When bishops brawled

Have you ever had a fist fight about the natures of Christ? If you have, you would fit right in among ancient Christians, says this church historian.

Christians today may take it on faith that Jesus has both human and divine natures, but any church historian will tell you that in the early church the question sparked a wild and even deadly debate that lasted for centuries, centering on three church councils in the mid-400s.

Professor Philip Jenkins, who studies Christianity both ancient and modern, devotes a whole book to the story, but there’s more to it than just airy theological questions. Scheming bishops, monastic militias, and the imperial court all played their parts, along with a healthy dose of chance.

“When you look at history, you realize that what we think of as orthodoxy gets established only gradually by a long series of events, which seem to be almost random,” says Jenkins of the story he tells in Jesus Wars (HarperOne, 2010). “Is it pure chance or, looking at it in a good Old Testament way, is it providence?”

Theological questions aside, Jenkins argues that ancient conflict among Christians contributed to the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century in what had been the heartland of Christianity. “Where did Islam come from? You cannot understand how Islam appears in the seventh century unless you understand the world of the divided churches,” he says. “A lot of problems that we think about as modern actually go back 1,500 years or more.”


Your new book is called Jesus Wars. Why would you describe the debate over the natures of Christ as a war?

For several hundred years, especially in the 400s and following centuries, the whole world revolved around literal and figurative wars over who Jesus was. That basic question ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the fifth century.

What were they fighting about?

The basic question was: Who is Christ? Today we have the phrase “fully God and fully human.” But when you think that through, you end up with a lot of questions, which maybe we don’t pursue logically anymore.

For example there’s the common belief that Mary is the mother of God. Does that mean that Mary was literally and directly the mother of the God who created the universe? Does that mean when Jesus was a toddler crawling around on the floor, he was God?

If you worship Christ, what are you worshiping? If Christ is God, then you worship him as you worship God, but he’s not really somebody you can identify with. If Christ is just human, then you’re worshiping a man, and you do not have access to the full power of God.


This sounds like a debate for theologians. Did common people really care?

Back then, good Christians understood that if your bishop believed something that was flat wrong, you would pay for it in direct terms. There would be floods and famine and earthquakes. Why was there an earthquake that killed 10,000 people, as there was in ancient Antioch? Well, it’s obviously because the bishop believed this weird nonsense about Christ.

It mattered to the politicians, too. The Roman Empire was in crisis in the fifth century: This was the time of the great barbarian invasions. Everyone’s wondering which part of the Roman Empire would collapse next. How did you know you’d done something wrong? You lost your next battle with Attila the Hun.

Theological ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The toughest thing to explain to people in the fifth century would be the difference between politics and religion. They would see the distinction as meaningless. Religion was about God and how God took care of the world, including how God rewarded and punished states.
So people talked about this on the streets?

Famous passages from Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries claim that if you asked the baker for a couple of loaves, you’d get a lecture on whether the Son is greater than the Father in the Trinity. If you went to a bank and asked for the exchange rate, they would explain that the Holy Spirit comes forth from the Father and from the Son.


How much understanding people had, we don’t know. But they certainly knew the slogans.

How did Christians line up?

There were basically two parties, which I call “one-nature” and “two-nature.” The one-nature believers emphasized the divine character of Christ. Some of them just said simply that Christ is God, though there are variations. We generally call these people Monophysites.

The two-nature believers argued that divine and human both exist within Christ but are not fully merged. These people tend to get called “Nestorians” after a bishop named Nestorius, who was condemned as a heretic, though he would probably be considered orthodox today.

Both sides tended to exaggerate how weird the other was. The two-nature believers looked at the one-nature folks and said they believed that Christ is God merely visiting earth as a tourist. The Monophysites said that two-nature believers must think Christ has multiple personalities, divine and human.


How did people show what side they were on?

This sounds very modern, but it was like being a fan of a particular sports team. The big social events in the Roman cities, especially Constantinople, were chariot races, and people started wearing different colors. You were either a blue (two-nature) or a green (one-nature).

These groups were basically like soccer hooligans or street gangs, but were also connected with political factions. Sometimes tensions erupted and people were killed in riots and protests.


Were there any religious “weapons”?

Christians at this time had strict rules that people had to share the same beliefs to be part of the same church. If they weren’t, they were heretics and you couldn’t share Communion with them. If the bishop had a different view from his people, nobody would take Communion with him.

Ancient Christians would be appalled that bishops today are not excluding more people from Communion. Denying Communion was a standard tactic.


Sometimes Communion was even forced on people. In one story soldiers grabbed nuns of one faction in Constantinople and basically forced Communion into their mouths. The nuns literally took Communion kicking and screaming. One man became famous as Cyrus the Spitter, because he spit out the host, which then got him tortured to death.

Interestingly that is how the fight is taking place today in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and the role of women. Many African bishops are refusing to share Communion with bishops of churches they disagree with because the Africans do not see the other bishops as orthodox.

Why were these questions arising at this point in history?

A large part of it was connected with establishment. Christianity received toleration in 313, but then the empire had to decide which particular part of Christianity it was going to tolerate. In the fourth century the Roman Empire got more specific about who it recognized as legitimately Christian. There was a lot at stake, because once you said that somebody was not legitimately Christian, they didn’t have the right to have church buildings and would have to operate secretly.

The world became a lot less tolerant as the fourth century went on. In 385 the Roman Empire executed its first heretic, and by the 430s people talked about burning heretics quite regularly. By the year 500 your life depended on whether you were the right kind of Christian.


Was there more than just a theological debate going on?

A large part of this was power politics. Today we are used to a Christian world that has two main historical “centers”: Rome (Catholic) and Constantinople (Orthodox). That’s how it’s been since the 800s. But in the fourth century the bishops of cities like Antioch and Jerusalem and Alexandria in Egypt were also powerful and important. So there was a lot of jockeying about for power.

The Alexandrian bishops can be compared to the Soprano crime family. Their greatest representative was Cyril, but there was a series of powerful, savvy Alexandrian bishops. The patriarchs conspired especially against Constantinople, the imperial capital, but also against anyone who stood in their way.

How do we know about the politics?

Nestorius, who was bishop of Constantinople, shows up in most seminary training as the fall guy for something called the “Nestorian heresy,” even though he was almost certainly not a heretic and would have been very much in tune with modern Catholics.

In the year 431 he’s condemned at the First Council of Ephesus and thrown out of power. Sources written by his enemies say his tongue rotted out and he died, but he actually went into exile and wrote a juicy autobiography, which didn’t turn up in the West until the 19th century.

In it he almost literally tells where the bodies are buried. It’s like he’s writing live from a couple of big church councils: who’s bribing whom, who’s on whose side. It makes for great reading, though he’s certainly not unbiased.

What about the bishop of Rome?

The pope at the time, Leo the Great, is an interesting one. Two years after the Council of Chalcedon (451), which decided the question of the natures of Christ based on a treatise he allegedly authored, Leo wrote a wonderful letter asking if someone could tell him what happened at the council. He couldn’t get anything he could read. He didn’t understand a word of Greek, and all the theological debates were in Greek.

Rome was a heavyweight name, but when the Romans showed up at the councils, they didn’t speak the language and had to rely on bad translations.

Rome was on the make at this time. From the 370s to the 440s, everything that we think of in terms of the papacy was coming into existence. That’s when popes really emphasized being the heir of Peter. One reason they pushed so hard was because they were in a distant corner of the Roman world. Power was in Constantinople, and Rome could fall any day to the barbarians. Papal claims escalated as the pope’s real power declined.


You point out in your book that monks also played an important role.

Monasticism was fairly new at this point. It emerged in the third and fourth centuries, and by the fifth there were literally large armies of monks, especially in Egypt, fanatically devoted to the church and willing to be turned out as clerical militias at a council. An Islamic militia in Iraq or Somalia today is a good analogy. And that doesn’t mean they were out-of-control monks; they were doing what they should have been doing, literally fighting for the church.

The monks also reflected a turning point in social history. The Roman Empire was clean and well-washed; people took baths. But by the fifth century a lot of Christians started thinking that cleanliness was the opposite of godliness. The less you washed, the holier you were.

Imagine what an ancient council must have been like on a hot August day on the Mediterranean, with several hundred monks who had never washed. The smell must have been unbelievable.

How did church councils work?

Think of the U.S. Congress. When you have a debate in the Senate you know exactly how many senators there are, exactly what the rules are, how many senators you need to avoid a filibuster.

In church councils you knew none of the above. Councils didn’t meet regularly, so there was often nobody around to remember what happened last time.

There’s no set number of bishops at a council. In the ancient world nobody even knew how many bishops there were. The standard guess is 1,200, but nobody really knew, then or now, because in North Africa you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a bishop.

It was also the ancient world, so not everyone could get there; there were Huns and other barbarians on the road. If you got 200 or 300 bishops, you were doing pretty well.

There were no formal voting procedures either. Things were done in a kind of ritualized acclamation, more like North Korea than the U.S. Congress. Some of the shouts actually are more like cheers: “Glory to the great Bishop Cyril, the Holy Spirit speaks through him! He’s the 13th apostle, let’s hear it for Cyril!”


Any council was likely to spawn a dissident minority, which was going to put in its own report. Then everything went to the emperor, and both sides would lobby and bribe him furiously.

How did all this result in a resolution? We’re obviously not fighting about the two natures of Christ today.

The issue came to a head in 428, when Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople. Between 428 and 431 he gave a couple of sermons that basically divided the Christian world in a mere three years.

He infuriated the Alexandrians, and in 431 they called the First Council of Ephesus to condemn Nestorius. The Alexandrians, who were Monophysites, said Nestorius leaned too far toward two-nature thinking, though later Nestorius agreed to what we today would call orthodox Catholic doctrine.

In 431 the council started, but a large chunk of the bishops, 50 or 60, didn’t turn up from Antioch and the other eastern cities, where two-nature theology was strongest. One theory is weather; another is they were afraid of being beaten up by monks. So they took a leisurely couple of months to make a trip that should have only taken them about a week.

Meanwhile, in Ephesus on the Mediterranean, it was very hot. Bishops were starting to die regularly from heat. So they condemned Nestorius, sending a friendly letter to him which they began, “Dear Judas.”

Finally the other bishops showed up, and they excommunicated the bishops who excommunicated Nestorius. After a while you needed flash cards to figure out who excommunicated whom. The controversy migrated to Constantinople, where everyone was trying to lobby the emperor.

Finally the Cyril faction brought out a famous one-nature holy man, Dalmatius, a monk who hadn’t left his cell in years, and paraded him through the city, which caused a riot and basically forced the emperor to give in. Nestorius was out of office.

So Alexandria won?

For the moment. Over the next few years, the Monophysites became more and more extreme until finally some of them claimed Christ is just God and not human. There was a fight over this that led to the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, where a large group of monks showed up to intimidate anyone who opposed the bishop of Alexandria. If any bishop or priest on the other side tried to write an accurate account of the proceedings, a bunch of monks would take the pen out of his hands and break his fingers.


It was so violent and dangerous that the monks actually beat the patriarch of Constantinople to death. Today it’s called the Robber Council or the Gangster Synod.

The Egyptians basically moved the ecclesiastical world away from Rome and Constantinople. It looked like it was going to be a Monophysite world based in Alexandria.

How is it that we’re not following the pope of Alexandria today?

It seemed like nothing could go wrong until one day the emperor, Theodosius II, was out riding and his horse tripped and the emperor died. If you were a good medieval Catholic Christian, you absolutely believed that God made that horse trip. There was a new emperor, and more to the point, a new empress who happened to believe some very “blue,” two-nature ideas, very Roman ideas.

What role did the new empress play?

Her name was Pulcheria, and she was the sister of the emperor who fell off the horse. And for about 30 years she was the guiding force in preserving what we today call Catholic Christianity.

As a teenage girl, Pulcheria was very pious and wanted to be a nun. She ran a whole cult of holy virgins around herself, as if she was the Virgin Mary. People addressed hymns to her. If any woman did this sort of thing several hundred years later in Christian Europe, she probably would have been burned at the stake as a witch.

Pulcheria was the one who did all the behind-the-scenes battling first against Nestorius, whose theology of the Virgin Mary wasn’t exalted enough for her, and finally against Cyril and the Monophysites. She came to power in 450 and ended up as the standard bearer of Catholic Christianity.

Under Pulcheria’s influence, the new emperor, her husband, Marcian, called the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which defined the orthodox doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The formula was allegedly written by Pope Leo in “Leo’s Tome.” Chalcedon reversed the results of the Gangster Synod. Nestorius was still out of favor, but the Egyptians also lost.

That’s very important in lots of ways. For one thing it meant that the heart of the Christian world would be Constantinople and Rome, not Alexandria. If these things had worked out differently, the heart of Christianity would have moved back to Alexandria.


So a nasty accident led to an amazing revolution. No one in Alexandria could believe it, because they held all the wealth and power. I’m surprised that Rome doesn’t have a statue to the imperial horse that tripped, because that accident preserved the papacy.

What happened after Chalcedon?

Over the next 100 years all the oldest, most established churches, all the churches with the most direct links to the apostles, went in different directions as separate churches.

One set of churches became what we call Nestorian, which for several centuries were among the most sucessful Christian missionaries. They went to India, China, and Central Asia. Between 800 and 900 they were by far the most successful branch of Christianity in the world.

The Monophysites took a large chunk of Syria and Egypt. They had the greatest scholarship, the greatest connections with the New Testament, but they were all labeled heretical.

What was left was a rump, a small portion, and that’s what becomes European Christianity.

What if that horse hadn’t tripped?

Let’s pretend that Emperor Theodosius had lived and Chalcedon had not happened. What it would have meant is that most of the Middle Eastern churches-Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia-would have stayed at the heart of the Roman Empire; maybe Italy and France would have peeled off, but nobody would have cared because they were so marginal to the story. It’s quite possible that the center of the church would have moved to Alexandria.

And if the empire still held the Middle East, it probably would not have succumbed to Islam. But when the Muslims came in the seventh century, the Nestorians and Monophysites, who were oppressed by the Catholic emperors, welcomed them as liberators because the Muslims preached and, until the 13th century, practiced religious toleration. As long as you paid taxes they didn’t care what you believed.
What are the lessons from those ancient fights for Christians today?

When you actually pin down what the two sides disagreed about in the fifth century, so much of it depended on a few words or even letters. One huge debate is over a single Greek letter, which determined whether Christ was “in” two natures or “from” two natures. Christians literally were killing each other over it, and they didn’t realize that Islam was about to overtake them.


I do not mean that Christians should unite against other religions or feel that Islam is a particularly dangerous threat in that way; that was just the particular historical circumstance. What I mean is that people should recognize the great deal they have in common before they start seeing each other as enemies.

The other lesson is probably how you see your enemies in debates like this. There is a danger in so exaggerating them that you create monsters. Your “enemy” is someone you may not necessarily have that much against when you really think about it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 18-23).

Image: Courtesy of Philip Jenkins