II: The World of Nestorius: Bishops, Monks, and Saracens

From: 428 AD

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The World of Nestorius , ,   H concluded his sensitive diplomatic mission, Flavius Dionysius returned to Antioch, but he did not stay there long. The general soon had to set off on his travels to carry out another important mission: to escort the Syrian cleric Nestorius from the monastery close to Antioch’s city gates, where he was the prior, to the capital Constantinople where he had just been elected bishop. The election of Nestorius was part of Theodosius II’s carefully worked-out plan: the emperor chose a prelate unconnected with the scheming that went on in Constantinople, because he wanted to bring a halt to the endless bickering that went on there and appeared to take up most of the clergy’s time. This was not the first time that a brilliant churchman from Syria had been elected bishop of the capital. For Christians, Antioch was an ancient city of considerable prestige, and it enjoyed special privileges not shared by the rest of the community. Its bishop had a degree of authority over the other eastern prelates, and he administered a wealth of assets . The emperor was counting on Nestorius’s talents as a brilliant and charismatic preacher to bring the community of believers and the increasingly influential monks under control. Moreover, the new bishop appeared to satisfy the political requirements of the time. It is true that the supremacy of Christianity was no longer in question—the Roman Empire was now also a Christian empire—but the “Catholic”Church was unable to control believers who lived outside its borders. Following the abandonment of Armenia and  C H A P T E R I I the subsequent weakening of the local Church, Constantinople risked losing contact with the Christians living in the Persian Empire, who belonged to a Church which had been founded in  under the auspices of the Great King and, following the Council of Ctesiphon in , had become fully independent (or “autocephalous,”to use the correct term).1 The Church of Persia used Syriac for its liturgy and official documents (this language was the variant of Aramaic spoken in Edessa, and Aramaic was the traditional lingua franca of the Persian Empire).2 This threatened the supremacy of Greek as the ecumenical language of the Christian East, which was harmful to Constantinople’s political aims. To strengthen relations between the Christian communities, the empire needed to use Syrian clerics as intermediaries, as most of them were bilingual.3 Hence the choice of Nestorius, who, according to some sources, had distant Persian origins.4 With an oriental on the bishop’s throne in Constantinople, the rivalry between Antioch and the capital was much reduced, and this favored the authority of the imperial court. The citizens of Antioch, who were often in a state of unrest, would willingly submit to the authority of one of their own. At the same time, Nestorius maintained control over the Syrian city: he exploited the death of Bishop Theodotus, which occurred in the same year, to have one of his own placemen elected, the like-minded John. By playing the Nestorian card, Theodosius made a specific political and doctrinal decision. Antioch was an important center of Christian theological thought, where Greek rhetoric and the spiritual experiences of the East coexisted and occasionally clashed. Although Antioch did not have an actual theological “school”like Alexandria (where the “archbishop” supervised the organization of studies and, in a sense, “handed down the doctrinal line”), the city’s monasteries were particularly lively, with a propensity for polemics, not without a touch of local pride. Officially, the bishop of Constantinople did not have the same privileges as the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch. However, they were in practice all on the same level, and the eastern capital could even compete with Rome. The election of Nestorius in  therefore constituted an important moment for the Syriac tradition, and this continued to be true even after , when Nestorius was deposed and repudiated by the Council of Ephesus. It was not chance that Theodoret, the Bishop of T H E W O R L D O F N E S T O R I U S  Cyrrhus (about a hundred kilometers to the north of Antioch), ended his ecclesiastical history in .5 Theodoret, who lived until , could not have openly declared that this was the real reason for the chronological period he chose, but he had little difficulty in using this year as the end of an era...