May 25, 2004


Lately I've been reading about Eusebius, about whom I've written before -- for whatever reason, the father of ecclesiastical history is someone whom I find endlessly fascinating, even though, as Photius, a 9th century patriarch of Constantinople put it, his style of writing is neither agreeable nor brilliant.

Specifically, I've been going through Timothy D. Barnes' book, Constantine and Eusebius, which, incidentally, is one of the works cited by Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas in her discussion of the Council of Nicea, which I mentioned here. To recap, Pagels wrote,

From that meeting and its aftermath, during the tumultuous decades that followed, emerged the Nicene Creed that would effectively clarify and elaborate the "canon of truth," along with what we call the canon -- the list of twenty-seven writings which would become the New Testament.

I'm a fan of Pagels' writings, but I couldn't help questioning this assertion. Later in the book, she amplifies on the "tumultuous decades that followed":

After listing the twenty-two books that he says are "believed to be the Old Testament," Athanasius proceeds to offer the earliest known list of the twenty-seven books he calls the "books of the New Testament," beginning with "the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," and proceeding to the same list of writings attributed to apostles that constitute the New Testament today.

Athanasius wrote the letter in question in 367 A.D.; part of the text can be found here (search for "XXXIX" -- it's the 39th Festal Letter). Pagels quotes part of the text of the letter, writing that "since heretics...

have tried to set in order for themselves the so-called apocryphal books and to mix these with divinely inspired Scripture .... which those who were eyewitnesses and helpers of the Word handed down to our ancestors, it seemed good to set forth in order the canonized and transmitted writings...believed to be divine books.

Pagels omits the preceding paragraphs of Athanasius' letter, in which he notes that the heretical works have taken the names of saints or apostles in order to fool the gullible into believing in their authenticity, and that this is why he needs to address this (he even writes, " I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted," before launching into his list).

Was Athanasius' list the earliest? In his Ecclesiastical History, in a passage completed most likely before 303 A.D., Eusebius writes, in the third book,

It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of the gospels [by which Eusebius means Matthew, Mark, Luke and John], followed by the Acts of the Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paul's epistles, and after them we must recognize the epistle called 1 John; likewise 1 Peter. To these may be added, if it is thought proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I will set out when the time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet are familiar to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and 2 Peter, and those called 2 and 3 John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.

Among Spurious Books must be placed the 'Acts' of Paul, the 'Shepherd', and the 'Revelation of Peter'; also the alleged 'Epistle of Barnabas", and the 'Teachings of the Apostles', together with the Revelation of John, if this seems the right place for it: as I said before, some reject it, others include it among the Recognized Books. Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the 'Gospel of Hebrews', a book which has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the tradition of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer in his writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as the forgeries of heretics. It follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale.

A few thoughts. First, it's odd that Pagels didn't reference Eusebius' list, which predated Athanasius'. While not as precise as Athanasius, Eusebius does spell out a canon that doesn't differ all that much (it would be nice if Eusebius would have listed the individual Pauline epistles rather than lump them together, for example). It is also fairly clear that Eusebius, like Athanasius, rejected the gnostic gospels, including Thomas -- which, of course, is the subject of Pagels' very interesting book.

In her discussion of Athanasius' list of New Testament works, Pagels writes,

It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius's order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve them, and buried them near the cliff where Muhammad 'Ali would find them sixteen hundred years later.

Yet in Athanasius' letter, or at least the portion of it I can find online, there is no order to burn heretical books, only a statement of those books which are divinely inspired. So what would those Nag Hammadi monks have been defying? Juxtaposing Nag Hammadi, where a large cache of gnostic gospels were found, with Athanasius' setting forth of the canon creates something of a misleading impression -- that until Athanasius' letter, those works were part of mainstream belief, and that, in order to fortify Athanasius' newly formed Canon, they were suppressed. I'm not sure that's quite the way it happened...

Posted by Ideofact at May 25, 2004 11:28 PM


Somehow, the image of some early church authority clamping down on (and burning?) 'unauthorized gospels' seems to haunt modern re-tellings of church history.

This may be another instance of that idea. Is there any direct evidence that book-bannings (or book-burnings) ever happened? Especially against the wishes of the common believer?

Posted by: steve h at May 28, 2004 11:23 AM