The Byzantine Nomocanon


(from the Greek nomos, law, and kanonos, a rule)

A collection of ecclesiastical law, the elements of which are borrowed from secular and canon law. When we recall the important place given to ecclesiastical discipline in the imperial laws such as the Theodosian Code, the Justinian collections, and the subsequent "Novell?", and "Basilica", the utility of comparing laws and canons relating to the same subjects will be readily recognized. Collections of this kind are found only in Eastern law. The Greek Church has two principal collections. The first, dating from the end of the sixth century, is ascribed, though without certainty, to John Scholasticus (q. v.), whose canons it utilizes and completes. He had drawn up (about 550) a purely canonical compilation in fifty titles, and later composed an extract from the "Novell?" in eighty-seven chapters (for the canonical collection see Voellus and Justellus, "Bibliotheca juris canonici", Paris, 1661, II, 449 sqq.; for the eighty-seven chapters, Pitra, "Juris ecclesiastici Græcorum historia et monumenta", Rome, 1864, II, 385). To each of the fifty titles were added the texts of the imperial laws on the same subject, with twenty-one additional chapters nearly all borrowed from John's eighty-seven (Voellus and Justellus, op. cit., II, 603). In its earliest form this collection dates from the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-40), at which time Latin was replaced by Greek as the official language of the imperial laws. Its two sections include the ecclesiastical canons and the imperial laws, the latter in fourteen titles.

This collection was long held in esteem and passed into the Russian Church, but was by degrees supplanted by that of Photius. The first part of Photius's collection contains the conciliar canons and the decisions of the Fathers. It is in substance the Greek collection of 692, as it is described by canon ii of the Trullan Council (see LAW, CANON), with the addition of 102 canons of that council, 17 canons of the Council of Constantinople of 861 (against Ignatius), and of 3 canons substituted by Photius for those of the Œcumenical council of 869. The nomocanon in fourteen titles was completed by additions from the more recent imperial laws. This whole collection was commentated about 1170 by Theodore Balsamon, Greek Patriarch of Antioch residing at Constantinople (Nomocanon with Balsamon's commentary in Voellus and Justellus, II, 815; P. G., CIV, 441). Supplemented by this commentary the collection of Photius has become a part of the "Pidalion" (pedalion, rudder), a sort of Corpus Juris of the Orthodox Church, printed in 1800 by Patriarch Neophytus VIII. In the eleventh century it had been also translated into Slavonic for the Russian Church; it is retained in the law of the Orthodox Church of Greece, and included in the "Syntagma" published by Rhallis and Potlis (Athens, 1852-9). Though called the "Syntagma", the collection of ecclesiastical law of Matthew Blastares (c. 1339) is a real nomocanon, in which the texts of the canons and of the laws are arranged in alphabetical order (P. G., loc. cit.; Beveridge, "Synodicon", Oxford, 1672). A remarkable nomocanon was composed by John Barhebr?us (1226-86) for the Syrian Church of Antioch (Latin version by Assemani in Mai, "Script. vet, nova collectio", X, 3 sqq.). Several Russian manuals published at Kiev and Moscow in the seventeenth century were also nomocanons.

VERING, Lehrb. des Kirchenrechts (Freiburg, 1893), ¤¤ 17-19; SCHNEIDER, Die Lehre von den Kirchenrechtsquellen (Ratisbon, 1892), 50, 199; also bibliographies of LAW, CANON; JOHN SCHOLASTICUS; PHOTIUS, etc.

Syntagma Canonum

Syntagma Canonum, a canonical collection made in 1335 by Blastares, a Greek monk about whose life nothing certain is known. The collector aimed at reducing canon law to a handier and more accessible form than it appeared in the Nomocanon of Photius, and to give a more comprehensive presentation than the epitomes and synopses of earlier writers such as Stephen (fifth century), Aristenus (1160), Arsenius (1255), etc. The author arranged his matter in alphabetical order. He made 24 general divisions, each marked off by a letter of the Greek alphabet. These sections he subdivided into 303 titles, themselves distinguished by letters; for example, the third section contains such topics as: peri gamou (about marriage), peri gynaikon (about women), etc. The titles ordinarily treat of the civil law (nomoi politikoi), as well as ecclesiastical law. Some titles however are purely ecclesiastical, others purely civil. The church ordinances are quoted from previous collections, especially from the Nomocanon (883), while the extracts from the civil law are for the most part transcribed without any reference to their origin. The compilation soon came into general use among the clergy, and preserved its authority even under Turkish rule. A translation into Servian followed close upon its first publication. It even worked its way into the political life of the Servian people through an abridgment which King Douchan appended to his code of laws (1349). From this the purely ecclesiastical enactments were excluded, but the civil law contained in the Syntagma was reproduced whenever adaptable to the social condition of the people. In the sixteenth century the Syntagma Canonum was translated into Bulgarian; in the seventeenth century into Russian.

BEVERIDGE, Synodicon orientale, II. 1-272; P.G., CXLIV, 959-1400; MORTREUIL, Hist. du droit byzantin, III, 457-64; HEIMBACH, Griech.-R?m. Recht in ERSCH AND GRUBER, Encyclop. LXXXVI, 467-70, tr. PETIT in VACANT AND MANGENOT, Dict. de th?ol. cathol., s.v. Blastares.


Saint John IV the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople (582-595), is famed in the Orthodox Church as the compiler of a Penitential nomokanon (i.e. Law-Canon of penances), which has come down to us in several distinct versions. But their foundation is one and the same. This — is an instruction for priests, how to hear a secret confession of secret sins, be this a sin already committed or constituting merely a sin of intent. Ancient churchly rules address the manner and duration of churchly public penances, established for obvious and evident sinners. But it was necessary to effectively adapt these rules for the secret confession of undetected things being repented of. Saint John the Faster because of this issued his Penitential nomokanon (or "Canonaria"), so that the good-intentioned confession of secret sins, unknown to the world, already testifies to the disposition of the sinner and his conscience in being reconciled to God, and therefore the saint shortened the penances by the ancient fathers by half or more. Yet on the other hand, he set more exactly the character of the penances: severe fasting, daily performing of an established number of prayerful prostrations to the ground, the distribution of alms. The length of penance is determined by the priest. The main purpose of the nomocanon, compiled by the holy Patriarch, consists in establishing penances not simply by the measure of sins, but by the measure of admitting the confessed, and through the appraisement of penitence not by continual punishment, but through the extent of the experience to be confessed, one's spiritual state.

Among the Greeks, and afterwards also in the Russian Church the rules of Saint John the Faster are honoured on a level "with other saintly rules", and the law-canons of his book are accounted "applicable for all the Orthodox Church". The Monk Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (Nikodim Svyatogorets, Comm. 1 July) included him in the Greek handbook for priests (Exomologitaria), first published in 1796, and in the Greek "Rudder Book" (Pedalion), published by him in 1800.

The first Slavonic translation was done quite possibly by the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Methodios, at the same time as he produced the "Nomocanon in 50 Titles" of the holy Patriarch John Scholastikos, whose successor on the Constantinople cathedra-seat was Saint John the Faster. This ancient translation was preserved in Rus' in the "Ustiug Rudder" (XIII), published in 1902.

From the XVI Century in the Russian Church was circulated the nomocanon of Saint John the Faster in another redaction, compiled by priest-monks and clergy of Holy Mount Athos. In this form it was repeatedly published at the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra (in 1620, 1624, 1629). In Moscow the Penitential Nomokanon was published in the form of a supplement to the Trebnik ("Book of Needs"): under Patriarch Joasaph in 1639, under Patriarch Joseph in 1651, and under Patriarch Nikon in 1658. The last edition since that time invariably is that printed in the Large Trebnik. A scholarly edition of the nomocanon with parallel Greek and Slavonic texts and with detailed historical and canonical commentary was done by A. S. Pavlov (Moscow, 1897).