The Second Century Apologists

24 May

My Early Christianity Reading has finally brought me out of the first century and into the second. I’ve found a secondary source which looks like it may be quite useful as I go along; The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, edited by Frances Young, Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth (2004). Chapters in this book cover various categories of Christian literature including sources which the respective authors consider important. I’ve begun going through a chapter or two in this, jotting down the sources I want to look at, reading these, then going on to the next category. I usually don’t worry that much about my use of time with history. It’s my hobby and if I’m inefficient, does it really matter so long as I get to an acceptable place at the end? But I started reading on this a year and a half ago and I sort of want to get back to the 4th and 5th centuries someday. It looks like this book may help me do this.

The first barrier to understanding these second century authors are the terms Apologist and Apology. If you know little or nothing about the period and what was going on, which describes myself not so long ago, you’d likely see these as someone writing about something he or his social group had done wrong. It doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that this couldn’t have been exactly what was happening but these terms really are misnomers. These authors aren’t apologizing for anything. They’re engaged in earnest arguments in favor of their belief system as being the correct way of viewing the world. Centuries of usage have left us stuck with the term but calling these “Justifications” or something would have been more accurate. 1

Justin Martyr is generally considered the first Christian Apologist. There are a couple of problems with this categorization. First, as I mention above, Justin wasn’t apologizing for anything. His Apology was a petition to Antoninus Caesar requesting that Christians be treated more fairly, in particular that they not be punished simply for being named Christian, but because of crimes they had committed. His ultimate hope was that the Emperor would answer and post his answer to this request so that it would become the law of the Empire. It is almost certain that Justin would have titled this something along the lines of, “Address and Petition to Antoninus.” 2

The second problem is that when we view this as ancient literature intended to justify the existence of Christianity and the exemplary lifestyle of Christians, Justin is not the first. There aren’t a lot of survivals but at the very least The Epistle of Barnabus predates him and possibly The Epistle to Diognetus. Justin is notable as his lengthy, detailed argument became a model which later authors patterned their writings on.

Justin Martyr, photo from Wikimedia Commons, originally; Saint Justin dans André Thevet,
Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584.

Rather than go into details about what Justin and the other Apologists wrote, because there just isn’t space in a blog post for this, I’m going to briefly mention general themes which were common to this form of literature. I’m listing the authors and sources I’m discussing, along with the volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) series I read them from.

  • Justin Martyr, First and Second Apologies and Dialogue with Trypho, ANF 1.
  • Tatian the Assyrian, Address to the Greeks, ANF 2.
  • Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, ANF 2.
  • Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians and The Resurrection of the Dead, ANF 2.
  • Aristides, Apology or To Emperor Hadrian Caesar from the Athenian Philosopher Aristides, ANF 9.
  • Melito of Sardis, Apology, ANF 8. 3

There are some common themes used by the Apologists which I’ll briefly mention. All of these are not mentioned by every author and there are some differences in details, a couple of which I’ll talk about. One of the most interesting items is that many of these involve detailed interpretations of Christian texts, particularly the Old Testament. You can see here the beginnings of the discussions which by the Fourth Century would result in the development of relatively well-defined Christian doctrines. Another commonality is that most of these authors appear to have been highly educated philosophers who converted to Christianity later in life. The way I’ve listed these are not in the order the Apologists bring them up as this changes with different authors.

Christians should not be punished merely for being called Christian.
The basic argument here is that Christians should not be persecuted, lose property or even their lives simply due to the fact that they bear the name of Christian. If they have committed a crime, let them be tried and condemned, but not merely based on a name. All of the writers fail to mention that not reverencing Roman Gods could be considered a crime. Even Hadrian’s rescript which has often been appended to Justin’s First Apology, when strictly interpreted, allows Christians to be prosecuted for this. There really isn’t a lot of difference between this rescript and the exchange between Trajan and Pliny the Younger where the Emperor instructs Pliny that Christians are not to be sought out but should be prosecuted when brought before him. 4

Exemplary lifestyle of Christians.
The Apologists discuss in considerable detail how Christians live their lives. They are non-violent, to the point of not defending themselves when attacked. They do not engage in the licentious behavior they are accused of but in fact take only one husband or wife in a lifetime and only have sex for the purposes of procreation. They are so opposed to death that not only do they not engage in cannibalism, of which they are accused, but are forbidden even from viewing games where men may die. They live such serious, contemplative lives that they may not attend the circus or the theater. They obey the Emperor strictly as an honored ruler but will not worship him. They do not believe in abortion or the exposure of children. Some of the authors state that if people are found who call themselves Christians but commit crimes, they cannot be Christians and must be punished.

Roman Gods are not Gods at all.
There are three main themes here, used by different authors. One is that the Roman Gods are demons, as is proven by their demonic behavior – rape, incest, murder, etc. Another is that the Roman Gods were famous men who after their deaths were reverenced by people to such an extent that they came to be worshiped; Athenagoras refines this further by arguing that the Roman Gods were men and it is due to the urging of fallen angels – demons – that men came to worship them. The final argument is that the Roman Gods simply aren’t. They are inanimate pieces of wood, stone or metal and have no power.

Christian writings predate those of the Greeks and Romans.
This is one of the most interesting arguments, and among the most convoluted. Basically, according to the Apologists, Moses and other Old Testament authors and prophets predate the ancient Greek authors and they set out to “prove” that the ideas developed by Greek philosophers came from them. Among other things, the level of detail used in these arguments shows how familiar these authors were with classical literature as well as scripture. I don’t know how to begin to discuss these arguments without taking a thousand words on it alone. Justin Martyr, for example, goes into detail to prove that Plato’s concepts regarding a single deity came directly from Moses. 5

The World was created by a single Deity.
There are a bunch of arguments offered here. Much comes from Old Testament interpretation, particularly Genesis. A couple of authors go beyond this. Theophilus quotes extensively from the Sibylline Books in support of a single deity. And he uses what I think is my favorite philosophical argument; that the only reasonable explanation for the well-ordered universe they live in is that it was created by one God and that there is a single guiding hand on the tiller. 6 There are some interesting sub-topics here which later became points of contention, in particular that Justin Martyr believes that God created the world out of unformed matter while most of the others such as Tatian, Theophilus and Athenagoras believe that God first created matter, then formed the world from it. 7

The Resurrection.
It’s not surprising that this is a major theme for all of the authors. At this point all of them argue for a resurrection of the body, not just of the soul and they go to some lengths to argue for its validity. Justin Martyr specifically states that those who argue for a resurrection of the soul alone, not the body, are not Christians. 8 The arguments used are more varied than for the other themes. All of them use interpretation of scriptures. In addition, Theophilus discusses how you can see a form of resurrection on Earth in the change of the seasons and if God could do this, why couldn’t men be bodily resurrected? Athenagoras spends a great deal of time debunking an argument he must have found threatening. When others ask how could God raise people up using the same matter when in some cases people had to resort to cannibalism to survive and so their matter now consists of matter from another body, Athenagoras goes into great detail describing how men’s bodies can only consist of matter nutritionally appropriate for it and the flesh of other men cannot be appropriate for this purpose and must have just passed through. I was surprised he didn’t argue, “Anyone who would eat the flesh of another is not Christian and won’t have to worry about being resurrected” but he chose not to go there. 9

I’m over 2,000 words so I think that’s enough for one post even though I could add a lot more. There are later Apologists who were not covered by Norris (2004) and were not given a separate, later chapter in Young, Ayres and Louth (2004) so I’ll be interested in how they discuss the third-century authors and why they are not included with this group (I could offer a few thoughts I have on this but I’ll leave the topic alone until I read further). I’m not typically very interested in the development of Christian doctrine but it’s pretty hard to completely separate doctrinal disputes with later socio-political conflicts and developments. What’s probably most notable about the second-century apologists is that because they had to write so extensively in support of their new faith, these authors set the table for Christianity to develop a relatively rigid, uniform belief system. One of the interesting characteristics of Christianity is this rigidity, to the best of my knowledge something not previously found in a major religion. Even Judaism had room for the Pharisees, Sadducees and, if you believe Josephus, the Essenes having substantial differences in their belief systems while remaining part of the Jewish religion. The detailed arguments early Christians used to support their new religion seems likely to have contributed to this rigidity.

1 The term apologist appears to have originated when Tertullian wrote a treatise titled, Apologeticus pro Christianis in the very late 2nd century and was then used to describe similar, earlier material. I haven’t gotten to Tertullian yet and I’m curious about why he decided on that term.

2 Parvis, Paul (2007), p 31. Parvis discusses whether Justin’s First and Second Apologies were originally a single apology, a single apology with an appendix, or two apologies. Interesting but not something I’m going to discuss here. I should also note I’m in the middle of reading this book and this post would likely be better if I’d finished it before posting but the way things have gone lately, I need to post when I have time to post even if I haven’t read everything I’d like on a topic.

3 I found it interesting that Norris (2004) grouped Melitus with these others as in reading it, to me he comes across as using much more of a theological than a philosophical argument. Possibly this is as his surviving writings were preserved by Eusebius they were somewhat altered in tone. Norris describes his On Pascha as, “This remarkable document – written in Greek in the elaborate, rhythmical ‘Asiatic’ style of the Second Sophistic – attests the writer’s studied ingenuity as a rhetor.” pp 41-2. Then again, I’m not reading the original Greek either.

4 Pliny the Younger, Letters, X.96-97.

5 See Justin Martyr’s First Apology, 59-60. I’m using the ANF numbering system for these as this is where I’ve read them.

6 Respectively, Theophilus, To Autolycus, II.36 and I.5-6.

7 Respectively; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 10; Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 5 and 12; Theophilus, To Autolycus, II.4 and II.10 and; Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 4.

8 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 80. In this chapter, alone of all of these authors, he argues for a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth based in Jerusalem.

9 Respectively, Theophilus, To Autolycus, I.13 and Athenagoras, The Resurrection of the Dead, 4-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., Ancient Christian Writers 6: The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus. Mahwah, New Jersey: The Paulist Press (1948). ISBN: 978-0-8091-0247-1.

Norris, Richard A., “The Apologists.” In The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, eds., Young, Ayres and Louth, 36-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-521-69750-7.

Parvis and Foster, eds., Justin Martyr and His Worlds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-8006-6212-7.

Parvis, Paul, “Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: The Posthumous Creation of the Second Apology.” In, Justin Martyr and His Worlds, eds. Parvis and Foster, 22-37. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-8006-6212-7.

Pliny the Younger, P.G. Walsh, trans., Complete Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-953894-2.

Roberts and Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 Volume Set). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (1994). Series ISBN: 978-1-5656-3082-6

Young, Ayres, and Louth, eds., The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-521-69750-7.


Posted by on May 24, 2013 in Religion


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 responses to “The Second Century Apologists

  1. Lucas

    May 24, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Great post, Curt. You are absolutely right that an apology seems like a misnomer since that’s not what they are doing, but that is just the way English has taken the term. The Greek ἀπολογία (apologia) means “verbal defence” or “answer” or “reply.” I’m guessing here, but I would think that the desire amongst the early Christians to use the term when explaining their religion to a Graeco-Roman audience would be the classical Athenian context of the apologia, as Plato famously wrote one for Socrates. It’s equally possible that this was simply a common genre of literature, though.

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 25, 2013 at 7:25 am

      Lucas, Thanks for the comment. I appreciate someone with your knowledge of Greek adding this sort of information.

      Paul Parvis(referenced in the post) spends a little time talking about this. The classification of explanation/promotion of Christianity to authorities almost certainly came to be called Apology (need to find the Greek alpha setting) between JM and Eusebius. Justin only uses the term twice in the form of what Parvis calls excuse or cop-out. At some point these began to be referred to this way, though probably more along the lines of, “Apology on behalf of the Christians to …” where it would be shortened for simplicity as needed. Even here, it’s not certain that this was a title rather than a descriptor by the 4th century – Eusebius uses apology, but not as a formal title. For that he still used terms like, “To Antoninus on behalf of our faith.”

      In either case, someone unfamiliar with the period and literature can easily be misled by the term. As its meaning in English differs from Greek, it would have been nice if the translation had resulted in a different word. But that’s not how it worked out and makes for a nice object lesson about literal translations.

      • Curt Emanuel

        May 28, 2013 at 4:44 pm


        To add a bit, Sara Parvis in “Justin Martyr and the Apologetic Tradition” in Parvis and Foster (2007) on p 118 writes, “… an apology as Eusebius understands it always presents itself as apologia in the normal classical sense of the trial speech for the defense.” p 118

        Your assessment of this in comparing it to Plato’s defense of Socrates, at least in the way Eusebius uses it, is dead on. Harder to say how Justin may have meant it since he didn’t use the term but Eusebius pretty much created the Christian Apology and lumps a bunch of authors in this category in his Ecclesiastical History.

        • Lucas

          May 29, 2013 at 11:47 am

          Thanks for the update and the reference. It’s always nice to hear when your wild speculations aren’t so wild after all. And thanks for including me in your latest post!

          • Curt Emanuel

            June 2, 2013 at 8:19 am

            It was a good comment. Now that I’ve read a bit more I’d probably add a paragraph or two detailing Eusebius’ role in this coming to form almost a literary genre. That’s what happens when you start posting when you have time, not after you’ve read everything on a subject.

            I enjoyed your post. I’ve always enjoyed the confusing, fragmentary, sometimes contradictory sources of Late Antiquity and how historians have to try to construct a historical reality from these. Much more interesting than taking something from an overriding historical narrative where one perspective becomes dominant.

  2. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    May 28, 2013 at 5:45 am

    “Anti-Nicene Fathers (ANF)”

    They are not Anti- as in (Greek for) Against Nicea. They are Ante- as in (Latin for) Before Nicea. So it is really Ante-Nicene Fathers. Look it up.

  3. Curt Emanuel

    May 28, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I don’t need to look it up – the complete set as well as the 28 volumes of the two Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series are sitting on a shelf to my right. As always, I appreciate the correction.

    I do not, however, appreciate the snottiness, particularly as you must have seen that I listed it correctly in the sources at the end of the post. Please correct this if you choose to comment in the future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: