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One of the greatest of the early Church Fathers was St. Cyril of Alexandria, (376 – 444). At the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus he secured agreement that the Blessed Virgin was rightly to be known as Theotokos (literally ‘God bearer’, more popularly, ‘Mother of God’). He was the leading opponent of Nestorius, contending against  his view that one could divide the human nature of Christ from the divine nature.

Despite this (or perhaps because of it) he has received a bad press from historians. This started with the famous eighteenth century English historian Gibbon. In the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he devotes much of Chapter 47 to a character assassination of St. Cyril. The portrait offered is of a scheming, ambitious and unscrupulous fanatic: a man who bribed emperors to secure their agreement to his theology; who stirred up angry mobs to intimidate his opponents; and one who even encouraged the brutal murder of the Pagan philosopher, Hypatia. This series of essays deals with these charges, beginning with the latter.

Charles Kingsley (whose defamatory comments provoked Newman’s Apologia) wrote a novel based on Gibbon’s account. More recently a film, Agora, has helped the legend pass into popular circulation once more.

Gibbon, who was a zealous atheist posing as an impartial historian, wrote:

In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the praefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp cyster shells,  and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria

Let us, as good historians should, examine our sources. From them, another tale emerges. The early Christian historian Socrates wrote  in his Ecclesiastical history:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

There is not much here to suggest that Hypatia was ‘hated’ by Christians. Yet she was murdered, and in a grisly way, and by a mob identified by the Roman authorities as Christian. None of that indicts Cyril himself, unless one takes the rigorist position that a bishop is responsible for all that happens in his diocese; in which case, none should ‘scape a whipping.

The Orthodox historian, Professor John McGuckin, reviews the evidence of this terrible crime in his St. Cyril and the Christological crisis  (pp. 13-15)  but finds no evidence for Cyril’s involvement. The editor of his letters, Lionel Wickham, writes (p. xvi) that Socrates’ account was coloured by his sympathy for the heretical Novatians, and his own conclusion is that the picture yielded by the sources is:

not of a fanatical priest, hungry for power, heading a howling mob, but of an untried leader attempting, and initially failing, to master popular forces.

Not, to be sure, a pretty tale. A young bishop failing, like the Romans themselves, to control the Alexandrian mob; but not grounds for indictment before the bar of history. Gibbons’ portrait fits the modern mind-set, which sees Christian belief as a kind of cognitive dissonance. People who believe such things, so their own belief goes, will do evil actions; as though those who don’t, won’t.