Monday, April 11, 2011


Allen Brent, Cyprian and Roman Carthage. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xv, 365. ISBN 978052151574. $99.00.

Reviewed by Graeme Clarke, Australian National University (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a volume with a clear and consistently argued thesis. Cyprian, a recent Christian convert, as an educated upper-class Roman of mid-third century Carthage, shared, as part of his cultural and intellectual heritage, in the prevailing eschatological perspectives of his pagan contemporaries. This included a mindset with an ultimately Stoic-based view on the inevitable decline in the history of the material world (leading ultimately to a renewal and rebirth), a world-view reflected politically and religiously in the actions of the emperor Decius, and reflected more spiritually in Cyprian's treatises, most notably ad Donatum and ad Demetrianum, and apocalyptically in his interpretation of the development of schismatical fragmentation within the Church as predictive of a world declining into its senectus and indicative of 'the last hour' and the coming of Antichrist.

Along the way in this somewhat unrelentingly (and, it must be confessed, repetitiously) argued thesis (at 329pp), we are given a thorough-going analysis of the motivation that lay behind the actions of the emperor Decius, fulfilling his role as augur and pontifex maximus, in issuing his universal order for sacrifice, applying the religious and cultic responsibility of the emperor for securing the pax deorum in nature and society to the perceived metaphysical collapse of the world into its old age, the age of iron, before its renewal through the apotropaic and restitutive character of the universal sacrifices he has ordered. Included in this analysis is a careful examination of the surviving certificates of sacrifice from Egypt along with a somewhat lengthy and ultimately indecisive discussion as to whether census tax registers may have played some role in the implementation of those orders of Decius.

Then, those familiar with Brent's previous writings will not be surprised that he proceeds to argue that the Decian confessors in Carthage, by virtue of their sufferings alone, traditionally possessed the ministerial powers of a presbyter (based on the dubious testimony of Traditio apostolica c.9) [ordinatio per confessionem], and thus they could of themselves fully grant absolution to the fallen. It was a 'deliberate and cunning deceit' on the part of Cyprian, by a 'bureaucratic masterstroke' (p.283), to interpret the libelli pacis which they issued merely as petitions for reconciliation. His 'clever and even sinister response' (p.258) as a 'guileful bureaucrat' (p.258) is to insist on the episcopal laying-on of hands in forgiveness as an integral part of the ritual in reconciliation. This, it is claimed by Brent, was a complete invention and innovation (pp.257, 266f.) and which did not exist before Cyprian, and along the way Cyprian manages, in Brent's view, to reconceptualize the theology of martyrdom and sacramental ministry with an ideological deconstruction of the concept of martyrdom (p.275).

In all this Brent might possibly be right. But it is worth remembering that by mid-250 Cyprian had been bishop for two years at most – and this soon after his recent conversion. We simply do not know what the Carthaginian penitential rites had been in the immediate past which he had inherited. It is most likely that Cyprian simply reacted requiring what was already traditional in his diocese and this included the laying-on of hands as part of the ritual of reconciliation. And far from insisting on exclusively the episcopal laying-on of hands in forgiveness, in Ep.18.1.2 (dated to summer 250) he urges that should penitents 'be seized by some sickness or dangerous illness, they need not wait for our presence, but they may make confession of their sin before any presbyter in person, or if a presbyter cannot be found and their end is coming fast, even before a deacon. In this way, after hands have been laid upon them in forgiveness, they may come to the Lord in peace…' . It does not sound as if Cyprian is 'inventing' (p.257) a brand-new ritual nor is he requiring exclusively episcopal hands. And in early church history it is methodologically unsound to argue from what might have been accepted as a traditional prerogative in one regional church (ordinatio per confessionem) to what must have prevailed elsewhere. The various ecclesiastical debates in this period reveal extreme diversity of views and rituals, even within one regional area, let alone for whole ecclesiastical provinces. It is pure assumption that ordinatio per confessionem was traditionally accepted in Carthage in 250. We do not know – and all the available evidence is against it.

Certainly the prevailing view was that consummated martyrs enjoyed the prerogative of sitting with Christ in judgment - and thus enjoyed potent intercessory powers ( eg. De lapsis c.17 ). So when Celerinus in Rome was unable to obtain libelli pacis for his two fallen sister from any of the imprisoned Roman confessors (Ep. 21.3.2) he writes to Lucianus, suffering in prison in Carthage. He asks Lucianus, as the spiritual leader of the group of Carthaginian confessors in prison, 'that whosever of your number is first to receive his crown, he should forgive these sisters of ours' (Ep. 21.3.2). He does not ask Lucianus of himself for immediate forgiveness for his sisters, which, on Brent's argument, he was fully empowered to grant. He asks for libelli written by Lucianus in the name of a consummated martyr from among their group. By an artful piece of cajoling flattery he refers to Lucianus' spiritual leadership of the imprisoned group in sacral terms as their antistes and minister. It is not to be read (contra Brent p.264) literally.

Finally, Brent considers the dispute over the (re)baptism of heretics. Here he gratuitously assumes that the anonymous tractate De rebaptismate represents Stephen's case (pp 297f.) – 'Stephen will reply' (p.302), 'Stephen will now argue' (p.309), 'Stephen's argument' (p.317) etc. Of course, the tractate could well be written by a contemporary fellow African – clearly by no means all within the African hierarchy agreed with Cyprian's views on the question – and it may not reflect Stephen's line of argument at all.

Nevertheless this is an important book, laudably endeavouring to view Cyprian as a product of his class, education and times. It is handsomely produced, well-documented and well-researched, carefully edited and thoroughly indexed.

There are a very few, very minor slips.

On p.13 for 'root' read 'route'. On p. 59 for 'Iubianus' read 'Iubaianus'. On pp.155, 164 for 'Edessa' read 'Emesa'. On pp.239f. for 'children' read 'child'. On p.255 n. 13 it is willfully misleading to note that 'there is no mention of imposition of hands in De lapsis 38, written in 251': there is mention of imposition of hands elsewhere in the same work eg. De lapsis16 purgatam conscientiam…manu sacerdotis. On p.290 Basilides and Martialis are not being replaced by an African council. On p.291 for 'Marcianus' read 'Martialis' (?). On p.321 for 'Stephan' read 'Stephen'. On p.335 there is dislocation in the references with two bibliographical items misascribed to Cerrato. And, most trivially, on p.212 n.50 Clarke Letters 1 p.27 does not misread the recipient of P. Mich. 3 (1936) 132f. as masculine: it is Brent who misreads the recipient as feminine (see H. C. Youtie, The Textual Criticism of Documentary Papyri. Prolegomena, Second Edition, Bulletin Supplement 33, Institute of Classical Studies, 1974, 11f.)

Table of contents

1 Cyprian's life and controversies
2 Cyprian's background in Roman Carthage
3 Historiography in the age of Decius
4 Decius' religious policy and political rhetoric
5 The Decian persecution
6 The Church of the Martyrs
7 Stephen's challenge to the sacramentum unitatis
8 A final postscript: Cyprian's legacy

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