Cyprian and the Myth of Early Roman Primacy: Part 1

Cyprian of Carthage and Roman Primacy
Cyprian of Carthage (200-258 AD): These images are amusing. Nobody knows what Cyprian looked like but as an African, he probably didn’t resemble an Icelandic Viking.

One of the earliest texts from the Ante-Nicene era (before AD 325) that is often quoted in support of Roman primacy is Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. Modern polemicists that proudly proclaim the supremacy of the Roman see, as imagined through the ancient eyes of the 3rd century Bishop of Carthage (modern day Tunisia) are seemingly innumerable. One only needs to search the term: “he founded a single chair” to see how popular this is among internet quote-mines and apologetic sites. What you are unlikely to find in the search results is any discussion of the history of this text, but history sheds a great deal of light for those that have an interest in honestly evaluating this text.

This post is mainly a historical summary with links to resources to help someone navigate what’s known about Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. I’ll make some observations and look at an example of how this text is often quoted, while intending to keep my own opinion to a minimum. In Part 2, I plan to address historical and geographical considerations that may offer additional perspective on Cyprian and the idea of Roman primacy, relative to 3rd century Carthage. That will include more of my own analysis and opinion.

There is nothing I can really add to the scholarship regarding Cyprian’s text so my aim in writing this is merely to bring some balance to the incomplete picture presented by internet quote-mines. Unfortunately, such sites lead unsuspecting and uncritical readers to uninformed conclusions. Most of the information here can be freely obtained but some of it is buried in miles-long comment threads on other sites and easily lost in the opinionated sea of debate. I hope the summary I present here is useful to anyone interested in further exploring Cyprian’s writings and honestly evaluating history.

Listed below are the available English and Latin texts of Cyprian’s treatise on unity. They are listed by the year of publication and the English translations include the title. Each text has an abbreviation that I’ll use in discussing them. Footnotes have citations for the English texts I discuss that are under copyright. The most recent Latin text is also under copyright but I don’t have access to it so I’ve only included a link for the publication. At the time of this writing, one of the English translations under copyright was on (TFC), another had translator notes that could be previewed on Google Books (ACW), and a third (FEF) is a book that I purchased used. The oldest English translation (ANF) is part of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series which is in the public domain and available on many websites. I’ve provided the best links I could find for each text.

Texts of Cyprian’s Treatise on Unity

English Translations

  • 1867 – The Ante-Nicene Fathers, “On the Unity of the Church” (ANF)
  • 1957 – Ancient Christian Writers, “The Unity of the Catholic Church” (ACW) [1]Cyprianus, Thascius Caecilius., “The Unity of the Catholic Church,” in Ancient Christian Writers: St. Cyprian, translated and annotated by Maurice Bévenot. (United … Continue reading
  • 1958 – The Fathers of the Church, “The Unity of the Church” (TFC)[2]Cyprian, Saint., “The Unity of the Church,” in The Fathers of the Church, Volume 36, St. Cyprian Treatises, translated by Deferrari, Roy Joseph. (United … Continue reading
  • 1970 – Faith of the Early Fathers, “The Unity of the Catholic Church [AD 251/256],” (FEF) [3]St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church”, in The Faith of the Early Fathers: Volume 1, Pre-Nicene and Nicene eras. (United States: Liturgical Press, 1970).

Latin Texts

The Important History of Cyprian’s Treatise on Unity

You may notice the English titles are variously translated. Two of them include the word “Catholic” and two of them do not. No, it’s not a Roman conspiracy. The two public domain Latin texts you can view online have the same distinction (CSEL includes “Catholicae”) and the PL (the one without “Catholicae”) was published by J. P. Migne, a Roman Catholic priest. Also notice the FEF title includes the years 251 and 256 AD.

The reason there are two slightly different titles and two years listed by William Jurgens, the author/translator of FEF is because there are two versions of Cyprian’s text, a historically important detail that internet quote-mines generally omit. It’s likely many of the sites where you find quotes from this text, have simply copy/pasted them from other sites. Here is one example from a popular apologetics site that is a likely source for many others:

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . ’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. . . . If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).

Catholic Answers apologetic tract, quoted from W. A. Jurgens “The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1 (though they don’t mention that)”

Note how I have bolded “1st edition.” Without any explanation, it’s likely that many who read the quote think this refers to editions of a modern publication, not realizing there is another version of Cyprian’s mid-third century treatise. The other version (2nd edition) is generally dated to AD 255/256 and it omits the text above. Both versions are published in the FEF text by William Jurgens that this is quoted from. That is also where the terms “first edition” and “second edition” are used. Of course, there is no bibliographic information on the site for one to look up the quote, so the unsuspecting reader is misled. There are two other details worth noting about how this is quoted:

  • The insertion of the Latin term “cathedra” is likely intentional. Typically, bracketed additions to a quote are used to add information for clarity or specify context that appears elsewhere in the unquoted portion of the text. Neither of those objectives are served here. Including the Latin word that is translated as “chair” does not aid the English reader in his/her comprehension and it has nothing to do with the context. It’s probable the author of this tract intends to draw to mind the doctrine of “ex cathedra,” leading the reader to assume this was in Cyprian’s view. It is a common tactic used by apologists—anachronistically impose ideas on an ancient text that would have been entirely unfamiliar to the original author, in order to create the illusion of historicity. The doctrine of “ex cathedra” wasn’t dogmatized until more than 1,600 years later (1870) and it doesn’t even appear in the historical record until the late 16th century. It is wholly inappropriate and deceptive to imply Cyprian of Carthage had any such idea in the mid-third century.
  • The textual omission from the FEF translation by Jurgens that is represented by the second ellipsis in this quote reads: “So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord.” Clearly, the plurality expressed in this sentence takes away from the singular authority the author of the tract intends to ascribe to Peter and the Roman Church. It’s a misleading omission, particularly in light of comments made by Jurgens in his book, as well as many other scholars, including honest Roman Catholic’s (more on that below).

The first version of Cyprian’s treatise, which the above quote is taken from was long considered spurious, with a great deal of interpolation (the footnotes here address this) but early in the 20th century, a Roman Catholic priest named Dom Chapman fairly convincingly determined both versions of the treatise were likely penned by Cyprian. This view is now accepted by many scholars, though some still contend the version quoted above was interpolated and is spurious. I don’t have access to the scholarly journals and haven’t studied Chapman’s case at any length so I can only reasonably side with what seems to be the majority on this matter. Nevertheless, my main point is that the above quote is propagated deceptively in support of a position on Roman primacy and the “chair” of Peter that would become a foundational claim for the papacy, much later in history.

Today, the majority position on the two versions of Cyprian’s “On the Unity of the [Universal] Church” (I prefer translation over transliteration as “Catholic Church” didn’t mean the same thing in the mid-third century as it does today), is that Cyprian himself penned both versions. Most probably, it seems that rather than interpolate the phrases in question at a later time, those statements were original and Cyprian removed them 4-5 years after he wrote them, thus creating two versions of his treatise. The likely scenario which led him to do so was a sharp disagreement he had with Stephen, the bishop of Rome, over the re-baptism of individuals baptized by supposed heretics. Further discussion of this event is beyond the scope of this post but a quick summary of it can be found here.

As I stated earlier, there’s nothing I can add to the scholarship on Cyprian’s two texts. Many capable scholars are way more familiar with the manuscripts, historical context, and broader corpus of Cyprian’s writings, than I am. What will offer in the last section is a brief survey of scholarly assessments from people who have studied the history of these texts. My aim is simply to show that the claim communicated by zealous apologists and propagated through quote mines, does not stand in the face of historical witness and critical analysis. Those who uncritically rip this quote from the annals of history and copy/paste it around cyberspace are not well-informed. The majority of assessments quoted below are from Roman Catholic scholars but I have included a couple of additional sources to demonstrate there is a degree of consensus among reputable scholars, as well as in more neutral sources like Britannica.

A Sampling of Scholarly Analyses

Robert Eno, who received a doctorate in theology from Institute Catholique de Paris and was professor of church history at the Catholic University of America:[4]Eno, Robert B. The Rise of the Papacy. (United States: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008).

“…what was Cyprian’s basic view of the role, not of Peter as symbol of unity, but of Rome in the contemporary Church? Given what we have said above, it is clear that he did not see the bishop of Rome as his superior…”
(pp. 59. Re: Cyprian’s “Unity of the Catholic Church”)

“…it is clear that in Cyprian’s mind, one theological conclusion he does not draw is that the bishop of Rome has authority which is superior to that of the African bishops.”
(pp. 60. Re: Cyprian’s Epistle 59, chapter 14)

William J. La Due, who taught canon law at Catholic University:[5]La Due, William J. The Chair of Saint Peter. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999)

“[Cyprian’s] meaning, from the context of his conduct as a bishop, seems quite unambiguous. And those who see in “The Unity of the Catholic Church,” in the light of his entire episcopal life, an articulation of the Roman primacy – as we have come to know it, or even as it has evolved especially from the latter fourth century on – are reading a meaning into Cyprian which is not there.” (p. 39)

Michael W. Winter, a former priest who studied at the Universities of London, Cambridge, and received a Doctorate in Theology at Fribourg (Switzerland), before becoming Professor of Theology at the London Campus of the University of Notre Dame:[6]Winter, Michael M. Saint Peter and the Popes. (United States: Greenwood Press, 1979).

“Catholics as well as Protestants are now generally agreed that Cyprian did not attribute a superior authority to Peter. However, there is an almost equal division of opinion as to whether he saw Peter merely as a model of unity, or also as some kind of source of the unity which he exemplified. The ‘exemplar’ theory was defended consistently by H. Koch and has been followed by many eminent scholars, including the Catholics Batiffol and Bardy. Advocates of this opinion point out that Cyprian himself on more than one occasion says explicitly that the unity of the church is modelled on Peter. In the fourth chapter of De Unitate he enunciates the principle clearly ‘a primacy is given to Peter, and it is [thus] made clear (monstratur) that there is but one church and one chair’. Moreover it is alleged that for Cyprian a foundation is merely the first in a chronological series. Examples of this are seen in his other writings. Abraham is said to be the foundation of faith that is to say, he was the first believer. In much the same sense Cyprian speaks of the fear of God as the origin of religion, allegedly because it is the initial attitude of the soul to God.” (pp. 47)

Encyclopedia Britannica Online (by W. H. C. Frend, an English ecclesiastical historian, archaeologist, and Anglican priest):[7]Frend, W. Hugh Clifford. “St. Cyprian.” Encyclopedia Britannica, (Online: September 10, 2021).

“Though Cyprian may have written two drafts of an important passage concerning the primacy of the chair of Peter, he implied no acceptance of Roman jurisdictional prerogatives.”

This is just a sampling of what is widespread, if not near-universal agreement in scholarly circles. From reputable Roman Catholics to an independent Encyclopedia, there is a significant consensus that Cyprian of Carthage (indeed the churches of North Africa) had no concept of Petrine or Roman jurisdictional supremacy in the 3rd century, much less a papacy. Others cover the topic in greater detail, examining Cyprian’s broader corpus and perceptions elsewhere in the early church (the posts here, here, and here are well written and researched). My aim has mainly been to peel back the covers on popular apologetic propaganda and demonstrate that things aren’t always as they seem. Beware of quote-mines. The internet age has not only led to the proliferation of such propaganda but much of what is published has led to a resurgence of claims that have been soundly refuted time and time again.

In Part 2, I’m going to delve into historical and geo-political considerations at the time of Cyprian, further examining the situation in North Africa, changes over time, and the myth of “universal consent.”


1Cyprianus, Thascius Caecilius., “The Unity of the Catholic Church,” in Ancient Christian Writers: St. Cyprian, translated and annotated by Maurice Bévenot. (United Kingdom: Newman Press, 1957).
2 Cyprian, Saint., “The Unity of the Church,” in The Fathers of the Church, Volume 36, St. Cyprian Treatises, translated by Deferrari, Roy Joseph. (United States: Catholic University of America Press, 2010). [Available here]
3St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church”, in The Faith of the Early Fathers: Volume 1, Pre-Nicene and Nicene eras. (United States: Liturgical Press, 1970).
4Eno, Robert B. The Rise of the Papacy. (United States: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008).
5La Due, William J. The Chair of Saint Peter. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999)
6Winter, Michael M. Saint Peter and the Popes. (United States: Greenwood Press, 1979).
7Frend, W. Hugh Clifford. “St. Cyprian.” Encyclopedia Britannica, (Online: September 10, 2021).

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