Athenagoras The Apologist
Athenagoras is a great philosophic personality, despite this he is ignored by the first historians like Eusebius and St. Jerome. Even his Plea (Embassy or Legatio) addressed to the two emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and his son co-ruler Lucius Aurelius Commodus, spread without his name and was wrongly attributed to St. Justin before the fourth century.
Athenagoras is a contemporary of Justin and Tatian. Methodius, bishop of Olympus, who was martyred in 311, is the first and almost the only patristic writer to quote Athenagoras' work. In five or six places he shows dependence upon the Embassy, though only once does he refer to Athenagoras by name. Epiphanius and Photius have used this passage of Methodius and recall the name of Athenagoras.
We don't know much about his life. He is a philosopher holding an academic position in the Museum at Alexandria, and is regarded as a leader in paganism. He was attracted to search in Christianity for mistakes and corruption just as other Platonic philosophers.
He was anxious to write against Christianity. He read the Holy Scriptures in order to aim his shafts of criticism more accurately, but he was so powerfully seized by the Holy Spirit that he became a defender of the faith he was attacking. Not only was he converted to Christianity (c. 176), but he also became one of the most famous deans of the Christian Theological School.
Philip of Side, (deacon of St. John Chrysostom), in Pampylia, who flourished in the early part of the fifth century, gives an account of Athenagoras' life in a fragment preserved, according to Dodwell 12, by Nicephorus Callistus or some other late Greek historian:
Athenagoras was the first head of the school at Alexandria flourishing in the times of Hadrian and Antoninus, to whom also he addressed his Legatio 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 greater accuracy, was thus himself caught by the Holy Spirit, so that, like the great Paul, from a persecutor he became a teacher of the faith which he persecuted. Philip says that Clement, the writer of the Stromata, was his pupil, and Pantaenus was the pupil of Clement. Pantaenus too was Athenian, and was a Pythagorean in his philosophy.
Athenagoras did not address the Legatio to Hadrian and Antoninus but to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, as the ascription to the work shows. As J. H. Crehan believes that it is just possible that Philip may have misread the ascription in his MS. of the Legatio which read Aurelius Antoninus and Lucian Aurelius Commodus.
The personality of Athenagoras has special importance, as he is the first philosopher whose strong perseverance in the School qualified him to become the dean of the theological School of Alexandria without undressing the palladium of philosophers, and considered as the first known Christian who with his faith, carried a tendency towards philosophy. Rev. B. P. Pratten says, "His work opens the way for Clement's elaboration of Justin's claim, that the whole of philosophy is embraced in Christianity. It is charming to find the primal fountains of Christian thought uniting here, to flow on for ever in the widening and deepening channel of Catholic orthodoxy, as it gathers into itself all human culture, and enriches the world with products of regenerated mind, harvested from its overflow into the fields of philosophy and poetry and art and science."
There is an evidence which supports the connection of Athenagoras with Egypt. This is found in a passage in his work On the Resurrection I2: "For instance (to make use of an illustration, that our meaning may be clear), a man makes a house for his own use; but for cattle and camels and other animals of which he has need he makes the shelter suitable for each of them; not for his own use, if we regard the appearance only, though for that, if we look at the end he has in view, but as regards the immediate object from concern for those for whom he cares." It seems unlikely that Athenagoras would not have mentioned a shelter for camels in such a casual way as this, unless he was familiar with this animal in his everyday experience. The camel was unknown in Greece and Asia Minor but in Egypt it was used in the postal service and would have been a familiar sight in the streets.