Theodore of Tarsus

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Our father among the saints Theodore of Tarsus, sometimes Theodore of Canterbury, was the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury. He is best known for his reform of the English Church and establishment of a school in Canterbury which attained major scholarly achievements. He is commemorated on September 19.


Theodore was born about the year 602 in Tarsus in Cilicia in Asia Minor, a diocese of the Eastern Roman Empire. In his childhood Theodore experienced devastating wars between the Eastern Roman and the Persian Empires, conflicts that resulted in the capture of the major Christian cities of Antioch, Damascus, and Jerusalem during the years of 613 and 614. Tarsus was captured by Persian forces when Theodore was 11 or 12. There is evidence that Theodore experienced Persian culture.[1] It is likely that he studied at Antioch, the historic home of a distinctive school of exegesis, of which he was a proponent. [2] Theodore also was familiar with Syrian culture, language, and literature, and may also have traveled to Edessa.[3]

The Arab conquests, including Tarsus in 637, apparently caused Theodore to move west to Constantinople.[4] There he studied the subjects of astronomy, ecclesiastical computus, astrology, medicine, Roman civil law, Greek rhetoric and philosophy, and use of horoscope.[5]

At some time before 660 Theodore arrived in Rome and joined a community of Eastern monks, likely at the monastery of St. Anastasias.[6] While in Rome, he added to his already extensive Greek intellectual inheritance knowledge in both sacred and secular Latin literature.[7] In 667, when Theodore was 66, the see of Canterbury, in England, became vacant. Wighard had been sent to Pope Vitalian in Rome by Ecgberht, king of Kent, and Oswy, king of Northumbria to be consecrated archbishop as the successor elected to fill the see of Canterbury. But, Wighard died unexpectedly in Rome. Following Wighard's death, Pope Vitalian chose Theodore upon the recommendation of Hadrian. Hadrian was Pope Vitalian’s first choice for archbishop, but he refused the position and recommended Theodore instead. Theodore was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury in Rome on March 26, 668, and left for England accompanied by Hadrian. They arrived at Canterbury on May 27, 669.

Although now almost seventy years old, Theodore energetically toured throughout England surveying the English church and consecrating bishops to sees that had been vacant for some time.[8] In 672, Theodore called the Synod of Hertford to institute reforms concerning the proper celebration of Easter, episcopal authority, itinerant monks, the regular convening of subsequent synods, marriage and prohibitions of consanguinity, and others issues.[9] He also proposed dividing the large diocese of Northumbria into smaller ones, a policy which brought him into conflict with Bishop Wilfrid, whom Theodore himself had appointed to the See of York. Theodore deposed and expelled Wilfrid in 678, then divided his dioceses in the aftermath. His conflict with Wilfrid was not finally settled until 686–687.

In 679, Aelfwine, the brother of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, was killed in battle against the Mercians. Theodore intervened in the dispute, prevented the escalation of the war, and established peace between the two kingdoms, a peace in which King Æthelred of Mercia paid weregild compensation for Aelfwine's death.[10]

Theodore and Hadrian established a school in Canterbury that trained Christians from both the Celtic and Roman traditions, doing much to unite the two groups and established a "golden age" of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Hadrian, who became known more familiarly as Adrian, headed the school. In addition to instruction in the Holy Scriptures, the course of instruction for the student included poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. [11]

Theodore took an active part in the school, teaching sacred music,[12] introducing various texts, knowledge of Eastern saints, and may even have been responsible for the introduction of the Litany of the Saints, a major liturgical innovation, into the West.[13] Some of his thought is accessible in the Biblical Commentaries, notes compiled by his students at the Canterbury school.[14] Of immense interest is the text, recently attributed to him, called Laterculus Malalianus.[15] Overlooked for many years, this book was rediscovered in the 1990s, and has since been shown to contain numerous interesting elements reflecting Theodore's trans-mediterranean formation.[16]

Theodore died in 690 at the age of 88, having held the archbishopric for twenty-two years. He was buried in Canterbury at St. Peter's church in what came to be called St. Augustine’s Abbey.

Succession box:
Theodore of Tarsus
Preceded by:
(not consecrated)
Archbishop of Canterbury
668 - 690
Succeeded by:
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  1. Lapidge, "The Career of Archbishop Theodore", in Archbishop Theodore, pp. 8-9
  2. Lapidge, Career of Theodore p. 4
  3. Lapidge, Career of Theodore pp. 7-8
  4. Lapidge, Career of Theodore p.10
  5. Lapidge, Career of Theodore p17-18
  6. Lapidge, Career of Theodore pp. 21-22
  7. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica 4.1
  8. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica IV.2 — appointments: Bisi as Bishop of East Anglia, Putta to Bishop of Rochester, Hlothhere to Bishop of Wessex, and Ceadda after re-consecration to Bishop of Mercia.
  9. Canons of Hertford, preserved in Bede, Historia ecclesiastica IV.5
  10. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica, Book IV, chapter 21.
  11. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica IV.2, trans. D. H. Farmer
  12. Bede Historia ecclesiastica, IV.2.
  13. Bischoff and Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries p. 172
  14. B. Bischoff and M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries
  15. J. Stevenson, The Laterculus Malalianus and the School of Archbishop Theodore
  16. J. Siemens, 'The Restoration of Humankind in the Laterculus Malalianus, 14' in The Heythrop Journal


External links