By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

Athanasius was an early Bishop of Alexandria who had an important role in establishing the New Testament as we know it.

  • Athanasius was born in Alexandria in about 296 CE and died in 373 CE.
  • Tradition suggests that he came from a well-to-do family, though little is known about them.
  • Athanasius had a first-class education, typically reserved for children of wealthy families.
  • At that time, Alexandria was a very important trade center and well known for its intellectual and cultural advantages.

Role in Early Christianity

  • Athanasius lived at a time when the Church was coming into its own as a bone fide religion.
  • At some point, he was taken under the tutelage of Bishop Alexander.
  • Legend has it that the Bishop was watching a group of boys playing outside his window. Athanasius was playing the part of "Bishop" and was baptizing the other boys. The Bishop decided to take the game seriously by providing the proper catholic education and that, supposedly, was the beginning of Athanasius' career.
  • Shortly thereafter, Athanasius became the Bishop's secretary.
  • In this position, he became acquainted with many renowned personalities of the day. His response was to be ever more diligent in his practice of Christianity.


  • Athanasius was barely out of his teens when he published his first writings on the Incarnation of Christ and his eternal relation to the Father.
  • In 318 CE, Arius (a priest of Alexandria) began writing that Jesus had been created by the Father and, hence, was not co-eternal.
  • Several bishops condemned Arius, but that did not stop him from writing letters to bishops throughout the world.

Council of Nicene

  • The Emperor Constantine tried to ameliorate the differences by calling a council of bishops, which met in Nicea in 325 CE, to resolve the issue.
  • Of the 1800 bishops that were invited, roughly 300 gathered.
  • In the company of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius was allowed to speak to the issue and argued for the viewpoint that Jesus was fully God and co-eternal with the Father.
  • The council eventually voted with Alexander and Athanasius, resulting in the Nicene Creed.
  • Those who refused to accept the Nicene Creed (by this time only Arius and a handful of bishops) were exiled.
  • The works of Arius were decreed to be heretical and were to be burned. Anyone found in possession of his writings would face execution.


  • One might assume that this would have ended the controversy, but such was not the case. Several bishops worked to come up with a compromise.
  • Meanwhile, Bishop Alexander died in 328 CE and was succeeded by Athanasius, who refused to consider any type of compromise. The Emperor then labeled him a “troublemaker.”
  • Athanasius was periodically banished from Alexandria for his “troublemaking.”

Making of the New Testament

  • A polarizing figure, Athanasius had his detractors, as well as his supporters. Accusations included acts of violence and murder as well as using the Church for his personal gain.
  • Nonetheless, Athanasius is known as the "Father of Orthodoxy."
  • In 367 CE, Athanasius wrote an annual letter to his churches, called a “Festal” letter. The main purpose of these annual letters was to inform people when Easter would be for the following year.
  • The letter that he sent in 367 CE was his 39th "Festal" letter.
  • Athanasius used the letter as a vehicle to inform the churches under his authority that 27 Christian books had been chosen as the New Testament.
  • This is the first record of NT Scripture.
  • Athanasius commanded the churches under his authority not to read anything but the New Testament books.
  • He also used this opportunity to give pastoral advice and guidance.
  • Athanasius did accept the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha.

Accepting the Canon

  • Some scholars refer to the date of 367 CE as the "closing of the canon." This suggests that by this time everyone agreed on which books to include.
  • However, debates continued over the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermes. Others were not happy that 2 Peter, as well as 2 and 3 John made the cut.
  • It is well documented that some churches did, in fact, add or subtract from Athanasius' list.
  • Most churches accepted the list by acclamation, but this list wasn't ratified until the mid-sixteenth century at the Council of Trent.
  • Athanasius died peacefully in 373 CE surrounded by his supporters. He was venerated as a saint shortly thereafter. His feast is celebrated by Western Churches on the anniversary of his death, May 2.

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