In the second century AD, Christians were being brutally persecuted, and falsely accused of crimes worthy of death. In AD 177, Athenagoras, an Athenian philosopher and convert to Christianity, wrote “A Plea for the Christians.”
Athenagoras sent his treatise to Marcus Aurelius Anonius and Lucius Aurelius Commodus in order to defend the legitimacy and integrity of Christians in the Roman Empire, and to defend them against the unjust persecution being brought against them. Athenagoras emphasizes that while charges are being brought against Christians as though they are not good citizens (and are even a danger to the empire), the truth is that the Christians were some of the empire’s most peaceful and loyal citizens.
The apologist begins by showering the emperor’s with compliments on their wisdom and knowledge in areas such as culture and philosophy. He then comes to the issue for which he wrote – pleading with the emperors to disallow the unjust and even illogical discrimination against and mistreatment of Christians. Athenagoras argues that if the Christians were being punished for actual crimes they were committing, he would have no grounds for requesting mercy, nor would any of the Christians seek mercy. But he goes on to argue that it is not for actual crimes committed that the Christians are being punished, but only for the sake of their title of being a Christian.
Athenagoras repeatedly returns to acknowledge and compliment Marcus Aurelius’ and Commodus’ renowned justice and integrity in their dealings with such issues, and requests that they make sure that the Christians are being dealt with in the same manner. It struck me how similar the situation of Athenagoras’ time is to that of modern Christians, when on page two he states that the emperors’ wisdom and justice have made it so that their subjects are not considered guilty until proven so, yet for Christians, the fact that they call themselves Christians is reason enough to declare them guilty of crime and punishable by death.
Athenagoras does not seem to actually cite Scripture as such, but does make quite clear references to it. For instance, on page one, he almost quotes Matthew 6:38-42, saying that the Christians actually had learned not to return blows, but to turn the other cheek, and to not only give their coat but also their cloak to one who wants to take their coat by force. He also alludes to John 1:1 when speaking of the Logos of God from the beginning. On page 6 however, Athenagoras actually quotes passages out of Isaiah 41, 43, 44, and 46, as well as Exodus 20 and Proverbs 8.
These passages are meant to show what the Christians are taught and believe about God. Later on, Athenagoras quotes from the Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6 and Matthew 5, when pointing out the absurdity of the charge of atheism (p. 8), as well as his argument for the morality of Christians (p. 23). I think it is interesting how Athenagoras uses Scripture, because he does not necessarily expect the emperors to accept it as God’s true Word, but rather, references the teachings of Christians in order to clarify their beliefs, and to show the absurdity of the greievances brought against Christians. Athenagoras does not seem to be intent on converting anyone with this address. It seems that his sole purpose is to defend the legitimacy and morality of the Christian faith, and to gain just treatment for Christians by requesting that the conduct of Christians be examined, rather than condemning them simply because of titles or false charges.
Athenagoras then goes on to counter those false charges. He deals with three main charges brought against Christians: atheism, Thyestean feasts, and oedipodean intercourse. He defends the Christians’ belief in one God by citing pagan poets and philosophers supporting the very ideas for which Christians were now being persecuted (pp. 3-5). Athenagoras associates himself with the best of all that had been thought and said, and aligns himself with the highest and wisest thinkers against the folk religion. He also argues for the superiority of the Christian belief in God to that of pagans (p. 5). Athenagoras then justifies the Christians’ abstaining from worship to the national deities by arguing that that would be indecent and absurd, quoting again the poets and philosophers in support of his position (p.8).
In refuting the charge of cannibalism Athenagoras states that Christians detest all cruelty and murder, even refusing to attend the gladiatorial games, and believing that women who use abortive drugs actually commit murder for which they will have to give an account to God (p. 25). Isn’t it interesting that this was an issue in the second century, and that even back then Christians knew this was murder!
He counters the charges of immorality by explaining the Christian ideals of purity, even in thought (p. 23), and the unbreakable sanctity of the marriage bond (p. 24). Throughout these counter-arguments to the charges against Christianity, Athenagoras deftly uses Scripture to clarify what Christians truly believe, arguments showing the pure and loyal actions of Christians, and the sources of Greek and Roman poets and philosophers to support his contentions.
It seems he is appealing to the poets and philosophers for support of the Christians’ claims so as to pit the ideas of the common people against those of the poets and philosophers. It is as if he is appealing to the poets and philosophers to show those attacking the Christians that they have no ground to stand on, since even the most cultured and knowledgeable among them in fact agrees with the Christians’ clams. However, Athenagoras is careful to point out the superiority of the Christian claims over that of the philosophers, so as to show that the poets and philosophers support the Christian claims, but did not go quite far enough. By utilizing the Hellenic thinkers the way he does, Athenagoras not only shows himself to be knowledgeable and cultured, but perhaps more importantly, meets his audience where they are, and consistently refers back to something with which they would have been familiar with as well, establishing a strong point of contact.
Athenagoras has an excellent way of showing Christianity to be on par with philosophy, defending the purity of Christian living, and harkening back to the knowledge and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, as if to assume their agreement with him.
This is an excellent apologetic address, marked by passion, reason, philosophy, and an in-depth knowledge of the culture in which he lived. Athenagoras is a great example of a faithful and skilled defender of the faith.