*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 30th of June 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

It was on this day, the 30th of June in 296 that Pope Marcellinus took his position as the Bishop of Rome. So… an old-timey Pope, so what?

Well- it was under Pope Marcellinus that the term “Papa” or “pope” was used for the first time. Also, being Pope from 296 into the 4th century would make him the Pope during the first and worst parts of the Diocletian persecution.

Marcellinus is said to have been the pope that established the principle of “you can’t judge the Pope”- this is said to have come from the Council of Sinuessa where he confessed to having apostatized, handed over the holy books to the Emperor and offered sacrifices to Roman gods.

So… this would make him the first-ever, and the only Pope to ever apostatize.

Except it never happened. I mean, he was the Pope and was likely made the Bishop of Rome on this day in 296 but the rest didn’t happen.

And you say, “but there was a council! We have records from a church council!”.

And then I say- “it was fabricated out of whole cloth”.


Here are the important things to know:

  1. Part of the story of his apostasy were likely invented by later Donatists. Who?

Donatists were those who believed (among other things) that a church leader who apostatized had not only relinquished their office but the sacraments they performed were, according to them, null and void. Among other things they were vicious gatekeepers and roundly condemned by the church (some off Augustine’s best work is written against them)

2. In the story of the pretend council of Sinuessa there is a ruling that despite his (made up) apostasy he repented and could not be judged on account of the principle of “prima sedes a nemine iudicatur”. That is, roughly, “you can’t judge the pope. So even if you didn’t completely believe the story you might find it useful if papal supremacy is your thing.

3. Part of the mystery surrounding Marcellinus is that we not only have these forged documents about him (see the “Acts of Marcellinus”) but he is also conspicuously absent from a few different lists of Popes. Augustine says nothing of him neither does Jerome and Eusebius mentions him in passing.

4. But by adopting the fables he could become parallel to either St. Peter or Judas and thus a strong- perhaps the strongest association with either good or evil outside of Jesus, Mary, and the Devil himself.

But this also tells us something about the use and abuse of church history. And I wish it was only in the ancient church that completely false stories could be propagated for theologically partisan reasons.

As a historian I am horrified with this, but also intrigued as the story about the fabricated story tells us so much about the competing theological factions, the use and abuse of history, and the development of the Papacy.

Since 1969 Pope Marcellinus has been removed from the General Roman Calendar. And even that story- being removed by the late 20th century Catholic Church- tells us something about the development of the modern Papacy.

And we remember the not-quite-apostatized Pope on the day of the one thing we probably know for certain about him- the day he was made Bishop of Rome- on this, the 30th of June in 296.

The last word for today comes from the Epistle of James, from the 5th chapter:

As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 30th of June brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by the one who loves it when you call him Il Papa, he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by Dan “why did you eat my fries” van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.