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Harvard Divinity School

Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria's


Thirty-Ninth "Festal Letter"
Author(s): David Brakke
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 395-419
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1509966 .
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Canon

Fonnation

and

Social

Fourth-Century Egypt:
Alexandna's

Thirty-Ninth

Conflict

Athanasius
Festal

in
of
Letter*

David Brakke
IndianaUniversity

tn histories of the formationof the Christianbiblical canon, the thirtylninth Festal Letter of Athanasiusof Alexandria,writtenfor Easter367,
holds a justifiably prominentplace.1 Not only is this letter the earliest
extant Christiandocumentto list precisely the twenty-sevenbooks that
eventuallyformedthe generallyacceptedcanonof the New Testament,but
Athanasiusis also the first Christianauthorknownto have appliedthe term
*Earlierversionsof this articlewerereadat meetingsof the Society of Biblical Literature
andthe Institutefor Biblical andLiteraryStudiesof IndianaUniversity.I am gratefulto the
participantsin those sessions andto JamesAageson,DavidFrankfurter,
J. AlbertHarrill,and
J. SamuelPreusfor suggestions,criticisms,andbibliographicadvice.Completionof the paper
was madepossible by a summerresearchgrantfrom IndianaUniversity.
lOnlya portionof Athanasius'sGreektext survivesandhas beeneditedby Pericles-Pierre
Joannou,Fonti: Discipline generale antique (IVe-IXe s.) (2 vols.; Rome:Grottaferrata,
1963)
2. 71-76. Muchof the rest of the letter survivesin fragmentsof its Coptictranslationpublishedby Louis-TheophileLefort,S. Athanase: Lettres festales et pastorales en copte (CSCO
150;Louvain:Durbecq,1955) 16-22, 58-62, andby Rene-GeorgesCoquin,"Leslettresfestales
d'Athanase(CPG2102). Un nouveaucomplement:Le manuscritIFAO, copte 25," OLP15
(1984) 133-58. Becausethereis notyet a criticaleditionthatbringstogetherall this evidence,
I shallcite the editionin whichthepassageto whichI referappears.Translationsfromancient
sourcesare my own unless otherwisenoted;an Englishtranslationof the thirty-ninthFestal
Letter thatintegratesall the publishedfragmentsappearsin DavidBrakke,Athanasius and the
Politics of Asceticism (OxfordEarlyChristianStudies;Oxford:Clarendon,1995) 326-32.
HTR 87:4 (1994) 395-419

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HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

"canonized"(K0CVOVI4O[1V0C)specifically to the books that made up his


Old and New Testaments.Athanasius'scanonis explicitly closed: "Inthese
books alone,"the bishopdeclares,"theteachingof piety is proclaimed.'Let
no one add to or subtractfromthem'(LXX Deut 12:32)."2The significance
of this documentgoes beyondthese formaland terminologicalissues, however, for the extantfragmentsof the letterprovidea glimpseinto the social
and political factorsthat accompaniedthe attemptedformationof a closed
canon of the Bible in one ancientChristiansetting. Christianityin fourthcenturyEgyptwas characterizedby diverseand conflictingmodes of social
identityand spiritualformation:study groupsled by charismaticteachers,
Melitiancommunitiescenteredaroundthe venerationof martyrs,and the
emerging structureof imperial orthodoxyheaded by Athanasiusall presentedthemselvesas legitimateexpressionsof Christianpiety. Withinthis
complex setting, the formationof a biblical canon with a propermode of
was an importantstep in the formationof an official catholic
interpretation
churchin Egypt with its parish-centeredspirituality.
Most histories of the formationof the Christianbiblical canon have
concernedthemselvesnot with these social factors,but with lists and criteria.3That is, one studies the formationof the New Testamentcanon by
asking where, at what time, and by what criteriaearly Christiansconsidered certainwritingsauthoritative,includedsome of these in their canons,
and rejected others. Few scholars have studied the social and political
implicationsof the rise and restrictionof Christianscripturesin particular
ancientcontexts.4Whattheologicalandpoliticaleffects did canonshave in
variousearly Christiancommunities?Whatsocial institutionsand modes of
authoritydid canons supportand undermine?What were the practicaland
spiritualgoals pursuedby leaders who promulgatedcanons?To be sure,
much of what survives from antiquity the Muratorianfragment,for example provideslittle evidence with which to answersuch questions,but
in many cases it appearsthat contemporaryscholarsare motivatedprimarily by their need to explain why modernChristianBibles containonly a
limitednumberof books out of the varietyof ancientJewishand Christian
literature.
2Athanasius Epistulaefestales 39, in Joannou, Fonti, 2. 75 lines 3-6.
3Significant recent surveys include Bruce M. Metzger, TheCanonof the New Testament:
andSignificance(Oxford: Clarendon, 1987); and Lee MartinMcDonald,
Its Origin,Development,
TheFormationof the ChristianBiblical Canon(Nashville: Abingdon, 1988).
4Studies of this kind include Hans von Campenhausen, The Formationof thwChristian
Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972); Elaine H. Pagels, "Visions, Appearances, and Apostolic
Authority: Gnostic and Orthodox Traditions," in Barbara Aland, ed., Gnosis:Festschriftfur
HansJonas(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978) 415-30; and Helmut Koester, "Writings
and the Spirit: Authority and Politics in Ancient Christianity," HTR84 (1991) 353-72.

DAVID BRAKKE

397

Most studiesof Athanasius'sthirty-ninthFestal Letterhave also focused


on lists and criteria,althoughthe survivingfragmentsproviderich material
for broadersocial questions.SAdmittedly,Athanasius'slists are themselves
fascinating,for in additionto an Old and New Testament,the bishopitemizes seven books that are not "canonized,"but are to be used for the instructionof catechumens:the Wisdomof Solomon, Sirach,Esther,Judith,
Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherdof Hermas.6Moreover,discrepancies
and minor oddities emerge when one comparesthe lists in the Greekand
Coptic versions.7Athanasiusalso articulatesspecific criteriafor discerning
what is in his canon. The canonicalbooks, which he calls "divine"(ola)
or "divinely inspired"(oozvcsOa), have been "handeddown to our
ancestors"by "thosewho were eyewitnessesfrom the beginningand assistants of the Word"(Luke 1:2) that is, they originatedin apostolic times
andhave beenusedcontinuouslysince then.8Otherwritings,howeveruseful,
are not part of the Bible. These lists and criteria,howeverintriguing,will
not be the focus of this article, but they do clarify that in examining
Athanasius'sletterone merelystudiesa single step in canonformation the
restrictionof canonical status to certain writings out of a larger set of
authoritativeliteraturewhich is called scripture.In this case, I am not
dealingwith the equallyimportantprocessof elevatingcertainworksto the
statusof scripture.9By the categoriesof the modernstudy of religion, the
Didache and othersuch books were still authoritativeand therefore"scripture"for Athanasius,althoughthey were not partof his primarycanon;in
sSignificantstudies that make use of the entire text as it is knownin Greekand Coptic
includeCarl Schmidt,"DerOsterfestbriefdes Athanasiusvom J. 367," in Nachrichtenvon
der Konigl. Gesellschaftder Wissenschaftenzu Gottingen,Philologisch-historischeKlasse,
aus demJahre 1898 (Gottingen:Horstmann,1898) 167-203; idem, "Einneues Fragmentdes
Osterfestbriefesdes Athanasiusvom Jahre367,"in Nachrichtenvonder Konigl. Gesellschaft
derWissenschaften
zuGottingen,Philologisch-historische
Klasse,ausdemJahre1901(Gottingen:
Horstmann,1902)326-48; TheodorZahn,AthanasiusundderBibelkanon(Erlangen/Leipzig:
Deichert,1901)1-36; idem,GrundrissderGeschichtedes neutestamentlichen
Kanons(Leipzig:
Deichert,1901)58-60; MartinTetz,"Athanasiusunddie EinheitderKirche:Zurokumenischen
Bedeutungeines Kirchenvaters,"
ZThK81 (1984) 205-7; and AlbertoCamplani,Le lettere
festali di Atanasiodi Alessandria:Studiostorico-critico(Rome:C.I.M., 1989) 275-79.
6AthanasiusEpistulaefestales 39, in Joannou,Fonti, 2. 75 line 14-76 line 2.
7See the extendeddiscussions of the position of Hebrewsand the odd referenceto the
Didachein the Copticversionin Schmidt,"Osterfestbrief,"
184-93; idem,"NeuesFragment,"
336-40; Zahn,Athanasius,5-13.
8AthanasiusEpistulaefestales 39, in Joannou,Fonti, 2. 71 line 13; 72 lines 13-21.
9Forthe distinctionbetween scriptureand canon, see William A. Graham,"Scripture,"
Encyclopediaof Religion 13 (1987) 133-45, esp. 142-43; for its applicationto the developmentof the ChristianBible, see AlbertC. Sundberg,"Canonof the NT,"lDBSup136-40; and
idem,"Towardsa RevisedHistoryof the New TestamentCanon,"StEv4 (1968) 452-61, esp.
453-54.

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Athanasius'scategories,such instructionalbooks were read (OCVOC7IVOOKO[1VOC),but not canonized(KavovlCovoc).10


My goal in this articleis not to studythese categories,but to understand
why Athanasiuscreatedthemin the first place;I shall investigatewhat sort
of Christianityhe sought to form and what sorts to undermine.Modern
scholars sometimesassume that Athanasius'sdefinitionof the canon was
aimed at the desertmonasteriesin particular,llbut there are no references
to asceticsin the knownfragmentsof the letter.Instead,one mustplace the
Festal Letter of 367 withinAthanasius'scareerand reconstructits situation
from its own rhetoric.In 366, Athanasiusreturnedfrom his fifth and, as it
turnedout, final exile from his see in Alexandria;only seven years later,
in 373, he died. Scholarshave traditionallyassumed or perhapshopedthat in the interveningyears Athanasiusenjoyed relativepeace, presiding
over a unitedchurchin Egyptand watchingthe Nicene faith grow stronger
underthe intellectualleadershipof the Cappadocianfathers.Unfortunately
for Athanasius,this was not the case. Startingwith this letter, writtenin
367, Athanasiuswrotea series of Easterlettersthatdealt with vexing problems of churchorder:the biblical canon, irregularordinationsand episcopal consecrations,and abuses at martyrtombs. These letters reveal that,
even in his decliningyears, Athanasiusstill had to work at establishingan
Egyptianchurchwith the unity and uniformitythathe desired.Throughout
these letters Athanasiusstrikes out at a variety of opponents:persons he
calls Arians,Melitians,Jews, and simply heretics, all of whom appearin
this letter on the biblical canon. Two groups are especially prominentin
Athanasius'srhetoricin the thirty-ninthFestal Letter: "teachers,"particularly Arians, who accordingto Athanasiusinvent their own ideas rather
than submitto biblical truth,and Melitians,who accordingto Athanasius
publish false apocryphalbooks to deceive unsuspectingChristians.
These terms teachersand Melitians providethe basis for reconstructof a canon.
proclamation
ing the social conflictsthatoccasionedAthanasius's
form
episcopal
Athanasius's
how
First,the rhetoricaboutteachersindicates
in
bishauthority
placing
and
of Christianity,situatedin the parishchurch
ops and priests, competedwith an academicform of Christianity,situated
in the schoolroomand placing authorityin charismaticteachers. In this
context, the bishop'sformationof a certainkind of canon was meant to
replace the authorityof human teachers and their doctrinalspeculations
lAthanasius Epistulae festales 39, in Joannou, Fonti 2. 75 line 26-76 line 2. Nonetheless,
Jean Ruwet was wrong to argue ("Le canon alexandrin des Ecritures. Saint Athanase," Bib 33
[1952] 1-29) that Athanasius considered such catechetically useful books to be just as inspired as those in his Old and New Testaments.
] ]For example, see Roger Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 304.

DAVID BRAKKE

399

with an unchangingrecordof what was taughtby Christ,the sole teacher,


which was now read by bishops in a sacramentalcontext. Meanwhile,on
a second front, Athanasius'shierarchyof clergy competedwith an altetnative episcopalhierarchyknownas the Melitianchurch.Here, by excluding
certainChristianwritingsfrom his canon, Athanasiushoped to reducethe
influence of apocalypticand visionary ideas that supportedthe Melitian
claim to be the truechurchof the martyrs.Athanasiusinsistedthatonly his
canon, and by extensionhis church,enjoyed a direct origin in the earliest
Christiancommunities.I shall argue that Athanasius'sdisputeswith other
EgyptianChristiansover the biblical canonwere not strugglesover lists of
books alone, but reflectedmore fundamentalconflicts between competing
modes of Christianauthority,spirituality,and social organization.My aim
is to show how canonformationcontributedto the establishmentof catholic Christianityin Egypt.
g

Independent
StudyCirclesandthe Scriptures

Muchof Athanasius'sletter is devotedto an attackon the applicationof


the title "teacher"to any humanbeing; only Christ,the bishop argues,is
the teacherof humanbeings. This rhetoricis a symptomof the continuing
tension in early ChristianEgypt between the hierarchicalepiscopatethat
Athanasiusheadedand the persistencein Alexandriaof study circles gatheredaroundcharismaticteachers.Athanasiusprofessedto deplorethe speculative and original thoughtof the schoolroomand hoped to curtail such
Christianphilosophizingby restrictingtruthto what could be found in his
circumscribedcanon of books.l2
The Arian crisis was the most spectacularexample of this tension between what scholarshave called episcopal and academicChristianities.13
Two forms of Christianlife clashed. On the one hand,the episcopatewas
centeredaroundthe practicesof worshipanddealt with conflictsjuridically
as questionsof admissionto the cult; on the other hand, the school was
centered aroundthe personalitiesof outstandingteachers and dealt with
conflicts scholasticallyas questionsof intellectualspeculationand debate.
Competinghierarchiesof priests and teachersdevelopedsimultaneouslyin
early Christianity,and their values and social forms influenced one another. Before Constantinebegan to patronizeepiscopal Christianity,these
two formsof churchlife could coexist, albeitnot alwayspeacefully.During
the fourthcentury,however,in the wordsof RowanWilliams,"the'Catho12Portions of this section repeat material from Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of
Asceticism, 57-70.
13Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd,
1987) 82-91; see Manlio Simonetti, La crisi ariana nel IV secolo (Studia Ephemeridis
Augustinianum 11; Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1975) 141-43.

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HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

lic' model of the church[came] to be allied with the idea of a monolithic


social unit and the policy of religiouscoercion.''14
Nowherewas this developmentmore painful than in Alexandria,where the academicmodel was
clearly the more ancientone.
Although the origins of AlexandrianChristianityremain obscure, the
first AlexandrianChristiansto whom we can point with any clarity are
teachersand their students.Glaucias,who flourishedaround100 CE, appearsin our sourcesas perhapsa commentatoron the Epistles of St. Peter
and as the teacherof Basilides, who himself becamea prominentChristian
philosopher.15From here the story of Christianityin Alexandriain the
second and thirdcenturiesis essentiallyone of teachersand their competing independentschools: the Gnostics, Valentinus, Pantaenus,Clement,
Origen, and so on.16Like other Hellenistic philosophers,such Christian
teacherswould rent their own premises, gather a group of students,and
publishlearnedtreatisesundertheirown names.17Withinthese small study
circles, Christiansadvancedspirituallyand intellectuallyunderthe guidance of theirlearnedteachers.18Not until after 189 CE, with the adventof
Bishop Demetrius,does the monarchicalepiscopateappearin Alexandria,
and it then appearsas an institutionhostile to the freewheeling,unmanageable Christianschools. Most likely it was Demetriuswho first established
a single catecheticalschool as an official auxiliaryof the episcopate.Origen,
the school's brilliantleader, however, did not restricthis activities to the
basic instructionof converts;instead,he cultivateda smallercircle of students devotedto speculativephilosophyand gained internationalfame and
respect throughhis books and lecture tours. Bishop Demetriuseventually
sent Origento CaesareaMaritimaand installedthe more pliable Heraclas

4Williams, Arius, 87.


15Bentley Layton, "The Significance of Basilides in Ancient Christian Thought," Representations 28 (1989) 135-51.
I6See Ulrich Neymeyr, Die christlichen Lehrer im zweiten Jahrhundert: Ihre Lehrtatigkeit,
ihr Selbstverstandnis und ihre Geschichte (suppl. to VC 4; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 40-105.
17Hansvon Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of
the First Three Centuries (London: Black, 1969) 194; see also Eusebius Hist. eccl. 6.11.11;
and Acta Justini et Septem Sodalium 3.
I8Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early
Christianity (Lectures on the History of Religions, n.s., 13; New York: Columbia University
Press, 1988) 103-8. On the spirituality of the relationship between teachers and students, see
Richard Valantasis, Spiritual Guides of the Third Century: A Semiotic Study of the GuideDisciple Relationship in Christianity, Neoplatonism, HermetismSand Gnosticism (HDR 27;
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), although he is pessimistic about reconstructing the actual relationships between real teachers and students in history; and Garth Fowden, The Egyptian
Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1993) 156-61, 186-95.

DAVID BRAKKE

401

in his place as head of the catecheticalschool.19Origen and even more


so Clementrepresentedbrilliantincarnationsof the Christianteacher.
A complete history of the forms of academicChristianityin Christian
Alexandriawill not be attemptedhere, but its basic featurescan be summarized.Christianstudy circles toleratedand even encouragedphilosophical speculationand diversity of opinion on certain Christianteachings.20
Drawingon the Middle Platonicdoctrineof the seminalLogos, academic
Christianssought to discover Christiantruth whereverit might manifest
itself literarily,includingpaganliterature,Jewishwritingsof all kinds, and
Christianbooks that their fellow Christiansmay have consideredsuspect.
Hence academic Christiansresisted the idea of a closed canon.21Study
groupsused allegoricalinterpretationin orderto find their peculiarphilosophicalideas within generallyacceptedChristianscriptureand creeds and
therebymaintaintheir dual social commitmentto the ordinarychurchand
the schoolroom.22AcademicChristiansmade sense of their separateidentity withinwiderChristianityby dividingbelieversinto subgroupsbasedon
their progress or lack thereof in the intellectualunderstandingof the
scriptures.23They then applied to themselves special names that distinguished such advancedstudents from ordinaryChristians for example,
"lovers of wisdom,"24"gnostic,"25or "spiritualpeople."26Among these
"lovers of wisdom"were women, especially ascetic women, who sometimes participatedin such study circles on an equal basis with men.27Not
l9RegardingPantaenus,Clement,andthe earlyhistoryof the catecheticalschool in Alexandria,see GustaveBardy,"Auxoriginesde l'ecole d'Alexandrie,"
RSR 27 (1937) 65-90; and
David Dawson,Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley:
Universityof CaliforniaPress, 1992) 219-22. RegardingOrigenandDemetrius,see Joseph
WilsonTrigg,Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church (Atlanta:John
Knox, 1983) 130-46.
20OrigenPrinc. l.praef. 3.
21Theattitudesof Clementand Origenare well describedby R. P. C. Hanson,Origen's
Doctrine of Tradition (London:S.P.C.K., 1954) esp. 127-73.
22TheValentinianswereparticularlynotedfor this practice;see, for example,Treatise on
the Resurrection, in Bentley Layton,The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions (GardenCity,NY: Doubleday,1987)272-74, 316-24; andDawson,
Allegorical Readers, 177-78.
23OrigenHom. in Gen. 5, 7, 17; idem, Comm. in Matt. 17; andidem, Comm. in Cant. pref.
24OrigenPrinc. l.praef. 3.
25ClementAlex. Strom. passim.
26Irenaeus
Adv. haer. 1.6.4 (referringto Valentinianpractice).
27TheValentinianteacherPtolemydedicateda letterto his spiritualsisterPlora(Epiphanius
Panarion 33.3.1). Women attendedOrigen'sclasses (EusebiusHist. eccl. 6.8.2) and were
consideredcapableof philosophyby Clement(Paed. 1.4;Strom. 4.8, 19-20); see Brown,Body
and Society, 122-39, 276-77. Pormoreon this aspectof academicChristianityandits importancein Athanasius'sregulationof Christianvirgins,see Brakke,Athanasius and the Politics
of Asceticism, 57-75.

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HARVARD THEOLOG ICAL REVIEW

every Christianstudy circle displayedall these characteristics,and indeed


in this context Athanasiuscriticized in particularthe openness of study
circles to diverse opinions and variousJewish and Christianliterature.
Meanwhile,the leaderof a study circle, the Christianteacher,displayed
The teacher'sauthoritywas based not on a conseveral characteristics.28
tinuingoffice, but on unique,god-givenqualitiesof intellect,morality,and
close contactwith the divine. Such qualitieswere manifestin the teacher's
reception of visions of the risen Christ or experiences of mystical and
intellectualunionwith the godhead,akinto whatwas describedby Plato in
and in the teacher'sascetic lifestyle, which studentsconhis Symposium,29
To bolsterhis or her claim to authority,the
sideredworthyof emulation.30
teachercould producean intellectualpedigreethat tracedhis or her academic traditionthrougha successionof brilliantteachersback to a founder
whomall Christiansadmired,such as Paulor Jesushimself;this succession
1 Rival teachers
was sometimes the conduit for a secret oral tradition.3
competed with one anotheroften throughpersonal attacks on another's
lifestyle andacademicpedigree;this kindof polemicis not surprisinggiven
The teacher'sauthoritycould
the personalnatureof the teacher'sauthority.32
continue after death throughthe disseminationof philosophicaltreatises
and scripturalcommentariesand the publicationof idealizingbiographies
by his or her students.33The person of the teacherwas the indispensable
center of Christianspiritualityin the study circles. In the words of Hans
for academicChristians"thereis no effective progress
von Campenhausen,
withoutinstruction;and there can be no instructionwithouta teacher."34
WhileAthanasiusattackedthe personof the teacher,in general,he focused
on the use of intellectualpedigreesin particular.
We should pause here to note the centralrole of Christianscripturein
academicChristiallity.The Christianteacherdisplayedhis brillianceand
guided his studentspartlythroughthe interpretationof scripture,both the
so-called Old Testamentin the form of the Septuagintand the emerging
New Testamentof writings producedby Christians.The second century
28vonCampenhausen (Ecclesiastical Authority, 194-212) provides the classic discussion.
29Zost. 129.4-12; 130.4-10; Gos. Truth 43.1-2; Plato Symp. 210A-212A; see also Pagels,
"Visions, Appearances," 426-27.
30On Origen's asceticism, see Gregory Thaumaturgus In Origenem oratio panegyrica 9;
Eusebius Hist. eccl. 6.3.9-12.
3Ivon Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority, 157-60, 201; Pagels, "Visions, Appearances," 426.
32Layton, "Significance of Basilides," 135-36.
33Ancient biographies of Origen are attributed to Gregory Thaumaturgus (In Origenem
oratio panegyrica) and Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 6).
34von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority, 200, in reference to Clement Alex. Strom.
6.57.2.

DAVID B RAKKE 403

saw the rise of a Christianintelligentsiathat claimed the ability to understand writings that were obscure to most people. Thus, it was precisely
academicChristianitythat contributedto the elevationof certainChristian
works, such as Paul'sletters, to the statusof scriptureby placing them on
syllabi for study of Christianphilosophyand by claiming that they were
obscure,containedhiddenmeanings,and so had to be interpretedby trained
scholars.35As mentionedabove, however,academicChristianswere generally uninterestedin the formationof a closed canon, for one who knows
how to searchproperlymay find the truthin almost any document.In the
case of Origen,for example,one may say thatin principlethe potentialfor
a closed canon is present,since he evaluatesindividualwritingsto determine their authoritativestatus.In practice,however,for Origenthe discovery of canonicity remains a scholarly endeavor and so open to new
arguments,revised decisions, and the possibility of revelationin hitherto
unrecognizedplaces.36Moreover,academicstudy was not the only activity
that occasionedthe elevation of Christianwritingsto scriptureduringthe
second and third centuries.Ritual did so as well, for in their assemblies
Christianslearnedwhatedifiedthe worshippingcommunityby readingfrom
the Septuagintand from Christianliterature.37
Nonetheless,even when the
same books were being studiedby Christianphilosophersas the source of
inspiredtruthand read aloud in Christianassembliesas the source of the
sharedstory of Jesus, these groupsdevelopeddistinctsets of scripturethat
reflected different understandingsof authorityand spiritualformation.I
shall returnto this idea below, after investigatingthe conflict between
academicand episcopalChristianitiesand the importantrole of canon formationin this conflict.
While Clementand Origenembodiedthe academicChristiantraditionin
the second and thirdcenturies,Arius most notoriouslyfulfilled this role in
fourth-centuryAlexandria.38
Arius was one of severalAlexandrianpresbyters who lecturedon the scripturesand so turnedtheirparishchurchesinto
schoolrooms;admirersof differentpresbyter-teachers
formedrival groups,
namedaftertheirfavoriteteachers,such as the Colluthiansandthe Arians.39
Dressing in ascetic clothing and attractingnumerousstudents,particularly
female virgins,Ariussuccessfullyfilled the old-fashionedrole of the Christian religiousmentor;40
accordingto the Martyrdomof SaintPeter, he gave
35Koester,"Writingsandthe Spirit,"371-72; see WilliamA. Graham,Beyondthe Written
Word:OralAspectsof Scripturein theHistoryof Religion(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity
Press, 1987) 67-68.
36Hanson,Origen'sDoctrine, 142-43; von Campenhausen,
Formation,320-23.
37JustinMartyrApol. 1.67; Koester,"Writingsand the Spirit,"368-70.
38Williams,Arius, passim.
39Epiphanius
Panarion69.2.6.
40Ibid.,69.3.1; Williams,Arius, 32.

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HARVARD THEOLOG ICAL REVIEW

public lectures on scripturalinterpretationon Wednesdaysand Fridays.41


Ariusopenedhis book Thaliaby self-consciouslyportrayinghimself as the
latest in a long line of sages who were taughtby God:
According to the faith of God's chosen, those with discernment of
God,
His holy children, imparting the truth and open to God's holy spirit,
These are the things I have learned from the men who partake of
wisdom,
The keen-minded men, instructed by God, and in all respects wise.
In such men's steps I have walked, advancing in thoughts like theirs,
A man much spoken of, who suffers all manner of things for God's
glory,
And, learning from God, I am now no stranger to wisdom and knowledge.42

Here is an exquisite expressionof academicspirituality,a poetic celebration of the academicpedigreethatauthenticates


Arius'sown originalthought.
The Christian'sgoal is to approachGod spirituallyand intellectuallywhich, for the ancients,were impossibleto separate throughinstruction
by "keen-minded
men,"a processthatis equivalentto "learningfromGod."
Arius demonstratedthat he was "no strangerto wisdom and knowledge"
throughhis lectureson the scriptures.This is a far cry from the spirituality
of Athanasius,who ridiculedArius'spoetic musings as "effeminate."43
Arius was not only a teacher;he was also a presbyterand thus suggests
that, in the early fourthcentury,the hierarchicalepiscopateand the study
circles were not clearly distinguishedin Alexandria.Rather,the values of
academicChristianitypermeatedthe emergingsystemof parishchurches.It
was the goal of Athanasiusand his predecessoras bishop, Alexander,to
eliminatethe academicmode of authorityandspiritualformationfromtheir
parochialsystem. When Arius'steachingsappearedto Alexanderto transgress the limits of acceptablediversity,he had the presbytercondemnedby
a synod of bishops,an expressionof the idea thatthe presbyter'sauthority,
41"Alexanderpromoted Arius to the dignity of the priesthood. This latter began, under the
pretense of scriptural authority, to expound doctrine to the people, having the congregation
come to church on Wednesday and Friday so as to hear the Word of God" (Martyrdom of Saint
Peter of Alexandria). The text can be found in William Telfer, "St. Peter of Alexandria and
Arius," AnBoll 67 (1949) 130; the translation is by Tim Vivian, St. Peter of Alexandria:
Bishop and Martyr (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 70.
42Athanasius Orationes contra Arianos 1.5; translated in Williams, Arius, 85.
43Athanasius Orationes contra Arianos 1.5. As Schmidt stated ("Neues Fragment," 344),
"The spirit of scientific inquiry belonging to Origen and his school is completely foreign to
him [Athanasius]" (my translation). On the masculinization of orthodoxy and feminization of
heresy in Athanasius, see Virginia Burrus, "The Heretical Woman as Symbol in Alexander,
Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome," HTR 84 (1991) 235-39.

DAVID BRAKKE

405

unlike that of the teacher,did not come from his educationand brilliance,
but was grantedby the bishop. The episcopatevalued not advancein wisdom and knowledge,but unity and harmony,which were seen to be the
commandsof scripture.Most likely it was the youngAthanasius,servingas
Alexander'ssecretary,who expressedthis catholicsensibilityin Alexanders
circularletter on Arius: "Thereis one body of the universal(KaOoklK)
church,and a commandis given to us in the sacredscripturesto preserve
the bond of unity and peace."44The notion of sacredscriptureswent hand
in hand with the episcopate'sattemptto curtail academicactivity in the
name of unity and peace.
Athanasius,after succeedingAlexanderas bishop in 328, made explicit
the oppositionbetween a closed biblical canon and the activity of human
teachers.In his twenty-fourthFestal Letter, writtenin 352, he contrasted
"the words of the saints"and "the fancies of humaninvention."Only the
saints- meaningthe authorsof the New Testamentbooks- handeddown
what they had heardfrom the incarnateWordof God "withoutalteration."
Hence, "of these [saints] the Word wants us to be disciples, and they
should be our teachers,and it is necessaryfor us to obey only them."45
Here AthanasiusportraysChristiandoctrineas the unchangingrecordof
what was taughtby the incarnateWord and found solely in Athanasius's
canon.The only legitimateteachersare the authorsof the canonicalbooks,
and thus the ideas of contemporaryteachersare merely "fancies"created
by humanbeings. Fifteen years later, in the thirty-ninthletter, Athanasius
even more narrowlycircumscribedthe legitimateuse of the title "teacher"
by statingthatonly Christhimself was to be the teacherof Christians:"The
name of Wisdom suits him because it is he alone who is the true teacher.
For who is to be trustedto teach humanbeings aboutthe Fatherexcept he
who exists always in his bosom?"46Jesus, Athanasiuspointed out, commandedthat Christianscall no one else "teacher"(Matt 23:8-10). Confronted with New Testamentpassages that clearly refer to persons other
than Jesus as "teacher"(1 Tim 2:7; Eph 4:11; Jas 3:1), Athanasiussuggested that such people were called teachersonly honorifically;in reality,
they were merely disciples, mouthpieceswho passed on what the Wordof
God had told them:
For the words that the disciples proclaim do not belong to them; rather,
they heard them from the Savior. Therefore, even if it is Paul who is
teaching, it is Christ who is speaking in him. And even if he says that
44Alexander Alex. Epistula encyclica 2. On Athanasius's authorship of this letter, see G.
Christopher Stead, "Athanasius' Earliest Written Work," JTS, n.s., 39 (1988) 76-91.
45Athanasius Epistulae festales 2.7 [Syriac]; the twenty-fourth Festal Letter was mistakenly transmitted as the second.
46Ibid., 39 [Coptic], in Coquin, "Les lettres festales," lr.al9-29.

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the Lord has appointed teachers in the churches (1 Cor 12:28), it is he


[the Lord] who first teaches them and sends them out. For the nature
of everyone who is part of creation is to be taught, but our Lord and
Demiurge is by nature a teacher. For he was not taught by another
person how to be a teacher, but all human beings, even if they are
called ;;teacher," were first disciples. Moreover, every [human being]
is instructed since the Savior supplies them with the knowledge of the
Spirit, so that they might be God's students. But our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ, being the Word of the Father, was not instructed by
anyone else. Rightly he alone is the Teacher.47

This is an attackon those who use academicpedigreesto legitimatetheir


authority,a strategythatAriusemployedin the Thalia. Christ,said Athanasius, has no need to produce such a pedigree, being himself Word and
Wisdom.
By makingthis claim,Athanasiushopedto replacethe authorityof human
teacherswith the authorityof Christ,as mediatedthroughthe biblicalcanon.
The disciples, the bishop said, simply wrote what Christthe teachertold
themin the scriptures,whichthereforeincludedeverydoctrinehumanbeings
need to know.48Athanasiusdeclaredthat the canon, unlike teacherswho
traced their predecessorsback to the source of Christiantruth,recorded
Truth'sspeech directly,withoutmediationor development.This unchanging canon made the intellectualoriginalityof the schoolroomappearsuicidal. Hereticalteachers,by daringto be innovative,had "abandonedthe
spring of life"-that is, Athanasius'scanon-and thus "remaineddead in
their unbeliefby being boundby their evil thoughts,just as the Egyptians
were boundby theirown axles."49In this way Athanasiussoughtto render
independentChristianacademicactivity illegitimateby makingthe title of
teacher,when appliedto a humanbeing, cause for suspicionand distrust,
as well as by claimingthat originalhumanthoughtwas really entrapping,
deadlymud. In turn,Athanasius,who was manifestlyteachingand inventing new ideas, had to deny what he was doing and say that he was himself
no teacher,but merely a conduitfor an unchangingtradition."ForI have
not writtenthese things as if I were teaching,"he stated, "for I have not
attainedsuch a rank.... I have thus informedyou of everythingthat I
Even when
heardfrommy father"-his episcopalpredecessor,Alexander.50
claimingnot to be a teacherand attackingthe use of academicpedigrees,
Athanasiusacted like a teacherby referringto his own academicsucces47Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 16 lines 17-31.
48Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], Coquin, "Les lettres festales," 6v.a25-b29.
49Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 17 lines 8-9, 21-24;
this uses the Septuagint version of Exod 14:25.
50AthanasiusEpistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 21 lines 1 1-12, 14-15.

DAVID BRAKKE

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sion in the person of Alexander.These strategiesof personalattacks on


teachersand professed condemnationof original thoughtwere staples of
Christianschool polemics which datedback to JustinMartyr.51
In the second century,Irenaeusemployeda similarstrategyof using academicsuccessionto bolsterthe authorityof bishopsbut of reservingthe title "teacher,"
and its connotationsof suspicious originality,for his opponents.52In his
Festal Letter on the canon, Athanasiusused the rhetoricof anti-intellectualism to renderhis Arianopponentssuspect and his own teachingactivity
invisible.
In this campaign,Athanasiusstressedthatthe Wordof God,unlikehuman
beings, had no need to learn anything.The Wordwas by naturea teacher;
humanbeings were by naturestudents.This assertioncriticizednot only
the school tradition'sgreat esteem for the teacher, but also the Arians'
alleged depictionof the Wordof God as one who advancedin knowledge
and virtueand thereforecould serve as a modelfor Christiansmakingtheir
own spiritualprogress.53
As Athanasiusdepictedthe matter,the ArianWord
learnedhow to create through"instruction"(blbasKakia) from God the
Father,who was the Word's"teacher"(blbasKocko5).54
In the spirituality
of academicChristianity,the Christianteacher'sclassroom,filled with studentseagerto progressin wisdomand virtueby patterningthemselvesafter
their mentor,found its heavenly analoguein the Word'seducationat the
feet of the Father.55Like the charismaticteacher,the Word was a model
for Christiansto imitate. This spiritualitywas well adaptedto what Peter
Brown has called late antiquity's"civilizationof paideia," at the heartof
which was "intensivemale bonding"betweenteacherand pupil.56In some
of Alexandria'sChristianstudy circles, this scholastic"malebonding"was
projectedonto the deity itself, and on earthit was replicatedin the study
of scriptureunderthe inspiredteacher.Athanasiuswouldhave none of this;
by naturethe Word was the only true teacher;humanbeings, in contrast,
were by naturemerely"God'sstudents,"taughtby the Wordalone through
his mouthpieces,the scripturesand the bishops. Athanasius,delineating
between Creatorand created,limited the term "teacher"to the formerand
the term "student"to the latter. The study of scriptureshould not be an
5iLayton, "Significance of Basilides," 135-36.
52Virginia Burrus, "Hierarchalization and Genderization of Leadership in the Writings of
Irenaeus," StPatr21 (1989) 43-45.
53Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, EarlyArianism-A Viewof Salvation(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981).
54Athanasius OrationescontraArianos2.28; see also 1.37.
55See Gregg and Groh, EarlyArianism,163-64.
56PeterBrown, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity," in John Stratton Hawley, ed.,
Saintsand Virtues(Comparative Studies in Religion and Society 2; Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1987) 4.

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exercise in progressivelydivinizingcontemplation,but only a moraltraining for catechumens.As Athanasiusstated in his Festal Letter, catechumens shouldbe taughtonly those biblicalpassagesthat"will teachthemto
A Christian'sspirituallife should
hate sin and to abandonidol-worship."57
not be a textuallybasededucationsimilarto thatof the Word,but a parishcenteredreceptionof the Word'sdivinizingpower throughthe sacraments.
Athanasius,then, was not simply assertingcanonicalauthorityin an intellectual battle over Arian theology; rather,he was articulatinga mode of
biblical authorityappropriateto a catholic spirituality.A canon suited this
spirituality;and thus, althoughAthanasiusand other bishops had few coercive means at their disposal to enforce their closed canons, nonetheless
a uniformcanon slowly prevailedin the ancientchurches.
In fact, one should speak not of Athanasiusimposing a canon on a
Christianitypreviouslylackingone, nor even of him tryingto close a canon
thathad hithertobeen open, but ratherof a bishoppromotinga certaintype
of biblical canon, one appropriateto the episcopal form of Christianity.
Moderndiscussionsof the biblical canon in Christianhistory usually assume that there is only one possible kind of canon, a closed canon of the
type that Athanasiuspromulgated,and so describethe early centuriesas a
relentlessprogresstowardthat seeminglyinevitabletelos. Withinreligious
traditionsin general and within Christianityin particular,however, one
finds canons that differ not only in their contentsbut also in their fundaThereare, for example,canonsthatdo not possess their
mentalcharacter.58
own independentauthority,but are the result of a more basic religious
activity, apartfrom which they would not exist and cannotbe understood.
The lectionaryof a liturgicalchurchis an exampleof this type of canon;
for, althoughit is authoritative,it is a functionof ritualand has its authority only insofar as it enables worship. A second type of canon indeed
possesses its own authoritativestatus and serves to legitimateother religious activities, such as preaching.One thinksof the canon of many contemporaryProtestantchurches,wherean oversizedBible placedon a lectern
appearsto authorizethe sermonof the preacher.Here scripturalcanonsare
classifiednot by theircontents,which may be nearlyidentical,but by their
57Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 62 lines 3-8.
58Iam dependent here, for both the general concepts and the specific examples, on Kendall
W. Folkert, "The 'Canons' of Scripture," in Miriam Levering, ed., Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989) 170-79. Folkert divides
scripture into "two general forms": "Canon I denotes normative texts, oral or written, that are
present in a tradition principally by the force of a vector or vectors. Canon II refers to normative texts that are more independently and distinctively present within a tradition, that is, as
pieces of literature more or less as such are currently thought of, and which themselves
function as vectors" (p. 173).

DAVID BRAKKE

409

functionswithin religious communities,especially their relationsto modes


of authorityand spiritualformation.
From this perspective,Athanasius'sconflict with academic Christians
over the biblical canon must not be construedas Athanasius'sattemptto
close a canonthatthe teacherswouldpreferto leave open, but as a conflict
between two competingand distinct canon types. Like the lectionariesof
today or the ritual-basedcanons of the early centuries,the Bible of academic Christianitywas not an independentauthority,but the functionof a
morebasic religiousactivity Christianphilosophicalinstructionand spiritual guidance.The Christianscripturesformedthe answerto the question
of which books one ought to study in an effort to contemplateGod. As
such, the contents of the academiccanon were somewhatindeterminate,
althougha core set of writings-namely, the four gospels and the lettersof
Paul could be foundnearlyeverywhere.59
The boundariesof the academic
canon could shift with the theologian'squest for truth;a "disputed"work
like the Gospel of the Hebrewsmight be acceptablesince some Christians
"rejoice"in its contents.60In contrast,Athanasiusoffered a canon which,
by means of its authoritativestatus,precededand groundedany other religious activities.Ritual,instruction,andpoliticalorganizationin the Christian communitywere legitimateto the extent that they were based on the
set canon of scriptures.The boundariesof the episcopalcanon were fixed,
and Christianinstructionwas a functionof this canon, ratherthan the reverse:
Even if a useful word is found in them [the rejectedbooks], it is still
not good to trustthem.... Let us commandourselvesnot to proclaim
anythingin them nor to speak anythingin them with those who want
to be instructed,even if thereis a good word in them, as I have said.
For whatdo the spiritualscriptureslack thatwe shouldseek afterthese
empty voices of unknownpeople?. . . If we seek the faith, it is possible for us to discoverit throughthem [the scriptures].61

Bishop Athanasius'srejection of preachingand teaching based on extracanonicalwritingseven if some or all of theircontentsare useful and good
is the major distinctionbetween the canons of episcopal and academic
Christianities.A remnantof the academiccanon, however,remainedeven
59This indeterminate nature of the academic canon's contents may lead some to argue that
it cannot be called a canon, which must by definition be closed. This definition itself assumes
a canon of only one type the Christian Protestant canon and so obscures other kinds of
scriptural collections in religions past and present. On the difficulty of understanding Jain
scriptures from a "Canon II" perspective, see Folkert, "'Canons' of Scripture," 175-76.
60Eusebius
Hist. eccl. 3.25.5.
6lAthanasius Epistulaefestales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase,21 lines 1-2; Coquin,
"Les lettres festales," 6r.b25-6v.a8, 25-29.

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in Athanasius'sprogramin the form of a list of seven Christianwritings


thatwere not canonicalbut were useful for the instructionof converts.This
awkwardalliance of canons of quite differenttypes could not last, however, and Athanasius'sthirdtestamentdisappearedrapidly.62
In any case, Athanasius'spolemic against "teachers"finds its proper
context in his effort to reduce the influence of study circles in Christian
Alexandriaand consolidateChristianlife aroundthe hierarchicalepiscopate. The definitionof a closed canonand the accompanyingcondemnation
of original thought were means by which Athanasiushoped to achieve
these social and political goals.
g

"Apocryphal"
BooksandtheMartyrCult

Athanasiusdid not accuse "teachers"of publishingapocryphalbooks,


however,but the Melitians,whose conflict with the Athanasianepiscopate
was far differentfrom that of the Alexandrianstudy circles. While academic Christiansclaimed to discover spiritualtruth throughintellectual
researchunderthe guidanceof inspiredteachers,the Melitianspossessed
an episcopalorganizationthatparalleledthatof Athanasius,but whichplaced
a high value on continuitywith the pre-Constantinian
churchof the martyrs. Among Melitian and other Christiangroups, the use of apocryphal
books that connectedmartyrdomwith visionarypowers supportedthe ideology of a propheticmartyrcult based in Upper Egyptianparishes.Here
Athanasius'spromulgationof a closed canonof publiclyknownbooks was
meantto eliminateany scripturalsupportfor practicessurrounding
the martyr
cult.
It is crucialto rememberthat the Melitianschism had its origins in the
persecutionsthat Christianssufferedin the first decade of the fourthcentury,the so-calledGreatPersecution.63
In 304, Bishop Peterof Alexandria
andotherbishopsretreatedinto hidingto avoidarrest,andso BishopMelitius
of Lycopolis in Upper Egypt attemptedto carry on church business by
ordainingpriests and installingbishopsin Alexandriaand other sees. Peter
and the other hiding bishops denouncedwhat they consideredan illegitimate interventioninto their spheresof authority.Peter briefly returnedto
Alexandriain 305 and excommunicatedMelitius,but he was forcedto flee
againin 306 and was martyredin 311. By the time of the Councilof Nicea,
sponsoredby the emperorConstantinein 325, long after Peter's death,
there were two competingChristianchurchesin Egypt, a Petrineone and
a Melitianone, each with its own hierarchyof bishops and priests. The
62See Zahn, Grundriss, 60; idem, Athanasius, 26-29; see esp. 28-29 regarding the fact that
even Athanasius's scriptural citations in his other works make no use of this distinction.
63Leslie W. Barnard, "Athanasius and the Meletian Schism in Egypt," JEA 59 (1973) 18189; Williams, Arius, 32-41; and Vivian, St. Peter of Alexandria, 15-40.

DAVID BRAKKE

411

rivalrybetween the two parties was exacerbatedby differencesover how


Christianswho lapsed duringthe persecutionsshould be treated,with the
Melitiansarguingfor a periodof penancelongerthanthatadvocatedby the
Petrines.Indeed, the Melitiansconsideredthemselves to be the true conThe Council of
churchof the martyrs.64
tinuationof the pre-Constantinian
Nicea recognizedthe Petrinehierarchy,then headedby Bishop Alexander,
as the legitimate Christianchurch in Egypt, and it adopted a policy of
gradualintegrationof Melitianbishops and priests into the Petrinehierarchy. The ordinationsof Melitianclergy were recognized,but Melitiushimself was commandedto enter retirement.This policy was accepted with
little enthusiasmby the partiesin Egypt, and thus conflict betweenthe two
groupsenduredthroughthe episcopateof Athanasius.The Melitianmovement appearsto have been strongestin UpperEgypt, for it includedelementsof protestagainstHellenisticAlexandriaandits allegedlylax policies
in churchdiscipline. Nonetheless,the schism was primarilya conflict between competing episcopal organizationsand thus was fought not with
theologicaltreatises,but with tactics appropriateto political struggles:the
use of physical violence to intimidateopponents,the channelingof church
funds in beneficial directions, and the installationof allied bishops and
priests in areas controlledby the other party wheneverpossible.65Moreover, in many cases, it is difficult for the historianto distinguishbetween
Melitianand orthodoxpersonsand groups,and it is likely that manyEgyptian Christiansthemselvesdid not make this distinction.
Accordingto Athanasius,it was the Melitians in particularwho promoted the use of apocryphalbooks among EgyptianChristians,and there
is some plausibilityto this claim.66To be sure, Athanasiustended in his
laterFestal Lettersto stigmatizewhathe consideredunacceptablepractices
in Christianchurches,whetheraffiliatedwith him or not, by labelingthem
Melitianor Arian.67Nonetheless,Athanasiusearlierin his careercondemned
the Melitians'use of a wider range of Christianliteraturethan he thought
64W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict
from the Maccabees to Donatus (New York: New York University Press, 1967) 396-98.
6sRegardingviolence and church funds, see Barnard,"Athanasius and the Meletian Schism";
Timothy D. Barnes, "The Career of Athanasius," StPatr 21 (1987) 393-96; idem, Athanasius
and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1993) 25-33. Regarding bishops and priests, see Athanasius
Epistula ad Dracontium; idem, Epistulae festales 40 [Coptic]; and Brakke, Athanasius and the
Pol itics of Asceticism, 100- 102.
66Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 21 lines 12-14. Zahn
denied (Athanasius, 14) that either the Melitians or the Arians were the "heretics" whom
Athanasius charged with promoting apocryphal books, but he wrote before Schmidt ("Neues
Fragment") published for the first time the fragment in which Athanasius specifically names
the Melitians as boasting about their apocrypha.
67Camplani, Lettere festali, 271-72.

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acceptable;in his History of the Arians, writtenin 356, the bishopcharged


that the Melitiansdo not "know.. . what scriptureswe Christianshave."68
A decade later, in his Festal Letter of 367, Athanasiuswas more specific
in his charges:"I heardthatthe heretics,particularlythe wretchedMelitians,
were boasting about the books that they call 'apocryphal"';they had recently composedthese books by "mixingone or two inspiredtexts" with
their own "evil teachings"and then "publishingthem as if they were ancient."69Moreover,Athanasiusnames specific examplesof such literature:
books associatedwith Enoch,Moses, and Isaiah,perhapsmeaningat least
a portion of the Enoch literature he does speak of multiple books that
"belongto Enoch" the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, and the Testament of Moses.70 Athanasiusdenies that any of these biblical figures
could have composed an apocryphalbook; Enoch because "no Scripture
existed before Moses,"and Moses and Isaiahbecauseeach referredto the
public,generallyavailablecharacterof his teachings(Deut 4:26; 30:19; Isa
45:19).7l Othersourcesfrom shortlyafterAthanasius'scareerassociatethe
Melitianswith noncanonicalbooks: one of the Pseudo-Athanasian
Canons
prohibitsthe singing of "the writings of Melitius"in churchand repeats
Athanasius'squotationof SeptuagintDeut 12:32 ("Let no one add to or
subtractfrom them").The Coptic monasticleader Shenute(ca. 350-466)
quotes Athanasius'scondemnationof the "wretchedMelitians"in his sermon against apocryphalbooks.72The Melitian use of apocryphawas a
theme of orthodoxpolemics throughoutthe fourthand fifth centuries.
Athanasiuswas aware of one objection to his condemnationof such
apocrypha:they are sometimescited as scriptureby authorsof the New
68Athanasius Historia Arianorum 78.1.
69Athanasius Epistulae festales 39, in Lefort, S. Athanase, 21 lines 12-14; Coquin, "Les
lettres festales," 6r.bll-21, in Joannou, Fonti, 2. 76 lines 3-8.
70Of these, the identification of the Ascension of Isaiah seems the most secure (see the
discussion of 1 Cor 2:9 below, p. 413) and that of the Moses literature the least secure (see
David Frankfurter, "The Legacy of the Jewish Apocalypse in Early Christian Sects: Regional
Trajectories,"in James Vanderkamand William Adler, eds., TheJewish Apocalypses in Christian
Tradition [Minneapolis: Fortress, forthcoming]; see also Camplani, Lettere festali, 277). Evidence for the circulation of the Ascension of Isaiah in fourth-century Egypt includes fragments of its text in Coptic (Louis-Theophile Lefort, "Fragments d'apocryphes en
copte-achmimique," Mus 52 [1939] 1-10; Pierre Lacau, "Fragments de l'Ascension d'Isaie en
copte," Mus 59 [1946] 453-67); a quotation of it by Ammonas, the monastic disciple of
Antony the Great (Letter 10, in The Letters of Ammonas: Successor of Saint Antony [trans.
Derwas J. Chitty; Fairacres Publications 72; Oxford: S.L.G, 1979] 12); and its reported use by
Hieracas, the Christian ascetic teacher (Epiphanius Panarion 67.3.4).
7lAthanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 20 lines 3-21.
72Pseudo-Athanasius Canones 12, in The Canons of Athanasius of Alexandria (ed. and
trans. Wilhelm Riedel and W. E. Crum; London/Oxford: Williams & Norgate, 1904) 24; Tito
Orlandi, "A Catechesis Against Apocryphal Texts by Shenute and the Gnostic Texts of Nag
Hammadi," HTR 75 (1982) 88-89; see also Camplani, Lettere festali, 275-76.

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413

Testament;for example, Jude 14-15 refers to I Enoch 1.9.73Athanasius


replied that it is sometimesdifficult to determinewhich passage from the
Septuagintis quotedby a New Testamentwriterwhen it is introducedonly
with "it is written."Athanasiusadmittedthat Paul'scitation in 1 Cor 2:9
("Whatno eye has seen") cannot be found in this exact formulationin
Athanasius'sOld Testament,but if the quotationis to be found in an apocryphalbook, "as the heretics say," then, Athanasiusclaimed, "those who
inventedthese bookshave secretlystolenfromthe wordsof Paulandwritten
it at a later time."74This referenceis significant,for two versions of the
Ascension of Isaiah contain the saying found in 1 Cor 2:9, and Jerome
knew an Ascension of Isaiah that containedit.75Thus, the Christiansof
Athanasius'scontextprobablycited 1 Cor 2:9 in supportof theiruse of this
Isaiah apocryphon.In the extant fragmentsAthanasiusdoes not mention
Jude 14-15, but presumablyhe would have consideredits appearancein I
Enoch 1.9 to be a similar instanceof plagiarizingfraud.
CertainlyAthanasius'sclaims that the Melitiansor other contemporary
hereticsthemselvescomposedbooks such as the Ascensionof Isaiah are to
be dismissed, but it is plausiblethat Melitians and other EgyptianChristians did in fact use such literatureas scripture.I have alreadydescribed
the persistenceof such charges against Melitians in orthodoxsources. In
addition, Athanasiusdid not introducethe term apocryphato stigmatize
these books; rather,his opponentsused the term in a positive mannerand
thus forced Athanasiusto deny that it had any validity. The Melitians,
Athanasiusasserts,"boast"of theirapocryphalbooks;thus, the bishopmust
deny that Christiantraditionknows any "mention(vi5R) of the apocryphal books"and must argueinsteadthat the categoryof apocryphais "an
invention(slvola) of the heretics"calculatedto "deceivethe simplefolk."76
He then must explainwhy Enoch,Moses, and Isaiahcould not have written
any apocryphalbooks. This strategy is quite different from one that assumes a negativemeaningfor the termapocryphal.Tertullian,for example,
condemnsthe Shepherdof Hermasby labelingit apocryphal,a termthathe
73Zahn in particular criticizes Athanasius (Athanasius, 14, 17) for not mentioning the
quotation of Enoch in Jude as well as the many citations of apocryphal books by earlier church
fathers; Zahn did not know the Coptic fragment in which Athanasius dealt with this objection.
74Athanasius Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 60 line 6-62 line 2.
75Mart.Isa. 11.34; Jerome Comm. in Isa. 17 on Isa 64:4. See Michael E. Stone and John
Strugnell, The Books of Elijah, Parts 1-2 (SBLTT 18; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979) 41-73,
esp. 68-71. Origen had attributed the quotation to an Apocalypse of Elijah (Comm. in Matt.
5.29 on Matt 27:9), but it is not found in the extant work of this title; see David Frankfurter,
Elijah in Upper Egypt: The Apocalypse of Elijah and Early Egyptian Christianity (Studies in
Antiquity and Christianity; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 46-49.
76AthanasiusEpistulaefestales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 21 lines 12-14; Joannou,
Fonti, 2. 76 lines 2-8.

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uses in oppositionto "generallyreceivedamongthe churches,"andIrenaeus


can use the termapocryphalas self-evidentlyequivalentto "spurious."77
In
the case of Athanasius,althoughthe termapocryphalcertainlyis the opposite of "generallyreceivedamongthe churches,"the opponentsof Athanasius
consider this esoteric quality to be a positive one. This is similar to the
followers of Prodicus,whom Clementreportsto "boast"of having "apocryphal books" of the legendaryZoroaster,or to the Gnostics, who must
have thoughtthat the title Apocryphon of John gave their mythicnarrative
a valuedesotericformof authority.78
So too these fourth-century
Egyptians
legitimatedtheir teachingsby basing them not on scripturesavailableto
Christiansin general and read in any Christianassembly, but ratheron
booksthatcontainedhiddenor secret "apocryphal"revelationsand were
thereforesuperior.
Moreover,the contents of the books to which Athanasiusmost likely
referredwould have supportedMelitianclaims that the true churchis the
churchof the martyrsand that God continuesto speak specificallythrough
the martyrs.At this time, accordingto the letters following Athanasius'
thirty-ninthFestal Letter, Melitian Christianswere vigorously promoting
the cult of the martyrs,even setting up oracles at martyrtombs.79Persons
possessed by demons were broughtto martyrtombs, where the demons
were exorcised. Athanasiushad little problemwith this, but duringthese
exorcisms, some possessed persons were able to prophesy.Eitherthe demon in the person,underthe compulsionof the dead martyr,wouldpredict
the future and answer the questions of gatheredspectators,or the dead
martyrhimselfor herselfwouldspeakthroughthe possessedperson.80Moreover, Christianswere exhumingthe bodies of martyrsand, in Athanasius's
words, removing them "from the cemeteries of the catholic church"in
orderto set up martyrcults for profit.8lSuch practicescould have found
theirscripturalbasis in such worksas those criticizedby Athanasiusin his
Festal Letter: the Martyrdomand Ascension of Isaiah, for example,closely
linksIsaiah'svisionarypowerswith his martyrdom
at the handsof Manasseh,
who "did not remember"what Isaiah saw in his tour of the heavens.82
77Tertullian Pud. 10.6; Irenaeus Adv. haer. 1.20.1.
78Clement Alex. Strom. 1.15.69.9; on the secrecy of Hermetic books, see Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 157-5
8.
79Athanasius Epistulae festales 41-42 [Coptic]. On the pre-Constantinian roots of the
martyrcult in Egypt, see David Frankfurter,"TheCult of the Martyrsin Egypt Before Constantine:
The Evidence of the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah," VC 48 (1994) 25-47.
80Athanasius Epistulae festales 42 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 65 lines 3-15.
8lAthanasius Epistulaefestales41 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 26 lines 9-10; 62 line
23-63 line 5.
82Mart.Isa. 1 1.36-43

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Similarly,the Testamentof Moses includes a vivid descriptionof the persecution of the faithful; the Levite Taxo's exhortationto martyrdomis
followed by an eschatologicalhymn that one could interpretas being recited by the martyrTaxo as much as by the dying Moses.83Presumably
these fourth-centuryChristianswhom Athanasiuscondemned,especially
Melitians,arguedthat in the mannerof these biblical heroes, the Christian
martyrsreceivedrevelationsaboutthe end of time andperhapsless weighty
matters.Such revelationswere still availableat those parisheswhere the
corpses of martyrswere preserved,honored,and consulted.
Here was an attractivemeans of access to spiritualtruthand power, so
attractive,Athanasiustells us, that Christiansin the Nile Valley were afparishesand takingtheir monetaryofferings
filiating with martyr-oriented
andself-serving"greed."84
withthem.Athanasiuslabelledthis "crookedness"
Similarly,he accusedthose who promotedapocryphalbooks of Enoch and
the others as doing so in orderto "receivecompliments"and "be considered greatpeople."85Athanasiushimself, in promotinga biblicalcanonthat
excised Christianliteraturesupportingthe Melitiancombinationof martyrs
andvisions, hopedto eliminatethe desireof Christiansto consultthe oracles
at martyrshrinessponsoredby Melitianchurches.The canonof the martyroriented Christiansassumed the persistenceof divine revelations in the
present,while Athanasius'scanonpresupposedthe finalityof the revelation
in the Word of God's incarnation.
The rhetoricaboutMelitiansand apocryphalbooks, then, indicatesthat
Athanasius'spromulgationof a closed canon was part of a conflict over
properforms of Christiandivination,"the endeavorto obtain information
about things future or otherwise removed from ordinaryperception,by
consultinginformantsother than human."86Among the characteristicsof
divinationare thatit takesplace accordingto socially constructedrules and
proceduresand that the divinerclaims not to speak for himself or herself
but to function merely as "a medium, or mediator,of an externalvoice
(god, spirit, ancestor,etc.)."87Thus, the martyrenthusiastsdeveloped a
system of divinationfocused on the corpses of martyrs,in which a possessed person delivered supernaturalinformationas the mouthpiecefor
83T.Mos.

8-lo.

Epistulae festales 41 [Coptic],in Lefort,S. Athanase, 26 lines 11, 18.


84Athanasius
8sAthanasiusEpistulae festales 39 [Coptic],in Lefort,S. Athanase, 20 lines 31-33.
86H.J. Rose, "Divination(IntroductoryandPrimitive),"ERE 4 (1911) 775. On divination
in ancientGreece and Rome, see Georg Luck,Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the
JohnsHopkinsUniversityPress, 1985) 229Greek and Roman Worlds (Baltimore/London:
305.
87J.SamuelPreus("SecularizingDivination:SpiritualBiographyandthe Inventionof the
Novel," JAAR 59 [1991] 444-45) drawson numerousanthropologicalstudies.

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HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

demonsor martyrs.Writingssuch as the Martyrdomand Ascension of Isaiah


groundedthis practicein biblicalauthority.Athanasius,in contrast,offered
a set of books that excludedsuch visionarywritingsand which itself functioned as a means of divination,for it was the mediumof the voice of
Christ. He belittled the oracles received at martyrshrines as mediating
mere "wordsfrom earth,"while one should seek "the Word of God who
speaks from heaven."88Athanasiussuggestedthat Christianscould obtain
access to this Wordif they would "call upon Christ,"who would respond
"in a dreamor by speakingin theirheart."89
As we saw above, Athanasius's
biblical canon also mediatedthe voice of the Word directlyand thus representeda means of divinationsuperiorto the oracles at martyrshrines.
Thus, Athanasius'sthirty-ninthFestal Letter exemplifies JonathanZ.
Smith'scross-culturalprinciplethat the primarysocial context of the religious canon is divination.90The proceduresof divinationclarify the relationshipbetweencanonicalbooks and their interpreter:
just as the Ndembu
divinerdiscernsthe truthin all situationsby shakingonly twenty-fourfixed
objects in a basket and readingthem, so too the Christianexegete must
divine God'swordfor every situationby readinga fixed set of writings.As
a closed list, a canon requiresinterpreters,personstrainedand authorized
to carry out the "exegeticaltotalization"requiredby such textual limitation.91Athanasiusindeedestablisheda fixed set of books and believed the
orthodoxbishop to be the authorizeddivinerof those books. He presented
his predecessorBishopAlexanderas a learnedexpositorof the Bible "and
the Gospels were in his hand,for he was a long-timelover of reading"and himself as the faithfultransmitterof episcopaltradition.92
Thushe also
told the monksof Caesareato submitto the teachingof theirbishop,Basil,
who, like all orthodoxepiscopalinterpreters,read scripturein termsof its
"scope"(CYKOZO5),which Athanasiusunderstoodto be a narrativesummary
of the preincarnateand incarnateexistence of God the Word.93Since the
churchwas the locus of the salvationachieved by the Word, the proper
88Athanasius Epistulae festales 42 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 66 lines 7-25.
89Athanasius Epistulae festales 42 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 66 lines 3-7.
90JonathanZ. Smith, "Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon," in idem,
Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism;
Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 36-52, esp. 50.
9lIbid., 50-51.
92AthanasiusEpistula ad virgines [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 91 lines 5-12; Athanasius
Epistulae festales 39 [Coptic], in Lefort, S. Athanase, 21 lines 11-15. On the authenticity of
the Letter to Virgins preserved in Coptic, see David Brakke, "The Authenticity of the Ascetic
Athanasiana," Or 63 (1994) 17-56, esp. 19-25.
93Athanasius Epistula ad Palladium; James D. Ernest, "Athanasius of Alexandria: The
Scope of Scripture in Polemical and Pastoral Context," VC 47 (1993) 341-62.

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417

meaningof scripturewould always be "churchly"(KKkllcslacstlKo5)


and
"reverent"(l)aa115).94 Thus,Athanasius'spromulgationof a closed canon
was an attemptat social formationand control;it regulateddivinationand
access to truthby restrictingthe books to be read (only these and no others), establishingan authoritativediviner(the orthodoxbishop),and articulating a standardof interpretation(the church'sdoctrineof the incarnate
Word).It was Athanasius'sgoal to set up an alternativemode of divination
to that offered by his Melitian opponents,one that dependednot on the
charismaticauthorityof martyrdom,but on the limited yet totalizingfunction of a biblical canon and its orthodoxepiscopalreader.
g

TheCanonsof theTeacher,Martyr,andBishop

Athanasius'sattemptto establisha closed canon of Christianscriptures


in fourth-century
Egyptwas not merelya battleover book lists; it was even
more a conflict amongauthoritativepersonsand the social institutionsand
practicesthat surroundedthem, which includedscripture.Scriptureis itself
essentially a social phenomenon,the creationnot of literaturebut of communities that grant authorityto certainworks of literatureand to certain
persons.95The teacheris an example of one such authoritativeperson in
ancientChristianity.Schools or study circles that valued philosophicaldiversity, individualprogressin knowledgeand discipline, and the personal
bondingbetweenteacherand studentdevelopedaroundthe teacher,and the
teacher'scanon of scriptureswas a flexible one, serving as both the function and tool of the gifted Christian'spursuitof truthand wisdom.Another
such figure was the martyr,whose sufferingand faithfulendurancewon for
him or her a particularshareof the Holy Spiritand special revelations.In
Athanasius'stime the martyrwas presentto other Christiansprimarilyin
his or her corpse;cultic communitiesdevotedto the exampleof the martyr's
enduranceand to continuingrevelationsthroughthe martyr'sspirit developed aroundthe martyr'scorpse.The martyr'scanonreflectedthese values,
for it included works that recountedthe spectacularvisions of biblical
martyrsand legitimatedthe receptionof spiritualtruthin the martyrcult.
Yet anotherauthoritativeChristianpersonwas the bishop;parishchurches
dispensedthe divinizingpower of the Word of God in preachingand the
sacramentsand demonstratedthe social power of the bishop throughcharity and other patronage.The bishop'scanon was a definite set of books
which were read in public worshipand expoundedby the bishop. Its uniform characterdemonstratedunity with Christiansof the past and of dif94Athanasius
OrationescontraArianos1.44;idem,De decretisNicaenaesynodi13;Ernest,
"Athanasiusof Alexandria,"347-48.
95Graham,
"Scripture,"134; idem, Beyondthe WrittenWord,5-6.

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ferentregions in the present.96While the canonsof the teacherand martyr


were in a sense dependenton the priorauthorityof the charismaticperson,
Athanasiusdeniedthis was the case for his canonby claimingthat he was
transmittingdecisions made long ago by the apostlesand preservedby the
interveninggenerations.In fact, however, the authorityof the bishop, as
guarantorof the tradition,legitimizedthe closed canon.
Consideredin termsof a conflict amongsocial groupsand theircompeting types of canons,the success of Athanasius'sprogramappearsless clear
thanit mightotherwise.To be sure, it was Athanasius'slist of the books of
the New Testamentthat eventually prevailed in worldwideChristianity,
althoughit would be difficult to attributethis developmentto Athanasius's
Festal Letter alone. The evidence from fourth-centuryEgypt is mixed.
Theodore,the Pachomianleader,readAthanasius'sletterto his monks,but
what effect it had we cannotsay.97It is possible that the burialof a hoard
of manuscriptsof diverse Christianwritings across the Nile from Nag
Hammadiindicatespressureto conformto Athanasianorthodoxy,but this
is mere speculation.Meanwhile,two codices of the Bible that possiblybut not certainly originatedin fourth-century
AlexandriafeatureNew Testaments larger than Athanasius's:Codex Sinaiticusplaces Barnabas, the
Shepherdof Hermas,and possibly other works after Revelation;in Codex
Alexandrinus,1 Clementandpartof 2 Clementfollow Revelation.98
Didymus
the Blind, the head of the catecheticalschool until his death in 398, used
a canonthatincludedthe Shepherd,the Didache,Barnabas,and I Clement;
his attitudetowardscripture,moreover,was reminiscentof thatof Origen.99
The exampleof Didymusindicatesthe persistenceof academicChristianity
and its distinctivetype of biblical canon after Athanasius.Twentieth-centuryscholarlydebatesover the statusof the canon,provokedby the discovery of previouslylost earlyChristianwritings,maybe seen as a contemporary
manifestation of the ancient tension between episcopal and academic
Christianities.Moreover,Athanasius'scampaignagainstthe martyrcult was
ineffective:its persistentrise and elaborationin ChristianEgypt and elsewhere are well knownfeaturesof early medievalChristianity.Ratherthan
96Tetz, "Athanasius und die Einheit," 205-7.
97Lifeof Pachomius 189 [Bohairic Coptic], in ArmandVeilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia
(3 vols.; Cistercian Studies 45-47; Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980) 1. 230-32;
Louis-Theophile Lefort, "Theodore de Tabennese et la lettre de S. Athanase sur le canon de
la Bible," Mus 29 (1910) 205-16.
98Geoffrey Mark Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon
(Oxford Theological Monographs; Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) 165-70.
99BartD. Ehrman, "The New Testament Canon of Didymus the Blind," VC 37 (1983) 121.

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419

being replaced,these alternativeformsof Christianitysurvivedin ways that


at varioustimes coheredand conflictedwith the hierarchicalepiscopateand
its closed canon of scriptures.Thus, Athanasius'sFestal Letter, far from
being the decisive climax, was merely a signal momentin an ongoingprocess of Christianself-definition.To speakof the historyof the formationof
the single Christianbiblical canon may oversimplifythe developmentand
interactionof diverse forms of early Christianpiety, which carriedwith
them unique practicesof scripturalcollection and interpretation that is,
differentkinds of canons.