1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cyprian, Saint

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CYPRIAN, SAINT [Caecilius Cyprianus, called Thascius] (c. 200–258), bishop of Carthage, one of the most illustrious in the early history of the church, and one of the most notable of its early martyrs, was born about the year 200, probably at Carthage. He was of patrician family, wealthy, highly educated, and for some time occupied as a teacher of rhetoric at Carthage. Of an enthusiastic temperament, accomplished in classical literature, he seems while a pagan to have courted discussion with the converts to Christianity. Confident in his own powers, he entered ardently into what was no doubt the great question of the time at Carthage as elsewhere. He sought to vanquish, but was himself vanquished by, the new religious force which was making such rapid inroads on the decaying paganism of the Roman empire. Caecilianus (or Caecilius), a presbyter of Carthage, is supposed to have been the instrument of his conversion, which seems to have taken place about 246.

Cyprian carried all his natural enthusiasm and brilliant powers into his new profession. He devoted his wealth to the relief of the poor and other pious uses; and so, according to his deacon Pontius, who wrote a diffuse and vague account of his “life and passion,” “realized two benefits: the contempt of the world’s ambition, and the observance of that mercy which God has preferred to sacrifice.” The result of his charity and activity as a Christian convert was his unanimous call by the Christian people to the head of the church in Carthage, at the end of 248 or beginning of 249. The time was one of fierce persecution directed against the Christians, and the bishop of Carthage became a prominent object of attack. During the persecution of Decius (250–251) Cyprian was exposed to imminent danger, and was compelled for a time to seek safety in retreat. Under Gallus, the successor of Decius, the persecution was relaxed, and Cyprian returned to Carthage. Here he held several councils for the discussion of the affairs of the church, especially for grave questions as to the rebaptism of heretics, and the readmission into the church of the lapsi, or those who had fallen away through fear during the heat of the persecution. Cyprian, although inspired by lofty notions of the prerogatives of the church, and inclined to severity of opinion towards heretics, and especially heretical dissentients from the belief in the divine authorship of the episcopal order and the unity of Christendom, was leniently disposed towards those who had temporarily fallen from the faith. He set himself in opposition to Novatian, a presbyter of Rome, who advocated their permanent exclusion from the church; and it was his influence which guided the tolerant measures of the Carthaginian synods on the subject. While in this question he went hand in hand with Cornelius, bishop of Rome, his strict attitude in the matter of baptism by heretics brought him into serious conflict with the Roman bishop Stephen. It would almost have come to a rupture, since both parties held firmly to their standpoint, had not a new persecution arisen under the emperor Valerian, which threw all internal quarrels into the background in face of the common danger. Stephen became a martyr in August 257. Cyprian was at first banished to Curubis in Africa Proconsularis. But soon he was recalled, taken into custody, and finally condemned to death. He was beheaded on the 14th of September 258, the first African bishop to obtain the martyr’s crown.

All Cyprian’s literary works were written in connexion with his episcopal office; almost all his treatises and many of his letters have the character of pastoral epistles, and their form occasionally betrays the fact that they were intended as addresses. These writings bear the mark of a clear mind and a moderate and gentle spirit. Cyprian had none of that character which makes the reading of Tertullian, whom he himself called his magister, so interesting and piquant, but he possessed other qualities which Tertullian lacked, especially the art of presenting his thoughts in simple, smooth and clear language, yet in a style which is not wanting in warmth and persuasive power. Like Tertullian, and often in imitation of him, Cyprian took certain apologetic, dogmatic and pastoral themes as subjects of his treatises. By far the best known of these is the treatise De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, called forth in A.D. 251 by the schism at Carthage, but particularly by the Novatian schism at Rome. In this is proclaimed the doctrine of the one church founded upon the apostle Peter, whose “tangible bond is her one united episcopate, an apostleship universal yet only one—the authority of every bishop perfect in itself and independent, yet not forming with all the others a mere agglomeration of powers, but being a tenure upon a totality like that of a shareholder in some joint property.”

Attention must also be called to the treatise Ad Donatum (De gratia dei), in which the new life after regeneration with its moral effects is set forth in a pure and clear light, as contrasted with the night of heathendom and its moral degradation, which were known to the author from personal experience. The numerous Letters of Cyprian are not only an important source for the history of church life and of ecclesiastical law, on account of their rich and manifold contents, but in large part they are important monuments of the literary activity of their author, since, not infrequently, they are in the form of treatises upon the topic in question. Of the eighty-two letters in the present collection, sixty-six were written by Cyprian. In the great majority of cases the chronology of their composition, as far as the year is concerned, presents no difficulties; more precise assignments are mainly conjectural. In the editions of the works of Cyprian a number of treatises are printed which, certainly or probably, were not written by him, and have therefore usually been described as pseudo-Cyprianic. Several of them, e.g. the treatise on dice (De aleatoribus), have attracted the attention of scholars, who are never weary of the attempt to determine the identity of the author, unfortunately hitherto without much success.

The best, though by no means faultless, edition of Cyprian’s works is that of W. von Hartel in the Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum (3 vols., Vienna, 1868–1871). There is an English translation in the Library of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The most complete monograph is that by Archbishop E. W. Benson, Cyprian, his Life, his Times, his Work (London, 1897). See also J. A. Faulkner, Cyprian the Churchman (Cincinnati and New York, 1906).