Apologist of the 2d century. By the report of philip sidetes he was founder of a Christian philosophical school at Alexandria. Between 176 and 180 he wrote an Embassy for the Christians for presentation to Marcus Aurelius and a treatise on Resurrection of the Dead. Before his conversion to Christianity he was a Platonist, and he used Plato's strictures on the ancient poets with great effect in his attack on paganism. The wealth of detail that Athenagoras supplied concerning pagan worship makes him a principal source for knowledge of ancient Greek cults. He defended Christians against the three charges of atheism, cannibalism, and promiscuity. In answering the first charge he had to show that the doctrine of the Trinity does not involve Christians in polytheism, and thus he became one of the first Christian writers to philosophize about the Trinity. In reply to the third charge, Athenagoras set out contemporary Christian teaching on sexual morality in these words: "The begetting of children is the limit of our indulging our passions." To answer the charge of cannibalism, Athenagoras appealed to the fact that Christians were not allowed to be present at public shows involving loss of human lives; hence they could certainly not be guilty of eating human flesh. Furthermore, Christians had their own slaves, and these had never accused their masters; he was thus the first author to advert to the widespread ownership of slaves by Christians.
Athenagoras's two works have survived in a single manuscript; and though the second work is in slightly more formal language, there is no reason for assigning the two works to different authors.
The quality of the work of Athenagoras is higher than that of the other 2d-century apologists. He was better versed in Greek philosophy, and more moderate in tone, and he tried to find new technical terms in which to express the concepts of his faith.
Bibliography: athenagoras, Libellus pro christianis and Oratio de resurrectione cadaverum, tr. j. h. crehan (Ancient Christian Writers 23; 1956); tr. c. c. richardson in Early Christian Fathers (Philadelphia 1953) 290–340. h. h. lucks, The Philosophy of Athenagoras (Washington 1936). r. m. grant, Harvard Theological Review 47 (1954) 121–129.
[j. h. crehan]