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The Canon of Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was one of the most important figures in orthodox Christianity of the fourth century. As a young man he attended the first “ecumenical” church council, the Council of Nicea in 325 ce, called by the Emperor Constantine, in part, to resolve theological differences that were splitting the church. The creed that came out of the Council became instrumental in the formation of later Christian theology, and developed into what is now called the “Nicene Creed,” still recited in churches today. Throughout the fourth century Athanasius was an outspoken proponent of the doctrinal resolutions of Nicea and wrote numerous theological treatises that explicated his views. Athanasius became the bishop of the church of Alexandria in 328 ce. In this position, every year he wrote the churches under his jurisdiction in order to establish for them the date on which Easter was to be celebrated. He used the occasion of these letters to provide pastoral, practical, and theological instruction as well. Probably the most famous of these letters was the one he wrote in 367 ce, the thirty-ninth Festal letter, in which, among other things, he laid out for his churches the contours of the biblical canon, both Old and New Testaments. Here he indicates the books that were to be read in the churches, and indicates—both explicitly and by inference— the books that were not. “In these alone,” says Athanasius of the canonical writings, “the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.”1 This is the first time—some three centuries after the earliest Christian writings were produced—that any Christian author of any kind listed as canonical the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It should not be thought, however, that even with Athanasius the matter was finally resolved. For other Christian leaders—including some within Athanasius’s


See further, Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 230–31.

Translation by Bart D. Ehrman, based on the Greek text in Daniel J. Theron, Evidence of Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957) 118.


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