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Athanasius and the Canon in Egypt

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  • M.W. Grondin
    From Griggs, C. Wilfred, Early Egyptian Christianity: From its Origins to 451 C.E. (E.J.Brill, 1991, pp. 173-174, footnotes omitted): When Athanasius returned
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 2011
      From Griggs, C. Wilfred, Early Egyptian Christianity: From its Origins
      to 451 C.E. (E.J.Brill, 1991, pp. 173-174, footnotes omitted):
      When Athanasius returned to Alexandria in 366 at the end of his fifth exile,
      he was sufficiently secure from his enemies that he was able to spend his
      last years in office. His own sense of security is best seen in the Festal Letter
      he wrote for 367 (Festal Letter Number 39, though many early ones are either
      missing or were not written. The letters are numbered according to the years
      of his bishopric.) In this letter Athanasius becomes the arbiter of doctrinal
      limitation and orthodoxy on a grand scale, a move that he most likely could
      not have made with success during the early decades of his episcopacy.
      The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius contains the list of books deemed
      canonical by the bishop, but the list is preceded by a warning to the local
      Egyptian Christians to avoid apocryphal works which were apparently
      popular among them. Specific names of such books are not given, but
      Athanasius notes that some were "led astray by the similarity of their names
      with the true books." The contents of the apocryphal books are likewise
      not given specifically, but are said to be a mixture of scripture and speculative
      thought. Those who read the apocryphal books are not named, but monks
      are implied:
          [Greek omitted]
          And I am afraid lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, a few of the
          uncontaminated ones should be led astray from their simplicity and their
          purity by the knavery of men, and thereafter begin to read other books,
          those called apocryphal, being deceived by their use of the same names
          as the true books. ...
      Following this warning and appeal, Athanasius gives what is now the earliest
      extant list of the canonical New Testament writings (following a similar listing
      of the Old Testament books.) In his reference to apocryphal books, two major
      items stand out: (1) there is an abundance of writings still circulating in Egypt
      which, in name and apparent similarity of form to the canonized works, claim
      to be of equal authority and antiquity with the accepted writings. (2) the so-called
      apocryphal works contain doctrines or rituals which Athanasius recognizes will
      be appealing to many Christians, potentially providing as great a threat to his
      control over Egyptian Christianity as did his competitors. Part of the appeal of
      such writings is contained in the term apocrypha. The word means hidden or
      concealed (and does not imply doubt as to accuracy or authenticity), and
      continues a tradition of the secrets or mysteries of Christianity known only to
      initiated faithful members. This tradition of apocryphal teachings can be seen
      in the New Testament and has been shown to occur in Egyptian Christianity
      from its origins down to the time of Athanasius. The bishop is not attacking a
      new heresy or movement in the letter. He is attempting to eradicate an aspect
      of the faith as old as the first appearance of Christianity in Egypt.
      ... one notes that generally the language of the letter is not harsh, but rather
      explanatory and entreating in tone. Athanasius had spent his third exile from
      356-362 with the monks, and he suffered two further exiles after that, from
      362-363 and from 365-366. Only during the last seven years of his life could
      Athanasius enjoy the freedom to bring the monastic movement into greater
      doctrinal unity with the Church, and the Festal Letter for 367 may mark the
      beginning of an attempt to bring those who had sympathized with him in the
      Arian controversy also into doctrinal harmony on other issues.
      [end excerpt]
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