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November 7, 2017

Holy Martyr Athenodoros, Brother of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker

St. Athenodoros the Martyr (Feast Day - November 7);
Icon above depicts St. Gregory the Wonderworker

Verses to Athenodoros the Brother of Gregory the Wonderworker

Noetic beings call for Athenodoros on earth,
To the noetic gifts of the Lord.

Verses to Gregory the Brother of Gregory the Wonderworker

Gregory the brother of the Wonderworker,
With the same name they lived twice the fame.

What we know of Saint Athenodoros comes primarily from the life of his more famous brother, Saint Gregory the Wonderworker of Neocaesarea. They were both born in the early third century to a wealthy pagan family in Neocaesarea (modern Niksar, then the capital of the area of Pontus in Asia Minor). Due to their status, they were afforded an excellent education.

Athenodoros and his brother Gregory, who was known as Theodore prior to his baptism, were introduced to the Christian faith in their teenage years, after the death of their father. On the advice of one of their tutors, the young men were eager to study at Berytus (modern Beirut), then one of the four or five famous schools in the Hellenic world. At this time, their brother-in-law was appointed assessor (legal counsel) to the Roman Governor of Palestine; the youths had therefore an occasion to act as an escort to their sister as far as Caesarea in Palestine. On arrival in that town they learned that the celebrated scholar Origen, head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, resided there. Curiosity led them to hear and converse with the master. Soon both youths forgot all about Berytus and Roman law, and gave themselves up to the great Christian teacher in the year 233, who gradually won them over to Christianity.

According to Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (Bk. 6, Ch. 30): "While Origen was carrying on his customary duties in Caesarea, many pupils came to him not only from the vicinity, but also from other countries. Among these Theodore, the same that was distinguished among the bishops of our day under the name of Gregory, and his brother Athenodoros, we know to have been especially celebrated. Finding them deeply interested in Greek and Roman learning, he infused into them a love of philosophy, and led them to exchange their old zeal for the study of divinity. Remaining with him five years, they made such progress in divine things, that although they were still young, both of them were honored with a bishopric in the churches of Pontus."

On the eve of their departure in the year 238, Gregory thanked Origen in an academic Farewell Address, which is preserved to us and is a valuable source of information for Origen's personal history and method of teaching. A letter of Origen refers to the departure of the two brothers. In it Origen exhorts his pupils to bring the intellectual treasures of the Greeks to the service of Christian philosophy, and thus imitate the Jews who employed the golden vessels of the Egyptians to adorn the Holy of Holies.

A few years later, Phaedimus, the Bishop of Amasea, consecrated Gregory the first bishop of his native city, Neocaesarea. Gregory preached the gospel in town and in countryside with such zeal and success that at his death but a handful of pagans remained in all Pontus. The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century venerated him as the founder of the Church of Cappadocia. Though we do not know the details, Athenodoros is said to also have become a bishop in Pontus, no doubt being a great aid in the successes of his brother. Eusebius numbers both of them as among the most eminent and illustrious bishops of the time.

In around 264 Gregory and Athenodoros were said to have attended the Synod of Antioch that was to pass judgment on Paul of Samosata, who had been accused of Adoptionism. The majority of the bishops assembled there were former students of Origen. A few years after the return of Gregory to Pontus, he reposed in peace. Athenodoros however is said to have died as a martyr of the faith, though we do not have the details.

It should be noted, that in the Synaxarion of Constantinople, there are two men commemorated on November 7th who are said to have been brothers of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker: one is named Athenodoros and another is called Gregory. However, we only know of Athenodoros as being the brother of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker. Therefore either the brother known as Gregory ought to be omitted as an error and confusion, or we can assume perhaps that Athenodoros was also known as Gregory. This assumption is based on the fact that Gregory, known as the Wonderworker, was the baptismal name of Theodore (or Theodoros in Greek), which is similar to Athenodoros, though we are not told if Athenodoros had a baptismal name - perhaps they were both named Gregory after baptism just as they were both named with the "doros" ("gift") prior to baptism (Theodoros means "Gift of God" and Athenodoros means "Gift of Athena"). This is why the iambic verses for both "brothers" are translated above, though in fact they may have been just one brother confused as two.