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Athenagoras was a Christian apologist who flourished in the second half of the second century CE. Two extant works, the Plea on Behalf of Christians and On the Resurrection of the Dead, have traditionally been attributed to him.
Athenagoras does not appear in the ecclesiastical histories of either Eusebius, Socrates, or Sozomen. Methodius (d. 311 CE) is the only ante-Nicene writer to mention Athenagoras; Methodius' From the Discourse on the Resurrection 1.7 refers to Athenagoras' Plea 24. The only other early witness to Athenagoras is Philip of Side, a deacon of Chrysostom, who lived during the fifth century. According to a fourteenth century codex, Philip wrote, "Athenagoras was the first to head the school in Alexandria. He flourished at the time of Hadrian and Antoninus, to both of whom he addressed his Plea on Behalf of Christians. He became a Christian while he wore the philosopher's cloak and was at the head of the Academy. Even before Celsus he was anxious to write against the Christians. ..." (Migne PG vi.182; English translation in Schoedel ix).
These meager references comprise our entire biographical knowledge of Athenagoras, apart from the material found in his extant writings. The Arethas Codex (914 CE) and three other manuscripts contain the same introductory ascription: "A plea for Christians by Athenagoras the Athenian: philosopher and Christian. To the emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, conquerors of Armenia and Sarmatia, and more than all, philosophers." Philip mentions that Athenagoras flourished during the time of Hadrian and Antoninus, but the Arethas introduction places him in the reigns of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. Philip of Side is often regarded as a questionable source, and his information should be considered cautiously (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 7.27; Photius, Bibliotheca frag. 36). However, internal evidence must also be weighed. Some have argued that Athenagoras would not impugn the deification of Antinous (Plea 30) in an apology addressed to his lover Hadrian. More importantly, the reference to Antinous' elevation by "your ancestors" clearly excludes dating the work to the reign of Hadrian. Furthermore, while it is true that Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius before his death, they did not rule jointly; yet the Plea seems to presuppose a co-rulership (1; 18). Marcus Aurelius was the first to institute such a structure. He ruled jointly with his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus Commodus (161-169 CE) and later with his son Commodus (176-180). Lucius dropped the name "Commodus" upon becoming co-ruler with Marcus Aurelius, and he was never called the "conqueror of Sarmatia" since this victory did not transpire until after his death in 169. For these reasons, and since Athenagoras specifically refers to the two rulers as father and son (Plea 18; 37), the evidence seems to place the writing of the Plea with some precision in the co-rulership of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus (176-180).
The Arethas Codex introduction to the Plea states that Athenagoras was a "philosopher and a Christian," and Philip of Side agrees with this description. Athenagoras' writings display a working knowledge of the philosophers, though most of his citations come from florilegia. Boethus (the Alexandrian Platonist) wrote a little work On the Difficult Sayings of Plato which he dedicated to a certain Athenagoras (Photius, Bibliotheca frag. 155). However, we have no way of being certain that this passing statement refers to the same individual as our Athenagoras.
To this label of "philosopher," Philip adds several other assertions. First, he states that Athenagoras "became a Christian while he wore the philosopher's cloak and was at the head of the Academy." There were lesser philosophical academies scattered throughout the empire, but this would appear to refer to the Academy in Athens. Since no other verification exists of Athenagoras' position in the Athenian Academy, scholars understandably wonder if Philip (or a source) embellished Athenagoras' career. Second, Philip narrates that Athenagoras wrote against Christianity prior to Celsus (and naturally prior to his own conversion). However, no such work of Athenagoras has survived. Third, Philip reports that Athenagoras was transformed from adversary to defender of the faith through the reading of Scripture.
Some have maintained that Athenagoras was a Montanist. They have pointed to Athenagoras' prohibition of second marriages and his Montanist-sounding account of prophetic inspiration: The Spirit of God "moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments" (Plea 7) and employed the prophets "as a flute-player breathes into a flute" (Plea 9). Montanus (purportedly under the Paraclete's influence) exclaimed, "Behold a man is a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum" (Epiphanius, Panarion 48.4). Although similar, one notices Athenagoras' illustration of the flute and Montanus' illustration of the lyre. Scholars have argued on good grounds that both Athenagoras' denunciation of second marriages and his description of the Spirit's movement upon the prophets could easily have come from influences other than Montanism (Barnard, Athenagoras 75-79).
The Arethas introduction to the Plea places Athenagoras' residence in Athens, and his very name is suggestive of Athenian connections. But not all modern scholars concur. Ruprecht has argued that Athenagoras hailed from Corinth, since he mentions obscure works and events in the area. But Athenagoras speaks of such materials from other regions as well. Frend conjectured that Athenagoras lived in northwest Asia Minor, since he relates the suicide of Proteus (d. 165 CE) (Frend 113). However, Lucian's Peregrinus satirized this event, and it became known throughout the empire.
Scholars have made a stronger case for Athenagoras' residence in Egypt (Barnard, Athenagoras 13-18). Philip of Side asserts that Athenagoras was the first to head the catechetical school in Alexandria, Clement was his disciple, and Pantaenus was the student of Clement (see Schoedel ix). Eusebius, however, contradicts this chronology (Ecclesiastical History 6.6). The early succession of the Alexandrian Catechetical School is shadowy. If Philip is reliable in one area, it might be his knowledge of the Alexandrian school. Philip was himself a member of this academy and perhaps had a hand in its relocation to Side, his place of birth, in 405 CE. On the other hand, Philip's fifth century date and his general unreliability elsewhere warrant caution. To bolster an Egyptian residence, some have pointed to Athenagoras' reference to Hermes Trismegistus, the supposed author of the Egyptian Corpus Hermeticum (Plea 28) and the casual reference to camels in On the Resurrection 12. Nevertheless, most scholars still favor the Athenian residence of Athenagoras.
The first work ascribed to Athenagoras is titled the Plea on Behalf of Christians (alternatively called the Embassy, Supplication, or Legatio). As mentioned, most historians believe that this apology was addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Whether or not the Plea was ever presented to the emperors is not known. Most scholars further concur that the Plea was written shortly after the persecution of Christians in Lyons and Vienne in 177 CE.
The Plea can be outlined as follows: The introduction and presentation of the charges (1-3); the defence against the charge of atheism (4-30); the defence against the charges of incest and cannibalism (31-36) and the conclusion (37).
By far the largest portion of Athenagoras' Plea concerns the charge of atheism. This was a common charge against early Christians since they did not take part in the traditional and imperial cults. On a theoretical level, Athenagoras argues that enlightened pagan poets and philosophers had already moved toward the monotheism expressed in Christian revelation through the prophets. The Christians could also summon reason on their side: God is one, uncreated, eternal, and contemplated only by thought. This section includes an early description of the Trinity: "Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists" (Plea 10). Finally, Athenagoras challenges the accusation of theoretical atheism by referring to Christian morality. There were some believers who could not present a reasoned discourse on their theology, but they displayed their faith through pure living. On a practical level, Athenagoras contends that Christians honored the emperor although they did not venerate images or sacrifice to the gods. Athenagoras further claims that the gods were actually historical individuals who were deified and that demonic powers lay behind pagan idols.
Athenagoras next tackles the charges of cannibalism and incest. These accusations ran throughout contemporary literature (Justin, First Apology 7; the "Letter of Lyons and Vienne" in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1; Tertullian, Apology 9.8; Minucius Felix, Octavius 9.5-6; Origen, Against Celsus 6.27). Most individuals today assume that these indictments arose because of a misunderstanding of Christian doctrines, namely the Eucharist and brotherly-sisterly love (such as the "kiss of peace"). Benko has also argued that certain Gnostic sects actually practiced incest and perhaps even cannibalism; these atrocities were then transferred to all Christian groups (Benko 68ff). But recent studies have convincingly given sociological, rather than historical, grounds for the slanderous rhetoric (McGowan 413-442). Fronto, the Roman rhetorician, may have brought these charges of "Thyestean banquets" and "Oedipean intercourse" to the fore in the 170's CE (Champlin 65-66).
Athenagoras' first response is to question the motives of the accusers. He scolds the opposition for raising the charges "that they may appear to themselves to have rational grounds of hatred, and because they think either by fear to lead us away from our way of life, or to render the rulers harsh and inexorable by the magnitude of the charges they bring" (Plea 31). Second, Athenagoras attacks pagan morality. The pagan myths contained such stories as Zeus' incest with his mother Rhea, his daughter Core, and his own sister. Pagan society organized immorality through the business of prostitution. It also found entertainment at the murderous gladiator fights. Third, he stresses the rigor of Christian morality. The dominical teachings called Christians to refrain not only from promiscuity, but also from lust. Sexual union was only lawful within marriage, and even then only for the sake of procreation; remarriage was considered adultery. He further questions how Christians could be accused of murder "when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion" (Plea 35). Fourth, he stresses the peculiar nature of Christian motivation. Christians were incited to virtue not simply by present circumstances, but also by a firm belief in a future judgment.
On the Resurrection of the Dead can be divided into two parts. Part One (1-10) argues for the resurrection of the body based upon the character of God. First, the work maintains that the resurrection of the human body is within the power of God (3-9). This section addresses questions concerning the resurrection's relationship to chain consumption, decomposed bodies, and cannibalism. Second, the work contends that a resurrection reflects the will of God (10). Therefore, God desires to resurrect the body, and because it is within his power, he will accomplish it.
Part Two argues for the resurrection based upon the character of man (11-25). First, man is created for eternity (12-13). Second, a person consists of both body and soul (14-17). Third, both body and soul must be resurrected to experience reward and punishment, since moral actions belong to both the body and soul (18-23). Fourth, man is destined for happiness, which can only be achieved in another life; this blessedness cannot be experienced by the soul without the body (24-25).
At the end of the Plea, Athenagoras states, "For nothing hinders, according to Pythagoras and Plato, that when the dissolution of bodies takes place, they should, from the very same elements of which they were constructed at first, be constructed again. But let us defer the discourse concerning the resurrection" (Plea 36-37). This comment seems to link the authorship of the Plea with that of On the Resurrection. The Arethas Codex contains both works, and it adds two statements ascribing the composition of On the Resurrection to Athenagoras. In 1936, Henry Lucks could write of the resurrection treatise, "It is rather singular that there is no questioning of the authorship of this work, and no hesitancy evident in attributing it to Athenagoras" (Lucks 19). However, questions were being raised in Germany, and the criticisms soon spread elsewhere.
Arguments against Athenagoras' composition have varied. First, Grant argued that the two works, though bound together, suffered different textual histories. He maintained that the Plea has come from a corrupted archetype, and On the Resurrection has come down more purely and directly. Second, he claimed that either a late editor or Arethas himself (tenth century) brought the two separate works together and added the ascriptions to Athenagoras. Third, he ascertained doctrinal differences between the works. For example, the Plea asserts, "We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit)" (Plea 31). But this notion of a more "spiritual" body is never mentioned in On the Resurrection. Fourth, Grant argued that the Plea's postponement of further discussion about the resurrection promises the employment of Pythagorean and Platonic parallels, but On the Resurrection relies firmly on Aristotelian logic. Fifth, Grant contended that the two works do not employ many common terms, not even philosophical ones. Sixth, Schoedel pointed out that Methodius mentions Athenagoras' Plea, but he does not refer to On the Resurrection, even though he is writing his own defense of the resurrection (Schoedel xxix). Seventh, Schoedel analyzed the differences in style. On the Resurrection progresses smoothly while the Plea is ornamented by artifices which interrupt the flow (Schoedel xxix). Eighth, Grant and Schoedel agreed that On the Resurrection was actually written in the third century or early fourth century against the Origenists.
Meanwhile, proponents of Athenagoran authorship were also writing. First, Barnard compared the amount and nature of Old Testament quotations in the two works and found them to be similar. Second, Barnard maintained that the Plea's notion of a "spiritual body" can be traced to 1 Corinthians 15, which is also used in On the Resurrection. Third, Barnard questioned Grant's interpretation of the Plea 36-37. Athenagoras does not promise to develop the notion of resurrection along Pythagorean and Platonic lines. Both works exhibit the mind of an eclectic philosopher. Fourth, Barnard drew comparisons between On the Resurrection and various late second century authors, such as Galen, Albinus, and Lucian. Fifth, Barnard and Vermander agreed that On the Resurrection's scanty use of biblical citations is unusual if it were written against Origenists. Vermander offered Celsus as a substitute addressee for the resurrection treatise; Barnard proposed a mixed audience of pagan opponents and Christians troubled or even swayed by pagan polemics. Sixth, an early study which has been largely overlooked is Rauch's dissertation which compared the two works' similarities in Greek logic and philosophy.
Soon the debate burgeoned into a barrage of scholarly examinations. In 1976 and 1977, Gallicet published two articles which described fourteen detailed vocabulary differences between the Plea and On the Resurrection. He also illustrated how the Plea cites poets and philosophers more liberally, and he found four doctrinal dissimilarities. In 1986, Pouderon responded with an article which related thirty vocabulary similarities (beyond the sixty found by Schwartz). He also attempted to explain Gallicet's list of apparent doctrinal dissimilarities, and he countered with his own compilation of affinities in argumentation, citations, concepts, and theological teachings. Other recent studies have included the article by Lona which distinguished the usage of "flesh" in the two works and the article by Zeegers-Vander Vorst which analyzed the arguments of Gallicet and Pouderon and sided with pseudo-Athenagoran authorship.
The battle over the authorship of On the Resurrection continues. It seems that sufficient evidence has not been amassed to definitively wrest away the composition from Athenagoras. While apparent vocabulary and conceptual differences can be assembled, many may perhaps be explained by the differences in genre, audience, occasion, and topic.
English translations of Athenagoras' works come from Pratten, below.
Bardy, G. Athénagore: Supplique au sujet des Chrétiens. Paris: Iditions du Cerf, 1943.
Barnard, Leslie W. Athenagoras: A Study in Second Century Christian Apologetic. Paris: Beauchesne, 1972.
__________. "The Authenticity of Athenagoras De Resurrectione." Studia Patristica 15, pt. 1 (1984): 39-49.
Barnes, T. D. "The Embassy of Athenagoras." Journal of Theological Studies 26 (1975): 111-115.
Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Champlin, Edward. Fronto and Antonine Rome. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Crehan, J. H. Athenagoras: Embassy for the Christians, The Resurrection of the Dead. Westminster: Newman Press, 1956.
Frend, W. H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1967.
Gallicet, Ezio. "Ancora sullo Pseudo-Athenagoras." Rivista di Filologia 105 (1977): 21-42.
__________. "Athenagoras o Pseudo-Athenagoras." Rivista di Filologia 104 (1976): 420-435.
Grant, Robert M. "Athenagoras or Pseudo-Athenagoras." Harvard Theological Review 47 (1954): 121-129.
__________. Greek Apologists of the Second Century. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988.
Lona, Horacio E. "Bemerkungen zu Athenagoras und Pseudo-Athenagoras." Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988): 352-363.
Lucks, Henry A. "The Philosophy of Athenagoras: Its Sources and Value." Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1936.
Malherbe, Abraham J. "The Structure of Athenagoras, 'Supplicatio pro Christianis.'" Vigiliae Chrise; athénagorienne du De résurrection." Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique 87 (1992): 334-374.
Marcovich, Miroslav, ed. Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianos. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1989.
McGowan, Andrew. "Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism against Christians in the Second Century." Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 413-442.
Pouderon, Bernard. Athénagore d'Athénes Philosophe chrétien. Paris: Beauchesne, 1989.
__________. "L'authenticité du traité sur la résurrection attribué á l'apologist Athénagore." Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986): 226-244.
Pratten, B. P. "Athenagoras." The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954.
Rauch, James L. "Greek Logic and Philosophy and the Problem of Authorship in Athenagoras." Ph.D diss., University of Chicago, 1961.
Ruprecht, Louis A., Jr. "Athenagoras the Christian, Pausanius the Travel Guide, and a Mysterious Corinthian Girl." Harvard Theological Review 85 (1992): 35-49.
Schoedel, William R. Athenagoras: Legatio and De Resurrectione. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Schwartz, Eduard. Athenagorae Libellus pro Christianis, Oratio de Resurrectione cadaverum. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1891.
Vermander, Jeane-Marie. "Celse et l'attribution a Athénagore d'un ouvrage sur la résurrection des morts." Melanges de Science Religieuse 35 (1978): 125-134.
Zeegers-Vander Vorst, Nicole. "La paternité athénagorienne du De résurrection." Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique 87 (1992): 334-374.
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