Tag Archives: Gnomes of Nicaea

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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Review of Batiffol’s Syntagma Doctrinae (and more!)

Digging around in the learned literature of the late nineteenth century I find a gem, a review by A. Robertson of Batiffol’s Syntagma doctrinae in The Classical Review 6 (8) (1892), 351-354. Far beyond its value as a review is the discussion of earlier work on the Syntagma and the Fides patrum, and in particular a trenchant discussion of Revillout’s theories about the derivation of these documents, alongside the Gnomai, from the Council of Alexandria.

There are also some interesting reflections on the credal form found in the Syntagma, and on the value of the document with regard to the text of the Didache.

Those without easy access to an academic library can find this with relative ease on archive.org.

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Gnomai of Nicaea in print

The Gnomai of the Council of Nicaea is now in print, say Gorgias.

It’s been a convoluted and interesting road to publication. The need for the work occurred to me whilst preparing my work on the two ways, but I did not think I was the right person to do it. I still don’t, but nobody else would take it on. What is particularly interesting is that I started the work around the time that I opened this blog, which means that the journey is recorded.


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More on dating the Gnomes of Nicaea

Mark DelCogliano has chipped in on Alin Suciu’s blog: Trinitarian-theology wise, the text seems to espouse (in the first paragraph) a pneumatology that does not consider the Holy Spirit a creature, and yet does not accord the Spirit a role in creation equal to the Father and Son, i.e. the Father creates through the Son, and the Spirit increases creatures. Therefore, a context in which fully pro-Nicene Trinitarian theology had not yet been accepted seems most likely — the third quarter of the fourth century is the best bet, but this may me too precise.
Sounds spot on. In the meantime I have read Athanasius’ Ep. virg. 1, preserved in Coptic (edited by Lefort in CSCO 150), which means that my reservations about the redacted-in homily on Mary were misplaced as it seems to breathe the same spirit even whilst being distinct. Thus increasingly the date-range suggested by Mark seems plausible.

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Dating the Gnomes of Nicaea

Alin Suciu has been kind enough to post my provisional text and translation of the Gnomes on his immensely popular and learned blog. It may be seen here:


One reader has asked what its date might be. This is a question with which I will deal properly when I get to write the intro which will form part of the more permanent and conventional publication (together with the annotation, and which will occur when and only when, as somebody who claims no expertise in Coptic, I am assured that the translation and text are relatively free of blunders.)

However, for the moment…

Church orders are notoriously difficult to date due to the fact that they are rather like snowballs, gathering material as they go and trapping within themselves material which tends to reflect periods earlier than their redaction. Thus I pick up echoes here and there of the Didache. And there are no big giveaways that I can see within the text. However… the emphasis on monachai and the absence of any recognition of organized monasticism tends to point to the earlier part of the fourth century rather than the latter (though I am aware of at least one fifth century monachē). Again an argument from silence, but the lack of any reference to persecution tends to point towards the fourth century (post Constantine) rather than pre-. Also, however, to be taken into account is what looks like a homily on the Mother of God which has been redacted into the material. No evidence, but my gut feeling is that this is later…, which might indicate a later level of secondary redaction (as Revillout, I recollect, suggested.) (I do not count the inclusion of the word theotokos here as this is only in one late textual witness (B) and may well be the work of the copyist.) However, again on this point, it has been argued that Ambrose Virg. had read this part of the Gnomes (though it is equally possible, in my view, that he had read one of the sources, or had access to one of the traditions, namely the frequent angelic visitations which Our Lady received) which pushes back to the fourth again. Any advance? Athanasian authorship has been claimed, but is not widely accepted. Finally, it is transmitted alongside the Syntagma Doctrinae, which I have dated fairly precisely elsewhere to the 380s/390s. So we would probably not be way out if we placed the production in the same period, i.e. between 360 and 400.

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The Fides patrum in Ethiopic and the church order tradition

I have just read the Ethiopic version of the Fides patrum from the Ethiopian senodos edited by A. Bausi, “La versione etiopica dealla didascalia dei 318 niceni sulla retta fede e la vita monastica” in Ugo Zanetti and Enzo Lucchesi (edd.) Aegyptus Christiana (Geneva: Patrick Cramer, 2004), 225-248.

Although I have not made a detailed comparison with the Greek text (which I discuss and translate in my On the two ways: life of death, light or darkness (Yonkers NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2011), I observe that the conclusion lacks the instruction to priests found in the Greek, as well as the conclusion found in the Coptic version discussing, chiefly, the reception of offerings from “tainted” sources. However, we may also observe that the conclusion is entirely coherent. We are thus led to suggest that, like the church order material to which the text is closely related (although Bausi describes it as a monastic rule), this document was “living literature” and prone to alteration and expansion in its transmission. I am increasingly convinced that insofar as “church orders” are a coherent genre (possibly they are not… in spite of the name of this blog) then this, as well as other ascetic literature from 4th century Egypt, should be included within it.

The Greek version has clear echoes of the Two ways tradition (though apparently not transmitted through the Didache, as the sectio evangelica is absent), and the Coptic conclusion in discussing the issue of “tainted” offerings picks up a subject discussed in the Didascalia.

At present I am working on the Gnomes of Nicaea, a text transmitted alongside the Fides patrum in the Coptic manuscript tradition as part of a collection of material attributed to the Council of Nicaea, which is equally to be considered a relative of the church order tradition. More will be said on this in due course.

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