1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cyril (bishop of Alexandria)
CYRIL (376–444), bishop of Alexandria, a more distinguished father of the church than his namesake of Jerusalem, was born in 376, and died in 444. Becoming patriarch of Alexandria about 412, he soon made himself known by the violence of his zeal against Jews, pagans and heretics or supposed heretics alike. He had hardly entered upon his office when he closed all the churches of the Novatians and seized their ecclesiastical effects. He assailed the Jewish synagogues with an armed force, drove the Jews in thousands from the city, and exposed their houses and property to pillage. The prefect of Egypt, Orestes, who endeavoured to withstand his furious zeal, was in turn denounced himself, and had difficulty in maintaining his ground against the fury of the Christian multitude. It was during one of the violent commotions kindled by the strifes of these parties in Alexandria that the illustrious Hypatia, famed for her beauty and her eloquent advocacy of the Neo-Platonic philosophy in opposition to Christianity, was murdered. Her murder has been attributed to the direct instigation of the patriarch himself; but this charge is held to be baseless by others, although there can be no doubt that “the perpetrators were officers of his church,” and undoubtedly drew encouragement from his own violent proceedings. Hypatia was a friend of Orestes, and the hostility that existed betwixt the prefect and the patriarch overflowed towards her, and undoubtedly led to her destruction.
But Cyril’s violence was not merely confined to those who might be considered enemies of the church. He inherited from Theophilus, his uncle and predecessor in the see of Alexandria, a strong aversion to John Chrysostom, the noble bishop of Constantinople, and even after his death opposed for a time all attempts to remove the unjust sentence of condemnation which had been passed upon him. Afterwards he so far yielded to remonstrances as to allow the name of Chrysostom to appear in the list of distinguished martyrs and bishops mentioned in the prayers of his church. These names were inserted in what were called “diptychs” (δίπτυχα νεκρῶν), or two-leaved tablets preserved in the churches—a usage which the Greek Church has continued to this day.
Cyril thus represents—though he differs largely from his predecessors—the tendencies dominant at Alexandria in the 5th century, and their antagonism to the Antiochene school. The story of his opposition to Nestorius at the council of Ephesus in 431 is told elsewhere (see Nestorius). He himself incurred the charge of heresy from the oriental bishops. Satisfied, however, with the deprivation and exile of his opponent, he returned to Alexandria in triumph as the great champion of the faith, and thence continued, by the “unscrupulous use of all the means at his command,” the theological strife for years. He was a bitter opponent of the great Antiochene expositor and apologist Theodoret.
Altogether Cyril presents a character not only unamiable, but singularly deficient in the graces of the Christian life. His style of writing is as objectionable as his character and spirit. Yet he takes high rank as a dogmatic theologian, and those who seek precise and rigid definitions of orthodox belief conjoined with tenacity of conviction find him indispensable. In addition to his Twelve Anathematisms and the defence of the same, he wrote five other books against Nestorius, Thesaurus—a treatise in dialogue form on the Trinity, a book On the Right Way and another On the Incarnation. In other fields—mystical, exegetical and apologetical—he was equally prolific and forceful. He wrote a tract “On worshipping in spirit and in truth” to defend a spiritual interpretation of the Mosaic law, several commentaries, festival-orations, and a reply to the emperor Julian’s attack on the church. His letters are valuable sources to the student of the Nestorian controversy.
Literature.—The collected edition of J. Aubert (Paris, 1638) formed the basis of Migne’s reprint in vols. 68–77 of the Patr. Graec. Many of the writings have been edited separately (see bibliography in Herzog-Hauck). For an account of his career and position in the history of dogma, see A. Harnack, vols. iii. and iv. passim; O. Bardenhewer’s Patrologie (Freiburg, 1894), pp. 335-343; R. L. Ottley’s Doctrine of the Incarnation, ii. 80 ff.; A. Largent’s Études d’hist. ecclés.; St Cyrille d’Alexandrie et le concile d’Éphèse (Paris, 1892). See also Charles Kingsley’s romance Hypatia.