Apostolic Tradition

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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 unanimously identified with the lost Apostolic Tradition presumed by Hippolytus of Rome. Due to this attribution, this manual played a crucial role in the liturgical reforms of main mainstream Christian bodies. Recent scholarship has highly contested this attribution.[2]

If the Apostolic Tradition was work of Hippolytus, it could be dated about AD 215 and its origin would be Rome. On the contrary recent scholars (see Bradshaw[2]) believe that it contains material of separate sources ranging from the middle second to the fourth century,[3] being gathered and compiled on about AD 375-400, probably in Egypt or even to Syria. Some scholars also suggest that the Apostolic Tradition portrays a liturgy that was never celebrated.[4]

Manuscript Tradition[edit]

The text of the Apostolic Tradition was part of two main ancient collections of the Church Orders, the Alexandrine Sinodos and the Verona Palimpsest. The Alexandrine Sinodos was re-discovered in the 19th century: the Bohairic Coptic version was published in 1848 by Tattam, the Sahidic Coptic version was published in 1883 by Paul de Lagarde, the Ge'ez and Arabic versions in 1904 by George William Horner. The second text found in these version was named by the publishers Egyptian Church Order and corresponds to what is now usually known as Apostolic Tradition.

The text was also part of the Latin collection known as Verona Palimpsest, where it takes the third position. This version was published in 1900 by Edmund Hauler but only half of the text was preserved.

A critical edition was produced by Gregory Dix in 1937,[5] and in 1946 by B. Botte[6]

Fragments[7] which contain chapter 36 of the probable Greek original text were found by M. Richard in 1975[8] One of this fragments includes the probable original title of the text, Diataxis (Ordinances) of the Holy Apostles.[9]

Attribution to Hippolytus[edit]

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[10] and later by Eduard Schwartz in 1910[11] and by R.H. Connolly in 1916.[12] 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:[13]

  • in 1551 Pirro Ligorio found an ancient Roman marble statue of a seated figure near Campo Verano in Rome and moved it to the Vatican Library where it still is. On one side of the seat was carved in Greek a paschal cycle, which remembered the one attributed to Hyppolitus, and on the other side the titles of numerous writings, some of them by Hippolytus, and one named "On the charismata - Apostolic Tradition". This brought the scholars to presume the existence of a writing named Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus. Recent research on this statue arrives at a different conclusion.
  • the name Hippolytus is present in later Ancient Church Orders clearly derived by the text of the Apostolic Tradition, the Canons of Hippolytus and The Constitutions through Hippolytus.
  • the term "Apostolic Tradition" itself is found in both the first and last page of the text.

The attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to Hippolytus of Rome have been recently under heavy attack.[14] Thus according to recent scholars the Apostolic Tradition is, or a work written by an other priest named Hippolytus but lived probably in Alexandria,[15] or it contains material of separate sources ranging from the middle second to the fourth century.[3] The reasons given to support this understanding are the following:

  • the statue found in 1551 was without head, and the present bearded head was added later by Ligorio himself. The statue was very probably carved as a copy of a famous statue of Themista of Lampsacus, a woman. The list of engraved titles includes many works which aren’t by Hippolytus, while it lacks most of the works surely ascribable to him. This sculpture was probably placed in the ancient library of the Pantheon personifying one of the sciences and the engraved list could be the catalog of volumes kept nearby, a common use in Ancient Rome;[16]
  • the title engraved on the statue refers to also to charismata, but the Apostolic Tradition doesn’t deal with this argument;
  • the name “Hippolytus” is found in transmission of the Church Orders only about one century and half after his death;[14]
  • the reference to Hippolytus and to a tradition coming from the Apostles in later Church Orders can be easily explained with the high level of pseudepigraphy typical of this genre;
  • the probable original title of this treatise was discovered in 1975 on a Greek fragment and it is not the one engraved in the statue's basement;[17]
  • the form of liturgy it describes are quite different from the other information we have about the Christian uses in ancient Rome and are by far more in line with the forms of Church life in Alexandria or in Syria.


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 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:

  • chapter 15: the first step in the catechumenate: the questions about marriage status and whether they are slave or free;
  • chapter 16: the questions about occupation and moral conduct. Some works are not considered compatible with the Christian life: these works include a manager of prostitutes, the sculptor or painter of idols, actors in the theater, teacher of "worldly knowledge" children (unless needed as the primary occupation), and a charioteer or gladiator in the gladiator competitions. Restrictions on military action are enumerated.
  • chapter 17: the length of the preliminary instruction, about three years;
  • chapters 18 and 19: the ritual at the end of the preliminary instruction;
  • chapter 20: the final examination and the preparation in the days before the baptism;
  • chapter 21: the detailed description of the baptismal liturgy.

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

  • chapter 22: about the distribution of the Communion;
  • chapter 23: about fasting;
  • chapter 24: about the distribution of the Communion to sick persons;
  • chapters 25 and 26: description of a liturgical dinner;
  • chapters 27 to 30: more prescriptions about the liturgical dinner;
  • chapters 31 and 32: about the offering to the bishop of the first-fruits;
  • chapter 33: about fasting at Easter;
  • chapter 34: the deacons shall stay near the bishop;
  • chapter 35: the prayer in the morning before beginning work;
  • chapters 36 to 38: about eating and keeping the Eucharist;
  • chapter 39: everyday meetings of presbyters and deacons;
  • chapter 40: about the burial places;
  • chapter 41: about daily prayer of all the believers;
  • chapter 42: about the Sign of the Cross;
  • chapter 43: conclusion.


The text of the Apostolic Tradition was part of two main ancient collections of the Church Orders, the Alexandrine Sinodos 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.[18]

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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Bradshaw, Paul; Johnson, Maxwell E.; Philips, L. Edwards (2002). The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-6046-8. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ B. Botte, La Tradition Apostolique de S. Hippolyte, SChr 11, Paris 1946
  7. ^ cod. Ochrid 86 f. 192 of National Museum of Ochrid, and gr. 900 f. 112 of National Museum of Paris
  8. ^ M. Richard, Opera minora, I, Leuven-Tournhout 1976, pages 52-53
  9. ^ Peretto, Elio (1996). Tradizione Apostolica. p. 27. ISBN 88-311-3133-8. 
  10. ^ Edward von der Goltz, Unbekannte Fragmente altchristicher Gemeindeordnungen in Sitzungsberichte der Preussichen Akademie der Wissenschaten 1906 pp 141-57
  11. ^ Eduard Schawartz, Uber dei pseudoapostolischen Kinrchenordnungen Trubner, Strasbourg 1910
  12. ^ Richard H. Connolly, The so-called Egyptian Church Oder and derived Documents Cambridge 1916
  13. ^ Bradshaw, Paul F. (2009). Reconstructing early Christian worship. SPCK. pp. 47–51. ISBN 978-0-281-06094-8. 
  14. ^ a b 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. 
  15. ^ J.M. Hanssens, La liturgie d'Hippolyte. Ses documents, son titulaire, ses origines et son caractere, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 155, Roma 1965
  16. ^ Margherita Guarducci, in Ricerche su Ippolito, Volume 13 of Studia ephemeridis "Augustinianum", Institutum patristicum Augustinianum, Roma 1977, pag 17-30
  17. ^ J. Magne, Tradition apostolique sur les charismes et Diataxeis des saints Apostoles, Paris 1975
  18. ^ 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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