Why was St Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians prohibited from submission to the Bible by Bishop Athanasius?

What is ‘St Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians’?

A man named Paul authored much of the New Testament. The Bible is a collection of books inspired by God, but written by humans from various backgrounds and differing contexts. Often the name of a book of the New Testament is either the author or recipient of the text. For example, Mark is thought to be written by John Mark who was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of Peter, who knew Jesus and was an eyewitness to the events surrounding his death and resurrection.

However, as there are a large quantity of letters written by Paul in the New Testament, his letters are often named after the recipient rather than Paul himself. Therefore both 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians are letters written to the Church at Corinth, a large and influential Greek city. In these letters there are hints that Paul may have written other letters to the Corinthian church, although this is not conclusive. The particular verse is 2nd Corinthians 7:8, which reads: ‘For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it – though I did regret it, for I see that it grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repentance.’ The letter referred to could arguably be 1st Corinthians, as there are many parts of the book that are directly critical (1:26, 3:1-4, 4:7-15, 5:1ff, 6:5,8, 11:17-22). In a culture that revolved around the concept of honour and shame, these parts could be interpreted as harsh. However, whether or not these sections are enough to warrant the statement ‘it grieved you’, it is hard to tell.

There is one text, separate from the New Testament documents, which is know as the Third Letter to the Corinthians. This text is part of a larger work called the Acts of Paul, which also contained a text known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The Acts of Paul are written in a similar format to the Biblical book Acts, the latter was written by a man named Luke who travelled with Paul for some of his missionary journeys. The texts comprising the Acts of Paul are likely to have circulated independently (See the Catholic Encyclopaedia). Therefore the Third Letter to the Corinthians was possibly, at some point, accessible as a single work.

The section from 2nd Corinthians quoted above, is unlikely to refer the Third Letter to the Corinthians because its tone and content is direct but affable rather than rebuking. It is likely that several letters were exchanged between the churches and Paul, therefore it is probable that this section refers to a separate latter.

The question in discussion is why the Third letter to the Corinthians is not in the Bible. However, to assess this, we will need to look at the historical reliability of the Acts of Paul (and by extension the Acts of Paul and Thecla), as this is the source of the text in question, and will have much to say in regard to the context, reliability and authenticity of Third letter to the Corinthians.

Bishop Athanasius and the Third Letter of Paul to the Corinthians

Bishop Athanasius was an influential figure in early church history for many reasons, one being the role he played in the formation of the Biblical canon. The ‘canon’ basically means the books that are accepted by the church as being inspired by God and therefore considered authoritative.

Athanasius lived in the 4th Century A.D., at which time the books that we see in the Bible today were generally considered canonical, however, they had not been made so officially. Athanasius was one of the forerunners in officiallising the canon. His famous letter: 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius references all the books we see in the Bible today, and acknowledges them all to be inspired by God.   

Therefore when it is asked, ‘why did Bishop Athanasius prohibit the submission of the Third Letter to the Corinthians to the canon?’, the question may imply that the Canon is a result of the decision of one man, or a group of Bishops (this idea has been circulated on a popular level in recent publications such a Dan Brown‘s DaVinci Code). However, in contrast, the vast majority of the books comprising the New Testament today were recognised by Christians as inspired by God at a very early stage (see references applicable to the canon). The development of a fixed Canon took a process of centuries because there were a few books that were contested. However, even though contested these books were held with great regard, and Christians were encouraged to study them. This would be true of books like The Shepherd of Hermes and the Epistle of Barnabas. Therefore it is fair to interpret the question as enquiring about the canonical status of the Third Letter to the Corinthians, rather than focusing too heavily on the specific involvement of Bishop Athanasius.

The Third letter to the Corinthians’ omission from the Bible

The main reason that the Third letter to the Corinthians was not included in the New Testament is because it was not historically reliable. The Acts of Paul, of which the Third Letter to the Corinthians was apart, was discredited by Tertullian (c.155 – 220 A.D.).

Tertullian writing in his tractate de Baptismo states: ‘But if the Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named . . . Let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position.’ (translated in The Acts of Paul and Thelca A Critical Introduction and Commentary, Jeremy W Barrier, 2009, Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, p. 21). It should not be thought that it was not recognised because Paul did not author it, but rather because it had been created deceptively and claimed a different source to that which it had.

Additionally, the Acts of Paul were not written in a vacuum. The Church was combating Gnostic ideas in the second century, and The Acts of Paul are thought to reflect this struggle. To the point that on some theological themes of the Acts of Paul are in contradiction with the general thrust of the New Testament. For example, the issue of sex. The Acts of Paul champion sexual abstinence and singleness, which was a popular idea in early Christianity. However, this contradicts Paul’s writing recorded in the New Testament, Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4: 2-4). It was also considered to contradict Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church.

The Bible was never intended to be only a spiritual guide, without historic referent. If a book was considered inspired, and therefore canonical, because of its early Christian popularity, its historic reliability was of great importance. Therefore, if its reliability was in question it was not considered. Which is true for the Third Letter to the Corinthians.


  1. Rev Ken Collin’s Web Site: ‘Could we discover additional parts of the Bible’: http://www.kencollins.com/question-04.htm
  2. The Acts of Paul, (part of often know as The Acts of Paul and Thecla), Translation by M. R. James: http://www.uoregon.edu/~sshoemak/321/texts/3_corinthians.htm
  3. ‘The canon of the New testament’ By Rich Martinez: http://www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/MartinezR01.html
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acts_of_Paul_and_Thecla
  5. http://www.ntcanon.org/Acts_of_Paul.shtml
  6. The Acts of Paul and Thelca A Critical Introduction and Commentary, Jeremy W Barrier, 2009, Mohr Siebeck Tubingen: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=glwbBQ79uNIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=acts+of+paul&hl=en&ei=VZYWTPrmDNP7_Aapsd2DCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  7. The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thelca, Jan N Bremmer, 1996, Kok Pharos Publishing House: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2uMFamFeye0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=acts+of+paul&lr=&cd=13#v=onepage&q&f=false
  8. http://www.bible-researcher.com/athanasius.html
  9. Bruce, F. F., Packer, J. I., Comfort, P., Henry, C. F. H., The Origin of the Bible, 1992, Tyndale House
  10. Dunbar, D. G., ‘The Biblical Canon’, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ED. Carson, D. A.,Woodbridge, J. D, 1968, Inter Varsity
  1. #1 by david on May 27, 2013 - 5:34 am

    Is it possible that 3 Corinthians was unfairly lumped together with the more dubious works in the collective Acts of Paul?

    • #2 by Emmaus At Twilight on May 27, 2013 - 7:39 am

      I guess it is possible, but I think it unlikely, mainly because I’d question why the 3rd letter was in the hands of a ‘presbyter’ in Asia rather than in Corinth (which would be the obvious place!)

      I tend to believe that 3 Corinthians (the letter than actually came between 1 and 2 Cor) was destroyed. I think that Paul was telling the Corinthians off and it wasn’t edifying enough to be sent round the churches (which is what happened with other letters because it was thought Paul’s teaching would help churches in other districts).

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