Today in 100% True History from the Annals of Church History we consider Athanasius & the Dismembered Bishop.
In today’s post we will take a quick look at Athanasius’s background and influence before looking at one of his many adventures – namely, a sensational court case in which his Arian opponents accused and ultimately convicted him of committing murder and dabbling in black the black arts.
Athanasius’s Background & Influence
Listen to how C.S. Lewis describes him:
“His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, ‘Athanasius against the world.’ ...he stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius– into one of those ‘sensible synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is Athanasius’s glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains…. when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”
Yep.... that’s it... what a way for a giant of a theologian to be remembered!
Besides this we have the fawning descriptions of him given by his admirers long after his death. They claimed that that Athanasius had “the face of an angel” while his contemporary theological enemies nicknamed him “the black dwarf” because they saw him as short, dark, and ugly and called him “the black dwarf.”
These enemies would be the bane of Athanasius’s life resulting in 5 separate exiles. More than this Athanasius would find himself constantly having to respond to various smear campaigns they launched against him. The results of one such campaign and the court case that it spawned is described below.
Athanasius & the Dismembered Bishop
Then as now, the news-consuming public gobbled up these sensationalistic reports until eventually there was massive public outcry for an investigation. Seizing the opportunity, the Arians called a fraudulent church-council and summoned Athanasius to defend himself. Athanasius, armed with a secret trump card, obeyed their summons and appeared before the council.
As the trial began the Arians repeated their lies against Athanasius, even producing a number of false witnesses who testified against him. These incredible accusations reached their crescendo as, much to the revolution of the council, the Arian’s produced the severed hand of Arsenius as their final piece of “evidence” against Athanasius.
The case seemed airtight. Athanasius looked done for. The Arians tasted blood in the water and like hungry sharks and like wolves on the prowl they licked their chops in anticipation of their victory.
But it was then, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, that Athanasius played his trump card.
It seems that prior to the trial, Athanasius, fully aware of the seriousness of the charges against him had set out to do the only thing he could do to clear his name. Athanasius had set out to find the body of Arsenius, and find it he did. And far from the body being dead and dismembered, Athanasius found Arsenius’s body very much whole... and very much alive! Just as Athanasius has suspected, the Arian bishop Arsenius wasn’t dead at all but was hiding out in a cave as an active participant in the conspiracy against Athanasius.
Without his opponents realizing what he had discovered Athanasius now began a theatrical display of his own before the council. With the help of some friends Athanasius actually managed to introduce Arsenius, heavily veiled, into evidence.
His face hidden and his hands concealed under unusually long sleeves, Arsenius was led before the council. Those present at the council watched as Athanasius quietly proceeded to roll up the sleeves of the cloak one by one, exposing first one hand and then the other. Then in a manner reminiscent of a Scooby Doo episode, Athanasius pulled back the hood of the cloak revealing the face of Arsenius.
As the assembly gasped in surprise Athanasius dramatically turned to his accusers and asked them to explain how it was that Arsenius was not only alive but was also in possession of both his hands.
While we might think that introducing this evidence should have silenced Athanasius’s accusers once and for all it didn’t. This is history. And history does not, often times, have the neat and tidy endings of Matlock episodes. Despite the powerful evidence in his favor – namely a living, breathing, two-handed Arsenius – the council, packed full of Arians, were furious and declared Athanasius guilty.
In the confusion and outrage that immediately followed Athanasius somehow managed to escape, fleeing to Constantinople to appeal his case before the emperor.
So ends one of the many adventures of Athanasius.