Chapter XVII.—On the Death of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, at his Suggestion, Athanasius receives the Throne; and an Account of his Youth; how he was a Self-Taught Priest, and beloved by Antony the Great.
About this period 1166 Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, when about to depart this life, left Athanasius as his successor, in accordance, I am convinced, with the Divine will directing the vote upon him. It is said that Athanasius at first sought to avoid the honor by flight, but that he, although unwilling, was afterwards constrained by Alexander to accept the bishopric. This is testified by Apolinarius, the Syrian, 1167 in the following terms: “In all these matters much disturbance was excited by impiety, but its first effects were felt by the blessed teacher of this man, who was at hand as an assistant, and behaved as a son would to his father. Afterwards this holy man himself underwent the same experience, for when appointed to the episcopal succession he fled to escape the honor; but he was discovered in his place of concealment by the help of God, who had forecast by Divine manifestations to his blessed predecessor, that the succession was to devolve upon him. For when Alexander was on the point of death, he called upon Athanasius, who was then absent. One who bore the same name, and who happened to be present, on hearing him call this way, answered him; but to him Alexander was silent, since he was not summoning this man. Again he called, and as it often happens, the one present kept still, and so the absent one was disclosed. Moreover, the blessed Alexander prophetically exclaimed, O Athanasius, thou thinkest to escape, but thou wilt not escape; meaning that Athanasius would be called to the conflict.” Such is the account given by Apolinarius respecting Athanasius.
The Arians assert that after the death of Alexander, the respective followers of that bishop and of Melitius held communion together, and fifty-four bishops from Thebes, and other parts of Egypt, assembled together, and agreed by oath to choose by a common vote, the man who could advantageously administer the Church of Alexandria; but that seven 1168 of the bishops, in violation of their oath, and contrary to the opinion of all, secretly ordained Athanasius; and that on this account many of the people and of the Egyptian clergy seceded from communion with him. For my part, I am convinced that it was by Divine appointment that Athanasius succeeded to the high-priesthood; for he was eloquent and intelligent, and capable of opposing plots, and of such a man the times had the greatest need. He displayed great aptitude in the exercise of the ecclesiastical functions and fitness for the priesthood, and was, so to speak, from his earliest years, self-taught. It is said that the following incident occurred to him in his youth. 1169 It was the custom of the Alexandrians to celebrate with great pomp an annual festival in honor of one of their bishops named Peter, who had suffered martyrdom. Alexander, who then conducted the church, engaged in the celebration of this festival, and after having completed the worship, he remained on the spot, awaiting the arrival of some guests whom he expected to breakfast. In the meantime he chanced to cast his eyes towards the sea, and perceived some children playing on the shore, and amusing themselves by imitating the bishop and the ceremonies of the Church. At first he considered the mimicry as innocent, and took pleasure in witnessing it; but when they touched upon the unutterable, he was troubled, and communicated the matter to the chief of the clergy. The children were called together and questioned as to the game at which they were playing, and as to what they did and said when engaged in this amusement. At first they through fear denied; but when Alexander threatened them with torture, they confessed that Athanasius was their bishop and leader, and that many children who had not been initiated had been baptized by him. Alexander carefully inquired what the priest of their play was in the habit of saying or doing, and what they answered or were taught. On finding that the exact routine of the Church had been accurately observed by them, he consulted the priests around him on the subject, and decided that it would he unnecessary to rebaptize those who, in their simplicity, had been judged worthy of the Divine grace. He therefore merely performed for them such offices as it is lawful only for those who are consecrated to initiating the mysteries. He then took Athanasius and the other children, who had playfully acted as presp. 270 byters and deacons, to their own relations under God as a witness that they might be brought up for the Church, and for leadership in what they had imitated. Not long after, he took Athanasius as his table companion and secretary. He had been well educated, was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and already when he came to mans estate, and before he attained the bishopric, he gave proof to those conversing with him of his being a man of wisdom and intellectuality. But when, 1170 on the death of Alexander, the succession devolved upon him, his reputation was greatly increased, and was sustained by his own private virtues and by the testimony of the monk, Antony the Great. This monk repaired to him when he requested his presence, visited the cities, accompanied him to the churches, and agreed with him in opinion concerning the Godhead. He evinced unlimited friendship towards him, and avoided the society of his enemies and opponents.
About five months after the council of Nicæa, according to a statement of Athan. Apol. cont. Arian. 59.269:1167
This quotation is first made by Soz., and is found nowhere else.269:1168
See the refutation of the calumny in Athan. Apol. cont. Arian. 6, where the acts of the vindicatory synod are given, 3 sqq. Cf. Philost. ii. 11, gives a different account from the Arian point of view; probably the whole story is from Sabinus.269:1169
Ruf. H. E. i. 14. Cf. Soc. i. 15, who credits Ruf. with the story.270:1170
From the Life of Antony, attributed to Athanasius, which Evagrius, a presbyter of Antioch, translated into Latin. Ruf. H. E. i. 8, Hieron. de vir. illust. 87, 88, 125.