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7-10-2015, 00:34

The Memory of Athanasius

These examples illustrate how the name ‘‘Athanasius,’’ quite apart from his role in coalescing a coalition of pro-Nicene bishops and writers, had only a generation after his death become a potent symbol of mainstream church identity. What we see in our early example, the compilations of some Apollinarians, is even more evident in the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century. The schisms arising from it were healed by asserting a common identity derived from, and embodied in Athanasius (as he had by that time come to be perceived). Evoking his memory made it easier to lay mutual suspicions to rest and to tolerate different doctrinal emphasis and language within a shared sense of community (Graumann 2003).

It is no coincidence that it was precisely the memory of Athanasius that came to be harnessed to this effect. Despite occasional dismissals of the notion that historical precedent had any real value, he contributed eminently to a historical turn in theological discourse when, as we have seen, he was confronted with the specific use of historical argument by his adversaries. In addition to employing all the genres and techniques of polemical writing, he made frequent use of historical demonstration in his treatises. He wrote what we may call exercises in Zeitgeschichte, presenting his own partisan account of near contemporary events and embellishing his narrative with a score of relevant documents quoted or paraphrased at length (Athanasius, Historia Arianorum and De synodis). Both aspects, the historical presentation and the eagerness to include documents, marked a recent trend and, at the same time, helped promote this new style of discourse. Even more importantly, Athanasius’ historical writing was instrumental in the creation of a stereotypical image of events that would form the perception of later generations. When the church historians of the fifth century looked back, they presented Athanasius as a heroic figure fighting against heresy. In doing so, they relied heavily on his texts and self-presentation. For his part, Athanasius himself had helped to create what became the dominant perception of fourth-century history, which eventually allowed privileged recourse to the iconic Athanasius, as he was remembered, as a way of expressing one’s own ecclesiastical standing and self-identity in the fifth century.