Essay / On This Day

Today Athanasius Got the New Testament Exactly Right (367)

Athanasius mosaic from palatine chapel palermo Athanasius of Alexandria (who died in 373) was a marvel: He refuted the heresy of Arianism, wrote voluminously in defense of the truth, oversaw the Christian church in Alexandria, was the official calendar-keeper for when Easter was to be celebrated, and —in his spare time— was the first to write get the Table of Contents for the New Testament exactly right.

I say “spare time” because he didn’t set out to establish the canon. Instead, he was officially notifying his congregation in Alexandria about the right date for Easter in the year 367. He was just back from exile, and since he had now been exiled five different times, it must have been business as usual. There was a tradition that the bishop of Alexandria would send out the letter about Easter as soon as epiphany was over (which is why several good websites connect the letter to the remarkably precise date January 7). After taking care of that announcement, Athanasius goes on provide a list of the books that are to be read in churches and treated as having authority. Here is the key passage, from a 19th century translation:

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.

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 (i.e. Ezra and Nehemiah) 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.

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.

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.’

The process of the church’s recognition of the canon is a fascinating historical study. Athanasius had spent his life arguing with Arians about the interpretation of Matthew, John, Proverbs, the Psalms, and so on. What he and his opponents agreed on, please note, is which books were worth arguing from. But in this Easter letter, he is reminding Christian congregations that a certain set of writings have imposed themselves on the church, and are to be “accredited as Divine,” for use in public worship, arguing theology, and guiding Christian behavior.

The bulk of the New Testament was in place and in use for centuries before this, and had universal recognition all over the Christian world. But there were still some nagging questions around the edges: are II and III John good for anything? What’s with Revelation? And how about these other books that we like a lot, like a really old document called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or a really weird document called The Shepherd of Hermas? And how about the apocryphal books between the Old and New Testaments? And what about a bunch of other wacky literature that some of us like to read?

It was to iron out these details that Athanasius went ahead and made the list:

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.

Athanasius’ clear, well-argued list nailed the 27 books of the New Testament, and so became a classic: councils in the next few decades ended up producing lists exactly like his (though we can’t be sure if his writing directly influenced them).

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