The truth of the Bible is hard and clear as diamonds, providing a solid basis for both life and death. “You can’t argue with the Scriptures,” Jesus said in John 10:35. But you can argue with some of the legends and half-truths of church history. Take, for example, the remarkable story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
Born in the third century to a noble Christian family in Alexandria, the beautiful Catherine gave herself to Christ and refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Emperor Maxentius, lusting after her, offered her pardon if she would sleep with him. She refused, saying she was the bride of Christ. Hoping to dissuade her, Maxentius summoned 50 brilliant scholars to debate her. She conquered all of them, winning all 50 to the Christian faith. They paid for their conversions by being burned alive, compliments of the emperor.
Catherine, meanwhile, converted the emperor’s wife, his top general, and 200 of his best troops. These, too, were immediately executed. Maxentius, enraged, ordered Catherine attached to a spiked wheel to be tortured and broken. When the wheel fell apart, Maxentius demanded the executioner behead her. Milk rather than blood flowed from her severed neck. The virgin martyr became one of the most venerated women of antiquity, and November 25 was appointed Catherine’s feast day on the church calendar. She was admired and adored without measure by medieval worshipers, becoming the patron saint of young women, wheelwrights, attorneys, and scholars.
But how much of her story is true? Perhaps not much. Behind the legends, there may have been a beautiful martyr whose full story is known only in heaven. But the earliest mention of Catherine dates from the ninth century when her bones were reportedly transferred to the monastery of Mount Sinai, and the earliest biographies of her date from the tenth century. Though she was among the greatest heroes to the masses of the Middle Ages, there is scant evidence that Catherine of Alexandria ever existed.
Warn them to stop wasting their time on senseless stories and endless lists of ancestors. … You must teach people to have genuine love, as well as a good conscience and true faith. There are some who have given up these for nothing but empty talk. (1 Timothy 1:4-6)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 25.