Athanasius had a troubled and troubling life. Exiled five times during the reigns of emperors with very different political and religious views (Constantine the Great, Constantius, Julian the Apostate, and Valens), Athanasius still managed to not only stay alive, but also to re-occupy the position of bishop each time.
His genius, however, did not lie in this. He is the one who truly deserves the title of Fidei Defensor (“defender of the faith”). If he clashed with emperors, if he was envied by bishops, if he was difficult, but still respected at the same time, it is all due to his loyalty to the teachings of the Bible. In his eulogy, Gregory of Nazianzus declared: “His life and conduct form the ideal of an episcopate and his teaching the law of orthodoxy” (Oration 21:37).
Athanasius made it his life’s mission to fight for doctrinal correctness. He fought on two fronts: on the one hand, he faced the Christian heretics (especially Arianism), and on the other, he resisted external influences (pagan, Gnostic, Jewish) which, obstinately, had persisted in postponing the theological unification of the Christian Church for several centuries already. History usually emphasises Athanasius’ struggle from within the Church. However, in his fight against the Gnostics, the bishop of Alexandria accomplished an act of overwhelming importance for the future of the Bible and, implicitly, for the teachings of the Church.
It was the year 367. Only a year before, he had returned from his last exile, provoked by emperor Valens, who had ordered that all the bishops removed by Julian and reinstated after his death be removed again by the civil authorities. Although after this exile he did not leave Egypt until his death, there are testimonies that there had still been attempts to silence him, literally. One of these occurred in 367, and was performed by Lucius, one of the opponents of Arian orientation.
As a bishop, Athanasius sent his parishioners what he called “holiday letters” every year, which had a general content and announced the dates of Lent and Easter. In the thirty-ninth such letter (in 367), driven by the concern that under his jurisdiction Christians should use only authentic sacred books and reject the false ones, he included in the text of the letter the names of 27 books which he thought to be inspired and could be read in churches.
An important letter
Although there are authors who believe that the immediate influence of this letter was weak even in Egypt, much less in the more distant regions of the empire, it is nevertheless an “anticipation of the final shape of a still-developing canon” at the time. This is confirmed by later history, which also records other “lists” of the New Testament, Athanasius’ being nevertheless preferred by the Church. Shortly after, two important Christian councils (Hippo, 393, and Carthage, 397) adopted Athanasius’ list, officially ending the canonisation process.
It seems that the impact of this list on Gnostic literature was so strong that the entire Gnostic treasury, known as the Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt) library has been hidden in the ground since the end of the 4th century, for more than 1,500 years. It is assumed that the manuscripts were hidden by some Egyptian monks shortly after the year 367.
In the words of Athanasius’ letter of 367, the importance of the 27 books of the New Testament is as follows: “These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away.”
Laurenţiu Moţ is a Ph.D. associate professor at Adventus University.