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Against the Galileans: Cyril of Alexandria and the Revival of Paganism in the Fourth Century

The Emperor Julian, known as 'the Apostate,' was raised a Christian. The nephew of Constantine the Great, Julian formed part of Rome's first Christian dynasty. Yet Julian would famously renounce the faith of Constantine and go on to become one of the most notorious opponents of the ascendant faith of the Mediterranean world, the faith through which captive Galilee had conquered and captivated the Roman Empire. A contemporary of the Cappadocian Fathers, Julian enacted policies intended to weaken the Church's growing influence in Roman society. These included such things as prohibiting Christians from important teaching posts and lending governmental and moral support to the rival Jewish community.

Sometime around the year 362, Julian penned a vigorous and influential attack on Christianity, in three books, knows as Against the Galileans. This polemical work, like Julian's civic policies, was intended to undermine Christianity especially by attacking the supersessionist claims of the Church. But the emperor also took issue with the God of Israel more generally, and Julian's critique of Christianity was broadly constructed on Neoplatonist lines, upholding the Classical pagan tradition and patrimony as superior to the theology of the Old and New Testaments alike.

Julian was a much reviled emperor, especially after his death. He was the object of scathing criticism from Gregory the Theologian (Or. 4 and 5), Ephrem the Syrian, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus, among others. But the first full refutation of the Contra Galileos that has come down to us was not written until after the Council of Ephesus (431), by St Cyril of Alexandria.[1] Cyril's work Against Julian is important not only because it offers the most extensive response to anti-Christian polemic since Origen's Against Celsus, but also because it is the sole testimony to the text of Julian's original work. Only the first ten books of Cyril's Against Julian survive, but these reproduce much of Julian's first (of three) books Against the Galileans.

Cyril's Contra Julianum was edited in the seventeenth century by Ezechiel Spanheim (Leipzig, 1696), from which edition it was reprinted in PG 76:489-1064. In 1880, Karl Johannes Neumann collected the quoted passages and reconstructed as much as he could of Julian's original treatise (Iuliani imperatoris librorum contra christianos quae supersunt (Leipzig: Teubner, 1880). On the basis of Neumann's text, Wilmer Cave Wright produced an English translation, Against the Galilaeans, for the Loeb Classical Library (LCL 157).

The first critical editions of the Contra Julianum were published much more recently. In 1985, Paul Burguière and Pierre Évieuxby produced an edition of books 1 and 2, with translation and notes, for Sources Chrétiennes (SC 322). In 2000, on the basis of this edition, supplemented by Migne, Norman Russell provided English translations of important selections of the Contra Julianum in his Cyril of Alexandria (The Early Church Fathers) (London: Routledge, 2000). More recently, Christoph Riedweg (books 1-5), and Thomas Brüggemann and Wolfram Kinzig (books 6-10, and fragments) published the first complete critical edition: Kyrill von Alexandrien: Gegen Julian Buch 1-10 und Fragmente, 2 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016-2017). These are vols. 20 and 21 of Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte (Neue Folge), commonly known as GCS.

Making use of the GCS editions, Sources chrétiennes continued its publication of the Contra Julianum in 2016 with an introduction, French translation, and notes on books 3-5 by Jean Bouffartigue, Marie-Odile Boulnois, and Pierre Castan, appearing as SC 582. Now, in early 2022, Marie-Odile Boulnois has published yet another translation and commentary, on books 8-9, once again crediting the collaboration of Jean Bouffartigue, who died in 2013. This latest volume is SC 624:

From the book description provided by Sources chrétiennes:

"Against Julian by Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) is a monumental refutation of the anti-Christian polemic composed by the emperor Julian in 362-363. The latter treatise, known as Against the Galileans, is preserved exclusively in the citations provided by Cyril. Book 8, a very focused work, refutes only three fragments of Julian, selected so as to present a dogmatic treatment of the Trinity and the Incarnation. According to Julian, Moses and the prophets did not announce the coming of Jesus, and the Prologue of John proves that Christians believe in many gods. In his response, the Alexandrian lays out his Trinitarian theology, beginning with its scriptural foundations and making use of a long series of philosophical quotations (some of which are preserved only in Cyril) intended to show that Plato, Numenius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and the Hermetic corpus, were well aware of the Trinity. In discussing the Incarnation, he quotes the philosopher Amelius who 'knew that a Word had become man.' Book 9 sets out to explain Christology with an exegesis of famous but difficult texts: Genesis 6, on the union of the 'sons of God' with the daughters of men; and Leviticus 16, on the scapegoat. In contrast to Julian, who sees Christianity as a betrayal of Judaism, Cyril defends the figurative reading of the Law and its meaning for Christians (again quoting Porphyry)."

Marie-Odile Boulnois is Director of Studies at l’École Pratique des Hautes Études (Patristique grecque et histoire des dogmes). A specialist in Cyril of Alexandria, she is the author of Le paradoxe trinitaire chez Cyrille d’Alexandrie (Paris 1994) and a contributor to volumes 1 and 2 of Cyril's Festal Letters (SC 372 et 434).

Jean Bouffartigue died in 2013. He was Professor Emeritus of Greek at l’Université Paris X Nanterre. An expert on the emperor Julian, he was the author of L’Empereur Julien et la culture de son temps (Paris 1992). He also edited Porphyry's De abstinentia 1-2 (Les Belles Lettres, 1977) and collaborated on the Ecclesiastical History of Theodore of Cyrus (SC 501).


[1] We also possess fragments in a catena from Theodore of Mopsuestia that may have originated in a full-scale refutation of Julian's work (PG 66:95, ed. Mai).


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