Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).

Our primary source of information about the third council of Carthage, held in A.D. 397, is an ancient document known as the Codex Canonum Ecclesiæ Africanæ, which presents a compilation of ordinances enacted by various church councils in Carthage during the fourth and fifth centuries. Karl Joseph von Hefele, in his History of the Councils of the Church, 1 states that this compilation was done in the year 419 by Dionysius Exiguus, who called it the Statuta Concilii Africani. Others have called it the "African Code." In one section of this code there is a record of the ordinances enacted at the third council of Carthage, in which the following paragraph concerning the canon of Scripture appears. 2

Item placuit ut praeter Scripturas canonicas nihil in ecclesia legatur sub nomine divinarum Scripturarum. Sunt autem Canonicae Scripturae hae: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numeri, Deuteronomium, Jesus Naue, Judicum, Ruth, Regnorum libri quator, Paralipomenon libri duo, Job, Psalterium Davidicum, Salomonis libri quinque, libri duodecim prophetarum, Jesaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, Esdrae libri duo, Machabaeorum libri duo. Novi autem Testamenti, evangeliorum libri quator, Actuum Apostolorum liber unus, Epistolae Pauli Apostoli xiii., ejusdem ad Hebraeos una, Petri apostoli duae, Johannes tres, Jacobi i., Judae i., Apocalipsis Johannis liber unus. Hoc etiam fratri et consacerdoti nostro Bonifatio, vel aliis earum partium Episcopis, pro confirmando isto canone innotescat, quia a patribus ista accepimus in ecclesia legenda. Liceat autem legi passiones martyrum cum anniversarii eorum dies celebrantur. It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, 3 two books of Paraleipomena, 4 Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, 5 the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, 6 two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon. because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

Hefele maintains that this canon derives from an earlier council, convened in 393 at Hippo Regius, 7 and that the third council of Carthage simply incorporated it, along with many other statutes of the earlier council.

However, the sentence "Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon" cannot belong to either of these councils. Westcott writes:

The third Council of Carthage was held in the year 397 A.D. in the pontificate of Siricus; and Boniface did not succeed to the Roman chair till the year 418 A.D.; so that the allusion to him is at first sight perplexing. Yet this anachronism admits of a reasonable solution. In the year 419 A.D., after the confirmation of Boniface in the Roman epsicopate, the Canons of the African Church were collected and formed into one code. In the process of such a revision it was perfectly natural that some reference should be made to foreign churches on such a subject as the contents of Scripture, which were fixed by usage rather than by law. The marginal note which directed the inquiry was suffered to remain, probably because the plan was never carried out; and that which stood in the text of the general code was afterwards transferred to the text of the original Synod." 8

In connection with this, it has been observed that at least one manuscript indicates that the original wording of the sentence was “De confirmando isto canone transmarina ecclesia consulatur” (“For the confirmation of this canon the church across the sea shall be consulted”). This is the reading adopted by Hefele for his reconstruction of the council of Hippo, and Westcott mentions it in a note. 9 More recent authors tend to present the canon of the third council of Carthage with this emendation. 10

We also observe the peculiar manner in which the Epistle to the Hebrews is listed: “Epistolae Pauli Apostoli xiii., ejusdem ad Hebraeos una.” Here ejusdem looks like a later addition. In any case, the anachronism in the penultimate sentence shows that we do not have the canon in its original form here. The original canon has been edited by someone who has adapted it to churchly developments after 418 A.D.

Books of the Apocrypha are named in this list: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees; and the expression "five books of Solomon" implies the inclusion of the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (Augustine, in his City of God and On Christian Doctrine, says that in addition to Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are often ascribed to Solomon). Some have attributed the inclusion of these books to the influence of Augustine in Hippo and Carthage, because in his writings he sometimes treats them as canonical. But the canon itself purports to give a list of books which were traditionally read in the African churches: “quia a patribus ista accepimus in ecclesia legenda.”

1. Cf. the English edition, A History of the Councils of the Church: From the Original Documents by Charles Joseph Hefele, translated from the German and edited by William R. Clark, etc., vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1876), p. 468.

2. The Latin text and English translation are from B.F. Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (5th ed. Edinburgh, 1881), pp. 440, 541-2.

3. "four books of Kings" = First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings.

4. "Paraleipomena" = Chronicles.

5. "five books of Solomon." According to Augustine, five books were sometimes ascribed to Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus.

6. "two books of Esdras" = Ezra and Nehemiah.

7. Hefele, op. cit., p. 394.

8. Westcott, op. cit., p. 440.

9. Hefele, op. cit., p. 400; Westcott, op. cit., p. 542, note 4. Westcott cites a note in Mansi's Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, which attributes it to "quidam vetustus codex" (a certain ancient codex).

10. Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford, 1987), p. 315.