Athenagoras The Aplogist
His Writings


The learned Athenagoras writes two important works: the Pleading for Christians, and the Resurrection of the Dead. He writes with a philosophic mind, as he was brought up with Greek culture, with an eloquence in writing. Leslie W. Barnard comments on his writings, saying that "Athenagoras' Legatio and De Resurrectione are, as he believes, the only apologetic writings of the early period which can seriously rival, in scope and learning Origen's masterly work Contra Celsum. Their fate was in fact to be the same as Origen's masterpiece for Origen's enormous influence on later ages lay primarily in the field of biblical explanation and in asceticism rather than in apologetic. The influence of the Contra Celsum was, in contrast, not very great; and Athenagoras, and his writings, suffered an equal eclipse: they were almost unknown in Christian antiquity."



HIS PLEA (Embassy, Presbeia, or Legatio)

In c. 177 A.D Athenagoras wrote a plea (37 Chs.) on behalf of Christianity, addressed to the emperor and his co-ruler son. The purpose was to show the falsity and absurdity of the calumnies against Christians and ends in a calm entreaty for just judgment. He proved that Christian worship and teachings were more reasonable and moral than those of their accusers. He appealed to Greek philosophers and poets, in support of his claims.

C.C. Richardson believes that Athenagoras did not give his apology as a public oration in the Emperor's presence, while L.W. Barnard states that the account in Legatio II reads as if Athenagoras actually addressed the Emperor in person. According to W.R. Schoedel the title "Embassy" is adopted by those who see in the Plea an address intended to be delivered before the emperors in person, and that we are driven to the conclusion that Athenagoras was constructing an oration in the forensic style in obedience to the rules of rhetoric.

As Monachino suggests, the Plea looks like an "open letter" to the emperors destined for the general public and not for himself or certain Christians.

Leslie W. Barnard explains the historical circumstances of addressing this apology, saying,

The known history of the decade I70--I80 throws some further light on this question. In I72 there had been a rebellion in Egypt against Rome engineered by the Bucoli, "herdsmen" from the Delta region, during which the Romans had been defeated in pitched battle and Alexandria nearly captured. This was followed, early in I75, by the revolt of Cassius, Governor of Syria, against Marcus Aurelius, who was soon recognized as Emperor in most of the Eastern provinces including Egypt. However within three months and six days Cassius was dead - slain by a centurion named Antonius - and by 28 July Marcus was once again recognized in Egypt as Emperor. Marcus seems to have spent the winter of 175-6 in Alexandria and, considering the city's fervent adherence to Cassius' cause, he treated it with magnanimity and moderation: "while in Egypt he conducted himself like a private citizen and a philosopher at all the schools and temples, in fact everywhere." This fact is significant and must have been known to the Christians. Is it fanciful to suggest that Athenagoras was favorably impressed with the Emperor's philosophic bearing in Alexandria and felt that, at least, he would give him a hearing as a Christian philosopher? And ... why does he refer to the Emperor as a philosopher and appeal obliquely and subtly to Marcus' thought in developing his argument? In any event it would seem that we should not be too skeptical about the historical basis of Leg. II although no doubt, Athenagoras also intended his apology to have a wider circulation in the Graeco-Roman world.

The Embassy reflects slight acquaintance with predecessors or contemporaries, and in turn it finds no echo before Methodius in the early fourth century. Such neglect is not unique, for the Meditations of the emperor too are not mentioned before the fourth century.



Its features

1. This plea is written in a more moderate, learned and wise manner than that of Justin. It is non-rhetorical. It aims apparently at giving a clear, calm and unemotional statement of the Christian case. As a loyal subject of the emperors Athenagoras asks them for a prescript ordering judges (normally provincial governors) to examine the conduct of Christians and "not pay attention to meaningless labels or to false charges from the prosecution." He states that Christians do not object to punishment if they are found guilty, but they demand a fair trial such as that enjoyed by equal rights like other citizens. It was a product of having the Holy Spirit working in his life.

2. Athenagoras was contemporary to Tatian, the disciple of Justin, but differed from both in his defense as can be seen in the following:

a. He knows Greek philosophy and Hellenic culture more than Tatian. He did not share Justin's feelings of hatred to philosophy, but used terms clarifying the wisdom of the Greeks, though at the end proving the conflict between them, as philosophers who built their arguments by seeking themselves; whereas prophets are inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify all together for the divine truth. Athenagoras spoke of Christianity as if equal to philosophy. So he compared the Christian beliefs to the divine truth; which for the unbelievers is not logic. Christianity is a divine Supreme Declaration, as it is shown in The prophets' lives; which is not a human proof. According to Schoedel, "It is with some justification, then, that Athenagoras makes use of the resources of Hellenism to express Christian truth. He not only aligns himself with the best that had been thought and said by the Greeks, but he also seeks to express himself in a form that would commend his message to the cultured."

b. Athenagoras is famous for clarity of thought and strength of negotiation. He is more eloquent than Justin in language and organization, which made him the most preferred defender of Christianity.

c. He transcends Justin in his moderation and logic, not writing in sermons, targeting clearly to present a case for Christians quietly not emotionally, pointing to the falseness of the accusations against Christians. Athenagoras is distinguished among the apologists by his gentlemanly tone. Unlike that of Tatian, Athenagoras' pen provides light without heat. His delicacy in writing and talking proves that the whole world - cities and persons - enjoyed good treatment. Only Christians were persecuted by rumors of heresies. "If anyone can prove any crime against us, we are ready to bear the consequences."

3. In his defense he overlooks justification to preach, and declares the truth in front of the two emperors.

4. Athenagoras is a bookish man.

5. Athenagoras’ organization of materials is orderly. His style is atticistic.

6. Athenagoras’ acquaintance with literature and mythology is somewhat more profound. He quotes Homer eighteen times, Hesiod twice, Pindar once, Aeschylus once, Euripides seven times, Callimachus once...



His defense

Athenagoras analyzes the three accusations against Christians at that time: cannibalism, Atheism and Oedipean ideals. The pagans misunderstood the behavior of Christians, they falsely accused them of the following:

1. Atheism, because Christians refused to recognize the heathen gods of the "cities," to participate in the national traditional rites of their feasts, or to perform honors to the emperors of a sacral nature. They considered this conduct as disloyalty to the emperor and to the state, and hatred of gods and mankind. Apparently Christians were suspect not because they taught a new theology but because they rejected the old ways.

In his reply to this charge, Athenagoras associates himself with the philosophical against popular religion and seeks to show that Christians are in harmony with the best that had been thought and said. He confirms that Christians believed in one God only, not various gods. This unity was not strange to Greek thinking but accepted by many poets and philosophers. They are not accused of atheism, though their proofs were feeble and Christians proofs accepted divine declaration and prophetic teachings through the bible, accepting God with pure hearts. Christians do not worship many gods, and do not offer incenses, do not worship creatures but their Creator, believing in the supreme God, who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

He clarifies that Christians are loyal to governors, praying for their stability and goodness. Athenagoras presents his political view mixed with theology.

As all things have been subordinated to you, father and son, who have received the kingdom from above--"for the king’s life is in God’s hand, says the prophetic Spirit--so all things have been subjected to the one God and the Word from him, known to be his inseparable Son.

Robert M. Grant states that this is not only rhetoric but theology. The quotation from the prophetic Spirit comes from Proverbs 21:1, while the rest of the passage echoes the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 15:25-28 teaches the eschatological subordination of everything to the Son and the Father, while in Matthew 28:18 the risen Christ states that "all power in heaven and on earth" has been given Him. The emperors' power is also of divine origin, however, not only according to Romans 13 but more specifically in John 19:11, where Jesus says, "You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above." Clearly, then, Athenagoras is willing to use Christological terms in reference to the imperial father and son.

2. Cannibalism (Thyestean banquets), evident in the celebration of the Eucharist (the body and blood of Christ). This accusation was untrue, since Christians do not murder anyone, and were terrified of witnessing executions, and disallowed women to abort children, because of their belief in the resurrection of the body.

3. Incest, or Oedipean intercourse, because of their close meetings in celebrating the Church sacraments, with a strong relation between Christians, both sexes sharing, even the study in the School of Alexandria, led to the doubts of pagans about those meetings, so they accused them of Oedipean cults to destroy those closed meetings.

The philosopher clarifies that Christian morals do not accept the false accusations of Oedipean cults, as they trust that God sees their thoughts, hearts, looks, their respect for each other and their adherence to the sanctification of chastity and marriage. Athenagoras draws attention to their peaceful and blameless life: "We are so far from committing the excesses of which we are accused, that we are not permitted to lust a woman in thought. We are so particular on this point that we either do not marry at all, or we marry for the sake of children, and only once in the course of our life."

In his defense to clarify the supreme Christian life, he uses the same proof as the learned Justin against Celsus, since Christianity alone could raise the small flock to high virtues no philosopher could reach. Justin tells of one Christian in Egypt who volunteered to be castrated by the prefect of Egypt to show that the charge of promiscuity in Christian assemblies was false. The freedom of the Christians from crimes was a common ground to all the apologists, such as Tertullian and Minucius Felix.

Finally, Athenagoras acknowledges that the true accusation against the Christian was the name, as St. Peter (1 Peter 4:15f.) and many Christian apologists said.



On the Resurrection of the Dead

He also wrote a treatise "On the Resurrection of the Dead." It is probably the best early Christian treatise on the subject. It shows skillful understanding, and is regarded as the first attempt ever made by a Christian writer to prove this dogma by means of philosophical arguments and not by revelation and the biblical texts alone.

He wrote that essay as his fellow colleagues doubted about body resurrection, and caused many people to stumble along the understanding of the Christian faith. The persecutors knew the secret of strength in martyrs was their hope in resurrection, so they damaged the martyr's possessions, thinking that they destroyed their hope in resurrection.

Rev. B.P. Pratten says, "I think this treatise is a sort of growth from the mind of one who has studied in the Academe, pitying yet loving poor Socrates and his disciples. In addition, it is the outcome of meditation on that sad history in the Acts, which expounds St. Paul's bitter reminiscences, when he says that his gospel was, " to the Greeks, foolishness."

R.M. Grant believes that this work is a third or early-fourth century production directed against Origen's doctrine on the resurrection. W. Schoedel accepts his arguments and extends them. L.W. Barnard refuses this attitude, saying,

Grant's view that De Resurrectione is directed primarily against Origen's doctrine of the resurrection is again difficult to maintain. The treatise never mentions Origen by name, which is significant, and, apart from the allusion to I Cor. I5:53 in De Res. I8, never directly quotes any biblical texts. This is odd if he is confuting so great a Christian biblical expositor as Origen. It seems much more likely that the author has in mind philosophical inquirers who were unfamiliar with the Christian belief in the resurrection or, at least, were in an early stage of instruction. This is, I submit, shown by indications in the treatise itself that the work, in its present form, was intended as a public lecture. In De Res. 23 the author says: "we have not made it our aim to omit nothing that might be said, but to point out in a summary way to those who have assembled what ought to be thought concerning the resurrection, and to adapt to the capacity of those present the arguments bearing on this question." And in Ch. 1 he speaks of a plea for the truth being addressed to skeptics and doubters as a kind of prolegomenon to an exposition of the truth to those sufficiently advanced to receive it. This suggests the hand of one accustomed to give lectures in rhetoric and would certainly fit the connection with the Alexandrian Catechetical school mentioned by Philip of Side.

We also cannot ignore that this work closely agrees with the style and the thought of the Legatio, and that they were written by the same hand and assigned to the same period. Both works have many words in common as a cursory inspection of the index to Schwartz's edition shows 37. Moreover the same quotations appear in both works. Thus in Leg. I2 Athenagoras quotes the saying "sleep and death are twin brothers" from Iliad I6.672 and this is repeated in De Res. I6. And as Athenagoras says, at the end of the Legatio, that he is putting aside the argument for the resurrection for the present, the presumption is that he intended to deal with the subject later.

It consists of 25 chapters, divided into two parts; the first (Chs. 1 to 11) is the negative side, answering objections of philosophers to the resurrection of the bodies. The second (Chs. 11 to 25) was the positive side, proving the truth of the resurrection. Thus, we can say the first part discusses "God and the Resurrection," and the second "Man and the Resurrection."


I. Objections refuted (Chs. 1-11)

Athenagoras opens his work with a distinction between a "plea for the truth," addressed to skeptics and doubters, and an "exposition of the truth," addressed to those who were prepared to accept the truth; he notes that the exposition is more valuable and important. However that pagan hostility to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead made it necessary for him to give precedence to the plea over the exposition. Athenagoras' distinction justifies the effort to supply as much as possible of the missing "exposition" in defense of which the "plea was made. He repeats the same idea in chapter 11, as he summarizes what he had written:

The discourse in defense of the truth is inferior in nature and force, for the refutation of falsehood is less important than the establishment of truth; and second in order, for it employs its strength against those who hold false opinions, and false opinions are an after growth from another sowing and from degeneration...

But, notwithstanding all this, it is often placed first hand sometimes as it is found more useful, because it removes and clears away beforehand the disbelief which disquiets some minds, and the doubt or false opinion of such as have but recently come over. And yet each of them is referable to the same end, for the refutation of falsehood and the establishment of truth both have piety for their object: not indeed, that they are absolutely one and the same, but the one is necessary, as I have said, to all who believe and those who are concerned about the truth and their own salvation; but the other proves to be more useful on some occasions, and to some persons, and in dealing with some.

In the first part, Athenagoras refutes all the philosophers’ objections about the resurrection, due to lack of knowledge of God, His power , and His will in the resurrection,

a. Regarding knowledge, God who creates bodies, knows how to raise them.

For He from whom, antecedently to the peculiar formation of each, has not concealed from either the nature of the elements of which the bodies of men consist, or the parts of these from which He was about to take what seemed to Him suitable for the formation of the human body, will manifestly, after the dissolution of the whole, not be ignorant whither each of the particles has passed which He took for the construction of each.

b. Regarding power, God who could create, can also raise up the dead.

Moreover, that His power is sufficient for the raising of dead bodies, is shown by the creation of these same bodies. For if, when they did not exist, He made at their first formation the bodies of men, and their original elements, He will, when they are dissolved, in whatever manner that they may take place, raise them again with equal ease; for this, too, is equally possible to Him.

c. Regarding God's will, the resurrection realizes God's justice and is in harmony with His Divine power. Athenagoras states that it cannot be shown that God does not will a resurrection, for there is no injustice in the resurrection.

For that which is not accordant with his will is so either as being unjust or as unworthy of Him. And again, the injustice regards either him who is to rise again, or some other than he. But it is evident that no one of the beings exterior to him, and that are reckoned among the things that have existence, is injured. Spiritual natures cannot be injured by the resurrection of men, for the resurrection of men is no hindrance to their existing, nor is any loss or violence inflicted on them by it; nor, again, would the nature of irrational or inanimate beings sustain wrong, for they will have no existence after the resurrection, and no wrong can be done to that which is not.

And, besides, with creatures that have no notion of justice there can be no complaint of injustice. Nor can it be said either that there is any injustice done as regards the man to be raised, for he consists of soul and body, and he suffers no wrong as to either soul or body. No person in his senses will affirm that his soul suffers wrong because, in speaking so, he would at the same time be unawares reflecting on the present life also; for if now, while dwelling in a body subject to corruption and suffering, it has had no wrong done to it, much less will it suffer wrong when living in conjunction with a body which is free from corruption and suffering. The body, again, suffers no wrong; for if no wrong is done to it now while uniting a corruptible thing with an incorruptible, manifestly will it not be wronged when uniting an incorruptible with an incorruptible. No; nor can any one say that it is a work unworthy of God to raise up and bring together again a body which has been dissolved: for if the worse was not unworthy of him, namely, to make the body which is subject to corruption and suffering, much more is the better not unworthy, to make one liable to corruption or suffering.

He defends his position against their 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. Similarly God is not in want of the will to raise the dead - for it is neither unjust to raise men, nor to restore other beings; nor unworthy of Him - as is shown from the works of creation.

In chapter four Athenagoras presents the philosophical objection to the fact that some human bodies have become part of others; and then he refutes this objection.

These persons, to wit, say that many bodies of those who have come to an unhappy death in shipwrecks and rivers have become food for fish, and many of those who perish in war, or who from some other sad cause or state of things are deprived of burial, lie exposed to become the food of any animals which may chance to light upon them. Since, then, bodies are thus consumed, and the members and parts composing them are broken up and distributed among a great multitude of animals, and by means of nutrition become incorporated with the bodies of those that are nourished by them, in the first place, they say, their separation from these is impossible; and besides this, in the second place, they adduce another circumstance more difficult still. When animals of the kind suitable for human food, which have fed on the bodies of men, pass through their stomach, and become incorporated with the bodies of those who have partaken of them, it is an absolute necessity, they say, that the parts of the bodies of men which have served as nourishment to the animals which have partaken of them should pass into other bodies of men, since the animals which meanwhile have been nourished by them convey the nutriment derived from those by whom they were nourished into those men of whom they become the nutriment.

In the following chapters, Athenagoras refutes this objection, giving the following proofs:

a. In chapter five, Athenagoras refers to the processes of digestion and nutrition.

But it appears to me that such persons, in the first place, are ignorant of the power and skill of Him that fashioned and regulates this universe, who has adapted to the nature and kind of each animal the nourishment suitable and correspondent to it, and has neither ordained that everything in nature shall enter into union and combination with every kind of body, nor is at any loss to separate what has been so united.

b. The risen body is different from the present (chapter 7).

c. Nothing is impossible to God.

To bestow any serious attention on such arguments would be not undeserving of censure, for it is really foolish to reply to superficial and trifling objections. It is surely far more probable, yea, most absolutely true, to say that what is impossible with men is possible with God.

II. Reality of it proved (Chs. I2-25)

The second part gives proofs of resurrection related to man. According to Athenagoras the resurrection is based not only on the judgment of men as some believe, but on two main purposes: to realize the aim of the creation of man, and man’s nature. In other words, without the resurrection, on one hand man who is the beloved creature is created by God in vain, and on the other hand the resurrection realized his nature which God granted him.

a. It is necessary for man whom God created as a sane being to live forever (11 -13). Man as a rational being, is destined for eternal survival . Man was created in the image of God to know Him and to be a perpetual beholder of the divine Wisdom.

But God can neither have made man in vain, for He is wise, and no work of wisdom is in vain; nor for His own use, for He is in want of nothing...

He made him for the sake of the life of those created, which is not kindled for a little while and then extinguished...

But since this cause is seen to lie in perpetual existence, the being so created must be preserved for ever, doing and experiencing what is suitable to its nature, each of the two parts of which it consists contributing what belongs to it, so that the soul may exist and remain without change in the nature in which it was made, and discharge its appropriate functions (such as presiding over the impulses of the body , and judging of and measuring that which occurs from time to time by the proper standards and measures),and the body be moved according to its nature towards its appropriate objects, and undergo the changes allotted to it, and, among the rest (relating to age, or appearance, or size), the resurrection. For the resurrection is a species of change, and the last of all, and a change for the better or what still remains in existence at that time.

So that, from what has been said, it is quite clear that the resurrection is plainly proved by the cause of man’s creation, and the purpose of Him who made him...

And in our investigation the cause of their creation is followed by the nature of the men so created, and the nature of those created by the just judgment of their maker upon them, and all these by the end of their existence.

b. Man is made of body and soul, and this unity is broken by death and raised anew by resurrection (14 -17). His dual nature requires perpetuity of existence in order to attain the true end of rational life. Athenagoras argued at length that the confession of God as the Creator required a doctrine of resurrection as the completion of the divine purpose, and that "the reason for (man's) coming to be guarantees his resurrection for without this he would not be permanent as man." The ultimate end of man's being is not oblivion or pleasure. It cannot be attained on earth, hence the necessity of a reconstitution.

For many, in discussing the subject of the resurrection, have rested the whole cause on the third argument alone, deeming that the cause of the resurrection is the judgment. But the fallacy of this is very clearly shown, from the fact that, although all human beings who die rise again, yet not all who rise again are to be judged: for if only a just judgment were the cause of the resurrection, it would of course follow that those who had done neither evil nor good namely, very young children would not rise again; but seeing that all are to rise again, those who have died in infancy as well as others, they too justify our conclusion that the resurrection takes place not for the sake of the judgment as the primary reason, but in consequence of the purpose of God in forming men, and the nature of the beings so formed.

c. Because of the necessity of a retribution in the next world in which the body, too, must share, the body should share the soul in the reward of the coming world (18 -23). The body is partner to the soul in good and bad acts and both must be rewarded together. It is moreover unjust to reward or punish the soul alone, hence the necessity of a divine judgment upon the body and soul.

Man, therefore, who consists of the two parts, must continue for ever. But it is impossible for him to continue unless he rise again. For if no resurrection were to take place, the nature of men as men would not continue. And if the nature of men does not continue, in vain has the soul been fitted to the need of the body and to its experiences; in vain has the body been fettered so that it cannot obtain what it longs for obedient to the reins of the soul, and guided by it as with a bridle...

But if vanity is utterly excluded from all the works of God, and from all the gifts bestowed by Him, the conclusion is unavoidable, that, along with the interminable duration of the soul, there will be a perpetual continuance of the body according to its proper nature.

I mean man, consisting of soul and body, and that such man becomes accountable for all his actions, and receives for them either reward or punishment. Now, if the righteous judgment awards to both together its retribution that either the soul alone should receive the wages of the deeds wrought in union with the body (for this of itself has no inclination to the faults which are committed in connection with the pleasure or food and culture of the body), or that the body alone should (for this of itself is incapable of distinguishing law and justice), but man, composed of these, is subjected to trial for each of the deeds wrought by him; and if reason does not find this happening either in this life (for the award according to merit finds no place in the present existence, since many atheists and persons who practice every iniquity and wickedness live on to the last, unvisited by calamity, whilst, on the contrary, those who have manifestly lived an exemplary life in respect of every virtue, live in pain, in insult, in calumny and outrage, and suffering of all kinds) or after death (for both together no longer retaining anything of its former structure or form, much less the remembrance of its actions): the result of all this is very plain to every one, namely, that, in the language of the apostle, "this corruptible (and dissoluble) must put on incorruption," in order that those... who were dead, having been made alive by the resurrection, and the parts that were separated and entirely dissolved having been again united, each one may, in accordance with justice, receive what he has done by the body, whether it be good or bad.

Athenagoras states that man would be more unfavorably situated than the beasts if there were no resurrection.

For if no judgment whatever were to be passed on the actions of men, men would have no advantage over the irrational creatures, but rather would fare worse than these do, inasmuch as they keep in subjection their passions, and concern themselves about piety, and righteousness, and the other virtues.

d. Man was created to enjoy eternity which does not exist here but in the afterlife (24-25).

It is absolutely necessary that the end of man’s being should appear in some reconstitution of the two together, and of the same living being.