Athanasius of Alexandria – Bishop Accused of Murder

In 335 CE the (First) Synod of Tyre had to deal with a scandal far exceeding the usual quarrels about theological details. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, and one of the most prominent figures of the Christian church faced a serious accusation. Among other crimes, he was charged with the murder of bishop Arsenius.

The Setting

The early fourth century was an eventful period in the history of Christianity. The changes it brought substantially changed the status of the religion. The century began with persecution more severe than ever before – the edicts of emperor Diocletian and his co-rulers and successors (in a system of four emperors administering the Roman Empire called Tetrarchy) first ordered the discharge of Christian soldiers from the Roman army and subsequently attacked the most important pillars of the Christian religion – books were burned and churches destroyed. Known Christians lost their offices and privileges. The imprisonment of the clergy followed and at the end sacrifices to traditional pagan gods were ordered under the penalty of death. The situation got better only after Constantine (the Great) gained more and more victories in the struggle for power. In 311 Galerius, one of the emperors and formerly the main proponent of the persecution issued an edict (Edict of Toleration) to stop it – with dubious results. Eventually, in 313 Constantine and his co-ruler at the time, Licinius, effectively put an end to harassment for good by the so-called Edict of Milan. Christianity was now officially legal and tolerated.

Constantine became crucial for the acceptance of Christians. Having been raised by a Christian mother (Helena), he favoured this religion and actively participated in its affairs. Constantine eventually became a sole ruler of the Roman empire and brought internal peace after the period of civil wars between competing emperors. In his efforts to bring stability, he relied on the Christian church and granted countless privileges to the clergy – he freed them from taxes and civic duties and provided huge sums of money to fund the construction of spectacular new churches. However, he still demanded one thing from the church – unity. The emperor hated every spark of internal struggle in the church and actively attempted to motivate the arguing parties to resolve their differences.

Needless to say, the emperor was far from happy when a potential schism emerged in Alexandria in Egypt. Here, a priest called Arius preached unorthodox ideas about God and the Holy Trinity. He claimed that God the Son was created by the Father and therefore that “there was a time when he was not” and consequently the divinity of the Son was not on the same degree as the divinity of the Father. This opinion violently clashed with the dogma preached by the Alexandrian bishop Alexander. Alexander was convinced that the Son was begotten, coeternal and of the same substance as the Father. The two parties were unable to reconcile their differences and soon, the emperor was made aware of the issue. Constantine first asked them nicely to stop arguing (by sending a respected old priest with a letter to Alexandria), but when this attempt failed, he assembled a meeting of Christian clergy from all over the empire to resolve this issue (along with several others) – the First Council of Nicaea.

More than 300 bishops met in 325 CE in the city of Nicaea. Alexander arrived from Alexandria, accompanied by a young deacon Athanasius, and acted as one of the main supporters of the orthodox opinion. The Arian party was led by Eusebius of Nicomedia and a handful of other bishops. The council almost unanimously disagreed with Arius and his teachings. A creed was formulated to clarify the orthodox faith and the key word in this creed was “homoousios” (“consubstantial”) – confirming the same essence of the Son and the Father (and thus condemning Arianism as heresy). Constantine stood behind the decision, possibly even having been the one who introduced the word “homoousios” to the creed. The few opposing bishops were exiled, as well as Arius. In the emperor’s eyes, the unity of Christianity has been achieved.

 The Synod of Tyre

In fact, Constantine Couldn’t have been further from the truth. The conflict between orthodoxy and Arianism continued for centuries. The Nicene Creed, and especially the word “homoousios” remained very confusing. While it meant Arius was wrong, it could have been interpreted as claiming another extreme – that Father and Son are one and the same (in theological words, not just one substance, but also one person/hypostasis) and that opinion (known as modalism or Sabellianism) had been declared heretical long ago.

Alexander died shortly after the council and Athanasius succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. The Arian party recovered and gained momentum. Eusebius of Nicomedia, having returned from his exile, turned out to be particularly skilful in increasing influence and did his best to undermine Athanasius and the supporters of homoousios. Eusebius asked Athanasius to restore Arius to the church of Alexandria, but Athanasius declined. Eusebius decided to overcome this obstacle in an ambitious way – using the emperor. Arian priests managed to get gain significant influence on the emperor’s wife and later on Constantine himself. They convinced him that Arius was mistreated by the council and that he was, in fact, willing to publicly agree with the Nicene Creed. Constantine recalled Arius from his exile to answer the questions about his faith. Arius managed to convince the emperor that he indeed basically agreed with the declaration of the Council and very diplomatically reformulated his opinions in a way that didn’t provoke such a disgust. Constantine was satisfied and allowed Arius to return home to Alexandria. As you can imagine, Athanasius didn’t welcome him with open arms and once again refused to take him back into the Alexandrian church.

Now, however, the situation was a bit different. The first time, Athanasius had the unchallenged liberty to manage his church, but now, not accepting Arius back meant conflict with the wishes of the Roman emperor. After the initial rejection, Athanasius even received a letter from Constantine informing him that everyone who wishes to become part of the church should be allowed to do so. Eusebius sensed the conflict between the Alexandrian bishop and the emperor and recognized his chance to make a move and get rid of Athanasius for good. The Arian party allied with the Melitian sect (heretic Egyptian Christians following Melitius) and together they accused Athanasius of a great many crimes:

  • demanding a tribute in the form of linen garment from Egyptians
  • plotting against the emperor
  • ordering his subordinate to assault a presbyter, defile an altar and burn sacred books
  • killing Arsenius, a Melitian bishop, cutting off his hand and using it in black magic rituals

The sources (of course, only orthodox sources survived) tell us that all those accusations were false. Some of them have been proven false even before Athanasius could prepare his defence. Nevertheless, the emperor wanted the crimes to be investigated. He planned to assemble bishops in Jerusalem for a grand opening of a new church anyway, so he asked the bishops to first meet in Tyre and inspect the charges against Athanasius. This assembly became known as the First Synod of Tyre.

Athanasius prepared his arguments and went to Tyre to face his accusers. Especially the murder charge was outrageous. Being accused of killing someone and performing witchcraft was hardly something a bishop could tolerate. To Athanasius, the charge seemed even more disgraceful due to the fact that the supposed victim of the crime, Arsenius, was, to the best of Athanasius’ knowledge, still alive and well.

The accusers presented their evidence in a truly impactful way. To the utmost shock of the audience, they showed off a human hand. The hand was obviously real and obviously human. The speech that accompanied the reveal was sharp and accused the Alexandrian bishop of a terrible crime. Had Athanasius not been prepared, this would have harmed his chances devastatingly.

But he was prepared. He started his defence speech with a question. “Who of you know Arsenius?”. Many people admitted they knew him. Then, amazingly, Athanasius presented Arsenius. In person! To avoid any doubt, it was not a corpse, it was a living and breathing man. “Is this the person who has lost a hand?”, he asked again. The bishops recognized Arsenius but still weren’t ready to acquit Athanasius completely. After all, a cloak covered Arsenius and his hands were not visible. Athanasius might not have killed the poor man but cutting off one’s hand should still be considered a crime and not a tolerated pastime for a respectable bishop of the Christian church.

The Alexandrian bishop continued his performance. He removed Arsenius’ cloak from one side, exposing one of his hands and then from the other side, exposing the other. Then he turned to his accusers with his punchline, “Arsenius, as you see, is found to have two hands: let my accusers show the place whence the third was cut off.”. At this point, his main accuser left the room and a swift acquittal followed.

How did Athanasius manage to refute the charges in such a spectacular way? He had help. The governor of the province acquired information on Arsenius – apparently, he was held in a house belonging to the conspirators supporting the Arian party. However, one of the captors drank too much and talked too much in a local inn. The governor was made aware and he immediately ordered the house to be searched. Arsenius was indeed found. He proved to be no innocent victim as he concealed his identity and refused to admit who he really was. Fortunately, he was soon recognized and made available for Athanasius.

The Aftermath

The Synod acquitted Athanasius from murder charges, but that was only a minor victory. Some of the allegations still stood. Namely that his subordinate Macarius, acting on the orders of the bishop, assaulted a presbyter, burned sacred books and behaved aggressively toward the equipment of a church. Athanasius once again began a carefully planned defence. He intended to show that the assaulted presbyter was not a presbyter at all but an imposter who began preaching without the necessary authority and that this man fabricated all the following accusations against Macarius. The synod intended to send out a group of investigators to determine what had truly happened, but Athanasius spotted signs of foul play there – the investigators were chosen from his accusers. Athanasius immediately protested, but when his objection was overruled, he lost hope, left the Synod and appealed to the emperor himself.

Unsurprisingly, the Synod continued, found him guilty and deposed him immediately. Funnily enough, the bishops reinstated Arsenius (who was now officially alive and two-handed) as bishop of the city of Hypselopolis and the guy also raised his hand against Athanasius. Very soon, Athanasius was banished and the heretic Arius welcomed back to the church.

The (ex-) bishop’s appeal didn’t fare well too. At first, Constantine seemed willing to listen. He even sent a letter to the leaders of the Synod criticizing their unfair steps and demanded them to visit him in Constantinople and justify their decisions. A party led by Eusebius eventually travelled to the city and successfully implemented a new strategy. Instead of discussing the already discussed accusations, they came up with a new one. A group of bishops allegedly heard Athanasius’ threats that he would stop the usual supply of grain from Alexandria to Constantinople. The emperor was outraged and Athanasius ended up in exile. It was the first and, by far, not the last banishment he had to face in his life.


  • Socrates Scholasticus – The Ecclesiastical History
  • W. H. C. Frend – The Rise of Christianity
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