Did Saint Cyril Kill Hypatia? Professor Edward Watts rewrites history

We got an email that said:

A group of his [Cyril's] followers - stirred up by him - were responsible for the gruesome murder of the Alexandrian scholar Hypatia [in 422 A.D.]. He does not deserve sainthood. On that point, history has made its judgment - I doubt there is anything that could be said in his defense.

The implications are that the Catholic Church does not have integrity in its choice of saints and that its claim of infallibility on these matters is invalid.

The accusation is that Cyril, a canonized Catholic saint, assembled a mob of monks and had Hypatia dragged into a church where the monks tore her flesh with potsherds 'til she died.  The story is that Hypatia was a young beautiful intelligent woman that Cyril had murdered out of jealousy.

This theory was advanced by Mangasar Mugurditch Mangasarian (1859-1943) a man who admired pagan religions, and pretty much dismissed Christianity. He was also hung up on the beautiful Hypatia. The story was picked up by Evangelicals to demonstrate the Church's lack of integrity when canonizing Saints. It has also been picked up by secular universities.

The story has several flaws:

  1. Hypatia was not a young woman at the time, she was old.
  2. Monks did not kill Hypatia, nor did the clergy. Alexandrians led by a lector named Peter did it. The mob of monks that Mangasar is talking about were around several years before this scene in 419 A.D. and they rescued Christians from death at the hands of the Alexandrian Jews.
  3. Cyril did not instigate the mob against Hypatia nor was he there when they killed her.

Catholics acknowledge Hypatia's integrity. Cyril didn't instigate the crowd

Catholics acknowledge Hypatia's integrity and the tragedy of her death at the hand of radicals. Hypatia was highly-respected teacher of neo-Platoism.  Hypatia was a friend of Orestes, the Prefect (Governor) of Egypt and Orestes was very fond of Hypatia who influenced him towards a neo-pagan set of beliefs.

It was a very violent time in history. Lots of riots. Cyril and Orestes had a falling out because Cyril had a mob of monks come and drive the Jews out of Alexandria, after they had been killing Christians. Many Christians at that time believed that Hypatia prevented a reconciliation between the prefect (Orestes) and patriarch (Cyril). A mob led by a lector, named Peter, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potsherds 'til she died. This brought great disgrace, says Socrates, on the Church of Alexandria and on its bishop; but a lector at Alexandria was not a cleric (Scr., V, xxii). (Note: this is not Socrates the Greek philosopher of 400 years earlier, but rather a well-respected man of the time.)

Hypatia died during a riot is true, but the statement that Cyril was responsible is a different matter. Socrates did not lay the blame of Cyril. Cyril was not there according to him. Damascius, indeed, accuses Cyril but he is a late authority and a hater of Christians.

It is a mistake to quote the writings of an anti-Christian like Damascius rather than a man of integrity and respect like Socrates. That logic is dubious. By trying to demonstrate poor discernment on the part of the Catholic Church in its choice of Saints, they attempt to derail the Church's integrity, and also attack the principle of infallibility in their choice of Saints. Quoting Damascius as a reliable source for history in Christendom is like asking Stalin (communist Russia) to write our history books about Christianity in this 20th century. We got an email that said:

You should read the account of Bishop John of Nikiu from the 7th Century about who killed Hypatia. His credibility is in the fact that he brags about the monks killing her.

In the account from John of Nikiu, Cyril is not said to have been involved in the incident.   John merely says ...

"And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city." 

These are two unconnected statements. He recounts the murder of Hypatia, and then speaks about how Cyril (like Patriarch Theophilus before him) became the leader of the new mobilized faction. He does not say, or even imply, that Cyril was behind the mob action against Hypatia.  It is also significant that John of Nikiu, was not Roman Catholic, and did not believe in the Trinity. He also had lost his post as bishop in the Coptic Church because he beat a monk so bad that the guy died 10 days later. He was not exactly walking in the light.

St. Cyril was a great influence on the direction of Christianity. Cyril is responsible for defending the Dogma of the Trinity against Nestorius who just about won out when trying to convince the Church that the Human and Divine Nature of Jesus were separate. Basically, Nestorius would have turned Christ's sacrifice on the Cross to nothing but another death of a prophet and would have turned Christianity into a New Age fallacy. St. Cyril stood up against this heresy. Without Cyril, it is doubtful that we Christianity today would understand the Trinity of God as three persons in One, and the unity of Christ's human and divine nature. Theologians and historians can greatly appreciate the magnitude of Cyril's contribution to Christianity.

Professor Edward Watts at the University of Indiana (now at UC San Diego) re-writes history

As a follow-up to this article I (Hugh) entered into dialogue with Professor Edward Watts. Here is our exchange.

Hugh writes:

Dear Edward

Your Chapter about Hypatia in “Violence in late antiquity” (pg 333-342) says that Socrates attributes the death of Hypatia to Cyril. The sources you cite are Footnote 30: John Chron. 84:80-98. In its details it mirrors Socrates HE 7:13.

It appears I’ve found the Socrates source. The Life of Hypatia, By Socrates Scholasticus, from his Ecclesiastical History. And it indeed confirms the Catholic Encyclopedia claim that Peter, a lay person who as a lector, (not a bunch of Monks, which is confused with an incident several years earlier involving Monks defending themselves against violent persecution in Alexandria), led the mob. You’ve made a very strong claim in a scholastic book. Could you please tell us how you come to write that Socrates said that Cyril instigated this murder? We do not find any evidence of this.

Edward Watts responds:

...Let me first address your comment about John of Nikiu.  Copts revere Cyril.  He is seen as a leading theologian by both Chalcedonian and Anti-Chalcedonian (ie Monophysite) groups. His target was Nestorianism and Chalcedon occurred after his death.  Indeed, the central argument at Chalcedon was how to define the legacy of Cyril because both groups at the council claimed (and continue to claim) him as a champion.  If you read the rest of John of Nikiu, you can see that he had tremendous respect for Cyril.  He even foreshadows Cyril's anti-pagan actions when he describes the childhood of Theophilus and Cyril's mother.  If you look at the Coptic liturgy and the Coptic Synaxary, Cyril's name is mentioned as an orthodox father in every service to this day and he has a number of commemorations across the Coptic liturgical calendar.  There is no way that a Copt would ever look to discredit Cyril.  And John of Nikiu is not discrediting Cyril when he speaks about this incident--he is praising him for eliminating paganism in the city (this is what the reference to the "New Theophilus" is supposed to convey).  < /p>

Socrates, by contrast, is not objective when it comes to Cyril  Socrates was sympathetic to Novatianism and views Cyril as a disruptive influence who persecuted Novatians (if you are interested, I can send you an article in which I look at the rhetorical fashioning of the first half of the seventh book of Socrates' History).  Socrates does imply that Cyril bore responsibility for the action when he says (at HE 7.15) that this action brought "opprobrium TO Cyril and the whole Alexandrian church."  (Incidentally, the Greek here is clear that the opprobrium (Grk=Momon) for this "unchristian" act was directed towards Cyril and not by Cyril--the one to whom Momon is directed is usually in the dative case, the case in which Cyril and the church of Alexandria are in this passage).  This statement, in the author's own voice, would make no sense if he saw Cyril as uninvolved.  For a complete translation of this section (and the rest of Socrates) you may want to check this website: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf202.ii.x.xv.html.  The translation dates from the early 20th century, so the notes no longer reflect current debates.

What is different about these two accounts is not whether Cyril was somehow responsible (both texts agree that he was, at least indirectly) but how this act of violence is viewed.  Socrates generally did not like religious violence and saw Cyril's involvement in it as bad.  John of Nikiu, though, saw this sort of thing as good if directed by Christians against non-Christians.  For him, Cyril's invovlement was a testimony to his virtue as a Christian.  We must remember that, in the later Roman world, successful attacks on pagaism were seen as signs of divine favor by many Christians.  We need to be careful that we interpret these actions according to the standards held in antiquity and not in contemporary terms.

Edward Watts
Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Department of History
Indiana University
Ballantine Hall, Rm. 828
1020 East Kirkwood Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405-7103
Director, Indiana University Program in Ancient Studies

Hugh responds:

... In many ways we agree with you that the context of the 430’s was violent and different from today. We also agree that Cyril was vigorously defending Christianity in an environment where Churches were being burned and the idea of a pluralistic society was not possible really. Someone would win, and the losers would lose everything.  Consider the 90,000 Christians slaughtered later in Jerusalem 614, in which the Jewish people of the time heartily participated. (Today they tend to side with Christians because of Christian support for State of Israel.)

However, we need to be careful of accusing Cyril of directing a crowd to murder Hypatia. That is the issue we are concerned with rather than the rest of the messy history. We need to lay the direct blame on the lay lector Peter to whom the event is attributed, both by Socrates who said “Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter” and  John of Nikiu . “And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter”

The Catholic Encyclopedia says:

“This brought great disgrace, says Socrates, on the Church of Alexandria and on its bishop; but a lector at Alexandria was not a cleric (Scr., V, xxii), and Socrates does not suggest that Cyril himself was to blame.” You say in response:

[Socrates said] that this action brought "opprobrium TO Cyril and the whole Alexandrian church."  (Incidentally, the Greek here is clear that the opprobrium (Grk=Momon) for this "unchristian" act was directed towards Cyril and not by Cyril. The one to whom Momon is directed is usually in the dative case, the case in which Cyril and the church of Alexandria are in this passage). This statement, in the author's own voice, would make no sense if he saw Cyril as uninvolved. 

The English source you cite at CCEL does not use the word “to” but rather “upon”. It is odd that you would capitalize a word that is not even there. The Catholic Encyclopedia used “on”. We cannot find any evidence of the word “to” being used in any English translation. There is an important difference between “to” and “upon”. The word “to” implies a direction, a direct implication, whereas “upon” is much less direct.

Socrates says “upon the Church in Alexandria and it’s Bishop” which in today’s terms would be a customary way to say that a case of Mad Cow disease in Nebraska brought “momon” on the Nebraska meat packing industry and on the regional director of public health.

Could you please provide us with the Greek source that you cite that says “this unchristian act was directed towards Cyril”. This would mean that the English translations are wrong. We would be glad to see that source.

It is common knowledge that a Bishop is responsible for the affairs of his diocese, even if he did not instigate or directly cause those affairs. The English reading of Socrates makes no inference that Cyril was guilty of instigating it but rather he was guilty of being the sitting bishop.

There is plenty of evidence that Socrates was an objective source and well balanced. His membership of the minority Novatian church, which was declared a heresy, and closed down in Alexandria by Cyril, enables him to take up a relatively detached approach to developments in the Great Church. If anything he would be angry at Cyril. He is critical for example of St. John Chrysostom. He is careful not to use hyperbolic titles when referring to prominent personalities in Church and State. If Cyril instigated the crowd Socrates sure would have written that down. He would not have blamed Peter.

The account of “Bishop” John is 300 years after the fact. There are various ways to reconcile John’s writing that they rejoiced in Cyril’s deliverance of Alexandria without condemning Cyril as the direct instigator of Hypatia’s murder. His comment refers to a much wider victory for Christianity, rather than the murder of a woman. Demetrius had biased pagan view that capitalized on the situation. His lopsided account muddied the waters and there were many accounts of the incident floating around as the result of his biased account, some of which may have found their way to John. John is centuries after the event. If they named Cyril the new Theophilus, that does not necessarily point to instigation of killing Hypatia. Theophilus did not kill people.

Anyway, we’ll leave it with our defense of the Catholic interpretation of Socrates, and the interpretation given by many objective non-Catholics. i.e., a Baptist, who has no investment whatsoever in the Canonization of Cyril. In fact Evangelicals tend to look for “holes” in Catholic nomination of saints and doctors of the Church to undermine the infallibility of the Pope.

Edward Watts responds:

The Greek source reads "Touto ou mikron mwmon Kurrilw kai th Alexandrewn ekklhsia eirgasato."  Touto (the subject) refers to the whole affair.  Mwmon, the object of eirgasato, takes a simple dative.  How one translates this dative is a matter of interpretation.  There is no preposition to translate directly.  Upon is a possibility as is on and to--the dative permits these.  The choice here comes down to what makes the English less awkward.  It does not change the fact that the Greek connects this Mwmon to Cyril and the Alexandrian church.   

As to Socrates' objectivity, he and every other ancient authors did not aspire to a modern idea of objectivity.  This is not a criticism--the ancient world had different ideas about what history was and why it was read.  For this idea in general you should look at Glen Bowersock's Fiction as History.  As for what Socrates is up to, you need to read the entire church history.  He has an agenda just like all authors, ancient and modern.  For a sense of what he is up to in book seven, you should have a look at my article in the Journal of Late Antiquity from this spring.  The Hypatia story is only a small part of a larger narrative that Socrates puts together involving the churches of Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria.  Atticus of Constantinople is Socrates' hero in this section and Cyril, from the point of his disptued election until the murder of Hypatia, is the anti-Atticus who highlights Atticus' virtues.  This in turn is part of a larger work that tries to show Socrates' views of how the church leadership ought (and ought not) to behave.  You misunderstand Socrates message if you read only 7.15 and not the rest of the work.

Finally, I am a Christian.  I am interested in looking at pagan communities but I do not share their sensibilities or convictions.  However, in talking about the ancient world, I do feel strongly that it must be understood on its own terms. 

Hugh responds:

> It does not change the fact that the Greek connects this Mwmon to Cyril and the Alexandrian church. 

... the passage is not saying that he directly instigated the crowd, or that he was even there, which is the accusation floating around anti-Catholic circles. Socrates lays blame for direct instigation on Peter. “Mwmon” falls on the Church and the Bishop as any tragedy like this would in a diocese.

We agree that if anything, Socrates would lean against Cyril. Therefore his laying direct blame on Peter and general blame on the whole Church and the Bishop is even more significant in exonerating Cyril from direct participation or direct instigation. Otherwise Socrates would say “Cyril was there at Hypatia’s murder and stirred them up” which would have supported his position better, given his anger over Cyril’s election.

Our strong contention is that Cyril did not directly instigate the crowd to murder Hypatia, nor was he part of the crowd nor was he present at the event. If he was there he would try to stop it, as any spirit filled Christian would do, even in a violent roman society. If he was there instigating the crowd Socrates would have expressly said that. That is the limit of my assertions.

>As to Socrates' objectivity, he and every other ancient authors did not aspire to a modern idea of objectivity. 

Today people aspire to objectivity but there is almost no such thing, especially in the press, and unfortunately in universities. There is a definite anti-Catholic bias.

> Finally, I am a Christian.  I am interested in looking at pagan communities but I do not share their sensibilities or convictions.  However, in talking about the ancient world, I do feel strongly that it must be understood on its own terms. 

That is great, not only because it pleases us to hear, but because we believe what Jesus says about himself. But please indulge us a question. We hear your commitment to be Christian, and your desire to be objective in your writing. We're having trouble reconciling that with the tone of your titles. Please allow us what some might say is a narrow acid test. Where do you stand on the uncompromising sanctity of the unborn, and on the unwavering Biblical assertion of the problems with same sex relations? The mainstream media, and many university religion departments would want us to believe that is the fault line between Fundamentalism and progressive Christianity. We say it is the fault line between Christianity and the rising Paganism.

We actually dislike any kind of fundamentalism, and we are disappointed with so many universities subtly trying to associate fundamentalism with these clear directives about life and sex.  Wherever we find that, not far behind, we see revisionism of many early heroes of Christianity and criticism of the Church's prayerful decisions to honour them.

God Bless

To the above, Professor Edward Watts had no response.

Years later, his book is still in print with no correction. It appears he continues to teach his assertions against Cyril at the UC San Diego (USC).

However, he was quoted several years later
... we put our ideas out there, and we see how they go. And if people later say "no, I don't think that idea worked, OKAY, I think that's fine, scienteists are fine with that and I think historians should be completely fine with that as well" Source

Professor Watts' idea that Cyril instigated and/or was present at the murder of Hypatia does not work.

Professor Watts goes after Saint Athanasius

Two years after this discussion, Professor Edwards Watts went after Saint Athanasius in his book "Riot in Alexandria", painting Athanasius as a power hungry bishop who shaped his own image and manipulated Christians into following him by using the persecution rhetoric from 200 years earlier. Edwards presents Arianism as a threat to Bishop Athanasius' power, not as the dangerous heresy that denied the Trinity and may have cost us Christianity if it was not for the courage of Athanasius. But we'll have to save a full discussion of that "drive by" history lesson against the Church for another day. It is unfortunate that university history departments can no longer be trusted for accurate history about Christianity.

Mark Bonocore, a Catholic apologist enters the dialogue

What needs to be understood is the context (and bitter political situation) in Alexandria at the time, where the Church's newly-acquired "civil rights" were being seriously threatened by the Jewish and the pagan populations in Alexandria. To project modern, democratic sensibilities on this situation is a BIG mistake.    What was taking place in the province of Egypt at this time was tantamount to a civil war, and criticizing St. Cyril for his hard line stance against the Church's pagan and Jewish enemies would be like criticizing a holy American in 1865 because he favored the Union of the Unites States against the Confederate rebels (or vise-versa). St. Cyril was not a meek and mild guy. He did lead angry mobs to burn down synagogues, etc. BUT ... And this is all-important ...while we moderns think of such things in the context of modern tragedies purely innocent and non-combative Jews, the Jews (and pagans) who Cyril was dealing with were VERY militant and bent on "turning back the clock" and forcing the Christians in Egypt to become a persecuted sect again. So, Cyril burned down synagogues in RETALIATION for Jewish aggression against Christian churches, which they burned down. Most modern people have no idea how nasty the Jews in the Eastern Mediterranean were at this time.  And, in Alexandria especially, they comprised close to a third of the population, making their aggressive stance a significant threat.  And the pagans (Hypatia among them) were their allies.  So, this was the POLITICAL situation in which St. Cyril was living. One reason he is a saint is because he bore the responsibility of either allowing the Church to be driven underground again and to lose its newly acquired favored position in the Empire (at least in the local government in Egypt) or to maintain its position as the new official faith of the secular culture and to crush its very aggressive political enemies.   And, again, from a modern, democratic perspective, St. Cyril seems like a troublemaker or a terrorist.   But, in the historical context in which he lived, he was a defender of the Church and a "patriot."  There was no separation of Church and State at this time.   Something was going to become the dominate faith in Egypt, and it was either going to be Jewish-supported paganism (i.e., the old status quo, where the pagans were dominate and the Jews were indulged to "do their own thing"), or Egypt was going to be an active participant in the new Catholic (universal) Christian Empire.   There was no other option.   One of these sides had to win, and St. Cyril (and the Egyptian monks) made sure that it was the Christians. And to give you an idea of what could have happened otherwise ...  Just over a century later, the Persians invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and captured Palestine and took Jerusalem. The Persian commanders who led this expedition were mostly Jewish, and both they and the local Romanized Jews of Palestine slaughtered every Christian in the city.  This took place in 614. This is what could have happened in Alexandria in the 430's if a man of action like St. Cyril was not around to hold the anti-Christian political factions at bay and "push back."  So, again:  Context, context, context.   By 5th Century standards and the demands involved, St. Cyril was quite charitable and loving. [he did not instigate the murder of Hypatia, that was Peter's doing, if he was there he would have tried to stop it] ...most of all toward the Church that he was protecting from its enemies. 


Here’s Socrates writings re: hypatia http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/26017.htm chapters 13-16

A source for this is Catholic Encyclopedia article is here. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04592b.htm