EUCHARISTIC BELIEF MANIFEST IN THE EPITAPHS OF ABERCIUS AND
In the sixteenth century the pseudo-Reformers violently disrupted
the unity of Christendom and, under the guise of a return to pure
Gospel teaching, sealed off from vast masses of Christians the
living fountain of eternal life, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and
deprived them of the Holy Eucharist, the divine food and drink of
immortality. Since that time learned men have diligently inquired
what the Christians of early centuries professed regarding the
vitally important article of faith of the Catholic Church, the
doctrine that under the eucharistic species of bread and wine
there is really, truly, and substantially present the Body and
Blood of the Redeemer of mankind, Christ Jesus. The Holy Eucharist
is indeed at the very heart of Catholicism; it is truly the hearth
of Catholic life and worship; it is the divine spring of heroism
and martyrdom, the inexhaustible source of spiritual life and
strength that vivifies, strengthens and welds together in one bond
of charity the countless masses of faithful dispersed over the
world into one body, the Mystical Body of Christ which is the
visible Catholic Church.
Catholic theologians and historians have kept pace with these
inquiries and researches in the field of Christian Antiquity to
show the unbroken chain of tradition in the oneness of faith and
worship. With the increase in studies in the realm of ancient
liturgical and eucharistic monuments they have shed new light on
the oneness of belief in the Holy Eucharist; they have brought to
light new works of ancient Christian writers hitherto unknown;
they have unearthed fresh evidence in confirmation of the reality
of Christ's presence in the Eucharist under the appearances of
bread and wine. Much of this evidence deals with archaeological
discoveries pertinent to Christian life and worship of the early
For down through the centuries the faithful have ever held the
same sacred belief that Christ, Son of God and Son of Virgin Mary,
is verily, really and substantially present in the Eucharist.
True, the liturgical rites and practices differed as to their
external ceremonies in not a few localities and churches, but the
dogma of the Blessed Eucharist had always remained one and the
same for all these centuries. The Christians of old showed no less
faith, no less piety, no less fervor than the faithful of our day
toward the Holy Eucharist.
The early Christians have bequeathed to posterity monuments of
their faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist that
speak a language entirely their own; they are in form of
inscriptions, epitaphs, paintings and sculpture. Of all the
ancient Christian inscriptions bearing on the Holy Eucharist none
are perhaps more eloquent than the and the
, both discovered in the last century.
In the pages that follow we will present a brief history of these
two epitaphs, a free translation of the original texts, and
explain their eucharistic message.
THE EPITAPH OF ABERCIUS
The Epitaph of Abercius, Bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia, Asia
Minor, is the oldest eucharistic monument of stone. Since its
discovery it often has been referred to as the "Queen of all
ancient Christian inscriptions." The life of Bishop Abercius has
been fairly well known from the acts in the
written by an anonymous author of the fourth or fifth century and
preserved in a tenth-century codex of a Byzantine hagiographer,
Metaphrastes. The acts state that Abercius was bishop of
Hierapolis in Phrygia during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and
that he was a traveler of considerable repute: he has journeyed
far and wide to preach the Gospel and to visit the more
illustrious churches of his time. He visited such distant
places as Syria, Nisibis, and crossed the Euphrates; but the great
event of his life was his journey to the queen of all Christian
communities, the Church of Rome. All his journeys had an
ecclesiastical purpose, and it is likely they were connected with
the Montanist movement. Upon his return to his native city he left
to posterity a memorial of these travels in the form of a metrical
inscription, which he himself dictated at the age of seventy-two
years, and ordered it to be placed after his death on his tomb.
This is the , a transcript of which is
preserved in a somewhat corrupt condition in the .
Because of many seemingly incredible miracles and other legendary
lore narrated in the acts of his life, historians looked upon the
biography of Abercius with suspicion and considered it a mere
legend, a pious invention, especially since the name of Abercius
was not listed among the bishops of Hierapolis. Even the epitaph
itself was discredited as a part of this legend.
It was not until 1882 that the inscription became a focal point of
scholarly interest. In that year Sir William Ramsay of the
University of Aberdeen, Scotland, while on a tour of Asia Minor,
discovered at Kelendres, near Synnada in Phrygia, a tombstone
bearing an inscription of one Alessandros (Alexander). The
inscription, dated the year 300 of the Phrygian era, which is the
year 216 A.D., showed great similarity to the epitaph of Abercius
in the Codex of Metaphrastes. A thorough study of these
inscriptions at the hands of eminent archaeologists disclosed the
fact that the inscription of Alexander was merely a copy, with
minor differences, of that of Abercius. Scholars pointed out that,
besides certain identical phrases, the name Alessandros was
substituted for that of Aberkios (Abercius); as a result of this
change, the meter of the verse did not correspond to Greek
hexameter. This discovery dispelled former doubts and suspicions
as to the actual existence of Abercius and of his epitaph. It
indicated that the Epitaph of Abercius was genuine and that it
could belong to the second century, just as the acts of his life
Spurred on by this discovery, the eminent Catholic archaeologist
of the past century, John B. De Rossi, publicly invited William
Ramsay to return once again to Asia Minor and make diligent search
for any extant fragment of the original inscription of Abercius.
The following year, in 1883, William Ramsay discovered in the city
of Hieropolis two fragments of the actual tombstone of Abercius;
they were found built into the masonry of the public baths. With
the help of the inscription of Alexander and the extant acts of
Abercius, scholars were able to reconstruct the entire inscription
with the exception of a few more or less doubtful words. In 1892
Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey donated one fragment to Pope Leo XIII
on the occasion of the Supreme Pontiff's golden sacerdotal
jubilee; the other fragment was presented to him by Sir William
Ramsay himself. They are now preserved in the Lateran Museum.
The discoveries of Ramsay have placed beyond doubt the
authenticity of the Epitaph of Abercius. They also proved that he
was bishop, not of Hierapolis, as erroneously transcribed in the
codexes and as previous scholars had assumed, but of the less
important city of Hieropolis; and further that he was none other
than Avircius Marcellus mentioned by Eusebius in his (V, 16, 3)-a well-known anti-Montanist leader of such
great esteem that he was reckoned a great wonder-worker two
centuries after his death.
The Epitaph of Abercius was set up a good many years before 216
A.D., the date of the inscription of Alexander; very likely about
192, the year in which an anonymous writer dedicated an anti-
Montanist work to him. The twenty-two verses of the epitaph
summarize the life, deeds and travels of Bishop Abercius; his
journey to Rome is singled out as a major event. The inscription
itself is couched in mystical and symbolical language-the language
of early Christians which, according to the prevailing Discipline
of the Secret, served to conceal the mysteries of faith from the
The following is the text of the Epitaph of Abercius in a free
translation. Verses 7-15 represent the discovery of William
1 The citizen of an eminent city, this monument I made
2 whilst still living, that there I might have in time a resting
place for my body.
3 My name is Abercius, the disciple of the holy shepherd
4 who feeds his flocks of sheep on the mountains and in the
5 who has great eyes that see everywhere.
6 This shepherd taught me the Book worthy of belief.
7 It is he who sent me to Rome to behold the royal majesty
8 and to see the queen arrayed in golden vestments and golden
9 There also I saw the people famous for their seal.
10 And I saw the plains of Syria and all its cities, and also
11 when I crossed the Euphrates. Everywhere I met brethren in
12 having Paul [as my companion]. Everywhere faith was my guide
13 and everywhere provided as my food the Fish
14 of exceeding great size and pure whom the spotless virgin
caught from the spring.
15 And faith ever gives this food to his disciples to eat,
16 having the choicest wine and administering the mixed drink with
17 I, Abercius, standing by, ordered these words to be inscribed,
18 being in the course of my seventy second year.
19 Let him who understands these words and believes the same pray
20 No one shall place another tomb over my grave;
21 but if he do so, he shall pay to the treasury of the Romans two
thousand pieces of gold
22 and to my beloved native city Hieropolis, one thousand pieces
In keeping with the Discipline of the Secret, the Epitaph of
Abercius is crowded with information on matters of faith and
religious practice enshrined in mystical and symbolical terms that
were readily understood by the baptized, but remained
unintelligible to the average pagan reader. As a rule the early
Christians were never wont to divulge to the heathen public the
great mysteries of faith, particularly what concerned the
sacraments of Christian initiation, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the
contents of the Creed, etc. Discourses on such subjects were
reserved for the illuminated, that is, those who received the
sacrament of Baptism. This practice continued for several
centuries. Thus St. Cyril of Jerusalem, addressing the
"" says: "Now when the catechizing has taken place,
should a catechumen ask what the teachers have said, tell nothing
to a stranger; for we deliver to thee a mystery, even the hope of
life to come: keep the mystery for Him who pays thee.... See thou
let out nothing; not that the things spoken do not deserve
telling, but the ear that hears does not deserve receiving."
Origen, the great master of the Alexandrian School, remarks:
"Those who are initiated understand these things." Abercius
himself purposely dictated his inscription in such wise that only
his co-religionists understood its meaning: "Let him who
understands these words and believes the same pray for Abercius"
(v. 19); in other words, not all understand the meaning of the
inscription, but fellow-believers do; for them it is meet to pray
for the dead.
In the light of the foregoing, the eucharistic message of the
Epitaph of Abercius is clear. The holy shepherd, of whom Abercius
calls himself a disciple, is none other than Christ, the Good
Shepherd. He has sent him on a mission to Rome to see the
Church, "the queen arrayed in golden vestments and golden
sandals," famous for its faith and for its founders. Faith was his
guide on his journeys to the many Christian communities;
everywhere he went, he met those who professed the same belief.
The food which his co-believers offered him everywhere was not the
ordinary food, but the eucharistic food under the species of bread
and wine. Abercius describes this food with one word: it is
'ichthus', literally meaning , but to the early Christians
it meant Christ Himself: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour-the
meaning of the acrostic 'ICHTHUS'. The fish was the symbol of
Christ and of the eucharistic banquet: Christ is the "'ichthus' of
exceeding great size and pure whom the spotless virgin brought
forth from a spring" (v. 14). The faithful on their part are, in
the language of Tertullian, "little fishes": "Nos pisciculi
secundum 'ichthun' nostrum Jesum Christum in aqua nascimur."
The spotless Virgin who caught the Fish from the spring is,
according to the symbolism of the time, the Virgin Mary who
conceived the Savior. The eucharistic food, then, is Christ
Himself, the great and pure 'ICHTHUS': which is given only to the
initiated and is administered under both species of bread and
wine-the Body and Blood of Our Savior: "administering the mixed
drink with bread" (v. 16). The "mixed drink" (Gr.: 'kerhasma')
doubtless refers to the cup of wine mixed (tempered) with water;
together with bread it constitutes the eucharistic 
THE INSCRIPTION OF PECTORIUS
The inscription of Pectorius is reckoned among the finest
eucharistic discoveries of early Christianity. In 1839 seven
fragments of a marble gravestone bearing the inscription of
Pectorius were found in an old cemetery in the vicinity of Autun,
in Southern France. The celebrated Catholic liturgical scholar Dom
J. P. Pitra, later Cardinal, was the first to have studied this
epitaph and published it in 1852; in time a great number of
other scholars made diligent researches into its date, language
In style, phraseology and symbolical language the Inscription of
Pectorius greatly resembles that of Abercius. It is a Greek
metrical composition of eleven verses in which two distinct parts
can easily be discerned: the first is composed of three distichs
which differ in meter and style from the remaining five hexameters
which form the second part of the inscription. The first six
verses are of doctrinal character and address the reader; the last
five ate of a more personal nature: Pectorius dedicates the
inscription to his deceased parents and brothers who rest "in the
peace of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior," and prays that they
remember him. The fragments of the inscription are presently in
the museum of Autun.
The Greek text of the inscription has a prominent feature which is
entirely lost in an English translation, namely, the first letter'
of the words introducing each of the first five verses from the
word 'ICHTHUS': and thus bind the verses together. This word not
only opens the first verse, but also appears in the text of the
sixth, seventh and eleventh verse. We may well assume that such an
order and symbolism were not accidental; they conveyed to the mind
of the Christians a message guarded in terms they well understood.
The date of the Inscription of Pectorius is less certain than that
of Abercius. Cardinal Pitra and John B. De Rossi date it to the
beginning of the second century; others, not later than the
fourth. If we consider the place of its discovery, its Greek
language which, from the beginning of the third century, began to
decline in popular usage in the West, and its symbolism, the time
of its origin can be placed in the declining years of the second
or early third century.
The text of the inscription freely translated reads as follows:
1 Thou, the divine child of the heavenly Fish
2 Keep pure thy heart among the mortals
3 Once thou hast been washed in the fountain of divine waters.
Refresh thy soul, friend,
4 With the ever flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom.
5 Take from the Redeemer of saints the honey-sweet food;
6 Eat with joy and desire, holding the Fish in thy hands.
7 I pray thee, Lord Savior, satisfy his hunger with the Fish.
8 May my mother rest peacefully, I beseech thee, Light of the
9 Aschandius, father, my heart's beloved
10 With my dearest mother and my brothers
11 In the peace of the Fish remember thy Pectorius.
The inscription of Pectorius is indeed a precious gem of ancient
Christian epigraphy and one of the most eloquent lapidary
monuments of early Christian faith in the real presence of Christ
in the Holy Eucharist. In it Pectorius hails the Christian as one
of a race apart from others, of the race of Jesus Christ: "the
divine child of the heavenly 'ICHTHUS'." In the immortal fountain
of divine waters he is regenerated unto a new life which is
henceforth nourished with the eucharistic food, "the honey-sweet
food of the Redeemer of saints" (v. 5). This food sweet as honey
is the 'ICHTHUS' Himself, Christ Jesus, whom under the appearance
of bread the Christian receives into his hands whenever he
partakes of this spiritual nourishment. The Christian is invited
to partake of this food: "Eat with joy and desire, holding the
Fish in thy hands" (v. 6), that is, holding Jesus Christ, Son of
God, Saviour, in thy hands.
The words "holding the Fish in thy hands" refer to the ancient
liturgical custom according to which the faithful received the
Holy Eucharist directly into their hands and then consumed It. St.
Cyril of Jerusalem describes minutely this liturgical rite in his
mystagogical catechesis to the neophytes. He instructs them in
Approaching, therefore, come not with thy palms extended and
stretched flat nor with thy fingers open; but make thy left hand
as if a throne for the right, and hollowing thy palm receive the
Body of Christ, saying after it, Amen. Then after thou hast with
care sanctified thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake
thereof, giving heed lest thou lose any particle of it; for
shouldest thou lose any of it, it is as though thou hast lost a
member of thy own body. For tell me, if any one gave thee gold
dust, wouldest thou not with all precaution keep it fast, being on
the guard lest thou lose any of it and thus suffer loss? How much
more cautiously then wilt thou observe that not a crumb falls from
thee, of what is more precious than gold and precious stones? . .
. Then after having partaken of the Body of Christ, approach also
the Cup of His Blood; not extending thy hands, but bending low and
saying in the way of worship and reverence, Amen, be thou
sanctified by partaking also of the Blood of Christ.
The same custom was observed in the Church of Alexandria. It is
explicitly mentioned by St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, in
his letter to Pope Xystus. Dionysius has sought counsel of the
Bishop of Rome in the case of one who, having been baptized by
heretics, begged the bishop to receive the sacrament of Baptism
according to the duly recognized rites of Christian initiation.
St. Dionysius informs Pope Xystus that he has refused this
petition on the grounds that the man has already been initiated
into the Christian religion and for many years has faithfully
participated in the eucharistic Offering: "For since he had heard
the Thanksgiving and joined in saying the Amen, and stood beside
the Table and stretched forth his hands to receive the holy food,
and had received it and partaken of the Body and Blood of our Lord
for a long time, I should not dare to build him up again from the
beginning." St. Cyprian attests to the observance of this
custom in the African churches.
The epitaphs of Abercius and Pectorius, set up in countries far
apart, evidence wonderful agreement among the Christians both in
the East and in the West in the Catholic doctrine of the Holy
Eucharist-doctrine which the Catholic Church has ever professed,
inculcated, expounded and jealously guarded through the centuries.
The works of the Fathers of the Church, ancient Christian art,
epigraphy, and liturgical documents all conspire without any
discordant note in one harmonious belief that the faithful receive
the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
As long as the Discipline of the Secret was in full vigor and
forbade unveiling what was contained and received in the
eucharistic synaxis, the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ
under the appearances of bread and wine could not be disclosed to
the heathen in the epitaphs of Abercius and Pectorius. Hence the
symbolism of the fish, so widely used in Christian Antiquity, and
the acrostic 'ICHTHUS', so sacred to early Christians, served as a
tessera and credential letters by means of which they recognized
each other wherever they went; a sign which gained them entrance
to the liturgical Synaxes where the faithful partook at the sacred
Table of the heavenly Fish, that is, of the Body and Blood of
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
The faith of Abercius and Pectorius, which gave them the honey-
sweet food of the Redeemer of saints, is the same faith which
inspired the holy Bishop-Martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch to write
in the beginning of the second century: "I desire the bread of God
which is the flesh of Jesus Christ (born) of the seed of David,
and the drink that I long for is His Blood which is incorruptible
charity"; the Eucharistic Bread "is the medicine of
immortality, the antidote that we may not die, but live for ever
in Jesus Christ." It is the same faith to which St. Ambrose
attests in the fourth century: "This food which thou receives" is
the living bread which came down from heaven, and furnisheth the
substance of eternal life; and whosoever eateth this, shall never
die: and it is the Body of Christ"; "With these sacraments
[i.e. the eucharistic bread and wine], therefore, Christ feeds his
Church; by them the soul's very being is strengthened." It is
the same faith to which St. Cyril of Jerusalem bears witness:
"Since then He Himself has declared and said of the Bread, 'This
is My Body,' who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has
affirmed and said, 'This is My Blood,' who shall ever hesitate,
saying, that it is not His Blood? . . . Therefore with fullest
assurance let us partake of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in
the figure of Bread is given to thee His Body, and in the figure
of Wine His Blood; that thou partaking of the Body and Blood of
Christ, mightest be made of the same body and the same blood with
Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and
Blood are diffused through our members." It is the same faith
which the Council of Trent solemnly teaches: "after the
consecration of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God
and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained in the
august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the appearance of
those sensible things." Lastly, it is the same faith which
today gives the same and nourishment to His true
followers. It is the Food of which Christ has spoken:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man pat
of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will
give, is my flesh, for the life of the world.... Except you eat
the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not
have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood,
hath everlasting life. My flesh is real food, and my blood is real
drink. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in
me, and I in him.
St. Hyacinth Seminary Granby, Mass.
GREGORY GRABKA, O.F.M.Conv.
1 PG cxv, col. 1211. There are extant three different versions of
the life of Abercius.
2 Such travels for the purpose of ascertaining the unity of faith
in the various Christian communities were not uncommon in early
times. Eusebius ( V, 22, 1 ff.) has preserved
extracts from the memoirs of Hegesipus who made extensive travels
to Corinth, Rome, and other important churches; he states "that he
had received the same teaching from all." St. Polycarp came to
Rome to consult Pope Anicetus on the question of the celebration
of Easter (cf. Eusebius, , V, 24, 16-17). St. Irenaeus
journeyed to Rome to negotiate with Pope Eleutherius in connection
with the Montanist movement (cf. Eusebius, , V, 3, 4; 4,
3 Eusebius, , V, 16, 2.
4 This verse lacks a word or two. The words enclosed by brackets
are supplied by the translator.
5 12.-We know from other ancient Christian sources
that such discretion on the part of ecclesiastical authorities was
prompted by the Lord's injunction: "Give not that which is holy to
dogs; neither cast your pearls before the swine" (Matt. 7:6). St.
Cyprian remarks that "we are commanded also to keep what is holy
within our own knowledge, and not to expose it to be trodden upon
by swine and dogs, the Lord thus speaking and saying, 'Give not
that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls
before the swine,' lest they trample them under their feet, and
turn again, and rend you" ( 1). Cf. ix,
6 viii, 4: "Quae norunt qui initiati sunt"; ix, 10: "Novit qui mysteriis imbutus est."
7 Cf. x, 11.-The figure of a shepherd, often depicted with
a lamb on his shoulders, is one of the most common representations
of Christ in ancient Christian art and sculpture.
9 Cf. J. Wilpert, , Citta del
10 Cf. Justin, I, 61, 3, where bread and a chalice
containing wine mixed with water ('poierhion krhamatos') is
offered in the celebration of Eucharist.
11 Cf. n. 12.
12 5, 21-22.
13 Eusebius, VII, 9, 4.
14 16, 22; 14. See A. D'Ales, (Paris 1922), 266-271; Batiffol, op.
cit., 228-229, 245.
15 vii, 3.
16 , xx, 2.
17 8, n. 47.
18 , 9, n. 55; cf. IV, 4, n. 13-20.
19 4, 1, 3.
20 Sessio XIII, cap. 1. . 874.
21 , 6:51, f.; 54 ff.
Taken from the October 1954 issue of "The American Ecclesiastical
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN