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After the due acknowledgement to St Cyril’s great predecessor, St Athanasius, I want to return to Cyril himself, and, as May is the month of Mary, to an examination of his role in the definition of the dogma that Our Lady is the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God. That involves a preliminary skirmish with Edward Gibbon whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, contains one of his most vicious pen portraits, which has set the tone for the way in which later writers have treated St Cyril. If history does not repeat itself, the same cannot be said of historians.

As an Enlightenment thinker, Edward Gibbon had little patience with religion, and even less interest in understanding it as a motive force in politics. Thus, when he came to examine St Cyril’s part in the Council of Ephesus, which defined the dogma that Our Lady is the ‘God-bearer’ or Theotokos, he brushed aside impatiently the immense weight of writings in which Cyril explained his case, and went straight for a motive he understood – power. In this he was a pioneer for a method many historians have used since. It is essentially reductionist. It begins with the view, clearly shared by the historian, that all this religion stuff is to do with power, and proceeding from that assumption, goes on to ‘prove’ it is so. Thus, writing about the background to Ephesus, Gibbon observes:

Cyril was at length awakened by the exaltation of a rival more worthy of his esteem and hatred. After the short and troubled reign of Sisinnius, bishop of Constantinople, the factions of the clergy and people were appeased by the choice of the emperor, who, on this occasion, consulted the voice of fame, and invited the merit of a stranger. Nestorius, native of Germanicia, and a monk of Antioch, was recommended by the austerity of his life, and the eloquence of his sermons …

Gibbon assumes the lowest of motives: ‘Religion was the pretence’, he explains, adding that: 

in the judgment of a contemporary saint, ambition was the genuine motive of episcopal warfare

The saint concerned was St. Isidore of Pelusium. If we read what the Blessed Saint (who was probably related to Cyril) wrote, we see how disingenuous Gibbon is. St. Isidore wrote:

Liking cannot see far ahead, while dislike cannot see clearly. So if you wish to remedy both of these sight problems, do not spout out such vehement statements, instead be more fair in your accusations. Even God All Knowing, before his birth, thought it best out of his love for man to come down and see the boisterousness of the Sodomites, teaching us a lesson in fully inquiring. Many of the people who have come to Ephesus (are) ridiculing you for acting out of personal enmity and not for the doctrine of Jesus Christ. “Here’s this nephew of Theophilus, they say, imitating his way of thinking. Like him, he falls into a rage against the God-loving John, inspired by God, and he desires ever so much to lecture, even though there is a great difference between the people (who are) deciding.”

Isidore, is referring to Cyril’s uncle and predecessor, Theophilus of Alexandria who had brought down St. John Chrysostom at the Synod of Oak. He is warning Cyril about how to behave and what people are saying about him; what he is not doing is attributing that motive to Cyril. Had a student of mine made such a mistake, he or she would have been awarded a ‘fail’. But it illustrates the way in which a polemicist differs from the genuine historian; the latter allows the sources to shape the narrative, the former shapes the sources around the agreed narrative. That so many later historians have accepted this without question tells us more about their biases than they should be comfortable with.

Gibbon’s account tells us more about him, and the limits of Enlightenment thought, than it does about Cyril and Ephesus. Gibbon, like many moderns, cannot understand why men thought the issues at stake were worth dying for; if we are to do so, we must investigate Cyril’s thought and the context in more depth. It is to that I shall turn tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

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