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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Gregory of Nyssa composes the Life of *Gregory the Miracle-Worker (bishop and missionary in Pontus, S00687); it is delivered as a homily on the saint’s feast, recounting the manifold miracles he performed during his lifetime. Written in Greek in Asia Minor, in the late 370s or the 380s. Overview entry

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint

Literary - Sermons/Homilies

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Gregory the Miracle-Worker (CPG 3184, BHG 715-715b)

(paragraph numbers after Maraval 2014)

1-7. Introduction
The text is an oration given at an assembly held on the feast of Gregory. The speaker invokes the help of the Holy Spirit who was the force behind the virtue of Gregory in life and words alike. Gregory is a formidable exemplar of virtue. His eulogy cannot be of the worldly kind, praising his lineage and home.

8-10. Origins
Although irrelevant in a saint’s life, Gregory’s home country and city, the famous Pontus and Neocaesarea, are praiseworthy. He comes from a notable family, but his parents are pagans.

11. Youth and character
Gregory is orphaned in his early youth. He is characterised by wisdom and temperance, and avoids worldly pleasures.

12-14. Education
He studies pagan philosophy, but finds it incoherent and unreliable, and seeks the true wisdom of the Christian faith. He thus resembles Moses.

15-21. Studies in Alexandria: Gregory’s chastity///
During his studies in Alexandria, he is falsely accused by a prostitute sent by his fellow students. He faces her with calmness and delivers her from a demon which possessed her. His story recalls that of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar [Gen. 39:7].

22-23. Studies under Origen
He later meets and befriends the noble Cappadocian Phirmilianos (Firmilianus), who later became bishop of Caesarea. They decide to dedicate their lives to God, and become students of the Christian philosopher Origen. Although many try to keep him abroad, Gregory returns to his homeland.

24-25. Ascetic retirement in Pontus
Gregory lives in ascetic retirement and celibacy, avoiding involvement in public affairs, despite appeals to do so. He is comparable to Moses.

26-27. Ordination
The bishop of Amaseia, Phaidimos, seeks to ordain him, but Gregory, warned by visions, hides, constantly changing retreats. In the end, Phaidimos performs the rites of ordination in Gregory’s absence, designating him as shepherd of a city full of pagans, having only seventeen Christians [= Neocaesarea – though this is not named in the text].

28-33. Revelation of the mystery of the Trinity by John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary (see E01879)
Gregory accepts his ordination and goes through the proper rites of ordination. Before starting his ministry, however, he requests time to contemplate on doctrine, seeking a divine revelation. The teachings of heretics cause him doubts. One night he has a vision of John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, revealing him a Trinitarian creed which Gregory writes down. The manuscript is preserved down to this day.

33-41. Purification of a pagan temple and conversion of its priest
Strengthened by the vision, Gregory leaves his retreat and goes to Neocaesarea, which is full of pagan temples and festivals. On his way, he purifies an oracular shrine from its demons, and converts its priest.

42-48. The evangelisation of Neocaesarea
Already famous through his first miracles, Gregory is received by a curious crowd in Neocaesarea. Initially, he has nowhere to stay, but a certain Mousonios offers him hospitality. By his preaching and miracles, he quickly converts a great crowd, and soon they build a church, which remains standing until now, even after a disastrous earthquake.

49-55. Miraculous draining of a lake: Gregory’s justice
Two young brothers feud over the inheritance of a marshy lake. Gregory fails to reconcile them9808 by his admonitions, and miraculously causes the lake to dry up, thus ending the dispute. Traces of the former lake are still visible. He is compared to Solomon.

56-61. Miraculous control of river floods
Gregory is invited by the inhabitants of a region affected by the floods of the river Lycus to help. He plants his staff in the mud of the river and prays. The staff becomes a tree and furnishes an unsurpassable boundary to the stream. His miracles are compared to those of Elijah.

62-72. Election of Alexandros as bishop of Comana
The faith spreads swiftly, and soon Gregory is invited by the people of neighbouring Comana to help them elect a bishop. They present various candidates of illustrious standing, but Gregory advises them to look among the socially humbler. Someone ironically mentions the poor charcoal burner Alexandros. Gregory summons him and, to the amazement of all, he recognises him as an ascetic philosopher, pretending foolishness and living in poverty out of conscious choice. Washed and dressed in the bishop’s garments, Alexandros amazes everyone by the depth of his first sermon.

73-76. The sham dead man
Two Jews attempt to deceive Gregory: one lies down by the side of the road pretending to be dead, while the other ones laments and exhorts Gregory to help him bury his poor naked friend properly. Gregory throws his cloak over the presumed dead man and leaves. The latter’s friend tries to raise him, but discovers that he really has died and will truly need Gregory's cloak to be buried in.

77-78. Exorcism of a possessed boy and other healings

79-87. The persecution
A great persecution breaks out, and Gregory advises his flock to flee. He and the converted temple priest, now ordained as deacon, hide on a high hill. An informant indicates the place to the persecutors, but Gregory is miraculously hidden from their eyes, by angels appearing as trees. The informant stays back and, finding out about the miracle, he becomes a Christian.

88-93. Miracles during the persecution
While hiding in the wilderness, Gregory has a vision, by which he witnesses the martyrdom of a certain Troadios in the city. His deacon asks him to commend him to Christ’s protection, in order to go to the city and inspect the situation. He arrives at Neocaesarea and enters a public bath haunted by murderous demons. They are unable to harm him, as the deacon uses the sign of the cross and invokes the name of Gregory who had commended him to the protection of Christ. The deacon returns to Gregory and confirms that the persecution and the martyrdom of Troadios had happened according to his vision. The memory of this miraculous protection is preserved in the formula of a prayer invoking Christ at the intercession of the clergy.

94. The cult of martyrs (see E01883)
After the end of the persecution, Gregory returns to the city, and establishes yearly celebrations for the martyrs, thus introducing a new element to Christian worship. By these festivals, he intends to help the simpler people to pass from paganism to Christianity.

95. Gregory’s end (see E01884)
Foreseeing his own death, Gregory inspects the area, and finds that everyone has been converted except for seventeen pagans. He gives thanks to God and dies, having instructed his companions not to bury him in a privately owned tomb, refusing to be called the owner of anything, even after his death.

96-100. Additional miracle account: the end of a plague
This miracle, omitted by the author by mistake, occurred early in Gregory’s ministry and explains the massive scale of the conversion of Neocaesarea. During a pagan festival, a crowd gathers in the theatre, and, cramped for space, they pray to Zeus requesting him to grant them space. A great plague breaks out, decimating the population. Realising that this was the result of their prayer, they turn to Gregory and the God he was preaching. Every house he visits is delivered from the disease. His fame spreads swiftly, and the people abandon the old superstition. Many other miracles are recounted, which are not included in the narrative.

Summary: Efthymios Rizos

Liturgical Activities



Saint’s feast

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts
Oral transmission of saint-related stories


Miracle during lifetime
Miracles experienced by the saint
Punishing miracle
Miracles causing conversion
Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)
Power over objects
Healing diseases and disabilities
Power over life and death
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation
Miraculous protection - of people and their property
Miraculous appointment to office

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


Gregory of Nyssa was born in the late 330s as one of the youngest of a leading Christian family of Cappadocia. His siblings included important figures of church life, namely Basil of Caesarea, the ascetic Makrina the Younger, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory was trained in philosophy and rhetoric mainly by his brother Basil, who, in 371 or 372 ordained him bishop of the Cappadocian township of Nyssa. In 376, Gregory was deposed from his see, to which he was able to return in 378, and, from then onwards, he was one of the protagonists of church politics in the East Roman Empire. He played an important role during the Council of Constantinople (381) and was very close to the imperial family of Theodosius I. He was sent on missions to Armenia and Arabia in order settle problems in local churches. Gregory died after 394. He left a large literary heritage on philosophical, theological, ascetical, catechetical and homiletic works.

Gregory wrote the
Life of Gregory the Miracle-Worker in 379 or in the 380s. The text is preserved in 133 manuscripts, on which see: (accessed 02/02/2017)
Heil, Cavarnos, and Lendle 1990, lxxxvii-cxxxiii (G. Heil)


The Life of Gregory the Miracle-Worker originates from a homily composed and given by Gregory of Nyssa during a service held on the feast of the saint. Given its substantial length (c. 17,000 words) the text is thought to have been secondarily extended, so as to be published as a piece of hagiography. It seems that it circulated widely at an early date (it was known to Rufinus of Aquileia in Italy, c. AD 400), and remained a very popular text, as its copious manuscript tradition suggests. It was established as the only hagiographic account on Gregory the Miracle-Worker in the Greek ecclesiastical tradition, and was translated into Latin, Armenian, Coptic (Sahidic and Bohairic), and Syriac.

The precise date and venue of Gregory’s original homily are unknown. Jean Daniélou suggested that it was given at Neocaesarea in 380, a view followed by most scholars after him. Notably, Stephen Mitchell (1999) associated the text with an episcopal council of reconciliation, which he assumed was held at Neocaesarea in November 379. According to Mitchell, the references of the narrative to the churches of Caesarea, Amasea, and Comana were carefully chosen in order to flatter an audience of bishops and delegations gathered together in Neocaesarea.

Recently, Pierre Maraval argued (2014, 14-23) that Neocaesarea is an unlikely venue for this sermon, since the author refers to it as a remote place, and never addresses his audience as being local and related to the story, which he does in the sermons he gave at the martyria of the *Forty Martyrs in Sebaste, and of *Theodore in Pontus. Maraval suggests that the homily was given during an episcopal conference convened at Ibora in Pontus in 379.

The question must remain open. The sermon provides no more satisfactory evidence for its date than for its venue. It can date from any point in the late 370s or the 380s, and was probably written for a celebration of the saint at Nyssa, Neocaesarea, or elsewhere.

Early elements in the legend
It is unknown if the author based his work on a pre-existing written account about the saint. His constant use of the phrase ‘it is said that’ seems to suggest that he mostly records oral traditions, some of which must have been known to him through his own family tradition: Gregory of Nyssa’s father and grandmother belonged to a notable Christian family of Neocaesarea. His brother, Basil of Caesarea, reports that they first heard stories about Gregory the Miracle-Worker from their grandmother, Makrina the Elder (E00822). Remarkably, our text makes no use of the written works ascribed to the historical Gregory of Neocaesarea (c. AD 213-270), which it does not even mention (his Canonical Epistle; his Farewell Oration to Origen; a Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes). Employing a technique typical of funerary orations, Gregory of Nyssa makes a series of comparisons between his hero and a number of biblical figures, in order to argue that his virtue was similar, if not greater, to that of the Old Testament Prophets. Comparisons of this kind are known from other orations of the same author (e.g. E01808, on Basil) and from the funerary orations of Gregory of Nazianzus.

The story recounted by the text is one of the earliest known lives of a wonder-working bishop, and given its great popularity, it can be treated as one of the archetypal works of this particular category of hagiographic writing. The legend recorded by Gregory of Nyssa is likely to have been shaped in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, thus being roughly contemporary with the
Life of *Polycarp of Smyrna (E00453), and having a very similar outlook: the story of a Christian holy man, who leads his Christian community by the authority of canonical ordination, and by the charisma of his own virtue, expressed through a series of prodigies. Unlike Polycarp, however, Gregory does not die a martyr, thus being revered as a holy man for his wondrous way of life, but not for his death as a martyr. For this reason, he was one of the first to be styled thaumatourgoi (wonder-workers) in the Greek tradition, the title by which he is known in the later tradition – though not mentioned in this text. Other figures listed under this category by the later tradition are bishops like *Spyridon of Trimythous (S00790) and *Nicholas of Myra (S00520).

The legend recounted by Gregory of Nyssa seems to be aware of the issue of Gregory’s peaceful death, and of the fact that he survived a persecution (this persecution is not named, but having died in c. 270, the historical Gregory would have survived at least two major persecutions). This can be recognised in paragraphs 79-93, which recount the survival of the bishop, and the miracles he performed during the persecution. Like his contemporary *Cyprian of Carthage (E00916), Gregory did not stay in the city to face the violence, but went into hiding in the countryside. The text asserts that:
- Gregory neither sought martyrdom in a voluntary manner nor did he attempt to avoid it, since the persecutors did seek to arrest him. If he survived, it was due to divine will, which preserved him in a miraculous way (79-87).
- In the meantime, people were arrested and suffered martyrdom in the city. Although absent, the bishop was spiritually with them at their martyrdom, and invisibly supported them in their struggle (the vision of Troadios) (88-89).

All this section could be responding to voices outside or within the Catholic community, which could have challenged the authority of the clergy who had survived: these critics may have included rival groupings, such as the Montanists, Marcionites, and Novatians (all dynamically active in Anatolia), and Catholic confessors (people who had been arrested, but did not die) who were recognised as an alternative group of non-ordained charismatic ministry.

The second half of the persecution account is an assertion of the authority of the bishop, and of its undisputed grace. Throughout the persecution, Gregory performs miracles and commends people to divine protection as he pleases; under the protection bestowed on him by the bishop, his deacon visits the city, defeats the demons in the bathhouse, witnesses the persecution, and returns safely to report the events (88-93). Our author claims that, in commemoration of his miraculous protection, that deacon ‘
left for his own generation and for posterity the protective prayer which commends each person to God through the priests. And that formula, as it is now used in the whole Church, but especially in that community [Neocaesarea], is still a reminder of the help then provided to that man by Gregory’ (93.73-78). The latter may refer to a version of a prayer still widely used by the Eastern churches (Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us).

All these elements echo a polemical context that fits with the living reality of a persecution, familiar in Christian texts of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. They thus suggest that the legend recounted by Gregory of Nyssa contains early material, but whether it had reached our author in a written form is unknown.

Essentially, our legend is a schematic foundation narrative of the Church of Neokaisareia/Neocaesarea and its region, accounting for their apparently unusually advanced Christianisation. It seems that the Christians of the area remembered a quasi
en masse conversion during the 3rd century. The events signalling the growth of Gregory’s flock can be listed as follows:

- the conversion of a pagan priest (33-41)
- the first congregation, from the creation of the house-church of Mousonios to the building of the first public church (42-48)
- the plague which undermined the confidence of the population in the old religion (96-100). The miraculous repulsion of a public calamity is reminiscent of the last miracle ascribed to Polycarp in his
Life (the end of a drought, see E00453), in the sense of outlining the confrontation of the bishop with the entire civic community.
- the persecution (79-93)
- the establishment of the cult of martyrs (94; E01883).

Late 4th century theological disputes
Even though the legend presents features which can be ascribed to earlier periods, the context of Gregory of Nyssa’s work is also clearly reflected in the text. This is mainly echoed in the doctrine on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which caused a breach in the ranks of the Nicene party during the 4th century. In the 370s, Basil of Caesarea championed a Trinitarian theology which was met with disapproval by communities in Pontus, including the bishop of Neocaesarea, Atarbios, who accused Basil of doctrinal and liturgical innovations against the allegedly inherited traditions of Gregory the Miracle-Worker. Basil replied that there was no proof of the provenance of the Pontic practices from the holy founder, and dismissed their peculiarities as mere archaisms. Thus Gregory the Miracle-Worker came to be invoked by two parties debating the divinity of the Spirit: Atarbios claimed that the Spirit played a lesser role in the traditions inherited from Gregory; Basil claimed that Gregory’s entire life was a testimony to the divinity of the Spirit, manifested in every miracle he performed (see E01103). Our author, Gregory of Nyssa, opens his text with a statement asserting precisely the proposition of Basil: the author says that he needs the grace of the Holy Spirit, which supported his hero in his path to perfection, in order to provide an account that lives up to the lofty subject; the splendid life of Gregory would not have been achieved without the support of the Holy Spirit (paragraph 1).

It is to the same polemic that the account of Gregory’s vision of John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary pertains (E01879). This story, which claims that Gregory had received a divine revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, appears to have been unknown to Basil who, one would expect, would have used it in his arguments. Thus paragraphs 28-33 can be described as a late element in the legend, amending the foundation myth of the Church of Neocaesarea, so as to adapt it to the prevailing doctrinal direction of the 380s. This piece must then have been produced by Gregory of Nyssa or his contemporaries, in the late 370s or in the 380s. This section plays the role of codifying what was supposed to be remembered as the doctrinal legacy of Gregory the Miracle-Worker. Sections concerning the teaching of holy figures are a central aspects of this genre, notably seen in a recapitulation of Polycarp’s teaching in
Life of Polycarp 13-16 (E00453), and in Antony’s address to the monks in Athanasius’ Life of Antony 16-43 (E00631).


Heil, G., Cavarnos, J.P., and Lendle, O. (eds.), Gregorii Nysseni Opera X.1: Gregorii Nysseni Sermones II (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 4-57 (G. Heil).

Translations and commentaries:
Maraval, P., Grégoire De Nysse, Éloge De Grégoire Le Thaumaturge; Éloge De Basile (Sources Chrétiennes 573; Paris: Cerf, 2014).

Slusser, M.,
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: Life and Works (Fathers of the Church 98; Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1998), 41-87

Leone, L.,
Gregorio di Nissa. Vita di Gregorio Taumaturgo (Rome, 1988).

Further reading:
Abramowski, L., "Das Bekentniss des Gregor Thaumaturgus und das Problem seiner Echtheit," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 87 (1976), 145-166.

Mitchell, S., "The Life and Lives of Gregory Thaumaturgus," in: J.W. Drijvers and J.W. Watt (eds.),
Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium, and Christian Orient (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 137; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 99-138.

Starowieyski, M., "La plus ancienne description d’une mariophanie par Grégoire de Nysse," in: H.R. Drobner and C. Klock (eds.),
Studien zu Gregor von Nyssa und der christlichen Spätantike (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 12; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 245-253.

On Gregory of Nyssa:
Dörrie, H., “Gregor III,” in: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 12 (1983), 863-895.

Maraval, P., "Grégoire, évêque de Nysse," in:
Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 22 (1988): 20–24.

Silvas, A.M.
Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83; Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1-57.

Record Created By

Efthymios Rizos

Date of Entry


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00687Gregory the Miracle-Worker (Thaumatourgos), bishop and missionary in Pontus, ob. c. 270ΓρηγόριοςCertain

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