In working on a paper on Ephesians 2, I had to tackle the term ἄθεος, from which we get our modern “atheist” and its derivatives. In the context of Eph 2, it is used to describe the plight of the Gentiles before they were saved by Christ and brought into relationship with God.
In Thielman’s commentary on Ephesians, he argues that Paul was using this word in the same sense as in the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. I’m not writing this to dispute or advocate Thielman’s point, but I was intrigued by the use of the term in Polycarp. So I went to the shelf and grabbed a volume on the church fathers and read it for myself and it is positively wonderful! It’s interesting (and a bit ironic) that Christians were the ones who used to be considered “atheists” because they refused to acknowledge the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons.
Here is the dialog in which this term (ἀθέους) occurs (from volume 1 of Ante-Nicene Fathers from Hendrickson, page 41).
“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ] saying, ‘Have respect to thy old age,’ and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as] ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.’ But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, ‘Away with the Atheists.’”
Αυτω η δοξα