An Easter Letter and the Canon Heard ‘Round the World

There’s an unbreakable link between the Christian belief in Easter and the Bible. “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” the oldest creed states, “That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15). These are the words that were on the lips of the first disciples shortly after the first Easter Sunday.

Not only is this connection plain in the creed Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15, it is a value evident throughout the early church. There’s a letter from a fourth century church leader named Athanasius illustrating this point. Athanasius was a remarkable pastor who got kicked out of his church over and over again. When he wasn’t being exiled and chased about, he was the Bishop of Alexandria. It was common for church leaders in the fourth century to write letters for significant events in the life of the church. His Easter letter from AD 367 is a big deal for the main reason that he gives us a list of all the books of the New Testament.

You might wonder why that matters. If you can’t rattle off a list of the New Testament books by memory, you can certainly find it by quickly turning to the table of contents in your English translation of the Bible. It’s a big deal for Athanasius because this is an early list of what scholars call the canon, the collection of inspired writings that make up the New Testament. Here’s a bit of what Athanasius wrote:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

I’ve heard skeptics take issue with the fact it wasn’t until the fourth century that we get a formal list of the New Testament books. Why did it take so long? Well, how long should it have taken?

The stories of Jesus first spread by word of mouth. People who believed in Jesus were eager to share what they had seen with their own eyes. In time, God’s Spirit inspired accounts of Jesus’s life, what we call Gospels, written by apostles and their close associates. As the church grew, the apostles wrote letters, what we call epistles, to the churches so Christians could know what they should believe and how they should live.

The final book of the Bible, Revelation, begins with letters to churches as well. It was written sometime in towards the end of the first century (circa. AD 95). So, how long should we expect it to take this new movement of fledgling churches to publicly declare what they believed to be the canon of the New Testament?

As mentioned earlier, many immediately say it wasn’t until the fourth century with Athanasius that it becomes clear what Christians believed was the New Testament. But that’s not entirely accurate.¬†We have early evidence of Christians drawing from all the New Testament authors.

It’s not reasonable to think a persecuted group of believers who were risking their lives to merely receive, copy, and transmit Scripture, to hold some sort of public conference to give a definitive list of New Testament books. But we do have evidence the authors and books of the New Testament were accepted very earlier, even before Athanasius’s Easter letter. One scholar has argued the early church had a functional canon long before they had a formal list. Often we see this functional canon in response to sketchy views of God, what we call heresy.

Consider the heretic known as Marcion. He was born in the first century and was alive when John was writing the book of Revelation. Marcion didn’t want any part of this new religious way that was so indebted to Judaism. He promoted a religion where people take Jesus seriously, but get rid of the grumpy God of the Old Testament. Marcion’s “Bible” consisted of zero Old Testament, an edited form of Luke’s gospel, and some (not all) of Paul’s letters. He wasn’t a fan of John’s gospel, letters, or the book of Revelation.

In the second century, less than a hundred years after John wrote Revelation, a church leader named Tertullian challenged Marcion’s lingering influence. Tertullian argues against Marcion drawing upon all the New Testament authors except for James. Another early example is Origen, writing in the third century. Origen gives us a list of the New Testament books which he describes as twenty-seven “trumpets hammered thin.” His list is over a century before the Easter letter of Athanasius.

Though he wasn’t the first to give us an insider’s view of the canon of the early church, Athanasius’s list is important. I love how he saw the reception of Scripture as a means of joy:

. . . concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

So, as you prepare to celebrate Easter, think about the canon heard ’round the world. The serpent-crushing child promised in the opening chapters of Genesis is the Word made flesh in the Gospel of John. John’s gospel penned at the end of the first century is listed by Tertullian in the second century, Origen in the third century, and Athanasius in the fourth. Very early on, Christians received the text of Scripture with great joy seeing it as the very foundation of the faith testifying to the resurrection of the Son of God.