The first collections of canon law within Christendom

Until the fourth century the Old and New Testaments, apostolic traditions, real and apocryphal, custom, and synodal and conciliar canons constituted the four main sources of ecclesiastical norms. These sources did not, together or individually, constitute a 'canon law'. Conciliar legislation, for example, was too narrow in its focus and topics to provide the basis for a general body of canon law. During the course of the fourth century, two other sources of authoritative norms emerged in the Christian church: the writings of the fathers of the church and the letters of bishops, particularly the bishops of Rome. In the Eastern church, the 'Canons of the fathers' were recognised as norms some time between 381 and 451 and later were included in canonical collections. They consisted of letters (rescripts) or other writings directed to specific persons by the Eastern fathers. In canon 2 of the Quinisext Council (692), twelve bishops and patriarchs were named as having authoritative force, among them Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264/5), Peter (d. 311), Athanasius (d. 373) and Cyril (d. 444), archbishops of Alexandria; Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia; and Gregory (d. 394), bishop of Nyssa.23 Basil's 'canonical' Letters that he wrote to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, were the most important. They were divided up into eighty-five canons and extracted according to topic and then placed into canonical collections.24 These episcopal letters tooktheirplace alongside synodal canons in Eastern canonical collections of the sixth century

In the Latin West, a parallel development during the fourth and fifth centuries put papal decretal letters on an equal footing with conciliar canons. These letters were the pope's responses to requests for answers to problems of ecclesiastical doctrine, discipline and governance. The form of the requests was based on similar letters (rescripta) sent to the Roman emperors on specific questions of law. In the fourth century, bishops in the Western church had begun to turn to Rome for answers to questions about discipline and doctrine. A letter of Pope Siricius (sed. 384-99) to Bishop Himerius of Tarragona (modern Saragossa, Spain) is the earliest surviving example of a papal response to a series of questions that originated far from Rome.25 Himerius had written to Siricius' predecessor, Pope Damasus (sed. 366-84). He had posed questions

23 Joannou, Discipline generale antique, 1.1:120-5.

24 Ibid. ii: 92-195; Basil's letters are 188,199 and 217 in modern editions.

25 For the latest analysis of the complex problem of the 'first' papal decretal with full bibliographical details see D.Jasper and H. Fuhrmann, Papal letters, 28-32.

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