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ATHENAGORAS , Christian apologist, flourished in Athens during the second half of the second century. Only one of his writings has been transmitted to posterity, Legatio, or Presbeia, which he composed between 176 and 180. He was a professional philosopher and, from the time of his conversion, a teacher of Christian doctrine. His apology in defense of the Christians could have been published as early as September 176 when the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus visited Athens. More probably it was written after the anonymous letter from Gaul describing the persecution of Lyons in 177 became known in Greece, since the same expressions are used in both documents for the second and the third of the three main charges addressed against the Christians at that time: "Atheism, Thyestean banquets, and Oedipean unions" (3.1).

Legatio responds at length to the popular accusations against the Christians charging them with atheism and immorality. Athenagoras introduces the Christian doctrine of God with the help of an abundance of comparative quotations, from Homer to contemporary Middle Platonists. He stresses the absolute power of the creator and the creator's care for the world. He presents the Christian ethic as uncompromising. His doctrine of God culminates in trinitarian theology, but he avoids the doctrine of the incarnation. In his ethics he relies on the philosophical tradition of Stoicism. Thus, in assuming the correctness of many of the religious views of paganism, Athenagoras's philosophical theology rests on the sincere hope of a reconciliation between the church and the empire.

A treatise entitled On the Resurrection, traditionally attributed to Athenagoras, must be considered inauthentic. Its views on the general resurrection of the dead in the last days are best understood against the background of the debate over Origen's doctrine concerning resurrected bodies. This debate generated treatises of that sort only near the end of the third century. Differences in style are also discernible in comparison with Legatio.

Athenagoras remained virtually unknown by the later Christian generations in the ancient church. Only Methodius of Olympus, in the early fourth century, alludes to Legatio and identifies its author. In the tenth century, Arethas, archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, rediscovered the Athenian Christian philosopher of the second century and his apology.


A substantial introduction to the work and the apologetics of Athenagoras can be found in Wilhelm R. Schoedel's edition of Legatio and De Resurrectione (Oxford, 1972). The tenth-century copy of Legatio made by Arethas's secretary has been preserved (Paris Codex 451).

Charles Kannengiesser (1987)

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