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Introducing Athanasius’s, “The Life of Saint Anthony”

The Life of Saint Anthony

The author, Athanasius (296–373 AD) is one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. He served as a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt, the heart of North African Christianity. He is celebrated as a Church Father, a Confessor and Doctor of the Church, and the leading defender of the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity against the Arian heresies. Athanasius was a formidable and prolific theologian.

I have always enjoyed Athanasius’s keen sense of humor and astuteness when evading his enemies. At one time when there was political and ecclesiastical opposition against Athanasius because of his commitment to Nicene orthodoxy and his fight against the Arian heresy, his enemies pursued him. Athanasius looked for a place of safety, finding refuge in the Nile Delta. He knew his opponents would follow him, so he kept moving to avoid hostile confrontations. Eventually, he encountered his opponents on a boat who were looking for him; recognizing them, Athanasius pointed them in the opposite direction, “Yes, we’ve seen Athanasius, he went that way.” Sending them upstream, he went on his way downstream, and so, he escaped his enemies.

Athanasius was a staunch opponent of Arius, and the Arian controversy which held unorthodox views on the divinity of Jesus Christ, namely, while Jesus was in some sense divine, he was distinct from God the Father having been created by him. This meant that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, both in nature and in essence. Athanasius, on the other hand, along with all other orthodox believers believed that Jesus is fully divine and is consubstantial with the Father. In another incident, Athanasius’s opponents tried to discredit him, in order to remove him from his bishopric. They accused him of various offenses, including ruthless acts of violence and murder. So, they came up with a plan to make their allegations seem authentic. Michael Reeves[1] tells the story beautifully,

His opponents saw an opportunity and began circulating dark rumors: Athanasius had bought the bishopric, had murdered and dismembered another bishop called Arsenius, and was using his severed hand for black magic. There was even a “hand of Arsenius” doing the rounds to prove the point. Athanasius was summoned to a council at Tyre to answer for himself, and the hand was produced as evidence. What had actually happened was that Arsenius had gone into hiding to get Athanasius convicted; however, he was tracked down, seized and spirited to Tyre. Then Athanasius had him brought in, wrapped in a cloak. Turning up the cloak he revealed one hand intact, paused dramatically, and then revealed the other hand intact before asking whence the third hand had been cut. Astonishingly, the council was so packed with Arians that Athanasius was still found guilty; and so, he fled to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor.

Despite countless challenges and opposition, Athanasius was an astute theologian who wrote a large collection of theological works, some of his most significant works include his Four Orations Against the Arians, On the Incarnation, and The Life of Saint Anthony. The latter is the content of this present volume, which was the first biography of a Christian monk. Athanasius’s, The Life of Saint Anthony, was instrumental in popularizing Christian monasticism and rightly so, Athanasius is not only remembered as one of the greatest church fathers, but also as a champion of Christian monasticism.

Almost everything we know about Saint Anthony comes from Athanasius of Alexandria. He wrote The Life of Saint Anthony in Greek, in about 360 AD. Anthony lived between 251 and 356 AD. He was a Christian monk from Egypt, and a formidable figure among the ancient Desert Fathers, and is considered the “Father of all monks.” His life had significant influence in later Christian monasticism, but contrary to popular belief, Saint Anthony was not the first Christian monk or ascetic—there were others before him. Instead, he was thought to be the first monk to go into the wilderness. He was illiterate and probably only spoke his native language, Coptic.

Athanasius’s, The Life of Saint Anthony, became one of the most popular literary works in early Christianity. The Latin translation remained popular throughout the Medieval period. As one might expect, it also spread the ideals of monasticism throughout Europe.

Saint Anthony lived during a period of significant change and turmoil in the Roman Empire, and Christianity was facing sever persecution under Emperor Diocletian, despite spreading rapidly across the Empire. In addition, the church at the time was dealing with theological controversy, namely the Arian heresy. Arius was a priest from Alexandria who taught that Christ was subordinate to God the Father. This heresy was condemned by most Christian leaders who taught that Jesus Christ was fully divine. Athanasius, also of Alexandria, was an ardent opponent of Arianism. This is the context in which Athanasius wrote his biography on Saint Anthony, a context that provided the impetus for offering a model of Christian virtue by highlighting the saint’s wisdom, piety, and his power to resist temptation.

This biography isn’t a strictly historical one and should also be considered as a theological and hagiographical work. Athanasius wrote The Life of Saint Anthony as a demonstration of lived Christian perfection that embodied Jesus’s teachings, and he also wished to promote his own theological teaching in opposition to the Arian views. Consequently, this work played a significant role in the development of Christian thought.

Check out The Life of Saint Anthony here:

Athanasius's The Life of Saint Anthony

[1] Michael Reeves, The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing Great Theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas (Nottingham: Iner-Varsity Press, 2010), 84.


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