Theophilus of Alexandria

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Theophilus of Alexandria was the Archbishop of Alexandria during the end of the fourth century through the first decade of the fifth. While a fierce defender of the Christian faith, he was an active participant in the intrigues with Eudoxia that resulted in the deposition and exile of St John Chrysostom from the see of Constantinople.


Little is known of the early life of Theophilus. He is known to have had a sister whose temperament was similar to his. Cyril, who succeeded him, was his nephew. At the time he was elected Archbishop of Alexandria, he was probably a leading member of the clergy in Alexandria and was known for his intellectual gifts, but also for his aggressiveness and violence. Theophilus did not have much tolerance for pagans or heretics.

Until his election to the see of Alexandria in 385, St Jerome noted that Theophilus had not shown himself as a public teacher. [1] In July 385, he was elected to the cathedra of Alexandria. About 391, having received permission from Emperor Theodosius to build a church on the site of the pagan temple to Dionysus, Theophilus provoked a confrontation with the pagans by mockingly displaying artifacts from the temple. During the confrontation, Theophilus caused the destruction of the temple to Serapis, [2] over which he built a church.

During the early years of his episcopate in Alexandria, Theophilus maintained good relations with his fellow clergy. In 394, when he was in Constantinople for the first time for a council he sat with Nectarius of Constantinople, Gregory of Nyssa, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He got along well with Origen and his monastic friends, the four monks of Scetius, known as the “Tall brothers”. He included as members of ecclesiastical offices a number of the clergy of Alexandria. Among these was Isidore, whom he made an archpriest and patriarchal oeconomos. He supported the teachings of Origen in a number of disputes. He banished an opponent of Origen, Bishop Paulus, and reproached St. Jerome for showing hospitality to Paulus.

In 395, however, Theophilus abruptly changed his attitude, a change that apparently grew out of a quarrel and falling out with archpriest Isidore who was a friend of the Scetius monks. At the request of Bp. John of Jerusalem, Theophilus sent his friend Isidore to Palestine to mediate a dispute between Bp. John and Jerome. The mediation did not go well from which Theophilus developed an irritation toward Jerome. In the end Theophilus urged Jerome to respect the authority of Bp. John, a request he again made in 399.

By 399, Theophilus’ attitude toward Isidore seemed to have changed, apparently over the handling of money. [3] Immediately Theophilus attacked Isidore both with slanders and violence. [4] When Isidore turned for protection from the monks of Nitria, Theophilus also turned against them and also against Origen’s teachings and his followers. In 401, at a synod in Alexandria, Theophilus had Origenism condemned. Leading a group of soldiers and armed servants, Theophilus then attacked the residence of the Nitria monks, burned their buildings and treated poorly those monks he captured.

The Scetius monks escaped to Palestine, from where the four Tall brothers proceeded to Constantinople to seek protection from Emperor Arcadius and Abp. John Chrysostom. Responding to the pleas of the monks, the emperor requested the Empress Eudoxia to summons Theophilus to a formal hearing before Abp. John on his charges against the monks. Theophilus took his time journeying to Constantinople, with an assembled group of supporting bishops, knowing that Abp. John had alienated Eudoxia by his unworldly strictness that she considered were directed toward her. Arriving in late June 403, Theophilus and his group lodged outside the city and ignored invitations from Abp. John.

Abp. John refused the offers of Emperor Arcadius to chair the council, and Theophilus eagerly accepted and turned the council against John. Theophilus immediately changed the agenda for the council to a trial of John Chrysostom. The “council of the Oak”, in the suburb of Chalcedon, then deposed Abp. John. Satisfied with himself, Theophilus then marched to Constantinople at the head of a group of armed followers to install a successor to the popular archbishop. Finding the people resolute in their loyalty to Abp. John, Theophilus retreated and quickly boarded a boat that evening with his followers as the people were seeking him to throw him into the sea. [5] When Theophilus informed Innocent of Rome of Abp. John’s deposition, Innocent, in reply, censured his “nasty arrogance” in not providing the grounds for the deposition and advised that until the mock trial was followed by a proper council, he, Innocent, would not withdraw from communion with John.

During the later part of his career, Theophilus campaigned and wrote in opposition to “Origenism”. Abp. Theophilus reposed on October 15, 412, after an episcopate of over twenty seven years. Theophilus is regarded by the Coptic Orthodox Church as a saint.


  1. "Contra Rufin.", III, 18, in P.L., XXIII, 492
  2. Socrates Scholasticus, ‘‘The Ecclesiastical History’‘, 16
  3. St. Isidore Pelus., Ep. i, 152
  4. Pall., VI; Sozomen, VIII, 12
  5. Pallad. p. 75
Succession box:
Theophilus of Alexandria
Preceded by:
Archbishop of Alexandria
Succeeded by:
Cyril of Alexandria
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