Libellatici - Encyclopedia

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LIBELLATICI, the name given to a class of persons who, during the persecution of Decius, A.D. 250, evaded the consequences of their Christian belief by procuring documents (libelli) which certified that they had satisfied the authorities of their submission to the edict requiring them to offer incense or sacrifice to the imperial gods. As thirty-eight years had elapsed since the last period of persecution, the churches had become in many ways lax, and the number of those who failed to hold out under the persecution was very great. The procedure of the courts which had cognizance of the matter was, however, by no means strict, and the judges and subordinate officials were often not ill-disposed towards Christians, so that evasion was fairly easy. Many of those who could not hold out were able to secure certificates which gave them immunity from punishment without actually renouncing the faith, just as "parliamentary certificates" of conformity used to be given in England without any pretext of fact. It is to the persons who received such certificates that the name libellatici belonged (those who actually fulfilled the edict being called thurificati or sacrificati). To calculate their number would be impossible, but we know from the writings of Cyprian, Dionysius of Alexandria and other contemporaries, that they were a numerous class, and that they were to be found in Italy, in Egypt and in Africa, and among both clergy and laity. Archbishop Benson is probably right in thinking that "there was no systematic and regular procedure in the matter," and that the libelli may have been of very different kinds. They must, however, as a general rule, have consisted of a certificate from the authorities to the effect that the accused person had satisfied them. [The name libellus has also been applied to another kind of document - to the letters given by confessors, or by those who were about to suffer martyrdom, to persons who had fallen, to be used to secure forgiveness for them from the authorities of the Church. With such libelli we are not here concerned.] The subject has acquired a fresh interest from the fact that two of these actual libelli have been recovered, in 1893 and 1894 respectively, both from Egypt; one is now in the Brugsch Pasha collection in the Berlin Museum; the other is in the collection of papyri belonging to the Archduke Rainer. The former is on a papyrus leaf about 8 by 3 in., the latter on mere fragments of papyrus which have been pieced together. The former was first deciphered and described by Dr Fritz Krebs, the latter by Dr K. Wessely: both are given and commented upon by Dr Benson. There is a remarkable similarity between them: in each the form is that N. "was ever constant in sacrificing to the gods"; and that he now, in the presence of the commissioners of the sacrifices (01 ripolAvoCTC,P Buo v), has both sacrificed and drunk [or has poured libations], and has tasted of the victims, in witness whereof he begs them to sign this certificate. Then follows the signature, with attestations. The former of the two is dated, and the date must fall in the year 250. It is impossible to prove that either of the documents actually refers to Christians: they may have been given to pagans who had been accused and had cleared themselves, or to former Christians who had apostatized. But no doubt libelli in this same form were delivered, in Egypt at least, to Christians who secured immunity without actual apostasy; and the form in Italy and Africa probably did not differ widely from this. The practice gave rise to complicated problems of ecclesiastical discipline, which are reflected in the correspondence of Cyprian and especially in the Novatian controversy.

See E. W. Benson, Cyprian (London, 1897); Theol. Literaturzeitung, 10th of January and 17th of March 1894. (W. E. Co.)

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