Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentinus or Valentine

So, today is St. Valentine's Day. As a rule, our holidays tend to have very little to do with the events that they're supposed to commemorate, or even their ostensible origins. Bunnies hiding candy eggs to celebrate resurrection and the defeat of sin and death is a bit of a stretch, for example. Sixth-generation Americans drinking green beer and pretending to be Irish relates to British missionary work in pagan Ireland how? But I ythink my favorite in this regard is Valentine's Day, both because it's a holiday that serves a great purpose in the here & now --celebrate the person you most love in your life; let them know how much you cherish them-- but also because its origins are so murky.

On the one hand, we know nothing about Valentine, other than that there were several figures of that name in early Xiandom, some of them martyrs. Later apologists fixed on a particular one of these as the original 'St.' Valentine, but their identification seems fairly dubious.

On the other hand, we have VALENTINUS, a very well known Xian theologian of the same era, the most influential teacher of his day and a much beloved figure to his many disciples; it was widely believed (truly or not we do not know) that his own teacher had been a disciple of Paul himself -- a sort of third-generation apostle.* It seems v. likely that 'Valentine', about whom we know nothing except a legend that he was beloved by all who knew him, and the gifted Xian leader Valentinus, author of works such as The Gospel of Truth, were one and the same.

Except that Valentinus isn't listed among the Church Fathers, because his followers ultimately did not become the mainstream of Xianity, and all his works were ultimately condemned as 'heretical'. So I suspect we have in 'St. Valentine' is the ghost of the memory of the person with all its content (what he actually taught) hollowed out. If so, in 'St. Valentine's Day' we have the Church devoting a feast day to commemorate a person who is condemned as a heretic under a slightly different spelling of his name.

Me, I think it just goes to show how differently we can appear in the eyes of our friends from those of our enemies. So it's a day that celebrates finding the best in others, especially those we love.

Happy Valentine's Day, all.

*cf. also Polycarp of Smyrna, who was venerated in his own lifetime as the last surviving person who had known one of the original twelve disciples (John the Evangelist).

UPDATE: (2/16-09)
I forgot that I wanted to include a brief mention of Japanese celebration of Valentine's Day, as represented in anime and manga. If these are to be trusted, they've taken our holiday and refined it in some interesting ways. On Valentine's Day itself, instead of an exchange of cards and flowers it's specifically a day when girls (and women) give gifts to guys; home-made chocolate seems to be the most prized gift of all. Then, one month later, the guys are supposed to respond on 'White Day' by giving some small gift to the person who gave them a special gift on Valentines. An interesting varient on the theme.


Anonymous said...


The fact that we know little about the three Saint Valentines listed in early Martyrologies for Feb. 14* -- other than the fact that they were martyrs (which Valentinus was not) -- doesn't mean that one can just cast about history looking for a famous person of the same name. Doing so is the hagiographic equivalent of folk etymology.

*Though not nothing: see

John D. Rateliff said...

"the hagiographic equivalent of folk etymology." -- yes, I think that's a fair analogy.

But it's also fair to note that all the evidence for 'Saint Valentine' is legendary, not documentary. And so far as different versions of the legend goes, Valentine was either a Roman priest, or an Italian bishop, or a martyr in Roman Africa. This may have been three people, or two, or one, assuming that they ever lived at all --no such figure appears in the earliest surviving lists of martyrs, dating from a century or two after his supposed death(s). In fact, so poor is the evidence that Valentine has now been removed from the Calendar of Saints (though he's still included in the Martyrology). Given this confusion, it doesn't seem at all impossible to me that 'Valentine the martyr' might be a purely legendary figure derived from confused memories of the real Valentinus the teacher (who was after all at one time candidate for pope).

Thanks for the link to the Catholic Encyclopdia entry; there's somewhat more at wikipedia (
I particularly liked the observation of the pope who established V's official feast day (in 496) that he belonged to the category of those "whose acts are known only to God".

For more on Valentinus, I recommend Bart Ehrman's book LOST CHRISTIANITIES, which gives a v. good account of the great variety of beliefs among early Xians before the eventual coalescence of the consensus that came to be called 'orthodoxy'.


Anonymous said...

Given the choice between the testimony of documents dating from just hundreds of years after the fact, and speculation nearly 2000 years later and based only on chronological chauvinism and a name, I'll confidently choose the former. We may not know much about the Valentine(s) listed in the early Martyrologies, but none of what is known is at all consistent with Valentinus the Gnostic (about whom we know quite a bit). So there is precisely no evidence in support of identifying them, and in fact what evidence there is is against it.

I've read more than enough Ehrman (and Pagels, and King, etc.), thanks. And thankfully I've also read Irenaeus and Eusebius and Jonas and Drobner and Deconick etc., and the Gnostic texts themselves (which reading by the way shows that Irenaeus was remarkably accurate in summarizing the Gnostic texts), and so I know full well how little the claims of the former resemble either Church history or the history of the development and spread of Gnosticism, or even the actual beliefs of the "Christian" Gnostics themselves and their own perceived position with respect to the Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Tradition. I invite you to read them as well, and then we can compare notes if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I'm curious about your claim that Valentinus "was after all at one time candidate for pope". What is your source for this? So far as I have been able to discover, only Tertullian (Adversus Valentinianos IV.1) mentions anything about Valentinus's episcopal ambition, and says only that "Valentinus hoped (or expected) to become bishop" (or "become a bishop") (speraverat episcopatum Valentinus); he does not say "bishop of Rome". That may be what Tertullian meant, but it is by no means certain.

Moreover, according to Tertullian (loc. cit.), it was after his episcopal hope/expectation was unmet that Valentinus adopted and promulgated his heretical ideas (indeed, Tertullian attributes Valentinus's break with "the authentic church", ecclesia authenticae, and subsequent heresy to sour grapes over this disappointment). So even if Valentinus really was a candidate for bishop of Rome, it would not mean that his subsequent Gnostic teachings were in any way accepted by any part or portion of the Apostolic Church of the time.

Anne Trent said...

Interestingly enough The History Channel just aired special. Here's a link to the web link:

I love the histories of holidays. :)