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

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

December 11, 2012

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).

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