Athanasius on the New Testament Canon

This is a subsidiary post of Ancient Lists of New Testament Books.

This letter from Athanasisus, bishop of Alexandria, written in 367, is the earliest extant evidence we have of a 27-book New Testament canon identical in contents to the one we have today.  It is also the earliest extant evidence we have of the word “canon” being used to describe a list of sacred books.  I have made certain words or phrases bold and then commented on them below.

FROM LETTER XXXIX (FOR 367.) OF THE PARTICULAR BOOKS AND THEIR NUMBER, WHICH ARE ACCEPTED BY THE CHURCH. FROM THE THIRTY-NINTH LETTER OF HOLY ATHANASIUS, BISHOP OF ALEXANDRIA, ON THE PASCHAL FESTIVAL; WHEREIN HE DEFINES CANONICALLY WHAT ARE THE DIVINE BOOKS WHICH ARE ACCEPTED BY THE CHURCH . . .

1. They have fabricated books which they call books of tables , in which they shew stars, to which they give the names of Saints. And therein of a truth they have inflicted on themselves a double reproach: those who have written such books, because they have perfected themselves in a lying and contemptible science; and as to the ignorant and simple, they have led them astray by evil thoughts concerning the right faith established in all truth and upright in the presence of God. . . .

2. But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians , some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity , by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read other books— those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books ; I beseech you to bear patiently , if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

3. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: Forasmuch as some have taken in hand ,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued stedfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

4. There are , then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book . And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans ; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next , to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

6. These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me .’

7. But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings.  But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.

The Church Fathers (2014-06-12). The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 1,000 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16 Million Words (Kindle Locations 506779-506817). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Other sources for the text of this letter:

from Christian Classics Ethereal Library

from New Advent

Comments

Note the phrase “handed down” in sections 3 and 4.  Athanasius is thus claiming nothing original or unique in his listing of books.  On the contrary, he is claiming that the books he is listing can be traced back to previous generations.

Note the phrase “delivered to the fathers” in section 3 which, of course, carries the same meaning as “handed down.”  Note also the phrase that precedes it – ”  as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” – which indicates that the origin of these books was with the apostolic generation.

Notice by the use of the phrase “delivered to the fathers” in section 3 and “appointed by the Fathers” in section 7 that Athanasius is calling “fathers” those church leaders who came after the apostles but before his own generation.  (I do not know why the translator capitalized one case and not the other; I can see no distinction between their usage.)  Note also that these “fathers” received the sacred books handed down to them, but appointed other edifying (though noncanonical) books to be used in conjunction with the books handed down (i.e., the canonical ones).  Thus Athanasius is making clear that the literature which came from the apostolic generation was unique from even the good literature that had been produced since.

Notice the phrase “the canon” which appears three times.  This list marks the earliest extant evidence we have of the word “canon” being used to describe a list of sacred books.

In using the term “apocryphal” in sections 2, 3, and 7, Athanasius is referring to the proliferation of texts since the first century falsely claiming apostolic origin (“to which they give the names of Saints” and “by the similarity of their names“).  The existence and abundance of these writings indicates the exalted status accorded to apostolic literature.  Athanasius condemns such writings on the basis of their false attribution alone; nothing else needs to be known about them to justify rejecting them.  Such books cannot be “true” (see “true” in section 2).  Section 1 is a clear denunciation of such false books.  Note also that the “fabricated books” were put forward by those who claimed false dating (“assigning to them a date” and “as ancient writings“) for the books as well as false authorship (for they knew that what was apostolic must be dated to the first Christian generation).

When Athanasius identifies the New Testament books, he does so by reference to the respective authors – all being from the apostolic generation.  The only exception to this is “The Acts of the Apostles” whose author would have been understood as Luke by anyone familiar with  Luke and Acts.  Thus Athanasius is presenting no New Testament book as being of anonymous origin.  Just because a writing does not explicitly name its author does not mean that its author is necessarily unknown.

Note that “the true books” are called “divine,” “divine Scriptures,” and “Divinely-inspired Scriptures.”  And the books handed down were those of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

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