Cyril and Hypatia: Tracing the Contours of an Anti-Christian Myth

Bernard Doherty, PhD
Macquarie University
& St Mark’s National Theological Centre (Charles Sturt University)

Abstract: Beginning within decades of the violent death of philosopher Hypatia at the hands of an Alexandrian Christian mob in A.D. 415 St Cyril of Alexandria has frequently been cast as the agent provocateur behind this lynching, a malevolent and scheming ecclesiastical tyrant who imposed his will on Alexandrian affairs with an iron fist. Since this time, but particularly since the Enlightenment, ‘both professional historians and popular cultural productions have coalesced to make the complex events surrounding this tragedy a powerful rhetorical weapon with which to attack Christian belief and also the person of St Cyril. This article looks at a recent depiction of these events as they appear in the 2009 film Agora, directed by Chilean-Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar. This paper demonstrates that Agora, aside from being an entertaining sword-and-sandal epic, can equally be interpreted as the latest link in a historical chain of interpretations which have used carefully framed accounts of these historical events in late antique Alexandria as an ideological weapon with which to attack aspects of Christian belief and praxis or Christianity in toto. This paper places Agora both in a historical context of earlier interpretations of the relationship between Cyril and Hypatia and the events of Cyril’s episcopacy and in its contemporary social context of the rise of the New Atheism, widespread concern about religious fanaticism, and ongoing debates about the relationship between science and religion.