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On Taking a Christian Name at Baptism and the Origin of the Celebration of Name Days


The following was sent by Hieromonk Patapios at the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies:

Archdeacon Christodoulos of St. Markella’s Church in Astoria, in response to a statement (by a Mr. Paul Halsall) about the taking of Christian names at Baptism and the origin of the celebration of Namedays in the Orthodox Church on one of the Orthodox lists on the Internet, posted the following, which we provided him:

According to tradition, it was Christ, of course, who re-named both his Disciples and various others in the New Testament (St. Mary Magdalene, for example). (See "Orthodox Tradition," Vol. XV, No. 4, pp. 26-27; "Scripture and Tradition"). Christians were also exhorted to take the names of Prophets and Saints by the authors of the first Catechetical texts of the primitive Church. It was also at this time that Liturgies were universally celebrated in honor of the Martyrs, Apostles, and Saints, when those having their names would commemorate them.

According to tradition, then, the commemoration of the names of holy persons, including the Mother of God, is Apostolic (hence the origins of the Service of the Elevation of the Panaghia). It is a wholly Western idea that the celebration of Name Days is anything but an Apostolic practice. It grew out of the veneration of Martyrs and Saints and was a natural, organic part of the commemoration of Baptism. Consulting Western historical texts, instead of Orthodox Patristic tradition, will do little to clarify this practice and shows a rather serious deficit in how to approach our Church’s traditions.

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Mr. Halsall replied:

Unfortunately, this says nothing about the actual history. When for instance are we talking about when we specify the time of the "authors of the first Catechetical texts"? And how could this be an "apostolic" practice, if by that phrase is meant a practice of the apostles, before the apostles had died, and long before there is the slightest evidence of the celebration of annual memorials.

What are we to make of quite the certain prosopographic studies which show that eastern Christians did not adopt "Christian" names until at least the fourth century, and perhaps much later?

Since the ‘scholar’ does not address these, I think the simple answer is that he does not know, and more does not seem to be logical on the issue.

He does of course know how to insult ‘Western’ historical texts. But the basic truth seems to be this: the western historical approach takes you closer to the truth that any church’s "traditions", many of which turn out to be rather recent. It was the genius of the Bollandists, and non-Bollandist scholars like Fr. Thurston, to realize this.

I really had not expected to be insulted over this simple query! Ah well.

Paul Halsall

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Archbishop Chrysostomos and Father Gregory replied:

Perhaps, in the earlier response to Mr. Halsall, we left the impression that we were simply speaking in vague terms and without background with regard to the issues that he raised. We regret this perception, but in fact the issues involved are worthy of a book-length study. Unfortunately, we had neither the time nor inclination to cover all of the historical and Patristic sources, but simply tried to summarize the traditional Orthodox stand on these issues. It is unfair to ask us to produce endless historical data in reply to a short inquiry submitted to us casually. Nor, indeed, did we mean to insult Mr. Halsall. We apologize for this perception, too, and would simply suggest that he re-read our initial comments.

Without question, there are Western compilers who have contributed much to Patristic studies. At the same time, they have also perpetuated many historical prejudices, "proving" that many things in the Eastern Church (such as the Templon or Eikonostasion) are rather recent traditions, when, in fact, they are far more ancient than even some Orthodox scholars have imagined. Then, of course, there is the question of what is "fairly recent." Is the eleventh century recent? Or the fifth century? This is a matter of perspective. And finally, the Orthodox Church does not attribute to "the Western historical approach" a greater ascendancy than it deserves. The notion that established custom and enduring traditions, as well as oral history, fill out the historical record is not an absurd one. And it fits well the Orthodox notion of a consistent development, from embryonic roots, of liturgical and spiritual customs in the modern Church that can, indeed, be found in the ancient record, even when textual analyses and scholarly speculation might suggest the contrary. The whole notion of the consensus Patrum also drives from the assumptions underlying such a vision of historical continuity.

As an aside, in response to Mr. Halsall’s direct inquiry about the matter, in Orthodox historiography the Apostolic Age is usually associated with the first two centuries of Christianity, when the disciples of the Apostles maintained a spiritual continuity with their mentors. Hence, the term "Apostolic." This age is sometimes moved up to the Peace of the Church or to the First Nicene Synod. Such a convention is not unknown to Western scholars and is thus not wholly peculiar to the East.

The history of the taking of Christian names at Baptism is a complex one. We do not, admittedly, turn always to history in confirming this enduring custom in the Orthodox Church. Nor is the historical record easy to understand. When we speak of taking "Christian" names in the New Testament (even by the Apostles), for example, we are obviously unable to defend this practice as an actual adoption of a "Christian name" at Baptism, since there is not, outside the Patristic authority which complements Scripture, a clear association, here, between Baptism and conversion. Likewise, one can argue that these instances do not represent the assumption of "Christian" names, since there were no antecedents to provide such names. Here, again, we turn in the Orthodox Church to the wholeness and integrity of Holy Tradition, by which we understand, not only the present by the past, but the past by the present. Suffice it to say, as well, that being given a name by Christ Himself probably constitutes the best argument for the Christian provenance of these names and provides antecedents of a rather compelling kind.

With regard to the "Apostolic" origins of taking Christian names, let us cite one instance from the Apostolic Age that is well known in the Orthodox Church. According to tradition, the Prince who martyred the Apostle Matthew, a certain Fulvian, afterwards became a Christian. When about to receive Baptism, a voice from on high declared to the Bishop who was about to Baptize him, "Do not call him Fulvian, but Matthew." He was thus named after the Apostle. (St. Dmitri Rostov includes this story in his Collection of the Lives of the Saints, published in Moscow in 1914. It is also contained in older collections of the Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, from which St. Dmitry derived many of the biographies in his collection.)

The traditional Catechetical texts on Baptism date to the first four centuries of Christianity and are called collectively, in Greek, "Katechetikai Diatribai." There are literally scores of works, both by Eastern and Western Fathers, that address the Baptismal and mysteriological traditions of the Church. Let us simply quote an excellent work by Metropolitan Augoustinos of Florina, Eis ten Theian Leitourgian, Praktikai Homiliai (Athens, 1977), in which he summarizes one aspect of the catechetical instructions in the Early Church:

"...In the ancient Church, the Church of the first centuries of Christianity, ...when the catechumens had been taught all that they were to learn, their instructors would take them back to the Bishop, and the Bishop would recommend that they change their pagan names and adopt Christian ones; these names were to remind them of holy personages or virtues (e.g., Agapios, from agape, "love" ...)."

As for pre-fifth-century references to the taking of "Christian names," if we may use this obviously imprecise term, let us cite just a few from many, many such instances, in order to point out that our observations have not been simply casual:

St. Ev(u)stathios, whose pagan name was Placidas, was given the name "Evstathios" in Holy Baptism. He was martyred in 100 A.D. and his Baptism took place sometime in the 80s. His wife (Theopiste) was also given a Christian name, as were their two sons (Agapios and Theopistos). This life was compiled in the eleventh century by St. Symeon Metaphrastes.

In Eusebius’ early fourth-century Ekklesiastike Historia, we find reference to the Christian practice of giving the names of the Apostles to children (Book VII, Chap. 25). Also in the same work, we read that the Egyptian Christians forsook their pagans names for Scriptural names—usually the names of Prophets (Book VIII, "The Martyrs of Palestine").

In his "Homilia enkomiastike eis ton en Hagiois Patera hemon Meletion...," St. John Chrysostomos tells us that many Christians named their children after this great Saint (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. L).

St. Prokopios of Gaza, writing in the early sixth century and speaking of the early (pre-Constantinian) Christian Martyrs, states that many of them took the names of "holy men" (Saints) for themselves. "With these names, they eagerly delivered themselves to martyrdom," he writes. This may seem inapplicable to the question at hand, but martyrdom in the Orthodox Church, at least, is considered "Baptism by blood." It is not unusual, then, that the Martyrs chose to take the names of Saints (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. LXXXVII, Part II, Epitome ton eis ton Propheten Isaian Exegeseon).

With regard to the celebration of the onomasterion (onomastike heorte), here again we must turn to the double witness of history and Holy Tradition. It is clear that Christians celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Apostolic times in memory of the Martyrs and Saints. St. Polycarp, for example, was martyred on February 23, 155/6. The Christians in Smyrna issued a letter, To Martyrion tou Polykarpou, in which they exhorted other Christians to celebrate the day of his Martyrdom and expressed their desire that the Lord "will permit us" (future tense) to gather in joy to continue such a celebration. That this practice of calling on the memories of the Saints in liturgical rites is, again, a complex one, we do not argue. Holy Tradition has always associated it with the earliest Christian Liturgies. And certainly there is clear evidence by the second century of such a tradition. Holy Tradition also establishes that these celebrations were honored by those who bore the names of the Martyrs and Saints who were being commemorated. In his Pneumatike kai Theologike Historia (Bucharest, 1878), Ioannes Eletes points out, on the basis of not a little data, that "...spiritual tradition and countless anecdotal materials from the lives of the Saints therefore give evidence of the age-old commemoration of holy personages, beginning with the commemoration of the Theotokos herself by the Apostles and continued without cessation by pious Christians who have, from the days of the Apostles, carried the names and commemorated in services the great Martyrs and Saints of our Church."

In the tradition of such observers as Adrian Fortescue, there are not doubt some Westerners who consider the very ethos of Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention its historiographical traditions, crude and unscholarly. But the fact is that objective historians, even if they may not embrace the traditions and views of traditional Orthodox theologians and historians, will admit that dismissing the assumptions of Orthodox scholars as somehow inferior to those of Western observers and compilers is not perhaps wise. If nothing else, like using quotation marks in a somewhat ill-advised manner, it is at least politically incorrect.

If Mr. Halsall wishes to make further observations, please do not send them to us. This is a debate on which we place no great importance, and certainly we have no interest in providing endless quotations and historical references (and they are to be had), in order to encourage somehow who believes that we do not know what we are talking about and that Western history is perfectly able to expose the traditions of the Orthodox Church as being something other than what we claim them to be: in particular, ancient and inspired.

Archbishop Chrysostomos
Hieromonk Gregory

Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies

P.S. The translations from the Greek are our own, are hasty and literal, and are not intended to be quoted as final or polished renderings.