Eliberitanum / Elvira (Eliberri)

Provincial Council of the Roman Province Hispania Baetica


The Council of Elvira (Eliberri in the environs of present-day Granada) is one of the three earliest councils to meet before the first ecumenical council of Nicaea; the other two met in Arles (314) and Ancyra (314). They are believed to have set an important precedent for the soon ecumenical councils beginning in 325 in Nicaea. Elvira is without dispute the first council to convene in Hispania and as far as can be ascertained the complete corpus of the eighty-six canons have come down to us. They are an indispensable depository of material on the state of the Church mainly in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. The exact date of the council has kept scholars busy disputing back and forth proposing various dates – 300 to 309 - all of them in the fourth century. The most persuasive arguments place the date at 306, however.

     The most distinguished churchman that we know anything about from the group of bishops that gathered is Hosius of Córdoba (c. 256- 357/358) whose exact role at the meeting is not certain or to what extent he encouraged convening the council. The fact that he was listed second in place after Bishop Felix of Accitum (Guadix), who likely had the presidence being first in rank, indicates he was held in high esteem. Hosius, furthermore, later acted as ecclesiastical adviser to Emperor Constantine I the Great and that it was he who encouraged the emperor to convoke the First Council of Nicaea (325). Hosius is credited for moving the bishops to include the homoousios in the Creed to counter the Arian position. With reputation that he gained and position he participated and was influential in the Council of Sardica (343). There is no reason to doubt that at Elvira he held great sway in deciding the agenda and decisions reached by the bishops.

     A total of nine bishops, twenty-six presbyters, an unspecified number of deacons, and all of the people omni plebeattended thus representing a broad range of cities across southern Baetica. These councils normally took place in the main church of the town and the proceedings were open to the public with first preference extended to local dignitaries as expected. The exact location of the church where they met in Elvira is not made known. A noteworthy aspect of the text of the council that some scholars have noted is the opening words of the bishops to begin the council: Cum consedissent sancti et religiosi episcopi. We are informed that this was in imitation of the protocols for the opening of a Roman Senate.

     The agenda of the bishops was to legislate on a broad array of issues most which will surface time and again in future councils, but were a pressing matter already here in Elvira. The 86 canons touched upon almost every aspect of ecclesiastical life and some external to it. Elvira reveals that in early fourth century Hispania the Church was hardly isolated from events in the overall Empire. High amd low clergy, the laity, men and women, the Sacraments are present in the canons as many situations arose that required the intervention and judgement of the bishops. Elvira was above all a pastoral council, the bishops were exercising their pastoral ministry, that times even required correcting their peers.

     Christian Initiation and the required preparation to qualify for Baptism emerged as of great importance. Some canons specifed the amount of time and qualifications necessary for catechumens to prepare for Baptism. Still other canons set forth the variety of prior criterion necessary for people to present themselves for Baptism, no one could just simply demand it. They also spoke to the role and conditions when deacons were allowed to administer baptism, especially in the absence of a bishop. Unfortunately, what we do not find is any specific description of the Rite of Baptism, however. No comparisons, for example, were made with the Arian form. On the other hand, the controversy with the Arians was in the beginning stages and would soon explode into an outright Schism. The councils after Elvira in Hispania will have abundant legislation dealing with Arianism and a perceived ‘heresy’ Priscillianism mainly present in Hispania and Gallia, the latter did not occupy any place in Elvira.

     Even though Christianity had already spread far and wide in the Empire it was still a long way from penetrating deep into Roman culture and society. So, it is hardly surprising that pagan practices were still quite prevalent in Roman society and that many recent converts to Christianity still in one way or another clinged to many of the beliefs and rituals. One can argue in fact that although formal pagan cults did disappear in short order, pagan practices were much resilient and some never fully disappeared. At Elvira as one would expect a handful of canons were dedicated to eradicate paganism among believers and the correspondening punishments for those who refused to give up the practices and beliefs. One of the most fascinating canons is number 60 where it related a situation when conflict broke out between pagans and Christians. It seems that violence broke out between them to the point that some Christians were killed while destroying pagan idols presumably at their temple. The Christian survivors then appealed to the bishops at Elvira to declare the victims martyrs for dying defending the faith. The bishops to their dismay denied the request on the grounds that these overzealous Christians had acted in a manner that did not reflect evangelization as we find in the Gospels or in apostolic times - quatenus in evangelio scribtum non est neque invenietur sub apostolis umquam factum, placuit in numerum eum non recipi martyrum. Put another way, Jesus and the apostles never resorted to violent destructive approaches when dealing with idols and the temples that housed them - not Jesus did not ransack the Temple or destroy anything sacred in it nor Paul when he was in the Areopagus debating the philosophers in Athens. To what extent this canon influenced future similar circumstances has yet to be determined fully explored by scholars. Although it was not said explicitly at the council, converesely a Christian that was killed while evangelizing did earn the recognition of martyr immediately. Canon 36 has stimulated more commentary than any other on this theme; it prohibited paintings inside the church that depict that which is adored and reverenced – ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur – that is, Christian images not pagan ones. Some have proposed it was an influence from the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, this view has been received with little positive acceptance. The bishops were concerned that the tendency to worship the images in idolatrous fashion was too strong and risky at this point. The Church will deal differentiate eventually between dulia and latria when it involved images but not here in Elvira. What is certain is that Elvira was not responding to some early widespread Iconoclastic movement, Christian images would soon find a prominent place in Christian worship space. There are also canons dedicated to those who became apostates and heretics that prescribe the requirements for their reintegration should they repent to seek restoration into the Church.

     Some canons on morality applied to bishops, priests, deacons, laity, and virgins. They cover the full spectrum of lapses: adultery, incest, fornication, divorce, and murder. The punishments recommended in many cases was determined if the person lapsed one time in a moment of weakness and repented to seek restoration to the Church and Sacraments. As is to be expected serial offenders were given the harshest punishments because they refused to recognize their sin and receive forgiveness through the Sacraments. It was also decreed that anyone who missed Mass three times would incur excommunication for an unspecified period of time. It was here that it was determined that based on the authority of Scripture that the day of Pentecost would henceforth be celebrated, anyone who refused to was declared a heretic. Laity and clergy, moreover, were not always punished the same way, it largely depended on the offense, other factors informed the final decision. Virginity and chastity were held in high esteem. The canons that spoke to various scenarios where problems did arise offered guidance on how to deal with them and with the corresponding penances. Widows did not escape the attention of the bishops either, they were to be provided for in every way. The use and abuse of money, gambling, and usury were also a matter of concern, this applied to guilty laity and clergy.

     The bishops in Elvira intended to elevate the moral behavior of the clergy and protect them from personal attacks and interaction with each other. There was no toleration expressed in Canon 75 towards false testimony of any form against bishops, priests, and deacons; those guilty were punished severly with perpetual excommunication and communion was denied even on their deathbed. An array of canons clarified the criterion required for those who aspired to ordained ministry and promotion within its ranks: Diaconate, Priesthood, Episcopal. The potential corrupting influence of money on clergy was another challenge at Elvira, some of its decisions are reflected in councils of Gaul and North Africa, even the Council of Nicaea (325). Lastly, the delicate relationship between priest and deacons with each other and their bishop was attended to; one thing is clear the authority and position of the bishop in the hierarchy was to remain inviolate.

     At the very least some twenty canons were issued to deal with various circumstances surrounding the Sacrament of Marriage to prevent any distortions thus revealing how serious it was esteemed. Predictably the bishops prohibited polygamy and incest in the strongest terms by clearly articulating out in detail the acceptable parameters as to who could marry to avoid falling into perverse relationships. There is even the rather curious prohibition in Canon 67 of any baptized or catechumen woman marry any comedian or involved in the theatre, exclusion from communion was recommended for an unspecified time - Prohibendum ne qua fidelis vel catechumina aut comatus aut viros cenorarios habeant. Quaecumque hoc fecerint a conmunione arceantur. Comedians had overall dubious reputation in Roman society and even more so in the Church. Already in Canon 62 comedians seeking to enter the Church had to renounce their vocation with the promise not to return to it, in the event they did so, they were expelled from the Church – qui si facere contra interdictum temptaverint, proiciantur ab ecclesia. The bishops were not just seeking to prevent hypothetical aberrations, they were responding to actual cases that had come to their attention where the faithful had fallen into grevious error. The bishops were also kept busy legislating on the potential marriage of believers and non-believers, the resposibility of parents in many situations was not lost to the bishops. The levity or harshness of the penalties suggested varied depending on the circumstances.

     There are few canons concerning Jews at Elvira but their importance is what they tell about the interaction of a Jewish minority in a majority Christian and pagan society. The issue of a mixed marriage with a Jew by a Christian raised concerns for the bishops. Already in the fourth century that Elvira met Jewish communities were to be found in the major urban centers throughout the whole of Hispania. Frequent encounters at all levels – commercial, legal, and personal were inevitable. Canon 16 announced that marriage between a Christian in good standing with recalcitrant heretics or Jews was prohibited. The reason given is that a society cannot tolerate a union between the faithful and the infidel; in other words, religious mixed marriages were unthinkable while each retained their respective beliefs. Parents, moreover, who were party to these illicit unions were to abstain from communion for five years – sed neque iudaeis neque haereticis dare placuit, eo quod nulla possit esse societas fideli cum infidele. Si contra interdictum fecerint parentes, abstineri per quinquennium placet. Many canons in later councils had to deal with this sensitive issue; the solution became straighforward, it was allowed if the Jew agreed to convert to Christianity, never the other way around so long as Jews were the distinct minority. It is, however, indicative that serious and frequent interaction between Jews and Christians was normative in Baetica to the point that bishops were obligated to promulgate conditions from daily interaction to something as serious as marriage. Three more canons concentrated on Jews: Canon 49 forbade Christians from letting Jews bless their crops/ harvest, anyone refusing to obey was to be expelled from the Church – penitus ab ecclesia abiciatur. In Canon 50 any Christian, clergy or lay, who ate with Jews was to abstain from communion until they made amends. The bishops did not specify the lenghth of the abstention or the emendation period – placuit eum a comunione abstineri ut debeat emendari. In Canon 78 it was determined that if a married Christian commited adultery with a Jew or Gentile, they were to willingly abstain from communion for an unspecified period. If, however, they were discovered by someone else, five years of penance was imposed, after which they could take take communion – Si quis fidelis habens uxorem cum iudaea vel gentili fuerit moechatus, a conmunione arceaturQuod si alius eum detexeritpost quinquennium acta legitima poenitentia poterit dominicae sociari conmunioni. Canons pertaining to Jews will be a fixture in almost every single future council in Hispania until the end of the Visigothic era in 711.

     Questions of sexual lapses were not limited to those involving people outside of the faith; the majority centered on the moral failures of the faithful, lay or clergy. This extended to the strongly recommended chastity of bishops, priests, and deacons who were already married. Canon 33 asked them to abstain from sexual relations with their wives and avoid procreation – Placuit in totum prohibere episcopis, presbyteris et diaconibus vel omnibus clericis positis in ministerio abstinere se a coniugibus suis, et non generare filios. Enforcing and living up to this expectation was a herculean task for all involved. Enforcing it did not have great success as many ensuing councils had to confront the issue time and again. When Hosius attempted to introduce the measures of Canon 33 in Nicaea, it was rejected as excessively harsh. Clergy continued getting married and having children in Hispania notwithstanding this canon. It was a conversation that intensified over imposing celibacy on all clergy evenly or establishing different norms for bishops, priests, and deacons. In the end, the disciplines established were not the same in the Church, East and West. Bishops, priests, and deacons were encouraged to avoid marriage, but were still allowed to do so if they desired.  Elvira hardly settled the issue; it will reemerge time and again in regional synods and even in the Ecumenical councils that will in the West require at times papal intervention. The incidence of adultery and fornication were not ignored, be it laity or clergy. These canons became an important future source for bishops in other councils who had to deal perpetually with the weaker tendencies of the flesh which they considered was a part of the fallen human condition. Serial offenders received harsher punishments than those who had a singular lapse of judgement and restraint. Penances for these offenses varied widely, some were lenient while others harsh. Fasting figured prominently in the penances imposed. The assesment is that in Elvira the penalties tended to be more often than not harsh. Future councils retained some of the harsh recommendations yet in many others they were tempered to encourage reentry into the Christian community and access to the Sacraments.

     This brief overview of the 86 canons teach us several things about the Church in Hispania at the beginning of the fourth-century. The decrees of the council do not suggest that the bishops were in the initial stages of founding or strenthening a newly established Church. There is every indication by the amount of bishops present and their geographical distribution in southern Baetica of an already rapidly mature flourishing Christian community. The fact that many canons address various situations of groups of many back grounds – Jews, pagans, and Christians betrays a great deal of interaction among them that required immediate pastoral intervention. The same can be said of the canons concentrating on relations between bishops, priests, and deacons and they with outsiders. We do not, unfortunately, have a single canon that described the particulars of the liturgy such as it was in Hispania in the fourth century. The many councils that followed in Hispania will have frequent occasions to correct liturgical details and abuses. Overall, the canons of Elvira reveal an episcopate fully engaged in their pastoral role in the life of the Church as they sought to bring it to greater spiritual and moral maturity.


QQ: Vives/Marín Martínez/Martínez Díez (eds.), Concilios Visigóticos e Hispano-Romanos, 1–15; Martínez Diez/Rodríguez, La Colección Canónica, IV/1: Hispana 233–268; Weckwerth, Clavis Conciliorum Occidentalium 185–187.

Lit.: Orlandis/Ramos-Lissón, Concilios de la España Romana y Visigoda, 25–63; M. Sotomayor/J. Fernández Ubiña (ed.), El Concilio de Elvira y su Tiempo, Granada, 2005; A. Ferreiro, Deacons in the Councils of Late Antique-Suevic-Visigothic Hispania, in: RQ 117 (2022) 33–65, at 36–39; Elvira, in: DizCon 2 (1964) 41-42 [G. Martínez Díez - P. Palazzini]; Elvira, en: DHEE 1 (1972) 544ss [G. Martínez Díez]; Elvira, Konzil von (295/314), in: LexMa 3 (1986) 1864 [G. Kampers].


Ferreiro, Alberto

April 2024


Empfohlene Zitierweise:

Ferreiro, Alberto, "Eliberitanum / Elvira (Eliberri)": Provincial Council; 306 ca. in: Lexikon der Konzilien [Online-Version], April 2024; URL: http://www.konziliengeschichte.org/site/de/publikationen/lexikon/database/83.html