As the second century opened, Christianity faced a hostile world. Rome had declared Christianity illegal. Christians faced death, miserable existences in Roman prisons, or slavery. We've seen that wild charges circulated about Christian worship and practice. Elitist Romans often charged that only the basest people--the slaves, the criminals, and the poverty stricken--became Christians. Many disciples reverted to heathen lifestyles rather than face the pressure.
Sometime after A.D. 120, Christians responded to their accuser's charges. These writers, known as the apologists, produced apologia, or reasoned defenses. The authors' purpose was not evangelism so much as an attempt to offer a rationale for the believers' right to exist. Although not terribly intellectual, some apologists were well versed in heathen philosophies. The apologists had no theological training; they simply knew their society and responded to it. They generally argued that Christianity fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and they refuted charges of atheism, sexual immorality, and cannibalism.
We know very little about some of these writers, although for others numerous documents exist. All I can do is give you an introduction to these defenders.
I. The apologists who wrote during Hadrian's reign.
Hadrian's reign extends from A.D. 117-138, and he directed a lenient policy towards Christians. The government took action only when it proved an individual's faith. We can identify at least one apologist during this period, although ancient writers allude to another document as well.
A. Quadratus (ca. A.D. 125). Quadratus is the first writer we can call an apologist. He came from Asia Minor and produced numerous documents, although only one remains. In this document he stated that when he was a young man there were still those living whom Jesus healed. Quadratus dismissed any tendency to see Christ's miracles as fanciful tales.
B. Letter to Diognetus. This letter was probably written about the same time as Quadratus's. The letter survived for a time in one manuscript, but was later destroyed in a fire. Other extant documents testify to its existence. The author contrasted Christianity with paganism and Judaism. He described Christians as a "third type of mankind (a third race)."
II. Apologists writing during Antionius Pius' reign.
Christians highly respected Pius. Though he too followed a lenient policy, Rome still exerted pressure upon believers to conform. Several apologists put pen to papyrus or vellum during this period.
A. Aristedes (ca. A.D. 140). Aristedes, an Athenian Christian philosopher, attacked charges of incest and cannibalism. He provided for us an exposition of the Christian idea of God and Christ; he also compared the Christian plan of salvation with that of other religions. Aristedes knew Greek and Roman religion as well as philosophy. His knowledge extended beyond these disciplines to an understanding of Egyptian, Persian and Indian thinking.(1)
Venetian monks found and published a fragment inscribed, "Aristedes the Philosopher of Athens" in 1878. In 1889 a Syriac version was found.
B. Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 100-167). More Christians probably know about Justin than any other apologist. Justin was born in Flavia Neapolis, a Samaritan city located 25 miles from the Mediterranean coast. A dedicated scholar familiar with a wide range of Greek literature and pagan thought, Justin attended philosophical schools intending to become a Platonist. He testified that he met an old man in Ephesus who convinced him he should base his philosophy on Hebrew Scripture. After studying Scripture he became a Christian philosopher.
Justin wrote his first apology in 155 addressing it to Antonius Pius as a "public letter." He pointed out that Old Testament prophecy points to Christ. He then argued that heathen worship poorly imitates Christianity going on to describe how Christians consecrate themselves to God in baptism, celebrate the Lord's Supper, etc.
In another work, The Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin produced a Socratic dialogue with Trypho and six others. In this document, Justin refuted the Jewish opinion regarding the law, showed that Jesus was truly God's Son who died for us, and stated that Gentile evangelism was prefigured long ago.
Another of Justin's apologies, often referred to as his second apology, is shorter. He rushed it off after three Roman Christians died for the faith. Justin thought Hadrian ordered the death penalty for Christians only when they were guilty of other crimes. He said the Roman court's action was illegal because Christians are not guilty of specific crimes. Here's the incident to which Justin objected.
An immoral woman, married to a man of similar behavior, became a Christian. Her husband could not stand her change in lifestyle and made her life miserable. She considered separation but did not follow through. Her husband then tried to get her into court but failed. He then brought a charge against the leader of the congregation where she worshiped. Dragged into court, the officials quizzed the leader about his relation to Christianity. When he admitted his faith he was condemned to death. A court observer protested, was discovered to be a Christian, and executed. Officials seized still another individual, found him to be a Christian and executed him. All three died because they belong to Christ.
Justin found himself in the same court between A.D. 165-167. Roman magistrates commanded him to sacrifice to the Roman gods. When Justin refused, Rusticus, the Roman judge, made a show of questioning Justin, then condemned him.
III. The apologists writing during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher, persecuted Christians thinking it would pacify the "angry Capitoline gods." Several apologists wrote during this period.
A. Theophilus (ca. A.D. 169, 190). Theophilus wrote during the reigns of Aurelius and Commodus. His writings attack pagan myths showing their absurdity. His writings reveal an acquaintance with the Greek classics. Significantly, he first uses the term "triad" or "trinity" to describe the Godhead.
B. Tatian (A.D. 172). Although one of the least important apologies, Tatian's work is one of the most remarkable. Tatian authored the Diatesseron, an attempt to harmonize the Gospels. Reared in heathenism, Tatian's skills ran to argumentation because of training as a rhetorician. He held up every heathen practice to ridicule. He agreed with other apologists that heathenism and Greek philosophy borrowed from Scripture. Tatian later adopted Gnosticism, repudiated marriage, and rejected the Old Testament as God's true revelation.
C. Athenagoras (A.D. 177). Athenagoras was the first head of the famous Alexandrian school. A philosopher, Athenagoras initially set out to disprove Christianity but he felt that, as a scholar, he first needed to study the Scriptures so he could write an effective refutation. The Scriptures gripped him and he converted. As a Christian philosopher, Athenagoras knew the Platonism of his day. We know nothing of his death except that he may have died a martyr's death.
Athenagoras's Embassy, perhaps his best work, was addressed to Aurelius and Commodus. The effort shows a rather eclectic spirit (he selects "good" elements from a number of systems or sources). For example, he gets his ideas of God's essential goodness from Plato along with Plato's primacy of the immaterial. For Athenagoras, the world's harmony and order sufficiently prove God's existence.
Athenagoras was a decidedly skilled apologist. He answered all the stock charges made against Christianity and pointed out that Christian worship makes more sense than the worship and morals of Christianity's accusers. While he used the Greeks more than the Scriptures, he tried to show that Christianity possesses the best qualities of Greek religion in order to get the rulers to stop their persecution.
One interesting sidelight about Athenagoras's argument is the fact that he stated that child bearing is the only purpose for sexual intercourse. If, he argues, childbearing constitutes the only purpose for sex it hardly makes sense for Christians to "eat children." He labeled abortion murder and pointed out that the heathen practice what they accuse Christians of doing.
As noted earlier, apologists don't evangelize. They try to present a reasoned defense for Christianity. A defense which opened the door to later effective evangelism. Personal witness continued throughout the period of the persecutions. Perhaps Justin's case illustrates effective "friendship evangelism" as the aged Ephesian befriended and taught him. The courageous Christians probably engaged in public preaching whenever possible. Undoubtedly much private instruction went on in homes or wherever they could meet with those considering the faith. Although these underground techniques succeeded, open legitimate recognition could have made Christianity spread even more rapidly. The right to openly preach rested at the very heart of the apologists' purpose. Their effectiveness can not be measured in the short term (the second century) but only in the long term (third and fourth centuries).
1. Albert Henry Newman, A Manual of Church History. I. (Valley Forge: Judson, 1933), p. 241.
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