Thursday, September 16, 2010

Did Athanasius reject the Deuterocanon?

Catholic and many Orthodox Bibles have 7 more books in their Old Testaments than most modern Protestant translations of the Bible. The books in Catholic or Orthodox Bibles called the Deuterocanon (known to some Christians as "Apocrypha") are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 & 2 Maccabees.1 It is not uncommon to read an apologetic against the Deuterocanon that appeals to the 4th century's St. Athanasius as having "rejected" those books. An example of such an apologetic can be seen at sites like which said Athanasius "spoke against the Apocrypha," or which goes so far as to say Athanasius "vehemently opposed their use."

The citation of Athanasius to support this argument is from his Letter 39. The apologist will claim Athanasius listed the books of the Old Testament and did not include the Deuterocanon. Athanasius then follows this list with the words:
These are the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.
However, a closer examination reveals the error in concluding Athanasius rejected the Deuterocanon as Scriptural. Here is the entirety of his preceding paragraph listing the books of the Old Testament:
There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.
Some observations:
  • Athanasius absorbed Baruch, a Deuterocanonical book, as part of the book of Jeremiah.
  • The "epistle" of Jeremiah is also known as the final chapter of Baruch, indicating Athanasius accepted Baruch in its entirety.
  • The book of Esther, which is accepted as Scriptural by the same apologists who appeal to Athanasius to condemn the Deuterocanon, is missing from his list.
These observations alone are enough to dispel the myth that Athanasius "rejected the Deuterocanon." But there is more.

In the final paragraph of Letter 39 is this closing:
But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles [i.e. Didache], and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.
It is again, time for more observations:
  • Esther, which both Protestant and Catholic Bibles have in their canons today, is included among the other Deuterocanonical books according to Athanasius.
  • Perhaps more importantly is that Athanasius considered this group of books in a class distinct from "apocryphal writings." The apocryphal writings, he said, are "heretical."
Athanasius said these books are indeed read in churches by those new to the faith who "wish for instruction in the word of godliness." Remember, only one paragraph earlier Athanasius said the canonical books "alone...proclaimed the doctrine of godliness." Yet in the next paragraph he said the books in question were read by those who "wish for instruction in the word of godliness." And he said his purpose for writing this last paragraph was for "greater exactness."

In other words, Athanasius considered these additional Deuterocanonical books in a class something other than "canonical" Scripture yet not "apocryphal." In modern times, we are tempted to consider an ancient religious text as either one of two things: either canonical Scripture or apocryphal literature. Yet in Letter 39, Athanasius expressed a third class of writing which he assigned to these Deuterocanonical books.

So would it be fair to say Athanasius considered these Deuterocanonical books Scriptural but not in a class of "canonical" Scripture? A specific example is revealing:
But of these and such like inventions of idolatrous madness, Scripture taught us beforehand long ago, when it said, "The devising of idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them, the corruption of life." (Athanasius, Against the Heathen, #11)
The "Scripture" Athanasius cited here is from a Deuterocanonical book. It is Wisdom 14:12. Therefore, even though he did not list Wisdom among canonical Scripture, he still considered the text "Scripture."

I cannot conclude without mentioning another error in the apologist's quest to condemn the Deuterocanon. Even if Athanasius were indeed opposed to the Scriptural quality of all the Deuterocanonical books, that would not automatically affect the Catholic position. This would still hold true even if 2 or 3 or 10 Early Church Fathers (ECFs) were found to explicitly reject the Scriptural quality of the Deuterocanon. There are numerous ECFs who clearly support the Scriptural quality of the Deuterocanon such as St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Hippolytus, and countless others. The Church has been given the guarantee for such theological discernment. The same canon was affirmed at the local councils at Rome, Hippo, and Carthage in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Subsequent ecumenical councils, Florence in the 15th century and Trent in the 16th century, confirmed the ancient local councils. These all included the Deuterocanon.

Thus, the attempt to discredit the Deutercanon by finding some ECFs who opposed them would merely showcase the need for the Church to intervene and accept the Spirit's guidance. This is exactly what occurred in Acts 15 when some of the Church leaders believed in the necessity of circumcision while others did not. That council in Acts 15 conclude that circumcision was not mandatory for salvation. To cite after the fact the contrary opinions of any handful of pro-circumcision Church leaders is an erroneous way to discredit the discernment of the council.

One final note is regarding the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. St. Athanasius doesn't mention these two Deuterocanonical books in Letter 39. However, I would contend the evidence leans toward Athanasius having an affinity for them. In his Espositiones in Psalmos, line 05667, he praises the righteous shedding of blood by the Maccabees. More than likely, he knows this from the books of the Maccabees since that moniker does not appear in the Jewish Talmud or Midrash "where the family is always referred to as 'the Hasmoneans.'"

1Longer versions of Esther and Daniel are also classified as Deuterocanonical even though those portions are not considered entirely separate books. There also appears to be some diversity on a precise canon in the Orthodox Church according to Orthodox priest Fr. R. Stergiou, although these variations include more, not less, books than the Catholic and other Orthodox canons.


  1. This blog about the Deuterocanon and St. Athanasius is equivalent to a grand slam that was hit over the Green Monster of Fenway Park. I really enjyoed this explanation. It is amazing how we don't see the Early Church Fathers calling the Deuterocanon an erroneous word like apocrypha

  2. Cyril of Jerusalem does not mention any of the deteurocanical books, but includes BAruch and the epistle (I suppose the letter of Jeremy) as canon.

  3. Although this blog post is not about Cyril, I will point out that Cyril did cite the Deuterocanonical books often including Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, and the Deuterocanonical sections of Daniel.

    For example:

    In his Catechetical lecture 11.15 (, he quotes Baruch 3:36-38.

    In his Catechetical lecture 9.2 and 9:16 (, he quotes Wisdom 13:5.

    In Catechetical lecture 6.4 (, he quotes Sirach 3:21-22 right along side Psalm 147:4.