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  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 21. Theophilus of Alexandria.
  • Last week we ended with Theodosius death in 395 AD with the empire divided among his two sons
  • Honorius in the West, under the influence of the barbarian general Stilicho
  • And Arcadius in the East, under the influence of a palace official named Rufinus
  • Pope Theophilus on the other hand, had become the de facto problem solver in the East, Church wise that is
  • In 396 AD, he was approached by John, the bishop of Jerusalem to try and solve a dispute in Palestine
  • You see, John had a monasticism problem
  • One of the leading Monks of his diocese, Jerome, was engaged in a bitter dispute with John
  • Jerome wasn’t just any monk, he was a historian, a theologian, and one of the relatively rare figures that were able to connect the Latin western theology with the Eastern, Greek one
  • Anyway, the highly influential Jerome represented an independent authority separate from the bishop
  • Their dispute reached the natural conclusion by cementing around a theological issue, and the involvement of other bishops
  • The theological issue was the legacy of Origen, remember Origen from Episode 6? Yea people were still arguing about whether he is a heretic or not
  • John was for Origen, and Jerome was against.. it was actually a bit more complicated than that, but we will get there in a bit
  • The other bishop who was involved was Epiphanius, the Bishop of Cyprus, an anti-Origen firebrand who took the opportunity of visiting Jerusalem to denounce Origen and those who follow his teachings
  • John of Jerusalem wasn’t obviously very happy and rebuked him publicly
  • Epiphanius then went back to Cyprus and ordained Jerome’s brother to a city in Palestine despite it being outside of his domain and in John’s see, a clear violation of protocol directed toward John
  • Jerome naturally used his influence to support his brother, and the bishop of Cyprus with all three using the ideology of being an Anti-Origen as the theological foundation that supported them against John’s pro-Origen stand
  • The theological issue was, and this is going to be brief and simple, as this in the territory of deep theology about the how the bible and God is viewed
  • The technical terms are an·thro·po·mor·phism for anti-Origen and Origenism for pro-Origin.. The theology can get complex and both sides have claimed that their enemies held views that their enemies didn’t really believe
  • Similar to the modern political discourse where political opponents label each other with extreme ideas, that neither of them have
  • In the same way, pro-Origen and anti-Origen accused each other of extreme views that really neither side have held
  • Some did for sure, but the vast majority held fairly complex views
  • The extreme view that the anti-Origen camp was accused of having was, and I am quoting from Otto Meindarus , Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian desert book here  that “the sacred Scripture testifies that God has eyes, ears, hands, and feet, as men have.”
  • On the other hand, the extreme view of the Origenists camp was that “nothing is to be taken literary, everything has a symbolic meaning. The creation story in Genesis didn’t really happen in a literal sense”
  • Just keep in mind that the whole thing began as John of Jerusalem was try to assert his position over the monks living in his territory, especially Jerome and his group
  • John was losing the popular opinion, Jerome have translated a highly inflammatory pamphlet made by Epiphanius that denounced him as a heretic and to quote Jerome himself, “All Palestine fought for copies of it”
  • Thus, John of Jerusalem asked Pope Theophilus to get involved
  • Pope Theophilus then sent, a priest named Isidore to Jerusalem to gather the facts and meet with the two parties
  • Isidore was a very interesting figure and he was very close to Pope Theophilus
  • He was responsible for all the financial donations coming through to Alexandria, a very powerful role
  • But even more impressive, he acted as the Pope representative outside of Egypt and was very successful as a Diplomat
  • He was responsible for getting the Church in Rome to accept the bishop of Antioch as we discussed last week as well as several sensitive diplomatic missions outside of Egypt
  • In addition to being a priest, he held extensive connections with the leading monks in the desert of Scetis, just south of Alexandria
  • Anyway, in this occasion he totally failed and instead of solving the issue, it became bigger 
  • Isidore failed because instead of representing Pope Theophilus as an impartial cannon expert neutral to the conflict, he let his own personal views about Origen get in the way and made the arguments even more polarizing
  • Even before arriving, he wrote to John of Jerusalem stating “As smoke vanishes in the air, and wax melts beside the fire, so shall they be scattered who are forever resisting the faith of the Church, and are now endeavouring through simple men to disturb that faith.”
  • The letter fell into the hands of Jerome via one of his friends and made the situation even more tense
  • Despite the letter, Jerome couldn’t afford ignoring Isidore as Pope Theophilus’ representative, so when Isidore arrived to Jerusalem, he managed to hold at least three meetings with John and Jerome
  • Naturally, the negotiations broke down, but again, instead of acting as the Pope’s representative  and presenting the facts as is
  • He portrayed Jerome as completely reconciled to John and admitting to his theological error
  • Now, Pope Theophilus interest at this point was the relationship between influential monks and their bishop
  • Obviously, he felt that monks shouldn’t have public theological opinions different to that of their bishop
  • He knew of Origen’s writing and had his own complex opinion about them, probably close to those that Jerome had, but that wasn’t the issue for him at this point
  • Thus, Isidore offered to him what he wanted to hear.. Jerome submitting to his bishop
  • In his mission to Jerusalem, he made the worse two errors any diplomat could do
    • Holding his own views above the interest of the party he is representing
    • And giving the boss whatever he wants to hear, rather than the truth
  • When Jerome found out, he was furious, and sent Pope Theophilus a letter contesting Isiodore version of events
  • Pope Theophilus didn’t respond publicly to the letter, he had a much bigger issue to handle, and needed Isidore full cooperation and attention to succeed
  • I would speculate that he had his doubts and believed Jerome version – But, he couldn’t and didn’t want to lose Isidore at this point
  • Within a couple of year, Pope Theophilus would respond to Jerome advising him to reconcile to John of Jerusalem, which Jerome dutifully did
  • But for now, he needed Isidore because the bishop of Constantinople seat became vacant, when Theodosius appointee who heeded the council of Constantinople died
  • Pope Theophilus intended to put Isidore as a candidate to the office   
  • Isidore was well-qualified and known and respected by many bishops outside of Egypt and his loyalty to Alexandria, despite the recent event was rock solid
  • Pope Theophilus travelled personally to Constantinople and immersed himself in lobbying for Isidore
  • Constantinople at this point was full of vicious political intrigue with a weak-willed emperor on the throne
  • Rufinus was immediately in charge after Theodosius died, and he almost went to war against the western half of the emperor when Stilicho claimed he was the guardian of both Theodosius’ son
  • He didn’t last long, through the machination of a Eunuch named Eutropius with the help of Stilicho, Rufinus was assassinated just prior to his daughter marrying Arcadius
  • Eutropius now became the man behind the throne, and he arranged a new marriage for Arcadius, a Frankish general daughter named Eudoxia
  • Eventually, Eutropius would fall from grace, and Eudoxia would fill the power vacuum
  • Anyway, when Pope Theophilus travelled to Constantinople, Eutropius was at the height of his power and he had his own candidate to the see of Constantinople
  • His candidate was a popular preacher from Antioch named John, known to history as John Chrysostom
  • Chrysostom is from a Greek word meaning golden mouthed due to his powerful sermons
  • Anyway, the lobbying for the seat was fierce, and Eutropius had to resort to blackmail and threats to get John appointed
  • Eventually, under pressure, Pope Theophilus relented and he was one of the three bishops that ordained John to his seat
  • However, their relationship was tense to say the least.. John obviously knew that he wasn’t Pope Theophilus preferred candidate and Pope Theophilus knew that can’t count on John to uphold the interests of Alexandria
  • And now that Isidore was no longer a candidate, tensions also started rising between him and Pope Theophilus with the events in Jerusalem as the background as well as other things that we will get to in a bit
  • So, Pope Theophilus was having problems with an influential insider – Isidore, and a respectful, but tense relationship with Constantinople
  • Both issues broke out in the open in 399 AD
  • The events that happened next are recorded by 5 ancient sources, one of them is Pope Theophilus himself
  • All the 5 sources tell a somewhat different version of events
  • What follows is a reconstruction of the events based on the 5 versions according to Russel Norman’s book Theophilus of Alexandria
  • In 399 AD, Pope Theophilus wrote a letter against extreme an·thro·po·mor·phic views that claimed God exists in literal human form.. And we are not talking about the incarnate Word or the Son here, we are talking about Godhead as an entity
  • That letter was received badly with many monks who didn’t appreciate the complexity of the argument and they immediately put Pope Theophilus in the Origenist camp
  • But Pope Theophilus had extremely complex theological view and essentially had problems with both camps
  • He was concerned about the literal reading of some of the prophetic books in the bible, such as Revelation or Hezekiah - so in that sense he was pro-Origen
  • But, perhaps, he was even more concerned with the allegorical method of Origen – Opening the door for anyone to explain away biblical passages as he wished based on allegory was problematic for him
  • It will essentially lead to, and I am quoting him directly a “hydra of heresies” – The problem wasn’t allegory in of itself, but rather who is doing the explaining behind the allegory.
  • So when the Monks came protesting, he calmed them down and told them that he sees in them quote “the face of God” and then took an anti-Origen stand that they loved
  • But, his anti-Origen stand didn’t sit well with another group of highly influential monks, nicknamed the Tall brothers
  • Their leader, Ammonius, was very influential, he was one of St. Athanasius companions at exile in Rome, from episode 12
  • Anyway, the situation could have been contained easily but Isidore gotten in the middle, and things quickly gotten out of hand
  • What exactly happened with Isidore is where the sources tell the story differently
  • Isidore was facing a trial for misconduct, some sources tell how he and Pope Theophilus fell out when Isidore received a gift of 1,000 gold coins which a widow had donated to the church for distribution to the poor.
  • The widow asked Isidore not to tell the Pope because she was afraid he would divert the money to building a church, rather than give it to the needy
  • Pope Theophilus then found out and decided that Isidore had to go
  • But as an influential and well-known figure, he can’t just fire him and expect Isidore to go away
  • Isidore had to be discredited and exposed as a fraud
  • Thus a trial was arranged where he was accused of moral misconduct.
  • Isidore obviously denied the charge, and claimed that the witnesses were bribed by Pope Theophilus to come forward
  • Pope Theophilus in his version, also claimed that Isidore bribed the witnesses to not to speak
  • Either way, Isidore didn’t like his odds in a trial, and decided to flee from Alexandria to the desert and uses his influence with the Monks to discredit Theophilus
  • Now, if there was only a group of Monks who were already not happy with Pope Theophilus theological stance, well, those will make perfect allies for Isidore
  • Enter the Tall brother led by Ammonius
  • Isidore and the Tall brothers were long time supporters of Originism and Isidore was able to recruit them to his cause
  • Now, this was a big problem for Pope Theophilus – Just like John of Jerusalem earlier, Pope Theophilus had a group of influential monks undermining his authority
  • Ammonius twice led a large delegation of Monks to Alexandria, officially to plead for Isidore – but really, as a more or less a public demonstration
  • Now up until this point, the issue of Origen was more or less in the background – No one was excommunicating anybody, and the dialogue was somewhat civil and away from accusation of heresy
  • Accusation of heresy was a potent weapon though, and really, perhaps the only thing available to Pope Theophilus to stop the tall brothers and Isidore from discrediting him
  • Thus, Pope Theophilus moved at the offensive
  • Knowing that the Tall brothers and Isidore were well-known as pro-Origin but the majority of the Monks are anti-Origin, he decided to held a synod in Nitiria, a strong monastic stronghold, to look at the issue of Origen and his followers
  • Now, the Tall brothers have obviously read and studied Origen, and so did Pope Theophilus, but the vast majority of the monks and bishops attending the synod have never read his work.
  • Thus, Pope Theophilus have prepared a folder of the most inflammatory and speculative things Origen have written and presented it to the Council to condemn Origen, and thereby, the Tall brothers and Isidore
  • The attendees were shocked at the statements without necessarily understanding the context they were said in, or the speculative nature of Origen work and duly condemned Origen and his followers
  • With the legitimacy gained by the Synod and the outlawing of heresy from Theodosius edicts, Pope Theophilus got the prefect to supply him a portion of troops and he moved to arrest Isidore and the Tall brothers
  • But knowing that they are in trouble, they decided to leave Egypt with 300 loyal monks after burning their settlements and books
  • The goal was to go on an international campaign clearing their name of heresy, and in the process, as an unintended consequence tarnish that of Pope Theophilus
  • Now – Pope Theophilus attack on Origen had major consequences, while at the time was just his method to get a group of problematic monks in line, it was so effective, that in a few episodes an emperor would order a universal Council and Origen would be officially condemned by the wider church with Pope Theophilus’ letters used to build up the case
  • So we have that to look forward too –
  • it is clear to me though that if Pope Theophilus did not come into conflict with Isidore and the Tall Brothers over matters of policy, he probably would have let the whole issue of Origen go
  • The Tall brothers and Isidore made their way to Constantinople hoping to appeal to the emperor and use the tension between John Chrysostom and Pope Theophilus in their advantage
  • John Chrysostom for his part proceeded very cautiously, He did not give them official hospitality but put them up at a hospice attached to the church
  • He also forbade them to publicly air their complaints and promised to negotiate with Pope Theophilus on their behalf
  • He then sent an extremely polite letter to Pope Theophilus where he asked him to accept them as a personal favor
  • Now, had Pope Theophilus accepted the pleas and perhaps put some stipulations that reduced their influence, things would have proceeded smoothly and this Podcast would have been much less interesting
  • Alas, the tension between Constantinople and Alexandria was a problem. Accepting them back based on the intervention of Constantinople in Pope Theophilus’ mind presented a dangerous precedent
  • their appeal was an unacceptable intervention over an internal matter that was no one else is business
  • Whatever the case, he reacted swiftly to the letter, and the issue ceased to be about the Tall brothers, Isidore, or even Origen. Now, it was about John Chrysostom - A new comer appointed by unworthy Eunuch who thinks he can intervene in the affairs of Alexandria
  • First, he went about recruiting important allies, Epiphanius, the Bishop of Cyprus as anti-Origen firebrand was the most natural choice
  • Pope Theophilus instructed Epiphanius to hold a synod in Cyprus and condemn Origen and his followers as well
  • Then he sent letters to various bishops asking them to agree to decisions of the two synods
  • Finally with the backing of two synods and various bishops, the matter is to be sent to Constantinople for John decision
  • This was to corner John theologically – If was to sign it, then he has to condemn the Tall brothers as heretics
  • If he was to refuse, well – Then he is in the pro-Origen camp and thus open himself up for accusation of heresy
  • John diplomatically responded that the issue must be decided by a general council before he renders a decision
  • A wise response, but still, opening himself up for accusation of heresy
  • Pope Theophilus also sent two delegations to the palace in Constantinople to defend his interests, the first consisting of loyal monks, the second of experienced lawyers
  • The Tall brothers began to feel the pressure, they sent a half-measured letter to Pope Theophilus admitting some errors, but generally sticking to supporting Origin
  • Pope Theophilus didn’t relent though, and kept the pressure
  • So, they tried a different tactic – They made a formal petition to John accusing Pope Theophilus of misconduct
  • John initially tried to get them to drop the charges and keep trying to solve the issue in a non-confrontational way but they refused
  • Thus, John wrote again to Pope Theophilus, this time, a bit more assertively and with the list of the charges Pope Theophilus is accused of
  • And that was the breaking point between Pope Theophilus and John Chrysostom. . Pope Theophilus responded with a furious letter stating –

“I think you are not unaware of the ordinance of the Nicene canons forbidding a bishop to adjudicate a case which falls outside his area. If, however, you are unaware, now that you have been informed refrain from meddling with accusations brought against me. If it were necessary for me to be put on trial, it would be before Egyptian judges and not before you, who live more than seventy-five days’ journey away”

  • The Tall brothers, in an act of desperation, made the situation much worse by appealing to the imperial couple directly bypassing John, as a result of their appeal, Pope Theophilus was summoned to stand trial in Constantinople
  • Now – a trial of the bishop of Alexandria in Constantinople is probably the worst thing Pope Theophilus could have heard – No matter the result, the fact that he is accused publicly of heresy and misconduct in of itself is very damaging
  • He naturally concluded that John Chrysostom was behind the whole thing in an attempt to subjugate the See of Alexanderia to Constantinople
  • Thus, counter-measures had to be arranged to discredit John and ideally unseat him
  • The stage then was set for another battle between Constantinople and Alexandria
  • Would Pope Theophilus succeed in what Peter the second failed in doing? Or would the Tall brothers discredit him and get one of their own to the office?
  • What would happen to John Chrysostom, and where is the Emperor in all of that?
  • Interesting questions that will have to wait until next week! I can’t keep talking forever after all.
  • 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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