Breaking News! Will the Real Hippolytus Please Stand Up?

Within hours of me posting this post about Hippolytus, an eminent late antique scholar with whom I am Facebook friends informed me:

Unfortunately just about everything that’s written about this Hippolytus is made up. Sorry. He’s completely apocryphal. The general view today is that he is in fact different writers, neither of whom was an ‘anti-pope’. And he didn’t write a chronicle either.

This, as you can imagine, came as a bit of a blow. Hippolytus a fake? After a little bit of this (go to 0:32 for the glory of it):

I moved on with my life. Clearly, I need to do better research on my popes. At all times. Or at least base what I say on … ancient/mediaeval sources; or the most recent research based on ancient/medieval sources. So here we go.

A little quotation from Saint Jerome could almost be enough to cover this:

Hippolytus was the bishop of a certain church. I have not, in fact, been able to learn the name of the city. (De Viris Illustribus 61)

But that’s a bit unsatisfying. How do we come to have a martyr story combined with an anti-pope combined with a host of writings, including sermons and a eucharistic liturgy?

First step: More than one Hippolytus. J. A. Cerrato, in Hippolytus Between East and West lists a bunch of these, the first being the martyr who died under Maximin, first mentioned in 354. There are are three other Hippolyti who died under Valerian later in the third century; the first, d. 257, is supported by archaeological and hagiographical evidence; the second, d. 258, is a character extrapolated from martyr acta of Lawrence; the third, d. post-257, was a Novatianist who returned to the Catholic faith and whose acta were written (and possibly forged?) by Pope Damasus as anti-Novatianist propaganda. There seems also to have been another Hippolytus, also a martyr.

That gives us five third-century martyrs named Hippolytus. At least one is probably real, maybe four. Cerrato writes, ‘By way of genuine accounts, the presbyter Hippolytus (c. 235) of the depositio martyrum is accepted as historical by consensus …’ (12). This Hippolytus, exiled with Pontian, was made into an anti-Pope by Doellinger, apparently.

I can see, however, how one could slip the reformed Novatianist Hippolytus into the exiled, earlier martyr Hippolytus and turn him into an anti-pope.

What about the many writings (which go beyond the Apostolic Tradition)? Cerrato tells us:

There is scant evidence, therefore, in any early sources to suggest that the martyred Hippolyti were teachers, or literate ecclesiastics. (13)

That leaves this blogger wondering how, once conflated into the Anti-Pope, they are imagined to be a writer. Apparently I have to read all of Cerrato book to find out, though. Since my PhD isn’t on Hippolytus but on Leo, I’ll refrain. Nonetheless, Cerrato does note that there is a Greek Hippolytus who was a spiritual teacher. No doubt writings come to be attached to him that way?

What, then, of the Apostolic Tradition? Who wrote it? How old is it? The commentary by Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips of 200 first gives us the traditional reasons for calling Hippolytus its author:

The first is that, while no existing manuscript of the document itself bears a title or author’s name, two of the derived church orders do refer to Hippolytus. (2)

The second argument is that the opening section of the document speaks of having ‘set down’ … ‘the tradition that catechizes the churches’ … This encouraged the identification of the document with an otherwise unknown treatise, the Apostolic Tradition, apparently included in a list of Hippolytus’s works inscribed on the right-hand side of the base of a statue discovered in Rome in 1551 (2-3)

If you ask me, these are reasons for a hypothesis but not a firm attribution. The commentators agree, noting the tendency to associate documents with famous men of old, whether they had anything to do with it — and a large number of other documents are falsely attributed to Hippolytus. The statue is also not clearly a statue of Hippolytus, nor necessarily a list of his works. Some also wonder if this text was even Roman, and note that it was more widely circulated in East than West. Add to these concerns the above discussion of Hippolytus’ identity, and the attribution of the work to him weakens enormously.

Well, what about the date? Is it as old as the supposed Hippolytus? Alistair Stewart-Sykes, in the SVS translation On the Apostolic Tradition, says that it is Roman and third-century, based upon similarities between it and later Roman liturgies as well as the connections between the practices described in other early Roman Christian literature.

So, what can we say? There were multiple Hippolyti who probably did not write the Apostolic Tradition but who may have worshipped with a version it in Rome in the third century.

What this teaches us is that Christian historiography, especially before Constantine, is fraught with danger. The ancients themselves can lead us astray, such as when the Hippolyti are conflated, or when they incorrectly attribute texts to people (or write texts under false names). Modern scholars can also lead us astray, such as the Anti-Pope theory which is still current in popular circles (as I learned to my peril!), or the weak attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to the shadowy figure of Hippolytus.

This has been brief and has not dealt with all of the arguments fully. If you want to get down and dirty with Hippolytus, the works I’ve consulted are:

Bradshaw, Paul F., Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Philllips. The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Cerrato, J. A. Hippolytus Between East and West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alistair Stewart-Sykes (trans.). Hippolytus. On the Apostolic Tradition. Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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