When did the Pope start to use the ancient pagan title of “Pontifex Maximus”?

It is often stated online that the ancient title for the Roman high priest, “Pontifex Maximus”, was adopted by the Pope in the 4-5th centuries, as paganism disappeared.  The exact details are often vague, which should always raise suspicion.

In fact this does not seem to be true, and the title is only applied to the popes in the 15th century and later.  There has been quite a few articles in the literature on the subject.  It seems worth summarising the argument here.

The Greek word “ἀρχιερεύς” (arch-hiereus, chief priest) is used in the LXX, in Josephus, the Gospels and Acts, in many places for the chief priests or the high priest of the Jews, as this resource makes clear.   In Hebrews 2:17, Christ himself is called “our great high-priest”, using the same word.

But the word is also used in Greek inscriptions in the east of the Roman empire for priests of the imperial cult.   In fact in Rome itself, writing in Greek, Plutarch uses it to mean “pontifex” in the “Life of Numa”, chapter 9, explaining the origins of the office (online here):

Νομᾷ δὲ καὶ τὴν τῶν ἀρχιερέωνοὓς Ποντίφικας καλοῦσι

To Numa is also ascribed the institution of that order of high priests who are called Pontifices,

“Pontifex” also used in the Latin version of 1 Clement 40:5, 41:2, 43:4, where Christ is called “Pontifex”.  So we find early Christian Latin texts using the word “pontifex” to mean “bishop” – the Christian equivalent of “chief priest” – with no pagan meaning.  Kajanto’s excellent article (online here) gives many examples of the early Christian Latin use of “pontifex”, and he shows that it simply means “bishop”, citing the earliest use in the Collectio Avellana, letter 1, dating from ca. 370.  It is then widely used in Christian Latin with this meaning, although “episcopus” is always preferred.[1].

So it is normal Latin, with no difference for pagan, Jewish, or Christian use, to use the Latin word “pontifex” to translate “chief priest” in the bible.  “Pontifex” has no pagan meaning, and simply means “priest” or “chief priest”, from which “bishop”.

The phrase “Pontifex Maximus” is another matter.  It does not appear in any of these sources.  There is indeed a corresponding Greek phrase for “pontifex maximus”.  It is ἀρχιερεύς μέγιστος (arch-hiereus megistos), which is used in at least one inscription to mean Pontifex Maximus, in Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum 832. (See LSJ, via Logeion, here).

There are only three usages of Pontifex Maximus in antiquity to refer to anyone but a pagan.

  1. Tertullian in De Pudicitia 215 uses the term to deride a bishop who had announced that adultery could be forgiven by filling in a form at the diocesan office.
  2. Prosper Tiro in a 5th century text uses the term for the Jewish High Priest, “Hebraeorum pontifex maximus”.
  3. Isidore of Seville refers to the pope thus in Etymologies12:13, but it is probably a slip for pontifex summus.
  4. It’s not much.  Here is what Isidore says:

13.  Pontifex princeps sacerdotum est, quasi via sequentium. Ipse et summus sacerdos, ipse pontifex maximus nuncupatur. Ipse enim efficit sacerdotes atque levitas: ipse omnes ordines ecclesiasticos disponit: ipse quod unusquisque facere debeat ostendit.

The ‘pontifex’ is the chief of priests, as if the word were ‘the way’ of his followers. And he is also named the ‘highest priest’ and the pontifex maximus, for he creates priests and levites (i.e. deacons); he himself disposes all the ecclesiastical orders; he indicates what each one should do.”

As Kajanto has observed, it is clear that the Christians actively avoided using “pontifex maximus”, preferring to use “summus pontifex” instead.

Inevitably there are many websites that have other ideas, and a range of popes are mentioned.  One site here states confidently that Pope Siricius did so, giving sources and referencing the Catholic Encyclopedia.  But if you check, online here, you find that the CE and the sources refer to the title of “papa”, not “pontifex maximus”.

There are many pieces of older academic literature which say that the title “pontifex maximus” came into use during the papacy of Pope Leo I (440-461). This includes the 2nd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, under “Pontifex Maximus” – but not the 3rd edition where the bibliography includes Kajanto’s article.  I learn from Dijkstra and van Espelo, “Anchoring Pontifical Authority”, that a series of modern articles have rejected this view.[2]

It seems that it is Boniface IX, who reigned from 1389-1404, who was the first pope on whose monuments the title appears.  According to Dijkstra and van Espelo, and R. Schieffer, “Der Papst als Pontifex Maximus”[3] p.307, the evidence for this is a contemporary marble statue in the cloister of St Paul without the Walls in Rome, which shows the pope seated with an open book in his hands bearing the inscription “D. O. M. BONIFATIVS IX P. MAX. STIRPE THOMACELLVS GENERE CIBO”.

Here in fact is the statue of Boniface IX, ca. 1400.  Note that the pedestal text may not be contemporary.

Boniface IX, at S. Paolo fuori le mura. Via Wikimedia here.

The title is next attested under Martin V (1417-31) in a dedication inscription from the church of S. Lorenzo in Miranda in the forum.  There are some possible inscriptions from Eugenius IV (1431-47), and certainly more from Nicholas V (1447-1455).  Schieffer warns, however, that appearances of “P.M.” in the inscriptions on the tombs of popes before 1450 are probably later additions.  It is under Paul II (1464-71) that it becomes a standard part of “papal vocabulary”, according to Dijkstra and van Espelo.

There are uncertainties here.  Inscriptions can be amended.  Some of these items may have had “P.MAX” added later.  So it is not certain when the title was first used.  What does seem to be certain is that using “Pontifex Maximus” for the pope is an innovation of the 15th century.  The inscriptions in which it appears use classical language, and are certainly influenced by the renaissance and a return to classical usages.

I was unable to find any serious discussion of literary and documentary evidence.  In 1981 Kajanto stated that the term “pontifex maximus” for the Pope first appeared in literary texts only after 1500.  He frankly confessed that this was based on “the inadequate resources for neo-Latin”.  Schieffer stated that it remained rare until after 1500, and even then, while it was applied to popes, it was not a title that the Popes used of themselves, in bulls and letters issued by the papal chancellery.  Possibly the conservatism of that department, and the literary forms used, is responsible for this.

In conclusion, there is no evidence whatever of the pope assuming the title formally in antiquity.

  1. [1]I. Kajanto, “Pontifex Maximus as the title of the pope”, Arctos 15 (1981), 37-52;  p.39. Online here.
  2. [2]E.g. R. Dijkstra and D. van Espelo, “Anchoring Pontifical Authority: A Reconsideration of the Papal Employment of the Title Pontifex Maximus”, Journal of Religious History 41 (2017), 312-325. Online at: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9809.12400.
  3. [3]R. Schieffer, “Der Papst als Pontifex Maximus”, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte 57 (1971): 300–309.  This reference via Dijkstra / van Espelo, p.320.

Forthcoming: The Oxford Guide to the Transmission of the Latin Classics, ed. Justin Stover

For anybody interested in how the Latin classics reached us – the manuscripts, the process of copying down the centuries – the standard work has been Texts and Transmissions by L. D. Reynolds.  Author by author, text by text, we are told whatever is known about how the work was copied.

Justin Stover of Edinburgh University has now edited a two-volume successor text, to be called The Oxford Guide to the Transmission of the Latin Classics.  It is to be published by Oxford University Press.  It will include all the secular Latin texts to about 500 AD, including technical texts for the first time.  The entries will be shorter, but the scope will be more comprehensive.

I’m not sure when the work is due to appear, but the entries have been written and the book is now in the works at OUP.

Dr Stover has also started a twitter account to promote the book, with daily pictures of manuscripts.  It can be found here.

Texts and Transmissions was always a favourite for bedside reading for me, so I am very much looking forward to this one.


Canons 15-20 of the breviarium of the Council of Hippo (393)

Let’s continue translating the summary (breviarium) of the canons of the council of Hippo, compiled at the Council of Carthage in 397.  As ever, corrections are welcome.  But somebody has to start.  Here’s what I have.

15.  Ut episcopi, presbyteri et diaconi non sint conductores aut procuratores privatorum neque ullo tali negotio victum quaerant, quo eos vel peregrinari vel ab ecclesiasticis officiis avocari necesse sit.

That bishops, presbyters and deacons shall not be the directors or the managers of private enterprises, nor shall they obtain their living by any such trade in which it may be necessary that they are either travelling or called away from their ecclesiastical duties.

16.  Ut cum omnibus omnino clericis extraneae feminae non cohabitent, sed solae matres, aviae, materterae, amitae, sorores, et filiae fratrum aut sororum, et quaecumque ex familia, domestica necessitate, etiam antequam ordinarentur, iam cum eis habitabant. Vel si filii eorum, iam ordinatis parentibus, uxores acceperint, aut servis non habentibus in domo, quas ducant, aliunde ducere necessitas fuerit.

That unrelated women shall not cohabit with any clergyman at all, but only mothers, grandmothers, maternal aunts, paternal aunts, sisters, and daughters of brothers and sisters, and anyone else from their family already living with them out of domestic necessity and before they were ordained.  Or, if their sons marry after having been ordained by their parents have been ordained, or [if] those [wives] whom they bring marry, not having slaves in the house, it shall be necessary to bring [them slaves] in from elsewhere. or [if], there being no slaves at the house [the wife’s former home] that they may bring, it shall be necessary to bring [them / slaves] from elsewhere.

I’m not convinced about the last two clauses.  Anyone got a better idea?  “quas” must mean “uxores”, I think; but is “ducant” and “ducere” being used in different ways?  Update: my thanks to Diego for clarifying this in the comments!

17.  Ut episcopi, presbyteri et diaconi non ordinentur priusquam omnes qui sunt in domo eorum Christianos catholicos fecerint.

That bishops, presbyters and deacons shall not be ordained before all who are in their house have become Catholic Christians.

18.  Ut lectores usque ad annos pubertatis legant; deinceps autem nisi aut uxores custodita pudicitia duxerint aut continentiam professi fuerint, legere non sinantur.

That readers shall read until the years of puberty; however thereafter unless either they have married after guarding their modesty, or have professed continence, they shall not be allowed to read.

19.  Ut clericum alienum, nisi concedente eius episcopo, nemo audeat vel retinere, vel promovere in ecclesia sibi credita. Clericorum autem nomen etiam lectores retinebunt.

That a clergyman from elsewhere, unless released by his bishop, no-one shall dare either to detain, or to appoint to a church committed to him.  But readers shall retain the rank of clergymen also.

promovere + in + ablative = “appoint to a benefice”, according to the Dictionary of Medieval Latin Compiled from British Sources (DMLBS), via Logeion.

Is the idea here that readers shall be considered as clergy, for the purpose of this canon?

20.  Ut nullus ordinetur, nisi probatus vel episcoporum examine, vel populi testimonio.

That none shall be ordained, unless approved, either by the judgement of the bishops or by the testimony of the people.

That’s an odd canon, isn’t it?  I wonder what lies behind it.


Materials for an English translation of the “Life” of St Botolph (or Botwulf), BHL 1428

In 653 AD a Saxon monk named Botolph (Botwulf in Anglo-Saxon) built a hermitage at Iken Hoo, in Suffolk, overlooking the demon-haunted marshes on the river Alde.  Botolph was on good terms with the East Anglian kings, and he gained a reputation as an exorcist.  He died around 680 AD.  His monastery was later destroyed during the raids by the Vikings.  The tomb of Botolph in the ruined church was still visible, however, and in 970 King Edgar I gave permission for the remains to be removed.  They were taken to Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge, where they remained for almost 50 years.  There was a Saxon church at nearby Burgh, where a medieval church now stands dedicated to St Botolph.  In 1095 the monks of Bury St Edmunds transferred the relics to their own newly rebuilt abbey.

The feast day of St Botolph is on June 17th.  The medieval Life (BHL 1428) was composed by Folcard of St Bertin (d. after 1085).  It is printed by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum, together with an account of the translation of the relics.  Folcard composed a set of lives of saints whose relics were held at Thorney Abbey, with a prologue about his efforts.  The prologue is not in the Acta Sanctorum but was printed elsewhere.  Modern study of Botolph, and the work of Folcard has been undertaken by Rosalind C. Love, whom I believe may have prepared an unpublished translation of the Life.

Ms. Bodleian 297 contains material relating to the abbey at  Bury St Edmunds.  One snippet tells us that the bones of St Edmund were brought to the abbey when it was rebuilt in 1095.  It then goes on with the statement about the remains of St Botolph.

Translati sunt nihilominus cum rege beatissimo et reliquiis multis sanctorum corpora duorum sanctorum, videlicet Botulphi [two words missing] episcopi et Jurmini clitonis Christi, amboque, ut percipimus, illo delati sunt tempore Lefstani abbatis.  Corpus namque beati Botulphi episcopi primitus apud quandam villam Grundesburc nominatam humatum est; cujus translatio cum obscura nocte fieret, columna lucis super fere­trum ejus ad depellendas tenebras protendi visa est. Corpus vero beati Jurmini similiter apud villam quandam Blihteburc primum jacuit; in cujus plumbea theca in qua delatus est tale ephithaphium inscriptum continebatur: Ego Jurminus commendo, in nomine Trinitatis sanctae, ut nulla persona audeat depraedare locum sepulturae usque in diem resurrectionis; sin autem, remotum se sciat a sorte sanctorum.

Also translated with the most blessed king and the relics of many saints were the bodies of two saints, namely Botulph … the bishop and Jurmin the prince of Christ, and both, as we learn, were transferred in the time of Abbot Lefstan.  For in fact the body of the blessed bishop Botulph had at first been interred at a certain village named Grundisburgh; his translation took place in the dark of night, and a column of light stretched out above his bier to banish the shadows.  And the body of blessed Jermin likewise first was set down at a certain village of Blythburgh; on whose leaden casket in which he was transferred was fastened this epitaph inscribed: “I Jurmin trust, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that nobody shall dare to plunder the place of burial until the day of resurrection; but if on the other hand [it is] to move him, he would know by the oracle of the saints but otherwise, let him know that he is removed from the lot/fate of the saints.

It would be good to make an English translation of the Life of Botolph, but I have no time at the moment.  However I have collected together the source materials to do so, and I will place them here in case I can come back to this.  (I’ve not really looked at the materials for the translation of the remains, except for the one fragment.)

Let me also add whatever bibliography came to hand:

  • BL Harley 3097 – online here.
  • N. Hall, “A handlist of Anglo-Latin Hagiography through the twelfth century”, Old English Newsletter 45 (2014), p.12 (online here).  This reads:

Folcard, Vita S. Botolphi [BHL 1428], ed. Acta Sanctorum, Iun. III, 402–03; IV, 327–28. Discussion by Thomas Duffus Hardy, Descriptive Catalogue of Materials Relating to the History of Great Britain and Ireland to the End of the Reign of Henry VII, 3 vols. in 4 (London, 1862–67), I/1, 373–74. A Life of St Botolph of Thorney (d. ca. 680) dedicated to Walkelin, bishop of Winchester (1070–98). New edition forthcoming by Rosalind Love.

  • Rosalind Love, “Folcard of St Bertin and the Anglo-Saxon Saints at Thorney”, in Martin Brett, David A. Woodman( eds), The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, 2016, p.27 ff.  Preview here.
  • Stevenson, F.S. “St Botolph (Botwulf) and Iken”, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 18 (1924), pp.30-52. – Online here.
  • Sam Newton, “The forgotten history of St Botwulf”, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 43 (2016), pp. 521-550. Online here.

I hope this will be useful.

UPDATE: (31 March 2023): I learn that Rosalind C. Love has an unpublished edition and translation of Folcard’s Life of St Botolph, which she intends to publish.


When did Roman emperors cease to use the title of “Pontifex Maximus”?

In 376 AD the 17 year old emperor Gratian left his base in Gaul and – probably – made a visit to Rome.  This was ten years after his father, Valentinian I, proclaimed Gratian as co-Augustus on 24 August, and a year after the unexpected death of Valentinian.  It is possible that the visit was to celebrate his decennalia, although no source records this.  In the same year the first Christian, Gracchus, was appointed to the office of prefect of Rome.

While he was there – probably -, a curious scene allegedly took place:

The Romans … called those who held their highest rank of priesthood pontifices, and legislated that kings should be numbered among them because of their important rank. (3) All the kings after Numa Pompilius (who was the first to do so) and all the Roman emperors from Octavian have held this office; as soon as each assumed supreme power, the priestly robes were brought to him by the pontifices and he was styled pontifex maximus (chief priest). (4) All the earlier emperors seem to have been very pleased to accept the honour and to use this title, even Constantine (who, when he came to the throne, was perverted religiously and embraced the Christian faith) and all his successors, including Valentinian and Valens. (5) When, however, the pontifices as usual brought the robes to Gratian, he rejected their offer, considering it impious for a Christian to wear such a thing. When the robe was given back to the priests, their leader is reputed to have said: ‘If the emperor does not want to be called pontifex, there will soon be a pontifex, Maximus’.

The quotation just given is from Zosimus, New History IV, c.36.  The translation is by Ronald T. Ridley from 1982 (although in the last sentence I have changed “pontifex maximus” to “pontifex,  Maximus” – Gratian was overthrown by the pagan usurper, Magnus Maximus). It is the only source for this event.

The passage has raised suspicions.  Zosimus writes in the 6th century, almost 200 years later.  Unfortunately his work is unreliable, even though he has excellent sources.  But he felt able to reshape events, to alter them in order to fit his narrative.  What he believes is that Rome fell because it abandoned paganism, and the facts are secondary.  So we can’t quite be sure that he is giving a real historical event.

Likewise Zosimus does not say that this event took place at Rome.  It seems likely that it did, because the priesthood of Rome was ancient and focused on Rome when it was just a city state.  It would be strange for the Roman priesthood to stage this presentation away from Rome itself.

The sparse accounts of the time rather suggest that Gratian, who was very young, remained in Gaul for the first two years of his reign.  This again tends to throw doubt upon the narrative.

However there is, actually, a not-very-good source which does state that Gratian visited Rome.  The source is not early, but one of those odd Byzantine texts which mash together very brief (but tantalising!) bits of information from all sorts of sources.  It is known as the παραστασεις συντομοι χρονικαι, or Parastaseis syntomoi Chronikai; or in Latin as the Breves ennarrationes chronicae.  This was apparently put together in Constantinople in the 8th century.

The text of this Parastaseis may be found in the old Bonn Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae series in 1843 by B. G. Niebuhr, in the volume “Georgius Codinus” – the volume number is not printed in the book and online sources seem confused -, pp.166-193.  It is online here, on p.178.  The Latin translation given beneath the Greek text is a renaissance version by F. Combefis.  The work was edited again by T. Preger in the Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum, vol. 1 (1901), p.19-73 (online here).  He added chapter divisions, which makes this chapter 50.

Here’s the CSHB page 178:

As we see, the statement made is very brief.  It forms part of a discussion of imperial statues:

Gratian, after he married, came to Rome and set up silver stelae to himself and his wife as a new spectacle at Rome.

Well, this seems quite clear, on the face of it.  Indeed it is discussed by the excellent T. D. Barnes, who assigns Gratian’s visit to the year 376.[1] But others have raised difficulties.  Some suggest that the visit in the Parastaseis is just speculation by the author to account for the erection of the silver stelae,[2] and some suggest that the account of Zosimus itself is fiction, and indeed such no priestly robe ever really existed, even if John the Lydian also refers to it.[3]  These objections, however carefully argued, do seem to rely more on speculation, than on any particular piece of data.

By the time of Gratian, Christianity had been legal for more than half a century.  Julian the Apostate failed when he attempted to restore paganism.  Nobody really remembered how to do the sacrifices properly, indeed, as Julian himself complains; and he was even jeered by the people.  Paganism was a husk by the time of Gratian.  Later his government initiated strong measures against it.  It was in his time that the altar of Victory was removed from the senate-house, a highly symbolic gesture which must have shocked many.

But it seems that earlier Christian emperors had retained the title.  We have definite evidence is that Constantine, Valentinian, Valens and Gratian all held the office of Pontifex Maximus.  For Constantine we have coins (I am told, but have been unable to verify: RIC 7.185, 352), and there is an inscription for the last three (ILS 771 – here), commemorating the erection of a bridge in Rome in 369 AD.  The inscription is on the bridge, today known as that of St Bartholomew, connecting the Tiber island with the right bank of the Tiber.  (At this time Gratian is just a child.)

Domini nostri imperatores Caesares Fl. Valentinianus pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis VII, imperator VI, consul II, pater patriae, proconsul; et Fl. Valens pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis VII, imperator VI, consul II, pater patriae, proconsul; et Fl. Gratianus pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis III, imperator II, consul primum, pater patriae, proconsul; pontem felicis nominis Gratiani in usum senatus ac populi Romani constitui dedicarique iusserunt.

But this is the last such inscription.  There is no inscription with the title of “Pontifex Maximus” for any emperor later than Gratian.

In part this may be because, simply, we have many fewer inscriptions from the troubled years ahead of the Roman collapse.  But we can only make statements based on the data we have, for any period of history.  That data tells us that a change takes place in the reign of Gratian.  The title “Pontifex Maximus” is abandoned.  This is consistent with the measures that Gratian takes later in his reign, explicitly enacting strong anti-pagan measures, and paving the way for a complete ban under his successor, Theodosius I.

Happier days – an inscription of Claudius, Pont. Max., in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (A.N. Chandler.3.15), details here.

From 376 AD, then, we can say that the title of “Pontifex Maximus” is undocumented.   Gratian’s successors used other forms of address, such as “pontifex inclitus”.  In fact the title of “Pontifex Maximus” remained unused until, after 1500, in a fit of enthusiasm for the classical era, the Popes began to use it.

Postscript: I find that there are in fact a number of inscriptions in which Constantine is described as “Pontifex Maximus”, such as this one:

EDR073236, CIL 06, 40776 (1): Found at Rome, Forum of Trajan. Constantine and his sons. Via here.
  1. [1]T. D. Barnes, “Constans and Gratian in Rome”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79 (1975), pp. 325-333.  p.328.  JSTOR.
  2. [2]e.g. Neil B. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital, 2014, p.88, n.37 (here)
  3. [3]E.g. Alan Cameron article, “Pontifex Maximus: from Augustus to Gratian – and Beyond”, in   Emperors and the Divine: Rome and its Influence, ed. Maijastina Kahlos. Helsinki 2016. 139–159.  Online here.

Canons 9-14 of the breviarium of the Council of Hippo (393)

The Council of Carthage in 397 began by creating a summary of the canons issued at Hippo in 393, the Breviarium. Here are the next few.

9. Sane quisquis episcopus seu clericorum, cum in ecclesia ei fuerit crimen institutum vel civilis causa fuerit commota, relicto ecclesiastico judicio publicis judi­ciis purgari voluerit, etiamsi pro illo fuerit prolata sen­tentia, locum suum amittat [in locum suum non restituatur]. Hoc in criminali. In civili vero perdat quod evicit; si locum suum obtinere maluerit.

However any bishop or member of the clergy, if in the church there had been a criminal indictment made against him, or a civil case had been started, and, having refused ecclesiastical judgment, he wished to be acquitted by the public courts, even if sentence has been given for him, he shall lose his office [he shall not be reinstated in his place].  This (is) in a criminal case.  But in a civil case he shall lose what he won, if he prefers to retain his office.

Cui enim ad eligendos judices undique ecclesiae patet auctoritas, ipse se indignum fraterno consortio judicat, qui de universa ecclesia male sentiendo, saeculari de judi­cio poscit auxilium: cum privatorum Christianorum causas apostolus ad ecclesiam deferri, atque ibi determinari praec­ipiat.

For he whom the authority of the church allows to choose judges from every side, he judges himself unworthy of the fraternal fellowship, who, thinking badly of the whole church, demands the remedy of a secular trial,  since the apostle instructs that the cases of private Christians are to be referred to the church, and settled there.

Interestingly this canon is quoted and translated in 1674 by Fr. Peter Walsh, in “The history et vindication of the Loyal Formulary or Irish Remonstrance of 1661 against all Calumnies and Censures in several treatises”, 1674, p.197, online here.

10.  Hoc etiam placuit, ut a quibuscumque judicibus ecclesiasticis ad alios judices ecclesiasticos, ubi est maior auctoritas, fuerit provocatum, non eis obsit, quorum fuerit soluta sententia, si convinci non potuerint vel inimico animo judicasse, vel aliqua cupiditate aut gratia depravato.  Sane si ex consensu partium judices electi fuerint, etiam a pauciore numero quam constitutum est, non liceat provocari.

This also was agreed, that (if) an appeal was made, from some ecclesiastical judges to other ecclesiastical judges, where there is greater authority, it shall not tell against them [the first set of judges], by whom the sentence was pronounced, unless it is shown** that they judged either with inimical intent, or having been corrupted by some cupidity or bribe. However if the judges have been chosen by the consent of the parties, even from a smaller number than decreed, it shall not be allowed to make an appeal.

11. Ut filii episcoporum et clericorum spectacula saecularia non exhibeant nec exspectent. [quandoquidem a spectaculis arcentur.]

That the sons of bishops and clergy should not give public shows nor attend them.  [seeing that they (bishops) are kept away from the shows]

12. Ut gentilibus vel haereticis et schismaticis filii episcoporum vel quorumlibet clericorum matrimonio non conjungantur.

That the sons of the bishops, or of any clergy whatever, shall not join in matrimony with pagans or heretics or schismatics.

13. Ut episcopi vel clerici filios suos a sua potestate per emancipationem exire non sinant, nisi de moribus eorum et de aetate fuerint securi, ut possint ad eos iam propria pertinere peccata.

That bishops or clergy shall not allow their sons to pass out of their power through emancipation, unless they have been certain of their morals and age, and their [the sons’] own sins now pertain to them.

14. Ut episcopi vel clerici eis qui christiani catholici non sunt, etiamsi consanguinei fuerint, nec per donationes, [nec per testamentum] rerum suarum aliquid conferant.

That bishops or clergy shall not convey anything of their goods by donations [nor by will] to those who are not catholic Christians, even if they are relatives.

These canons were probably brought into being by actual incidents where an obvious evil was occurring, and needed to be remedied.  As before, these are all practical concerns, affecting how people live in a society which, while nominally Christian, was in reality mostly secular.  But note how it’s all about the clergy, rather than the people.  Does this mean that the people had been given up?


What is a critical edition, and how do I find one?

I have just been asked this basic question, on this post on the manuscripts of Pliny the Elder, and to my surprise a quick google does not give a satisfactory answer.  So … here goes!

Ancient literary texts were dictated or written by their authors more than 15 centuries ago.  They were then hand-copied for many centuries, initially in papyrus rolls, and then into the modern book format, the parchment codex.  During this time most ancient texts were lost, forever.  Only 1% of ancient literature is estimated to survive.

Those that do survive do so in medieval hand-written copies.  These are known as the “manuscripts” of ancient authors.  (For modern authors, we use the word “manuscript” differently, to mean the handwritten copy sent to the publisher by the author, but these almost never survive from antiquity).[1]  These copies are few.  Most ancient texts survive in copies no older than about A. D. 800, many of which descend from a single manuscript that had survived from Antiquity.  The only exceptions are texts that were used a lot during antiquity and after, such as the bible, and the works of the major church fathers.

Other losses of text happened.  Some texts survive in an incomplete form.  Sentences are missing.  Chapters are missing.  Whole books are missing.

For instance, the start of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars is not known to us, although it still existed in the 6th century AD, as a stray quote tells us.  Many ancient histories were written in tens of “books”, each originally a single scroll.  Livy’s Roman History is an example, written in at least 140 books.  The groups of 10 books travelled down the centuries separately.  Of Livy, all that survives is books 1-10 – one unit; books 21-30; books 31-40; and a single damaged manuscript which originally contained books 41-50 but the back is lost, and today it includes only books 41-45 and the first page of book 46.

Also, in the process of copying, scribes made mistakes.  Sometimes they went back and fixed them.  Sometimes a later copyist fixed it.  Sometimes a later copyist guessed wrong! Sometimes there were odd abbreviations.  Also there were changes to the type of handwriting used for books – “book hand” is the jargon phrase – which means that later scribes could get confused.

Printing arrives in 1450.  The first printed editions of ancient texts arrive then.

But these were not “critical editions”.  Instead the publisher found a manuscript – often a late manuscript -, and simply printed whatever text was in it.  He might include some corrections, or not.  If it was a Greek text, he would often supply a translation into Latin.

These “pre-critical editions” were printed, and reprinted, for centuries.  Sometimes a work would be printed; and then a later publisher would find another manuscript, which contained parts of the work that the first edition did not contain.  But often it was just a case of different punctuation, typeface, and notes.  (The text that “everybody” knew is sometimes called the “textus receptus”).

Imagine that you are an editor.  You have more than one manuscript.  They differ, in small ways.  What text do you print?  Well, the early editors bodged along, guessing at the correct text.

But in the early 19th century, scholars in Germany began to evolve some rules to decide how to handle this problem.  The rules are not scientific; they merely make common sense explicit.  The creation of these rules marked the creation of “textual criticism” as a discipline, dedicated to making it possible to restore a text to something like what the author wrote, and remove scribal errors.

The editions that arise from this process are known as “critical editions”.  A critical edition is one where the text is as far as possible what the author wrote, but with the process of creating that text documented, and a “critical apparatus” of footnotes that shows where there might be uncertainty.

The scholars creating a critical edition try to assemble all the surviving manuscripts, where possible.  They try to compare them all.  They apply the rules of textual criticism to decide which versions of the text are original, and which are derived from the process of copying the work down the centuries.

Now it has been found by experience that various traps lie in wait for scholars doing this. Sometimes the “obvious” text is not right.  Greek texts in the 4th century BC were written in Attic Greek.  Later Hellenistic texts from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD were in a later form of Greek.  But from the 2nd century AD onwards, there was a revival of the custom of writing in Attic Greek, which persisted as late as 1453.  Consequently Hellenistic Greek texts could be “corrected” by an Atticising copyist.  The same process happens in Latin, where a difficult or unorthodox author can be “corrected”.  Some early editors certainly did the same, falsely correcting the author, rather than the manuscript.

Modern academic editions of ancient texts, in the original language, are always critical editions.  So to find a critical edition of any ancient author, you can use a library catalogue like the Library of Congress, or COPAC, and sort by date, most recent first.  Any academic edition of an ancient text published after about 1850 will probably be a critical edition.

Sometimes one  critical edition may become the “standard” edition of that text.  That is usually the one you want.  The only way to find out which edition this might be is to read around the subject, read reviews of the editions, and see which edition is referenced.  Other critical editions of the same author will normally indicate if one edition is widely used.

Some critical editions are still not very good.  Furthermore, most ancient literary texts do not even have a critical edition at all; the only editions are pre-critical.  The vast majority of ancient texts are of the church fathers, and modern scholars have preferred to edit classical texts instead.

You use what you have.

  1. [1]My thanks to MDR for pointing out that such an original has survived, of the epigrams of the 6th century author Dioscorus of Aphrodito has survived, plus some other corrections – thank you.

The Acts of John and gnostic ritual dances

The apocryphal Acts of John is a curious text which is first attested in the Manichaean Psalm-book in the Chester Beatty collection.[1]

This papyrus manuscript was one of seven Coptic codices which were discovered somewhere in Egypt before 1929.  Naturally they were broken up by the Cairo dealers in order to obtain a higher price, and then sold after much haggling to two wealthy buyers.[2] “The codices include the Manichean psalmbook, a fragment of the Synaxeis, two versions of the Kephalaia, a collection of homilies, the Acts, and a volume of Mani’s letters.”  Part of the collection was bought by Chester Beatty and is in London; the remainder by Professor Carl Schmidt of Berlin.  The Berlin material was looted by the Soviets at the end of WW2, and the location of much of it is uncertain.  A facsimile has been printed of both parts of the Psalm-Book.  There is an edition with English translation of the second part of the Psalm-Book. The text probably belongs to the late 3rd century.[3]

The Manichaean literature in this collection originates from Syriac sources.  There is some evidence that the Acts of John may have been composed in that language, rather than in Greek.  The date of the work is unclear, but seems to be late 3rd century also.  There is a reference to John causing the collapse of the famous temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in which the temple is supposed to stand on high ground.  In fact it stands on the plain, so the author had no knowledge of the region.  Likewise the temple of Artemis was partly destroyed by the Goths in 269 AD, so again this suggests that time had gone by and that the author knew only that the temple had partly collapsed.  But none of this is very conclusive.

Most the Acts of John is story.  So much of it survives in Greek through quotation in later hagiographical material.  No complete manuscript is known, and the order of the bits is somewhat debateable. The Iconoclast council of 754 included it in a list of early works – including works by Eusebius – that condemned the use of images, and the 2nd Council of Nicaea in 787 casually condemned the lot of them for it.  As I wrote 12 years ago, it also condemned the Acts of John to be burned (full material from the council minutes is here).  The Stichometry of Nicephorus gives 2,500 lines for the length of the work, suggesting that only around 70% has survived.[4]

The material now numbered chapters 87-105 are preserved only in a single Greek manuscript, so I understand: Vindobonensis hist. gr. 63.  (A look at manuscripta.at suggests that this is not online). The text here makes the gnostic origin of the text fairly clear, with its references to docetic ideas: at one point it states (c. 93):

And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see if his footprint appeared on the ground – for I saw him raising himself from the earth – and I never saw it.

But chapter 94 contains something still more interesting.

94. Before he was arrested by the lawless Jews, whose lawgiver is the lawless serpent, he assembled us all and said, “Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so go to meet what lies before (us).” So he told us to form a circle, holding one another’s hands, and him self stood in the middle and said, “Answer Amen to me.” So he began to sing a hymn and to say,

“Glory be to thee. Father.”
And we circled round him and answered him, “Amen.”
“Glory be to thee, Logos: Glory be to thee, Grace.” – “Amen.”
“Glory be to thee, Spirit: Glory be to thee. Holy One: Glory be to thy Glory.” – “Amen.”

Grace dances.
“I will pipe, Dance, all of you.” – “Amen.”
“I will mourn. Beat you all your breasts – “Amen”.
“(The) one Ogdoad sings praises with us.” – “Amen.”
“The twelfth number dances on high.” – “Amen.”

By the Logos I [.] made a jest of everything and was not made a jest at all.
I exulted: but do you understand the whole, and when you have understood it, say, Glory be to thee. Father.” – “Amen.”

97. After the Lord had so danced with us, my beloved, he went out. And we, like men amazed or fast asleep, fled one this way and another that. And so I saw him suffer, and did not wait by his suffering, but fled to the Mount of Olives …[5]

The gnostic reference is evident.  But what we seem to be looking at is some kind of liturgical circle dance, or round dance.  Apparently the “Gospel of the Savior” discovered a few years ago also contains some kind of hymn section, which might involve dance.

It’s not clear from this whether this indicates that the gnostics or manichaeans responsible for the text had such a dance as part of their liturgy.  There seems to be a certain amount of scholarly literature featuring such speculation.  Dance could certainly feature in ancient society as part of a ritual, and even in the Old Testament.  There is a Nubian text, the Dance of the Saviour, which was found at Qasr el-Whizz, or so I learn from here.  But there is no evidence either way on this question.

I also saw one non-scholarly source on twitter suggesting that this was evidence of gnostics dancing around an altar on which the communion elements were placed.  But I could find no other source for this claim, so it is probably just a confusion or imaginary!

The surviving portions of the Acts of John fall naturally into three sections, of which this is the middle.  Naturally there is speculation that the separate parts are of different origins.  Inevitably there are attempts to date as much of it as possible as early as possible!  But there seems no evidence that any of the material is known earlier than the Manichaean period.

  1. [1]Iranica: The two parts of the psalmbook (Codex A, Chester Beatty Library, 578 pp.) have been published, part I (172 folios) in a facsimile (Giversen, 1988a; 172 folios), part II (117 folios) first in an edition with English translation (Allberry; 117 folios) and then in facsimile (Giversen, 1988b).
  2. [2]Iranica Online: Coptic Manichaean Texts: “At least seven 4th-century Coptic Manichean papyrus codices said, probably erroneously, to have come from Madīnat Māżī (Gk. Narmoûthis, in the Egyptian Fayyūm) were divided into eight parts by three dealers…”
  3. [3]Edition with English translation: A Manichaean Psalm-Book, Part II, ed. C.R.C. Allberry (1938), p.192.33-193.1.  This I have not seen; the reference is note 11 (p.205) in Schneemelcher, NT Apocrypha 2.
  4. [4]M.G. Beard-Shouse, The Circle Dance of the Cross in the Acts of John: An Early Christian Ritual, diss. Kansas (2010), p.10.  Online here.
  5. [5]Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed.), R. McL. Wilson (trans.), “New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses and Related Subjects”, Westminster: John Knox Press (2003) ISBN: 0664227228, 9780664227227. The passage starts on page 182.  I have compressed the formatting because of the limitations of WordPress.

Canons 5-8 of the breviarium of the Council of Hippo (393)

Let’s look at the next four canons of this summary of the decisions of the council of Hippo in 393, that was prepared for the council of Carthage in 397.  Something of this material found its way into the canons of the council of 419, often somewhat revised.  Since the NPNF translation exists of these, I have freely made use of it!

5.  Ut propter causas ecclesiasticas, quae ad perniciem plebium saepe veterescunt, singulis quibusque annis concilium convocetur, ad quod omnes provinciae quae primas sedes habent de conciliis suis ternos legatos mittant, ut minus invidiosi minusque hospitibus sumptuo­si conventus plena possit auctoritas esse.  De Tripoli vero, propter inopiam epis­coporum, unus episcopus veniat.

That, on account of ecclesiastical disputes, which are often drawn-out, to the ruin of the people, a council shall be called every year, to which all who hold the first sees of the provinces shall send three delegates, from their own (local) councils/synods, so that with less jealousy, and less expense to their hosts, after coming together,** it can be fully authoritative the authority of the assembly can be complete. But from Tripoli, on account of the lack of bishops, let (only) one bishop come.

(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 18)

“plebs” seems to have the meaning of “the people”, “the local church”.

“plena possit auctoritas esse”  seems literally to be “shall be able to be a full authority”.  I’m not entirely convinced by what I have here.  The same phrase in NPNF: “ut conuentu plena possit esse auctoritas.” is given as “so that when the synod meets it may have full power to act.”

6. Ut quisquis episcoporum accusatur, ad primatem provinciae ipsius causam deferat accusator, nec a communione suspendatur cui crimen intenditur, nisi ad causam suam dicendam, primatis litteris evocatus, minime occurrerit, hoc est intra spatium mensis ex die qua eum litteras accepisse constiterit.  Quod si aliquas veras necessitatis causas probaverit, quibus eum occurrere non potuisse manifestum sit, causae suae dicendae intra alterum mensem integram habeat facultatem. Verum, post mensem secundum, tamdiu non communi­cet, donec purgetur.

That if any of the bishops is accused, the accuser shall refer the case to the primate of his [the bishop’s] own province, nor shall he to whom the crime is attributed be suspended from communion, unless, having been summoned by primatial letters, in order to discuss his case, he does not present himself; that is, within the space of a month from the day on which it is found that he received the letters. But if he shall show some genuine causes of necessity, by which it is clear that he was not able to present himself, he shall have the opportunity of stating his case within another month. However after the second month, then he shall not communicate/take communion until he is acquitted.

(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 19)

7.  Si autem nec ad concilium universale anniversarium occurrere voluerit, ut vel ibi causa eius terminetur, ipse in se damnationis sententiam dixisse judicetur. Tempore sane quo non communicat, nec in sua plebe communicet.

Accusator autem eius, si numquam diebus causae dicendae defuerit, a communione non removeatur; si vero aliquando defuerit, restituto communioni episcopo, ipse removeatur; ita tamen ut nec ipsi adimatur facultas causae peragendae, si se ad diem occurrere non noluisse, sed non potuisse probaverit.

Sane placuit et illud: Ut cum agere coeperit in episcoporum iudicio, si fuerit accusatoris persona culpabilis, ad accusandum vel agendum non admittatur, nisi proprias causas, non tamen si ecclesiasticas, dicere voluerit.

However if he is not willing to come to the annual general council, so that at least there his case may be terminated, it shall be judged that he has pronounced sentence of condemnation on himself.  Obviously during the time in which he does not communicate, he shall not communicate in his (own) parish/diocese/congregation.

But his accuser shall not be removed from communion, if he has missed none of the days for pleading the case; but if he has missed some, the bishop shall be restored to communion, and himself shall be removed; so, however, that the opportunity of completing his case is not taken away from him,  if he shall prove that he on the day was not unwilling to come, but not able.

Obviously it was agreed also this: that when (the case) begins to be discussed in the judgement of the bishops, if the accuser is not a respectable character, he shall not be allowed to accuse or discuss, unless he is willing to state that the case is his own rather than ecclesiastical.

(Cf. Carthage 419, Canon 19)

In the first sentence, the bishop excommunicated by the general council may not do so in his own “plebe” either.  The canons of 419 have “in sua ecclesia vel parrochia” instead, in his diocesan church or parish.  It’s interesting to see this evolution of terminology.  I’d never seen the Latin for “parish” before!   Earlier in the sentence we have “vel”, which the NPNF ignores, but I find Lewis and Short (D2) allow can mean “saltem”, i.e. “at least”.

The middle sentence has an oddity – the two halves are connected only by a “ita”, “so”.  The meaning is clear enough, but something looks wrong to me with the Latin.  The sense is that absences from the court will be allowed if the accuser can show that he had no choice, rather than just not bothering to turn up.

Accusations against clergy are not new.  What perhaps lies behind this, however, is politics, and malicious accusations.

It is a very old political trick to undermine the authority of a religious body by producing and widely publicising lurid accusations.  Any church, indeed any caring profession will have clergy who abuse their office.  Diocletian deployed this tactic, as a preliminary to the Great Persecution.  The same method was used with success in Ireland recently to deprive the Catholic church of its moral authority just before the secularised rulers made a power-grab.  The truth or falsity of the accusations matters nothing to those making them – the accusation is just a tool.  Nor do they care anything about any victims of genuine wrongdoing, as their complaints later often testify.

In Africa it looks as if malefactors had learned to hire low-grade individuals to make such accusations, and then, by failing to turn up, keep the show going as long as possible.  This also is a classic trick.  In Evagrius Scholasticus we read of a group of depraved youths, “making accusations against him and themselves”, who were hired to smear the patriarch Macedonius as abusing youths.  (Unknown to his accusers, Macedonius was a eunuch and incapable of the crime!)  Samuel Pepys was kept in the court system on a charge of Catholic sympathies during the reign of Charles II, by just such delays – his political enemies boasted of how they “had him by the heels” for another term.  Indeed I read of one extraordinary case in the US recently where a libel accusation has been strung out for nine years so far.  In such cases “the process is the punishment”.

Such things are distasteful, but law by its very nature must deal with such things.

8.  Si autem presbyteri vel diaconi fuerint accusati, adjuncto sibi ex vicinis locis legitimo numero collegarum; id est: in presbyteri nomine quinque; et in diaconi, duobus: episcopi ipsorum causam, discutiant, eadem dierum et dilationum et a communione remotionum, et discussione personarum inter accusatores, et (eos) qui accusantur, forma servata. Reliquorum autem causas etiam solus episcopus loci cognoscat, et finiat.

But if presbyters or deacons have been accused, and a legitimate number of colleagues from nearby places have been joined with them – i.e. five for a presbyter, two for a deacon – the bishops shall discuss their case, and the same form, of days, and delays, and removals from communion, and in the discussion of persons, shall be preserved between accusers and those who are accused.

The divisions of the material into canons vary between manuscripts and in the material reused in Carthage in 419.  Clearly much of this is all the same problem.  Munier in his edition divides yet further, but I have ignored this here.