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This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.

The Apostolic Canons[1] or Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles[2] is a collection of ancient ecclesiastical decrees (eighty-five in the Eastern, fifty in the Western Church) concerning the government and discipline of the Early Christian Church, incorporated with the Apostolic Constitutions which are part of the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.

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 Early Church.

The last of these decrees contains a very important list or canon of the Holy Scriptures. In the original Koine Greek text they claim to be the very legislation of the Apostles themselves, at least as promulgated by their great disciple, Pope Clement I. Nevertheless, the claim to genuine Apostolic origin is generally considered 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 of 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. Franz Xaver 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, Johann Sebastian 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[3].

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[4].

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 Manuscripts 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[5], and this number was finally consecrated for the Greek Church by the Trullan or Quinisext Council of 692, which stopped short of affirming their apostolic authorship, instead refering to them as having been handed down in the name of the Apostles. 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 Apostolic Constitutions. In reality Dionysius made three versions of the Apostolic Canons[6]; 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[7], 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.[8] 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 (492-96) they are denounced as an apocryphal book, i. e. not recognized by the Catholic Church[9], 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 prœbuere facilem).

Hincmar of Reims (died 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.

The influence of the Apostolic Canons was greatly increased by the various versions of them soon current in the Christian Church, East and West. We have already indicated the influence of the second Latin version of Dionysius Exiguus. They were also translated (more or less fully) into Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, and Armenian; in general they seem to have furnished during the fifth and sixth centuries a large element of the ecclesiastical legislation in the Eastern Church[10]. The manuscripts of the (Greek) Apostolic Canons are described by Pitra[11]; the manuscripts of the Latin versions of Dionysius Exiguus, by C. H. Turner[12]. The fifty Latin canons were first printed in Jacques Merlin's edition of the Councils (Paris, 1524); the eighty-five Greek Canons by G. Holoander, in his edition of Justinian's Novels (Nuremberg, 1531), whence they made their way into the earlier editions of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Corpus Juris Canonici, and the large collections of acts and decrees of the councils.

A few other ancient canonical texts that claim 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 Apostolic Council of Antioch (see Council of Jerusalem). They may be read in Pitra, Hist. et monumenta Juris eccl. Græcorum (Rome, 1864), I, 88-91; also in Lagarde, Reliquiæ juris eccl. antiquissimæ græce, 18-20, and in Harnack, Mission und 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 (Francisco Torres) defended their authenticity, his chief argument being a reference of Pope 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 centres chiefly in the first canon, which decrees that the Galileans shall henceforth be called Christians (see Acts 11:26), a holy people, a royal priesthood (see 1 Peter 2:9) 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 und Ausbreitung des Christentums, Leipzig, 1902; Paul Lejay, in Revue du clergé français, 15 Oct., 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 of Alexandria[13] - "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 the Council of 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 Cæsarea and to have been found there by the blessed martyr, Pamphilus[14].

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 afore-mentioned canon 1, and then added the other precepts — canon 9 reproduces the decree of Acts, xv, 29. Dallæus (Daillé) charged Turrianus with downright forgery of all these canons[15], and deliberate corruption of the text of Ps. xvi, 14, "they are full of children" (hyion), making it read hyieon — 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 (Codex Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, manuscripts dated by scholars to the fourth century). In other words the Scripture-text used by these canons postdates Origen (who lived at the end of the second through the middle of the third century). This is evidence of their great antiquity.


  1. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Apostolic Canons
  2. ^ ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily | Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  3. ^ 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 Dictionary de théology catholic, II, 1607-8, and the new French translation of Hefele's History of the Councils, Paris, 1907, 1206-11.
  4. ^ Die apostol. Konstitutionen, 204-5.
  5. ^ See Henri Justel-Voellus, Bibliotheca Juris Canonici veteris, Paris, 1661, II, 501.
  6. ^ The oldest of them first edited by C. H. Turner, Ecclesiæ Occidentalis monumenta juris antiquissima, Oxford, 1899, fasc. I, 1-32.
  7. ^ Patrologia Latina LXVII, 9 sqq.
  8. ^ 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, Friedrich Maassen, Gesch. der Quellen und Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande, Gratz, 1872, 438-40.
  9. ^ Thiel, epistolæ Rom. pontificum genuinæ, 1867, I, 53-58, 454-71; Von Funk, op. cit., II, 40.
  10. ^ See the detailed description of the so-called 127 Copto-Arabic canons, by F. Nau in Dict. de théol. cath., II, 1612-19; also Funk, Die apostolischen Konstitutionen, Rottenburg, 1891, and the articles APOSTOLIC CHURCH-ORDINANCE[1], EGYPTIAN CHURCH-ORDINANCE[2], Didache, DIDASCALIA APOSTOLORUM[3].
  11. ^ Juris ecc. Græcorum historia et monumenta, Rome, 1864, I, 3-4.
  12. ^ op. cit. supra, fasc. I. p. 1; cf. Von Funk, Didascalia et Constitutiones apostolorum, (Paderborn, 1906), I, xlviii-liv, also xxiv-xlviii.
  13. ^ Contra Celsum, VIII, 29, Patrologia Graeca, XI, 1560.
  14. ^ cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 32, 3.
  15. ^ De pseudepigraphis apostolicis libri tres, 1653, III, cc. xxii-xxv, pp. 687-737.

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