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33- The Baptismal Controversy

September 6, 2016

Cyprian of Carthage became engulfed in a controversy with Stephen of Rome, over the validity of heretical baptism, which nearly tore the Christian Church in half…



Pope Stephen I of Rome

Notes Update – 9/14/2016

How do we know that chapter 4 of Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Catholic Church was changed by Cyprian himself from the Primacy Text (PT) to the Received Text (RT). The main reasons hinge on two factors. First, the existence and authenticity of two different versions of chapter 4, and second, the historical context in which these versions were composed. The manuscripts of On Unity, witness to both the RT and PT, and many manuscripts conflate the two. This is important because it demonstrates that the conflated texts are, well, conflated, rather than the RT with interpolations. The Primacy Text is a separate textual tradition, not a group of interpolations. Also, both the PT and RT are characteristically Cyprian in terms of their style, syntax, vocabulary, use of scripture, etc. Therefore, both versions originated from Cyprian’s own hand. So now the question is, how do we know which one came first? The main answer is the different clues and references in each respective text. Remember, Cyprian wrote On Unity in 251 as an anti-Novatian work. But the RT version seems to be from a later time, 256, when Stephen and Cyprian were at odds over heretical baptism. For instance, Cyprian quotes Ephesians 4:5 which speaks of one baptism, and goes to great lengths to emphasizes the equality of all bishops. Thus, Cyprian writing both versions, with the PT being the original, and the RT being a rewriting during the baptismal controversy, explains all the historical evidence in a coherent way without forcing it to fit. If you want more information, checkout the “Books and Articles” page on the blog site and scroll down to  secondary sources section entitled “Carthage and Africa” where I have listed the books I used for my study of Cyprian. There is also a translation of On Unity in the Ancient Christian writers series which has a good introduction and lots of notes on the text.


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  1. Post-Apostolic Church permalink

    Thanks for this lesson. What evidence is there that Cyprian’s words about the primacy of Peter’s chair was original and that Cyprian later went back and removed those portions?

    • Great question. The basic problem is both versions, the Primacy Text (PT) and the Received Text (RT) are clearly authentically Cyprianic, not interpolations or forgeries (ie. the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc. is undeniably Cyprian’s). Also, the manuscripts of “On Unity” bear this out by witnessing to two different textual traditions rather than an original and then later corruptions. Many of the MSS conflate the two, where later scribes decided to mix Cyprian’s two versions.

      So what about the order? This is based mainly on certain aspects of the texts fitting different contexts. So for example, the PT fits the Novatian schism by emphasis on the unity of the “Chair of Peter” versus the emphasis on the equality and unity of all bishops emphasized in the RT, hinting at the conflict between Cyprian and Stephen. The RT also quotes Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians ch. 4 referencing “one baptism” which scholars often take as referring to the controversy between Stephen and Cyprian.

      So in short, both are authentic, and the dating is based off which historical context fits each version.

      For more info, see St. Cyprian’s “De Unitate”. Chap. 4 in the Light of the Manuscripts by Maurice Bévenot

  2. Post-Apostolic Church permalink

    Thanks for explaining more. When it comes to “later corruptions,” Philip Schaff provided evidence in his elucidations that the primacy text was a corruption.

    Again, how do you know that: “both are authentic”? On what basis? Schaff said that the primacy text was undoubtedly spurious, and he gave his reasons.

    (, II)

    I truly appreciate this podcast. I’m so glad you discussed this passage from Cyprian! After all, the debate over the papacy’s existence in that early century hinges on Cyprian and Firmilian.

    • Looking at Schaff’s comments, I would definitely say he is correct that Cyprian assigns Peter a primacy of honor, not some supreme authority, and to read that into Cyprian is to misrepresent his work.

      Based on Schaff’s elucidations, he seems to be unaware of the PT textual tradition in the MSS. Instead, it looks as though he only knows of the “conflated texts” (CTs) which splice the two together (hence his conclusion of interpolations). He does not seem to be aware of the independent manuscript tradition which has the PT only, without the RT variants as discussed by Bévenot.

      The ANF Vol. 5 reproduces the RT version only for chapter 4. If you want to read the PT itself (as well the RT) you can find it in Bévenot’s translation in the Ancient Christian Writers series vol. 25.

      • Post-Apostolic Church permalink

        The CT, RT, and PT versions are new to me. Where would I go to learn more about them?

  3. I’d recommend the following:

    Ancient Christian Writers Vol. 25: St. Cyprian: On the Lapsed, On the United of the Catholic Church- trans. and notes by Maurice Bévenot.

    • Post-Apostolic Church permalink

      Thanks. Do you know of any free resources?

      • Best bet for free resources would be inter-library loan. You could also try the previews from Google books. I’d also recommend here Michael Sage’s monograph on Cyprian and J. Patout Burns Jr.’s monograph “Cyprian the Bishop.” Unfortunately, anything completely free to own would have to be Public Domain (like the ANF series), which means it is probably out-of-date with current scholarly research.

        This page has a series of links about Cyprian:

        Thanks for feedback! Great questions! You’re definitely right that Cyprian and Firmilian are key here for determining the existence of the nascent papacy in the mid-third century.

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