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Apostolic Constitutions and Canons

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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This work (of the 4th or 5th cent. a.d., but based on more ancient materials) is divided into eight books, dealing, in rambling and hortatory fashion, with the problems of church life and discipline. The chief interest of its contents lies in the miscellaneous information afforded regarding the customs of an early period; the theological leanings, if definitely present at all, are difficult to determine; the copious Scripture quotations often support ‘Western’ readings. At the end of the eighth book come 85 ‘Apostolic Canons,’ which have attracted special attention.

The claim made by its title (Διαταγαὶ τῶν ἁγίων ἀποστόλων διὰ Κλήμεντος τοῦ Ῥωμαίων ἐπισκόπου τε καὶ πολίτου. Καθολικὴ διδασκαλία) is re-stated in the conclusion and amplified in vi. 14, 18: ‘We now assembled, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite, and Matthias who instead of Judas was numbered with us, and James the brother of our Lord and bishop of Jerusalem, and Paul … and have written to you this catholic doctrine [which] we have sent by our fellow-minister Clement.’ The direct authority of Christ is also adduced in ii. 1: ‘Concerning bishops we have heard from our Lord’; and in v. 7: ‘We teach you all these things which He appointed by His constitutions.’ The collective apostolic authorship is recalled to the reader’s mind from time to time by casual phrases such as ‘we twelve,’ ‘Philip our fellow-apostle’; while by a curious device, from time to time, without any break in the discourse, one or other of the apostles takes the word out of the common mouth and speaks in his own name, especially at points where the reference is to his personal experience; as ii. 57: ‘Read the gospels which I, Matthew and John, have delivered unto you,’ and v. 14; ‘I arose up from lying in His bosom.’ Near the end the apostles in turn each deliver one or more ‘constitutions.’

For any modern reader a cursory glance will dispose of these claims. The detailed injunctions about ordinations and festivals, the triumphant proof of the possibility of the Resurrection by a reference to the phœnix, do not strike the apostolic note; and it is easy to remark definite points such as the reference to the heresy of Basilides (vi. 8), and the conversion of the Romans (vi. 24), which show the suggestion of the title to be unwarranted. The author, however, found the apostolic claim made in the sources he used; his own contribution to the fiction is the assertion that Clement was the channel of communication.

In 692 the Trullan Council of Constantinople repudiated the ‘Constitutions’ as having been tampered with by heretics, but accepted the 85 Canons; while, although in the Gelasian Decree they are called apocryphal, Dionysius Exiguus (circa, about a.d. 500) had translated 50 of the Canons into Latin, and thus these 50 obtained acceptance in the West. The 85 Canons were translated into Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic; and, though the ‘Constitutions’ was not translated as a whole, and, in the West, remained unknown, we find Nicetas (a.d. 1154) quoting books v. vi. vii. in his book contra Latinos. After the first publication of the Greek text at Venice, in 1563, by the Jesuit Turrianus from a good Cretan manuscript , the spuriousness of their authority soon came to be recognized. The convenient edition of W. Ültzen (Schwerin and Rostock, 1853) is based on this text.

Modern criticism, it may be said summarily, has shown that the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ is a compilation made by a single writer, often referred to as pseudo-Clement, who seems identifiable with the author of the spurious Ignatian epistles; that it is of Syrian origin, and that it must be dated in the 4th or early in the 5th century. One leading consideration is the absence of a polemical theological note, which demands a period sufficiently subsequent to the Council of Nicaea (a.d. 325). Interest is thus transferred to the task of distinguishing the older materials present, and tracing in them, and in the modifications made by the compiler, and by still later hands (especially in book viii., which, being most in practical use, was subject to current alteration), the flux of ecclesiastical usages-a task in which the Church historian still waits to some extent for the textual critic.

Books i-vi. are based on the Didascalia, a book originally written in Greek, but known only through a single manuscript of the Syriac version, now in Paris, published as Didascalia apostolorum syriace by P. Lagarde (Leipzig, 1854), by M. D. Gibson with Eng. translation in Horœ Semiticœ, i., ii. (Cambridge, 1903), by H. Achelis in Texte and Untersuchungen xxv. 2 [1904]. This document is to be placed in Syria about the middle of the 3rd century. It contemplates a large city-church attended by all sorts and conditions, conscious of the gull between Christians and pagans, yet apparently neither persecuted nor unpopular. After some general exhortations to men and women, the subject of the bishop and his duties is treated in detail. Remarkable emphasis is laid on a ready and kindly reception of the penitent. We hear of Church courts for civil cases between Christian disputants, which are to meet on Monday, so that feeling may be cooled before the days of worship. The church building lies eastwards-in the direction of the earthly Paradise-and is arranged with special seats for the Presbytery and the different sexes and ages in the congregation. Deacons, sub-deacons, deaconesses, widows, orphans, martyrs, readers, are mentioned as special classes. By a strange chronology of the Passion, a foundation is offered for Easter regulations evidently requiring defence, whether as new or as in conflict with neighbouring custom. There are some Jewish-Christian members, and at the close these are specially addressed. The style throughout is homiletic, with copious citations from Scripture. A short account of this book is given in Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity2 (translation Moffatt, London, 1908), ii. 157, 158.

The work of the compiler of the ‘Constitutions’ is seen in the additional Scripture references, moral reflexions and exhortations. He makes, for example, an unhappily conceived attempt at an elaborate analogy between a well-arranged church and a ship, the deacons being the sailors, the congregation passengers, and so forth. He revises the account of the Passion referred to, in the interests of the shorter fast of his day (v. 14). He boldly reverses the direction to follow the Jewish computation for Easter (ib. 17). He refers to the Roman adoption of Christianity (vi. 24), where instead the Didascalia mentions persecution.

Book vii. consists of an amplification of the Didache (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) with modifications. An injunction to fear the king (ch. 16) and pay taxes willingly is inserted. The permission of warm water at baptism is omitted (ch. 20). The rule about weekly fast-days is taken to apply to the Easter fast. The connexion of Eucharist with Agape, apparent in the Didache, is avoided. A number of liturgical forms are appended, among which the baptismal symbol in ch. 41 has been doubtfully attributed to Lucian of Antioch-a suggestion which might, as Achelis points out, connect the ‘Constitutions’ with his congregation. For a comparison of book vii. with the Didache see Harnack, ‘Didache,’ in Texte and Untersuchungen ii. 2 [1884], and article Didache below.

Behind book viii. are various sources. The first two paragraphs are thought by Achelis to be founded on Hippolytus’ lost work περὶ χαρισμάτων. After there treating of the diversity of spiritual gifts, the writer goes on to 24 chapters, in which the apostles, gathered in council, deliver singly, in turn, ‘constitutions’ concerning the choice and ordination of bishops and other officers; concerning presbyters, deacons, sub-deacons, readers, widows, exorcists, and their functions; concerning tithes and offerings, the reception of catechumens, holy days, church services and prayers. The main source is thought to be the ‘Egyptian Church Order,’ originally in Greek, but known through its Coptic and Ethiopic versions, this in turn being based upon the ‘Canons of Hippolytus’ (circa, about a.d. 220). Both of these may be compared with the ‘Constitutions’ in Texte and Untersuchungen vi. 4 [1891], pp. 39-136. The dependence of the ‘Constitutions’ on these Canons, though not noted in the complete Manuscripts (unless, indeed, the old conjecture were revived that in the title, after Κλήμεντοςἐπισκόπου should be read καὶ Ἱππολύτου, instead of τε καὶ πολίτου), is pointed out by the title Διατάξεις τῶν ἁγίων ἀποστόλων περὶ χειροτονιῶν διὰ Ἱππολύτου, in excerpts from book viii. Whether, however, the ‘Egyptian Church Order’ needs to be inserted as a link between book viii. and the ‘Canons of Hippolytus’ has teen disputed.

The most noteworthy sections of book viii. are those containing a complete liturgy for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The catechumens, hearers, unbelievers, and heterodox are to depart. Mothers are to ‘receive’ their children-that is, to keep them quiet, else they would continue straying to and fro between the women’s seats and their fathers, as may still be seen in Eastern Christian worship. Two deacons are to fan away flies from the cups. The high priest consecrates, the service proceeds with responses and prayers. First the bishop, then the presbyters and deacons partake, and then the people, who after further prayer are dismissed with the benediction ‘Depart in peace.’ To the older source the compiler of the ‘Constitutions’ adds that the high priest puts on ‘his shining garment’ and crosses himself; and, after the deacons, adds a long list of classes of partakers, ending with the children; and orders Psalms 33 to be said while the distribution takes place.

In comparison with its sources, book viii. shows a hardening of ecclesiastic rule, e.g. in the decision that a confessor must not on any account be dispensed from the need of being ordained if he proceeds to office. A still later change is seen in the suppression of all mention of porters in this book. This cannot be due to pseudo-Clement, for he names them In the preceding books; when they had disappeared in practice, the references must have been deleted from the familiar book viii., but left unnoticed elsewhere.

The 85 ‘Canons’ at the end of book viii. gained, as we have seen, a partly independent currency: 20 are derived from the Synod of Antioch (a.d. 341); at least 24 repeat regulations from the ‘Constitutions’; the others are likelier to be taken from various sources than to be original inventions. They are to be put a little later than the ‘Constitutions.’ The most remarkable is that which enumerates the canonical books of Scripture, omitting the Apocalypse from the NT canon, but inserting the two epistles of Clement and the ‘Apostolic Constitutions,’ and, after this audacity, with an artistic touch modestly placing ‘the Acts of us Apostles’ at the bottom of the list.

Other matters contained in the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ may be briefly noticed. In the ‘bidding prayers’ in book viii. a touching light is thrown on the composition of the Church by the reference to those in bitter servitude (viii. 10; cf. the instruction to admit a slave concubine to membership if faithful to her master [ib. 32]). A different aspect of affairs is revealed by the list in iv. 6 of those whose gifts should not be received-adulterers, cruel employers, idol-makers, thieves, unjust publicans, drunkards, usurers, A strange piece of advice follows-that, if such contributions have to be taken, they shall be expended in fuel for the needy rather than in food, as the putrid sacrificial meat is ordered in Leviticus 19:6 to be burnt.

The transition from ‘Sabbath’ (Saturday) to ‘the Lord’s day’ (Sunday) as the day of worship is seen in process. Book ii. 36 enjoins observance of Sabbath; in ch. 47 the language suggests both days, although the thought has in view perhaps only one; ch. 59 shows the hesitancy of a time of change, saying first ‘principally on the Sabbath,’ then ‘on the Lord’s day meet more diligently.’ Bk. v. 20 enjoins both days: vii. 23 enjoins first both, then says ‘there is one only Sabbath to be observed in the whole year,’ that before Easter, as a fast, for then Christ was in the tomb. Book viii. 33 enjoins rest for slaves on both days. As regards other holy days, Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, are mentioned (v. 14, 15); further, Pentecost and St. Stephen’s Day (viii. 33).

Baptism ritual is elaborate. Before and after immersion there is anointing. Presbyters can baptize, though not ordain (iii. 10, 11). Deaconesses are useful, especially in the baptism of women (ib. 15). Canon 50 orders trine immersion.

The bishop is to be ordained by two or three bishops after he is chosen by the people, who are to be repeatedly asked for their consent to procedure (viii. 4). A chief duty of’ his, requiring acuteness and tact and honour, is the charge of the almsgiving (ii. 4). Exorcists are recognized as doing good work, though they are not to be ordained.

In public worship (ii. 57) the bishops and presbyters sit, the deacons stand near, the congregation are seated according to age and sex, children may stand beside their parents. Deacons walk about to check whispering, laughing, or sleeping. Lessons from the historical and poetical books of the OT respectively are followed by a Psalm sung solo, the congregation joining ‘at the conclusions of the verses’; then comes a lesson from the Acts or Epistles, and after this all stand at the reading of the Gospel. If visiting bishops, presbyters, or deacons are present, they are to be recognized as such, and, especially visiting bishops, are to be asked to speak, There is daily morning and evening service (ii. 59, viii. 34, 35), and temptation both to neglect it and to attend heathen and Jewish services.

Curiosities of thought and diction are: warnings to males against dressiness-they may thus snare the frail fair (i. 3); warnings to women not to paint the face, ‘which is God’s workmanship’ (ib. 8); the reason in favour of secrecy in almsgiving, that thus comparisons and grumbling are prevented among the recipients (iii. 14); an elaborate comparison of spiritual and physical healing (ii. 41), which gives a vivid picture of contemporary medicine and surgery, at least as it appeared to the author’s imagination:

‘If it be a hollow wound or great gash, nourish it with a suitable plaster; … it foul, cleanup with corrosive powder, that is, words of reproof; if it have proud flesh, eat it down with a sharp plaster-threats of judgment: if it spreads. cut off the putrid flesh; … but if there is no room for a fomentation, or oil, or bandage, then, with a great deal or consideration, and the advice of other skilful physicians, cut off the putrefied member, that the whole church be not corrupted.… Be not hasty with the saw, but first try lancing.’

A quaint story is told by Peter (vi. 8f.) about Simon Magus, who, to recommend his heresies, flew in the air in a Roman theatre supported by demons, till Peter exorcized them and Simon fell and broke his legs, whereupon the people cried out: ‘There is only one God, and Peter rightly preaches the truth.’

Literature.-In addition to the references already given, full notes will be found in H. Achelis’ valuable article ‘Apostol. Konstitutionen u. Kanones’ in Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3 i. [1896]. The ‘Ante-Nicene Library’ (vol. xvii.) contains an Eng. translation, See also the notices in A. Harnack, Gesch. der altchristlischen Litteratur, pt. i. [Leipzig. 1893]; A. J. Maclean, Recent Discoveries illustrating Early Christian Life and Worship, London, 1904; W. E. Collins, article ‘Apostol. Constitutions’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 ii. [1910].

R. W. Stewart.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Apostolic Constitutions and Canons'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/apostolic-constitutions-and-canons.html. 1906-1918.
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