I am a Christian and cannot sacrifice to the gods. I heartily thank Almighty God who is pleased to set me free from the chains of this body." With these bold words, spoken in front of hundreds of onlookers, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage faced death under Emperor Valerian. Many of the pagans standing by were deeply moved.
Cyprian was well-known to them. As Bishop of Carthage, he was an eminent figure in North Africa. But even before becoming a church leader he had been a notable man.
Born into wealth around 200, Cyprian inherited a large estate. He trained in rhetoric. Curiously it was this training which brought him to Christ. Genuinely gifted as a speaker, he opened his own school. As part of the course, he debated philosophers and Christians. Convinced by the arguments of a Christian elder, he became a convert when he was about 45 years old. "A second birth created me a new man by means of the Spirit breathed from heaven," he wrote. Immediately he applied for admission to the church. With zeal, he gave away his wealth and devoted himself to poverty, celibacy, and Bible studies.
In those days it was popular for Christians to receive baptism at Easter. This has led scholars to argue that Cyprian received baptism on this day, April 18, 246, the Eve of Easter.
Upon the death of Bishop Donatus in 248, less than two years after Cyprian's conversion, and over his protests, the people elected him Bishop of Carthage. Pontius, one of his clergy, wrote an admiring biography telling how Cyprian handled himself. His countenance was joyous, he wrote, and he was a man to be both revered and loved.
But well might Cyprian protest his election! His task was never easy. Many older men felt slighted by his swift ascendancy and envied him his office. Among the clergy were others who neglected their duties. Cyprian disciplined them, and this increased resentment against him. In 250, a persecution by Emperor Decian broke out. The pagans shouted, "Cyprian to the lions!" But the bishop escaped into hiding. His presence in Carthage would intensify persecution, he explained. Writing letters, he tried to hold the church together in his absence. This was not easy, for the Christians who stayed and endured suffering looked down on Cyprian. In 251 Gallus became emperor and Cyprian returned to his church.
Those who had stood firm under suffering called themselves "the confessors." They gained great prestige from this. Others had renounced their faith. These were called the "lapsed." The church split over how to allow the lapsed back in. Cyprian's disagreement with the Bishop of Rome over the issue of the lapsed caused him to write an influential book, Unity of the Church. In it he argued that the church is not the community of those who are already saved. Instead, it is an ark of salvation for all men, a school for sinners. Today many Protestants accept this teaching but refuse to accept Cyprian's other claim that the bishops of the church, as the heirs of the apostles, are the agents through whom God dispenses grace. "He who has not the church for his mother, has not God for his Father," Cyprian wrote. His view is also opposed to that which makes the pope pre-eminent. Protestants argue that where two or three are gathered in Christ's name, Christ is with them and quote Peter to show that every Christian is a priest (1 Peter 2:9).
When a fearsome plague erupted in Carthage in 252-254, the pagans abandoned the sick in the streets. People rushed about in terror. Cyprian told his Christians to care for the sick, including dying pagans. The people obeyed, despite the fact the pagans blamed them for the disease and persecuted them. Soon afterward, Bishop Cyprian was brought before the pro-consul Aspasius Paternus. Aspasius banished him to a town by the sea. When Aspasius died, Cyprian returned to Carthage. He was seized by the new governor and condemned to death. At the place of execution, he knelt in prayer and tied the bandage over his eyes with his own hand. To the executioner he gave a piece of gold. Thus he was beheaded on September 14, 258, retaining his bold confession to the end.
- Adapted from Christian History Institute's Glimpses #162.
- Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
- Ante-Nicene fathers: translations of the writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American reprint of the Edinburgh edition. Revised and chronologically arranged, with brief prefaces and occasional notes, by A. Cleveland Coxe. New York: Scribner's, 1926.
- Benson, Edward White. Cyprian: his life, his times, his work. London, New York, Macmillan, 1897.
- Chapman, John. "St. Cyprian of Carthage." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1908.
- "Cyprian, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- The Library of Christian Classics. Westminster Press, 1956.
Last updated June, 2007.