“Since you know my will, grant free admission to all those who wish to enter the church. For if I hear that you have hindered anyone from becoming a member, or have debarred anyone from entrance, I shall immediately send someone to have you deposed at my behest and have you sent into exile.”

These are the words of Emperor Constantine the Great, written c. 328 to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius had not followed Constantine’s growing interest in ecumenism. Instead, he had insisted upon excluding from the church anyone who did not subscribe to the Creed of Nicea. Consequently, Athanasius was deposed in 335 and exiled to Trier (today in West Germany, near the border with Luxembourg). Two years later, after Constantine’s death, he returned to Alexandria, but he was removed from power again in 339 and fled to Pope Julius I, a supporter, in Rome. He returned in 346, only to be exiled three more times for various reasons. Athanasius finally resumed his bishopric in 366, which he held until his death in 373, at the age of 78.

Most of his writings defend the orthodox position against the influence of Arianism (Three Speeches against the Arians, c. 335), but he also ably defended the faith against pagan and Jewish opposition (Speech against the Pagans and Speech on the Incarnation of the Word, both c. 318). Another lasting contribution to church writings is his Life of St. Anthony, c. 357, one of the first lives of a saint that can justifiably claim authenticity. The book, an early best seller, widely disseminated information on monasticism.

Famous Festal Letter

Perhaps Athanasius’s single most influential writing, however, was his Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter of 367.

It had been customary after Epiphany each year [the Christian festival held twelve days after Christmas] for the bishops of Alexandria to write a letter in which the dates of Lent and Easter were fixed, and thus, all other festivals of the church in that year. These letters were also used to discuss other matters of general interest. Athanasius wrote forty-five festal letters; thirteen have survived complete in Syriac translation.

The Thirty-Ninth has been reconstructed by scholars from Greek, Syriac, and Coptic fragments. It contains a list of the books of the Old and New Testaments, which Athanasius describes as being canonical. The New Testament list is identical with the twenty-seven writings we still accept as canonical, and thus Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter has been regarded as the first authoritative statement on the canon of the New Testament.

Athanasius wrote the list to end disputes about such texts as “The Shepherd of Hermas” or “The Epistle of Barnabas,” which long had been regarded as equal to the apostolic letters. He also silenced those who had questioned the apostolic authenticity of Peter’s letters or the Book of Revelation. Athanasius states that “in these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”

Controversial Canon

One document supports Athanasius’s position: The famous Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library, a Greek codex of the Old and New Testaments. It consists of the same books in the same order as in Athanasius’s festal letter—which is particularly noteworthy given the peculiar order: Gospels, Acts, Catholic Epistles (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude), Pauline Epistles (including Hebrews between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy), and Revelation. The Codex Vaticanus probably was written in Rome, in 340, by Alexandrian scribes for Emperor Constans, during Athanasius’s seven-year exile in the city. It would thus predate the festal letter. Even though Athanasius was probably not far away when the Codex Vaticanus was written, one realizes that the establishment of the canon was not a sudden decision made unilaterally by a bishop in Alexandria, but a process of careful investigation and deliberation, documented in a codex of the Greek Bible and, twenty-seven years later, in a festal letter.

On the other hand, Athanasius’s view did not meet with unanimous support, not even at Alexandria. Some twenty years after that Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter was written, the Alexandrian scholar Didymus the Blind did not accept 2 and 3 John as canonical, but he fully backed and quoted 2 Peter, which still was occasionally disputed by others. Didymus also apparently regarded the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and even Didache and 1 Clement to be equally authoritative. And there were many such examples of divergence of opinion all over the Empire, both in the East and in the West. However, after the end of the fourth century, such occasional divergences of opinion have not altered the received tradition.

What might have happened had Athanasius and others not established an accepted “closed canon”? Gnostic, theologically unsound writings like the Gospel of Thomas might have crept in, diluting the historical message of Christ with what we would now call New Age elements. Or later pressure groups might have excluded writings that did not suit their purpose—Revelation, for example, or 2 Peter (a book the Syriac churches attempted to exclude). Later, Martin Luther would dearly have loved to have excluded James, which he regarded as contradicting Paul. Indeed, why not add Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of 1964, as was suggested by some modern writers, or eliminate epistles currently thought to be inauthentic?

The “closed canon” that prevails in all Christian churches forms a consensus that prevents such eccentricities. And that canon can be traced back to Athanasius, and to the year 367, which justly remains an important date in church history.

Dr. Carsten Peter Thiede is president of Reinhold-Schneider-Gesellschaft e. V. in West Germany and a member of the advisory board of Christian History.