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Cyril of Alexandria’s Exegesis of the Woman at the Well

December 8, 2009

The Woman at the Well In his exegesis of the woman at the well, Cyril adds a few remarks that reveal his understanding of the nature of Scripture. He admires John’s skills as an author, stating that he “excellently . . . manage[s] the compilation of this book, and omits nothing which he believes will at all be of use to the readers.”[1] In light of this statement, it would surely be incorrect simply to state baldly that Cyril has no concern for authorial intent, a charge often levied against premodern interpreters.[2] He believes himself to be following the flow of John’s argument in the book. Cyril so carefully pays attention to John’s book that he sometimes finds much meaning in what some interpreters would identify as incidental features of the text. He writes, “I do not think that any thing has been put in vain in the writings of the saints, but what any man deems small, he sometimes finds pregnant with no contemptible profit.”[3] His conviction that each word of the gospel is pregnant with meaning guides his exegesis, as will be demonstrated shortly.

Cyril used the principle that Scripture interpreted Scripture not only to bring clarity to individual difficult texts, but also to explain apparent contradictions in texts as well. For example, in his treatment of the woman at the well, he asks why Jesus here speaks truth to a Samaritan woman while in Matthew’s gospel he initially refuses to grant healing to the daughter of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:26). The reason, according to Cyril, that Jesus responded to the Canaanite woman in this manner was because the Jews had not yet “wholly spurned the grace.” According to the text of John, Jesus had to go through Samaria, and “as fire will never cease from its inherent natural operation of burning,” so it is impossible that “the Wisdom of all should not work what befits wisdom” by teaching the woman at the well.[4] The problem of reconciling these two texts only occurs to Cyril because of his assumption that the Bible has a single divine author. Moreover, in answering it he both pays close attention to the text of the gospel itself, as well as relying upon his understanding of the mission of Christ (grace was only poured out on the Gentiles after the Jews rejected Jesus) and upon his understanding of the nature of Christ (since he is wisdom itself he cannot but pass on wisdom to those he meets).

An example of Cyril’s concern for Christology also reveals his attention to the minutiae of the text. Reaching John 4:22 in the commentary (“ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews”), he picks up on the use of the first person plural pronoun in the text and uses it to launch into a discussion of the nature of Christ over the course of several pages. The crux of the problem is, if Christ is indeed God, how can he be said to be among those who worship God? This text had a prior history, since Eunomians (i.e., Neo-Arians) had used it to argue for the inferiority of the Son to the Father (see Cyril’s De Trinitate). In order to solve this dilemma, he resorts to a text that he often quotes in his Christological discussions. Philippians 2:5-11 functions as a summary of Cyril’s theology of the incarnation, and he uses this text to explain other apparently difficult texts such as this one. Once again is evident the principle of Scriptura Scripturae interpres in Cyril’s exegesis. Using Philippians 2 as an explanatory key, Cyril concludes that Christ did not worship the Father prior to the incarnation as the “bare Word,” but because of the “dispensation [i.e., “economy”] of the Flesh,” he is classed among human worshippers “by reason of his manhood.”[5]

Finally, a moral emphasis is also apparent in Cyril’s exegesis of the Samaritan woman. He presents Christ’s dealing with the woman as a “type” for future teachers of the church to follow.[6] Those who teach should show Jesus to “new-born disciples” by giving them the word of teaching and gradually bringing them up from “slight instruction” to “the more perfect knowledge of the faith.”[7] Furthermore, because Christ took time to speak with a woman, so also church leaders should not “shun conversation” with women.[8] As the leader of the Egyptian church, Cyril’s apparent concern is to train up future teachers who can rightly instruct both new and old converts. Therefore, he places intense theological discussion side-by-side in his commentary with moral exhortation.[9]

[1]Cyril, Commentary on John, trans. Pusey, vol. 1, 224.

[2]See, for example, the dismissive remark made by Stephen Neill: “much in the patristic commentaries is quaint, unscientific, even absurd” (Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988], 98).

[3]Cyril, Commentary on John, vol. 1, 224.

[4]Ibid., 202-03.

[5]Ibid., 213-18.

[6]Ibid., 225.

[7]Ibid., 220.

[8]Ibid., 221.

[9]See J. David Cassel, “Cyril of Alexandria as Educator,” in In Dominico Eloquio – In Lordly Eloquence: Essays on Patristic Exegesis in Honor of Robert Louis Wilken, ed. Paul M. Blowers et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 348-68 who argues based on Cyril’s Isaiah commentary that he was responsible for training a large number of undereducated clerics. Farag, however, disagrees, stating that if this was the intention of the commentaries, they should have been written in the form of scholia (St. Cyril of Alexandria, 157).


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