Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), also called Athanasius the Great,Athanasius the Confessor or, primarily in the Coptic Orthodox Church, Athanasius the Apostolic, was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria (as Athanasius I).
His episcopate (because of the importance of the see, considered an archbishopric by Rome, the Coptic papacy, or an Orthodox patriarchate) lasted 45 years (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373), of which over 17 were spent in five exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors.
Conflict with Arius and Arianism as well as successive Roman emperors shaped Athanasius’ career. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as his bishop’s assistant during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years after Nicæa, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria.
St Athanasius is the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. Up until then, various similar lists of works to be read in churches were in use. A milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books is his Easter letter from Alexandria, written in 367, usually referred to as his 39th Festal Letter. Pope Damasus I, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippo in 393 repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ New Testament list (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), and a synod in Carthage in 397 repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ complete New Testament list.
Scholars debate whether Athanasius’ list in 367 was the basis for the later lists. Because Athanasius’ canon is the closest canon of any of the Church Fathers to the canon used by Protestant churches today, many Protestants point to Athanasius as the father of the canon. They are identical except that Athanasius includes the Book of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah and places the Book of Esther among the “7 books not in the canon but to be read” along with the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. See the article, Biblical canon, for more details.
The first council that accepted the present Catholic canon (the Canon of Trent) may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393); the acts of this council, however, are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed. Pope Damasus I‘s Council of Rome in 382, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical to that mentioned above, or if not, the list is at least a 6th-century compilation.Likewise, Damasus’ commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.
In 405, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse. When these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new, but instead “were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church.” Thus, from the 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and by the 5th century the East, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the New Testament canon.
The first Christian author of any kind to advocate a New Testament canon of our twenty-seven books and no others was Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. This comes in a letter that Athanasius wrote in 367 CE over three centuries after the writings of Paul, our earliest Christian author. As the Alexandrian bishop, Athanasius sent an annual letter to the churches in Egypt under his jurisdiction. The purpose of these letters was to set the date of Easter, which was not established well in advance, as in our modern calendars, but was announced each year by the church authorities. Athanasius used these annual ‘Festal’ letters to provide pastoral advice and counsel to his churches. In his famous thirty-ninth Festal letter of 367 CE he indicates, as part of his advice, the books that his churches were to accept as canonical Scripture. He first lists the books of the ‘Old Testament,’ including the Old Testament Apocrypha (which were to be read only as devotional literature, not as canonical authorities). Then he names exactly the twenty-seven books that we now have as the New Testament, indicating that ‘in these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.’Numerous scholars have unreflectively claimed that this letter of Athanasius represents the ‘closing’ of the canon, that from then on there were no disputes about which books to include. But there continued to be debates and differences of opinion, even in Athanasius’ s home church. For example, the famous teacher of the late-fourth-century Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, claimed that 2 Peter was a ‘forgery’ that was not to be included in the canon. Moreover, Didymus quoted other books, including the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, as scriptural authorities.Going somewhat further afield, in the early fifth century, the church in Syria finalized its New Testament canon and excluded from it 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, making a canon of twenty-two books rather than twenty seven. The church in Ethiopia eventually accepted the twenty-seven books named by Athanasius but added four others not otherwise widely known Sinodos, the Book of Clement (which is not I or 2 Clement), the Book of the Covenant, and the Didascalia-for a thirty-one book canon. Other churches had yet other canons. And so, when we talk about the ‘final’ version of the New Testament, we are doing so in (mental) quotation marks, for there never has been complete agreement on the canon throughout the Christian world.There has been agreement, however, throughout most of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. The twenty-seven books named by Athanasius are ‘the’ New Testament. Even so, the process did not come to a definitive conclusion through an official ratification of Athanasius’s canon, say, at a church council called for the purpose. There was no official, churchwide pronouncement on the matter until the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century (which, as a Roman Catholic council, was binding only on Roman Catholics). But by then, the twenty-seven books were already ‘set’ as Scripture.
1. Prof. Bart Ehrman. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press, 2003. Pages 230-231.