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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

July 11

St. James, Bishop of Nisibis, Confessor

        From Theodoret, Phil. c. 1, et Hist. l. 1, c. 7. Gennadius, c. 1. Tillemont, t. 7, p. 263. Ceillier, t. 4. Assemani, Bibl. Orient. t. 1, p. 186. Cuper the Bollandist, and the saints’s works, published in Armenian and Latin, by Nic. Antonelli, at Rome, in 1755; add the accounts given of this saint in the Menology of the Armenians at Venice, on the seventh day of the month Caghozi, the 15th of our December; in the Synaxary of the Egyptians on the eighteenth of Tobi, our 12th of January, by St. Gregory of Nariegha, an Armenian bishop, in 980, author of many devout Armenian orations and prayers. (Orat. 99, in St. Jacob, in libro Precum edito Constantinopoli, An. 1700.) Also by Moyses Cheronensis, Histor. Armenæ, l. 3, art 7, though this author flourished not in the fifth century, (as the Whistons imagine with those who confound him with Moyses the Grammarian, who translated the Bible from the Greek and Syriac into the Armenian tongue, in the reign of Theodosius the Younger, as Galanus mentions,) but after the year 727, in which arose the great schism of which this historian speaks, and of which the patriarch John IV. of Oznium was author. See James Villotte, the Jesuit, in Diction. Armen. in Serie Patriarcharum.

A.D. 350.

THIS eminent saint, and glorious doctor of the Syriac church, was a native of Nisibis, in Mesopotamia, which country was then subject to the eastern empire. 1 He had a genius rich by nature, which he cultivated with indefatigable application; though after laying a foundation of the sciences, he confined himself to sacred studies. In his youth entering the world, he became soon apprized of its dangers. He saw that in it only ambition, vanity, and voluptuousness reign; that men here usually live in a hurry and a crowd, without finding leisure to look into themselves, or to study that great science which ought to be their only affair. He trembled at the sight of its vices, and the slippery path of its pleasures, which, though they seem agreeable at first, yet when tasted are nothing but bitterness and mortal poison, and whilst they flatter the senses, destroy the soul; and he thought it the safer part to conquer by flight, or at least, with the Baptist, to prepare and strengthen himself in retirement, that he might afterwards be the better able to stand his ground in the field. He accordingly chose the highest mountains for his abode, sheltering himself in a cave in the winter, and the rest of the year living in the woods, continually exposed to the open air; and knowing that our greatest conquest is to subdue ourselves, in order to facilitate this important victory, he joined to assiduous prayer the practice of great austerities. He lived only on wild roots and herbs which he ate raw, and had no other garments than a tunic and cloak, both made of goat’s hair, very coarse. Notwithstanding his desire to live unknown to men, yet he was discovered, and many were not afraid to climb the rugged rocks that they might recommend themselves to his prayers, and receive the comfort of his spiritual advice. He was favoured with the gifts of prophecy and miracles in an uncommon measure, of which he gave several proofs in a journey he took into Persia to visit the new churches that were planting there, and strengthen the young converts labouring under grievous persecutions. His presence fortified them in their good resolutions, and inspired them with that spirit of martyrdom which afterwards showed itself in their glorious triumphs. He converted many idolaters, and wrought several miracles in that country. He suffered torments for the faith in the persecution continued by Maximinus II., for Gennadius places him in the number of confessors under that tyrant; and Nicephorus names him among the holy bishops in the council of Nice, who bore the glorious marks of their sufferings for Christ. His personal merit and great reputation occasioned his promotion to the see of Nisibis; but here he still followed the same course of life he had inured himself to on the mountains, to his fasts and austerities adding the care of the poor, the correction of sinners, and all the other toils and hardships of episcopacy. Such was his charity for the poor, that he seemed to possess nothing but for their relief. In the acts of St. Miles and his companions, Persian martyrs, it is related that St. James built at Nisibis a very stately church. St. Miles coming to that city was astonished at the majesty of the edifice, and having made some stay there with St. James, returned to Adiab, whence he sent the holy bishop a present of a great quantity of silk for the ornaments of his church.
  Theodoret relates 2 of him, that one day as he was travelling, he was accosted by a gang of beggars who had concerted a plot whereby to impose upon the servant of God, with the view of extorting money from him on pretence to bury their companion, who lay stretched on the ground as if he had been dead. The holy man gave them what they asked, and “offering up supplications to God as for a soul departed, he prayed that his divine majesty would pardon him the sins he had committed whilst he lived, and that he would admit him into the company of the saints,” says Theodoret. As soon as the saint was gone by, his companions calling upon him to rise and take his share of the booty, were strangely surprised to find him really dead. Seized with sudden fear and grief, they shrieked in the utmost consternation, and immediately ran after the man of God, cast themselves at his feet, confessed the cheat, begged forgiveness, and by entreaties and mournful looks pleaded for pity, and besought him by his prayers to restore their unhappy companion to life, which the saint performed, as this grave author assures us. When the heresy of Arius was broached, and began to infect many churches, St. James strenuously exerted himself in defending his church from the contagion, and laboured to crush the growing evil. He assisted at the council of Nice in 325, as Theodoret and Gennadius testify; likewise at the council of Antioch held under St. Eustathius, about the year 326. Being at Constantinople in 336, when Constantine commanded St. Alexander, the holy bishop of that city, to leave his see in case he persisted to refuse admitting to communion Arius, who had imposed on that prince by an hypocritical confession of faith, St. James exhorted the people to have recourse to God by fasting and prayer during seven days; and on the eighth day, which was the very Sunday on which Arius was to have been admitted, the unhappy man was found dead in a privy into which he had stepped to ease nature. 3  2
  The most famous miracle of our Thaumaturgus was that by which he protected the city of Nisibis from the barbarians, as is related by Theodoret both in his religious and ecclesiastical history; by Theophanes, the Alexandrian Chronicle, and even by Philostorgius himself, 4 who was a rank Arian, and cannot be suspected of being too favourable to St. James. Sapor II., the haughty king of Persia, twice besieged Nisibis with the whole strength of his empire, whilst our saint was bishop; and the city was every time miraculously protected by the prayers of St. James. Of these sieges the first was laid soon after the death of Constantine the Great, which happened on the 22nd of May, in 337, after that prince had reigned thirty-nine years, nine months, and twenty-seven days. His valour had kept the barbarians in awe. But upon his demise Sapor came, and in 338 sat down before Nisibis with a prodigious army of foot, horse, elephants, and all sorts of warlike engines; but after continuing the siege sixty-three days, was compelled shamefully to raise it, and return into Persia; and his army, harassed by the enemy in its march, and exhausted by fatigues, was at length destroyed by famine and epidemical diseases. 5 The emperor Constantius, when the Persians again invaded the territories of the Romans in 348, by his pusillanimity and misconduct gave them a great superiority in the field. And Cosroës, elated with success, and enriched by the plunder of many provinces, ventured a second time with an army still much stronger than before to lay siege to Nisibis in 350. His troops having seized all the avenues, and made their approaches with a fury beyond example, he first endeavoured to make a breach, in the walls by battering rams and mines, but all to no purpose. At length, after seventy days’ labour, he caused a dam to be raised at a considerable distance from the city, thereby to stop the river Mygdon, which ran through it; this he ordered to be broke down when the water was at its full height; so that the violence with which it beat against the wall of the city made a wide breach in it. At this the Persians rent the air with loud shouts of joy; but deferred the assault till the next day, that the waters might be first carried off, they not being able to make their approaches by reason of the inundation. When they came up to the breach they were strangely surprised to find another wall which the inhabitants had raised behind the former with an astonishing expedition, being encouraged by St. James, who remained himself all the time in the church at his prayers, by which he conquered, like Moses on the mountain. Sapor marching up to the breach in person, fancied he saw a man in royal apparel on the wall, whose purple and diadem cast an uncommon brightness. This person he believed was the Roman emperor Constantius, and threatened to put to death those who had told him the emperor was at Antioch. But upon their giving him fresh assurances that Constantius was really there, and convinced that heaven fought for the Romans, he threw up a javelin into the air, out of impotent revenge because heaven seemed to take part against him. Then St. Ephrem, deacon of Edessa and St. James’s disciple, being present, entreated him to go upon the walls to take a view of the Persians, and pray to God that he would defeat the infidel army. The bishop would not pray for the destruction of any one; but he implored the divine mercy that the city might be delivered from the calamities of so long a siege. Afterwards, going to the top of a high tower, and turning his face towards the enemy, and seeing the prodigious multitude of men and beasts which covered the whole country, he said: “Lord, thou art able by the weakest means to humble the pride of thy enemies; defeat these multitudes by an army of gnats.” God heard the humble prayer of his servant, as he had done that of Moses against the Egyptians, and as he had by the like means vanquished the enemies of his people when he conducted them out of Egypt. 6 For scarcely had the saint spoken those words, when whole clouds of gnats and flies came pouring down upon the Persians, got into the elephants’ trunks, and the horses’ ears and nostrils, which made them chafe and foam, throw their riders, and put the whole army into confusion and disorder. 7 A famine and pestilence which followed, carried off a great part of the army; and Sapor, after lying above three months before the place, set fire to all his own engines of war, and was forced to abandon the siege and return home with the loss of twenty thousand men. Sapor received a third foil under the walls of Nisibis, in 359, 8 upon which he turned his arms against Amidus, took that strong city, and put the garrison and the greater part of the inhabitants to the sword. 9 The citizens of Nisibis attributed their preservation to the intercession of their glorious patron, St. James, though he seems to have been translated to glory before this last siege. Gennadius says he died in the reign of Constantius, whose death happened in 361. 10 That of St. James is placed by most moderns in 350, soon after the second siege of Nisibis. Gennadius informs us, that out of a pious confidence that the saint’s earthly remains would be a pledge of his intercession with God for the protection of the city against the barbarians, by an order of the emperor Constantius, though an Arian, pursuant to an express injunction of his father Constantine the Great, notwithstanding the severe laws to the contrary then in force, the body of St. James was buried within the walls of the city. Julian, the Apostate, in 361, envying the saint this distinguished privilege, commanded these sacred remains to be removed without the city. Soon after, upon his death the emperor Jovian, in 363, in order to purchase peace of the Persians, was obliged to yield up to them Nisibis, with the five Roman provinces situated on the Tigris, and a great part of Mesopotamia. But the inhabitants of Nisibis who were compelled by Jovian to remove before he delivered up the city, carried with them the sacred relics of this saint, which, according to the Menology of the Armenians at Venice, were brought to Constantinople about the year 970. His name is famous both in the Eastern and Western Martyrologies. His festival is kept by the Latins on the 15th of July, by the Greeks on the 13th of January and the 31st of October, by the Syrians on the 18th of January, and by the Armenians on a Saturday in the month of December. The last honour him with no less solemnity than the Assyrians, and observe before his feast a fast of five days with the same severity with that of Lent. In his office they sing the long devout Armenian hymns, which were compiled in his honour by St. Nierses, patriarch of Armenia, the fourth of that name, surnamed of Ghelaia, who strenuously defended the union with the Latin church against the Greek emperor, Michael Comnenus, in the twelfth century, and is honoured by the orthodox Armenians among the saints. 11  3
  St. James’s learning and writings have procured him a rank next to St. Ephrem among the doctors of the Syriac church; and the Armenians honour him as one of the principal doctors of their national church. For though St. James was a Syrian, he wrote excellent treatises in the Armenian language for their instruction, 12 at the request of a holy bishop of that nation called Gregory, whose letter to our saint is still extant. In it he promises himself the happiness of paying St. James a visit, and passing some time with him, in order to improve himself more perfectly by his lessons in the knowledge and practice of true virtue: in the mean time he earnestly conjures him to favour him with some short instructions, and teach him what is the true foundation of a spiritual life of faith, by what means the edifice is to be raised in our souls, and by what good works, by what virtues it is to be finished and brought to perfection. St. James complied with his desire in eighteen excellent discourses still extant. 13 They are published at Rome in one volume, folio, in 1756, in Armenian and Latin, by M. Nicholas Antonelli, canon of the Lateran basilic.  4
  The visible protection with which God watches over his servants ought to excite our confidence in him. He assures us that his tenderness for them surpasses the bowels of the most affectionate mother, and he styles himself their protector and their safeguard. 14 This made St. Chrysostom cry out, 15 “Behold, I testify and proclaim to all men with a loud voice, and would raise it, were it possible, louder than any trumpet, that no man on earth can hurt a good Christian, nor even the tyrant the devil. If God be for us, who is against us? says the apostle.” How far otherwise is it with the wicked! They are cast off by their God; they are not his people; not fed or watched over by that special tender providence which he affords his servants: they are a forsaken, abandoned vineyard. 16 He is their enemy, and hath set his eyes upon them for evil, not for good. 17 What rest or comfort can the sinner enjoy who knows he hath an almighty arm continually stretched out against him?  5
Note 1. Nisibis was the Assyrian name of this city, which was called by the Greeks Antiochia Mygdoniæ, from the river Mygdon, on which it was situated, which gave name to the territory. The ancient name of this city, was Achar or Achad, one of the seats of the empire of Nimrod. “He reigned in Arach, that is, Edessa, and in Achad, now called Nisibis,” says St. Jerom. (qu. in Gen. c. 10, n. 10.) St. Ephrem had made the same observation before him. “He reigned in Arach, which is Edessa, and in Achar, which is Nisibis, and in Calanne, which is Ctesiphon, and in Rehebot, which is Adiab.” St. Ephrem. Comm. in Gen. See Sim. Assemani, Bibl. Orient. t. 2, Diss. de Monophysitis. [back]
Note 2. Philoth. seu Hist. Relig. c. 1, p. 767. [back]
Note 3. F. Cuper thinks the account of this event in Theodoret’s Religious History to be an addition inserted from other places, t. 4. Jul. in Comment. prævio ad Vitam, S. Jacobi. n. 12 et 17. [back]
Note 4. Philost. Hist. l. 3, c. 23. [back]
Note 5. Chron. Alex. p. 287. S. Hieron. in Chron. and Theophan. p. 28. See Le Beau, Hist. du Bas Empire, l. 6, n. 11, t. 2, p. 22. [back]
Note 6. Wisdom xvi. 9. [back]
Note 7. Theodoret, Hist. Relig. in vit. S. Jacobi, et in Hist. Eccl. l. 2, c. 30. Philost. l. 3, c. 32. Theophan. p. 33. Chron. Alex. Zozim. l. 3. Zonar. t. 2, p. 44. Le Beau, l. 7, p. 127, t. 2. [back]
Note 8. Ammian. Marcell. l. 18, c. 7. Zonaras, t. 2, p. 20. Monsignor Antonelli in vit. St. Jocobi, p. 26. [back]
Note 9. Tillemont, Hist. des Emp. t. 4, p. 674, places the second siege of Nisibis in 346, and the third in 350. But the dates above-mentioned are more agreeable to history, and adopted by the suffrage of most modern critics. [back]
Note 10. The two elder Assemani place the death of St. James in 338, soon after the first siege of Nisibis, of which they understand the circumstances which are usually ascribed to the second siege; for Theodoret confounds them together, as Garnier, (in hunc Theodoreti locum.) Petau, (in Or. 1, Juliani,) Henricus Valesius, (in Hist. Eccl.) Theodoret, (Ammian. Marcell. l. 18,) Pagi, Tillemont, and others observe. Simon Assemani confirms this chronology by the express testimony of the authors of two Syriac Chronicles, that of Dionysius, patriarch of the Jacobites, and that of Edessa. See Simon Assemani, Biblio. Orient. t. 1, c. 5, p. 17, and Stephen Evodius Assemani in Op. S. Ephrem, t. 1. But neither of these Chronicles seem of sufficient authority to counterbalance the testimony of the Greek historians, and the circumstances that persuade us that St. James survived the second siege of Nisibis, upon which Tillemont, Ceillier, &c. place the death of St. James in 350; and Cuper the Bollandist, between the years 360 and 361, in which Constantius died. [back]
Note 11. See on him Galanus in parte 1. Historiali Concil. Armen. cum Roman, p. 239, and F. James Villote, S. J. in serie Chronol. Patriarcharum Armeniæ, printed in the end of his Latin-Armenian Dictionary. [back]
Note 12. These are extant, addressed not to St. Gregory the apostle of Armenia, surnamed the Illuminator, as some copiers have mistaken, but probably to his nephew, another St. Gregory, who, being consecrated bishop, preached the faith in Albania, a province of Greater Armenia, near the Caspian sea, where he was crowned with martyrdom among the infidel barbarians in the very country where Baronius places the martyrdom of the apostle St. Bartholomew. See Galanus, Hist. Eccl. Armenorum, c. 5, et Not. ib. Also Antonelli, not. in ep. S. Gregorii ad S. Jacobum Misib. p. 1. [back]
Note 13. These eighteen discourses of St. James are mentioned by Gennadius, who gives their titles, (t. 2, p. 901, Op. S. Hier. Veron. an. 1735,) commended by St. Athanasius (who calls them monuments of the simplicity and candour of an apostolic mind. Ep. encyclic. ad episcopos Egypti et Lybiæ) and by the Armenian writers quoted by Antonelli, who demonstrates from the discourses themselves that they are a work of the fourth century.
  St. James, in the first, On Faith, demonstrates this to be the foundation of our spiritual edifice, which is raised upon it by hope and love, which rendered the Christian soul the house and temple of God, the ornaments of which are all good works, as fasting, prayer, chastity, and all the fruits of the Holy Ghost. He commends faith from the divine authority of Christ, who every where requires it, from its indispensable necessity, from the heroic virtues which it produces, the eminent saints it has formed, and the miracles it has wrought. The subject of his second discourse is Charity, or the Love of God and our Neighbour, in which the whole law of Christ is comprised, and which is the most excellent of all virtues, and the perfection of all sanctity, admirably taught by Christ both by word and example; the end of all his doctrine, mysteries, and sufferings being to plant his charity in our hearts. In the third discourse he treats on fasting, universal temperance, and self-denial, by which we subdue and govern our senses and passions, die to ourselves, and obtain all blessings of God, and the protection of the angels, who are moved to assist and fight for us, as he proves from examples and passages of holy writ. (p. 60, 61, 62.) In his fourth he speaks on Prayer, on which he delivers admirable maxims, teaching that its excellence is derived from the purity, sanctity, and fervour of the heart, upon which the fire descends from heaven, and which glorifies God even by its silence. “But none,” says he, “will be cleansed unless they have been washed in the laver of baptism, and have received the body and blood of Christ. For the blood is expiated by this Blood, and the body cleansed by this Body. Be assiduous in holy prayer, and in the beginning of all prayer place that which our Lord hath taught us. When you pray, always remember your friends, and me a sinner,” &c.
  His fifth discourse, On War, is chiefly an invective against pride, in vanquishing which consists our main spiritual conflict. The sixth discourse is most remarkable. The title is, On Devout Persons, that is, Ascetes. The Armenian word Ugdavor signifies one who by vow has consecrated himself to God. From this discourse it is manifest that some of these Ascetes had devoted themselves to God in a state of continency by vow, others only by a resolution. The saint most pathetically exhorts them to fervour and watchfulness, and excellently inculcates the obligation which every Christian lies under of becoming a spiritual man formed upon the image of Christ, the second Adam, in order to rise with him to glory. He inveighs against some Ascetes who kept under the same roof a woman Ascete to serve them: a practice no less severely condemned by St. Gregory Nazianzen. (Carm. 3, p. 56, and Or. 43, p. 701.) St. Basil, (Ep. 55, p. 149.) St. Chrysostom, the council of Nice, that of Ancyra, &c. St. James was himself an Ascete from his youth. St. Gregory, to whom he sends these discourses, was also one, and it is clear from many passages in St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, and others, that they were numerous in Cappadocia, Pontus, and Armenia before St. Basil founded there the monastic life. See Antonelli’s note, ib. p. 203. St. James, in his seventh discourse, On Penance, strongly exhorts sinners to confess speedily their crimes; to conceal which through shame is final impenitence. He adds, the priest cannot disclose such a confession. (p. 237.) The infidels and several heretics in the first ages of the church denying the general resurrection of bodies, St. James proves that mystery in his eighth discourse, On the Resurrection of the Dead. His ninth, On Humility, as an excellent eulogium of that virtue, by which men are made the children of God, and brethren of Christ; and it is but justice in man, who is but dust. Its fruits are innocence, simplicity, meekness, sweetness, charity, patience, prudence, mercy, sincerity, compunction, and peace. For he who loves humility is always blessed, and enjoys constant peace; God, who dwelleth in the meek and humble, abiding in him.
  The tenth discourse, On Pastors, contains excellent advice to a pastor of souls, especially on his obligation of watching over and feeding his flock. In the eleventh, On Circumcision, and in the twelfth, On the Sabbath, he shows against the Jews, that those laws no longer oblige, and that the Egyptians learned circumcision from the Jews. In the thirteenth, On the Choice of Meats, he proves none are unlawful of their own nature. In the fourteenth, On the Passover, that the Paschal solemnity of Christ’s resurrection has abolished that Jewish festival: he adds that the Christian, in honour of Christ’s crucifixion, keeps every Friday, and also, at Nisibis, the fourteenth day of every month. In the fifteenth he proves the Reprobation of the Jews. In the sixteenth the Divinity of the Son of God. In the seventeenth the Virtue of holy Virginity, which both the Ascetes and the clergy professed, and which he defends against the Jews only; for he wrote before the heretics in the fourth age calumniated the sanctity of that state. In the eighteenth he confutes the Jews, who pretended that their temple and synagogue would be again restored at Jerusalem.
  The long letter to the priests of Seleucia and Ctesiphon against schisms and dissensions, when Papas, the haughty bishop of those cities, had raised there a fatal schism, is in some MSS. ascribed to St. James; but was certainly a synodal letter sent by a council held on that occasion, nine years after the council of Nice: on which see the life of St. Miles, and the notes of the archbishop of Apamea, Evodius Assemani, ib. Act. Mart. Orient. t. 1, p. 72, and Jos. Assemani Bibl. Orient, t. 1, p. 86, &c.
  Among the oriental liturgies, one in Chaldaic, formerly in use among the Syrians, bears the name of St. James of Nisibis. Gennadius mentions twenty-six books written by this holy doctor in the Syriac tongue, all on pious subjects, or on the Persian persecution. They were never translated into Greek.
  The letters of St. James and St. Gregory are published by Assemani, Bibl. Orient. t. 1, p. 552, 632. [back]
Note 14. Ps. xxxiii. 16. Prov. iii. 23. Zach. ii. 8. Gen. xv. 1. Lev. xxxvi. 3. [back]
Note 15. S. Chrys. Hom. 51, in Act. Hom. 15, in Rom. et 91, in Matt. [back]
Note 16. Ose. i. 2. Zech. xi. 9. Isa. v. 5. [back]
Note 17. Amos. ix. 4. [back]