Was Saint Athanasius of Alexandria
a Black Man, the "Black Dwarf?"

Several years ago I was asked about a reference to Athanasius as "the black dwarf." When I expressed that I had never heard of this reference the person who had confronted me, a fellow faculty member acted stunned. This reference had come up in our discussion regarding minorities in Church History, thus Athanasius, a black bishop was named.

My reaction was simply to say that:
1. I am not an expert on Athanasius, but
2. I have read hundreds of pages on early Christian history and dozens of pages on Athanasius (as well as his treatise, "Life of Anthony") and had never heard of this nickname - ever or in any way.
3. I doubted this reference and asked the person to send me whatever could be found for sources.

A Google search for "black dwarf" yields plenty of results, but if you read and click to the citations they almost all lead to Justo González, "Story of Christianity: Volume 1," Chapter 19, p.199. González is a fairly well-known (and fairly conservative) Cuban-American Church theologian. You can find this nickname reference on the web site of Christianity Today and others. Unfortunately many have also "quoted" this nickname without giving any historical reference except to González. I have recently been asked about González as an historian, thus I am publishing this small piece of research.

Dr. Justo González [PhD in historical theology, but not strictly in "history"] has announced that his "black dwarf" reference will be removed for the next edition of his book - this edition is now out and he has removed this reference.

2014-03-15 - A second González error has been brought to my attention. His general reporting on Constantine and the Donatists is not as accurate as it could be - he allows a Free Church, anti-Catholic leaning to enter his depiction of events.

Here is how the González text reads:
"Among those who were present at the Council of Nicea there was a young man, so dark and short that his enemies would later call him 'the black dwarf.' This was Athanasius, Alexander's secretary, who would soon become..." - [The old version has been removed from Google books]

There are three things to note:
1. González says he was "so dark and short"
2. "his enemies would later call him"
3. and finally, the nickname, which González has in quotation marks implies a direct citation.

Yet there is no footnote, no citation of any original source materials and not any mention of where he came up with this nickname (ie. a secondary source, another historian). González also says "it is likely that he belonged to that group [Coptics], and that therefore he was a member of the lower classes." p.199

Because none of my preferred texts for early Christian history contain this nickname or say anything about Athanasius being Coptic, I doubted González. The primary early church historians I use are: Hans Lietzmann, Henry Chadwick and WHC Frend, all highly respected scholars and known for reporting the data accurately (Frend has been attacked by a few scholars for accepting early writers at their word too quickly). In addition to these scholars, I read and studied Life of Anthony (probably the most famous text written by Athanasius) for a class on "Christian Spirituality." I do not remember anything being said about Athanasius being "black" or Coptic. A quick search of this volume confirms my memory (if I am wrong, please correct me on this...or anything).

There are only two historical references to the physical attributes of Athanasius: one from the Emperor Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, and a reference from Gregory Nanzianzen in his address celebrating the life of Athanasius.

The first reference comes from Julian the Apostate in a letter, "To the Alexandrians," where he describes Athanasius [http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm]:

"...Athanasius-for I am informed that the man is a clever rascal-then you must know that for this very reason he has been banished from the city. For a meddlesome man is unfit by nature to be leader of the people...[he] is not even a man but only a contemptible puppet...I long ago gave orders that he depart from the city, I now say, let him depart from the whole of Egypt." Epis 47

Other translations use "not even a man, but a common little fellow." In essence, Julian is making fun of the size of Athanasius, being short and petite. The Greek text could also be translated "not a man, but a cheap ventriloquist mannequin." The word anthropoikos is something like a mannequin, thus the above suggested translation. However, it could also be that Julian is not making a statement about the physical stature of Athanasius at all. He could be taking a shot at the political strength of Athanasius. Just as I might say of another man, "He is not a real man. He's a mouse." I MIGHT say this about a 6'5" man, yet it COULD be a statement of his lack of backbone rather than his physical size.

Again, the point here is to make sure we are not reading into the historical data what WE want to see. Our job is to state what the historical data clearly shows.

The only other text is that of Gregory Nazianzen, "On the Great Athanasius"

"...he was sublime in action, lowly in mind; inaccessible in virtue, most accessible in intercourse; gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind; calm in rebuke, persuasive in praise..." Orat XXI.9

I must say here, Gregory's description of Athanasius is quite kind. If you read about how Athanasius dealt with his theological foes he was not always so "sublime...lowly...gentle...free from anger...sweet in words." He was quite the opposite when dealing with the Arians. The Arians were even less gentle and sublime when coming against Athanasius, forcing him to flee for his life several times. But that is another discussion.

It is important to notice that neither physical description says anything about Athanasius being "dark," or "black." How did the color of skin come into the discussion?

Again we go to González:
"Since he spoke Coptic...and his complexion was dark, like that of the Copts...it is very likely that he belonged to that group, and that therefore he was a member of the lower classes in Egypt." p.199

González makes two fairly significant assumptions in this single sentence: that Athanasius was "dark" and that he was in the lower class. He says that the complexion of Copts was dark, thus Athanasius was dark. I am not arguing against a "dark" Athanasius - he MAY have had a darker complexion than most of his peers, but we have no record of him being "dark" or "black." He was most probably NOT white since he was Egyptian (or maybe Coptic); but he was probably NOT black either since he was not described in any way as being "African" or "black." Athanasius MAY have been darker than his contemporaries, but we have nothing to suggest it.

Do we know Athanasius was among the lower class? Again, one cannot fully know how González came to this conclusion other than what we read above - González assumes that Athanasius is Coptic, and thus among the lower class. Most scholars believe Athanasius either had wealthy parents or was the recipient of generosity from Alexander, the bishop caring for him as a young boy. Either way, it is clear from his writings that Athanasius was well-educated. He could have come from a lower-class family, but he was educated in the great school of Alexandria and his writing reveals an educated man. Later Christian writers [Severus in the 10th century] tell us that his parents were in the upper class, but we cannot be certain of this testimony.

There has been one scholarly presentation (I cannot remember who, my apologies) offering some evidence that Athanasius may have been Coptic, but as with the issue of his parents, the evidence is just not conclusive. I cannot find anything to suggest that he spoke or wrote in Coptic. It does appear that Anthony was Coptic, but not Athanasius. Again, González gives no reference to any primary source material or even to another scholarly work for his statements.

This recent exchange below reminds me of the debate/discussion of referring to the land where Israel existed during the Roman Empire as "Palestine." The historian strives to report what/how the era in question referred to people/places/concepts. We live in an age of historical revisionism - true historians should not participate in this kind of discussion without clearly stating he/she is working to redefine history.

Message sent via e-mail - April 2013
I think I missed your name and credentials. Anyway when you said that there is no reference to him being called African or Black it makes me wonder if you recognize that Egypt is in Africa.

My Response
Thank you for your comment.
My credentials are listed on the contributors page:
You can find my bio, degrees and my research on this page.
My Ph.D. was focused on Clement of Alexandria's work. The same region of Athanasius. I am fairly familiar with Egyptian Christianity of the first three centuries. I do not refer to Egypt as "Africa" because it was not normal in the ancient world to do so.

Ask Egyptians if they are Africans. Generally speaking, throughout history, they would say "no." Referring to Egypt as "Africa" is a fairly new thing. If you look at maps describing the Roman Empire or the first century Church you will see that Egypt is listed as "Egypt." Only North Africa is branded with "Africa" in most maps and descriptions of the Roman World maps display "Africa" as Libya. "Ethiopia" is another term used to refer to Africa.

Egyptians were generally not black. They certainly were not white. Were there black Egyptians? Yes, but they were a minority and typically would be referenced by "black." In ancient literature a black person would typically be called "black" or by their location of Ethiopia or Libya (which extended far into the south on some maps). The Roman province of "Africa" was named after the defeat of Carthage (cir. 146 BC), but this province only covered a fairly thin part of North Africa. North Africans were generally not "black"...just as it is today. I seriously doubt modern Americans from Egyptian descent would call themselves "African-American" unless they are "black."

Comment: Feb 15, 2014
Sir, Your argument that you doubt that, "Egyptians now living in the U.S. would call themselves "African-American" unless they are truly black" is weak. No one of color not born or naturalized in America calls themselves African_American. Black is a color typically used to describe Negros. Webster defines Negros as "a member of a race of humankind native to Africa and classified according to physical features (as dark skin pigmentation)." case closed. THE Man WAS BLACK.
Part of this comment is excellent. I was wrong in the quote he cites, thus I have changed my language above to read: I seriously doubt modern Americans from Egyptian descent would call themselves "African-American" unless they are "black."

Having said that, this visitor obviously WANTS to believe in a black Athanasius. One can believe whatever they like, I am simply attempting to give the historical evidence. The evidence for a black Athanasius is just NOT there. This visitor has based his decision-making on the definition from Webster's dictionary which did not exist in the Roman world. Egyptians were not typically black. Again, there were black Egyptians, but they were not the majority.

I hope you can understand that as an historian of the ancient world I am tasked with presenting the information accurately as it occurred. As I said at the beginning of my article on Athanasius, I only dealt with this issue (like many on CH101) because someone asked me about it. This came up while I was on the faculty at an historic black university and I fully understand why this would be important to our students - but it does not serve anyone well to misrepresent early church history OR ANYTHING else in order to support an ideology. While I do not think it is WRONG to refer to Egypt as part of Africa in today's world, it was the not the case in the Roman Empire. Egyptians always saw themselves as "Egyptian."
My guess is that this remains the case today.

I hope this helps.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History

I welcome comments, questions and disagreements: