Bishop Callixtus I. of Rome

Bishop Callixtus I. of Rome

Bishop Callixtus I. of Rome (217?-222?) is not only quite intriguing figure of the early church history, but the one of the very few bishops of Rome, whom we know more about than their names. Once graduated from slave to bishop, his tenure lasted for roughly five years. In these years, he managed to reconfigure the ‘episcopal’ church (that is, one of the many Christian communities which he presided) significantly, in some respects even radically.

Yet, the only contemporary source about the life and deeds of the bishop, the Refutation of all Heresies (Refutatio omnium haeresium) is not particularly sympathetic towards him. Rather, this work and its anonymous author – traditionally attributed to Hippolytus (Romanus) – depicts him as a notorious scammer, liar, and magician, who managed to fake his own martyrdom in order to get away with financial misconduct and disloyalty. He is presented as the most dangerous heretic destroying faith, traditions, customs, moral, and in fact the whole church.

The only survived manuscript contatining the ‘Callixtus biography,’ BnF Supplément grec 464.
Source: BNF

In my PhD thesis, I demonstrated that despite all defamation, the Refutatio is more reliable than is as­sumed. The main aim of the ‘Callixtus biography’ accompanying the description of heretic teachings served not simply character assassination, but aimed to destruc­t the bishop’s spiritual authority as a confessor/martyr. By this means, the author underlined the fact that therefore the bishop lacked legitimacy to pardon adultery, which had apparently made him and his church community par­ticularly attractive. The presentation of the conflict as doctrinal disagreement is a rhetoric proxy and serves primarily the goal to establish common ground between the author and his readers on a set of shared values. Once this rhetoric superconstruction removed, the conflict reflects several layers. First, it shows social tensions between the wealthy intellectual author and the former slave Callixtus. Second, it mirrors shifts in community organisation by decreased fragmentation and by the emergence of a ‘majority church’. And finally, it echoes the increase of episcopal power at the expense of collective leadership, which all together lead to the marginalisation of the author.

Admittedly, according to the Refutatio was the life of Callixtus everything but ordinary. The overpowering image of Callixtus arise from his passio overshadows all. Although it is clear that the hagiographer never read the Refutatio and thus his rather legendary and edifying work has no historical value for the third century, it is an important source for the reconstruction of Callixtus’ cult in Rome. Yet, the emerge of the hagiographic tradition in particular in connection with the bishop’s burial in the Catacomb of Calepodius raise more questions than it answers and therefore it needs futher research.

Scene from Callixtus’ passio depicted in the Catacomb of Calepodius. © Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.