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An Introduction to Cyril the Exegete

November 4, 2009

Because of his prominent role in the Christological controversies of the fifth century, Cyril’s exegetical labors have largely been forgotten by modern historians. Nevertheless, his exegetical works comprise the bulk of his literary output. In the Patrologia Graeca, the most accessible, though probably not the best quality edition of Cyril’s works, his exegetical writings comprise seven massive volumes, while his other works take up only three. Included in this corpus of exegetical writings are two treatises on the Pentateuch titled On Adoration in Spirit and Truth and Elegant Comments. Cyril also authored commentaries on Old Testament books including Psalms, Numbers, Kings, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Job, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezekiel, and Daniel, though all of these writings only survive in scattered fragments. The two Old Testament commentaries that have survived largely intact are the Commentary on Isaiah and the Commentary on the Twelve Prophets. Among Cyril’s New Testament writings are commentaries on Matthew (although fragmentary), Luke (surviving primarily in Syriac), and John, along with fragments of his commentaries on Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Hebrews as well. Very little of his exegetical writings are available in any modern language translation, though some headway on this front is slowly being made.[1] Nevertheless, much work remains to be done. Before looking at several specific passages from Cyril’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, it will be helpful to cover a few preliminary issues related to that specific work.[2]

The Commentary on John: Preliminary Issues

While it is impossible to pinpoint an exact date for the writing of the John commentary, it likely was written between 425-428.[3] Although it was written prior to the outbreak of the Nestorian controversy, it nevertheless presents the same theology that came to the fore in the Christological debates.[4] Cyril’s main concern was to maintain the Alexandrian tradition of Christological orthodoxy by asserting the incarnation of the Son of God and the resulting unity of the God-man Jesus Christ. The union between the two natures of Christ was not merely incidental or merely a moral union, but consisted of a hypostatic union such that the two natures always acted in concert with one another (communicatio idiomatum). This presupposition explains why Cyril insisted so strongly that Mary was not merely the bearer of Christ as Nestorius held, but was actually the bearer of God. For Cyril, the union of the two natures was important not only for Christological reasons, but was also essential for proper soteriology. Because Christ was truly God and man he is able to serve as the second Adam and so be the head of the new race of recreated and Spirit-endowed persons.[5]

J. David Cassel has identified three principles or presuppositions that guided Cyril’s exegetical work. The first is that “the Bible should be viewed as a single, unified book.”[6] This theological conclusion allowed Cyril to interpret difficult passages in Scripture by using texts drawn from across the canon. In other words, Scriptura Scripturae interpres (“Scripture is the interpreter of Scripture”). The second principle is “in order to understand any biblical text, the interpreter must understand both the literary conventions and the various words and references employed within the text.”[7] Following this principle, Cyril made use of the tools he learned in from the ancient grammarians such as etymological and historical analysis. The third principle is “common sense and grammatical rules limit the use of allegory.”[8] This is not to say that Cyril did not employ allegorical or figurative readings, but his allegorical readings do not have the same apparent arbitrariness that characterized earlier Alexandrian exegesis.[9]

[1]See Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Isaiah, vol. 1, Chapters 1-14, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2008); Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, 2 vols., trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007-2008). The third volume of Cyril’s Minor Prophets commentary is scheduled to be released soon. With the recent passing of Robert Hill it is uncertain whether more English translations of Cyril’s works will be made available in the near future. The Luke translation is available in an older English translation: A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke by Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, 2 vols., trans. R. Payne-Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859; reprint by Studion Publishers, 1983).


[2]Pusey translated the first volume of the John (Commentary on the Gospel According to S. John, vol. 1, S. John 1-8, trans. Philip Pusey, Library of the Fathers of the Church 43 (London: James Parker, 1874). His translation was criticized so severely by other scholars that he gave up his plan to translate the second volume (so Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 244). Several years later T. Randell picked it the project and finished it: Commentary on the Gospel According to S. John, vol. 2, S. John 9-21, trans. T. Randell, Library of the Fathers of the Church 48 (London: Walter Smith, 1885). Pusey’s translation is indeed archaic and so wooden at times that it can be nearly impenetrable. Russell has also translated select passages from the commentary and included it in Cyril of Alexandria, 96-129.

[3]G. Jouassard, “L’activité littéraire de saint Cyrille d’Alexandrie jusqu’a 428,” in Mélanges E. Podechard, ed. E. Podechard, 159-74 (Lyons: Facultés Catholiques, 1945). In his recent work, Russell accepts a date between 425-428 (Cyril of Alexandria, 96). However, in the recent monograph of Farag, a date of around 406 is posited (St. Cyril of Alexandria, 68). This date would make the commentary on John Cyril’s first commentary.

[4]This point is argued by Lars Koen, The Saving Passion: Incarnational and Soteriological Thought in Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Studia Doctrinae Christianae Upsaliensia 31 (Stockholm: Uppsala, 1991), 22.

[5]The Pauline theme of the second Adam was the controlling motif in Cyril’s Christology and soteriology. Wilken says about this theme, “I know of no patristic commentator whose entire exegetical enterprise is controlled by a single biblical image as is Cyril” (Robert Louis Wilken, “Cyril of Alexandria,” in Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity [Boston: Brill, 2006], 856). For studies on this point see Robert L. Wilken, Judaism and the Early Christian Mind: A Study of Cyril of Alexandria’s Exegesis and Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971) and Daniel Keating, “The Baptism of Jesus in Cyril of Alexandria: The Re-creation of the Human Race,” Pro Ecclesia 8 (1999): 201-22.

[6]J. David Cassel, “Key Principles in Cyril of Alexandria’s Exegesis,” in Studia Patristica, vol. 37, ed. Maurice F. Wiles, Edwards Yarnold, and P. M. Parvis, 413-20 (Louvain: Peeters, 2001), 413. The two important words for this principle are skopos and telos. The former referred to the way a book progress to its intended goal and the latter referred to the goal toward which the book progressed.

[7]Ibid., 415.

[8]Ibid., 418.

[9]Also important is the fact that Cyril did not believe that every single text had a spiritual reading, unlike others in the Alexandrian tradition. This provided a positive restraint on his exegetical labors compared with other Alexandrians (Bertrand Margerie, An Introduction to the History of Exegesis, vol. 2, The Greek Fathers, trans. Leonard Maluf [Petersham, MA: Saint Bede’s Publications, 1993], 244).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 3:06 am

    OMG David!This man is being insulted and rediculid about a book that hasn’t even come out yet! I am sickened yet again by Christians. I admire this mans honesty and plan to read his books. What is wrong with people that because we don’t agree with somebody we treat them with contempt and hate. And us Christians are the worst for it. I am grieving for this mans position and partly for myself. He stands in a narrow gap which the church would like to see him crushed between. This viral reaction will get him some press and hopefully the book will get into the hands of people who need it! God bless him. He’s a brave man.


  1. An Introduction to Cyril’s Exegetical Works « By The River Wear

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