NICAEA, ARABIC CANONS OF
A name applied to several series of canons that are missing in the Greek or Latin canonical collections. They appear to have been reworked from the Syriac, at least in part. In the latter language, the texts attributed to the Council of NICAEA in 325 are said to have come from the pen of the bishop Maruta of Maipherkat (in Arabic Mayyafaraqin, today a town in Turkey). At all events, who the translator, or rather the adapter, was is not known, nor at what date the canons were adopted by the Copts. It will be noted—this is not a proof that they were previously unknown—that in his Nomocanon the twelfth-century patriarch GABRIEL II IBN TURAYK knew only the twenty canons counted in the Greek collections, while MIKHA’IL, bishop of Damietta, cited two series of canons of Nicaea, one of twenty canons and one of eighty-four. Given that the grouping of these texts diverges greatly in the manuscripts, it has seemed better to follow the exposition given by Abu al-Barakat IBN KABAR in his religious encyclopedia Misbah al-Zulmah. This passage was translated into French in J. M. Vansleb’s Histoire de l’église d’Alexandrie (1677, pp. 265ff.).
Ibn Kabar divides the documents attributed to the Council of Nicaea into three books. In the first book (according to him, it is the second in the Greek collections) he groups a history of CONSTANTINE I and his mother, Helena, as well as a presentation of his incentives for the convocation of the council, which forms a kind of introduction. The collection of Macarius, a monk of Dayr Abu Maqar in the fourteenth century, adds at this point a list of heresies and sects and a list of the 318 bishops who participated. Then comes the series of twenty authentic canons, according to the Melchite recension, followed by the Coptic series of thirty (sometimes thirty-three) canons concerning anchorites, monks, and the clergy. W. Riedel (1968, pp. 38, 1791) asked if this was not a reworking of the Syntagma ad monachos attributed to Saint Athanasius.
As to the second book, Ibn Kabar tells us, “The Melchites and the Nestorians have translated [the second book] and the Jacobites have adopted it.” It is a series of eighty-four (sometimes eighty) canons. This division would perhaps indicate that the original text was continuous.
The third book contains the “Books of the Kings,” which are themselves divided into four books and also exist independently. This is a collection of the legislation enacted by the Byzantine emperors Constantine, Theodosius, and Leo. Here these canons are attributed to the Council of Nicaea. It appears that the Christians of the Orient adopted these texts in defiance of the Muslims, who referred to the Shari‘ah, or Muslim sacred law, for guidance in purely civil matters such as marriages, inheritances, and the like.
These texts provide numerous translations. The first book gives a history of the emperor Constantine and his mother and relates the story of the council, as well as the reasons for the convocation of the bishops. It includes the twenty authentic canons followed by the thirty canons called Arabic and gives the history, or prehistory, of the Council of Nicaea in a rather free Latin translation by Abraham Ecchellensis (Ibrahim al-Haqilani), a celebrated Maronite deacon. The “Thirty Canons Relative to the Monks and Clergy” are given in Latin by the same author in a paraphrase rather than a true translation. The list of heresies is given in German translation by A. Harnack (1899, pp. 14-71). The list of the bishops according to the Coptic texts is examined by, among others, F. Haase (1920, pp. 81-92). As for the eighty-four canons, they will be found in a paraphrase by Abraham Ecchellensis in J. D. Mansi (cols. 1029-1049).
The enormous mass of the documents relating, rightly or wrongly, to the first council, which played a considerable role in the East more than anywhere else, is organized in the collection of Macarius into four books. The difference between his division and that of Ibn Kabar is that Macarius’ second book comprises not all the eighty-four canons but only the first thirty-two. Canons forty-eight to seventy-three, combined with the thirty concerning anchorites, monks, and clergy, form the third book, the fourth containing only the Coptic recension of the twenty official canons. The “Four Books of the Kings” have with him a place apart.
The Arabic Canons of Nicaea are, in the strict sense, the eighty- four canons adapted from the Syriac by the Melchites and borrowed by the Copts. In addition to this series of eighty-four canons in Arabic literature, the literature in the Coptic language contains a series that has not survived in Arabic translation, called Gnômès. It is credited to the Council of Nicaea and gives moral exhortations, which probably reflect the discipline in force in the fourth century in the church of Alexandria. It was published and translated into French by E. Revillout (1873, pp. 210-88; and 1875, pp. 5-77, 209-266).
- Haase, F. Die koptischen Quellen zum Konzil von Nicäa. Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums 10. Paderborn, 1920; repr. New York and London, 1967.
- Harnack, A. Der Ketzer-katalog des Bischofs Maruta von Maipherkat. Texte und Untersuchungen n.s. 4. Leipzig, 1899. Revillout, E. “Le Concile de Nicée d’aprés les documents coptes:
- Première série de documents.” Journal asiatique, ser. 7, 1 (1873):210-88.
- . “Le concile de Nicée d’aprés les textes coptes. Nouvelle série de documents, le manuscrit Borgia.” Journal Asiatique, ser. 7, 5 (1875): 5-77 and 209-266.
- Riedel, W. Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien. Leipzig, 1900; repr. Aalen, 1968.
- Vansleb, J. M. Histoire de l’église d’Alexandrie. Paris, 1677.