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A New Fragment of Athanasius is Found: Canon and Heresy

March 28, 2010

In a recent issue of Harvard Theological Review, David Brakke announced the discovery of a new fragment of Athanasius that has recently been identified. Found in 1994 in the A. S. Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, the text is a tenth- or eleventh-century leaf of a Sahidic Coptic manuscript. In 2001 it was recognized as a fragment from Athanasius, the famous fourth-century champion of Nicene theology, and Brakke has just offered the first English translation of it in vol. 103 of Harvard Theological Review (2010): 47-66.

The text comes from Athanasius’ justly famous Festal Letter of 367. Each year the bishop of Alexandria sent a letter around to the churches throughout Egypt announcing the date for the celebration of Easter (a notoriously controversial topic in the early church), and the bishops frequently used these letters as opportunities to instruct their flock in various pastoral and theological matters. Athanasius’ letter from 367 is important because it contains the first extant listing of precisely the 27 books that are included in our New Testaments today (other lists existed previously but were not exactly identical with what we have today). As such, the letter from 367 is an important step in the recognition of the Christian canon.

The Greek text of the letter is fragmentary, but does include the important passage that lists the books of the New Testament. The new Coptic fragment fills in one of the gaps in the extant Greek manuscripts. To begin with, here is the listing of the books in the 19th century translation in NPNF (from the Greek):

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.

In the new fragment, Athanasius further describes the importance of the canon, as it rules out certain heretical groups which had arisen in the church. In short, this fragment illustrates that the canon was an important tool for responding to the claims of heretics. Here is the new fragment (taken from Brakke’s translation in HTR):

25. It is through these (passages) that the Manichaeans are exposed as impious when they hear them proclaim about God: “He created the earth out of nothing”; and also, “Who created all these things?”; and also, “We understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what we see was made from what does not exist.” In the same way Marcion was exposed as not understanding that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” especially when the Savior said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me,” and also, “Search the Scriptures because it is they that testify on my behalf.” In addition, it is the holy Scriptures that exposed the people in Phrygia as heretics when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and they gave it to the Christians. Also, the Arians and their parasites, the Melitians, were put to shame when John considered their impiety, “There is a time when the Word was not,” and rejected it with this saying: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

26. But he has said that Paul took a testimony from the apocryphal books when he says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, things that have not arisen upon the human heart.” I will answer him that this stuff is typical of contentious persons. Paul does not support his words through (merely other) words; rather, they are things written in the Scriptures. It is these (words in the Scriptures) whose meaning Paul gathered and wrote. And someone can understand this through the words of the prophets. For the things that are written in Isaiah—“The deaf will hear on that day the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind that are in darkness and fog will see, and those who have no hope among people will be filled with joy”—these are “the things that no eye has seen, the things that no ear has heard nor have arisen upon the heart of human beings.” For when did a blind person or a deaf person hope to hear or to see God [living] among human beings? . . .

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 4:39 am


    Good to hear from you about this find. How are studies going?

    John Meade

  2. Matthew Crawford permalink
    March 29, 2010 5:06 am

    Hi, John. Good to hear from you as well. My studies are going well. I’ve taken a Syriac seminar this year, which has been challenging but really great. Right now I’m trying to work through a couple of other primary texts that I plan to interact with in my thesis – Cyril of Alexandria’s commentaries on Isaiah and on the 12 Prophets. Once I finish that, I hope to get a solid outline to begin systematically writing the thesis. I’ve already written a couple of papers since I’ve been here and I hope to include parts of those in the final thesis. Are you finishing up your dissertation? When do you plan to graduate?

  3. March 29, 2010 10:26 am

    Glad to hear about this. Athanasius has always been one of my favorite authors. (My blog’s title bears that out.) 367 is a very important letter. Many overlook that fact that Athanasius, in defending the faith against heretics, appealed to Scripture alone. Sola Scriptura was not an invention of the Reformation: it was a reclaimed heritage. Great work guys.

  4. July 30, 2014 2:29 am

    Hello! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after checking through
    some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m defijitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking
    and checking back frequently!

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