The Lynching of  Nestorius


A Feature Article
by Stephen M. Ulrich
Institute for  Holy Land Studies


NESTORIUS. Many people, in western civilization, do not know this man. If  they do know the name, they only have a vague understanding of this man and the  group he represents. The name Nestorius or Nestorian on a popular level is used  to stigmatize. This name divides the world of Christendom into two groups.
Nestorius was likely born of Persian parents and spent his early years at  Germanicia in Syria Euphratensis, present day Maras in southern Turkey. He  became a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia and studied at Antioch before becoming  a monk at the nearby Euprepius Monastery and a presbyter (priest) shortly  thereafter. He acquired a great reputation for asceticism, orthodoxy and  eloquence. He was nominated to the See of Constantinople by Theodosius II in 428  C.E. Although the exact date of his birth is not known, his death occurred  shortly after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E.
CYRIL. Almost as obscure as Nestorius, Cyril was the leading antagonist to  Nestorius. He was born in Alexandria to Greek (pagan) parents around 375 C.E.  Cyril was destined at an early age for an ecclesiastical career. His uncle,  Theophilus, was Patriarch of Alexandria and convened the Synod of the Oak in 403  C.E. where Cyril assisted him. He succeeded his uncle to the See of Alexandria  in 412 and retained it until his death in 444.
This article will deal primarily with the time period surrounding the Council  of Ephesus, 431 C.E., between 425 and 435 C.E. By the time of the Council, a  severe conflict between Nestorius and Cyril was epidemic. The conflict is most  often perceived to be a theological dispute, which it no doubt was, but many  ignore the political situation and deal only with perceptions and theological  schools of thought. In other words, the differences existing between Alexandrian  and Antiochian interpretation and Christology. We will focus our attention in  two areas. The first will be to address the political landscape around which the  Council of Ephesus was formed. The second will focus on the theological issues  which Nestorius addressed in an attempt to answer his critics on the charge of  heresy. The larger political picture dictated much activity which preceded and  followed the condemnation of Nestorius and his teachings.
The resentment between the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople  and the Western Roman Empire centered in Rome was experienced in theology (i.e.,  in the east, the interpretation of the Apocalypse of Daniel as bringing in the  millennial kingdom with Constantinople as Capital), the establishment of rival  apostolic lines of succession, and the development of the concept of primacy.  The movement of the capital by Constantine from Rome to Constantinople (New  Rome) on the Bosphorus was an act of political desperation in order to save the  Roman Empire. This created a split in the thinking of many in the Christian  community, creating jealousy between old Rome and New Rome. Constantine further  exacerbated the tension between east and west by calling himself  'Proto-Apostolos' meaning 'first of the apostles', placing his tomb in the  middle of the cenotaph of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople. (Haussig, pg.  112) This posed a threat to the claim of primacy in Rome and subsequently  formulating a list of apostolic successors beginning with Andrew the Apostle  consecrating a certain Stachys as the first bishop of Byzantium. In response to  the Byzantium claim of apostolic superiority, the Roman Popes formulated their  own list of successors from the Apostle Peter.
One is able to see the political advantage which could be gained by Pope  Celestine siding with Cyril against Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople,  whether right or wrong.
What is the benefit gained by Cyril anathematizing Nestorius? The evidence  seems to suggest that within Egypt there was an Antiochene community before the  Council of Ephesus and Nestorian sympathizers after the Council, who were  obstinate against the authority of Cyril. So Cyril sought a means by which he  could lessen or eliminate their influence.
After the Council was convened and the anathema was declared, Nestorius was  banished, first to Antioch (431-435) then to the Great Oasis of Hibis  (al-Khargah). Following deportation to the Great Oasis (435-439), he spent some  time in Panopolis under the guardianship of Shenoute. Shenoute had attended the  Council of Ephesus as the chief bodyguard of Cyril. Some scholars discount the  influence of Nestorius in Egypt during this time but fail to account for the  continued existence of "Nestorian" monasteries who either ignored or were  unaware of the condemnation of Nestorius and his teaching.
I believe there was a sizable "Antiochene" community in Egypt which would  give a raison d'etre for Cyril's actions and explain the continued presence of  monastic communities which credit their founding to a "Nestorian"...Isaac of  Nineveh.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople was a highly esteemed position but it was  also fraught with political dangers. John Chrysostom, in his six year term as  Patriarch (398-404), was harried out of office twice. He died the second time at  the hands of those who exiled him.The success or failure of the Patriarchate was  dependent primarily on the Patriarch's political savvy. The intervening years  between John Chrysostom and Nestorius gives evidence of two extremes of success  and failure. Arsacius (404-406) was characterized as peaceful. Atticus (406-425)  was praised as being "all things to all men." Finally, Sisimmius (425-427) was  rather "indolent" although personally he was noted as pious. (Gregory, pg.  83)
The beginning of Nestorius' term at Constantinople was marked with  enthusiasm. He vowed to Theodosius II that he would "free (the land) of heretics  and I will give you heaven in return; help me to destroy the heretics and I will  help you destroy the Persians." (Gregory, pg. 84) Nestorius sought immediately  to strengthen the existing laws regarding heretics and even went so far as to  add new penalties against the Novatians and Quarterdecimans in Asia, Lydia and  Caria. In his enthusiasm he may have crossed some of his neighbors' borders in  search of fleeing heretics, thus violating territorial bounds. This type of  enthusiasm was not looked upon too kindly. Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, during the  Council of Ephesus specifically opposed Nestorius for pursuing these heretics  into Ephesian ecclesiastical areas. Ephesus had suffered financially as an  ecclesiastical center because of the importance of Constantinople. (Gregory, pg.  102)
Relations between the Sees of Alexandria and Constantinople were not always  strained. There is evidence to suggest this point. During the early period of  Nestorius's rule, he sought to establish a yearly festival at Constantinople in  honor of John Chrysostom and succeeded in getting Cyril's consent to placing  John's name in the Alexandrian diptychs. This occurred as late as 429 C.E. A  letter from Nestorius to Cyril around 429 even refers to their mutual, previous  "friendly relations," when Cyril was trying to dissuade Nestorius of his  position on the use of the word 'theotokos'. (Griggs, pg. 193) Apparently, after  these series of letters, Cyril decided to press the matter and seek to convene a  general council.
Cyril, in many ways, was a shrewd politician. He sought the support of the  Roman Church and after a synod was convened there in August 430, Pope Celestine  threw his support behind the bishop of Alexandria. On the advice of Cyril, the  teachings of Nestorius were condemned. Cyril held his own synod in Alexandria  that same year to rally supporters. All the parties agreed to settle the dispute  through a general council.
    1. Gregory, Timothy E., Vox Populi: Popular opinion and violence in the  religious controversies of the 5th century A.D., Ohio State University Press,  Columbus, Ohio, 1986.
    2. Griggs, C. Wilfred, Early Egyptian Christianity from its origin to 451 C.C.,  Vol. 2, E.J.Brill, Leiden, N.Y. 1990.
    3. Haussig, H.W., A History of Byzantine Civilization, Trans. J.M. Hussey,  Thames and Hudson, London, 1966.
    4. Meinardus, Otto, Oriens Christianus, Vol. 51, "The Nestorians in Egypt",  1967.
Theodosius, who had appointed Nestorius to the patriachate, was not convinced  that Nestorius was guilty of heresy and was reluctant to call for a general  council. He reluctantly conceded to Cyril's request on November 30, 430 partly  as a result of the unrest which was going on in the city. (Gregory 101) He  issued a letter calling for a council and ordered all Metropolitans of the  empire to meet in Ephesus at Pentecost, June 7, 431. I find it odd that the site  of the council is in a city whose Bishop is so anti-Nestorius, but this question  will have to go into the annals of history unanswered. My speculation is that  Theodosius entrusted the details of the council to his older sister, Pulcheria  who opposed Nestorius and opposed what was popularly termed Monophysitism.  Pulcheria may have been influenced by her mother's bitterness against John  Chrysostom. She opposed anyone who favors John and Nestorius naturally did favor  him as was previously mentioned.
Nestorius arrived on Easter, April 16, with 16 bishops and an armed escort.  He had heard of the reputation of Cyril. He had also faced opposition and  physical threats from some monks in Constantinople. Apparently Cyril was  stirring up opposition to Nestorius through the onus of Eusebius, a lawyer of  the Basilica of Constantinople. (Gregory 90) Nestorius arrived to find some  lesser bishops already there. Cyril arrived in the city shortly afterward  accompanied by about fifty-five bishops and a considerable number of monks. By  the June 7 deadline 198 bishops had arrived but they were still expecting the  oriental delegation which comprised John of Antioch and thirty other bishops.  This delegation was crucial support for Nestorius' case. The bishops had already  agreed to wait until July 10 for the delegation but on June 21, armed with what  he thought was special authority from Pope Celestine, Cyril proposed to open the  council under the pretense of preventing more sickness and death among the  bishops. Sixty-eight bishops, along with the chief guard of Nestorius from the  Emperor Theodosius, presented letters protesting the decision and demanded that  Cyril wait. Cyril ignored them.
The next day, June 22, Cyril opened the council presiding over 60 like minded  bishops (Kelly 327), and dispatched four bishops to summon Nestorius. He refused  to appear before the oriental bishops arrived. In the absence of Nestorius, the  supporters of Cyril moved quickly to depose him. They finally pronounced a  formal statement against Nestorius. Meanwhile, outside there was a crowd  gathered, eagerly anticipating the outcome. It is worthy to note that there were  demonstrations of women in Ephesus supporting the position of Cyril. When the  decision of Nestorius' deposition was announced to the gathered crowd, the women  formed a procession to show their support. (Gregory footnote 124) It seemed they  had a special attachment to Mary. But why did they feel this special kindness  and closeness to Mary?
The Mother of our Lord through a late tradition seems to be connected to  Ephesus by the Apostle John. While on the cross, Jesus gave John custody of his  mother. Near the end of John's life according to tradition she accompanied him  to Ephesus. Epiphanius denies this tradition has any historical or biblical  merit. These women of Ephesus who expressed a special veneration for Mary were  following an older tradition and devotion of another virgin and mother, Artemis  (Diana) of the Ephesians. (Acts 19 & Gregory 106, 107)
Meanwhile, Nestorius met with a group of 43 rival bishops in a synod and  issued a similar verdict against Cyril and the rest of the bishops. (Atiya  250)
Finally, on June 26, the oriental delegation of bishops arrived under the  leadership of John of Antioch. John petitions Emperor Theodosius and describes  the city in a state of civil war and "all manner of confusion." (Gregory 104) In  his letter, he squarely places the responsibility on the shoulders of Cyril and  Memnon. Theodosius, after hearing of the condemnation of Nestorius and his  teaching (June 29) dispatched a letter to Ephesus decrying the decision of the  council and reproving the bishops for not waiting for the oriental bishops. On  July 10 the legate of the Pope of Rome arrived and declared the Pope's support  for Cyril. Cyril was quick to point out to the emperor that his continued  support of Nestorius was contrary to the decision of the ecumenical council.  (Gregory 108) The words of Nestorius sum up the situation:
'When the followers of Cyril saw the vehemence of the emperor...they roused  up a disturbance and discord among the people with an outcry, as though the  emperor were opposed to God; they rose up against the nobles and the chiefs who  acquiesced not in what had been done by them and they were running hither and  thither. And...they took with them those who had been separated and removed from  the monasteries by reason of their lives and their strange manners and had for  this reason been expelled, and all who were of heretical sects and were  possessed with fanaticism and with hatred against me. And one passion was in  them all, Jews and pagans and all the sects, and they were busying themselves  that they should accept without examination the things which were done without  examination against me; and at the same time all of them, even those that had  participated with me at table and in prayer and in thought, were  agreed...against me and vowing vows one with another against me...In nothing  were they divided.' (Gregory 109 quoting Nestorius)
The condemnation of Nestorius by the Cyrilian council and the  counter-condemnation of the oriental council against Cyril was not the end of  the matter. Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius were all put under arrest and full  imperial investigation was demanded by the oriental bishops. Each group was  invited to present their case before the Emperor in Chalcedon. It was not until  435 that the matter was settled. After things had settled down in  Constantinople, Theodoret came to Chalcedon presenting views not far from those  of Nestorius and found a considerable amount of support. This may indicate that  the support for Cyril's views may have been artificially contrived through  political alliances with Empress Pulcheria and the wealth distributed by Cyril  to members of the imperial court in the sum of 1400 pounds of gold shortly  before the Council in 431. (Gregory 113)
The bribes of Cyril fit into a larger picture which are evidence that he was  willing to dispense with the ontological truth concerning the heretical nature  of Nestorius' teaching to achieve a political victory. He sacrificed principle  for politics but history in the end gave him neither. I believe Cyril envisioned  being the "Bishop of bishops," much like the Roman papacy of today. In an  article entitled "Rabbula of Edessa and the Peshitta" Matthew Black illustrates  that Rabbula utilized the gospel quotations of Cyril in the revision of the  Peshitta gospels. What does this have to do with the Nestorian controversy?  Previous to the time of Rabbula (c.412-435) most if not all of the bishops of  Edessa looked to Antioch, Seleucia or Ctesiphon for their direction in relation  to defining orthodoxy but Rabbula looked to the west, i.e. Rome, Constantinople  or Alexandria. The utilization of Cyril's New Testament quotations seems to  indicate a shift in political perspective for Edessa and the willingness to  accept Cyril's leadership in Biblical matters implies a close cooperation  between Alexandria and Edessa. As the "champion of Orthodoxy" in the church, he  had the support of Rome and Edessa and the only person standing in his way of  becoming "Bishop among bishops" was Nestorius who was an Antiochene. But shortly  after the condemnation of Nestorius, Pope Celestine I died in 432 and Rabbula of  Edessa died in 435. Cyril's plans died with them.
There is an account of a monk whose name is Victor along with three other  monks who made an official complaint to Theodosius II regarding their treatment  at the hands of Cyril. Apparently, Nestorius received them and heard their  complaint against Cyril. This would naturally be an embarrassment to Cyril. This  volatile situation would be cause for confrontation. Cyril needed to look for an  opportunity against Nestorius in order to discredit him. The popularity of the  term theotokos in Ephesus as ascribed to Mary coupled to Nestorius' opposition  to the term for theological reasons was an ideal situation for Cyril. This was  his chance to gain political advantage over Nestorius on theological grounds and  at the same time divert attention from his own problems. (Schwartz)
The theological differences between Nestorius and Cyril are traditionally  resorted to when seeking a reason for the council of Ephesus. I would like to  give a brief explanation of the issues involved in the discussion.
Most of the discussion centered around the appropriate use of the term  theotokos ("she who bore God" or "Mother of God") for the mother of our Lord.  Nestorius felt this term to be unacceptable and chose to use Christotokos  ("Mother of Christ" or "Messiah bearer"), Anthropotokos ("Mother of man"), or  Theodokos ("God-receiving"). Theotokos first appears in written sources in a  letter written in 324 by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria to the homonymous Bishop  of Thessalonike but it seems to even go back to the time of Origen.
Socrates says that Origen wrote a long treatise in his Commentary on Romans  on the suitability of the term (theotokos) although the term can not be found in  the extant text. (Anastos 197)
Central to the discussion will be Nestorius' own view of the matter. For 1550  years Cyril's rendition of the matter has been touted as orthodox and Nestorius'  writings have been sought out to be burned. With the rediscovery of Nestorius'  Bazaar (Treatise) of Heracleides in the early part of this century the objective  observer can get both sides of the debate. The Bazaar represents an apology  written by Nestorius, most likely, right before the council of Chalcedon (451)  in order to redeem himself. Many complain that the document is long,  frustrating, wearisome and painful but when one sifts through all the tautology,  eliminates the contradictions, and reads the account within the context of a man  trying desperately to save his reputation it will slowly eat through the layers  of time which label him a heretic and vindicate his name. (Anastos 199)
The Treatise in the beginning denounces the Jews, the Manichaeans, the  Arians, the Sabellians, and Appollinarians. He explicitly condemns Paul of  Samosata. Thereafter, Nestorius goes on the explain the basis of his theological  system.
"He says each existing animal, object, thing or person including man has  their own substance or essence (usia) and from this essence is derived life or  existence. The usia, which is invisible, is what the object is in itself, in its  innermost being, apart from being perceived. Each usia...has a distinct nature,  (physis), i.e., the totality of qualities, features, attributes, and  peculiarities (both positive and negative) which give it its individual stamp or  character. every nature is founded upon its own usia; there is not nature  without an usia; and usia without a nature. Thus usia and nature are correlative  terms, each of which implies and requires the other. But neither the usia nor  the nature is fully present effective without a third equally indispensable  element, the prosopon. None of the three can be separated from the other two,  nor can the usia and the nature be recognized externally apart from the prosopon  which reveals them. No ordinary entity or individual being has more than one  each of these three components, nor does any one of the three have more than one  each of the other two." (Anastos 201, 202)
Nestorius stressed the Christological point that God the Word and the human  nature of Christ were never mixed. These two were "alien to one another."  (Anastos quoting Bazaar 202) In the same breathe, he further explained that  these two things, the manhood (usia) of Jesus and the usia of God, were joined  together in the prosopon (one prosopon of both natures). These concepts are  presented in the most explicit terms. Nestorius describes that the union of the  two natures are in the one prosopon of Jesus Christ, and denies that it should  be described as a union of prosopa. (Anastos 204) He maintains through out the  discussion a firm belief in the God-Man which is a union of the divine Logos and  the separate individual man Jesus from the moment of conception.
It is crucial that we understand the concept of prosopon as Nestorius  presented it. Prosopon was understood in two senses. The first sense is a more  general one. It may be called the external appearance of a thing which has  substantive reality and distinct qualities. Prosopon in this sense is another  aspect of physis or usia. The second sense which he understood prosopon was in  the same way we understand the word "person." When we think of a name we think  of a person. When we think of the name Jesus Christ or Joshua the Messiah  (Yeshua ha Meshiach) we think of a person. In ordinary usage we do not separate  a name from a person. After we have understood these two senses of the term  prosopon Nestorius introduces a unifying factor between God the Logos and that  person who the disciples saw. He uses a Latin term - communicatio idiomatum -  which simply means a transfer of attributes. So God the Logos (understood in the  first sense of divine nature) became the prosopon of Jesus Christ's human  nature. (Anastos 206)
The Scripture which was used by Nestorius to illustrate this transfer of  attributes was Philippians 2:9-11. This Scripture emphasizes the name of Jesus.  'Name' in Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic is 'shem', and 'onama' in Koine Greek. Now,  the Greek use of 'onama' does not conjure any special significance but the  Semitic term 'shem' denotes a mark, name, title, nature, and/or denomination.  (Jastrow 1590) So the Semitic understanding encapsulates both that which the  disciples saw and recognized as Jesus and the substantive reality of the  individual, recognizable in its distinct qualities, which remained undiminished  after the union of the divine Logos and the human Jesus.
Nestorius used the one term prosopon in two different senses to describe the  name of Jesus before which every knee will bow. He was quick to add that the  prosopon was singular thus avoiding the charge that he was adding a fourth  member of the Godhead.
The point which must be taken away from this discussion is that Nestorius was  not a heretic, as Cyril perceived or described him. Some historians and  commentators of the differences between Nestorius and Cyril assert the opinion  that they were simply arguing different sides of the same coin, but with all  that has been said about the differences, they shared common ground. They shared  a zeal for "orthodoxy" as has been noted earlier and sought to extend their  reaches into, sometimes, uninvited areas. Nestorius conceded the title theotokos  was innocuous if properly explained and with sufficient qualification. both  agreed to the Christology that Christ had two natures and that each nature had a  hypostasis and a prosopon. Cyril sought to emphasize the differences and call  the differences heresy.
I believe the major defect in Nestorius was his failure to deal wisely with  Cyril who was a political power monger. Cyril, as a theologian or politician,  has little to offer Christendom except the antithesis to a good and wise  politician or theologian.
    1. Gregory, Timothy E., Vox Populi: Popular Opinion and Violence in the  Religious Controversies of the 5th Century A.D., Ohio State University Press,  Columbus, Ohio, 1986.
    2. Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, A & C Black, London 5th Ed.  1977.
    3. Anastos, Milton V., Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. IX "Nestorius was  Orthodox," Ed. Everett Ferguson, 1993.


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