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Maximos the Confessor (c.580-662)

Letter 8 (end): On the forced conversion of Jews and Samaritans

This fragment from the end of a letter written by Maximos the Confessor, discovered and published in the 1930s, is our only contemporaneous evidence for the forced baptism of Jews and Samaritans in North Africa following the order of the emperor Heraclius in 632 C.E. (The other piece of evidence from the time, the Doctrina Jacobi Nuper Baptizati, is a fictional dialogue supposedly conducted among the baptized Jews; its modern editors and others argue that it was also composed close to the time of the events it recounts.) At the time this letter was written, Maximos, a monk and theologian, was at the time resident in Carthage having fled from the Persian invasions of the previous decade. He soon after returned East, where he became embroiled in theological controversies and died in exile in the 660s. The fragment below is translated from Robert Devreesse, "La fin inédite d'une lettre de saint Maxime: Un baptême forcé de juifs et samaritains à Carthage en 632," Revue de sciences religieuses 17.1 (1937): 34-35. You may link to, share, or reproduce this translation with attribution. You may not make any commercial use of this work. Any suggestions for corrections or additions to the text or annotations are more than welcome: andrew [at] andrewjacobs [dot] org.

… So you might know about the novel event which just occurred here, honored fathers, I shall tell you concisely in short order. The blessed one enslaved to God, the entirely praiseworthy eparch of those here, coming forth from the queen of cities [Constantinople], has made Christians of all the Jews and Samaritans throughout all Africa, both natives and foreigners, according to the command of our most pious emperors [Heraclius and his son, Heraclius Novus Constantinus] : with their wives and children and servants, adding up to many myriads of souls, they were led forth to all-holy baptism on the day of Pentecost of the present fifth indiction. [May 31, 632 C.E.]

I hear that this has occurred throughout the Roman empire; I have been seized with fear and dread about this, and I shudder at it. For I fear first lest this great and truly divine mystery was insulted when it was given to those who have not beforehand demonstrated an attitude agreeable to the faith. Second I also consider the danger to the soul of those same ones [i.e., the baptized], lest somehow—as they persist in holding on to the bitter root of their ancestral faithlessness deep down and as they cut themselves off from the light of grace—they have engendered exponential condemnation, increased by the darkness of faithlessness. And third: I suspect the apostasy awaited according to the holy apostle, [A reference to 2 Thess 2:3: "Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion (apostasia) comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction" (NRSV).] lest it somehow get its start from their mixing in among the faithful peoples; that through this [mixing], unsuspected among the more artless, they might be able to create the evil seed of scandals against our holy faith; and that this might be found to be the clear and unambiguous sign of the contentious consummation of all, according to which some—preparing themselves through prayers, and pleas, and many tears, and ways sought toward righteousness—await the great temptations and struggles on behalf of truth.

But if you have something to add about this, according to the God-moved power of knowledge granted to you, find it worthwhile to clarify it to me, one enslaved to you and your disciple, having more fear and trembling than ever. Through the letter, as if present, I embrace you, most holy ones, and all those with you….

Source: Trans. Andrew Jacobs

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Paul Halsall, February 2023

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