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A New Fragment of Athanasius's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon*

  • David Brakke (a1)
Abstract

Athanasius of Alexandria's thirty-ninth Festal Letter remains one of the most significant documents in the history of the Christian Bible. Athanasius wrote the letter, which contains the first extant list of precisely the twenty-seven books of the current New Testament canon, in 367 c.e., during the final decade of his life. Like many of his annual Easter letters, the thirty-ninth was fairly long, but only a small portion of the text survives in Greek.1 The Greek excerpt contains Athanasius's lists of the books of the Old and New Testaments, which he calls “canonized,” and a list of a few additional books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which he says are not canonized, but are useful in the instruction of catechumens. Most studies of the formation of the Christian canon, including very recent ones, examine only this Greek fragment and so discuss only the contents of the lists. But already in the late-nineteenth-century fragments of the much more extensive Coptic translation had been published, and a few scholars, such as Carl Schmidt and Theodor Zahn, used them to write penetrating studies of the letter.2 In 1955 Lefort published all the then-known Coptic fragments in his book of Coptic Athanasiana, and then in 1984 Coquin published another long fragment.3 These served as the basis for my 1995 translation and my 1994 article in this journal on the social context of canon formation in fourth-century Egypt.4

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Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
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