The So-Called Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome

My undergraduate students recently read the anaphora from a source which has been referred to as “the Apostolic Tradition according to St. Hippolytus of Rome.” Whether the students knew this lengthy title or not is unclear, as I, being a Notre Dame graduate, have taken an oath to use a heavy black marker to “x” out ruthlessly all references to Hippolytus in text books of liturgical history.

But, regardless of whence the text comes, what surprised me was how the students read the text. The first things they noticed were the words that sounded most like the present-day Roman Rite. They immediately saw the sursum corda exchange, and the “words of institution.” But it took them longer to see the repeated reference to Jesus as a “beloved” child or servant, the recital of salvation history, and certainly (gasp) this reference to “milk which has been coagulated,” let alone the olives, cheese, and oil (translation by R.C.D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, 3rd rev. ed., Liturgical Press, 1990).  What to make of these things? Why were the surprises in the text the most difficult to see?

I think there are a number of issues at play which make looking at documents such as these challenging. First, it is difficult to read primary sources, which are translated and formatted to fit within the leaves of a modernly-paginated book. Maybe students, who are such visual learners, would do better with scrolls of papyrus—literally to see—that these words are ancient. It seems there is a (perhaps justified) tendency to disbelieve that which we cannot see—if it’s just a translation, can we trust the translator? Aside from any visual cue, the language is, of course, not constructed in ways immediately-graspable. We have a hard enough time with Shakespeare (try making an allusion to Hamlet and you’ll probably hear crickets!). And, not unlike Shakespeare, or any play, it is difficult to make sense of a text which is meant to be practiced, or performed. Reading it simply feels flat.

But, aside from these pedagogical or technical issues, the real challenge lies in interpretation of the text. What does this source mean? Is it theologically legitimate? Is it condemnable, on one point or another? The Apostolic Tradition was not alone in receiving this scrutiny; our class also discussed whether or not John Chrysostom’s eucharistic theology could hold water or not, as he seems unclear about “real presence.”

I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to read these texts again from the students’ perspective. The students are beholding a new thing. And, I recognize the desire to see the celebration of the Eucharist as constant and unchanging—and to set aside those aberrant witnesses which challenge our understanding of the ancient Church’s Eucharistic theology as wrong, confused, misinterpreted, even heretical. But, the text isn’t lying to us. It sits there, printed on its page, and asks us to grapple with ideas which, as John Melloh once said, “do not compute” for the modern mind. For example, from the Apostolic Tradition (chapter 6), following a blessing of bread, wine, and oil: “Likewise, if anyone offers cheese and olives, he shall say thus: ‘Sanctify this milk which has been coagulated, coagulating us also to your love.’”

Instead of claiming that this text is “wrong,” “taken out of context,” or refers to “something other than a Eucharist,” let’s appreciate the text for what it tells us: that variable items might have been presented in the context of the Eucharist, that these various items were common foodstuffs, and that these items offered theological symbols to interpret the Eucharist. Just as milk had been warmed, curdled, and congealed to form a delectable, soft goat cheese, so too do we desire our hearts to be on fire, changed, and born anew into a better Body, one which can be shaped by the grace of God, and serve as food for the world.

Reading ancient texts is challenging—but instead of looking for what is “wrong,” or even liking them because we recognize our present in them—let’s look for what they teach us. Certainly the history of liturgical texts invites us to a feast, full of rich fare.  As one of my students’ textbooks asks, how will we respond to the banquet’s wisdom (Gary Macy, Banquet’s Wisdom, OSL Publications, 2005; Proverbs 9)?


  1. I agree with much of what you say, but would want to caution students not only against finding in the past only what they already know from the present, but also against using the past in any simple way for arguing about current practice or theology. For example, while John Chrysostom’s eucharistic theology should not be deemed heretical because of how it compares with later developments, we also should not think that this automatically means that it is an adequate eucharistic theology for today. Likewise with practices: we should notice and take seriously the presence of a variety of foodstuffs in early Eucharists, but this should not automatically be taken as a warrant for adding apples and tofu to our celebrations today. There is development and over time some of those developments become canonical.

  2. I’m shocked—shocked!—there’s been so little traffic on this post, given the profound and curious influence that the Egyptian Church Order, which rightly or wrong has been identified with the long-lost Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, has had on modern western liturgies.

    For years we were told that the second Eucharistic Prayer of the new Pauline mass was based on—indeed, sometimes we were told it was essentially the same as—the anaphora from that re-discovered document. That was of course before the internet, back when the text was available only to people who had access to a university or major metropolitan library. But now comparisons between EP2 and the anaphora (today of much less certain provenance) abound and are freely available for the faithful to examine.

    There are 2 big dangers in liturgical studies, with ecclesiology, with biblical studies, indeed with many disciplines within theology: (i) a false antiquarianism, in which we imagine, based on a few scraps of information, that we know for certain how things were done in a long-ago age, and (ii) an assumption that our (often imaginative) reconstruction is somehow ‘purer’ and must be emulated today, that changes over time have been nothing but unwelcome accidents of history rather than legitimate and salutary developments.

    1. @Tony Phillips – comment #3:
      While the identity of EPII and the ApTrad’s Eucharistic prayer have often been overstated, I find that most of the internet debunkings of this claim are similarly overstated. In particular, the debunking comparisons often forget to take into account the preface of EPII, which is where most of the similarities occur (see, for example, this comparison, which doesn’t even include EPII’s preface. The anamnesis is also quite similar. The significant differences–the first epiclesis and the intercessions–are a result of the attempt to “update” ApTrad to bring it in to accord with later euchological development.

      So while those who say that EPII is essentially ApTrad overstate their case, they are perhaps closer to the truth than some of their critics realize.

      One other borrowing from ApTrad that is at least as significant but gets far less comment is the Ordination Prayer for bishops. It seems to me that throwing out the traditional Roman prayer and substituting ApTrad’s is a pretty dramatic move. It might have been a good move (I tend to this it was), but it is certainly a radical one.

  3. Fritz, you raise good points. The downside of ‘open access’ is that anyone can publish his own analysis, regardless of whether it’s done with rigour and accuracy or is free of underlying agenda. The good news is that we’re still able to examine the original sources and criticise the analysis, as you’ve done here. For those who are interested, the Egyptian Church Order (ECO) is available at places like this (the actual text is in Appendix B, beginning on p.174).

    For me, the irritation at discovering that EP2 doesn’t correspond verbatim to this text (which we were assured, at least at the parish, that it did) was similar to the irritation of discovering, many years after the Pauline mass was rolled out, that the Latin text didn’t actually say ‘And also with you.’ I felt hoodwinked.

    But even if EP2 did correspond to the ECO in every jot and tittle, would that make it OK? The truth is, we don’t know exactly what this text was used for, where it was used, whether the community that used it was orthodox or heterodox, or whether it was used at all. We don’t know if it its anaphora is a summary or paraphrase or the actual full text that might have been used.

    But 1960s liturgists, in their zeal to reconstruct an unreconstructable ancient liturgy and ignore the centuries of experience and enculturation that caused it to develop, swallowed the thing hook, line and sinker and put it in their new missal. And, because it’s so short, it’s the EP we tend to hear most often, even on Sundays, at the expense of the Roman Canon.

  4. Tony, I agree that antiquity in and of itself does not commend a prayer. I happen to think EPII is a fine prayer, though far too overused. I would certainly like to hear EPI on occasion (EPIV not so much–it strikes me as a confused effort to shoehorn an Eastern prayer into a western form).

    As to whether ApTrad was every used, an expanded form of it does crop up in Testamentum Domini, so it seems likely that someone used it.

  5. It’s the ‘expanded form’ that makes me wonder whether the ECO/AT anaphora is more of a summary or paraphrase than an actual liturgical text.

    Our parish priest once told me they rarely use the Roman Canon because it’s ‘too long’. (To his credit, I’ve noticed it used a few times since then.) But one of the great values I see in the RC, in addition to its antiquity-cum-continuity, is the mention of the great saints, who are sadly missing from the other EPs and from the shortened NO Confiteor. Children rarely hear about saints these days, and they don’t hear at all about the martyrs, which, like the gory stories of Brothers Grimm and nursery rhymes like Three Blind Mice, are deemed to violent for their sensitive ears.

    I did and do have some suggestions for compensating for the length of the RC, some of them officially permitted (omitting the sing of peace, reminding people not to come to Communion if they haven’t been to confession), others not but (IMO) worth doing anyway (omitting the Bidding Prayers, omitting the memorial acclamation, starting the RC quietly whilst the choir sings the Sanctus, skipping those attempts at silence when the priest goes and sits down after the homily etc and letting the silence of the mass itself come through).

    The value of the alternative EPs, and indeed of the NO itself, are their informality and the shock of the new. When unusual and used in the right (limited) setting, the NO can perhaps be of value simply because it provides a fresh perspective. I was at the 6 pm ‘folk mass’ in Canterbury last night and I thought, ‘the NO works here–almost’. (Perhaps it would have worked outright, if we hadn’t been forced to endure it constantly for the last 45 years.) A setting like that, or a mass for students, or a mass on the beach, might be a fitting place for it, as a change of pace, so to speak.

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