Cyril of Alexandria on the Star-Studded Expanse of the Heavens, and on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the twenty-seventh follow-up entry to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”.

The previous posts ranged across a number of authors at different times and places and religious affiliations, and were not organized well into any outline, so I ordered them; further, the follow-up posts were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and briefly introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

Cyril of Alexandria was born around the year 378 in Theodosiou in the Nile delta, and died on June the 27th, 444. He succeeded his uncle Theophilus to the episcopacy of Alexandria (who held that office from 385-412, when Cyril became the archbishop).

In his Glaphyra on the Pentateuch (I am not sure in which year it was written), Cyril seems to accept a relatively straightforward reading of the Genesis text, prefaced by a few pages in which he asserts that all things are recapitulated in Christ, and a new creation coming forth in Christ. He has also offered some very common and hamfistedly deployed scriptural prooftexts to sort of shout down the vaguely restated doubt about, or pushback against, his position. During this, he offers a very basic literal view of the text (before launching, later, into a non-literal exegesis). Here we encounter the expanse:

Also, the entire expanse of heaven itself was bedecked with stars for us. And when these things came into being, God gave a law and said, “Let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years, and let them be for light in the firmament of heaven so as to shine upon the earth.
[Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, vol . 1: Genesis (Fathers of the Church) transl. Nicholas P. Lunn (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 55]
[This is within the marker 19]

These were brought forth “instantaneously and incomprehensibly”; their “origin was solely a command.” [ibid.] This phrase about the adorning of the heavens is reiterated similarly elsewhere — God is “he who made the earth and humankind upon it, who adorned the heavens with the stars”. [ibid., 117]

Interestingly, Cyril thinks of the spirit breathed into Adam as the Holy Spirit, and that Adam was deprived of the Spirit after his transgression:

It is as if to say that incorruption had been frittered away in Adam, for it was said to him, “Earth you are, and to the earth you shall return.” So after this he was deprived of the Spirit. For when God saw that those upon the earth wished only to give their minds to profanities of the flesh and to the foulest passions, he said, “My Spirit shall certainly not remain among these men, because they are flesh.” [Gen. 6:3] [ibid., 103]

(It is not clear whether this suggests that the Spirit is contrasted with the Earth, and is retracted back into heaven, the sky; it may be that there is a spatial dimension to this. He likens grace to the energy imparted by the Spirit, and perhaps to some kind of celestial fire: grace “is equivalent to a divine and spiritual fire, being like heat imparted through the Spirit”. [ibid., 96])

Cyril avoids the more bodily anthropomorphisms of the Genesis 2 text. He explicitly states that humanity is not an image in the sense that most historians seem to take Genesis 2 as suggesting, as a cult statue or statue of God as a king has statues and images: “[Adam/humanity] may not be considered a representation of the most supreme glory”, though Adam/humanity is called an “image” [ibid., 56], and was free when made because the God, in whose image he was made, is free. [ibid., 59]

Cyril contrasts the creation by divine command with the “deliberation and personal involvement” [ibid.] that God shows in making humanity (which is, of course, an anthropomorphism). Cyril also seems to affirm, in a literal manner, some of the unavoidably mythical content of some of the early Biblical texts, such as

Next, one of Adam’s ribs was taken, and the woman was formed. [ibid., 57]

I am not sure what “was taken” could mean except that a rib was thought to have been extracted and manipulated, and I’m not sure what kind of sincere theology could affirm this except one in which a bounded agent inside of the world is manipulating an external object sharing the same world. It is not surprising that Cyril leans anthropomophically in this direction, confusedly conjoining concrete and anthropomorphic imagery with a kind of spiritualism that seeks to move beyond materiality, with regard to God:

[W]ith respect to the flesh [Christ] was born of a mother, the holy Virgin, who was of human nature as we are. His father, however, was not at all like us, but, if we might express it so, he was of a completely different race, quite removed from us in nature, surpassing everything that was created. [ibid., 116]

Contrast this with affirmations such as “among those things that have been created we have nothing at all with which to compare the divine, ineffable Being” [ibid., 111]; it is unclear whether he still thinks that beings in the world and the divine Being are both beings, just of completely different sorts.


It is interesting that Cyril does seem to reject what is the plain reading of the Biblical text on “the sons of God” entering the daughters of men and giving birth to giants. There is an ontological argument he makes against this — desire requires passions, and in order to have passions, one must have flesh. How is fleshless spirit to desire anything, much less to conceive offspring?

Yet, it rightly seems to me, the desire for pleasure does not carry us beyond the bounds of natural laws. We could say that food and drink, or perhaps physical relations with women, are actions and passions of the flesh. Also, by the desire for riches and glory men serve the pleasures of the flesh. […] The intense and powerful lusts of this kind easily entangle us, so that our minds become fixed upon wanting and doing the things of the flesh. There is no argument, however, that could induce us to desire those things outside the body which are contrary to nature.

How then could it not amount to folly to say that spirits, which are distinct from and high above flesh, desire fleshly things? What manner of natural inclination could there be, or what kind of principle could provoke them to act as we ourselves most certainly do, that they should long after those things that arouse the passions? […]

[…] It was not, in fact, through spirits separated from flesh that the conception of humans in the women came about. Yet some do speak rashly about the matter and misrepresent it, and by means of what they imagine to be persuasive arguments they erroneously make it mean what is impossible.
[ibid., 83-84]

Perhaps there is a way that Cyril has tried to reconcile the kind of theological language of the Bible that assumes a divine body with this kind of more thoughtful rejection of a mythological reading of the “sons of God” procreating with the daughters of men, but I am not aware of it, and, if it is in this volume, I missed it. He does have an interesting number theology on p. 94, where he describes God as a monad.


The Garden of Eden is understood to be a real place, and heaven —the domain of angels above the firmament— is also a real domain, ‘up there’, so to speak. The fall of the angels is not simply a metaphor, but descriptive. The “blessed angels”, together with Satan, came into being with everything else, and “[t]hese were together with the other holy ones and rational creatures; they filled the heavenly dwellings”. [ibid., 58] The cherubim “have an innate glory, and they firmly maintain their own domain” [ibid.], “[b]ut Satan, along with others, fell and was deprived of his glory. So, as he turned away […] and would forsake his own domain […] Satan parted from the Maker of all the things, and that most eminent and admirable creature was cast out.” [ibid., 59] The spatiality of this language of “domain” and “dwellings” is usually glossed over in the minds of modern readers, but it is very clearly there. David’s “blessed are all those who dwell in your house” (Ps. 84) is here used by Cyril for this.

A long set of arguments and prooftexts concerning the justice of God in committing flesh to mortality after the fall of Adam follows, with reaffirmations of the Pauline formulas about Christ’s redemption of humanity. There is, of course, a spatial dimension to this, as well as a qualitative difference in the domains proper to each space (earth and heaven). Citing 1 Corinthians 15:47-49, in which “the first man was from the dust; the second man is the Lord from heaven” and that the children of the first are all “of the dust”, and “as is the heavenly man, so too are those who are heavenly […] so we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man.” [ibid., 63] Against the sentence of corruption to which Adam was subjected, there is something of an incorruptible heavenly infection that runs through those who cleave by faith to the heavenly man Christ, and are attached to his body, the Church. The spatiality is really unavoidable: Aaron’s entering into the holy of holies is seen as a type of Christ, who died and “proceeded into the [113] most sacred tabernacle above.” [ibid., 112-113]

A pre-philosophical tripartite cosmology is restated by him, too, even if he is just keeping with the language of the Biblical text.

Emmanuel became king over everything under heaven, and every city receives him as the Savior and Redeemer of all. He now sets free every race that is bound by a devilish servitude and oppression, and that is compelled to act under the devil’s control. Also, having descended into Hades he emptied the treasures of darkness, hidden and unseen treasures. He shattered gates of bronze and broke iron bars. For “he said to those in bonds, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ [Isa. 49:9]” [ibid., 116]

The passage that follows do not seem to consider Hades as a “condition”, but a real place, citing Job 38, which equates the paths of the deep and the gates of death and She’ol/Hades, because it was written from within a pre-philosophical cosmology.

The exegesis of the tower of Babel is shocking (to most of us moderns) in its anti-Judaism. There is no way to read it without the Shoah echoing in my mind. It also seems to show evidence, however, of a spatial notion of heaven, and while modern readers may naïvely project their own scoffing of the idea that ancient writers all thought spatially about heaven upon its words, the text does not seem to bear these modern projections well. So Cyril:

Now what happened surely ought not to escape a great deal of ridicule, and fittingly so [80]. For those people supposed, though they did not know how, that they were entirely capable of building a tower out of brick and mud that would reach up even to heaven itself. So they serve as another figure, I believe, of the stupidity of the Jews, who supposed they could make for themselves a relationship with God. [translators’ footnote: “or ‘establish for themselves a connection with God'”] In effect, they thought that the way up to heaven was not through choosing to do those things pleasing to God and esteemed by him, nor was it through faith in Christ, but by raising up some sort of tower, foolishly thinking that solely by the bare repute of their forefathers they could attain the highest things. For as they were constantly citing the name of Abraham, and by such earthly repute were building up, as it were, their own glory, they have ever stood condemned.

Yet God reproved those who planned to build the tower, and divided them into speakers of many languages. And we may say that in a certain way what then befell them was a declaration in advance of the things that happened to the Jews. For since they had minds set upon greatly exalted matters, through which things they were seeking the way to heaven above, he scattered them among those of many different languages, that is, among all the nations. For, being driven out of their homes, they were dispersed from their own lands and cities, and became “wanderers among the nations,” as the prophet said. In Christ, however, the speaking of many languages was a good sign. For on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were gathered together in one house, “suddenly there came,” it says, “a sound from heaven, like the rushing of a violent wind, and [105] it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them what looked like tongues of fire that distributed themselves and settled upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” And what was it they were speaking? The Spirit was conveying the way upwards, the ascension into heaven through faith in Christ, in every language spoken upon the earth, by peoples and nations united into one gathering [in/by] the Spirit. For every tongue among the people was confessing Christ and speaking of his mysteries. So then, in connection with the tower the speaking in many languages was a sign of the scattering and the expulsion into all the nations. But in connection with Christ it was a sign of the gathering together into the unity of the Spirit and of the way up to heaven. For Christ has become our “strong tower,” as the psalmist says, which conveys us up to the heavenly city, and unites those upon the earth with the choirs of holy angels. [ibid., 104-105]

Cyril nowhere denies that heaven is “up there”, as the Biblical characters building Babel seem to have assumed (and as the author of the Babel narrative seems to have thought), but denies that the journey can be accomplished by the means employed by the figures in the Biblical text, or by self-driven means that he takes to be analogous in his anti-Jewish rhetoric.

This becomes clearer in his exegesis of Genesis 30:37, in which Jacob

took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees [NIV]

In Cyril’s associative interpretation, these are figures of Christ:

Christ presents himself in a certain fashion as a rod — indeed, not merely a rod, but one from the styrax tree, the almond, and the plane tree. A tree stands for the uprightness of those things to which testimony is being given. The styrax tree is a symbol of death, for the body which has died is treated with aromatic spices, and the styrax is the most pleasant of spices. […] The almond is a symbol of waking and watchfulness, for by nature it has such an effect upon us. So it was that Christ was raised up for us. For he was not restrained by the gates of Hades, neither was he wholly overcome by the bonds of death. The wood of the plane tree further indicates the passageway upwards, that is to say, the ascension of Christ into heaven, since the plane grows higher than the tallest of trees. So the Son was exalted into the presence of the Father, for Peter said [236] that he has been “exalted to the right hand of God.” Paul, too, said he has been greatly exalted and has received “the name that is above every name,” and receives worship from all.
[Ibid., 235-236, boldface mine]

That Cyril thinks of heaven as spatial becomes crystal clear in his exegesis of the passage about Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28.

The divine Jacob, then, removed himself from his father’s home and town and was separated from his family. And so he went wandering off in fear. […] Yet the God who knows hearts and minds soon intervened and did not allow the soul of that righteous man to be overwhelmed by such severe apprehensions. He showed him that a multitude of angels, traversing up and down, takes care of those who depend on him. It was [188] precisely this, I believe, that Jacob was taught through the dream. Now from a literal point of view, Jacob beheld the ladder extending upwards, yet the symbol of descending and ascending [193] was describing matters, as it were, in earthly types. Jacob also heard God’s voice speaking to the angels, instructing them that he himself would be the object of the blessing given to Jacob by his father, that is, “your offspring will spread out to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south.” The voice said that Jacob would have God himself as the one who helped him and watched over him everywhere. When he woke up, the divine Jacob was not a little astonished, and he said moreover, “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

How can it not be worthwhile considering what this account might wish to reveal? Among those of ancient times we find quite feeble notions with regard to God. For they supposed that the Deity was unconcerned with every other land, and was restricted to that land only, to which they had also been called by him, having left their home and departed from the land of the Chaldeans. For since those who worship idols are afflicted with the error of polytheism, assigning to each of the divinities its own country, as it were, and making those gods worshiped to be in effect supreme rulers in each locality, they did not believe that all gods had power everywhere and ought to be honored. So too the blessed patriarchs, even after being delivered from the practice of idolatry and the error of polytheism, and being moved to worship the one who is the true God by nature, supposed that he was not present with them in every land nor able to help them in every place, since they still retained quite defective views of God.

The blessed Jacob, therefore, was enriched through his journey, being instructed in what was lacking in his faith. For he learned that the Deity is in every place and in every country. He dwells in heaven, yet has dealings with the whole world and fills the earth. All the spirits in heaven, who are directed to traverse up and down, are subject to him, having God as their head presiding over them. It is for this reason that Jacob was amazed and said, “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Supposing the stone to have been the cause of the dreams, Jacob honored it with those things at hand, smearing it with oil. Moreover, he [194] called that place the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, and set up the stone as a pillar.

4. Let it be said once again that these things are presented to us in very earthy narratives. So it has first been necessary to explain those matters considered difficult at the literal level. But now, moving on to the spiritual contemplation of what is set before us, we again say this—that the new people of God through faith, considered as firstfruits by the holy apostles, were in fact forced to flee to escape the wrath of those intent on murder, by which I mean the Jews. Moving from town to town, they won over multitudes of the Gentiles, very much desiring to gather them to themselves through the fellowship formed by the Spirit. Jacob, of course, was urged to act similarly with regard to the daughters of Laban, when Esau showed that he was intending to commit savage murder.

Now once the people of God through faith have come to rest upon Christ, who is “a choice stone, a precious cornerstone,” for this, I believe, [189] is what is indicated by the act of sleeping upon the stone, we then learn that they will not be alone upon the earth, but they will have the holy angels, traversing up and down, as their assistants and helpers. For in one place Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, from now on you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This is, I believe, the ladder—the passing up and down of the holy spirits, “sent to serve for the sake of those who shall inherit the kingdom.” Christ is stood firm on the top of the ladder, while those holy spirits come up to him, having him as their overseer, not that he is one of their kind, but is God and Lord. […]

Yet the stone was set up as well, smeared with oil, and honored as a type of Christ. For Emmanuel was anointed by God the Father “with the oil of gladness above his fellows.” He was also raised up from the dead, and yet he had gone down to death willingly. And this, I believe, is what the setting up of the stone means. Our Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed through the holy apostles as the one anointed with the Holy Spirit by the Father and risen from the dead, through whom and with whom be glory to God the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen
[ibid., 192-195; both boldface and underlined text mine]

The place of the dead is “down”, and the place of life is “up”; this is not just metaphorical. Further, God also “dwells in heaven”; this is strong language for a God who is unbounded. Why is this God so spatially located? The language is drawn from Scripture, rather than rationally derived from the metaphysics sometimes attached to God-as-ineffable-and-infinite. The up-and-down of the angels going “up” to God and “down” to the earth are not a point of confusion, are not merely literal: Cyril’s confusion is about some of the difficult-to-assimilate-to-Christian-thought details of the literal meaning — about the stone, about divine locality on earth — and about how to extend this Jacob narrative, figuratively, into present use for Christians. It is not about whether heaven is “up there”. (Also, I am not sure, but this may be the first instance of Christ at the top of the ladder such as we see in the icons of St. John of the Ladder, who is a later figure.)

Cyril does seem to think our assimilation to heaven begins now, even though he does not anywhere seem to think our translation requires ascents “whether in the body” or not, as Paul had:

In a way, Christ also departs from the world [like Jacob departs from Laban], together with his brides, that is, the churches. It is as though he removes himself with his entire household, calling out to those who belong to him, “Rise up, let us go from here,”  speaking spiritually that is. The manner of departure is not physical, nor does it involve any bodily move from one place to another. It would be quite strange to think or say such. Rather, it is the moving away from the mind set upon worldly things to the desire to do things approved by God that is profitably attained. As the blessed Paul writes, “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the one that is to come, whose designer [244] and maker is God.” Another of the holy apostles writes, “I urge you as strangers and aliens to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul.” Though we walk upon the earth, our manner of life is heavenly, and we are indeed eager not to live carnally any more but rather in a holy and spiritual way. Paul urges us to do this when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.” When we are not conformed to the world and have come out from worldly error, we shall be imitators of Christ. And knowing this to be so, the Savior said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But since you are not of the world, for this reason the world hates you.” Surely then, as it hates you, so it persecutes you. [ibid., 243-244; boldface mine]

Cyril is not denying that heaven is spatially removed, but that the analogical reading of the scene in Genesis implies that Christians also need to move into heaven bodily (the analogy has its limits). He seems to think that Christians life as if they were living in heaven, that is, above the firmament, in the place where God is, and from which angels come to earth — above. That there is a kind of path to “heavenly places” in and through the way of Christ is clear:

Now concerning the synagogue of the Jews, God said in one place, “Behold, I will hedge up her ways, and she will not find her path.” You, however, he brings into the heavenly places along a level path, like a road that has been cleared, and he instructs his holy ministers, “Open the gates, let the people that observes righteousness and proclaims truth enter, maintaining truth and keeping peace.” And again he says, “Prepare a way for my people, and cast the stones out of the road,” lest falling over stumbling blocks in the way they should shrink back from those good things they eagerly pursue. [ibid., 221; boldface mine]

Antisemitism aside, the place difference is a real place difference, it is, however, simply not a location change that is physical for Cyril and his hearers. The pathway image is repeated frequently:

Since Christ was the first among men to show forth death as sleep (for he was by nature life), he henceforth became a door or path, as it were, being born in the nature of man in order to triumph over death. [ibid., 219]

Similar things are written elsewhere in the same volume:

So Christ made anew for us the way back into heaven above, [64] and he also entered as a forerunner on our behalf into the holy land, which he said would be the inheritance of the meek, that is, those who are instructed in the gospel teachings that lead to meekness.
[ibid., 91; boldface mine]

Note that the “heaven” here is “heaven above”, unambiguously. The spatial element is ineliminable, and Cyril’s only qualifications for it (consistent with most Platonizing fathers) seem to be that it is noetic, not gross and material. Even as noetic, it is still spatially located — not just “above” us in an ontological sense. The phrase “heaven above” appears again on p.98, where God the Word is said to have “descended from heaven above”. There does not seem to be a way to “dimensionalize” heaven using Cyril.


If I am not mistaken, there is a commentary from Cyril on the Gospel According to St. Luke. I have not had a chance to consult it for this post.


Header image found …somewhere? I could not find the image again. Feel free to link to it in the comments, if you come across it.


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