Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians


After a long respite, we continue our series on the early Christian apologists.  Athenagoras was a second century Christian writer from Athens.  He addresses his apology to Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus.  He reminds these rulers that nations have different customs, especially religious ones, that Rome tolerates, because atheism is impious. It is necessary for individuals to worship their own gods in fear so that they may be discouraged in wrongdoing.

Athenagoras asks them why the name of Christians is so hateful to them.  It is not right that people should be persecuted for a name.  Actions constitute crime, not a name.  Because we are Christians does not mean such is sufficient for us to be accused and convicted of a crime. Athenagoras proposes to lay his case before them.  He states that Christians are not guilty of the crimes they are charged with.  The apologist asks that this bad treatment of Christians be removed by law.

Christians are accused of three things:  atheism, Thyestean feasts (cannibalism), and Oedipodean intercourse (incest), that is disbelief in God, cannibalism, and incest.  If we are guilty of these, we should be punished.  But, we are not.  It is incumbent upon the government to inquire about these charges.

We are not atheists.  We believe in one God.  We also believe that God must be distinguished from matter and is eternal and uncreated.  Through the Logos God has created all things.  There is no other god than the One God.  The creator of the universe does not need sacrifices and hecatombs.  A proper sacrifice to the true God is to know that he has created all things. To God Christians lift their hands in prayer and thanksgiving.  We offer a bloodless sacrifice which is the “service of our reason.” (See Romans 12)

Like human beings the gods have come into existence at a certain time.  The universe consists of things either uncreated and eternal, that are unoriginated and intelligible, or created and perishable, that are originated and sensible.  Since the gods are originated and sensible, they have been made by the Artificer out of matter.  Those things made of matter must have a cause that is the true God.  Neither do Christians accept the deification of the natural elements of air, earth, water, and fire, identified with certain of the gods. The elements are ordered by the true God, the Framer of all things.

The prophets of Israel testify to the one God.  Athenagoras calls on Caesar to read the prophets so that he may defend Christians from abuse.  Christians are not atheists of which they have been accused.  The apologist then goes on to describe the Holy Trinity.  The Son is the Logos who created all things. The Holy Spirit also is an effluence of God and also is God. (Technical terms, like person and substance, did not come into use in Christian thinking until after the time of Athenagoras).

Christians teach a clear moral doctrine, exhibited in good works.  They are called to love their neighbor and even their enemy.  They avoid immediate gratification and repudiate the idea that death is a “deep sleep and forgetfulness.”  There is a future life in which the believer is not condemned.

Christians do not perform sacrifices, for the perfect God does not need the blood of animals.  The true sacrifice is to acknowledge the true God.  They distinguish the uncreated and created and do not worship images made with human hands.  God is the potter who is the framer of matter, but is not Himself matter.  Believers do not worship the universe, but the One who made it.

Christians were accused of both incestuous relations and cannibalism.  Athenagoras retorts that Christians are followers of an elevated morality.  He points out the irony that those who accuse Christians of incest believe their own gods engage in incestuous relations.  Christians care for others in the community, committed to their welfare, including guarding them against defilement and corruption.  Marriage is held sacred, its purpose being the engendering of children.  Many Christians remain unmarried so that they may live in closer communion with God.  On the other hand, the opponents of the Christians indulge in corrupting the young, even encouraging males to have relations with males.

Not only do Christians not engage in cannibalism, but oppose the killing of others as seen in the spectacles of the arena and in abortion performed through the use of drugs.  Christians also oppose the exposing of children.

Athenagoras refutes the accusations of opponents that Christians are atheists, cannibals, and participants in incestuous relations. He writes with the greatest respect toward the rulers of the Empire, attempting to persuade them of the rectitude of the Christian community and its loyalty to the government.

In our witness we must with gentleness and respect explain Christian teaching to many who have misunderstandings of it.  The opposition should be informed so that when they oppose something Christian, it may be a practice or doctrine Christians actually do or proclaim.  In the name of truth all people are obliged not to distort what they oppose, but present the opposition fairly.  This too often does not happen.

Michael Tavella

October 21, 2022


With Gentleness and Respect
Defy and Deify