Cyril of Alexandria on posthumous anathemas

Letter 72 of Cyril of Alexandria, To Proclus, Bishop of Constantinople, is an interesting item.  The Greek is in PG77, column 344, and there is an English translation by John McEnerny in FOC77, p.72 f.  Nestorius has been deposed and exiled, and the hapless Proclus installed in his stead as bishop of Constantinople.  Cyril has won his civil war, and is now concerned to solidify his victory.

But throughout the East some were exceedingly vexed at this, not only of the laity but also of those assigned to the sacred ministry. … Yet by the grace of God either in pretense or in truth they speak and preach one Christ and anathematize the impious verbiage of Nestorius. In the meanwhile things there are in much tranquillity and they run toward what is steadfast in the faith day by day, even those who once were tottering.

But victory in civil war is always arrogant.  Some of Cyril’s supporters have arrived in Constantinople and asked the emperor to use his power to condemn the long-deceased scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia as well.

But his name in the East is great and his writings are admired exceedingly. As they say, all are bearing it hard that a distinguished man, one who died in communion with the churches, now is being anathematized.

Of course Nestorius was indeed following the ideas of Theodore, but Cyril is nothing if not a politician.  An exposition written by Theodore had been condemned at an Eastern synod; but the name of Theodore was not mentioned:

But while condemning those who think in this way, in prudence the synod did not mention the man, nor did it subject him to an anathema by name, through prudence, in order that some by paying heed to the opinion of the man might not cast themselves out of the churches.

The translation is somewhat awkward, or, more likely, Cyril’s prose is itself convoluted.  But what Cyril means here is that, if the synod had understood that Theodore was being condemned, they might have refused to go along with Cyril’s plans.  Cyril calls disagreement with himself “casting yourself out of the church.”  He adds:

Prudence in these matters is the best thing and a wise one.

Then to the matter:

(4) If he were still among the living and was a fellow-warrior with the blasphemies of Nestorius, or desired to agree with what he wrote, he would have suffered the anathema also in his own person. But since he has gone to God, it is enough, as I think, that what he wrote absurdly be rejected by those who hold the true doctrines, since by his books being around the chance to go further sometimes begets pretexts for disturbances.

The second sentence is hard to understand, so I took a look at the PG.

I couldn’t make anything of that either, unfortunately.  The parallel Latin is somewhat obscure also:

Quoniam vero ad Deum abiit, sufficit, ut ego puto, ea quae absurde ab ipso scripta sunt rejici ab iis qui recte sentiunt, cum iis, qui in ipsius libros incidunt, etiam ulterius progredi tumultuum occasiones nonnunquam pariat.

But since he has gone to God, it is sufficient, as I think, for the things which are absurdly written by him to be rejected by those who think rightly; to go still further with these things, which they meet with in his books, may sometimes create the occasions for disturbances.

Not sure about the Latin of the last bit – shout if you can see it better!

And in another way since the blasphemies of Nestorius have been anathematized and rejected, there have been rejected along with them those teachings of Theodore which have the closest connection to those of Nestorius. Therefore, if some of those in the East would do this unhesitatingly, and there was no disturbance expected from it, I would have said that grief at this makes no demands on them now and I would have told them in writing.

I have read this several times.  I think Cyril is saying that, if the Easterners were happy about rejecting Theodore, then nothing need be done about him; and that Cyril would be happy to say so in writing to them; a writing that could be held in evidence against him, in the putrid politics of the time.

(5) But if, as my lord, the most holy Bishop of Antioch, John, writes, they would choose rather to be burned in a fire than do any such thing, for what purpose do we rekindle the flame that has quieted down and stir up inopportunely the disturbances which have ceased lest perhaps somehow the last may be found to be worse than the first?

This seems to mean that he has heard from “the most holy John”, his political foe, that the Easterners are NOT happy about rejecting Theodore, and if they have to do so, may reject Cyril’s settlement entirely, and go back to supporting Nestorius.

And I say these things although violently objecting to the things which Theodore, already mentioned, has written and although suspecting the disturbances which will be on the part of some because of the action, lest somehow some may begin to grieve for the teachings of Nestorius as a contrivance in the fashion of that spoken of by the poet among the Greeks, “They mourned in semblance for Patroclus but each one mourned her own sorrows.”

He thinks the Easterners will rally around the name of Theodore, while meaning Nestorius.

(6) If, therefore, these words please your holiness, deign to indicate it, in order that it may be settled by a letter from both of us. It is possible even for those who ask these things to explain the prudence of the matter and persuade them to choose to be quiet rather and not to become an occasion of scandal to the churches.

So, he continues, please tell my partisans from me to shut up, stop rocking the boat, and let the Easterners get used to the idea of rejecting Nestorius.

It is obviously unfair to condemn a man who died in the peace of the church for saying things that were later turned into a big argument.  Cyril says something of the sort, but I’m not sure that this is the thrust of his argument  His appeal is instead to politics and prudence.  Principles are for free men, and the world that he lived in was not such a society.

On the other hand it’s easy to be unfair to Cyril.  He was effectively the political leader of Egypt, as his predecessor had been, and as his successors were to be.  His life was entirely a matter of politics.  Politics is the art of the possible.  Cyril did not think that condemning Theodore at this time was possible, even though he would have liked to.


Some thoughts about interpolation in patristic texts

The term “Theotokos” (“Mother of God”) becomes the subject of fierce controversy in the 5th century AD.  The dispute was perhaps more political than religious – Constantinople versus Alexandria – but was fought with great ferocity, and lavish bribery, and ended in the victory of Cyril of Alexandria and the exile of Nestorius and indeed a great number of others.  Failure to use the term for Mary was a sign of Nestorianism, which could be fatally bad for you.  The use of the term is still held with passion by  Eastern Orthodox even today.

Therefore, when searching the TLG for the earliest usages of this word, it was something of a surprise to find it in Greek patristic texts from 300 onwards.  It appears in Athanasius, but also before.  Of course there is no reason why the word might not be used, and it need not imply any of the doctrines associated with it in the 5th century.  But all the same it seems odd.

Could these usages be later interpolations?  How could we tell?

I am very much opposed to alleging interpolation as a way to dispose of inconvenient evidence.  In general the texts that have reached us from antiquity do so in a very reasonable state, as far as we can tell.  The main reason for this is, of course, the prosaic one.  Anybody who put himself to the considerable trouble of copying a literary text did so precisely because he wanted a copy of that text.

But once politics and bigotry appear, then the incentive to forgery appears.  Cyril of Alexandria himself refers, in letters 39 and 40, to tampering with a letter of Athanasius:

8.  But when some of those accustomed “to pervert what is right” turn my words aside into what seems best to them, let your holiness not wonder at this, knowing that those involved in every heresy collect from the divinely inspired Scripture as pretexts of their own deviation whatever was spoken truly through the Holy Spirit, corrupting it by their own evil ideas, and pouring unquenchable fire upon their very own heads. But since we have learned that some have published a corrupt text of the letter of our all-glorious father, Athanasius, to the blessed Epictetus, a letter which is itself orthodox, so that many are done harm from it, thinking that for this reason it would be something useful and necessary for our brothers, we have sent to your holiness copies of it made from the ancient copy which is with us and is genuine. – Letter 39 (FOC 76 translation), p.152


25. … For the most God-fearing Bishop of Emesa, Paul, came to me and then, after a discussion had been started concerning the true and blameless faith, questioned me rather earnestly if I approved the letter from our thrice-blessed father of famous memory, Athanasius, to Epictetus, the Bishop of Corinth. I said that, “if the document is preserved with you incorrupt,” for many things in it have been falsified by the enemies of the truth, I would approve it by all means and in every way. But he said in answer to this that he himself had the letter and that he wished to be fully assured from the copies with us and to learn whether their copies have been corrupted or not. And taking the ancient copies and comparing them with those which he brought, he found that the latter have been corrupted; and he begged that we make copies of the texts with us and send them to the Church of Antioch. And this has been done. – Letter 40 (FOC 76 translation), p.166-7.

Much later, at the Council of Florence, the Greeks and the Latins arguing over the filioque found examples on both sides of interpolation.

This is human nature.  Once a behaviour is incentivised, through advantage or fear, then it will appear.

We know something of “forced speech” in these days.  If you look at a job advertisement from most official or academic sources, each and every one will include some reference to “diversity”.  The word is pretty much meaningless of itself; but we all know that it is a code-word, indicating loyalty to a particular political agenda.  A job advertisement that did not contain it might be dangerous!  It might leave the clerks open to an accusation of failure to endorse this policy or that.  Far safer to murmur the code-words.

In the 5th century, failure to use “theotokos” might carry the same risks for any writer.  Once certain views are obligatory, and failure to conform is dangerous, then it becomes important to use the code-words.  “Theotokos” was most certainly a code-word.

A little while ago I was looking at the catena fragments which preserve bits of Origen.  These use the word “theotokos”, but I gather that scholars do not think this part of Origen’s text.  This is not unreasonable.  A catena is a literary work of itself, composed of chains of quotations from the fathers, adapted to form a continuous commentary on a passage of scripture.  I really do not see why a writer would not introduce “theotokos” when composing his catena.  It wouldn’t be wrong, or misrepresentation.  Rather it would be a case of adapting the older writer to contemporary needs.

Likewise a copyist of an integral work might add “theotokos” in the margin, as a note.  Because omissions were also written in the margins, this could easily be mistaken for a copyist omission, and become part of the text when next copied.

But all of this is speculation.  We need to ask whether there is any actual evidence that this did actually happen?  Did later copyists introduce “theotokos” into 4th century texts?  How can we tell?

One obvious way to assess this is to find copies of the patristic texts prior to 400 AD, and look.

This leads to the next question: do we have any copies of the writings of patristic writers like Athanasius prior to 400?  How could we find out?

I’m not sure that this is a very easy question to answer.  For Latin texts we have E.A.Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores.  But to the best of my knowledge this is safely offline and inaccessible.  And anyway we need Greek.  There might be papyri.  These might be safely dated; or not.  But how do we find out?  A critical edition of a specific work ought to tell us at least something.  Probably that’s the way to go.

But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had no 4th century manuscripts of 4th century fathers.  Surviving 4th century manuscripts are few.

So how can we detect any such process of interpolation of “code-words” into patristic texts?

At the moment, I suspect, all we can do is be cautious in this area.


16 page lost section of ancient “Julian Romance” text discovered in Vatican manuscript

A pair of researchers have discovered and published a lost ancient text in the Vatican library.  It’s the long-lost opening portion of a text usually dated to the early 6th century, and known as the “Julian Romance.” This is a novelisation of the reign of Julian the Apostate, who reigned ca. 362 AD, and his persecution of the church.  The work was composed in Syriac, but widely translated in antiquity into other nearby languages including Greek.

The publication is Marianna Mazzola & Peter Van Nuffelen, “The Julian Romance: A Full Text and a New Date”, in: Journal of Late Antiquity 16 (2023) pp.324-377. (Paywalled here; first page here).  This prints the Syriac text, with an English translation, and a thorough study.

Here’s the abstract:

The Syriac Julian Romance, a tripartite fictional account of the reign of the Emperor Julian, was hitherto only partially known from two manuscripts. This article publishes the missing first section from Vat. Sir. 37, a section that narrates the death of Constantius II. The complete text allows us to demonstrate that the narrative was composed by a single author and that the tripartite structure does not reflect three older, separate texts. Further, we identify the Miscellaneous Chronicle of 640 as the source for most of the historical information in the Romance. This implies a new date in the first half of the seventh century, which is supported by other chronological indications in the Romance.

The majority of the text of the Julian Romance was already known, and can be found in British Library Additional MS 14,641.  But this copy was obviously missing a large chunk at the start.  A small part of the beginning was later found in Paris BNF Syr. 378.  But there was still, obviously, a large amount missing.

Marianna Mazzola was one of the scholars:

I was checking the historiographical excerpts contained in Syriac doctrinal florilegia for a project I have been collaborating with at Ghent University and stumbled on this text mistakenly cataloged by J. Assemani as an excerpt from Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle on the Death of Constantius II.

I did not remember such a passage in Michael’s Chronicle so I started to translate it and realised that the style was not at all the plain, dry style of Syriac chroniclers. Gradually, I realised that it could be the Romance of Julian and finally when on the last page my text overlapped with that of MS Add. 14641, I no longer had any doubts.

The article is written with Peter van Nuffelen in which we also propose a new date on the basis of the new textual evidences. Looking forward to hear any remarks! We are aware this is a much debated text that has always sparkled much scholarly discussion.

In response to a query, she added:

I worked on the on-line manuscript. Sadly, it was still COVID time when I worked on it, and it was impossible to travel to the Vatican Library. Certainly further study of the manuscript would be an important addition.

The manuscript is indeed online, and may be found at the Vatican site here.  The article lists the contents of the manuscript.  The new text is on folio 168v-173r.  Here’s the opening:

ܐܝܟܙ ܐܟܠܡ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܪܒ ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܕ ܗܢܩܦܡ ܠܥܕ ܐܬܝܥܫܬ ܒܘܬ
.ܝܗ̈ܘܗܒܐ ܠܥ ܦܣܘܬܬܐܘ ܗܡܥ ܬܘܠ ܫܢܟܬܐܘ ܐܒܪ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܕ ܗܬ̈ܡܘܝ ܘܡܠܫ ܕܟ ܠܥܒ ܝܗܘܬܝܐܕ ܗܪܟܘܒ ܢܝܕ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ .ܝܗ̈ܘܢܒ ܐܬܠܬ ܗܪܬܒ ܢܡ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܘܕܚܐܘ ܐܬܘܝܘܐ ܐܕܚܒ ܢܘܗܬܢܝܒ ܐܘܗ ܬܝܐ ܐܡܠܫܘ .ܣܘܛܣܘܩܘ .ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܘ .ܗܡܫ ܬܝܡ ܆ܬܠ̈ܬ ܢܝ̈ܢܫ ܟܝܐ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܘܪܲܒܕ ܕܟܘ .ܢܘܗܬܘܢܪܒܕܡܒ ̇ܗܣܟܛܒ ܐܝܕܪܕ .ܐܬܢܝܫܡ ܣܘܛܣܘܩ ܒܘܬ ܕܟܘ .ܝܗ̈ܘܚܐ ܕܝܨ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ̇ܬܟܪܲܫܘ ܉ܐܫܝܫܩ ܢܘܗܘܚܐ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ̇ܗܠܟܒ ܪܚܬܫܐܘ .ܐܡܠܥ ܢܡ ܕܼܢܥ ܘܼ ܗ ܦܐ ܆ܢܝܬܪ̈ܬ ܢܝ̈ܢܫ ܐܬܘܟܠܡܒ ܕܼܒܥ ܛܠܲܬܫܐܘ ܐܝܡܘܪ̈ܕ ̇ܗܠܟ ܐܬܘܟܠܡܠ ܕܼܚܐܘ .ܢܘܗܘܚܐ ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܼ ܘܗ ܐܬܘܢܪܒܕܡܘ .ܐܝܢ̈ܘܝܕ ܐܢܝܢܡܒ ܥܒܪ̈ܐܘ ܢܝܫܡܚܘ ܐܐ̈ܡܬܫ ܬܢܫܒ .ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܝܗܘ̈ܕܝܐܒ ̇ܬܢܩܬܘ .ܢܘܗܝܠܥ

[168v] History of the death of Constantius, son of Constantine the victorious king.

(1) When the days of Constantine the Great ended, he was gathered to his people and joined his fathers, and his three sons reigned after him: Constantine, his first-born who was named after him, Constantius, and Constans, and there was peace with one pacific consent between them, current in their government. After they had ruled for around three years, Constantine the oldest brother died, and the rule remained with his brothers. After Constans had reigned for two years, he also died, and Constantius, their brother, was left [in control of] the entire realm and the governance. He took the entire realm of the Romans and ruled over them. The realm was established under his control in the year 654 of the era of the Greeks…. (etc)

The new material is 16 pages in translation, so not a small discovery.  It renders obsolete much of the existing scholarship.  The authors discuss the date of the Julian Romance.  They make clear a word-for-word connection with the Miscellaneous Chronicle of 640, which therefore kicks the date of composition back from the early 6th century well into the 7th, and locates events around the reign of Heraclius.

It’s a fine article, and a wonderful discovery for 2023.  It goes to show that there is still stuff out there!  Never assume that even a well-studied and major collection has any idea about what is on their shelves.  The age of discovery is not over.  It just requires effort, and a bit of luck.

The discovery also shows the huge value of digitisation of manuscripts.  The Vatican have the best programme for mass digitisation known to me.  But isn’t it time that some other major manuscript libraries did the same?


From my diary

My apologies for the silence.  Unfortunately I caught Covid at the start of the month, and I have been out of action ever since.  The symptoms are no worse than a cold, but I’m still testing positive even now.  I gather that rushing back to work afterwards is one of the primary causes of Long Covid, which I am not anxious to acquire.  So I shall come back slowly!  Be careful out there.