Get the CD Now!

The Apostolic Fathers

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

§ 13.


Hippolytus, the famous writer, unmistakeably describes himself as a bishop. He is so called also by all those from Eusebius and Jerome downward, who were acquainted with his writings. Yet in the only contemporary Latin document—indeed the only contemporary document—he is called 'the presbyter.' This is the designation which he bears also in Damasus, the next Latin writer who mentions him; and from Damasus it is adopted by Prudentius. What does this title mean? The contemporary document indeed seems to accentuate the appellation. The compiler of this portion of the Liberian Chronicle (c. A.D. 255) speaks of 'Pontianus the bishop and Hippolytus the presbyter.'

The position and influence of Hippolytus were unique among the Roman Christians of his age. He linked together the learning and the traditions of the East, the original home of Christianity, with the marvellous practical energy of the West, the scene of his own life's labours. Not only was he by far the most learned man in the Western Church, but his spiritual and intellectual ancestry was quite exceptional. Though he lived till within a few years of the middle of the third century, he could trace his pedigree back by only three steps, literary as well as ministerial, to the life and teaching of the Saviour Himself. Irenaeus, Polycarp, S. John—this was his direct ancestry. No wonder if these facts secured to him exceptional honour in his own generation.

The meaning of the word πρεσβυτερος, 'the presbyter' or 'elder,' must be explained by the language of the school in which he was brought up. It does not represent office, but it expresses venerable dignity such as is accorded to those who are depositaries of the wisdom of the past. When Papias speaks of elders1, he means the Apostles and immediate disciples of the Lord—those who were 'fathers of the Church,' as we should say, to his own generation. When Irenaeus speaks of 'the blessed elder,' he means Papias or his own master Polycarp or others belonging to the generation of Polycarp and Papias, albeit their younger contemporaries. When descending a generation lower still, we arrive at Hippolytus himself, we find that his favourite designation of his master Irenseus is `ο μακαριος πρεσβυτερος. In the fragment against Noetus (p. 43, Lagarde) again Hippolytus uses the same language 'the presbyters,' 'the blessed presbyters.' The idea of clerical office, if involved at all (which I very much doubt) in this use of the term, is

1 See Essays on Supernatural Religion, p. 145.


certainly not prominent. Assuredly Hippolytus does not confuse the presbyterate with the episcopate; still less does he deny that Irenaeus was a bishop, which everyone allowed him to be. This leading conception of 'venerable authority' then seems to have been inherited by Hippolytus' own scholars and younger contemporaries in their use of the term. There was no man of his own age and surroundings who had the same claims to this title of distinction. An octogenarian, a widely learned divine, and a most laborious and influential writer, with such a spiritual pedigree—what member of the Roman Church, nay what Christian throughout the world, could compete with him?

When therefore the chronographer, who wrote less than twenty years after his death, states that in the year 235 'Pontianus the bishop and Hippolytus the presbyter were banished together,' he does not directly or indirectly disparage the latter in comparison with the former. Pontianus is 'the bishop' simply, for there was only one bishop of Rome. But Hippolytus has a title of his own, more honorable than any conferred by any office; just as Bede is called the Venerable. There are many bishops and many archdeacons, but there was only one Hippolytus and only one Bede.

But, though this was the meaning of Hippolytus' contemporaries, it does not follow that later generations understood the terms in the same sense. When nearly a century and a half later Damasus speaks of 'presbyter Hippolytus,' he probably accepted the designation as he found it, but understood it according to the usage of his own time, of the priestly office or second order of the ministry; and Prudentius followed Damasus. Neither the one nor the other knew anything, except vaguely, about the history of Hippolytus, as their statements show.

Thus therefore the use of the term in the Liberian Chronicle does not imply, as we might suspect (see I. p. 262), a denial of Hippolytus' claims to the papacy, thus supporting Döllinger's view that he was the first antipope. Still less does it imply that, though a bishop of a suburban see, he was a member of the Roman presbytery, according to Bunsen's view.

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. <>.