Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

Athanasius, for many people the hero of the fourth-century Arian Controversy, became bishop of Alexandria in 328. (RH, 246) However, seven years later, in 335, he was condemned for violence against the Melitians, deposed from being archbishop of Alexandria, and excommunicated. Traditionally, the church has accepted Athanasius’ explanation that these were false accusations formulated by heretics (Arians) to get rid of him as their theological opponent.

This article is a summary of chapter 9 of the book by the eminent historian RPC Hanson in which he shows that Athanasius was guilty of serious misconduct and violence. 1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 Hanson mentions several ancient sources but the most important evidence is ancient papyrus letters that were discovered during the 20th century in the sands of Egypt.

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty. Hanson’s book reflects the revised account of that Controversy.

The Melitians were a Christian group in Egypt founded about 306 during the Great Persecution, by Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis. During the persecution, they taught that Christians should not hide from that persecution and they objected to the terms laid down by Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, for the readmission of “lapsed” Christians, i.e., those who had denied the faith under persecution.

The trouble began several years after 328.

Athanasius claimed that the Melitians began stirring as soon as Alexander died in 328. However, Hanson shows that it was only several years later that the Melitians moved against Athanasius:

“Though Athanasius declared that as soon as bishop Alexander died the Melitians began stirring up trouble again, we have no evidence of such trouble, even in Athanasius’ own Festal Letters, till the year 332.” (RH, 249) 2RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

“It is perhaps impossible to reconstruct the exact order of events, but the evidence seems to point clearly to the conclusion that several years must have elapsed between Athanasius succeeding to the see of Alexandria and the first moves of the Melitians against him.” (RH, 251)

The ‘Arians’ did not cause the trouble.

Athanasius referred to his enemies as ‘Arians’, implying that they were followers of Arius, which they were not. (See – Athanasius invented Arianism.) Hanson refers to the so-called Arians as ‘Eusebians’ because their real leaders were Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Athanasius blamed the ‘Arians’ for the trouble. He said that the Melitians and the ‘Arians’ were in cahoots from the beginning and that the ‘Arians’ formulated these false accusations. However, Hanson says that that partnership was only formed after the Melitians had already unsuccessfully appealed to the emperor about how Athanasius treated them:

“Athanasius in his account of the incidents leading up to Constantine’s letter puts the blame on the Arians and gives the impression that by this time the Melitians and the Arians had formed a deliberate alliance against him. But it is very likely that this alliance had not yet been formed.” (RH, 250)

“Epiphanius goes on to say that the leaders of the Melitians were, after their discomfiture [their failed appeal to the emperor], near the court … and were at that point taken in hand by Eusebius of Nicomedia who promised that he would obtain for them an audience with the Emperor if they would receive and champion Arius, and, on their agreeing, the fusion of the causes of Arius and of Melitius took place.” (RH, 250)

Hanson says that “in this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians.” (RH, 258) This was, therefore, five years after Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria.

“The Melitians, harried unmercifully by Athanasius and unable at first to obtain help from the Emperor, turned to the only help available to them, that of the Eusebians.” (RH, 255)

What did the Melitians accuse Athanasius of?

The Melitians accused Athanasius of causing divisions and disturbances, preventing people from entering church buildings, murders, imprisonments, beatings, wounding, and burning of churches:

“Why should the Melitians have been discontented with Athanasius? If half of what Sozomenus said was alleged by them was true, they had every reason for hostility to Athanasius.” (RH, 251) Sozomenus mentions “accusation made by Melitians (not Arians) to the Emperor against Athanasius, charging him with causing divisions and disturbances in his diocese, with preventing people from entering the church (i.e. the church building) and (charges made particularly by ‘John’, that is John Arcaph the Melitian leader, and the clergy associated with him) of murders and imprisonments and undeserved beatings and woundings and burning of churches.” (RH, 249-250)

“Epiphanius at one point admits that Athanasius had used fairly strong measures.” (RH, 249)

Were the allegations true?

“Was this more than wild hearsay? Had they any genuine grievances? We might dismiss the accusations against Athanasius retailed by Sozomenus and Epiphanius as the product of sheer partisanship and not worthy of credence, as, for instance, Gwatkin does, and many a church historian before and after him who was willing to take Athanasius’ protestations of his innocence at their face value.” (RH, 251)

“But, accidentally or providentially, we have available to us contemporary evidence which we cannot possibly dismiss as invention or exaggeration or propaganda, to decide this point.” (RH, 251-2) “This evidence consists of papyrus letters discovered by British archaeologists and published by H. I. Bell in his book Jews and Christians in Egypt. … They plunge us into the middle of the events which concerned Athanasius between the years 331 and 335.” (RH, 252) “It is a factual account written for people under persecution, a private missive not intended for publication nor propaganda, and therefore all the more damning.” (RH, 252) “It describes … the barbarous treatment which he (Athanasius) is meanwhile dealing out to those Melitians who have opposed him.” (RH, 252) The following is an example from those letters:

“Isaac bishop of Leto came to Heraiscus (evidently an eminent Melitian bishop) in Alexandria, wanting to have supper with the bishop in the camp (near Alexandria, called Nicopolis). Some drunken adherents of Athanasius arrived at the 9th hour (3 p.m.), with soldiers. They shut the gates of the camp and began searching for Isaac and Heraiscus. Some soldiers in the camp had hidden them and when the Athanasian party could not find them, they attacked some Melitians whom they met coming into the camp and maltreated them and threw them out of Nicopolis. They then arrested five Melitians who were in a hostel imprisoned them for a time and then threw them too out of Nicopolis, and beat the keeper of the hostel for putting up Melitian monks. And they shut up somebody called Ammon in the camp because he welcomed Melitians into his house. So Callistus and his friends are afraid to visit Heraiscus in the camp.” (RH, 252-3)

For the church in general, Athanasius is the hero of the fourth century. While scholars in previous centuries have described Athanasius as “’the tenderness which could not but be loved’, the gentleness which made him … so patient and equitable as a peacemaker, the ‘majestic moral unity’ of his conduct and the freedom from anything ignoble in it,” Hanson says, “we find Athanasius behaving like an employer of thugs hired to intimidate his enemies.” (RH 254)

Not all accusations were true. One of the accusations was “that Athanasius had either murdered a bishop called Arsenius or … practised sorcery by using the severed hand of his corpse.” (RH, 256) However, “the agents of Athanasius discovered that Arsenius was alive and in possession of both his hands … and had him identified’ before Paul, bishop of Tyre.” (RH, 257). However, these accusations were not all false. Bell is cautious in his conclusions:

“The evidence of papyrus 1914, Bell remarks, makes it certain that the charges of violent and unscrupulous behaviour made against Athanasius at Caesarea in 334, at Tyre in 335, at Serdica in 343 and many times thereafter were not baseless.” (RH 254)

“’It was always suspicious’, says Bell, that Athanasius, while dwelling on the charges … which he could refute, says nothing of those which accused him of violence and oppression towards the Melitians. The reason is now clear: these charges were in part true … We must conclude that there was a germ of truth in the picture given of Athanasius by his enemies as a self-willed, unruly man apt to treat even the Imperial authority with contempt.’” (RH 254)

But Hanson concludes:

“The charge against him at Tyre was the unscrupulous use of strong-arm methods against his opponents, and that charge as a general accusation … was abundantly justified.” (RH, 255)

Was this part of the Arian Controversy?

Athanasius claimed that ‘Arians’ drummed up false charges to neutralize him as their theological opponent. However, “it seems clear also that Athanasius’ first efforts at gangsterism in his diocese had nothing to do with difference of opinion on the subject of the Arian Controversy, but were directed against the Melitians. He had not agreed with the arrangement made about the Melitians at Nicaea. Once he was in the saddle, he determined to suppress them with a strong hand, and was not at all scrupulous about the methods he used.” (RH, 254)

Council of Tyre (AD 335)

“In this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians. … But it was not till the next year, 334, that the fruit of this alliance appeared. A Council was called to Caesarea in Palestine … to examine the conduct, not the doctrine, of Athanasius.” (RH, 258) “Athanasius was summoned to it, but refused to attend.” (RH, 259)

“Next year, however, in the summer of 335, the Council of Caesarea was re-constituted or re-summoned in Tyre. And on this occasion Constantine showed openly his support of this move by appointing an imperial official, the consular Dionysius, to oversee it. It was not a vast assemblage, there were only about sixty bishops present, but it held a wide representation. … Athanasius was unwillingly compelled to attend by threats from Constantine. … He also knew that they had a strong case” (RH, 259)

“Athanasius had arrived (July 11th) accompanied by 30 Egyptian bishops who were his supporters, and who behaved during the session of Council in a disturbing and threatening manner. His encouragement over several years to his supporters to behave like hooligans was now recoiling on his own head.” (RH, 260)

“After some time the Council decided to send a Commission (to Egypt) … to collect evidence on the spot.” (RH, 260) “The result was that the Council of Tyre condemned Athanasius on a number of charges, deposed him from being archbishop of Alexandria, excommunicated him, and forbade him to return to his former see. Precisely what the charges upon which he was condemned is not altogether clear. … They had not convicted Athanasius of murdering Arsenius nor of any doctrinal error at all.” (RH, 261) “His conviction had nothing to do with doctrinal issues.” (RH, 255)

“It must have been clear to everybody that he had been for some time using indefensible violence in the administration of his see, even though it was not easy to bring him to book on exact charges.” (RH, 262)

“We can now see why, for at least twenty years after 335, no Eastern bishops would communicate with Athanasius. He had been justly convicted of disgraceful behaviour in his see.” (RH, 254-5)

How did Athanasius defend himself?

Athanasius did not defend himself by showing that the accusations were false, but by personal attacks on the people who accused him:

The alliance between the Eusebians and Melitians “gave Athanasius an opportunity of clouding the issue by ascribing all protest against his outrageous conduct to bias towards Arianism, an opportunity of which he strove earnestly to take advantage. But … Athanasius’ offence had nothing to do with doctrine.” (RH, 255)

“Athanasius never actually denies that Ischyras was assaulted. ‘He confines his defence to pointing out that Ischyras was not in a strict sense a presbyter at all; he came from the sect of Colluthus and Colluthus had never been consecrated bishop. … In short, his opponents cried ‘Violence and sacrilege’ and Athanasius replies ‘No: only violence’.” (RH, 256-7)

“He switches the attention from what was actually done to the status and history of Ischyras himself. He completely ignores the serious and well-attested evidence of his own continual use of violence.” (RH, 262)

“He represents the Council of Tyre, which was a properly constituted and entirely respectable gathering of churchmen, some of whom had been confessors in the Great Persecution, as a gang of disreputable conspirators, and brands all his opponents as favourers of heresy.” (RH, 262)

Since history is written by the winner, most of the available information about Athanasius and the Melitians is in the writing of Athanasius himself. “We must bear in mind that our main informant (Athanasius himself) is determined to conceal his violent behaviour by alleging that all was invented by people who were dangerous heretics, and that most of the rest of the sources, and most writers since, have taken this plea at its face value.” (RH, 255)

Conclusions

At the time of his conflict with the Melitians, Athanasius had not yet begun to defend the Nicene Creed. Another article shows that the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios fell out of the Controversy soon after Nicaea and were only brought back in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use it to defend against emperor Constantius. At the time of the Melitian conflict, the Eusebians had no theological axe to grind with Athanasius. 

“We can see by virtue of historical hindsight that Athanasius in following this policy set an evil example to his successors of the use of force and intrigue.” (RH, 255)

This verdict was a crushing blow for Athanasius, one from which it took him a long time to recover; and perhaps only he could have recovered from it.

For a further discussion, see – Estimates of Athanasius’ Character.


OTHER ARTICLES

Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • The Dedication Creed 22This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 23The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 24‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 25In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 26This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 27Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

THE PRO-NICENES

EMPEROR THEODOSIUS

AUTHORS 

Extracts and summaries from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents themselves:

LATER

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 37Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 38The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
  • 2
    RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
  • 3
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 4
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 5
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 6
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 7
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 8
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 9
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 10
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 11
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 12
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 13
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 14
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 15
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 16
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 17
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 18
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 19
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 20
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 21
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 22
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 23
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 24
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 25
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 26
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 27
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    Many believe that these accusations were false but RPC Hanson shows that Athanasius was justly condemned.
  • 31
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 32
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 33
    It was a regional synod of Antioch and attended only by bishops who were friendly to the bishop of Antioch. But the emperor hijacked it.
  • 34
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 35
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 36
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 37
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 38
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

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