Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379)

Basil of Caesarea (from André Thevet)

Basil of Caesarea (from André Thevet)
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Basil was born in Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia,[1] one of nine children.[2] His grandmother, Macrina, was converted through the ministry of Gregory the Wonderworker (a disciple of Origen), and two of his brothers (Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste) also became bishops, and his sister (Macrina) a nun.[3] He received a Greek education at Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens,[4] studying the classics, astronomy, geometry, mathematics and medicine. Medicine seems to have held a special fascination for him, which has led some writers to claim that he actually practised it.[5] Basil never learned Latin - a fact deduced from the lack of Latin sources quoted in his writings.[6] Basil initially intended to take up a career as a lawyer when he returned from five years at the university in Athens in 355. Instead he turned to a life of asceticism, and together with his friend, Gregory of Nazianxus, founded a small monastic community.[7] In 360 he was ordained as a reader, in 362 as a presbyter, and in 370 as bishop of Caesarea.[8]

Many of Basil's writings have survived. Of particular interest is his work Hexameron or On the Six Days of the Creation, which was originally delivered as a series of nine sermons during lent. Basil's deep love for nature of evident throughout this work. He drew extensively from the works of the classical writers.[9] The most significant influence on his thinking was probably that of Aristotle. Basil maintained that he interpreted the Bible literally, rather than allegorically as Origen had done. Concerning that he wrote:

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those, truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end.[10]

A good example of Basil's literalism is he refutation of Origen's identification of the waters mentioned in Genesis 1 with spiritual and incorporeal powers. He declares: "Let us reject these theories as dreams and old wives tales. Let us understand that by water, water is meant; for the dividing of the waters by the firmament let us accept the reason that has been given to us."[11] He was also careful to distinguish between literal statements and poetic imagery, such as "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1), which did not imply to Basil that the heavens could speak.[12] His interpretation of Genesis is illustrated by examples from contemporary 'science',[13] which while often being remarkably accurate from our modern perspective also contained elements of folklore. Basil mocks and rejects the theories of the Greek Atomists, arguing that the Greek philosophers were wrong because they did not know the Creator:[14] "...these men, I say, have discovered all except one thing: the fact that God is the Creator of the universe, and the just judge who rewards all the actions of life according to their merit."[15] The influence of Platonism is evident when Basil equates Yahweh with the Demiurge.[16] Matter is created, because if it were uncreated it would mean that the universe is the result of the action of two beings, the one who made the matter and the one who shaped it.[17] God is both the Creator and the Demiurge (shaper) of the universe.[18] Before the creation of this world there existed another world, the invisible and intellectual world equivalent to Plato's world of forms. Afterwards this world was made as a "school and training place where the souls of men should be taught and a home for beings destined to be born and to die."[19]

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[1] Not to be confused with Caesarea the seaport in Palestine.

[2] Frederick W. Norris, "Basil of Caesarea," Everett Ferguson, editor, Encylopedia of Early Christianity. (New York: Garland, 1990), 139.

[3] F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, editors. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edn. (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 139.

[4] Cross & Livingstone, 139.

[5] Robert Travers Smith, St. Basil the Great. (London: SPCK, 1879), 17.

[6] Smith, Basil, 12, 199.

[7] W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 630-631.

[8] Norris, "Basil," 140.

[9] Including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pericles, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Aelian, Theophrastus, Hippias, Plato, Protagorus, Thrasmachus, Hesiod, Homer, Solon, Socrates and Diogenes Laertus.

[10] Basil, Hexameron, 9.2 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 102); cf. Basil, Hexameron, 3.9 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 70-71).

[11] Basil, Hexameron, 3.9 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 71).

[12] Basil, Hexameron, 3.9 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 71).

[13] Sheldon-Williams, 432: "...he drew chiefly on the current cosmology, meteorology, botany, astronomy and natural history."

[14] Basil, Hexameron, 1.2 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 53).

[15] Basil, Hexameron, 1.4 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 54).

[16] Armstrong, 432.

[17] Basil, Hexameron, 2.2 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 59).

[18] Basil, Hexameron, 1.5; 2.2 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 54, 59).

[19] Basil, Hexameron, 1.5 (NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 8, 54).

Primary Sources

On-line Resource Basil of Caesarea (Christian Classic Ethereal Library)
Book or monograph Basil of Caesarea, B. Jackson, translator, Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 8.. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1895.
Book or monograph Basil of Caesaea, Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5. translator M.M. Wagner, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. Hbk. ISBN: 0813200091. pp.525. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Basil of Caesarea, Exegetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 46. translator A.C. Way, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963. Hbk. ISBN: 0813200466. pp.378. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Basil of Caesarea, Letters, Vol 1 (1-185), The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 13, translator Agnes Clare Way. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1951. Hbk. ISBN: 081320013X. pp.345. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Basil of Caesarea, Letters, Vol. 2 (186-368), The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 28, translator Agnes Clare Way. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1955. Hbk. ISBN: 0813200288. pp.369. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph Ephraem the Syrian, Enconium in Magnum Basilium.
Book or monograph Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 20 "On St. Basil the Great"
Book or monograph Gregory of Nyssa, Encomium on His Brother Basil.
Book or monograph Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men.
Book or monograph Photius, Library 141.
Book or monograph Socrates, Church History 4.26.
Book or monograph Sozomen, Church History 6.15-17.
Book or monograph Theodoret, Church History4.16.

Secondary Sources

Book or monograph W.L.K. Clarke, Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism. London, 1913.
Book or monograph Paul Jonathan Fedwick, St. Basil the Great and the Christian Ascetic Life. Rome: Basilian, 1978.
Book or monograph Paul Jonathan Fedwick, Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic: a Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium, Part.1. Toronto : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1981. pp. xliv + 436.
Book or monograph Fedwick: The Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of CaesareaPaul Jonathan Fenwick, The Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea. Toronto: Pontifival Institute of Medieval Studies, 1979. Reprinted: Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001. Pbk. ISBN: 1579108237. pp.246. {Amazon.com}
Book or monograph R.C. Gregg, Consolation Philosophy: Greek and Christian Paideia in Basil and the Two Gregories. Washington, DC: Paperback Publisher: Catholic University of America Press, 1975. Pbk. ISBN: 0813210003. {Amazon.com}
Article in Journal or Book R.P.C. Hanson, "Basil's Doctrine of Tradition in Relation to the Holy Spirit," Vigiliae Christianae 22 (1968): 241-55.
Article in Journal or Book Michael A.G. Haykin, "In the Cloud and in the Sea'; Basil of Caesarea and the Exegesis of 1 Cor. 10:2," Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986): 135-44.
On-line Resource Michael A.G. Haykin, "Defending the Holy Spirit’s Deity: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Pneumatomachian Controversy of the 4th Century," Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 7.3 (Autumn 2003): 74-79.
Article in Journal or Book J.T. Leinhard, "Basil of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra and "Sabellius'," Church History 58 (1990): 157-67.
Article in Journal or Book Richard Lim, "The Politics of Interpretation in Basil of Caesarea's Hexaemeron," Vigiliae Christianae 44.4 (1990): 351-370.
On-line Resource St. Basil the Great (Joseph McSorley)
Book or monograph M. Orphanos, Creation and Salvation According To Basil of Caesarea. Athens, 1975.
Book or monograph George L. Prestige, St. Basil the Great and Apollonaris of Laodicea. Orthodoxies and Heresies in the Early Church. Henry Chadwick, ed. Ams Press, 1987. Hbk. ISBN: 0404623999. {Amazon.com}
On-line Resource William M. Ramsay [1851-1939], Pauline and Other Studies in Other Studies in Early Christian History. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906. Hbk. pp.369-406.
Book or monograph G.F. Reilly, Imperium and Sacerdotium According to St. Basil the Great. Washington, DC, 1945.
Article in Journal or Book David G. Robertson, "Stoic and Aristotelian Notions of Substance in Basil of Caesarea," Vigiliae Christianae 52.4 (1998): 393-417.
Article in Journal or Book George E. Saint-Laurent, "St. Basil of Caesarea and the Rule of St. Benedict," Diakonia 16.1 (1981): 71-79.
Article in Journal or Book Andrea Sterk, "On Basil, Moses, and the Model Bishop: The Cappadocian Legacy of Leadership," Church History 67.2 (1998): 227-253.
Article in Journal or Book L.J. Swift, "Basil and Ambrose on the Six Days of Creation," Augustinianum 21 (1981): 317-28.
On-line Resource Donald A. Sykes, "Understandings of the Church in the Cappadocians," Horton Davies, ed., Studies of the Church in History. Essays Honoring Robert S. Paul on his Sixty-fifth Birthday. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1983. pp.73-83.View in PDF format pdf [Reproduced by permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers] For more information about the reprint of this title see here.
Article in Journal or Book Lucian Turcescu, "Prosopon and Hypostasis in Basil of Caesarea's Against Eunomius and the Epistles," Vigiliae Christianae 51.4 (1997): 374-395.
Book or monograph N.G. Wilson, ed., Saint Basil on the Value of Greek Literature. London: Duckworth, 1975. Pbk. ISBN: 0715609246. pp.80. {Amazon.com}
Article in Journal or Book Harry A. Wolfson, "The Identification of Ex Nihilo With Emanation in Gregory of Nyssa," Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 63 (1970): 53-54.


Book or monograph M.M. Fox, The Life and Times of St. Basil as Revealed in His Works. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1939.
On-line Resource Basil the Great, Bishop, Theologian (James E. Kiefer)
Book or monograph Basil of CaesareaPhilip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea, new edn. University of California Press, 1998. Pbk. ISBN: 0520213815. pp.432. {Amazon.com}
On-line Resource Richard Travers Smith (1871-1905), St. Basil the Great. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1879. Hbk. pp.232. [This material is in the Public Domain]

Related Subjects

Alexander of Alexandria | Ambrose | Arnobius | Athanasius | Athenagoras | Augustine | Basil | Boethius | John Cassian | Celsus | Clement of Alexandria | Clement of Rome | Constantine | Cyprian | Cyril of Alexandria | Cyril of Jerusalem | Ephraem the Syrian | Epiphanius | Eusebius of Caesarea | Gregory of Nazianzus | Gregory of Nyssa | Gregory Thaumaturgus | Hermas | Hilary of Poitiers | Hippolytus | Ignatius of Antioch | Irenaeus of Lyons | Julius Africanus | Jerome | John Chrysostom | Josephus | Justin Martyr | Justinian I | Lactantius | Marcellus | Melito | Methodius | Minucius Felix | Novatian | Origen | Pachomius | Papias | Philo | Polycarp | Tatian | Tertullian | Theodore of Mopsuestia | Theodoret | Theophilus | Tyconius | Ulfilas | Victorinus | Marius Victorinus

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