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An Introduction to Cyril of Alexandria: His Life

October 30, 2009

Since I’m going to be reading a lot about Cyril of Alexandria in the coming years, that probably means that a lot of my posts will be of related content. I hope you don’t mind! For many people Cyril is one of the lesser-known fathers, so I thought it might be helpful to give a brief introduction to his life and his work.

Cyril stood as the heir of a rich exegetical and theological tradition in northern Africa stretching back as much as two centuries. Born in Egypt, little is known about his family background or his childhood.[1] His mother and his uncle Theophilus had come to Alexandria when they were orphaned, and in that city they came under the influence and care of Athanasius. In 385 when the office of archbishop became open, Theophilus, who had been rising through the ranks of church offices, assumed the role. At the time Cyril was about seven years old, and his uncle took him with him to the city of Alexandria from the small town where he was living with his mother. In Alexandria he would have received a first class education, possibly being trained in exegesis from Didymus the Blind, an Origenian biblical exegete who held an official church office in the city at that time.[2] As a student in Alexandria, Cyril would have learned reading, writing, and arithmetic in primary school and then gone on to a grammatikos under whom he would have read much of classical literature.[3] The next step of his education consisted of studying with a rhetor who would have refined his linguistic abilities. He also spent five years among the monks in the desert, experiencing the asceticism and spirituality of the desert fathers.[4] This classical and Christian education prepared Cyril for a lifetime spent in service to the church.

In 403 Cyril attended the Synod of the Oak with his uncle Theophilus at which John Chrysostom, a leader in the so-called Antiochene exegetical tradition, was deposed. During this same year he was ordained as lector in the church and possibly also served as secretary to his uncle. Finally, in 412, when Theophilus died, Cyril ascended the throne of the archbishop in Alexandria, though this event was not without controversy. The secular authorities threw their support behind the archdeacon Timothy as new archbishop because they feared that Cyril might continue the harsh policies of his uncle.[5] Despite the fact that the candidacy of Timothy was bolstered by military power, Cyril’s supporters succeeding in having him installed as archbishop as successor to his uncle.

Conflicts marked Cyril’s early years as archbishop, and it is for these events that he is denounced by historians in the modern era. While avoiding some of the more blatant opportunism of his uncle, he was nevertheless unafraid to “manipulate ecclesiastical politics to his advantage.”[6] An example of his administrative style is recorded by the church historian Socrates.[7] According to this ancient source, one night the Jews of the city called out that a church was on fire, and when the Christians running into the streets in order to put out the fire, the Jews fell upon them and killed several of them. The next morning Cyril led a large crowd through the Jewish section of the city, driving them from their homes and seizing their property. However, this event was not merely a matter between the Jews and the Christians. The larger issue standing behind it was the relationship between Cyril and Orestes, the city prefect, both of whom were Christians. The latter would have been infuriated at Cyril’s actions because they were outside the bounds of the law, and because the Jews were a central part of the city’s economy.[8]

The next significant event of Cyril’s ecclesiastical career was the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople who had been taught by Theodore of Mopsuestia, began preaching that Mary was not the “bearer of God” (theotokos), but instead the “bearer of Christ” (Christotokos). Lying behind this assertion was his theological conviction that, although Jesus was one person, the divine and the human within him existed side by side and were perhaps separable in that the divine or the human might be acting alone at any given moment. Cyril opposed this view because he believed that the Christological union it presupposed was insufficient, and that therefore the entire salvific work of Christ was called into question.[9] At the Council of Ephesus in 431, over which Cyril presided, Nestorius’ teaching was condemned as heretical and Cyril’s Christology won the day. Cyril’s theology of the hypostatic union and the communicatio idiomatum set the agenda for the theological discussions that continued in the ensuing councils. As an heir of the Athanasian tradition he ensured that single-subject Christology would continue to be regarded as orthodox.[10]

After the dust had settled at Ephesus, Cyril returned to his role in Alexandria, continuing to write and attend to the affairs of the church. About 438 he received word that the Christology of Nestorius was again being promulgated, based upon the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, two members of the so-called Antiochene school. In response he authored Against Diodore and Theodore in which he argued that a merely historicist reading of the Bible compromised the doctrine of the deity of Christ. According to John McGuckin, Cyril’s attack on these biblical exegetes effectively “marginalized the Syrian biblical style” and instead established the Alexandrian tradition as the more dominant trend for future generations.[11] Cyril’s conflict with Theodore and Diodore reveal that the difference between the Alexandrian and Antiochene traditions was both theological and exegetical.[12] Theology and exegesis were intertwined. These Christological controversies were not resolved until after Cyril’s death in 444.

[1]This overview of Cyril’s life is largely taken from Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 3-11.


[2]Cyril writes, “from an early age we have studied the holy scriptures and have been nurtured at the hands of holy and orthodox fathers” (quoted in Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 5). I was unable to get a copy of the original source in which the quote occurs.

[3]For a brief survey of the classical sources referred to by Cyril in his writings, see C. Datema, “Classical Quotations in the Works of Cyril of Alexandria,” in Studia Patristica, vol. 17, part 1, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 422-25 (Leuven: Peeters, 1993).

[4]Lois M. Farag, St. Cyril of Alexandria, A New Testament Exegete: His Commentary on the Gospel of John (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007), 3.

[5]Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 6. Russell states that Theophilus was known as the “Egyptian Pharaoh.”


[7]Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, 7.13, trans. A. C. Zenos, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 2, Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 159.

[8]Another often mentioned event under Cyril’s rule is the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by a Christian mob in 415. Socrates hinted at Cyril’s involvement in the affair when he wrote “This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church” (Ecclesiastical History 7.15 [trans. A. C. Zenos, 160]). For a more positive reading of Cyril, see John A. McGuckin’s recent essay in which he concludes that Cyril, far from demonstrating megalomaniacal tendencies in the same tradition as his uncle, instead was a successful pastoral strategist in his leading of the Egyptian church (“Cyril of Alexandria: Bishop and Pastor,” in The Theology of Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation, ed. Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating [New York: T&T Clark, 2003], 205-236).

[9]Russell summarizes the controversy thus: “The issue was therefore ultimately about the nature of salvation. The clash arose from the fact that Cyril and Nestorius approached it from different starting-points, Cyril, working with a ‘katagogic’ model, asking how does the Word become human without ceasing to be divine, Nestorius, working with an ‘anagogic’ model, asking how is this man Jesus Christ divine without compromising his humanity” (Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 40).

[10]Ibid., 41.

[11]John A. McGuckin, “Cyril of Alexandria,” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald K. McKim (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 340.

[12]Note, however, the article by Rowan A. Greer in which he argues that the debate between Nestorius and Cyril was strictly over theology, not exegetical methodology. He holds that both Nestorius and Cyril were using Scripture in the same manner throughout the controversy (“The Use of Scripture in the Nestorian Controversy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20 [1967]: 413-21).


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