Edwina Murphy on Cyprian’s Reception of Paul

Edwina Murphy on Cyprian’s Reception of Paul May 25, 2019

Here is my interview with Dr. Edwina Murphy about her book The Bishop and the Apostle: Cyprian’s Pastoral Exegesis of Paul (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2018).

Who was Cyprian and why should we care?

Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the middle of the third century. North Africa was very influential in the development of western theology – before Cyprian was Tertullian, who gave us the language for the Trinity, and after him was Augustine, perhaps the most influential thinker in the West. Cyprian is best known for saying, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” and most scholarship has focused on his view of the church and what he thought about the bishop of Rome. The unity of the church was certainly important to Cyprian, but there’s a lot more to him than that. He’s especially interesting on what it means to follow Christ in a hostile world.

I saw the movie Agora and Cyprian was really a religious fanatic who led a mob of Christians to murder the secular saint Hypatia and to burn down the library of Alexandria. Is that true?

Well, that was Cyril of Alexandria, although it was Peter the lector, not Cyril, who was personally involved. That incident has been used polemically since the Enlightenment to purportedly show that Christianity is opposed to science and reason, which is not the case. (After all, a future bishop studied under Hypatia.) But Cyprian, who lived while the church was still being persecuted by the state, was all about non-violence, so I don’t think he would have approved, even if there were extenuating circumstances.

How did you get the idea for your thesis?

I’d already written my master’s thesis on Cyprian, so I was keen to explore him further. Not a lot of work had been done on Cyprian’s exegesis, and I thought Paul would be a good place to start!

How did the apostle Paul influence Cyprian?

Given Cyprian’s context of persecution, schism and plague, he’s not interested in opposing faith and works but in encouraging his flock to persevere in their faith. So he draws on Paul’s emphasis on imitating Christ, especially in his suffering and humility, but also with the assurance of one day being transformed into the likeness of Christ. He also emphasizes forsaking the life of the flesh for the life in the Spirit and the importance of love and unity among believers. He especially uses Paul’s teaching on future rewards – present trials will give way to future glory.

Did Cyprian have a favorite Pauline verse?

Given his focus on unity, Cyprian does use Eph 4:4-6 quite a few times. But another Pauline verse which is central to his thought is Rom 8:18: “The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come which shall be revealed in us.”

Reception studies, especially of Paul, are all the rage, would you recommend any other books on the topic?

There’s a great book edited by Michael Bird and Joseph Dodson called Paul and the Second Century. Jennifer Strawbridge’s The Pauline Effect looks at the most influential Pauline passages in the early church. There’s also a series edited by Todd Still and David Wilhite and published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark which looks at the reception of Paul before Constantine. Disclaimer: I have a chapter in the forthcoming volume The Apologists and Paul.

How can Cyprian help us to be better practical theologians?

One thing I appreciate about Cyprian and other early Christian authors is that they don’t separate exegesis from theology from spirituality. They write as pastors, and the academic and the practical come together as they seek to apply Scripture to the lives of their congregations and point them to maturity in Christ.

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