what false charges will they not break forth, when they even falsely accused Christ with their false witnesses? Into what false charges will men not break forth when they were liars even in matters divine? Whom will they not name as the instigators of the sedition? Whom will they not attack, even though they know them not, just so that they may see countless Christians in chains, see the necks of faithful people bowed in captivity, that the servants of God may go into dark hiding places, be struck with axes, given to the flames, and delivered to the mines, so that their sufferings may not pass hurriedly?

Will you grant the Jews this triumph over God’s Church? this trophy over Christ’s people? these joys, O Emperor, to unbelievers? this festival to the synagogue? this grief to the Church? The Jewish people will put this solemnity among their feast days, and doubtless they will rank it with their triumphs over the Amorites and the Canaanites, or their deliverance from Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, or from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They will have this solemnity marking the triumphs they have wrought over the people of Christ.

And although they refuse to be bound by the laws of Rome, thinking them outrageous, they now wish to be avenged, so to speak, by Roman laws. Where were those laws when they set fire to the domes of the sacred basilicas? If Julian did not avenge the Church, because he was an apostate, will you, O Emperor, avenge the harm done the synagogue, because you are a Christian?

And what will Christ say later to you? Do you not recall that He sent word to blessed David through Nathan the Prophet? “I have chosen you, the youngest of your brethren, and have made you an emperor from a private individual. The fruits of your seed I have put upon the imperial throne. I have made barbarian nations subject to you; I have given you peace; I have brought your captive enemy into power. You had no grain to feed your army; I threw open the gates to you; I opened the granaries to you by the hand of the enemies themselves. Your enemy prepared provisions for themselves and gave them to you, I troubled the counsels of your enemy so that he laid himself bare. I so fettered the usurper of the Empire and bound his mind that while he still had a chance to flee, as though afraid that one of his men should elude you, he shut himself in with them all. His officer and forces on the other element, whom I had routed earlier, so that they would not join battle against you, I brought together again to complete your victory. Your army gathered from many unruly nations I bade keep faith and peace and concord, as if of one nation. And when there was great danger that the perfidious plans of the barbarians would penetrate the Alps, in order that you might conquer and suffer no loss, I brought you victory within the very ramparts of the Alps. I, then, caused you to triumph over your enemy, and are you giving my enemies a triumph over my people?”

Was not Maxirnus undone because, when he heard that the synagogue at Rome had been burned, before the set time for his expedition, he sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the champion of public order? On this account the Christian people said: “No good is in store for him! The king has turned Jew, we have heard he is a defender of those whom Christ soon made trial of, He who died for sinners.” If this was said of his mere words, what will be said of your actual punishment? He was soon conquered by the Franks, by the Saxon nation, in Sicily, at Siscia, at Pettau; in fact, everywhere. What has the believer in common with this unbeliever? Marks of his baseness should die with the base one. The victor should not imitate, but condemn his injury of the vanquished for his offenses.

I have recounted these details for you, not through ingratitude, but I have enumerated them as rightly due to you, so that by heeding these warnings you, who have been given more, will love the more. When Simon answered in these words, the Lord Jesus said: “You have judged rightly,” and turning at once to the woman anointing His feet, setting forth an example for the Church, He said to Simon: “Therefore I say to you, her sins, many as they are, shall be forgiven her, because she has loved much. But he to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” This is the woman who entered the house of the Pharisee and cast off the Jew, but gained Christ, for the Church shut out the synagogue. Why is trial again being made within the household of Christ? Is it that the synagogue may shut out the Church from the bosom of faith, from the house of Christ?

These- matters, O Emperor, I have gathered together in this address out of love and attachment to you, I am under obligation for your kindnesses at my requests when you released many from exile, from prisons, and from the extreme penalty of death. I am bound to prefer hurting your feelings for the sake of your welfare (for no one has greater confidence than one who loves from the heart, and certainly no one should harm one whose interests he has at heart) ; and I should not fear to lose in one moment the favor which other bishops and I have enjoyed for so many years. Yet it is not the loss of that favor that I would avert, but the peril to salvation.

How important it is for you, O Emperor, not to feel bound to investigate or punish a matter which no one up to now has investigated or punished! It is a serious matter to jeopardize your faith in behalf of the Jews. When Gideon had slain the sacred calf, the heathens said: “Let the gods themselves avenge the injury done to them.” Whose task is it to avenge the synagogue? Christ whom they slew, whom they denied? Or will God the Father avenge those who did not accept the Father, since they did not accept the Son? Whose task is it to avenge the heresy of the Valentinians? How can your Piety avenge them when it has given orders for them to be denied entrance and has denied them the right of assembly? If I give you the example of Josias as a king approved by God, will you condemn in them what was approved in him?”

Yet, if you have little faith in me, bid those bishops assemble whom you do esteem. Discuss with them, O Emperor, what ought to be done without injury to the faith. If you consult your officers on money matters, how much fairer is it to consult the Lord’s priests on a religious matter!

Let your Clemency consider how many persons plot and spy on the Church. If they find a slight crack, they drive in an arrow. I speak in the manner of men, but God is more feared than men, for He is rightly preferred even to emperors. If someone considers it proper to show deference to a friend, or parents or relatives, I think it rightly should be shown to God and that He should be preferred to all Consult your best interests, O Emperor, or allow me to consult mine.

What shall be my excuse later if it is found out that by authority emanating from here some Christians were slain by the sword or clubs or leaden balls? How will I justify such a deed? How will I make excuse to those bishops who sorely lament the fact that priests or other ministers of the Church who have performed their office for thirty years and more are dragged away from their sacred tasks and assigned to curial offices? If men who war for you are kept for a set time of service, how much more ought you to be considerate of those who war for God? How, I say, shall I justify this before bishops who complain about the clergy and write that the churches are being ruined by the serious attacks being made on them?

For this reason, I wanted this to come to the notice of your Clemency. You will, when it pleases you, condescend to consult and temper your wishes; but exclude and put an end to that which troubles me, and rightly so. Do yourself what you ordered to be done, even if he [the count] is not going to do it. I would rather that you be merciful than that he fail to do what he was ordered.

In return for those whom you now have, you ought to cultivate and win the Lord’s mercy for the Roman Empire, for you have more for them than you hoped for yourself. Let their favor, their well-being, appeal to you in these words of mine. I fear that you will entrust your cause to another’s will. You still have everything in its original state. In this I pledge myself to our God for you: Have no scruple over your oath. Can that displease God which is corrected for His honor? Alter nothing in that letter, whether it was sent or not. Order another to be written, which will be filled with faith, with piety. You can still correct yourself; I cannot hide the truth.

You forgave the people of Antioch the injury they offered you; you recalled your enemy’s daughters and gave them to a relative to rear, and from your own treasury you sent your enemy’s mother a pension. This great faith and piety toward God will be blackened by the present deed. I beg you, after sparing enemies in arms and saving personal enemies, do not presume to punish Christians with such intensity.

Now, O Emperor, I beg you not to hear me with con- tempt, for I fear for you and for myself, as says the holy man: “Wherefore was I born to see the ruin of my people,” that I should commit an offense against God? Indeed, I have done what I could do honorably, that you might hear me in the palace rather than make it necessary to hear me in the Church.

Translation from FC 26.6-19, adapted by SMT

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