Category Archives: Other church order literature

Consider a new Church Order

I recently discovered an interesting article by F. Stanley Jones in A. Özen (ed.), Historische Wahrheit und theologische Wissenschaft, Gerd Lüdemann zum 50. Geburtstag, Frankfurt 1996, pp. 87-104. In “The Genre of the Book of Elchesai”, the author collects the fragmentary evidence on the Parthian book of revelation called “book of Elchesai/Elxai”, that was brought to Rome under a “heretic” called Alcibiades towards the end of the 2nd century. Fragments and polemics remain in the works of Hippolyt and Epiphanius as well as in Origens Homily on Psalms 82, preserved in Eus. h.e. 6.38.

Jones argues against former common sense that the Book of Elchasai was an apocalyptic text. Without entering the debate about the nature of Church Orders, he states: “the primary focus of the writing is on regulating the life of Christian, which is a reasonable starting point for defining a church order.” He then lists the fragments that address the life of the Christians, which focus on the renunciation of idolatry “with the lips, not the heart”, baptism, impartation of the secret prayer, astrological instructions, instructions on the direction of prayer,  the avoidance of fire, and more.

He adds further arguments to strengthen his case: the author, who seems to be a “religious authority”, uses first person singular to adress his readers, that is, the congregation. He adds examples to support the casuistic logic – and probably to convince his readers of his demands. Finally, “Elchasai was one of these leaderss who, similar to Paul, was engaged in the process of ordering early Christian life, only Elchesai wrote an actual church order rather than merely sporadic letters to congregations.”

I will have to take some time and check the fragments as well as the secondary literature that links the book of Elchasai to Judaism and Manichaism in order to fully evaluate Jones’ arguments. I tend to agree with Jones’ view, but given the fragmentary state of the book, who knows what the original was like? But the article was very interesting to read; it is a reminder that we should open our eyes in the search for more and lesser-known Church Orders.


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The Coptic version of the Canons of Basil: a progress report

Way back in 2014 I reported on the discovery of a Coptic codex of the Canons of Basil. Alberto Camplani had confirmed to me that a codex had been discovered, and that a progress report was forthcoming. This report has now been published: Alberto Camplani and Federico Contardi, “The Canons Attributed to Basil of Caesarea: A New Coptic Codex” in Paola Buzi, Alberto Camplani, Federico Contardi (ed.), Coptic Society, Literature and Religion from Late Antiquity to Modern Times: Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, Rome, September 17th-22nd, 2012, and Plenary Reports of the Ninth International Congress of Coptic Studies, Cairo, September 15th-19th, 2008 Vol. 2 (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 979-992. Federico Contardi has kindly sent me a copy of this report.
Camplani and Contardi report that the codex was discovered in Sheikh Abd el-Gurna by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology under the direction of Tomasz Górecki, on a rubbish dump outside tomb 1152 (dating from the Middle Kingdom) which was reused in the Coptic Period as a hermitage. The codex is preserved in the National Museum of Alexandria, identified as Coptic Ms. 1. It is almost complete.
What is particularly interesting about this Coptic version, by distinction to the published Arabic, is the presence of much more apparatus of pseudonymy, some of which is described in the report. This links with that described by Alin Suciu in Coptic apocrypha, and discussed briefly below, and lends support to the suggestion of Camplani that the Canons should be given an Egyptian and sixth century provenance.
We look forward to the forthcoming preliminary edition by Contardi and Camplani, to be followed by an editio maior containing Arabic and Coptic.

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A church order preserved in Nubian?

Looking for something else I come across the following from F. Ll. Griffith (ed.) The Nubian texts of the Christian period (Berlin: Verlag der Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Commission bei Georg Reimer, 1913), 16-19 (text), 19-23 (translation.)

Griffith opines that these are “not a series of canons but a Sunday homily or exhortation on the offering of oblations and behaviour at the Eucharist.” (23) Perhaps we might see this as a church order. It is of gnomic character, and the title, appearing to enumerate 80 canons, is intriguing.

I provide Griffith’s translation to give a flavour of the work. Griffith supplies a text and some annotation.


These are the canons of the churches which the holy fathers, having assembled (?) in Nicaea, discussed (?), wrote, and established by authority (?), being eighty (?).

Beloved: when a certain man (?) hath spoken a vow (?), (namely) this Holy Feast which remains on the table: it is simply (?) bread and simply (?) wine (?) and comes out from (?) the church(?) by (?) the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost in the time of presentation (?) and the arrival of the moment (?).

Verily when a man dedicates an oblation in the church, whether it be wine or whether it be wheat, and the priest docs not give one in return, and he says in his heart I have not eaten with the priest, I have not drunken with the priest, he hath not reward (?) from heaven in Jerusalem. And God, the possessor (?) of life, withdraweth (?) his light, because he hath desired that which is from earth and refused that which is from heaven, namely the mercies (?) which thy (?) God in his fullness (?) hath granted (?).

Verily a donor (?) having pronounced a vow, namely oblations dedicated in the church, the children of the church shall eat them (?), the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost come out from (?) the church.

Verily a man having repented (?) in his heart and dedicated an oblation in the church, whether it be wine or wheat or durra-seed down to green vegetable (?); then he, the Lord, will rejoice (?) in his heart and receive (it) through his holy angel.

Have ye not heard that which is written, …. gift … God, him that giveth cheerfully (?) God loveth (?)? All men who working for the name of God benefit themselves (?), they shall not find benefit (?) through God.

And now therefore (?) man that which ye do for the name of God, do ye cheerfully. And one was written men about to (?) become in that (?) … shall become (?) covetous (?), shall become (?) without …, shall become …, shall become man-hating, shall become . . ., shall become covetous (?) of the priesthood (?). And all this … beloved, enquire ye unwillingly (?); let us have friendship (?), let us seek peace; and when ye sit (?) enquire ye with desire (?), because coveting (?) ye are fearful of death. Without ceasing (?) let us pray to God that lie may give us remission of our sins.

Behold (?) hear ye a witness (?).

Verily a layman having … and eaten the food of the church, he shall … the priest … and shall … And now therefore (?). … enquire ye in … requital (?) … in desire (?) enquire ye.

And when thou hast sat down remain far (?) from the feast. And when thou hast (?) received the feast purify (?) thy heart and voice and come and receive the feast. And verily if not, it is destruction.

Verily if thou comest not at peace with a teaching man (?) thou art a feast-taker (?).

Verily when thou desirest to receive the feast come out first and come in good will (?) ; verily if thou art not in good will (?) remain outside (?) the church: wilt thou … through God be friendly? And if not, thus wilt thou … and … the laws of God?

And when thou hast received the feast, remain in the church till the dismissal. Remember what was done to Judas the betrayer: having taken the feast he went out of the church not having been dismissed (?), and Satan entered (?) into his heart and persuaded him(?) to betray.

In truth thou also, when the church has not been dismissed, art … It is that which God shall take as cause and requite upon thee. Be not condemned for eternity with Judas on account of the short moment after this (?).

I have seen many when they have received the sacrament eat when the church is not open: woe to their hearts! Shall they receive in exchange (?) remission of sin, because they were able (?) to … ?

Verily a donor (?) who has eaten when the church was not open, he hath cause in a great…

Verily a donor (?) who has eaten and received the sacrament loveth (?) light with the eater of the dead (?).

A donor (?) who not hearing the epistle and gospel hath received the sacrament, hath not received.

A donor (?) who hath not sung alleluia with the singers insulteth God his Maker. For Alleluia is Thelkath Marimath: and the saying being interpreted is “Let us glorify God who founded all (things), and let us love and worship (?) him.”

Woe be to the man who speaketh in the church at the time (?) of the sacrament! For he that speaketh in the church at the time (?) of the sacrament is negligent (?) more than (?) all the negligent (?) ones. For the man that speaketh in the church is the enemy of God. For these are like the Jews who having hanged the Saviour on the cross mocked him — they who speak when this sacrament is upon the table. He, the Lord it is who hath said “and the Jews alone (?) openly rejected (?) me.” And you who speak in the church at all times, behold (?), hearken ye to the warning (?).

Verily one in(?) dedicating an oblation in the church by means of (?) the act (?) of service of life he shall write his name in Jerusalem. And his reward with the priest here (?) is one loaf one finger (?) of wine: for this is what was taken by God.

Woe be to the priest who sitteth on the Lord’s day amongst …. one by … departing and eating (?) will requite (?) that one’s sin upon the scalp (?) of the head of the priest in the fulness of the ages.

And all persons, either having become a woman being 12 years old shall give (?) or having become a man being 13 years old shall give (?); and … and verily he who hath . . . one of these, is good (?) both in the … of the flesh and the … of the …; and God will trying try his soul in hell.

Therefore (?) praise (?) God: praise (?) be Thine! In the hand of the living God I will overcome and expel!

And the priest each (?) Lord’s day shall cause them to hear this: for (?) it hath been done, that we may (?) attain (?) resurrection and grace (?) with our Lord Jesus Christ; whose be the glory and the power unto ages of ages! Amen.


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A new witness to the Fides patrum

Forthcoming in JTS (and now available as an advance publication on the journal’s website) is Lincoln H. Blumell “P.Mich. Inv. 4461KR: the earliest fragment of the Didascalia CCCXVIII patrum“.

Abstract: This article presents an edition of a previously unpublished literary papyrus in the University of Michigan collection that preserves a section from a text typically known by the designation Didascalia CCCXVIII Patrum Nicaenorum (CPG 2298). The papyrus, which appears to date to the fifth century ad, is important because it is only known ancient Greek witness to this treatise and attests a previously unknown textual variant.

Very exciting!

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Sunday Letter

On one of his latest excavations into Early Christian literature, Alistair Stewart aka Indiana Jones dug out an extraordinary text: (Hall 1893). He asked me whether this could be a Church Order. I identified the piece as the so-called Letter from Heaven (Himmelsbrief) – a text that I indicated as a possible Church Order more than a year ago in my response to Alistairs pioneering Church Order conspectus (

The letter, supposedly fallen from Heaven onto the grave of St. Peter in Rome (in other versions onto Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Constantinople…), supposedly written by Jesus Christ himself, has one principal claim: to observance Sunday (i.e. not to work but to attend the Church). Most fascinating about this text is not so much its obvious and daring forgery, but its immense success and spread. “Die älteste Überlieferung liegt in lateinischer Sprache vor; es sind außerdem griechische, syrische, koptische, arabische (einschließlich karschunische), äthiopische, armenische, russische, tschechische, polnische, ukrainische, südslavische, ungarische, rumänische, altirische, altenglische, walisische, mittelenglische, mittelhochdeutsche, mittelniederländische, altfranzösische, provenzalische, spanische, katalanische, italienische, isländische, dänische, norwegische und schwedische Fassungen bekannt.” (Palmer 1986).

These different recensions were developed between the 6th and the 20th century, obviously not without success. It is still not possible to make out its origins. The earliest references are found in the 6th century with Bishop Vincentius of Ibiza. On this basis Delehaye and others claimed a Spanish origin, whereas Van Esbroeck proposed a 5th century origin in Jerusalem.

In 1901, Carl Schmidt published a Coptic letter by Peter of Alexandria (3rd-4th century). Among narrative passages we find the same claim to observe Sundays rest and to attend the Church. Schmidt believed in its authenticity, whereas Delehaye, in his review, stated that in the early 4th century, there was no such thing as “legislation” on Sunday observance. He therefore claimed that the Coptic letter was another forgery, related to the above Sunday letter.

I remain skeptical. Not that the Coptic letter is necessarily written by Peter. But the “legislation” on Sunday observance is really strong in the 4th century. In Laodicea (around 360), can. 29, we read: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.” In the Church Order literature, we have a strong case in the Apostolic Constitutions (around 380), VIII.33: even slaves were not allowed to work on Sunday! In addition, we have the can. 11 of the Canons of Clement, although they are even more difficult to date.

In my opinion, a 4th or 5th century origin (Van Esbroeck) is very probable for both the Sunday Letter and the Coptic Letter by (Ps.-)Peter.

Finally, I tend to agree with Stewart that the text fails the principal criteria for being a Church Order: although it is an anonymous piece with normative elements, there are no pseudonymous or pseudapostolic tactics to strengthen the case. Also its content is too narrow, only regulating Sunday practices. With Van Esbroeck: “Il relève de plusieurs genres littéraires à la fois: l’apocalyptique, l’apocryphe, la prophétie, la lettre, le sermon sur l’obligation dominicale, et le code législatif antique lesté de bénédictions et de malédictions.”

Principal Literature (chronologically):

I.H. Hall, The Letter of Holy Sunday. Syriac Text and Translation, in: Journal Of The American Oriental Society 15 (1893), 121-137.

H. Delehaye, Note sur la légende de la lettre du Christ tombée du ciel, in: Bulletins de l’Academie royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres, 1899, 171-213.

C. Schmidt, Fragment einer Schrift des Märtyrer-Bischofs Petrus von Alexandrien, Leipzig 1901.

Reviewed by H. Delehaye, in Analecta Bollandiana 20 (1901), 101-103.

M. Bittner, Der vom Himmel gefallen Brief in seinen morgenländischen Versionen und Rezensionen, in: Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften: philosophisch-historische Klasse, 51 (1906) 1-240.

R. Stübe, Der Himmelsbrief. Ein Beitrag zur allgemeinen Religionsgeschichte, Tübingen 1918.

R. Priebsch, Letter from Heaven on the Observance of the Lord’s Day, Oxford 1936.

N.F. Palmer, Himmelsbrief, in: TRE 15 (1986), 344-346.

M. Van Esbroeck, La lettre sur le Dimanche, descendue du ciel, in: Analecta Bollandiana 107 (1989), 267-284.


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The Pseudo-Nicaean Canons

The council of Nicaea undoubtedly played an immense role in the development of the Christian Church, so it is no surprise that the canons of the council were of major importance to the early canonists. Not surprisingly too, the material ascribed to Nicaea is not small, as bishops and presbyters and scribes of all sort produced pseudonymous material to strengthen their case. What comes as a surprise is the fact, that most of it is not transmitted in Greek, but only in Coptic, Syriac or Arabic.

Stewart has produced a critical edition and translation of one of these documents, the Sententia Nicaea. (A.C. Stewart: The Gnomai of the Council of Nicaea. Critical text with transl., introd. and comm. Piscataway 2015) Other than their transmission, they have nothing to do with Nicaea at all, as far as I know.

Another set of material runs danger of being confused with the Sententia, namely “die arabischen Kanones des Nicaenums”, or, as I would name them, the Pseudo-Nicaean Canons.

The Arabic material is found in the canonical collection of Macarius (14th century), s. Riedel 1900, p. 121 ss., in which the Nicaean material is grouped into 4 books. The second book consists of these 84 Arabic canons, which were translated into Latin by Echellensis as the eorundem sanctorum patrum 318 sanctiones et decreta, published in Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collection, 1759, vol. 2, p. 981-1010. As mentioned in the previous post, a recension of it found its way into the Kitab al-Huda. This Arabic version was for a long time the only known version, hence the common name. Other than the shortened version of the Kitab al-Huda, there is no edition or modern translation.

More recent investigations pointed to the existence of the Syriac set of Pseudo-Nicaean Canons. They are linked to the name of Bishop Maruta of Maipherkat (4th/5th century), who supposedly translated the original Greek material into Syriac. The origin of the Pseudo-Nicaean Canons remains a mystery, though, and I feel more comfortable with Vööbus’ thesis of a grown tradition or living literature, that has its roots with Maruta and the early 5th century. I also cite Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. I, p. 588:

“Sicher waren die in Frage stehenden falschen Kanones von Nizäa schon vor 489 von der Kirche in Persien rezipiert, da eine so klare Anerkennung des römischen Primates, wie er in Kan. 2 (bei Maruta) ausgesprochen ist, nach der endgültigen Scheidung zwischen Römern (Griechen) und Persern nicht mehr denkbar ist. Die Geltung einzelner Kanones ist aber schon früher bezeugt…”

The Syriac version is edited and translated by A. Vööbus: The canons ascribed to Mārūtā of Maipherqaṭ and related sources. Louvain 1982 (CSCO 439-440), and translated into German by O. Braun: De sancta Nicaena synodo: syrische Texte des Maruta von Maipherkat, nach einer Handschrift der Propaganda zu Rom. Münster 1898.

Note that there are significant differences between the Arabic and the Syriac recensions, not only in the number of canons (84 in the Arabic, 73 in the Syriac) and the order of the material, but also in content. Depending from the Arabic set, there is again an Ethiopic version as part of the Senodos, ed. and transl. by P. Maurus a Leonessa: La versione etiopica dei canoni apocrifi del concilio di nicea secondo i codici vaticani ed il fiorentino, in: Rassegna di studi etiopici 2 (1942), p. 29-89. There is no comparative study of the different recensions, as far as I know, but see also:

  • F. Haase, Altchristliche Kirchengescihchte nach orientalischen Quellen, Leipzig 1925, p. 247-276.
  • Hefele/Leclercq, Histoire des conciles, vol. 1, p. 1139-1176, 1203-1221.
  • G. Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. 1, p. 586-593.

So, are these Canons a Church Order?


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Kitab al-Huda & the canons of John the Evangelist

In our most recent discussion, we had mentioned the Arabic Kitab al-Huda and a homily by John euphorically called a new church order. On the basis of Graf, Der maronitische Nomokanon “Buch der rechten Leitung” in Or.Chr. 33 (1936), 212-232 and Kaufhold, Sources of Canon Law in the Eastern Churches, in: Hartmann, W. / Pennington, K. (ed.):  The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500. Washington 2012, 256-259, I can report some more:

Stewart already summarized: the Kitab al-Huda is a maronite canonical collection, presumably translated by the Maronite bishop David. Critical edition by Pierre Fahed, Kitab al-Huda ou livre de la direction: code Maronite du haut moyen age (Aleppo: Imp. Maronite, 1935).

Now, Graf (and Riedel 1900, 146-148) gives a summary of the content: §1-13 are a “in sich geschlossenes” “Lehr- und Moralbuch”, §14-57 are a collection of canonical texts. For our purpose, the parts of the latter are more interesting. So:

  1. §14-22 are the pseudo-nicaean canons, known in its Latin translation in Mansi 1759, vol. II, 981-1010 (eorundem sanctorum partum 318 sanctiones et decreta), and also known in a similar Syriac version. I plan to post on them separately soon.
  2. §24 is a “Kanon des Cyrillus, Bischof von Jerusalem”, on baptism and marriage, “unbekannt”.
  3. §26 is our “Kanon des Evangelisten Johannes”, which Graf declares with certainty as of “byzantinischer Herkunft” (p. 222): “Er behandelt vor allem die Rechte und Pflichten der verschiedenen ordines, zunächst des höheren Klerus vom Periodeuten aufwärts bis zum Patriarchen, dann des niederen Klerus und das Verhältnis der einzelnen Grade zueinander. Andere Bestimmungen bestreffen das kanonische Gebet, die Sonntagsheiligung, das Verbot des commercium nuptiale an Sonn- und Festtagen, widernatürlicher Unzucht und die dafür auferlegten Bussen. Da im Anschluss an das Patriarchat auch die Machtbefugnisse und Ehrenrechte des Königs zur Sprache kommen (…), ist die byzantinische Herkunft des Kanons sicher.”
  4. §27 is the second “Kanon des Evangelisten Johannes”. An extra note in the Ms indicates that this was translated from the Syriac. Graf speculates whether this piece is identical with the kephalaia of John in the Melchite collection of Josephus of Alexandria (Riedel 1900, p. 139, Nr. 31). The Syriac version is the one that Kaufhold refered to in his article of 2005 (see previous post).
  5. §30-35 are the Canons of Clement, which Stewart treated in his previous post. Again Graf opines for a Greek origin.
  6. §36 are the well-known Canons of the Apostles.
  7. §37-45 are an excerpt of book VIII of the apostolic Constitutions, the so-called Canons of Simon. They circulated independently in many of the canonical collections.
  8. after the conciliar canons follows in §56-57 an Arabic recension of the Syro-Roman Lawbook.

The Kitab al-Huda is therefore an impressive and fascinating canonical collection which to some extent was translated from earlier Syriac texts (like §27), to some extent compiled from Arabic sources, and after all given a coherent form by the redactor. There are “redaktionelle Eingriffe”, for example in §14-22. But the collection is nevertheless important for the transmission of the lesser known church orders, and so I would welcome any modern translation of it for further study.

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