BMCR 2022.12.06

Claiming the mantle of Cyril: Cyril of Alexandria and the road to Chalcedon

, Claiming the mantle of Cyril: Cyril of Alexandria and the road to Chalcedon. Late Antique history and religion, 24. Leuven: Peeters, 2021. Pp. xi, 306. ISBN 9789042942578 $119.00.

With his monograph Claiming the Mantle of Cyril, Patrick T.R. Gray continues his lifelong interest in late antique Christology, which began with his 1979 dissertation, “The Defense of Chalcedon in the East (451-553).” In his current monograph, he takes a step back to look at the road that led to Chalcedon. Scholarship, Gray claims, has so far largely looked at the Council through a prism of “teleological theology,” and thus framed it as inevitable. A second perspective considers Chalcedon as the perfect balance of “radical theologies,” namely “Nestorianism” and “Eutychianism.” Both biases, the author states, are founded in scholars’ predominantly Western perspective. He sets out to tell the “familiar story” of Chalcedon differently. His main argument is that the conflict between the Home Synod or synodos endemousa (428) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) was at its core about which party could legitimately lay claim to the mantle of Cyril, and thus was true to the orthodox tradition.

After a general introduction (Ch. 1), Gray provides a basic overview of the scholarship on Cyril and the Council of Chalcedon (Ch. 2). Chapters three to five deal with the historical background of the Theotokos question: Gray points out that the struggle originally was neither a quarrel over one-nature theology nor a private dispute between the patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria. He argues that, pre-428, Cyril had had no conception of a one-nature theology, nor was it a key concept of his (Ch. 3). The argument over the Theotokos started as a local dispute, confined to the city of Constantinople. According to Gray, the freshly ordained Nestorius intervened in a struggle induced by younger, more radical elements who arrived along with him from Antioch. These “young Turks” preached against the widespread usage of Theotokos to distinguish themselves theologically. Gray understands Nestorius’s Christotokos as a formula of compromise. Cyril in turn appeared on the stage with his Letter to the Monks when he heard about the conflict from Alexandrian monastics (Ch. 4). The unfolding correspondence between Nestorius and Cyril escalated and widened the conflict, engaging clergy, monastics, and the laity. Cyril’s success consisted of two factors: First, he adduced the authority of the patristic tradition, styling himself a new Athanasius, and secondly his epistolary activity addressed not only bishops and magistrates but also simple monks and laity. By the eve of Ephesos I (431), the Antiochenes were ready to let the Theotokos issue go (Ch. 5). Gray claims that Ephesos I was not really an ecumenical one as it effectively consisted of two councils, one led by Cyril of Alexandria, and one led by John of Antioch. He suggests that the Antiochene delegation was intentionally late to give Nestorius the opportunity to sacrifice himself for the Antiochene cause (Ch. 6).

Chapters seven to eleven deal with the period between 431 and Ephesos II (449). Chapters eight and nine constitute the core of Gray’s argument. As the emperor, aided by his magistrates, was unsuccessful in bringing the council(s) to a fruitful resolution (Ch. 7), he continued to exercise pressure on the two parties resulting in the Formula of Union (also known as laetentur caeli) in 433. Here, the Antiochenes made extensive concessions to Cyrillian positions, a strategy Gray coined “protective coloration.” The only passage falling out of this scheme is the last sentence which appealed to the fact that theologians attributed passages of the New Testament “to one person and distinguishing others as relating to two natures, attributing the ones worthy of God to the Godhead of Christ and the lowly ones to his manhood”[1] (Ch. 8). As this concession stood in direct contradiction to Cyril’s fourth anathema in his famous third letter to Nestorius, this provoked questions among his followers. In the “new formulae letters,” Cyril tried to reconcile these two statements by coming up with a way of saying “two natures” as he had agreed to do by signing laetentur caeli, all while sticking to the “one nature” as postulated in his third letter to Nestorius. Following Cyril’s letters after 433, Christ was out of two natures before but one nature after the union.[2] According to Gray, this forced precision did not correspond to the “insouciant” and rather unsystematic Cyril before 433 who stressed the mystic ineffability of the incarnation. As a result, there was a perception of two dogmatic Cyrils – one before the Formula of Union and one after. This disparity was neither the result of a change of mind nor hidden consistency, but it was instead a reaction to Cyril’s external circumstances. In the subsequent controversies all parties – be it out of genuine conviction or strategic calculation – portrayed themselves as Cyrillian, thus claiming his mantle (Ch. 9). Consequently, Gray understands the Home Synod (448) as a show trial of pre-433 Cyrilianism with Eutyches as proxy. By claiming the mantle of pre-433 Cyril, Flavian and his allies were able to condemn Eutyches for a perfectly Cyrillian (albeit post-433) position. According to Gray, there was no such thing as “Eutychianism” and Eutyches was no heresiarch. The interpretative instruments employed were a passage in Cyril’s second letter and laetentur caeli (Ch. 10). Theodosius II convoked Ephesos II (449) only three months after the Home Synod. This was a significant volte face; Gray however understands it as a necessary adaption to the ongoing disputes in the East. Moreover, he suggests that Ephesos II, which later became notorious for its violence,[3] was not that violent after all. In fact, he claims, if disentangled from its situation in the hostile acts of Chalcedon, Ephesos II would be the most convincing council of the patristic age – allegations of violence would thus have been a way of delegitimizing Dioscorus and his supporters[4] (Ch. 11-12).

Chapters 12 to 17 deal with different aspects of Chalcedon. The first and third sessions[5] were aimed at taking Dioscorus out by associating him with the “heresy of Eutychianism” as well as the violent acts and the death of Flavian (whom the council styled a martyr of pre-433 Cyrilianism) (Ch. 12, 14). Gray claims that the support for Ephesos I among the bishops still was significant no matter what they agreed to as they were won over by the strategies of protective coloration and the claiming of Cyril’s mantle. This is exemplified by the bishops’ majority refusal to draw up a new creed in the second session. One important factor here consisted in the continuous invocation of Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius and laetentur caeli while similarly keeping Cyril’s third letter to Nestorius as well as the letters after the Union of 433 hors du combat (Ch. 13). Session IV and V consisted of Marcian’s successful attempt to bring a new creed to promulgation that incorporated the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople as well as Cyril’s explanation and the Tome of Leo. The most promising part of his strategy consisted in appealing to the Home Synod of 448 that had successfully claimed Cyril’s mantle and similarly incorporated the Tome of Leo. Nevertheless, the creed proposed by the commission of bishops appointed during the second session was discarded in favor of the final formula proposed by imperial officials (Ch. 15-16). The council entirely overstretched Cyril’s mantle by rehabilitating Theodoret and Ibas of Edessa in sessions eight and nine; both, in fact, were among Cyril’s staunchest opponents but were now portrayed as straight Cyrilians (Ch. 17). Gray concludes with a roadmap conveniently summarizing his argument (Ch. 18) and a conclusion including a short perspective on the further development of the controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries (Ch. 19).

The author has used familiar sources and methodology to tell a familiar story very differently. He does so by focusing nearly exclusively on the communication of bishops and synodal acts in the narrower sense. The role of emperors, their wives, or procedural questions are touched on only at the surface, but that was admittedly not the author’s goal. After Gray’s thorough analysis of the different camps’ rhetorical strategies, at the expense of displaying what Cyril and his supporters might have denounced as an unnecessary insistence on consistency, it would be valuable to learn who in fact stayed true to the Cyril, all protective coloration and mantle reclamation aside. As some would argue, not unlike Cyril himself, the author hid his opinion at the beginning of his book, noting in passing: “If we were in the business of looking for what Cyril truly believed, what the “real Cyril” at the deepest level “intended”, the faith of the insouciant Cyril, still untouched by the Nestorian Controversy would be a plausible candidate” (Gray, 2021: 39). It is legitimate to ask here if Gray is not a bit quick in letting Cyril off the hook, if only because he presupposes a meaningful distinction between actions in the public sphere and “real,” personally held beliefs. Truly believing it or not, in the years between 433 and his death in 444 ,Cyril fought for the post-433 version of his teaching with all the means at his disposal. That question aside, Gray’s careful analysis of the different versions of Cyril and the varying keys for interpreting his heritage shed new light on the intricacies of the enduring doctrinal controversies in late antiquity. It offers a number of interesting insights, and provides numerous points of departure for scholarly debate in the years to come.



[1] Cyril, Letter to John of Antioch, ACO II, I, 1, 108-109, tr. ACC I, 179-80.

[2] Cyril, First Letter to Succensus 7, Wickham, 76-77.

[3] No account of Ephesos II can get around the most notorious groups of ecclesiastical troublemakers, known as parabolani or parabalani. Gray refers to them as parabolani. The spelling parabolani was long common and based on the manuscript tradition of the Code of Justinian. Henri Grégoire argued compellingly for the spelling parabalani by referring to the manuscripts of Ephesos II / Chalcedon, containing παραβαλανεῖς (Grégoire 1939: 283-284). Today, this spelling is widely accepted, among others in the new translations of the Acts of Chalcedon by Price and Gaddis and the Theodosian Code, translated by Pharr.

[4] This is a daring statement, of course. It is true that allegations of violence were part of the standard tools of the trade in late antique conciliar controversies. The case of Stephen, the metropolitan of Ephesos who we know supported the decisions at Ephesos II but recanted them by giving a colorful account of the violent actions (ACO II, I, 54, p. 75), is referred to by Gray is a case in point. Ephesos was not a latrocinium in Leo’s sense or as depicted in the acts of Chalcedon; portraying it as “the most convincing council of the patristic age” might, however, go a little too far.

[5] A small error has slipped onto page 227: Dioscorus was deposed in the third rather than in the second session.