BMCR 2022.09.36

The Acts of Early Church Councils: production and character

, The Acts of Early Church Councils: production and character. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 333. ISBN 9780198868170 $100.00.

Early Church councils were meetings of bishops, officially representing numerous ecclesiastical communities of the late Roman Empire. They met to regulate points of doctrine or to discipline individual communities and they are today generally seen as functioning to ensure sound foundations for church and state integration in a Christianising empire. Therefore, the histories, agendas and proceedings of these councils constitute a most important group of sources for the understanding the late Roman world and especially its governmental processes. Studies on church councils and their proceedings have been growing since the later 19th century. The German bishop Carl Joseph Hefele produced a monumental documentary history in the 1870s and this work was revised by the Belgian-French theologian, Henri Leclercq (d. 1945) in the early twentieth century.[1] In the same generation as Leclercq, the German philologist Eduard Schwartz published editions of the proceedings of several ecumenical councils, published as the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, hereafter ACO. The Ephesian Council of 431 was the earliest ecumenical gathering whose acta have survived.[2] Then other volumes of the ACO were published. English translations with explanatory notes and commentary of the acts of the councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553, 649, 691/2), Nicaea (787) have been published by the English scholar, Richard Price.[3] Although Eduard Schwartz is reported to have remarked that Acta Conciliorum non leguntur (“nobody reads conciliar proceedings”), this famous dictum is no longer a valid verdict. The question of how and why the records of the councils were taken down and preserved to this day has occupied an important place in the modern historiography of late Roman, Byzantine, and Patristic studies. To search for an answer to such questions is also an attempt to widen horizons of the intellectual and social history of Christianity in the early medieval period in terms of book history and cultural world of manuscript production.

Council proceedings and the key players of the councils have been studied from diverse perspectives;[4] the making and preservation of conciliar proceedings, and the key role of anonymous heroes of the councils, secretarial staff, have remained unnoticed so far. Thomas Graumann, professor of Ancient Christian History and Patristic Studies at Cambridge University, has written an outstanding book on the real history of the acts of early church councils. Graumann, through deep research on recording, production process and the textual and material characteristic of the acts, brings extensive insights and perspectives on their creation, composition, textual transmission and survival. While the role of key players at church councils in shaping Christian theology and history has hitherto dominated much of modern historical discussion, the recording process and survival techniques of church councils has a far greater value, because a real understanding of theological and historical issues is only to be reached by close reading and understanding of the reality of these texts. Graumann presents this intellectual history in five main parts, which consist of eighteen chapters with an introduction and conclusion. The book is also arranged with an extensive bibliography that provides us with ancient texts and modern authors separately. The ancient texts are classified as the records of church councils themselves, and the ancient authors who witnessed and reported on the councils.

The introduction and chapter one set out the chronological framework of the early church councils and reconstruct the general recording patterns of conciliar documentation. It is worth remarking that in the first chapter Graumann warns about the use of Eusebius as the main source for church meetings of the second and third centuries and argues that Eusebius presents those meetings in the “light of anachronistic presuppositions” that he procured from the contemporary church councils of the early fourth century. In the first part Graumann also surveys the western imperial conference of Carthage (411), which dealt with the Donatist issue, from the point of how practical arrangements of the council, like the stenographic recording of the participants, “exceptio”, were maintained. For the point of recording, the remarkable distinctive feature of this meeting was the employment of two teams of stenographers, acting for the two sides, who checked their transcripts word for word against each other.

In the second part, from chapter four to seven, Thomas Graumann examines the records of the trial of Eutyches, a distinguished archimandrite in Constantinople, which was conducted first at a home synod (endemousa) by his bishop Flavian in the capital and at the “robber council of Ephesus” soon afterwards in 449. The written proofs of the second Ephesian council (449) were preserved among the proceedings of the council of Chalcedon. Graumann analyses the close documentary relationship between the councils of Ephesus II and Chalcedon, and thus sheds light on the practical arrangements of the council Chalcedon, including the reasons for reading the acta of previous meetings, the preservation of imperial letters as a codex, and the procedural regulations, known as the schedarion. No doubt the authenticity of the council records, and their physical condition were important to document as sound evidence. Graumann also takes the council of Constantinople III (680/1) and Nicaea II (787) into consideration in this context. This chapter overall surveys the documents and records of the council focusing also on their legal status and physical quality, because these acts were repeatedly read and used at subsequent meetings. In a sense this complex bureaucracy throws light not just on church councils but also on late Roman government bureaucracy. This must have been the first time in history that systematic office procedures were developed in practice, and few modern bureaucracies match the standard that is implied for the Roman Empire of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Graumann examines the secretarial business of the church councils in the third part, from chapter eight to ten: the administration of note taking, the official secretariat, stenographers’ conventions and problems in recording and reproducing the exact words spoken, and then arranging the documents. As he himself rightly noticed, this kind of clerical business is not widely noticed in modern scholarship, because these lower status staffers worked under the shadow of influential ecclesiastics, the dominant speakers and actors in the councils. The main idea behind this part of the book is to demonstrate that the preparation of paperwork was central for bishops’ self-presentation and the projection of prevailing conciliar ideologies. Without the work of stenographers in the “Writing Acts” neither would have been possible.

From chapters eleven to fifteen the book concentrates on the protocol of formal record keeping, starting from producing and maintaining the quality of the acts and their replication. In this process attention was paid to the reading and filing of documents that had been produced previously. He considers the classification of documents, the production of abstracts or summaries, the compilation of the lists of signatures, the classification of recorded documents on a hierarchical base, and the structural features of how an ideal session should be recorded.

The final part of the book, from chapters sixteen to eighteen, is devoted to the organisation of data as Minutes, Case Files, and Collected Records. This matter is contextualised on the basis of a close reading of the Synodus Endemousa (Constantinople, 448) and the Council of Ephesus (431), which was steered by Cyril of Alexandria. The records taken from the sessions were systematically filed, these files were prepared by editors, and the edited files disseminated to government officials and other interested parties. It is clearly evident that leading participants of church councils also scrutinized and inspected the documents and records of previous occasions. Reading this part also suggests an obvious reason why we have such rudimentary records of the councils of Nicaea, Serdica and Constantinople, essentially just lists of canonical resolutions, not full proceedings. At that time in the fourth century the bureaucratic apparatus of the late Roman state was simply very primitive compared to what emerged in the time of Theodosius II.

To sum up, Graumann investigates the textual and physical characteristics of ancient ecclesiastical documents and establishes criteria for their assessment. His research suggests that councils can also be portrayed as exercises in textual practices: in note-taking, reading, copying, transcribing, arranging, editing, handling, collecting, and distributing significant quantities of texts, in different formats and material manifestations. Graumann interprets the basic framework of the recording and record-keeping processes of the ecclesiastical environment as following and illustrating the working pattern of Roman bureaucracy. In this way the tradition of councils was also characterized by a substantial administrative operation, to which we owe the transmission of sizeable numbers of records and other texts from these occasions. Graumann never explicitly writes that this is a history-from-below-work, but after reading the book one cannot avoid appreciating the roles of secretaries and stenographers of church councils, who are now recognised as playing a more central role than has been assumed hitherto. The textual and bureaucratic processes and the painstaking efforts of clerical staff form the fundamental basis on which rest the councils’ aspirations to legitimacy and authority before real and imagined audiences in the wider church and the empire, and of course in the judgement of posterity.



[1] Carl Joseph Hefele & Henri Leclercq, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux, 11 vols, Paris 1907-1952.

[2] Friedrich Loofs, “A New Collection of ‘Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum’: An Appeal” Harvard Theological Review 16/02 (April 1923), pp. 187-95.

[3] The first in the series published was the proceedings of Chalcedon. Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon I-III, Translated Texts For Historians, (Liverpool 2005). The latest to appear are the acts of the council of Constantinople (869/70), where the patriarch Photius was tried.

[4] In a provocative short book Ramsay MacMullen attempted to democratise the process of decision-making in the church councils. Voting About God in Early Church Councils, New Haven & London, 2006.