CHURCH FATHERS (13) – Athenagoras of Athens


In the second century we have another important apologist of the Christian faith, not very well known like others, but still very relevant: Athenagoras of Athens. We don’t know much about his life, some sources suggest that he was the director of the catechetical school in Alexandria. He was from Athens and he was a convert to Christianity.

His very important work is Legatio Pro Christianis (A plea for Christians) a work where he answered, using reason and philosophical skills, some common objections to Christianity (common at his time, of course). He wrote other works but we only know today of another one, a treatise on the resurrection. The main (terrible) accusations against Christians were atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Of course there was a huge misunderstanding of what Christians really believed. This is why great apologists like our Athenagoras had to counter to show that these accusations had no ground. 

The apologetic work opened with these lines, addressed to the Roman emperor: “In your empire, greatest of sovereigns, different nations have different customs and laws; and no one is hindered by law or fear of punishment from following his ancestral usages, however ridiculous these may be. A citizen of Ilium calls Hector a god, and pays divine honours to Helen, taking her for Adrasteia. The Lacedaemonian venerates Agamemnon as Zeus, and Phylonoe the daughter of Tyndarus; and the man of Tenedos worships Tennes. The Athenian sacrifices to Erechtheus as Poseidon. The Athenians also perform religious rites and celebrate mysteries in honour of Agraulus and Pandrosus, women who were deemed guilty of impiety for opening the box. In short, among every nation and people, men offer whatever sacrifices and celebrate whatever mysteries they please. The Egyptians reckon among their gods even cats, and crocodiles, and serpents, and asps, and dogs. And to all these both you and the laws give permission so to act, deeming, on the one hand, that to believe in no god at all is impious and wicked, and on the other, that it is necessary for each man to worship the gods he prefers, in order that through fear of the deity, men may be kept from wrong-doing. But why–for do not, like the multitude, be led astray by hearsay–why is a mere name odious to you?”

Then Athenagoras presents the accusations: “Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalism], OEdipodean intercourse [incest]. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes.” So Athenagoras presented the three accusations and answered all of them.

About the accusation of being atheist, Athenagoras said that Christians are not atheists but they only recognize one God and show the absurdity of polytheism. Athenagoras answered also the other accusations and show how Christians are morally superior to their accusers: “But though such is our character (Oh! why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, ‘The harlot reproves the chaste.’ For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure,–who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonoring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God),–these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods. These adulterers and paederasts defame the eunuchs and the once-married (while they themselves live like fishes; for these gulp down whatever fails in their way, and the stronger chases the weaker: and, in fact, this is to feed upon human flesh, to do violence in contravention of the very laws which you and your ancestors, with due care for all that is fair and right, have enacted), so that not even the governors of the provinces sent by you suffice for the hearing of the complaints against those, to whom it even is not lawful, when they are struck, not to offer themselves for more blows, nor when defamed not to bless: for it is not enough to be just (and justice is to return like for like), but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.”

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