It has been suggested that ‘apologetic’ can barely be distinguished as a genre prior to the activity of the second-century Christian apologists; but even at this point it is difficult to mount a generic description of any tightness. Not only do we find that the authors known as ‘apologists’ are in fact credited, from the time of Eusebius, with a range of different works which are certainly not all of an apologetic character, but the ‘surface-genre’ of texts which purport to defend Christianity is variable. Some take the form of ‘orations’ or written pleas delivered to the emperor; others are stylized addresses directed to a ‘companion’, or to the ‘Greeks’ in general; others are in dialogue or letter form.

We begin, then, with a brief introductory survey of easily accessible works commonly bracketed together as apologetic. There is no attempt to be comprehensive; but the selection of works to be described would appear to be sufficiently representative of the types of writing to which the designation ‘apologetic’ is usually given to provide a reasonable sample. Our discussion will focus on the following:

The Works of Justin Martyr:

First and Second Apology,

Dialogue with Trypho

First and Second Apology

There is some debate about whether these are discrete works. They are addressed to the same persons, and in the second, smaller work, there are references to the first. Schwartz blamed Eusebius for inventing a second apology. It is now commonly thought that the second was an appendix to the first, perhaps prompted by the events in Rome under Urbicus mentioned in its opening paragraphs: three Christians had been condemned.

At the start of the larger work, Justin, presumably writing in Rome, whither he had migrated from his native Samaria and set up as a philosopher, addresses the emperor Antoninus Pius and his son Verissimus (that is, Marcus Aurelius), together with the Roman Senate and people. Notionally, much of the work takes the form of a defence speech, picking up charges made against the Christians. However, there can hardly have been an actual trial or an actual occasion for the delivery of this oration. The only charge noted in the case of the three condemned is that they were Christians, and this would cohere with the legal position set out in Trajan’s letter to Pliny on the subject—the name was enough, if accompanied by obstinate refusal to recant. The charge of atheism which is the main issue that Justin addresses recalls the charge against Socrates, whom Justin is anxious to claim as a proto-Christian; this is hardly a serious legal issue.

It is noticeable that Justin appeals to the piety of Pius and calls Verissimus a philosopher. His initial claim is that those who are truly pious and philosophers honour and love only the truth, even at the cost of their lives. He demands a fair hearing, and offers to dispel ignorance by providing an explanation of the Christian way of life and teachings. A recent editor comments: ‘[H]is train of thought is disorganized, repetitious and occasionally rambling . . . in his Apologies Justin is building a mosaic consisting of countless particolored pieces of different origin.’ Justin tries to challenge the justice of condemning Christians just for being Christian by confronting misconceptions and rumours on the one hand, while setting out their doctrines and ethics as philosophical and true on the other.

Justin calls his work prosphonesis, enteuxis, and exegesis. The first of these is described by the rhetorician Menander as ‘a speech of praise to rulers spoken by an individual’, with special emphasis on such virtues as justice, and including ‘humanity to subjects, gentleness of character and approachability, integrity and incorruptibility in matters of justice, freedom from partiality and from prejudice in giving judicial decisions’.

That is the basis of Justin’s appeal, in the sense that he characterizes the emperors as philosopher-kings who will respond because of those qualities. The second description, enteuxis, means a plea or petition and particularly seems to characterize the Second Apology, inspired as it is by recent martyrdoms. The two works might have formed a petitionary dossier. The third word, exegesis, draws attention to the explanatory character of much of Justin’s text: his justification rests on the fact that Christianity is true, and any really committed philosopher would see this.

Dialogue with Trypho This work is given substantial treatment elsewhere in this volume (see Ch. 4), and for its general characterization, reference should be made to that chapter. Suffice it to say here that the adoption of the form of a Platonic dialogue and the focus on issues between Jews and Christians does not necessarily mean that an audience is envisaged other than that to which the Apologies are ultimately addressed. I would agree that the chances of this being a historical report of Jewish—Christian dialogue are remote, and that in practice the most likely audience was a Christian one. But I would want to take the genre of philosophical dialogue more seriously as a clue to the purpose of the work.

The argument from prophecy is fundamental to Justin’s explanation in the Apologies. There Justin is already justifying the abandonment of pagan classics for barbarian scriptures whose truth has been proved by fulfilment. He regards the fulfilment of prophecy as more convincing than any miracle (First Apology, 30), confirming as it does the validity of the prophecies, as well as the truth of the fulfilment claim. We should not forget that the Sibylline books were consulted by the Roman government— oracles had a powerful role in the culture. But this argument was bound to be undermined by the evident fact that Jews failed to endorse the claims for fulfilment of their own oracles.

I want to argue, then, that the Dialogue with Trypho is an essential development within Justin’s apologetic enterprise, and that the Platonic dialogue form is a clue to the fact that he wishes to address people like himself, people aspiring to live the philosophical life. He may have intended that outsiders should find his

explanations convincing and his arguments attractive, at least to the point of realizing that Christianity should be tolerated rather than persecuted. He may have hoped to convince wavering enquirers. But in this he was probably self-deceived, not only in the case of the Dialogue, but also with respect to the Apologies. It was the Christian community which welcomed the reasoned justification of its socially awkward position.

Tatian, Oration to the Greeks

Tatian was a pupil of Justin Martyr. Like Justin, he came from the East, but was Hellenized in terms of his education. All roads led to Rome; but once there, Tatian, it seems, far from advancing in the world, was impressed by this somewhat unorthodox philosopher, Justin, who would eventually follow Socrates in dying for his commitment to truth.

Tatian’s speech does not purport to be in any sense a legal defence or a petition to the emperor. The opening vocative identifies the audience as andres Hellenes—‘men of the Greeks’. Clearly he is reacting strongly against the dominant Greek culture into which he himself had been educated (see note i above), and the artificiality of such a generalized address is evident—this can never have been literally an oration to a specific audience. As regards readership, one must surely draw conclusions similar to those already reached with respect to the works of Justin.

The content develops one small aspect of Justin’s plea: the attack on idolatry. It is a sustained challenge to the superiority of Hellenic culture—its mythology, astrology, philosophy, medicine, sorcery, oracles, theatres, gladiatorial shows, and all—culminating in a proof that everything good about it was derived from Moses, who preceded Homer. Tatian presents aspects of Christianity by contrast with what he opposes. If Justin in the Dialogue develops a supersessionary argument with respect to Judaism, Tatian does so here in relation to Hellenism.

Athenagoras, Embassy

Unlike the works of Justin, which were, of course, not only influential, but attracted an ever growing corpus wrongly attributed to his authority, the Embassy seems to have disappeared from sight until the tenth century. Like Justin’s apologies, however, this is a plea addressed to the emperors, now Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. They are again addressed as philosophers (I. I) and appealed to as philosophers (2. 3); indeed, Athenagoras describes himself as making a defence (apologoumenon) before philosopherings (II. 3). The principal charge is again atheism, and the bulk of the work answers this charge, showing that it is wide of the mark, arguing for monotheism, and ridiculing the gods and myths, while claiming that Christian teaching is anticipated in the poets and philosophers, as well as the prophets.

However, the form of the speech seems much more designed to respond to charges than Justin’s Apologies; they are set out early as atheism, Thyestean banquets, and Oedipodal unions (3), and the last two are eventually dealt with (31) after the long treatment of the first. ‘Exposition of Christian teaching occurs only to rebut false charges.’ From the beginning, the issue of the legal position of Christians is addressed. The final words reinforce the sense of a defence speech:

. . . you, who by nature and learning are in every way good, moderate, humane, and worthy of your royal office, nod your royal heads in assent now that I have destroyed the accusations advanced and have shown that we are godly, mild, and chastened in soul. Who ought more justly to receive what they request than men like ourselves, who pray for your reign that the succession to the kingdom may proceed from father to son, as is most just, and that your reign may grow and increase as all men become subject to you? This is also to our advantage that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life and at the same time may willingly do all that is commanded.

It is perhaps not surprising that some scholars have argued that this was actually presented to the emperor as a plea.

The argument is to some extent reinforced by the notion that other, now largely lost, apologies were also delivered on approximately the same occasion. There was an imperial tour in 173—6, attested by coins and other evidence. To this journey Grant attributes the apologies of Apollinaris of Hierapolis and Melito of Sardis, mentioned by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 4. 23, 4. 26, and 3. 3. 4), as well as Athenagoras’ plea. Referring to Menander Rhetor, he notes that praying for the emperor was a rhetorical topic at the time, as was the succession. Furthermore, Menander describes the logos presbeutikos, commenting that such an address should stress the emperor’s clemency; and Athenagoras calls his work a presbeia (embassy) asking the emperors for a rescript ordering judges to investigate the truth about Christians and not to pay attention to rumour and false charges. His loyalist statements are comparable to those of the second-century rhetorician Aelius Aristides.

The likelihood that this address was actually presented is not necessarily undermined by the thesis of Malherbe that the structure follows that of the summary of Plato’s philosophy in the Didascalicus, given the studied characterization of the emperor as a philosopher. But it does illustrate the point that these works seem to have had a variety of different literary antecedents.

The Epistle to Diognetus

This work was also unknown for centuries. It turned up in Constantinople in 1433, and the single manuscript was lost in the Strasbourg fire of 1870. Dubbed an epistle, though actually a treatise, and placed among the Apostolic Fathers because of a misapprehension, it is generally regarded as an apologetic work. It was transmitted among spurious works of Justin Martyr. It has been linked with Alexandria, and many would place it in the late second century. Others have noticed connections with the work of Aristides, an early apologist mentioned by Eusebius whose work has been found in Syriac and traced in other fragments.

Diognetus is addressed as a serious enquirer, wanting to understand why Christians reject ‘the deities revered by the Greeks no less than they disclaim the superstitions professed by the Jews’, and why they ‘set so little store by the world’ and even ‘make light of death itself’. Diognetus is also curious about their brotherly love, and puzzled by the fact that this manner of life is a recent novelty. This introduction provides the plan of the work: the follies of paganism and Judaism are sketched; then an account is given of Christianity, which explains that Christians are ‘resident aliens’ in the world, misunderstood and persecuted, yet in reality the equivalent of the soul in the body. They have the revelation of the one true God which came through the incarnation of God’s Son.

So far from being framed as a defence, it presents itself as an explanation which becomes increasingly an exhortation to joyful acceptance of these truths. A gap in the manuscript is followed by material which is distinctly homiletic; it looks, then, as if the work is composite.

Theophilus, To Autolycus

Three books are addressed to a private individual, Autolycus, by Theophilus, bishop of Antioch. They date from after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 ce. They were well known to Tertullian, Eusebius, and others, so form part of the conscious literary tradition of early Christianity.

The three books are rather different, though clearly interrelated. Grant takes the ending of the first as a clue to its form and intention: ‘Since you made this request, my friend, ‘‘Show me your God’’, this is my God. I advise (symbouleuo) you to fear him and believe him’ (I. 14). Grant suggests that this refers to the symbouleutikon genos of oratory: that is, it is deliberative. However, dismissing the pretensions of rhetoric, Theophilus introduced his first book as a counterblast to Autolycus’ proud boasting of his gods and his attack on the name of Christian, and then expounded a transcendent deity by compounding philosophical commonplaces with biblical material, attacking idolatry and emperor worship in a rather chaotically ordered work which inserts discussions of resurrection in odd places. He refers back to this essay in book 2, chapter i, as a homilia, presenting it as his contribution to a discussion in which he gave an account of the nature of his religion at Autolycus’ request, after which the two had parted rather more friendly than when they had met. I would be inclined to accept Theophilus’ retrospective description as a clue to the genre, rather than follow Grant’s deduction.

The second book is introduced as a syngramma: that is, a more careful composition with sharper demonstration than was offered in the first. It begins with a classic attack on the absurdities of idols made with hands and the myths of the gods presented in Homer and the poets, into which is inserted a brief critique of philosophers like Plato and the Stoics, who may have got some things right, but others badly wrong. The core issue concerns creation and generation. Prophets are then presented as being altogether nearer the truth—the prophets among the Hebrews, as well as the Sibyl among the Greeks. There follows a lengthy exposition of Genesis, the characteristics of which will concern us later. The prophets and the Sibyl are then elevated above the wise men, poets, and historiographers of the Greek tradition, though the latter will turn out in the end also to have adumbrated the truth of monotheism and of judgement and an afterlife. Autolycus is urged, as a lover of learning, to meet often so as to learn accurately what is true. Not for nothing is this material sometimes called catechetical.

The third book was unknown to Eusebius. This takes the form of a letter, but is a collection of notes. It defends the Scriptures, and attacks Greek literature. It exploits contradictions between philosophers and poets, presents the Ten Commandments as the teaching of the One Creator God, and shows how Christian teaching on justice and chastity, repentance, humility, and love is consistent. It culminates in a detailed comparative treatise on chronology, which argues that Moses, rather than Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician, or Roman chronographers, had got it right. The importance of this was that it proved the antiquity of Christianity, an issue raised by the distrust of an apparent novelty, already observed in Diognetus.

That these three works of Theophilus belong to a definable genre would be hard to sustain, though their content can certainly be loosely described as apologetic. To the question of genre we must now return.

Clearly the works surveyed present us with a variety of literary forms: speeches of various kinds, real or artificial; letters; a dialogue and a ‘homily’ or talk presented as part of a conversation; together with a presbeia or ‘embassy’. If we were to add Clement’s Protrepticus, which covers much the same ground as many of the works we have considered, there would be another: an exhortation to the philosophic life with precedents in the work of Aristotle and Cicero. If genre is narrowly defined in terms of literary types, then a common genre seems out of the question, though we would appear to have largely common intent and a good deal of overlap in content. But we need to consider this issue further.

It is worth remembering that literature in the ancient world was closely tied to the spoken word. Writing was a way of recording speech; letters were thought of as ways to make an absent person present; and texts were realized only by being ‘performed’—that is, read aloud or recited. Rhetoric was therefore fundamental to all prose composition, and it is in the context of analysing rhetorical types that the word apologia is at home: according to Anaximenes’ Art of Rhetoric, once ascribed to Aristotle (I. 3. 3), there are three types of rhetoric—deliberative, forensic, and epideictic—and forensic oratory may take the form of kategoria (accusation) or apologia (defence). It could be said, therefore, that ‘apology’ is not a genre, but properly the end or purpose of a speech, particularly a speech for the defence in court, and then more loosely a defence or excuse offered in a less precise context or genre. Demetrius’ catalogue of letter types includes the apologetic letter: ‘The apologetic type is that which adduces, with proof, arguments that contradict charges that are being made.’ This confirms the conclusion: the genre is ‘letter’, the content ‘defence’, following the model of the lawcourt speech. A letter of Demosthenes presenting his case for return from exile, whether authentic or a school exercise, confirms the point.

Justin’s own usage follows this: speaking of a woman requesting delay in making her defence in court, he uses the verb form (Second Apology, 2. 8), and the noun appears only twice, where he is pre-empting an excuse or ‘defence’ offered by objectors (First Apology, 42. 2; Second Apology, 12. 5). He does not present his own work as an apologia. This is telling, given the fact that he is interested in Socrates, offers a defence against the same charge as that brought against Socrates—namely, atheism—and might have seen his own work as in some remote sense modelled on Plato’s Apology. Indeed, one would like to know how far back the title, Apologia, was given to Justin’s works, or indeed to any others. It is clearly not the title of the other works just surveyed.

Eusebius does not use the word apologia to describe the works of Theophilus (Ecclesiastical History, 4. 24) or Tatian (ibid. 4. 29), though he does for those of Quadratus, Aristides, Justin, Melito, and Tertullian (ibid. 4. 3; 2. 13, 4. II—12, 4. 16; 4. 13;3. 33, 5. 5). Eusebius would appear to treat Quadratus and Aristides as the first Christian authors to address a discourse to the emperor (in this case Hadrian) in defence of the faith, and to treat the other works for which he uses the designation ‘apology’ as following in this tradition. These works are not strictly defence speeches offered in court for prosecuted individuals; nor is the word simply used in a generalized sense. So Eusebius perhaps points to a specific extension in the use ofapologia in Christian circles, to designate a discourse addressed to an emperor pleading for fair treatment under the law. That would not include all the works treated as ‘apologetic’ in the looser sense, but does suggest the recognition of a genre with certain specific characteristics at least by the fourth century.

The work that Eusebius did not know, that of Athenagoras, presents itself as a presbeia. That usage suggests comparison with a work like Philo’s Embassy to Gaius: here an account is given of the circumstances that led to an envoy attempting to present to the emperor Caligula the case for the Jewish people after an outbreak of rioting in Alexandria, and the eventual outcome. What is increasingly clear in the works we have collected under this head of ‘apologetic’ is that a group that regards itself as a people is fighting for social and political recognition. Lack of recognition means that its members are suffering under what they regard as unjust laws. This literature is intended to explain their position, often pleading for justice, with the courts very much in the background, and specifically addressed to the emperor. Such would seem to be what Eusebius recognized as an ‘apology’. But works covering much the same ground were also addressed to outsiders or enquirers, and all of them provided justifications and reasons for loyal endurance for those who would prove to be the principal readers—namely, the insiders. It is this common self-justificatory content that links the second-century Greek apologists, rather than a sharply defined common literary form.

This self-justificatory character accounts for the dominance in this literature of the topics signalled in introducing this discussion: namely, the rejection of one literary canon in favour of another, and the exploitation both of arguments about the history of culture and of the philosophical critique of religion. To these we will now turn.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!