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Inscription of Abercius

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Estimated Range of Dating: 193-216 A.D.

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Information on Inscription of Abercius

J. Quasten writes (Patrology, vol. 1, pp. 171-172):

The queen of all ancient Christian inscriptions is the epitaph of Abercius. In 1883 the archeologist W. Ramsay of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland discovered, near Hieropolis in Phrygia Salutaris, two fragments of this inscription, which are now in the Lateran Museum. A year before he had found a Christian epitaph of Alexander, dated 216, which was merely an imitation of the inscription of Abercius. With the help of this epitaph of Alexander and a Greek biography of Abercius from the fourth century published by Boissonade in 1838, it was possible to restore the entire text of the inscription. It consists of 22 verses, a distichon, and 20 hexameters. In content it is a summary of the life and deeds of Abercius. The text was composed at the end of the second century, certainly before the year 216, the date of the epitaph of Alexander. The author of the inscription is Abercius, Bishop of Hieropolis, who composed it at the age of 72 years. The great event of his life was his journey to Rome, of which he gives an account. The inscription is written in a mystical and symbolical style, according to the discipline of the secret, to conceal its Christian character from the uninitiated. The metaphorical phraseology is responsible for the sharp controversy which followed the discovery of this monument. Several scholars, like G. Ficker and A. Dietrich, tried to prove that Abercius was not a Christian, but a venerator of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, while A. Harnack called Abercius a syncretist. However, De Rossi, Duchesne, Cumont, Doelger and Abel have successfully demonstrated that the content as well as the language proves beyond doubt its Christian origin.

J. Tixeront writes (A Handbook of Patrology, p. 82):

The inscription of Abercius. Prof. Ramsay in 1883 discovered a large part of the text of this inscription, together with the funerary cippus which bore it. It is the self-written epitaph, in twenty-two verses, of a certain Abercius, a citizen of Hierapolis in Phrygia. Abercius, in language of simple allegory, declares himself a disciple of the Good Shepherd, speaks of his journeys to Rome and Syria, and mentions Baptism and the Eucharist. The inscription is certainly Christian and dates from the end of the second century. Abercius is probably the Avircius Marcellus, to whom the anonymous anti-Montanist, mentioned above, had dedicated his work. Msgr. Duchesne thinks he was bishop of Hierapolis.

J. B. Lightfoot writes (The Apostolic Fathers, pt. II, vol. I, pp. 498-499):

When I still supposed, as was then the universal opinion, that the Abercius of the epitaph was bishop of Hierapolis on the Maeander, I ventured to identify him, as others had done, with the Avircius Marcellus to whom an anonymous writer (Eus. H. E. v. 16) addresses a treatise in an early stage of the Montanist controversy (see Colossians p. 56). This identification becomes still more probable now that he has been shown to belong to Hieropolis of Lesser Phrygia; for this anonymous writer mentions one Zoticus of Otrous as his 'fellow-presbyter' (του συμπρεσβυτερου ημων Zωτικου Οτρηνου), and Otrous was only two miles from this Hierapolis. Starting from this identification, Duchesne (p. 30) places the date of this Montanist treatise at about A.D. 211. This date is founded on the statement of the anonymous author, that 'more than thirteen years' had elapsed since the death of Maximilla, during which there had been no war in the world either partial or general (ουτε μερικος ουτε καθολικος κοσμω γεγονε πολεμος), and even the Christians had enjoyed continuous peace (αλλα και ξριστιανοις μαλλον ειρηνη διαμονος). With Bonwetsch (Montanismus p. 146 sq), he calculates these thirteen years from A.D. 198, the year of Severus' Parthian victories, onward. But I do not see how a contemporary could possibly have spoken of A.D. 199-211 as a period of continuous peace either to the world or to the Church. The Eastern war was not ended in A.D. 198. A fierce war too was waged in Britain from A.D. 207-210, which demanded the emperor's own presence, and he died at York early in the next year (A.D. 211). This war could not have been overlooked or ignored. Meanwhile the Christians suffered severely, as the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas show. The alternative is the period which was roughly coextensive with the reign of Commodus (A.D. 180-192); and I agree with Hilgenfeld (Ketzergeschichte p. 565), Keim (Rom. u. das Christenthum p. 638 sq), Volter (Zeitschr. f. Wiss. Theol. XXVII. 1883, p. 27), and Gorres (Jahrb. f. Protest. Theol. 1884, pp. 234, 424 sq), in regarding this as a far more probable solution. After the first year or two of this reign the Christians had almost continuous quiet. The empire also was at peace. There were indeed insignificant conflicts in A.D. 184, and the struggle in Britain afforded the emperor an excuse for assuming the name Britannicus, but it was wholly incomparable in magnitude or duration with the British war of Severus. The Antimontanist treatise therefore with which we are concerned would be written about the close of the reign of Commodus; and this must be somewhere about the date which Eusebius assigns to it, from the place which it occupies in his narrative. In this treatise the writer addresses Avircius Marcellus as a person of authority, and states that Avircius had urged him a very long time ago (εκ πλειστου οσου και ικανωτατου ξρονου) to write on the subject. The mode of address is quite consistent with his being a bishop, though he is not so styled. Thus Avircius Marcellus would have flourished during the reign of M. Aurelius, and might well have gone to Rome about the time (A.D. 163) mentioned by the legend.

Because this anonymous anti-Marcionite work was written ca. 193 CE, the inscription of Abercius (made shortly before his death) must be dated between this year and 216 CE, the year of Alexander's epitaph.

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Kirby, Peter. "Inscription of Abercius." Early Christian Writings. <>.