Ancient Church Orders Reviewed

Paul L. Bradshaw, Early Church Orders Revisited, Joint Liturgical Studies 80 (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015).

This little book was my Christmas present to myself this year. (Along with Günter Wand’s recording of Bruckner 8 in Lübeck Cathedral – magnificent.) I’d been wanting to read it for some months, and the price finally dipped low enough to justify the expense. By the time it arrived, I was pretty amped: I devoured the thing in portions over the course of some 24 hours.

Now, if this isn’t the sort of thing you like to do in your free time, you may have a couple preliminary questions:

What is a church order?

A church order is more or less a collection of rules for doing liturgy. There were ten or so church orders floating around in the patristic era, some pretty famous (e.g., the Didache, the Apostolic Tradition), some hopelessly obscure (the Alexandrine Sinodos – huh?). Each church order had a different spin on things: some include moral instruction going well beyond liturgy, making them more of a kind of proto–catechism, others include an exhortation to choose righteousness, making them semi-homiletic. Many church orders serve up a little story about how the rules they contain were handed down to the Church by the apostles.

The church orders were pretty popular in certain quarters, and so were copied, recopied, translated, mixed, matched, edited, updated, and combined many, many times – long story short, the problems involved in sorting them out are thorny enough to busy a small army of scholars. Which is where this book comes in.


Among liturgists, Paul F. Bradshaw is a big deal: what you’ve got here is kind of like if Einstein sat down to write “A Brief Introduction to Physics.” This book as a whole is divided into three parts, and prefaced by a tight, thoughtful introduction recounting the early history of the study of the church orders: “Prior to 1800, only one such work was generally known, the Apostolic Constitutions, first published in full in 1563 by Francisco Torres. During the nineteenth century, however, discoveries of others came thick and fast” (4). And so the Apostolic Church Order was published in 1843, the Alexandrine Sinodos in 1848, the Didascalia Apostolorum in 1856, the Canons of Hippolytus in 1870, the Didache in 1883, and the Testamentum Domini in 1899.

Bradshaw then moves on to a discussion of these documents’ varying degrees of pseudepigraphy: the earliest church order, the Didache, makes no attempt to attribute its teaching to the apostles apart from its title, “The Teaching (Didache) of the Twelve Apostles,” which may not even be original to the text. The Apostolic Tradition and the Canons of Hippolytus, “while asserting that what they are teaching is in accordance with the apostolic tradition that has come down to them, do not suggest that it derives verbatim from the mouths of the original apostles” (6). So far, so good. Unfortunately, the other church orders all use the literary conceit of being the twelve apostles’ ipsissima verba: so, the Didascalia “inserts just before the last chapter of the work an alleged account of the composition of the document by a council of the twelve” (ibid.); the Apostolic Church Order and Apostolic Constitution “distribute their contents between the apostles, putting a different injunction into the mouth of each one” (ibid.); finally the Testamentum Domini “caps the whole process by attributing the teaching not just to the apostles but to Jesus himself” (ibid.). Brassy.

Bradshaw defends the morality of this practice in part III, writing, “The creation of a fictional apostolic setting for the teaching in the church order or the distribution of its prescriptions to individual apostles can be regarded as merely adding imaginative detail to the basic premise of the apostolic origin of the work that the redactor believed to be true, in a similar way that a dramatized documentary does in modern television productions” (52). I don’t buy this. Bradshaw is contending, in essence, that “This is how people of that age went about making a claim for apostolicity.” But that’s not so. St. Basil of Caesarea, who was a contemporary of many of the church order editors, makes an extended argument in his treatise On the Holy Spirit, that customs like Baptism by triple immersion and facing the east at prayer come from apostolic tradition because they are everywhere practiced in the churches. He doesn’t claim to be the recipient of some secret teaching or to have discovered the acta of some hitherto-unknown apostolic council: he makes his case from the evidence before him. That is a good faith argument. What the editors of some of the later church orders did was intentionally deceptive, and deserves to be called out as such.

In the footnotes to this section, there is mention of a number of German scholars who have compared the Christian church orders to the Jewish Mishnah and Talmuds (which were being compiled around the same time). What a fascinating thought! – sure, there are some pretty big differences in format between a church order and a talmud, but the subject matter in both cases is indisputably halakhah. And might this be part of our editors’ rationale for putting their canons in the mouths of our Lord and his apostles? “The Jews have their Oral Torah handed down from Moses on Mount Sinai – why shouldn’t we have the same from Christ?”

Bradshaw concludes his introduction with a brief discussion of the genre of “church order,” which some have argued is nothing but a modern construct. The best argument that they’re wrong is that throughout antiquity, scribes kept copying these documents together in the same manuscripts. For instance, the Alexandrine Synodos we keep hearing about is actually just the Apostolic Church Order, the Apostolic Tradition, and book 8 of the Apostolic Constitutions all stuck together. If these documents, despite their many differences, don’t form a discrete genre, why were the ancients forever combining them?

I. The Texts and their Relationship

 Bradshaw marches through the disparate church orders, giving a brief précis of their contents by chapter (super helpful), where and in what languages the text has been preserved (with recent editions and translations cited in footnotes), and modern scholarship’s best guess at when and where each church order was originally written. A large part of establishing when these orders were written is figuring out which influenced which others, so he goes a little bit into that here, too.

Bradshaw divides the church orders into three categories: “core texts,” which are early and relatively independent, “derivative texts” (like the aforementioned Canons of Hippolytus), which are extensively reworked versions of one or more core texts, and “collections” (like the Alexandrine Synodos), which  combine some of the earlier texts together into one manuscript. To give an idea of what we’re dealing with, here are the church orders considered by Bradshaw to be “core texts”:

1. The Didache, late 1st or early 2nd century, probably from Syria (maybe Egypt), surviving in its original Greek;
2. the Apostolic Church Order, either fourth century Egyptian or, as has recently been argued, early third century Syrian or Asian, surviving in its original Greek;
3. the Didascalia Apostolorum, c. 230, Syrian, surviving in Latin and Syriac translations (and a little Coptic fragment); and
4. the “so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus” (so Bradshaw), late 2nd or early 3rd century, from heaven knows where, surviving in Latin, Sahidic, Bohairic, Arabic, and Ethiopic translations (I begin to understand why all the liturgists I know are so keen on picking up new languages).

II. Living Literature

The second part goes into much greater detail about the ways the various and sundry editors and compilers of these church orders borrowed from and modified earlier church orders and the vicissitudes of modern scholarship’s attempts to put it all in order.

Bradshaw begins with a detailed discussion of the Two Ways tractate – a little set piece that shows up in a number of church orders, basically laying out the two ways you can go and urging you to pick the way of light. Since Two Ways material follows a pretty well defined formula, any editorial changes are especially easy to detect. And so this little chunk of text has played a huge role in scholars’ reconstruction of the stemma, or family relationship, of the church orders.

He then takes an abundantly-footnoted look at what recent scholars have said about the development of the church orders, with particular focus on the four “core texts” enumerated above. And although I’m no expert in this, as I was reading through I couldn’t help detecting a whiff of what I’ve heard called “Zerstückelungssucht” – the scholarly compulsion to carve a text up into myriad minute sources combined by ever more elaborate strata of redactors until the original document is mutilated beyond recognition. This is the kind of thing that has led to the worst JEDP tomfoolery, or to what the Germans and the Chicago school have tried to do to 2 Corinthians. (One scholar argued 1–2 Corinthians contained parts of thirteen different letters – thirteen!)

To give an example: “Besides identifying these [three] sources within the Didascalia, Stewart-Sykes also claimed to detect three distinct editorial stages that the material had subsequently undergone. In addition to an editor who brought the sources together and worked them over, thus giving the whole composition the impression of a unity, whom Stewart-Sykes therefore terms the ‘uniting redactor’, he also saw the hand of another later ‘deuterotic redactor’…. The third and final editor he called the ‘apostolic redactor’, because he appears to have worked over the text to introduce the illusion of explicit apostolic authorship” (34). Really? Three (otherwise unknown) sources, three editorial hands? Even Bradshaw isn’t buying it. (This is all the more surprising, as Alistair Stewart-Sykes wrote an excellent article critiquing the excesses of modern scholarship on the Corinthian correspondence.) In any event, it’s all laid out here in this chapter, although what the field will look like twenty years from now is anyone’s guess.

Especially noteworthy in this chapter is the section on the Apostolic Tradition, which Bradshaw knows intimately, having co-authored the hugely influential Hermeneia commentary on this troublesome text. Basically, 100 years ago, everyone was 100% sure the Apostolic Tradition was written around the year 200 by St. Hippolytus, and so reflected the ancient liturgical practice of Rome. So sure were they that in the ’70s, Bugnini and his merrie band of liturgists modeled the Novus Ordo’s Eucharistic Prayer 2 (“Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,” etc.) on the eucharistic prayer in the Apostolic Tradition. It’s the Roman Church, after all – why not work in some ancient Roman prayers? This all became more than slightly embarrassing when, starting in the late ’80s and culminating in the aforementioned Hermeneia commentary (2002), a group of scholars, prominent among them Pierre Nautin, Maxwell Johnson, and Bradshaw himself, exploded the previous certainty and showed to the satisfaction of most that the Apostolic Tradition not only had nothing to do with Hippolytus but was probably not even Roman, and should really be termed “the so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus.” It’s great to get an account of all this from someone who was in the eye of the hurricane – if you’re at all interested in this debate, this section alone is worth the price of the book.

III. Layers of Tradition

Part III is Bradshaw’s own take on the process of editing these documents and the forces that drove it. Underlying the whole second section was the unspoken question, “Why did these editors write these things?” “For whom were they writing?” And perhaps most importantly, “Do these documents accurately describe Christian liturgy as practiced in the editors’ churches, or do they merely picture Christian liturgy as the editors thought it ought to be practiced?”

Bradshaw begins by outlining the predominant scholarly answers to these questions, again with abundant footnotes: either the church orders were “the official regulations of specific Christian communities, their manuals of church law, as it were”; or, on the opposite extreme, “they were polemical texts addressing only specific controverted issues and new situations that had arisen within their communities” and so “might never have actually been put into effect” (43).

Bradshaw then gives his own view, which impresses me as refreshingly moderate and sane: “because of the nature of the church orders as ‘living literature’, it is not possible to speak of them as having a single identifiable purpose or aim” (46). Finally, some scholarly humility. He goes on to identify and examine certain trends in the church orders, for instance, the earlier orders tend to be simpler, more prescriptive: as Bradshaw says, “Whoever compiled the Didache no doubt wanted its directions to be followed” (52). On the other hand, in Didascalia Apostolorum chapter 21 (on the dating of Easter), “the practical directions have become submerged in such lengthy, complex and ultimately confusing arguments drawing on biblical authorities … that the editor was much more concerned with engaging in theological debate than with producing a manual suited for practical application” (53). In other words: it depends. It’s complicated. Bradshaw refuses to give a simpler answer than the evidence allows.

In this section, Bradshaw also identifies and supports with evidence a huge editorial rationale that has hitherto been neglected: the desire to preserve the apostolic past. You see, these editors actually believed their sources were apostolic, and so while they felt free to rearrange their material or add to it, they were loath to cut anything out. And so, “not everything that was included in the final redaction of a text can necessarily be assumed to represent the current practice of that place and period, or even what the redactor desired to be so. A good deal of it may just be the inheritance of the past” (47). This kind of thinking is much closer to the way of the ancients than that of your average German redaction critic.

To sum up, “the church orders contain (a) elements that had once existed but were no longer current, being retained simply out of respect for their imagined apostolic origin; (b) elements that existed in the present and were generally accepted by Christians of the time; (c) elements that were there with controversial or propagandist intent, endorsed by some communities but opposed by others; and perhaps even (d) elements that were the product of the idiosyncratic beliefs of the editor alone and not actually in existence anywhere” (56–57). The scholar’s task, then, is to sift the material of the church orders and assign it to these four categories. My impression of Bradshaw’s approach is that he has arranged them in order of decreasing prominence: there is far more (a) and (b) in these documents than there is (c) and (d). All the more reason to subject them to serious study, being as they are windows (however cloudy) to the worship of the earliest Church.

Bradshaw concludes with a brief consideration of the influence of the church orders on subsequent Christian practice. They were influential early on, and so were widely copied. But at a certain point – somewhere in the fifth century or thereabouts – people stopped making them. Why is that? According to Bradshaw, “Authority in the Chalcedonian churches now rested with Ecumenical councils and patriarchal sees.” This explains why many church orders are no longer extant in their original Greek: they ceased to be recopied in the (overwhelmingly Chalcedonian) Greek churches. Why copy some old, defunct church order when you could be copying the canons of the latest council? It also explains why the extant copies are generally in the languages of the non-Chalcedonian churches: Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopic, where the canons of the latest council didn’t carry much weight.

It would have been nice to have a footnote here on the disciplinary canons of the Councils (maybe something by Hubert Jedin, Norman Tanner, SJ, or Joseph F. Kelly) or the legislative action of metropolitan bishops, like the canonical epistles of St. Basil or the festal letters of SS Athanasius and Cyril. And it wouldn’t have hurt at least to mention the names of the great medieval codifiers of canon law, Western (Gratian, St. Raymond of Penyafort) and Eastern (Alexios Aristenos, John Zonaras, Theodore Balsamon), or that in the East, the eighty-five canons of Apostolic Constitutions book 8 are still considered authoritative today. But I understand that this really falls outside the purview of the book.


In this little book Bradshaw placed at the fingertips of his readers an entire genre of early Christian literature. It is to be hoped that it will be an aid to all those who wish to put the treasures of the early, undivided Church back into circulation, for the enrichment of a generation that has forgotten its history. 



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