Childhood & Early Life
The birth year of Athanasius is estimated around 293.His two treatises, ‘Contra Gentes’ and ‘De Incarnatione,’ which were most probably written in 318, before the start of Arianism, reflect developed thought-process. So, birth-year 293 appears more correct.
He was born in Alexandria, Egypt. It is assumed that he belonged to an upper-class family, as his early theological writings point to a kind of education accessible to only wealthy people. He was greatly influenced by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, a well-known theologian.
As the legend goes, once Bishop Alexander, while waiting by the window for his guests, noticed some boys playing outside and they were enacting Christian baptism. He sent for the children and realized that the one playing bishop had actually baptized his playmates. He was Athanasius, whom Alexander decided to train for a clerical career. (He decided to recognize the baptism as genuine).
Some references state that he was well-versed in Hebrew Scriptures, while others say, he didn’t know Hebrew, but studied Greek.
In 318, Athanasius became secretary and chief deacon of Alexander. Around 318, he wrote treatises which discuss Incarnation and the relationship between God and Christ, which are still quoted in Christian studies. With Alexander’s encouragement, he travelled through Egyptian deserts and met several ascetics, including St. Anthony. Later Athanasius wrote biography of St. Anthony.
In 319, a presbyter named Arius from Libya, who belonged to the Alexandrian Church, stated that Christ wasn’t truly divine but was created by the Eternal Father. Thus he refused to accept Divinity of Christ. The orthodox Christianity called his doctrine a heresy.
In 325, Emperor Constantine called for the ‘First Council of Nicaea,’ mainly to discuss the debates about the divinity of Christ. Athanasius attended the Council as the chief deacon of Alexander, where they both opposed Arius, as his views were against the Trinity. The Nicene Council stood against Arianism and the formulary of faith that was drawn at this council was known as ‘Nicene Creed.’
Upon Alexander’s demand, Arius wrote a statement of his doctrine, but it was condemned by the clergy. Arius and his followers were deposed by Alexander for spreading false doctrine. Arius went to Caesarea and gained support from Eusebius, the powerful Bishop of Nicomedia.
By 325, Athanasius had already been accepted as a learned theologian and ascetic. He was chosen as ‘Bishop or Patriarch of Alexandria’ in place of his patron Alexander. Arians opposed his selection.
Five months after the ‘Council of Nicaea’ ended, Bishop Alexander died. In 326, Athanasius was consecrated as Bishop of Alexandria; his episcopate began in 328 and the first few years were peaceful. He travelled around Egypt and Libya to know about his patriarchate, and met hermits, Coptic monks and their leader, St. Pachomius.
In 330, Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia, tried to convince Emperor Constantine to get Arius back into communion. When Athanasius refused to take the heretics back, Eusebius got the Egyptian Meletians to indict Athanasius. Various charges, including demand of a tribute, treason against emperor, ill-treatment of Meletians and Arians, were made against Athanasius. He appeared before bishops and proved his innocence.
In 335, emperor Constantine of Constantinople told Athanasius to appear before the ‘Council of Tyre.’ His opponents, the hostile Arians, accused him of blocking grain supply to Constantinople. He was exiled to Augusta Treverorum (Trier), Germany, where he stayed with Maximinusof Trier.
After two and half years of exile, when both emperor Constantine and Arius had died , Athanasius returned to Alexandria. His opponents continued their efforts to once again send him into exile. Constantine’s empire was divided into his three sons. Constantius came to power in Alexandria and he again ordered deposition of Athanasius. Athanasius went to Rome and stayed under the protection of Constans, Emperor of the West, and brother of Constantius.
Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia, put pressure on Constantius to appoint Gregory of Cappadocia as Bishop of Alexandria. Eusebius wrote to Pope St. Julius to request him to condemn Athanasius, who in turn made an appeal to Pope. Then a Synod was called in Rome. The Synod made a thorough investigation and found Athanasius innocent,but he couldn’t return to Alexandria as Gregory has already been appointed. Athanasius kept in contact with his followers through letters.
In 340, a meeting of 100 bishops was arranged in Alexandria and Pope St. Julius proclaimed that Athanasius should be reinstated. Also, a Synod in Rome (340) supported him as the rightful bishop.
In 343, a general council of Bishops from West and Egypt met at Serdica (now, Sofia, Bulgaria, and made an appeal for Athanasius, but it was not accepted. He appeared before the bishops and answered the charges against him. The ‘Council of Serdica’ endorsed his innocence, but orthodoxy again faced persecution from the followers of Eusebius. Emperor Constantius was made to issue strict orders against Athanasius and his followers.
After Bishop Gregory’s death in 345, Constantius agreed to meet messenger from ‘Council of Serdica’ and thought over his previous decision. Also, his brother Constans influenced his decision, and Athanasius returned to Alexandria in 346. He received a gracious welcome.
For the next 10 years Athanasius worked in peace. He brought together all his experiences of exile and returns in ‘Apology against the Arians.’ Emperor Constans died in 350, followed by the death of Pope Julius in 352. After his brother’s death, Constantius became the only emperor. He once again reverted to his pro-Arian strategies.
Arians issued condemnation against Athanasius in ‘the Council of Arles’ (353), and again in 355, at Milan. Protests from his followers were overruled. While Athanasius was in a vigil service (February 356), soldiers broke in and even killed some people. Athanasius went to Upper Egypt and lived in monasteries for 6 years. He explained his conduct in ‘Apology to Constantius,’ and ‘Apology for his Flight.’ After receiving reports of Constantius’ persecution of non-Arians, he wrote ‘History of the Arians,’ and ‘Four Orations Against Arians,’ and called Constantius ‘Precursor of Anti-Christ.’
Constantius died in November 361. Julian became the new emperor, who issued an order that all exiled bishops could return to their patriarchate. In February 362, Athanasius retuned to Alexandria and organized ‘Synod of Alexandria’ in which he called for all who believed in Christianity, to unite. Also, he ordered strict measures against heretic bishops who denied divinity of Christ. Within 8 months, Julian, insecure by the popularity of Athanasius, ordered him to leave the city. Athanasius left for Upper Egypt.
After Julian’s death in June 363, Athanasius returned and the new Emperor Jovian reinstated him. Jovian died in February 364. The next emperor, Valens, was follower of Arians. He banished Athanasius who stayed just outside of Alexandria. Valens, who was afraid of the protests by his followers, withdrew his order on the advice of the locals.
Athanasius returned to Alexandria in early 366, spent his last years in peace and carried out his duties as Bishop. He died on May 2, 373.