Jesus Wars

How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1500 Years

By Philip Jenkins


Who do you say that I am?

Over the past 2000 years Christians have formulated many different answers to the question what was Jesus. He was a human being but at the same time he was also a god: one of the three persons of the Trinity he was both God and man.

At a great council held in 451 at Chalcedon near modern Istanbul, the church formulated the statement that eventually became the official theology of the Roman Empire. This acknowledges Christ's two natures, which joined together in one person. The two natures existed " without confusion without change without division without separation; that a distinctions of nature's being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person. "

For over 1500 years now Chalcedon has provided the answer to Jesus' great question.

The most important critics of Chalcedon were those who stress one divine nature and from the Greek words one nature we call them Monophysites. Not only were the Monophysites influential but they dominated much of the Christian world and the Roman Empire long after Chalcedon and were only defeated after decades of bloody struggle. Centuries after Chalcedon Monophysites continue to prevail in most ancient regions of Christianity such as Syria Palestine and Egypt. The heirs of very oldest Churches, the ones with the most direct authentic ties to the apostolic age found, there interpretation ruled heretical.

Each side persecuted its Rivals when it had the opportunity to do so and tens of thousands at least perished. Christ's nature was a cause which people were prepared to kill and to die and to persecute and to suffer martyrdom. Christians rarely feel such sympathy for other side in bygone religious.

In the long term these schisms led directly to the collapse of Roman power in the eastern world, to the rise of Islam and to the destruction of Christianity through much of Asia and Africa. Apart from Islam the greatest winner in the conflict was European Christianity, or rather the fact that Christianity found its famous bastion in Europe.

Terms and definitions

Much of the religious conflict involved the Monophysites opposition to what became the empires official theology. Some held a more minority moderate position saying that they agreed with the one nature but it was made up of two components these were called Miaphysites. They include Egypt's great Coptic church and the then so-called Oriental Orthodox churches of Syria Ethiopia and Armenia. These churches reject charges that they are Monophysites, although that is a label by which most historians know them.

From the end of the fifth century, the church within the Roman Empire was organised around five great patriarchs namely Rome Constantinople Alexandria Antioch and Jerusalem.


Chapter 1

The heart of the matte

Jesus Wars

In the early centuries of Christianity very strong forces were pulling Christ godward and heavenward. Across the religious spectrum, early prophets and founders were usually exalted over time. In his last words, Buddha commanded his followers to rely on no external saviour but within centuries Buddha had himself become a divine trans-worldly being whose worldly relics were cherished and all worshiped in their own right.

Jesus followers have never forgotten that he suffered physical agony. They knew that Jesus wept.

The great patriarchies, with Alexandria on one hand and Antioch on the other and with Constantinople as the primary battlefield. Antioch stressed the reality of Christ's Human Nature; Alexandria fought any statement that would separate human and divine.

At the first Council of Ephesus in 431 Nestorius was condemned for teaching a doctrine of two natures of separating the divine and human. In 499 their political resurrection culminated in the council of Chalcedon in 451. Over the next century Chalcedon became the touchstone of imperial orthodoxy.

Living Christ

The genealogies quoted in the gospels, those long lists of begets that send modern readers to sleep it decisively proclaimed Christ's human status, Chalcedon wrecks any attempt to de Judaise Jesus.

Egyptians especially had a potent devotion to the Mother of God who is the subject of a magnificent tradition in early art and the Coptic Monophysite church had a long love affair with Mary.

Losing half the world

We often hear the complaint that winners write history but the situation is in fact worse than that. In practice historians write retroactively from the point of view of those who would win at some later point, even if that victory was no where in sight at the time they are describing.

Between 451 and the 540s, Chalcedonians and their enemies rose and fell in their power in the Roman Court, and there were periods of several decades when Monophysites controlled not just the Empire but most of the main bishoprics and patriarchies.

With in many lands such as Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Chalcedonians were at best a suspect minority.

Sustained resistance to the official doctrine spawned to vast and enduring movements that the winning party would call heretical, respectively the Nestorians and the Monophysites and each has left remnants to the present day.

The Christian world fragmented into several great transcontinental to divisions: Orthodox/Catholic, modified Nestorian and Arian.

Back to the catacombs

After the twin shocks of 431 and 451 much of the most advanced and sophisticated Christian thought and culture in the east when underground politically. From 542 to 578 the greatest leader of the Monophysite church was Jacobus Baradaeus. People followed because they thought they would obtain healing in this world in salvation in the next.

Winning New Worlds

The ancient geographical shift dramatically increased the power and the prestige of the popes of Rome. The aftermath of Chalcedon concentrated the power of the Roman church crippling potential rivals above all those at Alexandria. Chalcedon in fact marks the real beginning of the medieval papacy.

In consequence Europe's churches kept the vision alive of a Christian Empire and intimate church state alliance. The split in ancient Christianity prepared the way for outside powers to exploit Christian divisions: first the Persians and eventually the Muslims.

The fifth century struggles between Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople and their wars had clear winners and losers yet today the last three of those cities are now overwhelmingly Muslim and Christian minorities are barely hanging on.

Imagining other worlds

We might even say that the latter history of Christianity depended not just on any one person but one horse, the one that stumbled in 540 causing the death of the pro- Monophysite emperor Theodosius II.

By 450 much of the old western Empire was under the control of the Barbarian warlords who were overwhelmingly Arian Christians rather than Catholics. A solid Christendom in the East would have struggled mightily against Muslim newcomers, and conceivably they could have held the Frontiers.

Much recent writing stresses the early Council of Nicea 325 as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christians. In reality the struggle to even to find the core belief raged for centuries beyond this time and involves several other great gatherings, anyone of which could have turned out differently.

Arguably forth century councils like Nicea mark the point when Jesus became god. The fifth and sixth centuries had the far more stressful task of preventing Jesus from becoming entirely god.

By what authority?

Central to Christian thought - Catholic, Monophysite, Nestorian was the concept of the church as the undivided body of Christ.

The church's mind

There had to be an assembly of some broadly represented gathering of bishops and higher clergy drawn from a wide a sampling of the Christian world as was feasible.

But the councils would be so messy and violent and ultimately so divisive. One structural problem that was that no commonly accepted principle determined who should or who should not appear at councils. No guidelines existed.

Between 325 and 680 only six councils were acknowledged as ecumenical or possessing wide of authority. It was never clear whether the Christology was to be settled on the basis of a simple majority or some kind of super majority.

Decisions generally involved condemning rivals or subjecting them to anathemas. Some councils needed flashcards to trace who exactly had excommunicated or deposed whom.

Violent faith

When historian Edward Gibbon described the turbulent response to the council of Chalcedon he expressed astonishment that such savagery could erupt in the pursuit of a metaphysical quarrel.

They believed that wrong conduct or heretical belief stirred God to anger and that such anger would be in expressed in highly material terms: in earthquake and fire, invasion and military defeat.

New historians may use the term, but no "secular world" existed independent of Church and religion, and the Romans state, pagan or Christian was never secular in any recognisable modern sense. Nor was there any such thing as "just politics".

The Monopoly of Violence

Radical religious currents transformed ideas on the basis of power giving vast authority to charismatic religious leaders.

Monks especially served as private militias, head -breakers whose, charismatic bishops could turn out at will to sack pagan temples, rough up or kill opponents and overawe rival theologians.

If we do not understand the ritualised forms of blood feud and vendetta we stand no chance of comprehending Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies, whether in the fifth century or the 21st.

We can hardly comprehend the astonishing venom that marked the long battle between the Great Churches of Antioch and Alexandria unless we are dealing here with a quiet literal blood feud that spanned a century or more.

Religious passions even extended to the two great sports factions in the hippodrome adopting the flag of the Orthodox blue or Monophysites green.

Christianity and Islam

An event that occurred in Constantinople around the year 511 suggests parallels. The Church of the day had a beloved hymn the Trisagon or Thrice Holy", praised "Holy God , Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal." Orthodox churches singing it to this day.

The emperor Anastacius wanted to revise it in Monophysites fashion by Lording this God "who was crucified for our sakes".

The formula claimed that it was God alone who walked the soil of Palestine in the first century and suffered on the cross, a view that ignores the human reality of Jesus. So angry were the capital's residents that they launched a bloody riot. They found a monk from the country and cut off his head saying he was a plotter against the Trinity.

We know medieval Christian world with its spiritual and intellectual cause in Rome and Paris not Alexandria and Antioch. At every stage, then we are thinking of a world shaped by the outcome of these almost forgotten struggles of the fifth century, which occurred in a world of Empires and states that have all faded into ruin. But these conflicts left and impact that survives to the present day. The gatherings at Ephesus and a Chalcedon remade a faith.

The church's great general councils

I First cancel of Nicea 325.

The church was divided over Christ's divinity . Followers of Arius believed that. as a created being Christ was inferior to God and father. There opponents taught all three of the trinity - Father, Son Holy Spirit (Ghost) were fully equal. The council of Nicea resulted in a decisive victory for the Trinitarian party over the Arians.

II First Council of Constantinople 381

This council created an expanded version of the Creed originally declared as not fear and when later generations use the so-called Nicean Creed they are in fact using the form adopted at Constantinople in 381

III Council of Ephesus 431

With Trinitarian issues largely settled, the main focus of debate now turned to Christology, that is, the relationship between the human and divine natures. Nestorious, patriarch of Constantinople was accused of dividing the two natures.

Second Council of Ephesus 449

Later generations refused to recognise the credentials of this Council. under pressure from the Alexandrian patriarch Dioscuros, a council met to investigate and condemn Flavian and his support for One Nature teachings . This was called the "Gangster Synod"

IV Chalcedon 451

The fourth Council was called to reverse the results of the Gangster Synod. The council condemned Dioscuros of Alexandria.

V Second Council of Constantinople 553

With many regions continuing to stress Christ's One Nature, the Monophysite Movement, the church was split.

VI Third Council of Constantinople 680 - 81

In a last-ditch attempt to settle the Christological wars they could all agree that he had a single will. This belief was called Monothelete.

Unfortunately this compromise please nobody. Many thought Monothelete, (One Will) was heresy. The third council condemned Monotheletism proclaiming instead the belief that Christ was of Two Worlds was as well as Two Natures

VII Second Council of Nicea 787

The Byzantine Empire split violently over the question of icons and images saying they should be proclaimed idolatrous. The second Council of Nicea declared that images were legitimate provided they were venerated as opposed to being worshiped in their own right.

Part 1

God and Caesar

Chapter 2

The war of Natures

The idea of the virgin birth is unquestionably present in the gospel of Matthew and Luke but elsewhere in the New Testament there's no trace, Paul suggests nothing unusual about Jesus conception or birth

In Mark John or Q the absence of the Christmas stories, we would assuredly think of Jesus baptism rather than his birth as the moment when he acquired divinity.

According to John the Baptist Jesus is baptised and that point the spirit descends on him like a dove.

Christmas may preserve memories of a time when some Christians make a special celebration of the baptism of Christ rather than the birth of Christ as the key moment in his life.

Whereas Christians celebrate Christmas in mid-winter the early church located Christ's birthday in May. No sane Judean shepherd would have been out in the hills watching his flocks in December.

In the ancient Church of Ethiopia. Jesus baptism is the focus of the feast or the Timqat or epiphany.

Paul held that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus on whom The Logos descended at his baptism.


Other early believers stress divinity to the point of all that denying his Humanity Christ had one nature and it was God's.

Some turned to for support to the hymn recorded in Philippians II in which Christ takes the form or shape of a slave and was born human and in human likeness

Another theology was founded by Mani. Many mockingly said that Jesus was born of blood and flesh and women's ill smelling affluent. Around 200, Sabellius said that there was just one nature. This appealed to Christians who retained the Jewish horror of any departure from strict monotheism and worried about making Christ a second and distinct god.


The fourth century


Arius was a priest who argued that Christ was an immensely powerful and holy figure of supernatural dimensions but as the father had created him at a specific moment we could not regard him as being equally divine. Alternatively the Orthodox position declared that "there was never a time that he wasn't".

The council of Nicea became one of the legendary moments in the church's history making a triumph of the newly declared orthodoxy of the nature of god and the Trinity. Debate now shifted to the nature of Christ.

Jesus nature is implied by the fact that " he wept". Significantly the Nicean Creed says literally nothing about what Jesus did between his incarnation and his crucifixion.


If Christ was really one God would that mean that God himself was carried in the virgin's womb was born and was destined to suffer and die:

Apollinarius reacted against the Arians and rejected any suggestion that Christ could have a human mind. This launched wars that erupted into open conflict at a Ephesus and Chalcedon and beyond.

Theologians drew subtle yet critical differences between a number of the words that had early been thrown in around. In terms of the trinity the Cappadocians imagined three individual beings: father son and holy ghost each with his own identity sharing a common being.

Presumably Christ had knowledge that fell short of that of god the father,. but how constrained was he? .

Declaring the Jesus wars: the fifth century


The harder the Barbarians struck in the West against Gall, Spain and Africa the more shrunken Empire came to rely on economically on Syria and Egypt, that is, on Antioch and Alexandria. Alexandria held firmly to One Nature doctrine, and Antioch was open to the Two Nature ideas.

If Christ was God incarnate then believers could access that divine life through the body and the blood of the Eucharist.


Long before the Rise of Christianity Antioch had flourishing schools of rhetoric and philosophy and Christians drew on this pagan tradition, suitably modified.

Antioch's Christians held firmly to the distinctive ideas pioneered by Diodore and Theodore.

As late as the 550s a fifth ecumenical council met with the goal of condemning Theodore together with Antochene ideas. This was not so much a theological war as a multi-generational vendetta.

Cities fell apart in violent conflicts over a single letter: was the Christ of the same being with the father or of like being ? Was he from two Nature's or in two natures?

Theology is not and a never has been a science in the sense that it forms testable hypotheses.

So if they did understand the issues how did people decide which side to support which cause to see as god's? Issues of identity and culture played a major role.

Christians may not have fully understood the theology that they believed they knew passionately the kinds of religious thought that they loathe.

Whatever Nestorious actually preached, Nestorianism became a trend that supposedly divided Christ's natures.

As each great movement emerged as a reaction ,and commonly an overreaction, it turned to some earlier trend that had previously been dismissed as heresy/

In the fourth century the Arian movement preached a less than fully divine Christ driving Apollinarius to stress Christ's absolute unity. The angry reaction of the stories encouraged belief of the dominance of one nature of Christ. but Chalcedon itself became for millions of Christians and nightmare stereotype in its own right, a symbol of the enforcement and false anti Christian teaching of an evil secular regime.

Chapter 3

Four Horsemen : The Churches Patriarchs

The most important addition to the patriarchal list was the city of Constantinople, new Rome, which was planned in 325 and consecrated in three 330. Its superbly constructed walls developed from 408 made it all but impregnable. The balance of power between the great sees shaped church politics of the fifth century. Always in the background were the struggles between Alexandria and Antioch but in addition Constantinople was everyone's target .

Rome's Imperator

In 370 the bishop of Rome was venerated cleric who mainly exercised power in Italy. By 460 the bishop was at least claiming a kind of universal leadership and Immunity from the restraints of civil power. we are witnessing the key institution of medieval Europe. Roman authority was promulgated through decretals, statements modelled on imperial edicts

Rome Recedes

The papal revolution, between 370 and 460, coincides with the decline of Roman Imperial power in Italy and the West.

In 410 Visigothic forces sacked Rome and Visigothic Kingdoms were founded in Gaul and Spain. Both Vandals and Visigoths were Arian Christians whose church rejected it Trinitarian doctrines of the Empire.

In popular historical consciousness the Roman Empire ended formally in 476. That was when the emperor in Constantinople decided not to have a c-emperor in Rome.

Rome was an exposed outpost on the west and fringes of the Empire. The city's population fell from about 800,000 in the fourth century to 350,000 and in 450 and to just 60,000 in the five thirties. The Roman language came to refer to Greek rather than Latin, Linguistic barriers now cut Rome off from the east Mediterranean.

The Roman church was now far out of the loop of church politics. All the councils that shaped the church from the fourth century onward occurred in the Eastern Empire.

Alexandria's Pharaohs

The Alexandrian church claimed a distinguished ancestry with a list of rulers that traced back to St Mark the Evangelist. But much of it later was considered to be heretical.

The fact that our oldest Christian manuscripts are all found in Egypt may just mean that the ancient manuscripts survived better in that dry climate, but many famous texts did originate in that explosive cultural mix.

Even today Egypt's Coptic church preserves the ancient language spoken in the time of the Pharaohs and the pyramid builders. Its calendar too, dates back to Pharonic times.

In 414-5 conflict arose with the civil authorities. Cyril was the new patriarch of Alexandria His main opponent was Orestes, the Roman Prefect, a Christian. Conflict arose with the Jewish population. Cyril lead and immense crowd to raid the synagogues and rob and expel the Jews whose roots in the city dated back some 700 years, Orestes complained to the emperor but could not reverse the action.

In Cyril's time Alexandria's patriarch looked to a tradition that was Royal it is aspirations and near absolutist in his willingness to overwhelm opposition. Their power extended deep into Africa into the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Nubia.

Constantinople and Antioch

Antioch was where that the Christian was first applied in apostolic times. Just as the Egyptian church looked South into Africa so Antioch influence the Syriac speaking worlds of the Near East reaching into Mesopotamia. If Alexandrians could portray Antioch as his heretical, that gave an opening for subversion, and an Antioch trained Bishop in Constantinople would stand in real peril. The city of Constantinople was a purely Christian creation. The Alexandrian manipulation shaped Imperial religious politics.

The outcome of the church's debates to depended absolutely on gaining favour of the Imperial family especially the Royal women

Chapter 4

Queens ,Generals, and emperors

Theodosius 1 came to power as a result of the Imperial collapse at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, when the empire was in crisis. Schismatic opponents were seen as active enemies of the state. Christians still lived in a world where paganism was an everyday reality.

Then 400 the entire Levant from the Euphrates south to Egypt was not much more than half converted.

The largest mental marker separating the premodern or medieval world from our own was the belief that earthly error had cosmic implications. God's anger was expressed as famines drought, plague, floods, earthquakes or defeat in war.

Part 2

Councils of Chaos

Chapter 5

Not the Mother of God?

In a sermon preached in November 428, Anastasius cautioned: "Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it is impossible that god be born of a woman".

For Nestorius, Christ's divine and human natures did not exist in total union but rather in a lesser union.

Mother of God

In attacking the term Theotokos, Nestorious went to the heart of the Christian paradox. Mary from a remote village on the fringes of the Mediterranean world was the mother of God who had created the world out of nothing. The creature did not bear the Creator, he said, but she bore a man, the instrument of the deity

Images of the virgin and child portraits and statues were now a common place of the religious art and these imitated ancient pagan figures of the goddess and her divine son Isis and Horus.


Contstantinople's clergy united to defend the Mother of God. Monks and lower clergy united against their patriarch: they denounced Nestorius as a heretic. Discrediting Nestorious worked for the long-term good of Alexandria over Constantinople.

Nestorious based his doctrine on the biblical texts. The New Testament speaks of the birth and suffering of the godhead but not of the humanity of Christ. The holy virgin is more accurately termed Mother of Christ that Mother of God. Gospels clearly refer to Mary as the mother of Jesus not of Christ.

In 433 Alexandria and Antioch tried to patch up a truce. A document acknowledged two natures: both the temple in one who lives in it.

Speaking of the two natures marked a real concession to Antioch but Alexandria won victories. Antioch distanced itself from Nestorious and explicitly accepted the word theotokos

When removed from the archbishopric of Constantinople, Nestorius retired to a monastery near Antioch.

Chapter 6

The Death of God


One nature thought was moving in radical directions, more extreme in fact then the theories prevailing in Alexandria itself. What ever the gospels might say, Christ could have felt no human pains or temptations no hunger and no thirst God was emphatically not one of us. A god does not excrete,

Eutyches said the "Lord Jesus Christ is from Two Natures, but after the union I affirm One Nature.. Like Nestorious before him, he was condemned.

Dioscuros wanted a world in which Alexandria decided what Christians everywhere would think and where Rome used Peters authority to rubber stamp what Egyptians decided

Leo the Roman

In June 449 pope Leo reaffirmed Constantinople's judgement against Eutyches, in a substantial letter that has become known as the Tome of Leo. This showed disgust with Eutyches and rejected his ideas

The Tome has become a classic definition of the Orthodox view of the person of Christ

They believe in "God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ he's only son our lord was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary". The pope showed at length how all the texts could be used to the prove the belief in Two Natures.

Leo denounces arguments that show Christ had but one nature. Look at the words of the angel. "The Holy Ghost shall come upon the and the power of the most high shall over shadow thee: and therefore the Holy Thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."


The Second Council as of Ephesus met in August 449. Dioscuros presided and used his powers to rig the event in favour of Eutyches. The Romans naturally wanted to read Leo's Tome but were refused. Dioscuros excluded the symbolic presence of Rome and of papal authority. Eutyches launched into a defence of his doctrines and a furious attack on anything that suggested the Two Natures.

The meeting to generated into a riot marked by mass intimidation. Flavian was the patriarch of Constantinople. Seemingly 101 Bishops agreed to vote for Flavians deposition but violence and threats persuaded another 30 or so to sign the final document. "We signed blank sheets", they said. "We were threatened by soldiers and swords". Someone launched a direct physical attack on Flavian himself. He died three days later

The amazing fury of this event demonstrated how far it's mood had degenerated into what a modern audience thinks of as the spirit of the inquisition and of witch hunts.

Most of the east had strong One Nature factions, and later they would come to dominate.

Dioscuros went to Constantinople in 451. Stopping at Nicea, he joined his Egyptian melopolitants in judging and excommunicating pope Leo.

By the end of 449 One Nature believers had carried off and astonishing putsch that potentially transformed the whole Christian world. One Nature adherence bow set as bishops in Antioch and Constantinople, Eutyches was vindicated and Dioscuros ruled Supreme and Pope Leo was left to organise a desperate rear guard action holding on against a Monophysite challenge to Rome itself

Chapter 7


In 450 the emperor Theodosius II fell for his horse and died. His influential wife, the 51 year old Pulcheria agreed to marry a tough soldier Marcian, who became emperor. The immediate outcome was the Council of Chalcedon.

Many generations have learned about Chalcedon as a critical benchmark in the making of Christian doctrine. They learn something like this: Ephesus 431, rejected the separation of the human and divine in Christ; Chalcedon 451 insisted on the two natures in one and drove out the Monophysites. This wise compromised ended the Christological debates." However it was more a balancing act.


Only the full and immediate restoration of orthodoxy could save the Christian world. The court now turned sharply to the views of pope Leo and the late Flavian in terms of the party colours of the day Monophysite green suddenly became Catholic blue.

The council

Realistically it was simply not possible to leave Second Ephesus t on the record as the final statement of Christian belief. That left little alternative to the Council.

Marcian did not consider a close venue as safe so he moved the Council to Chalcedon in the suburbs of the capital.

The Council of Chalcedon had two major goals: to repeal the second Ephesus and reverse is political effects; and also to reject false teaching, Nestorian as well as Eutychean.

Dioscuros, the bishop of Alexandria, had allegedly crushed his enemies by seizing their lands and properties fining them and wantonly cutting down their trees. Dioscuros was deposed, together with his followers and allies

Defining belief

The mainstream feeling at Chalcedon was to utterly reject Dioscuros while venerating his predecessor Cyril.

The Egyptians were desperate not to go on the record with anything that could be used against them when they returned to Egypt.

The Egyptians literally through themselves on the ground to plead not to be forced to sign Leo's Tome. "We shall be killed. Have pity on us", they said.

They moved to a compromise position. But they failed to include the word Theotokos, god bearer. The difficulty was to decide whether Christ was out of two natures or in two natures. This issue wrecked the conference they ultimately came up with a wording that included the word godbearer.

The declaration was a compressed commentary on a long previous history that only alluded to in a brief document. What about the title Mother of God what about the absurdities of God as a toddler?

Chalcedon proclaimed Constantinople as the second patriarchate and made it a court of appeal from provincial synods. Leo was troubled by all this and tried unsuccessfully to void the new canon on Constantinople's status.

By the time Marcian died, Rome had been sacked once more, this time by Vandals in 455 and the Western empire was left immeasurably weaker.

For 30 years after Chalcedon, furious protests against the council raged across the Middle East.

Alexandria Burns

Chalcedon had its worst if effects in Egypt where Dioscuros fall disrupted the near Pharonic regime painstakingly constructed of the previous 150 years. Not just in titular precedence, Constantinople now established itself as the second patriarchate, taking the lead over Alexandria and the dominance grew even more apparent in the coming decades

Alexandria plunged into political and religious turmoil. The only constant was the fundamental battle between the Chalcedonian views of the empire and its agents and the One Nature faith of the mass of Egyptians.

They elected a new patriarch called Pretorius. He set the stage for the creation of the later independent Monophysite church. But Proteus was murdered by an agent from Pope Leo.

In 451 in Attila in invaded Europe and was defeated but not destroyed. He later was advancing on Rome. Leo pleaded to save the city for whatever reason Attila did not advance.

Part 3

A world to lose

Chapter 8

How the church lost half the world

In 653 the soldiers of the Roman emperor Constants II stormed into Rome's Lateran Palace. They arrested the current Pope Martin one together with Maximus one of the great Christian scholars and mystics of the age. They were both carted off and suffered horrible abuses

The two men suffered because they opposed the emperor on one of the most critical and most divisive issues of his reign, the so-called Monothelete (One Will) position. 200 years after Chalcedon 200 years after Marcian had demanded and end to "profane wrangling" the empire was no closer to a settlement.

In the 630s a solution seemed at hand: whether Christ had One Nature or Two he operated with one will. Surely that could provide some kind of basis and enough for a common ground to hold the loyalty of Egypt and Syria, Africa and the West. But it did not as the imperial raid on the Lateran suggests.

After Chalcedon in 451, over the next 150 years there were some periods when blue orthodoxy reigned at court but there were long spells of several decades when regimes either tolerated Monophysites or were actively sympathetic.

Dissident jurisdictions took the once unthinkable step of establishing alternative parallel churches.

As long as Roman and Christian rule lasted over Egypt and the East the empire would never find a workable solution to the theological crisis.

Chalcedon's enemies

Chalcedon continued to offend large sections of the Eastern Empire. By the sixth century anti-Chalcedonian views were already the norm in large sections of the Eastern world.

Egypt matted immensely in its own right but Egyptian beliefs also spread to the neighbouring kingdoms that looked to Alexandria as their spiritual capital. The old established Churches of Nubia and Ethiopia were also Monophysite and long remained so. To the current day the Ethiopian church still boasts the title Tawahedo - Oneness.

To be a Chalcdonian in Syria soon was to be stigmatised as a heretic, so much a deviant and traitor as one would in Alexandria.

In the first century Antioch was the chief base for Christian expansion in the east; 400 years later it reprised this role in the Monophysite cause.

Monophysite Empire

The empire could suppress heresies and had done so effectively enough in the past. But matters became much more difficult when a heresy was so widespread as to be the norm in large areas of the empire, and, moreover in the wealthy populous areas essential to keeping the state going.

After emperor Leo's death, Basilicus attempted a Monophysite counter-revolution. Alexandrian monks had rushed to Constantinople to the demand a repudiation of Chalcedon-on and they found sympathetic ears in the new usurper. Basilicus restored Monophysite inclined patriarchs.

But Basilicus was forced to recant and in Constantinople the mob rejoiced shouting "the emperor is Orthodox, burn alive the enemies of orthodoxy.

By 476 a Vandal empire still ruled North Africa, the Visigoths had created a mighty kingdom in Gaul and Spain, while other barbarians dominated Italy. All these regimes were proudly Arian and stood aloof from either the Roman state or the Catholic Church.

By 494 Pope Gelacius wrote an extraordinary letter expressing what would become known as the Two Sword theory, Christ had spoken of two swords. Gelasius read this as two powers ruling the world: priestly and royal. As the pope lecture the emperor religious power always to precedence over the secular so that Kings ruled at the pleasure of priests and specifically popes. In later centuries this letter would gain immense weight as the charter of papal power over the secular realm suggesting once more how the fifth century crisis served as the foundation of the medieval Western church.

The Great Schisms

By the mid 6th century vast sections of the once united Christian church had seceded from the great church allied to the Empire.

The first grouping to achieve independent status was the church of the East commonly known as the Nestorian church which refused to just accept the decisions of the first Ephesus The Church of the East remained loyal to Nestorius.

What allowed Nestorians so much freedom of action was that their most important centres were in the eastern Syriac world, in Eastern Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. These regions were either holy independent from control or only nominally under Roman influence.

The Roman world scholars and theologians retreated further East particularly to a Edessa, where they founded a prestigious school. In489 the school relocated from Edessa to Nisibis in Mesopotamia, an ancient Christian centre. Its followers were thus under the power of the Persian Empire, the rival superpower of the day.

Although they remained a minority within an Empire that officially followed Zoroastrian faith, this Persian context gave the church huge geographical potential for expansion, with missions deep in Central Asia, into Krygistan Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

By the start of the seventh century the Nestorians were pushing into China and other missionaries followed the sea routes to India and Sri Lanka.

Western Syriac churches were not far behind, as Monophysite clergy appointed by Anastasius had lasting power bases.

Severus, the patriarch of Antioch from 512 to 518 became the patron saint of the Monophysite cause. He systematically persuaded or forced his inferior clergy to follow his line. Serverus created another precedent in the policy of strictness, which meant prohibiting his followers from taking communion in at the hands of the Chalcedonian clergy.

The Monophysites in various lands and speaking different languages were beginning to act in concert. They were coming to look like an alternative Global church.

The events of 516 amounted to an open Declaration of Independence for the Egyptian church which adopted Monophysitism as its national religion.


In 527 Justin was succeeded by his nephew Justinian, who would real rule for almost 40 years.

Justinian's actions in Alexandria marked a historic break. The patriarch had been united in a single office controlled Monophysites ruling over over pro and anti Chalcedonians. The last position person to hold this united uost was Theadosius, but Justinian deposed him in 536. The patriarch spent decades imprisoned in Constantinople. Therafter the Coptic and Chalcedon and patriarch would never again be unified and the two churches would have competing successions.

If Justinian was committed to defending Chalcedon his queen Theodora was just as sympathetic to the Monophysite cause. This provided a useful safety valve for the Monophysite cause

The Fifth Council

Justinian tried to keep open avenues of communication with Monophysites. But he failed to learn the most basic lesson of the church politics of the era: let sleeping councils lie.

A dispute rapidly evolved into a quarrel between emperor and Pope. The battle included in 547 the pope's forcible detention in Constantinople and later his exile. But the victory gained him next to nothing in the east.

The new Monophysite church.

The year 541 marks the onset of a wide ranging plague comparable to the notorious Black Death of the 14th century. Reportedly three hundred thousand died in Constantinople alone. Over the course of decades the disease killed millions in Europe. It also had its religious consequences in a society thoroughly used to reading divine signs. Each side, Chalcedonian and Monophysite recognised how offended God was by any tokens of religious compromise The main activist was a Syrian Jacobus Barabodeus who succeeded Severus as the builder of the Monophysite church in Syria and in the east.

He evangelised far and wide for what was in effect a new or reborn church which is commonly known as Jacobine.

By the end of that century a Jacobine church extended his power over much of Syria and the East besides the great Church of Egypt.

While Greek remained the core language of Christianity Syrian Monophysites moved heavily to Syriac as the natural language of their church just as the Egyptians relied every more on Coptic.


In 571 the Roman emperor Justin II could not tolerate separate denominations. In an angry decree he commanded that all the places where the Monophysite believers assembled should be shut up the altars in them razed, their priests and Bishops seized and cast into prison and all who met there for worship driven away, dispersed and commanded narrative enter them again.

From the 560s onwards the true Orthodox Christians or the Monophysite as their enemies called them were the regular targets of persecution and discrimination.

The threat to the east.

Conflict and rivalry between Romans and Persians was not new but the conflict intensified mightily during the sixth century and so did the prizes as stake. Instead of just battling over debated bore border provinces like Armenia and Mesopotamia, the two empires were engaged in an epic struggle for survival.

Conquests were often accompanied by acts of destruction and massacre explicitly directed against the other sides faith, against respectively churches and Zoroastrian fire temples. Politically and religiously this was an end game.

Generally the Persians did a superb job of maintaining and expanding their position. The Persians also made devastating use of their massed heavy cavalry the riders clad in effective armour.

In 540 the Persians ravaged Syria. They utterly destroyed Antioch carrying off tens of thousands of his residents. This was only a few years after the city was crippled by a great earthquake. Although Justinian sought to rebuild Antioch after the person Conquest, it never fully recovered.

When Heraclius took the throne in 610 he had to confront what looked like a near-terminal crisis with the Persians pressing on the eastern frontier. Meanwhile barbarians were also sweeping through the Balkans.

In 614 the Persians captured Jerusalem which was subject to a horrendous massacre: "The evil Persians had no pity in their hearts raced to every place in the city and with one accord extirpated all the people. Men women and children were murdered down like cabbages."

Holy churches were burned with fire and demolished.

The Persians even carried off what was believed to be the true cross itself the most precious Relic in all Christendom. The Persians came close to supplanting the Roman Empire.

If not for the military genius of Heraclius, the Romans story would have ended. As it was he succeeded in rolling back Persian power and restoring Roman rule of over most of the middle east. By the late 620s Heraclius was arguably the greatest Roman leader and general since the height of the unified Empire. But just as he looked back to the most potent Roman values, so he behaved like a medieval Crusader King pledged to the service of the Mother of God.

Although Persia was defeated, large portions of the Eastern world were economically devastated and depopulated, with a crushing tax burden on surviving communities. It was a bad time for most of the population of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Failure of the will.

Heraclius sought a new solution to the ancient dispute over Christ's nature.. The empire now proposed to ignore the issue of one or two natures but not everyone could agree that Christ had just one will. About 626 Heraclius raised his new scheme with Bishop Cyrus.

In 630 Cyrus was sent to Egypt as both patriarch and prefect and enjoyed remarkable success in winning over Coptic Bishops and clergy.

Monothelietism was backed by two of the most powerful emperors Roman emperors: Heraclius himself and his grandson and successor Constants II. Heraclius had saved the empire and his prestige allowed him to declare the new doctrine formally in his Ekthesis, the Exposition of the Faith. Constans was another strong ruler who in 663 became the first Eastern "Roman emperor" in two centuries to actually visit Rome.

Soon though both Chalcedonians and Monophysite denounced the new doctrine as yet another unsavoury new heresy. There was a revolt in Egypt.

The Coptic patriarch was martyred by Imperial forces: "lighted torches were held to his sides until the fat of his body forth and flowed upon the ground and knocked out his teeth because he confessed the faith and finally commanded that a sack be filled with sand and he placed within it and drowned in the sea. A suitably Trinitarian execution.

In 648 Constans tried to forbid further discussion of the natures of Christ. The chief opponent was Maximus a former imperial officer. How can we possibly speak of any kind of human nature with out a human will ? Maximus then moved to Rome where he mobilised support against One Will teachings. That action was seen as ecclesiastical mutiny and precipitated his death.

Finally in 680 a new Emperor called yet another Council the Sixth, held once more in Constantinople. This gathering rejected the Monophysite position and reasserted Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Islam at the Gates

From 674 through 678 Constantinople had been subject to yet another siege this time by Muslim forces. The story of Islam's rise is familiar enough but in fact it is difficult to understand except in the context of the Christian divisions of the time.

Some curious Christian themes appear in the Quran's treatment of Jesus. While absolutely decrying the divinity of Christ the Quran presents a Jesus who looks very much like the figure familiar in the Syriac speaking churches. The Quran follows the Docetic view that the crucifixion of Jesus was an illusion "They did not slay him and neither did they crucify him".

The Muslims cared nothing for the divisions between the Christians so long as they respected Muslim with authority and paid their taxes. They needed skilled Christians of every kind: scribes, notaries, architects and metal workers. The first century or so after the Conquest marked something like a golden age for the Christian communities who were now free of Roman oppression.

Egypt's Coptic church now achieved everything it had been fighting for since the time of Cyril and Dioscuros. One great patriarch Benjamin reigned from 622 to 661. In this time the Chalcedonian church collapsed and is properties reverted to Coptic control.

In Syria and Mesopotamia, Jacobite and Nestorian churches enjoyed peace and prestige. By the 8th century the Jacobite church included perhaps 150 archbishops. Under Muslim rule the different anti-Chalcedonian churches moved to create more formal alliances and merges. In 728 a council formerly established communion between the Armenian Church and the Jacobites who formed a solid anti-Chalcedonian front.

In the long run the Christian future would be in those regions of Western Europe that had never defied Chalcedon. Chalcedonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic but because the world that opposed them perished.

Chapter 9

What was saved

The Byzantines could not understand the Nestorians who denied the mother of God. The process of orthodoxy involves a large amount of what we call political accident depending on the outcome of dynastic succession. Matters might easily have gone another way. It is not obvious why one current triumphs over enough in other.

But from a Christian perspective chance is not a valid concept. To make Christ a purely divine figure seemed overpowering not least because god-man was such a familiar concept to a society in transition from paganism.

Amazingly the church preserved is belief that Christ was human as well as God. And today that belief is the standard official doctrine for the majority of Christian institutions - all Catholic and Orthodox believe it as well as virtually all Protestants.

Resurrections Without End

Long centuries after the Roman Empire thought it had destroyed the last Arians, similar ideas reappeared in the Western world in the form of Unitarianism.

During the religious turmoil of the 16th century, new controversies revived ancient Christological feuds. Martin Luther taught that Christ's divine and human natures experienced an interchange of divine and human qualities. Calvin, in contrast, was much more Antiochene, insisting on the reality of both natures, human as well as divine.

Since the 16th century theologians have explored the idea suggesting that the Son of God deliberately gave up many of his divine attributes in order to live among us as Jesus. A Christ limited in a way that would not truthfully admit to knowing at the time of the end of the world, knowledge only available to his father. The sense was that god really did appear to him in stages. They speculate that the moment of his baptism in Jordan is the turning point in his career.