BMCR 2007.09.08

Theophilus of Alexandria. The Early Church Fathers

, Theophilus of Alexandria. Early church fathers. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 222 pages).. ISBN 9780203967553. $31.95.

Theophilus of Alexandria by Norman Russell (hereafter R.) is a valuable addition to The Early Church Fathers series published by Routledge. Each volume in this series focuses on a specific church father, combining a biographical sketch with a sampling of representative texts in translation, and R.’s book offers a useful introduction to an important but neglected figure in patristic studies. Bishop Theophilus is perhaps best known for his association with the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, his involvement in the Origenist Controversy of the late fourth century, and his role in the deposition of John Chrysostom at the Synod of the Oak in 403. In general, the primary sources have not been kind to him, and they have created a lasting impression, even to this day, of a manipulative, temperamental, and ruthless man. R. challenges this characterization, and from the onset he aspires ‘to be fairer to Theophilus’ (3). While overcoming centuries of negative press might ultimately prove impossible, R. does succeed at least in presenting the more revered side of Theophilus, particularly through his translations of letters and sermons (some of which were previously unavailable in English).

Following the general structure of the series, the book has two main parts. The first is a detailed reconstruction of Theophilus’ biography through a critical reassessment of the sources (pp. 3-41), and the second is a collection of translations divided into four sections, each preceded by a brief introduction (pp. 45-174). The book is by no means long, but it demonstrates excellent scholarship and style.

In part one, R. faithfully pursues his reassessment of Theophilus. The lack of relevant sources precludes any in-depth examination of Theophilus’ personal formation or early career, so R. instead briefly explores the development of the bishopric of Alexandria during the third and fourth centuries. By the time Theophilus was elected bishop in 385, he acceded to a powerful office which oversaw a large network of suffragan bishops. His predecessors used this office to assert their authority in Egypt and in the eastern Mediterranean, and R. appropriately links Theophilus’ firm administrative approach with the precedent established by his predecessors.

R. attempts to rehabilitate Theophilus’ reputation by offering reinterpretations of the major events of his life. R. casts doubt on Theophilus’ complicity in the destruction of the Serapeum (thereby reversing his own prior position), and he gives the clear sense that the bishop was a peacemaker who was consistently asserting the primacy of Alexandria by resolving disputes, convening councils, and interpreting various points of canon law. R. goes so far as to say that Theophilus became a man ‘trusted by his peers and respected as an expert on ecclesiastical law’ (15).

The standard picture of Theophilus during the Origenist controversy is of a man who willingly ‘flip-flopped’ on his theological positions in order to gain powerful allies and to condemn his enemies by challenging their orthodoxy. Furthermore, Theophilus is viewed by some as uncritically buying into unjust charges against Origen and lacking in intelligence. R. challenges this assertion and highlights Theophilus’ formidable use of rhetoric in articulating the inconsistencies he found in Origen’s writings. Above all, R. argues that Theophilus was concerned with the proper obedience to ecclesiastical authority, and he took any necessary measures to ensure his position was not undermined. While this may have been a noble goal, perhaps R. is a bit too generous to his subject here. The bottom line is that Theophilus used theological justifications for the violent treatment and expulsion of his opponents.

Theophilus’ central role in the deposition of John Chrysostom left him with many enemies in the historical account. R. does an excellent job of reconstructing the sequence of events, and more importantly he demonstrates that the heart of the dispute was a power struggle, not a conflict over belief. R. explains that Theophilus acted as he did because he sensed the encroachment of Constantinople on Alexandrian authority, and again he portrays Theophilus as acting in the best interests of his see, even if this included a direct challenge to the bishop of Constantinople. R. closes the biography with a final praise of Theophilus as a skilled theologian and spiritual leader, and he reiterates the revered reception of Theophilus in the Coptic tradition to complete the reassessment of his subject.

In part two, R. does not have the luxury of other authors in this series in that very little survives of Theophilus’ writings, and much of what does survive is either incomplete or of questionable authenticity. Furthermore the surviving fragments are scattered in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic, so R. is to be commended for bringing together these disparate parts and making them accessible for the first time in one volume.

The first set of translations is entitled ‘Earlier Festal Letters,’ which include just four small fragments. These letters were issued each year by the bishop of Alexandria before the beginning of Lent to announce the date of Easter, and of these five survive which were written by Theophilus. Unfortunately the brevity of these fragments limits their value, although they do hint at some of Theophilus’ theological concerns. The second section includes seven homilies delivered on various topics which effectively show Theophilus as a caring pastor. It is in these texts that R. attempts to show the intellectually sharp Theophilus, and he suggests that through the use of rhetorical devices and restrained allegorical exegesis, ‘Theophilus wants to move his hearers to compunction, to impress on them the seriousness of the Christian vocation’ (50).

The third section is called ‘Ecclesiastical Legislation,’ and R. brings together various letters and pronouncements, including a letter to the emperor Theodosius asserting Alexandria’s right to determine the date for the celebration of Easter each year. These texts really do show Theophilus augmenting the power of his bishopric. The other texts are intended to ‘give us insight into the routine business of the bishop of Alexandria’ (80).

The fourth and final section is by far the longest, and it is entitled ‘The Origenist Controversy.’ R. includes seven letters written by Theophilus and a lengthy fragment of a tractate on the book of Isaiah (although the authorship is disputed). Four of the letters are preserved in Latin translations by Jerome (92, 96, 98, 100), and R. offers new translations of these letters, utilizing the best available editions. R. carries out some excellent sleuth work in piecing together various fragments to provide translations of other texts relevant to the Origenist controversy. In the writings of this section in particular one can also clearly see the nastier side of Theophilus, as he rails against Origen, heretics, and personal enemies. Thus despite R.’s attempts at fairness, some aspects of Theophilus’ negative reputation are certainly merited.

In conclusion, R.’s work is a valuable introduction to an oft embattled figure in patristic studies, and it does well in offering a different picture of Theophilus than is found in more traditional interpretations. Furthermore this book highlights the shifting balances of ecclesiastical power and authority in late antiquity through the life of one of the more notorious and colorful characters of the day. Scholars and students interested in church history, patristics, and the later Roman empire will benefit from this work.