The Synods of Carthage
(251 & 256 A.D.)

The Synod of Carthage was assembled in May 251 A.D. under the presidency of Cyprian of Carthage to consider the treatment of the Lapsi, those Christians who apostatized who renounced their faith under persecution by Roman authorities, specifically Emperor Decius.  In March 251, after the death of Emperor Decius, the “Decian Persecution” subsided and many fallen away Christians wished to return to the Church, sparking much debate over their would-be penance.  Novatian, who was a leading presbyter of the Roman Church, and one of the most noted personages in the Church of the 3rd century, took a rigorous position that refused readmission to communion of lapsi.

When Cornelius was elected the Pope in 251,  Novatian opposed the election of the new Pope on the grounds that Cornelius was too liberal in accepting lapsed Christians.  Novatian was consecrated bishop by three bishops of Italy and declared himself to be the true Pope, becoming an anti-pope.   Saint Cyprian’s correspondence tells of an accurate investigation carried out at the end of the Council of Carthage (251), which resulted in the whole African episcopate backing Cornelius. Even Saint Dionysius of Alexandria sided with Cornelius and with this influential support, he soon consolidated his position. However, for some time the church was divided between the two competing popes.  The Council of Carthage was held in 251 and declared that the lapsi should be dealt with, not with indiscriminate severity, but according to the degree of individual guilt.  In October 251, Pope Cornelius called a council of 60 bishops in which Novatian was excommunicated. His heresy became known as Novatianism.

In June 251, Emperor Decius was killed in battle with the Goths and his successor, Trebonianus Gallus, resumed persecution of Christians. Pope Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae, Italy, where he died in June 253.  He was entombed in a catacomb near the Crypt of Popes in the Catacomb of Callixtus, behind a Latin inscription that translates to “Cornelius Martyr”.  He was succeeded by Pope Lucius I, whose tombstone is still extant in the catacomb of Callixtus.  In May 254, Pope Stephen I was elected to be Lucius’ successor.  Pope Stephen I held that converts who had been baptized by Novatian groups did not need re-baptism, while Cyprian held that because Novatian groups had been excommunicated, rebaptism was therefore necessary for admission to the Eucharist.  A local synod was held in Carthage in 256 and upheld Cyprian’s claim that rebaptism was necessary.  Pope Stephen’s view, however, would eventually win broad acceptance in the Latin Church and would be reaffirmed at the First Council of Nicaea. 

Pope Stephen’s successor, Pope Sixtus II, would restore relations between the churches of Rome and Africa.  However, in late 256, a new persecution of the Christians broke out under Emperor Valerian, and Pope Sixtus II was executed in Rome.   In Africa, Cyprian prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his De exhortatione martyrii and set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus (30 August 257) and refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.  On 13 September 258, Cyprian was imprisoned on the orders of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus, and was then executed by beheading along with eight of his disciples. 

The Synod of Carthage (256 A.D.)

The Synod held at Carthage over which presided the Great and Holy Martyr Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage.

Source: Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second SeriesVol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.

When very many bishops were met together at Carthage on the Calends of September from the province of Africa, Numidia and Mauritania, with the presbyters and deacons (the greater part of the people being likewise present) and when the holy letters of Jubaianus to Cyprian had been read, and Cyprian’s answers to Jubaianus, concerning heretical baptisms, as well as what the same Jubaianus afterwards wrote to Cyprian,

Cyprian said: You have heard, my dearly beloved colleagues, what our fellow bishop Jubaianus has written to me, taking counsel of my littleness concerning the illicit and profane baptisms of heretics, and the answer which I made him; being of the same opinion as we have been on former occasions, that heretics coming to the Church should be baptized and sanctified with the Church’s baptism. Moreover there has been read to you also the other letter of Jubaianus, in which answering for his sincere and pious devotion to our letter, not only he agrees therewith but offered thanks that he has been so instructed by it. It only remains therefore that we, each one of us, one by one, say what our mind is in this matter, without condemning any one or removing any one from the right of communion who does not agree with us.

For no one [of us ] has set himself up [to be] bishop [of bishops], or attempted with tyrannical dread to force his colleagues to obedience to him, since every bishop has, for the license of liberty and power, his own will, and as he cannot be judged by another, so neither can he judge another. But we await the judgment of our universal Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ, who one and alone has the power, both of advancing us in the governance of his Church, and of judging of our actions [in that position].

[The bishops then one by one declared against heretical baptismLast of all (col. 796)]:

Cyprian, the Confessor and Martyr of Carthage, said: The letter which was written to Jubaianus, my colleague, most fully set forth my opinion, that heretics who, according to the evangelical and apostolic witness, are called adversaries of Christ’s and anti-Christs, when they come to the Church, should be baptized with the one (unico) baptism of the Church, that they may become instead of adversaries friends, and Christians instead of Antichrists.

The public examination of Cyprian by Galerius Maximus

The public examination of Cyprian by Galerius Maximus, on 14 September 258

Source: W. H. C. Frend (1984). The Rise of Christianity. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. p. 319

Galerius Maximus: “Are you Thascius Cyprianus?”
Cyprian: “I am.”
Galerius: “The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites.”
Cyprian: “I refuse.”
Galerius: “Take heed for yourself.”
Cyprian: “Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed.”
Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: “You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors … have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood.” He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: “It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.”

Cyprian: “Thanks be to God.”