On the Apostolic Tradition ‘by Hippolytus’

Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.

One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.

I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!

This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.

The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.

I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.

Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.

The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.

Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:

‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity (more on the Apostolic Tradition)

Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?

A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.

The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:

  • Third hour (9:00 AMish)
  • Sixth hour (Noonish)
  • Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
  • Bed-time
  • Midnight
  • Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)

A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.

The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.

The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.

There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.

The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).

These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.