A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter

David Brakke has published a signifcant essay with a fresh translation of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter:

“A New Fragment of Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon.”  Harvard Theological Review 103 (2010): 47-66.

He points to some of the implications of a “new fragment of the Coptic text” of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter:

“When I read the letter in the mid 1990s, I argued that Athanasius’s promotion of a biblical canon supported a parish-based, episcopally-centered spirituality in opposition to other forms of Christian authority, namely, the teacher and the martyr. I still think that is the case, but the new fragment does suggest that I underestimated the specifically anti-heretical intent of the letter and of Athanasius’s canon. That is, Athanasius promoted a biblical canon not only—as I argued earlier—to support one form of Christian piety, social formation, and authority in opposition to others, but also to refute the specific teachings of persons and groups that he deemed ‘impious’ and ‘heretics.’”[1]

As for what’s new in the new fragment:

“ . . . . These other passages do not, however, include brief descriptions of each heresy’s distinct false teaching as the new fragment does.”[2]

“While the beginning and end of the fragment merely extend or supplement what we already knew of Athanasius’s argument, the brief catalogue of heresies with the biblical passages that refute them in its central section is genuinely new . . .”[3]

Brakke makes an observation that supports the notion that the early church rejected pseudepigraphy/pseudonymity, writing of Athanasius:

“. . . he devotes considerable attention to two particular themes. . . . The second theme is that no ‘apocryphal’ books really come from Isaiah, Moses, Enoch, or any other authoritative figure. They all published their teaching openly, and any ‘apocryphal’ books attributed to them must be recent inventions of heretics.”[4]

This comment adds to a lot of other evidence that when early figures in the church wrongly cited extra-canonical books as Scripture, they did so thinking that the attribution to some ancient inspired prophet was genuine. In other words, had they known the document was pseudepigraphical or pseudonymous, they would have rejected it. To my thinking this adds to the evidence that there were clear notions of authorship in the ancient world, that Jesus accepted the traditional claims about who wrote the books of the OT (e.g., Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, Daniel wrote Daniel, etc.), and that the early church followed Jesus on this point.

Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter is not saying something new about the canon. Rather, Athanasius sees himself re-stating ancient tradition. Brakke writes:

“As Athanasius and others like him present the matter, when legitimate officeholders of the church (bishops) teach, they are faithfully passing on what Christ told the disciples, who subsequently informed their Episcopal successors, and so they are not really teaching at all. Athanasius claims this about himself in our letter: ‘I have not written these things as if I were teaching, for I have not attained such a rank. . . . I thus have informed you of everything that I heard from my father,’ that is, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.”[5]

Athanasius was a shepherd seeking to protect the flock from wolves:

“Although most scholars remain focused on the lists of books, the greater importance of the letter is that it reveals the role of canon formation in supporting one form of Christian piety and authority and undermining others. . . . The new fragment . . . makes clear that in establishing a defined canon Athanasius sought to undermine not only a general spirituality of free intellectual inquiry and its academic mode of authority, but also the specific false doctrines to which he believed such a spirituality gave rise.”[6]

A fresh translation of the entire letter, with a revised version of the new Coptic Fragment, follows on pages 57–66.

[1] David Brakke, “A New Fragment of Athanasius‘s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” Harvard Theological Review 103 (2010): 48.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 56.

6 replies on “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter”

  1. I think there absolutely were “clear notions of authorship in the ancient world…” but that still does not mean that those notions were, indeed, correct. The idea that Moses wrote the Torah was certainly a commonly held notion (and still is, I suppose), but it seems highly unlikely that he actually did.

    Early Christianity – much like present day Christianity – was extremely complex and diverse. The core belief in Jesus being the Messiah carried across Christianity, but the nature of how that was manifested within Jesus was debated for centuries (and is still debated to this day). Other theological individualities developed among various groups and we still see those very much in evidence today throughout Christianity worldwide.

      1. Gunner,

        I suppose I did make a very difinitive statement with no reasons to back it up. I should have said, that it seems highly unlikely to ME that Moses wrote the Torah. Why do I think this? There are many reasons, most of which have to do with the varying literary styles of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The language and writing style is not consistent, in my mind, to support the notion of a single author. As early as the first two chapters of Genesis it’s pretty apparent that two different writers are giving us their story. And, of course, there is the matter that in Deut we are given the account of Moses death and burial. How does a dead man write his own end?

        It seems very clear to me that Moses did not write these books. I think it’s a tradition that has been passed down through so many years that it is now taken (by many) to be absolute fact.

        1. RD,

          If it were merely a tradition, you might have a point. But when inspired biblical authors refer to the Torah of Moses, and when the Lord Jesus himself–who as God and man made no mistakes–refers to what Moses wrote, it’s more than just a tradition. It’s a revealed fact.

          At least, that’s the view that commends itself to those who believe that the Bible is inspired and that Jesus is both God and man.

          As for the Genesis material, it’s standard fare among those who take the view I’ve just described to acknowledge that Moses could have used material that was handed down to them. I would also observe that Moses was obviously intelligent, and there have been many many intelligent readers of Genesis 1-2 before us–that to say that evidently these intelligent persons were able to accept Gen 1-2 as they stood, without needing to posit some explanation that looks behind the evidence we actually have to explain what really happened.

          As for the death of Moses in Deut 34, it is also standard fare among evangelicals to grant that someone such as Joshua, who was recognized by the community as also being inspired by the Holy Spirit, had the authority to add that portion, and evangelicals have no problem acknowledging that Spirit inspired later writers were free to update place names and the like.

          As a follower of Jesus, I want to believe what he believed. The evidence that we actually have about Jesus indicates that he believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, Daniel wrote Daniel, etc. . .



  2. Blessings to you as well, Jim! And congrats on the anniversary of the initial meeting of your wife! It sounds like you are a very blessed man!

    I appreciate very much your comments and understand your points. I still think, though, that if you read all the books of Torah you clearly see that there is no consistent writing style that would indicate that the entire composition is the product of a single author.

    Every writer develops a kind of literary fingerprint or recognizable writing style. Dr. Mohler has a very distinct style and often uses similar phrases in similar ways regardless of the topic he is writing about. Writer Jon Meacham has a very distinct style. You do. Phrases you use when discussing God’s greatness are similar in many of your posts. I’ve been told that people can recognize my writing because I tend to use parentheses more than I probably should (I can’t seem to help it). My
    point is, the writing styles, word choices, verb and adjective usage of the various books pretty clearly reflect that multiple writers contributed to the final text. The flood story, as just one example,
    seems to indicate that two separate accounts of that story were joined together to make up the version that we have. If Moses wrote the text I don’t think it would have these “markers” that point to multiple writers.

    I also understand wanting to believe what Jesus believed. You made the comment that, being both God and human, Jesus made no mistakes. I don’t
    agree with this thinking. It seems to me that Jesus lived more as a human being than most Christians are comfortable admitting. Most Christians that I know (and certainly the Nazarene church my wife and I attend) seem to conceptualize Jesus as God in a human costume. In other words, Jesus’ humanity was merely a formality and not something that was a true reality to him. I think Jesus, as a first century peasant/laborer
    Jewish male, viewed the world through that context. And the general teaching and understanding of that time was that those OT authors did, in fact, write their respective portions of scripture, so it’s not surprising that Jesus would read the Tanakh this way. But does that mean
    he was right? Was Jesus completely correct in everything he said and thought? I don’t necessarily think so. I believe there are instances in scripture where we see Jesus’
    limited understanding within his humaness (though I do think his divine awareness grew over the years, and I think you can see this in
    scripture, too). Jesus seems to have firmly believed and taught that God’s earthly kingdom was going to break into world history at any moment. He went so far as to send his disciples out across Israel to tell folks to repent and get ready for God’s coming kingdom. He made the bold statement that before they made it to all the cities that the kingdom would arrive. It didn’t. He was mistaken.

    Initially, I’m not sure that Jesus even was aware (in his humaness) of the redemptive role he would later play. He was moving throughout the southern parts of Israel, preaching that people should repent and baptizing for the remission of sin. If he had indeed clearly understood what awaited him in Jerusalem a year later (or was it three years later? Depends on which Gospel account you read. And there I go with the parentheses again….) why would he have spent so much time spreading a message consistent with apocalyptic Judaism?

    I suppose all of that is another subject altogether and has nothing to do with whether Moses wrote the Torah. I just wanted to respond to your
    statement that believing as Jesus did about Torah authorship doesn’t necessarily make the Moses authorship factual.

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