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

  • David Brakke (a1)

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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1 Périclès-Pierre Joannou, Fonti. Discipline générale antique (IVe–IXe s.) (2 vols.; Rome: Grottaferrata, 1963) 2:71–76.

2 Carl Schmidt, “Der Osterfestbrief des Athanasius vom J. 367,” in Nachrichten von der Königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-historische Klasse aus dem Jahre 1898 (Göttingen: Horstmann, 1898) 167–203; idem, “Ein neues Fragment des Osterfestbriefes des Athanasius vom Jahre 367,” in Nachrichten von der Königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-historische Klasse aus dem Jahre 1901 (Göttingen: Horstmann, 1902) 326–48; Theodor Zahn, Athanasius und der Bibelkanon (Leipzig: Deichert, 1901) 1–36; idem, Grundriss der Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (Leipzig: Deichert, 1901) 58–60.

3 Louis-Theophile Lefort, S. Athanase. Lettres festales et pastorales en copte (CSCO 150; Leuven: Durbecq, 1955) 16–22, 58–62; René-Georges Coquin, “Les lettres festales d'Athanase (CPG 2102). Un nouveau complément: Le manuscrit IFAO, copte 25,” OLP 15 (1984) 133–58.

4 David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) 326–32; idem, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter,” HTR 87 (1994) 395–419.

5 Alla I. Elanskaya, The Literary Coptic Manuscripts in the A. S. Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum in Moscow (Supplements to VC 18; Leiden: Brill, 1994) 379–80.

6 Enzo Lucchesi, “Un nouveau complément aux Lettres festales d'Athanase,” AnBoll 119 (2001) 255–60.

7 Alberto Camplani, Atanasio di Alessandria. Lettere festali; Anonimo. Indice delle lettere festali (Milan: Paoline, 2003) 498–518.

8 Gabriella Aragione, “La Lettre festale 39 d'Athanase. Présentation et traduction de la version copte et de l'extrait grec,” in Le canon du Nouveau Testament. Regards nouveaux sur l'histoire de sa formation (ed. Gabriella Aragione, Eric Junod, and Enrico Norelli; Le Monde de la Bible 54; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2005) 198–219.

9 For a complete discussion of the transmitted text of the Festal Letters, see Camplani, Atanasio di Alessandria, 595–602; on our letter, see 503. Aragione provides a helpful summary table in “La Lettre festale 39,” 202.

10 Elanskaya, Literary Coptic Manuscripts, plates CXLI–II.

11 Phrygians or Cataphrygians: Athanasius, Orationes contra Arianos 1.3 and 2.43; 3.47; idem, De synodis 13. Meletians as “parasites”: Athanasius, Epistulae festales 41, in Lefort, Lettres festales, 62.

12 Athanasius, Vita Antonii 68; idem, Orationes contra Arianos 1.3 and 2.43.

13 Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict,” 413.

14 Paragraph 9.

15 Lucchesi, “Un nouveau complément,” 259; Camplani, Atanasio di Alessandria, 515 n. 34.

16 For similar uses of συνιστάναι as “commend” or “support,” see Athanasius, Epistula ad episcopos Aegpyti et Libyae 9, and this letter 39.16.

17 See Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1987) 82–91.

18 Epistulae festales 2.7 (which is actually no. 24, written in 352 c.e.), in The Festal Letters of Athansius: Discovered in an Ancient Syriac Version (ed. William Cureton; London: Society for the Publication of Oriental Texts, 1848) 24–25.

19 See David Frankfurter, Elijah in Upper Egypt: The Apocalypse of Elijah and Early Egyptian Christianity (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

20 Many scholars have also accepted the argument: for example, Christoph Markschies, “The Canon of the New Testament in Antiquity: Some New Horizons for Future Research,” in Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World (ed. Margalit Finkelberg and Guy G. Stroumsa; Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture 2; Leiden: Brill, 2003) 175–94, at 189–92, although he rightly criticizes my imprecise (and Athanasian) use of the term “Arians.”

21 Robert C. Gregg, review of R. Williams, Arius, JTS n.s. 40 (1989) 247–54; J. Rebecca Lyman, “Historical Methodologies and Ancient Theological Conflicts,” in The Papers of the Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology (ed. Matthew Zyniewicz; 6 vols.; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999) 3:75–96, at 84–85.

22 Lyman, “Historical Methodologies,” 95 n. 57.

23 Lyman, “Historical Methodologies,” 84–91.

24 Paragraph 32.

25 Camplani, Atanasio di Alessandria, 151–52.

26 Ibid., 82–83.

27 Camplani, Atanasio di Alessandria, 499–500.

28 For my discussions of these efforts, see not only “Canon Formation and Social Conflict,” but also Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, 100–2, and “‘Outside the Places, Within the Truth’: Athanasius of Alexandria and the Localization of the Holy,” in Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt (ed. David Frankfurter; Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 134; Leiden: Brill, 1998) 445–81.

29 Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict,” 403–4. See now also the summary portrait in Edward J. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 41; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 171–74.

30 Richard A. Layton, Didymus the Blind and His Circle in Late-Antique Alexandria: Virtue and Narrative in Biblical Scholarship (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004) 18.

31 The phrase “revolutionary anti-intellectualism” comes from Watts, City and School, 181.

32 Ibid., 177–81.

33 Ibid., 181–86.

34 Eric Junod, “D'Eusèbe de Césarée à Athanase d'Alexandrie en passant par Cyrille de Jérusalem. De la construction savante du Nouveau Testament à la clôture ecclésiastique du canon,” in Le Canon du Nouveau Testament (ed. Aragione) 169–95, at 189–90.

35 Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict,” 408–10.

36 Junod, “D'Eusèbe de Césarée,” 191–94.

37 The Coptic text is attested as follows: White Monastery manuscript MONB.AS (Lefort's Codex B) contains fragments of paragraphs 6–8 (Lefort, Lettres festales, 15–16), 11–23 (Lefort, Lettres festales, 16–21), and 32–34 (Lefort, Lettres festales, 21–22). MONB.AT (Lefort's Codex C) contains fragments of paragraphs 6–8 (Lefort, Lettres festales, 58–60), 8–24 (Coquin, “Les lettres festales,” 138–44), 24–26 (Elanskaya, Literary Coptic Manuscripts, 379–80), and 26–29 (Lefort, Lettres festales, 60–62). In addition to adding the new fragment, I have revised slightly my translation of 1995 by correcting a few errors, adding some biblical references, using American spelling, and conforming the paragraphing to that which Camplani established. I have used the following editorial signs in the Coptic text: indicates text restored in a lacuna; indicates text deleted (e.g., to correct dittography); indicates text added (e.g., to correct haplography); dots under letters indicate an uncertain reading.

38 See Isa 65:1; Rom 10:20.

39 See Isa 35:5; Matt 11:5; Luke 4:18.

40 See Luke 7:22.

41 See Matt 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 10:15; 17:25.

42 Gal 1:11–12.

43 Eph 3:2–5.

44 Eph 1:17.

45 Pss 17(18):35; 93(94):10.

46 Luke 11:1; 19:47.

47 Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7.

48 Luke 22:9–11.

49 See John 1:18.

50 1 Cor 2:9.

51 Matt 23:8–11.

52 1 Tim 2:7.

53 Eph 4:11.

54 Jas 3:1.

55 Matt 10:27; see also Luke 12:3.

56 See Gal 2:20.

57 See 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11.

58 John 6:45; Isa 54:13.

59 John 7:15.

60 Isa 1:6.

61 Ps 81(82):5.

62 See Matt 12:43; Luke 11:24; Jer 2:13; 7:13.

63 Ps 2:1.

64 John 18:38.

65 Luke 23:18, 21.

66 See Exod 14:25 in the lxx.

67 Ps 1:3.

68 See 2 Cor 11:3.

69 See Luke 1:1–4.

70 See Deut 13:1; 4:2; Rev 22:18–19.

71 Matt 22:29; Mark 12:24.

72 John 5:39.

73 Deut 4:2.

74 See Isa 40:9; 45:19.

75 See Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28.

76 See 2 Tim 4:3; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:6.

77 2 Tim 4:3–4.

78 Jer 8:22.

79 Jer 2:18

80 Ibid.

81 John 1:14.

82 Matt 22:31–32

83 See John 1:14.

84 See Rom 11:34.

85 See Rom 10:20.

86 See Rom 4:6; 11:9.

87 See Rom 10:19.

88 See Rom 11:2.

89 Rom 1:17; 2:24; etc.

90 Leforts's text reads (literally, “if it is alive”). Camplani translates “se poi si trova chiaramente.” My translation suggests that we should read . In any event, the meaning is clear.

91 Matt 25:21, 23.

92 Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.

93 1 Tim 3:15.

94 1 Cor 5:8.

95 2 Esd (Neh) 8:10.

96 Rom 16:16 etc.; Phil 4:21.

i That is, . Elanskaya suggests the influence of .

ii 2 Cor 5:10; see also Rom 14:10.

iii The photographed text is mostly illegible here. Elanskaya reads . Camplani suggests (Atanasio di Alessandria, 514), which makes more sense.

iv Alternatively, “when they (the passages) are heard proclaiming about God.”

v Isa 40:23.

vi Isa 40:26.

vii Heb 11:3.

viii Rom 7:12.

ix John 5:46.

x See John 5:39.

xi Elanskaya reads . Lucchesi suggested the reading given here (“Un nouveau complément,” 258), which is certainly correct.

xii See John 20:22–23; Acts 2:2–4; 8:17–18; etc.

xiii John 1:1.

xiv 1 Cor 2:9.

xv Elanskaya mistakenly omits a line of text here, reading instead .

xvi Isa 29:18–19.

xvii 1 Cor 2:9.

* As I note below, the text and translation that I present here owe much to Stephen Emmel and Gregor Wurst, with whom I first read the new fragment in a seminar at the University of Münster several years ago, in addition to discussing several problems with Professor Emmel in Münster more recently. The Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung supported both of my visits to Münster. I presented an earlier version of this paper to the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society; the questions and criticisms of the colleagues there, as well as those of the anonymous reviewer, helped me to clarify my points. I am grateful to these people and institutions.

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