Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Luise Marion Frenkel, Theodotus of Ancyra's Homilies and the Council of Ephesus (431). Studia Patristica supplement, 4. Leuven; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2015. Pp. ix, 286. ISBN 9789042931473. €76.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site

To complement the ongoing run of books published on the better known ecclesiastical figures from the eastern empire in Late Antiquity–the Gregorys, Basil the Great, even these days Cyril of Alexandria–it is both refreshing and instructive to take a look at well-worn narratives and familiar events from the perspective of a lesser known participant. Frenkel's published version of her Cambridge doctoral thesis, written under the supervision of Thomas Graumann, is neither a biography of its protagonist, nor simply a retelling of the story of the council of Ephesus, nor is it a literary study of the homily-genre; rather it draws something from all of these types of study. What it lacks in force of clarity as a result of its not fitting comfortably into any single genre, it makes up through the general interest of its subject matter and the illuminating insights it offers the reader by taking a look at events through the eyes of this marginal figure.

An initial chapter on Theodotus' ecclesiastic context, setting the context of his life and times is followed by a long second chapter relating the events leading up to and during the renowned council at Ephesus in 431 at which Cyril of Alexandria became the dominant political figure in the church and at which Nestorius was condemned for his teaching of the dual nature of Christ. A third chapter explores the literary and conceptual features of Theodotus' six extant homilies. Finally, in an appendix, a translation is offered of four of the homilies, three from Greek, one from Ethiopic.

First of all, however, an introduction lays out the conceptual framework for the study and suggests the reasons it might be useful to carry out a study of this type at all. As the author points out in the opening paragraph, no ancient writer ever wrote a hagiography of bishop Theodotus, a lack of attention reflected equally in the modern research literature. We might therefore be tempted to ask the obvious question, whether there is not, in fact, a good reason for this paucity of interest and whether Frenkel's dedicating an entire monograph to his memory is not rather an example of desperation to find a fresh research topic than it is a genuine and important contribution to the study of late ancient literature. Frenkel never quite addresses this question as such, but the study as a whole, despite some deficiencies, suggests that the approach may indeed be productive. The homilies themselves, Frenkel contends, contribute in significant ways to our understanding of how identities could be shaped and manipulated, or even created anew, in a church-political context in which these identities were still up for grabs to the highest bidder, or at least the most effective rhetor.

Chapter 1 offers a wide ranging overview of the background to the life and works of the book's protagonist. There is little to disagree with here and indeed one feels that much of this general background material could have been dispensed with. After all, no reader is likely to use this monograph as a general introduction to the council of Ephesus or the role of bishops in Late Antiquity, while on the other hand no reader who is studying Theodotus in any depth would stand in need of it. Detailed information on the city of Ancyra is offered, but next to nothing is known of Theodotus' actual work there or of his impact on the region. A final, albeit short, discussion on defining the homily as a late ancient literary form is more promising; we are reminded of the significance and pervasiveness of this late developing form of classical deliberative rhetoric, which deserves analysis under that label rather than [merely] under the umbrella of 'patristic texts'.

The lengthy second chapter covers the events of the Council itself, offering a narrative that is both a standard one and yet different insofar as it follows the fortunes of this relatively minor figure, who remains much of the time safely in the background save for his few moments in the sun when he was offered the opportunity to preach at the Council in support of the Cyrillian faction. Theodotus himself, in fact, appears to have had a poorer grasp of the meaning of the events unfolding around him than we do from the comfort of 1600 years' distance–a fact that both endears him to us as a pawn out of his depth, and also fascinates us for giving us a different view on affairs than we derive from the geopolitical sweep offered by the epistles of Pope Celestine or Cyril of Alexandria. Frenkel reads the sources rather differently than did McGuckin, whose reconstruction of the events of the Council is regularly accepted.1 For instance she suggests, with good reason, that Theodotus was not a defector from the Nestorian to the Cyrillian party, but had probably always favoured the latter, despite his apparent 'friendship' with the former bishop. Following this, each one of Theodotus' contributions to the conciliar sessions is minutely picked through and all the possible political manoeuvrings and hidden agendas are worked through. As the factioneering of the Council became ever more complex with the arrival, following Cyril's coup, first of the Antiochene party, then of the papal legates, Theodotus naturally begins to fall further into the background and we rely on his third and sixth homilies, which were preached at this time, to fill in what the council records do not say.

Pages 90-126 (ch.2) cover the background to the homilies themselves, a tentative chronology for their composition, and further discussion of the significance of a genre-based analysis. Here Frenkel also considers the reception of the homilies within the conciliar collections, themselves sources whose value is being increasingly respected in recent scholarship. She shows from the pattern of Theodotus' presence in the collections how his homilies were only accorded real significance after the council had ended, when their similarity to those of Cyril, Acacius and other supporters gave them a certain resonance in the eyes of the compilers. Thus even within what appears as a 'legal' collection of documents, the function of these literary pieces remained deliberative rather than forensic. The textual tradition is also here discussed, a tradition found, as is so often the case for Greek theologians of the Cyrillian persuasion, not just in Greek but also in Syriac and Ethiopic, and later in the Christian Arabic literature. A more comprehensive analysis of Theodotus would certainly need to reckon with the Syriac versions of his works and the extensive citations in the Syriac translations of Severus of Antioch, since all the mss of these Syriac texts pre-date, sometimes by centuries, the Greek mss of conciliar collections. Their value as textual witnesses cannot be ignored.

The lengthy third chapter offers a more detailed investigation into the content and argument of the homilies themselves. Much of this material is a straightforward elaboration of the rhetorical strategies on view and the variety of genres drawn upon within the text. A few intriguing interpretations emerge from time to time. The sixth homily, for example, may be reappraised (p.141) not as an encomium for Cyril but as "a desperate search for a figure of authority," Theodotus in fear for his own uncertain future. He occasionally equivocates his condemnations of Nestorius, perhaps with an eye to a possible turnaround in political fortunes. He seems not to nail his colours wholly to his mast. In other words, a careful reading sometimes offers us a glimpse of the council as it really was rather than how it has been presented to our eyes by its victors.

A short section demonstrating the mixture of rhetorical genres that may be found in homilies of this type is followed by a more detailed, lexically-founded investigation into Theodotus' Christological formulations. It is slightly concerning that Frenkel admits that some of this "relies on my recollections from Grillmeier...etc.", and indeed her characterisations of Alexandrian and Antiochene theologies owe more to traditional dogmatics than more recent research. However, there is an enlightening, if brief, treatment of early instances of the enhypostasis, which was later to take on such theological significance. Frenkel shows that its usage in both Cyril and Theodotus is remarkable and should not be bypassed, as it has been in some treatments.

The conclusion emphasises that despite what the author self-deprecatingly claims "may seem a limited contribution to conciliar and homiletic studies", the present work adds something new since, by focusing on the homilies of a marginal character, she has highlighted the ways in which both popular and episcopal support was incited on behalf of a church- political party, as well as the means by which a bishop such as Theodotus could fashion his self-image before of his peers. The works by and about the major figures are too tainted by their big agendas, and do not lend themselves to understanding these events from the perspective of a 'regular' participant, and this is just the sort of 'history from below' that Frenkel hopes to have provided. Despite sometimes perhaps overworking the sources and certainly at times hiding the nuggets of genuinely interesting insights in a barrage of unnecessary background data, she has succeeded in doing just that.

A brief further observation: although the author does not explicitly discuss this point, it would be instructive to view Theodotus' works in terms of the shifts in theological authority that were occurring at this time, the beginnings of which may be perceived in Cyril. That is, the shift towards a more purely patristic form of argument, in which debate centres around the interpretation of the Fathers themselves, and in which proof-texting the Fathers becomes an argument- clincher. Theodotus, in his reverence for the work of Cyril and in the assistance he gave the canonisation of those works in the Ephesine conciliar documents, may be read as a part of that momentous process.

The appendix collects together English translations of the four conciliar homilies, one of them from Ethiopic. The translations are serviceable and, although Frenkel seems to think their extremely literal style necessary for the purposes of her work, nonetheless their English is sometimes obscure to the point of opacity, and it is hard to imagine that in their original context they could have been so difficult to follow. However, the continued task of translating late ancient theological texts is a vital one, and Frenkel has contributed to it.

The book is sadly marred by poor English and should without doubt have been more carefully edited. Examples include 'tenant of faith' for 'tenet of faith' (p.3), 'different of what Cyril addresses' (p.87), 'ecclesiastic' frequently for 'ecclesiastical', et There is no need to dwell on this point, but major publishers should have higher standards of editing.


1.   John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology and Texts. Vigiliae Christianae Supp.23. Brill: Leiden, 1994.

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