Sunday, August 8, 2021

Aurelius of Carthage: The Illiterate Church Lector and Confessor


Add. 40165 A 
4th century fragments of Cyprians letters  
used as flyleaves for a 12th-century Latin manuscript

At around 250 CE Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote to his Church to inform them of the appointment of a young man named Aurelius to the office of lector. That is someone who read out the scriptures to the congregation at the time they were gathering for worship.

"In the ordinations of clerics, dearly beloved Brethren, we are accustomed to consult you in advance and in common council to weigh the characters and merits of each one." (Ep. 38)

Cyprian goes on to share in the letter that Aurelius was "twice confessed and twice glorious in the victory of his confession" (Ep. 38). It was during this time that Christians were under extreme pressure to make sacrifices to the God's or face repercussions. This was due to an imperial edict given by Emperor Decius in order to gain favor from the God's towards the troubled Roman Empire (see posts here and here). Apparently Aurelius had suffered under this edict but had remained firm in the faith and had not recanted belief; a confessor. Cyprian greatly admired Aurelius for his courage and because of this wanted to go ahead and ordain him to the office before he had consulted with the other leaders as was the custom.

"Such a one was deserving of the higher steps of clerical ordination and a greater promotion, not so considered for his years, but for his merits. But, in the meantime, it seemed right for him to start with the office of reading since nothing was more becoming also to the voice which confessed God with glorious praise than to sound Him forth through the celebrating of the divine readings, after the sublime words which bespoke martyrdom for Christ: to read the Gospel of Christ whence martyrs are made, to come to the pulpit after the scaffold; . . . Know, therefore, dearly beloved that he has been ordained by me and by colleagues who were present. . . . And since joy is always hastening, and rejoicing cannot brook delays, in the meantime, he reads for us on Sunday, that is, he is auspicious for peace while he dedicates the reading." (Ep. 38)

It is obvious that Aurelius is capable of reading out a text (presumably in Latin) because Cyprian is fully expecting him to do so the next Sunday after he sent this letter. What is strange however is that in a letter to the Church in Rome, Cyprian mentions that a certain Lucian (another confessor) had written many petitions in behalf of others who were imprisoned.

"Many petitions, written in the handwriting of this same Lucian, have also been given in the name of Aurelius, a youth who suffered tortures, because the latter did not know how to write." (Ep. 27).

This same Aurelius, who was perfectly capable at reading, did not know his letters and had to have a certain Lucian write a petition on his behalf. This does seem strange to us in the twenty-first century, accustomed to learning to read and write together. This was not the case in the ancient world. These two skills were often acquired separately and with varying degrees of competency (Cribiore, 9-10). Cyprian presents this information normally and does not indicate that this circumstance is exceptional. This might also help explain the kinds of features that we see in our earliest copies of the New Testament writings. These often exhibit reading aids, spaces between words, and other kinds of limited punctuation (see here). These may have been present to assist those who had limit education, who could read at a basic level, but had not received schooling in the ability to write, just like we see in the case of Aurelius of Carthage.


St. Cyprian, Letters 1-81The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Sister Rose Bernard Donna, trans. New York: Catholic University of America Press, 1964).

Cribiore, Rafaella. Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1996).

1 comment:

  1. Somewhat relatedly, in Porphyry's life of Plotinus, while Porphyry is clear that Plotinus could write, he shows him as unable to write particularly well, and unwilling to revise or edit because of poor eyesight: "In writing he did not form the letters with any regard to appearance or divide his syllables correctly, and he paid no attention to spelling. He was wholly concerned with thought; and, which surprised us all, he went on in this way right up to the end." This was such a problem that (again according to Porphyry's life) Longinus requested better copies of Plotinus' writings, assuming that he had the uncorrected copies due to their errors (cf. sections 19 and 20)