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Monophysitism - Coptic Wiki


The doctrine that the incarnate Christ is one Person and has one divine nature as opposed to the orthodox doctrine that he is one Person and has two natures, one human and one divine. The rift between the Monophysites, including the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Armenian churches, and the Orthodox Church has divided Eastern Christianity since the sixth century. It emerged slowly after the Council of CHALCEDON in 451. The Monophysites hold firm to the main Christological tenant of Saint CYRIL I, early fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria, that the two natures of Christ were united at the Incarnation in such a way that the one Christ was essentially divine, although he assumed from the Virgin THEOTOKOS the flesh and attributes of a man.

The Period Before Chalcedon (325-451)

The distant origins of the Monophysite position can be found in John 1:14 (“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), but no theological issue arose until after the First Council of NICAEA in 325, at which it was agreed that Christ was to be acknowledged as “of one substance with the Father.” If, however, He was of one substance (HOMOOUSION) with the Father, how was His humanity to be understood? The long duration of the controversy over ARIANISM, which denied that Christ was divine, masked the problem, but during the 370s Apollinaris of Laodicea, an anti-Arian and a lifelong friend of Saint ATHANASIUS I, patriarch of Alexandria, set out a radical and uncompromising solution (see APOLLINARIANISM).

“The supreme point in our salvation,” he argued, “is the incarnation of the Word. We believe therefore that with no change in his Godhead, the incarnation of the Word took palce for the renewal of man.” “We confess therefore,” he told the bishops of Syria at Diocaesarea, “that [the] Word of God . . . has become flesh without having assumed a human mind, i.e., a mind changeable and enslaved to filthy thoughts, but existing as a divine mind, immutable and heavenly.” Therefore, “We confess that . . . the one Son is not two natures, one to be worshipped and one without worship, but one incarnate nature of God the Word to be worshipped with His flesh in one worship” (Lietzmann, 1904, pp. 178, 250).

Apollinarius’ ideas struck an immediate response throughout the East, and though they were condemned as unorthodox at the First Council of CONSTANTINOPLE in 381, a large number of tracts setting out his views were circulating at the end of the century under the names of orthodox theologians, including Pope Saint Julius I and Athanasius. These “Apollinarian forgeries” had an enormous effect on the development of monophysitism, not least in contributing toward the formation of Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the Person of Christ.

Cyril’s Christology was influenced by both genuine and false Athanasian writings, and as his controversy with the Antiochene monk NESTORIUS, patriarch of Constantinople, quickened, the Monophysite element came increasingly to the fore. In his third letter to Nestorius, who held that Christ was two separate persons, he spoke of “the One Hypostasis [“Person”] Incarnate of the Word”; and in the third of the Twelve Anathemas appended to this letter he declared anathema “anyone who divides the hypostases after the union.” There was “One Lord Jesus Christ,” according to the Scriptures.

The Council of EPHESUS in 431 condemned Nestorius but did not declare Cyril’s anathemas canonical. Two years later, in April 433, Cyril was obliged to come to terms with the Antiochenes and in the formula of reunion to accept the orthodoxy of those who spoke in terms of “two natures.” This was a victory for Antiochene theology and a reverse for the Alexandrians. Cyril’s successor, DIOSCORUS I, was determined to restore Alexandria’s now traditional status as “city of the orthodox.” In Constantinople he found an ally in the archimandrite EUTYCHES. The latter, however, pushed his fear of two-nature Christology further than Cyril would have allowed, asserting that the flesh of Christ was God-made, so that Christ could in no sense be “consubstantial with us.” Eutyches was deposed on 22 November 448 by a synod presided over by Flavian, archbishop of Constantinople.

Eutyches appealed to the councils of the other archiepiscopal sees and to the church in Ravenna (the imperial residence in the West) against his sentence. Annoyed by the quarrel between Flavian and Eutyches, and fearing a revival of Nestorianism, Emperor Theodosius II, who was now strongly Cyrilist in his theology, convoked the Second council of Ephesus in 449 to judge the case of Eutyches and to decide whether his deposition by Flavian had been just. Dioscorus was to preside. Once again, the Apollinarian forgeries played a crucial part in channeling doctrinal views in the East toward a one-nature Christology.

Eutyches produced texts, accepted at Ephesus in 431 as genuine, of documents written ostensibly by Pope Julius and Gregory the Wonderworker to support his case. The council was entranced. “Two natures before the union, and one afterward. Is that not what we all believe?” asked Dioscorus. A long epistle from Pope LEO THE GREAT, known to history as the Tome of Leo, written to support Flavian, asserted exactly the opposite view. It was left unread. The council vindicated Eutyches and condemned as troublemakers Flavian and the archbishop of Antioch, Domnus, who had attempted to innovate statements of the Council of Nicaea. The sentence was confirmed by Theodosius.

The emperor’s sudden death on 28 July 450 transformed the situation. His successor, Marcian, married Theodosius’ pro-Roman sister PULCHERIA, and in the autumn of 451 they summoned another ecumenical council, this one at Chalcedon. It had two aims: to define the faith in a way that would restore communion between Rome and the other patriarchates and to vindicate the position of the see of Constantinople vis-à-vis all other sees in the East, particularly that of Alexandria.

The council achieved both objectives. Dioscorus was excommunicated and deposed—not, however, for doctrinal heresy but for ecclesiastical indiscipline. The Definition of Chalcedon was accepted, a statement of faith declaring that Jesus Christ was “made known to us in two Natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably: the difference of the natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each nature being preserved and concurring into one Prosopon and one Hypostasis. . . .”

Though the framers of the Definition intended a careful balance between opposing Christologies, the wording favored the Tome of Leo and the Antiochene cause. While Pope Leo accepted the Definition, he rejected Canon 28 of the council, which restated the primatial rights of Constantinople as the “New Rome.” Rome objected to the omission in the canon of any reference to the apostolic and Petrine character of the see of Rome and was never prepared to concede patriarchal status to its sister see of New Rome (Constantinople). This canon, however, was all-important to Constantinople, and for this reason, it could never entirely renounce the Council of Chalcedon.

The arrogant behavior of Dioscorus had created a rift among the seventeen Egyptian bishops who accompanied him to Chalcedon. While the majority stood by their archbishop out of fear and loyalty, four sided with the majority at the council, accepted the Christological definition, and took part in the consecration of the archpriest Proterius as successor of Dioscorus.

From Chalcedon to the Henoticon of Zeno (451-482)

Although the Definition of Chalcedon was well received in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and throughout the European provinces of the empire, there was deep disquiet elsewhere. Clergy and laity alike found it difficult to understand how opinions accepted by 135 bishops only two years before Ephesus II should now be regarded as heretical, and why Dioscorus should have been excommunicated by many of the same bishops who previously had applauded him. There were serious riots in Alexandria and in Jerusalem, where Bishop Juvenal, an ally of Dioscorus who had abandoned him at Chalcedon, was forced to flee the city (Zacharias Rhetor, 3. 2; Liberatus, 14. 99; Evagrius, 2. 5). Something of the intensity of popular feeling in many parts of the East against Chalcedon has been caught by JOHN OF MAYUMA in his Plerophoria (Witnesses), compiled about 512, in which he branded as traitors and apostates those who had supported Chalcedon.

Although imperial troops suppressed the riots and Juvenal returned to Jerusalem, Proterius failed to gain support in Egypt. Opposition to Chalcedon coalesced around one of the priests of Dioscorus, Timothy Aelurus (“the Cat”) (later TIMOTHY II AELURUS) and the deacon Peter Mongus (“the Hoarse One”) (later Peter II Mongus), both future patriarchs. As soon as the news of the death of Marcian reached Alexandria, there was a popular uprising against Proterius. Timothy was consecrated bishop on 16 March 457 or 458, and on 28 March Proterius was lynched. There was now a schism between Chalcedonians and anti-Chalcedonians in Egypt.

The schism lasted until 482. In 459 Timothy Aelurus was ordered into exile in Kherson in the Crimea by the new emperor, Leo I, who was responding to episcopal opinion throughout the rest of the empire (see Zacharias Rhetor, 4.5-7, Brooks ed., pp. 121-24; and Schwartz, 1914, 2.v.). In 460 the Proterians elected as successor to Proterius, who had died, the Pachomian monk TIMOTHY SALOFACIOLUS (“Wobble Cap”). The death of Leo in January 474 gave Timothy Aelurus his chance. Leo’s son, Leo II, died in November, and his successor, Zeno, was unpopular. Timothy took advantage of Basiliscus’ revolution against Zeno, in January 475, to leave his place of exile and make for Constantinople. There he was favored by the usurper and restored as the patriarch of Alexandria.

Basiliscus published an encyclical condemning the Tome of Leo and all things of Chalcedon that “innovated against the holy creed of the 38 holy fathers [of Nicaea]” (Evagrius, 3.4, 3.7). Up to this point, neither the Alexandrian opponents of Chalcedon nor their allies elsewhere, the Diakrimonenoi (Hesitants), contemplated a division in the church. Their aims were the acceptance by the empire of Cyril’s teaching in its fullness, the denunciation of the Tome of Leo, and the reduction of the status of Chalcedon to that of a disciplinary synod (like Ephesus II) anathematizing Nestorius and Eutyches. Basiliscus had been ready to comply.

Basiliscus fell, largely owing to the opposition of Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople, who was supported by the people of the capital and spurred on by Daniel the Stylite (Evagrius, 3.7). returned in triumph in August 476, but he recognized that the empire must come to terms with ever increasing anti-Chalcedonian feeling in Egypt, parts of western and southern Asia Minor, and now in Syria, where, opponents of the council had found a leader in Peter the Fuller. After the death of Timothy II Aleurus, and of his rival in February 482, the emperor and his patriarch addressed a letter to “the bishops, monks, and laity of Alexandria, Egypt and Cyrenaica” with the aim of achieving an acceptable compromise.

The HENOTICON (Instrument of Unity) of 28 July 482 went as far as possible to conciliate the anti-Chalcedonians without explicitly denouncing Chalcedon (for the full text, see Schwartz, 1927, pp. 924-27). The safety of the Roman world was asserted to rest on a universal acceptance of the Nicene Creed confirmed by the Council of Constantinople (381). Eutyches and Nestorius were condemned, but the Twelve Anathemas of Cyril were upheld, and Christ incarnate from the Virgin was to be acknowledged “as one and not two, for we say that both His miracles and His sufferings which He willingly underwent in the flesh are of one person. Every person, who has thought or thinks anything else now or at any time either in Chalcedon or in any other synod whatever, we anathematize.”

Though in form the emperor had merely written a letter to the patriarchate of Alexandria, the Henoticon marks another important step in consolidating the emperor’s role as divinely appointed governor of all Christians. For the next thirty-five years the Henoticon was accepted as a statement of belief by the churches in the East. Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were again in communion.

The Acacian Schism

The Eastern patriarchates were not, however, on good terms with Rome. A quarrel developed between Pope Simplicius and Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople (see ACACIAN SCHISM), not over the Henotican but because Acacius accepted Peter Mongus as patriarch of Alexandria, although he had previously denounced him to the pope as a “son of darkness” and unfit even for his original office as deacon (Simplicius to Acacius, Epistulae; see also Frend, 1972, pp. 181-83).

The issue between Rome and Constantinople was primarily disciplinary, but the Henoticon added fuel to the fire and to the Acacian schism, which lasted until 519. In this period pro- and anti- Chalcedonian sentiment in the empire gradually crystallized. By about 500 the majority of the clergy and people of Constantinople and the European provinces of the empire were Chalcedonian, together with northern Asia Minor, western Syria (where the influence of the cities was strong), and Palestine (where the monks were of various national origins and needed the emperor’s military support for their survival against Saracen marauders and Jewish and Samaritan enmity). Egypt, Antioch, eastern Syria and Mesopotamia, and the provinces of Isauria and Pamphylia in southern Asia Minor were anti-Chalcedonian. Western Asia Minor with Ephesus was sharply divided. Emperor Anastasius, though personally inclined to monophysitism, steered a middle line by insisting on unreserved respect for the Henoticon.

In 508, however, a new situation began to develop with the arrival in Constantinople of the Monophysite monk Severus, on mission from the monastery of Mayuma near Gaza, to appeal to the emperor against harassment by Elias, the pro-Chalcedonian patriarch of Jerusalem. gained the ear of Anastasius. In 510, as a result of a dispute between Patriarch Flavian II of Antioch and his metropolitan, Philoxenus of Mabboug (Hierapolis) in Mesopotamia, the emperor promulgated the Formula of Satisfaction.

This document, while explicitly accepting the Henoticon as the basis of orthodoxy, denounced the Tome of Leo and the acknowledgment of the incarnate Christ “in two natures,” and downgraded Chalcedon to the level of a disciplinary synod (or, according to some sources, denouncing the Definition of Chalcedon altogether). For good measure, it condemned the works of the Antiochene theologians Diodorus of Tarsus and THEODORUS OF MOPSUESTIA. Then in August 511 came the deposition, largely through the influence of Severus, of Macedonius, patriarch of Constantinople, and, early in 512, mainly through the intrigues of Philoxenus, of Flavian II. On 6 November 512, was consecrated patriarch of Antioch. The empire had taken a long step toward accepting monophysitism as its faith.

of Antioch and the Consolidation of Monophysite Theology (510-530)

The activities of as patriarch mark the transition between anti-Chalcedonianism and monophysitism. He provided opponents of Chalcedon with a clear-cut alternative theology that justified rejection of the Tome and the council. His organizing ability resulted, even against his will, in a rival Monophysite hierarchy challenging that of the Chalcedonians in many parts of the empire.

is one of the great figures in the religious history of the eastern Mediterranean. He was born into a wealthy landowning family in Sozopolis in Pisidia, in Asia Minor, about 465. His grandfather had been among the 200 bishops who had deposed Nestorius at Ephesus. Severus, however, showed little inclination to follow any profession other than law until 488, when he met the famous anti-Chalcedonian ascetic and leader Peter the Iberian and was converted by him to a life dedicated to the service of Christ. After a stay at the monastery of in the Palestine wilderness near Elentheropolis, he went about 500 to Peter’s monastery at Mayuma. He became, if not leader, spokesman of the anti- Chalcedonian cause.

The theology of Severus, as revealed in his letters and treatises (largely in the Patrologia Orientalis and Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium), was based on that of Cyril. In a moment of enthusiasm, wrote that every utterance of Cyril should be regarded as canonical (Select Letters 1.9, p. 45). At the same time, he guided the anti-Chalcedonian cause away from support of Eutyches, and he criticized Dioscorus as “contentious” and prone to “fighting unnecessarily about words” (Ad Nephalium, ed. Lebon, 1949, p. 9 of translation).

His Christological beliefs, repeated time and again, might be summed up thus: “The Fathers have taught us that God the Word, the Unique One begotten by his Father without beginning, eternally, impassibly, and incorporeally, did in the last times for our salvation take flesh of the Holy Spirit and of the Holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, flesh consubstantial with us, animated by an intelligent and reasoning soul” (Severus Philalèthe, p. 107). It was obvious, went on, “that the same being is at once God and man, consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity and with us men according to His humanity” (p. 113). Christ was united “with the flesh of our nature” (Epistle 65, PO 14, p. 30). This was “the royal road” of truth from which no deviation was permissible.

was not hostile to the Roman see; indeed, he praised Pope Julius for his sane and orthodox views. But he was irrevocably opposed to Pope Leo and his Tome. In his view, Leo not only had divided the natures of Christ but also had made each nature quote Scripture against the other, one declaring “I and my Father are one” and the other, “the Father is greater than I.” Such teaching he considered fallacious and heretical (Liber . . . grammaticum 3.1.5, ed. Lebon, pp. 49-50 of translation). Elsewhere he denounced the Tome as “Jewish” (Epistle 46, PO 12.2, p. 321), and Leo himself, for accepting the orthodoxy of the Antiochene theologians Ibas and Theodoret as a “Nestorian” (Epistle 31, PO 12.2, p. 265).

The Council of Chalcedon, by adopting the “two natures” formula, was in error and had “innovated” the ever sacred Nicene Creed (Epistle 34, PO 12.2, p. 272). This was the theologian who became patriarch of Antioch in November 512. During a reign of less than six years his tireless energy propagated the anti-Chalcedonian faith from one end of the vast diocese to the other.

In this effort, was aided powerfully by Philoxenus of Mabboug, whose monophysitism differed from his. Philoxenus was Syriac in speech and culture, and the mold in which his ideas were formed was Syriac, not Greek. Some aspects of his Christology approximated the Antiochene views, which he abominated. Thus, he believed in the complete and individual manhood of Jesus, emphasizing that He came under the law who “had become by his will a man who served the law” (Vaschalde, 1961, p. 184). He criticized the Apollinarians, using the same argument as the fathers, that if the Word did not assume a human mind, the human mind could not be saved.

How, then, did Philoxenus avoid acceptance of the Chalcedonian position? Emotion played its part, but on analysis, his theology, if somewhat forced, was consistent. Christ is God the Word, who, however, existed in two modes of being simultaneously: as God by nature and as man by a miracle. The manhood was added to the Godhead so as to preserve the true features of man and at the same time retain the nature of the Word. Through faith one appreciated the resulting single hypostasis of the incarnate Christ. By analogy man, by nature human, was born a son of God by receiving the Spirit in baptism (Vaschalde, p. 120). The emphasis on baptism, the source of newness and salvation for Christ as well as for ordinary men, was also Antiochene in inspiration. Metaphysical concepts had less place in Philoxenus’ system than in that of Severus, but he was at one with in his opposition to the Tome and Chalcedon.

The years of the patriarchate of were stormy. Though he and Philoxenus engineered the removal of Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem, on 1 September 516, opposition increased among the cities of western Syria, while the passion of for doctrinal “accuracy” began to dismay his followers. In 517 a rift, not the last, appeared between the Severan and Alexandrian Monophysites, DIOSCORUS II of Alexandria showing himself less anxious than Severus formally to denounce Chalcedon (see Severus Epistles 49-50, PO 12.2, pp. 323-25). At the end of the same year, 207 monks from monasteries in western Syria, led by Alexander, presbyter and archimandrate of Maro, wrote to Pope Hormisdas, attacking Severus for his “daily denunciation of Chalcedon” (Epistle 139). Conflict was throughout the patriarchate of Antioch when Emperor Anastasius died in July 518. The reaction against Severus was immediate. In September 518 he left Antioch to find refuge in Alexandria, never to return.

The Chalcedonian Reaction (518-532)

The accession of Emperor JUSTIN I brought a complete change of direction in the religious policy of the empire. Justin came from the residual Latin-speaking provinces, and he aimed to restore communion between the “two Romes” on the basis of mutual acceptance of Chalcedon and the removal, so far as possible, of traces of the Acacian Schism. At the emperor’s urgent request, papal legates arrived on 25 March 519 in Constantinople, where they were rapturously received. On 28 March, the long dead anti-Chalcedonian leaders in Alexandria and Antioch “and their followers,” as well as Acacius and his four successors as the patriarch of Constantinople and the emperors and Anastasius, were struck from the diptychs. The papal victory, however, turned out to be less complete than it seemed, for the initiative remained with the emperor, and Rome had received no satisfaction over Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon.

Justin had no intention of allowing his patriarch to be humiliated. He aimed simply at restoring the status quo ante Acacium, and he largely succeeded. The end of the Acacian Schism, however, entailed close collaboration between Rome and Constantinople and consequently heavy pressure against the followers of Severus. Between 519 and 522, no fewer than fifty-five bishops suspected of Monophysite leanings were deposed—some, like Philoxenus, to die in exile.

For the Monophysites, the reign of Justin and the first years of that of his nephew JUSTINIAN were important for two developments—a quarrel between Severus and his fellow exile JULIAN, bishop of Halicarnassus, in Caria; and the taking of the first steps to establish a hierarchy loyal to the one-nature Christology and, hence, out of communion with the Chalcedonians. In the quarrel the Julianists held that while Christ was indeed consubstantial with man, this related to His assumption of Adam’s nature before the Fall. Therefore, the flesh of the incarnate Christ was not mortal. This Severus denied (Epistle 35 to the Eastern monks, PO 12. 2, p. 290), but Julian’s views made headway in Egypt and were to influence the Monophysite missionary movement.

The move to establish a hierarchy favoring one nature was the result of popular pressure in Syria on Severus. Sixty years later, the Monophysite historian John of Ephesus described how the first ordinations came about. In his Life of John of Tella, who had ordained him deacon, he wrote:

At the end of ten years of persecution [i.e., 529/530] the faithful who remained in diverse places began to be concerned about ordinations and consulted the faithful bishops; but these latter feared to bring down on themselves even fiercer flames of persecution, and they refused to make ordinations openly, but only some in secret. Then complaints of the faithful persecuted arose from all sides against the blessed bishops because of the great deficiency of clerics and they wrote and besought the bishops to make ordinations of the faithful for the matter was urgent [Lives of the Eastern Saints, pp. 515-16].

Severus and his colleagues in Alexandria bowed to John’s arguments. The effect was sensational. Hundreds sought ordination from him. According to John of Ephesus, “Every day fifty, a hundred and sometimes as many as two hundred or three hundred men, came to him for ordination.” It was like a “flooded river that had burst its banks.” Postulants came from all over the Eastern Roman Empire—from Cappadocia, Phoenicia, and the Persian frontier. Though no episcopal consecrations had been carried out, the Monophysite church had now come into being.

Another Monophysite biographer of John of Tella, Elias, writing after 542, claims that the success of John’s mission persuaded Emperor Justinian to stay the persecution begun by Justin and attempt to heal the widening rift between the Chalcedonians and their opponents by means of a conference. Recently discovered Syriac material relating to the conference that Justinian summoned in 532 suggests the truth of this estimate (see Brock, 1980, pp. 219-28).

The conference took the form of a series of meetings in Constantinople between six representatives from each side and extended over “a year or more” (Zacharias Rhetor, 9.15, p. 84), probably February 532 to March 533. Severus did not attend. Quite rightly, he expressed distrust of Justinian, but he sent a long memorandum to the emperor emphasizing his own loyalty and that of his colleagues and arguing for the acceptance of the one-nature Christology as the religion of the empire. One phase of the discussions, recorded by Innocentius of Maronia of the Chalcedonian delegation, shows how the Chalcedonians were able to entangle their opponents in their inconsistent attitude toward Eutyches but could not prove that Cyril would have accepted Chalcedon.

On matters of faith, the two sides were very near agreement on the Theopaschite formula put forward by Justinian himself: that both the miracles and the sufferings of Christ were to be attributed to one and the same being, and thus “he who suffered in the flesh was one of the Trinity.” But the disciplinary issue (as in most ecclesiastical disputes) proved insurmountable. Justinian insisted on acceptance of Chalcedon in some form (but not of the Tome of Leo), and this the followers of Severus were not prepared to give.

Severus’ Last Triumph and Condemnation (534-538)

The edict that Justinian published on 15 March 533 condemned Eutyches, Apollinaris, and Nestorius but not Severus and his colleagues. In Alexandria, conflict between Severus and the supporters of Julian of Halicarnassus increased, while in Constantinople, Empress THEODORA, her influence enhanced after the Nika Riot in January 532, worked for the Monophysites. In the winter of 534/535, Severus accepted an invitation from the emperor, instigated by the empress, to come to Constantinople (Zacharias Rhetor Historia, 9.15). In the summer of 535, Severus persuaded the new patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimus, of the rightness of the Monophysite cause. For a few months the sees of Alexandria and Constantinople were reunited in communion and theological outlook. Once again, however, the counterattraction of the bond between Constantinople and Rome proved too strong.

Pope Agapetus, on a visit to Constantinople on behalf of King Theodahad, the Gothic ruler of Italy, deposed Anthimus for having accepted translation from his original see of Trebizond, to Canon 15 of the Council of Nicaea. On 13 March Agapetus consecrated Anthimus’ successor, the Alexandria-born Menas. A letter signed by Justinian and Agapetus reemphasized the orthodoxy of the two- nature Christology. In May-June 536 an impressive local synod convoked by Menas condemned both Anthimus and Severus as heretics. The emperor confirmed the decision and on August 6 published an edict (Justinianus, 42, no. 56) accusing Severus of waging “undeclared war” and setting the churches against each other. His writings were proscribed. From then on, efforts to reunite Chalcedonians and Monophysites were doomed. The years 536-538 saw another severe persecution of Monophysite clergy. Among the victims was John of Tella.

The Monophysite Missions (542-565)

Justinian followed up the condemnation of Severus by another blow at the Monophysites, the restoration of the Chalcedonian succession in Egypt. Toward the end of 537, he summoned Saint THEODOSIUS I, patriarch of Alexandria, who had successfully beaten off a challenge on his accession in 535, to Constantinople and declared him deposed. Theodosius was imprisoned at Derkos in Thrace. Thereupon the emperor had a Pachomian monk named Paul consecrated as the patriarch of Alexandria by Menas. When Paul proved unsatisfactory, he was succeeded by a Palestinian monk named Zoilus (c. 540).

Thanks largely to Theodora, the Monophysites were able to reply effectively. First, the empress secured the return of Theodosius to Constantinople, where he established a Monophysite presence under her patronage in the palace of Hormisdas. In 541, taking advantage of a request by the powerful ruler of the Ghassanid confederation of Arab tribes on Rome’s southeastern frontier for an “orthodox bishop,” the empress persuaded Theodosius to consecrate JACOB BORADAEUS, an east Syrian, as metropolitan of Edessa, and Theodorus as bishop of Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia.

Jacob Baradaeus (James Bar ’Adai) will always be associated with the consolidation of monophysitism in Syria and Mesopotamia. In fact, his original mission was not confined to these provinces or identified with them. He was vested with authority “over all countries not only of Syria and the whole of Armenia and Cappadocia” but also over Isauria, Lycia, Phrygia, Cyprus, and the islands. His was to be a roving commission devoted to the maintenance of individual Monophysite congregations, wherever they might be. The enormous energy of Jacob and his dedication to his task transformed the situation.

Between 542 and 578 he moved from place to place: “sometimes travelling thirty or forty miles a day, never staying long in any one district, he added to the numbers of believers in every place, both Greeks and Syrians” (John of Ephesus, LIVES OF THE EASTERN SAINTS, Vol. 18, col. 693; cf. col. 695). He consecrated bishops as well as lower clergy, “causing the priesthood to flow like great rivers over the whole world of the Roman domains.” His successes, especially in eastern Syria, indicated both the underlying anti-Chalcedonian sentiment of the mass of the people and their readiness, at least in matters of belief, to oppose the will of the emperor. Constantinople, however, remained the center of the movement and Patriarch Theodosius its focus.

Similar trends can be seen in the second great Monophysite missionary saga, the conversion of the Nobatian kingdoms (see NOBATIA) south of the Roman frontier in Egypt. Christianity had spread into NUBIA by the mid-fifth century (Michalowski, 1970, p. 12), but the conversion of the Nobatian court and kingdom was the work of Monophysite missionaries sent by Theodora in 542 under the presbyter Julian. The Nobatian king (not Silko—as once thought [see Skeat, 1977, pp. 159-70; Rea, 1979, pp. 147-50]) was converted to monophysitism and defied the later efforts of the orthodox envoys sent by Justinian to change his mind. “We accept the gift of the king of the Romans,” he is reported to have said, “but his faith we will not accept. If we deserve to become Christians we will follow after Pope Theodosius, whom because he would not accept the evil faith of the king he expelled and ejected.” Julian had done his work of conversion well.

Though MAKOURIA, the middle of the three Nobatian kingdoms, was converted to Chalcedon about 567, this was a temporary phase; by the time of the Arab invasions, the vast majority of the populations of Nobatia, of Egypt, and of Ethiopia were Monophysite. Parts of southern Arabia and the kingdom of Armenia were also Monophysite.

From the early eighth century on, the Nobatian kingdoms produced a brillant Christian art, of which FARAS has provided the most splendid examples (see Michalowski, 1974). Fragments of a handsomely produced manuscript of the liturgy of Saint James and manuscripts of the Greek Acta Mercurii and Acta Georgii have been found in the cathedral church at Qasr Ibrim.

Relations with the Empire up to the Arab Conquests (536-641)

Justinian’s condemnation of Severus in 536 marked a watershed in the history of monophysitism. Up to then, the Monophysites had aimed at converting the empire to their view within the framework of a united church. Now they were obliged to accept the fact of schism whose would require the abrogation of a conciliar decision against Severus, as well as a denunciation of the Tome and Chalcedon. Moreover, with the capture of Rome, on 9 December 536, by the Byzantine general Belisarius, the Roman bishops became the emperor’s subjects once more, and their influence in Constantinople correspondingly increased. Finally, in Monophysite- dominated areas, the Tome and Chalcedon had become objects of popular dislike. When, near the end of Justinian’s reign, Bishop Abraham bar Kaili tried to proclaim the decisions of Chalcedon at the fortress town of Amida, the people shouted, “We will never accept the synod and the Tome,” and they rioted against the bishop and the magistrates. Chalcedon had become a name of ill omen.

Despite these factors making for continued schism, the personal relations between leading Monophysites and Justinian and his two immediate successors, Justin II and Tiberius II, remained reasonably friendly. A striking example is Justinian’s use in 542 of John of Ephesus as a missionary to surviving pockets of paganism in western Asia Minor. John was so successful that it was recorded that 70,000 converts were baptized, and ninety-eight churches and twelve monasteries were built for their use. This success, however, did not prevent his being a prolific propagandist for monophysitism and becoming Monophysite archbishop of Ephesus in 558. In addition, Sophia, the consort of Justin II, was a friend of the Monophysites at court.

After 536, however, all efforts to heal the breach had a depressing similarity of high hopes succeeded by failure and disillusion.

First, the “Three Chapters” controversy and the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 were less concerned with monophysitism than with the relations between Constantinople and Rome. While the writings of Theodorus of Mopsuestia, the works of THEODORET, bishop of Cyrrhus, against Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas, and the letter of Ibas to the presbyter Maris criticizing Cyril’s theology were condemned, the key Monophysite tenet that “out of the two natures” there resulted “one” was also anathematized. Orthodoxy was now enthroned on neo-Chalcedonian principles. Monophysitism had been overtaken by new orthodox thought pioneered by Leontius of Byzantium (see Meyendorff, 1975, pp. 74-85).

Second, at the Conference of Callinicum in 568, the Monophysites were offered a compromise by Emperor Justin II. The sole faith was that of the Nicene Creed. Christ was to be confessed as “out of two natures one hypostasis and one persona,” the “Three Chapters” were to remain condemned, and the edict against Severus would be abrogated. Jacob Baradaeus was ready to accept, but his and other leaders’ efforts to persuade the monks of the orthodoxy of the statement without the explicit condemnation of Chalcedon failed.

Third, the second Henoticon, of 571, was the final attempt by Justin II to secure agreement with the Monophysites on the basis of acknowledgment of Christ as “one Son, one person, one subsistence, both God and man together,” and the confession of “one incarnate nature of the God-Logos” But again, since there was no denunciation of Chalcedon, it failed.

The reign of the emperor Maurice, beginning in 582, saw a renewal of persecution of the Monophysites, especially in Syria. When Maurice was murdered by Phocas, who became emperor in 602, and the Persians invaded the empire, Monophysite opposition to the imperial government began to harden. The seventh-century chronicler JOHN OF NIKIOU commented on the disasters that befell the empire: “This chastisement has befallen the earth owing to the heresy of the emperor Maurice.” Though the Persians were no light taskmasters, the Monophysites found it was possible to retain religious liberty under a foreign power, not least because the policy of Chosroes II was to give them the status of a majority religion in the Roman territory his armies occupied.

This policy was wise, for during the sixth-century economic changes had been taking place in Egypt and Syria that had enormously increased the influence of the monasteries over the lives of the rural population. In northern Syria, where monophysitism was already strong, fieldwork by French has established that areas once dominated by large landed proprietors had in the sixth century been transformed into villages where land was held by individual families engaged in olive culture closely associated with monasteries. In Egypt, monastic lands were even more extensive, and the dependence of the peasants on the monasteries was accordingly greater. Tradition preserved in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS speaks of an area near Alexandria where “there are 600 flourishing monasteries, all inhabited by the orthodox,” and their cultivators “all held the true faith.” This was the rock on which all attempts by Justinian and his successors to convert Egypt to Chalcedonianism foundered.

The victory of the emperor Heraclius over the Persians in 627-630 gave the empire a final chance of settling with the Monophysites. The emperor’s acceptance of the Monenergist creed, that in Christ there was one source of activity or energeia (see MONENERGISM), came as near success as any of Justinian’s and Justin II’s efforts, especially in Syria. In Egypt, however, incipient goodwill was gradually eroded and then destroyed by the high- handedness and duplicity of Cyrus, the emperor’s choice for civil governor and patriarch. When in 634 Heraclius was forced to withdraw his project of unity on the basis of Monenergism owing to the opposition of Pope Honorius and Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, the last hope of accord ended. Cyrus the Caucasian’s arbitrary rule alienated the Copts: “Sullen gloom descended on the land” (Butler, 1902, p. 191). By 639, when the Arab armies arrived in Egypt, they were ready to change masters.

Monophysitism must be regarded mainly as a religious dispute within the framework of Byzantine Christianity. No social cleavage divided its adherents from those of Chalcedon. Families rather than clans were divided. Regional identities, except in Egypt, were slow to form. While eventually monophysitism served as a focus for discontent with the imperial government, it was far from being the Byzantine equivalent of North African DONATISM. The key to its territorial consolidation in both Egypt and Syria is to be found in the great influence of the Monophysite monasteries on the lives of the ordinary people, especially on the land. The combination of popular religious devotion and economic changes that favored the growth of vast monastic estates contributed to the victory of monophysitism in Syria and Egypt in the sixth century. Thus the dispute “over a single letter” (Evagrius, 2.5), the difference between HOMOOUSION (of one substance) and HOMOIOUSION (of like substance), ultimately proved insoluble.


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