St Paul’s Valentine

appy February 14th in the year of Our Lord 2013!  

Valentine if he existed was a third century martyr who died on the date associated with his feast on the Via Flamina outside Rome.  Because the Church exaggerated both the number and the style of martyr-deaths, his name was removed from the official calendar of the Roman church in 1969, but his feast is still kept as a regional festival.

The “Golden Legend” of Jacobus de Voraigne compiled about 1260 and one of the most-read books of the High Middle Ages, gives sufficient details of the saints for each day of the liturgical year to inspire a homily on each occasion. The very brief vita of St Valentine has him refusing to deny Christ before the “Emperor Claudius” in the year 280. Before his head was cut off, this Valentine restored sight and hearing to the daughter of his jailer.  Jacobus makes a play with the etymology of “Valentine”, “as containing valour.”  In any case, the English (Anglican) and even the Lutheran church have maintained his feast day for centuries, and in the Middle Ages his valour was considered a model for the emerging doctrine of courtly love–hence the association with romantic attachment.

hristianity  may be unique among the world’s religions in its emphasis on love, an emphasis, alas,  that has not been borne out in the works and deeds of the imperial and later global Church.  But it is undeniable that the early Christians sought to distinguish themselves in the empire by works of kindness and charity (caritas, the root for our word charity is one of several Latin words for love and the King James biblical translators preferred it).

Even the pagan critics of the church, like Celsus and Minucius Felix, found this public celebration of tenderness cloying and opposite to the highly formalized religious practices of the day. In  formalized Catholicism, after the fourth century, the expression of love would be reduced to the single liturgical moment called the “kiss of peace”–the Pax or en philemati agapes–exchanged between the celebrants of the Eucharist and excluding the worshipers entirely. As time went by, the “kiss” (osculum) was exchanged for a feigned embrace, and in modern services, including the Roman Catholic, a Hollywood handshake between members of the post-Mass donut crowd, thereby achieving a new low in cultural transformation from the sublime to the pedestrian.   Where hath love gone?

But back to the basic: The model for the kiss of peace is a “hymn” (a prose poem) written by St Paul in the mid first century.  It is perhaps the best known hymn in the Christian tradition,  often admired, sometimes copied,  never equaled for its intuitive flow.

Its immediate occasion is a divided Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth that had fallen into fighting over what “gifts” (charismata) make someone a good Christian.  The debate and the nature of the quarrel are hopelessly distant from our time, but what survives is Paul’s warning that almost any other “gift” is inferior to the power of love. His logic is as simple as the John Lennon’s  “Imagine“: Love cures divisions, so must be superior to any other virtue or gift.

Here is the Greek text, followed by my English rendition, and the classic “Jacobean” translation from the 1611 (“King James”)  Bible:

SBLGk: καὶ ἔτι καθ’ ὑπερβολὴν ὁδὸν ὑμῖν δείκνυμι. 1Ἐὰν ταῖς γλώσσαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαλῶ καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, γέγονα χαλκὸς ἠχῶν ἢ κύμβαλον ἀλαλάζον. καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω προφητείαν καὶ εἰδῶ τὰ μυστήρια πάντα καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γνῶσιν, καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω πᾶσαν τὴν πίστιν ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάναι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐθέν εἰμι. καὶ ἐὰν ψωμίσω πάντα τὰ ὑπάρχοντά μου, καὶ ἐὰν παραδῶ τὸ σῶμά μου, ἵνα καυθήσομαι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐδὲν ὠφελοῦμαι.

Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ ζηλοῖ ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται, οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ, οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς, οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν, οὐ χαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ· πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.

Ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει. εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι, καταργηθήσονται· εἴτε γλῶσσαι, παύσονται· εἴτε γνῶσις, καταργηθήσεται. ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν·10 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον, τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται. 11 ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου. 12 βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην. 13 νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη· τὰ τρία ταῦτα, μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη. [Διώκετε τὴν ἀγάπην]

Rjh: 2013:

[12.31b: Now I will show you the best way of all.]  13.1 I may speak the language of  men, or of angels, but without love I am a sounding brass, a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains, but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give all that that I have to the poor, even give my body to be burnt, but without love I am worthless.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love has no jealousy. Love is never proud, never vain. It is not rude or selfish. It does not easily take offense. It does not keep score of wrongs. It does not gloat over other people’s failings. It seeks the truth and delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face. There is no limit to its faith, its hope, its possibility. 

Love will never come to an end. You speak about prophets?  They will have their day.  Ecstasy and visions? The visions will end. Knowledge? It will fade away. Because what we call knowledge and truth are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes.

When I was a child, my speech, my thoughts, my outlook were childish. When I grew up, I was finished with childish things.  Now we see only puzzling reflections, as in a mirror—darkly–but in the end we shall see the truth face to face.  What I know now is incomplete, but in the end it will be complete, like God’s knowledge of me.  There are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love, but greatest of these is love. Put love first.

KJV, 1611*

Yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

*The word “charity”, from caritas is a  poor translation of the Greek word ἀγάπη (love). The 1611 translators associated “Christian charity” with acts of kindness (much the same as our modern definition of the word) and so preferred it to the more precise Greek idea of an outward display of affection and care between people, symbolized by a kiss.  Paul mentions this action five times in his letters, and St Augustine says in an Easter sermon,  “After this [prayer], the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his.”

12 thoughts on “St Paul’s Valentine

  1. Pingback: » Happy Valentine’s Day–and Who Was that Saint Again? TaborBlog

  2. It is striking that so many lines in Shxpr’s sonnets were directly inspired by this passage. Shxpr had been raised on the rhetoric of the Bible.

    Including famous Sonnet #116

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove:

    O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
    That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
    It is the star to every wandering bark,
    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

    Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

  3. I’ve ‘read’ it for the first time. And re-read and re-read. It’s beautiful, real and raw with such indescribably real passion. I believe your interpretation is truer to Paul, for then and now. And this IS what love is. KJV’s translation, as always, fails.

    • Mr.Steph, I may be Greek (Orthodox Greek nontheless) but even I have heard that the KJV’s translation is heralded as “the most influential version,of the most influential book in the most influential language.”

    • Liakos: Yes. The KJV has stood its ground for 500 years, celebrating that anniversary in 2011 with tremendous celebrations and conferences and scholarship dedicated to it. All translations however, and this one from the Greek New Testament and Hebrew text, are interpretation of another language. Not only do languages evolve as English has during those 500 years, King James had instructed his 47 translators, all members of the Church of England, to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology, reflecting the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. This bias is demonstrated in translation. It is of much interest to me, as it has a long and fascinating history and has been called the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, and it has also contributed 257 idioms to English. Nevertheless its former monopoly in the English-speaking world has diminished (the Church of England recommends six other versions in addition to it). It is still the most popular translation in the United States, especially among Evangelicals. And I would argue that, even with regard to its archaic English, it fails to do justice to the Greek text. Above, with the epistle of Paul, it clearly fails to do justice to the sense and depth of feeling, with its woodenness. Joe’s interpretation captures the depth of Paul’s feeling incisively with far greater clarity.

  4. I’m curious about your starting comment RE: exaggeration of the number of early Christian martyrs. I’ve heard numerous estimates for the actual number from a variety of sources, but most of those were either from Christian apologists trying to big up the numbers or counter-apologetics trying to minimise them.

    Is there any nonpartisan academic research into this area? I’d be fascinated to have a reference for this, if you have one.

    Kind Regards,


    • It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t have any partisan tendencies one way or another on the subject of Christianity. (Except for me, of course. [Ha ha.]) I’m reminded of that spy thriller cliche: “Trust no-one.” Or more practically: take into account that almost everyone may have some biases. Some seem to be trying much harder than others to be objective (or so it seems to me, but of course I may be biased), but I know of no official objectivity scoreboard.

      Joe seems to be making an effort. I also would be interested in any studies of Christian martyrdom he might want to recommend.

      The Martyrologium Romanum was compiled from earlier accounts in the 16th century and was (is?) the official Catholic account of the early Christian martyrs, and an example of the exaggeration to which Joe refers.

      The Acta Sanctorum contain source material on saints, including martyrs. They’re arranged according to the feast day of the saint. Many volumes of them are visible online here. There may well be some collections of source materials concentrating on early martyrs of which I’m unaware.

      • For people who recognise the necessity of the knowledge of history, for enabling us to gain more understanding of who we are today and how we should proceed in the future, the search for what happened, what people thought and why they might have thought what they did, objectivity is imperative for accuracy. If by the twentieth century even the Roman Church recognised the bias of the earlier counts and accounts of martyrdom and chopped the Saint off Valentine, this surely demonstrates they’ve moved to a place in history that recognises this too. They have demonstrated a desire to include only ‘real’ people who had really died in the name of Christianity on the list of martyrs. But then what were the criteria chosen which determined that poor Valentine didn’t belong. What criteria did they use to determine who was ‘real’ and historical and what criteria did they use to determine a ‘Christian’ martyr from a non-Christian martyr. These criteria might demonstrate their biases…And what were their biases – did they include those early martyrs whose historical existence beyond tradition of their martyrdom is only assumed by the appearance of their names in the Church canon. The historical existence of some of these may or may not be historical but if the Church considers the bible infallible… I don’t consider the bible to be infallible and consider the historicity of some of those biblical martyrs more difficult to determine and my criterion for identification of ‘Christian’ would probably only be the martyr’s own claim to faith as such. I’m biased. I’m not absolutely certain that the criteria I choose are the best or couldn’t be improved so any list I made would have to add a concession ‘give or take one or three’. But if we’re not concerned with determining if any non-Christians have been killed by Christians (perhaps we should be) as some more vocal atheists seem to be, nor immersed in the Church, or belief or anti belief, wouldn’t we have ‘less’ bias and does bias come down to a matter of degree? But perhaps that’s bias too. I wonder if any of those ‘martyrs’ were killed by … ‘Christians’… What a tangled web of uncertainties some of history is.

  5. “If he existed?” Looks like we have a Valentine-denier here. I guess I should write 100 posts about how stupid you are for being a Valentine mythtic without actually bothering to articulate any specific point in the argument over whether he was real or not.

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