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The Villain Who Gave Us ‘Mother of God’

Cyril was one of the most powerful theological figures of the early Christian church—but he also turned monks in bloodthirsty mobs when it suited his needs.

01.01.17 5:01 AM ET

On (hopefully) at least a weekly basis Roman Catholics around the world say the Ave Maria (better known as the “Hail Mary”) in which they petition Mary, the Mother of God to intercede with him on our behalf.

It’s one of the best-known prayers in Catholicism, but for a period of Christian history the title theotokos or “mother of God,” was highly controversial. In the fifth century many Christians believed that to call Mary the mother of God was a nonsensical audacious claim bordering on heresy. In the theological struggle that ensued the fiercest proponent of the title was Cyril, bishop of Alexandria from 412-444. It is in large part thanks to Cyril that the phrase exists in Catholic doctrine and liturgy today.

Cyril was right to argue that Mary was the mother of god, philosophically speaking it's the only way for the incarnation to work (full disclosure: I'm a Mary loving Roman Catholic myself), but this theological genius, Doctor of the Church, and Roman Catholic and Orthodox saint had a very dark side.

Cyril grew up in a small town in Egypt, where he received a standard education in grammar, rhetoric and philosophy as well as theology and Bible. It’s possible that for a brief period he lived as a monk in the desert about fifty miles outside of Alexandria. His maternal uncle, Theodophilus, was the Bishop of Alexandria and upon his death in 412, Cyril succeeded him. His selection as Bishop was not without controversy, according to Socrates Scholasticus a Christian historian and our main source for the details of his life, there was a rumble between supporters of Cyril and those of his rival Archdeacon Timothy. And on that somewhat violent note, at the age of thirty-six Cyril became one of the most powerful bishops in the Christian world.

His initial concern was with heretics in the church. He closed a number of Novationist Churches (Churches belonging to a schismatic group of Christians who opposed the readmission of lapsed Christians into the Church) and seized the sacred vessels that they used to celebrate the mass. Fighting heresy was a common enough practice for orthodox bishops, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge Cyril too harshly for his heavy-handed treatment of the schismatic group. But he soon turned is attention the Jews and pagans in the community.

For centuries the city had been racked by political tensions between Jews, Christians, and pagans, but rather than try to act as peacemaker, Cyril began to flex his political muscles. Cyril wanted more than just ecclesiastical power, and his ambition led him into a power struggle with Orestes, the Roman prefect and secular leader in the city.

In 415 Orestes issued an unpopular edict about theater performances in the city. Cyril secretly sent Hierax, a schoolteacher, to the reading of the edict. Hierax applauded the unpopular edict and, according to one source, the Jews complained that Hierax was there to provoke them. Orestes agreed and had Hierax tortured in a theatre in front of the crowd.

Cyril was incensed and responded by expelling the Jews of Alexandria from the city. Some Christian sources relate that friction between Christians and Jews had led to the murder of some local Christians. At dawn and without any legal justification for his actions, Cyril had a mob level the synagogues, seize Jewish property, and expel the Jewish residents from the city. It was an audacious move for a cleric. He was a powerful bishop but not a secular leader. In effect the expulsion of Jews from Alexandria was a power grab by Cyril.

In the aftermath Cyril tried, superficially to broker peace with Orestes by offering him a Bible. At the time Bibles were a rare and precious possession. But Orestes recognized that accepting the gift would be tantamount to condoning Cyril’s pogrom and refused the book. His actions almost cost him his life. Monks descended on Alexandria from the Nitrian desert to assist Cyril and the city was plunged into turmoil. The monks accosted Orestes, wrongly accusing him of being a pagan. In the scuffle Orestes was struck in the head by a monk named Ammonius. The wound bled profusely and Orestes, now abandoned by his guard, only escaped the monks because of the benevolence of the crowd.

For attacking a Roman governor, Ammonius was tortured and executed. You might think that Cyril would lie low and distance himself from the events. On the contrary, Cyril retrieved the body of Ammonius and declared him to be a martyr. It was an unpopular move with his fellow Christians but it also sent a message to Orestes that he was not someone with whom to be trifled.

It was at this point that Cyril turned his attention to one of Orestes’s most politically powerful supporters, the pagan philosopher Hypatia. Hypatia was well-respected in the city and had served as a professor to members of the wealthiest families in the city. She had learned mathematics from her father and is believed to have assisted in the composition of some important philosophical commentaries.

As Professor Christopher Haas argued in his book Alexandria in Late Antiquity, it is likely that Orestes befriended Hypatia in order to build ties to the wealthy pagan families in her social network. These kinds of links would have been critical for a Roman prefect navigating the turbulent waters of Alexandrian politics.

Orestes’ Christian contemporaries, however, blamed Hypatia for Orestes’s rejection of Cyril’s peace offerings. A Christian mob dragged Hypatia from her chariot, took her to a church called Caesareum, stripped her naked and brutally killed her. They then dismembered her body and burned her remains outside the city walls. Hypatia’s lynching put an end to the power struggle in Alexandria: Orestes conceded defeat to Cyril. But the effects of her death were more far reaching; it has been heralded by some as the end of the classical period.

Even Christian authors like Socrates Scholasticus cannot avoid the horrors of the events that took place in Alexandria during this period. Socrates places the blame on the shoulders of the populace, who he says “is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed” (VII.13). The Suda a tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia implies that Hypatia died because others were envious of her wisdom.

Modern historians and filmmakers, however, have seen the ambitious and jealous Cyril as the source of much of the conflict. Cyril personally led a mob to the synagogues, he had ties to the fierce Nitrian monks who attacked Orestes, and he benefitted from the death of Hypatia. Cyril’s uncle, Theodophilus, had forbidden pagan cults and destroyed the Temple of Serapis at Alexander, and the young bishop may have been eager to follow in the footsteps. One version of the death of Hypatia told by John of Nikiu tells how after her death “all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”

The historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that, “the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.” Gibbon was no fan of Christians, to be sure, and it is difficult to see through the layers of myth-making that constitute the historical record. One thing is certain: if half of the stories about Cyril are true he is fortunate to have the Virgin Mary on his side.