The Sacramentary of Sarapion – Overview and Problems
The Sacramentary of Sarapion derives its name from the association scholars have made between its contents and St. Sarapion of Thmuis, a contemporary of Athanasius in Egypt. The Sacramentary collects 30 presidential or sacerdotal prayers. Its association with the fourth century Egyptian saint stems from his name having been prefixed to the anaphora contained in the text. This has led to Sarapion having developed a somewhat less than spectacular reputation in the scholarly community due to the awkward order of the text as it has come down to us coupled with the questionable Trinitarian theology concluding certain prayers.
Cumming, when discussing Brightman’s work, notes that the contents of the original manuscript do not demonstrate any “logical order.” Cumming, in asserting the logical order of the text after a few editorial decisions on the part of scholars accidentally validates the criticism of the text he seeks to rebuke. The establishment of any logical order to the work largely depends upon scholars editing the sequence of the text and imposing a logical order of their own devising. The Sacramentary of Sarapion, then, cannot escape charges of a confused ordering.
The confused Trinitarian theology of some of the prayers, according to Botte, resembles a Binitarian Logos theology and would preclude the authorship of an associate of St. Athanasius. Botte himself argued in favor of an anonymous author who wrote under Sarapion’s name and replaced references to the Spirit’s active work with that of the Logos. Maxwell Johnson, however, believes the questionable conclusions of many of the prayers in the Sacramentary of Sarapion can be defended as solidly Trinitarian based upon Athanasius’ proposal of the intimacy between the second person of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit during the action of baptism.
Continuing the debate of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the text, Spinks has appealed to the work of scholars in Egyptian Gnosticism in support of his observations regarding the affinity of certain prayers in the Sacramentary of Sarapion and Gnostic texts the Gospel of Phillip and the Acts of Thomas. In particular, Spinks sees the first prayer for the people of our reading as thematically similar to the Acts of Thomas. Maxwell, in response to Spinks, notes that such similarities do not establish a Gnostic influence in the Sacramentary of Sarapion so much as they illustrate the fundamental observation of Grigg’s Early Egyptian Christianity: Christianity in Egypt was, even after the rise of Alexander of Alexandria, a locally diverse religion with many shared elements (not all of them strictly orthodox) in the ecclesiastical mix.
Another issue surrounding the Sacramentary of Sarapion concerns its relationship to other early Christian worship orders of the time, especially those which may have circulated heavily in Egypt. Barret-Lennard has argued that the Sacramentary of Sarapion, if truly from Egypt, attests to a widespread interest in the Egyptian church for the sick and the healing of illness, thus accounting for some common themes without arguing for direct dependence. If Barret-Lennard’s argument is correct and the Sacramentary of Sarapion is yet another example in Egyptian wide Church practice, then another question raised by the same author must be considered: who was charged with the role of ecclesiastical healer? Barret-Lennard cites the Canons of Hippolytus as providing examples of the ambiguity over who exercises a healing ministry in the Egyptian church. According to Barret-Lennard, while the gift of healing made one eligible for ordination, it does not seem that ordination was required to exercise a healing ministry.
A final question one might raise when discussing the concept of healing in Christian liturgical texts or healing ministry in early Christianity in general is drawn predominately from some of the work of Marvin Meyer in the field of early Christian magic. Although magic or superstitious practices do not make it into the official liturgical and prayer practices of mainline Christianity, Meyer’s own book on the subject as well as the journal of the same name has illustrated the practice of what we would now term magical invocation in early Christianity. It was not uncommon, according to Meyer’s work, for Christians to fashion themselves amulets inscribed with particular bible verses for the purposes of performing healing rituals. This phenomenon in early Christianity relates to Barret-Lennard’s observation of the preponderance of healing prayers in Egyptian liturgical resources in virtue of the surviving evidence of Christian magical invocation having an Egyptian provenance.
A final question resulting from the text of the Sacramentary of Sarapion concerns the nature of the ecclesiastical hierarchy reflected in the text. Both prayers for the laying on of hands call upon the Deity to place its hand upon those for whom the prayer is said. This raises questions concerning ritual efficacy (how much divine potency was believed to reside in the ritual itself) as well as questions regarding the person of priest/minister. Did any divine power flow through the person of the priest/minister? If so, does this allude to a vague concept of ontological change? Or does it hint at the beginnings of the detailed hierarchical ordering of the Church that Pseudo-Dionysius will eventually expound some two centuries later? If so, the Sacramentary of Sarapion would be a bridge between the immediate experience and knowledge of the Deity and the complex mediatory structure proposed in the Celestial and Ecclesiastical hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius.