Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Athenagoras
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Athenagoras.—I. Life.—There is scarcely one catalogue of the ancient writers of the church wherein we find mention of Athenagoras or his works. He is not noticed by Eusebius, Jerome, Photius, or Suidas. But in a fragment of the book of Methodius, bp. of Tyre (3rd cent.), de Resurrectione Animarum against Origen, there is an unmistakable quotation from the Apology (c. 24, p. 27 B) with the name of Athenagoras appended. This fragment is given by Epiphanius (Haer. 64, c. 21) and Photius (Cod. 224, 234). Scanty as this information is, it yet assures us of the existence of the Apology in the 3rd cent. and its ascription to Athenagoras. Much more is told us by Philippus Sidetes, deacon of Chrysostom (5th cent.), in a fragment preserved by Nicephorus Callistus (Dodwell, Diss. in Irenaeum, 429) to this effect: "Athenagoras was the first head of the school at Alexandria, flourishing in the times of Hadrian and Antoninus, to whom also he addressed his Apology for the Christians; a man who embraced Christianity while wearing the garb of a philosopher, and presiding over the academic school. He, before Celsus, was bent on writing against the Christians; and, studying the divine Scriptures in order to carry on the contest with the greater accuracy, was thus himself caught by the all-holy Spirit, so that, like the great Paul, from a persecutor he became a teacher of the faith which he persecuted." Philippus says, continues Nicephorus, "that Clemens, the writer of the Stromata, was his pupil, and Pantaenus the pupil of Clemens." But Philippus's statement about Pantaenus is not true, according to Clemens and Eusebius; his character as an historian is severely criticized, and his book pronounced valueless by Socrates Scholasticus (Hist. Eccl. vii. 27) and Photius (Cod. 35, p. 7, Bekker); and his assertion that the Apology was addressed to Hadrian and Antoninus is contradicted by its very inscription. Nevertheless, as he was a pupil of Rhodon (head of the school in the reign of Theodosius the Great) he may be supposed to have had some facts as the groundwork of what he has said. The only other source of information about Athenagoras is the inscription of his Apology with such internal evidence as may be gathered from his works themselves. The inscription runs thus: "The embassy (πρεσβεία) of Athenagoras of Athens, a Christian philosopher, concerning Christians, to the emperors Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus, and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Armeniaci, Sarmatici, and, greatest of all, philosophers." Without at present considering the peculiar difficulties involved in this inscription (of which below), we learn from it in general that Athenagoras was an Athenian and a philosopher, which character and profession he evidently retained after his conversion. His connexion with Athens (probably his birth there) and profession of philosophy are thus substantiated; and the manner in which he became converted to Christianity may very well have been as described by Philippus, whose account that he was head of the Academics is probably but an exaggeration of the fact that he had belonged to that sect. That he was ever leader of the Catechetical school of Alexandria cannot be definitely proved. In the Commentatio of Clarisse, § 8, is the acute conjecture that the treatise de Resurrectione was written at Alexandria rather than Athens, from c. 12, p. 52 A, where the builder of a house is represented as making stalls for his camels; and on a supposed Alexandrian tinge in the philosophy of Athenagoras vide Brucker (Hist. Crit. Philosophiae, iii. 405 seq.). Of his death nothing is known, the idea that he was martyred apparently arising from a confusion between him and Athenogenes. That the Apology was really intended to be seen and read by the emperors is obvious; how it reached them is less clear; we are hardly entitled to assert that it was in any formal or public manner delivered to them by Athenagoras himself, an idea which may be due to the title it bears, of Πρεσβεία, or "Embassy." Πρεσβεία, however, according to Stephanus (Thesaur. Ling. Graec. iii. col. 543), is occasionally used for an apology, intercession, or deprecation.
II. Genuine Works.—These are, (1) the Apology; (2) the Treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead.
(1) Apology. Genuineness.—The testimonies to this work are the inscription which it bears, and the quotation by Methodius given above. Some indeed have supposed that when Jerome speaks of an apology delivered by Justin Martyr to Marcus Antoninus Verus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, he refers (since these obtained the empire after Justin's death) to the Apology of Athenagoras and attributes it to Justin; but it appears that he intends Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (Mosheim, Dissert. ad Hist. Eccles. pertinent. i. 279), to whom Justin's Lesser Apology was given (vid. Prolegomena to Maranus's Justin, pt. iii. c. 8, § 4, pp. 93 sqq.). Attempts to prove the work in question to be that of Justin (vid. Le Moyne, Varia sacra, ii. 171), or of a later author (vid. Semler, Introduction to Baumgarten's Theolog. Streitigkeiten, ii. 70 note) have alike failed. There is nothing whatever in the writings of Athenagoras unsuitable to their assigned age; and Athenagoras's name was not sufficiently known to have been selected for the author of a supposititious book.
Date.—This is a difficult question; some have taken the Commodus of the inscription for Lucius Aelius Aurelius Verus (d. 169), son-in-law and brother of Marcus Antoninus. But Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, Antoninus's son and successor, must be intended; for Verus dropped the name of Commodus after obtaining, a share in the government, and could never have been called Sarmaticus; for Sarmatia was not conquered till after his death. Mommsen, following Tentzel, but without MS. authority, would read Γερμανικοῖς for Ἀρμενιακοῖς. As little right had Commodus to the title of "philosopher." Athenagoras may have only intended to include the son in the honours of the father. At all events, the illustration (at c. 18, p. 17 D) of the Divine government, taken from that of the two emperors, father and son, seems conclusive. We have also allusions to the profound peace of the empire, appropriate only between A.D. 176, when Avidius Crassus's insurrection was crushed, and A.D. 178, when the outbreak of the Marcomannic wars occurred. The Apology cannot well have been of later date than A.D. 177, since in that year arose the fearful persecution of the Christians of Vienne and Lyons, upon the accusations brought by their slaves; whereas in c. 35, p. 38 B, Athenagoras declares that no slaves of Christians had ever charged their masters with the crimes popularly imputed to them; nor is there any allusion whatever to this persecution, which would hardly have been passed over in silence. We therefore conclude that the Apology was written between the end of A.D. 176 and that of A.D. 177.
Analysis.—The Apology consists of categorical answers to the three charges usually brought against the Christians, of (a) atheism, (b) incest, and (c) cannibalism. (a) They worship one God, and can give a reason why. The philosophers have held like views; Polytheism and its worship are absurd, modern, and the work of demons. (b) Incest is most contrary to their pure and even ascetic life. (c) They are even more humane than the heathen, condemning abortion, infanticide, and gladiatorial games as murder.
(2) Treatise on the Resurrection. Genuineness and Date.—There is no independent external evidence for the authorship of this work; but there is no reason whatever to doubt that, as its inscription informs us, it is from the pen of Athenagoras. It closely agrees with the Apology in style and thought, and all that has been said above of the internal evidence for the genuineness of the former work applies equally to this. That such a treatise was in Athenagoras's mind when he wrote the Apology appears from the words near its close, c. 36, p. 39 c, "let the argument upon the Resurrection stand over"; from which words we may not unfairly gather that the Treatise on the Resurrection shortly followed the former work. This is the only clue to its date which we possess. >From the closing sentences of c. 23 (p. 66 C) it seems that it was intended as a lecture. "We have not made it our aim to leave nothing unsaid that our subject contained, but summarily to point out to those who came together what view ought to be taken in regard to the Resurrection" must allude not merely to a few friends who might happen to be present when the book was read, but to a regular audience. From a reference, c. 1. p. 41 B, to an occasional mode for arranging his arguments, it may be supposed that Athenagoras was in the habit of delivering public lectures upon Christianity. The arrangement, too, and peculiar opening of the treatise decidedly favour the view that it was a lecture, somewhat enlarged or modified for publication.
Analysis.—The work consists of two parts: (i) The removal of the objections (1) that God wants the power (2) or the will to raise the dead. (1) He does not want the power to do it, either through ignorance or weakness—as Athenagoras proves from the works of creation; defending his positions against the philosophic objections, that the bodies of men after dissolution come to form part of other bodies; and that things broken cannot be restored to their former state. (2) God wants not the will to raise the dead—for it is neither unjust to the raised men, nor to other beings; nor unworthy of Him—which is shewn from the works of creation. (ii) Arguments for the Resurrection. (1) The final cause of man's creation, to be a perpetual beholder of the Divine wisdom. (2) Man's nature, which requires perpetuity of existence in order to attain the true end of rational life. (3) The necessity of the Divine judgment upon men in body and soul, (a) from the Providence, (b) from the justice of God. (4) The ultimate end of man's being, not attainable on earth.
III. Athenagoras as a Writer.—To most of the apologists Athenagoras is decidedly superior. Elegant, free from superfluity of language, forcible in style, he rises occasionally into great power of description, and his reasoning is remarkable for clearness and cogency; e.g. his answer to the heathen argument, that not the idols, but the gods represented, are really honoured. His treatment of the Resurrection is for the most part admirable. Even where the defective science of the day led him into error, e.g. in answering the question, apparently so difficult, as to the assimilation of the materials of one human body into another the line taken is one that shews no little thought and ability; and his whole writings indicate a philosophic mind, which amply justifies the title given to him in the inscription of his two works.
His style, however, is not unfrequently somewhat obscured by difficult elliptic or parenthetical passages, and anacolutha (for examples of which see the Apology, c. 1, p. 2 C; c. 20, p. 19 B; c. 22, p. 23 B; and de Resurr. c. 18, p. 60 D). Among his peculiar words and phrases, Clarisse notices his use of ἄγειν in the sense of ducere, to think, and τὰ ἐπισυμβεβηκότα Θεῷ for the attributes of God.
IV. His Philosophy.—Mosheim represents Athenagoras as having been the first of the Eclectics. It is far more true to say that he shared in the eclecticism which then pervaded all philosophy. That he had been a Platonist appears, on the whole, from his continual reference to Plato and the thoroughly Platonic view which on many points pervades his works. We easily recognize this view in his language about matter and the souls, angels, natures sensible and intelligible, and the contemplation of God as the end of man's being; and also in that referring to the Son of God as the Logos and Creator (except that this is not at all peculiar to Athenagoras), more especially in his calling the Word "idea (or archetype) and energy" in the work of Creation. He also appears to allude slightly to the doctrine of reminiscences (de Resurr. c. 14, p. 55 A). The Platonism of Athenagoras was modified, however, by the prevailing eclecticism (cf. e.g. the Peripatetic doctrine of the mean, so alien to Plato, Resurr. c. 21, p. 64 B), and still more, of course, by his reception of Christianity, which necessitated the abandonment of such views as the unoriginated nature of the soul. With all this agrees excellently so much of Philippus Sidetes's account as connects Athenagoras with the Academics; whose Platonism was precisely such as is here described. Allusions to the other philosophers are abundant; e.g. to Aristotle and the Peripatetics, Apol. c. 6, p. 7 A; c. 16, p. 15 D; to the Stoics, ib. c. 6, p. 7 B; to the Cyrenaics and Epicureans, Resurr. c. 19, p. 62 B. We see from Apol. c. 7, p. 8 A, that he regarded the Gentile philosophers as possessing some measure of Divine light in their minds, but unable thereby to come to the full knowledge of God, because this could only be obtained by revelation, which they never sought.
V. Theology, etc.—Athenagoras's proof of the Divine unity rests on the propositions, expressed or implied, that God is perfect, self-existent, uncompounded; the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. Were there more gods than one, they could not co-exist and co-work as a community of beings similar to each other, in the same sphere; for things self-existent and eternal cannot be like a number of creatures formed all on one pattern, but must be eternally distinct and unlike. They could not be parts of one whole, for God has no parts. There could be no place for another God in connexion with this universe, for the Creator is over and around His own works. Another God, confined to some other universe of his own, could not concern us; and so would be but a finite being.
The Son of God.—In God, since He is an eternal, rational Mind, there dwelt from eternity the "Logos" ("Reason," "Expression," or "Word") as His Son, and in the Son dwelt the Father. To bring matter into existence, and afterwards give it form and order, the Divine Word "came forth" (i.e. the eternal Son assumed, towards the finite, the office and relation of "the Word" or Manifestor of God), to be the Archetype and Effectuating Power of creation (Apol. c. 10, p. 10 D). His Incarnation is only indirectly mentioned, in the supposition at c. 21, p. 21 D (ib.), of God assuming flesh according to divine dispensation.
The Holy Ghost is said to be the Spirit Who spoke by the prophets, and an Emanation from God (Apol. c. 10, p. 10 D), flowing forth and returning as a ray from the sun. It has hence been much disputed whether Athenagoras believed the Blessed Spirit to be a distinct Person, or not. His expressions greatly resemble those used by some whom Justin condemns for their denial of the personality of the Son: "They say that this virtue is indivisible and inseparable from the Father, as the sunlight on earth is indivisible and inseparable from the sun in the heavens" (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 128, p. 358 B). But it must be remembered that the apologists present the actings and offices of the three Blessed Persons of the Godhead in creation, etc., rather than Their eternal subsistence; and of necessity do this in a form intelligible to a heathen mind, yet so as not to be confounded with polytheism. It is not doubted that Athenagoras held the personality of the Father, but with "God the Father, and God the Son" (Apol. c. 10, p. 11 A) he joins as third, the Holy Spirit; so also c. 12, p. 62 D, and again c. 24, p. 26 D. That two Divine Persons and an impersonal emanation should be thus enumerated together by so philosophic a writer as Athenagoras is not conceivable. The angels, too—indubitably personal beings—are mentioned as holding a place after the Trinity, in Christian theology (c. 10); and it is worthy of notice that, in the passage cited above from Justin, angels as well as the Word are described by the persons whom that writer is condemning as temporary appearances; as if it were the Sadducees, or some similar Jewish sect, of which he is speaking. We are, therefore, decidedly of opinion that the personality of the Holy Spirit is held by Athenagoras; cf. however, Clarisse.
Man he holds to be composed of body and soul, the latter immortal, with spiritual powers of its own (Apol. c. 27, p. 31 A); but assigns the rational judgment not to the soul alone, but to the whole compound being, man; perhaps implying that in the actings and expression of thought both the mind and the bodily organs share. Hence he shews that the soul without the body is imperfect; that only when embodied can man be justly judged, or render to God perfect service, in a heavenly life. The sin and misery of man are described, in the Platonic manner, as entanglement with matter (Apol. c. 27, p. 30 C), and missing the true aim of his existence (Resurr. c. 25, p. 68 B); which is said to be the state of the majority, a prevalence of evil which he connects with the influence of the demons, i.e. of fallen angels, or their offspring by human wives, a view common with the apologists. The evil angels he regards as having fallen by misuse of free will, as did also man; cf. Apol. c. 25, p. 29 B. Of infants he remarks (Resurr. 614, p. 55 D) that they need no judgment, inasmuch as they have done neither good nor evil. The nature of the scheme of redemption is not treated of by Athenagoras.
VI. Was Athenagoras a Montanist?—This idea was suggested by Tillemont, who founds it upon two points in the opinions of Athenagoras, his account of prophecy, and his absolute condemnation of second marriages. In the Apology, c. 9, p. 9 D, Athenagoras's view of inspiration is thus given: "who" (i.e. the prophets) "rapt in mind out of themselves by the impulse of the Spirit of God, uttered the things with which they were inspired; the Spirit using them as if a flute player were breathing into his flute." With this has been compared the language of Montanus (Epiphanius Panar. Haer. 48, c. 4, p. 405), where the prophet is said to be as a lyre, the Spirit like the plectrum. So Tertullian, Against Marcion, c. 22. Yet similar language is found in Justin (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 115, p. 343 A); and Athenagoras may only mean that the prophet was carried beyond himself by the Holy Spirit, and that the words uttered were not his own. The severe condemnation of second marriage, in the works of Athenagoras, is doubtless a point of contact with the Montanists; but the same view is very common with the Greek Fathers (vid. Hefele's Beiträge, vol. i. lect. 2). Moreover, of the authority and office of the Paraclete, in the sense attributed to Montanus, there is no trace in the writings of Athenagoras.
VII. Quotations of Scripture, Early Writers, etc.—The inspiration of Scripture is strongly stated by Athenagoras, e.g. Apol. c. 9, p. 9 D. He is seldom careful to quote exactly, so that it is not always certain what version is employed; probably the Septuagint throughout. From the N.T. he often quotes or borrows phrases, without mentioning whence they come. It is treated as authoritative amongst Christians; its maxims being used shewing their discipline and practice (vid. Lardner, Credibility; Clarisse, Athenag. § 55).
It has been disputed whether Athenagoras refers to other Christian writers, especially the Apology of Justin Martyr, which some consider him to have made the foundation of his own. Certainly the resemblance between them seems too great to be the result of accident alone. Both Justin and Athenagoras urged that Christians were unconvicted of any crime, that the mere name does not deserve punishment, and that they were no more Atheists than the poets and the philosophers; and both, in a similar manner, shew the unworthiness of sacrificial worship. They give very much the same view of the Christian way of life; and both lay great stress on chastity, and on the confining of marriage to its sole end, the begetting of children. Nearly the same account of the fall of the angels is found in both: the same books are quoted, often the same passages; by both the very same phrases are occasionally employed. This correspondence is especially seen between the exordium of Justin's first Apology and that of Athenagoras. Hence Clarisse infers (Comm. in Athenag. § 57) that Athenagoras intended to rearrange and epitomize the work of his predecessor. In the treatise On the Resurrection, c. 8, p. 48 C, is an apparent imitation of Tatian, Or. ad Graec. c. 6, p. 146 B.
VIII. Editions.—A good ed. of Athenagoras is that of Otto (Jena, 1857); its text is based on the three earliest MSS. (viz. the Cod. Paris. CDLI., Cod. Paris. CLXXIV., and Cod. Argentoratensis), with which the rest have been collated, some for the first time; the most recent is by E. Schwartz, Leipz. 1891 (Texte und Untersuchungen, iv. 2). There is an Eng. trans. in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
IX. Spurious Works.—From a careless expression of Gesner, in reference to the books of Antoninus, Περὶ τῶν εἰς ἐαντόν, a notion arose of the existence, amongst Gesner's books, of a work by Athenagoras with the above title; an idea which, though wholly erroneous, was entertained by Scultatus, and at one time by Tentzel, with some others.
About the close of the 16th cent. there appeared a French romance, entitled Du vray et parfait Amour, purporting to be a work of Athenagoras, trans. by M. Fumée, Seigneur de S. Geuillac. Its many anachronisms and whole character prove it, however, the work of some later author, probably Fumée himself. Certainly no Greek original has ever been produced.
The following may be consulted: Clarisse, Comm. in Athen.; Hefele, Beiträge; Möhler, Patrol.; J. Donaldson, Hist. Christ. Lit.; L. Arnould, de Apol. Athen. (Paris, 1898).