Apostolic Tradition

This article is about the third century Christian text. For the deposit of faith on which some churches' dogma is based, see Sacred Tradition.

The Apostolic Tradition (or Egyptian Church Order) is an early Christian treatise which belongs to genre of the Church Orders. It has been described as of "incomparable importance as a source of information about church life and liturgy in the third century".[1]

Re-discovered in the 19th century, it was given the name of Egyptian Church Order. In the first half of 20th century this text was commonly identified with the lost Apostolic Tradition presumed by Hippolytus of Rome. Due to this attribution, and the apparent early date of the text, this manual played a crucial role in the liturgical reforms of main mainstream Christian bodies. The attribution of this text to Hippolytus has since become a subject of continued debate in recent scholarship.[2][3]

If the Apostolic Tradition is the work of Hippolytus of Rome, it could be dated before AD 235 (when Hippolytus is believed to have been suffered martyrdom) and its origin would be Rome; and this date has been defended in recent scholarship by Brent and Stewart.[3][4] Against this, other scholars (see Bradshaw[2]) believe that the key liturgical sections incorporate material of separate sources, some Roman and some not, ranging from the middle second to the fourth century,[5] being gathered and compiled on about AD 375-400, probably in Egypt or even Syria. Against this, other scholars have suggested that the Apostolic Tradition portrays a liturgy that was never celebrated.[6]

Manuscripts and Sources

The original Greek text of the Apostolic Tradition has survived only in fragments; but the full Greek text circulated widely in the Eastern churches from the 4th century onwards, and is consequently found in translation in three ancient collections of the Church Orders, the Alexandrine Sinodos, the Aksumite Collection and the Verona Palimpsest. The Alexandrine Sinodos was re-discovered in the 19th century: a Bohairic Coptic version was published in 1848 by Tattam, the earlier Sahidic Coptic version was published in 1883 by Paul de Lagarde, the Ethiopic and Arabic versions in 1904 by George William Horner. The text found in the Sahidic version was named by the publishers Egyptian Church Order and corresponds to what is now usually known as Apostolic Tradition.

The text was also found in the late 5th century Latin manuscript known as Verona Palimpsest, where it is the third item in the collection. This version was published in 1900 by Edmund Hauler, but only just over half of the Apostolic Tradition section was preserved.

A much earlier Ethiopic version translated directly from the Greek around the late 5th century, was discovered in Ethiopia in 2002 in a 13th century manuscript; amongst the works in a compendium of synodical materials: known as the 'Aksumite Collection'. This version survives complete, albeit that it adds selected further material (taken from the Didache and Didascalia) before the concluding chapter 43.[7]

Chapter 36[8] of the probable Greek original text was identified in 1975[9] as one item in a florilegium of patristic fragments. In 1964, the Greek text of the prayer over the oils in Chapter 5 was recognised in an eleventh or twelfth century manuscript liturgy for the anointing of the sick, preserved in the monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai.

The surviving Bohairic and Arabic versions are translations of the Sahidic, which was itself translated from a Greek manuscript around the 9th century. The later Ethiopic version is a translation of a different, and more complete, medieval Arabic version; although even before the discovery of the Aksumite Collection manuscript, it was apparent that the later Ethiopic text had been corrected in places with reference to an independent witness to the Greek. For sections witnessed in both texts, the Latin and Aksumite Ethiopic versions (which are both strictly literal) translate closely similar Greek undertexts of 4th century date; while the base text Greek for the Sahidic version is substantially revised and later. The Aksumite Ethiopic and Latin versions differ, however, in their concluding sections. In the Latin version a concluding chapter, and part of a previous chapter on occasions for private prayer are then found repeated in a modified and expanded form in a second ending of the text; and a similar duplication is also, partly, witnessed in the Sahidic version. For the Greek text underlying the Aksumite Ethiopic version there is only one ending, which corresponds to the second conclusion of the Latin, without any preceding duplication. Otherwise however, the Greek text underlying the Aksumite Ethiopic appears to have been marginally better than the text underlying the Latin version; but, of course, the much later date of the one surviving manuscript witness to the Aksumite Ethiopic implies a higher risk of accumulated copying errors of transmission.

Derived Works

The Apostolic Tradition is amongst the earliest Church Orders to achieve widespread acceptance and circulation; and consequently many subsequent Church Orders, especially in the East, are expansions or adaptations of it. Hence, where the text in the versions may be unclear, missing or widely variant, it is sometimes possible to discern the most likely reading of the original Greek from consideration of counterpart passages one or more of these works. The main derived works are:

Editions and publications

Producing a critical edition of a work that survives in several versions, of which none are in the original language, is highly problematic. Clearly the edition has to be a translation; but which language should be used as the common version? And should the editor try to recover something close to the 'original' text; or rather to produce the best text for one or another of the surviving versions?

The first comprehensive critical editions were those of Gregory Dix in 1937,[10] and then in 1946 by B. Botte.[11] Dix and Botte both attempted to recover an 'original' text of the 3rd century; but translated into English and French respectively. Since then, G Cuming prepared a student edition in English in 1976; taking the rather different approach of seeking to translate one of the versions; while Paul Bradshaw et al. have prepared a commentary in 2002 which all versions are translated in synoptic columns, with no attempt to establish a primary text. Indeed Bradshaw maintains that, as 'living literature' the Apostolic Tradition cannot be regarded as ever having had a single primary text.

The more conservative approach of Dix and Botte has more recently been represented in the translation by Alistair Stewart. For the first edition in 2001, Stewart selected eclectically for each chapter, the version that looked to have the best text; and then translated that, with correction from the others. This approach has been criticised as implying a 'standard' text, when there was then no evidence that such a normative text had ever existed. The discovery of the Aksumite Ethuiopic version - especially in respect of its close relationship with the Lative version in those sections where both are witnessed - is claimed by Stewart as demonstrating (at least for the 4th century) that at one time a 'standard' complete text did indeed circulate, however much this may have been adjusted and reordered in later versions and derived works. Stewart's second edition of 2015 mainly takes the Latin version as its base text; and translates the Aksumite Ethiopic for the most part for those chapters not witnessed in the Latin.

Date and place of composition

The context for the Church Order represented in the Apostolic Tradition is one where Christians face official persecution, are regularly imprisoned for their faith and occasionally face martyrdom. All Christian worship takes place within private houses. Prospective new converts are assumed to be all adults, and are to be questioned initially by a 'teacher' in private before being introduced to the Christian congregation (certain categories of trades and professions being prohibited admission); but baptism is also extended to children and infants in newcoming families. Regular worship includes not only a weekly eucharist, but also a shared fellowship meal, or Agape feast. Ecstatic prophecy is occasionally encountered in worship. All of these observations confirm a date in the 3rd century or earlier.

The wide range of forbidden trades specified (as for example, charioteers), confirm a place of composition in one of the two major urban centres of the Roman Empire, Rome itself,or Alexandria. Particular provisions in the Church Order relate to local practices which identify this place as Rome; specifically that the dead are buried in underground catacombs sealed into shelves with tiles; and also the stipulation that, in the regular Sunday eucharist, portions of the bread consecrated by the bishop are to be broken off by deacons and carried by them to presbyters in other churches in the city, wrapped in napkins.

Recent scholarship has called into question the degree to which the liturgical texts witnessed in the Apostolic Tradition may be taken as representing the regular forms of worship in Rome in the 3rd century. Some of these scholars propose that, over the centuries, later and non-Roman liturgical forms have accumulated within an older, and substantially Roman, Church Order.


None of the manuscript versions carry a title, and so there is no direct evidence as to how the 'Apostolic Tradition' was originally known. The quotation of chapter 36 in the Ochrid fragment is labelled, Diataxis (Ordinances) of the Holy Apostles: Given through Hippolytus; and this has been plausibly suggested as the probable title under which the whole text of the Apostolic Tradition circulated in Syria.[12] The Epitome of the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions refers to Regulations of the Holy Apostles concerning ordination through Hippolytus, which could be an expansion on the same title.

The commonly used title; 'Apostolic Tradition' depends on identifying this work with an item on a list inscribed on a statue - once thought to be of Hippolytus - now in the Vatican Library. Aside from the statue certainly not depicting Hippolytus (as it was originally female), there is no clear evidence for the inscribed list as being proposed to comprise Hippolytus's works. Alistair Stewart points out that 'Apostolic Tradition' denotes a genre rather than a particular work; as all Church Orders aspire to convey Apostolic Tradition. He also points out that the title on the statue ought properly to be read over two lines; which could then be rendered as On Spiritual Gifts; the Apostolic Tradition. This could indeed well be the title of this work, as the first sentence of the current first chapter states "Those things then, concerning spiritual gifts which are worthy of note, we have set forth." On the face of it, this would imply an earlier, lost, section, setting out how God creates spiritual gifts within individual believers, as a prelude to the surviving initial discussion of rites of appointment and ordination.

Attribution to Hippolytus

Roman sculpture, maybe of Hippolytus of Rome, found in 1551 and used for the attribution of the Apostolic Tradition

The section of the Alexandrine Sinodos, rediscovered in the 19th century, which was given the name of Egyptian Church Order, was identified with the lost Apostolic Tradition presumed by Hippolytus of Rome by Edward von der Goltz in 1906[13] and later by Eduard Schwartz in 1910[14] and by R.H. Connolly in 1916.[15] This attribution was unanimously accepted by the scholars of that period, and became well-recognized by the works of Gregory Dix, in particular his famous The Shape of the Liturgy 1945. The attribution to Hippolytus was based on following data:[16]

The attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to Hippolytus of Rome have been recently under heavy attack.[17] Thus according to recent scholars the Apostolic Tradition is, or a work written by another priest named Hippolytus but lived probably in Alexandria,[18] or it contains material of separate sources ranging from the middle second to the fourth century.[5] The reasons given to support this understanding are the following:


The Apostolic Tradition, as the other Church Orders, has the aim to offer authoritative "apostolic" prescriptions on matters of moral conduct, liturgy and Church organization. It can be divided in a prologue (chapter 1) and three main sections. The chapter numbers and order are those of Botte.

The first section, chapters 2 to 14, deals with the rituals of the organization of the Church, and it follows a hierarchical order starting from the bishops up to the lower levels of the structure. The content can be so summarized:

The second section, chapters 15 to 21, is about the catechumenate and the baptism;

The last section, chapters 22 to 43, is a compilation of rules about the community, listed without a clear order:


The text of the Apostolic Tradition was part of three main ancient collections of the Church Orders, the Alexandrine Sinodos, the Aksumite Collection and the Verona Palimpsest. Being included in the Alexandrine Sinodos, it was held to be authoritative in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia, where it was copied and re-edited.

The Apostolic Tradition was also used as basis for great part of the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions, which had a great diffusion in antiquity. Also the ancient Canons of Hippolytus, Testamentum Domini and Epitome of the eighth Book of the Apostolic Constitutions derive from it.

The text of the Apostolic Tradition, believed to be authentically a work describing the early 3rd century Roman liturgy, has been widely influential on liturgical scholarship in the twentieth century and it was one of the pillars of the liturgical movement. The anaphora included in chapter four was extensively used in preparing reforms for the Book of Common Prayer and the United Methodist Liturgies found in the current United Methodist Hymnal. This anaphora is also the inspiration for the Eucharistic Prayer n. II of the Catholic Mass of Paul VI.[21]

The Roman Catholic prayer of ordination of bishops, renewed after the Second Vatican Council, has been re-written and based on the one included in the Apostolic Tradition.


  1. Cuming, Goffrey J. (1976). Hippolitus A Text For Students. Grove Books. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-905422-02-2.
  2. 1 2 Bradshaw, Paul F. (2002). The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. Oxford University Press. pp. 78–80. ISBN 978-0-19-521732-2.
  3. 1 2 Stewart, Alistair. C. (2015). On the Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus; An English version with introduction and commentary: 2nd edition. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. pp. 28–38. ISBN 978-088141-520-9.
  4. Brent, Allen (1995). Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century. Brill. p. 412.
  5. 1 2 Bradshaw, Paul; Johnson, Maxwell E.; Philips, L. Edwards (2002). The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-6046-8.
  6. Johnson, Lawrence J. (2009). Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources. Vol 1. Liturgical Press. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-8146-6197-0.
  7. Bausi, Allessandro (2012). 'La nuova versione etiopica della Traditio Apostolica' in Buzi and Camplani eds. 'Christianity in Egypt: Literary production and intellectual trends. Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum. pp. 19–69.
  8. cod. Ochrid 86 f. 192 of National Museum of Ochrid, and gr. 900 f. 112 of National Museum of Paris
  9. M. Richard, Opera minora, I, Leuven-Tournhout 1976, pages 52-53
  10. Gregory Dix The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome London 1937, reprinted with correction by Alban Press, 1995 ISBN 978-0-7007-0232-9
  11. B. Botte, La Tradition Apostolique de S. Hippolyte, SChr 11, Paris 1946
  12. Peretto, Elio (1996). Tradizione Apostolica. p. 27. ISBN 88-311-3133-8.
  13. Edward von der Goltz, Unbekannte Fragmente altchristicher Gemeindeordnungen in Sitzungsberichte der Preussichen Akademie der Wissenschaten 1906 pp 141-57
  14. Eduard Schawartz, Uber dei pseudoapostolischen Kinrchenordnungen Trubner, Strasbourg 1910
  15. Richard H. Connolly, The so-called Egyptian Church Oder and derived Documents Cambridge 1916
  16. Bradshaw, Paul F. (2009). Reconstructing early Christian worship. SPCK. pp. 47–51. ISBN 978-0-281-06094-8.
  17. 1 2 Ashbrook Harvey, Susan; Hunter, David G. (2008). The Oxford handbook of early Christian studies. Oxford University Press. p. 430. ISBN 978-0-19-927156-6.
  18. J.M. Hanssens, La liturgie d'Hippolyte. Ses documents, son titulaire, ses origines et son caractere, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 155, Roma 1965
  19. Margherita Guarducci, in Ricerche su Ippolito, Volume 13 of Studia ephemeridis "Augustinianum", Institutum patristicum Augustinianum, Roma 1977, pag 17-30
  20. J. Magne, Tradition apostolique sur les charismes et Diataxeis des saints Apostoles, Paris 1975
  21. Father Cassian Folsom, O.S.B. (1996). "From One Eucharistic Prayer to Many". Adoremus Bulletin Vol. II, Nos. 4 - 6 : September - November 1996. Archived from the original on 17 September 2010. Retrieved 28 August 2010.

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