The Pratum Spirituale / Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus

Yesterday I quoted a story from the Acts of Nicaea II (787) where a monk was told it would be better to visit every brothel in the City rather than abandon worshipping the images of Christ and his Mother.  This is attributed to Sophronius, but a kind correspondent pointed out that it is in fact taken from the Pratum Spirituale (“Spiritual Meadow”) of John Moschus, where it is chapter 45.

The Pratum Spirituale (CPG 7376, BHG 1441-1442) is a collection of lively hagiographical stories of eastern monks and hermits, today divided into some 219 chpaters, composed by the author during the reign of Heraclius during and after the capture of Jerusalem by the Sassanid Persians in 614 AD.  Composed in Greek, it exists in Latin, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian (from the Arabic), Ethiopian, and Old Slavonic – the last named version being of considerable importance for the text.

As with all hagiographical texts, there is considerable variation in the manuscripts, and in this case the edition of Migne (PG 87 vol. 3, columns 2852-3112) is rather a mess.  Fortunately there is an article which analyses the manuscripts for us, by P. Pattenden, “The text of the Pratum Spirituale“, JTS 26 (1975), 38-54.  From this I learn that there are over 100 manuscripts, although many contain only parts of the text – sometimes just a single chapter.  Pattenden divides them into three groups.

  • The φ group is best represented by Florence, Mediceo-Laurenziana, Plutei x. 3 (12th century) (= F), which gives the text in 301 numbered chapters in the same order as Migne except that chapters 7 and 8 are reversed.
  • The π group is represented by Paris Graecus 1596 (12th century) (= P), which contains Moschus in three separate series interspersed with other ascetic texts including Anastasius of Sinai.
  • The μ group is a condensed version of the π group text, represented by Marcianus Graecus II, 21 (middle of 10th c.) (= M).  The archetype of this group of manuscripts seems to have been a rather careless copy of a lost manuscript belonging to the π group.

Photius in his Bibliotheca, cod. 199, refers to two versions of the Pratum Spirituale, one of 304 chapters, one of 342.  It is likely that these two versions are the φ and π groups.

The φ group – i.e. F and related manuscripts – seems to be the more authentic version, and is more attentive to getting the names right.  It is supported by the Old Slavonic version, which follows the text of F in numbering and text, but with an additional 35 chapters on the end, taken from some other collection of ascetic stories.

A critical edition of the φ text is apparently in progress, by Marina Detoraki of the University of Crete, according to an article at Dumbarton Oaks here. It does not seem to have appeared as yet, so we are left with Migne’s text, which again is traced by Pattenden.

The Pratum Spirituale first became known in the West through a translation into Latin made by the careful and intelligent Ambrogio Traversari around 1420-30.  This was based on a Greek manuscript sent to him by the Archbishop of Crete.  Traversari’s translation by printed in 1558 by Lipomannus, who reorganised it into 219 chapters.  This text was included in the 1615 Vitae Patrum by Heribert Rosweyd, and reprinted by Migne as PL 74, col. 119-240.

A copy of the Rosweyde volume found its way into the hands of a retired (now deceased – 25th August 2004) Welsh priest named Benedict Baker who translated extensive chunks of it, including the Pratum, and placed them online at his site Vitae Patrum (index here, the Pratum begins here).  This translation has appeared in various places on the web.

The Greek text was first printed by Fronton du Duc (Fronto Ducaeus) at Paris in 1624, with a parallel Latin translation.  This contained only 115 chapters, however. Duc does not state clearly which manuscripts he used, but Pattenden has identified that he used Vatican gr. 738, 12th c. (= R), a mixed manuscript of φ and π, for many chapters, and another manuscript which seems to have eventually been bought by Sir Thomas Phillips, ms. 1624, and in Pattenden’s day was in Berlin as ms. 221 of the East German Deutsche Staatsbibliothek.

A better and more complete Greek edition appeared in Paris in 1681 by Jean Baptiste Cotelier,  who located a Greek text of most of the remaining chapters of Traversari and printed it, with a new parallel Latin version of his own. Cotelier used four main Paris manuscripts, Paris Gr. 916, 11th c. (= A), from the φ group; Paris gr. 1605, 12th c. (= X) from the π group, and two manuscripts of extracts.

The Cotelier text, with some additions was the text given by Migne in PG 87.  But Migne omits the prologue, or life of Moschus, given by Duc and Rosweyde.

It is apparently noticeable that Traversari’s translation is based on a much better Greek text than either of the editions.

The Migne PG 87 Greek text has been translated by John Wortley, The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale), Cistercian Studies 139, Kalamazoo (1992).  Let us look at chapter 45, which is on p.35-6:


One of the elders told us that Abba Theodore the Aeliote said that there was a certain recluse on the Mount of Olives, a great warrior against whom the demon of sexual desire waged battle. One day when <the demon> attacked with vehemence, the elder began to give up in despair and to say to the demon: ‘How much longer are you not going to let me go? Desist from growing old together with me’! The demon appeared to him in visible form, saying: ‘Swear to me that you will never reveal to anybody what I am about to tell you and I will no longer wage war against you’. The elder swore: ‘By Him who dweUeth in the heavens I will not tell anybody what you say’. The demon said to him: ‘Desist from venerating this icon here and I will call off my war against you’. The icon in question bore the likeness of our Lady Mary, the holy Mother of God, carrying our Lord Jesus Christ. The recluse said to the demon: ‘Let me go and think about it’. The next day he sent for Abba Theodore the Aeliote (the one who told us this story) for at that time he was residing at the Lavra of Pharon. When Abba Theodore came, the recluse told him all there was to tell and received this reply: ‘In fact you were ensnared when you swore, abba. But you are quite right to speak out. It were better for you to leave no brothel in the town unentered than to diminish reverence from our Lord Jesus Christ and from his Mother’. Abba Theodore strengthened and comforted the recluse with many words and then returned to his own place. The demon re-appeared to the recluse and said to him: ‘What is this then, you wicked old man?’ Did you not swear to me that you would not tell anybody? Why then have you revealed everything to the man who came to see you’! I tell you, you wicked old man, you will be tried as an oath-breaker at the day of judgement’. The recluse answered: ‘I know that I gave my oath and broke it, but it was with my Lord and Creator that I broke faith; you I will not obey. As the initiator of evil counsel and of the oath-breaking, you are the one who will have to face the inescapable consequences of the misdeeds you brought about’.

The version by Revd Benedict Baker is as follows:

Chapter XLV. The life of an anchorite MONK on the Mount of Olives, and his veneration of an icon of MARY, the most holy birthgiver of God.

Abba Theodorus Aeliotes told us about an anchorite on the Mount of Olives, a great (spiritual) athlete, battling strenuously with the spirit of fornication.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” he cried with a loud moan one day when the demon was attacking him particularly strongly. “You’ve been with me all my life. Get away from me!”

The demon suddenly appeared visibly before him.

“Swear to me,” he said, “that you won’t tell anyone what I am about to say to you, and I won’t bother you any further.”

“By him who lives in the high heavens,” he replied, “I swear not to tell anyone what you say to me.”

“Stop venerating this icon,” the demon said, “and then I will stop attacking you.”

Now this icon consisted of a lifelike painting of our holy lady Mary the birthgiver of God carrying our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Give me time to think about this,” said the anchorite.

The next day he let this same abba Theodorus know about it. He told him everything that had happened. Theodorus was at that time living in the Laura of Pharan.

“It was very wrong of you, dear abba,” the old man said to the anchorite, “to swear an oath to the demon. Nevertheless you have done the right thing in telling me about it. What you need to do now is to make sure you have no truck with any dealings in that realm, lest you renounce the worship of God, our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother.” He went on to say a great deal more to strengthen and comfort him before leaving him in his cell.

The demon appeared to the anchorite once more.

“What’s this, you wicked old man?” he said. “Didn’t you swear to me that you would not tell anybody? So why have you told all to that person who visited you? I’m telling you, you will be condemned as a perjurer in the day of judgment.”

“I know that I have sworn an oath and broken it,” the anchorite replied, “but that oath sworn in the name of my God and Creator I have broken in order that I should not be obedient to you. But as for you, the prime source of false counsel and perjury, you will not be able to escape the punishment prepared for you.”

It is noticeable that Mr Baker’s version does not contain the striking line about the brothel, but instead this:

What you need to do now is to make sure you have no truck with any dealings in that realm, lest you renounce the worship of God, our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother.

In fact Mr Baker seems to have paraphrased, with the intention of making the text easier to read and both accessible and edifying.  This is an entirely legitimate approach to an ancient text, so long as the reader is aware of it.  Indeed Mr Baker’s translation is really rather moving at points, and may be recommended to those wishing to read what was, after all, intended as a devotional text.


Better to visit every brothel in the city than deny the worship of images? A quote from Nicaea II?

A curious claim on Twitter a couple of days ago, here:

“It is better to admit all brothals into a city than deny the worship of Images.”

-John, legate of the Greeks at the Second Council of Nicaea

The quotation is clearly corrupt, genuine or otherwise.  But where does it come from?  Was this really said in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, the council that approved the worship – or veneration – of images?

The immediate source for this statement seems to be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This passage, in the English translation edited by John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster John Knox Press (1960), volume 1, chapter 11, section 14 (“Childish arguments for images at the Council of Nicaea (787)”), p.116 (preview here):

… a double marvel that everybody did not cry out against them with greatest loathing. But it is expedient that this wicked madness be publicly exposed, that the pretense of antiquity which the papists allege may at least be torn away from the worship of images. Theodosius, Bishop of Amorium, pronounces anathema against all who are unwilling that images be adored. Another imputes all the misfortunes of Greece and the East to the crime that images had not been adored. What punishments do the prophets, apostles, martyrs, deserve, in whose day no images existed? Thereafter they add: if the image of the emperor be approached with perfume and incense, much more do we owe this honor to the images of saints. Constantius, Bishop of Constance in Cyprus, professes to embrace images reverently, and affirms that he is going to show toward them the same worship and honor that is owed to the life-giving Trinity. Anyone who refuses to do the same he anathematizes and relegates among the Manichees and Marcionites. And lest you think this the private opinion of one man, the rest agree. Indeed, John, the legate of the Easterns, moved by even greater heat, warned that it would be better to admit all brothels into the city than to deny the worship of images. Finally, it was determined by the consent of all that the Samaritans are worse than all heretics, yet image fighters are worse than the Samaritans. Besides, lest the play should go unapplauded, a clause is added: let those who, having an image of Christ, offer sacrifice to it rejoice and exult. Where now is the distinction between latria and dulia, by which they are wont to hoodwink God and men? For the Council accords, without exception, as much to images as to the living God.

This is word for word the same as our “quote”, so this is not a direct quote from the Acts, but reported speech.  The editor indeed informs us (p.114, n.28) that:

28. In secs. 14-16, written in 1550, Calvin derives his data from the Libri Carolini, the four books prepared at Charlemagne’s direction in response to the action of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787, and adopted by the Synod of Frankfort, 794. An edition of the Libri Carolini by Jean du Tillet had appeared in 1549. The passages referred to are: Libri Carolini I. 7, 9, 10, 13, 23, 24, 28, 30; II. 5, 6, 10; III. 7, 15, 17, 26, 31; IV. 6, 18. The work may be consulted in MPL 98, where these passages are in cols. 1022 f., 1027 ff., 1034 f., 1053 f., 1057 ff, 1061 f., 1065 f., 1071 ff., 1075 f., 1127 ff., 1142 f., 1148 f., 1170 ff., 1180 ff., 1197 ff., 1221 ff. The notes in OS III. 103 f. provide the references to the text in Monumenta Germaniae Historica Leges III. Concilia II. The editors here indicate two instances in which Calvin has erroneously ascribed to “John, the Eastern legate” (who spoke frequently at the council) words that should be attributed to others present. Calvin’s quotations are otherwise in accord with the text.

The reference in the Libri Carolini is to book 3, chapter 36 (col. 1179 f.), and the exact passage in f. 1181 C, where “an abbot”  (a “mad abbot” in the heading) says that “Commodius tibi est omnia in civitate lupanaria ingredi, quam abnegare adorationem imaginis Domini aut eius sanctae genitricis”, “It is better for you to visit every brothel in the city, than to deny the adoration of the image of God or of his holy mother.”  This is followed, quite properly, by expressions of disgust at this disregard of the biblical injunction about joining the body of Christ to a whore.

But is this in the Acts of Nicaea II?

Well, we are fortunate that at least two complete English translations of the Acts of Nicaea II exist.  There is an 1850 version, by John Mendham, with notes helpfully from the Libri Carolini, which was produced in response to the Oxford Movement.  This is curiously impossible to find by Google, but is here.  There is a Liverpool University Press two-volume set, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), translated by Richard Price, which appeared in 2020, to which I have no access.

So let’s use Mr Mendham’s 1850 text, with its interesting footnotes.

Page 186 (here), overparagraphed by me, and English modernised:

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Glory be to you, O God, who has wrought miracles by means of holy images.”

EUSTATHIUS: Monk Presbyter and Abbot of the Monastery of Maximin said: “ I also, holy fathers, have brought thither a book of the same father containing the lives of many holy men ; and if it be agreeable to your holy Assembly let it be read.”

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Let it be read.”

STEPHEN the Monk, having received the book, read a passage from the “ Spiritual Meadow” of St. Sophronius:—

“Theodore Abbot, of Aelia, said there was a certain recluse in the Mount of Olives a perfect champion. This man was sorely assaulted by the demon of fornication. One day, when the demon was more than usually hard upon him. the old man began to lament and to cry out to the demon, ‘Why will you not spare me—leave me for the future: you have grown old with me.’

On which the demon, having made himself visible, said to him, ‘Swear to me that you will tell no man that which I am now about to say to you, and I will trouble you no more.’ And the old man swore to him, saying, ‘By Him who dwells above, never will I tell to any what now you may declare to me.’ Then the demon said to him, ‘Worship that image no more, and I will no more contend with you.’

Now, he had there a picture representing our Lady, the holy Mary, Mother of God, bearing in her arms our Lord Jesus Christ. The recluse gave answer to the demon, ‘Go, and I will consider of it.’

On the morrow he revealed the whole matter to Theodore Abbot, of Aeliota, then living in the Laura of Pharan, for the Abbot came to him and he told him all. And the aged man said to the recluse, ‘Really, father, have you been so imposed upon as to swear to a demon? However, you have done well to consult me about it; for it were better for you not to pass by a single brothel in yon city without entering into it, than that you should refuse to worship our Lord and God Jesus Christ with His own Mother represented in a picture.’  Having confirmed and strengthened him with many other exhortations the aged man went to his own abode.

Again the demon appears to the recluse and says to him, ‘What now, you old sinner, did you not swear to me that you would tell no man? How have you dared to tell all to him who came to you? I tell you, you vile old man, you shall be judged for this in the day of judgment as a perjurer.’ The recluse answered him, saying, ‘What I have sworn, I have sworn; and that I have foresworn myself I know; but I have not foresworn my Lord and Maker; and, therefore, for you I care not.’ ”

CONSTANTINE Bishop of Constantia: “Like to links in a chain of gold, so harmonious are the testimonies brought by our God-inspired fathers in favour of images.”

JOHN Legate of the East: “ The discourse of our Father Sophronius teaches us another lesson also—namely, that it is better for him that hath sworn to foreswear himself rather than to regard any oath tending to the destruction of holy images; and this we say because there are some to-day who feel unsettled on account of the oath they have taken.”

TARASIUS: “Because the old man knew the goodness of God and also how ready He is to receive the penitent, therefore he determined to violate his sinful oath. Whence it appears that those who have taken an oath in favour of this heresy (if they have no other sin laid to their charge), have a reasonable precedent, and may plead this in their own defence; but.should they have fallen into other sins, they must for these endeavour to propitiate God for them, as well as to supplicate Him for the remission of this their unlawful oath.”

THEODORE Bishop of the Subritenses: “ Peter, chief of the Apostles, denied his Master; but, having repented, he was received again into favour.”

So the idea is found, not in the Acts, but rather in a colourful story quoted during the sessions, mainly to show that those who had sworn oaths against icons could validly break them.

Mendham helpfully translates the Libri Carolini passage as a footnote on p.186-7:

* This history is so great a favourite with this Council that it is narrated a second time in the next Session. It is intended in both to serve very important purposes—in this Session to teach that no wickedness is so great as the neglect of image-worship, and that no oath tending to the renunciation of this worship is to be regarded : in the next, it does not appear for what purpose it is brought forward except to show that the Devil was an Iconoclast. In the “Caroline Books” (lib. iii. cap. 31) it is treated according to its merits as being Deliramentum errore plenum:—

“Often in the course of this our work we are compelled to declare that no example should be taken from things really bad in themselves; and we are compelled so often to repeat this caution because we find them so ready to act thus in order to confirm their error. Nor is this wholly inconsistent; for, as the example of good acts do form evermore a support to good acts, so they, from erroneous acts, seek a support for their erroneous doings. Thus, to support their error, they bring forward the example of a certain recluse, who, if he really did that which in the history he is said to have done, was guilty of no less than three signal faults—viz., (1). That he should voluntarily have engaged in a conference with the devil; (2). That he should have been beguiled by the same to bind himself under on oath; and (3). That he should violate that oath: all which things, so far from being any example to a Catholic, should by him be utterly renounced as being forbidden by many testimonies of the divine law.”

Here follow the texts which are condemnatory of each of these faults ; after which it is continued as follows—

“The recluse having committed these three faults, his Abbot, so far from correcting what be had done amiss, actually points out to him a way still worse, saying, ‘It were better for thee to go into every brothel in yonder city than to refuse to worship the image of our Lord or that of His holy Mother.’ O incomparable absurdity! O pestilent evil! O folly surpassing many follies! He declares that it were better to do that which is forbidden alike by the Law and in the Gospel than to abstain from that which is not commanded either in the Law or in the Gospel! He declares that it is better to perpetrate crime than to abstain from crime! He declares that it is better voluntarily to plunge oneself in the mire than to walk unblameably in the right path! He declares that it is better to defile the temple of God than to despise the worship of things without sense! He declares that it is better to take the members of Christ and to make them the members of an harlot than to despise the worship of the work of some artificer!

Let him then tell us (if he can) where the Lord hath said, ‘You shall not refuse to worship images’, as plainly as He has said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Let him then tell us, if he can, anywhere find that the Lord has said, ‘If you see an image and do not worship it you have sinned,’ as plainly as he has declared. ‘If you look on a woman to lust after her you have committed adultery with her already in your heart.’ And if he can never discover anything of this kind, let him reflect how great his error is in granting a licence to do that which is absolutely disgraceful rather than to omit that which is altogether unprofitable; for, while the Lord in the Law and in the Gospel commands us in many ways to the observance of chastity, nowhere is there found any such injunction relative to the worship of images.

As this same Abbot, who ought to have led this recluse into the way of salvation, did, on the contrary, give the rein to his lust—as he who ought to have recovered his fellow from the snare into which he had fallen in having sworn to the devil did rather rush together with him into the abyss of error by telling him that it was better for him to commit a grievous crime— beyond all doubt he has fulfilled that saying in the Gospel. ‘If the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch.’ And any one who would endeavour to prove any argument by any such example as this would manifest that his madness was of no ordinary kind, but even surpassing that of others.’

The footnote continues by quoting the response of “Adrian” – i.e. Pope Hadrian – to previous criticism on this point, which those interested can read at the link above.

So back to our starting point.  We have found:

  • The “quote” is from Calvin, not from the Acts of Nicaea 2
  • Calvin is quoting the Libri Carolini representation of a passage in the Acts, rather than the Acts themselves.
  • The sentence is found in a hagiographical text of dubious authenticity, quoted (like many others, some heretical) during the sessions of Nicaea 2.
  • The delegates at the Council do not even discuss the idea of brothels being better than iconoclasm – surely a colourful image rather than a serious argument – but concentrate on the idea that an oath made to the devil need not be kept, and so breaking an oath made to heretics was not wrong.

In reality, the “quote” is bogus.  Nicaea 2 did not endorse any such position.

It is interesting to see the appearance of the “oaths to heretics are not binding”.  This evil principle was used as a justification to burn John Hus at the Council of Constance, despite his pass of safe-conduct.  Knowledge of this tendency caused protestants in general to regard catholics – especially Jesuits – as untrustworthy liars.  Curiously enough the hagiographer knew better: that breaking even an oath to the devil was a sin.

UPDATE: A kind correspondent has pointed out that the story by Sophronius is in fact chapter 45 of the Pratum Spirituale or Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus.  I have written a further post about this here.


The Acts of John in the minutes of the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

The Greek church during the 8th century became embarassed at the naked worship of icons in the churches.  Eventually the emperor Constantine V called a synod at Hieria in 754 to deal with the situation.  This obediently passed canons condemning the worship of icons.  But over the next few years a reaction took place, and after his death, a fresh synod was  assembled in 787 at Nicaea to reverse the rulings of Hieria.  This is considered as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and is known as Nicaea II.

After my post about the Second Council of Nicaea, a kind reader added a comment advising me that there is indeed a complete English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, made in 1850 by John Mendham, and downloadable from Google Books here.[1]  The passage in which the Acts of John are discussed is on pp.269-276.

Unfortunately the minutes of Hieria are lost, so we must rely on the minutes of Nicaea 2 to get any idea of their process.  It seems that the iconoclasts assembled a dossier of evidence as to the practice of the early church, and included material by anybody they could find, including Jews and heretics.  This was a risky approach, and laid itself open to unscrupulous refutation.

In the fifth session of Nicaea 2, the delegates went through the evidence given at Hieria and debunked it, section by section.  The method chosen was a crude one: if the document could be shown to be heretical in any respect, or its author had ever expressed a view different from that prevailing in Byzantium in 787 AD, then it could be ignored.  In short the whole proceeding was an argument ad hominem.

The sessions were managed by the Patriarch Tarasius, acting for the empress Irene.  Let’s hear how the session proceeded with respect to the Acts of John.

Epiphanius Deacon and Legate of Thomas Bishop of Sardinia reads from the pretended “Itinerary of the Holy Apostles”:

“The painter on the first day, having sketched him in outline, ceased : on the following day he filled up the picture with the colouring, and gave the image to the joyful Lycomedes, which having placed in his own bedchamber he set a crown upon it; which when John afterwards knew he said to him, ‘My beloved son, what meaning have you in thus going from the bath to your bedchamber by yourself? Am not I to pray with you and the rest of your brethren; or would you shut us out?’ Having said this in a sportive manner he entered with him into his bed-chamber, and be saw there the image of an old man crowned, and tapers and altars set before it, on which he addressed him thus—‘ Lycomedes, what have yon to do with this image? Which of your gods is it that is painted here? I see you still live like an heathen !’ And Lycomedes answered him—‘He alone is my God who hath rescued me and my wife from death; but if after God we may call men who have done good to us gods, then thou art the god who is represented in that picture, whom therefore I crown, and love, and reverence, as having been a good guide to me in the way.’ But John, never as yet having seen his own face, said to him, ‘My son, you are mocking me: am I so superior to my Lord in form? How can you make me believe that this picture is like to me?’ On which Lycomedes brought a mirror, and John having looked at himself in the mirror, and having steadfastly examined the image, said, ‘May the Lord Jesus Christ live : the image is like, but you have done amiss in making it.’”

Epiphanius went on to read from the same book where it begins, “At one time wishing to lay hold of Jesus.” And shortly after—

“They laid hands on a gross material body, but at other times when I felt Him, that which I touched was immaterial, incorporeal, and as though nothing at all was there. And when at any time being invited by some Pharisee He accepted the invitation, we went together with Him, and each of us received the appointed loaf from those who had invited us. And among the rest He also received one which, having blessed, He divided amongst us all, and from the very small portion which each received he was satisfied: our own loaves were in this way preserved entire, so that those who invited Him were much astonished. I oftentimes, when walking with Him, wished to see if any mark of His footsteps appeared; but, though I saw Him raise Himself up from the ground, yet never did I see any footsteps.

These things I now relate to you, my brethren, as it were for the sake of your encouragement in the faith; but of His great things, of His wonderful things, let deep silence be preserved, since they are unspeakable—such as could not be uttered, could not be heard. For before He was seized by the lawless Jews—they who had received their law from the lawless serpent—He assembled us together and said. ‘Before that I am delivered up to them let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so let us enter on that which is ordained.

When He had commanded us to make a circle round Him by holding each other’s hands, He Himself being in the midst. He said this, ‘Amen, obey me.’ He began to sing a hymn and to say, ‘Glory to thee, O Father,’ and we who were around Him answered the ‘Amen—glory to thee, O Word: glory to thee, O Grace: Amen—glory to thee, O Spirit: glory to thee, O Holy One: glory to thy glory: Amen—we praise thee, O Father; we give thanks to thee: the Light with whom darkness does not dwell (Amen), in which also we give thanks, saith I wish to be saved and I wish to save: Amen—I wish to be bound and I wish to loose: Amen—I wish to be wounded and I wish to wound: Amen—I wish to eat and I wish to be eaten: Amen—I wish to bear and I wish to be heard: Amen—I wish to be understood being altogether Mind: Amen—I wish to be washed and I wish to wash : Amen—grace leads the dance, I would play the late, dance ye all: Amen—I wish to be lamented, lament ye all: Amen.”

And after other things it is continued thus:

“In this manner the Lord having, my beloved, joined in the dance with us went out, and we as in a maze or in a dream fled some one way some another. But I, seeing Him suffering, could not endure to behold His passion, but fled to the Mount of Olives, weeping at that which had taken place. And when the command was given, ‘Raise up,’ He was suspended thereon about the sixth hour of the day, and darkness was over all the land.

But my Lord having stood up in the midst of the cave, and having shed light round about me, said, ‘John, by that rabble beneath I am crucified at Jerusalem; I am wounded with spears and reeds; I am made to drink vinegar and gall; but it is I that speak to thee, and that which I speak hear thou. It was I that suggested to thee to ascend into this mountain, that thou mightest hear that which it becomes the scholar to learn from his teacher, a man from God.’

Having said this, He showed me a cross of light, fixed, and around the cross a great multitude not having one form, but on the cross was one form and a like similitude : above the cross I perceived the Lord, not having any form but only a voice—a voice, not that which was ordinary with Him, but one that was truly sweet and delightful, and indeed of God Himself, saying unto me, ‘John, it was necessary that one of you should hear these words from me. I would have one to hear of that should come. The cross of light is for your sakes called by me at one time the Word, at another Mind, at another Christ, at another the Door, at another the Way, at another Bread, at another Seed, at another Resurrection, at another Jesus, at another the Father, at another the Spirit, at another Life, at another Truth, at another Faith, at another Grace.’”

Tarasius: “See how the whole of this writing contradicts the Gospel! ”

The Holy Council: “Yes, my lord, it affirms the incarnation to be mere appearance.”

Tarasius: “In the ‘Itinerary’ it is written that He neither eat nor drank, nor walked on the earth with His feet, just as the Phantasiasts teach; but in the Gospel it is written of Christ that He did both eat and drink, and that the Jews said concerning Him, ‘Behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber’ (Matt. xi. 19). Again—if, as they fable, He did not touch the earth with His feet, how is it written in the Gospel, ‘Jesus being weary with His journey sat thus on the well?’” (John iv. 6.)

Constantine Bishop of Constantia: “And this, forsooth, is the book which confirmed that false conventicle.”

Tarasius: “Really, the whole of it is quite ridiculous.”

Theodore Bishop of Catana: “See the book which overthrew the beauty of the Catholic Church.”

Euthymius Bishop of Sardis: “It became that conventicle of mischief to have its support from such a book.”

Constantine Bishop of Constantia: “What blasphemy to assert that John the Apostle took refuge in a cave at the hour of the crucifixion, when the Gospel expressly declares that John ‘went in with Him into the hall of Caiaphas’ (John xviii. 15), and that ‘he was standing by the cross of Christ with His holy Mother.’” (John xix. 25).

The Holy Council: ‘Every heresy seems connected with that book.”

Tarasius: “Alas, alas! by what heretical books do they confirm their heresy.”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea: “This book is worthy of all pollution and disgrace; and yet from this we have their testimony against images in this history of Lycomedes.”

John Legate of the East: “He introduces Lycomedes crowning the image of the Apostle just as the Heathens crown their idols.”

Basil Bishop of Ancyra: “God forbid that St. John the Divine should say anything contrary to the Gospel.”

Tarasius: “Are the sentiments which have been read to you those of the Gospel?”

The Holy Council: “God forbid ! We receive neither that which precedes, nor that which follows, about Lycomedes.”

Tarasius: “He who receives that which comes last must admit that which goes before, just as did that false Conventicle.”

The Holy Council: “Anathema be to it from the beginning to the end.”

 John Legate of the East: “Behold, most blessed fathers, it has been clearly proved that the patrons of this Christianity-detracting heresy are partakers with Nebuchadnezzar and the Samaritans, with Jews and Pagans; and, not only so, but furthermore with the atheistic and accursed Manichaeans, a testimony from whom they have here brought forward; for these things are spoken by those who maintain the incarnate dispensation of God the Word to be mere appearance; but anathema be to them and to their writings.”

The Holy Council said: “Let them be anathema.”

Petronas the Patrician said to Tarasius: “My lord, if it is your pleasure, let us ask the Bishops of Ammorium and Neocaesarea, were the books themselves read at that false Conventicle?”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea and Theodosius Bishop of Ammorium answered: “No, by the Lord, no book was brought forward there, but by false extracts they deceived us.”

Tarasius: “Following their own private views, they brought forward whatever suited their purpose.”

Petronas: “And, moreover, they did everything with the imperial suffrage.”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea: “I have often said it, and I repeat it again, that no book or writing of the fathers appeared in our Assembly: nought but false extracts were brought forward; and so this same story about Lycomedes defiled our ears.”

John Legate of the East: “If it seem good to this Holy and Oecumenic Council, let there be an injunction restraining all henceforth from making any copy of this cursed book.”

The Holy Council said: “Let it be no more transcribed. Nor is this all—we furthermore decree that the present copy shall be committed to the flames.”

Peter the Reader cites St. Amphilochius “On the False Inscriptions of the Heretics,” which begins:—

“We account it right to expose in its true colours all their impiety and to publish abroad their deceit, especially as they put forward certain books having the superscriptions of the Apostles, by which they deceive the more simple.” And, shortly after, he continues—“But we will prove that these books, which the Apostates from our Church bring forward, are not the work of the Apostles, but the writings of Devils.” And. after other matters, he continues— “These things the Apostle John would not have said, having written in the Gospel that the Lord said from the cross, ‘Behold thy Son’ (John six. 26, 27): so that from that hour the holy John took Mary to his own house. How, then, could he say that he was not present? But this is not to be wondered at; ‘for, as the Lord is truth, so is the devil a liar; for he is a liar and the father of it, and when he speaketh of a lie he speaketh of his own’ (John viii. 24). Thus far concerning their falsities.”

Tarasius: “Our Father Amphilochius is great, and we shall attend to his words concerning this pretended “Itinerary,” and, therefore, need not be swayed by its title.

Basil Bishop of Ancyra: “Nothing can be more opposed to the Gospel than is this impious compilation. Very fitting was it that such a book should hold opinions contrary to holy images.”

“Tarasius: “The father clearly exposes over the disgraceful and vain prating of this volume.”

The Holy Council: “He does, indeed, my lord.”

Nicephorus Bishop of Dyrrachium: “My lord, this ought to have been read for the full satisfaction of all; but not the other, for it contaminates our ears.”

The Holy Council: “Yet, by way of warning, it was not amiss that even this should be read.”

Tarasius: “They who were so garrulous against holy images have brought Eusebius forward in their favour in a letter which he wrote to Constantia the wife of Licinius. Now, let us see what were the sentiments of this Eusebius.”…

And on they go, to revile Eusebius of Caesarea himself, labelling him an Arian in order to disregard his testimony to the practice of the church in the 4th century.  The translator comments freely in the footnotes on the terrible logic involved.

It is amusing to see the passage where Nicephorus, in his eagerness to comply, rushes ahead of what Tarasius wants done, and is mildly reproved.  Servility must often meet with such snubs.

It’s very interesting, at any rate, to see the official record of events.

  1. [1]John Mendham (tr), The Seventh General Council: the second of Nicaea, held A.D. 787, in which the worship of images was established: with copious notes from the “Caroline books” compiled by order of Charlemagne for its confutation, London, 1850.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Canon of the New Testament

Why on earth would anybody suppose that the Second Council of Nicea / Nicaea in 787 was responsible for deciding which books went into the bible?  It’s absurd on the face of it, considering the vast mass of patristic testimony and physical bibles that survive.

However I keep seeing ignorant people online who either state this, or seem genuinely uncertain whether they mean the First or Second councils of Nicaea.  There is a much more common myth that the canon was decided at the First council in 325, but that’s another story.

Quite by accident today I found what seems to be the source.  It is none other than Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003.  It’s a popular book, not a scholarly work, so it probably circulates among atheists.  The reference I was given was to pages 41-43, in which Ehrman talks about the apocryphal Acts of John, as an example of works in which celibacy is praised.  In chapter two, pages 41-42 we find this interesting statement:

A comparable message appears in another of the Apocryphal Acts, the last we will consider in this chapter. The Acts of John narrates the legendary adventures of John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples in the New Testament Gospels. He continues to be an important figure after Jesus’ death, according to the early chapters of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, but he quickly drops out of sight in that narrative as the book turns its entire attention to the missionary activities of Paul. Later Christians, not content with the silence shrouding John’s later life, filled the gap with numerous stories, some of which have made it into this second-century Apocryphal Acts of John.23  Once again we are handicapped by not having the complete text. It was, of course, a noncanonical book, and parts of it were theologically dubious to the proto-orthodox. It was eventually condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century, so that most manuscripts of it were either destroyed or lost.24

(Highlighting is mine) Buried at the back, on p.262, where few will read them, are the notes:

23. It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–4. For a translation of some of the more intriguing accounts of the Acts of John, see the excerpts from Elliott in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 93–108; that is the translation I am following here.

24. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–7.

This, I suspect, is indeed the source for the modern legend.  Because of course if the Second council was condemning the Acts of John, it’s “obvious” to a certain type of mind that they were discussing what should be in the New Testament.

Looking at Elliot’s excellent single volume on the NT Apocrypha, we find that the Acts of John are first attested with Eusebius in the 4th century.  On the date of the work, Elliot states (p.306):

This is normally given as late second-century, but some scholars (e.g. Zahn) who argued that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria [6] gave an earlier date. Modern scholars tend to agree that there is no firm evidence that the Acts of John was known before Eusebius.

Schneemelcher concurs (vol. 2, p.152):

It is not possible to demonstrate any use of the Acts of John in the Christian literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries.

On page 305, Elliot states:

(e) The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) are contained in several Greek and Latin manuscripts, and also in the Latin version by Anastasius.5 Citations in them from the Acts of John 27-8, 93-5, and 97-8 are valuable for establishing the Greek text at these points (see Junod and Kaestli CCA, pp. 344-68).

The condemnation of the Acts of John by the Second Council of Nicaea meant that the ancient Acts could only survive in clandestine copies after 787. Parts survived in the rewritings of the story of John found in Pseudo-Prochorus, and (in Latin) in Pseudo-Abdias and Pseudo-Melito.

The footnote:

5. J. C. Thilo, Colliguntur et commentariis illustrantur fragmenta actuum S. Johannis a Leucio Charino Conscriptum, i. in Universitatis Literariae Fridericianae Halis consociatae programma paschale (Halle, 1847), 14f.

This suggests that Elliot is also repeating from elsewhere, just as Ehrman was.  Is it possible that nobody ever actually looks at the statements of Nicaea II?

Schneemelcher is rather clearer:

The most important evidence of all is provided by the Nicene Council of 787, already mentioned. Its fifth session dealt, among other matters, with the Acts of John, to which the Iconoclastic Council of 754 had appealed. Here AJ 27 and the first half of AJ 28 were read out from the pseudepigraphical ‘Travels of the Holy Apostles’ as a document hostile to images, together with a large part of AJ 93-98 as a general indication of the book’s heretical character.42


42.  Con. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi XIII, cols. 168D-172C); critical edition of the quotations from the Acts of John in Junod/Kaestli 361-365 (Greek text) and 366-368 (Latin translation of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).  [‘Junod/Kaestli’ is the standard edition, Acta Johannis, in the Corpus Christianorum, series apocryphorum, vols 1-2, Turnhout 1983]

This gives us the reason why the book was discussed – that it had been used in the Iconoclast disputes – and a source for the council text.  There is actually an English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), under that title in two volumes, from Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 68 (2018), translated by Richard Price, and available for only $175.  Unfortunately this is inaccessible to me, or we might hear what the council said.

The older pre-critical text of Mansi is thankfully available online here, in a very poor scan from microfilm.  Col. 167 has a section starting Ex falsis superscriptionibus itinerariorum sanctorum apostolorum, (On the false attributions of the “itineraries of the holy apostles”).  But the good stuff appears in column 171C, and continues to 175.  The delegates read out some short quotes which contradict the Gospel of John, and so must be heretical. Especially good:

Gregory of Neocaesarea said, “This codex is worthy of every condemnation and dishonour.  And they produced out of it testimonies against images!! which were copied by Lycomedes!”

John the most reverend monk and vicar of the oriental patriarchs, said, “Lycomedes brings in the crowned images of the apostles as if they were pagan idols!”

Basil bishop of Ancyra said, “God forbid that St John seem to speak contrary to his own well-established gospel!”

I don’t know who Lycomedes was – evidently an iconoclast leader – but I don’t think they liked him.

The section ends with:

John, most reverend monk and vicar of the orient pontiffs said, “If it please this holy and universal synod, let this be the sentence, that nobody henceforth shall make copies of this sordid book.”

The holy synod said, “Let nobody make a copy: not only this, but we judge that it is right that it must be thrown in the fire.

Let’s finish, for the benefit of Ehrman readers, with another quotation from him about the formation canon of the NT.  This time it’s from Truth and Fiction In The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.74:

Teabing’s conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. … (75) … It was a process that took many years—centuries, actually. It was not (contrary to Teabing’s view) the decision of one person, or even just one group of persons (for example, a church council); …

Indeed so.