Athenagoras

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Doctrine
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The Resurrection Of The Dead

Athenagoras defends the doctrine of a bodily resurrection, and argues against those who believe it is impossible for the body to be restored once it decays.

Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept

Plea For The Christians

Athenagoras complains about the illogical rumors and unjust discrimination against the Christians, and then rejects the charge of atheism.

Life

Athenagoras,  (flourished 2nd century ad), Greek Christian philosopher and apologist whose Presbeia peri Christianōn (c. 177; Embassy for the Christians) is one of the earliest works to use Neoplatonic concepts to interpret Christian belief and worship for Greek and Roman cultures and to refute early pagan charges that Christians were disloyal and immoral.

Identified by some early historians as a native of Athens and a Platonist who converted to Christianity, Athenagoras went to Alexandria and established the prototype for its celebrated Christian academy. He addressed the Embassy, an apology in 30 chapters, to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus as a response to the threefold indictment, leveled against the Jews in classical times, that by the 2nd century had been transferred to the Christians—namely, atheism (disbelief in pagan deities), cannibalism (eating children at banquets), and incest. Athenagoras appealed to Greek and Roman rationality and claimed for Christians the same rights common to all citizens.

To the charges of atheism and child murder Athenagoras countered that Christians worship God in an unbloody manner. Unlike the degrading idolatry of the pagan submission to arbitrary and immoral deities, Christians, he asserted, revere one perfect and eternal divinity whose threefold self-expression is not polytheistic. Athenagoras adduced the first rational apologetic for God’s simultaneous unity and trinity by suggesting multiple persons in a single nature and potency.

By his account of the sometimes rigorous Christian moral code banning evil thoughts, second marriages, abortion, and the viewing of gladiator contests, while insisting on the duty of civil obedience and emphasizing an orientation toward the next life, Athenagoras refuted the allegation of sexual depravity.

Works

Although his work appears to have been well-known and influential, mention of him by other early Christian apologists, notably in the extensive writings of Eusebius, is strangely absent. It may be that his treatises, circulating anonymously, were for a time considered as the work of another apologist, or there may have been other circumstances now lost. There are only two mentions of him in early Christian literature: several accredited quotations from his Apology in a fragment of Methodius of Olympus (died 312) and some untrustworthy biographical details in the fragments of theChristian History of Philip of Side (c. 425). Philip of Side claims that Athenagoras headed the Catechetical School of Alexandria (which is probably incorrect) and notes that Athenagoras converted to Christianity after initially familiarizing himself with the Scriptures in an attempt to controvert them.

His writings bear witness to his erudition and culture, his power as a philosopher and rhetorician, his keen appreciation of the intellectual temper of his age, and his tact and delicacy in dealing with the powerful opponents of his religion. Thus his writings are credited by some later scholars as having had a more significant impact on their intended audience than the now better-known writings of his more polemical and religiously-grounded contemporaries.

Of his writings, of which there were likely many, there have been preserved but a few: his Embassy (πρεσβεία) for the Christians (often referred to as the Apology), and a treatise titled the Resurrection of the Dead a.k.a. On the Resurrection of the Body.

The Embassy for the Christians, the date of which is fixed by internal evidence as late in 176 or 177, was a carefully written plea for justice to the Christians made by a philosopher, on philosophical grounds, to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, whom he flatters as conquerors, “but above all, philosophers”. He first complains of the illogical and unjust discrimination against the Christians and of the calumnies they suffer, and then meets the charge of atheism (a major complaint directed at the Christians of the day was that by disbelieving in the Roman gods, they were showing themselves to be atheists). He establishes the principle of monotheism, citing pagan poets and philosophers in support of the very doctrines for which Christians are condemned, and argues for the superiority of the Christian belief in God to that of pagans. This first strongly-reasoned argument for the unity of God in Christian literature is supplemented by an able exposition of the Trinity. Assuming then the defensive, he justifies the Christian abstention from worship of the national deities by arguing that it is absurd and indecent, quoting at length the pagan poets and philosophers in support of his contention. Finally, he meets the charges of immorality by exposing the Christian ideal of purity, even in thought, and the inviolable sanctity of the marriage bond. In refuting the charge of cannibalism Athenagoras states that Christians detest all cruelty and murder, refusing to attend contests of gladiators and wild beasts and holding that women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder for which they will have to give an account to God.

The treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead, the first complete exposition of the doctrine in Christian literature, was written later than the Apology, to which it may be considered as an appendix. The writer brings to the defense of the doctrine the best that contemporary philosophy could adduce. After meeting the objections common to his time, he seeks to prove the possibility of a resurrection in view either of the power of the Creator, or of the nature of our bodies. To exercise such powers is neither unworthy of God nor unjust to other creatures. He argues that the nature and end of man demand a perpetuation of the life of body and soul. There are reasons to think that De resurrectione is not by Athenagoras but by some 4th-century author, e.g. the use of at least one term (ἀγαλματοφορέω) coined by Philo of Alexandria and not widely known before the time of Origen.

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