Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition: Recent Research and Commentary

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VERY FEW DOCUMENTS from the early Church have inspired as much interest over the past 15 years as the so-called Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus who supposedly compiled this "church order" in Rome at the beginning of the third century. The document as we have it in a reconstructed form was originally compiled in Greek. We have a fourth-century Latin translation in a fifth-century manuscript as well as later translations in Sahidic Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic and Bohairic Coptic. Several church orders, including the Epitome of Book VIII of the Apostolic Constitutions, the Canons of Hippolytus, and the Testamentum Domini as well as some Greek fragments clearly attest to the original. Each translation has significant lacunae, but pieced together the document seems to have covered the following topics: the rites and prayers of ordination for bishops, presbyters, and deacons; regulations on confessors, readers, subdeacons, widows, virgins and spiritual gifts; then rules for newcomers to the faith and rites of Christian initiation, followed by rules for the distribution (of Communion?), fasting, and gifts for the sick. Then follow regulations for the communal supper and for eating, cemeteries, and daily prayer. The section on the ordination of a bishop contains a eucharistic prayer as well as blessings for oil, cheese, and olives.

When I was a student, the commonly accepted opinion on the Apostolic Tradition ran something like this: Here we have a church order that gives us data on important ecclesiastical practices from the early-third century. The writer was a presbyter/theologian, named Hippolytus, who opposed Bishop Callistus of Rome over the latter's laxity in readmitting sinners to church fellowship. He thus became a schismatic anti-pope, but was reconciled before his death as a martyr. A conservative, he advocated ancient usages of the Church. A crusty old parish priest unwilling to abide by his bishop's liturgical innovations, he set down in a single document these rather antiquarian rules for liturgy and church conduct.

Nothing about this synthesis is correct. The title of the document in question is not the Apostolic Tradition. It cannot be attributed to Hippolytus, an author whose corpus of biblical commentaries and anti-heretical treatises is somewhat well known. As a matter of fact it is even doubtful whether the corpus of that writer can actually be attributed to a single writer. Finally, the document does not give us certain information about the liturgical practice of the early-third-century Roman Church.

Why then is it important to revisit the document? The importance of the so-called Apostolic Tradition consists mainly in its use by modern students in constructing the early history of the liturgy, and its use as the foundation of contemporary liturgical practice. Three examples will suffice: (1) The Second Eucharistic Prayer of the post-Vatican II Roman Rite (not to mention similar prayers used by a number of Anglican and Protestant churches) finds its inspiration in the anaphora given in chapter four of the Apostolic Tradition. (2) The ordination prayers of the Roman Rite have been influenced by the document. And (3), as a colleague once put it, the Roman Catholic adult catechumenate would never have taken its present shape without the framework provided by Hippolytus.

How, then, did we arrive at this false synthesis known as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome and what can we say today about the putative author and provenance of the document? That question constitutes the first part of my article. My second part deals with two important commentaries on the Apostolic Tradition that have appeared in the course of the past year: a commentary by Alistair Stewart-Sykes part of a series of texts for students published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; (1) and a collaborative work of Professors Paul Bradshaw of Notre Dame, Maxwell E. Johnson (also of Notre Dame) and L. …