Wednesday, October 11, 2017


George A. Bevan, The New Judas: The Case of Nestorius in Ecclesiastical Politics, 428-451 CE. Late antique history and religion, 13. Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2016. Pp. xii, 374. ISBN 9789042932593. €87.00.

Reviewed by M.J.J. Hoskin, The University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This revision of a 2005 University of Toronto Ph.D. thesis makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Christological controversies of the time through a close reading of all available evidence in Greek, Latin, and Syriac: historiography, homilies, conciliar acts, hagiography, imperial laws, episcopal letters, etc. Bevan's study of Nestorius' career seeks to answer this question, 'How could a man condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 as the "New Judas" have the essence of his teaching declared orthodox at the Council of Chalcedon twenty years later, a supposed paragon of "correct" doctrine?' (vii). The argument is not about Nestorius' orthodoxy but, rather, looking at his career 'and its ecclesiastical and political context' (5).

The book is arranged chronologically in eight chapters with an introduction and two appendices: Chapter I, 'The Nestorius of History', sets out the playing field. The chronological chapters are: Chapter II, 'The Formation of Nestorius (?)385-428 CE'; Chapter III, 'Nestorius in Constantinople 428-430 CE'; Chapter IV, 'The Council of Ephesus 431 CE'; Chapter V, 'The Secret Victory 432-433 CE'; Chapter VI, 'Exile and Resistance 434-439 CE'; Chapter VII, '"The Desert My Home" 440-450 CE'; and Chapter VIII, 'Epilogue. Chalcedon (451 CE) and Beyond'. Appendix A is 'The Date of Cyril's Homily IV (CPG 5248)', and Appendix B is 'Documents in the Liber Heraclidis'. The volume closes with a bibliography of ancient sources and one of modern. Frustratingly, there is no index.

After an Introduction that spells out Bevan's aims, the first chapter sets the stage for Nestorius and the many documentary collections used in the study: first, the writings of Nestorius, the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum (ACO), and the other documentary collections, then the ancient historians and modern scholarship's take on Nestorius before the obligatory note on terminology. The thorough use and careful analysis of ACO make The New Judas stand out. Bevan has not simply cited the various documents from ACO, but has also cited and discussed them in terms of the ancient collections of documents that contain them. This makes the sources more transparent, for these collections are not themselves unbiased gatherings of evidence.

Bevan's main goal is to tear down teleological readings of the entire Nestorius affair. It is not a foregone conclusion that Nestorius would be deposed, whether we look at 428 or even 430-31. Nor is the so-called 'Robber Council' (as its opponent, Leo I of Rome, termed it) of Ephesus (448) to be considered as an aberration. Similarly, Bevan rejects the idea that Marcian's imperially-sponsored orthodoxy of Chalcedon in 451 was itself inevitable. Bevan's central argument, detailed through the minutiae, is that it was ultimately Nestorius' political missteps rather than his doctrine that resulted in his condemnation.

Chapters two through seven take us through the life and career of Nestorius. Chapter II considers his life and formation before taking up the bishopric of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius is shown to be a member of the School of Antioch which, while not a literal 'school' like that of Nisibis, was a school of thought united around literal-historical exegesis (but not, Bevan cautions, the same approach as modern historical-critical study of the Bible) and an anti-Apollinarian Christology that strongly divided the human and divine in Christ. Nestorius, as would become clear in his lifetime, was most strongly influenced by Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), the leading theologian of the Antiochene school; the two never met, Bevan notes—such ideas arise from hindsight (44). Theodore bequeathed to the next generation of Antiochenes—Nestorius and Theodoret, for example—various problems in Christology they sought to address.

Before moving into Nestorius' episcopate, we are introduced to the early theology of Cyril of Alexandria (66-72), foreshadowing why his thought was at odds with that of Nestorius. Finally, Chapter II closes with a discussion of Nestorius' election as a compromise candidate (72-6); like Chrysostom before him, this monastic, Antiochene, compromise would fuel controversy.

Chapter III is about Nestorius in Constantinople; here, Bevan demonstrates that it was not Nestorius himself who opposed using the term Theotokos, or God-bearer, in relation to Mary, but some of his more ardent supporters. More importantly, the relationship between Nestorius and the imperial household is reassessed. One of the contentious points Bevan illustrates is that Nestorius and Pulcheria were not initially enemies (70, 85-90). This argument is crucial in the debate about the Theodosian dynasty and the place of Theodosius II and the imperial women. Bevan's arguments are based upon the sequence of events in 428-30 and upon the scanty textual evidence as it stands. His arguments based solely upon the primary source material are strong and can certainly carry the day, but he does not engage at a very deep level with his opponents, although he does mention them.

While important, the issue of Pulcheria is not the most original contribution to knowledge herein, having been anticipated at least by Richard Price.1 Rather, what struck this reviewer was first that Bevan successfully demonstrates, through a very careful study of the timeline, that Celestine had called a local Roman council to condemn Nestorius before being enlisted by Cyril of Alexandria in the anti-Nestorian battle. This straightening of chronology changes our understanding of Celestine's involvement: although still not a pivotal player, Celestine is still an independent force and not Cyril's lackey; opposition to Nestorius was not being drummed up by Cyril alone.

Secondly Bevan demonstrates that the son of Theodosius, Arcadius did exist and was born 430—close in time to the calling of the Council of Ephesus— and baptised by Nestorius. As the controversy over Theotokos heated up, and as Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign, the emperor would be reluctant to abandon a bishop whom he had raised to the see of Constantinople, especially if such a course of action would mean his son had been baptised by a heretic (129). The controversy at Constantinople had already led to violence in 429; Cyril's letter-writing campaign and Celestine's call to Nestorius for repentance or excommunication were making for a troubled situation. Theodosius, argues Bevan, was still supporting Nestorius; a council was called in 430 to clear Nestorius' name.

Chapter IV concerns the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the tangle of events and documents issuing from it. This chapter is very long and very dense. Bevan has sifted through an enormous body of disparate evidence, resulting in a painstaking blow-by-blow account that sets out why the twin councils of Ephesus sat at the same time and how Cyril's council was ultimately accepted by the emperor. Besides the careful attention to detail, one of the strengths of this chapter is the refusal to paint anyone as especially villainous or saintly. In the popular imagination, Nestorius is often a great underdog of history and Cyril a great villain. Alternatively, Cyril is the great saint of the unity of Christ fighting the heresiarch. In Bevan's account, we have here two groups of human men. Neither group is innocent, neither group is more villainous than the other. Both scheme, and both commit violence (163). It is a convincing, dispassionate, and refreshing reading of the evidence.

Chapter V is about the schism resulting from Ephesus and its healing, 432-433. In this chapter we encounter the shrewdness of most players. For the sake of unity, many bishops of the diocese of Oriens, especially John of Antioch, realised that they could safely abandon Nestorius without abandoning Antiochene theology. For his part, Cyril began act with more savvy than before. Thus peace was won through a highly Antiochene statement that would get Cyril into trouble amongst his own supporters but would restore unity between Alexandria and Antioch.

Chapter VI discusses the geo-ecclesiology of 434-439, the years when Nestorius finds himself exiled and most of his allies abandon his name, if not his theology. There are notable exceptions, and many surviving letters written amongst the various bishops of Oriens deal with post-Ephesine ecclesiastical politics. Hardline supporters of Nestorius, the Fourteen Irreconcilables, find themselves outside communion with Antioch. Irenaeus, one of Nestorius' great supporters, is exiled with Nestorius. Bevan closes the chapter with the results of Nestorius' opponents realising his debt to Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia; their condemnation was being pressed in various quarters, especially by Cyril as a way simultaneously to destroy Antiochene theology and save face in the years after the reunion of 433 (257); people who willingly abandoned Nestorius would not abandon the fathers of their own theological tradition.

Chapter VII analyses the final decade of Nestorius' life, 440-450. This decade saw the death of Cyril in 444, who, whilst fiery and not always scrupulous, sought to maintain unity and fight for what he believed was orthodoxy. The results were less than successful, and after his death, characters of greater fire and less savvy occupied the sees of both Antioch and Alexandria. Things were getting hot again. One area that Bevan's trimming between thesis and book has left a bit sparse is his reinterpretation of Eutyches, which is merely alluded to (n. 109, p. 308), with not even a summary of the arguments why we should agree that Theodosius engineered Eutyches' demise in 448.

The final chapter is an epilogue about the 451 Council of Chalcedon; the treatment of the 'deep' politics leading to Chalcedon is a moment where one wishes Bevan had more space, but he has at least promised us another monograph on that subject. Here Bevan argues strenuously against teleological readings of the history of theology. Given Theodosius' policy, Second Ephesus in 449 is not an aberration. Nor is it inevitable that it would be overturned; or that the doctrine of Chalcedon would be the victor. Bevan, along with others, criticises those who see Chalcedon as a necessary step in the evolution of Christian dogma; from the perspective of 448-50, it clearly is not. The trajectory of Christian theology, especially in the eastern empire, could easily have gone in favour of the one-nature Cyrillians. However, we must admit that for us to have the theology of, say, Maximus the Confessor, Chalcedon must precede him in the trajectory. On the other hand, we could have had Severus of Antioch without Chalcedon—and his Miaphysite tradition, in such a case, would have been established orthodoxy, rather than the Christology of his opponents. Nonetheless, Bevan's point is well made.2

In sum, The New Judas should be the first point of contact for anyone interested in the career of Nestorius. It is a prime example of the historian's craft, and raises various side questions even as it answers the questions of its own focus. With the documents of ACO Volume I organised chronologically and contextualised, scholarship can now more easily move forward on some of these side questions, and those who would challenge some of Bevan's interpretations can do so with a more secure footing in the primary sources as a result.


1.   R.M. Price, 'Marian Piety and the Nestorian Controversy', Studies in Church History 39 (2004), 31-8.
2.   Unfortunately, he does not cite his predecessors who agree with him on this point, although they are included in his bibliography.

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