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May 20, 2014

Athenagoras’ Apology

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This Apology (or Embassy, πρεσβεία), which is also often titled A Plea for the Christians (Legatio pro Christianis), was a letter written by Athenagoras of Athens to the Roman Emperors to explain the injustices inflicted upon the Christians in his city. The author explains why Christians behave differently than their pagan neighbors, and how certain accusations against them have been raised out of ignorance or hate.


Athenagoras of Athens was a philosopher and a convert to the faith. The date of authorship is around A.D. 177 based on the rule of co-Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.


I chose to summarize this text by rewriting it in condensed and simplified language. The bracketed numbers indicate the transition between chapters as defined in the English Translation found at New Advent.

To Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus & Lucius Aurelius Commodus,

[1] The nations of the Empire have been allowed to retain their local customs and laws without fear of punishment, for fear of any god promotes morality and is preferable to belief in no god at all. The Greeks worship and make sacrifices to their many deities and the Egyptians continue to recognize various animals as gods. They and all peoples of the Empire live in equality and peace. All, that is, except for we Christians who are openly harassed, robbed, and persecuted for our allegiance to the name of Christ. Not only is our property taken from us, but assaults are made upon both our bodies and our souls. We therefore wish to state our case against our accusers that we may see justice.

[2] If a Christian is convicted of a crime then he should accept punishment for his own actions, and in this regard we ask no special favors; but a man should not be punished simply for calling himself a Christian. That the name of the Christian religion has been marred by rumors and false accusations should not be tolerated by you, who are kind and just. As it stands, Christians are not judged as others are, based on proof of wrongdoing, but instead on the name alone. Christian people recognize the authority of the law, though some who falsely profess to be Christian may indeed be wicked men. Let equal justice be done then, taking the lives of the accused into account in their trials, and not permitting the reputation of the Christian name to be marred for the actions of only a few.

[3] Christians are commonly charged with three crimes: atheism, cannibalism, and incest. If these charges be true, then have us destroyed, but if the are empty accusations — and you have good reason to believe that this is the case — then let our lives be a testimony to the truth.

[4] Regarding the charge of atheism, unlike the infamous Diagoras, we Christians do recognize a God, a single deity who is eternal and uncreated, who is separate from the world and who made all things in this world by his Word; therefore, it is not reasonable that we should be called atheists. [5] The [Greek] poets are not accused of atheism, though they openly question the existence of God in their rhymes; nor are the playwrights, such as Sophocles who observed plainly that God must be one. [6] As I am sure you know already, the Philosophers, Platonists and Stoics alike, also agree that God must rationally be only one being, and yet they are not considered atheists either. [7] And though all of these have come to some understanding of God through their own reason, none of them have the testimony of witnesses that we Christians have. [8] While we agree that it is illogical that two (or more) gods should exist (e.g. what place would one have in the order created by the other?), [9] such arguments are the products of mens’ minds. God’s mind is known to us through the writings of the Prophets of old, with which you are certainly familiar (if not, examine them and see the grounds for our defense). [10] What sense does it make, therefore, that a charge of atheism be brought against those who speak of the mind and the reason and the radiance of God as being distinct and yet one in being? [11] We are assured that the Prophets speak the mind of God, for what other doctrine teaches that man should love and pray for those who commit all manner of unjust and wicked evils against them? [12] We choose to live moral lives, purging ourselves of evil, out of the belief that we must eventually give an account of our lives to God, lest we suffer punishment in the next life instead of enjoying an existence of joy beyond words.

Having proven, then, that Christians do believe in a God, let us examine the reasoning of our accusers. [13] First, they call us atheists because we do not offer burnt offerings. We, however, understand that the only sacrifice God needs from us is to know him. [14] Second, we do not conform to their ideas of religion. But why are we expected to do so when they cannot even agree amongst themselves? The various peoples of the Greek world (not to mention the Egyptians) have differing sets of deities to whom they pray and sacrifice, and yet they do not stand accused as we do. [15] Even if they did acknowledge and accept these things about us, there is also the fact that many of them worship idols, things that are created, whereas we praise instead the creator. [16] Likewise, we do not pay homage to the heavenly bodies, but to the one who set them in motion and established the harmony between them and the earth. [17] The names and genealogies of their gods were created by the poets, and the statues and reliefs they worship have been carved by artists in recent times. How is it their gods have not existed from the beginning? [18] The poets tell us that the gods originally came forth from the water. [19] If so, how then can the gods be greater than the pre-existent matter from whence they came, and what then caused them to move into existence? [20] The descriptions given for their physical bodies and the details of their behaviours and deeds make them sound far more like beasts than gods, [21] or at best like vulnerable men who are unable to abate their own emotions and desires. [22] Some even associate the gods with the natural elements, such as earth, wind, fire, and water, but again these things may be destroyed and cannot will themselves to move. [23] The philosophers divide the superior beings into categories such as gods, demons, and heroes based on their nature and origin, and then further classify them as spirit or matter and as good or bad, [24] though there is variance in their opinions regarding these matters as well. [28] Lastly, there is evidence in both written history and the testimony of Greek priests that the gods they worship were really men, for they are the very same god-kings elevated by the Egyptians as divine. [29] The poets agree with the historians on this point, and [30] have indeed elevated men of old, perhaps the first among men with the power of speech, to the rank of deity, and through their stories gained for them the veneration of many.

[24] We Christians, on the other hand, use language that distinctly separates God from matter. We acknowledge God, his Word which is his Son, and a Holy Spirit, all having different attributes but a single essence. We acknowledge other powers as well that exercise dominion over matter. These we call angels and each heeds the call by God to care for a part of his creation — all, that is, but one who stands opposed to God’s goodness and the other angels who follow him. It was these disobedient angels who fell into an impure love of women and begat the race of giants. [25] Both the fallen angels and the giants (who are demons) are governed by he who is opposed to all good, a ruling prince, and they influence men to behave likewise, both individually and in society. Things in this world do not happen by chance as some believe, for all things are ordered by God; thus, man does not transgress the law that is within him on his own accord, but is impelled to do so only by the prince and his demons. [26] It is the demons who move men toward idolatry, accepting sacrifices as gods and performing acts by their names. [27] Idols are fashioned first in spirit and then from materials by the souls of the artists who have either placed earthly things above heavenly things or have not given ample consideration to their creator, and always under the influence of demons eager to win for themselves the immortal souls of men.

[31] The charges of cannibalism and incest have been fabricated by our accusers either to scare us from living in piety or to rouse the rulers against us. If we did not believe, then we might live for the moment, but as it is, we abhor sin and live rightly so that we might live with God and not suffer punishment in the next life. [32] With great hypocrisy do they accuse us of incest, for such behaviour is common amongst the gods they love so, yet we are so far removed from this sin, because even a wanton look is condemned. [33] We despise this world and its pleasures, choosing to marry in accordance with our laws and only for the purpose of having children. Indulgence of carnal desires in both thought and deed separates us from God, and remarriage after the death of one’s wife is considered adultery. [34] Not only are the accusations false, but the accusers are hypocrites, for they themselves have unlawfully established marketplaces for all sorts of fornication, finding justification in the stories of their gods. [35] Similarly, they relish in the contests of the gladiators, yet they accuse us — a people who cannot even bear to see a man executed justly — of murder that we might feed upon the flesh of the dead. And it is we who call the woman who aborts her unborn child a murderer just as if the child had been born already. How can we who outrightly detest these things be thought of as a murderous people? [36] Making ourselves into tombs for the bodies of others would be a denial of the eventual resurrection of all mens’ bodies. I will save our reasons for believing in a resurrection for another time, though I will mention that it is something that even the philosophers have come to believe.

[37] Do you, worthy and benevolent rulers, understand our yearning for justice, now that I have disposed of the accusations and proved our gentleness and piety? Who deserves to have their request granted more than those who pray for your government and who ask only for the peace to live as God commands?


  • Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and ruled as co-emperor for about three years preceding his father’s death.
  • The first three chapters are a general plea for justice. The false charges typically brought against the Christians — for which they are being persecuted and even tortured — are enumerated, setting the stage for the remainder of the explanation (apology).
  • It is noteworthy in chapter 2, that the belief of Christians in a god is evidenced by their mode of living (morality), and that love for neighbor (including their enemies) is most-compellingly expressed not only in words or even prayers (both of which could be simple lip service), but in their good works performed for one another.
  • Chapters 4 through 12 refute the charge of atheism, noting the hypocrisy of the accusers as well as the reliance on the teachings of the OT prophets.
  • Chapter 10 includes several interesting notions regarding the nature of God. The author writes about the Logos (the Word) of God, who was not made but existed with God the Father from the beginning. This, of course, echoes the beginning of John’s Gospel. He also writes of the Holy Spirit, which is the “effluence” that radiates from God. It is the Holy Spirit that operates through (or for those familiar with the old language, “spake by”) the prophets. By extension, since the teaching of the prophets had been captured and preserved in the Scriptures, this somewhat implies that the Scriptures themselves were created by the operation of the Spirit. This agrees with St. Paul’s claim that “all scripture is God-breathed” [2 Tim 3:16], as well as the later language that describes the authors of Holy Scripture as divinely inspired. He also states plainly that the three have “power in union and distinction in order”, which is the first statement in this letter resembling the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
  • Chapters 13 through 30 mean to explain the inferiority of the Greek gods in comparison to the One Almighty God as a further defense.
  • Chapters 24 through 27 have been moved herein to follow chapter 30 to improve continuity of thought. These chapters constitute a brief catechesis on Christian beliefs about God, Satan, and their angels (both faithful and fallen) and demons.
  • Chapter 24 sets forth a form of Trinitarian doctrine, stating that Father, Son, and Spirit are united in essence. Though the distinction is drawn between God and matter, the author does not mention Jesus’ humanity, much less expound on anything as deep as the Incarnation or hypostatic union (dual nature) of Christ.
  • From chapter 23 we learn that the Greek philosopher Thales theorized that demons are possessed beings and that heroes are the separated souls of good men. This definition of demon certainly fits what we read about in the NT, and the good souls of heroes that live on after death could be construed as a prefigurement of the saints. He goes on the say in chapter 25 that the fallen angels haunt the earth and the souls of the giants, which are their offspring (the Nephilim, Genesis 6), are the demons that wander the earth (supposedly possessing other people), and that neither can “rise to heavenly things”.
  • Chapter 25 introduces an interesting topic for theological debate. It seems to state that all things, man included, are well ordered insofar as they were created, and that man does not transgress by his own accord, but only under the influence of evil forces. On this point Catholics and Protestants differ in understanding. A Protestant will claim that the Original Sin permenantly changed the nature of man (to a ‘sin nature’; c.f. the doctrine of Total Depravity). For this reason, they claim that man can never attain a state of holiness. On the other hand, Catholics will recognize that man was not changed in Genesis 3, but was removed from God’s protection and left to fend for himself. This is why a baptized person who has been cleansed of the blemesh of Original Sin can indeed lead a holy life and can be made holy through the Sacraments.
  • Chapter 28 reveals that the Greek gods were considered to be the same as the gods of Egypt. Here is one explanation of this theory written in 2004.
  • In chapter 31, the author explains how the Christians not just avoid sin but “will not entertain even the thought of the slightest sin” so that they may remain “blameless and irreproachable” before God. Thus, though they believe, they understand that through sin they may forfeit eternal life.
  • Chapter 32 contains an interesting saying attributed to Jesus that warns against kissing a second time out of pleasure, for “the least defilement of thought…excludes us from eternal life”. This is in reference to the abuse of a salutatory kiss, a common practice in the Near East, and not a romantic kiss. I have not found a source for this quote.
  • Chapter 33 notes that matrimony, as the etymology of the word implies, is for the express purpose of procreation.
  • Remarriage, even after the death of a spouse, is elevated as a sin to the rank of adultery. Obviously, this is not (or at least is no longer) in accordance with Church teaching.
  • In chapter 34, the author identifies specific carnal activities performed by the pagans as “shocking abominations” that “[dishonor] the fair workmanship of God”. Though these acts are immoral and incommensurate with the Christian life, the author calls for a certain kind of tolerance, “for it is not enough to be just…but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.”
  • The charge of cannibalism is refuted in Chapter 35 based on two facts: there have been no (requisite) murders, and there are no witnesses to the alleged feasts.
  • I cannot help but wonder if the charge of cannibalism was linked with the Real Presence of the Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Many Protestants, and especially modern Christian Fundamentalists, use similar language to attack Catholicism by reducing the Lord’s Supper down to a simple symbol. The author doesn’t mention it here, though.
  • Chapter 35 states that the Christian community regarded abortion as murder.

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