Get the CD Now!

The Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers by J.B. Lightfoot: Part I, Volume 2: Hippolytus of Portus

§ 11.


About the year 407 the Spanish poet Prudentius paid a visit to Rome. Among other sanctuaries which he visited were the basilica and cemetery of Hippolytus on the north side of the Tiburtine Road, just beyond the walls of the city, of which he has left us an elaborate description in one of his poems (AR. 10). Among other statements he tells us distinctly (ver. 19 sq) that Hippolytus 'had once dallied with (attigerat) the schism of Novatus'; that he was afterwards condemned to be executed; that on his way to martyrdom the crowds of Christian friends who accompanied him enquired of him, 'which was the better party' ('quaenam secta foret melior'), the Novatians or the Catholics; and that he replied, 'Flee from the accursed schism of Novatus; restore yourselves to the Catholic people; let one only faith flourish, the faith that resides in the ancient temple which Paul claims and the chair of Peter. I repent me that I taught what I did; I discern as a martyr that reverence is due to that which I once thought alien to the service of God.' It is unnecessary to enquire at present whether Prudentius in his description confuses two contemporaries bearing the same name, Hippolytus the soldier and Hippolytus the presbyter. Recent archaeological discovery has shown that this charge of Novatianism belongs to Hippolytus 'the presbyter'.

Among the many archaeological gains which we owe to De Rossi, not the least is the restoration of the inscription placed by pope Damasus [A.D. 366—384] in this sanctuary of Hippolytus and read by Prudentius. Though he has amplified the words of Damasus (as the exigencies of his poem suggested) the close resemblances between the two forbid us to doubt about the source of his information. Now Damasus tells us (AR. 7. a), likewise in verse, that 'Hippolytus the presbyter, when the commands of the tyrant pressed upon him, is reported (fertur) to have remained all along (semper) in the schism of Novatus, what time the sword wounded the vitals of our Mother (the Church)'; but that 'when as a martyr of Christ he was journeying to the realms of the saints, the people asked him whither they might betake themselves (procedere posset), he replied that they ought all to follow the Catholic faith.' So he concludes

Noster meruit confessus martyr ut esset;
Haec audita refert Damasus. Probat omnia Christus;


'Our saint by his confession won the crown of martyrdom. Damasus tells the tale as he heard it. All things are tested and proved by Christ.'

It was very natural that the discoverer and restorer of the inscription, which was the sole foundation (so far as we can see) of the story in Prudentius, should claim undue authority for its statements. To De Rossi it seems incredible that Damasus could have been mistaken about events which occurred at least some 120 or 150 years before he wrote (according as the schism of Hippolytus was Novatianism or not, i.e. according as it dated from the age of Cornelius or from that of Zephyrinus and Callistus), especially as he had been reared from childhood amidst the services of the Church. But first it must be observed that Damasus simply reports this as hearsay, emphasizing this fact by reiteration and leaving the conclusion to the judgment of Christ—for there is no ground for the inference that the 'hearsay' refers not to the lapse into Novatianism but only to the subsequent repudiation of it; and secondly we must remember that the whole history of Hippolytus was shrouded in obscurity to the Roman Christians in the age of Damasus; so much so that his much more learned but somewhat younger contemporary Jerome (AR. 8. b), though in possession of a large number of works by Hippolytus, confesses his ignorance respecting the name of the writer's see. This is a startling fact, and must be taken into account. Indeed the discovery of the inscription of Damasus is the more valuable, because it justifies the solution, which many had proposed on the publication of the Philosophumena to explain the account of Prudentius, namely that the Spanish poet had confused together an earlier outbreak of puritanism at Rome under Zephyrinus and Callistus with a later outbreak thirty years afterwards leading to the appointment of the schismatical bishop Novatian. The Novatianism of Hippolytus was a mere rumour which was circulated in Rome some four generations after his death. We are therefore entitled to weigh it on its own merits. Here two important considerations must be taken into account.

(1) The Novatian schism broke out in Rome in A.D. 250 and led immediately to the consecration of Novatian as anti-pope. A full blaze of light is suddenly poured upon this chapter in the internal politics of the Roman Church by the correspondence between Rome and Carthage preserved in the Cyprianic letters. The minor vicissitudes of the schism are there revealed; names are freely mentioned; the defections and recantations are recorded; and in short there is no period in the history of the Roman Church, until we are well advanced


in the fourth century, of which we know so much. Even the Eastern Churches of Alexandria and Antioch took an active part in the controversy, and are represented in the extant literature of the schism. Yet from first to last there is not a mention of Hippolytus, the most learned man in the Roman Church before the time of Jerome; whose lapse and repentance, emphasized still further by his martyrdom, would accentuate his position with respect to the schism. Who can believe it? Is the error of Damasus, who frankly acknowledges mere rumour as his informant, a difficulty at all commensurate to this?

But besides the documents bearing directly on the Novatian schism, there is another place where we should almost certainly have found a reference to this passage in Hippolytus' life, if it had ever occurred. The earliest western list of the bishops of Rome (given above, I. p. 253 sq) was drawn up either by Hippolytus himself or by some contemporary, and ended with the death of Urbanus and accession of Pontianus [A.D. 230, 231]. Its first continuator extends the record from Pontianus [A.D. 231—235] to Lucius [A.D. 253, 254] and must have written immediately after the death of Lucius (see I. p. 263). He starts with a notice of the deportation of Pontianus the bishop and Hippolytus 'the presbyter' to the 'unhealthy island of Sardinia,' mentioning the divestiture or resignation of the former. In the interregnum between Fabius (Fabianus) and Cornelius [A.D. 250—251] he states that 'Moyses and Maximus the presbyters and Nicostratus the deacon were apprehended and sent to prison,' and that 'at that time Novatus arrived from Africa and separated Novatian and certain confessors from the Church after that Moyses had died in prison' after a captivity of nearly twelve months. Again under Cornelius [A.D. 251—253], he mentions that during his episcopate 'Novatus outside the Church ordained Novatian in the city of Rome and Nicostratus in Africa,' and that thereupon the confessors who separated themselves from Cornelius with Maximus the presbyter returned to the Church. These are nearly all the notes which this continuator inserts in the period for which he is responsible, besides dates and numbers; and they have reference either to Hippolytus or to Novatianism (see I. p. 255 sq; comp. p. 286 sq). Why does not this contemporary writer connect the one with the other, if history had connected them by the signal fact of Hippolytus' adhesion and recantation?

(2) But secondly; the extension of the life of Hippolytus beyond the middle of the second century which would be required if his Novatianism were true, introduces a serious difficulty into his chronology. I have already shown (II. p. 413 sq) that his early work, the Compendium


on Heresies, was probably written at all events before A.D. 190. But, if the Novatianism be accepted as true, he must have lived more than sixty years after this work was published. Moreover the last notice, which we have of any event connected with his life, is the statement given above from the Papal Chronicle, which belongs to the year A.D. 235. Yet, if he were really a Novatian and perished in the Decian persecution (A.D. 250—252), he must have been alive some sixteen years afterwards. Not to mention, that the notice itself, by dwelling on the 'unhealthiness' of the island, suggests that he perished, as Pontianus also perished, an exile in Sardinia—a too probable result of such banishment to an octogenarian.

I should add also that, though history does repeat itself, we need something more than a hearsay of the age of Damasus to convince us that the same Hippolytus should have twice been in schism with the rulers of the Roman Church on the same ground of puritanism, and have twice suffered cruel persecution from the heathen rulers, whether as a confessor or as martyr.

We may therefore safely accept the conclusion of those critics, Bunsen, Döllinger, and others, who explained the story of Prudentius by the facts related in the Philosophumena1—confirmed as this conclusion has subsequently been by the discovery since made that the story had no better foundation than a late rumour.

1 Wordworth however (p. 158 sq) strives to maintain the accuracy of Prudentius on this and other points, and its obliged to prolong the life of Hippolytus accordingly.

Return to the Table of Contents of J. B. Lightfoot's The Aposstolic Fathers, Part I, Vol. 2

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.