Was St. Nicholas A Real Person?
Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends usually do grow out of real, actual events, though they may be embellished to make more interesting stories. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth interwoven with imagination. However, the following facts of the life of St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are further elaborated in other narratives.
• Nicholas' birth in Patara
Though the exact date is not known, it is believed to have occurred between 260 and 280 AD. The place, Patara, can be historically grounded.
Dowries for the poor girls
This story can be regarded as historical in its essence. There are three very ancient accounts which only differ in regard to the number of maidens and other detail. This event reveals important aspects of St. Nicholas's personality, namely, his charitable nature and humility.
Popular election as Bishop of Myra
Unusual though it was for a layman to be nominated to the position of bishop, two sources corroborate the story.
Participation in the Council of Nicaea
Although Bishop Nicholas does not appear on all lists of attenders, his name appears on the oldest Greek list and on five other lists.
Saving three condemned innocents
This story is the oldest and most genuine recorded episode from the life of St. Nicholas. Historical documentation confirms the many references to place names and people. Some versions expand the account to include the story of the three generals.
Intervention in favor of the unjustly jailed
The outstanding figures in this solidly structured story are well known in other contemporary accounts, where they are portrayed in similar ways.
Destruction of the Temple of Artemis
This account reveals knowledge of detail concerning the temple which would have been unknown to a writer several centuries later had it not been based on an account coming out of the people and traditions of that city.
Mariners saved during a tempest
The episode is important to explain the origin of his wide-spread patronage to sailors and other sea voyagers.
The ancient sources cited to substantiate this information are Michael the Archimandrite, Sinaitic and Ethiopian manuscripts, Gratianus' Decretum, Theodore the Lector, Andrew of Crete, Eustratios of Constantinople 583 AD., Passionarium Romanum, 650 AD, and Praxis de tributo.Sources:
Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., "The Truth About Saint Nicholas: The Most Ancient Texts in the Light of Recent Historical Criticism," Bollettino di San Nicola, November-December 1997
Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., Saint Nicholas: His Life, the Translation of his Relics and his Basilica in Bari, translated by Philip L. Barnes, Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, Italy, 1994
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