Eucharistic Belief Manifest In the Epitaphs of Abercius and Pectorius

Author: Gregory Grabka, O.F.M.


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 centuries.

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, 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.[1] 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.[2] 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 have stated.

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.[3] 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 uninitiated.

The following is the text of the Epitaph of Abercius in a free translation. Verses 7-15 represent the discovery of William Ramsay:

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 plains,

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 sandals.

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 Nisibis

11 when I crossed the Euphrates. Everywhere I met brethren in agreement,

12 having Paul [as my companion].[4] 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 bread.

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 for Abercius.

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 of gold.

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."[5] Origen, the great master of the Alexandrian School, remarks: "Those who are initiated understand these things."[6] 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.[7] 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."[8] 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.[9] 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 [10]


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;[11] in time a great number of other scholars made diligent researches into its date, language and contents.

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 dead.

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 these words:

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.[12]

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."[13] St. Cyprian attests to the observance of this custom in the African churches.[14]


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";[15] the Eucharistic Bread "is the medicine of immortality, the antidote that we may not die, but live for ever in Jesus Christ."[16] 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";[17] "With these sacraments [i.e. the eucharistic bread and wine], therefore, Christ feeds his Church; by them the soul's very being is strengthened."[18] 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."[19] 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."[20] 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.



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, 1-2).

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, 5.

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.

8 1.

9 Cf. J. Wilpert, , Citta del Vaticano 1938.

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 Review."

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