Monday, December 23, 2019

Certificates of Pagan Worship

P.Mich inv 158. Certificate of Sacrifice from the Decian era.
During his reign (249-251 CE), Emperor Decius ordered that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to make a sacrifice to the Gods. An official record of this sacrifice was to be made and submitted to the local bureaucracy. Several examples of these "Certificates of Sacrifice" (Latin: libelli) have been preserved, likely due to the vast numbers that must have flooded the many local administrative offices of the Roman Provinces. Here is a typical example of a lebellus below, P. Mich inv 158.

"τοῖς ἐπὶ θυσιῶν κώμης
Θεαδελφίαςπαρὰ Αὐρηλίας Βελλι̣ᾶ̣ Πετερήως καὶ τῆς ταύτης
θυγατρὸς Καπῖνις ἀὶ θύουσε τοῖς θεοῖς διετελέσαμεν καὶ νῦν ἐπὶ παρόντων ὑμῶν κατὰ τὰ προστεταγμένα ἔσπισα καὶ ἔθυσα καὶ ἐγευσάμην τῶν εἱερων καὶ ἀξιῶ ὑμᾶς
ὑποσημιώσαστε ἡμῖν. διευτυχ(εῖτε).
(hand 2) Αὐρήλιοι Σερῆνος καὶ Ἑρμᾶς εἴδαμεν ὑμᾶς θυσιάζοντος
(hand 3) Ἑρμᾶς σ(εσ)η(μείωμαι).
(hand 1) (ἔτους) α Αὐτοκράτορος Καίσαρος
Γαίου Μεσίου Κυίντου {Τρ[αιανοῦ]}
Τραιανοῦ Δεκίου Εὐσεβοῦς
Εὐτυχοῦς Σεβαστοῦ
Παῦνι κζ."

Here is an English translation of the libellus.

"To those in charge of the sacrifices of the village Theadelphia, from Aurelia Bellias, daughter of Peteres, and her daughter, Kapinis. We have always been constant in sacrificing to the gods, and now too, in your presence, in accordance with the regulations, I have poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings, and I ask you to certify this for us below. May you continue to prosper.;
(2nd hand) We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.;
(3rd hand) I, Hermas, certify.;
(1st hand) The 1st year if the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 27." (P.Mich inv 158)

Though P.Mich inv 158 is from the Fayyum region of Egypt, the lebelli were, of course, used even father west in Carthage. At this time Cyprian of Carthage felt it necessary to address this issue of offering sacrifices to the gods in his treatise "On the Lapsed." In chapter 27 he mentions a specific practice that Christians (in Carthage at least) were doing as a response to the moral delima.

"27. Nor let those persons flatter themselves that they need repent the less, who, although they have not polluted their hands with abominable sacrifices, yet have defiled their conscience with certificates. That profession of one who denies, is the testimony of a, Christian disowning what he had been. He says that he has done what another has actually committed; and although it is written, You cannot serve two masters, Matthew 6:24 he has served an earthly master in that he has obeyed his edict; he has been more obedient to human authority than to God. It matters not whether he has published what he has done with less either of disgrace or of guilt among men." (

Here Cyprian mentions two types of deceptions. 1) christians forging a libelus and submitting it to the authorities, 2) having someone else perform the sacrifice in their place. Both of these Christian responses were unacceptable to Cyprian. 
One small ellement of this whole affair is this, how did Cyprian know that Christians were forging these libelli? My guess is that some, presumably overcome with guilt, were approaching their local Church leaders to ask for forgiveness. No matter how these actions of forgery came to light, it is an interesting example of the ways in which allegedly sinful actions of Christians were exposed within Christian these communities. In this case the sin involved a textual deception, the forging of documents. Perhaps the same type of exposure would occur if Christians were to, say, forge a Gospel, or significantly alter the text of a Gospel or other Christian writing.

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