Hippolytus of Rome Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111205860-Hippolytus.jpg Hippolytus of Rome (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman bishop{$I[g]Roman Empire;Hippolytus of Rome} Initiating Christian commentary on the books of the Old Testament, Hippolytus also provided the first systematic handbook regulating the ordination of the ministry and the conduct of worship. In addition, he elaborated the connections among the Greco-Roman philosophical schools and popular practices and the diversity of opinions that divided the Christian communities.

Early Life

While it remains impossible to construct an early life for Hippolytus (hihp-AHL-uht-uhs), it is possible to identify what he studied and when. It is instructive to compare his education with those of the great Alexandrians who were his contemporaries, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 220) and Origen (c. 185-c. 254). His style is more spirited and argumentative—perhaps more typical of his Western roots. Hippolytus wrote in Greek and was the last Christian author in Rome to do so. He is often thought to have been a student of Saint Irenaeus in Gaul; both tackled the subject of heresy, which at that time meant simply a variety of opinions or practices. Nevertheless, Hippolytus’s work Kata pasōn haireseōn elenkhos (The Refutation of All Heresies, 1868, also known as Against All Heresies), written before 199, took on its own character.

Two special dimensions gave focus to his thought. In order to elaborate the catalog of heresies and extend it into his own time, Hippolytus sought the intellectual foundations for that “diversity of opinions.” He looked to Greco-Roman philosophers, magicians, astronomical inquiries, and what he could learn of the inner working of the “mystery religions.”

Hippolytus’s study of astronomy and astrology preserved what had taken shape in the centuries immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He cataloged details of horoscopes and their attempted applications as well as the calculations of the sizes of Earth and planets and their respective distances from one another. These calculations led to arithmetic considerations, including the interrelationship between numbers when expressed by letters of the alphabet and words or names. The role of magicians, with their amulets and contrivances for illusion, indicated other activities competitive with Christianity. His quotations from others’ works, extensive though disjointed, remain a principal source for studies of pre-Socratic and later ancient intellectual tendencies.

The summary of these inquiries was not the primary focus of Hippolytus’s concern, but he used his subjects’ words as a basis for his theory that the Christian intellectual formulations at odds with his own teaching originated in this environment. His conclusion is that the truth is found by a method of intellectual contrast: Let the other side speak and demonstrate its own inherent falsity. His books belong to his mature years; his method illustrates how and what he learned in his early life.

The other dimension of his formative years was the practice of the so-called apostolic tradition. In it were both patterns for administering the internal core of Christian worship and the external requirements necessary for church structure. Hippolytus’s later account of the tradition indicated the status of developments within the expanding Christianity of the second century, in which his religious practice was grounded, and the reason that in later years he critically opposed every alternative form with such vigor.

Life’s Work

Hippolytus was already a mature thinker and author when he became well known. The Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) initiated a Christian persecution in 202, the tenth year after his power was secured against rivals. Hippolytus’s response was a treatise on the Antichrist and a commentary on the Book of Daniel. These works illustrate how Hippolytus perceived that the Imperial demand for acts of obedience (emperor worship) violated the inhabitants of the Roman world. He reflected Greek concerns that went back to the power of the demos (urban people in ekklesia, or “assembly”). He recognized that the Roman state, with “feet of clay,” had usurped the divine prerogatives, in a manner analogous to the example first propounded in the Book of Daniel. His interpretation was cautioned by his own chronological considerations: Like others of his day, he affirmed the world to be not more than fifty-seven hundred years old, so that the millennium remained at least three hundred years in the future. His discussion of the Antichrist is the most comprehensive written in antiquity.

Severus’s persecution was severe in Alexandria, where it touched the life of an adolescent whose father was executed and who, but for his mother’s intervention, would have followed in his father’s path. That youngster was the budding biblical scholar Origen, who became, in spite of his youth, the director of the greatest Christian school. Origen spent considerable time in hiding. Accompanied by his principal benefactor, Ambrose, Origen came to Rome to hear Hippolytus speak. When Origen returned to Alexandria, Ambrose provided funding for secretarial staffing and encouraged Origen to emulate Hippolytus in the production of biblical commentaries and other works against critics of Christianity, especially those of greatest intellectual impact.

Hippolytus is known for commentaries on many biblical books. A close examination of these studies reveals an emerging New Testament. He recognized twenty-two books as authoritative: four Gospels, thirteen of Paul’s Epistles, one Acts of the Apostles, three catholic Epistles, and the Revelation. He...

(The entire section is 2344 words.)