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The Synod of Elvira ( , ) was an ecclesiastical synod held in Elvira in what was then the Roman province of Hispania Baetica, which ranks among the more important provincial synods, for the breadth of its canons. Its date cannot be determined with exactness, but is believed to be in the first quarter of the fourth century. It was one of three councils, together with the Synod of Arles and the Synod of Ancyra, that first approached the character of general councils and prepared the way for the first ecumenical council. It was attended by nineteen bishops, and twenty-six presbyters, mostly from Hispania Baetica. Deacons and laymen were also present.

Date of the synod

The solution of the question of the date hinges upon the interpretation of the canons, that is, upon whether they are to be taken as reflecting a recent persecution, or as redacted in a time of peace, that is either after or before the persecution under Diocletian. Thus the earliest investigators, Louis Duchesne and Victor De Clercq argue for a date between 300 and 303, i.e. before the persecution under Diocletian; others for a date between 303 and 314, after the persecution, but before the Synod of Arles; a few others argue for a date between the synod of Arles and the Council of Nicaea, (325). Karl Josef von Hefele and Robert William Dale follow early compilers of the canons Giovanni Domenico Mansi and Jean Hardouin in agreement upon 305 or 306, while Hennecke concludes that "the whole attitude points to a time of peace, not to one immediately following a persecution; the complete absence of any provisions as to the case of the lapsed is enough to preclude the modern theory as to the date".

The meeting place

The place of meeting, Eliberri, rendered as Elvira, was not far from the modern Granadamarker, if not, as A.W. Dale and Edgar Hennecke think, actually identical with it. There the nineteen bishops and twenty-four presbyters, mostly from Hispania Baetica and Carthago Novamarker, assembled, probably at the instigation of Hosius of Córdoba, but under the presidency of Felix of Accitum (Guadixmarker) in Baetica, probably by virtue of his being the oldest bishop present, with a view to restoring order and discipline in the church. The canons which were adopted reflect with considerable fulness the internal life and external relations of the Spanish Church of the fourth century. The reputation of this council drew to its canons further canons that came to be associated with the Synod of Elvira.

The canons

Victor De Clercq notes "that except for Hosius of Córdoba, we know practically nothing about these men, nor do we know with certainty when and why the council was held, and that the church of Spain is one of the least known in pre-constantinian times". The social environment of Christians in Hispania may be inferred from the canons prohibiting marriage and other intercourse with Jews, pagans and heretics, closing the offices of flamen and duumvir to Christians, forbidding all contact with idolatry and likewise participation in pagan festivals and public games. The state of morals is mirrored in the canons denouncing prevalent vices. The canons respecting the clergy exhibit the clergy as already a special class with particular privileges, as acting under a more exacting moral standard, with heavier penalties for delinquency. The bishop has acquired control of the sacraments, presbyters and deacons acting only under his orders; the episcopate appears as a unit, bishops being bound to respect one anothers' disciplinary decrees.

Maurice Meigne considers that only the first twenty-one canons in the list that has been transmitted were promulgated at Elvira; the remainder having been added to the collection.

By the terms of canon 1, lapsed Christians were forbidden the holy communion even in articulo mortis, an unusually severe application of Novatianist principles, which had divided the church since the recovery from mid third-century persecutions: compare the severity of Cyprian of Carthage. The subject of this leading canon is a major indication for a date following recent persecution.

Among the later canons, of especial note are canon 33, enjoining celibacy upon all clerics, married or not, and all who minister at the altar (the most ancient canon of clerical celibacy); canon 36, allegedly forbidding pictures in churches (compare the Iconoclastic Controversy in the East); canon 38, permitting lay baptism under certain conditions; and canon 53, forbidding one bishop to restore a person excommunicated by another.


The scanty documentation of the Synod of Elvira was first assembled by Ferdinand de Mendoza, De confirmando Concilio IIIiberitano ad Clementem VIII, 1593.


  1. The modern Granada, in souther Spain.
  2. Edgar Hennecke, "Elvira, Synod of" in Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (3rd ed).
  3. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church.
  4. Duchesne, "Le concile d'Elvira et les flamines chrétiennes", Mélanges Renier (Paris) 1887, pp 159-74.
  5. De Clercq, Ossius of Cordova (!954).
  6. Hennecke "Elivira, synod of" in New Schaff-Herzog.
  7. Eliberri, Elimberri or Ilumberri was an ancient cognate of today Basque Hiriberri or Irunberri that mean 'new domain', 'new town.
  8. Dale 1882.
  9. "Elvira, Synod of" in Schaff-Herzog.
  10. Hennecke noted that Legio (Leon) and Saragoza were represented, but not Tarragona.
  11. Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature sv "Hosius (1)".
  12. De Clercq, reviewing Samuel Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira in Vigiliae Christianae 29.1 (March 1975), p. 76.
  13. Robert Grigg, "Aniconic Worship and the Apologetic Tradition: A Note on Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira" Church History 45.4 (December 1976), pp. 428-433, finds that the hostility to icons, forbidding the introduction of images into the churches is based on Christian apologists' use of pagan sources denouncing the veneration of images, rather than on the prohibition in Exodus, which it fails to cite. He instances the contemporaneous apologists Arnobius and Lactantius.
  14. "Concile ou collection d'Elvire," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 70 (1975) pp 361-387
  15. Problems of the textual transmission of the canons are discussed in Hamilton Hess, The Early Development of Canon Law and the Council of Serdica (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Oxford: 2002) pp 40-42.
  16. Charles A. Frazee, "The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church" Church History 57 Supplement Centennial Issue (1988), pp. 108-126.
  17. Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur. The Catholic Encyclopedia reported that "This canon has often been urged against the veneration of images as practised in the Catholic Church. Binterim, De Rossi, and Hefele interpret this prohibition as directed against the use of images in overground churches only, lest the pagans should caricature sacred scenes and ideas; Von Funk, Termel, and Dom Leclerq opine that the council did not pronounce as to the liceity or non-liceity of the use of images, but as an administrative measure simply forbade them, lest new and weak converts from paganism should incur thereby any danger of relapse into idolatry, or be scandalized by certain superstitious excesses in no way approved by the ecclesiastical authority." A possible translation is also: "There shall be no pictures in the church, lest what is worshipped and adored should be depicted on the walls."


  • Giovanni Domenico Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio (Florence and Venice, 1758-98) vol.II.ii.1-406; reprint (Paris) 1906 Reprints the account of Ferdinand de Mendoza, pp. 57-397.
  • Jean Hardouin, Conciliorum collectio regia maxima i. pp. 247-258.
  • Karl Josef von Hefele, Conciliengeschichte I, pp. 148-192 (2nd ed. 1873) (English translation, i. pp. 131 sqq.)
  • Alfred W. Dale, The Synod of Elvira and Christian Life in the Fourth Century (London, 1882)
  • Edgar Hennecke, in Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (3rd ed), sv. "Elvira", especially bibliography.
  • Samuel Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) 1972. Power dynamics, sexual controls and the emergence of a clerical elite.
  • José F. Ubina. Le concile d'Elvire et l'esprit du paganisme // Dialogues d'histoire ancienne. V. 19. No. 19-1, 1993 pp. 309-318. Available online

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