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The Anthropomorphic Controversy in the Time of Theophilus of Alexandria

  • Massey Hamilton Shepherd (a1)


It was the long-established custom of the Alexandrian patriarch to write each year a paschal letter to the faithful of his province. In the letter of the year 399 the Patriarch Theophilus, an ecclesiastic of great ability but few scruples, inveighed rather severely against those who taught that God was corporeal, or in other words that God had bodily form. This opinion was by no means extraordinary. For over two centuries Alexandria had been the leading center of Christian theology, and for a much longer period a pre-eminent seat of philosophic learning as well. The repudiation of anthropomorphic conceptions of God had long been a matter of common acceptance by pagan and Christian theologians alike who laid any claim to a liberal education.



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1 Collationes x. 2. Other principal sources for the controversy are Socrates, Eistoria ecclesiastica, vi, 7, 9; Sozomen, , Historia ecclesiastica, viii, 1113

2 Dialogue, i, 67; cf. Jerome, , Epistolae, 92.

3 First published by Francesco Rossi with Italian translation in “Trascrizione di tre Manoseriti copti del Museo egizio di Torino con Traduzione italiana,” (Memorie della reale Accademia delle Science di Torino, scienze, morale, storiche e fililogiche), Serie II, Tom, XXXVII (1886), 6784, 145150. I have used the edition with French translation by Drioton, Étienne, “La Discussion d'un Moine anthropomorphite audien avec le Patriarche Théophile d'Alexandrie en l'Année 399,” Revue de l'Orient chrétien, XX (19151917), 92100, 113128. Drioton, (p. 93) considers the work to be genuine.

4 Vita altera graeca Sancti Pachomii, 27 (ed. Halkin, , 195); Paralipomena, 7 (ed. Halkin, , 131–2). See also the discussion of White, H. G. Evelyn, The Monasteries of the Wâdi'n Natrûn. Part II: The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and of Scetis (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1932), 125–32.

5 Contra Celsum, vii, 44.

6 De oratione, 9 (trans. Pope).

7 Ibid., 13.

8 Hist, eccl., vi, 9.

9 Coll., iii, 7 (trans. Gibson).

10 Ibid., x, 11.

11 Ibid., iii, 6.

12 (P. L., XXI, 397).

13 96, edited by Budge, E. A. Wallis, The Book of Paradise (London, 1904), II, 985–6.

14 See the exposition of his theology by Bousset, W., Apophthegmata. Studien zur Geschichte des ältesten Mönchtums (Tübingen, 1923), Part III; on his relation to Origen, see especially 292 ff. Also cf. Reitzenstein, R., Historia Monachorum und Historia Lausiaca. Eine Studie zur Geschichte des Mönchtums und der frühchristliche Begriffe Gnostiker und Pneumatiker (Göttingen, 1916), 124 ff. Jerome, , Epistolae, 133, classed him as a heretic for his Origenism. A critical edition of the works of Evagrius is a desideratum.

15 Practicus, ii, 7071 (P. G., XL, 1244).

16 Centuries, v, 52 (edited by Frankenberg, W. in Abhandlungen der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttigen, phil.-hist. Kl., N. F., XIII, 2 ], 341).

17 Ibid., iii, 6, (p. 193).

18 Coll., x, 3.

19 The Sarapeum at Alexandria is described in Rufinus, , Historia ecclesiastica, ii, 23; for the Iseum uncovered at Pompeii, see Moret, A., Kings and Gods of Egypt (New York, 1912), 156, and Plate XIII.

20 For the rite. Apuleius, , Metamorphoses, ix, 9, 20, 22; Porphyry, , Be abstinentia, iv. 9; Arnobius, , Adversus nationes, vii, 32; Servius, , In Aeneidem, iv, 512; Moret, , op. ctt., 158ff.; Cumont, F., Les Religions orientales dans le Paganisme romain (4th ed.; Paris, 1929), 88ff.

21 Apuleius, , Metam., ix, 23ff.

22 Text in Catalogus cadicum astrologorum Graecorum (Bruxelles, 1898–), VIII, 3, 136, 16ff.; VIII, 4, 256, 20ff.

23 Cumont, F., “Le Culte égytien et la Mysticisme de Plotin,” Monuments et Mémoires publiés par l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Foundation Eugène Plot, XXV (1921), 7792.

24 Peterson, E., “Herkunft und Bedeutung der MON ΠΡΟΣ MONON — Formel bei Plotin,” Philologus. Zeitschrift für das klassische Altertum, LXXXVIII (1933), 3041.

25 vi, 9, 11 (trans. McKenna); cf. i, 6, 7. On the whole question of Plotinus relation to the Egyptian mysteries, see the articles of Cumont and Peterson already cited, and also Cochez, J., “Plotin et les Mystères d'Isis,” Revue néo-scholastique de Philosophie, XVIII (1911), 328–40.

26 C. Cels., vii, 66.

27 Adversus Anthropomorphitas, 1 (P. G., LXXVI, 1077).

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Church History
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