Gregory of Neocaesarea: aka Gregory Thaumaturgus and Gregory the Wonderworker.
Gregory of Neocaesarea was the bishop of the city of Neocaesarea in the Roman province of Pontus, located in Anatolia (modern Turkey). We are well-served with information on Gregory's life, with autobiographical, historical, and legendary material from which to draw. From these sources we can deduce that Gregory was born into a well-placed family in eastern Pontus. Although his father died when he was only 14 years old, his mother ensured he obtained a good Greek education. Not only that, circumstances meant that Gregory studied both Roman laws in Phoenicia and Greek philosophy in Palestine, where he was the student of Origen, the famous Christian philosopher. On returning home to Neocaesarea, Gregory showed himself to be a man of great qualities, and eventually found himself appointed as the leader of the church in that city. Under his leadership, the churches in that region grew from strength to strength. He confronted and overcame the prevailing traditional religion and strongly asserted the claims of the Christian religion. His life and work demonstrate the strength of the Christian Church in the second half of the third century A.D.
Gregory is primarily known as a "wonder-worker," and to have converted the people of his region through the impact of the wonders he performed. For modern readers this can be a problem, but does not have to be viewed this way. The introduction of Christianity has changed the way in which Westerners, in particular, view the world. However, our world is quite different from Gregory's world, so in order to understand the impact Gregory had upon his society it is first necessary to try to understand that society. It was very old, and relatively stable, despite the political changes that had taken place in Anatolia over the previous two millennia. While our sources for understanding the traditional society in which Gregory lived are limited, by scanning the whole period we can at least gain some understanding of the circumstances that led the people of the province of Pontus to convert to Christianity, and to abandon their traditional religion. They did this in large numbers, particularly during Gregory's lifetime. In this regard, it is important to realise that Gregory offered the ordinary people of his province a way to escape the limitations of the old ways, and to take on a new "more philosophical" way of life by embracing the teachings of Christ.
Gregory faced significant difficulties. His activities were conducted in the full light of the Roman authorities. In this regard, it is useful to track the changes that took place in that empire, and the nature of the inevitable clash between the Church and the Roman Empire. Today there is little recognition of the extent to which Christianity was on the move during the third century A.D., particularly in Anatolia. As a result, we should not view the Church's conflict with the Roman State as an aberration, but rather consider that it reflected the state's response to the challenge Christianity presented to the worldview of the Roman leadership. They believed that the ancient gods of all the peoples of the empire had made Rome great, but the Christians refused to worship these ancient gods, or even to respect them. Gregory fell into the thick of this, facing up to the period of persecution under Emperor Decius (249-251), and then another period of persecution late in the reign of Emperor Valerian (253-259). While Decius' attack appears to have been superficially successful in cowing the Christians, it would also appear that the Church emerged stronger in the following decade than it was before. This particularly applies to Gregory's own region, the province of Pontus.