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Christian History Home > 1999 > Issue 64 > Ascetic Agitators

Ascetic Agitators
The early monks not only prayed in the desert but sometimes rioted in the cities.
Kenneth Calvert | posted 10/01/1999 12:00AM

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Theophilus tried to calm the mob, saying, "When I look upon you, it is as if I beheld the face of God." He was forced to change his views on Origen to save both his office as well as his life.

For personal and political reasons, Theophilus took up the anti-Origenist cause with a vengeance, and he enlisted the monks to help him. He condemned defenders of Origen, such as Isidore, four monks known as the "Tall Brothers," and various pro-Origen church officials in Egypt. He removed many "heretics" (as he called them) from office and expelled the Tall Brothers from their monastic houses. He also sowed division in monastic communities, so that, as Sozomen put it, "A terrible contention prevailed among the monks, for they did not think it worthwhile to persuade one another … but settled down into insults."

The Tall Brothers fled to Constantinople and asked for justice from Emperor Arcadius (r.395-408) and Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.347-407). As archbishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom had the right to settle a dispute in Alexandria, so he called for a fact-finding hearing.

Theophilus arrived in Asia Minor in 403 to defend himself against the charges of Tall Brothers—and to seek revenge on Chrysostom. Some years earlier, Chrysostom had been appointed archbishop in place of Theophilus's candidate; in addition, Theophilus was furious that the see of Constantinople had recently been raised in status over the see of Alexandria.

So Theophilus gathered 36 allies, mainly bishops from Egypt and a few disgruntled locals (who had been subject to one of Chrysostom's denunciations). They met at the Palace of the Oak, outside of Chalcedon, at a "synod," and condemned the Tall Brothers and Chrysostom. With the support of the emperor (whose wife Chrysostom had recently likened to Jezebel in a sermon), Chrysostom was exiled.

Sozomen wrote that the people of the capital, who loved the archbishop, "ran to the churches, to the marketplaces, and to the palace of the emperor, and with howls and groans demanded the recall of John." Theophilus was forced to flee and Chrysostom was recalled from exile. When a second exile was successfully orchestrated in 404, John's allies, which included many monks, were also severely suppressed. Ironically, the Tall Brothers, who had been at the center of the original controversy, faded off into history.

Physical monasticism

Monkish politics surfaced again with the consecration of Cyril to the Alexandrian bishopric in 412. He was a brilliant theologian determined to continue his uncle Theophilus's policies. Cyril worked to rid Egypt of heretics, Jews, and pagans, often using heavy-handed methods such as inciting a mob against Hypatia (c.375-415), one of the last, great pagan philosophers of Alexandria. Such efforts brought him into alliance with one of the most important monastic leaders of the time, Shenouda (c.348-466), abbot of the Great White Monastery in Atripe, Egypt.

Raised in a monastery, Shenouda became a vibrant, strict, and successful governor over a community that eventually included thousands of men and women. When foreign brigands, called the Blemmyes, attacked upper Egypt, Shenouda offered refuge to the population. He also protected Christians from economic and political abuses by pagans, who still retained control of the region.

His power was such that when unhappy monks called upon secular authorities to intervene, Shenouda personally beat and kicked the leading magistrate and had loyal followers assault the magistrate's companions. Shenouda went so far as to attack the homes of wealthy polytheists as well as destroy their temples, their idols, and their private shrines.

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