The Development of the Canon of the New Testament

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Early Christian Authorities

Ignatius of Antioch
Polycarp of Smyrna
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Alexandria
Tertullian of Carthage
Muratorian Canon
Eusebius of Caesarea
codex Sinaiticus
Athanasius of Alexandria
Didymus the Blind

Athanasius of Alexandria (born ~293 CE, Alexandria -- died May 2 373 CE, Alexandria)

This icon is taken from Orthodox Byzantine Icons. The artist and date are unknown. A larger version is available.

Saint Athanasius, theologian, ecclesiastical statesman, and Egyptian national leader, was the chief defender of Christian orthodoxy in the 4th-century battle against Arianism, the heresy that the Son of God was a creature of like, but not of the same, substance as God the Father. Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea (325) and shortly thereafter became bishop of Alexandria (328). For the rest of his life he was engaged in theological and political struggles with the Emperor and with Arian churchmen, being banished from Alexandria several times. He wrote many important works, including his major theological treatises, The Life of St. Antony and Four Orations against the Arians, and a number of letters on theological, pastoral, and administrative topics. A Catholic Encyclopedia article is online at St. Athanasius.

A clear acknowledgment of the NT canon of 27 books appears in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius. Here the threefold division of Origen or Eusebius is abandoned. As 'springs of salvation' there are only the 27 writings in which 'the doctrine of piety is proclaimed'. Over against them are set the apocrypha fabricated by the heretics. Only the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas -- besides a few OT apocrypha -- are permitted for reading by those newly received into the Church, since the Fathers have so appointed. But these writings are not "canonical". We may however infer from the concession that the two writings mentioned still enjoyed very great esteem. For a visual summary of Athanasius' opinions see the Cross Reference Table.

There is no question that the emphasis on the exclusiveness and finality of the canon is closely connected with Athanasius' total theological conception, anti-heretical and Bible-related. Over and above that it has to be observed that precisely in the years after 362, his concern was directed towards the unity of the 'orthodox' Church, and hence that for him a uniform canon was also a necessity.

It is important that Athanasius turns sharply against all apocrypha, so that the lines are drawn as sharply as possible between canonical and apocryphal writings. Whatever they may be in terms of their origin, their content or their age, the 'apocrypha' are downgraded as heretical and therefore excluded from any ecclesiastical use. We cannot establish what effect Athanasius' letter had outside of Egypt. We may conjecture that it advanced the recognition of the 7 'catholic' epistles in the East, but it could not remove the opposition to the Revelation of John. This book only achieved its firm place in the canon of the Greek Church in the 10th century.

The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (367 CE)

It was an ancient custom for the bishop of Alexandria to write, if possible, every year soon after Epiphany a so-called Festal Epistle to the Egyptian churches and monasteries under his authority, in which he informed them of the date of Easter and the beginning of the Lenten fast. By fixing the date of Easter, this yearly epistle fixed also the dates of all Christian festivals of the year. In view of the reputation of Alexandrian scholars who were devoted to astronomical calculations, it is not surprising that other parts of Christendom should eventually come to rely on the Egyptian Church for information concerning the date of Easter, made available to the Western Church through the bishop of Rome, and to the Syrian Church through the bishop of Antioch.

From Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter in the year 367:

Since, however, we have spoken of the heretics as dead but of ourselves as possessors of the divine writings unto salvation, and since I am afraid that -- as Paul has written to the Corinthians [2 Cor. 11:3] -- some guileless persons may be led astray from their purity and holiness by the craftiness of certain men and begin thereafter to pay attention to other books, the so-called apocryphal writings, being deceived by their possession of the same names as the genuine books, I therefore exhort you to patience when, out of regard to the Church's need and benefit, I mention in my letter matters with which you are acquainted. It being my intention to mention these matters, I shall, for the commendation of my venture, follow the example of the evangelist Luke and say [cf. Luke 1:1-4]: Since some have taken in hand to set in order for themselves the so-called apocrypha and to mingle them with the God-inspired scripture, concerning which we have attained to a sure persuasion, according to what the original eye-witness and ministers of the word have delivered unto our fathers, I also, having been urged by true brethren and having investigated the matter from the beginning, have decided to set forth in order the writings that have been put in the canon, that have been handed down and confirmed as divine, in order that every one who has been led astray may condemn his seducers, and that every one who has remained stainless may rejoice, being again reminded of that.
Athanasius now in the first place enumerates the scriptures of the Old Testament. He then proceeds:
Continuing, I must without hesitation mention the scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after them the Acts of the Apostles and the seven so-called catholic epistles of the apostles -- namely, one of James, two of Peter, then three of John and after these one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul written in the following order: the first to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians and then after these the one to the Galatians, following it the one to the Ephesians, thereafter the one to the Philippians and the one to the Colossians and two to the Thessalonians and the epistle to the Hebrews and then immediately two to Timothy , one to Titus and lastly the one to Philemon. Yet further the Revelation of John

These are the springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them. In them alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them...

But for the sake of greater accuracy I add, being constrained to write, that there are also other books besides these, which have not indeed been put in the canon, but have been appointed by the Fathers as reading-matter for those who have just come forward and which to be instructed in the doctrine of piety: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobias, the so-called Teaching [Didache] of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. And although, beloved, the former are in the canon and the latter serve as reading matter, yet mention is nowhere made of the apocrypha; rather they are a fabrication of the heretics, who write them down when it pleases them and generously assign to them an early date of composition in order that they may be able to draw upon them as supposedly ancient writings and have in them occasion to deceive the guileless.

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