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Apostolic Canons

Collection of ancient ecclesiastical decrees

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Canons, APOSTOLIC, a collection of ancient ecclesiastical decrees (eighty-five in the Eastern, fifty in the Western Church) concerning the government and discipline of the Christian Church, incorporated with the Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, 47). They deal mostly with the office and duties of a Christian bishop, the qualifications and conduct of the clergy, the religious life of the Christian flock (abstinence, fasting), its external administration (excommunication, synods, relations with pagans and Jews), the sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage); in a word, they are a handy summary of the statutory legislation of the primitive Church. The last of these decrees contains a very important list or canon of the Holy Scriptures (see Canon of the Holy Scriptures under sub-title Canon of the New Testament). In the original Greek text they claim to be the very legislation of the Apostles themselves, at least as promulgated by their great disciple, Clement. Nevertheless, though a venerable mirror of ancient Christian life and blameless in doctrine, their claim to genuine Apostolic origin is quite false and untenable. Some, like Beveridge and Hefele, believe that they were originally drawn up about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. Most modern critics agree that they could not have been composed before the Council of Antioch (341), some twenty of whose canons they quote; nor even before the latter end of the fourth century, since they are certainly posterior to the Apostolic Constitutions. Von Funk, admittedly a foremost authority on the latter and all similar early canonical texts, locates the composition of the Apostolic Canons in the fifth century, near the year 400. Thereby he approaches the opinion of his scholarly predecessor, Drey, the first among modern writers to study profoundly these ancient canons; he distinguished two editions of them, a shorter one (fifty) about the middle of the fifth century, and a longer one (eighty-five) early in the sixth century. Von Funk admits but one edition, They were certainly current in the Eastern Church in the first quarter of the sixth century, for about 520 Severus of Antioch quotes canons 21-23 [E. W. Brooks, “Select Letters of Severus of Antioch“, London, 1904 (Syriac text), I, 463-64. For various opinions concerning the date of composition see F. Nau, in Dict. de theol. cath., II, 1607-8, and the new Fr. tr. of Hefele’s “History of the Councils“, Paris, 1907, 1206-11]. The home of the author seems to be Syria. He makes use of the Syro-Macedonian calendar (can. 26), borrows very largely from a Syrian council (Antioch, 341), and according to Von Funk is identical with the compiler or interpolator of the Apostolic Constitutions, who was certainly a Syrian (Die apostol. Konstitutionen, 204-5).

As just indicated the number of these canons has given rise to no little controversy. In the Apostolic Constitutions (loc. cit.) they are eighty-five (occasionally eighty-four, a variant in the MSS. that arises from the occasional counting of two canons as one). In the latter half of the sixth century, John of Antioch (Joannes Scholasticus), Patriarch of Constantinople from 565 to 577, published a collection of synodal decrees in which he included these eighty-five canons (see Justel-Voellus, Bibliotheca Juris Canonici veteris, Paris, 1661, II, 501), and this number was finally consecrated for the Greek Church by the Trullan or Quinisext Council (692), which also confirmed the current Greek tradition of their Apostolic origin. On the other hand the Latin Church, throughout the Middle Ages, recognized but fifty canons of the Apostles. This was the number finally adopted by Dionysius Exiguus, who first translated these canons into Latin about 500. It is not very clear why he omitted canons 51-85; he seems to have been acquainted with them and to have used the Apostohc Constitutions. In reality Dionysius made three versions of the Apostolic Canons (the oldest of them first edited by C. H. Turner, Ecclesise Occidentalis monumenta juris antiquissima, Oxford, 1899, fasc. I, 1-32); it is the second of these versions which obtained general European currency by its incorporation as the opening text of his famous Latin collection of canons (both synodal decrees and papal decretals) known as the “Dionysiana Collectio” (P.L., LXVII, 9 sqq.), made public in the first decade of the sixth century. Later collections of canons (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, etc.) borrowed from him; the text passed into Pseudo-Isidore, and eventually Gratian included (c. 1140) some excerpts from these canons in his “Decretum”, whereby a universal recognition and use were gained for them in the law schools. At a much earlier date Justinian (in his Sixth Novel) had recognized them as the work of the Apostles and confirmed them as ecclesiastical law. (For the Western references in the early Middle Ages see Von Funk, “Didascalia” etc. quoted below, II, 40-50, and for their insertion in the early Western collections of canons, Maassen, “Gesch. der Quellen and Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande, Gratz, 1872, 438-40.) Nevertheless, from their first appearance in the West they aroused suspicion. Canon 46 for example, that rejected all heretical baptism, was notoriously opposed to Roman and Western practice. In the so-called “Decretum” of Pope Gelasius (429-96) they are denounced as an apocryphal book, i.e. not recognized by the Church (Thiel, Epistola Rom. pontificum genuine, 1867, I, 53-58, 454-71; Von Funk, op. cit., II, 40), though this note of censure was probably not in the original “Decretum”, but with others was added under Pope Hormisdas (514-23). Consequently in a second edition (lost, except preface) of his “Collectio canonum”, prepared under the latter pope, Dionysius Exiguus omitted them; even in the first edition he admitted that very many in the West were loath to acknowledge them (quamplurimi quidem assensum non praebuere facilem). Hincmar of Reims (d. 882) declared that they were not written by the Apostles, and as late as the middle of the eleventh century, Western theologians (Cardinal Humbert, 1054) distinguished between the eighty-five Greek canons that they declared apocryphal, and the fifty Latin canons recognized as “orthodox rules” by antiquity.

A few other ancient canonical texts that pretend to Apostolic origin are described by F. Nau, op. cit., 1620-26; the most interesting of them is a brief collection of nine canons that purport to date from an imaginary Apostolic Council of Antioch. They may be read in Pitra, “Hist. et monumenta Juris eccl. Grsecorum” (Rome, 1864), I, 88-91; also in Lagarde, “Reliquise juris eccl. antiquissima graece”, 18-20, and in Harnack, “Mission and Ausbreitung” (Leipzig, 1902). They recommend the faithful not to practice circumcision, to admit the Gentiles, to avoid Jewish and pagan customs, the distinction of clean and unclean foods, the worship of idols, the vices of avarice and gluttony, frequentation of theatres, and taking of oaths. The earliest Christian literature offers numerous parallels to the content of these canons, which, in general, recall the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache. In the sixteenth century the Jesuit Turrianus (Torres) defended their authenticity, his chief argument being a reference of Innocent I (401-17) to an Apostolic Council of Antioch (Mansi, III, 1055). A notable literary controversy followed that is not yet quite closed (see Nau, op. cit., 1621-22). Interest centers chiefly in the first canon, which decrees that the Galileans shall henceforth be called Christians (see Acts, xi, 26), a holy people, a royal priesthood (see I Peter, ii, 9) according to the grace and title of baptism. Some critics see in this canon a defiant reply to the contemptuous use of “Galileans” by Julian the Apostate (Harnack, “Mission and Ausbreitung des Christentums”, Leipzig, 1902; Paul Lejay, in “Revue du clerge fran-Caais”, October 15, 1903, 349-55, with a Fr. tr. of the nine canons). F. Nau is of opinion that they are much older than the latter quarter of the fourth century and calls attention (op.’ cit., 1624) to Origen, “Contra Celsum”, VIII, 29 (P.G., XI, 1560—”it seemed good to the Apostles and the elders assembled at Antioch, and in their own words to the Holy Spirit to’ write a letter to the Gentiles who believed”). This statement contradicts Acts, xv, 6, 23, 28, according to which the Apostolic letter was written from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it seems that this collection of canons was known to Origen, all the more as it claims (in the title) to come from the library of Origen at Caesarea and to have been found there by the blessed martyr, Pamphilus (cf. Eus., H. E., VI, 32, 3). F. Nau thinks that they may represent a personal rule of conduct drawn up by some second-century Christian (on the basis of Apostolic precepts) who miscopied Acts, xi, 26, into the form of the aforementioned canon 1, and then added the other precepts—canon 9 reproduces the decree of Acts, xv, 29. At any rate Dallseus (Daille) was wrong in charging Turrianus with downright forgery of all these canons (De pseudepigraphis apostolicis libri tres, 1653, III, cc. xxii-xxv, pp. 687-737), and deliberate corruption of the text of Ps. xvi 14, “they are full of children” (huion), making it read huieon— i.e. they are filled with pork”. This reading of the fifth canon of Antioch is found not only in the oldest Latin Psalters, and in other reliable fourth to sixth century Latin witnesses to the Scripture-text, but also in the best Greek manuscripts (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus). In other words the Scripture-text used by these canons antedates Origen, and is, in itself, a conclusive evidence of their great antiquity.


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