The canons of the councils of Africa – a few general thoughts

Few of us are specialists in the material left to us by the early councils of the church. But it is often said that the canon of scripture was “decided” by the “Council of Hippo” or the “Council of Carthage in 397”. This sort of claim is very hard for most of us to evaluate. Handbooks on the bible usually quote a single “canon”, devoid of context. This leaves most of us none the wiser. Many will find themselves wondering just what they are looking at. How do we find out more?  Where does this stuff come from?

I know that some readers will know a lot about this; but others won’t.  So let’s just give a quick view of what these things are.

The ancient church produced dossiers of decisions made by councils, together with prefatory matter, or letters written at the time, and so forth.  These are not literary texts, composed by a single author and intended to be transmitted exactly as written. They are technical texts, like agricultural handbooks, or, better, legal texts.  Technical texts are subject to revision, to updating, improving, abbreviating, and so forth. This is because they are created for a practical purpose, and later copyists may have other things to add on the same subject.

The medieval church had a rule book, which covered administrative matters. We refer to this material – jargon term – as “canon law”. The content within it has passed through just such a process of revision. But much of it ultimately derives from the ancient world.

Councils of bishops tended to gather from earliest times in order to decide on a common approach in case of disputes. This could be theological, but it could equally relate to practical matters of church administration and membership.

A council would often issue a set of “canons”, rules or decisions, on practical matters of church discipline. These were not “holy writ”. They could be, and were, ignored, modified, adopted, and so on. A later council might well revisit the canons of an earlier council, omitting or adding to them, as circumstances changed.

The “acts” of a council could comprise the minutes of the meeting, the signatories, any canons issued, and any covering letters or other correspondence. They might also include a summary of the canons of earlier councils.

Material of this sort starts to survive from the councils of the fourth century. There are twenty canons from the council of Nicaea in 325, covering matters such as whether eunuchs can be ordained, how people should stand in church, and the like. They are very brief. But the authority of Nicaea was widely disputed until the latter part of the fourth century.

Not all councils were considered authoritative. But over time it was natural that collections would be made of the acts of such councils as were considered authoritative.

Not every council issued canons. Not every council had its minutes recorded. In many cases the material is lost. If the canons survived, later writers might find differing versions of the canons in circulation. For instance the Council of Carthage in 419, confronted with a version of the canons of Nicaea which asserted Papal primacy in the west, discovered that this canon was in fact interpolated from the unauthoritative Council of Sardica.

It is at the end of the fourth century that the great series of councils of bishops in Africa begins, which were highly influential on other western provinces. These councils were held almost annually by Aurelius of Carthage, with the assistance of St Augustine, as a way to organise the weak Catholic church in the province in order to combat the Donatist majority. Material of various sorts from these councils survives. The council of Hippo in 393 made various decisions, but these do not seem to have circulated very well. The material from the council of Carthage in 397 begins with a covering letter by Bp. Aurelius to a summary of the canons of the council of Hippo in 393 – the Breviarium Hipponense – saying that this was necessary because many bishops pretended ignorance of what the council had decided. It seems that thereafter Aurelius left nothing to chance, and arranged for notaries to record what was said.

The African canons were well-thought out and well thought of. Material produced by this process finds its way into the medieval manuscripts from which we derive almost all ancient literature and much else. Compilations or excerpts of this material feed into later antique collections of canonical material, in Spain and Gaul. Much of it was also translated into Greek. For instance the great collection of canons by Dionysius Exiguus in the early 500s, contains a whole section devoted to the “code of the church of Africa” (Codex canonum ecclesiae Africae). From there it passes into later medieval texts like the Decretum of Gratian, which are outside our concern.

The original texts are the dossier issued by the council at the time. These do not survive as distinct and complete entities, although some – such as the Council of Carthage of 419 – come very close. The way that these texts are edited, therefore, is to gather together materials that relate to each particular council, and simply give the councils in chronological order. There is, obviously, a great deal of room for disagreement as to how such material should be organised, which is one reason why it can be hard to know what we are dealing with, when we look at an individual canon. Just where do these words come from?

The canon of scripture is listed in a canon of a couple of the ancient African councils.  This term, the “canon of scripture”, itself can confuse laymen. It has nothing to do with the use of the term “canon” for the decisions of the councils. The only connection is the use of the jargon word “canon”, for a rule or set of rules. The canon of scripture, the list of divinely inspired books, is not the product of any ancient council, but of a more gradual process which I don’t intend to address.


The canons of the African councils – hand me the painkillers now!

I’ve continued to work on the canons of the African councils, and I’m not sure that I am making progress.  What I want to do is to understand those canons which deal with the canon of scripture, and to do so in the context of the full text to which they belong.  Usually these canons are quoted in entire isolation; as stray gobbets of text, ripped out of context, and thereby likely misunderstood.  People often say that these councils “decided” the canon of the scripture.  I can already see that this is quite improbable.

It should not be impossible to work with the full texts.  But it is considerably harder, than I had ever supposed, even to work out what the actual text units are.  Let me give a small example of the difficulties, not as a complaint but in case I come this way again and need a reminder!

There is an edition of the canons of the African councils by the excellent Charles Munier in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 249.  But it has no table of contents.  There is a list of contents on the publisher, Brepols, site here.  But this is useless.  Some of the items appear nowhere in the book; the items that do appear are not in that order.  However the website does at least contain the Clavis Patrum Latinorum numbers for the texts, unlike the book itself.  I spent some time today with my PDF of the Munier book, adding as bookmarks whatever I could make out.  The book itself is divided in an impenetrable way.  Is the material for the council of 419 part of the “code of Apiarius”?  Or something separate?

I found a translation of canons of the council of 419 in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, here.  It is subtitled “The Code of Canons of the African Church“, i.e. the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africae. Brepols think that this text (CPL 1765) is in the Munier volume.  Well, if it is, I cannot see it!  Looking at the introduction to the NPNF, the canons were translated from the reprint of “Labbe-Cossart”, i.e. Labbe’s Sacrosancta Concilia, in the 1728 edition, volume 2, col. 1251.  I’ve found that online via, with great gratitude.

But when I compare the NPNF to the material from Joannou’s edition and French translation of what seems to be (but is, of course, carefully not labelled as) the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africae, I immediately see material missing in the NPNF after canon 33.  It’s in the Labbe volume (col. 1277)  but not in the NPNF.  Labbe indeed carefully gives the impression that a different text is involved to the canons, which resume with canon 34 over the page.  And so it goes on and on.

The editions show a definite tendency to ignore the actual texts that are transmitted to us, and to instead assemble all material relating to council 3, council 6, or whatever, from whatever source.  They show a definite tendency to treat the transmission units as mere raw material, to be used to (re)create hypothetical canons, letters, whatever.  But these things are passed down to us, in manuscripts, on parchment.  What is actually transmitted?  Indeed I have found that the Patrologia Latina editions of texts are more intelligible than any of the others.  So that’s something.

Of course I am entirely new to this genre of literature, and probably if I were more experienced then I would understand better.  But as a newcomer, my impression is simply one of confusion.  We need a simple orientation guide in English which assumes nothing.  Maybe there is one, for all I know.  But it is troubling that sources tend to refer to a 1961 article by F. L. Cross, “History and Fiction in the African Canons”, which was intended for other purposes.

I suspect that I shall have to adopt a more modest approach than I had originally thought.  Maybe I shall come back to the issue one day.

Update.  After posting those words, I went to my shelves.  The Clavis Patrum Latinorum is one of the few handbooks that I possess in hard copy form.  Maybe, I thought, it would give some guidance.  So I turned off my computer, and retired to bed with the CPL.

And … as ever with the CPL, clarity ensues.  The CPL has a section on the canons of the African councils.  This it bases on Munier.  On two pages it indicates clearly exactly which pages of Munier belong to which text, and references them to the Patrologia Latina, any other relevant texts, and also to a guide to the sources (in German!) by someone called Maassen, Geschichte der Quellen und der Literatur des canonischen Rechts, vol. 1 (1870).  Tomorrow I shall look into this.

Update (25/2/21, 15:00): I have just spent some time with my copy of Munier, adding into the bookmarks the CPL information. Blessedly the CPL gives the page numbers of each text, so it is, for the first time, possible to work out what is what.  In this way I learn that the “Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae”, a title for the chunk of material used by every previous edition – but nowhere mentioned in Munier – is the same as what he calls the “Codex Apiarii Causae”.  Dr Munier decided to invent his own title, it seems.

The CPL also gives a reference to Maassen.  A google search gives page after page of links to vendors of some modern reprint, but the volume is online and may be found here.  Thankfully Maassen’s publisher used a Roman typeface – I was fully prepared for Fraktur!  So far so good.  I download the book, renumber the PDF pages to match the pages of the book, and add a couple of bookmarks.

But when you enter the reference from the CPL – “139-140” for the Breviarium Hipponense – you find yourself nowhere.  It turns out that Maassen’s book is divided into numbered sections.  The CPL reference is not to the page number, but to the section number.  Of course.  It would be clearer if the CPL used §139-140, I think.

The PDF from Google turns out not to be OCR’ed.  Thanks, guys!  Out with the OCR software.

Update (16:00).  I OCR’d it all with Adobe Acrobat Pro 9.  But the Google download of Massen is defective.  The images slope into the spine on precisely the pages that I want to read.  Joy.  There’s a better  version here.  Time to OCR that instead.

I did copy out section 136, on the Council of Hippo in 393, which reads as follows via Google Translate:

Mit dem Concil von Hippo vom Jahre 393 beginnt die Sammlung des carthagischen Concils vom Jahre 419. Es findet sich aber in der uns ueberlieferten Gestalt dieser Sammlung nur eine kurze historische Erwahnung desselben ohne die Canonen. Rücksichtlich dieser wird auf die unmittelbar vorhergehenden Canonen der ersten Sitzung des Concils vom Jahre 419 verwiesen. Allerdings ist unter diesen eine grössere Zahl von Canonen, die Wiederholungen von Beschlüssen des Concils von Hippo sind. Sie erscheinen hier aber nicht als solche und in veränderter Fassung. Eine ergiebigere Quelle ist das carthagische Concil vom Jahre 397, dem ein Auszug der Canonen von Hippo einverleibt wurde. Von diesem Auszug soll in Verbindung mit dem genannten Concil gehandelt werden. Ferrandus citirt die Canonen von Hippo nur nach dem Auszuge als Canonen des carthagischen Concils vom Jahre 397; ebenso das Concil unter Bonifacius vom Jahre 525, mit Ausnahme von zwei Canonen, die als solche von Hippo und vollständig angeführt werden.

136. The collection of the Carthaginian Council of 419 begins with the Council of Hippo of 393. However, in the form of this collection that has been handed down to us there is only a brief historical mention of it without the canons. Regarding this, reference is made to the immediately preceding canons of the first session of the Council of 419. However, among these are a large number of canons which are repetitions of the decisions of the Council of Hippo. However, they do not appear here as such and in a modified version. A more abundant source is the Carthaginian Council of 397, to which an extract from the canons of Hippo was incorporated. This extract should be dealt with in connection with the aforementioned Council. Ferrandus quotes the canons of Hippo only after the excerpt as canons of the Carthaginian Council of 397; likewise the council under Bonifacius of the year 525, with the exception of two canons which are quoted as such by Hippo and in full.

That’s actually quite useful.  Maassen is saying what the information is, and where it is from.  Now back to the new PDF.

Rats.  I find that the new PDF has some unrecognised pages.  I know what that means.  It means that Google couldn’t OCR those pages and left hidden crud behind in the PDF, so you can’t OCR them.   Luckily I know the solution, thanks to Abbyy Support.  You open the file in PDF Editor, click on Edit> Delete Objects and Data, tick all the options, and click on Apply.  This gets rid of everything except the raw page images, and you can then OCR it all again.  Pity it’s a 1060 page file.  Just deleting the “objects and data” takes a good long while.  Waiting …. packet of crisps time.

OK, it’s done.  I save the new PDF.  Let’s try OCRing it in PDF Editor – not tried that before, so why not.  “20 of 1060 pages processed”….  Urg.

16:44 – “563 of 1060 pages processed”.  So it’s going to take a while.  I’d forgotten that, while Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 essentially single-threads any use of PDFs, I’m here using Abbyy Finereader.  So I can still look at PDF’s.  I’ve just been looking back at Munier’s proemium, which makes more sense now I have read the CPL, and now that I know that the “Apiarius” material is the “Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae”.  On p.vii we find what is, to all intents and purposes, the list of contents.  He says (translation mine):

For this reason the documents of this sort, as they exist today, I have edited here, in chronological order to the extent that they have been preserved in it, so that the knowledge and use of canon law in the African churches may appear.  For although much remains obscure about the author, sources, origin and scope of this collection, the succession of documents is not in doubt, namely:

a) the Breviarium Hipponense (p.22-53), assembled in August 397, and expanded a little after 401.

b) the Gesta de nomine Apiarii (p. 79-172) exists in two recensions, the first issued at Rome at the end of May 419, the other in November in the same year, and completed in 424 AD.

c) the excerpts from the Register ecclesiae Carthaginensis assembled by a private individual at the end of the 5th century in Carthage itself (p. 173-247).

d) the Breviatio canonum of Fulgentius Ferrandus (p. 283-311) deacon of the church of Carthage, abbreviated before 546, with the text of Cresconius in the preface of his book (cf. Maassen, “Geschichte”, p.800).

So far so good.  But he continues over the page, and brevity vanishes!

e) Cresconius, Concordia canonum (Maassen, n. 842) … [rambles at length about the possibly date of Cresconius, who is an African refugee drawing on Dionysius Exiguus; but no mention of page numbers]

f) the Brevatio canonum, “From a synod of Carthage in Africa”, … [long ramble, but seems to be from a Spanish epitome of canons]

g) the Sylloge africanorum concliorum…. [maddening rambling … another collection of canons of Spanish origin]

Humpf.  But most of this won’t matter to us, interested as we are in the canon of scripture.

“989 pf 1060 pages processed”…


From my diary – working on the acts of the “council of Carthage”

A few days ago I discovered the existence of Ioannou’s French translation of the “Acts of the Council of Carthage”.  Since then I have opened up Finereader 15, and started the process of preparing a Word document with it in.  It has been very pleasant to do something mindless but useful, and something that I know so well how to do, after more than twenty years of working with OCR.

Today I started wondering just what this text actually was.  Ioannou does not say.  In fact his Latin text is cobbled together from two different sources, while his Greek text turns out to be a reprint of “Pedalion”, the editor of an early edition with different numbering of the canons.  It really is quite obscure.

Luckily for me, I bethought me of F. L. Cross’ “History and Fiction in the African Canons”, and this gave me some references to the Patrologia Latina editions of the text.  This made everything much clearer.  How much we owe to the Patrologia Latina and the work of J.-P. Migne!!!  So often he is the silent point of departure for modern work.

Looking at the PL made clear that Ioannou’s text was in fact from Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk who created AD and BC, and also made a collection of the canons.  This text was effectively a new edition of Dionysius’ collection of material.  It relates to the Council of Carthage of 419, but contains in the middle a “Register” of material from earlier synods, as far back as Hippo in 393.  This text could be found in the PL 67, col. 131 onwards.  Dionysius had the odd idea that there was only one council of Carthage, but in fact they happened almost annually under bishop Aurelius and his sidekick, a certain Augustine of Hippo.  (By a curious coincidence, my local parish church is dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo.  The children’s group is known as the “Happy Hippos”.)

Our other source for the Council of Hippo is a “breviarium” of its decisions, transmitted separately, and amid the works of Leo the Great.  It can be found as chapter 2 in PL 56, column 418 onwards.

These are the two sources for what happened at Hippo.

At the moment I have the French of Ioannou into a Word document, and I am going through it, removing page breaks and the like.  This also means that I am reading a lot of headings to the canons of the councils, mostly that of 419.

Quite a few of them relate to the Donatists.  These were not heretics, but rather rigorists, people who felt that the mainstream church had gone soft on people who had betrayed Christ during the persection a century earlier.  These canons make grim reading.  They are stuffed full of penalties and demonisation.  Nobody shall make a “heretic” their heir, nor accept a legacy from one – i.e. a family member – reads one horrid canon.  Others record that people overseas had asked the church to at least try to reconcile with the Donatists; so you get a couple of canons full of humbug about the virtue of peace and reconciliation, followed by another demanding that the bishops write to the emperor to get him to crack down on the Donatists.

A couple of canons talk about pagans.  It was only about twenty years earlier that paganism had been banned, so of course there must have been loads of pagans around.  The canons take the predictable line: chase up any temples that are open, and punish people for being pagan.

But all this is not taking place in a vacuum, although you might think so.  I’ve just read one canon, which is about what to do when you don’t know if a child has been baptised or not.  The canon states that they should be baptised, and explains that one reason why this is happening is that the “barbarians” in Mauretania are selling children.

Who are these barbarians anyway?  Well, they are the Vandals, a lazy low-grade bunch of German barbarians, who have idly plundered their way all across Gaul, all across Spain, and crossed the Straights of Gibraltar into Africa with the connivance of a corrupt Roman official.  In a few years they will advance on Carthage and seize it, and create their own kingdom.  Augustine, as he lies dying, will be able to hear the sounds of his parishioners being tortured to reveal where they  hid their gold.  In the meantime they are making money by selling children back to their families.

Roman Africa is a rich, populous province.  It is full of able-bodied men.  In classical times the rulers would have raised a couple of legions and driven these scum into the sea in a month.

But classical times were no more, nor Roman manhood.  Nobody lifts a finger.  The people are sitting there, breathing hatred against their neighbours, with the enemy almost at the door.  It is incredible to witness.

Is the truth, perhaps, that the people have lost any connection with the government.  That they don’t see it as “their” society any more?  The emperors have cracked down on any kind of organised political activity, so everyone feels that it’s not their business.   How else do we explain such utter indifference to the imminent disaster?

The churchmen are indifferent, totally so.  Any rational group of people would be focused on this problem.  Not they.  Any rational group would suspend factional quarrels, to focus on the threat to all.  Not they!  Was now the only possible time to alienate all the pagans in the province?  Was this quite the moment to demand troops seize Donatist churches?  Couldn’t they just leave it?  Not they!

It gets worse, if you follow the statements in Cross’ article.  He suggests that the “Catholics” were a minority, in a mainly Donatist province.  Their complaints are those of a group who count for nothing.  It really is not their country.  Yet here they are, aggravating all the problems in the province.  Even in Italy their attitude has attracted incredulity, and appeals to calm.

People sometimes deride the study of history.  The study of canon law is definitely an area of history that is for specialists only.  Yet it reveals, more clearly than anything else, why the Roman empire fell.

The Vandals were not strong.  They were little more than a gang of louts.  Africa fell, not because of Vandal strength, but because of Roman moral weakness.  Rotted by long peace, wealth and prosperity, and despotism, they had no idea how to defend themselves, or any reason to try.

It’s grim reading, as I say.


Périclès-Pierre Joannou (1904-1972) and French translations of canons of ancient councils

I opened up a stray word document on my desktop, and found in it the beginnings of a translation of the letter of Bishops Aurelius and Mizzonius, prefixed to the Breviarium Hipponense.  The latter document is a summary of the decisions of the council of Hippo in 393.  I soon discovered why I had stalled – the sentence structures are awful.  Inevitably I wondered whether some other poor soul had made his way through it, and started to google.  This produced few useful results, but led me to a preview of something by Hartmann, The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500 (2012).  Hartmann discussed the Council of Carthage in 419; and from it I learned that there was a translation in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series (series 2, vol. 14); and also a French translation in “Joannou, CSP 197-436”.  Maybe these dealt with Hippo?

But “Joannou” rang no bells at all.  The preview did not indicate the meaning of this abbreviation. Nor did Google reveal much.

In fact the work referred to is this:

“Joannou CCO/CSP/CPG” = Périclès‑Pierre Joannou, Discipline génèrale antique (IIe–IXe s.), 1.1: Les canons des conciles oecuméniques (IIe–IXe s.), 1.2: Les canons des synodes particuliers (IVe–IXe s.); 2: Les canons des pères greques, 3: Index.  (4 volumes; Codification canonique orientale, Fonti, Série 1; Rome-Grottaferrata 1962–1964).

It’s a four volume compilation.  In fact some photocopies of the volumes can be found online too, at

The volumes are mingled Latin and Greek, with a French translation at the foot of the page.  They must have involved tremendous labour.

But who was Périclès‑Pierre Joannou?  I found a couple of brief statements:

Perikles-Petros Joannou; Byzantinist and scholar of patristic literature; born November 27, 1904, in Erzingian, Armenia (now Erzincan in Turkey); studied in Athens and in Paris; an ordained priest, he worked in the Catholic diocese of Marseilles and in the Greek Catholic community in Munich, Germany; submitted his Habilitationsschrift to the Universität München in 1952; taught Byzantine studies and Greek philology at Munich; died January 12, 1972, near Mantua, Italy, of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.

The other was briefer:

Iōannu, Periklēs Petros; other data in authority record: Byzantinist, classical philologist, and university professor; scholar of Oriental canon law; born 1904; died 1972.

That’s all that I was able to find.  A Roman Catholic priest and academic of considerable scholarly achievements who wrote at least 8 monographs and died at the age of 68 in a car crash.  Hardly anything about him has survived the transition to the internet.

His work does not seem to contain material about the Breviarium Hipponense, sadly, although I shall go back to this.*  But I’ve learned something tonight; and I hope that others engaged in frantic googling will find this useful.

  • Update – the letter is indeed there, vol. 1.2, p.254!  Phew.