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§ 175. Athenagoras.
Otto, Vol. VII.; Migne, VI. 890–1023. Am. ed. by W. B. Owen, N. Y., 1875.
Clarisse: De Athenagorae vita, scriptis doctrina (Lugd. Bat. 1819); Donaldson, III. 107–178; Harnack, Texte, I. 176 sqq., and his art. "Athen." in Herzog2 I. 748–750; Spencer Mansel in Smith and Wace, 1. 204–207; Renan, Marc-Auréle, 382–386.
Athenagoras was "a Christian philosopher of Athens," during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (A. D., 161–180), but is otherwise entirely unknown and not even mentioned by Eusebius, Jerome, and Photius. 13631363 The account of Philippus Sidetes, deacon of Chrysostom, as preserved by Nicephorus Callistus, is entirel y unreliable. It makes Athenagoras the first head of the school of Alexandria under Hadrian, and the teacher of Clement of Alex.—a palpable chronological blunder—and states that he addressed hisApology to Hadrian and Antoninus, which is contradicted by the inscription. But in a fragment of Methodius, De Resurrectione, there is a quotation from the Apology of Athenagoras (c. 24) with his name attached.363 His philosophy was Platonic, but modified by the prevailing eclecticism of his age. He is less original as an apologist than Justin and Tatian, but more elegant and classical in style.
He addressed an Apology or Intercession in behalf of the Christians to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.13641364 Πρεσβεία (embassy) περὶ Χριστιανῶν, Legatio (also Supplicatio, Intercessio)pro Christianis. Some take the title in its usual sense, and assume that Athenagoras really went as a deputation to the emperor. The book was often copied in the fifteenth century, and there are seventeen MSS. extant; the three best contain also the treatise on the Resurrection. Both were edited by Henry Stephens, 1557, and often since. The objections against the genuineness are weak and have been refuted.364 He reminds the rulers that all their subjects are allowed to follow their customs without hindrance except the Christians who are vexed, plundered and killed on no other pretence than that they bear the name of their Lord and Master. We do not object to punishment if we are found guilty, but we demand a fair trial. A name is neither good nor bad in itself, but becomes good or bad according to the character and deeds under it. We are accused of three crimes, atheism, Thyestean banquets (cannibalism), Oedipodean connections (incest). Then he goes on to refute these charges, especially that of atheism and incest. He does it calmly, clearly, eloquently, and conclusively. By a divine law, he says, wickedness is ever fighting against virtue. Thus Socrates was condemned to death, and thus are stories invented against us. We are so far from committing the excesses of which we are accused, that we are not permitted to lust after 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. Here comes out his ascetic tendency which he shares with his age. He even condemns second marriage as "decent adultery." The Christians are more humane than the heathen, and condemn, as murder, the practices of abortion, infanticide, and gladiatorial shows.
Another treatise under his name, "On the Resurrection of the Dead, is a masterly argument drawn from the wisdom, power, and justice of God, as well as from the destiny of man, for this doctrine which was especially offensive to the Greek mind. It was a discourse actually delivered before a philosophical audience. For this reason perhaps he does not appeal to the Scriptures.
AlI historians put a high estimate on Athenagoras. "He writes," says Donaldson, "as a man who is determined that the real state of the case should be exactly known. He introduces similes, he occasionally has an antithesis, he quotes poetry but always he has his main object distinctly before his mind, and he neither makes a useless exhibition of his own powers, nor distracts the reader by digressions. His Apology is the best defence of the Christians produced in that age." Spencer Mansel declares him "decidedly superior to most of the Apologists, elegant, free from superfluity of language, forcible in style, and rising occasionally into great powers of description, and in his reasoning remarkable for clearness and cogency."
Tillemont found traces of Montanism in the condemnation of second marriage and the view of prophetic inspiration, but the former was common among the Greeks, and the latter was also held by Justin M. and others. Athenagoras says of the prophets that they were in an ecstatic condition of mind and that the Spirit of God "used them as if a flute-player were breathing into his flute." Montanus used the comparison of the plectrum and the lyre.
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