Alexandria is a city almost synonymous with learning. The Library of Alexandria was the foremost repository of the written word in the ancient world. It was most likely established by Ptolemy II, ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt between 308 and 246 BC. The Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt was founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great and was one of the longest lasting of the Hellenistic kingdoms established in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. At its height, the Library of Alexandria perhaps contained as many as 400,000 papyrus scrolls. Its destruction continues to occupy a place in our collective cultural imagination. Even after the destruction of the library, the city continued to be a major center of learning. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish author and exegete, who lived approximately between 20 BC and 50 AD, greatly influenced the interpretation of Christian scripture. In fact, Philo of Alexandria’s writings shaped Armenian hermeneutics, and there are many texts of Philo only extant in their Armenian versions. Dr. Abraham Terian, professor emeritus of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, has written extensively about Philo of Alexandria and his place in Armenian scholarship. Later, the consequential philosophical trend of Neoplatonism flourished in the city. Already a prominent center of philosophy and culture, the city of Alexandria became one of the most important sees of the Christian Church.
According to tradition, it was St. Mark the Evangelist who preached the Gospel in the city of Alexandria and founded the Christian Church at Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian philosopher and teacher who lived between about 150 and 215 AD, was one of the most influential writers of the early Church. His student Origen, though he became controversial, set out of principles of exegesis that continue to shape Christian interpretation of the Bible, and produced a critical version of the Hebrew Bible known as the Hexapla. Eventually, the combination of these prominent teachers and the size and importance of the city led the Church at Alexandria to become one of the major sees of the Church. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the prominence of Alexandria over other bishops in the region was confirmed. By the time of Emperor Justinian, a theory of the hierarchy of the Church, known the Pentarchy, asserted that Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem were the five most important sees of the Christian Church and their heads should be known as Patriarchs. The Coptic Orthodox Church, one of our Sister Churches, asserts continuity with St. Mark as the heir of the ancient Church of Alexandria. Historically, the cathedral church of the Coptic Church was St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria. Today, the seat of the Coptic Church is in Cairo—though the cathedral church is still named after St. Mark and Alexandria remains the “titular see.”
This Saturday, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates two of the most famous people associated with the See of Alexandria: St. Athanasius and St. Cyril. As we described last year, each of them opposed the dominant heresies of their day. For St. Athanasius, who as a young deacon had attended the Council of Nicaea, this was lingering Arianism. St. Cyril’s main opponent was Nestorius, educated at the rival See of Antioch, and who briefly held the position of Patriarch of Constantinople. Last year, we sketched out both the heresies and the accepted orthodox answers of Athanasius and Cyril. St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is one of the classics of the early Church. St. Cyril, honored as a saint by all the ancient churches, nonetheless holds pride of place for the Miaphysite Churches which rejected the Council of Chalcedon, such as our own Armenian Apostolic Church. In fact, Cyril of Alexandria’s famous Christological formula, describing the nature of Jesus Christ as “one Incarnate Nature of the God-Logos” stands at the heart of all Miaphysite Christology. While the only thing preserved in Armenian by Cyril is his Scholia on the Incarnation (scholia are short comments and notes, often marginal, which were sometimes collected into separate volumes), we can see the influence of his Christology in much of the writings of the Armenian Church.
|Studies in Armenian Historiography; Eznik of Kolb, Cyril of Alexandria, Constantine Porphyrogenitus||A short introduction to three important authors and texts by Fr. Zaven Arzoumanian. Included is a discussion of Cyril of Alexandria’s Scholia on the Incarnation, the “only surviving Armenian version of the great fifth century Greek theologian.”|
|Studies in Early Christian Liturgy and its Context||A collection of essays by Gabriele Winkler, an expert on the Armenian liturgy. It includes the article, “An Obscure Chapter in Armenian History” which details the impact on the Armenian Church of the Council of Ephesus, anathema against Nestorius, and subsequent move against the school of Antioch.|
|The Urban Character of Christian Worship: the Origins, Development, and Meaning of Stational Liturgy||The classic and only book-length study of “stational liturgy” in English. By John Baldovin, it looks at the development of stational liturgical practices in Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople while acknowledging the importance of stational liturgy in other Christian cities.|
However, while the doctrinal positions of the Armenian Apostolic Church have solidified over the centuries, and today the distinction between Athanasian and Cyrillian orthodoxy on the one hand, and the heresies of Arius and Nestorius on the other is clear-cut, these divisions were not always obvious or easy to see in their own day. To be sure, some heresies were the result of a purposeful attempt to sow discord among Christian believers. Many views eventually deemed heretical, however, were the product of honest Christians trying to make sense of who Jesus Christ was and how the mystery of being both God and human could make sense. Origen, for instance, mentioned above, is still revered as a major intellectual figure in the development of Christianity, but some of his views were later deemed heretical. He is not venerated as a saint despite his contributions, though Christians still continue to read his books, such as On First Principles. Arius and Nestorius did not fare so well. They were so fully condemned that even the people around them were deemed heretical. Most notably, Nestorius’ teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia, the most famous exegete of the school of Antioch and one of the foremost interpreters of the Bible of his time, was also censured and eventually anathematized. As a result, we have very few writings from one of the most famous and influential interpreters of the Bible who ever lived.
These conflicts were messy and were often very personal. At the time of the Arian controversy, Christianity had only recently become publicly legal within the Roman Empire. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD was convened at the order of Emperor Constantine because theological disagreement in the now-public church threatened the political stability of the empire. Likewise, at the time of the Nestorian controversy, with the declaration of Emperor Theodosius in 380 AD, Christianity had become not just legal but the official religion of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Empire, more people converted to Christianity, though in many cities older gods were still worshipped. Alexandria, where St. Cyril was Patriarch from 412 until 444, was such a city. When Cyril was Bishop, the city was increasingly Christian, though many remained pagan, including the prefect of the city Orestes. There was also a sizeable Jewish population. Presiding over the increasingly public and official Christian Church, Cyril worked hard to assert his authority within the city of Alexandria and to win converts to Christianity.
One of the most visible assertions of ecclesial (church) authority in an urban setting was the procession. Today, in the Armenian Apostolic Church, we still have many processions in our liturgical services, for instance the tapor at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy or the processions with the Tomb of Jesus during the Good Friday service. In the major cities of the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, processions took place not only in churches or near them, but all around the city. In what scholars call “stational liturgy,” liturgical services would take place at different churches throughout the city. According to the scholar John Baldovin, stational liturgy should be defined as, “a service of worship at a designated church, shrine, or public place in or near a city or town, on a designated feast, fast, or commemoration, which is presided over by the bishop or his representative and intended as the local church’s main liturgical celebration of the day” (37). We can imagine the impressive pomp of a bishop along with many priests and deacons arriving at a church all the way across the city from the cathedral church, processing in full liturgical garb for miles. The movement through the city must have been impressive. Indeed, while a detailed stational liturgy is best known in Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, similar processions and stational liturgy must have taken place in Alexandria. In a city with a pagan prefect and an influential philosophical school, stational liturgy would have been one prominent method of asserting ecclesial authority.
St. Cyril of Alexandria lived during one of the most contentious debates in the history of Christianity. He was, in fact, one of its main protagonists. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, Cyril and his understanding of Christology triumphed over Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople and Cyril succeeded in convincing the council to anathematize Nestorius. This short piece is not the time or the place to evaluate all of Cyril’s methods, both in the city of Alexandria and in the empire-wide Christological debates. Merely, the point is that the Christological controversies were not immediately and swiftly solved by the ecumenical councils. In the Armenian context, as Professor Gabriele Winkler has detailed in an article called “An Obscure Chapter in Armenian History,” the Armenian Church’s dependence on Cyril and adherence to Alexandrian Christology was not immediate. Rather, Syrian bishops educated at Antioch were for a time seated on the throne of the Armenian Catholicos. In other words, during this “obscure chapter,” orthodoxy was not a given but an accomplishment after a struggle. There is perhaps no figure in the history of the Church who best embodies the struggle for orthodoxy than St. Cyril of Alexandria. At home in Alexandria he projected ecclesial authority and grew the Church. In the broader imperial context, he championed his and his city’s version of Christology, which became the orthodox consensus. No wonder he is often called the “Pillar of Faith!”
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