It is the 7th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 367.
The 360s were a rollicking time for both the Roman Empire and the consolidating Christian church. Here are a few highlights. The barbarians were officially at the gates, goths, Visigoths, and Huns. Just a coincidence, we will talk about them on tomorrow’s show. Constantinus II, the son of Constantine the Great, was emperor. His reign was marked by divisions and wars, even the prospect of a civil war. Julian, known to history as “Julian the Apostate,” proclaimed himself Augustus. This would have led to civil war if Constantinus II hadn’t conveniently died.
But it wasn’t just Emperors and anti-Emperors. We have a pope/anti-pope sighting in this decade as well. With Pope Liberius dying, Damasus became Pope. And while he would become an important Pope for his encouragement of Jerome, there was a considerable crowd that thought Liberius should be succeeded by the deacon Ursinus. Ursinus would claim to be Pope for a few months before he died. The church has officially recognized him as an anti-pope.
Athanasius was on and off the scene during these years, with Constantinus favoring Arians. It wasn’t until after his death and the death of an Arian bishop in Alexandria that Athanasius to resume his old post as bishop of Alexandria. And as the Bishop of Alexandria, he had the duty, every year, to write a letter to all the churches in his jurisdiction to set a date for Easter. And, in these letters, the bishop could address other pressing concerns. And it just so happened that in this year, on this day, Athanasius sent his festal letter which confirmed the Canon of Scripture.
It’s an oft-discussed letter because he affirmed the 27 books that make up the New Testament. We must say “affirm” rather than “create” or “ordain” because this canon seems to have been floating around for a bit. Origen seems to have the same, or a very similar, canon about a century earlier. Similarly, the compilers of the Codex Vaticanus also were working from a similar list. But just like the date of Easter, without an official imprimatur, there was confusion.
The question of the canon did not end here, and questions about specific books divide Rome from Constantinople from 1st Baptist of Anytown USA. But the setting of the canon and then honest debate about it has been a cornerstone for the church. The question of the canon would be renewed when the Reformation proclaimed Sola Scriptura. Roman Catholics would go on to define their canon at the Council of Trent. Many in the Orthodox tradition take a less rigid view of what is canonical, and Protestants can’t agree about anything. The broadest agreement on canon comes from Athanasius, who was probably on to something. The 27 books of the New Testament (minus 1 or 2) were affirmed in his Festal letter sent on this day, the 7th of January in 367.
The reading for today comes from Malcolm Guite, a favorite here at the Almanac. This poem “Epiphany” can be found in his “Sounding the Seasons, Seventy Sonnets for the Church Year.”
It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the Pope to my Anti-Pope, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember…the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.