Bishop Severo of Menorca

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The bishop of Menorca at the beginning of the 5th century

He is known as the author of the encyclical letter explaining the conversion to Christianity of 540 Jews on the island of Menorca in 418 AD. The bishop resided in Jammona (Ciudadela) but exercised jurisdiction over the faithful all over the island. OK, we’ve got to the heart of the matter, but before we continue with this episode, let’s clarify a couple of points.

What is an encyclical letter?

According to the Royal Spanish Academy: a solemn letter addressed by the Supreme Pontiff to all the bishops and faithful of the Catholic world.

What was the social and religious context in the Balearic Islands during the 4th and 5th centuries?

We find ourselves in the political-administrative structure of the Roman Empire, as the seventh Roman province Insularum Balearum. This means that important events have already taken place:

  • The conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine I, the Great by enforcing the Edict of Milan (in 313 AD) and allowing freedom of religion in the Roman Empire.
  • Theodosius I, also the Great, promulgated Christianity within the empire until it became the official state religion in 380 AD.

On the peninsular territory, the decline of Roman rule was beginning to be glimpsed, as the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD, with the final defeat of the Western Empire looming on the horizon.

What was the bishop's vision of the reality of Menorca?

In this letter, mentioned above, Severus explains the violent action of the Christians against the Jews of Magona (Mahon) and their subsequent conversion to the Christian religion in the year 418. He also explains details of the society, religion and organisation of the Jewish community in that city and the important influence that it exercised over the Christian community.

The synagogue of Mahon may have occupied a prominent place within the city itself; however, this was not the case with the Christian basilica, which was located outside the city walls.

The highest dignitary of the Jewish community was a certain Theodore, doctor of the Law and pater patron (the father, patron) of the local synagogue, who had held all the offices of the Curia and had been defensor civitatis (Latin loc. “defender of the city”). He was considered the head and official representative of the community, the guardian of the faith of its members, the one responsible for the appointment of Torah readers and for the sermon at worship gatherings, etc.

In fact, he seems to have been held in high esteem as a wise rabbi in the broad sense of the term, that is, as an exegete who authoritatively expounded and taught the meaning of the Torah. The superiority of his arguments in religious disputes with the Christians exposed their shortcomings and made it impossible to overcome him by means of words.

A man's dream

The bishop’s aim was to provoke a climate of ideological confrontation among the social masses, but he was also trying to persuade the members of this privileged group, headed by Teodoro (the leader of the Jewish community in Mahon), to convert to Christianity. This would have a knock-on effect on the rest of his followers.

In the meantime, Severo warned his faithful that, like snakes and scorpions, the Jews were daily attacking the Church of Christ with poisoned bites. He also had premonitory dreams that showed him the way forward.

Undoubtedly, the social tension had been served and only a slight movement was needed for the popular nitroglycerine to do the rest. The missing component in the recipe: the arrival of the relics of the protomartyr Stephen. This was the divine trigger, according to the author, as St. Stephen was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (the supreme national and religious council of the Jews) in 34 AD.

But why all the fuss about relics that theoretically were not destined for the island of Menorca? Why does Bishop Severo report the arrival of a priest of great sanctity recognised as the bearer of the relics of Saint Stephen but does not mention his name? Why could the relics of martyrs become so important in the Christian world?

We’ll tell you about it in the next chapters…

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