Zephyrinus of Rome

By COGwriter

Who was Zephyrinus of Rome? Was he a pope? Was he faithful to the Bible or human tradition?

The generally touted Catholic position is that Zephyrinus was the fifteenth pope and that all subsequent leaders of the true church passed through him (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 5). Is that correct?

This article will refer to historical records and Roman Catholic sources to attempt to properly answer those questions.

Certain Claims

While visiting the Vatican in 2004, I purchased a book in its basilica museum bookstore titled The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997). The book states that it is sponsored by the "Pontifical Administration, which has tutelage over the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Peter".

It makes many claims about the early bishops of Rome including this about Zephyrinus:

15. ZEPHYRINUS, ST. (199-217) He was a Roman...That is the period in which the usage first appeared of putting halos around the head of angels, saints and the Blessed Virgin in depicting them. This symbol had already been in use in ancient times...Zephyrinus was...not exceptionally learned or cultured so that he was criticized by the subtle Christian theologian Hyppolitus for being ignorant and not being determined enough to fight the Montanist heresy (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 5).

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

Pope St. Zephyrinus (Reigned 198-217). Date of birth unknown; died 20 Dec., 217. After the death of Pope Victor in 198, Zephyrinus was elected his successor and consecrated. The pope is described by Hippolytus in the "Philosophymena" (IX, xi) as a simple man without education...

In the same era the adherents of Montanus also worked with great energy at Rome...

Hippolytus was the most important theologian among the Roman presbyters of this era. He was an avowed adherent of the doctrine of the Divine Logos. He taught that the Divine Logos became man in Christ, that the Logos differs in every thing from God, that he is the mediary between God and the world of creatures...Hippolytus urged that the pope should approve of a distinct dogma which represented the Person of Christ as actually different from that of the Father and condemned the opposing views of the Monarchians and Patripassians. However, Zephyrinus would not consent to this...

Zephyrinus said simply that he acknowledged only one God, and this was the Lord Jesus Christ, but it was the Son, not the Father, Who had died...

The "Liber Pontificalis" attributes two Decrees to Zephyrinus; one on the ordination of the clergy and the other on the Eucharistic Liturgy in the title churches of Rome. The author of the biography has ascribed these Decrees to the pope arbitrarily (Kirsch J.P. Transcribed by Michael T. Barrett. Pope St. Zephyrinus. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

It is not clear, what, if anything, Zephyrinus had to do with halos. But it is clear that he would not fight the Montanists and would not accept the binitarian view that Christ was not the same as the Father.

The True Church Was Anti-Montanist

The Montanists were apparently not rebuked by Bishop Zephyrinus. This shows that he did not feel he had the doctrinal integrity to stand against them. No bishop of Rome was considered to have had universal authority by most professing Christians by Zephyrinus' time (although his predecessor, Bishop Victor, seemed to feel otherwise).

However, the church leaders in Antioch and Asia Minor took a stand against the Montanists. Serapion of Antioch, Apollonius of Ephesus, Apollinaris of Hierapolis, and Thraseas of Eumenia opposed the Montanist heresies (since Apollinaris of Hierapolis and Thraseas of Eumenia were Quartodecimans, it is likely that Serapion and many other anti-Montanists were as well). Eusebius records that:

This same Apollonius states in the same work that, at the time of his writing, it was the fortieth year since Montanus had begun his pretended prophecy...

Serapion, who, as report says, succeeded Maximinus at that time as bishop of the church of Antioch, mentions the works of Apolinarius against the above-mentioned heresy. And he alludes to him in a private letter to Caricus and Pontius, in which he himself exposes the same heresy, and adds the following words:

"That you may see that the doings of this lying band of the new prophecy, so called, are an abomination to all the brotherhood throughout the world, I have sent you writings of the most blessed Claudius Apolinarius, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia." In the same letter of Serapion the signatures of several bishops are found, one of whom subscribes himself as follows: "I, Aurelius Cyrenius, a witness, pray for your health." And another in this manner: "Aelius Publius Julius, bishop of Debeltum, a colony of Thrace. As God liveth in the heavens, the blessed Sotas in Anchialus desired to cast the demon out of Priscilla, but the hypocrites did not permit him" (Eusebius Book V, Chapters 18-19).

Of the Montanists, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia:

the date of Thraseas is therefore about 160, and the origin of Montanism must be yet earlier...We hear of no false doctrines at first...St. Jerome's account, written in 384...describes them as Sabellians in their idea of the Trinity (Chapman J. Transcribed by Robert B. Olson. Montanists. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

One of the so-called Montanist Oracles was:

"I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete." (Didymus, De trinitate iii. 41. 1.) (Assembled in P. de Labriolle, La crise montaniste (1913), 34-105, by Bates College, Lewston (Maine) http://abacus.bates.edu/Faculty/Philosophy%20and%20Religion/rel_241/texts/montanism.html 01/31/06).

This is one of the first references to a trinitarian view of the Godhead (the other earliest one was from the heretic Valentinus). The paraclete is a term used to signify the Holy Spirit (it is from the Greek term parakletos).

As late as the end of the second century and the beginning of the third, Roman Bishops still were not trinitarian as now understood--Zephyrinus adhered to Sabellianism--a concept that was later condemned. Notice what one scholar wrote:

Sabellius taught the strict unity of the godhead: "one Person (hypostasis), three names." God is hyiopater, Son-Father. The different names Father, Son, and Spirit, merely describe different forms of revelation; the Son revealed the Father as a ray reveals the sun. Now the Son has returned to heaven, and God reveals himself as the Holy Spirit...Despite these flaws, Sabelliansim seems to have won the adherence of two bishops of Rome, Victor and Zephyrinus (Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, p. 103).

If the doctrine of the trinity is so critical to being a "Christian" than why did not even the Roman bishops misunderstand it so much? Could it have been because the true Church was never Sabellian nor trinitarian?

Since the true Church of God is binitarian, it is logical that any affiliated with it would have opposed any trinitarian teachings. Roman leaders seemed to be tolerant of the Montanists until sometime after Serapion and others in Asia Minor condemned them (Rome finally condemned the Montanists, but not for this doctrine, and not by Zephyrinus).

He Was Accused of Accepting Bribes

According to an early Roman Catholic writer, Zephyrinus took bribes:

Callistus attempted to confirm this heresy,--a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned, (and) who was impelled by restless ambition to mount the episcopal throne. Now this man moulded to his purpose Zephyrinus, an ignorant and illiterate individual, and one unskilled in ecclesiastical definitions. And inasmuch as Zephyrinus was accessible to bribes, and covetous, Callistus, by luring him through presents, and by illicit demands, was enabled to seduce him into whatever course of action he pleased. And so it was that Callistus succeeded in inducing Zephyrinus to create continually disturbances among the brethren, while he himself took care subsequently, by knavish words, to attach both factions in good-will to himself...

Now Callistus brought forward Zephyrinus himself, and induced him publicly to avow the following sentiments: "I know that there is one God, Jesus Christ; nor except Him do I know any other that is begotten and amenable to suffering." And on another occasion, when he would make the following statement: "The Father did not die, but the Son." Zephyrinus would in this way continue to keep up ceaseless disturbance among the people. And we, becoming aware of his sentiments, did not give place to him, but reproved and withstood him for the truth's sake. And he hurried headlong into folly, from the fact that all consented to his hypocrisy--we, however, did not do so--and called us worshippers of two gods, disgorging, independent of compulsion, the venom lurking within him (Hippolytus. Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, Chapter VI. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1886. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).

I have no way to verify these charges, other than to state that Roman Catholics still consider that Hippolytus is a saint, and a fairly accurate historian.

Zephrynus apparently was not one who held any type of infallibility:

...pope Zephyrinus recalled Callistus to Rome. Zephyrinus was good-hearted and well-meaning but had no understanding of theology. This was disastrous in a time when heretical beliefs were springing up everywhere. One minute Zephyrinus would endorse a belief he thought orthodox and the next he would embrace the opposite statement (Matz T. St. Callistus I.  Copyright 2009 Catholic Online.  http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=31 viewed 06/23/09).

Was He A Pope?

Technically, Zephyrinus was not a pope. The Catholic leaders in Rome did not take that title until after Siricius of the late fourth century. Nor did he, unlike his predecessor Bishop Victor, try to act like one. This shows that the idea that all of professing Christendom from the time of Linus until at least the early third century accepting the rule of a "Roman bishop" is false.

This is essentially confirmed by the fact that the successor to Zephyrinus, Callistus (bishop from 217-222), had so much opposition that the first "anti-pope", Hyppolitus (also spelled Hippolytus), was elected in the time of Callistus (Lopes, p.6). It is not likely that any would have then elected an "anti-pope" if they felt that the proper bishop inherited the cathedra from Peter through Linus, etc. Furthermore, it is of interest to note that even today, the first "anti-pope" is considered to be a saint by the Roman Catholics, hence they must of felt he was a true Christian leader.

And all of this shows that there were no popes, as we now understand both the title and the position, until at least sometime in the later third century.

Was Zephyrinus Peter's Spiritual Successor?

While I believe that the records of early church history show that Polycarp of Smyrna was the true and most influential leader of the Church of God after the last apostle (John) died, most who claim to be Roman Catholic believe that Linus, then eventually Bishop Zephyrinus, was the actual successor. Conclusions tend to depends on how one views tradition and the Bible, and in the case of Zephyrinus, whether he would be the type of person God would have wanted in the succession. An article of related interest may be Apostolic Succession.


There was a Roman Catholic bishop named Zephyrinus. He may have been corrupt. His legacy is disturbing.

There is no evidence that he ever overturned tradition to favor the Bible. Because of certain Montanist heresies he would not address, that also suggests he held a non-biblical view of Christianity.

That is not acceptable to those of us in the Church of God, but does seem to be sufficient for those who accept that and other unbiblical doctrines.

Back to early Christianity page                 Previous is Victor                                               Next is Callistus

Thiel B., Ph.D. Zephyrinus of Rome. www.cogwriter.com (c) 2006 2009 0623

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