In the study of the New Testament canon, scholars like to highlight the first time we see a complete list of 27 books. Inevitably, the list contained in Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter (c.367) is mentioned as the first time this happened.
As a result, it is often claimed that the New Testament was a late phenomenon. We didn’t have a New Testament, according to Athanasius, until the end of the fourth century.
But, this sort of reasoning is problematic on a number of levels. First, we don’t measure the existence of the New Testament just by the existence of lists. When we examine the way certain books were used by the early church fathers, it is evident that there was a functioning canon long before the fourth century. Indeed, by the second century, there is already a “core” collection of New Testament books functioning as Scripture.
Second, there are reasons to think that Athanasius’ list is not the earliest complete list we possess. In the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), I wrote an article entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”
In that article, I argue that around 250 A.D., Origen likely produced a complete list of all 27 New Testament books–more than a hundred years before Athanasius. In his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe the New Testament canon:
But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations (Hom. Jos. 7.1).
As one can see from the list above, all 27 books of the New Testament are accounted for (Origen clearly counts Hebrews as part of Paul’s letters). The only ambiguity is a text-critical issue with Revelation, but we have good evidence from other sources that Origen accepted Revelation as Scripture (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10).
Of course, some have rejected this list and have argued that it reflects the views not of Origen but of Rufinus of Aquileia who translated Origen’s Homilies on Joshua into Latin. I respond at length to this claim in the above-mentioned article, arguing that Rufinus is much more reliable of a translator than prior scholars have supposed.
The reliability of Origen’s canonical list finds additional support in the fact that it fits with what Origen says elsewhere. For example, Origen enumerates all the authors of the New Testament in his Homilies on Genesis, and this proves to be a remarkable match with his list of New Testament books:
Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them. Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant. These all dig the wells of the New Testament (Hom. Gen. 13.2).
One can quickly see that this list of authors (again in classical allegorical style) matches exactly with his list of books. Although Rufinus also translated the Homilies on Genesis, are we really to think that he changed both passages in precisely the same way? It seems more likely that they match with one another simply because they both reflect Origen’s actual views.
Our suspicions are confirmed when we compare these two passages in Origen–the list of books in Homilies on Joshua and the list of authors in Homilies on Genesis–with Rufinus’ own list of canonical books. If Rufinus were guilty of changing Origen’s list to match his own, we might expect a lot of similarities in structure between all these lists. But, that is precisely what we do not find. In fact, Rufinus’ own list differs from Origen’s in a number of important ways (which I detail in the aforementioned article).
In the end, we actually have very good historical reasons to accept Origen’s list as genuine. And if it is, then we have evidence that (a) Christians were making lists much earlier than we supposed (and thus cared about which books were “in” and which were “out”); and (b) that the boundaries of the New Testament canon were, at least for some people like Origen, more stable than typically supposed.
Origen does not offer his list as an innovation or as something that might be regarded as controversial. In fact, he mentions it in the context of a sermon in a natural and matter-of-fact sort of way.
Thus, for Origen at least, it seems that the content of the New Testament canon was largely settled.
DE AREOPAGO says
Thank you for this great article! I’ve seen the Athanasius letter being referenced by Atheists and those who peddle the “lost gospels” as evidence of the NT canon being anachronistic. I was not aware of this piece by Origen, but even in its allegorical style, it is self-evident that his idea of the NT canon is no different than hours.
Dr. Kruger, I was wondering about when christograms started to appear in NT manuscripts.
In The Early Text Of The New Testament, J Chapa says (in a footnote) that P80 has a christogram and that this “points to a post-constantinian period”. By contrast, Larry Hurtado says in The Earliest Christian Artifacts that the christograms were used with nomina sacra as early as the late 2nd century.
Are there many disagreements in NT scholarship about the time period in which staurograms appear and when they were used?
Jason Engwer says
In addition to the good points Dr. Kruger has made about Origen, we have other evidence that the twenty-seven-book canon predates Athanasius’ Festal Letter. Everett Ferguson writes:
“However, it may be noted that according to Augustine, the Donatist schismatics, who arose out of conflicts resulting from different responses to the command to hand over scriptures [in the Diocletianic persecution in the early fourth century], had no different canon from the Catholic churches of North Africa….Cresc. 1.37; cf. the definition of these in Unit. eccles. 19.51: ‘The canonical scriptures of the Law and the Prophets to which are added the Gospels, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Apocalypse of John.'” (in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], 317 and n. 97 on 317)
Athanasius’ canon probably reflects an earlier tradition. Athanasius appeals to “the church” (Festal Letter 39:2), what was “handed down” (39:3), and what was “appointed by the fathers” (39:7). In section 4 of the letter, he refers to the number of Old Testament books as something that was “handed down”, so he seems to be including the numbering of the books and their formation in a canon, not just their existence. And a wide diversity of sources writing shortly after Athanasius advocate the same canon (Jerome, Augustine, etc.). Athanasius’ appeals to the traditions of the fathers and the acceptance of the same canon by other sources writing shortly afterward suggest that the canon predates Athanasius. It’s doubtful that so many sources from so many backgrounds, in so many locations, etc. would accept the same canon in that timeframe if nobody held to that canon before Athanasius.
The issue here isn’t whether Athanasius’ canon was universally accepted. It wasn’t. But it does predate Athanasius’ Festal Letter, and it predates that letter by more than a century.
By the way, we have evidence for Origen’s acceptance of Revelation as scripture within the Homilies On Joshua itself. He closes his homilies with citations from various passages of scripture. Sometimes he includes passages from Revelation, which implies that he considered Revelation scripture, as he considered the other books he cites in that context scripture (see Barbara Bruce, trans., and Cynthia White, ed., Origen: Homilies On Joshua [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2002], n. 71 on 36, n. 38 on 58, n. 44 on 66, n. 27 on 129, 176).
Rev. Bryant. Williams III says
The critic wants to have a late date; the later, the better, e.g. Ehrman, et al who promote a low Christology, alternative christianties (lower case deliberate) which are heresies disguised as knowledge and truth.
There is the critic who will not accept the canon unless there is an official pronouncement from church council.
There is the failure to understand that the councils were only affirming what was already accepted in the local congregations.
The historical critic, form critic, source critic, though having some good observations (broken clock is right twice a day), of both OT & NT is based on assumptions that are clearly violations of the rules of logic and hermeneutics (some of traditional scholars have the same problem) and based on the evolutionary theory as applied to the Scripture.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III
Great article, but I think I will pass on the book, at $120 on Amazon, too rich for my peasant blood!!
Gheorghe Rosca Jr says
very good article! Thanks for sharing this important piece of information about Origen!
[email protected] says
We have the peshitto-syriac version produced toward vthe end of and beginning of the first and second century — the mss were extant then! The claim the Roman church gave us the Bible is bogus — ludicrous!
Kyle Dillon says
Dr. Kruger, do we possess a copy of this text in the original Greek too? Or is it only in Rufinus’s Latin translation? Thank you for sharing this; I am discussing the NT canon this week with my high school theology class, and I will be sure to mention it.
Rev. Kyle A. Dillon (PCA)
Michael Kruger says
We possess Origen’s words only in Rufinus’ Latin translation. But, as I indicated, there are no reasons to think that Rufinus has modified this list.
In your studies of 2nd century Christianity, is there any NT document for which we do not have a surviving example of a likely authoritative citation by at least someone in that time frame?
Isn’t the Muratorian Canon dated to the 2nd century – though the list isn’t exactly the 27 books?
Michael Kruger says
Yes, it dated second century. But it is not a complete 27-book list.