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2. Cyprian |
A disenchanted lawyer is drafted as a bishop

Cyprian is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 35, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Witty, wealthy, and much admired, Cyprian abandons Carthage’s hollow society to brilliantly lead his flock against Roman officialdom and Christian dissidents

Cyprian - A disenchanted lawyer is drafted as a bishop

Cyprian - A disenchanted lawyer is drafted as a bishop
Cyprian, a wealthy and influential citizen of Carthage, held lavish gatherings for the city’s elite at his splendid villa. But when Cyprian decided to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ and his Gospel, he realized a change was necessary. The new convert opened the doors of his house and his rooms again and oversaw the dispersal of his accumulated possessions, selling or giving away everything.

Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus seemed to have it all: wealth, health, status, intelligence, and the prospect of even greater days ahead. What could stop him? He excelled in law, rhetoric and business. He was widely admired throughout third-century Carthage. He had a penetrating wit and a wide circle of friends, he lived in an ornate house, and he was by any worldly measure a rising star in one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

However, Cyprian knew his life was a sham–just as he knew that beneath its glittering surface, Carthage was a sinkhole of corruption. Its amphitheaters were drenched in blood. Sexual license was rampant in daily life and in popular culture. Judges lined their own pockets with bribes while breaking innocent citizens on the wheel, if that was what “order” required. The pagan religion, which had once held promise for Cyprian, had turned out to be as hollow as the society it served. Perhaps the skeptics were right. Perhaps life was a meaningless dance beneath the stars, followed only by eternal darkness.

But Cyprian could not accept such a bleak view of existence. He sensed a deeper reality beyond the marble walls, painted eyes, and empty whirl of Carthaginian life. He sensed a spark of eternity within himself, one desperately seeking communion with its source. And with the help of a Christian priest, he encountered that source: Christ Jesus, who had been raised from the dead two centuries before. Now Cyprian finally knew his life’s true course: He would withdraw from the rat race to pursue a tranquil life of worship, study and meditation. In splendid solitude, he would find the fullest communion with his Savior–while escaping the slow death of a thousand empty accomplishments.

Or so Cyprian thought. Within a few years of his conversion to Christianity, he discovered, much to his dismay and discomfort, that God had very different ideas for his life. God wanted him back in the rat race, but in a very different role, one that would tax to their limits all the skills, determination, intelligence and toughness he had acquired in his earlier life. In fact, God would place him at the center of one of the most divisive struggles, up to that time, in Christian history.

At the heart of it was a single question: Was Christ’s church to become a small, elite group of holy people, characterized by their willingness to sacrifice all for God? Or would it become “a school for repentant sinners” that could make room even for those who had denied and betrayed him? Would the Christians remain in the catacombs, or would they become the light of the world?

Cyprian would soon face ferocious opposition within the church, and deadly persecution from without. There would, no doubt, be many times when he concluded that the rat race he had left behind was a mere stroll in the park, compared to the race God had set before him. None of this could have been foreseen.

Cyprian was born around 200, apparently into a successful family, and took full advantage of a superior education. His mind naturally sought order and unity, and his talent for self-discipline was legendary. “With a powerful memory,” notes biographer Edward White Benson, “and methodic, classificatory mind, Cyprian had pursued the highest literary culture.”

Success followed success, and by his early forties, the world lay at Cyprian’s feet. His villa was noted for its “Pompeian richness, frescoed walls, gilded ceilings and marble-lined salons.” He dined with Carthage’s “A-list,” and was widely admired as a skilled rhetorician. He was, quite simply, a celebrity with a sterling reputation for probity. Cyprian “despaired of improvement,” and indeed considered his shortcomings not only “natural” but “even favored them,” as he himself would later put it.

Yet there was a growing tension within. While he was very much in the world, part of him stood outside it. As his fame and accomplishments grew, worldly society lost its glitter. Yes, he had risen high, but was that really so great an achievement? Was it not true that behind the elegant salons and imperial offices stretched a vast and soul-crushing corruption? Cyprian knew firsthand that the legal profession did a heavy traffic in bribes. Then there were the games. In one of the most chilling descriptions of the amphitheater culture ever recorded, Cyprian noted the “manly health and grace of the youths trained to mutual murder under the eyes of their own fathers; the brother waits his turn in the den, above which sits the expectant sister; the mother pays a higher price for the ticket to witness her child’s death-wound on a gala day, and there is not the faintest sense of guilt on any conscience.” The celebration of moral depravity, indeed, was seen as a mark of artistic sophistication.

Even twenty-first-century entertainment, whatever its iniquities, would be hard put to match the degradations of Cyprian’s era. Here is the recollection of a third-century actor who was required to have intercourse on stage with a condemned woman, who would subsequently be eaten by a lion: “I was not only appalled at the disgraceful part I was expected to play: I was in terror of death. It occurred to me that when she and I were locked in what was supposed to be a passionate embrace, and the wild beast, whose part in the drama would be to eat her, came bounding into our bridal cage, I could not count on the creature’s being so naturally sagacious, or well trained, or so abstemious, as to tear her to pieces as she cuddled close to me, but nevertheless leave me alone.”

Of such as this, Cyprian could finally stand no more. He realized that the lions were not only devouring bodies; they were devouring souls. He had risen to distinction in a society where no decent man should want to succeed at all. But where to turn? He had earlier noted at least a hint of grandeur and transcendence in the pagan religions. But now, the closer he looked, the more barren their appeal. Their gods and priesthood did nothing to stem society’s cruelty and squalor. At best, they were ambivalent; indeed, by their silence they endorsed the status quo.

Cyprian stood before his own time and place as if before a wall. Like countless Christians before him and countless Christians since, he discovered that this wall contained a window–a way out. In his case, that window had a name: It was Caecilius, a Christian priest, member of a faith that of late was gaining stature and converts all across northern Africa. Caecilius was animated by what he called “the Gospel.” It meant “good news,” and it conveyed a startling message: Jesus Christ, who had been crucified two centuries earlier, was very much alive today. He was not only alive but accessible. And he was not only accessible but dedicated to saving Cyprian’s soul. He had paid the ultimate price in order to rescue men and women who found themselves in Cyprian’s position. He had indeed died on Cyprian’s behalf. Such was Caecilius’s testimony.

Cyprian no doubt saw the contrast between that astonishing life of Jesus and his own life. Jesus had come into the world as an awaited messiah and king. Like Cyprian, he had been offered all the world’s glories, glitter, and baubles. Unlike Cyprian, he rejected them. He was shown cruelty, and responded with love. He was shown depravity, and responded with sacrifice. He had made himself a servant to man. His promise to Cyprian, and to all humanity, was simple and profound. Those who believed in him would find everlasting life, beginning in this world and continuing in the world to come, a life of inexpressible peace. These were not mere words. This was Truth. Indeed, Jesus had called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6), and had certified it by his Resurrection.

Cyprian’s conversion was total. His date of baptism is given as Easter 246, some time after which Caecilius died, apparently leaving his family in Cyprian’s care. But for Cyprian, this was no mere “lifestyle change.” He sold most of his property and possessions to the benefit of his new faith and the poor. He embraced a “perfect chastity”–a vow similar to that made by frontline Roman soldiers. His life was made anew. “I had wandered blindly in the darkness, tossed by the tempestuous sea,” Cyprian later recalled. “I had floated at the mercy of the waves, ignorant of my life.” Yet “after the strain of early years had been washed away with the help of the water of new birth, a light from above, serene and pure, had been poured into my forgiven heart. After a second birth had remade me a new man by means of the spirit breathed from heaven, then in a wonderful way what had been doubtful became sure, what had been hidden was revealed, what had been dark was illumined, what had seemed difficult before could now be attempted, what had been thought impossible was now able to be done.”

Cyprian’s sense of satisfaction was complete. He would now enter his study, shut the doors, and train his considerable intellect on larger matters. One can easily imagine him rubbing his hands in anticipation of this exquisite life of the mind that lay ahead. He had ample cause to believe that his will and his Lord’s were one and the same, indeed that the Lord delighted in rubber-stamping Cyprian’s own wise choice.

And so it went, but not for long. Soon his dream began coming apart. Less than three years after Cyprian’s conversion, Bishop Donatus of Carthage died. This was a great loss, but God no doubt would provide a suitable replacement. These were dynamic times for the church. Conversions were increasing, among both the masses and the elite. There were several capable candidates to fill Donatus’s shoes, each qualified and experienced–and each adamant that he was the man for the job. Yet a troubling consensus was forming among the Carthaginian Christians, troubling at least from Cyprian’s perspective. Many saw their church as stagnant in the face of unparalleled opportunity. Fresh blood was needed: The times required someone old enough to possess wisdom but still in possession of youthful energy. An organizer. A speaker. Increasingly, there was one name on the lips of the faithful. That name was Cyprian.

Not me! Cyprian earnestly protested. The other would-be bishops whole-heartedly agreed with him. How could anyone even think that so new a Christian could be considered worthy? After all, Carthage was equal to Rome itself, many Carthaginians thought. Of all the choices, Cyprian would be the worst. What had gotten into the masses? What forces, Cyprian no doubt wondered, were at work to turn his newfound life upside down? These were undoubtedly his thoughts that day when, less than three years after his conversion, a large group of believers marched to his residence. The consensus, they said, was overwhelming. Cyprian had the skills and vigor the church required. Besides that, there was just something about him–a presence the other candidates could not hope to match. Pontius, a deacon in the African church and later Cyprian’s biographer, described it well:

So much sanctity and grace beamed from his face that it confounded the minds of the beholders. His countenance was grave and yet joyous. Neither was his severity gloomy, nor his affability excessive, but a mingled tempering of both; so that it might be doubted whether he most deserved to be revered or to be loved. . . . And his dress was not out of harmony with his countenance, being itself also subdued to a fitting mean. The pride of the world did not inflame him, nor yet did an excessively affected penury make him sordid.

Then the crowd called on Cyprian to come forward and present himself to them. According to custom, the presiding bishop from a nearby diocese asked the crowd three times: “Is this the man whom ye decide for a ruler? Is he blameless, and is he worthy?” The crowd shouted its assent: “Axios! Axios! Axios!”1 If there was a discordant voice among them, it has escaped the record.

Suddenly, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage. Bishop! Just a few years ago he was a burned-out lawyer seeking respite from the world. Could Cyprian have been blamed for wondering, “Why me, Lord?” Just yesterday he was a Christian believer, a man devoted to his study. Now he had been pushed by forces beyond his control into a job for which he had no training and no desire. And those were the least of his problems. Imperial Rome was once again turning its baleful eye on a familiar scapegoat: the Christian church.

Cyprian nevertheless assumed his new duties with obedient enthusiasm. There must, after all, be a good reason for so unexpected a development. “Where better, where more happily might I be, than in the place where God willed me to believe and grow?” he would later reflect. There was no doubting that his organizational skills were sorely needed. Paganism resonated with fewer and fewer Africans. Christianity was becoming the faith of the future. It not only promised eternal life, but its moral teachings were far more profound. Moreover, there had been no serious persecution of Christians for half a century. No longer did the Christians consist of a small, tightly bound, fiercely dedicated core of believers whose faith had been gravely tested. Even in areas once militantly hostile to Christianity, such as neighboring Numidia, the faith was rapidly taking root unopposed.

None of this was lost on the Roman authorities, however. They sensed, too, that these Christians seemed to be growing more hostile toward Roman institutions, and that the Christians were not alone in this. The wild tribesmen to the south and west were harassing the African frontier and occasionally raiding the emperor’s North African olive groves, which were vital not only for trade but also to keep the lights burning in Rome itself. It seemed time for Rome to gain a tighter grip there. On the home front, a fresh round of persecutions was very much in order. That possibility was already a preoccupation with Cyprian. One night he had a vivid dream: A father and his family faced a menacing opponent, one who sought their destruction. On waking, Cyprian was filled with the greatest foreboding. Trouble clearly lay ahead for the church. He would not have to wait long to see his nightmare become reality.

Cyprian was therefore hardly surprised when, in 249, Emperor Decius concluded that Rome’s problems were, at least in part, due to the displeasure of the gods. The remedy was simple enough. An imperial edict was forthwith produced: All who live under Roman rule must sacrifice to Rome’s gods, and all must offer tangible evidence of compliance, a signed certificate (libellus) documenting the fact that the individual had performed the rite. There were to be no exceptions. Since those who refused were threatening the health of the empire, the refusal would be taken as sedition, a capital offense.

By 250, all-out persecution was under way. In some cities, including Alexandria, Christians were chased down by mobs and burned at the stake. Decius meant business. In Rome, Bishop Fabian was arrested and executed. Later that year, the new proconsul arrived in Carthage. Cyprian knew he would be next. So did his closest associates. “You must flee,” he was warned. Tertullus, whose devotion to prisoners and martyrs was unquestioned, quickly became adamant. Cyprian must conceal himself for the church’s good. Without constant government, the church would disintegrate under these pressures. Tertullus had heard the chants in the streets: “Cyprian to the lions!”

Yet there were other considerations. If Cyprian appeared to choose personal safety over staying with his flock, there would certainly be critics. He could imagine the taunts. What sort of leader goes into hiding while the faithful are slaughtered like sheep? The church had long taught that martyrdom is the highest honor a Christian can achieve. In martyrdom, then, it was seen that God revealed his full glory. Why would Cyprian decline this golden crown? Perhaps he did not truly believe these things.

His dilemma was brutally simple: He would be damned if he took flight, and killed if he didn’t. And so the question became: What did God want? Had he raised Cyprian to this position, so rapidly and unexpectedly, in order to have him killed so soon? Cyprian could not believe that. He would flee–not far, but to an undisclosed location near Carthage. This “evil time,” he wrote colleagues, has “laid low our people in very great part.” His mind was made up. He would avoid his enemies, but continue serving his flock. So he fled.

Of his retreat into the wilderness, he later wrote: “As the Lord gave commandment, immediately on the appearance of trouble, when the people had fiercely and repeatedly clamored for my blood, I withdrew, taking thought rather for the tranquility of the church than for my own safety, to prevent a further outbreak of the animosity which had been fired by my unwelcome presence.”

But he did not disappear. Instead, Cyprian quickly established his “government in exile,” dispatching priests to care for victims of persecution, providing funds to Christians sentenced to hard labor in the mines, and exhorting the faithful to stand fast and await better days. “Although absent in body,” he wrote, “I have not been absent in spirit, or in action, or in my admonitions, so that I might at least, with what moderate ability I could, look out for our brethren according to the precepts of our Lord.”

Tertullus had been correct: Cyprian was providing vital cohesion to the church at a time of horrendous external pressure. The Romans recognized exactly why he had taken this step, and made public demands for his capture. This must have been of some comfort. But Cyprian’s expectations of criticism were also realized. A letter from church officials in Rome carried a particularly stinging rebuke. After praising Fabian’s martyrdom, it exhorted clergy who had not fled Carthage to fill the void created by the “lapse of some eminent and timorous persons.”

The word “lapsed” was increasingly on the lips of Cyprian’s critics, and indeed on his own lips as well. By 251, the persecution was waning, and a debate about what to do with the lapsed–that is, those Christians who had submitted in one form or another to the Decian edict–had moved to center stage. The issue: Under what circumstances would those who had denied Christ be allowed back into the church? Should these lapsed Christians be readmitted at all? What about clergy who had sacrificed to the Roman gods? Indeed, what about clergy who had fled persecution?

As Cyprian made his way back to Carthage, he knew the future of the church was at stake. His critics had already formed hard opinions, and bolstered their positions by pointing out that it was not they who had gone into hiding. Why should anyone listen to Cyprian? The lions were back in their cages, but other claws were out for Cyprian.

The first fact confronting Cyprian was the massive size of the problem he confronted. Softened by nearly a half century without persecution, many had easily capitulated. Enormous numbers of Christians had chosen apostasy over persecution. On the other hand, Cyprian noted, some had held fast with unbecoming enthusiasm. “They ran voluntarily to the forum; they rushed spontaneously to death, as if this were a thing that they had yearned for beforehand, as if they were seizing an opportunity given which they had always wanted.”

“To many, their own destruction was not enough,” he wrote. “Encouraging each other, the people were urged to ruination. They drank to each other’s death in the fatal cup.” Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, whose bonds with Cyprian had been strong (though there is no record of correspondence between them), filed a similar report from his post. Christians “cowered with fear,” he wrote, and while some held out, “others ran eagerly towards the altars, affirming by their forwardness that they had not been Christians even formerly.”

The degree of apostasy was perhaps breathtaking, but it could not be considered a surprise. Many of the apostates had been new converts when persecution began; their faith was shallow and untested. Many had not made a clean break with paganism and so reversion to the old gods not only was expedient but seemed the sensible thing to do. Historian W. H. C. Frend notes: “No one disobeyed an imperial edict lightly. When confronted with the choice of empire or Christian church in 250, the great majority of Christians played safe and sacrificed.”

The number of the lapsed was not the only problem, however. Some clergy, most notably Donatus, Novatus, and Felicissimus, were already freely readmitting apostates and thus polluting the church, at least in Cyprian’s eyes. These men rejected Cyprian’s protests. After all, they had stuck it out in Carthage during persecution, and now Cyprian, who had left Carthage, had the nerve to exclude Felicissimus. There was a further problem. Some Christians who had withstood persecution and torture, now called “confessors,” were assumed by many to have the authority to provide letters of readmission for the lapsed. Entire families were being pardoned by the good-hearted yet indiscriminate confessors.

Cyprian must act quickly, but not rashly. As he saw it, the stakes could not be overstated. If the standards for readmission were too stark, wholesale defection would result. Christianity’s recent gains would be lost. The church would return to its status as a cult, one characterized by the willingness of its members to die for their faith–and also by its minute size. Or perhaps Christianity would splinter into various sects, then disappear as so many cults had before. And this exodus would occur just at the time when Christ’s “great commission” to go forth, teach, and baptize, was bearing real fruit, when huge numbers of people from all levels of society were acknowledging him. That, Cyprian reasoned, could not possibly be what God desired.

Yet at the same time, the integrity of the faith must be maintained. Many Christians had withstood torture without relenting. Many had died, and surviving family members would feel betrayed should those sacrifices be mocked by a policy that accepted apostasy without recrimination.

There was also the matter of lapsed clergy. The flight from faith was common at all levels, including the clerical one. “In the bishops, there was no religious devotion,” Cyprian observed. “In the ministry, there was no sound faith. In works, there was no mercy. In morals, there was no discipline.”

Modern-day Christians can imagine the pressures Cyprian faced, at least to a degree. Should a pacifist congregation with members imprisoned during wartime readmit those who submitted to conscription? Should congregations strongly dedicated to stopping abortions or capital punishment reprove members who avoided taking a stance out of fear of ridicule or worse? At the same time, the immensity of the challenge must be kept in mind. Cyprian could either lead Christianity into the future or preside over its possible dissolution.

To resolve these questions, he quickly convened his bishops, and together they devised a reasonable policy–or so Cyprian believed. Both needs had to be served, the integrity of the church and its role as a hospital for repentant sinners. Therefore, those who had fraudulently purchased a libellus, but who had not offered sacrifice, were guilty of denying Christ, but not to the same degree as those who had actually sacrificed and drunk a libation. After review on a case-by-case basis, the former could be restored to the church at once. Those who had sacrificed, however, must be demonstrably penitent, and must undertake a specific penance before being readmitted. Even then, reunion would be withheld until the time of death.

This was no easy route, and it was not meant to be. It reflected the seriousness with which Cyprian and his allies took apostasy, while simultaneously reflecting a Christlike mercy toward the lapsed who would not be stripped of all hope. Cyprian made it clear that penance was not to be lightly undertaken. “You must pray more eagerly,” he instructed. “You must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watching and weeping, occupy all your time in wailing and lamentations, lying stretched on the ground. You must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth. After losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing.”

He would not be fooled by empty displays of contrition, said Cyprian. “Do we believe that a man is lamenting with his whole heart, that he is entreating the Lord with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning, who from the first day of his sin daily frequents the bathing-places with women? Or who, feeding at rich banquets, and puffed out with fuller dainties, belches forth on the next day his indigestions, and does not dispense of this meat and drink to aid the necessity of the poor?”

Thus was the line drawn, and many were without doubt excluded. Those who found penance too difficult were left without reason for hope. Lapsed clergy, meanwhile, were permanently barred from the priesthood. Indeed, Cyprian warned, congregations that readmitted fallen priests became complicit in their sin. “Flee from the pestilential contact of these men,” he warned. This particular teaching met with wide approval among the faithful. The Italian bishops, meeting a few months later, agreed these guidelines were fair and just. Yet there were critics as well, some in very high places, and these now declared total war on Cyprian.

The attack came from both directions–those who considered his formula too severe, and those who considered it not severe enough. In Carthage, the fallen were already being readmitted by Cyprian’s critics. One of them was Privatus, the deposed bishop of Lambaesis, who organized a whole college of fallen bishops. His churches offered instant forgiveness without mention of penance at all.

The second line of attack developed in Rome and began soon after the martyred Fabian was replaced, in March 251, by Bishop Cornelius. The election of Cornelius was challenged by a presbyter named Novatian (not to be confused with Novatus, one of those opposing Cyprian at Carthage). Novatian not only rejected Cornelius but arranged to have himself appointed bishop of Rome by a group of supporters. So in Rome, there were now two rival bishops.

Cyprian saw the danger. The Roman state had not succeeded in destroying the church, but internal disunity just might. He reconvened his bishops, and declared Cornelius the duly chosen bishop of Rome. This alienated Novatian, who responded by attacking Cyprian’s policy with the lapsed. It was far too lenient, he said. Those who lapsed were not to be reconciled to the church even at the time of death, no matter how penitent they might now be. Only God could forgive them, should that be his will. Clemency was beyond the power of the earthly church. Then, in 252, Novatian took a further step. He consecrated a former presbyter named Maximus as the new bishop of Carthage, and dispatched him there to serve as a thorn in Cyprian’s side. While Maximus attacked Cyprian for his leniency, the Privatus group denounced him for being far too severe and meanwhile consecrated Fortunatus, one of Cyprian’s former presbyters, as bishop of Carthage. So where Rome had two rival bishops, Carthage now had three.

Chaos reigned, or so it seemed. But now, at least, Cyprian could see why he had been denied the tranquil Christian life he had once envisioned. The most devastating toll of the Decian persecution had been its disruptive effect on the church. God had endowed Cyprian with immense abilities. He possessed an unshakable assurance that he commanded the high ground. His energy was unflagging, and he could wage fierce intellectual warfare. All his rhetorical and literary powers he now trained on those he saw as the agents of disunity.

Novatus, one of those who had condemned him at Carthage for being too harsh, had by now traveled to Rome, where he joined Novatian in condemning Cyprian as not harsh enough, an inconsistency which drew a full salvo of Cyprianic invective: “Eager for novelties, raging with the rapacity of an insatiable avarice, inflated with the arrogance and stupidity of a haughty pride . . . a flatterer to deceive, never faithful to love, a torch and a fire to kindle the flames of sedition, a whirlwind and tempest to make shipwrecks of faith . . . a foe of peace.”

About Novatian, the would-be bishop of Rome, Cyprian wrote that he “has sundered the church and drawn some of the brethren into impiety and blasphemy, and has introduced impious teaching concerning God, and has calumniated our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful. And besides all this, he rejects the holy baptism, and overturns the faith and confession which precede it, and entirely banishes from them the Holy Ghost, if indeed there was any hope that he would remain or return to them.”

But bashing his critics wouldn’t heal the fractured church, and Cyprian knew it. A cohesive vision of the church must be advanced as well, and his essay on the ultimate unity of the church became an ageless testament to the church’s permanence, made remarkable by the fact it was written in the midst of fierce ecclesiastical strife.

“There is one church,” he wrote, “which outspreads itself into a multitude, wider and wider in ever increasing faithfulness; just as the sun has many rays but one only light, and a tree many branches yet only one heart, based in the clinging root; and while many rills flow off from a single fountainhead, although a multiplicity of waters is seen streaming away in diverse directions from the bounty of its abundant overflow, yet unity is preserved in the headspring. Pluck a ray away from the sun’s body! Unity admits no division of light. Break a bough off a tree! Once broken it will bud no more. Cut a rill off from the spring! The rill cut off dries up. So too the church, flooded with the light of the Lord, flings rays over the whole world. Yet it is one light which diffuses itself everywhere; the unity of the body knows no partition.”

Squarely in the midst of this internal church strife, the empire struck at the Christians again. In 253, the new emperor, Valerian, made it clear that fresh persecutions were to be expected. That same year, a new proconsul, Galerius, arrived in Carthage, giving rise to yet another wave of arrests, torture and executions, and another ecclesiastical struggle.

Cyprian immediately recognized the devastating effect a new round of persecution would have on the church, and convened a council of his bishops to revise their policies. The council feared, quite reasonably, that lapsed Christians, still outside the church but seeking readmission through penance, would fall away in great numbers in the face of renewed pressure. In what might be called an act of faithful pragmatism, he and his bishops declared that penitent sacrificers would be reunited with their beloved church immediately, instead of being forced to wait until the time of their death.

For many, however, the time of death was advancing hard upon them. Rome, turning to its task with typical vigor, slaughtered the humble and exalted alike. In June 253, Rome’s Bishop Cornelius was arrested and marched to prison. In an act of defiance, a huge number of his congregation walked with him to his cell. He lasted only a few weeks. His successor, Lucius, survived into the following year, and was succeeded by Bishop Stephen. The latter, by repudiating a long-standing practice in the African church, posed a new kind of threat to church unity, Cyprian was soon to find.

Cyprian’s issue with Rome’s Bishop Stephen was only obliquely related to the persecution. It had to do with the acceptance into the faith of those baptized by schismatic clergy, meaning those who had severed themselves, or been severed, from the main body of the Christian church. This, of course, would include people baptized by lapsed clergy. To Cyprian, there was no issue here. If a bishop or presbyter wasn’t part of the Christian community, then any baptisms he conducted were not valid. Bishop Stephen disagreed. He had, in fact, supported the reinstatement of two fallen Spanish bishops. But so far as Cyprian was concerned, the matter had long been settled. “We decided long ago . . . that the ancient practice against heretics should be maintained and held firm,” he wrote. “We have decided that all baptism administered outside the church must be rejected.”

Bishops who operated outside the church had absolutely no standing, he said, and their baptisms were at best meaningless rituals. “Who, moreover, is able to give what he himself does not possess?” he wrote to his allies in Numidia. “Or how can he who has lost the Holy Spirit perform spiritual functions? And therefore, he who comes untrained to the church must be baptized and renewed in order that he may be sanctified within by those who are holy, since it is written, ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy, said the Lord.’ Therefore, he who has been seduced into error and been discolored outside, ought to lay aside this very thing in the true baptism of the church–that he, a man coming to God, while he seeks for a bishop, fell by the deceit of error upon a profane one.”

In this issue, Cyprian found himself opposed by both of Rome’s bishops–Stephen, whom despite their disagreement Cyprian considered the legitimate one, and Novatian. Cyprian was characteristically dismissive of Novatian who, after all, had come to power by rejecting the duly chosen and now martyred Cornelius.

Stephen, like Cyprian not lacking in self-assurance, denounced Cyprian as a “false Christ.” Rebaptism, he argued, was not necessary. Anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit could be received into the church by a simple laying on of hands. Cyprian’s reply reads red hot: “An excellent and lawful tradition is indeed put forward by our brother Stephen’s teaching! He supplies us with a sufficient authority. . . . To this depth of evil has God’s church, Christ’s spouse, sunk, that she must follow the example of heretics; that light must borrow its order for celebrating the heavenly sacraments from darkness; and Christians must copy Antichrists.”2

Yet there was to be no meeting of the minds on this issue, as with many others that divided the church during this decade of upheaval. A third Council of Carthage, in 256, unanimously declared that heretics must be rebaptized, and so that policy remained. But the debate was cut short, at least from Stephen’s end, in August of 257, when Stephen died a martyr. Cyprian knew the circle was closing. He had just over a year to live himself.

Against this backdrop of ecclesiastical turmoil and mass persecution, the fuller picture of Cyprian is easily obscured. He was, at his heart, a pastor–a calling he came to delight in. Nothing seemed to please him more than the ordinary tasks he undertook as a shepherd of Christ. His dedication to the poor and afflicted was unstinting. He regularly implored his wealthier congregants for donations, with which he augmented a monthly tax for the relief of widows, orphans, and the destitute. When Christians were enslaved by rebel tribesmen in 253, he raised funds for their ransom and forwarded the collection to the church in Numidia. And when plague ravaged Africa, he mustered the faithful who, under his leadership, provided relief to Christians and non-Christians alike.

The devastation wrought by that plague in full fury is all but unimaginable in the developed world of the twenty-first century, although it would hardly surprise those living on the continent of Africa at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the population was being decimated by AIDS. One notorious third-century plague outbreak began in Egypt’s slums, sometime around 251. By some estimates, half the population of Alexandria fell. When the disaster struck Carthage, Cyprian’s biographer Pontius would later write, the horror “invaded every house of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also.”

Before considering Cyprian’s response, it should be remembered that there was no knowledge in the third century of the actual causes of disease; the discovery of germs was to come far in the future. The civil authorities took what steps they could–a demand for more sacrifices to the gods, and perhaps the minting of a new line of coins in honor of Apollo. These were unsuccessful strategies; the dead packed the streets and warehouses, while the survivors filled the days and nights with wailing.

Cyprian, seeing his duty in no uncertain terms, exhorted Christians to stand firm in the face of this rampaging pestilence. This scourge, he said, “examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether people truly love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake their beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardor of their raging avarice even by the fear of death.” As he knew better than most, God is most devoutly served in times of upheaval and uncertainty, and even death.

Indeed, dying for Christ became a constant theme in his writings, including a series of letters, probably written in the last year of his life, arguing for a uniform policy in Rome and Carthage on matters great and small. In one of these letters, he tells the story of a priest named in a will to be a tutor. The priest should demur, Cyprian argued, because clergy should not be distracted from their holy mission by secular business concerns. In another letter, a deacon’s sexual encounter with a virgin is discussed. Cyprian urged instant excommunication for the deacon, and reconciliation for the woman.

Death was very much on his mind, perhaps because he increasingly sensed that his initial hopes of living to old age were not in keeping with his Lord’s will. There was no need to fear it, however. He knew that the man or woman who dies for Christ achieves a glory beyond comprehension. The very presence of such martyrs, in fact, transforms places of persecution into holy altars, as he explained in a letter to prisoners in the Roman mines: “Oh, blessed prison which your presence has illuminated! Oh, blessed prison which sends men of God to heaven!” Those who see death in these places miss the point, for “let no one think of death, but of immortality, nor of punishment in time, but in glory everlasting.”

The time for Cyprian’s final showdown with the imperial authorities had come. In 257, Cyprian was summoned before the proconsul and warned that “conventions”–meetings–of any type were forbidden. This included the Christian practice of meeting in cemeteries. They were being instructed, in effect, to renounce their faith.

“Do what you are ordered,” Cyprian responded. “I am a Christian and a bishop; I know no other gods but the one true God.” He added, in an echo of Christ, that he recognized the prerequisites of temporal power. “We Christians render service to this God, and we pray for the safety of the emperors.”

He was shuttled off to an “assigned residence” at Curubis, some fifty miles away, until final arrangements could be made. The first night in Curubis, he again saw his future in a dream, one that has been preserved for the Christians of future ages to contemplate. According to the account of Peter Hinchliff, one of Cyprian’s biographers, “he saw himself led by a very tall young man into the Praetorium at Carthage. There he was made to appear before the judgment tribunal. The proconsul’s court was in session. In the frustrating and terrifying way that dreams have, there was no sound, only action.

“The proconsul wrote on his wax tablet, as though formally recording a sentence. He has asked no questions, indicated no charge, established no guilt. . . . But the young man had placed himself behind the proconsul’s back and was, therefore, in a position to see what was written. With a slicing gesture of his hand he signaled to Cyprian. The mimed sword stroke indicated that it was a sentence of death.”

Was Cyprian again filled with foreboding? The man who had been ridiculed for fleeing Carthage earlier now expressed no fear for his fate. He certainly knew he was hardly the only marked man in this most dangerous neighborhood. The Romans had already sent a ghastly notification of what was coming to every Christian in North Africa. A roundup of Christians had been made at Utica, twenty-five miles from Carthage. The Christians, said to be about three hundred in number, were lined up around an industrial lime kiln that had been set afire. Nearby, a supply of incense was placed for them. “Choose whether you will offer incense to Jupiter or be thrown into the lime,” they were told. In response, says the Christian record, all three hundred turned to the governor, confessed that Christ was the Son of God “and with one swift impulse hurled themselves into the fire.”3

Now it was Cyprian’s turn. On the thirteenth of September, 258, he was summoned to the home of the proconsul, Galerius, just outside Carthage. There was a formality to be disposed with. Christians and non-Christians assembled to watch the trial of a beloved bishop.

“The most sacred emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites,” said Galerius.

“I refuse.”

“Take heed for yourself,” Cyprian was advised.

“Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed.”

Galerius is reported to have been uncomfortable with the task his emperor had set before him. He, too, was a pawn in a much larger drama, and his health was so poor that he died just a few days later. With apparent reluctance, he said Cyprian had lived an “irreligious life” that was an affront to both the “gods and the religion of Rome,” as well as its pious emperors. “You shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly enlisted; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood. It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.”

“Thanks be to God,” he replied.

The crowd cried out and appeared to be attempting a rescue, which caused the guards to enclose Cyprian among them and move him to the place of execution, where he would be held overnight.

And so Cyprian’s final hours had arrived. There seems little doubt that he had fully prepared himself. A passage from his Exhortation to Martyrdom is especially telling: “The brave and steadfast mind, founded upon religious meditation, stands firm and, against all the terrors of the devil and the threats of the world, the spirit persists unmoved, strengthened by a sure and solid faith in what will be. In persecutions, the earth is shut up but heaven is opened.”

The next day, September 14, 258, Cyprian was marched to the place of execution. He wore a simple homespun coat. Witnesses say that the man himself was radiant, his demeanor providing for those who looked on an example of Christian courage. His executioner, arriving late, appeared unwilling to carry out the order to kill this great man. Cyprian, as was his habit, took mercy, ordering his followers to give the headsman twenty-five gold pieces. He then knelt in the dirt and bound his own eyes.

The crowd drew close, tossing their cloaks beneath their beloved bishop to catch his precious blood. He did not offer a last statement, but showed impatience at the executioner’s slowness. A centurion standing by grabbed a sword and beheaded the bishop. As the final deed was done, some present may have recalled another passage from Cyprian’s pen: “What an honor . . . to shut one’s eyes for a moment, with which men and the world are seen, and to open them once to see God and Christ.”

Cyprian’s holy rat race had ended. The disputes that roiled his administration would continue for another two hundred years. His writings, however, remained popular throughout antiquity. His rivals could not always claim as much. Novatianists, increasingly marginalized, were held to be heretics until the time of Constantine, whose edict in 321 offered toleration and gave them the right to own buildings and burial places. In 439, their fortunes were reversed when Celestine, bishop of Rome, took away their buildings. However, the Novatian Church survived into the seventh century.

Cyprian’s basic insight–that the church must both maintain the high calling of Christ, “Be ye perfect” (Matt. 5:48), while also accommodating the penitent fallen–would remain for the centuries to come the paradoxical double task of Christians. He left also the example of his own experience. Don’t presume to know what God has in mind for you. There may be major surprises.

This is the end of the Cyprian category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 35, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Cyprian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at