THE ACTS OF THE MARTYR HABIB
THE SAINT PACHOMIUS ORTHODOX LIBRARY
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EDITOR'S COMMENT: The following remarkable document tells
the story of one of the very last Christians put to death
by the pagan Roman authorities before the Edict of Toleration
reached the Eastern Provinces. Supposedly based on eye-
witness accounts and official court records, its authen-
ticity is generally accepted by secular scholars. While
many saints' biographies have a "mythic" timelessness and
an abundance of miracles which make them seem unbelievable
to the modern reader, this text with its three-dimensional
characters and "gritty realism" is startlingly contemporary.
The various bureaucrats who preside over Habib's horrible
sufferings, for example, are not depicted as satanic
monsters but as all-too-ordinary men with ordinary passions
and ambitions. The tense, morally confused atmosphere generated
by Habib's stubborn and "unnecessary" insistence on civil
disobedience is one that modern readers of many political
persuasions will instantly recognize. Holy St. Habib, pray to
God for us in these times, not so far off from yours!
THE MARTYRDOM OF HABIB THE DEACON (Feast Day Nov. 15)
translated from the Syriac by Rev. B. P. Pratten, 1871
In the month of Ab, of the year six hundred and twenty
of the kingdom of Alexander the Macedonian, in the
consulate of Licinius and Constantine, which is the year
in which he [name lost in MS?] was born, in the magistracy of
Julius and Barak, in the days of Cona bishop of Edessa,
Licinius made a persecution against the church and all the people
of the Christians, after that first persecution which
Diocletian the emperor had made. And Licinius the
emperor commanded that there should be sacrifices and
libations, and that the altars in every place should be
restored, that they might burn sweet spices and
frankincense before Zeus.
And, when many were persecuted, they cried out of their
own accord: We are Christians; and they were not afraid
of the persecution, because these who were persecuted were
more numerous than those who persecuted [them].
Now Habib, who was of the village of Telzeha and had been
made a deacon, went secretly into the churches which were
in the villages, and ministered and read the Scriptures,
and encouraged and strengthened many by his words, and
admonished them to stand fast in the truth of their belief,
and not to be afraid of the persecutors; and gave them
directions [for their conduct].
And, when many were strengthened by his words, and received
his addresses affectionately, being careful not to renounce
the covenant they had made, and when the Sharirs of the
city, the men who had been appointed with reference to this
particular matter, heard of it, they went in and informed
Lysanias, the governor who was in the town of Edessa, and
said to him: Habib, who is a deacon in the village of
Telzeha, goes about and ministers secretly in every place,
and resists the command of the emperors, and is not afraid.
And, when the governor heard these things, he was filled
with rage against Habib; and he made a report, and sent and
informed Licinius the emperor of all those things which Habib was
doing; [he wished] also to ascertain what command
would be issued respecting him and [the rest of] those who
would not sacrifice. [For] although a command had been issued that
every one should sacrifice, yet it had not been
commanded what should be done to those who did not sacrifice:
because they had heard that Constantine, the commander in Gaul and
Spain, was become a Christian and did not sacrifice. And Licinius the
emperor [thus] commanded Lysanias the governor: Whoever it is
that has been so daring as to transgress our command, our Majesty
has commanded that he shall be burned with fire; and that all others
who do not consent to sacrifice shall be put to death by the sword.
Now, when this command came to the town of Edessa, Habib, in
reference to whom the report had been made, was gone across [the
river] to the country of the people of Zeugma, to minister there also
secretly. And, when the governor sent and inquired for him in his
village, and in all the country round about, and he was not to be
found, he commanded that all his family should be arrested, and also
the inhabitants of his village; and they arrested them and put them
in irons, his mother and the rest of his family, and also some of the
people of his village; and they brought them to the city, and shut
them up in prison.
And, when Habib heard what had taken place, he considered
in his mind and pondered anxiously in his thoughts: It is expedient
for me, [said he], that I should go and appear before the judge of the
country, rather than that I should remain in secret and others should
be brought in [to him] and be crowned [with martyrdom] because of
me, and that I should find myself in great shame. For in what
respect will the name of Christianity help him who flees from the
confession of Christianity? Lo! if he flee from this, the death of
nature is before him whithersoever he goes, and escape from it he
cannot, because this is decreed against all the children of Adam.
And he went immediately to Theotecna, a veteran who
was chief of the band of attendants on the governor; and he said to
him: I am Habib of Telzeha, whom ye are inquiring for. And Theotecna
said to him: If so be that no one saw thee coming to me, hearken to me
in what I say to thee, and depart and go away to the place where thou
hast been, and remain there in this time [of persecution]; and of
this, that thou camest to me and spakest with me and that I advised
thee thus, let no one know or be aware. And about thy family and the
inhabitants of thy village, be not at all anxious: for no one will at
all hurt them, but they will be in prison a few days only, and [then]
the governor will let them go: because against _them_ the emperors
have not commanded anything serious or alarming. But, if on the
contrary thou wilt not be persuaded by me in regard to these things
which I have said to thee, I am clear of thy blood: because, if so be
that thou appear before the judge of the country, thou wilt not escape
from death by fire, according to the command of the emperors which
they have issued concerning thee.
Habib said to Theotecna: It is not about my family and the inhabitants
of my village that I am concerned, but for my own salvation, lest it
should be forfeited. About this too I am much distressed, that I did
not happen to be in my village on the day that the governor inquired
for me, and that on my account lo! many are put in irons, and I have
been looked upon by him as a fugitive. Therefore, if so be that thou
wilt not consent to my request and take me in before the governor, I
will go alone and appear before him.
And, when Theotecna heard him speak thus to him, he laid hold of him
firmly, and handed him over to his assistants, and they went together
to conduct him to the judgment-hall of the governor. And Theotecna
went in and informed the governor, and said to him: Habib of Telzeha,
whom thine Excellency was inquiring for, is come. And the governor
said: Who is it that has brought him? and where did they find him? and
what did he do where he was? Theotecna said to him: He came hither
himself, of his own accord, and without the compulsion of any one,
since no one knew anything about him.
And when the governor heard [this], he was greatly exasperated against
him; and thus he spake: This [fellow], who has so acted, has shown
great contempt towards me and has despised me, and has accounted me as
no judge; and, because he has so acted, it is not meet that any mercy
should be shown towards him; nor yet either that I should hasten to
pass sentence of death against him, according to the command of the
emperors concerning him; but it is meet for me to have patience with
him, so that the bitter torments and punishments [inflicted on him]
may be the more abundant, and that through him I may terrify many
[others] from daring again to flee.
And many persons being collected together and standing by him at the
door of the judgment-hall, some of whom were members of the body of
attendants and some people of the city, there were some of them that
said to him: Thou hast done badly in coming and showing thyself to
those who were inquiring for thee, without the compulsion of the
judge; and there were [others], again, who said to him: Thou hast
done well in coming and showing thyself of thine own accord, rather
than that the compulsion of the judge should bring thee: for now is
thy confession of Christ known to be of thine own will, and not from
the compulsion of men.
And those things which the Sharirs of the city had heard from those
who were speaking to him as they stood at the door of the
judgment-hall - and this circumstance also in particular, that he had
gone secretly to Theotecna and that [the latter] had not been willing to
denounce him, had been heard by the Sharirs of the city - everything
that they had heard they made known to the judge.
And the judge was enraged against those who had been saying to Habib:
Wherefore didst thou come and show thyself to the judge, without the
compulsion of the judge himself? And to Theotecna he said: It is not
seemly for a man who has been made chief over his fellows to act
deceitfully in this manner towards his superior, and to set at nought
the command of the emperors, which they issued against Habib the
rebel, that he should be burned with fire.
Theotecna said: I have not acted deceitfully against my fellows,
neither was it my purpose to set at naught the command which the
emperors have issued: for what am I before thine Excellency, that I
should have dared to do this ? But I strictly questioned him as to
that for which thine Excellency also has demanded an account at my
hands, that I might know and see whether it was of his own free will
that he came hither, or whether the compulsion of thine Excellency
brought him by the hand of others; and, when I heard from him that he
came of his own accord, I carefully brought him to the honourable door
of the judgment-hall of thy Worship.
And the governor hastily commanded, and they brought in Habib before
him. The officers said: Lo! he standeth before thine Excellency.
And he began to question him thus, and said to him: What is thy
name? And whence art thou? And what art thou?
He said to him: My name is Habib, and I am from the village of Telzeha,
and I have been made a deacon.
The governor said: Wherefore hast thou transgressed the command of the
emperors, and dost minister in thine office of deacon, which thou art
forbidden by the emperors to do, and refusest to sacrifice to Zeus, whom
the emperors worship?
Habib said: We are Christians: we do not worship the works of men, who
are nothing, whose works also are nothing; but we worship God, who made
the men [who made the works].
The governor said: Persist not in that daring mind with which thou art
come into my presence, and insult not Zeus, the great boast of the
Habib said: But this Zeus is an idol, the work of men. It is very well
for thee to say that I insult him. But, if the carving of him out of
wood and the fixing of him with nails proclaim aloud concerning him that
he is made, how sayest thou to me that I insult him? Since lo! his insult
is from himself, and against himself.
The governor said: By this very thing, that thou refusest to worship him,
thou insultest him.
Habib said: But, if because I do not worship him I insult him, how great
an insult, then, did the carpenter inflict on him, who carved him with an
axe of iron; and the smith, who smote him and fixed him with nails!
And, when the governor heard him speak thus, he commanded him to be
scourged without pity. And, when he had been scourged by five [men], he
said to him: Wilt thou now obey the emperors? For, if thou wilt not obey
[them], I will tear thee severely with combs, and I will torture thee
with all [kinds of] tortures, and then at last I will give command
concerning thee that thou be burned with fire.
Habib said: These threats with which lo! thou art seeking to terrify me,
are much meaner and paltrier than those which I had already settled it in
my mind to endure: then came I and made my appearance before thee.
The governor said: Put him into the iron cask for murderers, and let him
be scourged as he deserves. And, when he had been scourged, they said to
him: Sacrifice to the gods. But he cried aloud, and said: Accursed are
your idols, and so are they who join with you in worshipping them like you.
And the governor commanded, and they took him up to the prison; but they
refused him permission to speak with his family, or with the inhabitants
of his village, according to the command of the judge. On that day was
the festival of the emperors.
And on the second of Ilul the governor commanded, and they brought him
from the prison. And he said to him: Wilt thou renounce that in which
thou standest and obey the command which the emperors issue? For, if
thou wilt not obey, with the bitter tearings of combs will I make thee
Habib said: I have not obeyed them, and moreover it is settled in my
mind that I will not obey them - no, not even if thou lay upon me
punishments still worse than those which the emperors have commanded.
The governor said: By the gods I swear, that, if thou do not sacrifice, I
will leave no harsh and bitter [sufferings untried] with which I will not
torture thee: and we shall see whether Christ, whom thou worshippest,
will deliver thee.
Habib said: All those who worship Christ are delivered through Christ,
because they worship not creatures along with the Creator of creatures.
The governor said: Let him be stretched out and be scourged with whips,
until there remain not a place in his body on which he has not been
Habib said: As for these inflictions, which thou supposest to be so
bitter with their lacerations, out of them are plaited crowns of victory
for those who endure them.
The governor said: How call ye afflictions ease, and account the torments
of your bodies a crown of victory?
Habib said: It is not for thee to ask me concerning these things, because
thine unbelief is not worthy to hear the reasons of them. That I will not
sacrifice I have said [already], and I say [so still].
The governor said: Thou art subjected to these punishments because thou
deservest them: I will put out thine eyes, which look upon this Zeus and
are not afraid of him; and I will stop thine ears, which hear the laws
of the emperors and tremble not.
Habib said: To the God whom thou deniest here belongs that other world;
and there wilt thou [be made to] confess Him with scourgings, thou thou
hast again denied Him.
The governor said: Leave alone that world of which thou hast spoken, and
consider anxiously now, that from this punishment to which lo! thou art
being subjected there is no one that can deliver thee; unless indeed the
gods deliver thee, on thy sacrificing to them.
Habib said: Those who die for the sake of the name of Christ, and worship
not those objects that are made and created, will find their life in
the presence of God; but those who love the life of time more than that -
their torment will be forever.
And the governor commanded, and they hanged him up and tore him with
combs; and, while they were tearing him with the combs, they knocked him
about. And he was hanging a long while, until the shoulder-blades of his
The governor said to him: Wilt thou comply even now, and put on incense
before Zeus there?
Habib said: Prior to these sufferings I did not comply with thy
demands: and now that lo! I have undergone them, how thinkest thou that I
shall comply, and thereby lose that which I have gained by them?
The governor said: By punishments fiercer and bitterer than these I am
prepared to make thee obey, according to the command of the emperors,
until thou do their will.
Habib said: Thou art punishing me for not obeying the command of the
emperors, when lo! thou thyself also, whom the emperors have raised to
greatness and made a judge, hast transgressed their command, in that thou
hast not done to me that which the emperors have commanded thee.
The governor said: Because I have had patience with thee, [therefore] has
thou spoken thus, like a man that brings an accusation.
Habib said: Hadst thou not scourged me, and bound me, and torn me with
combs, and put my feet in fetters, there _ would _ have been
room to think that thou hadst had patience with me. But, if these
things take place in the meanwhile, where is the patience towards me of
which thou hast spoken?
The governor said: These things which thou hast said will not help thee,
because they all go against thee, and they will bring upon thee
inflictions bitterer even than those which the emperors have commanded.
Habib said: Had I not been sensible that they would [indeed] help me,
I should not have spoken a single word about them before thee.
The governor said: _ I _ will silence thy speeches, and
at the same time as regards thee pacify the gods, whom thou hast not
worshipped; and I will satisfy the emperors in respect to thee, as
regards thy rebellion against their commands.
Habib said: I am not afraid of the death with which thou seekest to
terrify me; for, had I been afraid of it, I should not have gone about
from house to house and ministered: on which account [it was that] I did
The governor said: How is it that thou worshippest and honourest a man,
but refusest to worship and honour Zeus there?
Habib said: I worship not a man, because the Scripture teaches me,
"Cursed is everyone that putteth his trust in man;" but God, who took
upon Him a body and became a man, [Him] do I worship, and glorify.
The governor said: Do thou that which the emperors have commanded;
and, as for that which is in thy own mind, if thou art willing to
give it up, [well]; but, if thou art not willing, [then] do not
Habib said: To do both these things [together] is impossible: because
falsehood is contrary to truth, and it is impossible that that should
be banished from my thought which is firmly fixed in my mind.
The governor said: By inflictions bitter and severe will I make thee
dismiss from thy thoughts that of which thou hast said, "It is firmly
fixed in my mind."
Habib said: [As for] these inflictions by which thou thinkest that it
will be rooted out of my thoughts, by means of these it is that it
grows within my thoughts, like a tree which bears fruit.
The governor said: What help will stripes and combs give to that tree
of thine? and more especially at the time when I shall command fire
against it, to burn it up without pity.
Habib said: It is not on those things at which thou lookest that I
look, because I contemplate the things which are out of sight; and
therefore I do the will of God, the Maker, and not that of an idol
made, which is not sensible of anything whatever.
The governor said: Because he thus denies the gods whom the emperors
worship, let him be torn with combs in addition to his former
tearings: for, amidst the many questions which I have had the
patience to ask him, he has forgotten his former tearings.
And, while they were tearing him, he cried aloud and said: "The
sufferings of this time are not equal to that glory which shall be
revealed in" [Rom. 8:18] those who love Christ.
And, when the governor saw that even under these inflictions he
refused to sacrifice, he said to him: Does your doctrine so teach
you, that you should hate your own bodies?
Habib said: Nay, we do not hate our bodies: the Scripture distinctly
teaches us, "Whosoever shall lose his life shall find it." But another
thing too it teaches us: that we should "not cast that which is holy
to dogs, nor cast pearls before swine."
The governor said: I know that in speaking thus thy sole object is
that my rage and the wrath of my mind may be excited, and that I may
pronounce sentence of death against thee speedily. I am not going,
then, to be hurried on to that which thou desirest; but I will have
patience: not, indeed, for thy relief, but so that the tortures
inflicted on thee may be increased, and that thou mayest see thy flesh
falling off before thy face by means of the combs that are passing
over thy sides.
Habib said: I myself also am looking for this, that thou shouldst
multiply thy tortures upon me, even as thou hast said.
The governor said: Submit to the emperors, who have power to do
whatsoever they choose.
Habib said: It is not of men to do whatsoever they choose, but of God,
whose power is in the heavens, and over all the dwellers upon earth;
"nor is there any that may rebuke His hands and say to Him, 'What
The governor said: For this insolence of thine, death by the sword is
too small [a punishment]. I, however, am prepared to command [the
infliction] upon thee of a death more bitter than that of the sword.
Habib said: And I, too, am looking for a death which is more lingering
than that of the sword, which thou mayest pronounce upon me at any
time thou choosest.
And thereupon the governor proceeded to pass sentence of
death upon him. And he called out aloud before his attendants,
and said, whilst they were listening to him, as were
also the nobles of the city: This Habib, who has denied the
gods, as ye have also heard from him, and furthermore has
reviled the emperors, deserves that his life should be blotted
out from beneath this glorious Sun, and that he should not
any longer behold this luminary, associate of gods; and,
had it not been commanded by former emperors that the
corpses of murderers should be buried, it would not be right
that the corpse of this fellow either should be buried, because
he has been so insolent. I command, that a strap be
put into his mouth, as into the mouth of a murderer, and
that he be burned by a slow lingering fire, so that the torment
of his death may be increased.
And he went out from the presence of the governor, with
the strap thrust into his mouth; and a multitude of the
people of the city ran after him. And the Christians were
rejoicing, forasmuch as he had not turned aside nor quitted
his post; but the pagans were threatening him, for refusing
to sacrifice. And they led him forth by the western archway,
over against the cemetery, which was built by Abshelama,
the son of Abgar. And his mother was clad in white, and
she went out with him.
And, when he was arrived at the place where they were
going to burn him, he stood up and prayed, as did all those
who came out with him; and he said:
O King Christ, since Thine is this world, and Thine the
world to come, behold and see, that, while I might have
fled from these afflictions, I did not flee, in order that
I might not fall into the hands of Thy justice: may this
fire, in which I am to be burned, serve me for a recompense
before Thee, so that I may be delivered from the fire which
is not quenched; and receive Thou my spirit into Thy presence,
through Thy Divine Spirit, O glorious Son of the adorable Father!
And, when he had prayed, he turned and blessed them; and they gave
him the salutation, weeping as they did so, both men and
women; and they said to him: Pray for us in the presence
of thy Lord, that He would cause peace among His people,
and restoration to His churches which are overthrown.
And while Habib was standing, they dug a place, and brought him and
set him within it; and they fixed up by him a stake. And they came to
bind him to the stake; but he said to them: I will not stir from this
place in which ye are going to burn me. And they brought fagots, and
set them in order, and placed them on all sides of him. And, when the
fire blazed up and the flame of it rose fiercely, they called out to
him: Open thy mouth. And the moment he opened his mouth his soul
mounted up. And they cried aloud, both men and women, with the voice
And they pulled and drew him out of the fire, throwing over him fine
linen cloths and choice ointments and spices. And they snatched away
some of the pieces of wood [which had been put] for his burning, and
the bretheren and some persons of the laity bore him away. And they
prepared him for interment, and buried him by Guria and Shamuna the
martyrs, in the same grave in which they were laid, on the hill which
is called Baith Allah Cucla, repeating over him psalms and hymns, and
conveying his burnt body affectionately and honourably [to the grave].
And even some of the Jews and pagans took part with the Christian
bretheren in winding up and burying his body. At the time, too, when
he was burned, and also at the time when he was buried, there was one
spectacle of grief overspreading those within and those without;
tears, too, were running down from all eyes: while every one gave
glory to God, because for His name's sake he had given his body to the
burning of fire.
The day on which he was burned was the eve [of the Sabbath], the
second of the month Ilul--the day on which the news came that
Constantine the Great had set out from the interior of Spain, to
proceed to Rome, the city of Italy, that he might carry on war with
Licinius, that [emperor] who at this day rules over the eastern
portion of the territories of the Romans; and lo! the countries on all
sides are in commotion, because no man knows which of them will
conquer and continue in [the possesion of] his imperial power. And
through this report the persecution slackened for a little while from
And the notaries wrote down everything which they had heard from the
judge; and the Sharirs of the city wrote down all the other things
which were spoken outside the door of the judgement-hall, and,
according to the custom that existed, they reported to the judge all
that they had seen and all that they had heard, and the decisions of
the judge were written down in their Acts.
I, Theophilus, who have renounced the evil inheritance of my fathers,
and confessed Christ, carefully wrote out a copy of these Acts of
Habib, even as I had formerly written out [those] of Guria and
Shamuna, his fellow-martyrs. And, whereas he had felicitated them
upon their death by the sword, he himself also was made like them by
the fire in which he was burnt, and received his crown. And, whereas
I have written down the year, and the month, and the day, of the
coronation of these martyrs, it is not for the sake of those who, like
me, were spectators of the deed, but with the view that those who come
after us may learn at what time these martyrs suffered, and what
manner of men they were; [even as they may learn] also from the Acts
of the former martyrs, who [lived] in the days of Domitianus and of
all the other emperors who likewise also raised a persecution against
the church, and put a great many to death, by stripes and by [tearing
with] combs, and by bitter inflictions, and by sharp swords, and by
burning fire, and by the terrible sea, and by the merciless mines.
And all these things, and things like them, [they suffered] for the
hope of the recompense to come.
Moreover, the afflictions of these martyrs, and of those of whom I had
heard, opened the eyes of me, Theophilus, and enlightened my mind, and
I confessed Christ, that He is the Son of God, and is God. And may
the dust of the feet of these martyrs, which I received as I was
running after them at the time when they were departing to be crowned,
procure me pardon for having denied Him, and may He confess me before
His worshippers, seeing that I have confessed Him now!
And at the twenty-seventh question which the judge put to Habib, he
gave sentence against him of death by the burning of fire.
Here endeth the martyrdom of Habib the deacon.
The St. Pachomius Orthodox Library, December 1994.
Have mercy, O Lord, upon Thy servant Rev. Pratten who translated, and upon
us the scribes: John the Deacon, David, David, Mark, Norman, Norman, Paul,
Steve, Tom, and Walter!