The Placing of Hippolytus

The Placing of Hippolytus


The episcopal rank of Hippolytus is the troublesome factor in the task of locating the theatre of his labors. Were it not for this he could be described as a presbyter of the Roman Church, who was eminent for learning, and fertility in theological writing, and who earned in this way a prestige which made him in some sort a rival of the contemporary bishops of the imperial city.


The episcopal office of Hippolytus seems, however, to be pretty well attested. It is said, indeed, that Prudentius, writing in the early years of the fifth century, applied to him the title of " presbyter " but this term -- supposing it to have been thus applied in the authentic text of Prudentius - might have been used by him in the large sense which was sometimes attached to it in the early centuries. Moreover, the Spanish poet gives an open hint that he may have thought; of Hippolytus as possessing episcopal rank, since be speaks of him as the head of a Christian community.

2 Stipati circum juvenes clamore ferebant
Ipsum Christicolis esse caput populis:
Si foret exstinctum propere caput, omnia vulgi
Pectora Romanis sponte sacranda deis.
PERISTEPHANON, Hymnus xi.

A stronger objection to the supposition of episcopal office is this language from an ancient catalogue of Roman bishops: "Eo tempore (anno 235) Pontianus episcopus at Yppolitus presbyter exoles sunt deportati in Sardinia in insula nociva, Severo et Quintino cons." Supposing the Hippolytus in this reference to be identical with the distinguished writer, the language of the catalogue implies that the compiler at least thought of him as only a presbyter, unless perchance he used that term to indicate his relation (held then or previously) to the Roman Church, while beyond this he was understood to be bishop of a suburban community. On the other hand, Eusebius styles him a bishop, though he does not name his diocese, 1 Hist. Eccl., vi. 20. Jerome attaches to him the same rank, and leaves us equally in the dark as to the place of his administration, declaring indeed that he could not ascertain where he had exercised his office. 2 De Viris Illust., lxi. Hippolutus, cujusdam ecclesiæ episcopus, nomen quippe urbis scire non potui. Theodoret speaks of him as bishop and martyr. 3 Hæret. Fab., iii. 1. In his own writings, while he is not found distinctly to claim the office of bishop, he uses language in at least two instances, which might naturally be regarded as implying that office. Speaking of the apostles as recipients and transmitters of the Holy Spirit, he says: "We, as being their successors, and as participators in this grace, high-priesthood, and office of teaching as well as being reputed guardians of the Church, must not be found deficient in vigilance, or disposed to suppress correct doctrine." 4 Philosophum., Proem. In harmony with the participation in high-priesthood which he claims here, he represents himself in another connection as exercising the prerogative of church discipline, speaking of certain persons who, "in accordance with our condemnatory sentence, had been by us ejected from the Church." 5 Ibid., ix. 7. Altogether, the evidence may be regarded as establishing a presumption in favor of the episcopal rank of Hippolytus.


Where, then, are we to locate his diocese? Setting aside the theory which selects Arabia, as having no proper foundation, we are left to choose between Rome and the Port of Rome (Portus Romanus), the one being at a distance of about fifteen miles from the other. In behalf of the former supposition two principal items can be quoted, namely, the close connection of Hippolytus with the affairs of the Roman Church, as evinced in his writings, and the fact that he is named "bishop of Rome" in a number of instances by Greek writers. The force of the second item, however, is qualified by the late date of the writers who use this description. The earliest one of them that Döllinger was able to cite belonged to the closing part of the sixth century. There is also a possibility that this way of referring to Hippolytus may have come about by the hasty act of some Greek writer in substituting Rome for the Port of Rome. The apparent connection of the author of the Philosophumena with the affairs of the Roman Church is a weightier evidence. But the historical critic who, in compliance with this evidence, locates the episcopal administration of the Hippolytus within the city does not escape grave difficulties. On this basis we must suppose that there was a kind of dual episcopate in Rome, a special head being assigned to a Greek-speaking congregation, or else that Hippolytus was a schismatic bishop, -- in Roman phrase, the first Anti-Pope. For the former alternative, though it has been held by respectable advocates, the historical warrant is too dim to afford much confidence. The latter alternative is opposed by negative evidence of great force. No catalogue of the Roman bishops makes any mention of Hippolytus as either a legitimate or a schismatic incumbent. Eusebius and Jerome were apparently ignorant of any rival episcopate having been set up by him in the great capital. Supposing such a schism to have occurred, it must have appeared as the forerunner, almost as the first act, of the Novatian schism, which provoked intense animosity and was branded in severe terms by Catholic writers generally. How did it happen that the odium which was earned by Novatian was not reflected back upon Hippolytus, if the latter only two or three decades before had given an example of rebellion against constituted authority, and had kept the foremost church of Christendom divided for years ? We say for years, since the language of Hippolytus, which Döllinger interprets to mean that he denied the title of Callistus to the episcopate, is applied also to his predecessor Zephyrinus. The latter, no less than the former, is mentioned as one who presumed that he had become bishop of Rome. The phrase is indeed peculiar in either instance. It shows that Hippolytus, in his abhorrence of these men, was pleased to style them interlopers rather than rightful holders of the Roman episcopate. This, however, is far from justifying the conclusion that he claimed for himself the honor which he shrank from formally assigning to them.


A slight abatement ought perhaps to be made from the assumption that in the thought of succeeding generations nothing of the odium of schism attached to Hippolytus. Prudentius speaks of him as having been for a season a disciple of Novatian, Quondam schisma Novatii attigerat.
but as having in the end denounced his schismatic project,"
2 Consultus, quaenam secta foret melior,
Respondit: Fugite, O miseri exsecranda Novati
Schismata: catholicis reddite vos populis.
Una fides vigeat, prisco quæ condita templo est :
Quam Paulus retinet, quamque Cathedra Petri

-- an account that has small claim to credibility, since, if any relation to Novatian is to be predicated of Hippolytus it would naturally be that of forerunner and preceptor.


While thus the theory that Hippolytus was a schismatic bishop of Rome lacks the evidence which is needed for a well-grounded confidence, it must at the same time be confessed that the rival theory has but scanty historical data on its side. The most that is worth quoting is the apparent intent of the not over-critical Prudentius to represent Hippolytus as head of the church at Portus, the accordant statement of Anastasius, who was a papal secretary resident in Constantinople in the latter part of the seventh century, and the tradition which has been more or less current since that date.


It may be concluded that the superior learning of Hippolytus secured him a certain eminence among the clergy of Rome and the neighborhood. It may also be concluded that he was a man of somewhat assertatory temper, not altogether above the temptation to vanity, and that accordingly his representation rather enlarges than minifies the importance of his antagonism to the contemporary Roman bishops. If to these conclusions we add the supposition that Hippolytus was a resident of Rome before he became bishop and that his bishopric was in the neighborhood of the city, so that he could easily entertain and manifest an interest in the management of the Christian community there, we have at once a plausible explanation of his connection with the church at Rome and of his episcocal title. In the view of history, therefore, it may be regarded as possible that Hippolytus was bishop of Portus. The opposing theory, which makes him a schismatic bishop of Rome, though supported by very learned and able investigators, needs better proof than has been offered, to give it an exclusive title to credence.