Friday, March 15, 2013


Not long after Constantine the Great made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire, a doctrinal controversy broke out among the Christians of the Empire. The dispute took its name from the champion of the side which lost—a bishop named Arius. The view which ultimately prevailed was championed by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who is sometimes called the Father of Orthodoxy. They played rough in those days, and Athanasius’s enemies trumped up a murder charge against him. An Arian bishop named Arsinius had disappeared, and the Arians were displaying a severed hand which they claimed Athanasius had cut from the body of his victim for use in making magic.

Eventually they complained to the Emperor, and he sent his half-brother Dalmatius to Antioch to preside over the murder trial of Athanasius. The legend has it that when the Arians displayed the severed hand at the trial, it angered the the spectators in the courtroom so badly that they almost lynched Athanasius on the spot. When it came time for Athanasius to present his case, two of his supporters brought a hooded monk out of the audience and presented him before the court. They took off his hood—and it was Arsinius.  Athanasius had them display Arsinius’s hands, both of which were still attached, and then he asked the Arians whether Arsinius might have had a third hand. Dalmatius dismissed the charge in disgust.

What actually happened, as described by Athanasius himself, was that Athanasius’s supporters had discovered that Arsinius was hiding in Tyre. They commandeered the man and brought him before Paul, the Bishop of Tyre, who wrote a letter to Dalmatius attesting that Arsinius was alive. The reality wasn’t quite as dramatic as the legend, but the letter of Paul was sufficient to get the charges dismissed against Athanasius. The full story can be read in St. Athanasius: His Life and Times, pp. 98-100 and Historical Tracts of St. Athanasius, pp. 94-96

It is not every day that you win a murder case by proving that the victim is still alive, but it does happen once every thousand years or so. The last time it happened was back in the 1840’s in Illinois. Two brothers named Trailor had been charged with the murder of a man who had disappeared, and they hired Abraham Lincoln to defend them. He won the case by using the testimony of a medical doctor to prove that the victim was still alive. The victim surfaced shortly after the acquittal, and he never gave a satisfactory explanation of what had happened to him. The case was so remarkable that Lincoln actually wrote a magazine article about it, and the article can be read in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 1, pp. 371-376;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=trailor+murder.

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