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Isidorus Pelusiota, an Eminent Ascetic

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Isidorus (31) Pelusiota, an eminent ascetic, theologian, and spiritual director in 5th cent., born at Alexandria (Photius, Bibl. 228). His family was probably of high rank. The wide range of his reading, as shewn by his familiarity with Greek poets, historians, orators, and philosophers, witnesses to the best Alexandrian education. He also felt the full influence of that great development of Egyptian monasticism which was encouraged by the seclusion of Athanasius during his third exile and by the persecution of the "holy solitaries" after his death, and which made so deep an impression on the as yet unconverted Augustine ( Confess. viii. 6; cf. Isid. Ep. i. 173, alluding to "the blessed Ammon"). Isidore resolved to adopt the monastic life in its coenobitic form, as it had been organized by Pachomius at Tabenna and was being exhibited by various communities in the Upper Thebaid which followed his rule, by others in the Lower Thebaid, and the 5,000 inmates of the cells of Nitria (cf. Fleury, bk. xx. c. 9). The place he selected was near Pelusium, an ancient border-town at one of the Nile mouths. Jerome says it had "a very safe harbour" and was a centre of all "business connected with the sea" ( Comm. in Ezech. ix. 30), but its inhabitants were proverbial for dulness (Hieron. Ep. lxxxiv. 9). It was the capital of the province of Augustamnica Prima, and as such the seat of a "corrector" or governor. When Isidore first knew it, it was "rich and populous" ( Ep. iii. 260). It suffered much from the maladministration of a Cappadocian named Gigantius. Believing that monastic life was the "imitation and receptacle of all the Lord's precepts" ( Ep. i. 278), Isidore became a thorough monk in his ascetic self-devotion. Whether he became abbat Tillemont considers uncertain (xv. 101). We know from Facundus ( Del. Tri. Capit. ii. 4), and, indeed, virtually from himself ( Ep. i. 258), that he was ordained a presbyter, very likely by bp. Ammonius ( Ep. ii. 127), clearly not by his successor Eusebius, whom Isidore depicts as the centre of an ecclesiastical scandal which was to him a standing grief and offence.

Perhaps this ecclesiastical degeneracy near his own home led Isidore to generalize somewhat too despondingly as to its prevalence all around. Alluding to Eusebius's love of church-building he says: "It was not for the sake of walls but of souls that the King of Heaven came to visit us." "Could I have chosen I would have rather lived in apostolic times when church buildings were not thus adorned but the church was decked with grace than in these days when the buildings are ornamented with all kinds of marble and the church is bare and void of spiritual gifts" (Ep. ii. 246; cf. ii. 88). "once pastors would die for their flocks; now they destroy the sheep by causing the soul to stumble. . . . Once they distributed their goods to the needy; now they appropriate what belongs to the poor. Once they practised virtue; now they ostracize

The two great church questions in which Isidore took a decided part brought him into collision with his own patriarch, Cyril of Alexandria. The first related to the recognition of St. Chrysostom's memory as worthy of the reverence of faithful Christians. Theophilus of Alexandria had practically procured his deposition and exile; the West had supported Chrysostom while he lived and afterwards had suspended communion with churches which would not insert his name in their diptychs. Antioch had yielded; even Atticus of Constantinople had done so for peace' sake. Cyril, the nephew and successor of Theophilus, held fast to his uncle's position. Isidore had loved and honoured "holy John," if he had not, as Nicephorus says (xiv. 30), been instructed by him. In a letter to a grammarian he quotes Libanius's panegyric on his oratory (Ep. ii. 42); to another Isidore he specially recommends "the most wise John's" commentary on the Romans (v. 32); in another letter, recommending his treatise "on the Priesthood," he calls him "the eye of the Byzantine church, and of every church" (i. 156); and he describes the "tragedy of John" in the bitter words: "Theophilus, who was building-mad, and worshipped gold, and had a spite against my namesake" (see Socr. vi. 9), was "put forward by Egypt to persecute that pious man and true theologian" ( Ep. i. 152). Similarly he wrote to Cyril: Put a stop to these contentions: do not involve the living Church in a private vengeance prosecuted out of duty to the dead, nor entail on her a perpetual division [ αἰώνιον διχόμοιαν ] under pretence of piety" (i. 570, transl. by Facund.). Cyril took this advice, and the "Joannite" quarrel came to an end, probably in 417–418 (Tillem. xiv. 281; see Photius, Bibl. 232).

The other matter was far more momentous. When Cyril was at the council of Ephesus endeavouring to crush Nestorianism, Isidore wrote to him: "Prejudice does not see clearly; antipathy does not see at all. If you wish to be clear of both these affections of the eyesight, do not pass violent sentences, but commit causes to just judgment. God . . . was pleased to 'come down and see' the cry of Sodom, thereby teaching us to inquire accurately. For many of those at Ephesus accuse you of pursuing a personal feud, instead of seeking the things of Jesus Christ in an orthodox way. 'He is,' they say, 'the nephew of Theophilus,'" etc. (Ep. i. 310; cf. a Latin version, not quite accurate, by Facundus, l.c. ). He had, however, no sympathy with Nestorius: in the close of the letter he seems to contrast him with Chrysostom; in the next letter he urges Theodosius II. to restrain his ministers from "dogmatizing" to the council, the court being then favourable to Nestorius. Isidore was, indeed, very zealous against all tendencies to Apollinarianism: he disliked the phrase, "God's Passion," he insisted that the word "Incarnate" should be added—it was the Passion of Christ (Ep. i. 129); he urged on Cyril the authority of Athanasius for the phrase, " from two natures" (i. 323), and he even uses the yet clearer phrase, ultimately adopted by the council of Chalcedon, "in both natures" (i. 405); but he repeatedly insists on the unity of the Person of Christ, the God-Man, which was the point at issue in the controversy (i. 23, 303, 405). He says that "the Lamb of God," as the true Paschal victim, "combined the fire of the divine essence with the flesh that is now eaten by us" (i. 219); in a letter to a Nestorianizing "scholasticus" he calls the Virgin (not simply Theotokos, but) "Mother of God Incarnate" ( Θεοῦ σαρκωθέντος μητέρα ," i. 54). When Cyril, two years later, came to an understanding with John of Antioch, Isidore exhorted him to be consistent and said that his most recent writings shewed him to be "either open to flattery or an agent of levity, swayed by vainglory instead of imitating the great athletes" of the faith, etc. (i. 324). Perhaps these letters were "the treatise to" (or against) Cyril, which Evagrius ascribes to Isidore. Isidore was better employed when he uttered warnings against the rising heresy of Eutychianism: "To assert only one nature of Christ after the Incarnation is to take away both, either by a change of the divine or an abatement of the human" (i. 102); among various errors he mentions "a fusion and co-mixture and abolition of the natures," urging his correspondent, a presbyter, to cling to the "inspired" Nicene faith (iv. 99).

His theology was generally characterized by accuracy and moderation. In a truly Athanasian spirit (cf. Athan. de Decr. Nic. 22) he writes "We are bound to know and believe that God is not to busy ourselves as to what He is" (i.e. attempt to comprehend His essence; Ep. ii. 299). He is emphatic against the two extremes of Arianism and Sabellianism. "If God was always like to Himself He must have been always Father; therefore the Son is co-eternal" (i. 241 cf. i. 389; and Eunomians exceed Arians in making the Son a servant (i. 246). Sabellians misinterpret Joh_10:30 where ἕν shews the one essence and the plural ἐσμεν the two hypostases (i. 138). In the Trinity the Godhead is one but the hypostases are three (i. 247). In Heb_1:3 the ἀπαύγασμα indicates the coeternity the χαρακτήρ the personality; it is in things made that "before" and "after" have place not in "the dread and sovereign Trinity;" (iii. 18; cf. the Quicunque ver. 25). The belief in three Persons in one essence excludes alike Judaism and polytheism (Ep. iii. 112). Of Joh_14:28 he observes that "greater" or "less than" implies identity of nature (i. 422). On Php_2:6 seq. he argues that unless Christ was equal to the Father the illustration is irrelevant; if He was equal then it is pertinent. (iv. 22). The passage is interesting as shewing that he like St. Chrysostom while interpreting οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν—Θεῷ of the condescension understood St. Paul to mean "Christ could afford to waive the display of His co-equality just because He did not regard it as a thing to which He had no right.") He explains Rom_3:25 : when no other cure for a man's ills was possible "God brought in the Only-begotten Son as a ransom; one Victim surpassing all in worth was offered up for all" (iv. 100). He contends that the divinity of the Holy Spirit—denied by Macedonians—is involved in the divinity of the Son (i. 20). Against the denial of the latter doctrine he cites a number of texts and explains the "humble language" used by Jesus as the result of the "economy" of the Incarnation whereas the "lofty language" also used by Him would be inexplicable if He were a mere man (iv. 166). "Baptism," he writes to a count "does not only wash away the uncleanness derived through Adam's transgression for that much were nothing but conveys a divine regeneration surpassing all words—redemption sanctification adoption etc.; and the baptized person through the reception of the sacred mysteries

Very many of his letters are answers to questions as to texts of Scripture. Like Athanasius he sometimes gives a choice of explanations (e.g. i. 114); although a follower of Chrysostom he shews an Alexandrian tendency to far-fetched and fantastic interpretation as when he explains the live coal and the tongs in Isa_6:7 to represent the divine essence and the flesh of Christ (i. 42) or the carcase and the eagles to mean humanity ruined by tasting the forbidden fruit and lifted up by ascetic mortification (i. 282) or when "he that is on the house-top" is made to denote a man who despises the present life (i. 210). He reproves a presbyter for criticizing mystical interpreters (ii. 81) but says also that those who attempt to make the whole of O.T. refer to Christ give an opening to pagans and heretics "for while they strain the passages which do not refer to Him they awaken suspicion as to those which without any straining do refer to Him" (ii. 195). With similar good sense he remarks that St. Paul's concessions to Jewish observance were not a turning back to the law but an "economy" for the sake of others who had not outgrown it (i. 407). Again he observes that church history should relieve despondency as to existing evils and that even the present state of the church should remove mistrust as to the future (ii. 5). Difficulties about the resurrection of the body are met by considering that the future body will not be like the present but "ethereal and spiritual" (ii. 43). He admits that ambition is a natural motive and can be turned to good (iii. 34). Ascetic as he was he dissuades from immoderate fasting lest an "immoderate reaction" ensue (ii. 45). Obedience to the government when it does not interfere with religion is inculcated because our Lord "was registered and paid tribute to Caesar" (i. 48). But he exhorts Theodosius II. (probably soon after his accession) to "combine mildness with authority" (i. 35) intimating that his ears were too open to malicious representations (i. 275); and he speaks to a "corrector" in the manly tones so seldom heard in those days except from the lips of typical Christians: "He who has been invested with rule ought himself to be ruled by the laws; if he himself sets them aside how can he be a lawful ruler?" (v. 383). He considers that the genealogy traced through Joseph proves that Mary also sprang from David (i. 7); that the fourth beast in Daniel meant the Roman empire (i. 218); that the 70 weeks extended from the 20th year of Artaxerxes to the 8th of Claudius (iii. 89); that Hebrews was by St. Paul (i. 7). He interprets Mar_13:32 evasively (i. 117). He corrects the confusion between the two Philips (i. 447). His shrewdness and humour occasionally tinged with causticity appear in various letters. "I hear that you have bought a great many books and yet . . . know nothing of their contents;" take care lest you be called "a book's-grave," or "moth-feeder"; then comes a serious allusion to the buried talent (i. 127). He tells a bishop that he trains the younger ministers well but spoils them by over-praising them (i. 202). He hears that Zosimus can say by heart some passages of St. Basil and suggests that he should read a certain homily against drunkards (i. 61). He asks an ascetic why he "abstains from meat and feeds greedily on revilings" (i. 446). His friend Harpocras a good "sophist" (whom he recommends for a vacant mastership v. 458 and urges to keep his boys from the theatre and hippodrome v. 185) had written a sarcastic "monody," or elegy on Zosimus and his fellows as already "dead in sin"; Isidore whom he had requested to forward it to them defers doing so lest he should infuriate them against the author; however he says in effect if you really mean it to go send it yourself and then if a feud arises you will have no one else to blame (v. 52). He remarks that "some people are allowed to be tempted to cure them of the notion that they are great and invincible persons" (v. 39). He points out to a palace chamberlain the inconsistence of being glib at Scripture quotations and "mad after other people's property" (i. 27). But for all this keenness and didactic severity and in spite of his expressed approval of the use of torture (i. 116) he impresses us as a man of kindly disposition warm in his friendships (see Epp. i. 161 ii. 31 v. 125). He observes that "God values nothing more than love for the sake of which He became man and obedient unto death; for on this account also the first-called of His disciples were two brothers . . . our Saviour thus intimating that He wills all His disciples to be united fraternally" (i. 10). In this spirit he says of slaves "Prejudice or fortune . . . has made them our property but we are all one by nature by the faith by the judgment to come" (i. 471); and he tells how a young man came to his cell asked to see him was introduced by the porter fell at his feet in tears in silence then on being reassured said that he was the servant of Iron the barrister and had offended his master in ignorance but too deeply for pardon. "I cannot think," writes Isidore "that the true Christian Iron who knows the grace that has set all men free can hold a slave" (οἰκετην ἔχειν i. 142). This tenderness is in harmony with the candour ("si sainte et si belle," says Tillemont xv. 104) with which he owns that when he has tried to pray for them who have deliberately injured him he has found himself doing so "with his lips only." "Not that I doubt that some have attained that height of excellence: rather I rejoice at and rejoice with them and would desire to reach the same point" (v. 398).

Isidore's letters naturally contain allusions to the religious customs or opinions of his age: such as pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints, as of St. Peter (ii. 5; cf. i. 160 on that of Thecla, and i. 226 on the martyrs who "guard the city" of Pelusium); the benediction given by the bishop "from his high chair," and the response "And with thy spirit" (i. 122); the deacon's linen garment, and the bishop's woollen "omophorion" which he took off when the gospel was read (i. 136); the right of sanctuary (i. 174); the wrongfulness of exacting an oath (i. 155).

His death cannot be placed later than 449 or 450 (see Tillem. xv. 116).

Two thousand letters of his, we are told, were collected by the zealously anti-Monophysite community of Acoemetae, or "sleepless" monks, at Constantinople, and arranged in 4 vols. of 500 letters each. This collection appears to be identical with the extant 2,012 letters, distributed, without regard to chronology, into 5 books (see Tillem. xv. 117, 847), of which the first three were edited by Billius, the fourth by Rittershusius, and the fifth by Andrew Schott, a Jesuit; the whole being included in the ed. pub. at Paris in 1638. Many of the letters are, in effect, repetitions. See Bouuy, De S. Isid. Pel. lib. iii. (Nîmes, 1885); also C. H. Turner and E. K. Lake in Journ. of Theol Stud. vol. vi. pp. 70, 270.


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Isidorus Pelusiota, an Eminent Ascetic'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​i/isidorus-pelusiota-an-eminent-ascetic.html. 1911.
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