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6. Nestorius |
Church unity shatters as the bishops contest the person of Jesus

Nestorius is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The fervid Nestorius attacks the empress Pulcheria and as their feud becomes doctrinal, Alexandria assails Antioch and a bitter schism follows

Nestorius - Church unity shatters as the bishops contest the person of Jesus

Nestorius - Church unity shatters as the bishops contest the person of Jesus
The empress Pulcheria had been accustomed to special treatment in the churches based on her claim that she, a virgin, ranked with Mary in prestige. She is therefore utterly shocked that the new bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, would dare to angrily deny her entry into the sanctuary of the cathedral.

With the Council of Constantinople in the year 381, the question that had always beset Christians–Who was Jesus?–had finally been settled, or so it was supposed. He was the “Word,” as described in St. John’s Gospel (1:1). The Word was both “with God” and “was God” (1:1). The Word was “made flesh,” fully human, as the man Jesus, who “dwelt among us” (1:14). Therefore, whatever “substance” or “essence” God consisted of, so too did the Word. This assertion and others had been embodied as the Nicene Creed in 325, and affirmed by the Council of Constantinople, so now there need be no more argument about it.

But there was more argument–far more. If Jesus were both God and man, how could these two be united or combined in one individual? Did God die on that cross or did just the human side of Jesus suffer death? Or was Jesus of Nazareth a schizoid, two persons, one doing those things only God could do, the other his human side? Or might it be that he was one person who uniquely unified the divine and human natures, and was thus in literal fact both God and man? How could Christians ignore these questions? The world would certainly raise them. So what were their answers?

Over such issues, for the next seventy years, there raged an embittered argument, so fierce as to occasion the calling of three church councils. One was later repudiated. It had dissolved into a brawl in which an aged bishop was so severely clubbed and kicked that he died on the road to exile. These controversies pitted powerful and deeply devout men against one another in a seeming death struggle. And behind the scene, for forty of those seventy years, often playing a pivotal role, was not a man but a woman, just as powerful, devout, and seemingly uninhibited by scruple. Her name was Aelia Pulcheria Augusta. She was empress of the New Rome, and she spent much of her life running it.

Pulcheria came from a family of determined women, and was the granddaughter of the emperor Theodosius the Great. Her mother Eudoxia had ousted the sainted John Chrysostom, making sure he died miserably in exile. Her aunt Galla Placidia ruled the west through her ineffectual son for twenty-nine years. Her cousin Justa Gratia Honoria tried to make a private marital contract with Attila the Hun, furnishing him with legal grounds to invade the western empire. But none of them would prove as lastingly influential as Pulcheria. As much as any bishop, she affected the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.

She was raised in the splendor of the imperial palace where her father, the emperor Arcadius, unlike the soldierly frontline augusti of the Old Rome, ruled amidst unimaginable luxury. Her earliest memories were of palatial apartments, vast gardens, ornate galleries, and the resplendent icons in the Great Church called Hagia Sophia (pronounced i-yah so-fee-yah), the Church of the Holy Wisdom. As a little girl, she came to expect the crisp salute of the imperial guards as she frolicked past them, while not far away she could hear the shrieking mobs of sports fanatics in the Hippodrome.

Her mother died when she was five, and her father four years later, orphaning Pulcheria, her two sisters, and their brother, the boy-emperor Theodosius II. The eunuch Antiochus, undisputed ruler of the household, was named their guardian. American historian Kenneth G. Holum, in his fascinating biographies of the imperial women of the era (Theodosian Empresses, Berkeley, 1982), cites as at least partially credible an attempt on the life of the young emperor by a pagan army officer who confronted the child with his sword drawn, but fled when he beheld a terrifying vision of a gigantic, spectral woman, seemingly assigned to protect the boy.1 Antiochus had all four children schooled in both Latin and Greek, but the star pupil was always the oldest sister (who became fluent in both languages).

In one significant respect, however, Pulcheria and her sisters acquired convictions far beyond the comprehension of their guardian, Antiochus. This may well have come from their grandmother Flacilla, second wife of Theodosius the Great. Flacilla had established such a reputation for sanctity that the great bishop Gregory of Nyssa eulogized her unreservedly as “the rudder of justice . . . pillar of the church . . . wealth of the needy . . . common haven of the heavy laden,” words which clearly must have sunk deep into Pulcheria’s heart. Yet virtuous as her grandmother had been, Pulcheria thought, she had withheld from Christ one gift. She had married and borne children. How much more noble, her granddaughter decided, would be a lifetime of holy virginity.

Antiochus might disapprove, of course, but the year was 412; Pulcheria was thirteen and the emperor eleven. It was high time, in her view, that she and her siblings direct their own education (under her guidance, naturally). She persuaded her brother of this truth, as she would persuade him of many other such truths for the next thirty-nine years. He was an emperor, was he not? Then he should act like an emperor. Antiochus was thereupon fired and Pulcheria took charge, appointing the teachers who would school her brother in rhetoric, Christian and classical literature, deportment, proper dress, swordsmanship, and horsemanship. She herself taught him the disciplines of prayer, meditation and the reading of the Scriptures.

The imperial quarters took on the aspect of a convent, and at age fourteen, Pulcheria formally dedicated her virginity to God. Her sisters did the same. They would forgo the innumerable benefits of motherhood in an imperial household. Like the Christian martyrs, as they saw it, they would consecrate their bodies to Christ. The sermon preached the following Christmas by Bishop Atticus must indeed have assured Pulcheria that she now shared in the experience of Jesus’ mother herself. “You women,” he declared, “have discarded every stain of sin and have shared in the blessing of the most holy Mary. You also may receive in the womb of faith the one who is born today of the Virgin. For even the Virgin Mary first responded to God through faith, and not until she had made her body worthy of the kingdom did she receive the king of the universe in her womb.”

This phenomenon of “holy virgin women” went far back into Christian history. (See sidebar, page 20.) Reverence for virginity was accompanied by intensified devotion to the Virgin Mary, and by a new emphasis on the role she played in the Christian drama of salvation. Her exultation, the Magnificat, much like a psalm, and recorded in Luke’s Gospel, was widely quoted: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me, . . .” (1:48—49).

As far back as the second century, some writers had described the Virgin as Theotokos (birth-giver of God). In particular, she was seen as redeeming womankind from the stigma of Eve, who was portrayed in the Book of Genesis as chiefly responsible for the fall of humanity. “Through Mary, all women are blessed,” said Bishop Atticus. “The female can no longer be held accursed, for the rank of this sex surpasses even the angels in glory. Now Eve is healed.” Other women of the Old Testament were similarly rehabilitated. The odious memories of Delilah and Jezebel may now be assigned to “oblivion,” Atticus said. Rebekah is honored, as are Leah and Deborah.

Married women, too, became devoted to Mary, but for a different reason, and a subtle conflict developed. Should the virgin mother of Jesus be honored because she was a virgin or because she was a mother? Historian Kate Cooper, writing in the Scottish Journal of Religious Studies, cites letters from the period that equate the birth pains of child-bearing with the birth pains of conversion to Christianity. Such reassurance was necessary, she writes, because some feared “the increasing emphasis on Mary’s virginity would drive a wedge between the ascetic party and the married householders of the Christian congregations.”

Pulcheria, of course, was both a holy virgin and an imperial princess. The former role, she contended, enhanced her status in the latter, making her a very special empress. Atticus agreed, as did his successor Sisinnius. They used her cloak as an altar cloth in the Great Church. They hung her picture above the altar as an icon of Mary. At Easter, she was allowed to receive communion with the priests and her brother in the sanctuary of the church, an area from which laymen and women were excluded. She was to dedicate three churches in Constantinople to Mary.

The Theotokos movement found powerful support in the theological tradition of Alexandria and among the desert monks. In Antioch, however, where theology had always stressed the humanity of Christ (without necessarily denying his divinity) the term Theotokos met with a very different response. To bishops like John of Antioch, or Ibas of Edessa, or in particular to a theologian like the brilliant Theodoret of Cyrrhus, the concept of God, maker of the universe, being carried in the womb of one of his creatures, on what was even then known to be a very tiny planet among millions upon millions of stars, was incomprehensible. It was also, they warned, a dangerous move back toward goddess worship and paganism.2

This dissension had become evident during the Arian crisis of the previous century, but in the general desire of Christians everywhere to restore the unity of the church, it had been carefully avoided. The tacit agreement to disagree came to an abrupt end, however, on account of one calamitous decision. In 428 the see of Constantinople was conferred upon a man particularly distinguished for tactlessness and insensitivity, a man uniquely capable of launching his opponents into paroxysms of rage. His name was Nestorius, and the central target of his vitriol soon became the empress Pulcheria.

“He was distinguished by his excellent voice and fluency of speech,” notes the contemporary Christian historian Socrates, and he came highly recommended by John, bishop of Antioch, his close friend. Raised in Syria, Nestorius had been a pupil of the celebrated Antiochene scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose every word he had embraced as literal truth. Before taking office, he visited Theodore on his deathbed. “I admire your zeal,” his old tutor warned, “but I should be sorry if it brought you to a bad end.”

It did. Bishop Nestorius perceived himself as God’s instrument to correct the capital’s laxities. In his inaugural sermon, he told the emperor: “Give me, my Prince, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven as recompense. Help me to harry the heretics, and I will help you to harry the Persians.” Socrates comments: “He could not rest, but sought every means to harass those who did not share his views.” Within his first few days in office, he seized an Arian church, causing the congregation to burn it down rather than let him have it. Next, he turned on the wayward amusements of the bawdy Hippodrome crowd, suppressing the circus, the theater, the games and the dances. To make his unpopularity almost universal, he next addressed himself to the monks. They must remain in their cloisters, he ordered, rather than hang about in the city.

This upset not only the monks, but also their chief ally, the emperor’s sister. For Pulcheria, however, there was worse to come. Arriving as usual to take her Easter communion, she found herself denied entrance to the sanctuary by the bishop. The icon of herself had been painted over. Her cloak was gone from the altar. “Only priests may walk here,” said the bishop.

“Why?” she replied, echoing Bishop Atticus, “Have I not given birth to God?” Nestorius answered: “You? You have given birth to Satan.” The lines were drawn, and the war was on.

But over exactly what? That became clear when a further turn of events vastly widened the conflict. Nestorius had appointed as his chaplain another outspoken advocate of Antiochene theology, a man named Anastasius. “No one,” thundered Anastasius from the pulpit of the Great Church, “should call the Virgin Mary Theotokos. She is but a woman.” There were loud protests and demands for his dismissal, but the bishop just as loudly refused. Indeed, he endorsed Anastasius’s assertion, and set forth a series of sermons to “clarify” his position. Each made the situation worse.

If God had a mother, he argued, this meant that God could die. It was impossible that the divine nature could be accommodated in human nature. God “could not become a baby, two or three months old.” This would be pagan, not Christian, treating Mary as a kind of goddess. And while he did not deny the divinity of Christ, he pictured the two natures existing in the one man as “a moral conjunction” or “a merging of wills.” Mary should be called Christotokos (birth-giver of Christ), he said, not Theotokos, for Jesus was a man “clothed with the godhead as with a garment,” and Mary could not therefore be called “the Mother of God.”

Nestorius’s views were in accord with those of his mentor, Theodore of Mopsuestia; he, too, had warned against making Mary into a pagan-style goddess. Moreover, adds the British historian B. J. Kidd (History of the Church to A.D. 461, Oxford, 1922), “Theodore felt that to accentuate the divine side of the Savior’s being would end by removing him far away from any true sympathy with us, as well as from our power to imitate him. Theodore was anxious for a Savior with experiences really like our own, one who grew up from infant to child to boy to man, who was troubled by passions, both of soul and body, and knew well what the struggle with concupiscence was.”

But others asked: Then what happened in Mary when Jesus was born? Who or what did she give birth to? God? Man? Or if Jesus were an unstable composite of both, was Mary then the mother of this composite but not of God?

Whatever the answers, the response to Nestorius’s sermons was explosive. Midway through one sermon, a layman named Eusebius roared at him that he was a heretic. Pulcheria opened a separate church for the growing crowd who refused to attend Nestorius’s services. As the monks assailed him with charges of heresy, Nestorius had them arrested and flogged. The priest Proclus, who had lost the Constantinople episcopal appointment to Nestorius, preached in the bishop’s presence, defiantly describing Mary as “Mother of God.” Nestorius invited Bishop Dorotheus of Moesia to the capital to refute Proclus and pronounce anathema upon him. Meanwhile, Nestorius’s castigation of the empress grew more caustic and more specific. Her vaunted virginity, he declared, was a fraud. She had enjoyed adulterous relations with at least seven men.

That this should bring upon him Pulcheria’s fury did not surprise him. What did genuinely shock him was the ferocious popular response to his theology. When he had said the same things at Antioch, no one objected. He did not understand the capital city, observes the twentieth-century church historian W. H. C. Frend (“Popular Religion and Christological Controversy in the Fifth Century,” in Studies in Church History, Cambridge, 1972). Since the late fourth century, theology had become a subject of keen popular interest in Constantinople, as it had long been in Alexandria. Here the crowd mattered, and the crowd stood solidly against the bishop.3

But it was neither Pulcheria nor Nestorius who escalated the battle to encompass the whole eastern church. The monks of Constantinople alerted their friends, the monks of Egypt, who alerted their bishop, a man with the theological capability of an Origen and the social graces of a street hooligan. This formidable Christian figure, Cyril of Alexandria, now plunged rowdily into the fray. He was in his early fifties, having been born around 378, five years after the death of the mighty Athanasius to whose memory and theology he was devoted.

Cyril’s uncle, a prominent if worldly clergyman, had sent the boy to the desert to be schooled by the monks. Since asceticism did not appeal to him, he returned to the city and was ordained a reader. He attended the Synod of the Oak, where uncle and nephew voted in favor of the deposition of Chrysostom (see sidebar, page 108), a deed of which Cyril was very slow to repent.4 His uncle became a particularly powerful bishop of Alexandria and died in 405, bitterly ruing (reports Socrates) a misspent life. Cyril was elected to succeed him–over loud objections, some from Constantinople, where the phenomenon of a hereditary episcopacy was regarded with suspicion.

Once in office, Bishop Cyril embarked upon a career of oppression so vicious as to darken the reputation even of the Alexandrian church, renowned for mob violence ever since Constantine. His first victims were the heretical Novatianists, still active a hundred years after Novatian himself had died, whose churches he closed tight and whose property he seized. Then he took on the Jews, and a minor incident exploded into a city-wide pogrom. (See sidebar, page 194.)

An even more infamous tragedy soon followed. The beautiful Hypatia was the daughter of a highly respected pagan philosopher and was herself a scholar, eloquent and poised, who drew large crowds, Christians included, to her lectures. She had, however, links to Cyril’s enemies, a fact that persuaded the fanatical Parabolani squad to drag her from her carriage, tear her limb from limb and publicly burn her remains.5 Since the Parabolani worked under the direction of the bishop, Theodosius II blamed Cyril, and issued a rescript requiring the clergy to stay out of public affairs and curtailing the powers of the Parabolani. Even the British classicist John Mason Neale,6 an admirer of nearly all things eastern, calls the murder of Hypatia “an audacious crime,” which “deservedly threw a dark cloud over the reputation of Cyril.”

But fifteen years had passed since the murder, and Bishop Cyril had regained the respect of the church at Rome and the emperor’s sister, though the emperor himself still regarded him as a chronic troublemaker. As for Nestorius, Cyril already considered him an adversary because Nestorius had agreed to hear the appeal of several clergy he had ousted as heretical, thereby implying that the New Rome could sit in judgment on Alexandria. Receiving accounts of Nestorius’s alleged heresies, therefore, Cyril forwarded them to Pope Celestine at the old Rome, recommending that Nestorius be deposed.

He also set forth his theological criticisms in a series of letters to Nestorius himself, repeatedly pointing out the fatal weakness in Nestorius’s position. Taken to its only possible conclusion, he said, what Nestorius was in fact painting was not one Christ but two, one of them the son of Mary, the other the Son of God, with only a vague “moral agreement” uniting them. Nestorius had even cited as an illustration the marital union of a man and a woman who become, in the biblical phrase, “one flesh.” Nevertheless, Cyril pointed out, they remain two persons–not one.

Against this, Nestorius could not easily contend, says historian Kidd. “Cyril was in the right. He had far greater gifts of theological penetration than Nestorius, and he was now convinced that teaching was being given which would render redemption through the Incarnate Word impossible.” Pope Celestine was likewise convinced. So was Bishop John of Antioch, although he did not yet say so because Nestorius was his friend. Even Nestorius himself appeared to be yielding. “I have said many a time,” he wrote, “that if any simple soul among you or anywhere else finds pleasure in the term Theotokos, I have no objection to it. Only do not let him make the Virgin into a goddess.”

So a settlement was within reach, but by now events were running out of control. A council held at Rome condemned Bishop Nestorius’s teaching. Pope Celestine communicated notice of this to Bishop Cyril, asking him to go to Constantinople and formally serve it on Nestorius. But what exactly was the pope’s position? Celestine did not specify, so Cyril helpfully provided an answer. He called his own council, had it adopt twelve anathemas against the teaching of Nestorius, and dispatched them to Constantinople, giving that cleric ten days to recant or resign. The enraged Nestorius replied with twelve anathemas against Cyril and sent them to Rome with the recommendation that Cyril be forced out.

But Cyril was not finished. He wrote to the emperor refuting Nestorius and to the emperor’s sisters reinforcing his case. This proved a bad move, however. The emperor wrote back, angrily berating him for stirring up dissent in the imperial household. His miscalculation is easily explained: Cyril did not know the extent to which another woman was now influencing the emperor. The little brother had become a married man.

Despite his sister’s undoubted warnings from his childhood onward of the dangers of ambitious women, Theodosius had found a wife. A charming “Cinderella” legend, circulated by the palace to enhance the imperial mystique, furnishes some fanciful details. A beautiful and learned Athenian girl is left impoverished on the death of her father, after her two wicked brothers steal her share of the estate. Finding her way to Constantinople, she is discovered by servants of Pulcheria, carrying out her imperial brother’s instructions that she find him a wife. The emperor, enchanted by her beauty, marries her. She forgives her brothers, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Some of this is true. The girl who became the empress Aelia Eudocia did come from Athens, and was indeed beautiful and learned. However, she was not discovered by Pulcheria, but by a palace cabal anxious to undermine Pulcheria. Nor was the outcome entirely “happy ever after.” The threatened Pulcheria moved out of the palace to an imperial residence in the suburbs, remote from the center of power. There she and her sisters continued their philanthropic activity in the monasteries, deepening loyalty to Pulcheria among the monks.

In any event, Theodosius now acted decisively. To have his appointee bishop condemned as a heretic was not only a humiliation to himself, it damaged the credibility of the New Rome. To counter the directive from the Old Rome and from Alexandria, he exercised his imperial prerogative and called an ecumenical council, summoning all the senior bishops to resolve the two central questions raised by Nestorius. First, could Mary be designated Theotokos, or could she not? Second, was Nestorius heretical in insisting she could not be so designated, or was he not? The council was set for the Feast of Pentecost, June 7, 431.

Nestorius assumed the council would be held in Constantinople, under the direct eye of his ally, the emperor, and easily controlled by the imperial troops. This proved calamitously in error. At the suggestion of Pulcheria, the council was set instead for Ephesus, where veneration of Mary was particularly passionate, where Mary herself, by popular acceptance (although not historical record), was assumed to have come to the end of her earthly life, where the whole Christian distinction of the city was bound up with her recognition as Mother of God,7 and where Bishop Memnon of Ephesus saw Constantinople as usurping the respect due to his city whose Christian credentials went right back to the New Testament. Here, in the first basilica to be dedicated to Mary, would be held the trial of the man popularly perceived as Mary’s worst enemy. The selection of Ephesus evidences something else. Married or not, Theodosius was still listening to his big sister.

The emperor sent Count Irenaeus to Ephesus with a small company of bodyguards to protect Nestorius from the citizenry, and Count Candidian with a contingent of troops to protect the bishops from one another–both under strict orders to avoid theological debate. First to last, however, nothing unfolded as the emperor foresaw. The metropolitan bishops, he had said, should bring with them only those “eminent suffragan bishops” who could contribute to the debate. To Nestorius, this meant a modest entourage of sixteen, but he was counting on the support of the considerable contingent from the sprawling jurisdiction of his friend, John of Antioch.

But this was not how things worked out. First off, Cyril arrived promptly on the Egyptian grain fleet accompanied, most modern historians allege, by some fifty bishops, plus lower clergy, monks, farm boys and Egyptian sailors. As for the forty-three-member Antiochene delegation, it arrived very late indeed, held back both by mysterious causes (such as delay in the emperor’s summons) and natural ones (such as flooding on the Orontes River).

And who should preside over the council? Count Candidian, the emperor’s representative? But he had orders to avoid involvement in theological debate. The senior bishop present? But this was Nestorius, who early on in the proceedings was informed that he could not attend until summoned to stand trial for heresy. Cyril had a solution–he himself would preside as an unofficial designate of Pope Celestine. (Rome was sending only three lesser clergy.) But as some sixty neutral bishops vehemently protested, he was one of the chief disputants.

Nestorius, isolated in the house provided for him, was becoming more and more irritable. He alienated one influential neutral by his arrogant attitude, and another by treating him like a simpleton. Both announced they would now support Cyril. Word came from the Antiochenes that they would be delayed at least another week. That did it. Cyril took charge.

On a Sunday afternoon, he called the council into session for the following morning, Monday, June 22, 431. A four-bishop delegation was dispatched to Nestorius, summoning him to appear for his trial. He refused. All the delegates were not yet there, he said. This was the first of the three summonses required for a bishop under trial. While factional meetings were held throughout the night, Bishop Memnon prepared the Double Church for this momentous event. Count Candidian rushed from one group to another, warning them all that the meeting would be illegal.

Some hundred bishops nevertheless assembled, Cyril presiding. The Holy Spirit was invoked in prayer, the Gospels were centrally enthroned to symbolize the presence of Christ, and the Nicene Creed was read out. Then four bishops were dispatched to serve Nestorius with a second summons. This time, Count Candidian answered the door. Nestorius would respond, he said, “when all the bishops are assembled.”

At this point, sixty-eight bishops who opposed the meeting walked in procession behind the count’s troops to the church, to present a demand that proceedings be delayed until the Antiochenes arrived.8 Candidian ordered those already assembled to disperse forthwith. He had in his possession an official sacra from the emperor, he said. Until it was read aloud before them, they could not legally meet.

Even dissenting bishops resented Candidian’s order as high-handed bullying of the church by the state. Some shouted at him that he was lying–that the emperor in his document would have said no such thing. It most assuredly did, said the count. It did not, shouted the bishops. Furious, the count said he would prove his point by reading the letter aloud to them, which he then did. Fine, declared Cyril triumphantly, the official letter had now been read, so he declared the council legally in session.

The bishops then ordered Candidian and his soldiers to depart, since the document he had just read specified they were to take no part in theological proceedings. Hoodwinked and humiliated, the count stalked out, the bishops banging their staffs on the floor to indicate the council was now legally in session. There were then 158 in attendance.

A delegation went for a third time to Nestorius’s residence, where they were met with open hostility by the imperial troops and told to wait. Wait they did, in the hot sun, all day. No Nestorius appeared. They returned to the church to report their failure. Cyril’s letters carefully enunciating the case against Nestorius’s theology were then read out and endorsed. Nestorius’s replies were also read aloud, and then condemned. A motion was carried affirming the decision at Rome, and declaring Nestorius heretical and deposed. By now, more than forty of the sixty-eight dissenters had been persuaded to join Cyril’s side, and the motion carried handily. Nestorius’s support had dwindled to less than thirty.

All day, crowds had surrounded the church, awaiting the outcome. When the decision was announced, whoops and cheers filled the night, and torchlight parades began, led by women chanting hymns to the Theotokos. Never before had Nestorius understood the depth of the feelings he had offended, writes Cyril’s biographer, the Orthodox historian John A. McGuckin (St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy, New York, 1994). The following day, a fiery notice was delivered to his heavily guarded residence:

The holy synod gathered by God’s grace in Ephesus, in accordance with the instructions of our most religious and Christ-loving emperors, to Nestorius, the new Judas: Know that because of your wicked preaching and disobeying the canons, on this twenty-second day of the present month of June, in accordance with the ecclesiastical precepts, you have been deposed by the holy synod and excluded from all ecclesiastical dignity.

Designated officials of the synod then proceeded to the city square to formally announce the decision. They found themselves barred by Candidian’s troops, reinforced by the Ephesus garrison. But again Cyril moved shrewdly. He sent his couriers racing with the news to Constantinople, signaling his anti-Nestorian agitators to begin a celebration and urging Pulcheria to speak with her brother, Theodosius. His approval of the deposition was essential, but amid celebrating crowds he would find it that much harder to refuse.

About four days later, John of Antioch and his forty-two bishops were escorted by Candidian’s troops into Ephesus. Having listened to Nestorius’s report on what had occurred, the outraged John refused even to meet a delegation from the council. Instead, he called a council of his own, which formally deposed Cyril and his local supporter, Bishop Memnon. This, said John, was the decision of the real Council of Ephesus (later known as the Conciliabulum, the Little Council).

When word of John’s council arrived in Constantinople, the baffled emperor sent a magistrate to Ephesus to find out what exactly was going on, and meanwhile he told the crowds that Nestorius was still their bishop. This set off an explosion of popular rage, and an enormous procession of monks marched on the imperial palace. They were led by an aged archimandrite called Dalmatius, who had not emerged from his cell for forty-eight years. This was considered a masterstroke by Pulcheria; the emperor had great affection and respect for Dalmatius. The whole question was under inquiry, said Theodosius, which satisfied nobody. The crowd poured into the Great Church and refused to leave it. Night and day they stayed there, demanding that Nestorius be deposed and chanting praises for Pulcheria.

Early in July, when his investigator returned, Theodosius reached a decision: He would accept the actions of both councils. He pronounced Nestorius, Cyril and Memnon all deposed, and appointed a new military commander, Count John, to relieve Candidian at Ephesus. The crowd in the Great Church dispersed, angry that Cyril had been removed, but pleased that at least Nestorius was gone.

Cyril nonetheless carried on for four more council sessions, during which Bishop John and his Antiochenes were three times summoned to join it. Three times they refused. How could he receive a summons, John demanded, from a council whose presiding bishop had been deposed? So the council excommunicated all the Antiochene bishops (but did not depose them), and finally adjourned Monday, July 24.

However, they were still under imperial order to stay in Ephesus. Candidian, not yet relieved of duty, cut back their food supplies and stopped all communication with the outside world. The wily Cyril nevertheless got out one message to the capital, concealed in a beggar’s cane, informing the monk Dalmatius, and through him no doubt Pulcheria, that the bishops were in fact imprisoned under terrible conditions; some were actually dying. Early in August, Count John arrived, placed Nestorius, Cyril and Memnon under house arrest, and told the others to go home.

Cyril kept on lobbying, however, his agents distributing so many bribes that he almost bankrupted the Alexandrian church. Theodosius reached two more decisions. Probably swayed by Pulcheria, he affirmed the dismissal of Nestorius and ordered him back to his monastery at Antioch. At the same time, he summoned a colloquy of sixteen theologians, representing the churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and others, to reconcile the rival views of Antioch and Alexandria. In two months they arrived at a compromise. John of Antioch would accept the term Theotokos; he would declare that while Christ had two natures, there was in him an essential unity of one person; and he would apologize for having held a rival council. Cyril and his supporters would agree to withdraw his twelve anathemas against Nestorius, because some of the points implied Apollinarianism, the doctrine that Jesus Christ was not fully human. Significantly, try as they would, neither side could convict the other of heresy. With that, the three imprisoned bishops were released.

However, credit for bringing about final agreement between Cyril and John belongs to an aged and very diplomatic bishop, Paul of Emesa, who on the emperor’s orders worked on this project in Antioch and Alexandria throughout the year 433. Among other things, Cyril came to realize that the charges of Apollinarianism against him, which he had regarded as absurd, must be answered.

His modifications were accepted by John and composed by the Antiochenes into a document known as the Formula for Reunion. It declared: “There has been a union of two natures; wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord.” Meanwhile John affirmed the deposing of Nestorius and proclaimed him a heretic. Each then told his followers that the other had conceded, but the fact was, observes the sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, that they had always been “nearer to each other than either at the time would have admitted.”

Again crowds filled the Great Church, this time to proclaim that “Mary the Virgin has deposed Nestorius the Jew . . . Christ on the cross has won the victory . . . Nestorius, the Jew, should be burnt.” (Nestorius was not Jewish, but his theology was popularly believed to be influenced by Judaism. Pulcheria was notably anti-Jewish.) Count Irenaeus, Nestorius’s military protector at Ephesus and a supporter as well, came in for further abuse. He was called “sorcerer . . . Hellene . . . a shameful creature.” Pulcheria was proclaimed victorious. “Many years to the empress!” cried the crowd. “She has strengthened our faith! She is the orthodox one.”

But elsewhere the issue was not settled. Some of Nestorius’s followers continued to battle for his theology. Banned from the empire, they moved into Persia, where at first they suffered severe persecution but later won acceptance. Nestorius himself, far from remaining quiet in his monastery, conducted a pamphleteering war from Antioch.

This activity occasioned his removal to Petra, the caravan center in northern Arabia. Unsuppressed even there, he was moved to the penal colony in the Great Oasis of Egypt, a waterhole surrounded by desert. From that desolate place, he laid blame for his problems squarely on Pulcheria. There, too, he wrote his apologia, known as the Bazaar of Heraclides, and there in 451, he died, bearing his sufferings, many said, with “nobility of spirit.” In a letter to Cyril, he assessed his plight as follows:

I, who had [on my side] the chief men and the emperor and the episcopate of Constantinople, I, who had been long-suffering unto heretics, was harassed by you [Cyril] so as to be driven out; and you were bishop of Alexandria and you got hold of the church of Constantinople–a thing which the bishop of no other city whatsoever would have suffered, though one wished to judge him in judgment and not with violence. But I have endured all things while making use of persuasion and not of violence, to persuade the ignorant; and I looked for helpers, not for those who contend in fight and cannot be persuaded.

But the Christian world had not heard the end of either Nestorius or the issue that caused his downfall. His theology, or some semblance of it, became the basis of the Nestorian Church, which launched a Christian missionary endeavor that would carry the cross as far east as China in the ensuing four centuries. Meanwhile, at Constantinople, Alexandria and Rome, it soon became evident that the perplexing question–Who was Jesus?–was still open, and the battle to resolve it over the next twenty years would become sharp, violent and permanently divisive.

This is the end of the Nestorius category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Nestorius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at