Book Reviews

Book Review: Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Hebrews (ACT), Cyril of Alexandria

The Ancient Christian Texts (ACT) series offers the full texts of ancient Christian commentaries on Scripture that have only recently been translated into English. This series covers the patristic period (AD 95-750), the time covering a group of people we today refer to as the “Church Fathers.” This was “when the exegesis of Scripture texts was in its primitive formation” (ix). This series extends the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) series by presenting “full-length translations of texts that appear or brief extracts in the ACCS” (ix). 

The purpose of this series is:

  1. To show how a particular Church Father dealt with the problems of understanding, reading, and teaching the meaning of a book of Scripture;
  2. To make available the whole argument of the ancient Christian interpreter of Scripture so that we may read and understand Scripture alongside them;
  3. To extend the base of the biblical studies and Christian teaching and preaching to include classical Christian exegesis;
  4. To stimulate Christian historical, biblical, theological and pastoral scholarship toward deeper inquiry into early classic practitioners of scriptural interpretation (ix).

This series is intended for anyone who studies the Bible regularly, not merely for academics alone, though they and pastors are certainly included in the audience. Their purpose for us is not even for academic use, but primarily for daily meditation on Scripture and our spiritual formation. These patristics fathers “sought to illuminate the plain sense, theological wisdom, and moral and spiritual meaning of an individual book of Scripture. They were not written for an academic audience, but for a community of faith shaped by the sacred text” (x).

The biblical criticism that came from the Enlightenment has led many to treat the Bible as a book to be dissected rather than one that dissects and transforms us. While many separate Old Testament books into different layers and sources, or they deny half of Pauls letters as being written by him only to speculate over who could have written any particular letter and when, these ancient exegetes were unaware of those methods. They seek to understand Scripture as a holistic unit and to offer spiritual counsel and understand to their readers. In fact, it is accurate to say that “the Western literary genre of the commentary (and especially the biblical commentary) has patristic commentaries as its decisive pattern and prototype” (xii). The patristic authors allow Scripture to speak for itself, often weaving texts together to relate them to other texts and themes of Scripture, using typological reasoning, much like the rabbis did.

Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) was the Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 to 444. Cyril wrote many works and commentaries and was a major player in various Christological controversies (such as Nestorianism) of the late-4th and 5th centuries. According to Wikipedia, “The Nestorian bishops at their synod at the Council of Ephesus declared him a heretic, labelling him as a ‘monster, born and educated for the destruction of the church.’” It was Cyrial who argued for called Mary “theotokos,” that is, “Mother of God.” This was not to glorify Mary to to glorify Jesus.

Cyril’s commentaries revealed a “full-bodied theology” on soteriology, the Christian life, and pastoral care. Cyril also had “an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures” (xvii). This volume presents the first English translation of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Hebrews. Although offered in fragmentary form, the fragments were “significant enough in their length and wide-ranging enough in their content” that the editors believed they were worth making available (xvii). There are two main sources for Cyril’s comments on 1 Corinthians—Codex Vaticanus Graecus 762 and Codex Athous Pantokratoros 28—and where these two main source manuscripts cover the same material, the texts are laid out side by side so you can see the difference.

Dating his Commentaries

Cyril’s letters that were written before 424 were concerned with the Christian life. Cyrials main opponents were Jews and pagans. His letter in 424 shows a great concern and preoccupation with the Arians, and his writings afterwards deal with them. In 428 Cyril began writing against Nestorius and the Nestorian controversy.

Cyril probably wrote his commentary on Romans prior to 424, because his main opponents are the Jews, the Origenists, and the pagans. The commentaries on 1–2 Corinthians appear to have been written during or after 428, as it touches on themes and terms from the Nestorian controversy. His commentary on Hebrews would likely have been written between 428 and 432, as it deals with Nestorian themes and terms and is also mentioned in a letter written by Alexander of Hierapolis in 432.

1 Corinthians 15:28.

 The Son is subjected to the Father but is not less than the Father. When Jesus has subjected all things under his feet, he will present the kingdom to the Father and restore his rule over all things. Once death and Satan have been destroyed, the Son will have superiority in the coming age over all authority (76).

2 Corinthians 1:18–20

Sometimes Cyril is good at showing Paul’s flow of thought, other times he is off in his own world. In reference to Paul’s comment “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been ‘Yes and No.'” Instead of writing about how Jesus fulfills all of God’s promises as the faithful Son, and how Paul knows his character matters in ministry and the world since he is an ambassador for Christ, Cyril focuses on Christ’s divinity. He writes, “So when some try to slander him [Paul] by claiming that he contradicts himself when he sometimes proclaims Jesus to be God by nature and sometimes proclaims him to be main, he denies that there is any contradiction” (86). He then adds, “It is as if [Paul] is compelled to attack their misrepresentation” and then goes on to talk about how Jesus is both God by nature and is man at the same time. Cyril’s discussion is good here, but he misses Paul’s point.

2 Corinthians 2:14

Cyril writes about the Roman triumph (without actually pointing to the Roman processions), but notes that just as Christ was let in triumph for us when he endured the cross, the apostle is led in triumph by God, being made to to everyone everywhere through his persecutions and how God rescues him every time. They suffer “in Christ” and it brings him glory.

Hebrews 1:3

Cyril offers a good defense of Christ’s divinity from Hebrews 1. The Son os the radiance of the glory of the Father. He always remains the Son and is never changed into the Father. He is the “‘imprint’ of the Father’s hypostasis” (107). He briefly discusses how Jesus was not created, but, like God, was unoriginate. His relationship with God never began. Instead, it always was.

The Spoiled Milk

The downside to this book is the fragmentary nature of these letters. Romans covers 1:3 and 1:20 and then jumps to 3:3–8, then most of 3:21–4:2, most of 5:11–6:6, most of 7:1–10:13, most of ch. 11, then 14:14–22, and finally 15:7–12. There is a good bit that is there (the “I” of Romans 7 which is Paul, the work of the Spirit in Romans 8, a discussion on God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Romans 9). But there is also a lot missing (why Paul is writing in Romans 1 as well as God’s wrath, Jews and the law in Romans 2, faith in Romans 4, death to sin and slaves to righteousness in Romans 6, love, submitting to the government, and the discussion of the weak and strong in Romans 12–13, etc.).

Most of 2 Corinthians 1–5 is present, and then there is a jump to 2 Cor 10:1–6, and another jump to 13:3–4. Parts of Hebrews 1–3 are present, then 4:12, 6:8, then bits of Hebrews 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13.

Recommended?

This volume meets the aims of the series. Cyril was a brilliant and prolific author, even if quite a bit of his writings on these books aren’t here. For those who are interested in Cyril of Alexandria and his comments on these books, yes, this is recommended, with the caveat that you know these four commentaries are fragmentary. But I think for normal laypeople nad pastors, they may want to look somewhere else, for example the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series (Romans 1–8, Romans 9–16, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthiansreview here, Hebrews/James).

Lagniappe

    • Series: Ancient Christian Texts (ACT)
    • Editor: Joel C. Elowsky
    • Translator: David R. Maxwell
    • Paperback: 176 pages
    • Publisher: IVP Academic (March 8, 2022)
    • Read the Introduction to Cyril’s Commentaries

Buy it on Amazon or from IVP Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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