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 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 …

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.

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. 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.


Tomorrow is Easter Day

It is Easter Saturday.   I do not use my PC on Sunday, so let me now wish all my readers a Happy Easter!  Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!

Many will make the effort to go to church, in an ordinary year.  But doing so under the current regulations requires booking in advance, with limited numbers.  So only a few will be able to attend.

This week some will have been busy attending daily Easter services.  These services are important, especially to those for whom following the liturgy is all.  Such people must find every element of modern society conspires against them.

But I would guess that at the moment very many people are rather isolated, just as I am.  It feels like being on Mars – a constant, slightly spacey feeling of detachment.  Even simple things are a strain.

Without imposing any burden, may I suggest that all those who have given their life to Jesus will take the time on Sunday to just kneel in prayer and sing a song or hymn of praise, however short.  God listens to our hearts, not the length of our prayers and services.

Happy Easter.  Get yourself an Easter egg, if you haven’t got one already.  And celebrate, even if you are alone.  Celebrate along with the angels, and with all of Christendom!


Canons 1-4 of the breviarium of the Council of Hippo (393)

The first act of the Council of Carthage in 397 was to draw up a summary (breviarium) of the decisions of the Council of Hippo in 393, as many clergy claimed that they had never heard of them.  Let’s have a look at them.


1. Vt lectores populum non salutent. Vt ante xxv aetatis annos nec clerici ordinentur nec uirgines consecrentur. Vt primum scripturis diuinis instructi uel ab infantia eruditi, propter fidei professionem et assertionem, clerici promoneantur.

2. Vt ordinatis episcopis uel clericis prius placita concilii conculcentur ab ordinatoribus eorum, ne se aliquid aduersus statuta concilii fecisse adserant.

3. Vt etiam per sollemnissimos paschales dies sacramentum catechumenis non detur, nisi solitum salis ; quia, si fideles per illos dies sacramenta non mutant, nec catechumenos oportet mutare.

4. Vt corporibus defunctis eucharistia non detur ; dictum est enim a Domino : Accipite et edite ; cadauera autem nec accipere possunt nec edere. Deinde canuendum est ne mortuos etiam baptizari posse fratrum infirmitas credat, cum eucharistiam non dari mor­tuis animaduertit.


1. That the readers shall not salute the people.  That clergy shall not be ordained, nor virgins consecrated, before the age of 25.

2. That, prior to ordaining bishops or clergy, the decisions of the council are impressed upon them by those ordaining them, lest they profess (later) that something was done contrary to the statutes of the council.

2. That for bishops and clerics who have been ordained, the decisions of the council first be thoroughly inculcated by those ordaining them, lest they declare (later) that they have done something contrary to the council’s statutes.

3. That also during the most solemn paschal days the sacrament shall not be given to catechumens, except for health reasons the custom of salt; because if the faithful do not receive change the sacraments during those days, it is not right that for catechumens to receive change (them).

4. That the eucharist shall not be given to the bodies of the deceased; for it was said by the Lord, “Take and eat”; but a cadaver cannot “take” or “eat”.  Then itshould be celebratedthat the weakness of the brother will not believe that it is possible to baptise the dead either, when he notices that the eucharist is not being given to the death.  Then care must be taken also that the weakness of the brothers shall not believe that it is possible to baptise the dead, when he notices that the eucharist is not being given to the dead..

Let me highlight a few funnies in this.

In canon 2, Munier (CCSL 149, p.32) prints “conculcentur”, which means that the decisions of the council “are trampled under foot” by those conducting the ordinations.  A solid search reveals only “despise” as the other meaning.

This makes little sense.  A look at the English NPNF translation of the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae here, canon 18, reveals this obviously parallel canon:

It seemed good that before bishops, or clerics were ordained, the provisions of the canons should be brought to their notice, lest, they might afterwards repent of having through ignorance acted contrary to law.

But how on earth does “conculcentur” fit in?

Then I happened to look at the old Mansi edition.  It reads “inculcentur”, the decisions of the council “are impressed upon them” by those conducting the ordinations.  A look at Munier’s apparatus reveals no sign of “conculcentur”.  Naturally at first I inferred a typo.  But in fact, if we look at one of the manuscripts that Munier used, the Vatican manuscript, Barberini 679, fol. 46v, we find exactly that reading:

Is this a medievalism?  I do not know.  It once again impresses on me that it helps to look at older editions where the editors could read and wrire Latin fluently and would have been ashamed to print meaningless rubbish.  (Update: see discussion in the comments)

The text of the canon is not that easy to follow.  It starts with “ordinatis episcopis uel clericis prius” – an obvious ablative absolute, which in fact cannot be one.  Here the NPNF gives the clue.  It might be some dative of time, but not one that I have come across.  “Prior to the bishops or the clergy having been ordained”, perhaps. (Update: probably not – see discussion in comments).

What is the canon all about, anyway?  It looks as if it was about compulsory ordinations, when men were forced to be ordained.

These did occur.  I remember reading somewhere, in Augustine, how a rich and truly devout man, coming to Africa, was seized by the mob and forcibly made bishop of their church.  Their motive was not piety.  It was money.  For a bishop would be expected to give his property to the church, which inevitably would benefit the congregation.  However their victim escaped, and asked Augustine to be excused his ordination.  Shockingly Augustine, while recognising the injustice, thought that the ordination was still valid.  The case dragged on.  But then the man came to lose his riches in the disorders of the times, and then the “ordination” was quietly forgotten by everyone.

In canon 3 we find “mutare” used, not with the classical meaning of “move”, “change”, but with the medieval meaning of “receive”.  Update: it seems not!

It’s quite hard work, but of course this is how you learn a language; working with the real thing.

Update: some modifications based on the comments.


The Nicene Creed in Hippo 393 / Carthage 397

In the Breviarium Hipponense, the summary of the canons of the council of Hippo in 393, prepared at the start of the council of Carthage in 397, there is a version of the Nicene creed.  I thought it might be interesting to look at.  The text is from Munier, CCSL149, p.30, but I have added punctuation (extra commas!) from Mansi at points.  There are quite a few variants in the various manuscripts, which I shall ignore.

Nicaeni concilii professio fidei recitata et confirmata est quae ita se habet.**

Credimus in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, uisibilium et inuisibilium factorem, et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum Filium Dei, natum de Patre unigenitum, hoc est, de substantia Patris, Deum <de> Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum uerum de Deo uero, natum non factum, unius substantiae cum Patre, (quod Graeci dicunt omousion); per quem omnia facta sunt siue quae in caelo siue quae in terra; <qui> propter homines et propter nostram salutem descendit, et incarnatus est, homo factus per Virginem Mariam; passus est et resurrexit tertia die, ascendit in caelos, uenturus iudicare uiuos et mortuos ; in Spiritum sanctum.

Eos etiam qui dicunt : Erat quando non erat, et : Quia ex nullis existentibus factus est, uel ex alia substantia, dicentes mutabilem Filium Dei: hos anathematizat ecclesia catholica, et apostolica disciplina.


The profession of faith of the council of Nicaea was read and confirmed which is as follows:**

We believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, born of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God <from> God, light from light, true God from true God, born not made, of one substance with the Father (which the Greeks call “homousion”); through whom all things were made, whether in heaven or on earth; <who> on account of men and on account of our salvation descended and was incarnate, made man through the Virgin Mary; he died and rose again on the third day, he ascended into the heavens, he will come again to judge the living and the dead; in the Holy Spirit.

Those also who say, “There was when he was not,” and “That*** he was made out of nothing existing, or from another substance,” saying the Son of God is mutable, these the catholic church and the apostolic teaching anathematise.

A couple of notes.

First I was not sure about “quae ita se habet” – “which (quae) thus (ita) se (it) habet (it considers, holds)”.  Google translate unhesitatingly gives “and is as follows”, suggesting an idiom.

In fact I find precisely the same usage in the Institutes of Justinian, book 3, title 11, introducing a quotation with this sentence: “Verba rescripti ita se habent:”, clearly meaning “the words of the rescript are as follows”.  Looking in Livy book 22, Cicero De legibus 1, Frontinus, and others, I conclude:

  • ita se habere  = to be as follows, to stand so.
  • res ita se habet = the matter stands so.

Similarly, I think we have here the late / medieval use of “quia” to mean “that” rather than “because”.

We don’t think of the Nicene creed as having anathemas on the end, but clearly it was understood to do so in Carthage at this period.  The anathemas are directed at the Arians, of course.

It is also interesting that they explicitly refer, in this Latin version, to the Greek word “homoousion” as well (in Latin letters).


From my diary

I attended the zoom lecture by Dr Adrian Papaphagi on Latin manuscript fragments in Transylvania.  I had to leave early, but the first half hour was genuinely interesting.  The history of the Reformation in that part of the world was quite unknown to me before now.  The manuscripts of Transylvania suffered badly during the Reformation, but most of those mentioned were medieval service books, which naturally were of no use afterwards.

I’m still thinking about the canons of the African councils.  The material from the council of 419 is almost done with, as we have a fairly complete English translation of it.  I would like to produce a properly formatted and intelligible version of this.  The main loose end is the “ancient epitome” quoted at various points, but I need to learn something about this.

Now that I know more, I have started to look again at the Breviarium Hipponense.  I will have to produce a Latin text, and then return to doing some light translating.  Something I probably need to do first is to read the three pages of Munier’s explanation – in Latin – of the “complex” transmission of the Breviarium.  Since he prints what seems to be at least three different versions of the text, this might be important.

Little by little.


March 25 – the date of the annunciation, the crucifixion, and the origin of December 25 as the date of Christmas?

Today is March 25, Lady Day.  According to various online sources, it is celebrated as the the day that the angel Gabriel announced the incarnation to the virgin Mary, the Annunciation.  This is also the day of Jesus’ conception.  I have read that some ancient sources also considered it to be the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, in line with an ancient belief that a prophet came into the world and left it on the same date.  Finally there is the idea that the date of Christmas, 25 December, probably came about because it was 9 months after the conception of Jesus.

There’s a lot in that to verify.  But I thought that I would post the ancient testimonies that give 25 March as the day of the crucifixion.  For this sounds odd to us.  We know that Easter is the day of the resurrection, the third day after the crucifixion; but Easter moves on the lunar calendar.  So where does 25 March come from?

There is an obvious witness, which no doubt influenced all subsequent writers – St Augustine, De Trinitate book 4, chapter 5:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.  But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.  (NPNF translation here.)

This was written early in the 5th century. He repeats this claim in the City of God, book 18, chapter 54 (here):

Now Christ died when the Gemini were consuls, on the eighth day before the kalends of April. He rose the third day, as the apostles have proved by the evidence of their own senses.

But where did he get this idea from, that the crucifixion was on the 8th day before the kalends of April, March 25?

There is a lunar calendar on the statue of Hippolytus in the Vatican Library.[1]  Apparently a note within this indicates the “Passion of Christ” was on Friday March 25.

Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos 8:18: (English)

[18] Quae passio Christi [huius exterminium] intra tempora LXX ebdomadarum perfecta est sub Tiberio Caesare, consulibus Rubellio Gemino et Rufio Gemino mense Martio temporibus paschae, die octavo Kalendarum Aprilium, die primo azymorum quo agnum occiderunt ad vesperam, sicut a Moyse fuerat praeceptum.

And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.

The Liberian Catalogue of bishops of Rome of 354 AD, part 13 of the Chronography of 354 (here):



An obscure author, Q. Julius Hilarianus, ca. 397, in his Expositum de die Paschae et Mensis, c.15 (PL 13, 1105-14; 1114B):

Eo quippe anno, ut supputationis fides ostendit, et ratio ipsa persuadet, passus est idem Dominus Christus luna xiv, viii kal. April, feria sexta.

In the East there were various dates,[2].  The Acts of Pilate seem to contain the date in at least one version (here):

In the fifteenth year of the government of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of the Romans, and Herod being king of Galilee, in the nineteenth year of his rule, on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, which is the twenty-fifth of March, in the consulship of Rufus and Rubellio, in the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, Joseph Caiaphas being high priest of the Jews.

There are various versions of the Acts of Pilate, at least two in Greek, plus a Latin version, and it is probably fairly late, at least as we have it.  But Tertullian refers twice to apocryphal material by Pilate, in the Apologeticum, in c.5 and in cc. 21 and 24, which suggests that the Acts of Pilate, or some precursor to them, was already circulating in the second century.[3]

The evidence would suggest therefore that the Acts of Pilate are probably responsible for the Latin tradition that the crucifixion was on 25 March.  This was adopted by Tertullian, and read by Augustine, and then disseminated to the world.  From it, again in the west, the calculation of 25 December arises.

  1. [1]Schmidt, T. C. (2015). “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69, p.542–563. doi:10.1163/15700720-12341243
  2. [2]See
  3. [3]A compilation of some information about this text may be found here.

Translations of the acts of the African councils

There are two main chunks of material transmitted to us from antiquity.  The first is the Breviarium Hipponensis, with its introductory letter.  This is a summary of the canons of the council of Hippo in 393, which was prepared at the council of Carthage in 397 after it was discovered that the decisions of Hippo were unknown to most bishops in Africa.  But I find no sign of translations of this chunk, so I will leave this to one side for now.

The second chunk is the “code of the African church”, the “codex canonum ecclesiae Africanae”, transmitted to us by Dionysius Exiguus in his collection of canons and acts, the so-called “collection Dionysiana”, in the revised edition.  Dionysius presents this as the acts of the “council of Carthage”, meaning the council of Carthage of 419, but after canon 33 the remainder of the material is acts and canons of older councils.

This second chunk has been translated in full, by Henry R. Percival in 1899 in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, vol. 14.  The relevant section, headed “The Canons of the 217 Blessed Fathers who assembled at Carthage”, can be found here.  It does not correspond to the revised order of materials in Mansi, nor in Munier in CCSL 149, but to the manuscript order.

Percival’s work is a good piece of work, although the intrusions into the text of comment rather conceal from the reader what the text actually is.  His references to an “ancient epitome” are unclear to me – does he mean the “tituli” prefixed to the acts and canons?  These do not appear in the body of the text in Mansi, that I can see, nor in the Migne PL67 text, nor in the Labbe and Cossart:  Concilia, Tom. II. col. 1041 that he is translating.  He discusses this here, but without looking up his references I am none the wiser.  (There is an explanation in Beveridge, Synodicon, 1672, here, in the prolegomenon section 26; but I lost the will to live when I looked at it).

His first footnotes on this section brought a wry smile to my face:

Yes indeed, sir, they are indeed very hard to follow in the original sometimes.  I suspect Bishop Aurelius simply tended to run his sentences together, as a manner of speaking, which is very hard on us non-native Latin speakers.  But there we go.

Percival translates the edition before him.  But he was not the first to make a translation, as he tells us himself in his bibliographical introduction.

The following is a list of the English translations which I have consulted or followed:

  • John Johnson, The Clergyman’s Vade-mecum (London, 2d Ed., 1714).
  • Wm. A. Hammond, The Definitions of Faith and Canons of Discipline of the Six Œcumenical Councils, etc.
  • William Lambert, The Canons of the First Four General Councils of the Church and those of the Early Greek Synods (London, s.d. Preface dated 1868).
  • John Fulton, Index Canonum.  [This work ends with the Council of Chalcedon.]  (New York, 1872.  3d Ed., 1892.)
  • John Mendham, The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nice (London, s. d.).
  • H. R. Percival, The Decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Synods.  Appendix I. to A Digest of Theology (London, Masters, 1893).

Much of these are dedicated to the ecumenical councils – i.e. the Greek councils.  They give us nothing for the African councils.

Various editions of John Johnson’s Clergyman’s Vade-Mecum Part II are on Google Books.  The first edition, 1709, is here.  The fourth edition, 1731, is here.  I didn’t see the second edition. The title in full is:

The Clergy-Man’s Vade Mecum: Part II : Containing the Canonical Codes of the Primitive, Universal, Eastern, and Western Church, Down to the Year of Our Lord, DCCLXXXVII, Done from the Original Greek and Latin, Omitting No Canon, Decree, Or Any Part of Them that is Curious Or Instructive ; with Explanatory Notes, a Large Index, and a Preface Shewing the Usefulness of the Work; with Some Reflections on Moderate-non-conformity, and the Rights of the Church…

As the title suggests, the book features a very long and tedious preface, mainly attacking the presbyterian Edmund Calamy over some pointless and annoying dispute.  After that he gets into translating the canons, but not the acts.  The purpose of the book is to present the Anglican clergyman with various bits of information useful to him in his job – a doubtless absentee job, at that period.  The canons are there as church law.  Johnson also made a subsequent volume in 1720 in which he translated all the canons of the anglosaxon and early English church, under the snappy title of:

A Collection of All the Ecclesiastical Laws, Canons, Answers, Or Rescripts … Concerning the Government, Discipline and Worship of the Church of England, from Its First Foundation to the Conquest, that Have Hitherto Been Publish’d in the Latin and Saxonic Tongues. And of All the Canons and Constitutions Ecclesiastical, Made Since the Conquest and Before the Reformation in Any National Council, Or in the Provincial Synods of Canterbury and York, that Have Hitherto Been Publish’d in the Latin Tongue: Now First Translated Into English with Explanatory Notes, and Such Glosses from Lyndwood and Athone, as Were Thought Most Useful…

It may be found here.  Johnson references a French translation by “Du Pin”, but I don’t know where that could be found.

I don’t know what other English translations there may be of the African councils material.  I suspect there must be some.

There is a French translation, by P.-P. Joannou.  I discuss this, with links, here.  It does not contain the Breviarium material.

There is a German translation: G. D. Fuchs, Bibliothek der Kirchenversammlungen des vierten und fünften Jahrhunderts, from the 1780s.  I discuss this, with links, here.

There is a 1849 Spanish translation of the 1808 edition by F. González (the one reprinted in Migne PL 84) with facing Latin text here:  I am told that the language is naturally dated but the translation looks quite faithful.


A few notes on Henry R. Percival, translator of “The Seven Ecumenical Councils” in the NPNF Series 2

Continuing our little series on the councils of the African church, I’ve been looking at the existing translations into English.  I shall write a separate post on this.

Any search for translations immediately brings up the volume edited by Henry R. Percival in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, Second Series, volume 14. While reading his preface, here, (1899) I came across the following words:

The work intrusted to me of preparing this volume evidently can be divided into two separate parts.  The first, the collecting of the material needed and the setting of it before the reader in the English tongue; the other, the preparation of suitable introductions and notes to the matter thus provided.

Now in each of these departments two courses were open to the editor:  the one, to be original; the other, to be a copyist.  I need hardly say that of these the former offered many temptations.

But I could not fail to recognize the fact that such a course would greatly take from the real value of the work, and therefore without any hesitation I have adopted the other alternative, and have endeavoured, so far as was at all possible, to keep myself out of the question altogether; and as a general rule even the translation of the text (as distinguished from the notes) is not mine but that of some scholar of well-established reputation.

These selfless words filled my heart with a warm feeling towards the translator, and a desire to know more of him.

Let us, then, remember Henry Robert Percival.  I learn that he was born 30 April 1854, and he died on 22 September 1903, aged only 49 – a young man.[1]  There is a photograph online, although I don’t know the source, which I have added to this post (I hope!)

Various of his works are online here.

Mr Percival was an Episcopalian clergyman.   From the funeral sermon, I learn that he never enjoyed good health, but travelled widely in Europe in his youth.  He was in fact unable even to attend seminary regularly, but had private tuition, and was ordained in 1878.  I would infer that he did not come from a poor family.

In 1881 he became Rector of the failing Church of the Evangelists in Philadelphia.  The church had been built some years earlier as a mission chapel, but the standard of construction was poor, and the need for constant repairs soon exhausted the funds of the backers.  Disputes naturally arose, which led to the resignation of the rector and the appointment of Mr. Percival.  It was decided to demolish most of the old building and to erect a  new one, in an Italianate style, funded by the rector and his wealthy friends.  It opened on March 24th, 1886.  The church enjoyed a period of success while he was rector, and all the debts were paid off by 1889.  He composed a guide to the building which is online here.

But the church had no root in the community.  There were few episcopalians locally, and the area was becoming increasingly full of immigrants from Europe.  It has been observed:

Percival’s Church of the Evangelists was the kind of manufactured artifact appropriate to house what James van Trump calls “a rather self-conscious coterie of late nineteenth century Philadelphia haute bourgeoisie ‘engaged’, one might say, in being ‘Catholic’, cultivated, and artistic.” (van Trump, The Charette, Jan. 1965, p. 17; see bibliography.) The building in its basic style and decoration embraces Italy, Ruskin, the ecclesiological movement, and the pageantry of mediaeval Christianity. As such, it is a vivid document of the taste of High Church romantic Italophile Americans of the Period.

Ultimately the whole project was merely the whimsy of a rich man.   How wonderful, however, to have the money and connections to build an Italianate basilica, and to sustain it, if only for a while!

Percival eventually retired as rector in 1897, for health reasons.  After his death financial worries and disputes returned.  The building was eventually sold in 1916 to an art collector, and as the Fleischer Art Memorial it still stands today.[2]

Mr Percival was as Anglo-Catholic as could be imagined.  He said the mass daily at his church, and heard confessions.  His bishop refused to allow him to use catholic lights and vestments, so the result seemed rather odd.  But there can be no doubt about his sincerity.  He became an influential theologian in the Episcopalian church.

In retirement he edited and translated the volume of the NPNF, and did other literary tasks.  It is his work with the NPNF that lives today, I would think.

He died, still a young man, at the age of 49.  His death was announced in the San Francisco Call, vol. 94, number 116, on 24 September 1903, (online here) as follows:

Rev. Henry R. Percival Dead.

PHILADELPHIA. Sept. 23.— Rev. Henry R. Percival, a prominent Protestant Episcopal divine, died’ last night at his country home in Devon, a suburb. He was 48 years of age. Dr. Percival was an extensive writer on theology, many of his books being used as standard works in nearly all of the Episcopal theological seminaries of this country.

His funeral sermon, A Sermon in Memory of Rev. Henry Robert Percival Preached by Rev. Robert Ritchie at St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia (1903), is online here.

It is always easy to sneer at the failures of yesteryear, and even the successes.  But it seems to me that Mr Percival deserves our kindness.  With his poor health as a burden, he did what he could.  I have a feeling that many of us may prove to have done less with our lives, and benefitted others less.

Mr. Percival lies in Saint Peter’s Episcopal Churchyard in Philadelphia:

Requiscat in pace, et resurgat resurrectione justorum.

  1. [1]
  2. [2]I owe much of this information to the Wikipedia article on the Fleischer Art Memorial, and the history of the building in a nomination form as a historical monument, online here.

Zoom meeting – A paper on fragments of medieval Latin manuscripts originating in Transylvania, by Adrian Paphagi

On March 26 at 3pm GMT / UTC (1100 EDT) Dr Adrian Papahagi will present a paper via Zoom with the title Evidence Preserved by Destruction: Recycling Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Transylvania during the (Counter)Reformation.  You can register for it here.  (H/T @FragmentariumMS on Twitter here.)  I may listen in myself.

Like most of us, I was quite unaware that there were Latin manuscripts written in medieval Translyvania.  But indeed there were.  There were Benedictine Abbeys, and Franciscan Friaries in the region.  The area was only transferred to Romania in modern times.

Dr P. has published a paper “Lost Libraries and Surviving Manuscripts: The Case of Medieval Transylvania” in: Library & Information History 31 (2015), 35–53, in English, with the following abstract:

The medieval dioceses of Transylvania, Oradea, and Cenad were the easternmost ramparts of Western culture. Cathedrals, Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys, Franciscan and Dominican convents, parish churches, and urban communities owned books and libraries in the Middle Ages. Most of these were lost to fires and plunders. The Tartars’ invasion in 1241 and the Reformation were also major occasions for book destruction. Starting from surviving book lists and manuscripts preserved in Romania and abroad, the present article attempts to reconstruct the landscape of literacy in medieval Transylvania.

The paper discusses what collections now exist, and where the manuscripts are.  From this I learn that most of the manuscripts were destroyed, and only about 100 produced or owned before 1500 are extant.

I also found at a paper by Adinel C. Dinca, “The Medieval Book in Early Modern Transylvania Preliminary Assessments”, in: SUBB – Historia 62 (2017), 24-34, here.  This again is valuable to those who come to it new.

Alba Iulia – known to readers of this blog hitherto as the site of a Mithraeum – was the capital of Transylvania and today has the largest collection of medieval manuscripts, the Batthyaneum Library.  This was created only in the 1780s by Bishop Ignatius Batthyany, mainly by purchase from other areas of the Hapsburg domains, so it doesn’t contain much from medieval Transylvania.  Some of its manuscripts are online, according to this blog post at the Medieval Hungary blog.  I found that going to the search engine here – NOT the search on the main page – and entering “Batthyaneum”  gave 15 results, some of them incunables.  I saw nothing of great interest to us, tho.  Apparently the state seized the library from the church in 1949, after which “access became very limited”, and still is.

Always interesting to hear about something a bit wild!