Introduction on the Date of the Council.
(Hefele, Hist. Councils, Vol. II., pp. 86 et seqq.)
Our inquiries concerning the Synod of Sardica must begin with a chronological examination of the date of this assembly. Socrates and Sozomen place it expressly in the year 347 a.d., with the more precise statement that it was held under the Consuls Rufinus and Eusebius in the eleventh year after the death of Constantine the Great, therefore after the 22d of May, 347, according to our way of reckoning.
This was the most general view until, rather more than a hundred years ago, the learned Scipio Maffei discovered at Verona, the fragment of a Latin translation of an old Alexandrian chronicle (the Historia Acephala), and edited it in the third volume of the Osservazioni Litterarii in 1738. This fragment contains the information that on the 24th Phaophi (October 21), under the Consuls Constantius IV. and Constans II., in the year 346, Athanasius had returned to Alexandria from his second exile. As it is universally allowed, however, as we shall presently show more clearly, that this return certainly only took place about two years after the Synod of Sardica, Mansi hence saw the necessity of dating this synod as early as the year 344. In this he is confirmed by St. Jerome, in the continuation of the Eusebian chronicle, who, in accordance with the Historia Acephala, has assigned the return of St. Athanasius to the tenth year of the reign of the Emperor Constantius, in 346.
Many learned men now followed Mansi, the greater number blindly; others, again, sought to contradict him, at first the learned Dominican, Mamachi; then Dr. Wetzer (Professor at Freiburg); and latterly, we ourselves in a treatise, “Controversen über die Synode von Sardika,” in the Tübinger Theol. Quartalschrift, 1852. Soon after there was a fresh discovery. Some of the Paschal Letters of St. Athanasius, which until then were supposed to be lost, were discovered in an Egyptian monastery, with a very ancient preface translated into Syriac, and were published in that language by Cureton in London, and in the year 1852 in German by Professor Larsow, at the Grey Friars Convent, in Berlin.
Among these Festal Letters, the nineteenth, intended for Easter 347, and therefore composed in the beginning of that year, had been rewritten in Alexandria, as the introduction expressly states. This confirms the statement of the Historia Acephala, that Athanasius was already returned to Alexandria in October, 346, and confirms the chief points of Mansis hypothesis; while, on the other hand, it unanswerably refutes, by Athanasius own testimony, the statements of Socrates and Sozomen (which, from their dependence on each other, only count as one), with reference to the date 347.
As we said, Mansi placed this Synod in the year 344; but the old preface to the Festal Letters of St. Athanasius dates it in the year 343, and in fact we can now only hesitate between the dates 343 and 344. If the preface were as ancient and as powerfully convincing as the Festal Letters themselves, then the question concerning the date of the Council of Sardica would be most accurately decided. As, however, this preface contains mistakes in several places, especially chronological errors—for instance, regarding the death of Constantine the Great—we cannot unconditionally accept its statement as to the date 344, but can only do so when it corresponds with other dates concerning that time.
Let us, at all events, assume that Athanasius came to Rome about Easter, 340. As is known, he was there for three whole years, and in the beginning of the fourth year was summoned to the Emperor Constans at Milan. This points to the summer of 343. From thence he went through Gaul to Sardica, and thus it is quite possible that that Synod might have begun in the autumn of 343. It probably lasted, however, until the spring; for when the two envoys, Euphrates of Cologne, and Vincent of Capua, who were sent by the Synod to the Emperor Constans, arrived in Antioch, it was already Easter 344. Stephen, the p. 414 bishop of the latter city, treated them in a truly diabolical manner; but his wickedness soon became notorious, and a synod was established, which deposed him after Easter 344. Its members were Eusebians, who therefore appointed Leontius Castratus as Stephens successor, and it is indeed no other than this assembly which Athanasius has in mind, when he says it took place three years after the Synod in Encæniis, and drew up a very explicit Eusebian confession of faith, the μακρόστιχος.
The disgraceful behaviour of Bishop Stephen of Antioch for some time inclined the Emperor to place less confidence in the Arian party, and to allow Athanasiuss exiled clergy to return home in the summer of 344. Ten months later, the pseudo-bishop, Gregory of Alexandria, died (in June, 345), and Constantius did not permit any fresh appointment to the see of Alexandria, but recalled St. Athanasius by three letters, and waited for him more than a year. Thus the see of Alexandria remained unoccupied for more than a year, until the last six months of 346. At length, in October, 346, Athanasius returned to his bishopric.
We see then that by accepting the distinct statements of the Paschal Letters of St. Athanasius and the preface, we obtain a satisfactory chronological system in which the separate details cohere well together, and which thus recommends itself. One great objection which we formerly raised ourselves against the date 344 can now be solved. It is certainly true that in 353 or 354 Pope Librius wrote thus: “Eight years ago the Eusebian deputies, Eudoxius and Martyrius (who came to the West with the formula μακρόστικος), refused to anathematize the Arian doctrine at Milan.” But the Synod of Milan here alluded to, and placed about the year 345, was not, as we before erroneously supposed, held before the Synod of Sardica, but after it. We are somewhat less fortunate as regards another difficulty. The Eusebians assembled at Philippopolis (the pseudo-synod of Sardica) say, in their synodal letter: “Bishop Asclepas of Gaza was deposed from his bishopric seventeen years ago.” This deposition occurred at an Antiochian synod. If we identified this synod with the well-known one of 330, by which Eustathius of Antioch also was overthrown, we should, reckoning the seventeen years, have the year 346 or 347, in which to place the writing of the Synodal Letter of Philippopolis, and therefore the Synod of Sardica. There are, however, two ways of avoiding this conclusion, either we must suppose that Asclepas has been already deposed a year or so before the Antiochian Synod of 330; or that the statement as to the number seventeen in the Latin translation of the Synodal Letter of Philippopolis (for we no longer possess the original text) is an error or slip of the pen. But in no case can this Synodal Letter alter the fact that Athanasius was again in Alexandria when he composed his Paschal Letter for the year 347, and that the Synod of Sardica must therefore have been held several years before.