19 September 2015

Ancient Church Orders

Ancient church orders are an often overlooked genre of Christian literature that circulated from the first through the fifth centuries CE.  They were part catechism, part disciplinary manual, part liturgy, part instruction for church polity, part moral prescriptions and proscriptions.  Some of these works cover all those subjects, some only two or even one.  Most of them, but not all, expound on the “Two Ways”, of Light/Life and of Darkness/Death.  With one exception of those expounded upon below, they claim to have been written by the apostles themselves collectively.

Although none of these, with two exceptions, are on record as having been adopted officially, separately and collectively they did influence later canon law, and they sometimes accurately reflect practices and mindset at the time, and so provide excellent insight into the Early Church.

Several of these if translated into English have more or less the exact same title, and scholars use different versions, sometimes even in different languages, of their title so as to distinguish between unique documents.  They all claim to be relating the teaching of the apostles handed down from the originals, though the early ones do not mention names.

De doctrina Apostolorum

Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, this little known work survives in just two historical manuscripts, and then only in Latin, though these were probably translated from a Greek original.  As for the provenance of that Greek original, probably Syria, or maybe Palestine, or Transjordan.  This catechetical manual is possibly as old as second or first century BCE, but in the form in which we now have it dates from the first century CE. 

The only item which makes what we have a Christian work is a doxology appended onto the end, reading, “For the Lord Jesus Christ, who reigns and is Lord with God the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.”  This doxology, of course, may date in the third or fourth century CE or later, given that Trinitarian doctrine was not official and not expressed in that form until that time.

Though its circulation was likely quite small, it is nonetheless important as it provided the foundation for the later Didache, and was thereby reproduced and reworked in several subsequent documents.


This late first century CE work was almost certainly written by Jewish Christians.  Its full title is The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles.  Since some ancient churches and authorities considered the Didache canonical, it can be legitimately called deuteroncanonical.  It is without a doubt among the Apostolic Fathers, and was one of the most influential of these, setting a pattern for all the church orders that followed.

The first six chapters of this work cover the same content as the Doctrina Apostolorum, containing nearly all of its predecessor with copious additions from the Gospel of Matthew and a few from the Gospel of Luke.  Clearly this work was heavily influenced by Matthew, and somewhat by Luke, and it influenced them in turn, as we will see later.  The most likely provenance for its composition is Antioch, by Jewish Christians of the same school that produced the Gospel of Matthew.

The next few chapters deal with rites and prayers.  Chapter 7 deals with baptism, Chapter 8 offers a version of the Lord’s Prayer and advice on prayer times and fasting days.  Chapters 9 and 10 give instructions for the Eucharist.  Chapters 11 thru 13 deal with wandering clergy, Chapter 14 discusses meeting on the Lord’s Day, Chapter 15 is about the regular clergy, and Chapter 16 is a mini-apocalypse.

It is part of the “broader” canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Epistle of Barnabas

Much of the text focuses on condemning Jewish, or perhaps Judaizing Christian, practices, and on the religion of Christ as the New Covenant.  That goes on through the first seventeen chapters.  It dates from the late second century, written in Egypt, probably in Alexandria.  The Barnabas of the title is meant to be either Barnabas the Apostle, in which case it is almost certainly pseudepigraphic, or Barnabas of Alexandria, one of the Apostolic Fathers.

Chapter 18 opens with the Two Ways, but lacks the Summary of the Torah.  However, it brings back reference to angels standing at the head of each Way, though in a much more dualistic fashion, contrasting the “angels of God” with the “angels of Satan”.  The epistle lays out the Way of Light in chapter 19, which includes the mitzvah to love Yahweh but not the one to love one’s neighbor, nor the Golden Rule.  The Way of Darkness is dealt with in chapter 20.

First Epistle to Timothy

If you are looking for an handy example of a church order, open a Bible, go to the New Testament, and find this pseudepigraphic work attributed to Paul.

This work has never been included in such a list, but it belongs here, with the exception of the fact that it purports to be from Paul rather than from all the apostles collectively.  One of the Pseudo-Pauline epistles that are nonetheless canonical, the subject matter is the same as the rest of the early church orders.  Its organization and non-inclusion in the Apostolikon of Marcion point to a date in the mid-second century at the earliest.

Genuine Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (12:28) and pseudo-Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (4:11) also contain brief passages about church polity.

Doctrina duodecim Apostolorum

This work from the second century opens with an account of the Ascension and Coming of the Holy Spirit, followed by instructions from the Eleven on various matters of practice, calendar, polity, morals, discipline.  Each prescription or proscription has them speaking collectively as “the apostles”.  It then provides a little more narrative, and tells the countries to which each of the apostles named took the gospel.

Didascalia Apostolorum

First appearing in about 230, this work comes from northern Syria, and was first found among the Audians, “heretics” who maintained the Quartodeciman Pascha (Easter) and taught that God has a human form.  It introduced a more elaborate church hierarchy and more developed catechism.  It is the first church order that can be said to be pseudepigraphic since it starts out with, “We the Apostles”, and in one section has them taking turns speaking.  The complier inserted an edited version of the Didache into Chapter 3.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church made it part of its New Testament canon.

Apostolic Church Order

Written around 300 in either Egypt or Syria, probably the former, this work became part of the canon law of the Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Arabian churches.  It is much briefer, and more coherent, than the Didascalia Apostolorum, more in the form of the Doctrina duodecim Apostolorum.  Chapters 1-3 were inspired by the Epistle of Barnabas, Chapters 4-14 expand on the Didache, and Chapters 15-30.  It was one of the most widely preserved of the church orders, with copies in not only the original Greek, but also Latin, Syriac, Sahidic, Boharic, Ethiopic, and several others.

Canons of Hippolytus

This pseudepigraphic written in about 340, probably in Egypt, claims to have been written by Hippolytus of Rome.  There are thirty-eight canons in all, and its main purpose here is to serve as a place-holder, and to show that for some reasons Hippolytus was quite popular in Egypt.

Apostolic Tradition

Also known as the Egyptian Church Order, this document, once known as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, was written in Egypt around 355.  Beginning with a prologue in the first chapter, it then divides into three section, by subject if not headings.  The first, Chapters 2-14, deals mostly with clergy, but includes a Eucharistic anaphora probably dating back to the early third century (the time of Hippolytus), plus blessings for a couple of other foods.  Chapters 15-21 discuss the catechumenate and baptism.  Chapters 22-43 compile various rules for the community not particularly organized.

Apostolic Constitutions

This is a compilation and reworking of various sources pulled together about 375 in Antioch, the first such collection.

Books I thru VI are essentially the Didiscalia Apostolorum heavily reworded and organized into sections: Concerning the Laity, Concerning Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, Concerning Widows, Concerning Orphans, Concerning Martyrs, and Concerning Schisms.

Book VII repeats the Didache, reworded heavily in places but covering the same subjects.

Book VIII is mostly a edited version of Apostolic Tradition, but with the work discussed below as its final chapter.

Apostolic Canons

Known more formally as the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles, these were written about 380 and appended onto the end of Book VIII of the Apostolic Constitutions as its final chapter.  All eighty-five were adopted as canon law at the Council of Trullo in 692, and they remain among the canons of the Eastern Orthodox communion to this day.  The Latin church only adopted the first fifty.

Canons of Athanasius of Alexandria

The pseudepigraphic work, purporting to have been written by Athanasius, 20th Patriarch of Alexandria, was written around 400 in Egypt.  It survives whole only in Arabic, but fragments have been discovered written in Coptic.  In form, it is one hundred and seven canons.

Testamentum Domini

Written in the fifth century in Anatolia and probably based on Apostolic Tradition, it claims to be the words of Christ instructing the Apostles in how the Church is to be run.  It even includes highly detailed instructions for the layout of a church building.  On disciplinary measures, it is extremely harsh toward major sins committed after baptism, and calls for prohibition of soldiers in the church, except as hearers (that will be explained later).  There is an abundance of prayers which are very lengthy and overly wordy.  Its writer divided it into two sections of forty-seven and twenty-seven chapters respectively, an apocalypse and instructions for liturgy.  Much of it is based on Apostolic Tradition.

Canons of Hippolytus

There are thirty-eight of these, explicitly based on Apostolic Tradition.  Much of the material was left untouched, sandwiched between the introduction and an appendix which both had wholly new information and instructions.


Church authorities collected and expanded older church orders into larger collections, such as the Verona Palimpsest, the Clementine Octateuch, the Egyptian Heptateuch, and the Alexandrine Sinodos

The Verona Palimpsest collects the Didascalia Apostolorum, the Apostolic Church Order, the Apostolic Tradition, and official Roman chronicles to the year 494. 

The Syriac Octateuch contains the Testamentum Domini, the Apostolic Church Order, the Epitome, and the Apostolic Canons.

The Clementine, or Egyptian, Heptateuch, also called the Ecclesiastical Canons, contains the Apostolic Church Order, the Apostolic Tradition, the Epitome, and the Apostolic Canons.

The Alexandrine Sinodos collects and revises the Apostolic Church Order, the Apostolic Tradition, and Book VIII of Apostolic Constitutions, without the canons.

(See also: http://notesfromtheninthcircle.blogspot.com/2017/01/notes-from-ancient-church-orders.html)

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