I recently posted Athanasius Contra Michuta #1. That entry led to the following e-mail question: “I was reading Athanasius on the canon and I noticed he included Esther in the apocryphal category but Esther is part of canonical Scripture. Can you briefly comment on this?”
Roman Catholic apologist Gary Michuta likewise brings out this point in Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007) along with mentioning Athanasius includes Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah in the canon. Mr. Michuta quotes the Thirty-ninth Festal letter canon list and then comments,
Protestant apologists focus on the fact that twenty-two books are described as having been canonized; making up, as they would argue, an exhaustive list since Athanasius seems to insist that “in these [books] alone, the Christian doctrine is taught.” The great fourth century champion, therefore has been shown to have accepted the Protestant canon, and consigned everything outside that canon to the category of human apocrypha. This argument errs on a number of points.
Most obviously, the books Athansius listed as “canonical” do not correspond to the Protestant canon; he places the book of Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah among the ‘canon,’ but deliberately omits the book of Esther from the list and places it among those that are read. This canon, in fact, is unique to Athanasius himself; no other writer uses it and all other Christians canons, then and now, differ from it”[Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007), pp. 108-109. Emphasis in the original].
First, Jewish history shows the Old Testament was counted as either twenty-two or twenty-four books. Josephus states, “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books” [Against Apion 1.8]. Athanasius likewise is aware of this tradition: “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…” [NPNF2 Vol.4, Athanasius, Letter 39.2-7]. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Epiphanius and Amphilochius, as well as other ancient voices likewise concur with this tradition. So when Protestants focus on a twenty-two book canon, they do so as the result of historical inquiry. We don’t argue that Athansius presents an infallible exhaustive list, but that he’s aware the Hebrew canon was limited to a particular number, and that number is different than that canonized by Trent. The canon presented by Athanasius is far closer in semblance to that found in Protestant Bibles. Athanasius leaves out the bulk of the apocrypha.
Second, Michuta states Athanasius “places the book of Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah among the canon.” This wording is deliberately ambiguous. Athanasius states “then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle” as part of his Old Testament list. For Athanasius, Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah were included as additional material to Jeremiah (he probably also included the apocryphal additional material added to Daniel). He did not consider them separate books. Did he do so to try and sneak apocryphal material into the Bible? No he mistakenly thought these were part of the actual book of Jeremiah. Why was this the case? William Webster points out that it appears there was an expansion of the Hebrew canon, but involving no addition to the number of the books in the East during the fourth century. He states:
It should be noted though, that following the Septuagint, many [Eastern fathers] included Septuagint 1 Esdras with Ezra-Nehemiah, the Epistle of Jeremiah and Baruch with Jeremiah and Bel and the Dragon, The Song of the Three Children and Susanna as additions to the book of Daniel [William Webster, Holy Scripture The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Volume II, (Battle Ground: Christian Resources, 2001) p.340].
Roger Beckwith states:
The other two additions to the Greek text of Daniel besides the Song of the Three Holy Children, namely, Susanna and Bel & the Dragon, are more self-contained and usually carry their own subtitles. They were probably once independent. Indeed, the latter addition, in the original Septuagint, even begins by naming a source, ‘From the prophecy of Habakkuk the son of Joshua, of the tribe of Levi’ suggesting that it may have originated in an apocryphal work under the name of Habakkuk. Nevertheless, in the Septuagint version the two additions have become a thirteenth and fourteenth chapter of Daniel, while in the other Greek version used in the early church they form a first and last chapter. As the Jewish translator responsible for this latter version, Theodotion, included them in the revision of the Septuagint which is what his translation was, although he apparently omitted the independent apocryphal books, they had probably already been appended to Greek Daniel in the Jewish period. It is therefore not surprising that Irenaeus can quote Susanna with the expression ‘Those words which come from Daniel the ‘Prophet’ (Against Heresies 4.26.3), or that Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.21, or 1.123.3f.) and Tertullian (On Idolatry 17-18, On Fasting 7) can pass straight from the events of the earlier part of Daniel to those of Bel and the Dragon, as belonging to the same historical sequence. Hippolytus, likewise, in his Commentary on Daniel, expounds Susanna as the opening part of the book, and at least makes reference to Bel & the Dragon, though without actually expounding it (Commentary 2.26). Even the Syrian expositor Polychronius, who declines to expound the Song of the Three, includes in his Commentary on Daniel an exposition of Bel & the Dragon, as its final item. In the Syriac Bible, known to Polychronius, Susanna often gets separated from Daniel and Bel, but in the Greek and Old Latin Bibles, and among most of the Fathers who use them, both these additions are treated as if they were part of the text of Daniel, without the canonical question being raised. And even when it is first raised, by Julius Africanus in his Letter to Origen, he receives an answer which prevents it being raised again until the end of the fourth century.
(viii) Just as apocryphal items were appended (or prefixed) to LXX Daniel, so the same was done to LXX Jeremiah. Here there was also a canonical appendix, Lamentations, which in the Greek Bible is preceded by Baruch and followed by the Epistle of Jeremy, while in the Latin Bible it is followed by Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy combined in one, in the form in which they stand in the English Apocrypha. There is reason to think that, as in the case of Daniel, the Septuagint appendices had at least begun to be added in the Jewish period; and, as in the case of Daniel once more, this was presumably done for the same purposes of edification as motivated the midrashic expansions included in some books of the Septuagint within their text. We consequently find early Greek Fathers regarding Baruch as part of Jeremiah, and frequently quoting it under Jeremiah?s own name, and early Latin Fathers doing the same. So here again it is less a question of canonicity that confronts us than a question of the text. What has happened is that edifying additions have been made to the translated text of Jeremiah, as to that of Daniel, which do not really pretend to the same authority, but are bound before long to be treated as if they did, by readers unacquainted with the original. [Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 340-342].
But what about Esther? Why did Athanasius leave it out of his twenty-two book list? Well to apply Gary’s Michuta’s own logic, the book of Esther is canonical because Athanasius cites from it “in a manner commensurate with sacred scripture,” and Athanasius confessed that his canonical list is in itself not completely accurate. I don’t accept either of Michuta’s answers, but it does show the reasoning employed by Mr. Michuta backfires. He wants it both ways. He wants to argue that the list from Athanasius describes all of divine Scripture with minor distinctions, but against Protestants he wants to argue Esther was left out of the sacred canon.
I’m not aware of any further clarification from Athanasius on Esther. It’s common knowledge that the book of Esther was considered antilegomena: a book previously disputed but ultimately considered canonical. Therefore, that Athanasius didn’t include it in his primary canon list isn’t such a stretch. The book of Esther is simply proving that there were in fact those who doubted its canonicty, both within Judaism and the church. In other words, Esther is living up to its pedigree of antilegomena. It could be Athanasius was simply following Melito. Melito does not mention Esther or classify it as apocrypha (Some speculate he may have actually left it out by mistake because one way of counting his list only adds up to twenty-one books). The Greek version of Esther includes 107 verses that is classified as apocrypha. Perhaps this factored into the decision of Athanasius. Without any explicit statements from Athanasius, one can only speculate.