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Script


  • Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 25. The Council of Ephesus.
  • Last time, we stopped with Theodosius the second ordering a universal council to be assembled in the City of Ephesus, approximately half-way between Constantinople and Alexandria
  • The emperor sent a letter to Pope Cyril as well as all the metropolitan bishops of the empire ordering them to assemble in Ephesus on June 7th, 431 AD on the feast of the Pentecost, 50 days after Easter
  • Hoping to get a leg up, Nestorius left Constantinople immediately after Easter and he was the first to arrive at Ephesus with 16 of his loyal bishops and the Palace official responsible for the practical arrangement of the Council as well as keeping the peace
  • On his arrival, Nestorius found the Bishop of Ephesus and an impressive group of 40 bishops who were all hostile to him and the Churches at Ephesus closed their doors to Nestorius
  • Rather seeing the writing on the wall and backing down, he doubled down and managed to alienate even more people by giving a very polemical sermon which he maintained in it that the infant Jesus at 2-3 months shouldn’t be referred to as God and he lost at least two bishops that originally supported him
  • Next, a few days before the appointed date of June 7th, Pope Cyril arrived with 50 Egyptian bishops and a group of loyal monks, headed by Shenoute the Archemendrite
  • Then, 5 days after the deadline, the bishop of Jerusalem arrived with 16 of his bishops – who, were also much more sympathetic to Pope Cyril than Nestorius
  • So, thus far – In Ephesus are assembled more than a 100 bishops who were hostile to Nestorius, compared to his small group of less than 20 bishops
  • Nonetheless, the delegation from Antioch and the papal representatives from Rome haven’t arrived yet and in them Nestorius saw a small ray of hope, particularly from his home city, Antioch
  • In Antioch, the theological thought have developed somewhat independent of Alexandria and there, there was a lot of emphasis on human nature of Christ and the ethical perspective of his life as a role model
  • Nestorius needed the Antiochan delegation to come and then, using them a block sympathetic to him he can make a serious case against Cyril, or at least – walk away with the block and delegitimize the council
  • Almost two weeks passed, and still, there was no word from Antioch
  • While waiting for the Council to start, we do not have much in concrete evidence about what was happening while the bishops were waiting
  • There is an interesting account in the Coptic life of Shenouta about the mood in Ephesus during this time though
  • Now to be clear, this account is not reported anywhere else and the life of Shenouta as an accurate historical source of information is debatable, so bear that in mind
  • According to the life, in one of the meeting prior to the Council, several chairs were present for the bishops to be seated and one of the chairs had the gospels on it
  • Nestorious then came and removed the gospels and sat on the chair
  • And then, to quote Wesa’s account “my father Apa Shenoute saw what Nestorius had done; he made haste, leapt up in righteous anger in the midst of our holy fathers, seized the gospels, took them from the ground, and he smote that impious Nestorius on his breast”
  • The shocked Nestorius responded by asking “What is your business in the midst of the synod ? For certainly you are not a bishop, nor are you an archimandrite, nor are you a priest , but you are a monk”
  • “I am he” replied Shenouta, “whom God has sent to unmask your wickedness and proclaim your punishment”
  • It is at this point, Pope Cyril intervened, handed Shenouta the Cross he was wearing as well as the staff, proclaiming him, an Archimandrite, or a head of a monastery
  • I recalled this story mainly because I am not giving Shenouta his due regarding how influential he was on shaping the Coptic identity
  • By his presence in the Council he likely to have contributed in the theological discussions and influenced the results
  • Although, I am of the opinion that is specific story is likely a legend that sprang up much later. I have no doubt Nestorius was an important man as the bishop of Constantinople guarded by a cohort of soldiers who wouldn’t let a monk assault him – this just my opinion though
  • Anyway, by June 21st, 15 days post the appointed time, the Bishop of Antioch haven’t made an appearance yet but an advance party of his group arrived
  • The advance party told Pope Cyril that John, the bishop of Antioch journey have been very difficult and he is still about a week behind and crucially, they also told him John relayed that quote “ If am late, do what you must do”
  • Now, whether that message meant if I am late beyond the week, go head and start the Council, or if you see fit, then start now is up for debate but, Pope Cyril took the message as a permission to start without him
  • Without the Antichian delegation, Nestorius had no chance of surviving the Council and as such Pope Cyril decided to call the Council on the following day after receiving the bishop of Antioch letter
  • Not everyone thought that this the best course of action and 68 bishops signed a letter to Pope Cyril urging him to wait for Antioch but the Council started anyway
  • As we will see, that action will come back to haunt Pope Cyril for a long time, and really it was his biggest misstep during the events surrounding the Council
  • Not to go too deep in gray cannon law areas, but generally speaking, Council decisions should be agreed to by all attendees and whoever doesn’t agree is excommunicated. Middle ground wasn’t an option, so essentially, there can’t be partial agreements or disagreements with no excommunication as a result
  • Having both the bishop of Constantinople and Antioch as dissenters and excommunicating both of them would be politically difficult to achieve
  • So, starting without Antioch solves this issue, not to mention – Without Antioch, Pope Cyril would be the undisputed council president, thus in theory, shape its agenda
  • Once the Council started, Pope Cyril proceeded very carefully, knowing that any irregulaties would probably cause the emperor to invalidate the council since he was well-inclined toward Nestorius
  • An Alexandrian priest was assigned to be the chief scribe and the secretary of the Council and the priest, at least on the surface, directed the agenda as a neutral party
  • Now, remember, the bishops didn’t come to the Council to negotiate a middle ground, They came to recognize, and under the Holy Spirit affirm, the true faith and exclude the heretics
  • Thus, things moved very quickly despite the protests of the imperial officer that came with Nestorius
  • The bishops assembled in the cathedral of Ephesus, in the Great Church of St Mary the Theotokos on Monday June 22nd
  • Nestorius naturally didn’t come and a delegation with sent to him before the official business of the Council starts
  • A group of solider was ordered by Nestorius to not let them in though and after the official invitation, the Council officially started by the afternoon
  • The Alexandrian priest then read a summary of why they are there and an official explanation was recorded in the minutes on why the Council started without the Antochian delegation
  • 16 days have passed pointed out the bishop of Jerusalem, with many bishops falling sick and some even dying added by Pope Cyril
  • Then, the Council moved on the point of the absence of Nestorius and several Egyptians bishops intervened with the fact that Nestorious was summoned three times, which was canonically required before judging the matter in his absence
  • Then, the faith statement of Nicea was read out, followed by Pope Cyril letter to Nestorius. The bishops were then asked to vote of Cyril’s letter was Orthodox, to which the Bishop of Jerusalem and 124 other bishops testified that it is
  • Then, Nestorius letter that was in response to Cyril was read and again, the bishops were asked to express judgment. The verdict this time was, quote “If anyone doesn’t excommunicated Nestorius, let him be excommunicated”
  • Then, the Papal letter from Rome was read to incorporate into the minutes as well a couple of Cyril’s theological letters condemning Nestorius
  • It was clear that the bishops understood the historical significance of a universal council and no evidence were spared in condemning Nestorius to make sure it sticks for future generations
  • Several more details then were recorded, including select passages of the fathers of the Church as Pope Cyril called them with much provided from St. Athanasius’ writings
  • By the end of the day, Pope Cyril’s as the council president asked the bishops, is it your wish to affirm the primitive doctrine of the faith and depose the innovator? To which, all 197 bishops present agreed and put their signature to the written record
  • For a moment, it seemed that everything have fill in line, and only after a day of deliberation, Cyril emerged victorious and Nestorius deposed
  • The Ephesians celebrated, final touches was being put in on the paper work, and the Egyptian delegation was making preparations to go home
  • Letters were sent to Nestorius, addressing him as the new Judas and deposing him
  • Letters were also being sent to the emperor and some of the influential monks in Constantinople
  • Pope Cyril calculated correctly that by enlisting the influential monks of the Capital, he would pressure Theodosius to ratify the Council even if he necessarily didn’t want to depose Nestorius
  • Of course, the emperor received his own reports from his official there, as well as a version of events according to Nestorius
  • Anyway, when the Council decision reached Constantinople, Theodosius didn’t take any actions – Perhaps waiting for more information
  • But, when it reached the Monks at Constantinople, things were different
  • Upon hearing the news, the monks left their monasteries and headed to the palace, being led by an influential hermit, who haven’t left his cell for 48 years
  • Seeing them, it was a clear statement to the imperial officers and the inhabitants of the capital that the holy men of the time– the monks, wholeheartedly supported the Council
  • The emperor had to go out and meet their leaders in person – which was followed by a fiery sermon from the legendary hermit who wasn’t seen in close to 50 years condemning Nestorius
  • While this drama was unfolding in Constantinople, John, the bishop of Antioch arrived in Ephesus with a delegation of about 30 bishops on June 26th – 4 days after the Council was concluded
  • Upon finding out that Pope Cyril had started the council without him, he was furious and decided to hold his Council with the Bishops supporting Nestorius and the imperial officer who was technically responsible for ensuring this kind of thing didn’t happen
  • Again, very quickly, the 42 bishops assembled with John and Nestorius declared Pope Cyril, and the Bishop of Ephesus heretics and sent a report with their finding to Constantinople
  • Thus, so far – We have 197 bishops with Pope Cyril condemning Nestorius and 42 bishops from Antioch and Constantinople condemning Pope Cyril
  • The Populace, the Monks, and the imperial family in Constantinople are essentially anti-Nestorius, with the emperor the only person who haven’t officially condemn him yet
  • Anyway, when Theodosius received the report of the counter-synod, he wasn’t happy
  • No consensus have been reached liked he hoped for, and either way, a significant faction of his empire would be alienated
  • So, naturally, he decided to invalidate both councils and send another palace official to investigate things on the ground
  • Before the new palace official arrived in Ephesus though, the delegation from Rome arrived in July 10th
  • They were decidedly pro-Cyril and to help solidify their support , Pope Cyril decided to re-assemble the Council specially for the bishops to hear the opinion of the bishop of Rome
  • Now, this was a smart, diplomatic move that ensured Rome would take Pope Cyril side.
  • Not to give things away, but in a few episodes, when another universal council will assemble, the Roman delegation would be ignored and this will cause some major issues
  • The reassembling was entirely symbolic though, and no new major actions was decided
  • By the beginning of August, The palace official for Constantinople arrived and he immediately put Cyril, The bishop of Ephesus, and Nestorius under arrest
  • He decided that the best way to solve the issue was to send 7 bishops from each side to represent their views and have the emperor decide directly
  • When they went, the party sympathetic to Nestorius quickly realized that, in order for their Theology to survive, they have to abandon the person of Nestorius, as the emperor wasn’t interested in reinstating him
  • Theodosius hand was essentially forced to abandon Nestorius with pressure from the monks and his older sister
  • Thus, the end result was somewhat confusing. Nestorius disposition was confirmed, and a new bishop of Constantinople was assigned
  • But, theologically, The emperor didn’t decide for one party over another, simply ordering that all the bishops were to go home and resume their duties
  • So, both John of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria went back to resuming their duties by the end of October if 421 AD, even though, technically – They have just excommunicated each other 
  • The Council for all practical purposes has failed. Sure, Nestorius was removed, but the divisions stayed and magnified
  • For his credit though, Pope Cyril bent over backward trying to reconcile to John of Antioch
  • First, excellent relationship was established with the bishop of Constantinople
  • Then, a long apology letter was addressed to Theodosius from Pope Cyril regarding him sending different letters to the imperial family. Clearly, the emperor wasn’t well inclined to Cyril as a person, and also probably didn’t like or understood his theology
  • As a result of the letter, another imperial official was tasked with trying to achieve unity and a theological statement that could solve the problem
  • The solution on the table was for a face to face discussion between the Pope Cyril and John in front of the Emperor
  • This was a really bad idea as far as Pope Cyril was concerned. First, by agreeing to the meeting, he would automatically forfeit the legitimacy of the Council of Ephesus
  • Second, knowing that the Emperor didn’t necessarily like him, there was a series chance of him being deposed himself as a result of that meeting
  • In a fascinating letter between the Archdeacon of Alexandria and the bishop of Constantinople, we know that Pope Cyril was in a state of anxiety and depression worrying about his fate
  • We also know from the letter, that bishop of Constantinople was directed by the Archdeacon to work behind the scenes to influence imperial policy
  • Now, that behind the scenes work was mostly financial gifts to certain officials. If you are concerned that those gifts are essentially a bribe, then, let’s just say that they were political contribution – A 5th century super-pac equivalent if you wish
  • The gifts, as well as, the apology letter had the desired effects – The face to face meeting was off and Theodosius declared that John of Antioch should agree to Nestorius removal and reject his theology
  • But, perhaps wisely, he didn’t force John’s hand. Rather, he enlisted a couple of neutral respected bishops and with the help of the palace official – Several letters went back and forth between Antioch and Alexandria
  • Eventually, the two sides agreed. Pope Cyril refined some of the wordings that the Antichans had a problem with, and the Antichans, led by John of Antioch, officially condemned Nestorius and his heresy
  • Now, I am going to quote part of the final letter that Pope Cyril sent to John, after which, John was satisfied and agreed to the language of the letter and condemn Nestorius. The letter reads
  • “Accordingly we acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, to be perfect God and perfect man made up of soul endowed with reason and of body, begotten of the Father before the ages in respect of his Godhead and the same born in the last days for us and for our salvation of Mary the Virgin in respect of his manhood, con-sub-stantial with the Father in Godhead and con-sub-stantial with us in manhood. A union of two natures has been effected and therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. By virtue of this understanding of the union which involves no merging, we acknowledge the holy Virgin to be Theotokos because God the Word was ‘made flesh’ and ‘became man’ and united to himself the temple he took from her as a result of her conception. As for the terms used about the Lord in the Gospels and apostolic writings, we recognize that theologians treat some as shared because they refer to one person, some they refer separately to two natures, traditionally teaching the application of the divine terms to Christ’s Godhead, the lowly to his manhood”
  • If you are wondering why I bothered with quoting this letter, it will become apparent in the next Christological issue.
  • For the careful listener, you will notice how the term “a union of two natures” have slipped in there
  • So, now we have Pope Cyril saying, “One incarnate nature of God the Word that is fully human and fully divine” to describe Christ from last episode and “A union of two natures has been effected and therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord”
  • So, which one is it now, one nature or two natures? I won’t attempt to answer that, at least in this episode
  • But, I will just say that for many many many year, Pope Cyril writings would be taken out of context and adopted to whatever ideas one wishes to circulate
  • But, as you have been listening, you probably now realize that, things were complicated and the geopolitics of The Roman empire transformed into a Christian empire had much to do with what was being said and agreed to
  • As for Pope Cyril actual views, I couldn’t find better words to describe them as the words of Norman Russell, quote “he was well aware of the limitations of language and happy to accept a variety of approaches provided the essential truths were safeguarded” – End quote
  • The essential truth here being, Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God
  • Now, this was by no means the end of the story. Pope Cyril still had more than a decade left in his reign. Also, I never really went through what ended up happening to Nestorius after his removal. It is quite a story as well. Let’s just say, that he and Shenouta the Archimandrite would meet again – but I doubt that either of them were happy about that. 
  • That story will for next week as well as a quick overview to what was happening in the Empire beyond the Christological controversies.
  • Apparently, while Theodosius was busy planning for the Council of Ephesus, he lost a big chuck of his empire to Arian Germanic tribes
  • Farewell, and until next week.

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
  • Cyril of Alexandria. Norman Russell by" Norman Russell
  • Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: The making of a Saint and of a Heretic by" Susan Wessel
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