Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint James, Bishop of Nisibis, Confessor

Article

A.D. 350.

This eminent saint, and glorious doctor of the Syriac church, was a native of Nisibis, in Mesopotamia, which country was then subject to the eastern empire. 1 He had a genius rich by nature, which he cultivated with indefatigable application; though after laying a foundation of the sciences, he confined himself to sacred studies. In his youth entering the world, he became soon apprized of its dangers. He saw that in it only ambition, vanity, and voluptuousness reign; that men here usually live in a hurry and a crowd, without finding leisure to look into themselves, or to study that great science which ought to be their only affair. He trembled at the sight of its vices, and the slippery path of its pleasures, which, though they seem agreeable at first, yet when tasted are nothing but bitterness and mortal poison, and whilst they flatter the senses, destroy the soul; and he thought it the safer part to conquer by flight, or at least, with the Baptist, to prepare and strengthen himself in retirement, that he might afterwards be the better able to stand his ground in the field. He accordingly chose the highest mountains for his abode, sheltering himself in a cave in the winter, and the rest of the year living in the woods, continually exposed to the open air; and knowing that our greatest conquest is to subdue ourselves, in order to facilitate this important victory, he joined to assiduous prayer the practice of great austerities. He lived only on wild roots and herbs which he ate raw, and had no other garments than a tunic and cloak, both made of goat’s hair, very coarse. Notwithstanding his desire to live unknown to men, yet he was discovered, and many were not afraid to climb the rugged rocks that they might recommend themselves to his prayers, and receive the comfort of his spiritual advice. He was favoured with the gifts of prophecy and miracles in an uncommon measure, of which he gave several proofs in a journey he took into Persia to visit the new churches that were planting there, and strengthen the young converts labouring under grievous persecutions. His presence fortified them in their good resolutions, and inspired them with that spirit of martyrdom which afterwards showed itself in their glorious triumphs. He converted many idolaters, and wrought several miracles in that country. He suffered torments for the faith in the persecution continued by Maximinus II, for Gennadius places him in the number of confessors under that tyrant; and Nicephorus names him among the holy bishops in the council of Nice, who bore the glorious marks of their sufferings for Christ. His personal merit and great reputation occasioned his promotion to the see of Nisibis; but here he still followed the same course of life he had inured himself to on the mountains, to his fasts and austerities adding the care of the poor, the correction of sinners, and all the other toils and hardships of episcopacy. Such was his charity for the poor, that he seemed to possess nothing but for their relief. In the acts of Saint Miles and his companions, Persian martyrs, it is related that Saint James built at Nisibis a very stately church. Saint Miles coming to that city was astonished at the majesty of the edifice, and having made some stay there with Saint James, returned to Adiab, whence he sent the holy bishop a present of a great quantity of silk for the ornaments of his church.

Theodoret relates of him, that one day as he was travelling, he was accosted by a gang of beggars who had concerted a plot whereby to impose upon the servant of God, with the view of extorting money from him on pretence to bury their companion, who lay stretched on the ground as if he had been dead. The holy man gave them what they asked, and “offering up supplications to God as for a soul departed, he prayed that his divine majesty would pardon him the sins he had committed whilst he lived, and that he would admit him into the company of the saints,” says Theodoret. As soon as the saint was gone by, his companions calling upon him to rise and take his share of the booty, were strangely surprised to find him really dead. Seized with sudden fear and grief, they shrieked in the utmost consternation, and immediately ran after the man of God, cast themselves at his feet, confessed the cheat, begged forgiveness, and by entreaties and mournful looks pleaded for pity, and besought him by his prayers to restore their unhappy companion to life, which the saint performed, as this grave author assures us. When the heresy of Arius was broached, and began to infect many churches, Saint James strenuously exerted himself in defending his church from the contagion, and laboured to crush the growing evil. He assisted at the council of Nice in 325, as Theodoret and Gennadius testify; likewise at the council of Antioch held under Saint Eustathius, about the year 326. Being at Constantinople in 336, when Constantine commanded Saint Alexander, the holy bishop of that city, to leave his see in case he persisted to refuse admitting to communion Arius, who had imposed on that prince by an hypocritical confession of faith, Saint James exhorted the people to have recourse to God by fasting and prayer during seven days; and on the eighth day, which was the very Sunday on which Arius was to have been admitted, the unhappy man was found dead in a privy into which he had stepped to ease nature.

The most famous miracle of our Thaumaturgus was that by which he protected the city of Nisibis from the barbarians, as is related by Theodoret both in his religious and ecclesiastical history; by Theophanes, the Alexandrian Chronicle, and even by Philostorgius himself, who was a rank Arian, and cannot be suspected of being too favourable to Saint James. Sapor II, the haughty king of Persia, twice besieged Nisibis with the whole strength of his empire, whilst our saint was bishop; and the city was every time miraculously protected by the prayers of Saint James. Of these sieges the first was laid soon after the death of Constantine the Great, which happened on the 22nd of May, in 337, after that prince had reigned thirty-nine years, nine months, and twenty-seven days. His valour had kept the barbarians in awe. But upon his demise Sapor came, and in 338 sat down before Nisibis with a prodigious army of foot, horse, elephants, and all sorts of warlike engines; but after continuing the siege sixty-three days, was compelled shamefully to raise it, and return into Persia; and his army, harassed by the enemy in its march, and exhausted by fatigues, was at length destroyed by famine and epidemical diseases. The emperor Constantius, when the Persians again invaded the territories of the Romans in 348, by his pusillanimity and misconduct gave them a great superiority in the field. And Cosroës, elated with success, and enriched by the plunder of many provinces, ventured a second time with an army still much stronger than before to lay siege to Nisibis in 350. His troops having seized all the avenues, and made their approaches with a fury beyond example, he first endeavoured to make a breach, in the walls by battering rams and mines, but all to no purpose. At length, after seventy days’ labour, he caused a dam to be raised at a considerable distance from the city, thereby to stop the river Mygdon, which ran through it; this he ordered to be broke down when the water was at its full height; so that the violence with which it beat against the wall of the city made a wide breach in it. At this the Persians rent the air with loud shouts of joy; but deferred the assault till the next day, that the waters might be first carried off, they not being able to make their approaches by reason of the inundation. When they came up to the breach they were strangely surprised to find another wall which the inhabitants had raised behind the former with an astonishing expedition, being encouraged by Saint James, who remained himself all the time in the church at his prayers, by which he conquered, like Moses on the mountain. Sapor marching up to the breach in person, fancied he saw a man in royal apparel on the wall, whose purple and diadem cast an uncommon brightness. This person he believed was the Roman emperor Constantius, and threatened to put to death those who had told him the emperor was at Antioch. But upon their giving him fresh assurances that Constantius was really there, and convinced that heaven fought for the Romans, he threw up a javelin into the air, out of impotent revenge because heaven seemed to take part against him. Then Saint Ephrem, deacon of Edessa and Saint James’s disciple, being present, entreated him to go upon the walls to take a view of the Persians, and pray to God that he would defeat the infidel army. The bishop would not pray for the destruction of any one; but he implored the divine mercy that the city might be delivered from the calamities of so long a siege. Afterwards, going to the top of a high tower, and turning his face towards the enemy, and seeing the prodigious multitude of men and beasts which covered the whole country, he said: “Lord, thou art able by the weakest means to humble the pride of thy enemies; defeat these multitudes by an army of gnats.” God heard the humble prayer of his servant, as he had done that of Moses against the Egyptians, and as he had by the like means vanquished the enemies of his people when he conducted them out of Egypt. For scarcely had the saint spoken those words, when whole clouds of gnats and flies came pouring down upon the Persians, got into the elephants’ trunks, and the horses’ ears and nostrils, which made them chafe and foam, throw their riders, and put the whole army into confusion and disorder. A famine and pestilence which followed, carried off a great part of the army; and Sapor, after lying above three months before the place, set fire to all his own engines of war, and was forced to abandon the siege and return home with the loss of twenty thousand men. Sapor received a third foil under the walls of Nisibis, in 359, upon which he turned his arms against Amidus, took that strong city, and put the garrison and the greater part of the inhabitants to the sword. The citizens of Nisibis attributed their preservation to the intercession of their glorious patron, Saint James, though he seems to have been translated to glory before this last siege. Gennadius says he died in the reign of Constantius, whose death happened in 361. That of Saint James is placed by most moderns in 350, soon after the second siege of Nisibis. Gennadius informs us, that out of a pious confidence that the saint’s earthly remains would be a pledge of his intercession with God for the protection of the city against the barbarians, by an order of the emperor Constantius, though an Arian, pursuant to an express injunction of his father Constantine the Great, notwithstanding the severe laws to the contrary then in force, the body of Saint James was buried within the walls of the city. Julian, the Apostate, in 361, envying the saint this distinguished privilege, commanded these sacred remains to be removed without the city. Soon after, upon his death the emperor Jovian, in 363, in order to purchase peace of the Persians, was obliged to yield up to them Nisibis, with the five Roman provinces situated on the Tigris, and a great part of Mesopotamia. But the inhabitants of Nisibis who were compelled by Jovian to remove before he delivered up the city, carried with them the sacred relics of this saint, which, according to the Menology of the Armenians at Venice, were brought to Constantinople about the year 970. His name is famous both in the Eastern and Western Martyrologies. His festival is kept by the Latins on the 15th of July, by the Greeks on the 13th of January and the 31st of October, by the Syrians on the 18th of January, and by the Armenians on a Saturday in the month of December. The last honour him with no less solemnity than the Assyrians, and observe before his feast a fast of five days with the same severity with that of Lent. In his office they sing the long devout Armenian hymns, which were compiled in his honour by Saint Nierses, patriarch of Armenia, the fourth of that name, surnamed of Ghelaia, who strenuously defended the union with the Latin church against the Greek emperor, Michael Comnenus, in the twelfth century, and is honoured by the orthodox Armenians among the saints.

Saint James’s learning and writings have procured him a rank next to Saint Ephrem among the doctors of the Syriac church; and the Armenians honour him as one of the principal doctors of their national church. For though Saint James was a Syrian, he wrote excellent treatises in the Armenian language for their instruction, at the request of a holy bishop of that nation called Gregory, whose letter to our saint is still extant. In it he promises himself the happiness of paying Saint James a visit, and passing some time with him, in order to improve himself more perfectly by his lessons in the knowledge and practice of true virtue: in the mean time he earnestly conjures him to favour him with some short instructions, and teach him what is the true foundation of a spiritual life of faith, by what means the edifice is to be raised in our souls, and by what good works, by what virtues it is to be finished and brought to perfection. Saint James complied with his desire in eighteen excellent discourses still extant. They are published at Rome in one volume, folio, in 1756, in Armenian and Latin, by M. Nicholas Antonelli, canon of the Lateran basilic.

The visible protection with which God watches over his servants ought to excite our confidence in him. He assures us that his tenderness for them surpasses the bowels of the most affectionate mother, and he styles himself their protector and their safeguard. This made Saint Chrysostom cry out, “Behold, I testify and proclaim to all men with a loud voice, and would raise it, were it possible, louder than any trumpet, that no man on earth can hurt a good Christian, nor even the tyrant the devil. If God be for us, who is against us? says the apostle.” How far otherwise is it with the wicked! They are cast off by their God; they are not his people; not fed or watched over by that special tender providence which he affords his servants: they are a forsaken, abandoned vineyard. He is their enemy, and hath set his eyes upon them for evil, not for good. What rest or comfort can the sinner enjoy who knows he hath an almighty arm continually stretched out against him?

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint James, Bishop of Nisibis, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 July 2013. Web. 23 September 2017. <>