Athenagoras of Athens and His Writings | Church Fathers
Athenagoras’s Plea for the Christians demonstrates a refined philosophical argument defending the cause of persecuted Christians in the later second century church. Little is known of the author himself. Athenagoras’s name does not even appear in the work or in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which attempted to list major Christian writings in the early church era. However, Athenagoras’s style is distinct as someone with extensive training in the philosophy of Plato and in Greco-Roman rhetoric. Athens itself was well known as a center for politics and education during the golden era of classical Greece. Following the Roman invasion of 146 BC, Athens’ emphasis on philosophical education continued well into the next few centuries. Christian apologists, that is, those who defended and explained the Christian faith, commonly used Greco-Roman rhetoric to support their cause and argue for human rights to be extended to the Christian community. Apologists also corrected misconceptions about what non-Christians believed in matters of Christian faith and practice. Athenagoras’s Plea was addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus. Since these two co-ruled the Roman Empire from AD 176-180, it is likely the Plea for the Christians was written to address an outbreak of Christian persecution in the year 177.
A Plea for the Christians begins by reminding the emperors that they had allowed the indigenous people they ruled to continue their own religious practices no matter how absurd those practices may have seemed to the Roman mind. Therefore, their entire empire experienced peace—all except for the Christians who were being persecuted, not because they did anything wrong, but because they simply bore the name “Christian.” Since no other people had been persecuted merely because they claimed the name of their founder or religion, it was unethical for anyone to persecute Christians merely for bearing the name of Christ.
Athenagoras next addressed three main accusations, of which the Christians in his day had been falsely accused. First, they were being falsely accused of atheism. Now, this may sound strange to the modern ear to hear anyone accuse Christianity of being an atheistic religion. However, the word atheism was used to refer to the fact that Christians did not believe in a God they could see with their eyes, especially in the form of an idol, planet, or stars. Athenagoras explained that Christians do acknowledge the existence of God but only one God, the Maker of the universe, Who Himself is uncreated. Athenagoras explained that followers of Zeus did not see him but recognized his works on the earth, so why were the followers of Zeus not also called atheists? Even Christians’ monotheism, or belief in one God, was commonly upheld by philosophers like Philolaus, Lysis, Opsimus, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Athenagoras explained logically it would be impossible for two or more gods to exist because then one or more of them would have to be incomplete or imperfect. To be truly God, He must have preexisted matter and brought matter into being. Citing the words of their own poets, Athenagoras reminded his readers that their gods were described as “ugly,” “nonsensical,” “ridiculous,” “rude,” and “stupid.” The early church apologists, even under fear of persecution, spoke boldly and were not worried about offending the sensitivities of their readers when making Spirit-led, logical points in their arguments. Athenagoras explained that idols, who have no ability to live or move, must wait on their followers to move them. Thus, they were no gods for they were weak.
The second false accusation against Christians was that they participated in Thyestean Feasts. In other words, they were accusing the Christians of being cannibals. Again, this may sound strange to the modern ear, but the false accusation was made based on a literal understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus taught His followers to continue a ceremony in which bread and wine were consumed as reminders of the sacrificial death of Jesus’ body and blood respectively. Athenagoras explained that Christians would have to kill someone before eating them literally, and since Christians abhorr death and all violence, it would be impossible for this to happen in the first place. This included drug-induced abortions, which Christians considered to be murder. They believed the fetus to be a human being in an early developmental stage and therefore the object of God’s care. They also believed that people who gave birth to babies then abandoned them on their doorsteps, a deplorable yet common practice in those days, were also guilty of infanticide.
The third false accusation against Christians was that they were engaging in group sex or polyamory because of their referring to their loving one another. Athenagoras explained that because Christians were so focused on the next life, they could not bring themselves willfully to sin. They did not believe they would merely cease to exist or be annihilated when they died. Therefore, they lived their current lives with a motivation to enter the next life without shame. He also explained that Christians took their sexual purity so far that they believed lust is the ethical equivalent of adultery. They took their sexual purity so far that they believed even sex in marriage was solely for the purpose of procreation rather than indulging physical appetites, and taking a second wife (regardless of whether the first wife was still alive or dead) was also a form of adultery. Beyond defending Christian behavior, Athenagoras reminded his readers that the false accusers and even their gods were guilty of sexual sins too. In conclusion, Athenagoras asked Marcus Aurelius and Commodus to reconsider the accusations as false and see Christians, instead, as people who pray for them and the peace and prosperity of the empire.
In this classic apologetic letter, Athenagoras refuted three false accusations, demonstrated the superiority of Christian monotheism to the polytheism of their false accusers, and assured the emperor and his son that Christians were beneficial to them and to the Roman Empire.
- William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 323.
- William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics: Past and Present—Volume 1: to 1500 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 65.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 1-2.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 3.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 4, 12.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 5.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 14, 19.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 8. In chapters 10 and 24-30, Athenagoras explained the difference between the Members of the Trinity, angels, and demons within the context of Christian monotheism.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 15.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 20-21.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 23.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 35.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 31.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 32. See also Matthew 5:27-30.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 33.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 32, 34.
- Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 37.