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.


Illiterate bishops decided the canon of the New Testament! Or did they?

It is often claimed that the canon lists given in the canons of the council of Hippo in 393, and the council of Carthage in 397, in some way created the canon of the New Testament.  This is not the case, and cannot be the case – the lists are merely for local use in deciding what books to read in church.

 But I was intrigued by some comments on the bishops, by none other than Henry Chadwick:[1]

The old bishop of Hippo who had ordained Augustine presbyter feared lest some other church might carry him off to be their bishop. He therefore persuaded the primate of Numidia to consecrate Augustine to be coadjutor bishop of Hippo. The appointment (irregular in canon law) became surrounded by some controversy. The combination of Augustine’s Manichee past and his extreme cleverness helped to make him distrusted. Hippo was not a city where people read books. Numidia was not a province where congregations expected to have a prodigy of intelligence on the episcopal bench. (Augustine noted that illiterate bishops were a favourite butt for the mockery of the half-educated: CR 13.) Augustine’s presence induced apprehension. He was known to be a terror for demolishing opponents in public disputations. Some did not quite believe in the sincerity of his conversion at Milan.

“CR 13” is chapter 13 of De catechizandis rudibus (on the need to instruct newcomers).  But a look at the old English translation online does not really support this, interesting tho it is:

13. There are also some who come from the commonest schools of the grammarians and professional speakers, whom you may not venture to reckon, either among the uneducated, or among those very learned classes whose minds have been exercised in questions of real magnitude.

When such persons, therefore, who appear to be superior to the rest of mankind, so far as the art of speaking is concerned, approach you with the view of becoming Christians, it will be your duty in your communications with them, in a higher degree than in your dealings with those other illiterate hearers, to make it plain that they are to be diligently admonished to clothe themselves with Christian humility, and learn not to despise individuals whom they may discover keeping themselves free from vices of conduct more carefully than from faults of language; and also that they ought not to presume so much as to compare with a pure heart the practised tongue which they were accustomed even to put in preference.

But above all, such persons should be taught to listen to the divine Scriptures, so that they may neither deem solid eloquence to be mean, merely because it is not inflated, nor suppose that the words or deeds of men, of which we read the accounts in those books, involved and covered as they are in carnal wrappings, are not to be drawn forth and unfolded with a view to an (adequate) understanding of them, but are to be taken merely according to the sound of the letter. And as to this same matter of the utility of the hidden meaning, the existence of which is the reason why they are called also mysteries, the power wielded by these intricacies of enigmatical utterances in the way of sharpening our love for the truth, and shaking off the torpor of weariness, is a thing which the persons in question must have made good to them by actual experience, when some subject which failed to move them when it was placed baldly before them, has its significance elicited by the detailed working out of an allegorical sense.

For it is in the highest degree useful to such men to come to know how ideas are to be preferred to words, just as the soul is preferred to the body.

From this, too, it follows that they ought to have the desire to listen to discourses remarkable for their truth, rather than to those which are notable for their eloquence; just as they ought to be anxious to have friends distinguished for their wisdom, rather than those whose chief merit is their beauty.

They should also understand that there is no voice for the ears of God save the affection of the soul. For thus they will not act the mocker if they happen to observe any of the prelates and ministers of the Church either calling upon God in language marked by barbarisms and solecisms, or failing in understanding correctly the very words which they are pronouncing, and making confused pauses.

It is not meant, of course, that such faults are not to be corrected, so that the people may say ‘Amen’ to something which they plainly understand; but what is intended is, that such things should be piously borne with by those who have come to understand how, as in the forum it is in the sound, so in the church it is in the desire that the grace of speech resides. Therefore that of the forum may sometimes be called good speech, but never gracious speech.

Moreover, with respect to the sacrament which they are about to receive, it is enough for the more intelligent simply to hear what the thing signifies. But with those of slower intellect, it will be necessary to adopt a somewhat more detailed explanation, together with the use of similitudes, to prevent them from despising what they see.

This makes no reference to illiterate bishops.  Chadwick was a great scholar, but all of us can fall victim to printer errors.  So what did he have in mind?

The answer seems to be a passage in Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l’Afrique chrétienne depuis les origines jusqu’à l’invasion arabe, (1901) vol. 4, p.423, here[2].

Des incidents de toute sorte mettent un peu de variété, ou même de gaieté, dans la monotonie des débats. Ce sont les scrupules bouffons des Donatistes, qui refusent de s’asseoir. Ce sont les scènes amusantes ou violentes, auxquelles donne lieu la vérification des signatures: confrontation des évêques d’une même localité, qui se regardent de travers et s’injurient ou s’accusent mutuellement … ou d’ailleurs; attitude piteuse de pauvres prélats qui n’ont pu signer eux-mêmes, ne sachant pas écrire[10]; fréquentes interventions et bavardage d’Aurelius de Macomades,

10) Collat. Carthag., I, 133 : « litteras nesciente ».

Incidents of all sorts brought variety or even gaiety in the monotony of the debates.  There were the idiotic scruples of the Donatists who refused to sit down.  There were amusing or violent scenes, caused by the verification of signatures: the confrontation of bishops belonging to the same place, who stared at each other and mutually insulted or accused…; the pitiful attitude of poor prelates who could not sign themselves, not knowing how to write[10]; the frequent interjections and jokes of Aurelius of Macomades…

This is undoubtedly our source; the reference given is to the Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis (CPL 724), the minutes of the miserable, rigged state-sponsored conference (collatio) of 411 AD between the Catholics, led by Aurelius and Augustine, and the Donatists.  As it happens, a new edition of this text has been published by the CSEL,[3] and a Google Books preview includes page 129, on which the relevant section appears:

Et recitavit: “Qui supra pro Paulino Zurensi praesente litteras nesciente coram viro clarissimo tribuno et notario Marcellino suprascripta mandavi et subscripsi Carthagini.” Quo recitato et accedente episcopo Paulino catholico idem dixit: “Catholica est.” Habetdeum diaconus Primiani episcopi dixit: “Presbyter est illic noster. Diocesis est nostra.”

As the bishops confirmed their signatures, one by one, the poor catholic bishop Paulinus of Zura had to listen to this as it was read out, litteras nesciente, not knowing his letters.

But I didn’t see any other examples.  Was this the only one?

The collatio is unusual because of the verbatim record of the proceedings.  But the same people were at other synods.  It is defensible that some of those attending were illiterate.  But at such proceedings, they must have been very rare indeed.

  1. [1]Augustine: A very short introduction, Oxford (1986) p.68
  2. [2]I owe this reference to Garry Wills, “Augustine’s Hippo: Power Relations (410-417)”, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 7 (1999), 98-119, JSTOR, p.103.
  3. [3]C. Weidmann (ed.), Collatio Carthaginensis anni 411: Gesta collationis Carthaginensis Augustinus, Breviculus collationis Augustinus, Ad Donatistas post collationem, De Gruyter, 2018.  The Gesta are printed in Serge Lancel, Actes de la Conference de Carthage en 411, 3 vols. (Sources chretiennes 194, 195, and 224) (Paris, 1972 and 1975), in Gesta Conlationis Carthaginensis Anno 411, volume 149A of Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, also edited by Lancel (Turnhout, Belgium, 1974); J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina 11.1257- 1418 (Paris, 1844-); and in J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 4.19-246 (Florence, 1739-1798; reprint and continuation: Paris, 1901-1927).

Some first impressions on ancient collections of canons

An inept Roman Catholic apologist today pronounced that the Catholic church decided the contents of the bible, and did so at the Council of Carthage in 397.  I can imagine Augustine raising an eyebrow at this, and quelling him where he stood.  But it made me realise that actually I have never read the acts of that council.  We often hear that the canon was closed at that time.  However it is wise, invariably, to look at the primary source.

This evening I attempted to do so.  I thought that I would record my first impressions, ignorant though I am, because they seemed interesting of themselves.

In my naivety, I supposed that the Acts were transmitted as a literary text, in various manuscripts of various dates, together with other texts or on their own.  What I actually found was a rats’ nest.

It seems that all these councils issued canons – rules for ecclesiastical conduct, mainly concerned with what bishop could do what, who could appeal to whom, and so on.  But these were often not even recorded.  If they were, they might be tidied up later.  Often they would be incorporated in later collections.

I quickly discovered that our main source for the canons of Carthage in 397 is in fact a collection of canons from 419, worked up by the 6th century writer Dionysius Exiguus, into which a large chunk of material supposedly from earlier councils was plainly interpolated by the editor.  An article from 1961 by F. L. Cross made clear how the intruded chunk simply did not fit.

And what was the council of 419 talking about?  Well the African bishops were arguing with some delegates from Rome, who had come equipped with a set of “canons of Nicaea” which said that the bishop of Rome could do this or that.  The Africans were suspicious, since their copies of these canons did not contain the relevant sections.  So they decided to write to the bishops in the East and get an authentic copy of the Nicene canons.  Nor were the Africans wrong: the Roman delegates had a copy interpolated with some material from the much less authoritative council of Serdica.

It’s pretty bad to discover that, less than a century after Nicaea, nobody knew for sure what it said.  So how can we, today, know what any given council said?

Well, we have editions of the material, such as Mansi.  This in turn is based on selections from medieval manuscript copies of collections of canons.

The canons of Nicaea are 20 in number, and all pretty trivial.  Nobody really feels bound by them, then or now.  They are instructions on points of church discipline, and not divinely inspired in any way.

Indeed this conclusion also comes out of the council of 419, which proceeds to say that it will reaffirm some – some – of the canons of earlier councils.  These are not Holy Writ, in capitals.  This is ecclesiastical law in the making – internal rules for the church community at a time when it was increasingly rich and influential.  If a rule worked, the next council might reaffirm it.  If it did not, it would forget it.

This means that the canon which listed the books of the bible was not The Word Of The Lord.  It was just a church regulation.  Our inept apologist earlier was indeed very wide of the mark.

These collections of canons were mutable things.  It was an ever changing thing, as circumstances altered.  Copies of canon law might be updated locally.

But there is more.  Can you say “forged decretals”?  Church law could be a weapon in political struggles, internal or otherwise.  People could and did invent such things.  How convenient it was, for Pope Zosimus and his unfortunate emissaries, that the copy of the Canons of Nicaea that they had happened to be interpolated.

Of course a great deal of scholarship has gone into addressing these kinds of problems, most of it in the 19th century.  On the other hand quite a bit of Catholic vs Protestant rivalry was also going on at the same time.  When I learn that many of the authors are Germans, belonging to that very period and definitely combatants in those disputes, it does not fill me with confidence.

The whole thing gives you the heebie-geebies, frankly.  Just how reliable is any of this stuff?

The only way to answer that is to educate oneself, and find out.  I shall keep reading.