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Monophysites |
The high price of doctrinal clarity

Monophysites is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 130, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Byzantium’s seesaw efforts to woo or suppress the empire’s Monophysites cause some to view the Muslim invasion as liberation from cruel oppression

Monophysites - The high price of doctrinal clarity

Monophysites - The high price of doctrinal clarity
Centuries of isolation and persecution have made the Coptic people of Egypt proud and insular. Copts are descendants of the ancient Egyptians and divided from Eastern Orthodoxy by their long-held Monophysite stance. This Coptic girl displays a tattoo of a cross on her right wrist, a common distinguishing feature among Copts.

It is one of the ironies of history that when the Muslim armies arrived at the frontiers of Egypt, many Christian Egyptians warmly welcomed them. The descendants of those Christians would have the next fifteen centuries to regret this hospitality, for from that time forward they were destined to live as an impaired class, subject to a special tax not levied on Muslims, eventually denied access to senior public office, often compelled to wear distinctive clothing, prohibited on pain of death from spreading their faith to Muslims, and periodically suffering deadly persecution. Even so, their mistreatment by the Byzantine Empire immediately prior to the Arab conquest goes a long way to explaining why they saw the Muslims as their deliverers.

Behind the Byzantine mishandling of their Egyptian prefecture lay a political premise few in the seventh century would have seriously challenged: that if the empire were to remain united, all its subjects must embrace a single religion. That religion was Christianity, and five church councils had carefully defined its beliefs.1

Disastrously, however, two of those councils had alienated large factions within the faith that did not accept their conclusions. The Council of Ephesus in 431 had seen the followers of Nestorius break away and eventually concentrate in neighboring Persia. There, despite persecution, Nestorian Christianity (which was understood to deny the unity of Jesus Christ, the God-man) flowered and spread into central Asia. The Council of Chalcedon, held twenty years later in part to reconcile the Nestorians, instead set off an equally contagious movement on the other theological extreme. Known as the Monophysites, these were understood to deny the real distinction between the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, as declared at Chalcedon. They held sway in Syria, Palestine and Armenia, and with particular fervor in rural Egypt–where there soon came to be both a Coptic and a Melkite patriarch.2

To regain the Monophysites, the emperor Zeno, in 482, had proposed the compromise doctrinal statement known as the Henoticon, and the emperor Justinian, sixty-two years later, had advanced another instrument, known as the Three Chapters. Both were rejected by the Monophysites and by Rome. At one point, Justinian kidnapped and imprisoned the pope Vigilius in an attempt to coerce western acceptance (described in chapter 10 of Darkness Descends, a previous volume in this series).

Since the Monophysites wouldn’t compromise, Justinian took strenuous efforts against them, deposing and often imprisoning their clergy, while issuing pleas for Christian unity. However, he did so with a distinct reluctance.

For one thing, his beloved empress, Theodora, was a born-again Christian, rescued by a Monophysite convent from a dissolute life and thereafter a Monophysite sympathizer. For another, the Monophysite bishop, John of Ephesus, his close friend for more than thirty years, had conducted successful missions to the remaining pagans in the Ephesus area, all of whom became Monophysites. Also, the famous Arab tribe, the Banu Ghassan, so essential to the empire’s defense on the Persian frontier, was Monophysite. Finally, Justinian knew that to seriously crack down on the non-conformists in Egypt would risk real trouble there. So in Egypt and among the Arabs, he largely ignored Monophysitism.

His nephew and successor, Justin II, knew no such caution. Justin assembled the Monophysite clergy in the capital, presented them with a proposed doctrinal edict, and urged them to amend it in such a way as to make it acceptable to themselves. Their proposed amendments, however, outraged those who accepted Chalcedon, and who replied with a series of sub-amendments, equally unacceptable to the other side. Finally exasperated, Justin proclaimed the edict anyway, replete with the offensive sub-amendments, and instructed the patriarch of Constantinople to enforce it on the recalcitrant Monophysites.

That patriarch, John Scholasticus, did so with a vengeance, all grimly documented by Justinian’s old friend, the missionary John of Ephesus, who denounces Scholasticus with lurid accounts of his ferocious assault on the Monophysites. Nuns are portrayed as being dragged shrieking before Chalcedonian clergy, communion bread forced down their throats. Monophysite priests and nuns are turned over to the Praetorian Guard for punishment. Two noblewomen are shorn of their hair and made to clean toilets in a monastery. Monophysite clergy are jailed and stripped to discourage their escape.

Scholasticus’s painful death after thirteen years in office is welcomed by John with undisguised satisfaction. The patriarch suffered “a deadly fire in his bowels and in his heart,” writes John, and even turned against his own supporters, cursing them for bringing this judgment upon him.

Unfortunately, the new patriarch, Eutychius, maintained the persecution, and this time John of Ephesus himself was imprisoned–in a leaky jail (he writes) that flooded every time it rained–and he was forced to sleep in blankets previously used to wrap dead bodies.

Under the next emperor, Maurice, the Monophysites were left alone. They could not, however, be described as “at peace,” for a fierce conflict broke out between their two foremost champions. One was Jacob Baradaeus, the missionary bishop of Edessa, whose fervid evangelism during Justin’s persecutions fired up the Monophysite movement all over Syria, much of Asia Minor, and among the Arab tribes–so fervid, in fact, that many Monophysites became known as “Jacobites.”3 John of Ephesus says that Jacob, in his astonishing twenty-five-year mission, ordained a hundred thousand clergy and consecrated eighty-nine bishops, one of them John himself. (Though the numbers are certainly exaggerated, the success of Jacob’s work is undoubted.)

Jacob, often disguised in beggar’s rags, could certainly spellbind, but he had no talent for administration, and his converts soon shattered into assorted sub-denominations. One such convert was the revered Paul, whom Jacob made Monophysite patriarch of Antioch. Seized by imperial authorities, Paul was imprisoned at Constantinople, accepted communion from the Chalcedonian patriarch, but later escaped and returned to Syria. There he was denounced by Jacob as an apostate, but when Paul recanted and rejoined the movement, Jacob forgave him.

The Monophysites in Egypt did not, and in a painful attempt to reach Alexandria and reconcile that conflict, the aged Jacob died in the summer of 578, his achievements in chaos. John of Ephesus died some five years later, at the age of about eighty. He, too, saw his lifelong work reduced to an internecine brawl.4

During the reign of Heraclius, which began in 602, Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople came up with another doctrinal panacea. The Monophysites were viewed by their opponents at Constantinople and Rome as effectively denying that Jesus Christ had any human nature whatever (a charge the Monophysites denied). Sergius saw an acceptable compromise in the concept of the thelesis, which translates into English as “the will.”

In a letter to Pope Honorius at Rome, Sergius propounded a new doctrine that came to be called Monothelitism. It held that although Jesus Christ had two natures, one divine and one human, he had but one will; always an expression of the one divine thelesis (or will) of God–because Jesus’ will and God’s were one and the same. In effect, Monothelitism represented a doctrinal saw-off. If the Monophysites would concede the two natures of Christ (as defined at Chalcedon), their opponents would concede that Jesus and God were of one will.

This compromise quickly gained a significant supporter. Astonishingly (and as it later turned out, unwisely), Pope Honorius wrote to Sergius in support of it, thereby implying that Rome and Constantinople were united. They were not, however, because Honorius’s letter could not be considered doctrinally conclusive. Nevertheless, the formula was proclaimed as the “Ecthesis,” and presented to the Monophysites for approval. The reaction at Alexandria was grievously disappointing. The Melkites rejected it because, they said, it amounted to the total rejection of Chalcedon. The Copts rejected it because it did not reject Chalcedon.

Heraclius, meanwhile, had made two key appointments, both disastrous. To the patriarchate of Jerusalem he named the Palestinian monk, Sophronius, a militant and saintly man, gifted in theology. Heraclius apparently hoped that the appointment, if it did not convince the monk to support the Ecthesis, might at least muzzle his criticism of it. It did neither. More calamitously, he named as Melkite patriarch of Alexandria a certain Bishop Cyrus, who was a Nestorian, and therefore militantly opposed to the Monophysites. Cyrus undertook the imposition of the Ecthesis in Egypt with a ferocity that lasted ten years, and left tens of thousands of Egyptians with a deep hatred of everything Constantinople stood for.

In The Arab Conquest of Egypt, the historian Alfred J. Butler gives a gripping account of Cyrus’s onslaught–how the Coptic clergy fled for their lives when he arrived; how the Coptic faithful were lashed, tortured, imprisoned and executed; how torches were held against the flesh of the Coptic patriarch’s brother “until the fat dropped down from both his sides”; how a community of monks plotted Cyrus’s assassination, were betrayed by one of their own number, and were killed, maimed or had their hands cut off as punishment; how, when confronted with recalcitrant monks in one monastery, Cyrus flew into an insane rage, ordering one old monk beaten “until his blood ran like water”; and how, though thousands capitulated, tens of thousands more kept the faith and conceived an implacable hatred of Byzantine Christianity.

Besides his ecclesiastical powers, Cyrus was also made prefect of Egypt, putting him in control of the government and the army, in addition to the Melkite church. It was in the capacity of prefect that he would later surrender Egypt to the Muslims.5

Meanwhile, Sophronius proved to be what historian Butler calls “a similarly ruinous miscalculation.” Rather than supporting Monothelitism, Sophronius championed its rejection, turning Palestinian Christians vehemently against it. Thus, all hope vanished for a settlement with the Monophysites. Heraclius reacted in fury, at one point issuing an edict that all who continued to reject Chalcedon should have their ears and noses cut off. They never were. Too many tens of thousands of ears still listened to the Monophysite message, and too many noses turned up at Heraclius’s ill-starred Ecthesis.

Still, Pope Honorius had approved the single-will concept advanced in Sergius’s original letter. But in Rome, too, support for the Ecthesis began to evaporate. Rome’s theologians reasoned that, to be fully human, Jesus must have had a human will, but no human being could in any sense accommodate a divine will. So there must have been two wills, not one, and Pope Honorius must have erred when he wrote in approval of Sergius’s Monothelite theory.

Honorius died before he saw the actual Ecthesis document, but his two successors denounced it–Pope Severinus (who served two months and died), and Pope John IV, who held a synod at Rome that condemned it. John IV then formally apologized for the Ecthesis on behalf of Honorius. On his deathbed, even the emperor Heraclius himself disowned it.

By the end of Heraclius’s reign, so many bishops had been deposed and others persecuted for refusing to accept the Ecthesis, that to suddenly renounce it would have made its advocates look foolish, criminally irresponsible if not actively evil. Unsurprisingly, then, the new patriarch of Constantinople, Pyrrhus, held a council that affirmed the Ecthesis, thereby cementing it as a major theological issue between east and west. Confusingly, Pyrrhus then had second thoughts, traveled to Rome, submitted himself to the new pope, Theodore, and recanted.

But the Ecthesis was far from dead at Constantinople. Out of the bedlam that attended the death of Heraclius (see chapter 10), the emperor Constans, aged seventeen, emerged victorious, and announced himself in support of the Ecthesis. He appointed a new patriarch named Paul–whom Pope Theodore promptly deposed.

To resolve the conflict, Constans came up with another idea. He would sweep the whole issue under the rug. By imperial edict, all talk of the one or two wills in Jesus Christ was forbidden. Called “the Type of Constans,” the edict was proclaimed throughout what was left of the empire. Any bishop caught speaking of Christ’s will, whether one or two, would be deposed, any monk excommunicated, any government official fired, any army officer cashiered, any person of senatorial rank stripped of his property–and anybody else whipped or deported. The Type met with almost instant rejection at Rome, because it forbade discussion of “two wills”–which by now had become church doctrine in the west.

The Type appeared in 649, the year that Pope Theodore died. His successor, destined to become the last martyred pope, was Martin I, a big man with firm convictions on the universal authority of the bishop of Rome. He began his papacy with a council in Rome that condemned the Ecthesis, Cyrus, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and the Type, in a sweeping denunciation of the entire Constantinople theological endeavor. One figure strongly in support of Martin in this initiative was Maximus the Confessor, whose tongue and one hand would be cut off by imperial authorities for his obstinacy. (See page 220.) Following the council, Martin commissioned a bishop to go east and clean house, deposing the Monothelite clergy in Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch–all lands now held by the Muslims.

This was too much for Constantinople. Rome’s rule in the west, while resented, had to be accepted. But Rome, as Constantinople saw it, was not merely meeting a crisis occasioned by Monothelitism and the Muslim takeover, but rather trying to extend its power to appoint and depose bishops in the east as well. Olympus, the imperial exarch at Rome, was ordered to have Martin assassinated, but through grace or blind luck, Martin was never where the assassin expected him. This so spooked Olympus that he confessed the plot to the pope, and then led an abortive rebellion in Italy against the emperor Constans. Olympus died within the year.

Constans dispatched another, less sensitive exarch. He made the pope captive, spirited him to a waiting vessel, and told him he must face trial at Constantinople for aiding in the failed rebellion. The charge was treason.

Martin was imprisoned on the Aegean island of Naxos, then conveyed as a captured criminal to the capital. He was left all day on the deck of the vessel at dockside, so that the waterfront rabble could jeer him. To break his spirit, he was locked up for ninety-three days in the prison at Prandearia. It didn’t work. Tried by a panel headed by Constans’ financial adviser, Martin denied all suggestion of insurrectional conspiracy and hit back sharply at the “ignorant malevolence” of his accusers. Constans, following the trial from an adjoining room, sent him a message: “You have abandoned God, and God has abandoned you.” Whereupon, the pope was formally stripped to the waist, and chains were hung about his neck. “Take him and hew him to pieces,” said the prefect of the city, passing sentence.

He was thrown into a jail cell, but he was not executed. As Martin was being tried, Patriarch Paul lay dying. Constans visited him to give the triumphant news of the pope’s conviction–but Paul was far from jubilant. “Woe to me,” he said. “I now have this to answer for, as well.” He pleaded with Constans to stop mistreating Martin, and to spare his life. Constans met him halfway. He let Martin live, but banished him to Chersonesos on the Crimean Peninsula of the Black Sea. There, on September 16, 655, Martin I, pope and martyr, died. Three years later, Constans himself came to a miserable end.

So did Heraclius’s venture into theology. The next emperor, known as Constantine IV Pogonatus, resolved to reunite east and west. He deposed the Monothelite patriarch of Constantinople, and called a major church council there in 680, presiding over it himself with two legates from Rome beside him in positions of honor. It ratified the decisions of Martin’s council held at Rome, and condemned as heretical Pope Honorius. The next pope, Leo II, declared the council of 680 the Sixth Ecumenical Council of Christianity.

Early in the eighth century, a move to discredit the Sixth Council and revive Monothelitism failed. That was the end of it, but the Christians had paid a fearful price for the experiment. Indeed, the whole prefecture of Egypt may be said to have been lost to the Muslims because of it.

This is the end of the Monophysites category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 130, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Monophysites 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