Saint Athanasius of Alexandria

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2417

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.

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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.

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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 defense of the orthodox position that Christ was God from all eternity, uncreated and equal to God the Father. The result was the Nicene Creed, recited today by millions of Christians worldwide in their liturgy:

We believe in One God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible,
and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, . . .
begotten not made, One in essence with the Father,
by Whom all things were made, both things in Heaven
and things in Earth. . . .

The Nicene Creed is acknowledged by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches alike. The Greek Orthodox Church annually observes (on the Sunday before Pentecost) a special feast in memory of the Council of Nicaea.

In 328, Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria and remained in that position, except for five exiles, for forty-six years. As a defender of the orthodox faith, he was popular in the Alexandrian church where he ministered. He was, however, opposed by the Arians, those who thought of Christ as a great teacher but less than God himself. Emperor Constantine, more interested in unity than in truth, thought the matter merely one of theological semantics. Hoping to have more uniformity and less discord in the Church, he removed Athanasius from his office and banished him from Alexandria.

When Constantine died in 337, Athanasius returned, but soon he was exiled a second time for seven years, which he spent in Rome, where the orthodox position was strongly affirmed. The sons of Constantine, acting on the suggestion of Julius, bishop of Rome, convened another church council at Sardica in 343. There Athanasius was reinstated as bishop.

Before long it became apparent that the differences between the Arian bishops and the orthodox leaders were more than doctrinal. The Arians gained support from the Roman Emperor Constantius because of their belief that the Church should submit to the emperor in doctrinal as well as administrative matters. Arguing from Scripture, Athanasius insisted on the independence of the Church in doctrine. As a result, Athanasius in 356 was again sent into exile, this time for six years in the Egyptian desert, where he became a close acquaintance of the famed Anthony, who helped begin the Western system of monasteries.

In 361, the pagan Emperor Julian recalled banished bishops on both sides of the controversy. By diligent and wise administration, Athanasius restored harmony to his diocese, but Julian exiled him for a fourth time and sent two hired assassins to kill him on board an Imperial ship. Athanasius, however, managed to escape from the ship while it was sailing up the Nile River.

Athanasius returned to Alexandria after Julian’s death but endured yet a fifth and final brief exile under the Emperor Valens. He spent the last seven years of his life mostly undisturbed in his diocese. He continued writing, content to see the vindication of the orthodox position in the Church. He died in 373; his epitaph, Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world), reflected the steadfastness with which he had stood his ground against all opposition.

Throughout his tumultuous life, Athanasius was a prolific writer. He was noted for his theological depth, intellectual precision, and clarity of style; he wrote to make his meaning plain, not to embellish or entertain. He incisively demolished his opponents’ arguments and methodically built a logical structure for his own position. Most of his works were written in response to some pressing matter or in defense of an action or position. Though he wrote in Greek, his works are now known solely by their Latin titles.

Athanasius’s writings fall into several categories. For example, he produced apologetical works in defense of Christianity, such as De incarnatione Verbi Dei (before 325; On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 1880). Many of his theological works were written to defend the orthodox Nicene faith. For example, he wrote a letter in this regard to the bishops of Egypt and Libya (356) and a commentary on the decrees of the Council of Nicaea (352), Contra Arianos (350; An Apology Against the Arians, 1873) and Apologia ad Constantinum (356; An Apology to Constantius, 1892). Athanasius also wrote exegetical works interpreting Scripture; in his commentary on the Psalms, he followed the allegorizing style of the Alexandrian school in identifying in these Hebrew worship songs many types of Christ and the Church. Also in this category is his synopsis of the Bible. Of his devotional works, his Epistolae festales (329-373; The Festal Epistles, 1854) are most interesting. During the Easter season, these letters were read in the churches to edify and exhort the congregations.


Athanasius was not a historian, but many of his writings provide important primary source materials for historians. His Historia Arianorum (358; History of the Arians, 1892) is a good example, as is An Apology Against the Arians. Athanasius is noted for his great accuracy and his practice of documenting his assertions. Thus, later generations were indebted to him not only for his histories but also for the compilation of many documents of the fourth century.

Athanasius’s biography Vita S. Antonii (fourth century; The Life of Anthony, 1697) helped to extend the monastic system into Europe. Anthony, a native of Upper Egypt, lived a completely solitary life for a time in the Egyptian desert. Others who followed his example became known as monks, from the Greek word monachoi (people who live alone). Athanasius was impressed by Anthony’s deep spirituality, and it was through Athanasius that Anthony began to realize that he needed to take more interest in the welfare of the Church. When Athanasius visited Rome in 340, during his second exile, he explained to the Roman Christians the lifestyle of the Egyptian monks and thus introduced monasticism into the Western church.

Because of the early period in which he lived, Athanasius’s listing of the canon of Scripture has been of great interest to later theologians. His thirty-ninth Festal Epistle of Easter, 367, made mention of all the books now included in the New Testament but in the older order of the Gospels, Acts, the General Epistles, Paul’s Epistles (including Hebrews), and the Apocalypse. His Old Testament canon comprised twenty-two books, as in the Alexandrian Jewish system, not the older Talmudic listing of twenty-four. The Apocrypha, accepted by the later Roman Catholic Church, was not included in Athanasius’s list.

Throughout his long life, Athanasius demonstrated a remarkable lack of self-interest and ambition. Though he held one of the great bishoprics of the Eastern church, he never compromised what he was convinced to be the truth. His manner was humble and conciliatory, but for him, truth was not subject to political compromise. His contemporaries were strengthened by his stability, consistency, and courage in the midst of tribulation, and the later Church is indebted to him for the clarity of his theology.

Further Reading:

Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Vol. 4 in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 1891. Reprint. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978. This six-hundred-page book is indispensable for understanding Athanasius. It contains a detailed account of his extant writings, with helpful editorial notes. Contains index, tables, and appendix.

Athanasius, Saint. The Coptic Life of Anthony. Translated by Tim Vivian. San Francisco: International Scholars, 1995. This brief volume brings insight into the thinking of a man who had a great influence on Athanasius—the Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony.

Bruce, F. F. The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from Its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982. An excellent, detailed history of the early Church. There are many references to Athanasius, but the principal value of this book is in providing the historical context in which Athanasius lived.

Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. A useful introduction to Church history. Includes a seventy-five-page chart that gives a synopsis of events in three categories from 63 b.c.e. to 615 c.e. Also includes five unusual maps that shed light on the text. Frend makes many references to Athanasius.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. Rev. ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. The first three hundred pages of this classic fifteen-hundred-page history of Christianity are useful in interpreting Athanasius’s role in the early Church and later Roman Empire.

Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 311-600. Vol. 3 in History of the Christian Church. 3d ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996. An exhaustive church history. The section on Athanasius, Constantine, and the Nicene Council are absolutely indispensable for an understanding of the life and influence of Athanasius. Schaff is noted for the thoroughness of his history and the detailed precision of his narrative.

Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1995. Though this volume is rather sparse on Athanasius, it is valuable for its accessibility. Recommended for those with little background in church history. Makes clear what the conversion of Constantine meant to the Church.

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