The Orthodox Bible

3 & 4 Maccabbes, the Prayer of Manasseh,
1 Clement to the Corinthians
and the Epistle of Barnabas

Did the Council of Nicea II in 787 A.D. confirm the canon of Carthage?

We got an email that said:

You state "787 A.D. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea II, which adopted the canon of Carthage."in your apocrypha article. Please show me where at Nicea II anything was said about the canon of scripture or affirming Carthage.

There is nothing in the canons (that is, official pronouncements) of Nicaea II that specifically affirms the canon of Carthage. Nicaea II's objective was to condemn the Iconoclast heresy and to put down the errors associated with it.   The Council's acceptance of the Carthaginian canon was done as a "side-bar" issue, and we only know about it because Byzantine clerics speak about it in their correspondences as an issue that was settled at the Council. The closest statement made to this effect by the Council itself in its Acts is this proclamation from its first canon:

"Seeing these things are so, being thus well-testified unto us, we rejoice over them as he that hath found great spoil, and press to our bosom with gladness the divine canons, holding fast all the precepts of the same, complete and without change, whether they have been set forth by the holy trumpets of the Spirit, the renowned Apostles, or by the Six Ecumenical Councils, or by councils locally assembled for promulgating the decrees of the said Ecumenical Councils, or by our holy Fathers. For all these, being illumined by the same Spirit, defined such things as were expedient. Accordingly those whom they placed under anathema, we likewise anathematize; those whom they deposed, we also depose; those whom they excommunicated, we also excommunicate; and those whom they delivered over to punishment, we subject to the same penalty. (In canon I of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of II Nicaea II). 

Included in these "locally assembled councils" being referred to here is the 419 Council of Carthage, which re-affirmed the 397 Biblical canon and then issued an anathema against anyone who denied it. This anathema was not included in the original 397 proclamation of Carthage; but by 419, the Carthaginian canon of Scripture had been ratified by Rome (i.e., Pope Innocent ratified and published in before 405) and had been re-affirmed in 419 by Pope Boniface. This is included in the anathemas referred to by Nicaea II above, although Carthage itself (A.D. 419) is not specifically mentioned in the official canons of Nicaea II. But, again, we know from the correspondence of the time that this is part of what the Council had in mind.  And we Catholics are not the only ones who confess this.  Educated Eastern Orthodox recognize it too.   

Now, ... At the time, the Byzantines also considered the 692 Council of Trullo (a.k.a. the Quinisext Council) to be Ecumenical and binding on the Eastern Church/Empire, even though Rome refused to ratify it as a matter of universal authority. Yet, while Trullo was still subject to debate at this time, it clearly fell under the criteria of a council that was "locally assembled for promulgating the degrees of [the] Ecumenical councils."   This cannot be denied. And, at the 692 Byzantine council of Trullo, the African Code of the 419 Council of Carthage (that is, the assembled canons of the Carthagian councils) was embraced by the Byzantine church. As the Catholic encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3816.htm) explains it: 

"It is uncertain when the canons of this Carthaginian synod were done into Greek. This only is certain, that they had been translated into Greek before the Council in Trullo by which, in its Second Canon, they were received into the Greek Nomocanon, and were confirmed by the authority of this synod; so that from that time these canons stand in the Eastern Church on an equality with all the rest." 

Ergo, at the regional council of Trullo (692), the African Code, which, included the Biblical canon of Carthage (that is, Canon 24 of the 419 Council of Carthage, which reaffirmed the 397 Biblical canon) became formal and binding for the Eastern Church. This cannot be denied. 

The reason we say that the canon of Carthage was given Ecumenical authority at Nicaea II is because Nicaea II (from the Byzantine perspective and by Byzantine standards) gave ecumenical authority to the decree of Trullo which made the Carthaginian Biblical canon the norm for the Eastern Church. In other words, while we Romans do not accept the council of Trullo to be Ecumenical or binding, the Byzantines (that is, Eastern Orthodox) do. Thus, they are bound by what they profess; and Nicaea II makes them share that profession with us Romans in an ecumenical context. This is the contemporary understanding expressed by in the private correspondences of the fathers who participated in Nicaea II viz. the Biblical canon. 

The email reply said:

Thanks but it seems that "or by councils locally assembled for promulgating the decrees of the said Ecumenical Councils, or by our holy Fathers". doesn't include Carthage because Carthage was not assembled to promulgate the canons of any Ecumenical council plus the council of Trent didn't think the canon of scripture had been decided. The Orthodox to this day say the canon hasn't been decided and have more books than we do. They are particularly fond of the prayer of Mannasseh which is used in the Great Compline. I don't know who these educated Orthodox are but they are definitely in the minority.

What the canon of Nicaea II declares is that it recognizes all standing anathemas of regional councils. The anathema issued by Carthage in 419 would be one of these.   What's more, your commenter did not read the Nicaea II canon very carefully. What it says in full is as follows:

...or by councils locally assembled for promulgating the decrees of the said Ecumenical Councils, or by our holy Fathers. For all these, being illumined by the same Spirit, defined such things as were expedient. Accordingly those whom they placed under anathema, we likewise anathematize; those whom they deposed, we also depose; those whom they excommunicated, we also excommunicate; and those whom they delivered over to punishment, we subject to the same penalty. (In Canon I of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of II Nicaea II). 

When it speaks about local councils "promulgating the decrees of Ecumenical Councils," this is merely a way in which the ancient Church (and especially the Byzantine Church) referred to ANY regional council.  For, all such regional councils were called with the specific purpose of re-affirming that which was held by the Church --whether proclaimed by Ecumenical Councils or by "the holy fathers" --that is, the consistent Faith of the Church. This is what is being referred to. The 419 council of Carthage was called to re-affirm numerous aspects of the Faith, including the canons of all the previous Ecumenical Councils. This is what Nicaea II has in mind. The statement above merely reflects the legalistic (imperial) mentality of the Byzantine Church which, unlike the West, saw all regional councils as merely re-affirming ecumenical canons --that is, the Byzantine Church viewed official doctrine as a matter of imperial Byzantine (Roman) law, and so spoke of reaffirmations of the Faith in the context of endorsing the Ecumenical canons ...whether they were specifically addressed by a local synod or not.     Your cynical friend needs to learn how the ancient Eastern Church spoke. 

Secondly, we know from a great deal of contemporary evidence that the Biblical canon of Carthage WAS accepted by the Byzantine and Antiochian patriarchates at Nicaea II. It had been accepted by the patriarchate of Alexandria since the 5th Century.

Modern Eastern Orthodox say all sorts of things.  Not all EO's claim that the canon is undefined. Some consider themselves bound by Carthage. The reason that a lot of EO's claim that the canon is not defined is because the patriarchate of Antioch consistently failed to implement the Carthaginian canon, both before and after Nicaea II. Various Greek and Syrian churches in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq continued to read from 3 & 4 Maccabbes, the Prayer of Manasseh, and even 1 Clement to the Corinthians and the Epistle of Barnabas, at their liturgies well into modern times. Given that "canon" refers to the rule of usage in the Church's Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox tend to consider themselves bound by this local usage, and so define the canon that way. They have forgotten about the Carthaginian canon, to which they, technically, used to be bound. 

The Council of Trent most certainly DID think that the Biblical canon was decided. What Trent did was dogmatized the EXISTING canon --that is, the canon of Carthage. A century before Trent, at Ferrara-Florence in A.D. 1439, Pope Eugenius proclaimed that the Eastern Churches (specifically the Monophysite communions seeking reunion with Rome) were bound by the Carthaginian canon.  He presents this specific canon (the canon that Trent would later dogmatize) in his letter to the Jacobite Syrian Uniates. What your friend fails to appreciate is that Rome/Hippo/Carthage defined the canon as a matter of LITURGICAL rule for the universal Church, not as a matter of dogma. The rule of the universal canon was settled at Carthage in 397 (and reaffirmed in 419), and this rule was accepted by Constantinople and Antioch in 787 at Nicaea II.  It had already been accepted by the Alexandrian patriarchate centuries earlier, but could not be implement red in the 4th and 5th Century sphere of Antiochian influence (which included the Liturgical life of Constantinople) because the the Antiochian patriarchate was torn by internal schism, and soon after faced the Monophysite controversy. But, again, establishing a Liturgical rule --that is, a universal canon for all city-churches to use (so as to rid the Church of questionable books read at local Liturgies) was one thing. This was settled in ancient times, with the exception of the Antiochian patriarchate, which was in no position to implement.  Dogmatizing the canon was another matter all together, and this is what Trent did in response to Protestants who were denying, not merely the Liturgical usage of certain books, but their very Divine inspiration!  

In some respects the modern Eastern Orthodox Church is not practicing their ancient traditions.  A great many EO's claim that the Book of Revelation is "not canonical" because certain Orthodox Churches (like the Greeks) do not read from it at the Liturgy. However, this is a relatively new thing for the Greeks. They used to read Revelation in their Liturgy. At one point, they just stopped doing it. 


By Mark Bonocore, Edited by Hugh

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen