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 (excommunucation, 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 Scripture (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 in 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 théol. 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 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 (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 confined 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 Apostolic Constitutions. In reality Dionysius made three versions of the Apostolic Canons (the oldest of them first edited by C. H. Turner, Ecclesiæ 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 und 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, epistolæ Rom. pontificum genuinæ, 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 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 (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, EGYPTIAN CHURCH-ORDINANCE, DIDACHE, DIDASCALIA APOSTOLORUM). The manuscripts of the (Greek) Apostolic Canons are described by Pitra, "Juris ecc. Græcorum historia et monumenta", Rome, 1864, I, 3-4; the manuscripts of the Latin versions of Dionysius Exiguus, by C. H. Turner, op. cit. supra, fasc. I. p. 1; cf. Von Funk, "Didascalia et Constitutiones apostolorum", (Paderborn, 1906), I, xlviii-liv, also xxiv-xlviii. 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 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. 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 (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 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 (Against Celsus VIII.29 "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 15:6-28, 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 Cæsarea and to have been found there by the blessed martyr, Pamphilus (cf. Eusebius, Church History 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 11:26, into the form of the afore-mentioned canon 1, and then added the other precepts — canon 9 reproduces the decree of Acts 15:29. At any rate Dallæus (Daillé) 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 Psalm 16:14, "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 (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus). In other words the Scripture-text used by these canons antedates Origen, and is, in itself, an evidence of their great antiquity. (See ANTIOCH.)
The critical text of the Apostolic Canons is that of the late IGNAZ VON FUNK, a monument of exact scholarship: Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum (Paderborn, 1906, I, 565-95, with valuable notes. The best historical study of their origin and nature is also owing to VON FUNK, Die apostolischen Konstitutionen (Rottenburg, 1891), 180-206; IDEM, Das achte Buck der apostolischen Konstitutionen und die verwandten Schriften (Tübingen, 1893), and his Kirchengeschichtliche Abhandlungen (Paderborn, 1899, 1907), II, 369-72, III, 355 sqq. He was preceded in the nineteenth century by SEBASTIAN DREY (like Funk a professor of the Catholic faculty of theology in the University of Tübingen, where the study of these ancient texts has become an academic heirloom), Neue Untersuchungen über die Constitutionen und Kanones der Apostel (Tübingen, 1832), and by the learned J. W. BICKELL, Gesch d. Kirckenrechts (Giessen, 1843).
Among the older erudite researches into the history and study of the Apostolic Canons honour is due especially to the Anglican savant G. BEVERIDGE, Synodicon sive Pandectæ canonum sanctorum Apostolorum et conciliorum ab ecclesiâ græcâ receptorum (Oxford, 1672-82; see P.G., CXXXVII, 36-217, For the Apostolic Canons, text and commentary of BEVERIDGE); JUSTEL, Codex canonum ecclesiæ universæ a Justiniano imperatore confirmatus . . . . C. J(ustel) latinum fecit et notisillustravit (Paris, 1610-1618; re-edited by VLLUS as Bibliotheca juris canonici veteris, Paris, 1661); DE MARCA, Dissertatio de veterum canonum collectionibus in his Opuscula (Paris, 1681); GALLAND, De vetustis canonum collectionibus dissertationum sylloge (Venice, 1778). See MACNALLAY, The Apostolical Canons in Greek, Latin and English with Notes (London, 1867); LIGHTFOOT, St. Clement of Rome (London, 1890), I, III, 187, 308; LAUCHERT, Die kanones der wichtigsten altkirchlichen Concilien, nebst den apostolischen Kanones (Leipzig, 1896); NAU, Canons des Apótres in Dict. de théol. cath. (1905), II, 5-12; HEFELE, tr. LECLERCQ, Histoire des Conciles, nouvelle traduction française faite sur la deuxième éd. allemande, corrigée et augmentée de notes critiques et biblioqraphiques (Paris, 1907), I, ii, 1203-21, with an excellent bibliography, 1216-21; ACHELIS in Real-Encyc. f. prot. Theol. und Kirche (Leipzig, 1896), I, 734-41, s.v. Apostolische Kanones; BAUDENHEWER, Patrologie (Freiburg, 1901), 310-14.
APA citation. (1908). Apostolic Canons. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 26, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03279a.htm
MLA citation. "Apostolic Canons." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 26 Apr. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03279a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.