Eutyches, who claimed to be an eyewitness of the events, is the first to record Theophilus’ story. Although Theophilus is considered to be an historical personage, the tale associated with him is of an apocryphal nature.
Theophilus was the archdeacon of Adana, Cilicia which is part of modern Turkey. He was unanimously elected to be a bishop, but turned the position down out of humility. Another man was elected in his stead. When the new bishop unjustly deprived Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, Theophilus regretted his humility and sought out a wizard to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his aid, Satan demanded that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract signed with his own blood. Theophilus complied, and the devil gave him the position as bishop.
Years later, fearful for his soul, Theophilus repented and prayed to the Virgin for forgiveness. After forty days of fasting, the Virgin appeared to him and verbaly chastised him. Theophilus begged forgiveness and Mary promised to intercede with God. He then fasted a further thirty days, at which time Mary appeared to him again, and granted him Absolution. However, Satan was unwilling to relinquish his hold over Theophilus, and it was a further three days before Theophilus awoke to find the damning contract on his chest. He then took the contract to the legitimate bishop and confessed all that he had done. The bishop burned the document, and Theophilus expired, out of sheer joy to be free from the burden of his contract.
Different retellings of Theophilus’ tale introduce variations of certain details, including:
- Theophilus’ motivation for pursuing a deal with the devil is simple jealousy.
- The magician is specifically referred to as a Jew. This is an important variation in that it introduces a subtext of anti-semitism into the story.
- The magician is omitted completely, Theophilus deals with the devil alone.
- Theophilus repents the day after he makes his deal, as the bishop apologizes to him.
- Mary appears immediately after Theophilus begins to pray.
- Mary does not appear at all, but Theophilus’ contract appears on his chest the morning after he first prays.
- The devil provided Theophilus with great wealth in addition to his position in the church. This wealth is then distributed to the poor before Theophilus’ ecstatic death.
Possible sources for the legend
The Golden Ass, a second century Latin novel by the North African, Lucius Apuleius, predates Theophilus’s story and may have been a partial inspiration for it. In the Golden Ass, the narrator (assumed to be Apuleius as the story is told in the first person) is transformed into a donkey through his misguided experiments with sorcery. Apuleius only escapes his predicament through an appeal to Isis, whom he agrees to serve for the rest of his life.
Theophilus’s story played a role in establishing the importance of the intercession of the Virgin Mary, in addition to providing a basis for later tales involving the conjuration of devils.
The Virgin Mary increased in theological importance throughout the 11th century. The story was used to illustrate the power and necessity of her intercession by Peter Damian, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure and much later on by Alphonsus Liguori.
The story of Saint Theophilus is an important example in the development of the theology of witchcraft. As seen in the tale, the summoning of devils was not originally considered to be a damning sin, Theophilus’s troubles come from the fact that he has sold his soul, not that he treated with the devil. This changed during the late 13th century and into the 14th century as Inquisitors such as Bernard Gui and Nicolau Aymerich sought to expand the power of the Inquisition, whose mandate was the supression of heresy, by defining sorcery as a form of heresy. Accordingly, Theophilus would have been branded a heretic for his association with the devil. In contrast, the 16th century tale of a Doctor Faust, based substantially on the tale of Saint Theophilus, ends with Faust being carried off to hell despite his pleas to the Virgin.
The Legend of the Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus, perhaps predating the faustian legend, may also have been inspired by the tale of Saint Theophilus.
- John J. Winkler, “Auctor & Actor, A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass“, ISBN 0-520-07639-7 (University of California Press, 1985)
- John Yohalem (March, 2005), “Crossing the Line of Forbidden Knowledge“
- Paul Carus (1900) “The History of the Devil” pp.415-417
- St. Theophilus the Penitent at Catholic Online
- Alphonsus Liguori, (1750)”Mary’s Intercession Is Necessary for our Salvation“