Bishop Alexander

Athanasius was born at the very end of the third century, the earliest and best evidence for his date of birth stands in the Festal Judex, which states that his election as bishop of Alexandria on 8 June 328 was challenged on the grounds that he had not yet attained the canonical age [Index 3). Since the minimum age for ordination to the priesthood was probably then thirty years (equivalent to twenty-nine, on inclusive reckoning),1 while Athanasius was only a deacon when his predecessor died, he may well have turned twenty-nine very shortly after his consecration—which would fix the summer of 299 as the probable date of his birth. Whether that precise calculation is correct or not, the reluctant testimony of the Festal Index must outweigh a later tradition which puts his birth in 295.2 For an independent monastic tradition confirms that the new bishop's age was a matter of acute controversy at the time of his election.3 Athanasius emerges into history as the protégé of Alexander, who became bishop of Alexandria shortly after the emperor Licinius put an end to the 'Great Persecution,' which had begun in spring 303 and which, according to a plausible if unverifiable report, claimed six hundred and sixty lives in Alexandria alone during its first eight years before the 'palinode' of Galerius.4 A pleasing story current by the end of the fourth century relates that Alexander discovered him as a boy on the beach, playing with his friends at being a bishop. It was the anniversary of the martyrdom of Peter, the predecessor of Alexander, who had been executed in late November 311. Alexander construed the coincidence as an omen and took the boys into his household to give them an education. Athanasius displayed exceptional promise, and as soon as his age permitted, he became a deacon and Alexander's trusted assistant.5

The story carries the clear implication that Athanasius came from a humble family in the Egyptian metropolis. The inference is confirmed by the emperor Constantius: in 346 he referred to the city as Athanasius' 'ancestral hearth'

{Apol. c. Ar. 51.2) and eleven years later ridiculed his ignoble origin (Apol. ad Const 30.3/4). Hence Athanasius himself can be believed when he protested to Constantine that he was a poor man {Apol c. Ar. 9.4). About his family very little is known. Athanasius mentions an aunt who died not long after his expulsion from the city in 339: he accuses his enemies of trying to prevent her receiving a proper burial, which friends provided by concealing her identity {Hist. Ar. 13.2). And Socrates reports that in 365/6 Athanasius spent four months in hiding in his family's ancestral funerary monument.6

Athanasius received a thorough grounding in the scriptures and in biblical exegesis, which formed the basis of his thought and writings throughout his life. His education, however, probably did not include close study of the classics of Greek literature. The panegyric on Athanasius delivered in Constantinople in 380 by Gregory of Nazianzus, himself a cultivated and learned man, and at the time bishop of the imperial capital, makes it clear that Athanasius' education was primarily religious. Gregory proclaims that he studied non-Christian matters only enough to avoid seeming either to be totally unacquainted with them or to have decided to despise them out of sheer ignorance.7

Large claims have sometimes been made for the culture of Athanasius—that he not only knew Plato well, but also quotes Homer, imitates Aristotle, and models his Defense before Constantius on Demosthenes,8 or that he was in the habit of employing traditional rhetorical techniques wherever they might prove helpful.9 But Athanasius names Plato only three times in the whole of his considerable oeuvre, and the three passages which he adduces are three of the most celebrated and widely known passages in antiquity—the opening scene of the Republic, the account of creation in the Titnaeus, and the comparison of the statesman to a steersman in the Politicus.10 Most of the passages which were supposed to illustrate his wide learning came from the fourth Oration against the Arians, which is not by Athanasius at all.11 Athanasius did not compose and order his works according to contemporary rhetorical theory, not even the Defense before Constantius, which is expressly constructed as a forensic speech.12 Naturally, the structure and method of argument of this work correspond in certain ways with Aristotle's analysis, but that does not suffice to show that Athanasius consciously employed traditional rhetorical methods.13 The contrast with writers like Tertullian or Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus would in itself be decisive,14 but an even more telling comparison is available from Egypt itself. Both the Letter to the Monks by Serapion of Thmuis and the Encyclical Letter of Athanasius' successor Peter use traditional rhetorical devices such as anaphora, parallelism, alliteration, and assonance to a degree never found in any of Athanasius' writings, even the most elaborate.15

The general culture of Athanasius reflects the milieu in which he grew up: in Alexandria a Christian education had been available for more than a century.16 Athanasius regarded himself as the product of a Christian, primarily biblical, education which taught him that what is needful for salvation is 'the study and true knowledge of the scriptures' and 'a good life and pure soul and virtue in Christ.'17 Virtually everything that he wrote is closely based on scriptural texts.18 His philosophical culture can be measured from two interconnected treatises, which he wrote early in his career to establish his credentials as a theologian possessing a certain acquaintance with Greek philosophical thought.19

The pair of treatises, Against the Pagans and On the Incarnation of the Word, belong to a literary genre of Christian apologetics already outmoded in the society in which Athanasius grew up. They undertake to show that belief in Christ is not unreasonable. Athanasius assumes and asserts that Christian theology has triumphed over pagan philosophy: the wisdom of the Greeks is disappearing and the demons no longer possess their former power.20 Athanasius appropriates the language and ideas of Greek philosophy without embarrassment, and he expresses his position easily in the prevailing terminology of Middle Platonism.21 But the main topic around which the exposition revolves is the Christian's spiritual growth: since Athanasius holds that knowledge of God must come through Christ, he concentrates on the doctrine of redemption and its essential presupposition—that Christ is both truly God and truly man.

The lack of an obvious polemical motive (in contrast to the almost contemporaneous Preparation for the Gospel and Demonstration of the Gospel by Eusebius of Caesarea, which are directed against Porphyry's Against the Christians)22 inevitably raises two questions about the author's purpose: why did Athanasius write? and for what audience? The two treatises Against the Pagans and On the Incarnation of the Word continually address a friend who is presented as having already embraced Christianity.23 This procedure seems to imply that the audience which Athanasius envisaged was primarily Christian. Moreover, Athanasius explicitly asserts that the works of his teachers were not available to him when he wrote.24 That sounds like an indication that he wrote Against the Pagans and Oh the Incarnation of the Word outside Alexandria, and has encouraged the inference that he composed them in exile in the West. But the intellectual, or rather geographical, perspective and horizons of the author of these works appear to be those of someone writing in Alexandria and ignorant of, or at least uninterested in, the West.25 Hence, if Athanasius wrote the two treatises outside Alexandria, then he might have written them during his journey to the Council of Nicaea in 325, when he spent several weeks in an environment which was less Christian than his native Alexandria. For the two treatises appear to be designed, at least in parr, as a specimen eruditionis to demonstrate to the world that the young deacon who was clearly being groomed as the next bishop of Alexandria deserved his place at Alexander's side.26

The Against the Pagans and On the Incarnation of the Word conspicuously fail to refer explicitly to the Arian controversy. Hence the problem of dating the double work has almost always been presented as a choice between a date c. 318, before the views of Arius were proscribed, and the period of Athanasius' exile in Trier between the winter of 335/6 and the summer of 337,27 and power-

fui statements have recently been made both for a date shortly before the Council of Nicaea and for the traditional date of c. 336.28 A new proposal will perhaps do justice to the competing arguments for both these dates.

Athanasius' work shows some clear affinities to Eusebius' Theophany, which was composed c. 325, and it has been claimed that its author therefore read and copied Eusebius' text.29 But many of the parallels could be due to independent use of traditional apologetic material.30 On the other hand, the overall argument of the Against the Pagans and On the Incarnation of the Word is unusually historical for Athanasius, and some of the individual arguments run closely parallel to Eusebius.31 Hence the double work creates a strong impression that it was written with Eusebius' Theophany in mind to argue a similar general thesis from a different theological viewpoint.32 It may be, therefore, that Athanasius wrote it between 325 and 328 in order to establish his credentials as a worthy successor of Alexander as bishop of Alexandria—and deliberately avoided polemic against other Christians or any allusion to current controversies within the church.33

Athanasius is sometimes regarded as both bilingual and bicultural, equally at home in Coptic and in Greek. Hence his theology can be considered to represent a fusion of Coptic literalism and Hellenic spiritualism.34 For it seems to be an obvious inference from the time that he spent in exile among the monks of Upper Egypt that he must have been fluent in the native Egyptian language of the majority of the monks,35 and the preservation of so many of his homiletic and ascetical works in Coptic seems to make it plausible to suppose that he composed at least some of them in that language.36 Hence Athanasius has been described as a 'Coptic writer' who was also the leader of a bilingual or essentially Coptic church.37 Such interpretations cannot perhaps be totally excluded on a priori grounds, and it must be conceded that a large proportion of Christians in rural Egypt probably could not understand Greek.38 Yet it is certain that the Coptic versions of all the works of Athanasius which survive are translations from an original Greek text, even where the Greek original has been lost.39 Athanasius the Coptic patriarch appears to be an anachronistic creation of later hagiography. There is no good evidence that he ever wrote in Coptic—and given the abundance of work that survives from his pen, there can be little probability either. On the other hand, Athanasius may on occasion have written in Latin, since he spent more than eight years in the Latin-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, where he would have needed to use Latin to persuade westerners to support his cause.40

Athanasius corresponds in certain particulars to the unflattering stereotype of the quarrelsome Egyptian current in the Greco-Roman world.41 The educated classes of the Roman Empire would never have recognised in him a fellow member of the cultured élite. The early and reliable evidence consistently indicates that Athanasius was a man of the people. He was not a scion of the local aristocracy of the Greek metropolis of Egypt, born into a leisured and cultivated milieu.

Nor was he by birth a member of the rural peasantry of the Egyptian countryside. Yet there is a sense in which he straddled the Greek and native Egyptian worlds which met in Alexandria.42 His low-class origin gave him a lack of inhibition which was to serve him well during a long life of conflict.

In 325 the deacon Athanasius accompanied Alexander to the Council of Nicaea, where he attended on his bishop during the debates43 and presumably made the acquaintance of bishops from outside Egypt who were to be his political allies in later days. The Council of Nicaea tackled a large agenda, from voluntary castration to the jurisdiction of metropolitan bishops and the date of Easter.44 But the two most serious and most pressing problems which the council attempted to solve concerned Egypt, which was troubled by both schism and doctrinal dispute.

During the 'Great Persecution,' the bishop Peter had withdrawn from Alexandria, perhaps when Maximinus, who began to rule the East in May 305, intensified the persecution of the Christians. Melitius, who appears to have been recently elected bishop of Lycopolis in place of an apostate, stepped in to perform Peter's duties, including the ordination of priests.45 The bishop of Alexandria objected, then, when he subsequently returned to the city, convened a synod, and excommunicated Melitius (Apol. c. Ar. 59.1). As persecution continued, Melitius was deported to the mines of Palestine, where he organised a schismatic 'church of the martyrs.' In 311 the dying Galerius ordered the cessation of persecution, and Melitius returned to Egypt, where he organised a separate network of local churches.46 Papyri illustrate the extent of his success: by 334 there existed a Melitian monastery at Hathor 'in the eastern desert of the Upper Cynopolite nome' in Middle Egypt, Melitian cells in the Thebaid, and a network of Meli'ian sympathisers in Alexandria itself who could provide lodging for their confrères.47

Arius represented a challenge of a different order. Shortly after Alexander became bishop of Alexandria in 313, the Libyan Arius established a reputation as a popular preacher at the Church of Rauca lis, close to the harbor.48 By custom, and presumably because of the size of the city and its large Christian population, the priests of Alexandria were licensed to preach, each in his own church.49 Arius, therefore, enjoyed an independence which mere priests in most other cities lacked, and he used the opportunity to advance his own theological views.

Controversy still attaches (and will probably always continue to attach) to the origin and the precise nature of Arius' views, for it is not at all easy to sift authentic reports of his theology from hostile misrepresentation, and Arius himself restated and modified his opinions more than once.50 Moreover, the historian confronts a problem of terminology and must be sensitive to the risk of anachronism. Can the term 'Arianism' legitimately be used at all for historical analysis, given its demonstrable origin as a derogatory party label? And if the term 'Arianism' is used, should it be defined as the distinctive theology of Arius himself, or does anyone count as an 'Arian' who considered that Arius* views lay within the permissible range of views which the church could tolerate, whether or not he himself shared them? No fourth-century thinker who is normally regarded as an 'Arian* or 'Neo-Arian' would ever have applied the term to himself. The label was a term of abuse: Athanasius and his allies habitually employed a broad definition which turned all their enemies into 'Arians.' In the early middle decades of the fourth century, the crucial political (and perhaps theological) divide lay between those who considered Arius an utter heretic who must be expelled from the church and those who thought that his views, at least when he dropped one or two extreme formulations, fell within the limits allowed by the traditional teaching of the church, within what Eusebius of Caesarea defined as 'ecclesiastical theology.'51 Those who took the former view had no hesitation in branding all those who took the latter view, including Eusebius of Caesarea, 'Arians' or 'Arian madmen,' but that does not justify the continued use of the term by a modern historian who strives for objectivity.52

Whatever their precise nature, Arius' views provoked objection, and a complaint was lodged with Alexander.53 Arius responded by submitting to his bishop, in his own name and that of a group of other priests and deacons of Alexandria, a statement which claimed that his views reflected both traditional teaching and Alexander's own.54 Since Arius refused to modify his opinions, the bishop convened a council of about one hundred bishops from Egypt and Libya, which repudiated Arius' novel views and excommunicated all who shared them.55

Alexander had miscalculated if he thought that Arius could be cowed or easily suppressed. The Libyan priest possessed powerful friends outside Egypt. Before long Arius had gained the support of important bishops in Palestine and Syria and was able to claim that Alexander had anathematised Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodotus of Laodicea, Paulinus of Tyre, Athanasius of Anazarbus, Gregorius of Berytus, Aetius of Lydda, and almost all the bishops of the East for sharing his view that the Father pre-exists the Son in a non-temporal sense. He wrote to Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia and a habitue of the court of the emperor Licinius, whom he saluted as a fellow pupil of the late Lucian of Antioch, urging him to support one who was being persecuted for holding theological views which were perfectly acceptable.56 The dispute between the bishop of Alexandria and the Alexandrian priest soon engulfed the whole of the eastern church. Councils of bishops weighed in on Arius' side: reports survive of a council in Palestine convened by Paulinus of Tyre, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Patrophilus of Scythopolis, and of one in Bithynia.57 For his part, Alexander wrote to Alexander, the bishop of Byzantium, and even (it is reported) to Silvester, the bishop of Rome.58 Moreover, it appears that after Arius had vindicated himself outside Egypt, he returned to Alexandria and organised Arian conventicles in the city, not without violence.59

The young Athanasius was soon given an opportunity to show his native skill and mettle in polemic. Two circular letters sent from Alexandria in the name of Alexander survive from early in the controversy over Arius. The one is a letter to 'our beloved and most respected fellow workers of the catholic church everywhere,' while the other is addressed to a single fellow bishop Alexander, who is stated by the only ancient writer to quote the letter to be the bishop of Byzantium.60 The hand of Athanasius has been detected in both letters: the latter, for example, uses the image of the Arians dividing the robe of Christ which his executioners had left whole (John 19.23-24). That was a novel idea at the time when the letter was written, but it became one of Athanasius' favorite images for schism and heresy.61 The two letters, however, are so different in vocabulary, style, and method of argument that it is hard to suppose them the work of a single writer, and it is the circular letter which reflects the style and thought of Athanasius.62 The letter to Alexander strives after grandiloquence, but lacks intellectual sharpness and precision, and its writer commits the tactical mistake, which could be disastrous in any controversy, of venturing too many positive statements about the content of his own theology. The author is presumably the bishop of Alexandria himself.63 The circular letter, in contrast, appears to show the hand of Athanasius: it is a far more effective and tightly argued composition which admirably succeeds in attacking the theology of Arius without setting out a contrary position containing any novelties to provoke disquiet or resistance.64 At some stage in the controversy, Licinius prohibited the convening and holding of councils of bishops—possibly on the recommendation of Eusebius of Nicomedia.65 In 324, when Constantine conquered the East, the suspended quarrel flared up again with even fiercer intensity. Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius urging them not to quarrel, since they differed only on esoteric points of theology and philosophy, not over the central tenets of the divine law, and he sent his letter to Alexandria with a trusted envoy, apparently Ossius of Corduba, whom he instructed to try to reconcile the parties.66 Despite a council at Alexandria (Apol. c. Ar. 74.3/4, 76.3), Ossius' mission failed, and a great council was called to meet in Ancyra.

As Ossius returned to court, he discovered that the church of Antioch, whose bishop Philogonius had died on 20 December 324,67 was in disorder. Ossius presided over a council of more than fifty Oriental bishops, which elected Eustathius to succeed Philogonius and attempted to settle the affairs of the Antiochene church. The council also adopted an intricately phrased creed, and provisionally excommunicated three prominent bishops who refused to accept it as the true apostolic teaching necessary for salvation: they were Theodotus of Laodicea, Narcissus of Neronias, and Eusebius of Caesarea. But the decisions of this council of Antioch were merely provisional until ratified by the forthcoming 'great and holy council at Ancyra.'64

Constantine transferred the impending council to Nicaea.6* The excommunicated bishops rehabilitated themselves, and the council began to discuss the theological issues raised in the controversy over Arius. Debate dragged on until a creed was produced which its framers expected to be totally unacceptable not only to Arius but also to his principal supporters. Constantine, however, offered an interpretation of its wording which most of those who sympathised with Arius could accept, and all the bishops present signed the creed except the two Libyan bishops associated with Arius (Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica), who departed into exile, together with Arius himself and some priests who refused to repudiate his views.70

The Melitian schism required less rigorous measures. The Council of Nicaea attempted to reintegrate the Melitian clergy into the catholic church of Egypt. It accepted the status of Melitius himself as bishop of Lycopolis, and it accepted the priests whom Melitius had ordained as validly consecrated. But it forbade Melitius to perform further ordinations, and declared that the Melitian clergy in any locality were to be subordinate in rank to those ordained under Alexander of Alexandria. On the other hand, if a Melitian priest acknowledged Alexander's authority, he should have full clerical privileges. Moreover, if the congregation wished it, and if the bishop of Alexandria agreed, then such a priest might replace a priest of the catholic church who died.71

The Council of Nicaea did not bring peace to the church either in Egypt or elsewhere. Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea had subscribed to the creed, but not to the anathemas condemning Arius and the specific beliefs attributed to him. The council ordered them to conform, but allowed them time for compliance. Three months later Eusebius and Theognis communicated with certain Alexandrians in conflict with their bishop (either Melitians or followers of the schismatic Colluthus). Constantine declared that, by the decisions made at Nicaea, the two bishops had forfeited their sees, and he invited their congregations to select new bishops.72 Within two years, however, the allies of Arius gained an ascendancy in the eastern church and prepared for his readmission to communion. Eusebius of Caesarea played a central role. He presided over a council at Antioch in 327 which deposed Eustathius for moral turpitude and replaced him with Paulinus of Tyre. The same council deposed Asclepas of Gaza (Apol. c. Ar. 45.2), and probably also another five bishops of Syria and Palestine—Euphration of Balaneae, Cymatius of Paltus, Cymatius of Gabala, Carterius of Antaradus, and Cyrus of Beroea {Fug. 3.3; Hist. Ar. 5.2).73 All were replaced by men of whose opinions Eusebius presumably approved, and even though neither Paulinus nor his immediate successor lived long, the metropolitan see of Antioch was by 330 safely in the hands of Flaccillus.74

When Eustathius had been removed, it was not long before Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Theognis expressed their desire to be reunited with the catholic church. Arius and his fellow priest Euzoius submitted a statement of their beliefs: Constantine inspected it and submitted it to the Council of Nicomedia, which he had summoned to put an end to the Melitian schism. The council met in December 327 (or possibly January 328) with the emperor present. It readmitted to communion Arius and Huzoius, Eusebius and Theognis, and it laid down fresh measures for integrating the Melitian clergy into the catholic church of Egypt.75

Constantine endorsed the decisions of the Council of Nicomedia. But Alexander of Alexandria had declined to come, and he now refused to readmit Arius to communion with himself or the church in Egypt. He may have been willing to receive Melitian clergy back into the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but he refused any compromise of Arius and sent Athanasius to court with a letter when the emperor persisted in urging his reinstatement.76 While Athanasius was absent, Alexander died on 17 April 328 (Index pr.). Athanasius hurried back to Alexandria to find some fifty-four bishops, supporters of both Alexander and Melitius, deliberating over the choice of a bishop to heal the schism. On 8 June 328, before a common decision was reached, six or seven bishops went to the Church of Dionysius and consecrated him bishop of Alexandria.77

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