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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

The Canons of Hippolytus

This book stands at the head of a series of Church Orders, which contain instructions in regard to the choice and ordination of Christian ministers, regulations as to widows and virgins, conditions of reception Of converts from heathenism, preparation for and administration of baptism, rules for the celebration of the eucharist, for fasting, daily prayers, charity suppers, memorial meals, first-fruits, &c. We shall give (I) a description of the book as we have it at present; (2) a brief statement of its relation to allied documents; (3) some remarks on the evidence for its date and authorship.

1. We possess the Canons of Hippolytus only in an Arabic version, itself made from a Coptic version of the original Greek. Attention was called to the book by Wansleben and Ludolf towards the end of the 17th century, but it was only in 1870 that it was edited by Haneberg, who added a Latin translation, and so made it generally accessible. In 1891 H. Achelis reproduced this translation in a revised form, embodying it in a synopsis of allied documents. He suspected much interpolation and derangement of order, and consequently rearranged its contents with a free hand. In 1900 a German translation was made by H. Riedel, based on fresh MSS. These showed that the book, as hitherto edited, had been thrown into disorder by the displacement of two pages near the end; they also removed other difficulties upon which the theory of interpolation had been based. Further discoveries, to be spoken of presently, have added to our materials for the study of the book.

The book is attributed to "Hippolytus, the chief of the bishops of Rome," and is divided into thirty-eight canons, to which short headings are prefixed. This division is certainly not original, but it is convenient for purposes of reference. Canon 1 is prefatory; it contains a brief confession of faith in the Trinity, and especially in the Word, the Son of God; and it speaks of the expulsion of heretics from the Church. Canons 2-5 give regulations for the selection and ordination of bishops, presbyters and deacons. The bishop is chosen by the whole congregation: "one of the bishops and presbyters" is to lay hands upon him and say a prayer which follows (3): he is at once to proceed with "the offering," taking up the eucharistic service at the point where the sursum corda comes in. A presbyter (4) is to be ordained with the same prayer as a bishop, "with the exception of the word bishop"; but he is given no power of ordination (this appears to be inconsistent with c. 2). The duties of a deacon are described, and the prayer of his ordination follows (5). Canons 6-9 deal with various classes in the Church. One who has suffered punishment for the faith (6) is to be counted a presbyter without ordination: "his confession is his ordination." Readers and sub-deacons (7) are given the Gospel, but are not ordained by laying-on of hands. A claim to ordination on the ground of gifts of healing (8) is to be admitted, if the facts are clear and the healing is from God. Widows are not ordained (9): "ordination is for men only." Canons 10 -15 describe conditions for the admission of converts. Certain occupations are incompatible with Christian life: only under compulsion may a Christian be a soldier. Canons 16-18 deal chiefly with regulations concerning women. Canon 19 is a long one dealing with catechumens, preparation for baptism, administration of that sacrament, and of the eucharist for the newly baptized. The candidate is twice anointed: first, with the oil of exorcism, after he has said, with his face westward, "I renounce thee, 0 devil, and all thy following"; and, again, immediately after the baptism. As he stands in the water, he declares his faith in response to an interrogatory creed; and after each of the three clauses he is immersed. After the second anointing the bishop gives thanks "for that Thou hast made them worthy that they should be born again, and hast poured out Thy Holy Ghost upon them, so that they may belong, each one of them, to the body of the Church": he signs them with the cross on their foreheads, and kisses them. The eucharist then proceeds: "the bishop gives them of the body of Christ and says, This is the body of Christ, and they answer Amen"; and similarly for the cup.

Milk and honey are then given to them as being "born a second time as little children." A warning is added against eating anything before communicating. Canons 20-22 deal with fast-days, daily services in church, and the fast of the passover-week. Canon 23 seems as if it closed the series, speaking, as it does, of "our brethren the bishops" who in their cities have made regulations "according to the commands of our fathers the apostles": "let none of our successors alter them; because it saith that the teaching is greater than the sea, and hath no end." We pass on, however, to regulations about the sick (24) who are to be visited by the bishop, "because it is a great thing for the sick that the high-priest should visit them (for the shadow of Peter healed the sick)." Canons 25-27 deal again with prayers and church-services. The "seven hours" are specified, with reasons for their observance (25): attendance at sermons is urged (26), "for the Lord is in the place where his lordship is proclaimed" (comp. Didache 4, part of the Two Ways). When there are no prayers in church, reading at home is enjoined (27): "let the sun each morning see the book upon thy knees" (comp. Ath. Ad virg., § 12, "Let the sun when he ariseth see the book in thy hands"). Prayer must be preceded by the washing of the hands. "No believer must take food before communicating, especially on fast-days": only believers may communicate (28). The sacred elements must be guarded, "lest anything fall into the cup, and it be a sin unto death for the presbyters." No crumb must be dropped, "lest an evil spirit get possession of it." Canons 30-35 contain various rules, and specially deal with suppers for the poor (i.e. agapae ) and memorial feasts. Then we have a prayer for the offering of first-fruits (36); a direction that ministers shall wear fair garments at "the mysteries" (37); and a command to watch during the night of the resurrection (38). The last canon hereupon passes into a general exhortation to right living, which forms a sixth part of the whole book. In Riedel's translation we read this for the first time as a connected whole. It falls into two parts, and describes, first, the true life of ordinary Christians, warning them against an empty profession, and laying down many precepts of morality; and then it addresses itself to the "ascete" who "wishes to belong to the rank of the angels," and who lives a life of solitude and poverty. He is encouraged by an exposition, on somewhat strange lines, of the temptations of our Lord, and is specially warned against spiritual pride and contempt of other men. The book closes with an appeal for love and mutual service, based on the parables in St Matthew xxv.

2. It is impossible to estimate the position of the Canons of Hippolytus without some reference to allied documents (see Apostolical Constitutions). (a) The most important of these is what is now commonly called the Egyptian Church Order. This is preserved to us in Coptic and Aethiopic versions, of which Achelis, in his synopsis, gives German translations. The subject-matter and arrangement of these canons correspond generally to those of Hippolytus; but many of the details are modified to bring them into accord with a later practice. A new light was thrown on the criticism of this work by Hauler's discovery (1900) of a Latin version (of which, unfortunately, about half is missing) in the Verona palimpsest, from which he has also given us large Latin fragments of the Didascalia (which underlies books i.-vi. of the Apostolic Constitutions, and which hitherto we have only known from the Syriac). The Latin of the Egyptian Church Order is somewhat more primitive than the Coptic, and approaches more nearly, at some points, to the Canons of Hippolytus. It has a preface which refers to a treatise Concerning Spiritual Gifts, as having immediately preceded it; but neither this nor the Coptic-Aethiopic form has either the introduction or concluding exhortation which is found in the Canons of Hippolytus. (b ) The Testament of the Lord is a document in Syriac, of which the opening part had been published by Lagarde, and of which Rahmani (1899) has given us the whole. It professes to contain instructions given by our Lord to the apostles after the resurrection. After an introduction containing apocalyptical matter, it passes on to give elaborate directions for the ordering of the Church, embodying, in a much-expanded form, the Egyptian Church Order, and showing a knowledge of the preface to that document which appears in the Latin version. It cannot be placed with probability earlier than the latter part of the 4th century. ( c ) The Apostolic Constitutions is a composite document, which probably belongs to the end of the 4th century. Its first six books are an expanded edition of a Didascalia which we have already mentioned: its seventh book similarly expands and modifies the Didache; its eighth book begins by treating of "spiritual gifts," and then in c. 3 passes on to expand in like manner the Egyptian Church Order. The hand which has wrought up all these documents has been shown to be that of the interpolator of the Ignatian Epistles in the longer Greek recension. ( d ) The Canons of Basil is the title of an Arabic work, of which a German translation has been given us by Riedel, who thinks that they have come through Coptic from an original Greek book. They embody, in a modified form, considerable portions of the Canons of Hippolytus.

3. We now approach the difficult questions of date and authorship. Much of the material has been quite recently brought to light, and criticism has not had time to investigate and pronounce upon it. Some provisional remarks, therefore, are all that can prudently be made. It seems plain that we have two lines of tradition: (I) The Canons of Hippolytus, followed by the Canons of Basil; (2) the Egyptian Church Order, itself represented (a) by the Latin version, the Testament of the Lord, and the Apostolic Constitutions, which are linked together by the same preface (or portions of it); (b ) by the Coptic and Aethiopic versions. Now, the preface of the Latin version points to a time when the canons were embodied in a corpus of similar materials, or, at the least, were preceded by a work on "Spiritual Gifts." The Canons of Hippolytus have a wholly different preface, and also a long exhortation at the close. The question which criticism must endeavour to answer is, whether the Canons of Hippolytus are the original from which the Egyptian Church Order is derived, or whether an earlier body of canons lies behind them both. At present it is probably wise to assume that the latter is the true explanation. For the Canons of Hippolytus appear to contain contradictory regulations (e.g. cc. 2 and 4 of the presbyters), and also suggest that they have received a considerable supplement (after c. 23). There is, however, no doubt that they present us with a more primitive stage of Church life than we find in the Egyptian Church Order. The mention of subdeacons (which, after Riedel's fresh manuscript evidence, cannot now be dismissed as due to interpolation) makes it difficult to assign a date much earlier than the middle of the 3rd century.

The Puritan severity of the canons well accords with the temper of the writer to whom the Arabic title attributes them; and it is to be noted that the exhortation at the close contains a quotation from 2 Peter actually attributed to the apostle, and Hippolytus is perhaps the earliest author who can with certainty be said to have used this epistle. But the general style of Hippolytus, which is simple, straightforward and strong, is in marked contrast with that of the closing passage of the canons; moreover, his mind, as presented to us in his extant writings, appears to be a much larger one than that of the writer of these canons; it is as difficult to think of Hippolytus as it would be to think of Origen in such a connexion. How, then, are we to account for the attribution? There is evidence to show that Hippolytus was highly reverenced throughout the East: his writings, which were in Greek, were known, but his history was entirely unknown. He was supposed to be "a pupil (yvWptµos ) of apostles" (Palladius, 4th century), and the Arabic title calls him "chief of the bishops of Rome," i.e. archbishop of Rome. It is hard to trust this attribution more than the attribution of a Coptic discourse on the Dormitio Mariae to "Evodius, archbishop of the great city Rome, who was the second after Peter the apostle" ( Texts and Studies, iv. 2-44) - Evodius being by tradition first bishop of Antioch. A whole group of books on Church Order bears the name of Clement of Rome; and the attribution of our canons to Hippolytus may be only an example of the same tendency. The fact that Hippolytus wrote a treatise Concerning Spiritual Gifts, and that some such treatise is not only referred to in the Latin preface to the Egyptian Church Order, but is actually found at the beginning of book viii. of the Apostolic Constitutions, introduces an interesting complication; but we cannot here pursue the matter further. Dom Morin's ingenious attribution of the canons to Dionysius of Alexandria (on the ground of Eusebius, H.E. vi. 46., 5) cannot be accepted in view of the broader church policy which that writer represents. If the Hippolytean authorship be given up, it is probable that Egypt will make XIII. £7 a 5 Hipponax-Hippopotamus the strongest claim to be the locality in which the canons were compiled in their present form.

The authorities of chief practical importance are H. Achelis, Texte u. Unters. vi. 4 (1891); Rahmani, Testamentum Domini (1899); Hauler, Didascaliae Apostolorum (1900); Riedel, Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien (1900). (J. A. R.)

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These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'The Canons of Hippolytus'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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