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Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:
Encyclical Letter. (Epistola Encyclica.): Introduction.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

p. 91 Introduction to the Encyclical Epistle to the Bishops Throughout the World.


Athanasius wrote the following Epistle in the year 339. In the winter at the beginning of that year the Eusebians held a Council at Antioch. Here they appointed Gregory to the see of Alexandria in the place of Athanasius (see Prolegg. ch. ii. 6). ‘Gregory was by birth a Cappadocian, and (if Nazianzen speaks of the same Gregory, which some critics doubt) studied at Alexandria, where S. Athanasius had treated him with great kindness and familiarity, though Gregory afterwards took part in propagating the calumny against him of having murdered Arsenius. Gregory was on his appointment dispatched to Alexandria’ (Newman). The proceedings on his arrival, Lent, 339, are related in the following Encyclical Epistle, which Athanasius forwarded immediately before his departure for Rome to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church. ‘It is less correct in style, as Tillemont observes, than other of his works, as if composed in haste. In the Editions previous to the Benedictine, it was called an “Epistle to the Orthodox everywhere;” but Montfaucon has been able to restore the true title. He has been also able from his mss. to make a far more important correction, which has cleared up some very perplexing difficulties in the history. All the Editions previous to the Benedictine read “George” throughout for “Gregory,” and “Gregory” in the place where “Pistus” occurs. Baronius, Tillemont, &c., had already made the alterations from the necessity of the case’ (Newman). After comparing the violence done to the Church with the outrage upon the Levite’s wife in Judges 19., he appeals to the bishops of the universal Church to regard his cause as their own (§1). He then recounts the details of what has happened; the announcement by the Prefect Philagrius of the supersession of Ath. by Gregory, the popular indignation, and its grounds (§2); the instigation of the heathen mob by Philagrius to commit outrages upon the sacred persons and buildings (§3); the violent intrusion of Gregory (§4); the proceedings against himself (§5). He warns them against Gregory as an Arian, and asks their sympathy for himself (§6), and that they will refuse to receive any of Gregory’s letters (§7). The ‘Encyclical’ was written just before his departure from Alexandria, where he must have been in retirement for three weeks (Index to Festal Letter, 339) previously, as he appears (§5) to have remained in the town till after Easter-day. Dr. Bright (p. xv. note) sees here a proof of the inaccuracy of the ‘Index:’ but there are other grounds for regarding it as correct (see Prolegg. ch. v. §3, c, and Introd. to Letters): its chronology is therefore adopted by the present editor. The events which led up to the scenes described in the letter are more fully dealt with in Prolegg. ch. ii. §6 (I), sub fin. and (2). It may be added that Sozomen, iii. 6 in describing this escape of Athan., inserts the scene in the Church which really took place in Feb. 356, while Socrates ii. 11 confuses the two occasions even more completely. Internal evidence shews that Soz. partially corrected Socr. by the aid of the Hist. Aceph. The confusion of Gregory with George (especially easy in Latin), to which almost every historian from Socrates and Theodoret to Neander and Newman has fallen an occasional victim, appears to have vitiated the transcription of this encyclical from very early times. But Sievers (p. 104) goes too far in ascribing to that cause the insertion of a great part of §§3–5.

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