"Truth makes herself plain to see for those who love her, but hides herself, and tries to hide from the thoughts of intriguing men. They do not show themselves worthy to behold her with clear eyes."
- St. Cyril of Alexandria (Letter 46, 'The Fathers of the Church')
St Cyril the Great was patriarch of Alexandria from 412 to 444, succeeding his uncle St Theophilus. St Cyril is one of the greatest saints of the church, yet at the same time is relatively unknown to many within the Orthodox church. This may have a great deal to do with the fact that his opponents were many, generally Nestorian, and their accusations against him seem to be more popular than his writings and works. He was declared "a heretic, labelling him as a "monster, born and educated for the destruction of the church." and behaving like a "proud pharaoh" by his Nestorian opponents. ( Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 47) However, there is little evidence to support these accusations and insults. In fact, St Cyril was good friends with John of Antioch, who was Nestorian and even attempted to depose St Cyril, and St Cyril never acted proud but attempted, and succeeded in, reconciling himself with John. This was a common theme throughout his letters to his opposition to which he spoke lovingly and made every attempt at reaching an agreement and avoiding schism. In fact, the schism was only avoided because of St Cyril, of course it did not last long. Not long after his death there was a complete breakdown between Alexandria and her supporters and the East along with Rome.
There are some more contemporary works that demonize St Cyril as a tyrant ruler who was personally responsible for the death of the philosopher Hypatia. The 2010 movie Agora seems to take all its history from sources opposed to St Cyril and the Church of Alexandria, relying heavily on pseudo history to drive home the point that Christians are ignorant and opposed to scientific advancement, while Hypatia, on the other hand, was an innocent peace maker just trying to make sense of the world. However, nothing could be further from the truth. There are two sources which detail the death of Hypatia, and neither implicate St Cyril in any way shape or form. The earliest source is Socrates Scholasticus, the other is John of Nikiu who wrote the account in the 7th century. Socrates account reads as follows:
Socrates Scholasticus (born after 380 AD, died after 439 AD)
"Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them."
Nowhere in Socrates account do we see St Cyril as being accused of the death of Hypatia. This is telling because Socrates was a Novatian, whom St Cyril was vehemently opposed, and even he writes nothing about St Cyril being guilty. Also absent is the alleged sermon in which St Cyril accuses Hypatia of being a "witch", apparently this roused the Christians into a frenzy against Hypatia. Also, the people of Alexandria would have been utterly confused by this accusation. If by witch it is meant some sort of pagan priestess, well, that would not have been surprising in the slightest as paganism existed in Alexandria and Hypatia was herself pagan. This is clearly an attempt to connect St Cyril to the salem witch trials in the mind of the reader, or viewer in the case of the movie Agora, thereby further demonizing St Cyril and the Church. However, there is not one shred of evidence of this ever happening and if there were, Socrates would certainly have taken the opportunity to record this against his opponent St Cyril.
Why is St Cyril seemingly so hated?
This is a question I often wonder but am not sure that I can sufficiently answer. With the rise of Nestorianism out of the school of Antioch St Cyril was the man called by God to defend the truth. In defending the nature of Christ as well as the term "Theotokos" at the 3rd council, he was imprisoned, deposed, denounced as a heretic, and yet he still overcame, was released from prison, reinstated and was cleared of all heresy.
The Nestorian Controversy
Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine put forth by Nestorious, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428-431. This doctrine was developed under Theodore of Mopsuestia at the school of Antioch. Nestorianism emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine nature of Christ where as St Cyril emphasized the unity of divinity and humanity in one nature after the union. This Christology stems back to St Athanasius of Alexandria who defended the nature of Christ in the first ecumenical council against the Arians. The school of Antioch developed their Christology over time which runs counter to that of Alexandria. It is a confusing issue that led to a schism after St Cyril's death in which Leo of Rome asserted that it was unlawful to speak of one nature after the union and his famous "Tome of Leo" was actually praised by Nestorious as being a "vindication of the truth" (Bazaar of Heraclides, Nestorious).
Needless to say, St Cyril prevailed at the 3rd Council, despite having to make some concessions to those who still held Nestorian views. It was after his death that the "two natures" was insisted upon in the council at chalcedon, and was subsequently rejected by Alexandria. St Cyril's successor, St Dioscorous, was deposed and pronounced a heretic, for holding to views that were accepted by the entire church at the 3rd council. This seems to me to have been a power play on the part of Leo of Rome. Leo supported Theodoret, a confirmed Nestorian, and was even able to muscle him into the council at Chalcedon even though Theodoret had not recanted his Nestorian views. Leo's Tome asserts that the two natures of Christ acted apart from one another, which is a clear Nestorian Christology and then condemned speaking of one nature of Christ after the union, which is the Cyrilline Christological formula. We are in accord with the Tome in refuting Eutychianism and in confirming that Christ's manhood was real, Christ entered the mundane plane of existence and that the unity of Godhead and manhood had been realized without change... but the Tome consists of three statements, those which some of the Fathers of Chalcedon themselves rejected for their Nestorian attitude. (Terms: "Physis & Hypostasis in the Early Church", p. 30-1) We do not recognize this Council because it ignored all the traditional formulas of the Church, which confirm the oneness of the Person of Christ, as a true unity, such as: "one nature of two natures" and "one nature of the Incarnate Word of God."
This is why St Cyril is a difficulty for Rome and for the Eastern Orthodox because while they accept him, his formula agreed upon universally in the 3rd council, they also contradict this in the 4th and subsequent councils in adhering to the Tome of Leo and the "two natures after the union". Often times the opponents of St Cyril are cited to discredit him and get over this contradiction they (Rome and Eastern Orthodox) have created for themselves. The fact is this Christology was born out of the school of Antioch starting, most likely, with Diodore and undoubtedly continuing with Theodore of Mopsuestia, the teaching of both were condemned post humously.
*The term "monophysite" was not used during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, but was used later in a specific way and in a polemic spirit on behalf of the Chalcedonian Churches.
Claims of anti-Semitism
Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, found themselves in a bitter feud in which Hypatia would come to be one of the main points of contention. The feud, which took place in 415 AD, began over the matter of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria. Since these exhibitions attracted large crowds and were commonly prone to civil disorder of varying degrees, Orestes published an edict which outlined new regulations for such gatherings and posted it in the city's theater, which was common in that time period. Soon after, crowds gathered to read the edict, angry over the new regulations that had been imposed upon them. At one such gathering, Hierax, a Christian and devout follower of Cyril, read the edict and applauded the new regulations, which many people felt was an attempt to incite the crowd into sedition. In what Scholasticus suspected as Orestes's "...jealousy [of] the growing power of the bishops...[which] encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities...", Orestes immediately ordered Hierax to be seized and publicly tortured in the theater.
Upon hearing of this, Cyril threatened the Jews of Alexandria with "the utmost severities" if harassment of Christians was not ceased at once. In response, the Jews of Alexandria grew only more furious over Cyril's threat, and in their anger they eventually resorted to violence against the Christians. They plotted to flush the Christians out at night by running through the streets, claiming that the Church of Alexander was on fire. When the Christians responded to what they were led to believe was the burning down of their church, "the Jews immediately fell upon and slew them", using rings to recognize one another in the dark, while killing everyone else in sight. When the morning came, the Jews of Alexandria could not hide their guilt, and Cyril, along with many of his followers, took to the city’s synagogues in search of the perpetrators of the night's massacre.
After Cyril found all of the Jews in Alexandria, he ordered them to be stripped of all their possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed the remaining citizens to pillage the goods they left behind. With Cyril's banishment of the Jews, "Orestes was filled with great indignation at these transactions, and was excessively grieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population...". Because of this, the feud between Cyril and Orestes only grew stronger, and both men wrote to the emperor regarding the situation. Eventually, Cyril attempted to reach out to Orestes through several peace overtures, including attempted mediation and, when that failed, showed him the Gospels. Nevertheless, Orestes remained unmoved by such gestures.
St. Cyril did not seek out the jews simply because they were jewish, it was because they were a constant thorn in the side of the Christians in Alexandria for years. Constantly inciting violence against them, manipulating the pagans and even the prefect Orestes against them. St Cyril removed them from Egypt for this reason, not simply because he "hated jews" but because they were trouble makers.
St Cyril's Legacy
Apostolic succession is something very important to all of the Orthodox churches, in that through it we establish ourselves as being apostolic, or rooted in Christ through His apostles. Likewise we must also apply this to St Cyril himself who was the nephew of St. Theophilus who was taught directly by St. Athanasius who is highly regarded in all Orthodox Churches and the Roman Church for his defense of the nature of Christ at the first ecumenical council. St. Cyril's theology is without question rooted in the Christology of St Athanasius and scripture itself. All of them coming from what is called the school of Alexandria. The school of Antioch is in no way rooted in the Christology of St Athanasius, rather, it is rooted in Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia. This is important in understanding the Nestorian controversy as well as the proper formula for the nature of Christ. St Cyril comes from the same school and therefore his word carries weight. This fact is not contested by Eastern Orthodox or Rome, however, as stated above, that creates a unique problem in reconciling his formula with their Antiochene formula.
St Cyril wrote many works defining the nature of Christ and defending the term Theotokos as applied to St. Mary the Mother of God. All too often stances are taken and lines are drawn without proper attention being paid to the writings of St Cyril. I believe a comprehensive study of his works will lead to healing this terrible schism created so many years ago.