Origin and Influences X: The Apostolic Tradition?

The document widely known as the ‘Apostolic Tradition’ is a remarkable document. It has had enormous influence on the Church East and West, Ancient and Modern.

However once one has said that, most anything else we can say about it is a matter of controversy.

In particular we do not know who wrote it, where they wrote it, or why. We do not even know for certain that the prayers and rituals written in it were ever used except through the subsequent influence of the document.

So what do we know?

We know it is a Church Order – in other words, that it is a collection of observations, guides to Christian life, Church discipline and Liturgy.

Two key ancient Church Orders known to us today are the Didache (1st C AD?) and the Order now commonly known as the ‘Apostolic Tradition’ (3rd or 4th C?)

Both texts are extant, and their influence on subsequent Church Orders can be traced through the 3rd, 4th and 5th Centuries.

The text known as the ‘Apostolic Tradition’ (hereafter ApTrad) was re-discovered in the 19th Century. The Greek text is only known in fragments, but the document as a whole is known through early translations into, for example, different Coptic dialects, Ethiopian and Latin.

First known to modern scholars through a Coptic manuscript, and ApTrad was first referred to as the ‘Egyptian Church Order’ (EgO). However, subsequently, a Latin text of the document was discovered in a 5th Century Latin manuscript, the Verona palimpsest.

This palimpsest is a vellum volume whose pages have been scraped, and the original text pretty much removed, to provide ‘clean’ pages on which a new text could be written.

n this case, written on the scraped pages was the Sententiae of Isidore of Seville, but underneath was what remained of the original tex the text of three Church Orders, including EgO. Careful examination of the pages allows the original text to be recovered, read and transcribed.

Early in the 20th Century scholars began to identify EgO with an otherwise ‘lost work’ – the ‘Apostolic Tradition’ – written by Hippolytus of Rome – a theologian of the 2nd/3rd Century. And by the mid 20th Century this identification was widely accepted and held as commonplace in liturgical scholarship .

What led to the identification?

What seems now to have been an injudicious bringing together of different bits of information.

First, an antique statue discovered in Rome in the 16th Century, had on the back of it carved the titles of many writings by Hippolytus of Rome, including the ‘Apostolic Tradition’. In consequence the statue was declared to be of Hippolytus, and it was restored to a decent condition, in particular by adding to the torso adding to it the head of a suitably bearded gentleman.

Only much later was it realised that this statue was in fact of a female figure! Those Roman togas can disguise a lot. It was also noticed that the inscriptions include on the statue were not only titles of works by Hippolytus but also Jerome and Eusebius.

Perhaps the statue represented Christian Wisdom. One thing is clear that it was not a statue of Hippolytus.

Why did EgO become associated with Hippolytus of Rome and why was it thought to be his ApTrad?

Pretty much by taking 2 + 2 and making 5, or 6 or 7.

None of the manuscripts of EgO bear the title ‘Apostolic Tradition’, but some of them do link the text to someone called Hippolytus. Which Hippolytus though? For there were many such in the ancient world!

However the last words of the Latin version of EgO (which breaks off in the middle of a sentence) are ‘apostlic tradition’.

And the association was made, and an attribution suggested which stuck, for decades, until the pretty flimsy nature of the evidence came under question. Scholars pointed to the lack of justification for associating the Hipplytus of EgO with Hippolytus of Rome, and for considering this text to be his ApTrad. By the late 20th Century it was further questioned whether this Church Order had its origins in Rome at all. They noted, for example, how features of the liturgy described in ApTrad were unlike what was known from elsewhere of early Roman liturgy but was closer to what was known of the Church’s liturgy in Syria and Egypt.

Furthermore, if this text was written by Hippolytus – (a big IF) – it was questioned whether or not ApTrad could be relied on as a description of what the Church in Rome did, or what Hippolytus thought the Church in Rome should do

We do not know very much about Hippolytus of Rome. However, one thing that is known is that he was a prominent opponent of the theology and church disciplines favoured by the Popes of the time, maybe even allowing himself to be elected as an Anti-Pope. If that was so, and if ApTrad was by Hipploytus of Rome was he writing of how things were in Rome, or how he thought things ought to be .

Scholars continue to debate about provenance and authorship! And none of this would matter very much to anyone other than scholars, were it not for the fact that during the 1950s, 60s and 70s people were very certain that ApTrad was a Roman document, which offered a description of ancient Roman Christian Liturgy and provided a full Eucharistic Prayer, which pre-dated the Roman Canon (the source for our present Eucharistic Prayer I).

The Roman Canon, and medieval and post-medieval Roman liturgical tradition in general, continued to present theological difficulties in ecumenical circles. However, despite their theological diverence, Western Christians acknowledged their common heritage. Taking a step back from later Roman theology and liturgy seemed an attractive way of building on common roots, and sidestepping some later controversies.

Consequently, the identification of this Church Order with Hippolytus of Rome and with his ‘Apostolic Tradition’ seemed almost an answer to prayer. ApTrad’s Eucharistic Prayer, in particular, has consequently been embraced by virtually every Western Christian liturgical tradition, and become in many respects the ‘ecumenical’ Eucharistic Prayer. For example, in adapted form it appears in the modern Roman Rite as Eucharistic Prayer II; as Prayer B in the Church of England’s Common Worship; as well as in the Methodist and Lutheran liturgy.

The likely benefit of a more or less common eucharistic prayer used across denominational boundaries remains, even if it seems likely that the Churches, under a major misapprehension, have adopted and adapted not a Roman Prayer but a prayer from Syria or Egypt!

Next week we will look in some detail at ApTrad’s Eucharistic Prayer, and the week after we will compare and contrast it to the Roman Rite’s Eucharistic Prayer II. Today we end with a list of the topics ApTrad gives attention to. There is quite a range.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Of Bishops

Chapters 3-4:  Prayer For The Ordination Of A Bishop (Including in Chapter 4 The Eucharistic Prayer)

Chapter 5: Of The Offering Of Oil

Chapter 6: Of The Offering Of Cheese And Olives

Chapter 7: Of Presbyters

Chapter 8: Of Deacons

Chapter 9: Of Confessors

Chapter 10: Of Widows

Chapter 11: Of A Reader

Chapter 12: Of A Virgin

Chapter 13: Of A Subdeacon

Chapter 14: Of A Gifts Of Healing

Chapter 15: Of Newcomers To The Faith

Chapter 16: Of Crafts And Professions

Chapter 17: Of The Time Of Hearing The Word After Examination Of Crafts And Professions

Chapter 18: Of The Prayer Of Those Who Hear The Word

Chapter 19: Of Laying Hands On The Catechumens

Chapter 20: Of Those Who Will Receive Baptism

Chapter 21: Of The Conferring Of Holy Baptism

Chapter 22 Of Administering The Communion

Chapter 11: Of Fasting

Chapter 11: Of Gifts To The Sick; That Those Who Have Received Should Minister Diligently

Chapter 25 Of The Bringing-In Of Lamps At The Communal Supper

Chapter 26: Of The Common Meal; Of The Time Of The Meal

Chapter 27 That Catechumens Ought Not To Eat With The Faithful

Chapter 28 That One Should Eat With Temperance And Moderation

Chapter 29 That One Should Eat With Thanksgiving

Chapter 30 Of Supper For Widows

Chapter 31 Of The Fruits One Should Offer To The Bishops

Chapter 32: Of The Blessing Of Fruits

Chapter 33: That No-One Should Touch Any Food At The Pascha Before Th E Proper Time For Eating.

Chapter 34: That Deacons Should Attend On The Bishop

Chapter 35: Of The Time When One Ought To Pray

Chapter 36: That The Eucharist Should Be Received First, Whenever It Is Offered, Before Any Food Is Taken

Chapter 37: That The Eucharist Must Be Carefully Guarded

Chapter 38: Nothing Must Fall From The Cup

Chapter 39: Of The Sign Of The Cross

Chapter 40: Of Cemeteries

Chapters 41/42: Of The Time When One Ought To Pray

Reflection questions

  • How is the Tradition handed on in your community? And by who? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the way it happens?
  • If you were to write a Church Order, what topics would you cover, and what title would you give to the booklet?
  • What does it matter which texts a Church uses in its liturgy?

  • Translation of text of ‘Apostolic Tradition’ is taken from Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed. RCD Jasper and GJ Cuming. 3rd revised Edition, Pueblo Books, Liturgical Press, 2010.
  • Photograph(c) 2021, Allen Morris.
  • Commentary (c) 2021, Allen Morris.

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