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Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus


A. The Empire

Theodosius the Great died in 395. His two sons replaced him: Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. In the West, the Germanic tribes invaded the Western Empire and established a new kingdom. They applied their primitive, barbarian customs instead of the Roman law and most of them were Arians. Emperor Honorius lost his control of the Empire and lived in North Italy. The Visigoths defeated the Roman army and put Rome to a three day sack in 410. Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia was taken captive and was married to the king of the Visigoths, Ataulf. Their son Valentinian III became the emperor after the death of Honorius in 423. In the East, the situation was better. However, Arcadius was very weak and his wife Eudoxia had great influence in political and ecclesiastical matters e.g., the deposition of Saint John Chrysostom. Arcadius died in 408 and was replaced by his son Theodosius II who was seven years old. His sister Pulcharia was his regent and she had great influence on him. Theodosius died in 450.

B. The Church and the Beginnings of the Nestorian Controversy.

1. In 428 Nestorius was installed as Bishop of Constantinople. He was the Abbot of a monastery near Antioch and had been a childhood friend of John of Antioch. His close friends were Theodoret of Cyrus and Andrew of Samosata. Nestorius and his friends were loyal scholars of the Antiochene school of theology. Their main teachers were Diodore of Tarsus (who died in 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (who died in 428). Nestorius was an eloquent preacher and an ascetic monk.

2. He started his episcopate by attacking the heresies in Constantinople, e.g. Arianism. He clashed with Augusta Pulcharia when he prevented her from taking communion in the sanctuary, as she previously practiced under Nestorius’ predecessor. As the regent of her young brother, Emperor Theodosius, she used to accompany him in taking Communion within the sanctuary–a privilege reserved exclusively for the reigning emperor among the lay people. Pulcharia also believed she had the right to this privilege due to her virginity.

3. A theological dispute happened between the monastic party in Constantinople–led by Archimandrite Basil and supported by Bishop Proclus, Augusta Pulcheria, and other aristocratic people–and the Antiochian clergy that Nestorius brought with him from Antioch, led by his chaplain Anastasius. They attacked the tradition of calling Saint Mary the “Theotokos.” They thought the title should be “Anthropatokos” i.e., “mother of man.” The monastic party and the people in Constantinople defended the title “Theotokos.” When the two parties went to Nestorius he proposed a compromise. He suggested the title of “Christotokos,” or the Mother of Christ.

4. Nestorius started a series of lectures in the Cathedral to explain the “right” faith. His chaplain, Anastasius, gave the opening lecture. He chose to attack the error of using the Theotokos title.

5. Bishop Proclus soon made a counterattack with a famous sermon entitled “The Virgin Mother of God the Theotokos,” preached in the presence of Nestorius. When the people responded to the sermon with loud applause, Nestorius was enraged and began to respond in a critical way. Nevertheless, the congregation did not heed his words. Many ascetic and pious monks considered Nestorius’ teachings as heretical and did not participate with him in the Holy Communion. Among them was the most famous monk, Archimandrite Hypatius, the spiritual teacher of Augusta Pulcheria and the royal princesses.

6. In early 429, Nestorius decided to back up his chaplain Anastasius and delivered a series of lectures in the cathedral. Nestorius’ lectures were published (written) and circulated outside Constantinople. The title of Theotokos was one of the chief targets of the attack in Nestorius’ lectures.

7. Information about the dispute and copies of Nestorius’ sermons reached Saint Cyril in Alexandria and Bishop Celestine in Rome.

8. In his paschal letter of Easter 429, Saint Cyril affirmed the reality of the humanity of Christ and insisted on the singleness of His Divine Person. He made no reference to either Constantinople or Nestorius. However, as Nestorius’ sermons began to be circulated in Egypt and reached the monks in the desert, Saint Cyril thought he had the canonical right to interfere because the problem reached his own jurisdiction

9. Saint Cyril composed his famous and important, “Letter to the Monks,” which was circulated through Egypt and reached Constantinople and Nestorius.

10. Nestorius prepared an answer to Saint Cyril’s letter. He also intended to send special messages to Alexandria and Rome by confirming the right of Constantinople to act as the Supreme Court of Appeal in the Christian world. So he started the “Commissions of Inquiry” to examine the complaints of two groups of clergy: Alexandrian clergy and lay people, who came to Constantinople accusing Saint Cyril of treating them in a harsh way, and exiled bishops from the west, who had been condemned by Western Synods on charges of Pelagianism.

11. Nestorius, in his response to Saint Cyril’s Letter to the Monks, considered the letter as an act of aggression. In his first letter to Nestorius, Saint Cyril mentioned that it was Nestorius, not him, who was the cause of the dispute. Saint Cyril also explained that he was acting to defend the Orthodox faith by responding to the queries he received from Egypt and outside (including Rome) concerning Nestorius’ wrong teachings.

12. Saint Cyril spent the winter of 429 and early 430 deeply studying Nestorius’ sermons. He prepared a dossier which included extracts from Nestorius’ writings as well as extensive patristic writings supporting the Orthodox faith. Saint Cyril included many writings of Greek fathers such as Saint Athanasius and Saint Gregory the Theologian, as well as Latin fathers like Saint Cyprian and Saint Ambrose. After translating the whole dossier into Latin, he sent the Greek version to Emperor Theodosius and its Latin translation to Bishop Celestine of Rome. He then sent copies to influential people in the palace, e.g. Augusta Pulcheria.

13. After Rome received Saint Cyril’s dossier in Easter of 430, Bishop Celestine instructed his archdeacon, Leo, to set up a formal commission of inquiry. Archdeacon Leo asked John Cassian, the Abbot of monasteries in Marseilles, to study the dossier and compose a response in preparation of a formal synod that would decide the orthodoxy of Nestorius’ teachings.

14. After hearing that Nestorius took communion with a guest bishop, who in a public sermon in the cathedral anathematized those who called Saint Mary Theotokos, Saint Cyril wrote his second letter to Nestorius. This letter was one of the main theological documents in the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon.

15. Nestorius sent a petition to Emperor Theodosius asking him to call for an “International Synod of Theologians” from various ecclesiastical provinces to review the whole theological issue. Nestorius had in mind a limited gathering of expert theologians and not a general ecumenical council of bishops. He also hoped that the gathering would meet in Constantinople, so he could preside and gain the opportunity to try and condemn Saint Cyril.

16. Emperor Theodosius informally agreed to call for an international meeting without assigning a place. Nestorius was encouraged and sent a letter to Bishop Celestine, describing the Theotokos dispute as a ploy from Saint Cyril to avoid his own trial. Nestorius received no response from Rome, as was the case with his two previous letters to Rome.

17. The disaffected clergy at Constantinople sent a petition to Emperor Theodosius asking for Nestorius’ deposition.

18. On August 11, 430, a synod was held at Rome and Nestorius’ teaching was formally condemned as heretic by Bishop Celestine and the Italian bishops. Bishop Celestine sent a letter to Saint Cyril informing him of the decision and asking him to execute the decree of the Roman Synod on their behalf. Therefore, Saint Cyril, in Ephesus, considered himself as representing Alexandria and Rome.

19. In November of 430, Emperor Theodosius formally announced his final approval to call for an ecumenical council to consider the whole issue of the Nestorian controversy. He decided that the council would be held at Ephesus on the Pentecost of 431 (which was on June 7th that year). He appointed Count Candidianus as the head of the imperial palace guard to represent the Emperor, to supervise the proceedings of the Council, and to keep good order in the city of Ephesus. However, the Emperor instructed him not to interfere in the theological proceedings. Although Candidianus was instructed to be neutral, he proved to be biased towards Nestorius.

20. In November 430, Saint Cyril called his bishops for a synodical meeting. The Synod of Alexandria formally condemned Nestorius’ doctrine. Saint Cyril sent his third letter to Nestorius informing him of the synodical decision and appended the letter with his famous Twelve Anathemas. Saint Cyril made the acceptance of Anathemas against Nestorius a condition to be readmitted to Communion.

II. The Council of Ephesus

1. On November 19, 430 Emperor Theodosius sent official invitations to the bishops to gather for an ecumenical council to be held at Ephesus on June 7, 431, the Feast of Pentecost.

2. Many of the hierarchs began to arrive before Pentecost. Nestorius was the first to arrive with 16 bishops. The representative of the Emperor, Count Candidian, arrived with an armed guard. Count Irenaues came with Nestorius in a private capacity. Saint Cyril arrived a few days before Pentecost with 50 bishops. Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite accompanied him. Saint Cyril was highly welcomed by Bishop Memnon of Ephesus and his local clergy and people. Bishop Memnon of Ephesus gathered 52 bishops from his province.

3. Juvenal of Jerusalem arrived on June 12 with 16 bishops.

4. Flavian of Philippi arrived with a delegation from Macedonia.

5. Bishop Celestine’s delegation, 2 Italian bishops and one priest, arrived after the opening of the council on July 10th.

6. The Bishop of Carthage was represented by Deacon Basil who informed the Council about the death of Saint Augustine (who died in August 430) and the attack of the barbarian tribes which made the coming of bishops from North Africa impossible.

7. John of Antioch was late in his arrival. He arrived with 26 bishops on June 26th.

A- The Opening of the Council

1. Due to the delay of the arrival of many bishops, it was impossible to start the council on time (June 7, 431).

2. After waiting for 16 days, Saint Cyril decided to open the council on Sunday, June 21st at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. At this time, John of Antioch and his party had not arrived yet. Only two bishops arrived: Alexander of Apamea and Alexander of Hierapolis. They traveled a longer distance than John of Antioch and carried a letter from John of Antioch to Saint Cyril informing him of his delay and that they should arrive after one week. They relayed an oral message from John asking Saint Cyril to start the council if he was delayed any further.

3. Saint Cyril decided to open the council and not to wait until John of Antioch arrived in Ephesus for the following reasons:

a. He had already waited for 16 days and many of the bishops became sick. Many old bishops died because of the hot weather of Ephesus and the limited facilities of the city.

b. He felt that the Antiochian bishops were fairly represented because two bishops (the Alexanders) were anti-Cyrillian theologians. Also, Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus and the main theologians of the anti – Cyrillian party had already arrived.

c. Saint Cyril questioned the motivation of John’s delay especially since the two Antiochian bishops (the Alexanders) had already arrived after traveling greater distances. Saint Cyril thought that John may have wanted to avoid being personally involved in the condemnation of his friend, Nestorius.

4. On Sunday, June 21, 431, Saint Cyril sent an invitation to all the bishops, who had already arrived, to start the council meetings. Count Candidian protested along with 68 bishops led by Theodoret of Cyrus. But Saint Cyril proceeded with preparation for the opening of the council which took the whole day of Sunday the 21st. A special delegation was sent to Nestorius to summon him as the defendant.

B- The First Session

The First Session began on Monday morning, June 22nd, at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Saint Cyril presided at the meeting. Peter, the Alexandrian priest, was appointed as the chief legal notary.

1. The council sent a delegation of three bishops and a lawyer to summon Nestorius for the second time. He did not come.

2. 155 bishops were attendant at the beginning of the session. Then, 68 dissident bishops, led by Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, came to protest against the opening of the council. Count Candidian came with them and he called the meeting illegal. Saint Cyril asked him to read the letter of the Emperor, which demonstrated his clear instruction to the Count not to intervene in the theological discussion. After hearing the letter, the bishops asked the Count to leave the meeting and not to interfere in the work of the Council. Count Candidian then left, followed by Theodoret and 26 of the 68 dissident bishops. The remaining 42 bishops stayed. However, reading the Emperor’s letter by the Emperor’s representative gave the council legitimate status according to the civil law of the Empire.

3. The Council sent a third and final delegation to Nestorius to come to the council; he refused for the third time.

4. At the request of Juvenal of Jerusalem, the Creed of Nicea was read, noting it as the standard faith of Orthodoxy to be followed.

5. Then the second letter of Saint Cyril to Nestorius was read and Saint Cyril asked the fathers of the Council whether his letter was in accordance with the Creed of Nicea. 124 bishops gave personal acclamation of Saint Cyril’s letter as an Orthodox exposition; 31 bishops also agreed.

6. The reply of Nestorius to Saint Cyril was read and the fathers decreed together, “Whoever does not anathematize Nestorius let him be anathema. Such one the right faith anathematizes; such one the holy Synod anathematizes. Whoever communicates with Nestorius let him be anathema! We anathematize all the apostles of Nestorius: we all anathematize Nestorius as a heretic: let all such as communicate with Nestorius be anathema…”

7. Then, the Synodical Condemnation of Nestorius by Rome was read, followed by the Synodical Condemnation by the Synod at the Church of Alexandria, the third Letter of Saint Cyril to Nestorius, and the Twelve Anathemas.

8. The Council moved on to inquire what was Nestorius’ response to these canonically delivered sentences against him. The Egyptian delegation, who delivered the sentences to him in Constantinople in the winter of 430, mentioned that he rejected the sentences. Then the council moved to confirm that the sentences were in full accord with the canons governing the prosecution of anyone, who refuses to repent after receiving the Synodical decree. The Council heard the witness from Acacius of Melitene and Theodotus of Ancyra. The Fathers of the Council confirmed that Nestorius still persisted in his heresy even while he was in Ephesus.

9. After hearing this evidence, Flavian of Philippi moved that the Council should read a patristic synopsis of the doctrine on the nature of the Incarnation. Texts gathered by Saint Cyril were read. The most important of them were the letter of Saint Athanasius to Epictetus and the Letter of Saint Gregory the Theologian to Cledonius.

10. Then, a number of passages of the writings of Nestorius were read.

11. After reading these, the Council made the following decree: As, in addition to other things, the impious Nestorius had not obeyed our citation, and did not receive the holy bishops, who were sent by us to him, we were compelled to examine his ungodly doctrines. We discovered that he had held and published impious doctrines in his letters and treatises, as well as in discourses which he delivered in this city and which have been testified to. Compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter of our most holy father and fellow-servant Celestine, the Roman bishop, we have come, with many tears, to this sorrowful sentence against him, namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, decrees by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.

12. 197 bishops signed the decree on the evening of Monday, June 23, 431 at the end of the first session. The number of bishops was more than 200 if the number of proxy was added.

13. The people of Ephesus, who were waiting all the day outside the cathedral, greeted the outcome of council with great enthusiasm.

14. St Cyril described it in the following words: “When they heard that the wretched men were deposed, they all began with one voice to cry out in praise of the Holy Council, glorifying God because the enemy of the Faith had fallen.”

C- After the First Session

1. In the morning of Tuesday, June 23rd, the notice of the deposition was delivered to Nestorius.

2. Saint Cyril sent letters to Alexandria and Constantinople informing the clergy there of the deposition of Nestorius.

3. Saint Cyril sent a report about the proceedings of the council to the emperor asking for his sanction.

4. Nestorius sent a formal appeal to the Emperor complaining and protesting about what happened in the Council and asked the Emperor to dissolve the Council and call another council to be held near in or near Constantinople, which would only have one or two expert theologians from each province, who could debate issues of Faith calmly and without prejudice.

5. Count Candidian prevented any legal action towards the official approval of the Council’s resolutions. He did not allow any bishop to leave Ephesus and sent a formal report to the Emperor informing him that he dismissed the council on the grounds that it was a partisan meeting.

6. When the Emperor received the three contradictory reports from Saint Cyril, Nestorius, and Count Candidian, he was confused.

D- The Little Council (Concilia Bulum)

John of Antioch arrived in Ephesus on Friday, June 26. He was very disappointed when he heard about the opening of the Council and its resolutions. He called his bishops to meet with Nestorius and his own bishop. A total of 43 bishops attended. The Council of Ephesus sent a delegation to John and his bishops informing them about the meeting of the Council and its resolutions. John and his bishops refused to receive the delegation and he proceeded in his own council. Count Candidian read the official letter of the Emperor, but John of Antioch considered his little council (of 43 bishops) as the legal council of Ephesus. The little council accused Cyril and Memnon of causing disorder in the city. The meeting focused on the 12 Anathemas of Saint Cyril. Theodoret of Cyrus criticized the Anathemas. The bishops of the Little Council also declared that the 12 Anathemas were in agreement, in the main, with the wickedness of Arius, Apollinarius and Eunomios. They excommunicated and deposed Saint Cyril and Bishop Memnon of Ephesus. Letters were prepared to be sent to the Imperial Court and the people of Constantinople. The people of Ephesus rejected the decree of the Little Council and resisted the attempt of John of Antioch and his bishops to consecrate a new bishop in Ephesus to replace Memnon.

E- The Reaction of Emperor Theodosius.

1. On June 29, 431, Emperor Theodosius sent an examining magistrate, Palladius, to Ephesus with the commission to find out exactly what was going on and to assist Candidian in keeping order. He ordered all of the bishops to stay in Ephesus until the interrogation was complete. Meanwhile, the monks in Constantinople organized a procession to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Emperor to confirm the results of the Council of Ephesus. The Emperor received them politely, asked for their prayers, and dismissed them.

2. Palladius returned to Constantinople with a delegation from the council of the majority, who presented their case to the Emperor. Count Irenaeus made a personal visit to the Royal Court on behalf of his friend, Nestorius. By this time, the Emperor received the acts of the Little Council. Theodosius decided to ratify the resolution of the two councils and accept their respective depositions of Nestorius, Cyril and Memnon.

3. The people of Constantinople continued to demonstrate, asking the Emperor to ratify the Cyrilline Synod (the Council of Ephesus). When they heard the decisions of the Emperor, they protested the deposition of Saint Cyril and Memnon while they welcomed the deposition of Nestorius. So, the Emperor decided to send the Imperial High Treasurer, John, to Ephesus to replace Count Candidian.

F- The Council Resumed Its Sessions

On Friday, July 10th, the Roman delegation arrived from Rome and Saint Cyril, still unaware of the Emperor’s decree to depose him, at once reconvened the Council.

1. The Second Session of the Council. All original members (about 200 bishops), who attended the first session, reassembled in Memnon’s Episcopal residence to listen to the letter of Pope Celestine of Rome. The pope requested the confirmation of the Roman synod’s decision, which condemned Nestorius.

2. The Third Session was held on July 11th in Memnon’s residence. In this session, the Roman delegates formally accepted and signed the acts of the previous two sessions of the Council. Letters were sent again to the Emperor and the clergy of Constantinople requesting the ratification of the decrees of the Council.

3. The Fourth Session was held on July 16th at Saint Mary’s Cathedral to discuss the situation of John of Antioch. They sent delegates to summon John and his bishops. They did not come. A second delegation was sent with the same result.

4. The Fifth Session was held on Friday, July 17th. That delegation was sent to John and his bishops. Again, they did not come. The Council proceeded to judge John’s actions against Saint Cyril and Memnon as wholly unjust and uncanonically performed. The Council passed a sentence against John and 34 of his companion bishops, excommunicating them and suspending their rights of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, i.e., a deliberate stage short of the irreversible decision to depose them. They sent their decision to the emperor.

5. The Sixth Session was held on July 22nd.

a. The Council heard a petition of the priest Charisius, who was suspended by his bishop, who was among John of Antioch’s party.

b. A petition was heard from the Pamphylian bishops seeking confirmation of their policy to readmit certain Messalian schematics to full Communion.

c. The Council ended the session with a cannon to the effect that the Nicene Creed alone was the legitimate symbol of the Universal Church.

6. The Seventh and final session was held on Monday, July 31st, at Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

The synod recognized the independence of the Church of Cyprus. The Council issued their disciplinary canons to reinstate the clergy deposed by Nestorius and warned those who would not abide by the Council’s decrees that they would be deposed and excommunicated.


1. After the Council concluded its session on July 31, the High Treasurer, Count John, arrived in Ephesus at the beginning of August. He took control of the city and summoned all the bishops to his lodgings for plenary sessions. When all the bishops gathered, including Nestorius and John of Antioch, Count John announced the Emperor’s decision of ratifying the decrees of the two synods and confirmed the sentences against Saint Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius. The bishops were ordered to leave and Saint Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius were taken to the house of arrest. John of Antioch abandoned Nestorius and agreed with the Emperor’s policy. The bishops of the Council supported Saint Cyril and Memnon and appealed to the Emperor to release them and not to depend on false reports. They sent a formal delegation with a petition to the Emperor requesting him to disregard all the false reports and to confirm only their decrees. On the other side, Count Irenaeus went to Constantinople to lobby for Nestorius.

2. Emperor Theodosius decided to summon a small group of delegates from each party to debate the case in his presence at the capital.

3. On September 3rd, Theodosius reconfirmed the deposition of Nestorius and allowed him to leave Ephesus and return to his monastery of Antioch on his earlier request.

4. On September 11th, Theodosius opened the theological meeting (Colloquy) at Chalcedon. He listened to the debate of the two parties. At the end of the first session, he asked every party to present their positions in writing.

5. Four other sessions of the Chalcedonian Colloquy were held during September and October.

6. At the end of these sessions, John of Antioch and his party accepted:

a. the title of Theotokos

b. the singleness of the Lord’s Person

c. the inseparable union of the two natures.

They did not accept the Twelve Chapters (Anathemas) of Saint Cyril. The Cyrillian party presented the explanation of the twelve chapters written by Saint Cyril.

7. On Sunday October 25th, Maximian was consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople. Emperor Theodosius asked the Cyrilline bishops to take part in ceremonies while the Antiochian party (Orientals) received no invitation.


Finally, Emperor Theodosius announced his final decision regarding the Council of Ephesus which was in favor of the Ephesian majority.

1. Nestorius’ deposition was to be final.

2. The accusation of Apollinarianism against Saint Cyril was to be dismissed as a false accusation.

3. The Antiochenes (Orientals) should also to be accepted as orthodox in their doctrine.

Emperor Theodosius officially commanded the dissolution of the Council and gave permission to Bishop Memnon to resume his duties at Ephesus and Saint Cyril to return to Alexandria. Saint Cyril left Ephesus on October 31, 431 AD and was received as a hero of the faith in Alexandria.


By the middle of the year of 432, Theodosius decided to press for a healing of the rift with John of Antioch and his bishops. He wrote to John of Antioch deploring the continuous enmities. He outlined the terms of his plan for reconciliation which were drafted by a synod at Constantinople under the influence of Bishop Proclus. The Orientals were required to recognize the deposition of Nestorius and condemn his teachings as heretical to be received into Communion. The Emperor asked Bishop Acacius of Beraea to be a broker between Saint Cyril and John of Antioch. The Imperial Notary and tribune, Aristolaus was given the commission of bringing about the unity.

After many negotiations and correspondences, the Orientals accepted the terms of reconciliation in the late spring of 433. They dropped their determination to require Saint Cyril to recant the twelve chapters. John of Antioch signed Saint Cyril’s document with a few minor modifications. He recognized Maximian as Bishop of Constantinople and condemned the heretical teachings of Nestorius.

When the relations were formally restored, Saint Cyril sent his famous letter (letter No. 391) to John of Antioch, which has since been known as “The Formula of Reunion.” Saint Cyril began his letter saying, “Let the Heavens rejoice…”

On April 23rd, 433 Saint Cyril announced from his pulpit in Alexandria that communion had been re-established in the Christian world.


Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009