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Theophilus - Coptic Wiki


The twenty-third patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (385-412). A complex and controversial patriarch, Theophilus was much admired for his many writings, his destruction of pagan temples and subsequent church-building program, as well as his important role as a mediator of schisms at Antioch, Bostra, and Jerusalem during the early part of his tenure.

Nonetheless, he acquired a lasting and perhaps deserved infamy for his persecution of the monks of NITRIA and SCETIS and his banishment of JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, archbishop of Constantinople. Theophilus is the villain in PALLADIUS’ biography of Chrysostom and bears the epithet amphallax, “two-faced” (Palledius, Dialogue 21; Coleman- Norton, 1928, 34. 13).

Theophilus fares no better among several ancient historians, such as SOCRATES Scholasticus, SOZOMEN, and ISIDORUS OF PELUSIUM, who had valid reasons for their criticisms. The patriarch’s quarrels probably arose more from spite than from substantial issues. For his integral part in the deposition of Chrysostom at the so-called Council of the Oak, Theophilus was excommunicated by Pope Innocent I. The notoriety of Theophilus in this affair was apparently so great that later generations had to restore his image.

In a Coptic homily (Amélineau, 1888, pp. 188-91) attributed to his nephew, CYRIL I, Theophilus apologizes to John’s ghost. The stand of Theophilus against Origenism, however, won for him the admiration of other persons such as LEO I; JEROME; SYNESIUS of Cyrene; THEODORET; the compiler of the Alexandrian SYNAXARION, JOHN, the eighth-century bishop of Nikiou in Upper Egypt; and SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘, tenth-century bishop of al-Ashmunayn. He appears as a saint in both the Coptic and Syrian churches, and his festival day is fixed on 18 Babah (Forget, 1921, p. 72).

Childhood and Early Career

According to an Ethiopic text of John of Nikiou’s Chronicle 79 (Zotenberg, 1879, pp. 315-17; Charles, 1916, 75-76), Theophilus and his sister were born in Memphis and orphaned early. As a portent of Theophilus’ later destruction of the pagan temples, the idols in a Memphite temple fell to the ground and broke into pieces when Theophilus and his sister entered. In Alexandria the two orphans came under the protection of Patriarch ATHANASIUS. The sister later bore CYRIL I. Theophilus studied under Athanasius and distinguished himself both in piety and scholarship.

In his career as patriarch, Theophilus razed several pagan places of worship at Alexandria and elsewhere, the most famous of which were the Serapion and the Mithraion. His destruction of the Serapion merited him an illustration in the Alexandrian World Chronicle, now in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (Bauer and Strzygowski, 1906, pp. 56-58, 121-22). Socrates states (Historia ecclesiastica 5.16) that the emperor, Theodosius I, granted Theophilus’ request for the destruction of the temples.

Theophilus was responsible for building more than seven churches (Orlandi, 1970, pp. 100-106). Theodosius allowed him to convert the temple of Dionysius to a church (Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 7.15). The Alexandrian Synaxarion has reference to seven churches, but names only those sacred to the Virgin, Raphael, and John the Baptist and Elisha (Forget, 1921, pp. 72-73; 1926, pp. 111-12, 292). Eutychius of Alexandria mentions the Church of Saint Mary in his Annals (PG 111. 1026).

The Raphael church is known from History of the Patriarchs (Vol. 2, p. 430), and the Sahidic text of Theophilus’ dedication thereof. The Synaxrion (Forget, 1921, p. 77), a Syriac text of Theophilus’ alleged vision of the Holy Family (Geerard, 1974, p. 125, no. 2628), and a Bohairic homily attributed to Theophilus with an Ethiopic version thereof (Geerard, 1974, p. 124, no. 2626) each mention Theophilus’ supposed consecration of a seventh church to the Three Children of Babylon. Theophilus began the great church of ABU MINA, in Maryut, which was finished by AELURUS (Sawus 3. 122).

In the Syriac text about the Holy Family, the patriarch claims to have built a church dedicated to John the Baptist, which figures prominently at the end of another Syriac text on the life of John the Baptist (Mingana, 1927, pp. 256-57). Theophilus also converted the Serapion into a glorious church. (John of Nikiou, Chronicle, 78; Zotenberg, 1879, pp. 314-315; Charles, 1916, pp. 74-75; Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica, 2017, PL 21. 536). He later brought the body and head of the saint for reinterment in a tomb within that church. The church or martyrium may have been the subject of one of Theophilus’ homilies. (van Lantchoot, 1931; Orlandi, 1969a, p. 23; Orlandi, 1970, pp. 100-102).

To the emperors Theodosius I and his son Arcadius, Theophilus built two churches. Theophilus also built or renovated several other churches and monasteries beyond Alexandria. (Eutychius, Annals 528, PG 111. 1026; Sozomen 7.15; Zacharias Rhetor, Historia ecclesiastica, 506; Brooks, 1924, pp. 154-155; Favale, 1956, pp. 532-35; Orlandi, 1970, pp. 104-106).

According to several sources, the emperor Theodosius I gave Theophilus the keys to all the pagan temples in Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan, with permission to build churches with whatever riches found therein. In several accounts, Theophilus finds an inscription with three thetas, signifying God (theos), the emperor Theodosius I, and Theophilus. Although the accounts are highly fanciful, they suggest that Theodosius I, as Constantius II and Julian before him, had indeed entrusted the keys of certain pagan temples to a bishop (Dölger, 1932, p. 191).

Not everyone approved of Theophilus’ building activity. Palladius called the patriarch a “lithomaniac” (Dialogue, 22; Coleman-Norton, 1928, 35.19) and compared him to a pharaoh in his zeal for constructing grand buildings. Isidorus of Pelusium labels him a “money worshiper, crazy about stone” (Epistles, 1. 152, PG 78. 284-85). The author of the Syriac text about Theophilus’ vision of the Holy Family may have had these or similar charges in mind and, in an attempt to defend Theophilus’ reputation, claimed that he spent the money he found in the pagan temples on the poor and needy, not on churches.

The Schisms at Antioch (c. 392 and 394)

According to Ambrose of Milan (Epistle 56 PL 16. 1220-22), Theophilus was named mediator at a synod in Capua because of his impartiality in the dispute between Flavian and EVAGRIUS, both of Antioch. Flavian had the support of the emperor but not the pope.

Evagrius was the champion of the influential Melitian faction at Antioch. Ambrose apparently thought little of both. Flavian refused the request of Theophilus to attend a council of arbitration. Answering Theophilus’ inquiry, Ambrose encouraged him to summon Flavian again, and if he still refused, the archbishop should consult Pope Siricus. Evagrius died not long afterward, but Flavian was not accepted until 398, when in a highly unusual incident of cooperation, Theophilus worked with John Chrysostom to end the schism and to reconcile Flavian with Pope Siricus.

In 394 a schism arose between Rufinus of Aquileia and John of Jerusalem on the one side and Jerome and Epiphanius of Constantia in Cyprus on the other. Epiphanius was charged with improperly ordaining Jerome’s brother, Paulinus, as bishop. Both sides accused the other of Origenism. Theophilus corresponded with both factions and appears to have been sympathetic to them equally. Although the result of the controversy is not clear, the concern of Theophilus for the welfare of the church and maintenance of the orthodox faith is richly documented in Jerome’s letters (Nautin, 1974).

The Bostra Affair (394)

Meanwhile, to determine the rightful claimant to the See of Bostra in Arabia, Theophilus negotiated with Flavian of Antioch, Nectarius of Constantinople, GREGORY OF NYSSA, and THEODORUS OF MOPSUESTIA, among others, in the capital. One Bagadius had been deposed by two bishops, who died by the time the meeting convened. Agapius was the replacement. With the concurrence of Nectarius and Flavian, Theophilus judged that although he could not comment on the actions of the dead, in the future at least three bishops, and preferably all their colleagues, should pronounce depositions.

He therefore presumably accepted the appointment of Agapius. The meeting and apparent concord between Theophilus and Flavian while they were at odds is perhaps explained by their attending the consecration of the church of Peter and Paul near Chalcedon, where Theophilus was to have his infamous Council of the Oak in 403. By this interpretation, the judgment concerning Bostra was a development from the consecration; it was not the major event. (Pelagius, In defensione trium capitulorum; see Geerard, 1974, p. 132, no. 2677[3]; Duchesne, 1885; Batiffol, 1924, pp. 283-86; Bright, 1887, p. 1001).

Theophilus’ Relationship with the Monks and the Anthropomorphite Controversy (399-403)

Throughout his career, Theophilus was on good terms with various groups of ascetics in Nitria and Scetis. Even after his rancorous disputes with ISIDORUS and the Tall Brothers, the archbishop commanded the loyalty of the more simple-minded inhabitants of the monastic settlements. Jerome observes (Epistle 82) that the monks rushed to greet Theophilus on the occasion of his visits. In both the Coptic and Greek versions of the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM (Chaîne, 1960, nos. 19, 114; PG 65.95-96, 197-202, 221-21), the patriarch and the monks consult each other.

According to one apothegm, the patriarch enlisted the help of the monks for the destruction of the Serapion at Alexandria (PG 65.199-200, no. 3). In the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS (2. 425-26) Theophilus sent monks from the Pachomian communities in Upper Egypt to drive out pagans from Jerusalem, perhaps an allusion to his persecution of the “Origenist” monks, who fled from Egypt to Palestine and then to Constantinople. He also sent his nephew and successor, Cyril, to study with the monks, especially the learned Serapion, in Nitria. ARSENIUS, too, was held in such high esteem that Theophilus in his dying words praised him (PG 65.201-202, no. 82).

The argument of Theophilus with Isidorus over a gift of money complicated these amicable relations. Fearing the wrath of Theophilus, Isidorus fled to the valley of Nitria where he had many friends, particularly Dioscorus, Ammonius, Euthymius, and Eusebius, collectively known as the “Tall Brothers” because of their stature. The jealousy of Theophilus over the hospitality accorded Isidorus, and not his concern for the monks’ alleged belief in Origenism, was the source of the controversy. The ensuing conflict is well known from ancient and modern sources (Socrates, Historia ecclesiastica 6.7, 9, 11-14; Sozomen 8.11-14; Palladius, Dialogue 23-4, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 38.9-40.7; Baur, 1960, pp. 192-206).

Before the problems with Isidorus, Theophilus had been quite friendly with the Tall Brothers and had awarded them important posts. For example, Theophilus appointed Dioscorus to the of Hermopolis Parva in Lower Egypt, a position he accepted reluctantly. Later, the four monks became disaffected with the materialism of Theophilus (Socrates, 6.7), and perhaps with his zeal for building churches. They returned to the Nitrian communities. Stung by their ostensible disloyalty and, according to Sozomen (8.12), their generosity to Isidorus, the patriarch turned on these friends.

Heretofore, Theophilus had not paid attention to the monks’ supposed Origenist or to their about God’s form. Theophilus’ good friend and frequent correspondent, Jerome, readily admitted (Epistle 82) to the patriarch that he read ORIGEN’s works and admired his exegetical abilities, although he by no means agreed with all of his opinions. Theophilus never censured him. Sozomen (8.11-12, 14) and especially Socrates (6.7-9, 13-14) state that Theophilus, as well as the Tall Brothers, accepted Origen’s opinion about God’s incorporeality. Further, Theophilus had read and continued to read Origen’s works long after the controversy was over (Socrates 6.17).

He cleverly refrained from publicizing his concurrence with Origen over the nature of God’s existence and played instead upon the volatile emotions of the less learned monks in Nitria and Scetis by charging the Tall Brothers with Origenism. This accusation was a battle cry for the simple-minded monks, who adhered to “anthropomorphiticism” or the belief in God’s human form and quickly rallied round the patriarch. Theophilus’ Paschal letter of 399 was directed against the Anthropomorphites.

Using as a convenient, if hypocritical, means by which to ruin the Tall Brothers, Theophilus made a great show of his tenacity to the orthodox faith. In his Paschal letter of 402 (Jerome, Epistle 98, PL 22.799), he referred to Origen as the “hydra of heresies.” According to Palladius (Dialogue 23-24; Coleman- Norton, 1928, 38.9-40.7; see also Sozomen, 8.12), Theophilus’ forcible expulsion of the monks involved bloodshed.

The Tall Brothers fled first to Palestine and then, with fifty of their colleagues, to Constantinople, where they sought refuge with John, later known as Chrysostom (Socrates, 6.11; Sozomen, 8.12). The important and balanced eyewitness account of Sulpicius Severus of the situation prevalent at Alexandria shortly after the Tall Brothers had left (Dialogues 1.6-7; PL 20.187-89) corroborates Palladius’, Socrates’, and Sozomen’s statements.

Opposition to John Chrysostom

Prior to the dispute with the Tall Brothers, Theophilus had nominated his presbyter Isidorus for the archiepiscopate of Constantinople upon the death of Nectarius late in 397. On several occasions Isidorus had proven his discretion and his loyalty to the elected patriarch. Nonetheless, John, then bishop at Antioch, was elected early in 398. Although Theophilus initially sought to discredit him, he acquiesced to John’s election when faced with the possibility of answering unspecified charges made against him. He even supported John in his efforts to end the schism at Antioch. Once the four Tall Brothers and their colleagues fled to Constantinople and found shelter with him, however, the ill will of Theophilus was renewed (Socrates, 6.2; Sozomen, 8.2; Bright, 1887, p. 1000).

Like the debacle with the monks, the struggle with John is well documented, especially by Palladius and in a letter written by Chrysostom himself and preserved by Palladius, who reports (Dialogue 24-25, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 40.13-41.22) that John was well disposed toward the monks but did not receive them at communion for fear of offending Theophilus. John sent a letter to Alexandria and asked his colleague to honor him by forgiving the monks. Although Sozomen denies (8.13) that Theophilus returned an answer, Palladius claims (Dialogue 25, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 41.22-42.9) that Theophilus replied by sending the same clergy back with false documents proving that the monks were reprehensible.

At this, the Tall Brothers wrote to the patriarch at Alexandria, stating that they anathematized all incorrect doctrine, and to John, with a list of the grievous injuries they had suffered from Theophilus. Their accusations must have been shocking, because Palladius, never one to spare Theophilus an unkind word, emphatically refrains from detailing the contents of their petition lest his audience doubt his credibility (Dialogue 25; Coleman-Norton 1928, 42.9-11).

The monks went to the empress EUDOXIA, who complied with their request for a trial, at Constantinople, of Theophilus and the clergy who had borne the false documents. A counter council at Constantinople was also envisaged to try John. Theophilus urged Epiphanius of Cyprus and his eastern colleagues to attend, thus violating the sixteenth canon of the Nicene council that he had previously accused John of transgressing. This canon prohibited clergy from interfering in the affairs of other churches. Epiphanius ordained a deacon in John’s church without his permission (Socrates, 6.12), heedless of the second canon laid down at Constantinople in 381, which forbade bishops from performing ordinations outside their dioceses. Meanwhile, Theophilus set off for the capital (see Coleman-Norton, 1928, p. 165, note on Palladius, 26).

Heretofore, John had ignored the actions of Theophilus and Epiphanius. When Epiphanius announced that he would not meet with him until he denounced Origen and expelled the Tall Brothers, John finally retorted that he would deal further with Epiphanius only after the council originally summoned by Eudoxia against Theophilus had been convened. Shortly thereafter, the Tall Brothers met with Epiphanius and asked whether he had actually read any of their works. Epiphanius had not and was finally convinced of their innocence. After harsh words with John, he set sail for Cyprus, only to die at sea (Socrates, 6.14; Sozomen, 8.15).

Having stopped at Chalcedon en route to Constantinople, Theophilus gathered various bishops hostile to John and urged them to hasten to the capital. John, meanwhile, fell out of Eudoxia’s favor because of a sermon on the vanity of women.

Disguising his intentions, Theophilus then arrived in the capital “like a dung-beetle laden with Egypt’s and India’s best, emitting a sweet smell instead of the stink of jealousy” (Palladius, Dialogue 26, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 44.3-5). He set about organizing the infamous “Council of the Oak,” just outside Chalcedon. John refused to appear at the “council” or “synod” until his enemies were removed from the bench and replaced by more impartial judges. This request was never granted.

Many of the twenty-nine charges recorded against John by Photius (PG 103. 105-10; Baur, 1960, pp. 246-48) are rather petty. In fact, John’s failure to appear was the only reason for his downfall (Socrates, 6.15; Sozomen, 8.17). John went into exile three days later, only to be recalled almost immediately. Meanwhile Theophilus refused the emperor’s summons to the capital for the trial of his own conduct that had been planned much earlier. Not long after, opinion once more turned against John at a second synod convened by Arcadius, which confirmed his condemnation.

Theophilus himself was in trouble. John denounced him in a letter to Pope Innocent I (Palladius, Dialogue 8-12), and Theophilus also notified the pope of his actions. Possibly at this time Theophilus composed his famous condemnation of John, which survives in three translations (Baur, 1960, pp. 328-29). Angered by the arrogance of Theophilus, Innocent called for a synod wherein the patriarch was to substantiate his claims against John on pain of excommunication (Palladius, Dialogue 8, 12, 78). Innocent prevailed upon the emperor, Honorius, to call for a synod. The emperor wrote to his brother and colleague, Arcadius, giving his assent and labeling Theophilus as the culprit in the whole affair (Palladius, Dialogue 14-15). Whether such a council was held is unknown (see Baur, 1960, pp. 396-406).


Despite Theophilus’ fame as a writer, no critical edition of his works exists, other than the very incomplete collection in Patrologia Graeca (65.33-68). His writings were admired by Pope Gelasius I (PL 59.171-72). Pope Leo I recommends the sermons of Theophilus to the anti-Eutychians (Epistles 117, PL 54.1038, 1076). Theodoret has kind words for him (Epistle 83, PG 83.1271-72). The fame of Theophilus as an exegete is apparent from the number of quotations from his works (Richard, 1938; Reuss, 1957, pp. 151-52). He was often imitated (Gennadius, De Viris Illustribus 33, PL 58.1077).

The list of his spurious writings is truly impressive (Richard, 1939, p. 15; Geerard, 1974, pp. 124-31; Delobel and Richard, 1946, col. 526). His work has four divisions: Paschal letters, other correspondence, homilies, and other miscellaneous items. (Optiz, 1934, cols. 2159-65; Richard, 1939; Delobel and Richard, 1946, cols. 524-27; Geerard, 1974, pp. 112-34; Crum, 1915, pp. xvi-xvii; Favale, 1956, pp. 218-38; Orlandi, 1970, pp. 97-98).

Around 390, Theophilus sent Theodosius I a Paschal canon establishing the Easter cycle for one hundred years to make the Alexandrian schedule universal (PG 65.48-52). Despite his friendship with the emperor (PG 111.1025-26), the ambitions of Theophilus were disappointed. Nonetheless, the canon was widely used and admired long after his death by persons such as Pope Leo I and of Alexandria (PL 54.929, 1085, 1100). As late as the eighth century, Bede recalls (Historia ecclesiastica 5.21) this Paschal canon.

Of the annual Paschal letters written by Theophilus throughout his tenure, many fragments survive. translations exist in Jerome’s letters, and various Oriental recensions are known, excluding Coptic. References or allusions to the Easter epistles of Theophilus are scattered throughout late antique literature (Richard, 1939, pp. 35-38; Geerard, 1974, pp. 112-17; Delobel and Richard, 1946, col. 524).

Numerous other letters survive, in whole or in part. These attest to a wide range of important civil and religious authorities. His correspondence with Jerome, preserved in the latter’s Epistles 87, 92, 96, 98, 100 (PL 22), in particular is a rich and important source for reconstructing not only the aftermath of the quarrel of Theophilus with the “Origenist” monks of Nitria and Scetis, but also his efforts to end the schism between Rufinus and John of Jerusalem on the one side and Epiphanius and Jerome on the other (Nautin, 1974). At least five of the letters of Theophilus were addressed to monks, and these support the picture of close contacts with the monks presented in the Apophthegmata Patrum.

Including twenty-seven Armenian translations, more than fifty homilies remain, most of which are of uncertain authenticity (Geerard, 1974, pp. 122-31). Two tracts mentioned by Gennadius (De viris illustribus 33; PL 58.1077-78), Against Origen and Against the Anthropomorphites, may be among the homilies tallied under different names, as is perhaps true also of work against Origen, cited by Theodoret in the second dialogue of his Eranistes (PG 83.197-98). John CASSIAN reports (Collationes 10.2) that the Paschal letter of 399 was directed against the Anthropomorphites.

Several of the homilies, some spurious, are preserved in Coptic (Richard, 1939, pp. 43-44; Geerard, 1974, pp. 123-25). These are: The Crucifixion and the Good Thief, On Penitence and Abstinence, On the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, On the Three Children of Babylon, a sermon on the church dedicated to the archangel RAPHAEL and another on JOHN THE BAPTIST (Orlandi, 1972; van Lantschoot, 1931, pp. 235-54).

Of Theophilus’ many other writings, perhaps the most important is the diatribe against John Chrysostom, preserved in part by Jerome (Geerard, pp. 131-34).


Embroiled as he was in several disputes, Theophilus is either hero or villain in many histories of the early church (Favale, 1956, pp. 239-46), depending on the gullibility or sympathies of the writer, particularly with regard to the works of Origen. Theophilus is consistently praised, however, in Oriental literature.

Jerome was the most loyal supporter of Theophilus; he always addresses him as “father” and “master.” Rufinus boasts of having been a student of Theophilus (Jerome, Apologia contra Rufinum 3.18), and Synesius of Cyrene lauds him for the scholarship of his annual Paschal letters (Epistle 9, PG 66.1345-47). Theodoret (Historia ecclesiastica 5.22) regards him as a “man of sound wisdom and lofty courage” and quotes him approvingly in the second dialogue of his Eranistes (PG 83.198) for his anti-Origenist stance and his belief in the immortality of the soul.

Pope Leo I commends Theophilus as well as Athanasius and Cyril for their orthodoxy (Epistle 130, PL 54.1076, 1079). TIMOTHY AELURUS, Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria (d. 477), excerpts the twenty- second Paschal letter of Theophilus for the same purpose (Ebied and Wickham, 1970, pp. 355-56). Sawirus’ remarkably hagiographical entry for Theophilus is full of praise for his energy in driving out the pagans and in building churches (2.425-30).

The energy with which Theophilus pursued his various ambitions also earned him disrepute among many other writers such as Sozomen and Palladius. Socrates describes him as a “hothead” (Historia ecclesiastica 6.7; see also Palladius, Dialogue 23, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 37.22-38.5). This temper may have been the reason for the conspicuous reluctance of several monks to serve as bishops under Theophilus. Among these monks were Aphou (Florovsky, 1965, p. 280), Evagrius (Socrates 4.23), Nilammon (Sozomen 8.19), and Dioscorus. Their hesitation corroborates the remark of Palladius (Dialogue 19, Coleman-Norton, 1928, 31.10-13) that Theophilus sought to control his bishops as “mindless” persons.

Conspicuous too was his hypocrisy. He accused the Tall Brothers of yet he himself read Origen’s works. He broke conciliar law despite his denunciations of John for doing the same. Isidorus of Pelusium faulted Cyril I for behaving like his uncle Theophilus (Epistle 1.310, PG 78.361-62). No doubt inspired by these accounts, Gibbon wrote of Theophilus that he was “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue, a bold bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood” (Gibbon, 1900, p. 200).


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