Saint Athanasius Icon in Saint Athanasius Church in Zagorichani Vasiliada, 1887. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to see the entire panel.
I’ve been stirred up. Jennifer Barry’s recent article about Athanasius in the Harvard Theological Review  hit me between the eyes. Athanasius was a powerful fourth-century bishop who later became the twentieth pope of Alexandria. Known as one of the Church Fathers, he is still venerated as a saint in many Christian churches today.
What bothers me—and Barry acknowledges this in her article—is that Athanasius (297–373) held great power and has been revered throughout Christian history despite his criminal and unethical behavior. As one of the most important Patriarchs of the Church, his debates with Arius and his followers over the identity of Jesus were violent and cruel. This was far worse than any verbal sparring over ideological positions. Athanasius was banished from his seat of power for illegal and immoral acts, including bribery, withholding food for his enemies, and possibly murder!
Even worse in my eyes is the way Athanasius staged a comeback and regained power, time and again, by gaslighting people into believing that he was not a criminal, but instead, the ultimate victim.
Powerful people using victimization
This is a tactic that has been employed by powerful people throughout history, including in today’s political system. It’s proven to be all too effective. It is completely unethical, and it creates great division, fear, and hatred among the people the leaders should be serving.
Barry turned the spotlight on Athanasius’s means of victimizing himself for the purpose of gaining more power. The results are sobering. Athanasius’s biographers are divided over whether his enemies were emperors or conciliar authorities or both, but clearly the outcome was the creating of heretics among the followers of Jesus. He used sacred Hebrew texts recounting true victimization to identify himself during his banishment as a representative of God’s persecuted church. Barry writes:
He was removed from his seat of power roughly five times. His first two periods of flight from Alexandria were spent outside of Egypt, … [and he] took advantage of his displacement and its literary possibilities to construct a sympathetic and powerful identity as a persecuted figure. Exile, Athanasius argued, was synonymous with persecution (p. 2).
Banished from his position as bishop and far away in exile, he re-defined his role as the persecuted one and claimed to be the real savior of the church. His acts, he claimed, were justified because the enemy was attacking the church, and he was a victimized scapegoat. Barry starkly notes that “while Athanasius should have been remembered as a criminal he lived on as a champion of orthodoxy” (p. 3).
A female savior as counter example
It dawned on me, as I read Barry’s article, that the ancient female character, Norea, provides us with an excellent counter example of this deceitful form of power mongering. We have evidence from the collection of early Christian writings found at Nag Hammadi that Norea also would have been known to the fourth-century Christians of Alexandria during all the years when Athanasius fought for his position of power there.
Strangely, though, Norea is no longer known in liturgical settings for the church, but Athanasius of Alexandria is remembered and revered. I wonder if Norea’s absence from modern Christian knowledge is due to her strength and virtue, which would have interfered with the aims of men who fought for power.
Christians could have chosen Norea as an important and successful savior in place of the men battling for seats of power. She filled a role somewhat like Christ, in that she was part-human and part-divine. From The Thought of Norea, we learn that Norea had been the most high-minded and ethically strong of the human-divine savior figures at the time, such as Christ or Sophia.
According to this second-century text, her power came from her divine origin, and she would sometimes behold the fullness of the Father of All. She was closest to the “first mind. . . which she received” from the loving God (28:4).
A savior born to help
And, according to another second-century text, The Reality of the Rulers, Norea repelled a rape attack. While she might have played the role of victim, instead, Norea affirmed her divine origin, and the text refers to her as “the virgin whom the forces did not defile” (92:1). Furthermore, The Reality of the Rulers reports that Norea had been born to “help many human generations,” and “humanity had begun to multiply and improve” (92:3).
If more Christians had followed and revered Norea, they would have chosen to empower moral strength instead of moral weakness. But Norea was female, and in the fourth century, the patriarchal system of the church had begun to model the Roman patriarchy which had been denigrating and oppressing women for centuries. Female saving figures began to fade from Christian engagement.
Turning to the female figure of Norea as savior, therefore, is the antithesis of giving power to self-acclaimed victimization. Consider the repercussions of blaming others for one’s suffering.
- Modeling victimization as a style of leadership incites more victimization.
- Power derived from victim sympathy rouses retaliation against anyone who does not support the offended person. It creates heresies out of one’s enemies.
- Leadership that takes offense inspires no interest in serving others. It feeds on self-centeredness.
By contrast, following Norea’s model would result in the following type of leadership:
- Her followers learn how to find divine strength within themselves.
- Since she has a divine source of power, she has no need to create enemies to prove her power.
- Since she was “borne to serve others,” she has no interest in self-serving behavior.
As ‘ordinary’ people, all of us can decide what type of person we empower and who we dismiss. Turning to Norea for guidance and protection could help us build a strong foundation for the future without having to rely on promises from morally weak leaders. She lessens our fear of enemy powers because she is a reminder that we have what we need from divine sources. And most importantly, she evokes in us our own desire to serve others as we have been served. We learn we can empower selflessness when we oppose selfishness.
 Jennifer Barry. “Athanasius Pulled Apart: Heresiology and the (Dis)membered (Fe)male Body,” Harvard Theological Review, 2023, 1 – 19. (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/s0017816023000275)