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Pope Nicholas I |
A few questions troubled Khan Boris

Pope Nicholas I is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 204, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Was sex on Sundays allowed, or chariot racing? Was underwear in church mandatory? Pope Nicholas’s exhaustive answers shed light on ninth-century Christian lifestyles

Pope Nicholas I - A few questions troubled Khan Boris

Pope Nicholas I – A few questions troubled Khan Boris
Ever patient, Pope Nicholas I responded to a barrage of questions from the newly baptized Bulgarian khan, Boris. Boris requested practical guidance on behalf of his people, pagan and struggling to adopt Christian practices, which Nicholas provided with insight and compassion. A detail from a painting by Raphael in the National Gallery, London.

May Christian spouses have sex on Sundays? How about during Lent? Must Christians wear undergarments in church? Should they participate in chariot races? And what about working on weekends? To the newly converted ruler of a kingdom still largely and obstinately pagan, such everyday questions loomed large. Just what sort of behavior did this religion called Christianity expect, anyhow?

The ruler concerned was the Bulgarian khan, Boris, baptized just a year earlier in 865. The authority to whom he directed his queries was none other than Pope Nicholas I. When he asked Patriarch Photius of Constantinople for instruction, the khan complained, Photius had confused him with complex theological pronouncements, and talk of creeds and ecumenical councils. Boris, a practical man, needed practical answers. When, for example, could he execute criminals? How could he justifiably wage war against other Christian nations? How should he treat his remaining pagan subjects? And by the way, could he still use his pagan healing stone?

Khan Boris’s one hundred and six questions provide a unique window on the life and thought of a man ruling a chaotic land during a very tumultuous ninth century, and Pope Nicholas’s response is a remarkable dissertation that answers them clearly, completely, and also diplomatically. The pope explains basic church rules governing fasting, work and marriage, emphatically stating that bigamy is a worse crime than murder. Sex on Sundays was prohibited, he writes, for “if one should cease from all worldly labor on Sunday … how much more should one beware of carnal pleasure and every sort of bodily pollution?” But in Lent, by contrast, “it would be completely licit for a man to sleep with his wife without contamination.” Undergarments, says Nicholas, are unimportant; the Bulgars may wear them or not, according to preference–but women must cover their heads, and men must be hatless in church.

He bans participation in chariot races–unwelcome news for Boris, a great race enthusiast–but offers some consolation: “Because we cannot yet persuade you to abstain from the games at all times, since you, weak as you are, cannot yet ascend to the mountain to receive the highest commandments of God … at least spend more time intent upon prayer, abstinence and every kind of penance during Lent and at times of fasting.”

Pope Nicholas dismisses the contention that no work should be done on Saturday; people who insist on this are “men of a perverse spirit” and “preachers of the Antichrist.” On Sunday, however, a Christian must indeed “cease from earthly labor and devote himself to prayers in every way,” for it is “the Redeemer himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the true Sabbath.”

As for backsliders among his converted subjects, Boris should first allow the church to persuade them to return to Christ “like a mother, like a teacher.” If this fails, however, they can be “rightly oppressed” for “God often arouses the powers against the deniers of Christ and the deserters of baptism.”

Right of sanctuary must be rigidly respected. If the pagans of Old Rome “sought indemnity by fleeing to the asylum of the Temple of Romulus, how much more should those who flee to the Temple of Christ receive remission?” But the pope takes issue with standard Bulgarian treatment of suspects. He suggests reliance on credible witnesses, rather than “beating the criminal’s head with lashes and pricking his sides with iron goads until he came up with the truth.”

He urges clemency for military deserters, escaped slaves, and border guards who unwittingly allow either category to flee the country. If judgment or execution becomes unavoidable, however, Boris should try not to administer them on holy days: “For although both can perhaps be exercised without fault, nevertheless it is fitting that … a person who comes to divine service should not be implicated in secular business.”

In wartime, the khan should act “with greater mildness concerning any parents who are captured,” and “spare their lives for the love of the God who delivered them into his [Boris’s] hands.” Wars must neither be declared nor fought on “the most celebrated days venerated by all Christians,” and the decision to fight must be accompanied by “attending church, prayer, forgiving sinners, confession, receiving communion, opening the jails, loosing the fetters and granting liberty to servants, to those broken and weak, and captives, and distributing alms to the needy.”

What if a Christian nation breaks a treaty, the khan asks, and declares war on Bulgaria? Pope Nicholas seems reluctant to offer a general rule. The local bishop, he suggests, will better understand “the circumstances of the affair, the nature of the moment, the characters of the people, and the justice of the parties,” and thus can better “intimate what should be done.”

Boris should reason with subjects who insist on remaining pagan, and if they refuse to listen, should “remove them from your service and friendship.” But “violence should by no means be inflicted upon them to make them believers. For everything which is not voluntary cannot be good.”

The khan had specifically inquired about the status of many Bulgarians baptized by “a certain lying Greek [who] claimed that he was a priest although he was not.” Pope Nicholas gently rebukes him for punishing this pretend priest, since his “simulation nevertheless conferred salvation on a great many.” Even Judas, he observes, “baptized many in [Christ’s] name.” As for priests who continue to give communion despite scandalous behavior, Nicholas states firmly that “no one, no matter how much he has been polluted, can pollute the divine sacraments which are the purging remedies of all contagions, nor can a ray of the sun, even though it passes through sewers and latrines, attract any contamination from there.”

The letters exchanged by these two men illuminate two very distinct lifestyles. One is a great warrior grappling for a semblance of civilization and an understanding of morality, despite the barbarism of his country and his own nature. The other is one of the greatest of the medieval popes, drawn into the secular world through his determination to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Together they vividly personify the spirit that weaves through the Middle Ages.

This is the end of the Pope Nicholas I category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 204, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Pope Nicholas I from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info