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

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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

Justin Martyr, First Apology: Part 2

In the first post about Justin’s First Apology, I wrote some about the text overall and also about some of the themes that are prominent in the text.  Here, in this second and last post (before turning to the Dialogue with Trypho), I want to think about what Justin said that he was intending to do in the work.  In chapter 23, after his introduction, he says that he wants to make three arguments: 1) that Christian teachings are true of their own accord, not just because of similarities with those of Greco-Roman philosophers (chs. 24-29); 2) that Jesus alone is God’s Son, is the “Logos” (or “Word”), became incarnate as human, and as a human was the great teacher of the Christians (chs. 30-53); and 3) whenever there are parallels to Christian teaching in Greco-Roman poets or philosophers, it is because the “demons” learned of God’s plans and implanted them in the minds of pagans to stand as a later witness against the Christians (chs. 54-68).

Christian Teaching as True

This section is short and relatively straightforward.  He began the text by noting the prevalence of Christians receiving punishment, not because they were criminals but apparently just because they were Christians.  Here he extends that idea, noting that Christians are punished for things like not worshiping the Roman gods — even when others do the same thing and don’t receive the same consequences.  As Justin says it, we Christians believe in the true God and don’t do bad things.  Nonetheless, we receive punishment.  He closes this section by talking some about the phenomenon of exposing infants, and how Christians don’t do it, not only so as to avoid the obvious sin of murder, but also to avoid more indirect kinds of sexual immorality (since so many exposed infants were taken and sold into prostitution or slavery).  Even though Christians avoid something that is obviously bad for Roman society, still they are punished.

Jesus’s Divinity and Incarnation

This section is quite interesting to me because it contains LOTS of prophetic anticipations of Jesus.  Some are the ones were are familiar with from the New Testament, but some aren’t.  If you’ve ever wondered what texts early Christians used to understand Jesus (think of the Emmaus story, where Jesus explains “what was said in all the Scriptures” concerning him), then you should check this part out.  Other noteworthy sections:

  • In section 36, he has some very interesting thoughts about the inspiration of Scripture.  Where elsewhere he talks about the “Prophetic Spirit” inspiring the prophets, here it is “the Word of God who prompts them.”  His emphasis on the Word speaking in different divine characters reminds me of Matthew W. Bates’s new book, in which he argues that the divine characters’ speaking “in character” helped lead to early Christian ideas about three distinct persons in the Trinity.
  • Section 37 (and sec. 63, incidentally) contains a reading of Isaiah 1:3-4 which he uses to argue that the Jewish people didn’t understand God’s work in Christ.  However, this passage in Isaiah also talks about an ox and a donkey who know their “master,” which is actually the source of the common Christmas iconography of the “ox and ass” who attend Jesus’ birth.
  • The editor of my translation says that Justin often indulges in various digressions.  That’s true!  Some are really important, though, as in section 43, where he takes up a (possible) complaint: if God really foreordained everything about Jesus, does that mean that everything is predetermined?  Justin gives an emphatic “No!”  God made us with free will, and he calls us all to repent and turn to him.  As he says in section 52: because we believe in the past fulfillment of some prophecies, we should believe in the future fulfillment of others!  So repent!
  • Finally, in section 46, Justin says that many ancient people, including non-Jewish philosophers, could be considered “Christians” because they lived “by reason.”  In Greek, this phrase is meta logou, which could potentially be translated “with the Word.”  (See also sections 59-60, where Justin argues that Plato got some of his material from Moses.)  This idea was not unique to early Christian writers, as can be seen best in Clement of Alexandria from just a few decades later.

Demons, Poets, and Philosophers

In this last section, Justin notes a common objection to Christianity: that the stories of Jesus are not unique because other ancient gods or heroic figures seem to have done the same things: Bacchus was considered a “son of God,” Bellerophon was seen seated on a foal (Gen. 49:10-11), that Hercules was considered super-strong, and that Persephone (a child of Zeus) was resurrected from Hades.  But, as Justin notes, no god was ever crucified, which does suggest that Jesus’s story is unique.  While there are certainly reasons to question Justin’s logic here — really? the demons were behind Greek and Roman mythology? — it is interesting that he also says that the demons are causing hatred of Christians (sec. 57) and that they incited the Jews of Jesus’s day against Jesus and his followers (sec. 63).  Since he’s writing to the emperor, I wonder if there is a subtle implication here: while your forebears and the Jews may have been controlled by the demons, YOU don’t have to be.  Treat us in accord with our actions — not just according to the inciting of demons!  You’re the emperor — you get to set the rules!

Early Christian Worship

One last interesting point in this text: before he closes, Justin gives some explanation of early Christian worship practices.  In section 61, he says that he’s doing this to avoid being “unfair”; I assume he means that he won’t just bash other religions, but rather he’ll give insight into his own, even the semi-secret rituals.  So, in section 61 he talks about baptism, in 65-66 he discusses communion, and in 67 he gives a run-down of a “typical” Christian Sunday in the mid-second century.  He suggests that these activities are typical of Christians — that he’s not describing an unusual service.  But we are so grateful for his inclusion of this material; it’s some of the only stuff we have from this early about Christian worship at this time.

That’s it for Justin’s First Apology.  Come back for his Dialogue with Trypho!

Image credits: (dead infant), (Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Nativity), and (Frederic Leighton’s The Return of Persephone)

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