Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.02

J.A. Cerrato, Hippolytus between East and West. The Commentaries and the Provenance of the Corpus. Oxford Theological Monographs.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 0-19-924696-3.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Eugene V. Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University, Russia (;
Word count: 2954 words

Drawing on leading contemporary scholarship this monograph analyses the Hippolytus question from its ancient and medieval roots to the present day. Addressing the problem of the provenance of the Hippolytan corpus, J. A. Cerrato (thereafter C.) points to the evidence of the Asian roots of the ecclesiastical author known as Saint Hippolytus. The book is focused on the commentaries rather than the anti-heretical writings of Hippolytus and is the first thorough analysis of the Hippolytan question from this perspective.

Hippolytus is known as an early Christian martyr, bishop of Rome, even an anti-pope, and a prolific writer, who left to posterity a large corpus of writings. Some of these writings are now extant in their entirety or in a fragmented form; others have recently been recovered or identified as Hippolytan.1 It is clear however that the state of affairs is hardly that simple. As a result a number of authorship and provenance hypotheses have been introduced to cure the problem. Who was Hippolytus and in which early Christian community did he flourish? According to Saint Jerome: 'Hippolytus was the bishop of a certain church. I have not, in fact, been able to learn the name of the city' (Liber de viris illustribus 61). Answers given since have improved only slightly. The various hypotheses developed since the fifth century, fall, according to C., into five basic patterns (pp. 4-5): (1) A single western, third-century author named Hippolytus resided in Rome or its environs, perhaps in Portus Romanus, who produced the extant corpus and the many other lost works; (2) a single eastern, third-century author named Hippolytus resided in a city of the east, perhaps in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria, or Asia Minor, who produced the extant corpus and the many other lost works; (3) a single third-century author named Hippolytus who emigrated to Rome from some city of the east and produced the extant and the lost works, some of which he composed in the east, some in the west; (4) a single third-century author named Hippolytus who moved about the empire, producing the extant corpus and the lost works; (5) two authors named Hippolytus flourished in the third century, one Roman and one eastern. On this hypothesis some works of the extant corpus were composed by the Roman writer, some by the eastern writer. The titles of the lost works are also to be divided between the two. They were later erroneously combined into one corpus.

The argument of the book is quite complicated and is divided in five uneven parts and seventeen continuously numerated small chapters. Let us summarize the content.

The first part of the book 'Hippolytus in the Christian Tradition' covers almost a half of the entire text (pp. 1-123) and more or less follows the pattern outlined above.

A clear and detailed survey of the early Christian exegetical commentary (Chapter 2) aims to show that this tradition, rooted in the Hellenistic grammatical and philosophical as well as Jewish Biblical commentaries -- the latter, in its turn, also adapted from Hellenistic academic models -- was typical for the Eastern rather than Western Christian communities. This assumption, if correct, would be a strong argument for the Eastern milieu of the Hippolytan commentaries.

Quite naturally, in Chapters 3-4, C. proceeds with the earliest evidence: Eusebius and Jerome. The non-provenance tradition begins with Eusebius. In three Hippolytus passages (Church History, VI, 20, 22; 39, 1f.) he gives no clear indication of the locality or ecclesiastical status of his Hippolytus. In the first passage (from a section dated to Caracalla) it is said that Hippolytus left letters and compositions and "was president (proestos) of another church somewhere". The second passage appears one pericope after the first, but is removed in time from the first (and dated to the period after the death of Caracalla). It is said that Hippolytus "along with many other commentaries (hypomnemata), had composed On the pascha... On the hexameron, On the [passages] after hexameron, Against Marcion, On the Song, On part of the Ezekiel, On the pascha (again - EA), Against all the heresies. Many others are also to be found preserved among many collections". The list is suggestive, but there is no indication of provenance. Furthermore, Eusebius does not explicitly connect the two Hippolyti. The third passage mentions "a certain diaconic letter of Dionysius (of Alexandria), carried (pheretai) to those in Rome through (dia) Hippolytus" in the period of Novatianist controversy. It is unclear whether this Hippolytus was the courier of the letter or its author. Was this Hippolytus a resident of Rome or Alexandria? His office also remains unknown. Should not we conclude that Eusebius knows of three different early Christians named Hippolytus or, at best, was unsure of the number of the writers named Hippolytus? Certainly, he knows nothing of provenance and does not mention a martyr named Hippolytus. This is significant given the interest of Eusebius in the martyrs, concludes C. (p. 44 n. 37).

Jerome's testimony is rather detailed but more speculative than that of Eusebius. C. follows the career of Jerome step by step, beginning with his childhood and extending into the mature years (pp. 45ff.). It is impossible to summarize the details here, but it is clear that Jerome is also ignorant of the see of the bishop and writer Hippolytus (cf. the quote above from Liber de viris illustribus, 61). Jerome certainly knew and consulted the texts by Hippolytus different from those mentioned and utilized by Eusebius. It is significant that he twice refers to the author as a martyr (p. 65). To conclude, Jerome nowhere associates a Hippolytus with Rome or the west (p. 68), but it was he who created one Hippolytus, regardless of the original reservations of Eusebius (p. 56).

Chapter 5 (Hippolytus Orientalis) first outlines the ancient and medieval authors (Theodoret of Cyrrus, Gelasius of Rome, the Armenian manuscript tradition) who support (and to an extent, create) the eastern hypothesis, then turns to modern studies, and finally, to the ground-breaking study Hippolyte et Josipe by Pierre Nautin, published in 1948, when the consensus of scholarship was on the side of the Roman hypothesis. This study is well known, so just a few remarks are in order here. Nautin argued that the Refutatio, Canon paschalis, De universo and some other works are not writings of Hippolytus, but the product of certain Josephus Romanus, a schismatic Christian writer who flourished under the episcopates of Callistus, Urban and Pontian and died c. 235. On the other hand, Nautin assigns the De antichristo, the Contra Noetum and various commentaries to a non-Roman (eastern) Hippolytus.2 C. remarks (p. 82) that "throughout the literary controversy between Nautin and his critics the emphasis remained on the anti-heretical works, ... but the evidence for the eastern character of the commentaries, perhaps the most positive and persuasive data in the debate, were not brought to the forefront of the discussion".

The origins of the Roman hypothesis (Chapters 6-7) are more obscure, but can also be traced back to the first centuries of the Christian era. C. notes, however, that "the great irony of the Roman hypothesis as it emerges in the ancient and medieval worlds is its pervasiveness in eastern literary sources" (p. 107) and "the evidence points to the fact that the west was never truly rooted in a Hippolytan literary tradition" (p. 106). But the details of medieval and Byzantine traditions, perfectly outlined by C., are too numerous to be adequately summarized here.

In modern times the Roman hypothesis received a fresh start and relies heavily on evidence from the inscriptions on the Vatican statue discovered by Ligorio in the mid-sixteenth century. This is also a great irony. Of course, the fact that the statue itself represents a woman, as the scholars have recently demonstrated, is curious but as such irrelevant. The inscriptions are firmly dated to the third century and list the works elsewhere attributed to Hippolytus. But the absence of the major works of Hippolytus (The Refutation, the Commentary in Daniel, the Antichrist, etc.) calls for explanation and cannot be easily ruled out or explained away.3

Soon after the discovery in 1841 of a Greek manuscript containing a work now known as the Refutatio omnium haeresium, a hypothesis was introduced by J.J.I. von Döllinger (1853) which is still influential.4 According to Döllinger the author of Ref. is a schismatic Roman bishop of the early third century, an 'anti-pope', involved in a controversy with Callistus, Urban and Pontian. The traces of these polemics were found in the Ref. and other writings of the Hippolytan corpus and the corpus itself was established as unified and western. Other scholars (particularly, A. von Harnack) accepted this view and "by the end of the nineteenth century the entire collection of writings preserved in the medieval archives and named on the statue were attributed to Hippolytus Romanus, a Greek author of Rome" (p. 96). Works recovered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were published under the name of Hippolytus of Rome. Despite the repeated caveats of scholars working in the field of liturgical studies, as C. notes (p. 99), historians have persisted in associating the Tradito apostolica with Hippolytus of Rome. The scholars dealing with the eschatology of the corpus have also accepted the Roman provenance.5 The widespread acceptance of the Döllinger hypothesis postponed the provenance search for almost a century, according to C. The Döllinger hypothesis has recently been revised in a study by Allen Brent,6 discussed by C. (pp. 101-105 and passim), although in less detail than one would expect.

In Chapter 8 C. proceeds attempts to combine the eastern and Roman hypothesis. Neither of these hypotheses is well supported, so we can safely pass over them.

Finally (pp. 116ff.), the hypothesis of two authors named Hippolytus (based on Eusebius and textual considerations) was introduced by V. Loi and other Italian scholars in 1977. M. Simonetti and others published further studies in 1989. Following Nautin, Loi affirmed the existence of a non-Roman (eastern) Hippolytus and ascribed seven works to him, including the extant exegetical commentaries. On the other hand, he accepted the supposition of a Roman Hippolytus as the author of a Greek corpus represented by the statue list and the extant works the De pascha, the Chronicon, and the Refutatio. The division of the works between two authors has since attained scholarly support. Recent analyses of the Hippolytan eschatology and chiliasm as an indicator of authorship and provenance are particularly important (pp. 119f).

The conclusions of C. can be summarized thus (pp. 121-123): "One author was highly prolific and, therefore, widely popular in the period prior to the persecution of Diocletian. His corpus magnetized the texts of lesser authors. The lack of community references aided the process of amalgamation. Copyists tended to view any Hippolytan composition as his. In time, the many were subsumed to the one, without indication of locality.... The supposition of an eastern writer represented in the traditional corpus is supported by early patristic witness. The division of the corpus by Nautin into two blocks is acceptable, based on the current state of manuscript research and literary analysis. The block of works consisting of the Chronicon, De universo, and Refutatio differs from the works of the author of the principal extant commentaries". Therefore, "room for textual research lies precisely within the areas which have proven most fruitful in studies since Nautin, that is, in the exegetical commentaries. It is the aim of the remainder of this study to explore various sources utilized in the composition of the commentaries and to evaluate their potential as indicators of origin".

To prove his hypothesis of an Asian milieu for the commentaries C. proceeds as following: the second part "Hippolytus and Eastern Christianity" (Chapters 9-10, pp. 127-157); the third part "The Asian Milieu of Apocryphal Sources" (Chapters 11-13, pp. 161-200); the fourth part "The Asian Milieu of Controversies" (Chapter 14, pp. 203-218); the fifth part "The Asian Milieu of Apocalypticism" (Chapters 15-16, pp. 221-249).

A short review cannot do justice to this tight and detailed account. The reader will perhaps be best served by a rapid summary of the most remarkable details and the results.

Chapter 9 lists and epitomizes the core documents, the Hippolytan commentaries, starting with two major works, the De antichristo and the Daniel Commentary, and ending with a selection of fragments.

Chapter 10 deals with the Antichrist treatise and aims to show that the text is better viewed as eastern in character. The treatise is not among the titles on the Vatican statue, nor does it appear in the Eusebius catalogue, but Jerome lists it as a work by bishop Hippolytus of unknown see. The refutation of the schismatics (gnostics?) is the principal objective of the treatise. Throughout the treatise there is no evidence that the Apocalypse requires defense, or that apostolic authorship has come under attack. This fact, according to C., speaks in favor of the eastern provenance of the treatise. It can be written by a bishop and addressed to an official of an equal rank, perhaps Theophilus of Antioch, or Cesarea (pp. 151, 157).

Chapters 11-13 aim to demonstrate the Asian milieu of apocryphal sources of the commentaries. Paul is the dominant apostolic figure of the commentaries. The commentaries rely on Pauline eschatological and soteriological doctrines and other minor points. It is important that the apocryphal works associated with Paul and widely circulating in the east are known and approved by the author of the Daniel Commentary. Next C. turns to the figures of Martha and Mary of Bethany in early apocryphal literature and the Hippolytan exegesis of the Song. C. proposes a restoration of the original reading of the text and analyzes the narrative of the commentary. Regardless of their relevance to the problem in question, these chapters belong to the best pages of the study. The anti-gnostic critique, also visible in the commentaries, deserves a brief notice. The exegesis on the Song resists the concept of the transformation of femaleness to maleness as the outcome of ascent -- the notion current elsewhere in the Gnostic literature (take, for instance, the First Apocalypse of James from Nag Hammadi Codex V 3, or Excerpta ex Theodoto), -- but views salvation as the restoration of woman to an original status of helper. Later in the text the commentator rejects another Gnostic notion, the nakedness of Christ (Second Apocalypse of James, NH V, 4,46 sq.). Absence of the figure of Mary Magdalene also can be explained as an element of anti-gnostic polemics. These observations seem to indicate that the commentator knew the Gnostic apocalypses, and at least partially accepted the New Prophecy (p. 200).

Consequently, in Chapter 14 C. deals with the New Prophecy and the Quartodecimans and attempts to isolate elements of the contemporary controversies in the Hippolytan commentaries. His conclusions, "tentative, but rooted in evidence" (p. 203), is that particular aspects of these separate movements (such as the positive view of women and the paschal theology) appear to have influenced the Hippolytan writings in ways that can be traced specifically to the localities of Phrygia and cities in western Asia Minor (Laodicea, Ephesus). The proposals C. presents are plausible, but this is slippery ground and the subject deserves a more detailed study.

The antichrist theology and chiliasm (Chapters 15-16) are characteristic of the tradition of western Asia Minor. C. elaborates upon this point for quite a while, starting with an interesting discussion of the development of the concept of antichrist in the Johannine and post-Johannine literature. Then he turns to Irenaeus as a primary witness of the later tradition and demonstrates the links between the Adversus haereses and the Hippolytan commentaries. A similar analysis of the eschatology of the commentaries in the Asian context is the subject of the last chapter. Since the author of the commentaries is a chiliast with a well-developed antichrist theology, it is possible to conclude, according to C., that "a combination of emphases is placing him in the same thought-world as the second-century writers of Asia".

To conclude, one aim of C.'s monograph -- to test the strength of the eastern hypotheses, particularly the versions proposed by recent scholarship -- has been achieved. The bad news is that we are left with the question of the association of the author(s) with particular eastern communities reopened. The proposal advanced by C. on the basis of rather inconclusive evidence, is plausible but provisional.

The exceptionally learned monograph by C. is still too short in comparison with the wealth and diversity of material. I hope the author will continue his most welcome study and soon bear new fruit. Being a foreigner, I am not in the position to judge the language of the book; the monograph is written very clearly and is easy to read.

C. leaves uncapitalized not only Latin titles but also abbreviations. As a result, abbreviations like he for the historia ecclesiastica appear at best unusual, and the bibliographic entry at p. 264: Berlnoulli, C, Hieronymus und Gennadius de viris inlustribus..., appears to be a misprint of the same at p. 56: Hieronymus und Gennadius De Viris Inlustribus... One more misprint: at p. 142 n. 33 should be tablitseiu.

The literature, which deals with Hippolytus is immense, therefore nobody can be blamed for omissions. But still, Jaap Mansfeld's major study Heresiography in Context. Hippolytus' Elenchos as a Source for Greek Philosophy (Leiden, 1992), and esp. Appendix One (pp. 317-325) deserves at least brief notice. The same can be said about I. Mueller's contributions to Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Teil II, Bd. 36/7.

Generally speaking the monograph is very well written and produced and will certainly be of great interest to everyone involved in the studies of Early Christian literature and the Gnostic tradition.


1.   For a list of Hippolytan writings cf. entries 1870-1925, in: M. Geerard, Clavis Patrum Graecorum (Turnhout,1983), vol. 1; and entries 1870-1932, in: M. Geerard, J. Noret, CPG Supplementum (Turnhout, 1998). The last reference is lacking in Cerrato.
2.   Certainly the work of Nautin was and continues to be sharply criticized. But the ground was broken, and after Nautin the Hippolytan scholarship will never remain the same. Actually, Nautin is a well known champion of extravagant hypotheses. One can recall his even more speculative but at the same time profound study on the Stromateis, "La fin des Stromateis et les Hypotyposes de Clément d'Alexandrie", VC 30 (1976) 268-302.
3.   For instance, some scholars suggest that the plinth is simply too small to contain all the works by Hippolytus!
4.   Take, for instance, the opening words by M. Marcovich to his edition of the Refutatio (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, 1986, preface): "Apparently, history had shown little mercy to the Roman presbyter Hippolytus, a prolific Christian writer and a staunch defender of orthodoxy and Church. After a rather turbulent life in Rome -- taking some four decades, -- he was deported to Sardinia, never to see Rome again (in A.D. 235). His Roman admirers showed the poor taste of choosing the statue of a Greek woman-philosopher -- reinterpreted maybe as Sancta Sophia -- to honor the Martyr (that is the so called Vatican statue). What is worse, the name of Hippolytus the author has been forgotten soon enough to allow the posterity to ascribe his masterpiece -- Refutatio omnium haeresium (along with its supplement De universo) -- to Origen, or to a Roman presbyter called Gaius, or even to Josephus the Jew. Finally, modern scholarship had cast doubt on the authenticity of Hippolytus' account of the major Gnostic systems in the Ref., and recently some scholars have doubted even Hippolytus' authorship of the Refutatio". I beg reader's pardon for such a long extract, but to my mind it summarizes the state of affairs extremely well. Marcovich lists a number of serious reasons in support of his view (esp. 10-17), which merit serious consideration and cannot be simply dismissed.
5.   David Dunbar, The Eschatology of Hippolytus of Rome (Ann Arbor, 1979), and other works referred to on p. 101.
6.   Allen Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in Tension before the Emergence of a Monarch-Bishop (Leiden, 1995). When I read Brent's monumental study for the first time it appeared to me to be a more widespread and groundbreaking than C. is willing to admit. It appears that the suggestion of Brent that the statue list represents several authors is the only one that 'merits serious consideration' (C., p. 102).

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