Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 22. The Oak Synod.
  • Last time we stopped with Pope Theophilus being summoned to Constantinople to be tried for misconduct and heresy as a result of excommunicating a group of influential monks nicknamed the tall brothers
  • Once excommunicated, the Tall brother went to Constantinople to appeal, and were received by John Chrysostom who advocated for them
  • So what originally started out as a conflict between Pope Theophilus and his treasurer, Isidore, ended up quickly spiraling out of control and the division became based on the theological issue of Origen teachings
  • Being summoned to stand trial, Pope Theophilus decided to go on the attack instead and try to discredit John
  • Accordingly, he arranged with John’s enemies in Constantinople to investigate John’s early life for any damaging material – Nothing important was found
  • He also wrote to his ally the bishop of Cyprus, warning him that orthodoxy was in danger at the capital as a result of John’s giving hospitality to the heretics.
  • And, finally he chose to take the long overland route to Constantinople rather than the much shorter sea voyage so as to organize support on the way
  • The bishop of Cyprus then made his way to Constantinople, and went on a campaign against John using inflammatory language and even attempting to go to John’s seat at the Church of the Apostles and condemn him in his very own church
  • John prevented him from entering the Church though, and Epiphanius having turned a portion of the populace against John, left Constantinople before Pope Theophilus arrived
  • He gotten sick in the journey back and died –
  • Pope Theophilus then arrived in Chalcedon, a city separated by Constantinople by a narrow sea lane
  • He stayed there as he had made arrangement for 29 Egyptian bishops to arrive before him and was organizing a grand entry to the City
  • Appearances are very important – He couldn’t be seen as an accused bishop going to stand trial humbly
  • Rather, this was going to be a grand entrance meant to put John in his place
  • It helped that the bishop of Chalcedon was an Egyptian who didn’t get along with John for other reasons
  • It also helped that the grain fleet from Egypt was arriving, and the Egyptian sailors hailed Pope Theophilus as their hero
  • In Chalcedon, Pope Theophilus set about finding everyone who had a grudge against John and recruited them to his side
  • Then he made a grand entry into Constantinople, entering the city via its great harbor with the cheers of the Egyptian sailors
  • For the next 3 weeks, intense lobbying took place to influence the palace officials toward each side stance
  • The Tall brothers ended up getting a huge break when they managed to convince the emperor to summon Pope Theophilus for his formal trial
  • The Emperor also summoned John Chrysostom as the bishop of the City to preside over the trial
  • And that’s when John’s political naivety got him in trouble, at least on the short term – On the long term, that political naivety earned him the praise of the universal Church
  • Instead of going to the trial and deposing Pope Theophilus, John’s refused to judge him – To quote one of his letters
  • “Aware as I was of the laws of our fathers, respecting and honouring this man, having moreover in my hands a letter of his which demonstrated that judicial cases may not lawfully be tried outside the territory of their origin but that matters affecting each province should properly be settled within that province, I refused to act as his judge, I indeed rejected the proposal with the utmost vehemence “
  • John clearly wasn’t confident about his canonical ground and worried about other bishops turning again him
  • He may have been also intimidated by Pope Theophilus’ legal expertise and political weight
  • Either way, his refusal to co-operate ended up backfiring
  • Pope Theophilus was spared an official trial, but he clearly felt the pressure and decided that he has to many enemies, so he made contact with the Tall brothers to see if they can reach an agreement
  • Isidore and Ammonius, the leaders of the Tall brothers have died naturally, thus a compromise was made with the rest of the monks
  • They submitted to his authority and the Origen official policy stayed the same – so it seem that once their leaders have died, they pretty much gave up
  • John on the hand was making powerful enemies – He was a constant annoyance to the imperial family, especially Eudoxia
  • His sermons against excessive displays of wealth were becoming a problem and he may have called Eudoxia, Jezebel, an old testament queen with lots of problems
  • Pope Theophilus and Eudoxia then found a common cause, and Pope Theophilus organized a Synod to remove John
  • Officially of course, Pope Theophilus was just an attendee, and the Synod of the Oak, as it came to be known, was to be headed by a bishop from John’s territory
  • But, with his influence, and more importantly, the votes of the 29 Egyptians bishops that came with him – It was clear who was in charge
  • Twenty-nine charges had been compiled, largely from evidence supplied by two deacons whom John had sacked
  • The charges were mostly absurd, my personal favorite was that John Chrysostom was accused that he had his bath heated for himself alone rather than share the hot water
  • Anyway, John refused to attend declaring that he is willing to be tried by a general council, not by a Synod full of his enemies
  • On his refusal to attend he was tried in absent, found guilty and removed
  • A verdict that Eudoxia was happy to enforce with imperial orders to exile him
  • But, fate would have it otherwise
  • When the word got out that john was being exiled, Riots broke out
  • But, John’s opponents managed to organize counter-riots and it seemed that in a day or two, life would go on
  • Then an earthquake hit thecity and quite possibly Eudoxia had a miscarriage.. Big signs of divine displeasure that were clear to everyone
  • Those signs prompted a sudden reversal of imperial policy, and John was recalled before going too far
  • Sensing how things are going, Pope Theophilus quietly boarded a ship and departed to Alexandria
  • John then walked into the Hagia Sophia and delivered a powerful sermon comparing himself to Abraham when the Egyptian Pharaoh had tried to take his wife Sara from him
  • The crowds loved it of course
  • Nonetheless, John canonical position was weak – Having been deposed by a Synod, he needed another Synod to restore him
  • Emperor Arcadius did just that and he ordered that a new council be organized.
  • Pope Theophilus naturally excused himself on the grounds that the Alexandrian populace would riot if he left the city
  • But if you John would be happy and be quiet until he is officially reinstated, well – you in for a surprise
  • John Chrysostom was a man of God, he couldn’t see injustice and stay silent.. That’s just not in his DNA
  • Empress Eduoxia erected a beautiful silver statue of herself, a nice, expensive silver statue - a really expensive one
  • John in the meantime was spending his day tending to poor widows and orphans barely struggling to survive
  • So, he spoke up and denounced the empress in his one of his usually crowd-pleasing powerful sermons
  • Eudoxia then had enough, and decided that John really had to go this time
  • That’s when Pope Theophilus intervened again
  • He wrote a letter to the palace with a strong legal argument citing a Canon from the dedication Council of Antioch
  • The Cannon stated that if a bishop deposed by a synod regained his see and resumed his duties on his own initiative without first having been reinstated by another synod, he was to be permanently excluded from office without right of appeal
  • The irony here, is that this Council and specifically this Cannon was framed to exile St. Athanasius, some 60 years earlier by the Bishop of Constantinople, Eusebius of Nicomedia
  • And here we have, the bishop of Alexandria, Pope Theophilus, using it to exile John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople.
  • Ahh – history – it has so much lessons to teach us
  • Anyway, Arcadius under the influence of Eudoxia, accepted the argument, cancelled the planned council, and exiled John Chrysostom for the second time
  • Shortly after his exile, Eudoxia died in 404 AD likely from complication of her seventh pregnancy
  • Now, John didn’t say quiet in exile – He wrote to various western bishops, including the Roman Pope asking for their help in the injustice he has suffered
  • Pope Theophilus also communicated with Rome, asking them to break off communion with John
  • The bishop of Rome stated that he is considering John the legitimate bishop, until a general council can decide the matter
  • Relationship between Rome and Alexandria deteriorated further, with Jerome translating an anti-John pamphlet made by Pope Theophilus into Latin and it reached Rome
  • By 405 AD, a synod was assembled in Rome, and Pope Theophilus was excommunicated
  • The Roman church tried to send a delegation to Constantinople, but the relationship between the Eastern and Western half was hostile and the delegation failed in even arriving to Constantinople
  • By 407 AD – John died in exile and Pope Theophilus’ image and prestige plummeted
  • His death was followed by the death of Emperor Arcadius, and the elevation of his 7 year old son Theodosius the second to the purple
  • Naturally, he was a figure head, and power still rested with palace official as well as his older sister, Pulcharia
  • Pope Theophilus followed them in departing within 4 years, excommunicated from the West, and isolated from many Eastern bishops in the East who were sympathetic to John
  • Now, I don’t want to end the story of Pope Theophilus here, a sad story of an unnecessary conflict where he was used theology and heresy to settle personal rivalries
  • I hope you get a picture of a complex individual trying to navigate a complex world where bishops have become public figures with an increasing, if not leading role in governing their cities and towns
  • Pope Theophilus was the natural product of that world. A politically astute man who can be ruthless when his authority is challenged
  • But he was also, a competent administrator, a solid theologian and above all, a pragmatic intellectual who used every opportunity to improve the conditions of his flock
  • That improvement translated practically in the Christianization of space and the dismantling of paganism in Egypt
  • Whether that dismantling was an improvement or not is up to debate in our modern secular world, but to the 4th century Egyptians, who were rabidly becoming Christians – Seeing a church take the place of a pagan temple was an improvement beyond a doubt
  • In the 27 years he reigned as Pope, Egypt has changed from a contested ground between paganism and Christianity to a thoroughly Christian land
  • He effectively exploited the opportunities provided to him by Theodosius to consolidate the power of the Church over Egypt and he did so, with text book pragmatism
  • Consider for example his handling of the Libyan province of Cyrene and one of their bishops
  • We are lucky, that bishop, Synesius was something of a modern-day twitter warrior
  • He wrote extensively and many of writing have survived
  • Synesius was a philosopher, a bishop, and a warrior. Not to mention, he wrote a lost book on dog breeding.
  • He was a Libyan Greek Aristocrat , educated, as most of them did, in Alexandria
  • In Alexandria, he became the student of a talented pagan teacher named Hypatia and they struck a wonderful friendship that lasted their life time
  • He then went to Athens to see the birthplace of Philosophy and then to Constantinople to advocate for his land and finally he made his way back to Alexandria
  • In there, he married, became a Christian and was introduced to Pope Theophilus
  • He returned to his lands in Cyrene where, desert tribes were actively raiding along the borders of Libya and Egypt
  • Those very same tribes, would play a role in the Monastic stronghold of Scetis, but we will talk more about this in a bit
  • As a major land owner, those raids directly affected him and as his estates were as far away central government in Constantinople as you can get, not much help was coming from there
  • He then organized and armed the farmers and was able to mount an impressive defense
  • As a result, he became very popular and when the bishop of the area died, he became the natural choice
  • His letters clearly show the decay of the civil governance in that area, and the leading role the church was taking in governing
  • In one of his letter, he retells how the priests quote “called the people together, and after divine service took the offensive against the enemy. “
  • In another letter, he laments how the governors instead of helping they are --  quote “hindering us from taking up arms when the enemy are at hand, plundering everywhere and every day slaughtering whole villages, and where there are no soldiers to defend us—at least, none to be seen. Will you say after this that it is not lawful for private persons to bear arms, and that they may be put to death: that the State may be angry with anyone who attempts to save himself?”
  • Despite Synesius being the natural choice to become the next bishop, he adamantly refused
  • He was a philosopher and had many views that were not necessarily popular
  • He was also a happily married man, and as of late, bishops were either Monks or had to leave their wives
  • To quote another letter he writes “God and the law and the sacred hand of Theophilus gave me my wife. I therefore declare openly to all, and testify that I will not separate entirely from her, or visit her secretly like an adulterer. The one course would be contrary to piety, the other to law. I shall wish and pray to have a large number of virtuous children.”
  • Pope Theophilus for his part clearly could see Synesius talents, and insisted on ordaining him a bishop for the area.. despite Synesius interests in Philosophy and his marriage
  • To be fair, Synesius intellectual interests while not necessarily main stream, they didn’t directly contradict established theological concepts
  • That paragrammatism from Pope Theophilus ensured that the Egyptian Church recruited and retained the best of the best to administer its affairs
  • Synesius for his part went on to an interesting life, having three children, all of them tragically dying young followed by the death of his wife
  • He continued organizing his flock militarily against the desert tribes, and later, excommunicating the governor of the area for corruption
  • We have enough documentation to essentially establish that he became the de facto governor of the area
  • With his own national militia and an impressive ability to act as a statesman
  • Pope Theophilus’ let him be and fully supported his action.. His policy throughout his reign was to consolidate the hierarchy of the Church and enlist the most capable men to serve as bishops
  • So long as the theology of these men didn’t threaten that hierarchy, they were given freedom to speculate and have opinions
  • Only, when these opinions threatened his authority, it became a problem
  • Politically, the empire was going through some tough times
  • The West was disintegrating quickly without the financial backing of the East and the continuous onslaught from Barbarian tribes
  • A gothic commander named Alaric successfully filled the power vacuum and played the off the East against the West until he finally sacked Rome itself in 410 AD
  • This was not officially the end of the Western Roman Empire, but, we are almost there
  • As seen with Synesisus, the borderland of the empires were tough places, completely in ruin in the west, and under severe pressure in the East with devastating raids
  • One such raid in 407 AD devastated the monastic community in Scetis resulting in the martyrdom of a famous hermit and Monk named Moses the Black
  • In the Shadow of Pope Theophilus, two very influential figures were coming of age – Shenouda the Archimandrite, and the future Pope Cyril, the Pillar of faith
  • We will talk a lot about Shendouda in both planned special episodes, so we will leave him for now
  • But Pope Cyril was the nephew of Pope Theophilus and from pretty early on, it seemed that he was being groomed to take over the throne of St. Mark once Pope Theophilus’s passes away
  • He was sent to study with the monks as a young man, and stayed in the desert for 5 years before coming back to Alexandria
  • In addition to his theological training, as the nephew of the bishop of Alexandria, he received an elite education from the best Alexandria can offer
  • As his moniker the Pillar of faith implies, he ended up being very influential in the History of the Copts and Christianity
  • We will pick up his history in two weeks
  • Next week is going to be the special episode about Monasticism, and after that narrative of Pope Cyril, and then another special episode – Life in Byzantine Egypt.
  • If you wish, send me what you are interested in my way.. I would hate to spend half an hour talking about Poetry in Upper Egypt when you really wanted to know what kind of cloth they wore.
  • Facebook, Twitter, website would all work.
  • 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
  • Theophilus of Alexandria and the First Origenist Controversy by" Krastu Banev
  • Theophilus of Alexandria by" Norman Russell
  • Theodosius: The Empire at Bay by" Stephen Williams, Gerard Friell
  • Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian desert by" Otto F.A. Meinardus
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