Home Read stories Africa maps The Project Resources Our Writers News

Early 3rd century
Ancient Christian Church

By the middle of the second millennium B.C. the eastern Mediterranean littoral was inhabited by a people known for their working with the red-purple royal dye derived from the murex shellfish. As a consequence their Hurrian trading neighbors gave to them the designation of "Canaanite", and their inhabited region came to be called "Canaan" (Gen 10:19; Ezek 16:3; etc.), their Semitic speech "the tongue of Canaan" (Is 19:18) - as evidenced in the Biblical tradition whose own language and character became comparably defined and influenced. That these people were also experts in the handling of timber resources is illustrated both by their knowledge of temple-building (1 Kg 5-7), but also in ship construction (1 Kg 10:11,22) with which they increasingly exploited not merely the entire Mediterranean basin but even beyond the western straits out into the Atlantic and beyond.

In this westward extension of exploration and commerce a port along the North African coast across from Sicily at the point of the northwestern bulge was required, so that a major naval base was founded -- traditionally by the Tyrians in 814 B.C. - called in their language Qart hadesh, i.e., "New Town." Within the Mediterranean they were met by and competed with Greeks who translated their name and language into an equivalent for "red-purple" - i.e., "Phoinix" and "Phoenician" - but merely transliterated the designation of the seaport as "Karkhedon." Subsequent encounter with Westerners, whom we identify as Romans (from The City of Rome founded traditionally in 753 B.C.), who spoke a Latin dialect, led to their language becoming known as "Punic," the port as "Carthago." Therefore, in spite of Hellenizing and Romanizing influences, this people, their language, their culture, and their religious traditions persisted - through and beyond the era of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who grew up bilingual from this background (Epistles 17.2 and 84.2; NPNF ser.1 1.234 and 364) - even until after the wave of Islam swept over this entire area in the seventh century A.D.

Now in the mid-second century B.C. the Roman Republic's expansive force applied around the Mediterranean Sea, after several "Punic Wars," had instigated the total annihilation of its western arch-rival Carthage (by Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus in 146 B.C. - the same year as the destruction of an eastern rival Corinth) only to require the rebuilding of that major North African naval base and the beginning of a resettling of a colony at that site (again like with Corinth by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.) on a scale such that the historian Herodian (7.6.1) claimed "Carthage vied with Alexandria [of Egypt] for second place in the empire" among its three or four largest cities after Rome itself, with a population well above 100,000 by the second century A.D. (Grant 1970: 10, 187; McEvedy 1967: 85 Map "A.D. 230 Towns and Trade"; cf. McEvedy and Jones 1978: 210).

While the specifics of originating Christian presence within Carthage is nowhere narrated (cf. Frend 1952: 115), like all the other major locales within the Roman Empire, it must have attracted the kind of quiet arrival to which in the second century A.D. the "Epistle to Diognetus" could point:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. [ANF 1 (1885) 26: ch. V]
In this light, however, Robert McQueen Grant has observed that "The churches of [the Roman province of] Africa first came to the attention of the state in 180, when according to Tertullian, the proconsul Vigellius Saturninus 'first drew the sword upon us' and put to death twelve Christians at Carthage" [1970: 187 citing Tertullian Ad Scapulum 3.4 = ANF 3 (1885) 106; cf. Carrington 1957: II.290]. But a succession of bishops can be identified only from the otherwise unknown Agrippinus circa 210-220, though as already cited one of the most outstanding theologians, Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-220) can be named immediately previous, and in the peculiar listing by Hippolytus of Rome (c.155-235) of the "Seventy" who succeeded the Apostles there is named in nineteenth place, Epainetos (cf. Rom. 16:5 where he is called by Paul "the first convert of [the Roman province of] Asia") as "bishop of Carthage" whatever rationale there might have been for such an identification [ANF 5 (1885) 255].

While Tertullian, profoundly knowledgeable in both Greek and Latin literature, but writing exclusively in Latin, remains the principal source, though of limited perspective, for the church and the liturgical life of second century Carthaginian Christians, including "a passing allusion" to their cemetery [Ad Scapulum 3.1 = ANF 3 (1885) 106], it is only with Cyprian (c. 200-258) looking back from the later era as bishop of Carthage (after 248) that there is revealed that near the end of Tertullian's own lifespan "the bishop Agrippinus convoked a synod of some seventy bishops from Africa and Numidia to deal with the problem of heretical baptism" [Grant 1970:192 citing the specific Epistles of Cyprian 70.4 and 73.3; cf. the total detail of the controversy in Epistles 69-75 = ANF 5 (1885) 375-402], which was resolved in a manner to which Tertullian might well have subscribed [Frend 1952: 119-120]. Specific details related to this "controversy on baptism" and its ultimate resolution, date the council under Agrippinus to "about 213," noting, however, that while "the practice of baptizing heretics who came over to the Church had been definitely approved" by this council, its decree "had in view bodies outside the Church which taught false doctrine" not the matter of rebaptizing persons separated merely by sectarian polity [Lawlor 1928:240-243]. Beyond these brief references nothing else is known, of either Agrippinus or his immediate successors until the mid-third century.

Clyde Curry Smith

Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

OEEC 18 (VSaxer)

Supplementary Bibliography:
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Frend 1952 The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
McEvedy 1967 The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, by Colin McEvedy. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
McEvedy and Jones 1978 Atlas of World Population History, by Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

Click here for Abbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.