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The Gelasian Decree (Latin: Decretum Gelasianum) is a Latin text traditionally thought to be a Decretal of the prolific Pope Gelasius I, bishop of Rome from 492–496. The work reached its final form in a five-chapter text written by an anonymous scholar between 519 and 553, the second chapter of which is a list of books of Scripture presented as having been made part of the biblical canon by a Council of Rome under Pope Damasus I, the bishop of Rome from 366–383. This list is known as the Damasine List. The fifth chapter of the work includes a list of distrusted and rejected works not encouraged for church use.
Little is known of the compiler of the decree, other than perhaps he was of Southern Gallic (modern Southern France) origin.
The Decretum exists in a number of recensions of varying lengths. The longest has 5 chapters, another recension has the last 4 of these chapters, another the last 3, and another the first 3.
1. A list of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit as attributes of Christ, and of the titles that are applied to Christ
2. A list of the books that make up the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament list contains, in addition to the books of the Hebrew Bible, all of the deuterocanonical books other than Baruch with the Letter of Jeremiah. The New Testament list contains the 27 standard books: 4 Gospels, Acts, 14 letters of Paul (including Hebrews), Apocalyse of John, and 7 General Letters (of which 2 and 3 John are attributed to "the other John the elder", and Jude to "Judas the Zealot". The Decretum's canon of Scripture is identical with the "Catholic" canon issued by the Council of Trent, except for the lack of Baruch with the Letter of Jeremiah.
3. a short endorsement of the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over the other bishops, citing the authority of Peter, and a statement of the order of precedence of the 3 principal episcopal sees: Rome, then Alexandria, then Antioch.
4. a list of writings that are “to be received”: the decrees of the first 4 ecumenical councils, and the writings of the Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers mentioned in the chapter, varying from famous to obscure (for example Sedulius and Juvencus). Notably, it suggests that while Origen of Alexandria's work can be read, he personally should be rejected as a "schismatic".
5. a list of writings that are “not to be received”: many early Christian gospels, acts, apocalypses and similar works that are part of what we know as the New Testament Apocrypha. Mentioned are:
The various recensions of the Decretum appear in multiple surviving manuscripts. It is “attributed in many manuscripts to Pope Damasus (366-84). In other and more numerous manuscripts the same decree occurs in an enlarged form assigned within the documents in some cases to Pope Gelasius (492-6), in others to Pope Hormisdas (514-23), and in a few cases the documents are simply anonymous.”
“The copies of the decree attributed to Damasus are contained in four manuscripts, two dated in the eighth century and two in the ninth. Each decree is headed 'Incipit concilium urbis Romae sub Damaso Papa de explanatione fidei' [“Here begins the Council of Rome under pope Damasus 'On Explaining the Faith'”]. Each consists of three short chapters, the second of which treated 'de scripturis divinis agendis est quid universalis catholica recipiat ecclesia et quid vitare debeat' [“Now indeed the Divine Scriptures must be discussed: what the universal Catholic Church receives and what it should avoid”]. There follows a catalogue of the Old and New Testament books.”
In the Damasine recension, there is no mention of pope Gelasius. Though the date of the Roman Council is not mentioned in the Decretum, the view that came to prevail was that it was the council held in 382: “In 1794 F. Arevalo, the editor of Sedulius, started the theory that the first three of these five chapters were really the decrees of a Roman Council held a century earlier than Gelasius, under Damasus, in 382 A.D.”.
Another recension contains only the last 3 chapters and is prefaced by the sentence: “Here begins the decretal 'On books to be received and not to be received' which was written by Pope Gelasius and seventy most erudite bishops at the apostolic seat in the city of Rome”. Here the focus is on the books and the Decretum is considered to be a decretal of pope Gelasius. In the Gelasian recension there is no mention of pope Damasus and the Council of Rome.
For years, the commonly accepted view was that the Decretum Gelasianum was a decretal of pope Gelasius, containing the text of a canon of Scripture originally produced by the Council of Rome under Damasus a century earlier, and that this canon was identical with the “Catholic canon” issued by the Council of Trent.
For instance, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, states:
A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the 'Gelasian Decree' because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent.
Likewise, Catholic apologist and historian William Jurgens writes:
The first part of this decree has long been known as the Decree of Damasus, and concerns the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts. The second part of the decree is more familiarly known as the opening part of the Gelasian Decree, in regard to the canon of Scripture: De libris recipiendis vel non recipiendis. It is now commonly held that the part of the Gelasian Decree dealing with the accepted canon of Scripture is an authentic work of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century, adding to it the catalog of the rejected books, the apocrypha. It is now almost universally accepted that these parts one and two of the Decree of Damasus are authentic parts of the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D.
Some Catholic authors claim the Council of Rome of 382 closed the canon, and so the Christian Church's canon of Scripture is the "Catholic canon", defined in 382 and later repeated at Trent. Thus, the Catholic Encyclopedia:
St. Jerome, a rising light in the Church, though but a simple priest, was summoned by Pope Damasus from the East, where he was pursuing sacred lore, to assist at an eclectic, but not ecumenical, synod at Rome in the year 382. Neither the general council at Constantinople of the preceding year nor that of Nice (365) had considered the question of the Canon. This Roman synod must have devoted itself specially to the matter. The result of its deliberations, presided over, no doubt, by the energetic Damasus himself, has been preserved in the document called "Decretum Gelasii de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris", a compilation partly of the sixth century, but containing much material dating from the two preceding ones. The Damasan catalogue presents the complete and perfect Canon which has been that of the Church Universal ever since.
And Catholic Answers, which claims to be “the world’s largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices”, says:
It was the Catholic Church who determined the canon—or list of books—of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. ... The process culminated in 382 as the Council of Rome, which was convened under the leadership of Pope Damasus, promulgated the 73-book scriptural canon.
Modern scholars are generally in agreement that the Decretum is not a papal document at all but the work of an anonymous writer:
The Decree of Gelasius (Decretum Gelasianum), which contains a list of canonical books, was so called because it was formerly ascribed to Pope Gelasius (in office from 492 to 496). Various recensions of the same decree were also ascribed to the earlier Pope Damasus (366-384) and the later Hormisdas (514-523), or to councils over which they presided. But for the past century most scholars have agreed with Ernst von Dobschütz's conclusion that all the various forms of the decree derive from the independent work of an anonymous Italian churchman in the sixth century.
Likewise, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says:
According to Ernst von Dobschütz it is not a papal decree at all (whether of Damasus or Gelasius), but a private compilation which was composed in Italy (but not at Rome) in the early 6th cent. Other scholars, while accepting this date, think it originated in Gaul.
The work by von Dobschütz referred to above is a 1912 examination of all the manuscripts of the Decretum. As explained by Burkitt in his review of the work, von Dobschütz showed that:
In the course of examining the place of the Muratorian fragment in the development of the canon, Geoffrey Mark Hahnemann examined the Decretum Gelasianum and came to a similar conclusion.
First argument: Jerome is silent about the issuing of a canonical list by the council of Rome in 382. “It seems highly improbable that, if Jerome, who was probably present at the council and was certainly at Rome, had ever heard of such a pronouncement about canonical books, he should nowhere have mentioned it, or that it should not have qualified his own statements on the Canon. [...] Yet there is no mention or evidence of a change of position in the works of Jerome. The authenticity of at least the catalogue in the Damasine Decree is thus called into question.”
Second argument: the Decretum is never mentioned in the first centuries following the Council of Rome of 382.
Hahnemann's conclusion: Both the Damasine and the Gelasian versions of the text “were written after the time of Gelasius, and only later attributed to these early bishops of Rome.”
The complete text is preserved in the mid-eighth-century Ragyndrudis Codex, fols. 57r-61v, which is the earliest manuscript copy containing the complete text. The earliest manuscript copy was produced c. 700, Brussels 9850-2.
Versions of the work appear in multiple surviving manuscripts, some of which are titled as a Decretal of Pope Gelasius, others as a work of a Roman Council under the earlier Pope Damasus. However, all versions show signs of being derived from the full five-part text, which contains a quotation from Augustine, writing about 416 after Damasus, which is evidence for the document being later than that.