Failed-monk-turned-theologian Cyril of Alexandria (c.378-444) was a special embarrassment to the Church, though his role in the Christological Controversy over the nature of Christ’s divinity has earned him permanent sanctification. His status as a saint particularly revered in the Egyptian Coptic Church has not really softened his posterity as an antisemite, schismatic, bigot and populist instigator of mob violence.
Cyril first arrived in Alexandria with his uncle Theophilus in 403. Even Cyril’s supporters have little good to say about Theophilus, who immediately established himself as Patriarch of Alexandria on the clubs of a Christian mob and at the expense of rival St. John Chrysostom. After Theophilus died in 412, Cyril became Patriarch.
Cyril began by attacking his Christian rivals. He closed the churches of the Novatians, who were famous for standing firm in martyrdom at a time when other Christians had scrambled to pay lip service to the Cult of the Emperor. In 415, he drove out the Jewish population on the pretext that they had attacked Christians first. Some sources accuse his mob of burning the Library of Alexandria during the riot. In the same year, his parabolani (personal bullies, really), led by a man named Peter, murdered the philosopher Hypatia, the subject of this article.
From this distance, we cannot tell if Cyril ordered Hypatia’s murder or was otherwise directly involved. The main source for the accusation, Damascius, lived centuries later. However, Cyril definitely fostered the vicious and bullying atmosphere that led to Hypatia’s death. In today’s society, he could be prosecuted for promoting a hate crime. The enormous censure following Hypatia’s death apparently caused Cyril to lay low for over a decade. He next appeared on the scene in the late 420s, in the middle of a savage political battle with Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. This feud over the nature of Christ’s divinity nearly tore the Church apart before Cyril managed to force his rival into exile after the Council of 431.
In his lifetime, Cyril appears to have won out over his enemies. But his bellicose attitude and divisive nature destroyed his legacy to a large extent. Misunderstandings of his theology (and perhaps, his free use of public violence to get his way), led to dangerous heresies among his followers, like the Monophysites.
Cyril’s writings, learned as they are, cannot wipe out his reputation as a “saint” who somehow misplaced the meaning of Christianity. If Cyril ever turned the other cheek, history has not recorded it. He seems to have always returned blow for blow and even strike first on more than one occasion. He is an unfortunate example of extreme Christian bigotry in the transition between Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.