Re-posted from November 19, 2005.
Caecilius Cyprianus qui et Thascius, known to us as Cyprian of Carthage, was born in the City of Carthage, in Roman North Africa, around 200 A.D. He was born into a family of the Roman elite, with a privileged education, property and a voice in government.
Third century Carthage was one of the world’s greatest cities of its day, along with Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. However, it was a time of urban revolt, famine, earthquake and plague. Despite social decay and religious persecution, the Church grew, with more than 85 bishops in Africa by the 256.
By midlife, Cyprian had gained renown for his oratorical skills as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric, highly prized skills. He was dedicated to his work and took pride in his ethics. He had never married.
In 246, he met an aging Christian, who became his friend and guided him to Christianity. Cyprian became a man devoted to the Scriptures as God’s own Word. His favorite writer was his fellow African, Tertullian, and he read daily from Tertullian’s work. Cyprian would say, “Give me my master,” asking for Tertullian’s writings to be brought to him for study.
Only two or three years after he became a Christian, Cyprian was pressured by popular demand to become the Bishop of Carthage. The lay people wanted a bishop who was eloquent and prominent in society, with good leadership skills. He was not at once accepted by some clergy, but took to the task and dedicated himself fully to the Church.
In late 249, less than a year after Cyprian became a bishop, the new emperor Decius issued an order that the entire empire was to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Christians may have been particularly targeted for their belief that Christianity was the exclusive way to salvation. The emperor’s order was issued to the entire population – men and women, adults and children, citizens and non-citizens. Fabian, the bishop of Rome, was martyred in January 250. In Carthage, the order was effective in April, 250, enforced at first by exile and later by torture in prison to those who would not comply. Cyprian went into exile and continued to lead his diocese from afar.
Christians in Carthage responded variously to the orders, but a majority failed. Many bribed their way out of the sacrifices, purchasing certificates that said they had sacrificed when they had not done so. Others fled to Rome or other cities where they were lost in the crowd. Some, including the “confessors” who received Cyprian’s letter quoted here, refused to sacrifice. His letter was read in dark, crowded cells with no cooling system, filled with men and women who died from hunger and thirst.
The persecution ended in the spring of 251, and Cyprian returned to Carthage. He then faced opposition from “laxists,” who welcomed the Christians who had sacrificed. He later faced opposition from “rigorists,” who believed that the Church could not forgive idolatry committed after baptism. Cyprian was confronted by rival laxist and rigorist bishops, each claiming to be the true bishop of Carthage. Cyprian supported Pope Cornelius, in opposition to the anti-pope Novation.
In response, Cyprian worked to bring together councils of bishops to make decisions affecting the whole church. They established standards of repentance and forgiveness, defining the Church’s boundaries. He envisioned the “Church” as the local gatherings of Christians whose bishop brought them into unity with other such gatherings under other bishops. Unity of practice among them was not necessary. However, he believed that Christian communities should not be independent of each other. He wanted all Christians to coordinate with the whole college of bishops in making decisions together in important disputed matters.
This pragmatic solution to disunity worked for Cyprian for just a few short years. In 257, the Valerian persecution broke out, and Cyprian was expelled from Carthage. One year later, he made his formal confession as a Christian before the Roman authorities. He was executed for his faith on September 14, 258.
For the next 140 years, the Church developed Cyprian’s ideas. North African Christians became greater admirers of Cyprian than Cyprian had been of his master Tertullian. One and one-half centuries after Cyprian’s death, St. Augustine of Hippo built from Cyprian’s foundation much of the framework of western Christian theology that would carry the western Church through the middle ages and into the present day.