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Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria

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Theophilus (9), bp. of Alexandria, succeeding Timotheus in the last week of July 385. He had probably been a leading member of the Alexandrian clergy. Socrates states that Theophilus (probably two years later, Clinton, Fast. Rom. i. 522) obtained from Theodosius a commission to demolish the pagan temples of Alexandria (Socr. v. 16). Sozomen corrects this by saying that Theodosius granted to Theophilus, at his own request, the temple of Dionysus, on the site of which he proposed to build a church (vii. 15). Socrates says that Theophilus "cleared out the temple of Mithras, and exposed its bloody mysteries." Socrates adds that the foul symbols used in the worship of Serapis and other gods were, by the archbishop's order, carried through the agora as objects of contemptuous abhorrence. The votaries of Alexandrian idolatry arranged a tragically successful onslaught on the Christians and then took possession of the vast Serapeum, in the N.W. quarter of the city, which had been the popular sanctuary of Alexandrian paganism, and now became their stronghold of "furious despair" ( Orat. of Athan. against the Arians , p. 5, ed. Oxf.). They made sallies from its precincts, captured several Christians, dragged them within, and inflicted torture or death on those who would not sacrifice. The general in command at Alexandria and the Augustal prefect summoned them to surrender, but in vain. Olympius, a philosopher, sustained their obstinate resolution until the arrival of an edict ordering the destruction of all the temples. Terrified by the shouts which proclaimed this mandate, the desperadoes abandoned the Serapeum; and Theophilus, with a great body of soldiers, exultant Christians, and astounded pagans, ascended the hundred steps leading up the mound, and penetrated into the faintly lighted sanctuary, from within which the Christians afterwards believed that Olympius, on the night before the evacuation, had heard a voice chanting "Alleluia" (Soz. vii. 15). There was the huge seated statue of Serapis, constructed of various metals, now dusky with age, and inlaid with various precious stones (Clem. Alex. Cohort 48). The successor of Athanasius gazed on this visible concentration of the power of Egyptian idolatry, no doubt the symbol to many Alexandrians of the principle of life and of the powers that ruled the underworld. It was a supreme moment; at last the church had her foot on the neck of her foe. Mutterings of superstitious fear were heard; to draw near the image was to cause an earthquake. The archbishop turned to a soldier who held an axe, and bade him "strike hard." The man obeyed. A shriek of terror burst from many; another and another blow followed, the head was lopped off, and there ran out a troop of mice, which had "dwelt within the god of the Egyptians." Misgiving and alarm gave way to noisy triumph; the body of Serapis was broken up and burned; the head was made a public show. At Canopus, 14 miles from Alexandria, temples were immediately laid low. The images were melted down into cauldrons and other vessels required in the eleemosynary work of the Alexandrian church. The one exception was an image of an ape, which Theophilus set up in a public place "in perpetuam rei memoriam," to the vexation of the pagan grammarian Ammonius, who lived to teach the young Socrates at Constantinople, and used to complain seriously of the injustice thus done to "Greek religion" (Socr. v. 16). During the demolition of various temples there were found hollow statues of bronze and wood, set against the walls, but capable of being entered by the priests, who thus carried on their impostures, which Theophilus explained to his pagan fellow-citizens (Theod. v. 22). But when the Nile-gauge was removed from the Serapeum to the church, the pagans asked, Would not the god avenge himself by withholding the yearly inundation his power had been wont to effect? It was, in fact, delayed. Murmurs swelled into remonstrances; the state of the city was becoming dangerous; the prefect had to consult his sovereign. Theodosius's answer was: "If the Nile would not rise except by means of enchantments or sacrifices, let Egypt remain unwatered." Forthwith the river began to rise with vehemence; the fear was now of a flood (Soz. vii. 20). We know not the nature of those concessions to the pagans which, according to a letter from Atticus to Theophilus's nephew Cyril, Theophilus made at this time for the sake of peace (Cyril, Epp. p. 202), but they did not prevent a pagan like Eunapius from abusing him. To Eunapius the temple-breakers were impious men who "threw everything into confusion, boasted of having conquered the gods," enriched themselves by the plunder, "brought into the sacred places the so-called monks, men in form but swinish in life," deified the, "bones and heads of worthless men who had been punished by the courts for their offences," and assigned to "bad slaves who had borne the marks of the lash the title of martyrs and intercessors with the gods."

In 391 or 392 Theophilus was named by the council of Capua as arbiter of the dispute between Flavian, as representing the Meletian succession to the see of Antioch, and Evagrius, whose claims, like those of his predecessor Paulinus, were upheld by the West. Theophilus undertook to examine the case with the aid of his suffragans. Evagrius soon died, but Flavian was not recognized by the West until Chrysostom primarily, and Theophilus secondarily, effected that result in 398 (Soz. viii. 3; cf. Tillem. x. 538).

In A.D. 394 we find Theophilus for the first time at Constantinople, at a council in the baptistery of the great church, on Sept. 29. He sat next to Nectarius of Constantinople, and there were present also Flavian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theophilus was in close relations with the solitaries of Egypt. In the Sayings of the Fathers he appears as inviting some of them to be present. at the destruction of the temples, and again as visiting those of the famous Nitrian settlement, and penetrating to the more distant Scetis. Still more celebrated was his intimacy with four monks of Scetis, known as "the Tall Brothers." These years were the best in Theophilus's episcopate; and if it had lasted only ten years, he might have left the name, if not of a saint, at least of a good as well as an able and energetic prelate.

But in 395 the story of his life changes its character. He begins to justify the description afterwards given of him by an adversary "Naturally impulsive, headlong, intensely contentious, insatiable in grasping at his objects, awaiting in his own case neither trial nor inquiry, impatient of opposition, determined to carry out his own resolves " (Pallad. Dial. p. 76). In 395, at the request of bp. John of Jerusalem, he sent his friend Isidore, said to have been an Origenist, as his envoy into Palestine, to abate the strife between John and Jerome. Isidore visited Jerome three times, but would not give him a letter which Theophilus had written him (ib. 39); and his so-called mediation only produced a soreness on Theophilus's part towards Jerome, whose letters for some time he ignored. At last he wrote, coldly exhorting Jerome to respect the authority of the bp. of Jerusalem, and again in 399 (according to Vallarsi), urging Jerome to come to terms with John.

Theophilus had been throwing his whole weight against the extreme literalism of the Anthropomorphists, a coarse reaction from the Alexandrian allegorism. A number of ill-informed and enthusiastic monks recoiled even from the ordinary explanation of those O.T. economies by which, as Epiphanius himself held, the divine manifestation had been adapted to the capacities of human nature (Haer. 70. 7; see also Aug. Haer. 50 and 76; Theodoret, iv. 10). They took the scriptural expressions "as to eyes, face, and hands of God, as they found them, without examination " (Soz. viii. 11). Hence, when Theophilus, in his Paschal Letter for 399, insisted peremptorily on the immateriality of the divine nature, a storm of wrathful zeal broke out among the solitaries; one of them, indeed, named Serapion, was candid enough to be convinced by argument, but the pain which ensued was such that when his brethren were engaged in their devotions, he exclaimed with tears, "They have taken away my God, and I know not whom to adore!" (Cassian, Coll. x. 3 ). Many others were of fiercer mood: was the "image of God" to be thus nullified? They hurried from their deserts to Alexandria and menaced the "pope" whom they had been wont to honour. "Impious man! thou deservest death!" He saw that they were not to be defied, but a smooth prevarication might disarm them. "In seeing you I see God's face!" It was enough: he had appeared to accept the imperilled phrase: they asked more calmly, "If you admit that God's face is like ours, anathematize the books of Origen; for some people contradict us on their authority. If you will not do this, be prepared for the treatment due to those who fight against God." Theophilus uttered the fateful words of compliance: "I will do what you think fit; do not be angry with me, for I object to Origen's books, and blame those who approve them." Here he was using "economy"; he stooped to propitiate the Anthropomorphists by using their phrase in a sense of his own and letting them think that he condemned Origen absolutely. About the end of 399 or beginning of 400 he held a synod at Alexandria, at which "Origenism" was condemned. He then wrote to Anastasius of Rome and Jerome, informing them of this. At the beginning of 401 he attacked Origenism in his Paschal Letter (Hieron. Ep. 96), a remarkable document which anticipates the Christology of his nephew and successor Cyril, while excluding all Apollinarian ideas. Theophilus traces to Origen the (Marcellian) notion that Christ's kingdom would have an end. He goes on to denounce Origenistic Universalism, and the notions that Christ would suffer again on behalf of the demons, and that after the resurrection human bodies would again be subject to dissolution. Fortified by an imperial edict forbidding all monks to read Origen (Anastasius, ad Joan. Jerus. ), he ordered the neighbouring bishops to banish the chief Nitrian monks from their own mountains and from the farther desert. Some of the monks came to remonstrate with him. They probably disclaimed the special errors associated with the name of Origen, and urged that they ought not to be treated as heretics because they opposed the degrading literalism of the Anthropomorphists. Palladius represents him as glaring at them in a fury, throwing his scarf or omophorion over the neck of Ammonius, one of the Tall Brothers, and with a blow on the face drawing blood, and fiercely exclaiming, "You heretic, anathematize Origen!" ( Dial. p. 54). Palladius adds that he induced five of the Nitrian monks ("men unworthy even to be doorkeepers"), whom he had promoted to ecclesiastical office, to sign accusations against three of their chief brethren, who were accordingly excommunicated in a council. At his request the Augustal prefect decreed their expulsion from Egypt; and Theophilus is said to have attacked the Nitrian settlement by night at the head of a force which was to execute this order. A wild scene, according to Palladius, ensued ( Dial. p 57). Against this account is to be set Theophilus's own statement in what is called the synodical letter to the bishops of Palestine and Cyprus (trans. by Jerome, Ep. 92), intended to be read by them when assembled for the Dedication Festival at Jerusalem in Sept. 401. Theophilus says that, having been memorialized by orthodox "fathers and presbyters," he went to Nitria with a great number of neighbouring bishops, and there, in presence of many fathers who come together from nearly the whole of Egypt, some of Origen's treatises were read, and the adherents of Origenism condemned. The Origenist monks were now going about in foreign provinces, "seeking whom to devour with their impiety"; their mad impetuosity must be restrained. Theophilus protests that he has done them no hurt and taken nothing wrongfully from them. It is clear that Theophilus did personally visit Nitria, and that its "Origenist monks" were put under ban, and driven forth, probably in the early summer of 401, and that their places were filled by others of whose "docility" Theophilus could rely.

The persecuted "Brothers" found a temporary refuge with many other fugitives (Dial. p. 160) at Scythopolis, on the slope of mount Gilboa. Some bishops of Palestine who shewed them countenance were peremptorily warned by Theophilus ( ib. p. 58). Hunted from place to place, the Nitrians determined to seek redress at Constantinople. Here the current of the Origenistic controversy flows suddenly, and with momentous consequences, into the stream of Chrysostom's episcopate. Towards the close of 401 some 50 elderly men of the Nitrian party fell at his feet as suppliants ( ib. p. 58). The bishop, moved to tears, asked who had accused them. "Sit down, father," they answered, "and provide some remedy for the harm that pope Theophilus has done us. If out of regard to him you will not act, we shall be obliged to apply to the emperor. But we beg you to induce Theophilus to let us live in our own country; for we have not offended against him or against the law of our Saviour." Chrysostom promised to do his best. "Meanwhile," he said, "until I have written to my brother Theophilus, keep silence about your affairs." He assigned them a lodging in the precincts of the church of Anastasia, and pious ladies contributed to their support. He wrote to Theophilus, "oblige me as your son and brother" (alluding to his own consecration by Theophilus), by being reconciled to these men." Theophilus saw his way to a blow, not only at the Origenists, but at Chrysostom, whom, according to Palladius, he had disliked from the first. He wrote to Epiphanius, urging him to get Origenism condemned by a synod of his suffragans in Cyprus. Epiphanius obtained from a synod of his insular church a decree forbidding the faithful of Cyprus to read Origen's works (A.D. 402). Meantime the "Brothers" had laid before the emperor Arcadius their charges against Theophilus, and requested the empress Eudoxia to promote a formal hearing of the case, and even to cause Theophilus to be brought to Constantinople to be tried by its bishop. Arcadius ordered Theophilus to be summoned. Theophilus delayed to obey the imperial citation. When at last he set forth, as he passed through Lycia he is said to have boasted that he was "going to court to depose John" ( ib. p. 72). It was not a mere brag; he knew his own diplomatic ability, and that Chrysostom's unworldly strictness had alienated Eudoxia and some people of rank, and even not a few ecclesiastics. The great name of the see of Athanasius would also go for much, and the watchword of "No Origenism" for yet more. He felt that he could exchange the position of a defendant for that of a judge. Theophilus landed at Constantinople at midday on a Thursday in the latter part of June 403 ( ib. p. 64). Not one of the clergy went to meet him or pay him the usual honour (Socr.). Chrysostom invited him to the episcopal residence (Chrys. Ep. i. to Innocent; Pallad. p. 12), but he ignored all friendly messages, would not enter the cathedral; and betook himself to lodgings without the city. The emperor now urged Chrysostom to sit as judge in the case; he refused, for he "knew" (so he says) "the laws of the Fathers, and had a respect for the man." Theophilus had no such scruples. Proceedings against Chrysostom were taken at the council of "the Oak," a suburb of Chalcedon, and a sentence of deposition passed. [CHRYSOSTOM.] Theophilus was afterwards pleased to take up the almost forgotten question of the Nitrian exiles. They were persuaded to ask their pope's forgiveness, and Theophilus restored them to his communion. Returning to Constantinople he boldly entered the cathedral with an armed following to enforce the installation of a successor to "John," but finding that he had undertaken too much, and that the people were resolutely loyal to Chrysostom, he went on board a vessel at midnight and fled with his followers ( Dial. p. 16). It was high time, for, says Palladius drily, "the city was seeking to throw him into the sea " ( ib. p. 75). Theophilus did not attack Chrysostom in his Paschal Letter for 404, but returned to the subject of Origenism as an error which deceived "simple and shallow" minds. He informed pope Innocent that he had deposed Chrysostom; and Innocent, disposed to censure his "hasty arrogance" in not communicating the grounds of the condemnation ( ib. p. 9) wrote, "Brother Theophilus, we are in communion with you and with our brother John. . . . Again we write, and shall do so whenever you write to us, that unless that mock trial is followed by a proper one, it will be impossible for us to withdraw from communion with John."

Theophilus seems to have written a work of great length against Origenism (Gennadius, de Vir. Ill. 33), from which Cyril quotes in his treatise, ad Arcadiam et Marinam (P. Pusey's Cyril , vii. 166), in support of the "Personal Union," and Theodoret in his second dialogue on the distinction between Christ's soul and the Word. Theophilus affirmed that Origen had been condemned (not only by Demetrius, but) by Heraclas. Either in this work (as Tillemont thinks, xi. 497) or in another, he strove to shew that he had only seemed to agree with the Anthropomorphists, for "he shewed," says Gennadius, that, according to the faith, God was incorporeal, "neque ullis omnino membrorum lineamentis compositum." In 410 he consecrated the eccentric philosopher and sportsman SYNESIUS to the metropolitan see of Ptolemais, who thanked him warmly for his Paschal Letter of 411, and wished him a long and happy old age (Synes. Ep. 9). In another letter Synesius, after professing his readiness to "treat as a law whatever the throne of Alexandria might ordain," asks the archbishop what should be done in regard to the people of Palaebisca and Hydrax, who were most reluctant to be placed, as Theophilus intended, under a bishop of their own, and asked leave to remain under Paul, bp. of Erythrum, to which diocese these "villages" had always belonged, save while Siderius was their bishop. Theophilus had also asked him to reconcile the bps. of Erythrum and Dardanis to each other ( Ep. 67).

Theophilus died "of lethargy" on Oct. 15, 412 (Socr. vii. 7), after an episcopate of 27 years and nearly 3 months. The moral of his life is the deterioration which too great power can produce in one whose zeal in the cause of religion, although genuine and active, is not combined with singleness of heart.

All his extant remains are collected in Gallandius (Bibl. Patrum , vol. vii. pp. 603 ff.); his "canons" in Beveridge (Pand. Can. ii. 170). The sense of these canons is given in Johnson's Vade Mecum , ii. 255. See also Zahn, Forschungen , ii. 234 ff.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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