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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14


Who was Nestorius?

Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople from April 10, 428 to June 22, 431. He received his clerical training as a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch and gained a reputation for his sermons that led to his enthronement by Theodosius II as Patriarch following the death of Sisinius I in 428 AD. Nestorius is considered to be the originator of the Christological heresy known as Nestorianism, which emerged when Nestorius began preaching against the title Theotokos (Mother of God) commonly used of the Virgin Mary.

His immediate antagonist was Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. Alongside the Christological debate, other issues fanned the flames of the controversy, including a political struggle between the supporters of the See of Alexandria and the See of Antioch, the influence of the Emperor over the See of Constantinople, and the patriarchal primacy of the Pope. The theological debate centered on the use of the title of "mother of God" (Theotokos) for the Virgin Mary, which Nestorius did not recognize, preferring in his sermons, "mother of Christ" (Christotokos), on the grounds that the former title compromised Jesus' divinity.

His views were opposed by Cyril who argued that Nestorius was actually denying the reality of the incarnation by making Jesus Christ into two different persons, one human, one divine, sharing one body.


The Emperor Theodosius II (401-450), was eventually induced to convoke a general church council at Ephesus, which was a special seat for the veneration of Mary, where the Theotokos formula was popular. The Emperor gave his support to the Patriarch of Constantinople, while Pope Celestine I was in agreement with Cyril. Cyril took charge of the Council of Ephesus in (431), opening debate before the long-overdue contingent from Antioch could arrive. The council deposed Nestorius and labelled him a heretic. In Nestorius' words,

When the followers of Cyril saw the vehemence of the emperor... they roused up a disturbance and discord among the people with an outcry, as though the emperor were opposed to God; they rose up against the nobles and the chiefs who acquiesced not in what had been done by them and they were running hither and thither. And... they took with them those who had been separated and removed from the monasteries by reason of their lives and their strange manners and had for this reason been expelled, and all who were of heretical sects and were possessed with fanaticism and with hatred against me. And one passion was in them all, Jews and pagans and all the sects, and they were busying themselves that they should accept without examination the things which were done without examination against me; and at the same time all of them, even those that had participated with me at table and in prayer and in thought, were agreed... against me and vowing vows one with another against me...In nothing were they divided.

In the following months, seventeen bishops who supported Nestorius's doctrine were removed from their sees, and his principal supporter, John, patriarch of Antioch succumbed to Imperial pressure around March, 433 and abandoned Nestorius. At the end, Theodosius II, who had supported Nestorius' appointment, bowed to the influence of his sister Pulcheria to issue an Imperial edict (August 3, 435) that exiled Nestorius to a monastery in the Great Oasis of Hibis (al-Khargah), in Egypt, securely within the diocese of Cyril. In East and West, Nestorius' writings were burnt wherever they could be found. Hence they survive mainly in Syriac.

This led to a split within the church and to the creation of separate Nestorian churches that flourished in the Middle East and central Asia.

After 1500 years stigmatized as a heretic, a book written by Nestorius was discovered in 1895, known as the Bazaar of Heracleides, written towards the end of his life, in which he explicitly denies the heresy for which he was condemned, instead, affirming of Christ "the same one is twofold" - an expression that some consider similar to the formulation of the Council of Chalcedon. Nestorius's earlier surviving writings, however, including his letter written in response to Cyril's charges against him, contain material that seems to support charges that he held that Christ had two personhoods. So the question of whether Nestorius was actually a Nestorian is still a matter of debate.

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