We know very little about Athenagoras. Unlike Theophilus, Aristides, and Quadratus (other apologists for whom we possess limited information), he is not mentioned by either Eusebius or Jerome. Philip of Side’s Christian History (from c. 430 CE) tells us that he converted to Christianity from paganism through reading the Scriptures, and was a philosopher. We cannot be certain that he was born in Athens, although it is thought that the Supplication for the Christians was composed there. In addition to the present text, a treatise of his entitled On the Resurrection of Bodies has also survived. Both texts make his philosophical identity extremely clear – he writes eloquently and lucidly, and is committed to instruction and reasoning. The Supplication for the Christians is an apology addressed to the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus. It was written between 176 and 178 CE, and may have been addressed to them when they visited Athens to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries as Hadrian had been before them (these were annual rites performed by the ancient Greeks in the village of Eleusis, near Athens, in honour of Demeter and Persephone) (see Robert Grant, Greek Apologists, p. 100; Timothy Barnes, “The Embassy,” p. 111-114). This dating is suggested by a reference to them as conquerors of Armenia and Samartia, which bears similarities to Egyptian papyri from between 176 and 179 CE. Moreover, as Grant explains, a dating in the Autumn of 176 CE might be supported by the fact that neither of the addressees are referred to as Augustus by Athenagoras, a title gained after the new year (Greek Apologists, p. 100). The apology lists the accusations levelled against Christians; atheism, immorality, and cannibalism (I-II), before refuting each of these charges.
As Denise Kimber Buell states, Athenagoras’s apology for the Christians is “framed as a letter that requests rights and recognition for Christians on the same terms that the other ethnic and civic groups in the empire receive” (Why This New Race, p. 49-50). Kimber Buell draws upon the definition of the function of apologetic literature offered by Frances Young, who sees it as the efforts of a particular group which “regards itself as a people in fighting for social and political recognition” (Young, “Greek Apologists,” p. 92). For Kimber Buell, Athenagoras’s Supplication fits this definition in that as demonstrated in the present extract from the opening of the text, the author compares Christians with other peoples—both ethnē (in the singular, ἔθνος, ethnos) and cities (πόλις, polis)—of the Roman empire (these are the terms which Athenagoras frequently employs in the Supplication; see, for example the commentary on chapter XIII, and XIV.3, which is discussed by Kimber Buell, Why This New Race, p. 51). In the passage under consideration here, Athenagoras reminds Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (the “sovereigns”) that those residing within the Roman empire (οἰκουμένη, oikoumenē) (which in theory could point to both ethnē and poleis) are varied in terms of their observation of particular customs (ἔθος, ethos) and laws (νόμος, nomos). What is more, they are not hindered from doing so by Roman laws and are not living in fear of repercussions for following their ancestral customs (πάτριος, patrios) due to the fact that Roman policy and law protects them. Athenagoras’s argument, then, is that Christians ought to be granted the same freedom to worship their own god as they please, just like everyone else. One notable point is that by bringing into his argument the fact that other groups are able to hold onto their ancestral ways, Athenagoras’s plea for the Christians to be able to worship as they please suggests that the worship of their god can be likened to the ancestral customs of other groups. In actual fact, however, Christianity differentiated itself, especially from Judaism, partly by the fact that it was non-exclusive, not based upon one’s birth heritage, and could be adopted by anyone, in any place its message had reached. The comparison of Christian worship with ancestral traditions of others, therefore, shows Athenagoras’s rhetoric at work, as he tries to present the Christians in terms relatable to those peoples accepted by the Roman authorities.
The logic of the present passage presumes that the reader assumes a particular connection between customs, laws, ancestral ways and religion. Athenagoras states that Roman law allows a plethora of religious practices from its varied peoples because from Rome’s perspective this is preferable to widespread impiety (ἀσεβής, asebēs), profanity (ἀνόσιος, anosios), and to keep people in check through fear of punishment from their gods. In other words, Athenagoras suggests, Rome views religion (this would include Judaism), even if it is not Roman religion, as better than none at all. Ultimately, a god-fearing empire has a greater chance of maintaining the Roman peace. For instance, in Supplication for the Christians XXXII Athenagoras argues that the Christians, being just as much a part of the empire as any of its other subjects, naturally wish to enjoy the Roman peace and other benefits of empire in the same way as anyone else. For this reason, they pray for the Roman government and the increase of the empire (this view also chimes with the pagan writer Aelius Aristides’s statement in his Roman Oration that the whole oikoumenè joins together in prayer for the empire’s continuation). The problem, Athenagoras claims, is that in the Christians’ case, piety is not encouraged by Roman policy in the same way that it is with other groups.
Kimber Buell argues that the implied reader of Athenagoras’s text is one who understands that piety was variously characterised by the different ethnic or civic groups which practiced it in one form or another. Moreover, Athenagoras’s argument assumes an appreciation of the fact that religious practice is absolutely key to “civic, ethnoracial, and imperial coherency” (Why This New Race, p. 51). Furthermore, “Athenagoras’ comparison of Christianness with civic allegiances indicates that the lines between civic identity and ethnicity are blurry,” as while Romanness was something which was defined partly by civic ties to a particular city, it was also understood in more universal/imperial terms (Why This New Race, p. 51, quotations in n. 78). Athenagoras discusses Christianity in terms of its own specific form of piety in the remainder of the Supplication, in addition to highlighting that other peoples and cities are in fact much less pious. For example, in chapter XIV, it is argued that even those within the empire who argue that Christians are atheists due to the fact that they practice piety differently are not themselves unified in terms of practice. If different forms of worship equal impiety, then logic would render all peoples and cities impious (for a consideration of this passage, see Kimber Buell, Why This New Race, p. 51, who rightly acknowledges Athenagoras’s utilisation of the issue of religious difference within the empire for his rhetorical purposes). Religion was key for various cities in the empire to express their allegiance to Rome, while all the while maintaining something of their own identity (see Kimber Buell, Why This New Race, p. 51, n. 78; for some examples of the blend of imperial loyalty and religion in the cities of the empire during the second century CE, see the commentaries on Aphrodisias and the imperial temple of Ephesus under Domitian and Nymphaeum of Trajan at Ephesus).
The likening of Christianity to an ethnic or civic group is something which is also done in the third century CE by the anonymous author of the Epistle to Diognetus, another apologetic work which defends Christians from criticism by highlighting the similarity between them and their pagan neighbours. The author asks in his opening address (1.1) “You wonder, also, why this new race (γένος, genos) or way of life has appeared on earth now and not before.” The idea of the Christians as a distinct people therefore frames the entire text. In chapter 5, the author sets out to explain that while Christians are different in several ways from their non-Christian neighbours, including being morally superior, they are capable of residing and integrating into any community. The author speaks of Christian “citizenship” (πολιτεία, politeia), in language reminiscent of Paul’s discussion of πολίτευμα (politeuma) in Philippians 3:18-21, and attempts to minimise cultural tension between Christians and the wider Greco-Roman world which they inhabited by drawing on the notions of regional identity and belonging. The author argues that the Christians are different from the rest of humanity in that they do not share a specific language or come from one geographical region. They do not live in particular places, rather inhabiting both Greek and barbarian cities “as each one’s lot was cast.” Therefore, “belonging” in the sense of regional identity is for Christians entirely dependent on where they happen to be born or where, for whatever reason, they happen to be living. Christian identity crosses the boundaries of language and distance. There is therefore emphasis in the Epistle to Diognetus on civic duty to whichever city a Christian belongs to, despite the fact that their true “citizenship” is in heaven. However, similarly to Athenagoras in the present passage, Christian piety and their specific form of worship is singled out as being the factor that critically defines their identity as a (for consideration of this text, see also Kimber Buell, Why This New Race, p. 32)
Kimber Buell also identifies the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyon and the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs as other examples of texts where Christians are understood as an “ethnoracial group especially characterized by religious practices and beliefs.” In these martyrdom accounts, she argues, Christianity is viewed as a “people” and set contrasted with the larger communities of the provincial city and the empire. In this sense, the phrase uttered by the martyr Sanctus in the Letter of the Martyrs of Vienne and Lyon 20, “I am a Christian/Christianus sum” acts as a clear identity marker distinguishing the Christians as a people who will hold onto their “Christianness” even until death. As Kimber Buell points out, statements such as this, which were a common feature of ancient Christian martyrdom accounts, highlighted that being a member of the Christian people was not something determined by race or ethnicity (Why This New Race, p. 36, 53-55, quotation at p. 36). Christianity and Romanness are contrasted with each other in both the abovementioned texts. In the former, for example, we read of a martyr named Attalus, who is identified as a Roman citizen. Attalus is led around the arena with a placard bearing the words in Latin “This is Attalus, the Christian.” While his flesh burns in an iron chair, Attalus addresses the crowd in Latin (highlighting his Roman heritage), condemning them for the hypocrisy of the fact that while the Christians are accused of human sacrifice and cannibalism, the cooking of his flesh essentially amounts to indulgence in this act by the governor and the rest of the audience. He distinguishes between “you” (the crowd) and “we” (the Christians), making clear that his identification as part of the Christian community trumps his identification as a Roman citizen (this narrative in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyon is preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.1.43-44, 50-52).
In these comparative examples, membership of the Christian community is understood as something akin to membership of an ethnic or civic group, with distinguishing characteristics (notably the Christian form of piety) which mark it as clearly different from all others in the Roman empire. Christians might be spread out across the various cities of the oikoumenè, but their sense of belonging is strong, and their discernibility from other groups unmistakably clear. For Athenagoras, those “who are called Christians” are comparable to those who can claim membership of a specific nation. In the verses omitted from the middle of the passage quoted above, Athenagoras lists the specific religious practices of the inhabitants of Ilium, Lacedaemonia, Tenedos, Athens, and Egypt. The Christians are consequently likened to such a group of people claiming heritage from a specific place, the difference being that the Roman power does not extend its legal protection to them.
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