10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #10: “Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books”

Origen

Note: this is the tenth and final installment of a blog series announced here.  The full series can be found here.

When it comes to the study of the New Testament canon, few questions have received more attention than the canon’s date.  When did we have a New Testament canon?  Well, it depends on what one means by “New Testament canon.”   If one is simply asking when (some of) these books came to be regarded as Scripture, then we can say that happened at a very early time.  But, if one is asking when we see these books, and only these books, occur in some sort of list, then that did not happen until the fourth century.  To establish this fourth-century date, most scholars will appeal to the well-known canonical list of Athanasius, included in his Festal Letter in 367 A.D.

But, is Athanasius really the first complete New Testament list?  Despite the repeated claims that he is, we have a list by Origen more than a century earlier (c.250), that seems to include all 27 books.  Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, writes:

So too our Lord Jesus Christ…sent his apostles as priests carrying well-wrought trumpets.  First Matthew sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel, Mark also, and Luke, and John, each gave forth a strain on their priestly trumpets.  Peter moreover sounds with the two trumpets of his Epistles; James also and Jude.  Still the number is incomplete, and John gives forth the trumpet sound through his Epistles [and Apocalypse]; and Luke while describing the deeds of the apostles.  Latest of all, moreover, that one comes who said, “I think that God has set us forth as the apostles last of all” (1 Cor 4:9), and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles he threw down, even to their very foundations, the wall of Jericho, that is to say, all the instruments of idolatry and the dogmas of the philosophers.[1]

This is a fascinating passage.  A reasonable interpretation of Origen’s words would leave us with a list of 27 books (he obviously puts the book of Hebrews with Paul’s letters).  There is the question of whether the book of Revelation was original to this list—some manuscripts have it, some do not.  But even if we assume it was not original, this list is remarkably complete at such an early date.

Of course, some have objected to this list, arguing that Rufinus (who made the Latin translation of Origen’s homilies) simply changed it to fit his own preferences.  However, there are few reasons to think this list is the result of Rufinus’ tampering.  On the contrary, Rufinus has been shown to be quite reliable in his representation of Origen’s positions.[2]

In addition, the manner in which this passage describes the authors of the New Testament in allegorical language—like priests blowing trumpets—is the classic style of Origen.  Origen also describes the canonical authors elsewhere with allegorical language.  He describes the New Testament authors as Isaac’s servants who help him dig new wells.  And when he does so, Origen mentions the exact same group of New Testament authors:  “Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them.  Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant.  These all dig the wells of the New Testament.”[3]

This confirms that Origen has a New Testament canon that contains books authored by these eight men.  And these eight men are the authors of the 27 books in our New Testament.  But, even beyond this, Origen seems to indicate that this list is closed and complete.  After comparing the Scriptures to a net (yet another classic Origen allegory), Origen declares that “before our Savior Jesus Christ this net was not wholly filled; for the net of the law and prophets had to be completed…And the texture of the net has been completed  in the Gospels, and in the words of Christ through the Apostles.”[4]

This language suggests not only that Origen had a 27 book canon, but that, in his mind at least, that canon was closed.  Moreover, he mentions this quite naturally in a sermon, suggesting that his audience also would have known and accepted these books.  And all of this is more than a century before Athanasius’ Festal Letter.



[1] Hom. Josh. 7.1, as cited in Metzger, The New Testament Canon, 139.

[2] For more on this topic, see my discussion in Canon Revisited, 283-286.

[3] Hom. Gen. 13.2.

[4] Comm. Matt. 10.12 (emphasis mine).

Comments

10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #10: “Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books” — 9 Comments

  1. Wikipedia. . . Tyrannius Rufinus or Rufinus of Aquileia (Rufinus Aquileiensis; 340/345 – 410) was a monk, historian, and theologian. He is most known as a translator of Greek patristic material into Latin—especially the work of Origen.

    Lets assume that in Origen’s time there was a NT Canon containing the 27 books, when did this come about and who made the decision?

    The other assumption is that Rufinus took liberties in his translation. If the NT canon is listed in 367AD did Rufinus translate Origen’s list before or after that date?

    It would be interesting to see what role of scripture had in the Early church – under persecution from Rome, and what the place of liturgy was in the worship of the early Christian communities.

  2. I was unaware of this quote from Origin’s work. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    I do see an importance difference between Origin’s and Athanasius’ lists: Athanasius spelled out the names of the books, whereas Origin only tells us the authors and number of books. Granted, it’s doubtful that Origin’s list of 14 Pauline epistles was different than Athanasius’, but it could have been. While Origin may be the first to evidence a 27 (0r 26) book canon, Athanasius is still the first to spell out the 27 books we have in our canon today.

    • …the west has no concept of the Church outside of the Levant, Orient, or Chaldea… not to mention the differences of the Monophysite and Miaphysite Churches…

      • Hello Dr. Kruger,

        Can you please elaborate “the west has no concept of the Church outside of the Levant, Orient, or Chaldea”. The reason why I ask is the majority of early Christendom is eastern.

  3. Origen’s list was a desention, never confirmed in council, just a Jerome is a desention when he referred to the canon- Origen and Jerome were both Hebrew scholars, and preferred the Jamnian council’s list of OT canon, Luther’s canon is a desention as he too preferred the Hebrew text, but to Luther’s defense it is not known that he knew that some of the canon was never originally written in Hebrew but, Greek, neither Origen nor Jerome have this luxury… These Heterodox views of the Church as an extension of the Bible are a plague that must be rooted out… The Bible was written in the Church, by the Church, from the Church…

  4. also… really quickly… your premise is that the earlier list of Origen trumps that of Athanasius, if time is the discerning factor; then by all means the Shepherd of Hermas should be in the canon and the Apocalypse of St. John should be out, as this was the first century view… Time is not a factor; authority is…