Study Guide

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria Biography

Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Alexandrian bishop and writer{$I[g]Alexandria;Saint Athanasius of Alexandria[Athanasius]}{$I[g]Roman Empire;Saint Athanasius of Alexandria[Athanasius]} For half a century, Athanasius helped to maintain Christian orthodoxy in the Eastern church from his position as bishop of Alexandria. His defense of the doctrine of the Trinity was influential in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

Early Life

Athanasius (ath-uh-NAY-zhee-uhs) was born about 293 c.e. in Alexandria, one of the leading cities of Egypt. Since its founding in 332 b.c.e. by Alexander the Great, Alexandria had been a focal point of the Greco-Roman world. Its beautiful harbor served as a center for extensive trade with all parts of the Mediterranean region. The native flax of Egypt was woven into linen, which was shipped as far away as Britain, and Alexandria enjoyed a world monopoly on the papyrus plant and its products—not only writing materials but also sails, mats, and sandals.

With a population of a million or more in Athanasius’s time, Alexandria was not only a commercial and administrative center but also one of the greatest centers of learning in the ancient world. The Alexandrian library preserved documents from all parts of the ancient Near East and accommodated scholars from the entire Mediterranean area. It was there that the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, had been translated from the original Hebrew by Jewish scholars. Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city with large populations of Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Its array of palaces and public buildings, gardens and groves, pagan temples and Christian churches, made Alexandria one of the wonders of the Roman Empire.

Athanasius’s parents, who were moderately wealthy, provided him with a liberal education, typical of the Greek culture in which he lived. He learned Greek, Latin, Egyptian antiquities, philosophy, and religion, but it was the Holy Scriptures that impressed him most. Alexandria was a focal point of intense persecution of Christians during the reign of Diocletian and Galerius, and several of Athanasius’s teachers, along with many church leaders, suffered martyrdom. Athanasius well understood the seriousness of converting to the Christian faith.

Athanasius was an earnest and diligent young man who early came to the attention of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria from 312 to 328. The bishop helped in the boy’s education, and eventually Athanasius became his secretary and a presbyter under his supervision.

Athanasius was very small of stature, rather stooped, and somewhat emaciated in appearance. He had a forceful personality and sharpness of intellect. Though he was gentle and meek of spirit, he was driven by a determination to keep the orthodox Christian faith no matter what the cost, no matter how many opposed him. His inner intensity made him quick of movement and constantly active. He was known for his deep faith in God, and he manifested an ability to inspire steadfast loyalty in the congregations he served, despite persecution, exile, and denunciations.

Life’s Work

The fierce persecution of the Church abruptly changed when Constantine became emperor and began to favor Christianity throughout the Empire. Such a sudden change must have been difficult for Athanasius and his fellow Christians to comprehend. The amazement and incredulity that they experienced is reflected in Eusebius of Caesarea’s description of a church council:

No bishop was absent from the table of the emperor. Bodyguards and soldiers stood guard, with sharp swords drawn, around the outer court of the palace, but among them the men of God could walk fearlessly and enter the deepest parts of the palace. At dinner [they ate with the emperor.] Easily one could imagine this to be the kingdom of Christ or regard it as a dream rather than reality.

Some of those who enjoyed Constantine’s favor bore scars from the Diocletian era, such as Bishop Paphnutius from Egypt, who had lost an eye in that persecution, and Paul of Caesarea, who had been tortured with a red-hot iron under Licinius and was crippled in both hands. A disadvantage of Constantine’s patronage of the Church, however, was that the power of the state would be used to enforce church discipline, as Athanasius learned later when he was exiled by Constantine to the Rhineland region of Germany.

The Roman emperor called the first ecumenical council of the Church, which met at Nicaea, in Asia Minor, in 325. (“Ecumenical” literally means “of the empire.”) Constantine himself presided over the beginning sessions of this great assembly of the leadership of the Church and, in so doing, set an important precedent of involvement between church and state that lasted throughout the European Middle Ages and into modern times: Decisions of church councils were to be enforced by political authorities. For many years there had been local and regional synods or councils, but the idea of bringing together the entire Church, East and West, was new.

The Nicene Council met only twenty miles from the Imperial palace of Nicomedia, easily accessible by sea and land from all parts of the Roman Empire. Some three hundred bishops and more than one thousand presbyters and laymen assembled in an effort to bring unity to the Church. Most of these people were from the Eastern church; only seven came from Europe. At least one, a Persian bishop, was from outside the Roman Empire. The council met from mid-June to the end of July, discussing theology and matters ecclesiastical in Latin and translating speeches into Greek.

Athanasius, a young archdeacon at the time, accompanied his bishop, Alexander, and spoke often at the council, demonstrating a brilliant intellect and impressive eloquence. Though only twenty-seven at the time, Athanasius set forth an influential...

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