01 March 2008

Was Philip the Arab a Secret Christian?

And a very well hidden convert?

There can scarcely be any doubt that the emperor Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus, A.D. 244), his wife Otacilia Severa, and his son Philip the younger were Christians, and friends of Saint Hippolytus.

This from a University of Chicago website -- although admittedly quoting (in the very fine print) from a book published in 1892!

Still, you can read such claims all over the Internet nowadays. And it is repeated in books published as recently as 2000, as this breathtaking statement by W. Ball* in Rome in the East, that
"...it was Philip, not Constantine, who was Rome's first Christian emperor ... He would have kept quiet about it and been even more scrupulous to follow Roman public ceremonial to the letter. But the precedent was nonetheless made, and the importance of Philip's conversion as a precedent for Constantine cannot be overestimated."
Indeed, it would be hard to underestimate such revisionism, but is there any truth to it? How did such a story get started?

We're in the third century AD so, of course, everything is murky. And tortuous.

But one thing is clear: it's a tale told entirely on the Christian side. And even among the faithful, no hint of Philip's alleged Christianity appears until about 75 years later when Bishop Eusebius writes in his Ecclesiastical History (a little before 326 AD):

Gordian had been Roman emperor for six years when Philip, with his son Philip, succeeded him. It is reported that he, being a Christian desired, on the day of the last paschal vigil, to share with the multitude in the prayers of the Church,but that he was not permitted to enter, by him who then presided, until he had made confession and had numbered himself among those who were reckoned as transgressors and who occupied the place of penance. For if he had not done this, he would never have been received by him, on account of the many crimes which he had committed. It is said that he obeyed readily, manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God.
That sounds clear enough. But, remember, nothing is so straightforward in the third century AD. It's odd, first of all, that Eusebius does not name the bishop who had so boldly barred an Emperor from attending Easter services. He was usually a great collector of names. It was left to St John Chrysostom, (c. 347-407) to tell us it was St Babylas, 12th bishop of Antioch -- although Chrysostom, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, does not actually name the emperor so central to his story.** Eusebius, of course, did know that Babylas was bishop of Antioch at this time. And knows that he was martyred in the persecution mounted by Philip's successor, Decius. What he doesn't do is put the two stories together. Nor does he actually say that this remarkable event happened at Antioch.

Perhaps this was an unaccustomed slip on his part. In this section of his book, after all, he's really writing about Origen, the most famous Christian teacher of the time. [You may remember that Origen had come to visit Julia Mamaea, our fourth and last Uppity Woman, when that Empress was in Antioch in 232/33.]

Eusebius twice interrupts his long life of Origen to say something about Philip, first the story of the Easter vigil and now that he's managed to collect about a hundred of Origen's letters, among which: "There is extant also an epistle of his to the Emperor Philip, and another to Severa his wife....". Out of this grist was milled his wife's Christianity and, by a natural extention, their son's.

Eusebius, as he himself says, heard about Philip being barred from church as an oral tradition (my bold type in the translation above). In other words, 'They say so' -- which is not a very strong authority. Much later, St Jerome (c. 340/2-420) states explicitly that Philip was the first Christian emperor (qui primus de regibus Romanis christianus fuit), and this becames the common tradition in the Church. So a story taken on trust by Eusebius is turned by Jerome into fact.

What the pagans said

Not a single pagan source supports this tradition. If there had been even a hint of a rumour circulating in Rome, you can bet your last denarius that Roman writers would have latched on to it. Philip was a wily Oriental, after all -- they saw him as indecisive, treacherous, and weak. If, for example, Philip had refused to offer sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitol when he arrived in Rome in 244 (as did Constantine on his triumphal entry in 315), it surely would have been noticed. Similarly, if he had truly been chums with St. Hippolytus, as claimed at the top of this post, it would have met with public surprise. Not least, because the martyred anti-pope was already dead -- torn apart by two horses -- by the time Philip became emperor. ***

But, no. On the contrary. We know that he celebrated the millennium games in Rome with pagan rites and pagan pomp. He appears indistinguishable from others emperors in his use of pagan symbols and titles. As a supposed crypto-Christian, he made no improvements in the legal status of Christians or their religion.

And what must be the knock-out blow: he gave divine honours to his own father. What kind of Christian would have deified his own Dad -- who hadn't even been an emperor? Certainly, an unlikely move for someone converted to Christ.

What May Have Happened

In 249, his usurper and successor, the emperor Decius issued an edict requiring all the inhabitants of the Empire to sacrifice to the gods. This decree inaugurated the first empire-wide persecution of Christians. Previously, persecutions had always been local affairs determined by local conditions (like the riots and repression in Alexandria in 248, when a pagan prophet stirred up a pogrom against the local Christians). Thereafter, persecutions were instigated by emperors and took place on an imperial scale. A believer could no longer find safety by sailing from one province to another. There was no such escape from the centrally-organized persecutions of Decius (249-250), Valerian (257-260), or Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximinus (303-313). And so the books of the martyrs were filled up.

No wonder the Christians of Eusebius' time looked back to Philip's reign as 'the good old days'.

If he didn't hurt them -- and he didn't -- he must have been on their side. Sympathetic = sympathizer. From there it's but a short step to believing that he was secretly one of them.

Nostalgia is exactly what it used to be.

* Yes, that's the same Ball who sees Philip as an early avatar of the Arab conquest of the Near East. Scroll down to see how dubious that statement is, too. Another champion of the Philip's Arab and Christian claims is I. Shahîd in Rome and Arabs, 1984, who rests his case almost entirely on the later story of Eusebius.

** To add to the confusion, the largely medieval Acts of the Martyrs says that the emperor was Numerianus (who ruled 283-284 AD).

*** Hippolytus had been banished by Severus Alexander to the unhealthy island of Sardinia (about 235) and suffered martyrdom no later than 240, being torn to pieces by horses. The authenticity of this account may be gravely doubted on the ground that this form of punishment was not practised by the Romans. Not to mention that his Greek namesake, Hippolytus (in Euripides) was torn to bits by his horses: entangled in the reins dragged along ...his poor head dashed against the rocks, his flesh all torn....


  1. Anonymous2/3/08 17:19

    I've wondered about this, and where Eusebius was getting it from, ever since I first read Eusebius. I like your explanation, however, it fits well with the general build of Eusebius's third century. I also like the sharp observation about the Passion of Hippolytus. Thankyou for writing such careful stuff!

  2. Anonymous6/3/08 11:00

    There are a couple of articles that touch on this:
    Crouzel, H., 1975 "Le christianisme de l'empereur Philippe l'Arabe" Gregorianum, 56, pp. 545-55.
    York, J., 1972 "The image of Philip the Arab" Historia, 21, pp. 320-332.
    The importance of the millennial celebrations shouldn't be underestimated. For the xtians, they would have imagined that God would not have wanted a pagan to preside over the important, symbolic, festivities.

  3. About the millennium, I was wondering if there was evidence for 'millennium fever' of any sort: will the world end NOW? Some scholars have alluded to such a fear among the pagans but evidence seems very thin: e.g., the riots in Alexandria in 248 -- but Alexandrians were often rioting, so I don't think this makes a case.

    What about the Christians? Might they have thought that the end was finally nigh? Is there any evidence for unusual activity in 248?


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