The ‘Historical’ St. Nicholas

By Pat Lowinger

A few weeks ago I was approached by one of my students who was attempting to write a short letter regarding the history of Nicholas (Nikolaos) of Myra, a bishop of the early Christian Church.  After helping her analyze some of the more credible evidence of his life and works I thought it would be worthwhile write a short post regarding the topic.

Who was Nicholas?

nicholasflyer

Reproduction of Icon depicting St. Nicholas.  Note the absence of mitre (bishop’s hat of office).

Nicholas was born in the later half of the 3rd century (c. 270) CE in Patara- a city located along the southwestern coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey). The identity of Nicholas’ parents is still debated but it is fairly certain that both were ethnically Greek and practiced the Christian faith. While there is a fair amount of myth surrounding Nicholas’ early life, there is very little credible information on the subject.  What we do know is that shortly after (or just prior) he had been ordained a priest by his uncle, the bishop of Patara, Nicholas undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt.  In c. 317 CE (at the age of 47), Nicholas was ordained as the bishop of Myra- another coastal town located in southwestern Anatolia.

The Bishop of Myra

Nicholas served as the bishop of Myra until death on December 6, 343 CE.  Prior to his appointment, Nicholas was purportedly imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian during the Roman Empire’s last attempt to combat the growing influence of Christianity. While the length of Nicholas’ imprisonment is unknown, it appears that his release was ordered following the assent of the Emperor Constantine to the imperial throne in 312 CE.  Following his release, Nicholas returned to Myra, serving nearly 3 decades as bishop. There is good evidence to believe that Nicholas attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.  In addition to these events, there is some evidence to suggest (not without debate) Nicholas was responsible for the following acts during his tenure as bishop:

  • Ordered the destruction of the Temple of Artemis in Myra.
  • Authored a theological text (by his own hand) which is currently in the custody of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
  • During the Council of Nicaea he became enraged and struck another bishop for what he considered to be the ‘uttering of heretical teachings.’ As a result, he was officially censored, and forbidden to wear his mitre for an unknown period of time.  See above depiction.

Charity For The Poor

One of the most interesting aspects of Nicholas’ life are the reports of large-scale charitable acts attributed to him.  Later church biographies shape various stories demonstrating Nicholas’ overwhelming acts of kindness to the poor and destitute residents of Myra and the adjacent countryside.  The least fanciful and most credible of these accounts tell how Nicholas converted a large portion (all or nearly all) of his family and personal wealth in order to finance the feeding and clothing of the poor.  Several medieval sources indicate one of Nicholas’ chief concerns was the purchasing of sandals (shoes) for children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford them.  Unlike our modern tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, it appears that Nicholas’ acts of charity were continuous (year-round) and undertaken with the sole purpose of aiding the neediest among Myra’s residents.

Myths & Legends

7stnicholasdowry7

Icon depiction of the three sisters who were gifted their dowries by St. Nicholas.

There are numerous stories surrounding Nicholas’ life which appear to have been contrived or greatly exaggerated after his death.  Three of the most interesting are briefly described below:

  • Perhaps the most miraculous of the stories attributed to Nicholas is the restoring of three children back to life after the they had been murdered and then dismembered by an ‘unscrupulous’ butcher who wished to sell the children as ‘fresh meat’ during a time of famine.
  • Nearly as fantastic is the story of Nicholas’ enticement of half of a grain shipment from the merchants (sailors) who were charged with taking it to the Emperor.  Although reluctant, the merchants agreed to give half of their shipment to feed the needy.  Nicholas blessed the merchants and sent them on their way.  Upon their arrival at the capital, the merchants were amazed to find that all of the grain they had donated to the poor had been miraculously replaced.
  • A much less fanciful story is of Nicholas offering (by secret gift) the dowry to 3 young and very poor women, who without any other means would have been sold off as prostitutes.  The story asserts that after receiving the rather handsome dowry (several pieces of gold), each of the three women were married and led godly lives.

Nicholas’ Death

Nicholas’ body was entombed in Myra and in the centuries that followed his tomb became a popular pilgrimage destination for early Christians.  By the 6th century CE, Nicholas was already widely known as a ‘Saint’ and a church was dedicated in his honor by the Emperor Justinian which acted as de facto canonization within the Byzantine Empire.  In the 11th century CE, Nicholas’ body was removed from its tomb and divided by rival Italian groups from Bari and Venice.  Each returned to their native cities and dedicated reliquaries (tombs) in Nicholas’ honor.  Like many church relics, Nicholas’ bones and trappings were attributed with mystical properties.  At Bari, water pooling around Nicholas’ tomb is believed to possess miraculous healing powers.

Conclusion

demre-fresco2

Depiction of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE at the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra (Turkey).  Note Nicholas’ prominent position next to the Emperor.

While prominent historical figures such as Nicholas undoubtedly existed, much of what is attributed to them both during their lives and afterwards falls directly into the category of mythology.  This is the true purpose of a prudent modern historian and archaeologists- to seek out evidence in order to evaluate, create, modify, verify or redact from the current and ever growing body of history information.

Author’s Note:

Typically I would make a detailed list of all source material/references utilized for possible reference by interested parties.  In this case, some of my information was drawn from the current theological teachings of the Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of America and/or other related church websites.  In regards to theology or religious traditions there is not always consensus between various groups.  This post is less formal than most and should be viewed/referenced as such.  For those that are interested, I have listed my references below so you may examine some of the various traditions if you so choose. 

Sources Utilized:

Jones, Charles W. “Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Bari and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Ott, Michael.”Nicholas of Myra” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 11, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

Wheeler, Joe. “Saint Nicholas”. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2010.

Poulos, George. “Orthodox Saints: Spiritual Profiles for Modern Man”. Volume 1,  United States: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1992.

Rostov (Rostovsky), Demitri. “Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Archbishop of Myra in Lycia”. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/12/life-of-saint-nicholas-wonderworker.html

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world-2/

http://www.livius.org/articles/person/nicholas-of-myra/

 

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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