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Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum OasisEssays from the 2004 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Honor of Martin Krause$

Gawdat Gabra

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9789774248924

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.001.0001

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Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum

Chapter:
(p.45) 5 Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Source:
Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum Oasis
Author(s):

Gawdat Gabra

Publisher:
American University in Cairo Press
DOI:10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Alexandrian Episcopal authority and biblical interpretation in the early Christian period in the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt. It investigates how allegory was used to reinforce structures of ecclesiastical authority in a specific geographical and cultural context. It attempts to describe local exegetical practices in the region based on evidence from the fifth-century letter by Cyril of Alexandria written to a bishop named Calosirius and On Promises, a third-century treatise against millennarianist belief by Dionysius of Alexandria.

Keywords:   episcopal authority, biblical interpretation, early Christianity, Fayoum Oasis, Egypt, allegory, ecclesiastical authority, Cyril of Alexandria, On Promises, Dionysius of Alexandria

OVER THE PAST FIFTEEN years, increased attention has been paid to the ways in which biblical interpretation contributed to the shaping of cultural identity and the construction of communal boundaries in the early church. For example, Averil Cameron 1991: esp. 53–57), David Dawson 1992, Frances Young 1997: 257–263), and Elizabeth Clark 1999: 70–87) have all highlighted the role figural or allegorical readings of Scripture played in the development of ancient Christian discourse. For her part, Young helpfully emphasizes the paraenetic function of allegory, illustrating how early Christian exegetes employed figural examples in exhorting their readers (or listeners) to attain certain forms of moral virtue. Clark shows how figural readings were variously applied (and sometimes eschewed) in the promotion of ascetic ideals. The insights of these scholars are illuminating, but in this article, I take as my specific point of departure an observation made by Dawson. Drawing on the etymology of the Greek term ἀλληγορία as highlighted in classical rhetorical handbooks, Dawson points out that the word “allegory” signified “to say something other than” (i.e., to say something different from) what was previously said (Dawson 1992: 3 and 243, n. 9; see also Young 1997: 176). With this in mind, Dawson suggests that allegorical discourse typically had a subversive rhetorical function with respect to prior, assumed “literal” readings of the text.1 His emphasis on allegorical readings as “counterreadings” leads him to recognize how this interpretive method could serve to destabilize (p.46) larger cultural discourses. And yet, even as he highlights the way that allegory acts as a subversive or “counterhegemonic” force, he nonetheless acknowledges that it could also be deployed in order “to domesticate the text” and to endorse “prevailing cultural norms” (Dawson 1992: 9–10). It is this tension between the subversive and domesticating functions of allegory that I want to explore here. To put my interest in the form of a question: How was allegory used by early Christian leaders as a means to subvert (and thereby suppress) readings of Scripture that were perceived as a threat to their institutional authority?

In order to begin to address this question, I have chosen here to investigate how allegory was used to reinforce structures of ecclesiastical authority in a specific geographical and cultural context. My case study will be early Christianity in the Egyptian Fayoum and its relation to the Alexandrian bishopric. I will focus on two sources in particular that illuminate local exegetical practices in this region: (1) On Promises, a third-century treatise against millennarianist belief by Dionysius of Alexandria,2 and (2) a fifth-century letter by Cyril of Alexandria written to a bishop named Calosirius (Cyril 1983: 214–221). What do these sources tell us about local hermeneutical customs in the Fayoum, and about the ways these two Alexandrian bishops sought to direct local practice? Ultimately, through a close reading of Dionysius and Cyril, I want to show how allegorical readings of Biblical texts contributed to the social and rhetorical construction of Alexandrian episcopal “orthodoxy.” First, however, let me begin by sketching out the different social backgrounds for these two texts, and the different theological issues at stake for the two writers.

Dionysius of Alexandria and Millennarianism in the Third-Century Fayoum

In the case of the third-century bishop, Dionysius (A.D. 247–264), his leadership coincided with a period of socioeconomic decline during the third century in which the Egyptian peasantry and an emerging landowning bourgeoisie suffered from various forms of exploitation, including an increasingly burdensome system of tax collection and public service.3 Christians quickly became the scapegoat for such social and economic difficulties. Dionysius himself reports on a pagan prophet who stirred up “local superstition” against the Christians in the winter of A.D. 248 by accusing them of abandoning their public duty of honoring the gods.4 The outburst of local violence that resulted in Alexandria flamed out quickly, (p.47) but within two years such tensions reintensified when the emperor Decius initiated a more systematic persecution against Christians who refused to obey his edict demanding mandatory sacrifice to the Roman gods.

In the midst of this volatile atmosphere of unrest and local uprisings, it should not be surprising that religious movements of a sectarian and millennarianist character arose. The term “millennarianism” refers to the apocalyptic worldview that the end of the ages was nigh and that it would be marked by a thousand-year period of peace and prosperity on earth. Such an outlook is reflected in works like the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah (a work probably composed during this period)5 and in the teachings of a certain Nepos, a church leader from Upper Egypt whose writings attracted a following in the Fayoum during the mid-third century. The historian Eusebius reports that this Nepos was “a bishop of territories in Egypt, (who) was teaching that the promises announced to the saints in the divine writings should be rendered in a more Jewish way, and was suggesting that there would be a certain thousand years of bodily luxury on that dry land.” Nepos wrote a treatise outlining his views on the book of Revelation (i.e. the Apocalypse of John) and entitled his work A Refutation of the Allegorists.6

The popularity of Nepos' teaching (and of his writings) among Fayoumic Christians became a source of concern to Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria: he claims that “schisms and apostasies of whole churches had taken place.” His response was to arrange a special meeting with the local church leadership in the villages near the city of Arsinoë “to rectify the things that had been written.”7 Later, in reaction to Nepos' anti-allegorical tract, Dionysius wrote his treatise, On Promises, in which he defends allegorical readings of Revelation. In that treatise, he describes his meeting with the Fayoumic Christians in terms typical of ancient public disputations, whose goal was to “air and settle differences” and to restore “social order and discipline within divided Christian communities” (Lim 1995: 20–23). At this gathering, Dionysius was able to win over a number of those in attendance to his own viewpoint. Among those persuaded by Dionysius' reasoning was a man named Coracion, who was “the originator and introducer” of Nepos' teachings in the Fayoum.8 To understand the social significance of this public disputation, however, one must note the exegetical nature of the discussions that took place. The central issue at stake for both sides was the proper interpretation of the Book of Revelation.9

(p.48) Cyril of Alexandria and Anthropomorphite Monks in the Fifth-Century Fayoum

Concerns about sectarianism and exegetical practice also feature prominently in the fifth-century letter written by Cyril of Alexandria to Calosirius, bishop of the Fayoum. However, the specific social and theological circumstances of his correspondence were understandably quite different. The fifth century was a time of theological controversy, and as bishop of Alexandria, Cyril inherited the controversialist mantle of his famous predecessors Athanasius (A.D. 326–373) and Theophilus (A.D. 385–412). Athanasius had spent much of his career fighting a long, drawn-out battle against the theological views of Arius, while Theophilus later led a more concentrated campaign to suppress Origenist ideas among Egyptian monks (that is, ideas inspired by the third-century Alexandrian theologian, Origen). As a result of Athanasius' and Theophilus' concerted efforts to present themselves as monastic patrons and as a result of their attempts to bring Egyptian monastic leaders in line with Alexandrian episcopal policy, the social and political position of the Alexandrian bishop was greatly strengthened by the time Cyril took office in A.D. 412.10

However, such attempts to consolidate the authority of the Alexandrian bishop were not fully successful. The Egyptian countryside (and especially monastic communities) continued to serve as a base for various forms of sectarian dissent. Indeed, Cyril's “Letter to Calosirius” gives evidence of sectarian groups in the Fayoum, albeit ones quite different from the millennarianists who had vexed Dionysius in the third century. For example, Cyril warns Bishop Calosirius about the presence of Melitian monks in his district at the Monastery of Mount Kalamon (Cyril 1983: 220).11 The Melitians were a dissident faction in the church that had formed in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, and had later posed public challenges to the authority of Alexandrian bishops like Athanasius. By the time of Cyril, they remained active primarily within monastic communities where they often lived peaceably in the company of non-Melitian monks (to the dismay of the church leadership, see Goehring 1999: 196–218). One of Cyril's concerns in writing his letter to the bishop of the Fayoum was to urge him to forbid “orthodox” monks from associating with their Melitian neighbors.

However, Cyril's primary purpose for writing the letter was to oppose a group of monks at Mount Kalamon who espoused what he considered (p.49) to be an overly “anthropomorphic” view of God—that is, a view “that the divine exists in human shape or form” (Cyril 1983: 214). On this matter, Cyril broke ranks from his predecessor Theophilus of Alexandria. A generation earlier, Theophilus had ultimately taken the side of Egyptian anthropomorphite monks in suppressing Origenist monks—monks who followed Origen in rejecting the idea that God could have a body.12 Cyril, in his “Letter to Calosirius,” openly opposes the anthropomorphite views held by a number of monks at Mount Kalamon. The basis of his disagreement with them was exegetical: it hinged on contested readings of Genesis 1:26, the passage where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (NRSV). Certain monks residing in the Fayoum understood this shared “image” or “likeness” to be a bodily one, a view which Cyril found untenable.13

Allegorical Strategies of Reading and the Rhetorical Construction of Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Fayoum

Thus far, I have sketched out the social context and key theological issues for two episodes in the history of relations between the Alexandrian bishopric and Christian communities in the Fayoum. In both cases, exegetical disagreements came to the fore as Dionysius and Cyril sought to suppress what they viewed as sectarian threats to “orthodox” church teaching. At this point, I want to turn to the specific hermeneutical strategies of these two Alexandrian bishops. Despite their different circumstances, both used allegorical readings of Scripture to counter prevailing exegetical trends in the Fayoum. In what follows, I will analyze the discursive function of their allegorical rhetoric and raise the question of how such rhetoric contributed to the social construction of Alexandrian episcopal authority.

Allegory has been defined as a rhetorically subversive hermeneutic that overturns prior, assumed readings of the text. As such, the allegorical method proves to be just as much a way of reading (and redefining) one's interpretive rivals as a way of reading the text itself. A constituent part of Dionysius' and Cyril's allegorical strategy in their correspondence with Fayoumic Christians was to portray their opponents as being too literal in their interpretation—that is, too tied to the “letter,” instead of the “spirit” of Scripture. They did so by employing specific kinds of terminology—terminology typical of allegorical discourse—that was designed rhetorically to define (in fact, to construct) the identity of their interpretive (p.50) rivals as not only too tied to the “letter,” but also, by extension, too tied to undesirable bodily concerns associated with literal modes of reading.

This negative “rhetoric of the body” was a common allegorical trope in late antiquity: indeed, there are many examples of early Christian writers who used the metaphor of the body in order to draw a contrast between literal and allegorical readings (Clark 1999: 79 ff.). In the third century, Origen of Alexandria commonly derides literal interpretations of Scripture as both too “fleshly” and too “bodily.”14 In the fourth century, Eusebius himself, in his History of the Church, uses similar language to draw a contrast between literal and allegorical forms of interpretation: “The spoken words constitute the body, while the hidden sense stored up within the words constitutes the soul.”15

In the case of Dionysius, such rhetoric is evident both in the wording of his treatise On Promises, and in Eusebius' editorial commentary. Thus, Dionysius criticizes millennarianist Christians in the Fayoum for not allowing others “to think lofty and splendid thoughts (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) either about the glorious and divinely inspired appearance of our Lord or about our resurrection from the dead,” and for “misleading them to place their trust in small, mortal (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) things and such things that exist now in the kingdom of God.”16 Dionysius here makes an implicit association between the millennarianists' interpretation of Revelation and their preoccupation with things that are “mortal” and of this world. Eusebius, as editor of Dionysius' treatise, draws out this theme by describing how Nepos had predicted “a certain thousand years of bodily luxury (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) on that dry land.”17 The “rhetoric of the body” that Eusebius uses in this context is probably borrowed from Dionysius himself. Later in his treatise On Promises, Dionysius uses this same language in arguing against others who rejected the book because they thought it was too preoccupied with the “fleshly” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) cares of the body, with the “satiety of the belly” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
), and with the kingdom “on earth” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
)—all concerns associated by such people with the early Christian Gnostic, Cerinthus.18 Dionysius presents his own allegorical interpretation of Revelation as a counter to such so-called bodily ways of reading the text. He goes on to demonstrate that Revelation should not (in Eusebius' words) “be conceived of according to its common (i.e. literal) sense (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
).”19 Rather, Dionysius tries to reclaim the text of Revelation by interpreting its more “obscure” points figuratively.20

(p.51) In the case of Cyril in the fifth century, this rhetorical link between “literal” readings and the “body” is made even more explicit. Cyril repeatedly criticizes some of the monks in the Fayoum for interpreting “the image of God” in Genesis 1:26 in a bodily fashion, or “according to the form of the body” (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
). Instead, Cyril seeks out “other outward appearances and hidden meanings (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
)” in the text. In the process, he reads the “image of God” in Genesis alternatively as a sign of human rationality (understood here as a reflection of the divine Mind or Reason; Cyril 1983: 216). In this reading, Cyril follows a long line of Alexandrian exegetes, including Philo, Clement, Origen, and Athanasius.21 However, at the same time that he draws on this exegetical tradition, Cyril is specifically signaling his commitment to allegorical counterreadings that reject “literal” or “bodily” readings of the Biblical text.

The Greek term ὑπονοίαι (here translated as “hidden meanings”) was stereotypically contrasted with the common or literal sense of the text in ancient discussions of allegory.22 In fact, it functioned as something of a “code word” in the application of the allegorical method. Here, two examples will suffice. Origen of Alexandria, in his work Against Celsus, describes how he interprets the words of Proverbs “not … in their literal signification” (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) but as having a different signification “in their hidden meaning” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
).23 A second example comes from Eusebius in his History of the Church. In recalling Philo's discussion of the Therapeutae (a community of Alexandrian Jews who followed an ascetic way of life), Eusebius speaks about how that Jewish community used to “interpret the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
),” seeking truth “in hidden meanings” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
).24

One more observation needs to be made about Cyril's allegorical strategy in his “Letter to Calosirius.” A close reading of the letter shows how Cyril makes allusions to the apostle Paul in support of his allegorical rhetoric. Another monastic dispute in the Fayoum was over monks who refused to work because they viewed such labor as incompatible with their monastic prayer and solitude. Cyril addresses this problem by quoting from Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians (3:11)—”I hear that some of you are going about doing no work, but (instead) interfering.” He then pointedly calls the monks' refusal to work “an excuse (or pretext) for laziness and gluttony” (Cyril 1983: 218).

(p.52) Later, at the end of his letter, the Alexandrian bishop returns to the theme of gluttony, although now he seems to apply this vice in a blanket fashion to all the sectarian groups in the Fayoum who had earned his disfavor—not only the monks who refused to work, but also the Melitian schismatics, and the anthropomorphite monks who were reading Genesis (in Cyril's words) “according to the form of the body.” Cyril warns the local bishop Calosirius about such groups, urging him to be vigilant against those whose “conscience is relaxed” and those “who desire to eat gluttonously.”

Let Your Reverence provide for the reading of these things in those monasteries for the edification of those who are there, and encourage them to keep these same instructions, lest the orthodox become afflicted because their conscience is relaxed (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
), and lest those who desire to eat gluttonously (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) have a certain way of “slipping in” and appearing to be among the good (Cyril 1983: 220).

Here, Cyril's words echo the language and context of the New Testament letter to Titus (a letter still assumed to be written by Paul in antiquity). In Titus 1: 12–15, the writer urges the bishop Titus to guard against “lazy gluttons” (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) who may be tempted by “Jewish myths” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) and whose “minds and consciences are corrupted” (
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
).

By self-consciously styling himself as a latter-day Paul,25 Cyril was further underscoring his allegorical aims. Paul was the only biblical writer to employ the Greek verb

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
, “to allegorize” (see his interpretation of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:24), and because of this he was frequently cited by later patristic writers in defense of their allegorical methods.26 By citing Paul, Cyril may have been subtly drawing on the authority of the apostle as a sanctioned allegorical reader of Scripture.

By means of this allusion to Titus, Cyril was implicitly branding his opponents' literal or bodily interpretation as a form of hermeneutical “gluttony” and a version of Jewish apostasy. The association of “literal” and so-called “Jewish” exegesis was another common trope among early Christian proponents of allegory, one that was deployed most often in anti-Jewish polemics or in heresiological contexts (Clark 1999: 33, 82; Hirschmann 1996: esp. 14–18). Indeed, a prime example of this is found (p.53) in the passage from Eusebius (mentioned earlier) where the church historian accuses Dionysius' anti-allegorical opponent Nepos of advocating “a more Jewish way” of interpreting the book of Revelation. Dionysius himself, in his discussion of the Gnostic Cerinthus, also derides the latter's “fleshly” interpretation of Scripture as being yoked with a preoccupation with “festivals and sacrifices and the slaughtering of animals,” three images commonly used by early Christians in their anti-Jewish polemics.

Conclusion

The characterization of literal readings of Scripture as somehow too “Jewish” as well as too “fleshly” played an important role in the allegorical and polemical construction of Christian identity in late antiquity. Through the use of such rhetoric, the early Alexandrian bishops Dionysius and Cyril sought to portray and problematize their opponents' interpretive practices as too tied to bodily concerns and dangerously tainted by sectarian or “heretical” associations. The contours of their own interpretations of Revelation and of Genesis were therefore etched largely in relief. That is, they were framed in reaction to other common or prevailing readings of those texts—prior readings that were pejoratively marked by Dionysius and Cyril as too “literal,” and therefore as too tied to things of this world. Such subversive, allegorical strategies were one way that these two patriarchs sought to consolidate and extend their institutional authority—to promote and enforce an Alexandrian episcopal “orthodoxy”—in remote, local settings like the Egyptian Fayoum.

Translations

Note: In this article, English translations of Greek texts are those of the author, unless otherwise indicated.

Excerpts from Dionysius of Alexandria, on Promises, Book One

(Preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea, History of the Church 7.24–25; excerpts from Dionysius' On Promises indicated by italics in sections 7.24.4 to 7.25.4.)

  1. (7.24.1) In addition to all these things, two books On Promises were prepared earnestly by him (Dionysius), and his subject for discussion was Nepos, a bishop of territories in Egypt, because the latter was (p.54) teaching that the promises announced to the saints in the divine writings should be rendered in a more Jewish way, and was suggesting that there would be a certain thousand years of bodily luxury on that dry land.

  2. (7.24.2) At any rate, having supposed that he (Nepos) could confirm his own private opinion from book of Revelation, and after having arranged it, he wrote a certain discourse on this subject—A Refutation of the Allegorists.

  3. (7.24.3) In answer to him, Dionysius objected in his treatises On Promises—through the first treatise, he furnished the opinion he held concerning the dogma (of Nepos); and through the second, he offered an interpretation concerning the Revelation of John. There, having recalled Nepos to mind at the beginning, he wrote the following things concerning him.

  4. (7.24.4) “But seeing that they bring forward a certain composition of Nepos, upon whom they lean too heavily, as if he proved without a doubt that the kingdom of God would be upon earth, in many other respects (I admit that) I accept and love Nepos for his love and patient industry, his spending of time in the scriptures, and his extensive psalmody, by which many of the brothers until now are cheered, and altogether out of respect for him I celebrate the man—especially for this, that he went to his rest before us. However, the truth is loved and honored more than everything else, and it is necessary to praise and to approve together without hesitation whatever is said correctly. But it is also necessary to examine and set right whatever does not appear to have been composed soundly.

  5. (7.24.5) And unwritten instruction would be sufficient for one who is present and who is stating an opinion with a mere word, persuading and reconciling those who resist through question-and-answer. But when the writing is made public, when it appears to some to be of a persuasive quality, and when some teachers believe that the law and the prophets are nothing, when they neglect to follow the Gospels and hold of little value the letters of the apostles, when they profess the teaching of his (Nepos') composition as some great hidden mystery and do not allow our more simple brothers to think lofty and splendid thoughts either about the glorious and divinely inspired appearance of our Lord or about our resurrection from the dead, our being gathered together with him, and our being made like him, but instead they mislead them (the brothers) to place their trust in small, mortal things and (p.55) such things that exist now in the kingdom of God, it is necessary that we talk with our brother Nepos as to one who is present.”

  6. (7.24.6) By means of these things, after others, he continues, saying: “Now when I had come to be in Arsinoë where, as you know, this teaching was prevailing above everything else, so that even schisms and apostasies of whole churches had taken place, I called together the elders and teachers of our brothers in the villages, and with those brothers who were willing present I urged that an examination of the matter be conducted in public.

  7. (7.24.7) And after they had furnished me with this book as a kind of shield and impenetrable fortress, I sat with them for three consecutive days from dawn till dusk and tried to rectify the things that had been written (by Nepos).

  8. (7.24.8) There, I admired exceedingly the steadfastness of the brothers, their love of truth, their studiousness, and their intelligence, as we engaged ourselves with questions, objections, and areas of agreement in an orderly and reasonable way, avoiding the tendency to cling to opinions once held by any means possible and in an obstinate way, even if it should not appear that I am correct, not shrinking back from controversy, but inasmuch as it was possible trying to lay claim to these things pertaining to the matters at hand and to master them, nor being ashamed to have my opinion changed and to agree with them if their reasoning proved sound, but rather admitting—with full knowledge, without dissimulation, and with hearts having been made simple before God—the things recommended by the demonstrations and teachings of the holy scriptures.

  9. (7.24.9) In the end, the originator and introducer of this teaching, a man named Coracion, within the hearing of all the brothers who were present, confessed and gave solemn witness to us that he would not hold to it, nor argue concerning it, nor make mention of it, nor teach it, as he was sufficiently won over by the things being spoken against his viewpoint. And among the other brothers, there were those who rejoiced over the mutual counsel, the accommodation with regard to all, and the common will.”

  10. (7.25.1) Then he (Dionysius) went down in order and said these things concerning the Revelation of John: “Now then, some before us disregarded and dismantled the book altogether, scrutinizing it chapter by chapter, demonstrating that it is without knowledge and without reason, and that its title is false.

  11. (p.56) (7.25.2) For they say that it is not from John, nor is that which has been thoroughly obscured by a veil of ignorance a revelation. (And they say) that none of the apostles, nor any of the saints, nor anyone from the church was the author of this writing, but that Cerinthus, who contrived the school of thought (

    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ) that after him was called the Cerinthian ‘heresy’ (
    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ), conjured the book by omen because he desired the name to appear trustworthy through his own forgery.

  12. (7.25.3) For (they say that) the doctrine of his (Cerinthus') teaching is this: that the kingdom of Christ will be on earth. And of the things that he desired, since he was a lover of the body and an altogether fleshly creature, he dreamed that it (i.e. the kingdom) would be in these things—in the satiety of the belly and ‘the things under the belly,’ that is, in food and drink and marriage, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaughtering of animals, through which he supposed that he could furnish for himself these former things more auspiciously.

  13. (7.25.4) But as for me, I could not dare to disregard the book (i.e. Revelation), since many brothers take it seriously; but finding understanding about it greater than my own comprehension, I take it that there is a certain hidden and more marvelous meaning in each part. For if I do not understand, but I conjecture that a certain deeper mind lies in the words,

  14. (7.25.5) not measuring and judging these things by my own reasoning, but apportioning the greater part to faith, I have recognized that they are higher than what can be grasped by me and I do not reject these things which I have not caught a glimpse of, but rather I marvel because I have not seen them.”

  15. (7.25.6) In addition to these things, having tested the genuineness of the entire book of Revelation and having demonstrated that it was impossible for it to be conceived of according to the common (i.e. literal) sense, Dionysius continued …

Cyril of Alexandria, “letter to Calosirius, Bishop of Arsinoë”

  1. (p. 214) An epistle of the holy Cyril, Bishop of Arsinoë against those who say that the divinity is human in form.

    Some men arrived from the Mountain of Kalamon and were questioned by me concerning the monks there—what way of life they pursue, or what course of life they hold to. They were saying that many were becoming distinguished in the ascetic life and very much wanted to lead well the life that is fitting for monks, but (p.57) that there are some who go around out of ignorance and disturb those who want to remain quiet. Then they began to maintain strongly that they were fabricating certain reports of the following kind: for they were saying that since divine Scripture says that humankind was created according to the image of God, it is necessary to believe that the divine is in human shape or form, which is completely unintelligible and is capable of carrying away those who choose to think in this way with charges of the ultimate impiety. For humankind, it must be acknowledged, is in the image of God,27 but the likeness is not a bodily one, for God is incorporeal. And the Savior himself will teach you this when he says, “God is spirit.” Accordingly, God is not embodied if he is spirit, nor is he in bodily form, for that which is outside the body should be outside form as well, and the divinity is without dimensions and without form. And if they think that the God who is above all has himself been formed in accordance with the nature of the human body, let them say (p. 216) whether he also has feet in order that he may walk, hands in order that he may work by means of them, and eyes in order that he may see through them. Now then, where does he walk? Or from what places and to what places does the one who fills up the universe go? For he said, “‘Do I not fill heaven and earth,’ says the Lord.” Or what hands does the one who creates through his living Word move for his works? And if he has eyes set in a face in accordance with us, does he not at all see things that are somewhere behind him? But whenever he looks toward the east does he not know what the people in the west are doing? And if he looks to the west, does he not see those who are in the east? I am ashamed to write these things, but on account of the foolishness of some people, I have become a fool—not a willing one, but (one who is) compelled by them. Therefore, let those who foolishly say these things be muzzled as unlearned. And let them be silent since they do not understand things beyond their capability;28 rather let them no longer slander God. For God is beyond all creation—he is thought of neither as a body, nor in corporeal types or forms, but is simple, immaterial, without shape, uncompounded, not composed of parts or limbs or portions as we are, but rather a spirit, according to the scriptures, overseeing the universe, being everywhere and filling all things, and lacking nothing, for he fills (p.58) heaven and earth. But humankind's being made according to the image of God has other outward appearances and hidden meanings. For in contrast to all the (other) living creatures on earth, he himself alone is rational, compassionate, having a nature suitable for all virtue, possessing also the (capacity to) rule over all things on earth, in accordance with the likeness and image of God. Therefore, in accordance with his being a rational creature, and insofar as he is a lover of virtue and fit for rule over the things on earth, he is said to have been made in the image of God. But if they think that he is said to be the image according to the form of his body, nothing prevents them from saying that God shares a common form with irrational creatures, for we see that these creatures are also from the same portions that belong to us, since they have feet and a mouth and eyes and nostrils and a tongue and the other limbs of the body. Therefore, let Your Reverence put a stop to such people, and, in addition, reprove those who have been foolishly saying these things.

  2. (p. 218) I hear that they say the sacramental bread (

    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ) is useless for consecration, if a piece of it is left over to the next day. They are raving mad when they say these things; for Christ is not changed, nor will his body be altered, but the power of the blessing (
    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ) and his life-giving grace is uninterrupted in him.

    Now some others also go around, as they say, pretending to devote their time only to prayer, not doing any work, and not thinking upright thoughts, and they make their piety a reason for cowardice and for profit. After that, let them say that they themselves are better than the holy apostles, who worked when the season granted them the spare time for it, and became weary for the sake of the word of God. How did they forget when the blessed Paul was writing to some: “For I hear that some among you are going about doing no work, but (instead) interfering” (2 Thessalonians 3:11)? Therefore, the church does not accept those who do this. Indeed, it is necessary, admittedly, for those who live in the quiet of monastic solitude to pray earnestly; but nothing prevents them from also working—indeed, it is most profitable—in order that no one may be found (to be) a burden to others while (at the same time) receiving the sweat of these same people for the sake of one's own need, and in order that one may be able to console the widow and the orphan and any who are weak among the brothers by his own hard work. And if (p.59) they think that it is noble not to touch any work—when everyone strives to emulate the behavior of these same people, who will be the one who feeds them? Thus, some make the obligation to devote oneself only to prayer and not to touch any work an excuse for laziness (

    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ) and gluttony (
    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ).

  3. (p. 220) Do not make concessions to the orthodox to gather together with the so-called Meletians, lest they become sharers in their apostasy. But if those people come to the orthodox repenting, let them be received. Let no one be indifferent; let no one have fellowship with those people if they do not repent, lest—as I have said—they become sharers in the bad faith that is in these same people.

    Let Your Reverence provide for the reading of these things in those monasteries for the edification of those who are there, and encourage them to keep these same instructions, lest the orthodox become afflicted because their conscience is relaxed, and lest those who desire to eat gluttonously (

    Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
    ) have a certain way of “slipping in” and appearing to be among the good [cf. Titus 1:12–15].

    I pray that you have been strengthened in the Lord, O my greatly missed and beloved (Calosirius).

Notes

(1.) On the subversive rhetorical function of allegorical modes of reading, see also Whitman 1987: 58.

(2.) Eusebius, History of the ChurchEusebius 1952

(3.) A helpful analysis of the social conditions in the Egyptian chora of the third century is provided in Frankfurter 1993: 241 ff.

(4.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(5.) For an English translation of the Apocalypse of Elijah, see Frankfurter 1993: 301–328.

(6.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(7.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(8.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(9.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(10.) On the role of monastic patronage for the Alexandrian episcopate in the fourth and early fifth centuries, see Davis 2004, chapter 3.

(11.) The monastic community at Mount Kalamon referred to by Cyril in the fifth century would later be associated with the seventh-century Egyptian martyr Saint Samuel: for an English translation of Samuel's vita, see Alcock 1983.

(p.60) (12.) Synodal Letter of 400Jerome 1996Clark 1992Schwartz in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum 1914:Cyril 1987

(13.) In his “Letter to Calosirius” (Cyril 1983: 214), Cyril rejects the view that God has a body because “God is incorporeal” and “God is spirit.”

(14.) StromataJerome, Comm. GalOn First Principles

(15.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(16.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(17.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(18.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(19.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(20.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(21.) See, e.g., Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation 1–26; Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 10; Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles 3.6.1; Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 3.3 and 13.2.

(22.) Plutarch's treatise How the Young Man Should Study Poetry (Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat)

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Plutarch 1927Tate 1929

(23.) Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus

(24.) Eusebius, History of the ChurchOn the Contemplative LifePhilo 1979History of the ChurchPreparation for the Gospel

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum

(25.) This strategy of self-representation is in evidence earlier in the letter as well, when Cyril evokes Paul's rhetoric of foolishness from 2 Corinthians 12:11 in addressing the problem of anthropomorphite interpretation: “I am ashamed to write these things, but on account of the foolishness of some people, I have become a fool—not a willing one, but compelled by them” (Cyril 1983: 216).

(26.) One example of this apologetic use of Galatians 4:24 is found in the writings of Origen of Alexandria. In his treatise On First Principles (4.2.6), Origen cites Paul's words in Galatians to show that “there are allegories (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) in the Scriptures.” Later Christian writers who opposed allegorical forms of interpretation were forced to contend with the dilemma posed by Paul's use of the term (p.61)
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
: in the case of the Antiochene writers Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, they attempted to argue that Paul's application of the term was different from the way that later Christian allegorists employed it: Diodore of Tarsus, Preface to the Commentary on Psalm 118; and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Galatians 4:22–31. For an English translation of these two texts, see Froelich 1984: 87–103.

(27.) Or, “according to the image of God.”

(28.) Or, “let those who do not understand things beyond their capability be silent.” (p.62)

Notes:

(1.) On the subversive rhetorical function of allegorical modes of reading, see also Whitman 1987: 58.

(2.) Eusebius, History of the ChurchEusebius 1952

(3.) A helpful analysis of the social conditions in the Egyptian chora of the third century is provided in Frankfurter 1993: 241 ff.

(4.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(5.) For an English translation of the Apocalypse of Elijah, see Frankfurter 1993: 301–328.

(6.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(7.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(8.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(9.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(10.) On the role of monastic patronage for the Alexandrian episcopate in the fourth and early fifth centuries, see Davis 2004, chapter 3.

(11.) The monastic community at Mount Kalamon referred to by Cyril in the fifth century would later be associated with the seventh-century Egyptian martyr Saint Samuel: for an English translation of Samuel's vita, see Alcock 1983.

(p.60) (12.) Synodal Letter of 400Jerome 1996Clark 1992Schwartz in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum 1914:Cyril 1987

(13.) In his “Letter to Calosirius” (Cyril 1983: 214), Cyril rejects the view that God has a body because “God is incorporeal” and “God is spirit.”

(14.) StromataJerome, Comm. GalOn First Principles

(15.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(16.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(17.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(18.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(19.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(20.) Eusebius, History of the Church

(21.) See, e.g., Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation 1–26; Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 10; Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles 3.6.1; Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 3.3 and 13.2.

(22.) Plutarch's treatise How the Young Man Should Study Poetry (Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat)

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Plutarch 1927Tate 1929

(23.) Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus

(24.) Eusebius, History of the ChurchOn the Contemplative LifePhilo 1979History of the ChurchPreparation for the Gospel

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum

(25.) This strategy of self-representation is in evidence earlier in the letter as well, when Cyril evokes Paul's rhetoric of foolishness from 2 Corinthians 12:11 in addressing the problem of anthropomorphite interpretation: “I am ashamed to write these things, but on account of the foolishness of some people, I have become a fool—not a willing one, but compelled by them” (Cyril 1983: 216).

(26.) One example of this apologetic use of Galatians 4:24 is found in the writings of Origen of Alexandria. In his treatise On First Principles (4.2.6), Origen cites Paul's words in Galatians to show that “there are allegories (

Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
) in the Scriptures.” Later Christian writers who opposed allegorical forms of interpretation were forced to contend with the dilemma posed by Paul's use of the term (p.61)
Biblical Interpretation and Alexandrian Episcopal Authority in the Early Christian Fayoum
: in the case of the Antiochene writers Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, they attempted to argue that Paul's application of the term was different from the way that later Christian allegorists employed it: Diodore of Tarsus, Preface to the Commentary on Psalm 118; and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Galatians 4:22–31. For an English translation of these two texts, see Froelich 1984: 87–103.

(27.) Or, “according to the image of God.”

(28.) Or, “let those who do not understand things beyond their capability be silent.” (p.62)