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Church Fathers: Introduction to the Greek Apologists

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 01, 2015

Parallel with the increasing influence of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism, the second century saw, along with sporadic State persecutions and anti-Christian riots, the publication of numerous works of anti-Christian literature. While Christianity would in subsequent centuries be plagued by conflicts caused by various heresies, attacks on the Faith in the second century came more often from pagans, Gnostics, Jews and Judaizing Christians (Christians who insisted on observance of the Mosaic Law).

These attacks took the form of both intellectual criticism and slander of Christian morals. Common rumors had Christians committing incest, ritual infanticide, engaging in orgies at their worship gatherings, and (because of the Eucharist) cannibalism. In addition to this, Christianity was often considered a threat to the State.

Much of the anti-Christian literature of the period is lost, so that most of what we know of it is from references and quotations in early Christian writings.

Foremost among the anti-Christian intellectuals of the second century were the satirist Lucian of Samosata and the philosopher Fronto of Cirta, who taught the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. By far the greatest, however, was Celsus, a distinguished Platonist philosopher who studied the Old and New Testament in order to attack them. His lengthy work The True Discourse was a formidable assault on Christianity from both Jewish and pagan perspectives, most of which has been reconstructed from excerpts in a refutation by the Church Father Origen.

There was great need, then, for Christian men of letters to defend the Faith against outside attacks. The earliest such writers are known as the Greek Apologists. They not only defended against the negative charges but sought to prove Christianity as the one true faith and all other religions as false (or in the case of Judaism, to show the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law and its fulfillment in Christianity).

While the earlier Christian writers had written chiefly for the benefit of the faithful, “with the Greek Apologists the literature of the Church addresses itself for the first time to the outside  world and enters the domain of culture and science” [Quasten, Patrology Vol. I, p. 186].

These writers were typically more educated than the writers of the Apostolic era, and many were schooled in classic Greek literature and philosophy (Latin had not yet become a philosophical language). Indeed, among the Greek Apologists were the earliest Christian philosophers, who not only strove to show that Christian beliefs were philosophically rational, but asserted that Christianity was “divine philosophy” far above any other.

Yet in their engagement with pagan thought, they affirmed the seeds of truth they saw there, and their discoveries of common ground between Christianity and Platonism would have enormous consequences for the development of Christian theology and philosophy alike. Christian thinkers would not only adapt pagan philosophy for their own purposes, but would soon develop unique philosophical insights in the course of explaining and defending Christian doctrine. Special attention would be given to issues of causation (because of the Trinity), free will, and language. (I borrow this last observation from Dr. Peter Adamson’s discussion of early Christian philosophy on his superlative podcast, the History of Philosophy without Any Gaps.)

Below are discussed a few of the earliest works of the Greek Apologists.

Quadratus

Quadratus, a native of Asia Minor, was the first Christian apologist, and may have been a disciple of the Apostles. He presented an apology to the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) on the occasion of his visit to Athens (c. 124), the goal of which was to convince him to outlaw persecution of Christians. Only a fragment of this work survives, quoted by Eusebius:

Our Saviour's works, moreover, were always present: for they were real, consisting of those who had been healed of their diseases, those who had been raised from the dead; who were not only seen whilst they were being healed and raised up, but were afterwards constantly present. Nor did they remain only during the sojourn of the Saviour on earth, but also a considerable time after His departure; and, indeed, some of them have survived even down to our own times.

Aristides of Athens

Nothing is known of Aristides save that he seems to have been a philosopher in Athens. Like Quadratus, Aristides wrote an apology dedicated to a Roman Emperor – some ancient sources say Hadrian, but most scholars have concluded from internal evidence that it was Antoninus Pius (138-161), who took the nickname “Hadrianus.” Thus the work is typically dated at the beginning of Anoninus Pius’s reign, c. 140.

The Apology was at first only known from a fragment of an Armenian translation in a 10th-century manuscript. But when a full Syriac translation was discovered in 1889, scholars realized that the Greek text was extant after all, as chapters 26 and 27 Barlaam and Josaphat, a religious novel spuriously attributed to the last of the Church Fathers, St. John Damascene. Since Quadratus’s Apology is not extant, Aristides’s work is the earliest extant Christian apology.

Aristides is more of a philosopher than any Christian writer we have encountered thus far. Through meditation on the created world he has discovered some characteristics of God. He admits that God is “unsearchable in his nature” and that it is not possible for men to comprehend Him fully; accordingly, his statements about God are mostly negative – for example, when he says God is perfect, he explains that this means God is without defect and needs nothing. God is the one who moves all of nature, and logically, that which moves is greater to that which is moved. Therefore God must not be of the world: he is “not born, not made, an ever-abiding nature without beginning and without end, immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible.”

According to this understanding of God, he sets out to appraise the religions of men, which he divides into four categories – that of the barbarians, that of the Greeks, that of the Jews, and that of the Christians. As for the barbarians, their religion is base because they worship idols, the work of men’s hands, which even need to be guarded lest they be stolen away – yet that which guards is surely greater than that which needs to be guarded. It is likewise irrational to worship the elements or the sun, all of which are changeable and do not rule themselves; and for the same reason, men themselves should not be worshipped as gods.

Aristides goes through the entire Greek pantheon and, examining the stories and characteristics of the Greek deities, showing how absurd it is to think that such immoral and otherwise imperfect beings could be divine. He cleverly argues that the Greeks have themselves condemned their gods by their laws, for if their laws are good, then their gods, who break the laws, are evil. He chides even the greatest of the Greek philosophers, who had some idea of a spiritual, ineffable God, yet were so foolish as to defend sacrifice to idols. He is even less lenient in a digression about the Egyptian religion, which is so “base and stupid” as to incorporate animals and plants into its pantheon.

Aristides commends the Jews for their higher understanding of God and praises many of their virtuous customs. Yet he says their worship pays more homage to angels than to God and is too focused on externals.

Alone among the peoples, it is the Christians who have searched and found the truth. Aristides describes and praises Christian morality, charity, humility and prayer. In conclusion, the Emperor is urged not to believe slanders against them, to cease persecuting them, and to read the Christian writings with the aim of becoming a Christian himself.

Aristo of Pella

Sometime between 135 and 175, the Jewish Christian Aristo of Pella (a town in Palestine) wrote the first apology for Christianity against the Jews – a Discussion between Jason and Papiscus Concerning Christ.

In this dialogue, Jason, a Jewish Christian, argues that the Jewish Messianic prophecies apply to Jesus. His interlocutor, the Alexandrian Jew Papiscus, attempts to refute him “with no common ability” (to use Origen’s description), but in the end acknowledges Christ as the Son of God and begs to be baptized.

The work is, unfortunately, lost. Jerome quotes it as evidence of the Jewish objection to the idea of God dying on a cross – St. Paul’s scandalum crucis (Gal. 5:11). Celsus, in his True Discourse, attacks it for its allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, and this has led some to conclude that the work is of Alexandrian origin (allegorical interpretations were used frequently by both Jews and Christians in that city).

The Epistle to Diognetus

The author of the Epistle to Diognetus is unknown. It used to be ascribed to St. Justin Martyr, but its style makes this unlikely. There have been too many theories about its authorship to list here; one such attributes it to St. Hippolytus of Rome, which would date the work to the beginning of the third century. Another attributes it to Aristides. A more recent theory is that this work is in fact the lost Apology of Quadratus, which would fit what little we know about him, especially since the author of Diognetus calls himself a “disciple of the Apostles.” However, the fragment of Quadratus quoted by Eusebius does not appear in this work.

Whoever the author was, he must have been classically trained. The great patrologist Johannes Quasten pays tribute to his literary prowess:

The epistle deserves to rank among the most brilliant and beautiful works of Christian Greek literature.  The writer is a master of rhetoric, his sentence structure is full of charm and subtly balanced, his style limpid. The content reveals a man of fervent faith and wide knowledge, a mind thoroughly imbued with the principles of Christianity. The diction sparkles with fire and vitality. [Patrology Vol. I, p. 251-252].

The work is an apology in the form of a letter to a pagan of high rank, Diognetus (probably a pseudonym). The letter is a response to Diognetus’s questions about the Christians, which the author enumerates at the beginning:

‘Who is the God in whom they trust’, you wonder, ‘and what kind of cult is theirs, to enable them, one and all, to disdain the world and despise death, and neither to recognize the gods believed in by the Greeks nor to practice the superstition of the Jews? And what is the secret of that strong affection they have for one another? And why has this new blood or spirit come into the world we live in now, and not before?’ [Quasten’s translation, Patrology Vol. I, p. 249-250]

In explaining why Christian worship differs from both pagan and Jewish practices, the author shows that the pagan idols, made of senseless and perishable matter, are not worthy of worship. He criticizes what he sees as the Jewish tendency to offer God sacrifices and burnt-offerings as though He could need such things; he also attacks some Jewish customs, such as their “scrupulosity” concerning food and their “superstition” about the Sabbath, which falsely accuses God of forbidding good deeds on the day of rest.

The most wonderful part of the epistle is an eloquent description of how Christians live in the world (chapters V and VI):

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

The author shows how God came not (as might be expected) to dominate and compel men, “for violence has no place in the character of God,” but lovingly to persuade them and reveal to them His true essence, of which the pagan philosophers were ignorant. The Son came late in human history so that human beings would first come to realize their utter inability to save themselves, and therefore accept His salvation when He came. The author finally exhorts Diognetus himself to accept the Christian faith and so become an “imitator of God.”


Previous in series: The Shepherd of Hermas
Next in series: St. Justin Martyr

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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