Links: The Patristic Period

The Muratorian Canon — This is an early (the first extant?) list of authoritative books for a particular community.  It’s interesting to read, and although there is some debate about how early it is, I think the most common dating is safe — around the year 200 AD/CE.  Notice that already the writer is talking about what books are “accepted” and what ones are “rejected.”  Notice also the interesting category he discusses toward the end: that a certain book (in this case, the “Shepherd” by a guy named Hermas) is good and should be read, but not in church.  Clearly, that book is helpful but is not on par with the “canonical” books that will become the New Testament.

The Epistle to Diognetus — This text is a second-century letter that nicely illustrates early Christian attitudes toward the world around them.  Notice especially chapters 5-6 of the Epistle, where the author clearly articulates the distinction between Christians and everyone else.  The reason I give you this text is that it helps illustrate the mindset that could be questioned in the situations regarding the martyrs.  Are Christians really that separate from the world?  We need strong leaders to guide us when we fall.

Clement of Alexandria on Philosophy — Here are a few selections from Clement’s work.  In terms of his high opinion of Greek philosophers, notice how he says about halfway down the page that Plato can speak “as though divinely inspired.”

Irenaeus on Bishops — This is a text from the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, in his writing Against Heresies.  What’s interesting to me is Irenaeus’ perspective on the importance of the bishops in preserving apostolic teaching and connecting back to those early days.  He wrote this against some Gnostics whom he accused of inventing “new teaching,” which was a bad thing in those days.  Notice that, for Irenaeus, the bishops are important for doctrinal reasons, not so much power reasons.  This text connects nicely with our reading about bishops.  However, because Irenaeus was writing his text (called “Against Heresies”) against those Gnostics, he’s also interesting if you look at that material, too.  If you want to explore more on Irenaeus, you might start with something like this link.

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity — This text from the early third century will help illuminate the material on persecution.  It is a “martyrdom account” — a narrative purporting to tell the story of a Christian martyr.  In this case, the text is especially interesting because it both concerns women and also seems to come (in part) from the actual hand of one of them — the noblewoman Perpetua.  If you are interested in other martyrdom accounts, the other most famous one is that of Polycarp (died around 150 AD/CE), which you can read at this link.

Tertullian’s On Spectacles — This text comes from the early-third-century writer Tertullian, and is the first extended argument we have from a Christian writer about why Christians shouldn’t attend gladiatorial games.  Notice the various kinds of arguments Tertullian uses.

Origen — Origen was a hugely important early biblical scholar from the third century.  Here is a slightly long, oddly-formatted site that has lots of good information about him.  Notice especially his three-fold method of interpreting Scripture, which includes both literal and figurative (or”spiritual”) interpretations.

Origen on Scripture — Here’s a sample of Origen’s writings, and in fact, it’s among his most famous material.  Scroll down to section 11, and read sections 11-16.  You will get a sense of Origen’s discussion of Scripture, his idea that the Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, and that we can sometimes look for the “literal” meaning of Scripture (the “flesh” of Scripture) but other times its allegorical or symbolic meaning (its “soul” or “spirit”).  He is very tuned in to a devotional way of thinking about Scripture.

Origen’s Hexapla — One of Origen’s major contributions to biblical scholarship was his so-called “Hexapla” (which, being translated, means “six-fold”).  This site probably has way more information than you want, but the top portions of it give you a good sense of what the Hexapla was about, contained, and may have looked like (approximately).

More on Cyprian — If you are interested in reading more about the third-century African bishop Cyprian, this site will help.  It includes discussion of his two most important treatises for this chapter, namely, “On the Lapsed” and “On the Unity of the Church.”

Apocryphal Gospels — Wikipedia has a nice article on the New Testament apocryphal texts – that is, texts that are not included in the New Testament, despite containing reflection on Scriptural topics and sometimes being ascribed to Scriptural authors.  Most of these were written several decades after the New Testament books.  For perspectives on alternative stories of Jesus, see the “Gospels” section in the linked article.

How to Make a Papyrus — This is an interesting site and slideshow about modern folks making papyri like the ancients did.  How time-consuming!

Codex Sinaiticus Online — This site is the online home for the digital version of Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible that is *hugely* important for helping textual scholars establish the best text of the Bible.  This site is explorable and is the result of years of work by many folks.

Jerome — Jerome was a very important early biblical scholar who flourished in the late fourth century.  He was the one who translated the Bible into Latin, in what became known as the Vulgate translation.  This translation was the Latin Bible used by Catholic Christians all over the world for 1,500 years.  Here’s a little more about him.

A Sample of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History — Eusebius is often called the “father of church history,” and this text gives you a little flavor of his work.  It deals with some early issues in the church; for the famous section describing the (fictional) correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, see this link.

Constantine and the “Sign of Christ” — This is a cool site that shows the emergence of Constantine’s use of the Christ-symbol (sometimes called the “Chi-Rho,” after the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek) by means of coins that he had minted, and then with those of his successors.  Nice commentary, too.

Images of Constantinople — Here is a source for images of Constantinople.  It can give you a better sense of the ancient city founded by Constantine.  Incidentally, some of our Leipzig study abroad students have visited Istanbul, which means they’ve seen the (former) churches of Hagia Sophia and Chora.

Selections from Arius’s Writings — Here is a portion of Arius’s writing, as it was quoted by Athanasius in one of his texts.  Notice the contrasts he draws between “God” and the Son — very stark!

Athanasius’s Easter Letter — Athanasius’s letter of 367 is the text that contains the first record of our 27 New Testament books.  This site gives the pertinent excerpts.  Note that Athanasius calls Hebrews a letter written by Paul – that was the common belief in those days, and it continued for many centuries afterward.

Gregory of Nazianzus on Analogies for the Trinity — Here is a selection from a text by the Cappadocian father (mentioned toward the end of the chapter) Gregory of Nazianzus on the Holy Spirit.  It’s a late-19th-century translation, so the English is rather Victorian.  At the very end of this text — sections 31-33 — he discusses two different analogies for the Trinity and also their weakness.  It’s a nice counterpoint to our attraction to some of those analogies.

Athanasius’s Life of Antony — We have read some about monks in the early church.  This is a narrative about the most famous early monk — Antony of Egypt — written by Alexandria’s most famous bishop.  Here is the text in full, after a good bit of prologue, should you want to read some of it.

Celibacy in the Early Church — On a related topic, many early Christians saw celibacy as an important part of their Christian discipleship.  Here are some quotations (in rather awkward, dated translation) that back this up.

A Summary of the “Rule of St. Basil” — Here is a summary of the monastic “rule of St. Basil,” an early guide for the monastic life in a monastery (that is, with others, and not living alone somewhere).

A Prayer to “Baby Jesus” — This is a moderately ridiculous clip from Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights (with a bit of inappropriate language — please excuse it), but it connects nicely with the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, who argued about Jesus’s humanity and divinity.  Nestorius did not go with the idea that the divine nature could be born of a woman — he would not have liked Will Ferrell’s language of “dear baby God.”  He would have agreed with Grandpa Chip — “he was a man; he had a beard!”  I assume Nestorius would have seen the intra-prayer conversation as indicative of what can happen when one sees Jesus however one wants.

Thumbnail image credit (John Chrysostom):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the medieval period)

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 2)

In my prior post about Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I wrote about the first two sections of the work, according to the outline I provided there.  In today’s post I’ll discuss the last three major sections — a couple of noteworthy items from each section.

Regarding Christ’s Death and Resurrection

a8a76d2521e47fc0b4f7e516f2a525d5In the prior post I noted how Athanasius argues for Christ’s uniqueness as God-become-human.  In chs. 20-32, we see more of the same.  He starts out with what sounds like a preacher’s refrain: “It was not for another” to bring us to incorruptibility, to recreate us in God’s image, to make mortals to be immortal, and to teach us the truth about God.  Then, in ch. 22, he says that Jesus was, in a way, uniquely qualified to conquer death, since he was actually “the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and did not have death in him.  (Again, this does raise questions about how fully Jesus had become human, right?)

A second interesting feature of this section is when Athanasius takes up some questions that folks may have — and these seem to be honest questions from seekers, not necessarily objections from opponents (as he’ll do in the next two sections — although see ch. 25).  So, if someone asks why Jesus couldn’t just have died in a private place rather than in the public, ignominious crucifixion, Athanasius says that people would have said he just died from the “normal” weakness of human flesh (ch. 21).  Should he have fled from the Jews in order to preserve his immortal body?  No — because he had to publicly demonstrate his conquering death so all would know that it had been conquered (ch. 22).  Wasn’t there just any other way than the shameful cross?  No — he had to take a curse upon him to redeem us from the curse that came in the garden (ch. 25).  Why did he wait until the third day to be resurrected?  Because if it had been immediate, people would have said he hadn’t really died, and if it had been a month later, people would have forgotten some of the things that he had said (ch. 26).  Some good questions, right?

In a similar vein, one of the things I really appreciate about this text is that it’s pretty realistic about human nature.  Besides the questions that he asks in this section — legit questions! — we also get more imagined results to some of the “what ifs” of the Gospels?  We especially see this in ch. 23, where he says things like…

  • If Jesus had just hidden his dead body away and then reappeared, saying he’d been raised from the dead, then no one would have believed him, AND they would have trusted him even less when he talked about the resurrection!
  • If the disciples hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then there’s no way they would have been as bold to say that he had been raised from the dead.
  • If the Jewish leaders hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then it would have been even easier for them to explain his supposed resurrection away.

Concerning Objections from “the Jews”

Where section 3 has some pretty direct relevance for me in my context — we have a number of people in my part of the world who question the Christian narrative, the stories of Scripture, and especially the centrality of Jesus in life — section 4 is not as much so.  The reason is that this part concerns objections that (real or imagined) Jews of Athanasius’ time made against the Christian claims concerning Jesus.  So, if you (the reader) do live in a place where there are a number of Jews, and if you happen to be involved in conversations about religion, then Athanasius’s text might be helpful.

The most noteworthy part of this section (starting at ch. 33), in my mind, is that we have two different kinds of testimonies that are made.  First, we get some repetition of the texts that are in the New Testament, in places like Matthew’s Gospel or the book of Acts.  Examples of this type especially come from the book of Isaiah, including Isa. 7:14 about a virgin conceiving a child (Matthew 1), the famous “Servant Song” in Isa. 52-53 (Acts 8), and Isa. 65:1-2 about God’s reaching out to a “disobedient and rebellious people” (Romans 10).

However, there are also other passages that don’t appear in the New Testament, like Deuteronomy 28:66, which says, “You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe” (reflecting the Septuagint text more than the Hebrew).  In ch. 35 of his text, Athanasius rather naturally connects “life” with Jesus, and the idea of “hanging” with “hanging on the cross, thus making the text a prophecy of Moses against the Jews who would reject Jesus.  In fact, there are a number of these kinds of texts — and the fact that several of them are also quoted in other early Christian writings makes us think that there must have been some common body of texts that writers knew and could draw from for their purposes.  In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Rendel Harris’s Testimonies (also available for free in GoogleBooks), which was dedicated to the question of whether there was even a text that was known, copied, and consulted by the church fathers, but is now lost to history.

Concerning Objections from “the Greeks”

The last portion of the text is concerning with refuting objections that Gentiles (“Greeks”) may make.  For example, Athanasius returns to engagement with Greek philosophers (as he did early on, in ch. 2.  He says in chs. 41-42 that some philosophers teach that the cosmos has a body (see this discussion of Stoic metaphysics) but also that God’s Logos (a generic term for a mediating presence between God and humanity) also pervades the universe.  If the Logos can be in a cosmos with a body, he asks, why can it not be in a human body?  Then, in ch. 43, he refers to Plato’s understanding of the cosmos’s slipping into corruptibility (perhaps from Plutarch’s Moralia) to argue that it is not unreasonable to think that God saw the same in human beings, especially since in both narratives God steps in to fix the problem!

he-the-resurrection-2003Later in this section, starting in ch. 46, he returns to the problem of idolatry that he dealt with in his Against the Heathens.  Here, he argues from common experience: what’s the deal that there are so many different gods, worshiped in so many different places — especially since people tend to say that gods only have authority in local places?  Doesn’t that mean they are weak?  In fact, it means they are weak demons (see the last post) who are deceiving people, and Jesus, the Truth, comes to drive away their deceits.  And as a result, “by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech” (ch. 47), he was able to point folks toward resurrection and immortality!

Toward the end, Athanasius continues his argument from experience and turns it to exhortation for his Christian readers.  First, he notes (to the Greeks) that none of their kings, heroes, or rulers ever did some of the things Jesus did — like making a body for himself from a virgin alone (ch. 49), or converting human beings from all over the world from their idols (ch. 50), or showed and taught that virginity is both good and possible for humans (ch. 51), or united in peace people who legitimately hated each other (ch. 52), or despoiled the worship of the idols and the work of the magicians (ch. 53)?  Implied answer: no one.  And, as he closes, he notes that Christians’ lives can also be exemplary, because it is not enough simply to learn about Jesus — one must live his ways as well.  I will close with Athanasius’s own words from ch. 57:

“…[I]n addition to the study and knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word [i.e., Jesus]”

Image credits: because Athanasius’s text comes from and reflects a very different culture, I’ve decided to use art from a different culture — the amazing He Qi from China.  His crucifixion is from; his Nativity painting is from; and his resurrection is from

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 1)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  The second short text for the beginning of summer is also by Athanasius of Alexandria — it’s his famous doctrinal text On the Incarnation.  It was written in the early fourth century, probably before the Council of Nicaea in 325, since it does not refer explicitly to the Arian controversy that led up to and followed that council.  That means that it was written before Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria.  In fact, a former teacher of mine called it the equivalent of a master’s thesis — doing an excellent job of reviewing the problem and offering some theological suggestions!  The title of the work refers to Jesus’s earthly life — his becoming human as a baby, his bodily death on the cross, and his bodily resurrection.  I’ll explain more and offer some thoughts below, but suffice it to say that this text has been important enough that C. S. Lewis actually wrote the preface for a 1944 translation of the work.  In fact, if you need an online copy of Athanasius’s text, you can find it at this link, while you find the version I’m using on Amazon at this link.

Outline of the Text

One thing that is often helpful when beginning a new text is to have a sense of how it’s organized.  We know this intuitively from movies, and it helps us know what’s going to happen.  Romantic comedies typically have a meet-cute, followed by tension, followed by a happy ending.  Action movies often have a slow build, getting more and more exciting, all the way to a gigantic climax (often followed by a brief romantic encounter).  Here I’m following the outline of On the Incarnation provided by John Behr, who wrote the introduction and translation that I’m using.  He says that we can think of it in five major parts:

  • After the introduction, Athanasius takes up a “divine dilemma”: what should God have done in light of humans’ disobedience in the garden? (Chs. 1-10)
  • Then, he takes up a second problem: since our desires for knowledge have shifted from heavenly things to earthly things, how can God rightly get our attention?  (Chs. 11-19)
  • Part 3 is focused on Jesus’s death on a cross — why on a cross and not some other way — and his resurrection in the body, which is witnessed by Christians’ lack of fear in the face of earthly death.  (Chs. 20-32)
  • Then, he considers objections that Jews might raise to this account of the incarnation, based on their own Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”).  (Chs. 33-40)
  • Finally, before a brief closing, he considers objections that Gentiles (that is, “Greeks” not yet in Christ) raise based on what they see in the creation and in the effects of Christ’s death.  (Chs. 41-57)

On the Garden and the Incarnation

Athanasius starts by referring to a past work of his, the one called by its Latin name Contra Gentes or (commonly) in English translation as Against the Heathens or Against the Gentiles.  The present text continues what he began there, by shifting from his discussion of idolatry to focusing on Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection in the flesh.  The most interesting problem in  Brick Testament Adam and Evethis section, in my mind, concerns what Athanasius thinks God could or should have done once the first humans disobeyed his commandment in the garden.  Athanasius scolds the first humans a bit by saying that it was absurd to have thought that God wouldn’t actually carry out what he said about death coming as a consequence of eating the fruit.  In fact, though, he defends God’s actions as being both right and proper.  It was right (or “just”) for God to condemn them to death, since God had given a rule, and rule-breaking brings consequences.  But that said, it was proper for God to offer them a way to avoid destruction, since the workmanship of God is necessarily good and should be seen as such.  In other words, God’s actions were right insofar as God is the lawgiver, and they were proper insofar as God is good.

In fact, it is God’s goodness that strikes me as another important theme in this portion of the text.  From the beginning of this account, Athanasius talks about how good God has been to human beings.  In chs. 3-5 he says that, by our created and animal nature, we are essentially corruptible and irrational; however, by God’s free gift, we were made both incorruptible (at the beginning) and rational, both of which allow us to participate in relationship with God.  Second, in ch. 7, we see the beginning of a theme that appears throughout out the book: that God gives second chances.  Athanasius depicts God as a re-newer, a re-creator, a re-storer — in other words, one who is willing to do things again for our sakes.  As he says there, “It was his once more … to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility.”  This is a theme that Cyril of Alexandria, his successor a century later, would also pick up.  Finally, in ch. 9, we begin to get to the heart of the text: because there was no other way for humans’ corruptibility to be undone, God the Word is willing to become human for our sakes.  In an argument somewhat reminiscent of Anselm of Canterbury, in his 12th-century text Why Did God Become Human?, Athanasius says that a body had to die to fulfill the requirements of death, but that only God could actually take the death of everyone at once.

On the Problem of Humanity’s Knowledge

As I noted above, ch. 11 starts a new section devoted to the problem of human beings’ focus on earthly things rather than heavenly ones.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like Romans 1, then you’re right: Athanasius quotes it and refers to it often in this text.  Here we again see a God who is merciful and gracious, in this case accounting for the weaknesses of human beings.  For example, in ch. 12, he describes all the different ways that God has manifested Godself to humans: in ourselves, creation (again, Rom. 1), in the law, in the prophets, etc.  Then, in ch. 15, he notes the ways that the very things we are tempted to worship and adore can speak to us of God: the elements of creation, human beings (Christ-the-incarnate is the greatest of all humans), other supernatural beings (the demons, whom Athanasius sees as the actual beings lying behind the Greek and Roman gods, actually confess Christ in the Gospels), and dead heroes of the past (since Christ overcame death).  Athanasius seems at pains to say that, in truth, we have no reason not to worship God, since all of creation points us to God in Christ.

Second, and I’ll close here for now, On the Incarnation provides a good example of a theological text that speaks to the issues of its own day without anticipating the problems of the future.  In baby jesus walking on waterch. 17, Athanasius describes the amazing act of incarnation: that God-in-Christ used the human body like a tool, “not bound to the body” but rather “wielding it.”  His point is clearly to magnify God’s power and Christ’s uniqueness, but there is an unintended consequence: that it can seem as though Christ’s human body is merely a tool.  The aforementioned Cyril would be horrified at this notion, since it was important in his time to emphasize the inseparable unity between the humanity and divinity of Christ.  But Athanasius also wants to show that Christ’s divinity “sanctified the body,” and that “by being in the body” he was not defiled — in other words, that humanity itself came back in the direction of perfection because of Christ’s work in becoming incarnate.  He doesn’t mean to sound like Christ may not be fully human — one wonders if this is part of what set the table for the later problem of Apollinarianism — but there we are!

Coming up next: the last three portions of the text!

Image credits: (for the cover of the book), (for the Adam and Eve image, edited by the blogger), and (for the baby Jesus cartoon)

Suggested next click: On the Incarnation, Part 2

Athanasius: Life of Anthony (Part 2)

In the first post on Athanasius, I introduced the author a bit and began to talk about his famous work The Life of Anthony.  In today’s post I’ll finish my comments on this text.  (If you’re ahead, go ahead and start on Athanasius’s On the Incarnation — you can find an online translation at this link.

There are many important themes that come up in this text; if you have access to the translation of the Life of Anthony in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, then you can read the excellent introduction there, written by Robert C. Gregg.  If not, then I’ll offer some hopefully thought-provoking observations on the text.

Depicting Anthony

For quite a long time, people read this text in a generally straightforward way — that is, assuming that Athanasius is simply reporting the truth.  Now, with our modern sensibilities regarding literary criticism, we are aware that Athanasius is clearly crafting a portrait of Anthony for some kind of intentional ends.  Obviously, that does call some things into question — what parts can we actually assume are true? — but it also helps us see a little more about Athanasius and Anthony.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Athanasius’s depiction are his portraits of Anthony as a wise man (not book-learnin’) and as a paragon of orthodoxy.  The former can be seen in places like sections 72-80, where Anthony outwits two “Greek philosophers” who came to test him.  (One is reminded here of the Gospel stories of Jewish leaders coming to put Jesus to a test.)  Athanasius clearly wants us to remember the early Christian leaders, who in places like Acts 4 are described as idiotes (or “uneducated”) people; the point is not to glorify them but rather the God who enables them to speak with such eloquence, just like Anthony does here.  The section closes with the philosophers “marveling at him” (like the leaders in Acts 4) and “acknowledging that they had benefited from him.”

The latter — that Anthony is depicted as unimpeachably orthodox — is a theme that Gregg describes well in his introduction.  You can see it clearly in places like sections 68 and 69, where Anthony as having nothing to do with one group who just happen to be Athanasius’s own theological opponents (the Arians), one group who were a historical problem in Egypt (the Meletians), and those general fourth-century bogeymen, the Manichaeans, urging them all to “change to right belief.”  Athanasius depicts him as welcoming guests (as is typical for him), but once he discerns that they are heretics, he runs them off, “for he held and taught that friendship and association with them led to injury and destruction of the soul.”  Of course, it is possible that Anthony would actually have rejected folks like this in exactly this way, but we can’t know that for sure.  What we can know is that Athanasius, the embattled church politician, is clearly trying to demonstrate that Anthony, the great holy man of Egypt, would have been on his side in the conflicts of the fourth century — not unlike politicians today seeking endorsements from famous pastors.

Classic Monastic Themes

It is not surprising that we also find some standard themes in Athanasius’s depiction of Anthony.  For example, his attitude toward personal property is one that is mirrored throughout the history of Christian monasticism; for centuries monks will struggle will the human tendency toward acquisitiveness.  But Anthony, in section 17 — and Athanasius, through the mouth of the blessed ascetic — says to us,

“Let none among us have even the yearning to possess.  For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us?  Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us [that is, after death] — such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality?  If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek.

Second, we see the way that one person’s holiness attracts others to follow.  This aspect of Christianity is first visible in Paul’s writings, where we see him writing to the Philippians, holding up characters like Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of self-giving love, or even himself as one who is pursuing Christ relentlessly.  In our text, Athanasius describes individuals wanting to imitate Anthony’s asceticism (sec. 14), and it actually becomes difficult for Anthony, since he really wants to pursue God in solitude.  In a later episode (sec. 46), Anthony goes to Alexandria to support those imprisoned in the persecution under Maximin — perhaps even to receive martyrdom himself — but he was spared.  Athanasius interprets this event as from the Lord, who was “protecting him to benefit us and others, so that he might be a teacher to many in the discipline that he had learned from the Scriptures.  For simply by seeing his conduct, many aspired to become imitators of his way of life.”


Third, Athanasius occasionally describes Anthony as an “athlete” — a descriptor that becomes classic in Christian literature about individuals pursuing ascetic lives.  The idea seems to come from 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul describes the spiritual life using an athletic analogy.  But it seems that Christians noticed the parallels between athletic training and Christian asceticism — denying oneself, having a special diet, etc. — and they began to talk about the monks as “spiritual athletes” or “athletes for God” (see section 12 for an example in the Life of Anthony).  Of course, you can probably anticipate the dangers — did that mean that the monks were sometimes excessively idolized, like modern athletes?  (Yes.)  Did that mean that sometimes people thought the monks were the real spiritual superstars, so that the “common people” weren’t that good spiritually?  (Yes.)  Did that cause problems for the church?  (Yes.)

Do Demons Have Bodies?

The last item I want to touch on — and just briefly — is an interesting feature of the text: Athanasius’ extensive reflections on the nature of demons.  Presumably, this topic comes up because of Anthony’s repeated encounters with them, but it also true that the third and fourth centuries witnessed quite a bit of discussion among Christian theologians about the nature of demons, especially their bodies.  (If you’re interested, you might check out this little monograph from my colleague Everett Ferguson.)

Athanasius’s comments on demons are focused in the middle of the text, starting in section 21.  In section 22 he reflects the traditional Christian mythology that demons are essentially fallen angels, and he says that their desire is to interfere with Christians, lest we ascend to the heaven from which they fell.  At the same time, in section 23, he says that “they are nothing” and need not be feared (perhaps echoing Old Testament ideas about idols, as in Isaiah 44).  But, as he goes on to say, they are treacherous and can take on many alluring forms to pull us away from God.  In section 31, he says that they even “pretend to prophesy,” but that this is actually because their bodies are “thinner” and thus allow them to move faster than we do; as a result, they can “prophesy” that someone is coming to see Anthony, when really they just saw him/her coming up the road and sped to the hermit’s cell to inform him.  Ultimately, Athanasius encourages his readers to “fearlessness against them,” because really they are “cowardly, always expectant of the fire that has been prepared for them” (secs. 42-43).

That’s it for Anthony, friends!  Feel free to comment below, and I’ll be back next week with the first of two posts on Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation.

Image credits: and

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Athanasius: Introduction, and Life of Anthony (Part 1)

Welcome to our May reading group selection!  (For the rest of the summer reading schedule, see this link.)  Athanasius of Alexandria is a really interesting figure from the early church, especially among folks who study early Christian doctrine.  We’ve got a couple of his writings on deck for this month — one text that is theological, and one that’s a narrative.  First, we’re going to read his Life of Anthony, a story of an early monk in the Egyptian desert.  Then, after that, we’ll read his On the Incarnation, a theological treatise on why Jesus became human.  Let’s start with a little about Athanasius, so we are all on the same page.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was born in the late 200s and lived until the year 373.  He is most famous for having been the “Patriarch” of the Alexandrian churches for nearly 50 years.  A lot of people think he was an instrumental figure in the Council of Nicaea (325); however, while he did attend, he was only a deacon and didn’t have a whole lot to do.  But, when he became Patriarch three years later, he devoted a considerable portion of his adult life to defending the statement of faith that was developed at Nicaea, a version of what we call the “Nicene Creed.”

In fact, Athanasius so passionately defended that set of beliefs (especially about the right way to understand Jesus’s (the Son’s) relationship to God the Father), that he was exiled multiple times when the Roman emperor happened to disagree with his position or find him a nuisance.  One of the texts that most clearly articulates Athanasius’ ideas on this topic is his set of Orations Against the Arians, which you can read in an old-fashioned translation at this link.

Athanasius’s Life of Anthony

But this month we’re starting with something related but different: his Life of Anthony, the famous monk from Egypt.  I’m reading the translation by Robert C. Gregg, in the edition that’s part of Paulist Press’s “Classics of Western Spirituality” series (which is great, by the way).  In this book, Athanasius tells the story of Anthony’s adult life, focusing especially on his adventures as a spiritual ascetic, living further and further away from other human beings, yet being apparently unable to escape fame for his spiritual exploits.

As the introductions to the book note, Athanasius does actually include a fair amount of theological material in the book, in that the depiction of Anthony’s dependence on Jesus is clearly shaped by Athanasius’s beliefs that the Son was fully God, just like the Father.  But the text has been far more influential in its depiction of the rigors of the spiritual life.  Indeed, we know that it was translated into multiple languages within just a few decades of its writing (that’s fast in the ancient world).  St. Augustine of Hippo, in his celebrated autobiography (called Confessions), describes how a translation of this text into Latin helped bring about his own conversion to Christ.  The images of Anthony, fighting against various demons, devils, and temptations, have been fodder for both artists (see above) and those seeking deeper spirituality for hundreds of years.

The First Part of the Text

Today I’ll just share some thoughts on the first part of the text.  First, it’s appropriate for us to be reading this text for our own profit.  Athanasius says at the beginning that his addressee apparently is attempting to “measure up to or even to surpass” the monks in the “discipline of virtue.”  He intends to help accomplish this goal by sharing the story of Anthony, in response to his audience’s request, and he acknowledges that Anthony’s life has been a “profit and assistance” for himself as well.  This opening reminds me of the books of Luke and Acts, where the author tells “Theophilus” that the things written there were to strengthen him in his belief, at whatever stage that may have been.

Second, I find the beginning of Anthony’s story compelling.  After telling us a bit about his background as an Egyptian Christian (ch. 1), Athanasius quickly moves to his late adolescence (or early adulthood).  By that point (ch. 2), both of his parents had recently died, leaving his young sister and the family’s lands (they were reasonably affluent) in his care.  But Anthony was used to going to church, and one day when he did so, he heard the Gospel text from Matthew 19: “If you be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  According to the story, Anthony immediately did exactly that: he gave his lands away, sold his movable goods and gave the proceeds to the poor, and kept only a few things aside for his sister.  But then he went to church again and heard the Gospel text that reads “Do not be anxious about tomorrow”… and so he gave away to the poor even the things he had kept back.  He put his sister in a convent so that she could be raised well, and then he turned himself over to a life of ascetic discipline.  This immediate obedience to the Gospel reminds me of the story of St. Francis, who did something very similar in obeying a word he received in church.

Finally, Athanasius does not wait very long to get going on an aspect of this text that is rather disconcerting to many modern readers: unambiguous descriptions of demonic activity, both in Anthony’s mind and actually in apparently material ways — things he can see, hear, smell, and touch. First, in ch. 5, Athanasius writes, “The devil … attempted to lead him away from the discipline, suggesting memories” of various things to which he might be attached.  Later in the chapter, the devil “undertook one night to assume the form of a woman,” so that Anthony might be led astray by lust.  In ch. 6, there is a famous and controversial image of the devil taking on the likeness of a “black boy”; as many commentators have noted (see here and here for two examples), this image may suggest racism, the blackness of sin, a temptation toward homosexual behavior or pederasty, or all of these!  Many modern readers find this kind of language quite foreign, if not repellent.  Don’t we live in an enlightened age?  Don’t we no longer believe in such superstitions?  Maybe.  But the Hollywood box office suggests that there is still a latent belief in such things — and maybe people are on to something.

That’s it for today.  Here’s a pair of questions to consider: Which commands of Jesus do you find it easy to obey?  Which have been hard for you?  Why do you think this is so?

Image credits: (the icon of Athanasius) and (detail of Lucas van Leyden’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony)

Suggested next click: Life of Anthony, Part 2