Saint Christopher

This article is about the Christian saint known as Christopher. For information on the island formerly known as St Christopher, see Saint Kitts.
Saint Christopher was a saint venerated by Roman Catholics, who had been listed as a martyr from the reign of the 3rd century Roman emperor Decius (reigned 249 - 251), but is now considered likely to be mythical. Likewise, Saint Christopher is a saint still venerated by Orthodox Christians, who is known as a martyr killed in the fourth year of the reign of the 3rd century Roman emperor Decius. He is not considered likely to be mythical.

One Saint, Two Lives

The story of this saint's life is astoundingly different, depending upon whether one consults Orthodox or Roman Catholic sources.

The Roman Catholic Christopher

Among Roman Catholics, the most popular St. Christopher legend is preserved in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. The story states that Christopher was a sort of Canaanite giant or ogre, who was said to have lived during the first half of the 3rd century. He was twelve cubits (about eighteen feet) tall, and had a most fearsome countenance. His name originally was "Offero" or "Reprobus." Such was his pride, that he vowed that he would serve only a master who was more fearsome than himself. After research, Christopher determined that the Devil was a likely candidate. He therefore pledged himself to the Devil's service, only to abandon the Devil when he learned that the Devil was in turn afraid of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Christopher then vowed to serve Jesus instead, and became a Christian. He sought out a Christian hermit to inquire as to how he could better serve Jesus. The hermit directed him to a dangerous ford in a swift river, and suggested that Christopher's great size and strength made him a good candidate to assist people in crossing. Christopher began ferrying people across the river on his broad back.

One day a small child approached the river and asked to be carried across. Christopher began to comply, only to learn that the small boy was far heavier than any other passenger he had taken. The child revealed that he was in fact Jesus Christ, and that his unusual weight was due to the fact that he bore the sins of he world. The boy then baptised Christopher in the river. Christopher then acquired his new name, which is Greek for "Christ-carrier" (christo-phoros).

The child then told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground. The staff miraculously bloomed into a fruit-bearing tree. This miracle converted many. Enraged at these conversions, a local king had Christopher imprisoned, where after cruel tortures he died as a martyr.

The veneration of this improbable figure was sharply criticised by Erasmus in his Praise of Folly. Christopher's feast day formerly was July 25; it was downgraded by the Vatican to a purely local commemoration in 1969. Christopher was formerly one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and the patron saint of travellers. Despite his demotion, devotion to St. Christopher remains popular among Roman Catholics, as evidenced by the medallions issued in his name, which are thought by some to be amulets that confer safety upon travellers.

The Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) Christopher

In contrast to the dramatic and miracle-laden stories popular among Roman Catholics who venerate St. Christopher, the story accepted among the Orthodox is somewhat more prosaic (albeit still with fantastic elements).

During the reign of the Emperor Decius, a man named Reprebus or Reprobus was captured in combat against tribes to the west of Egypt and was assigned to the numerus Marmaritarum or "Unit of the Marmaritae", so he was probably of that tribe. He was of enormous size and terrifying demeanor, being a cannibal with the head of a dog instead of a man (this was common to all the Marmaritae) Traditional Orthodox iconography depicts him as literally dog-headed. Nevertheless, he accepted baptism and began to preach the faith.

Eventually, the governor of Antioch or the Emperor, himself, decreed that he was to be executed for his faith. He miraculously survived many attempts at execution, eventually permitting himself to be martyred after converting multitudes. His body was then taken back to Alexandria by a "Peter of Attalia".

Historical Christopher?

The Western version of St. Christopher was ultimately repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church, as it was impossible to distinguish associated accounts from any number of probably fictional folk tales. Non-fantastic details of the Western Christopher's "life" were so scant as to be essentially non-extant.

This is not necessarily the case for St. Christopher as he is known in the east. While surviving Eastern accounts of his life are replete with miracles and events that do not mesh well with modern historiography, enough information has been preserved to present a possible account of a St. Christopher that would be amenable to modern historical sensibilities.

The first hurdle to consider is the idea that he was a dog-headed cannibal. This can be understood in the light that the surviving accounts of St. Christopher are contemporaneous. The practice of the time was to describe all people outside the "civilized" (Graeco-Roman-Persian) world as cannibals, dog-headed, or even more bizarre things, albeit often metaphorically. A later generation could then mistake a metaphor or hyperbole for a literal statement.

However, the man in question is also said to have been assigned to a military unit made up of Marmaritae. The Marmaritae were the independent tribes of Marmarica (now in modern Libya), who would have been pushed to the frontier region after Roman settlement. Since he was from a frontier tribe, describing him as being from the land of dog-headed people would have been a literary convention of the day.

The various miracles attributed to him in the Eastern stories could be explained as ordinary embroidering typical of Hagiography, especially regarding saints of the early centuries of Christianity.

Finally, we have the statements that he was killed in Antioch and his body taken elsewhere by a Bishop. There is no way he could have been killed in the fourth year of the Emperor Decius, who only reigned for two years. However, before ascending to the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire, Maximinus, was known as "Daza" before rising to power. Unfortunately, there is no record of a visit to Antioch by Maximinus in the fourth year of his reign (308). It is, of course, possible, that St. Christopher was executed in Antioch during this year by the order of a lower authority and personal trial before one of the Caesars is a later embellishment.

Unfortunately, none of this information permits identification of the actual man. Christopher is simply Greek for "Christ-bearer, and it refers, in the Eastern tradition, to St. Christopher's willingness to "take up the cross"--a common metaphor for converting to Christianity. Reprebus or Reprobus simply means "wicked person", so saying that Reprobus became Christopher amounts to saying "A wicked person became a Christian." Furthermore, no place claims to be the burial site of St. Christopher, very unusual for a martyr.

It has been speculated that St. Christopher could be the same man known as Saint Menas among the Copts, for whom a 4th century burial site is known but has no verifiable details about his life or martyrdom attached to him. However, there is no conclusive link.

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