« Prev Introduction Next »


It is an odd fact that the author of what in many ways is the ablest of the Greek Apologies remained almost unknown in Christian antiquity. Apart from a citation in a third century writer, Methodius of Tyre,828828De Resurrectione I. 37:1, Ed., Bonwetsch, Leipzig, 1917. The citation is from ch. 24 of the Plea. There are a sufficient number of similarities between the Plea and Minucius Felix' Octavius to suggest that the latter might have known Athenagoras’ work. He does not, however, mention him. and a misleading reference in a most unreliable historian of the fifth century, Philip of Side, Athenagoras’ work is passed over in silence by the Church Fathers. Philip's Christian History is lost, but fragments have been preserved by the fourteenth century compiler Nicephorus Callistus.829829For the reference to Athenagoras, see Migne, P.G. 6.182 (reprinting Dodwell's text). Athenagoras is there stated to have been the first head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, to have had Clement as his pupil, to have flourished in the time of Hadrian and Antoninus, and, while bent on attacking Christianity, to have been converted through studying Scripture. No weight can be given to any of these statements: the first three are without question wrong. Again, it is vaguely possible (one can hardly say more) that our Athenagoras is the one to whom the second century philosopher Boethos addressed his work, On Obscure Expressions in Plato.830830Photius, Bibliotheca, 155. In any case, neither Eusebius nor Jerome mentions him, and we are left to deduce what we can about him from his writings.

Of these but two have survived: his Plea Regarding Christians and his Treatise on the Resurrection. From their titles we 291gather that Athenagoras was a Christian philosopher of Athens. We owe these titles, it is true, to a tenth century manuscript, the Aretas Codex, and they may not be reliable. Yet the moderation of Athenagoras’ Plea, its clarity and sense of order along with its suggestions of Attic style, give them a certain credence.


The date of the Plea can be determined with reasonable certainty. It is addressed to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. The latter is doubtless Marcus Aurelius’ son, who was raised to the purple in A.D. 176. Later on in the Plea, Athenagoras refers directly to the relationship of father and son which existed between the two emperors (chs. 18 and 37). Another indication of date is the mention of the profound peace which the Empire is enjoying (ch. 1). The only period between A.D. 176 and the date of Marcus Aurelius' death in A.D. 180 that would adequately fit this reference is 176–177. These dates mark the suppression of the insurrection of Avidus Crassus on the one hand, and the outbreak of the Marcomannic War on the other. Since, too, Athenagoras makes no mention of the violent, though local, outbreak of persecution in Lyons and Vienne,831831See Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V, ch. 1. which occurred in the latter part of A.D. 177, we may safely assume that the Plea was written between the end of A.D. 176 and the early part of A.D. 177.

To these calculations two objections have been raised. It has been questioned whether Marcus Aurelius’ son is intended by the name Lucius Aurelius Commodus, and it has been suggested that the Plea betrays a faint reflection of the persecution of Lyons and Vienne.

To appreciate the discussion of the first objection, the exact words of Athenagoras’ inscription must be borne in mind. He writes, "To the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, conquerors of Armenia and Sarmatia, and—what is more important—philosophers." Who is Lucius Aurelius Commodus? The title "conqueror of Armenia" properly belongs to Marcus Aurelius’ adopted brother, Lucius Aurelius Verus Commodus, not to his son. But the adopted brother can scarcely be meant. He dropped the name Commodus on sharing the government with Marcus Aurelius, and he never bore the title "conqueror of Sarmatia," since this conquest occurred only after his death in A.D. 169. The fact 292of the matter seems to be that Athengoras associates the son with the father in his honors. This is clear from the fact that both are styled "philosophers." Neither the son nor the adopted brother, for that matter, could have any personal claim to such a title.

The second objection is equally tenuous. It has been urged832832See the edition by P. Ubaldi, pp. xvii, xviii. that, because the same charges of cannibalism and incest are mentioned by Athenagoras and by the letter of the churches of Lyons and Vienne, recording their persecution,833833Athenagoras, Plea, ch. 3; cf. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 1:14. and because one other slight similarity can be detected,834834Athenagoras in ch. 34 retorts to the charge of incest that it is really the immoral accusers of Christians who "outrage human flesh." In the letter (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 1:52) a burning martyr cries out, "What you are doing is to eat men." Athenagoras reflects a knowledge of this letter. In reply it must be observed that such charges were too widespread to indicate Athenagoras' dependence upon that particular document, while the other supposed similarity is too meager to be taken into account. Moreover, had Athenagoras had that letter in mind, he would scarcely have claimed (in ch. 35) that slaves of Christians had never denounced their masters for cannibalism. For at Lyons and Vienne it was slaves who had preferred this very accusation.835835Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 1:14. It may be noted too that the charge of atheism, which forms the main burden of the Plea, does not happen to be mentioned in the letter.


Of all the Apologists, Athenagoras is the most eloquent. The arrangement of his material is clear and his argument moves with cogency. His rhythmic style, patterned after that of the Atticists, betrays the self-conscious rhetorician. He has some notable descriptions, and his detailed references to mythology and history, which at times seem irrelevant to his central point, are quite purposeful. They aim to hold the reader's attention by providing interesting information. On the other hand, his style suffers from ellipses, parentheses (of which there are many), and anacolutha. This is partly to be explained by his intention to give his Apology the air of a speech which was actually delivered. This fiction underlies the reference in ch. 11 293(see note 35). Athenagoras did not, of course, give his Apology as a public oration in the emperor's presence.

Contents and Purpose

The Plea answers three current charges brought against Christianity—atheism, incest, and cannibalism. It is the first of these with which the large body of the work is concerned (chs. 3 to 30). The others are treated rather summarily at the end (chs. 31 to 36). The case against atheism is the central point, for, with this proved, the moral calumnies are in principle disposed of. This division of material, moreover, reflects the rhetorical skill of Athenagoras. He realized that the attention of his audience would be better held by expanding the first point, while correspondingly contracting the second and third.

The charges themselves were a natural result of the Christian message. To deny the traditional gods, to stand in opposition to the syncretic temper of the age, and above all to claim to practice a religion which dispensed with the most essential mark of ancient religion, viz., sacrifice, could not but have provoked the accusation of atheism. Furthermore, the close association, in the ancient mind, of gods with race and soil must have made it extremely hard for the pagan to take the Christian case seriously. The Christians were not a racial or national group venerating the traditions of their forefathers. The new religion seemed to be undermining every religious sanction of antiquity.

The charges of incest and cannibalism arose from the fact that only the baptized were permitted to attend the Eucharist. What, therefore, was done in secret by such people was quite likely, in the pagan's mind, to be immoral. Moreover, the fragmentary knowledge which the pagan gained by hearsay about the meaning of the Lord's Supper—eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ—quickly led to the suspicion of cannibalism; while the Christian emphasis on love and brotherhood was easily distorted into a cloak for incest.

Athenagoras’ aim in the Plea is to show that Christianity is a respectable philosophy, distinguished by a peculiarly high standard of moral conduct. He urges that Christians should be given the same fair treatment accorded other philosophers (ch. 2, fin.). They should not be persecuted because of a name. Rather should each be tried on his own merits, and only punished if a real offense is proved. The emphasis laid by Christian 294Apologists on their being persecuted because of a name is not so foolish as is sometimes imagined. The name was primary: It had become a symbol of social opprobium, and around it there had gathered a host of wild and unsubstantiated charges. It is true, of course, that what basically underlay the opposition to the name was the Christian refusal to sacrifice to the pagan gods, and notably to the imperial genius. But the Apologists felt that it was the absurd rumors and emotionalism which the name engendered, that prevented their case from being heard with reason. Hence their emphasis on the irrationality of opposing a mere name.

On the question of the imperial cult Athenagoras is shrewdly silent. He has many protestations of loyalty to the emperor, and perhaps hints at his view of the imperial genius in his reference to Antinous (ch. 30) and to the gods’ having originally been kings (ch. 28). But he naturally refrains from making a clear issue of this point, lest he should endanger the strength of his apology. His intention is to gain a hearing for the Christian case for monotheism. Only then could the current manner of showing loyalty to the Empire be successfully challenged.

To answer the charge of atheism Athenagoras shows that the Christians share their conviction of the unity of God with the great Greek philosophers and poets. Here was the point at which Christianity could relate itself to the finest spirit of antiquity, and so win a hearing. Proceeding from this, Athenagoras demonstrates the unique elements in the new faith, viz., the doctrine of the Trinity and the high moral life of the Christians; and he continues by showing the weaknesses in the traditional religion with its sacrifices and mythology.

Philosophy and Theology

Neither as a philosopher nor as a theologian did Athenagoras possess a creative mind. Nor can he be said to be a profound scholar. He was a Christian rhetorician, combining a graceful style with some originality and considerable knowledge.

He was well acquainted with the leading ideas of the current philosophies and his outlook betrays the essential spirit of the age—eclecticism. Doubtless he had read Homer, Plato, and Herodotus. But the majority of his many citations come (as he himself confesses) from florilegia (see chs. 6 and 33). This was a current practice of rhetoricians. In some cases, where the context was not clear, it could not fail to lead to misconstruction 295of the original. Notable examples are the first two citations from Euripides in ch. 5. A good deal of ch. 28, along with other notices of pagan theology, is taken from a work by Apollodorus, On the Gods. The list of gods in ch. 1 may go back to the same book, though Athenagoras may here have obtained his information secondhand through some skeptical writer who used the references in Apollodorus for polemical purposes. Athenagoras may also be dependent on Plutarch's Placita for some of his material. There are a number of similarities, but no exact citations.836836Cf. Placita 1:8 with Plea, chs. 5 ff.

Athenagoras shows his originality in several ways. His rational argument for the unity of God (ch. 8) has no parallel in ancient literature, and the references sometimes cited from Cicero and Philo837837Cicero, De nat. Deorum I. 37:103, and Philo, De conf. ling. 1:425, etc. serve only to indicate his independent mind. Again, while he is dependent upon Justin's Apology for many of his ideas, his line of approach is rather different. He does not elaborate the argument from Old Testament prophecy with the endless details and citations we find in Justin. Such references, which consume about a third of Justin's work, were scarcely calculated to convince pagans. Nor does he indulge in Justin's fanciful ideas of Plato's prediction of the cross or of his dependence on Moses. His references to the Old Testament are few, and he has better sensed the temper of his readers by dealing more thoroughly with the current religious notions and their essential weaknesses.

Philosophically Athenagoras is an eclectic. From Plato he derives his ideas of God's essential goodness (ch. 24) and of the primacy of the immaterial (ch. 36). From the Stoics he takes his emphasis on the harmony and order of the world as a proof of God (chs. 4; 5; 16); his contrast of man's unnatural vice with the natural life of beasts (ch, 3); and his psychological explanation of visions (ch. 27). From the Neo-Pythagoreans comes his view of the cosmos as an enclosed sphere moving in rhythm (ch. 16). He is dependent on the Skeptics for his account of the prolific number and contradictory nature of the cults (chs. 1; 14), and for his conviction that the many conflicting doctrines of philosophy indicate that reason has its limits (ch. 7). In this hospitable attitude toward Greek philosophy and culture Athenagoras shares Justin's view, which stands in marked contrast with that of his Syrian contemporary, Tatian.


Athenagoras owes his theological ideas largely to Justin. >From him come the Logos doctrine, his views of prophetic inspiration, resurrection, demonology, angelology, and so on. Unique with Athenagoras, however, is his clear exposition of the Trinity (ch. 10), his careful avoidance of subordinating the Son, his emphasis on chastity, and his condemnation of second marriages (ch. 33). Regarding this latter, it has been contended that Athenagoras here shows the influence of Montanism. But it must be noted that Athenagoras’ moral attitudes are not so severe as those of the Montanists, and that an increasing veneration of asceticism was characteristic of the second century.

Apart from a vague and passing reference in ch. 21, Athenagoras makes no mention of the incarnation. This may seem strange to us, for whom this doctrine is central. But we must remember that Athenagoras’ purpose is apologetic. He is not writing a systematic theology, but defending the faith against certain calumnies. Hence Athenagoras’ Christianity cannot be completely reconstructed from his Apology. It is a mistake to imagine that, because the fullness of the faith is not apparent in their works, the Apologists attenuated Christianity by accommodating it to Greek culture. Their first aim was the same as that of the modern missionary—to defend monotheism. That was the prerequisite to establishing the truth of Christianity, and the basis upon which the gospel rested. Hence the Apologists narrowed their sights to concentrate on this fundamental issue, and they leaned on Greek philosophy to make a contact with their readers. If one compares Tertullian's apologetic works with those addressed specifically to Christians, one notes the same approach. The apologetic treatises do not give a whole account of Christianity. Thus, in reading Athenagoras, one must not seek for a full exposition of the faith, or imagine that this one tract contains all that he believed. In short, Athenagoras’ Plea should be read for what it claims to be—a defense of practical monotheism. By setting Christianity almost exclusively in this light, the author proved himself a somewhat more astute Apologist than Justin. He sought to show that the new faith corresponded to the best philosophic schools of the day.

« Prev Introduction Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |