Some conversations I’ve had recently caused me to review what I knew about an historical incident I hadn’t thought of in a long time: The Hypatia episode. Probably, most of you have neglected thinking of it for longer than I have – like maybe never. To the extent that people recall the Hypatia episode at all, they connect it to the burning of the famous Library of Alexandria – which is a falsehood made up out of whole cloth by Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) in the midst of his fevered anti-Christian sentiment. Perhaps I will consider the competing narratives concerning the destruction of the library for another post.
Anyway – Hypatia. Alexandria around AD 400 was a center of great learning – and great violence. The city was torn between three factions.
The dynamics of the situation were complex. Orestes may well have been Christian – or may once have been Christian. It is not now possible to say for sure. It is known that Orestes had been involved in the church and maintained a peaceful alliance with Cyril in the days when Hypatia’s father (Theon) lived and headed the university. It may have been that Orestes was a convert or that he maintained ties as part of his civic/political leadership and was simply religiously tolerant. Whatever the case may be, after the death of Theon there was a growing rift between Cyril and Hypatia and Orestes shifted his loyalties to Hypatia. Some theorize a romantic interest – though Hypatia stubbornly refused to be courted by anyone -much less consider marriage. Some cite more political reasons, i.e. Orestes thought the church was getting too big and powerful and needed balanced. Blame who you will, there were violent Jewish mobs who attacked Christians. There were Christians who decided to retaliate in kind. Justice, administered by Orestes, came in the form of the execution of Christians and – Christians.
What?! Orestes was always our friend! He was (perhaps) one of us! What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Hypatia happened!
Cyril tried to make peace with Orestes but the prefect did not respond to Cyril’s overtures. Right or wrong, the Christian community blamed Hypatia. The violence continued. Shameful enough. More shameful yet, a Christian mob captured Hypatia, dragged her to the church and brutally beat her to death. There is no justification for this. Regardless, shortly afterwards, Orestes made peace with Cyril – perhaps out of fear or perhaps out of options – and then resigned his position and left Alexandria. The church was triumphant and became THE power in Alexandria. However one sorts out the nuances, historians identify this as the moment when Christianity replaced Greek Philosophy as the motive power for the western world. (Alexandria was actually in Egypt but had been established by Alexander the Great and was definitely an outpost of western thought.)
The Hypatia episode is a cautionary tale for all times – perhaps ours especially. A shifting in the balance of powers, a failure of old assumed social alliances, an undercurrent of anger and resentment leading to increasing outbreaks of violence. And just whose side are the civic authorities on?!
The capital riots of January 6 and the events of the few years preceding them, may well carry a whiff of Alexandria. I can only say that the response of the church SHOULD ALWAYS reek of grace.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church