Nestorius was born at Germanicia in Syria Euphratensis sometime before 381, and became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. After his condemnation for heresy and deposition by the First Council of EPHESUS in 431, he was allowed by Emperor Theodosius II to retire to his former monastery a short distance from the gates of Antioch. Because Nestorius continued to agitate on behalf of his condemned teachings, Archbishop JOHN OF ANTIOCH complained to Theodosius, who ordered the final banishment of Nestorius to the Great Oasis (Khargah) in Egypt on 3 August 435. Nestorius remained in Egypt until his death (sometime after 451).
The most reliable, and the only detailed, source for Nestorius’ exile in Egypt is found in Book I, chapter 7, of the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (c. 536-600). Evagrius claims that he was able to consult Nestorius’ own writings, and quotes from the Tragoedia and the Bazaar of Heracleides, works written by Nestorius to defend his position, and a letter addressed to the governor of the Thebaid. Sometime after Nestorius arrived at the Great Oasis, it was overrun by a Nubian tribe. Evagrius calls them Blemmyes, while Nestorius is quoted as calling them Noubades. Both names, as used by these writers, are probably generic words used to refer to the inhabitants of Lower Nubia, who made frequent incursions into Egypt in the fifth century (see BEJA TRIBES). The tribes plundered the Great Oasis and left it in ruins. They then freed Nestorius and an unspecified number of other people with the warning that they should flee because the Mazices, a Libyan tribe, were on the way to attack the oasis. The refugees had to make their way across the desert to the Thebaid as best they could. The date of this invasion is unknown. Nestorius was still at the oasis when Socrates Scholasticus wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 439.
Perhaps the invasion of the Mazices coincided with their devastation of the monasteries of Scetis in 444. Upon his arrival at Panopolis (Akhmim), Nestorius made himself conspicuous in order to avoid being branded a fugitive. He appealed to the governor of the Thebaid for clemency, but was instead transported under military escort to Elephantine Island, on the southern border of Egypt. No sooner had he arrived than he was recalled to Panopolis. Nestorius complained about having to make the trip, saying that he was aged (he must have been over sixty by this time) and ill, suffered from the hazards of travel, and that his hand and side had been mangled. The latter affliction may have been the result of the fall to which Evagrius attributes his eventual death.
After returning to Panopolis, Nestorius was sent to a place near it, probably the fortress of Psinblje (Shard Heap) mentioned in the Coptic sources. While he was there, another order for deportation to an unspecified place was issued, but whether Nestorius was moved again is not known. The exact date of his death is unknown. In the Bazaar of Heracleides he shows a knowledge of DIOSCORUS’ deposition and exile by the Council of CHALCEDON, which would place his death sometime after 451.
The Coptic tradition concerning Nestorius preserves stories about his exile most of which are not found elsewhere. According to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, Nestorius was being escorted to the Great Oasis when his guard learned that the Mazices had sacked it, and so he was taken immediately to Panopolis and incarcerated at Psinblje. This contradicts Evagrius’ evidence and probably represents a badly informed summary of events. The History of the Church in Twelve Books tells of a confrontation between Nestorius and SHENUTE of Atrbe. Nestorius asks Shenute to distribute his goods to the poor, and Shenute demands that he acknowledge that Mary is the Mother of God. When Nestorius refuses, Shenute declines to distribute his goods. The same story appears in other works (e.g., the Arabic Life of Shenute) where Shenute calls down an angel who beats Nestorius to death. Some scholars have seen this episode as a possible indication that Shenute had a hand in Nestorius’ murder. But Nestorius’ death as a result of a fall, as related by Evagrius, is the more plausible explanation.
Coptic sources also relate an earlier confrontation between Nestorius and Shenute at the Council of Ephesus (431), when Nestorius allegedly threw the Gospel book from its throne and seated himself in its place. Shenute in turn unseated Nestorius and restored the Gospel. The Coptic History of the Church mentions a petition sent by Nestorius to Caesarius at Antinoopolis, because Caesarius was a friend of Shenute who might be able to persuade the latter not to harass Nestorius. Caesarius is well known from Shenute’s own letters and from an inscription found at the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH). Such a petition would fit the picture of Nestorius as portrayed by Evagrius.
The confrontation between Nestorius and Shenute was certainly possible, but it is not corroborated by any account outside the Coptic tradition. While the details of Nestorius’ exile in Egypt are sketchy in the Coptic accounts, and probably not reliable for the most part, the impact of Nestorius as a symbol of everything that Egyptian orthodoxy opposed after the Council of Chalcedon was profound. The adjective “Nestorian” was used indiscriminately in Egypt to describe all forms of the two-nature Christology.
- Johnson, D. W. “Further Fragments of a Coptic History of the Church: Cambridge Or. 1699R.” Enchoria 6 (1976):7-17.
DAVID W. JOHNSON