Canon 19 of the First Council of Nicea

by John Wijngaards

Canon 19

Source: W. Bright, Canons of the first four General Councils, Oxford 1892, pp. xiv-xv — translation by John Wijngaards.

In image on the right: Emperor Constantine and Patriachs holding the Nicene Creed, the main achievement of the Council.
The Council also published some decrees. Canon 19 concerned reconciliation with followers from the sect of Paul of Samosata, who had lived in Syria from 200 to 276.
Our main interest in this Canon lies in rules laid down regarding deaconesses who converted from the heresy of Paul of Samosata to the Catholic Church.


Canon 19 Original Greek

 English Translation


 (a) Περι των Παυλιανισαντων ’ειτα προσφυγοντων τηι καθολικηι ’ακκλησιαι ‘ορος ’εκτεθηται ’αναβαπτιζεσθαι ’αυτους ’εξαπαντος.  “Concerning the followers of Paul of Samosata who are taking refuge in the catholic church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized.”  Paul of Samosata denied the Trinity. Since baptism was administered in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, his baptism was considered invalid.
 (b) ’Ει δε τινες εν τωι παρεληλυθοτι χρονωι εν τωι κληρωι ’εξησασθησαν, ’ει μεν ’αμεμπτοι και ’ανεπιληπτοι φανειεν ’αναβαπτισθεντες χειροτονεισθωσαν ‘υπο του της καθωλικης ’εκκλησιας ’επισκοπου.  “If any of them in time gone by have been ranked on the list of their clergy, and if they are found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and receive the laying on of hands by the bishop of the catholic church.”  Since Paulanist baptism had been invalid, the ordination had been equally so. They needed to be re-ordained.
 (c) Ειδε ‘η ανακρισις ’επιτηδειους ’αυτους ‘ευρισκοι καθαιρεισθαι ’αυτους προσηκει.  “But if the examination shows that they are unfit, they should be deposed.”
(d) ‘ωσαυτωσ δε και περι των διακονισσων, και ‘ολως περι των ’εν τωι κληρωι κανονι ’εξεταζομενων, ‘ο ’αυτος τυποϛ παραφυλαχθησεται.  “Likewise with regard to the deaconesses, and generally in with regard to those who have been been put on the list of [lit. among] their clergy, the same pattern should be followed.”  Deaconesses among Paul’s followers should be treated in the same way, namely: if they are worthy, they should be rebaptised and be re-ordained by the bishop.
 (e) ’Εμ(ν)ησθημεν δε διακονισσων των ’εν τωι σχηματι ’εξετασθεισων, ’επει μηδε χειροθεσιαν τινα ’εχουσιν, ‘ωστε ’εξαπαντος ’εν τοις λαικοις ’αυτας ’εξεταζεσθαι. “We remember as to (their) ‘deaconesses’ those who have been put into the likeness (the vestment?) [of deaconesses]: since these [i.e. the deaconesses among Paul’s followers] have not had hands laid upon them, they are to be ranked only among the laity.”  The Council Fathers suddenly realised that the general rule prescribed in (d) makes no sense with regard to Paulianist deaconesses, because in their sect deaconesses were not ordained.

Comment on the meaning of section (e)

  1. Phrase (e) was inserted as an afterthought. Greek σχημα can sometimes mean ’habit’/’dress’, but its more normal meaning is ’likeness’. The Council Fathers meant to say that Paulianist deaconesses only looked like deaconesses, but had not received real ordination.
  2. Some authors translate (e) as: “We mean by ‘deaconesses’ those who have assumed the habit, but who, since they have not had hands laid upon them, are to be ranked only among the laity”. The text is then interpreted as the Council stating that in the Catholic Church deaconesses were not ordained and always to be ranked among the laity.
  3. However, section (d) clearly states that deaconesses are normally ranked among the clergy.
  4. Moreover, in 325 AD women deacons were well known and active in the Byzantine part of the Church. See our list of known women deacons. At the end of the 4th century, 40 women deacons ministered at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, some of whom we know from literary sources had been ordained by John Chrysostom, such as Olympias and Amproukla.
  5. All early records indicate that these Catholic women deacons received the laying on of hands [= ordination] – something which the ‘deaconesses’ of Paul of Samosata did not.
  6. This was also the interpretation of this canon in Nicea I by Greek commentators: Aristenos, Zonaras and Balsamon. “These (heretical) deaconesses, since they have no imposition of hands, if they come over to the Catholic Church and are baptised, are ranked among the laity.”