Athanasius on the Canon

Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 296-373) was the most prominent theologian of the fourth century, and he served as bishop of Alexandria. His list of canonical books was published as part of his Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle of A.D. 367. After the list he declares, “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.”

From his Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle, A.D. 367.

The Greek text here is according to Johannes Kirchhofer, Quellensammlung zur Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons bis auf Hieronymus (Zürich: Meyer and Zeller, 1844), pp. 7-9. The English translation is based upon the version published in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 4 (New York: 1892), pp. 550-5, slightly revised.

Περὶ τῶν θείων γραφῶν. Concerning the Divine Scriptures
Ἀλλ' ἐπειδὴ περὶ μὲν τῶν αἱρετικῶν ἐμνήσθημεν, ὡς νεκρῶν· περὶ δὲ ἡμῶν ὡς ἐχόντων πρὸς σωτηρίαν τὰς θείας γραφάς· καὶ φοβοῦμαι μήπως, ὡς ἔγραψεν Κορινθίοις Παῦλος, ὀλίγοι τῶν ἀκεραίων ἀπὸ τῆς ἁπλότητος καὶ τῆς ἁγιότητος πλανηθῶσιν, ἀπὸ τῆς πανουργίας τινῶν ἀνθρώπων, καὶ λοιπὸν ἐντυγχάνειν ἑτέρους ἄρξωνται, τοῖς λεγομένοις ἀποκρύφοις, ἀπατώμενοι τῇ ὁμωνυμίᾳ τῶν ἀληθῶν βιβλίων· παρακαλῶ ἀνέχεσθαι εἰ περὶ ὧν ἐπίστασθε, περὶ τούτων κἀγὼ μνημονεύων γράφω, διάτε τὴν ἀνάγκην καὶ τὸ χρήσιμον τῆς ἐκκλησίας. 2. But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read other books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.
Μέλλων δὲ τούτων μνημονεύειν, χρήσομαι πρὸς σύστασιν τῆς ἐμαυτοῦ τόλμης τῷ τύπῳ τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ Λουκᾶ· λέγων καὶ αὐτός· Ἐπειδή περιτινες ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι ἑαυτοῖς τὰ λεγόμενα ἀπόκρυφα, καὶ ἐπιμῖξαι ταῦτα τῇ θεοπνεύστῳ γραφῇ, περὶ ἧς ἐπληφορήθημεν, καθὼς παρέδοσαν τοῖς πατράσιν οἱ ἀπ' ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου· ἔδοξεν κἀμοί προτραπέντι παρὰ γνησίων ἀδελφῶν, καὶ μαθόντι ἄνωθεν ἑξῆς ἐκθέσθαι τὰ κανονιζόμενα καὶ παραδοθέντα πιστευθέντα τε θεῖα εἶναι βιβλία· ἵνα ἕκαστος· εἰ μὲν ἠπατήθη, καταγνῷ τῶν πλανησάντων· ὁ δὲ καθαρὸς διαμείνας, χαίρῃ πάλιν ὑπομιμνησκόμενος. 3. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the evangelist, saying on my own account, Forasmuch as some have taken in hand to reduce into order for themselves the books termed Apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the Fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as divine; to the end that anyone who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led them astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.
Ἔτι τοίνυν τῆς μὲν παλαιᾶς διαθήκης βιβλία τῷ ἀριθμῷ τὰ πάντα εἰκοσιδύο· τοσαῦτα γάρ, ὡς ἤκουσα, καὶ τὰ στοιχεῖα τὰ παρ' Ἑβραίοις εἶναι παραδέδονται. τῇ δὲ τάξει καὶ τῷ ὀνόματι ἔστιν ἕκαστον οὕτως· πρῶτον Γένεσις, εἶτα Ἔξοδος, εἶτα Λευιτικόν, καὶ μετὰ τοῦτο Ἀριθμοί, καὶ λοιπόν τὸ ∆ευτερονόμιον· ἑξῆς δὲ τούτοις ἐστὶν Ἰησοῦ ὁ τοῦ Ναυῆ, καὶ Κριταί. καὶ μετὰ τοῦτο ἡ Ρούθ. καὶ πάλιν ἑξῆς Βασιλειῶν τέσσαρα βιβλία· καὶ τούτων τὸ μὲν πρῶτον καὶ δεύτερον εἰς ἓν βιβλίον ἀριθμεῖται· τὸ δὲ τρίτον καὶ τέταρτον ὁμοίως εἰς ἕν· μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα Παραλειπόμενα α καὶ β, ὁμοίως εἰς ἓν βιβλίον ἀριθμούμενα, εἶτα Ἔσδρας α καὶ β ὁμοίως εἰς ἕν, μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα βίβλος Ψαλμῶν, καὶ ἑξῆς Παροιμίαι. εἶτα Ἐκκλησιαστής, καὶ Ἆσμα ᾀσμάτων. πρὸς τούτοις ἔστι καὶ Ἰώβ, καὶ λοιπόν Προφῆται· οἱ μὲν δώδεκα εἰς ἓν βιβλίον ἀριθμούμενοι. εἶτα Ἡσαΐας, Ἱερεμίας, καὶ σὺν αὐτῷ Βαρούχ, Θρῆνοι καὶ ἐπιστολή, καὶ μετ' αὐτὸν Ἐζεκιὴλ καὶ ∆ανιήλ. ἄχρι τούτων τὰ τῆς παλαιᾶς διαθήκης ἵσταται. 4. There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second 1 being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth 2 as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second 3 are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the Twelve [minor prophets] being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations and the Epistle, one book; afterwards Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.
Τὰ δὲ τῆς καινῆς πάλιν οὐκ ὀκνητέον εἰπεῖν· ἔστι γὰρ ταῦτα. εὐαγγέλια τέσσαρα· κατὰ Ματθαῖον, κατὰ Μάρκον, κατὰ Λουκᾶν, κατὰ Ἰωάννην. εἶτα μετὰ ταῦτα Πράξεις ἀποστόλων, καὶ ἐπιστολαὶ καθολικαὶ καλούμεναι τῶν ἀποστόλων ἑπτά· οὕτως μὲν α. [Ἰακώβου] Πέτρου δὲ β. εἶτα Ἰωάννου γ. καὶ μετὰ ταύτας Ἰούδα α. πρὸς τούτοις Παύλου ἀποστόλου εἰσὶν ἐπιστολαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, τῇ τάξει γραφόμεναι οὕτως· πρώτη πρὸς Ρωμαίους· εἶτα πρὸς Κορινθίους δύο. καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα πρὸς Γαλάτας. καὶ ἑξῆς πρὸς Ἐφεσίους. εἶτα πρὸς Φιλιππησίους καὶ πρὸς Κολοσσαεῖς. καὶ μετὰ ταῦτας πρὸς Θεσσαλονικεῖς δύο· καὶ ἡ πρὸς Ἑβραίους· καὶ εὐθὺς πρὸς μὲν Τιμόθεον δύο· πρὸς δὲ Τίτον μία. καὶ τελευταία ἡ πρὸς Φιλήμονα. καὶ πάλιν Ἰωάννου Ἀποκάλυψις. 5. Again, it is not tedious to speak of the books of the New Testament. These are: the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. After these, The Acts of the Apostles, and the seven epistles called Catholic: of James, one; of Peter, two, of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, written in this order: the first, to the Romans; then, two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians, then, to the Philippians; then, to the Colossians; after these, two of the Thessalonians; and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.
Ταῦτα πηγαὶ τοῦ σωτηρίου, ὥστε τὸν διψῶντα ἐμφορεῖσθαι τῶν ἐν τούτοις λογίων· ἐν τούτοις μόνοις τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας διδασκαλεῖον εὐαγγελίζεται. μηδεὶς τούτοις ἐπιβαλλέτω, μη δὲ τούτων ἀφαιρείσθω τι. περὶ δὲ τούτων ὁ κύριος Σαδδουκαίους μὲν ἐδυσώπει, λέγων· πλανᾶσθε μὴ εἰδότες τὰς γραφὰς. τοῖς δὲ Ἰουδαίοις παρῄνει· ερευνᾶτε τὰς γραφάς· ὅτι αὐταί εἰσι αἱ μαρτυροῦσαι περὶ ἐμοῦ. 6. These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures. And he reproved the Jews, saying, Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.
Ἀλλ' ἕνεκά γε πλείονος ἀκριβείας προστίθημι καὶ τοῦτο γράφων ἀναγκαίως· ὡς ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ ἕτερα βιβλία τούτων ἔξωθεν· οὐ κανονιζόμενα μέν τετυπωμένα δὲ παρὰ τῶν πατέρων ἀναγινώσκεσθαι τοῖς ἄρτι προσερχομένοις καὶ βουλομένοις κατηχεῖσθαι τὸν τῆς εὐσεβείας λόγον· Σοφία Σολομῶντος, καὶ Σοφία Σιρὰχ, καὶ Ἑσθὴρ, καὶ Ἰουδὶθ, καὶ Τωβίας, καὶ ∆ιδαχὴ καλουμένη τῶν ἀποστόλων, καὶ ὁ Ποιμήν. Καὶ ὅμως ἀγαπητοί, κἀκείνων κανονιζομένων καὶ τούτων ἀναγινωσκομένων οὐδαμοῦ τῶν ἀποκρύφων μνήμη· ἀλλὰ αἱρετικῶν ἐστιν ἐπίνοια, γραφόντων μὲν ὅτε θέλουσιν αὐτά· χαριζομένων δὲ καὶ προστιθέντων αὐτοῖς χρόνους· ἵνα ὡς παλαιὰ προφέροντες, πρόφασιν ἔχωσιν ἀπατᾶν ἐκ τούτου τοὺς ἀκεραίους. 7. But for the sake of greater exactness I add this also, writing under obligation, as it were. There are other books besides these, indeed not received as canonical but having been appointed by our fathers to be read to those just approaching and wishing to be instructed in the word of godliness: Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being merely read; nor is there any place a mention of secret writings. But such are the invention of heretics, who indeed write them whenever they wish, bestowing upon them their approval, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as if they were ancient writings, they find a means by which to lead astray the simple-minded.


1. i.e. First and Second Samuel.

2. i.e. First and Second Kings.

3. i.e. Ezra and Nehemiah.

Christopher Wordsworth on the Canon of Athanasius

The following paragraphs on the Canon of Athanasius and its significance are taken from A Church History by Chr. Wordsworth, D.D., Bishop of Lincoln, vol. II (second ed. New York: James Pott & Co., 1887), pp. 219-21.

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In the spring of A.D. 367, Athanasius put forth a Festal Letter, 1 in which he says, “Since we have spoken of the heretics as dead, and of ourselves as having the divine Scriptures for eternal life; and since some may be beguiled from their simplicity by the wiles of certain men, and may read other writings which are called Apocryphal, 2 and which ought not to be mingled with the Scripture which is inspired by God, it seems good to me to set down those Books which are known by us to be divine.” 3 He then specifies the Books of the Old Testament, twenty-two in number, 4 and the Books of the New Testament. These are precisely the same as in our own Canon of Scripture. He designates the Epistle to the Hebrews as an Epistle of St. Paul. “These,” he adds, “are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsteth may be filled with their oracles. In these alone is the doctrine of piety preached; let no one add to them, or take anything from them.”

The Scriptural Canon of Athanasius corresponds with that of the Council of Laodicea (Canon 6o), with the exception of the Apocalypse, which Athanasius specifies as a work of St. John, but which is not mentioned by the Council of Laodicea. He then adds that there is a third class of books, 5 not “indeed received into the Canon, but which our Fathers have decreed should be read by those who desire to be instructed in the words of piety. Such are the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the 'doctrine,' as they call it, 'of the Apostles,' and the Shepherd” (of Hermas).

This statement of Athanasius on the Canon of Holy Scripture is very important, coming as it does from one who had been about forty years a Bishop of the Church, and was in communion with all the faithful in the East and West. It may be said that it represents the judgment of the Church Catholic in the fourth century on the question, What Books are to be received as Canonical, i. e. as Divinely-inspired Scripture? And it justifies the course taken by the Church of England in this fundamental matter, in opposition to the Church of Rome, which in the fourth Session of the Council of Trent, on the 8th of April, 1546, affirmed that such books as Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Maccabees I. and II. are to be received as Canonical (i. e. as equally inspired with those of Moses and the Prophets, which our Lord received as such). Thus the Church of Rome does what Athanasius forbade, when he said, “Let no man add to these Canonical Books, or take anything from them.”

1. These “Festal Letters” were issued in accordance with a decree of the Nicene Council that the Bishop of Alexandria should put forth annually a pastoral encyclic to his own people and the Bishop of Rome, announcing the day on which Lent would begin and Easter would fall.

2. I.e. strictly so; not ecclesiastical, which are read in the Church, such as Tobit, Judith, &c. See Hooker, V. xx. 7.

3. Ed. Bened. p. 767.

4. On this mode of reckoning the Canonical Books of the Old Testament, and on this Catalogue of Athanasius, see Bishop Cosin, Scholastical History of the Canon, lvi. vol. iii. p. 57, ed. Oxf. 1849, and Dr. Westcott on the Canon, p. 520.

5. Which we call Apocryphal, but which would be more correctly termed Ecclesiastical, as read in the Church “for example of life and instruction of manners.” Art. VI. of the Church of England ; above, p. 203.