Cyprian of Carthage

Who was Cyprian of Carthage?

Cyprian of Carthage was a bishop and martyr. Of the date of the saint's birth and of his early life nothing is known. At the time of his conversion to Christianity he had, perhaps, passed middle life. He was famous as an orator and pleader, had considerable wealth, and held, no doubt, a great position in the metropolis of Africa.

We learn from his deacon, St. Pontius, whose life of the saint is preserved, that his mien was dignified without severity, and cheerful without effusiveness. His gift of eloquence is evident in his writings. He was not a thinker, a philosopher, a theologian, but eminently a man of the world and an administrator, of vast energies, and of forcible and striking character.

His conversion was due to an aged priest named Caecilianus, with whom he seems to have gone to live. Caecilianus in dying commended to Cyprian the care of his wife and family. While yet a catechumen the saint decided to observe chastity, and he gave most of his revenues to the poor. He sold his property, including his gardens at Carthage. These were restored to him (Dei indulgentiâ restituti, says Pontius), being apparently bought back for him by his friends; but he would have sold them again, had the persecution made this imprudent. His baptism probably took place c. 246, presumably on Easter eve, 18 April.

Cyprian's first Christian writing is "Ad Donatum", a monologue spoken to a friend, sitting under a vine-clad pergola. He tells how, until the grace of God illuminated and strengthened the convert, it had seemed impossible to conquer vice; the decay of Roman society is pictured, the gladiatorial shows, the theatre, the unjust law-courts, the hollowness of political success; the only refuge is the temperate, studious, and prayerful life of the Christian. At the beginning should probably be placed the few words of Donatus to Cyprian which are printed by Hartel as a spurious letter. The style of this pamphlet is affected and reminds us of the bombastic unintelligibilty of Pontius.

It is not like Tertullian, brilliant, barbarous, uncouth, but it reflects the preciosity which Apuleius made fashionable in Africa. In his other works Cyprian addresses a Christian audience; his own fervour is allowed full play, his style becomes simpler, though forcible, and sometimes poetical, not to say flowery. Without being classical, it is correct for its date, and the cadences of the sentences are in strict rhythm in all his more careful writings. On the whole his beauty of style has rarely ben equalled among the Latin Fathers, and never surpassed except by the matchless energy and wit of St. Jerome.

Another work of his early days was the "Testimonia ad Quirinum", in two books. It consists of passages of Scripture arranged under headings to illustrate the passing away of the Old Law and its fulfillment in Christ. A third book, added later, contains texts dealing with Christian ethics. This work is of the greatest value for the history of the Old Latin version of the Bible. It gives us an African text closely related to that of the Bobbio manuscript known as k (Turin).

Hartel's edition has taken the text from a manuscript which exhibits a revised version, but what Cyprian wrote can be fairly well restored from the manuscript cited in Hartel's notes as L. Another book of excerpts on martyrdom is entitled "Ad Fortunatum"; its text cannot be judged in any printed edition. Cyprian was certainly only a recent convert when he became Bishop of Carthage c. 218 or the beginning of 249, but he passed through all the grades of the ministry. He had declined the charge, but was constrained by the people. A minority opposed his election, including five priests, who remained his enemies; but he tells us that he was validly elected "after the Divine judgment, the vote of the people and the consent of the bishops".

Cyprian and Decian Persecution

The prosperity of the Church during a peace of thirty-eight years had produced great disorders. Many even of the bishops were given up to worldliness and gain, and we hear of worse scandals. In October, 249, Decius became emperor with the ambition of restoring the ancient virtue of Rome. In January, 250, he published an edict against Christians. Bishops were to be put to death, other persons to be punished and tortured till they recanted. On 20 January Pope Fabian was martyred, and about the same time St. Cyprian retired to a safe place of hiding. His enemies continually reproached him with this.

But to remain at Carthage was to court death, to cause greater danger to others, and to leave the Church without government; for to elect a new bishop would have been as impossible as it was at Rome. He made over much property to a confessor priest, Rogatian, for the needy. Some of the clergy lapsed, others fled; Cyprian suspended their pay, for their ministrations were needed and they were in less danger than the bishop. Form his retreat he encouraged the confessors and wrote eloquent panegyrics on the martyrs. Fifteen soon died in prison and one in the mines. On the arrival of the proconsul in April the severity of the persecution increased.

St. Mappalicus died gloriously on the 17th. Children were tortured, women dishonoured. Numidicus, who had encouraged many, saw his wife burnt to alive, and was himself half burnt, then stoned and left for dead; his daughter found him yet living; he recovered and Cyprian made him a priest. Some, after being twice tortured, were dismissed or banished, often beggared.

But there was another side to the picture. At Rome terrified Christians rushed to the temples to sacrifice. At Carthage the majority apostatized. Some would not sacrifice, but purchased libelli, or certificates, that they had done so Some bought the exemption of their family at the price of their own sin. Of these libellatici there were several thousands in Carthage. Of the fallen some did not repent, others joined the heretics, but most of them clamoured for forgiveness and restoration. Some, who had sacrificed under torture, returned to be tortured afresh.

Castus and Æmilius were burnt for recanting, others were exiled; but such cases were necessarily rare. A few began to perform canonical penance. The first to suffer at Rome had been a young Carthaginian, Celerinus. He recovered, and Cyprian made him a lector. His grandmother and two uncles had been martyrs, but his two sisters apostatized under fear of torture, and in their repentance gave themselves to the service of those in prison. Their brother was very urgent for their restoration. His letter from Rome to Lucian, a confessor at Carthage, is extant, with the reply of the latter.

Lucian obtained from a martyr named Paul before his passion a commission to grant peace to any who asked for it, and he distributed these "indulgences" with a vague formula: "Let such a one with his family communicate". Tertullian speaks in 197 of the "custom" for those who were not at peace with the Church to beg this peace from the martyrs. Much later, in his Montanist days (c. 220) he urges that the adulterers whom Pope Callistus was ready to forgive after due penance, would now get restored by merely imploring the confessors and those in the mines. Correspondingly we find Lucian issuing pardons in the name of confessors who were still alive, a manifest abuse. The heroic Mappalicus had only interceded for his own sister and mother. It seemed now as if no penance was to be enforced upon the lapsed, and Cyprian wrote to remonstrate.

Meanwhile official news had arrived from Rome of the death of Pope Fabian, together with an unsigned and ungrammatical letter to the clergy of Carthage from some of the Roman clergy, implying blame to Cyprian for the desertion of his flock, and giving advice as to the treatment of the lapsed. Cyprian explained his conduct (Ep. xx), and sent to Rome copies of thirteen of the letter he had written from his hiding-place to Carthage. The five priests who opposed him were now admitting at once to communion all who had recommendations from the confessors, and the confessors themselves issued a general indulgence, in accordance with which the bishops were to restore to communion all whom they had examined.

This was an outrage on discipline, yet Cyprian was ready to give some value to the indulgences thus improperly granted, but all must be done in submission to the bishop. He proposed that libellatici should be restored, when in danger of death, by a priest or even by a deacon, but that the rest should await the cessation of persecution, when councils could be held at Rome and at Carthage, and a common decision be agreed upon. Some regard must be had for the prerogative of the confessors, yet the lapsed must surely not be placed in a better position than those who had stood fast, and had been tortured, or beggared, or exiled. The guilty were terrified by marvels that occurred. A man was struck dumb on the very Capitol where he had denied Christ. Another went mad in the public baths, and gnawed the tongue which had tasted the pagan victim.

In Cyprian's own presence an infant who had been taken by its nurse to partake at the heathen altar, and then to the Holy Sacrifice offered by the bishop, was though in torture, and vomited the Sacred Species it had received in the holy chalice. A lapsed woman of advanced age had fallen in a fit, on venturing to communicate unworthily. Another, on opening the receptacle in which, according to custom, she had taken home the Blessed Sacrament for private Communion, was deterred from sacrilegiously touching it by fire which came forth. Yet another found nought within her pyx save cinders. About September, Cyprian received promise of support from the Roman priests in two letters written by the famous Novatian in the name of his colleagues. In the beginning of 251 the persecution waned, owing to the successive appearance of two rival emperors.

The confessors were released, and a council was convened at Carthage. By the perfidy of some priests Cyprian was unable to leave his retreat till after Easter (23 March). But he wrote a letter to his flock denouncing the most infamous of the five priests, Novatus, and his deacon Felicissimus (Ep. xliii). To the bishop's order to delay the reconciliation of the lapsed until the council, Felicissimus had replied by a manifesto, declaring that none should communicate with himself who accepted the large alms distributed by Cyprian's order. The subject of the letter is more fully developed in the treatise "De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate" which Cyprian wrote about this time (Benson wrongly thought it was written against Novatian some weeks later).

This celebrated pamphlet was read by its author to the council which met in April, that he might get the support of the bishops against the schism started by Felicissimus and Novatus, who had a large following. The unity with which St. Cyprian deals is not so much the unity of the whole Church, the necessity of which he rather postulates, as the unity to be kept in each diocese by union with the bishop; the unity of the whole Church is maintained by the close union of the bishops who are "glued to one another", hence whosoever is not with his bishop is cut off from the unity of the Church and cannot be united to Christ; the type of the bishop is St. Peter, the first bishop.

Protestant controversialists have attributed to St. Cyprian the absurd argument that Christ said to Peter what He really meant for all, in order to give a type or picture of unity. What St. Cyprian really says is simply this, that Christ, using the metaphor of an edifice, founds His Church on a single foundation which shall manifest and ensure its unity. And as Peter is the foundation, binding the whole Church together, so in each diocese is the bishop. With this one argument Cyprian claims to cut at the root of all heresies and schisms. It has been a mistake to find any reference to Rome in this passage (De Unit., 4).

Cyprian of Carthage and Church Unity

About the time of the opening of the council (251), two letters arrived from Rome. One of these, announcing the election of a pope, St. Cornelius, was read by Cyprian to the assembly; the other contained such violent and improbable accusations against the new pope that he thought it better to pass it over. But two bishops, Caldonius and Fortunatus, were dispatched to Rome for further information, and the whole council was to await their return-such was the importance of a papal election. Meantime another message arrived with the news that Novatian, the most eminent among the Roman clergy, had been made pope.

Happily two African prelates, Pompeius and Stephanus, who had been present at the election of Cornelius, arrived also, and were able to testify that he had been validly set "in the place of Peter", when as yet there was no other claimant. It was thus possible to reply to the recrimination of Novatian's envoys, and a short letter was sent to Rome, explaining the discussion which had taken place in the council. Soon afterwards came the report of Caldonius and Fortunatus together with a letter from Cornelius, in which the latter complained somewhat of the delay in recognizing him.

Cyprian wrote to Cornelius explaining his prudent conduct. He added a letter to the confessors who were the main support of the antipope, leaving it to Cornelius whether it should be delivered or no. He sent also copies of his two treatises, "De Unitate" and "De Lapsis" (this had been composed by him immediately after the other), and he wishes the confessors to read these in order that they may understand what a fearful thing is schism. It is in this copy of the "De Unitate" that Cyprian appears most probably to have added in the margin an alternative version of the fourth chapter. The original passage, as found in most manuscripts and as printed in Hartel's edition, runs thus:

If any will consider this, there is no need of a long treatise and of arguments. 'The Lord saith to Peter: 'I say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; to thee I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and what thou shalt have bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what thou shalt have loosed shall be loosed in heaven.' Upon one He builds His Church, and though to all His Apostles after His resurrection He gives an equal power and says: 'As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost, whosesoever sins you shall have remitted they shall be remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins you shall have retained they shall be retained', yet that He might make unity manifest, He disposed the origin of that unity beginning from one. The other Apostles were indeed what Peter was, endowed with a like fellowship both of honour and of power, but the commencement proceeds from one, that the Church may be shown to be one. This one Church the Holy Ghost in the person of the Lord designates in the Canticle of Canticles, and says, One is My Dove, My perfect one, one is she to her mother, one to her that bare her. He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he believe that he holds the Faith? He who strives against and resists the Church, is he confident that he is in the Church?

The substituted passage is as follows:

. . . bound in heaven. Upon one He builds His Church, and to the same He says after His resurrection, 'feed My sheep'. And though to all His Apostles He gave an equal power yet did He set up one chair, and disposed the origin and manner of unity by his authority. The other Apostles were indeed what Peter was, but the primacy is given to Peter, and the Church and the chair is shown to be one. And all are pastors, but the flock is shown to be one, which is fed by all the Apostles with one mind and heart. He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he think that he holds the faith? He who deserts the chair of Peter, upon whom the Church is founded, is he confident that he is in the Church?

These alternative versions are given one after the other in the chief family of manuscripts which contains them, while in some other families the two have been partially or wholly combined into one. The combined version is the one which has been printed in man editions, and has played a large part in controversy with Protestants. It is of course spurious in this conflated form, but the alternative form given above is not only found in eighth- and ninth-century manuscripts, but it is quoted by Bede, by Gregory the Great (in a letter written for his predecessor Pelagius II), and by St. Gelasius; indeed, it was almost certainly known to St. Jerome and St. Optatus in the fourth century. The evidence of the manuscripts would indicate an equally early date.

Every expression and thought in the passage can be paralleled from St. Cyprian's habitual language, and it seems to be now generally admitted that this alternative passage is an alteration made by the author himself when forwarding his work to the Roman confessors. The "one chair" is always in Cyprian the episcopal chair, and Cyprian has been careful to emphasize this point, and to add a reference to the other great Petrine text, the Charge in John, xxi. The assertion of the equality of the Apostles as Apostles remains, and the omissions are only for the sake of brevity. The old contention that it is a Roman forgery is at all events quite out of the question.

Another passage is also altered in all the same manuscripts which contain the "interpolation"; it is a paragraph in which the humble and pious conduct of the lapsed "on this hand (hic) is contrasted in a long succession of parallels with the pride and wickedness of the schismatics "on that hand" (illic), but in the delicate manner of the treatise the latter are only referred to in a general way. In the "interpolated" manuscripts we find that the lapsed, whose caused had now been settled by the council, are "on that hand" (illic), whereas the reference to the schismatics — meaning the Roman confessors who were supporting Novatian, and to whom the book was being sent — are made as pointed as possible, being brought into the foreground by the repeated hic, "on this hand".

Cyprian of Carthage and Novatianism

The saint's remonstrance had its effect, and the confessors rallied to Cornelius. But for two or three months the confusion throughout the Catholic Church had been terrible. No other event in these early times shows us so clearly the enormous importance of the papacy in East and West. St. Dionysius of Alexandria joined his great influence to that of the Carthaginian primate, and he was very soon able to write that Antioch, Caesarea, and Jerusalem, Tyre and Laodicea, all Cilicia and Cappadocia, Syria and Arabia, Mesopotamia, Pontus, and Bithynia, had returned to union and that their bishops were all in concord (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VII, v).

From this we gauge the area of disturbance. Cyprian says that Novatian "assumed the primacy" (Ep. lxix, 8) and sent out his new apostles to very many cities; and where in all provinces and cities there were long established, orthodox bishops, tried in persecution, he dared to create new ones to supplant them, as though he could range through the whole world (Ep. lv, 24). Such was the power assumed by a third-century antipope. Let it be remembered that in the first days of the schism no question of heresy was raised and that Novatian only enunciated his refusal of forgiveness to the lapsed after he had made himself pope.

Cyprian's reasons for holding Cornelius to be the true bishop are fully detailed in Ep. lv to a bishop, who had at first yielded to Cyprian's arguments and had commissioned him to inform Cornelius that "he now communicated with him, that is with the Catholic Church", but had afterwards wavered. It is evidently implied that if he did not communicate with Cornelius he would be outside the Catholic Church. Writing to the pope, Cyprian apologizes for his delay in acknowledging him; he had at least urged all those who sailed to Rome to make sure that they acknowledged and held the womb and root of the Catholic Church (Ep. xlviii, 3).

By this is probably meant "the womb and root which is the Catholic Church", but Harnack and many Protestants, as well as many Catholics, find here a statement that the Roman Church is the womb and root. Cyprian continues that he had waited for a formal report form the bishops who had been sent to Rome, before committing all the bishops of Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania to a decision, in order that, when no doubt could remain all his colleagues "might firmly approve and hold your communion, that is the unity and charity of the Catholic Church". It is certain that St. Cyprian held that one who was in communion with an antipope held not the root of the Catholic Church, was not nourished at her breast, drank not at her fountain.

So little was the rigorism of Novatian the origin of his schism, that his chief partisan was no other than Novatus, who at Carthage had been reconciling the lapsed indiscriminately without penance. He seems to have arrived at Rome just after the election of Cornelius, and his adhesion to the party of rigorism had the curious result of destroying the opposition to Cyprian at Carthage. It is true that Felicissimus fought manfully for a time; he even procured five bishops, all excommunicated and deposed, who consecrated for the party a certain Fortunatus in opposition to St. Cyprian, in opposition to St. Cyprian, in order not to be outdone by the Novatian party, who had already a rival bishop at Carthage.

The faction even appealed to St. Cornelius, and Cyprian had to write to the pope a long account of the circumstances, ridiculing their presumption in "sailing to Rome, the primatial Church (ecclesia principalis), the Chair of Peter, whence the unity of the Episcopate had its origin, not recollecting that these are the Romans whose faith was praised by St. Paul (Rom., i, 8), to whom unfaith could have no access". But this embassy was naturally unsuccessful, and the party of Fortunatus and Felicissimus seems to have melted away.


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