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Apostolic Constitutions and Canons


Origin and History (§ 1).

The Constitutions, Books i.-vi. (§ 2).

Books vii. and viii. (§ 3).

The Canons (§ 4).

1. Origin and History.

Apostolic Constitutions and Canons is the name applied to an ancient collection of ecclesiastical precepts. The Constitutions profess to be regulations for the organization of the Church put forth by the apostles themselves and published to the faithful by Clement of Rome. In reality they are of Syrian origin, and were composed by a cleric from older sources in the latter half of the fourth century. They consist of eight books. The eighty-five Canons have the form of synodal decisions, and proceeded from the same source not much later. The fate of the two collections, so nearly allied in their origin, has been different. The Constitutions can never have been received outside of a narrow circle. They were considered spurious even in an extremely uncritical age, and thus never came as a whole into any of the great collections of ecclesiastical law in the East, though a part of the eighth book is frequently met with in these. They were unknown in the West until the sixteenth century, at which time neither Baronius nor Bellarmine made any attempt to vindicate their authenticity, though Anglican theologians took a great interest in them and frequently upheld their apostolic origin. The Canons, on the other hand, were generally received as genuine, included in many collections of Church law, and translated into several Oriental languages; to this day they stand at the beginning of the canonical system of the Eastern Church. The first fifty were made known to the West by Dionysius Exiguus (d. before 544), from whom they passed into a number of Latin collections, e.g., the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, the Decretum Gratiani, and the Decretals of Gregory IX.

2. The Constitutions, Books i.–vi.

The criticism of the Constitutions was placed upon secure foundations for the first time when their sources were definitely assigned—the first six books (by Lagarde) to the Didascalia, the seventh to the Didache, and the eighth to the writings of Hippolytus of Rome. The first of these sources is a constitution of the third century, written by a bishop of Cœle-Syria and attributed by him to the twelve apostles. Its unique value lies in the fact that it gives a picture down to the minutest details, of the life of a Christian community of the third century. The daily life of the individual and the family, the public worship, the wide practical charity and the strict moral discipline, the relation of the Church to the State and to the surrounding world, in science, art, and literature—all this is vividly depicted in the Didascalia. It throws a great deal of light on the origin of the order of deaconesses. Some things are peculiar; thus the New Testament canon includes, besides the four canonical Gospels, that of Peter and probably that according to the Hebrews, and some apocryphal Acta in addition to the canonical Acts. Striking characteristics are the friendly tone toward the Jews, in contrast with a hostile feeling toward the Jewish Christians; apparently the author was at the head of a community of Gentile Christians, and found that a neighboring Jewish-Christian community had a greater influence upon his flock than he approved. Ascetic directions in regard to mastery over the flesh are entirely wanting.

3. Books vii. and viii.

The first thirty-two chapters of the seventh book of the Constitutions are a mere recasting of the Didache. Noteworthy liturgical prayers (xxxiii.-xxxviii.) and directions as to baptism (xxxix.-xlv.) follow; the baptismal creed in chapter xli. played a not unimportant part in the councils of the fourth century. The eighth book is a compilation from various sources. Chapters i. and ii. contain an independent treatise on the charismata, which, since Hippolytus is known to have written on this subject, is supposed with great probability to be his. With chap iv. begins a liturgical directory which is ascribed directly to the apostles; chaps. v.-xv. form the well-known “Clementine” liturgy. Achelis has tried to demonstrate that the source of this part is the Egyptian church directory, which in its turn is derived from the Canones Hippolyti (preserved in an Arabic version). If this theory is correct, this part of the eighth book also would be ultimately due to Hippolytus. The Egyptian directory was a Greek work of the third century, which is preserved only in the Oriental versions. In opposition to Achelis, Funk, of Tübingen, maintained that the Apostolic Constitutions were the original work, the Egyptian directory derived from them, and the Canones Hippolyti from that again. The compiler of the Constitutions acted as an editor in dealing with his sources, attempting by revision and addition to fuse the various sources into a serviceable whole. He was an inhabitant of Syria, possibly a neighbor of the earlier author of the Didascalia. A connection can be traced between him and the pseudo-Ignatius, the Syrian forger who made twelve letters out of the seven genuine ones of Ignatius; certainly allied in time and thought with this man, he may have been identical with him. His date has been variously given, from c. 350 to c. 400, and can probably never be accurately determined, as the Constitutions have clearly been retouched later, especially the eighth book, which was the most used.

4. The Canons.

The Apostolic Canons grew up in the same surroundings, probably with the view of covering the lack of authenticity of the Constitutions by a new forgery. Their numbering varies; the division into eighty-five seems to be the oldest. Outside of the Constitutions, their sources are the decrees of the Dedication Synod of Antioch in 341 and other councils. Canon lxxxv. is the interesting Bible canon of both the Old and New Testaments, which omits the Apocalypse, but includes the two Clementine epistles and the Constitutions as Scripture.

Information as to other Oriental writings more or less connected with the Constitutions and their sources may be found in W. Riedel, Die Kirchenrechtsquellen 246 des Patriarchats Alexandrien (Leipsic, 1900), which treats among others the Thirty Traditions of the Apostles, the Arabic Didascalia, and a version of this, the Ethiopic Didascalia—a comparatively late work which has nothing to do with the Syriac Didascalia, but is probably related to the Testamentum Jesu Christi. An Oriental corpus, the Clementina, consists of the Testamentum, the Apostolic and Egyptian directories, an extract from the Constitutions, and the Apostolic Canons. It is divided into eight books by the Arabic and Syriac copyists. The title and introduction are taken from the Constitutions, to which the Clementina was intended as a supplement.

H. Achelis.

Bibliography: Editions: The Constitutions are in Cotelerius-Clericus, Sanctorum patrum . . . opera, i. 190-482, Amsterdam, 1724 (reproduced in MPG, i.); W. Ültzen, Constitutiones apostolicœ, Schwerin, 1853; P. de Lagarde, Constitutiones apostolorum, Leipsic, 1862, and in C. C. J. Bunsen, Analecta Ante-Nicœna, ii., London, 1854 (the first critical ed.). The Canons are included in most council collections, in the Corpus juris civilis and Corpus juris canonici. For the Syriac consult: P. de Lagarde, Didascalia apostolorum syriace, Leipsic, 1854; M. D. Gibson, in Horœ Semiticœ, i.-ii., London, 1903 (with Eng. transl., from recently discovered MSS.). From the Latin: E. Hanler, Didascaliœ apostolorum fragmenta Veronensia Latina, Leipsic, 1900; H. Achelis and J. Flemming, in TU, new ser., x. 2, ib. 1904, cf. H. Achelis, in TU, vi. 4, ib.1891, and in ZKG, xv. (1894) 1 sqq. The Eng. transl. of Whiston is given with notes in ANF, vii. 391-505 (reproduced from the second volume of his Primitive Christianity). Consult also F. X. Funk, Die apostolischen Konstitutionen, Rottenburg, 1891; W. Riedel, in Römische Quartalschrift, xiv. (1900) 3 sqq.; J. Leypoldt, Saidische Auszüge aus dem achten Buche der apostolischen Konstitutionen, in TU, new ser., xi. 1, Leipsic, 1904; G. Horner, The Statutes of the Apostles; or, Canones ecclesiastici, ed. with Transl. from Ethiopic and Arabic MSS. . . . London, 1905; D. L. O’Leary, Apostolical Constitutions, ib. 1906. The discussions upon the Didache and the Apostolical Church Directory involve the Constitutions and Canons.

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