St Peter of Alexandria, the martyr, the seventeenth patriarch. A. D. 300-311.

This great Pope of the Coptic Church strengthened the church during the worst of the Roman persecutions. He was the last to be martyred by the pagans and as such has been given the title “The Seal of the Martyrs”. Many accounts have been written of his life the following is By Severus of Al'Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria Part 2: Peter I - Benjamin I

When Abba Theonas, the patriarch, went to his rest, the clergy of Alexandria assembled with the people and laid their hands upon Peter the priest, his son and disciple, and seated him upon the episcopal throne of Alexandria, as Theonas, the holy father, bade them; and that was in the sixteenth year of Diocletian the prince. And when Peter saw that the wicked Arians had filled the whole country with confusion through his unbelief, he cut him off and banished him from the Church.

And in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, his letters came to Alexandria and Egypt; and he brought trials upon the Christians, and destroyed the churches of God, and killed many persons with the sword; and those that believed in Christ fled into the wilderness, and into dens and caves. Then Diocletian established guards and watchmen in every place of the province of Egypt and the Thebaid as far as Antinoe, and commanded them to kill all the Christians that they found. Afterwards those guards seized the blessed Peter, patriarch of Alexandria, and threw him into prison, and made known to the prince that they had seized him and bound him; and so the unbelieving prince commanded that they should take off his head. When the letter came to them with this order, they hastened to perform the prince's bidding. But when they wished to bring Peter out from the prison that they might take him and kill him, the people assembled at the door of the prison, and sat by it, to watch over their shepherd, saying: When we are all put to death, then his head shall be taken. So those soldiers began to consider how they should bring him forth, so that a great multitude might not die on account of him; for all the people had assembled for his sake, the old and the young, and the monks and the women and the virgins, and were weeping abundant tears. And the soldiers agreed together that they should enter and bring him forth, and slay any of the people who opposed them, as the prince's letter directed.

Now the reason of the prince's command to seek and put to death this father and patriarch was as follows. There was at Antioch a man named Socrates, who was one of the commanders of the troops which served at the palace, and was a comrade of Apater, who was martyred with his sister Irene. This Socrates was by birth a Christian, and was baptized; but he denied his religion, and came to hate the Christians. And he had a wife who was good and charitable and a Christian, by whom God granted him two children. So when they grew and were fit for baptism, the wife said to her husband: I pray thee, my brother, to travel with me to Alexandria, that we may baptize our children, so that they may not die without baptism, lest the Lord Christ be angry with us for our neglect of them. Then the unbeliever replied: Be silent; for thou knowest not the troubles that have come upon us in these days; lest the king should hear and be exceeding wroth with us. Now his intention was to frighten her by this; so that she might leave her children without baptism. But when she perceived that he would not consent, nor travel with her, she took her two children and two trustworthy menservants whom she had; and she went out to the sea-shore, and prayed, saying: O Lord Almighty, Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, if thou wilt make my journey easy, prepare for me a ship in which I may depart. Then while she was praying, she saw a ship about to set sail. So she called one of the sailors, and said to him: Whither are you voyaging? He answered: To Alexandria. She said to him: Carry me with you, and I will pay you a high fare. So he consented to that. And she embarked on that ship, taking her two children, and her two men-servants. And after two days a high wind rose against them, so that everyone in the ship was troubled. Then that believing woman thought: Verily God will not hear a sinner like me; but that which has come into my mind I will do. Then she arose and spread out her hands, and turned her face to the East, and prayed, saying: O God, who knowest everything before if takes place, thou knowest what is in my heart, and that I love thee more than life or wealth, more even than my children and my own soul. Behold, we die in the midst of the waves for thy holy name's sake. O Saviour, O Lord, O my God and Saviour of my soul and my body, have a care for my children who are become orphans on account of thy holy name, and let them not die without baptism. And when she had finished those words, she took a knife and said: O Lord Almighty, thou knowest my heart. And she cut her right breast with the knife, and took from it three drops of blood, with which she made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of her two children, and over their hearts, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and she dipped them in the sea, saying: baptize you, my children, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Then she embraced them, saying: If death is to come to us, then let me die now, me and my two children. So when the Lord saw her faith thus firm, he quelled that tempestuous wind; and there was a great calm. And they arrived after three days at the city of Alexandria.

So when they entered the city by the help of the merciful God, since that day was in the week of Baptism, which is the sixth week of the Fast, when infants are baptized, that woman went straightway to one of the deacons, and said to him: My Father, I wish to have an interview with the patriarch. So he said to her: What is thy business with the patriarch? She answered: My Father, I am a stranger, and I wish to baptize these two children of mine. The deacon asked her: Hast thou no other business than this?» She replied: No. He said to her: Take thy seat in the church; behold the patriarch will come and baptize the infants, and will baptize thy children with them. So she did as he bade her; and when the time came, and the father and patriarch had finished the liturgy, they presented to him for baptism the infants who were to be baptized; and so he baptized them. Then they brought to him the two children of the woman of Antioch; but when the patriarch took the two infants to baptize them, the water was congealed, and became like stone. When Peter, the holy patriarch, saw this, he was astonished; and he commanded to set those two aside; but he told no one of the congealing of the water. Then he bade that the other children should be presented to him, and when the other infants were brought the water was liquefied, and became as it was at first; and he baptized those that were presented to him. Then he gave orders that the two children of the woman should be presented a second time; but when they were brought to him, the water was congealed again, and became like stone. So he sent them back, and the infants of the city were offered to him again; and the water was unbound, and he baptized them. After that, he asked for the two children of the woman a third time; and the water was congealed again, and became like stone. Thereupon the patriarch bade the archdeacon of the church fetch their mother; and so he brought her before him; and he said to her: Make known to me, woman, thy circumstances, and tell me what thy religion is. She replied: I am of Antioch, and my family are Christians. The patriarch said to her: Then what hast thou done? For behold, the Lord will not accept thy children for baptism. She replied: Hear me, my Lord and Father, and be patient with me. For indeed thy Paternity knows how Christians are persecuted throughout the world in these days, and the worst of the trouble is at Antioch. And when these two children of mine grew up, and I found no way of baptizing them there, I asked their father to journey with me to this city, in order to baptize them here, but he would not. So I took these two children of mine, and went out with them to the sea-shore, and there we embarked in a ship; but afterwards when we were in the midst of the waves, a tempest arose against us, so that the ship was near sinking. Therefore I took a knife, and wounded my right breast, and took from it three drops of blood, and made the sign of the cross upon the faces and hearts of my little ones, and dipped them in the sea, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three times. For this reason the Lord withholds them from baptism. And this, by the truth of thy holy Paternity, is what I did. So the patriarch said to her: Let thy heart be comforted, my daughter; fear not, for the Lord is with thee. When thou didst wound thy breast, and take from it the blood, and make the sign of the cross upon the faces of thy two children, in the faith of God the Incarnate Word, whose side was pierced on the cross with the spear, when the water and the blood came forth from it, he it was who made the cross over thy two children with his divine hand. Then the patriarch blessed those two among the baptized, but did no more to them; for he could not baptize them a second time, because the Lord had accepted them on the sea. For the patriarch said: «None can be baptized twice, for there is one baptism only; and these two have already been baptized once by the intention and faith of their mother, and by what she did.

Then the patriarch composed on this subject a homily, beginning thus: The mercy of God which descends upon men. And he gave to the two children of the holy Mysteries. And he took them and their mother into his house until they had kept the Feast of the Holy Easter. Then they returned to their own city in peace.

But when her husband learnt what she had done, he went to Diocletian, the unbelieving prince, and said to him: Know, my lord the prince, that my wife committed adultery in this city; and when I hindered her, she went away to Alexandria, and committed adultery with the Christians during many days; and she took my children, and performed upon them a rite called baptism. And behold, she has returned hither. What thinkest thou that I should do with her? Then Diocletian commanded Socrates her husband to bring her and her two children before him; and he did so. And when she stood before him, he said to her: O woman deserving of death, why didst thou leave thy husband, and go away to Alexandria, and commit adultery there with the Christians? Then that holy woman answered him: The Christians do not commit adultery nor worship idols; but do whatsoever thou wilt; for thou wilt not hear another word from me». The prince said to her: Make known to me what happened to thee at Alexandria. But she would not answer him. Therefore the prince commanded that her hands should be fastened behind her, and that her two children should be placed on her lap, and that all three should be burnt in the fire. So the holy woman turned her face to the East, and her children with her; and thus they gave up their souls, and received the crown of martyrdom.

Then the prince asked her husband Socrates: Who is it that does these things at Alexandria? He replied: It is Peter, the patriarch of the Christians. So when he heard this, he was filled with anger and wrath, because he was full of indignation against the holy Peter, the patriarch, on account of the writings which he had composed in refutation of the worship of idols. Accordingly he wrote to his deputies at Alexandria, commanding that they should take his head. And while the soldiers were zealously obeying the commands of the prince, and Peter was in prison, as we have said above, Arius, the unbeliever, learnt that they wished to kill the patriarch. Then Arius feared that Peter would go to his rest, while he would remain bound by his sentence of excommunication. So he went to certain priests and deacons and many of the laity, and begged them to visit the prison, that they might throw themselves at the feet of the patriarch, and pray him to set Arius loose from his bonds of excommunication. Now they thought that Arius made this request out of piety, and therefore they consented to his petition. So they entered into the prison, and cast themselves down before Peter, and prayed: Then they made prostrations to him, and besought him to loose Arius from his bonds. But the patriarch cried out with a loud voice: Do you intercede with me for Arius? Then he raised his hands and said: Arius shall be at this time, and in the time to come, excluded from the glory of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. When he had said this, a great fear came upon them, and not one of them dared to answer a word. But when he saw that they were afraid of him, he comforted their souls. Then he rose up from the midst of them, and took with him the two old men, Achillas and Alexander, his two disciples, and went apart with them, and said to them: God, the God of heaven, will help me to accomplish my martyrdom. Then thou, Achillas, the priest, shalt sit on this throne after me; and thy brother Alexander after thee. Say not that there is no mercy in me, for I am a sinful man; but Arius is full of hidden guile; and it is not I that have excommunicated him, but Christ. I tell you that this night, when I had finished my prayers and fallen asleep, I saw a youth coming in to me, with his face shining like the light of the sun, wearing a garment which clothed him down to his feet, but it was torn; and he took up the part where it was rent in his hands, and covered with it his breast and his nakedness. So when I saw him, I rose hastily, and cried with a loud voice, and said: O my Lord, who is it that has torn thy garment? He answered: Arius has rent it. Therefore receive him not, and have no fellowship with him. To-day there will come to thee some who will intercede with thee for him; but let not thy heart accept him, for I have forbidden thee to do so. Likewise charge thy disciples, Achillas and Alexander, who will sit after thee on the episcopal throne, that they receive him not. There my speech with him ended. And now I shall accomplish my martyrdom, having charged you as he commanded me. You, my brethren, know how I have been all my time with you, and what trials I have encountered, and the conspiracies of the unbelievers and idol-worshippers; and how I was continually fleeing from place to place, from Mesopotamia to Syria, and to Palestine and Ramleh and the islands. Yet I did not cease to write to you two, secretly and openly, nor to comfort the people through the power of the Lord Christ, clay and night; and I neglected not the flock with which I was entrusted. And my heart was greatly grieved; but in spite of all this I did not neglect the care of Phileas and Hesychius and Pachomius and Theodore, who were imprisoned for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and merited grace from God; for I used to write to them, and to speak of them in my epistles from Mesopotamia. And I suffered great trouble and torment for their sakes, lest anything should happen to them together with the priests who were in prison; for more than six hundred and sixty souls became martyrs. Now, as you know, I have the care of you all; therefore, when I heard that they had been martyred, I worshipped and thanked him who strengthened them, Jesus Christ, who also counted them among his martyrs. So likewise I pray him to number me among them. Moreover you two know the evils which have befallen me from Meletius of Asyut, who divided the Church of God, which the Lord Christ, the Word of God, redeemed with his holy blood, when he laid down his life for it».

Then the father and patriarch, Abba Peter, began to teach those two, and charge them to beware of the guile of the aforesaid Meletius, that they should not associate with him. And he said to them: Behold, you two see me bound for the love of God, while I am awaiting his will; for the officers of Diocletian daily deliberate how to kill some of us, as you know, and they assiduously carry out what they are commanded to do. But I do not fear for myself, and only desire to finish the course which God has appointed for me, and my ministry, which I accepted from the Lord Jesus Christ, my God; and he will help me to complete it; henceforth, therefore, you two will not see my face in the body after this day. I testify to you that I have declared everything to you; and I am pure and free from sin. Therefore keep the flock which the Holy Ghost has entrusted to you, and guard the Church of God which he bought with his blood; for I know that, after I am separated from you, some of the people will arise and speak words of blasphemy, with the intention of dividing the Church, as Meletius has done, whom many of the people have followed; but I beseech you to be vigilant, for you will encounter trouble. For you know what befell the Father Theonas, who brought me up, and upon whose episcopal throne I sat after him, and the evil which he suffered from the worshippers of idols. And I hope that a grace like his will come to me, similar also to the grace given to the Father Dionysius, who hid himself in various places on account of the heretic Sabellius. What shall I say also concerning Heraclas and Demetrius, the two blessed ones, and the disorders that they encountered, and the hostility which they endured from Origen, the madman, and all that took place through him; and concerning all our fathers, who were before us, and what they bore for the Church of God? But the grace of God, which was with them, was that which overshadowed them and protected them.

And now I commit you to God by the word of grace, which has the power to preserve you, and to preserve his flock.

And when the Father Peter had said this, he fell upon his knees and prayed and worshipped with those two, and gave thanks, and clasped them to himself, embracing them, and kissed them. And Achillas and Alexander kissed his hands and bade him farewell weeping, because of his saying to them that they would not see him after that day in the body.

Then he returned to the assembly near which he was standing, and remained among them and exhorted them, and comforted them, and prayed for them, and blessed them, and consoled them, and dismissed them in peace. And when they went away from him, they informed the people of what he had said, and of what he had done in the prison with regard to Arms. And when the people heard this, they marvelled, for they knew that God was with him, and had separated Arius from them. But when Arius learnt this thing, he kept silence and concealed himself and his opinions and his guile, because his hope in the patriarch Peter was cut off.

So when the Father Peter heard of the strife on his account between the troops and the people of the city, who prevented the soldiers from approaching the prison in which he was, he feared that some would be slain for his sake, and resolved to preserve his faithful people, and to redeem them with his own life. Therefore he sent word to the soldiers secretly, saying to them: Come this night to the wall of the prison at the place where I will knock for you from within; and make a hole through it, and do what the prince has commanded you to do. And when they heard this, they accepted his words. Accordingly they went that night secretly to the place of which he told them, which was a cell where he was separate from the other prisoners, of which none of the people knew; and then he knocked at the wall from within, and when they heard him, they broke open the place where he knocked, and made an opening there. So he made the sign of the cross on his face, and put his head out to them, through the hole which they had opened, saying: It is better that I should give up my life than that the people should perish for my sake. Thereupon the soldiers cut off his head, and went away. Behold then this most admirable deed!

Now there arose at that hour a violent wind, so that none of the people who were guarding the door of the prison heard the sound of those that pierced the wall; nor did any of the prisoners hear it. Thus this blessed father accomplished the words of the holy Gospel, and the words of the Jews which it reports 3 on the day of the blessed crucifixion, namely, that it is better that one should die for the people than that the whole people should perish; and he was like his Lord, the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for his sheep. But the people meanwhile were sitting by the door of the prison, and knew not what had happened to him.

In another copy, however, it is said that he came out through the hole in the wall, and the soldiers took him and led him away to a place called Boucolia, the interpretation of which is Cattle-yard; and this is the place where was accomplished the martyrdom of the glorious father, Saint Mark the evangelist. But when the soldiers saw the holy Peter thus giving himself up to death, they were filled with awe, and dread fell upon them. So he asked them, and said to them: I pray you that I may go and receive a blessing from the body of the father, Saint Mark the evangelist. Then they consented to his request, and said with shame and downcast looks: Whatever thou desirest, father, do quickly». So he went to the place where the body of Saint Mark, the evangelist and bringer of good tidings, lay; and he prayed and received a blessing from the relics, and knelt by them, as if he were discoursing with the saint, saying: O my father, evangelist and messenger of the Lord Christ, the Only-Begotten Son, who dost bear witness to his passion, thou art the first martyr and the first patriarch of this see. Thou, O pure and holy one, art he whom Christ, truly the most holy, elected. Thou didst preach his name in the land of Egypt, and in this city, and in the provinces which surround it, and didst diligently exercise the ministry which was thy work; and thou didst receive the crown of martyrdom. For this reason, O father and evangelist, disciple and martyr, thou wast worthy to show forth thy faith in God, the Word and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thou didst elect the blessed Annianus because he was worthy; and after him was Avilius, and those who succeeded those two; then Demetrius and He-raclas and Dionysius and Maximus; and the blessed Theonas, my father, who brought me up until I came to the ministry of this see after him, though I am a sinner, unworthy of this honour which I received only by the greatness of his compassion. Therefore intercede for me, that I may be a martyr in truth, if indeed I be worthy to imitate Christ's crucifixion and resurrection; and that he may fill me with the perfume of life-giving faith, so that I may be to him sweet-smelling incense, by the shedding of my blood for his holy name. For the time is come for my decease; therefore pray, O my father, for me, that I may not be divided into two hearts or purposes; and that the Lord may strengthen me, until I depart from this world. And behold, I leave to thee the flock with which thou didst entrust me, and which thou didst hand over to me, and to those who were before me also, for thou art our teacher, O our lord; therefore be with us and with our children, according to the charge which the Lord Christ gave to thee.

Then Peter rose from beside the tomb, and lifted up his hands to heaven, and said: O Son of God, Jesus Christ, Word of the Father, I pray and beseech thee to make to cease from us this persecution which is upon thy people, and to grant that the shedding of the blood of this thy servant may put an end to the oppression of thy reasonable flock. Now there was in the neighbourhood of the tomb a dwelling-place, where lived a young virgin with her aged father, and she was at that moment standing to pray; and when her prayer was ended, she heard a voice from heaven saying: Peter was the first of the apostles; and now Peter is the last of the martyrs». So when the holy father had finished his invocation, he kissed the apostle's tomb, and the tombs of the fathers which were there also. Then he ascended to the soldiers, who saw his face as it were the face of an angel of God, and so they were afraid of him, and did not speak to him; for God does not abandon those who trust in him. Thereupon the saint raised his hands to heaven, and thanked the Lord, and made the sign of the cross on his face, and said Amen. And he took off his pallium, and bared his neck, which was pure before the Lord, and said to them: Do as you have been commanded. But the soldiers feared that trouble would befall them because of him. So they looked one at another, and not one of them dared to cut off his head, because of the dread which had fallen upon them. Then they took counsel together and said: To him that cuts off his head each one of us will give five denarii. Now they were six persons; and one of them had some money; so he took out five and twenty denarii from among the coins and said : He that will go up to him, and cut off his head, shall receive this money from me and from the four others». So one of the men went forward, and summoned up his courage, and cut off the head of the holy martyr and patriarch Peter; that day being the 29th of Hatur. Now Peter had sat on the evangelical throne for eleven years. But as for that soldier who cast in his lot with Judas Iscariot, he took the money and fled, he and his companions, in fear of the people. And the body of the saint remained lying as it was far into the day, until the people who were sitting before the prison learnt what had taken place, and saw the hole in the wall. Then they went in haste to the place where he was, and found his body covered with his garment, and the old man and the young virgin sitting there and guarding it. So they joined the head to the body, and spread over it a linen cloth; and they collected his blood; and they stood there weeping.

And the city was in confusion, and was greatly disturbed, when the people beheld this martyr of the Lord Christ. Then the chief men of the city came, and wrapped his body in the leathern mat on which he used to sleep; and they took him to the church, and placed him there on the synthronus, until the celebration of the liturgy. And, when the liturgy had heen performed, they buried him with the fathers. May his prayers be with us and all those that are baptized! Amen.


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