Hypsistarians, i.e. worshippers of the Hypsistos (Greek: Ὕψιστος, the "Most High" God), is a term appearing in documents dated about 200 BC to about AD 400, referring to various groups mostly in Asia Minor (Cappadocia, Bithynia and Pontus) and on the South Russian coasts of what is today known as the Black Sea.
The names Hypsianistai, Hypsianoi first occur in Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat., xviii, 5) and the name Hypsistianoi in Gregory of Nyssa (Contra Eunom., II), i. e. about A. D. 374, but a great number of votive tablets, inscriptions and oracles of Didymos and Klaros establish beyond doubt that the cult of the Hypsistos (Hypsistos, with the addition of Theos 'god' or Zeus or Attis, but frequently without addition) as the sole God was widespread in the countries adjacent to the Bosphorus (cf. Acts 16:17, "these men are servants of the most high God" — oracle of the pythonissa at Philippi).
Contemporary Hellenistic use of ὕψιστος (hýpsistos) as a religious term appears to be derived from and compatible with the term as it had much earlier appeared in the Septuagint. (Greek ύψίστος translating Hebrew elyon עליון English "highest".)
In the Septuagint the word "hypsisto-" is used more than fifty times as a title for Yahweh (the Tetragrammaton) or in direct relation to him (most often in the Psalms, Daniel, and Sirach; Strong's #5310).
Thus an interpretation of "Hypsisto" and derivative terms that it defines a particular group is not supported by its already common use as a generic term in Septuagint Greek. Unless shown otherwise, all usages should be assumed to be the established common usage of the term. Many different groups speaking Greek used common Greek terms for God. Use of common terms only shows a common language. Using those common terms, it is speculative to interpret particular unions or mergers.
It seems probable that the native Cappadocian cult of Zeus Sabazios was deliberately merged in the cult of Jahve Sabaoth practised by the numerous and intellectually predominant Jewish colonies, and that associations (sodalicia, thiasoi) of strict monotheists were formed, who fraternized with the Jews, but considered themselves free from the Mosaic Law. The importance and exalted ideas of these associations can be gathered from the fact that when someone asked Apollo of Klaros whether the Hypsistos alone was without beginning and end, he answered: "He is the Lord of all, self-originated, self-produced, ruling all things in some ineffable way, encompassing the heavens, spreading out the earth, riding on the waves of the sea; mixing fire with water, soil with air and earth with fire; of winter, summer, autumn and spring, causing the changes in their season, leading all things towards the light and settling their fate in harmonious order."
The existence of these Hypsistarians must have been partially responsible for the astounding swiftness of the spread of Christianity in Asia Minor; yet not all of them accepted the new faith, and small communities of monotheists, neither Christians nor Jews, continued to exist, especially in Cappadocia. The father of Gregory of Nazianzus belonged to such a sect in his youth, and they are described in his panegyric written by his son. They rejected idols and non-Abrahamic sacrifices, and acknowledged the Creator (pantokrator) and the Most High, to whom however, in opposition to the Christians, they refused the title of "Father"; they had some customs in common with the Jews, the keeping of the Sabbath, the distinctions of food, but they rejected circumcision.
Persius may have had Hypsistarians in view when he ridiculed such hybrid religionists in Satire v, 179–84, and Tertullian seems to refer to them in "Ad nationes", I, xiii. The statement that Hypsistarians continued to exist till the ninth century, is based on a mistaken interpretation of Nicephorus Const., "Antirhet. adv. Const. Copr.", I, in Migne, PG, col. 209. Hypsistarians are probably referred to under the name Coelicoloe in a decree of the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius II (AD 408), in which their places of worship are transferred to the Catholics.
Mention by Goethe
After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments that
- ...I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honour the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and inasmuch as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one's individuality, come to know what is most excellent?
- "Hypsistarians". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Boerner, Peter (1981), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1832/1982: A Biographical Essay, Bonn: Inter Nationes.
- Davila, James R, The provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or other?, p. 29.
- Athanassiadi, Polymnia; Frede, Michael (2010), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, p. 19.
- von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1981) [22 March 1831], "To Sulpiz Boisserée", in Boerner, Peter, 1832/1982: A Biographical Essay (letter), Bonn: Inter Nations, p. 82.