Athanasius’ canon of Scripture, presented in his 39th Festal letter is famous. It’s not nearly as famous as his “Athanasius Contra Mundum” rejection of the Arian heresy, but it is probably the second most famous aspect of Athanasius’ life today (his excellent letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms was famous in ancient times and perhaps we can revitalize interest in that excellent work as well).
The most famous aspect of Athanasius’ canon of Scripture is the fact that his list of New Testament books is the earliest list that we have that is exactly right without expressing doubt about any of the canonical books. Another famous aspect of Athanasius’ canon of Scripture, however, was his attempt to follow the 22-book Hebrew canon. In doing so, he gets it mostly right, despite the fact that he omits Esther and counts Ruth separately from Judges. In particular, Athanasius explicitly rejected many of the so-called deuterocanonical books.
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, 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.
Greek: Ἀλλ’ ἕνεκά γε πλείονος ἀκριβείας προστίθημι καὶ τοῦτο γράφων ἀναγκαίως, ὡς ὅτι ἔστι καὶ ἕτερα βιβλία τούτων ἔξωθεν, οὐ κανονιζόμενα μέν, τετυπωμένα δὲ παρὰ τῶν πατέρων ἀναγινώσκεσθαι τοῖς ἄρτι προσερχομένοις καὶ βουλομένοις κατηχεῖσθαι τὸν τῆς εὐσεβείας λόγον· Σοφία Σολομῶντος καὶ Σοφία Σιρὰχ καὶ Ἑσθὴρ καὶ Ἰουδὶθ καὶ Τωβίας καὶ Διδαχὴ καλουμένη τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ ὁ Ποιμήν. Καὶ ὅμως, ἀγαπητοί, κἀκείνων κανονιζομένων, καὶ τούτων ἀναγινωσκομένων, οὐδαμοῦ τῶν ἀποκρύφων μνήμη, ἀλλὰ αἱρετικῶν ἐστιν ἐπίνοια, γραφόντων μὲν ὅτε θέλουσιν αὐτά, χαριζομένων δὲ καὶ προστιθέντων αὐτοῖς χρόνους, ἵνα ὡς παλαιὰ προφέροντες, πρόφασιν ἔχωσιν ἀπατᾶν ἐκ τούτου τοὺς ἀκεραίους.
– Athanasius, Festal Letter 39, Section 7.
As James Swan has noted, however, Roman Catholic Bibles are Bigger than Athanasius’ Bible. They include “The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit,” which Athanasius indicated that he did not accept as part of the canon of inspired Scripture.
Roman Catholic lay author Gary Michuta provides numerous alleged examples from Athanasius, where Athanasius is allegedly quoting the apocrypha as scripture. One in particular is of interest:
Athanasius calls the Book of Judith Scripture. (FN: See Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 2.35, [L. Deus autem non ut homo est, quemadmodum testatur Scriptura], quoting Jdt 13:15. See Breen, Introduction, 374.)
– Gary Michuta Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, p. 122.
A careful investigation of this claim requires us to take a look at Judith 13:15. My friend James Swan found the following:
- Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition: “And all ran to meet her from the least to the greatest: for they now had no hopes that she would come.”
- Vulgate: “et concurrerunt ad eam omnes a minimo usque ad maximum quoniam speraverunt eam iam non esse venturam.”
- KJV: “So she took the head out of the bag, and shewed it, and said unto them, behold the head of Holofernes, the chief captain of the army of Assur, and behold the canopy, wherein he did lie in his drunkenness; and the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman.”
There’s nothing close to these in Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 2.35 (see page 367). This may seem somewhat puzzling. The puzzle begins to be resolved when one examines the secondary source on which Michuta was relying (amusingly, Michuta’s ccArmstrong in tertiary-sourcing the subject avoids this particular problem when he relies on Michuta, because he cuts off Michuta’s footnote).
Michuta’s reference to “Breen” is apparently a reference to A.E. Breen, A General and Critical Introduction to the Holy Scripture, [Rochester, New York: John P. Smith Printing House, 1897]
The puzzle increases, because there’s nothing about Judith or Athanasius on page 374 of this book. A little further searching leads to some mention that appears relevant. On page 155, Breen does present a list of similarities from Athansius citing the Apocrypha:
“…non enim quasi homo, sic Deus comminabitur, neque sicut filius hominis ad iracundiam inflammabitur.”
Idem contra Arianos, Orat. II.35
” ‘Deus autem non ut homo est, quemadmodum testatur Scriptura.’ “
Breen is quoting the following from Athanasius:
But God is not as man, as Scripture has said; but is existing and is ever; therefore also His Word is existing* and is everlastingly with the Father, as radiance of light And man’s word is composed of syllables, and neither lives nor operates anything, but is only significant of the speaker’s intention, and does but go forth and go by, no more to appear, since it was not at all before it was spoken;
Breen makes the following comment:
To judge rightly St. Athanasius’ attitude towards Holy Scripture, we must recall what has been said respecting Meliton. We must readily admit that in these ages a distinction was made between the two classes of books, but it did not deny divine inspiration to the deuterocanonical works. A greater dignity was given by some Fathers to the books that had come down to the Church from the Jews; but these same Fathers testify to the veneration in which the deuterocanonical works were held by the Church, and to the part they played in the life of the faithful. It must also be borne in mind that Athanasius flourished in Alexandria the fertile source of Apocrypha, and in his zeal to repel the inventions of heretics he was most conservative in treating the Canon. His location of Esther among the deuterocanonical books is unique, and was probably caused by the sanguinary character of the book, which also led some Jews to doubt of its divine inspiration.
His omission of Maccabees seems to be an oversight since he adverts to their history in his writings. We do not seek to establish that the status of the two classes of books was the same with Athanasius; but we judge it evident from his writings that he venerated these same books as divine, although not equal in extrinsic authority to the books officially handed down from the Jews. The testimony of Athanasius that the Fathers of the Church had decreed that these books should be read in the Church manifests clearly the Church’s attitude towards these books; and the following passages, taken from the writings of Athanasius, show how deeply he also had drunk from these founts.
There are several layers of issues and problems that unravel this puzzle.
Typo in the Reference
It looks like the reference (XIII:15) is a typo.
Judith VIII:15 is
- Vulgate: “non enim quasi homo Deus sic comminabitur neque sicut filius hominis ad iracundiam inflammabitur”
- Douay-Rheims Bible translates this as: “For God will not threaten like man, nor be inflamed to anger like the son of man.” (which appears to be an accurate translation of the Latin)
- Corresponding King James version (via the original Greek) has: “Do not bind the counsels of the Lord our God: for God is not as man, that he may be threatened; neither is he as the son of man, that he should be wavering.” (Judith 8:16, in the KJV)
- Greek: ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ ἐνεχυράζετε τὰς βουλὰς κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν, ὅτι οὐχ ὡς ἄνθρωπος ὁ θεὸς ἀπειληθῆναι οὐδ᾿ ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου διαιτηθῆναι. (Judith 8:16, in the LXX)
The second layer of problems for Michuta and Breen is an ambiguous reference. The second quotation he provided (for comparison in Athanasius’ works) is from Athanasius’ Four Orations against the Arians, Discourse 2, Section 35. Here is the relevant English translation in its immediate context:
Now man, begotten in time, in time also himself begets the child; and whereas from nothing he came to be, therefore his word also is over and continues not. But God is not as man, as Scripture has said; but is existing and is ever; therefore also His Word is existing and is everlastingly with the Father, as radiance of light.
ὁ δὲ θεὸς οὐχ ὡς ἄνθροπός ἐστι, τοῦτο γὰρ εἶπεν ἡ γραφή [fn1], ἀλλ’ ὤν ἐστι καὶ ἀεί ἐστι [fn2] (Greek: http://books.google.com/books?id=1GFKVqzjTzAC&pg=PA358&lpg=PA358 )
Fn1: Judith 8:16 [15 Vulgate] Fn2: Exodus 3:14
Perhaps you notice the issue: immediately following “as Scripture has said” there is a Scripture text from Exodus 3:14.
Furthermore, even assuming the ambiguous reference is to the phrase preceding “as Scripture has said,” the “οὐχ ὡς ἄνθρωπος ὁ θεὸς” is the LXX for Numbers 23:19, and Judith 8:16 has exactly the same “οὐχ ὡς ἄνθρωπος ὁ θεὸς,” at least according to my LXX (I’m not aware of any reason to think that Athanasius’ LXX differed on this point). Thus, especially in view of Athanasius’ explicit rejection of Judith as being part of the inspired Word of God, it seems unreasonable to conclude that this reference in Athanasius is a statement that Judith is canonical Scripture.
What is amusing about this from my standpoint is that Michuta is obviously relying solely on his secondary source, Breen. Furthermore, Breen has overlooked (for whatever reason) the apparently equally good canonical reference to Numbers 23:19, possibly based on familiarity only with the Latin translation, or other secondary reference (such as the source I’ve linked above, which provides only the apocryphal reference).