Dioscorus I

DIOSCORUS I

The saint and twenty-fifth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (444-458). He succeeded Saint CYRIL THE GREAT and must be regarded as one of the chief architects of Coptic Christianity and the Egyptian church. Little is known about his early life beyond the supposition that he was a native of Alexandria, born in that city possibly at the close of the fourth century or the dawn of the fifth. Owing to his devotion to the faith and to his sterling character in the defense of his high principles, he was chosen by Cyril I to be his close companion in his religious meetings. Cyril made him an archdeacon.

Apparently, Cyril became Dioscorus’ chief mentor, and together they attended the famous ecumenical Council of Ephesus I of 431 where Cyril’s Christological formulas were accepted as the orthodox definition of the nature of Jesus Christ. And here we must assume that the archdeacon Dioscorus, as a power behind the throne of Cyril, who presided over the council, could have contributed some share toward the formulation of those conciliar decisions. It was on such occasions that the personality of Dioscorus became recognized within his own church and throughout the Byzantine empire, a fact that explains the ease and unanimity with which he was elected by the Alexandrian presbytery to succeed his mentor in 444.

At that time, the Alexandrian see had reached great heights in the world. Although it had been acknowledged as second only to Rome by the Council of Nicaea in 325, through the influence of Saint ATHANASIUS and Cyril, it was regarded as parallel to the Roman see, with which it had remained in amicable and mutual relationship until the accession of Pope Leo I. Dioscorus conveyed the news of his assumption to the throne of Saint Mark by dispatching to Rome a special messenger, Possidonius, with a brief addressed to Pope Leo, who answered by an epistle declaring the uniformity between the two sees in all matters of sacramental discipline, the ordination of the presbyters, and the handling of the liturgy. This seems to have been the high moment of ostensible unity between Rome and Alexandria. Nevertheless, behind that formal facade, the spirit of jealousy and suspicion must have been lurking at the Curia of Rome, as will be seen from papal behavior in subsequent events.

What led to convening the Council of Ephesus II were the circumstances associated with a formula devised by EUTYCHES, a pious monk and archimandrite of a large monastery at Constantinople, who was no theological scholar. In his keen opposition to Nestorianism, he declared that the nature of Jesus was only divine, and consequently deprived the Lord of His human nature. Thus in 448, Eutyches was accused by Eusebius, bishop of Dorylaeum, of going to the other extreme from Nestorius by confounding the two natures of for the sake of His unity. In the meantime, Pope Leo sent Flavian, archbishop of Constantinople, his letter or tome known as the Tomus Leonis, attacking this Christological misconception. Dioscorus, whose friendly relations with Eu-tyches simply expressed his own misunderstanding of a confused situation, remained nonaligned.

In the meantime, Flavian took courage and deposed the archimandrite Eutyches as a symbol of disapproval of his views. Thus to all appearances, the world became divided into two camps, with Leo and Flavian on one side and Dioscorus on the other. But Eutyches happened to have strong influence at the Byzantine court of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) through a highly placed eunuch named Chrysaphius. Theodosius was thus persuaded to call a to reconsider the case under the chairmanship of Dioscorus, a fact that must have further enflamed Leo’s jealousy. The Egyptian bishops, together with the Antiochene and Greek bishops, converged on Ephesus in 449 with a small Roman delegation, which came armed with a new tome from Pope Leo that recorded his position. Eutyches was summoned by Dioscorus to speak for himself.

Moving from his earlier position of incorporating the human entirely into the divine nature of Christ, he proclaimed in writing the safer approach of his adherence to the Nicene Creed and to the formula of Saint Cyril, which are both recognized as the orthodox doctrine. Thus he was acquitted by the council and returned to his former position unscathed. The result of this verdict was the deposition of Flavian from the See of Constantinople together with his supporters, who were abused by the imperial guard through the influence of Chrysaphius.

This proved to be a further step toward the assertion of Alexandrian supremacy in ecclesiastical matters vis-à-vis both Constantinople and Rome, a situation that could hardly be swallowed by Leo, whose Tome was not presented for consideration at the council. This was probably an unwise action by Dioscorus and an unnecessary provocation of the Roman pope. Dioscorus possessed a strong and rather impassioned personality, and he inherited the supreme heritage of Athanasius and Cyril, his predecessors, but he was their unequal in tact and ecclesiastical diplomacy. Pope Leo’s wrath was precipitated by the ostensible neglect of his Tome at the Council, and he could no longer conceal his antagonism to the Alexandrian prelate, whom he described openly as a “new Pharaoh” in the Church. In a letter to the emperor, he described the second Council of Ephesus in the abusive term Latrocinium (robber synod).

Hitherto the unity of the Eastern and Western churches remained intact. Ephesus II tolled the death knell of this unity, and the rupture between Alexandria and Rome was sealed by Leo’s letter to Emperor Theodosius II. But the wholesome attitude of Theodosius toward Alexandria was soon interrupted by his death in 450. He was succeeded by an old senator and general of the Roman army credited for the quelling of a rebellion in Upper Egypt, Marcian (450-457), who became emperor after marrying PULCHERIA, a sister of Theodosius. She was a former nun, a religious but impetuous woman, who harbored tremendous hatred for Alexandrian supremacy over Constantinople as well as for the occupant of the throne of Saint Mark.

From his past experience, her husband, too, could not sustain much sympathy for the Alexandrian see or Egypt, where he had just fought to curb its turbulent people. The result of these unfortunate circumstances was the reversal of the lenient policy of Theodosius and its replacement by an atmosphere of hostility toward the Eutychian party in Constantinople and toward Dioscorus. This new situation superbly suited Leo and the Roman party, which could not bear the growing influence of Alexandria and Dioscorus.

While the second Ephesian Council marked the peak of glory and universal influence of the Alexandrian patriarch, the Roman legate Parchasinus, an inveterate adversary of both Dioscorus and Alexandria, on 17 October 451 declared the acts of that council to be null and void. Rome requested the issuance of a special decree forbidding even the mention of the Council of Ephesus II. Thus the stage was set for the next move in fighting Alexandrian monophysitism. Leo suggested the convening of a new council in Italy, away from Eastern pressures. In the end, Emperor Marcian, or rather his wife Pulcheria, decided on Chalcedon (within reach of the Byzantine capital) for that next meeting, and Rome approved. Consequently, Marcian issued the formal invitation to the bishops of the East and the West for the Chalcedon meeting to be inaugurated on 8 October 451.

When that invitation reached Alexandria, the advisers and the attendants of Dioscorus addressed the patriarch, as a man of God, saying that the letter would bring death, meaning that it implied the end of Cyrillian and Alexandrian orthodoxy. In Rome, Leo instructed his new legate, Bonifacius, whom he entrusted with another famous tome, to be firm in opposing the Alexandrian party. In fact, the Roman legate refused categorically to be seated with Dioscorus and even demanded his expulsion from the assembly before any verdict was reached. However, the bishops who were gathered to discuss “Eutychianism” were deflected by the Roman legate, in conjunction with the imperial commissioners, to a trial of Dioscorus. After numerous discussions, a compromise was reached to let the patriarch remain in the assembly but to take a place only with the rest of the bishops. After that, Eusebius of Dorylaeum declared his list of charges against Dioscorus, which were confirmed by Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

In self-defense, Dioscorus reiterated that the reason for Flavian’s condemnation was his assertion of the two natures after the Incarnation. Quotations were made from the Fathers Athanasius, Gregory, and Cyril, to the effect that after the Incarnation there were not two natures, but the incarnate nature of the Logos. He said that if he were to be expelled, the Fathers would be expelled too. He claimed not to deviate from their doctrine, but to defend it. The extracts, he said, were not gathered carelessly but verified by himself. Though none contested him, the discussion of the two natures continued, and Dioscorus stopped further argument, because he divined their motives.

Dioscorus refrained from attending the third session that was convened essentially against him. The assembly decided to send a delegation to him with the purpose of obtaining his signature on the Tome of Leo in exchange for his rehabilitation and reinstatement to the patriarchal see of Alexandria. But Dioscorus was not a man of compromises. Though he was not against Leo’s Christology, he was adamant against the minutest change in the terms or words of the Nicene Creed. He was summoned three times, according to canonical rules, to accept the Roman “innovations,” and thrice he refused to conform to their summons. Consequently, Dioscorus was declared fallen. A verdict for his removal from the patriarchal see was followed by his banishment to the island of Gangra in Paphlagonia. Defiantly and with dignity, he accepted the verdict of the council rather than move from his stand.

The council was terminated in the usual solemn ceremony on 25 October 451 in its sixth and final session. The attending bishops departed after the signature of the creed offered in Leo’s Tome and after ascertaining that in substance it was in conformity with the teachings of Athanasius and Cyril. Paradoxically, this implied uniformity with Dioscorus, the dethroned bishop.

Though formally deposed at Chalcedon, Dioscorus remained for the Coptic people their legal patriarch until his death in exile. Even if some of his clergy signed the Chalcedonian verdict of his removal under imperial and Roman pressures, the Coptic nation itself as a whole refused to accept this decision, and this congregation was never reconciled to the consideration of Chalcedon as an ecumenical council. For the two centuries preceding the conquest of Egypt, the Egyptian nation deprecated Chalcedon as an infamous gathering of misguided bishops. To the Copts, the last ecumenical council was Ephesus II in 449. They utterly contested the nomination by Constantinople of a Melchite Greek patriarch of Alexandria and, after the death of Dioscorus, continued to elect their own Monophysite patriarch in opposition to any Melchite nominee, until the advent of Arab rule that had been precipitated in part by this disunity in the church ranks.

The date of the death of Dioscorus is stated in most sources as 454, that is, approximately four years after his exile. According to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS by Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘, his death occurred in the year 458, which was also the year of the election of his successor TIMOTHY II (458-480). Dioscorus was canonized by the Copts, and his name appears in the SYNAXARION containing the names of saints and martyrs recognized by the Coptic church.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Amélineau, E. C. Monuments pour servir à l’histoire de l’Egypte chrétienne aux IVe, Ve, VIe et VIIe siècles. Mission Archéologique Française au Caire, Mémoire 4. Paris, 1888-1895.
  • Bardenhewer, O. Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, Vol. 4, Das fünfte Jahrhundert mit Einschluss der syrischen Literatur des vierten Jahrhunderts. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1924.
  • Camelot, P.-T. Ephèse et Chalcédoine. London, 1953.
  • Crum, W. E. “Coptic Texts relating to Dioscorus of Alexandria.” Proceedings of the Society of Archaeology 25 (1903):267-76.
  • Dallmayr, H. Die grossen vier Konzilien. Nicaea—Konstantinopel— Ephesus—Chalcedon, 2nd ed. Munich, 1963.
  • Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Cambridge, 1979.
  • Grillmeier, A., and H. Bacht. Das Konzil von Chalkedon. Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3 vols. Würzburg, 1951-1954.
  • Harnack, A. von. Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, Vol. 2. Darmstadt, 1964.
  • Hefele, C. J., and H. Leclercq. Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux, Vol. 2/2, pp. 469-857. Paris, 1908.
  • Lebon, J. “Autour du cas de Dioscore d’Alexandrie.” Le Muséon 59 (1946):515-28.
  • Maspero, J. Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie depuis la mort de l’empereur Anastase jusqu’à la réconciliation des églises jacobites (518-616). Paris, 1923; repr. Providence, R.I. 1975.
  • Nau, F. N. “Histoire de Dioscore, patriarche d’Alexandrie, écrite par son disciple Théopiste.” Journal Asiatique, ser. 10, no. 1 (1903):5-108, 241-310.
  • Roncaglia, M. P. “Quelques questions ecclésiastiques et d’ecclésiologie au IIIe siècle à Alexandrie.” Proche-Orient Chrétien 20 (1970):20-30.
  • Sellers, R. V. The Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey. London, 1953.

MARTINIANO P. RONCAGLIA