Fundamental to the argument of the apologists was the claim that the Scriptures of the Jews in their Greek version were truer, more authoritative, and more ancient than the revered literature of antiquity on which the culture around them based its whole system of education. Novelty was not prized in Graeco-Roman society; for something to be true, it had to be ancient. Increasingly it would be recognized that the ‘foolishness’ of Christian converts lay in their substitution for the classics of this ‘barbarian’ set of writings, inevitably crude in style because of their translator’s jargon, and alien to what we might call the native tradition of these converts. This may not have been the first charge brought against them, but because it became the basis of their response, it soon became a key criticism of their position, as is evident in Celsus’ attack on Christianity. There was a battle of literatures to be fought.
The argument had a number of different sides to it: there was the positive proof that these alien scriptures were both truer and more ancient, and there was the attack on the poets for their portrayal of false and unworthy gods, an attack which had precedents in the philosophical critique of Xenophanes, Plato, and others, but was also confirmed by the opposition to idolatry in the prophets and other Jewish Scriptures. We will endeavour to distinguish these positive and negative arguments.
Though in rather different ways, Justin and Tatian advance the positive case for the Jewish Scriptures. As already noted, for Justin the argument from prophecy is fundamental. Miracle merely establishes magic, but ‘we will offer proof . . . necessarily persuaded by those who prophesied before the events happened, for with our own eyes we have seen things have happened or are happening just as it was predicted’ (First Apology, 30). This leads him to offer an ‘introduction’ to these prophecies, attributing them to ‘certain men among the Jews’ through whom ‘the prophetic spirit heralded in advance’ what was going to happen. These were enshrined in books in their own Hebrew language, and then translated at the request of Ptolemy, when he attempted to assemble a universal library. Justin states that Jews all over the world use these books, admitting that they do not understand them as Christians do—indeed, are hostile to Christians, and, like the persecutors he is addressing, punish those who refuse to deny Christ. But a substantial portion of his First Apology is now devoted to demonstrating how these prophetic writings told in advance the story of Jesus Christ. This, as I have suggested, provides the clue to his intent in the Dialogue with Trypho.
In the second century we are of course dealing with a situation prior to the development of an authoritative collection of Christian writings as such, and it is significant that Justin contrives to tell the story of Jesus through collages of passages from Moses and the prophets. In passing (First Apology, 44), he mentions that Plato got ideas from Moses, who is more ancient than all Greek writers—indeed, whenever philosophers or poets uttered truths about the immortality of the soul, or judgement after death, or contemplation of heavenly things, or other such doctrines, they had actually got these ideas from the prophets.
This is the argument that Tatian takes up. The climax of his Oration to the Greeks consists of an elaborate set of chronological comparisons, interspersed with digressions, but drawing on Chaldaean, Egyptian, and Phoenician witnesses, to show that even if Homer was contemporaneous with the Trojan War he described, Moses antedated him by 400 years. Indeed, he claims that Moses is even older than writers earlier than Homer, citing Orpheus and the Sibyl as examples. This he introduces by saying:
Our philosophy is older than Greek practices. Moses and Homer we will set as our limits. Because each of them is very ancient and one of them is the oldest of poets and historians and the other the author of all barbarian wisdom, let us also accept them now for comparison. For we shall find that our history is not only earlier than Greek culture, but even the invention of writing. (Oration, 29) In fact, Tatian opened his entire work (Oration, I) with the suggestion that Greeks had got their culture from barbarians: a few of the examples he offered were astronomy from the Babylonians, magic from the Persians, geometry from the Egyptians, the alphabet from the Phoenicians. The fact that this was a common topos will be considered later. For the moment we note that his basic thesis is that true wisdom and philosophy are to be found in the Bible, and the Greeks got it right only when they borrowed from the older literature of the Hebrews. Though hardly using the Scriptures in practice, he claims, like Justin, that he was converted by reading certain barbarian writings (Oration, 29).
Of our specimen group of second-century apologists, however, it is Theophilus who makes the battle of literatures most explicit.
In the opening address of his letter to Autolycus (book 3), he speaks of Autolycus’ literary labours, and of how he still fancies that ‘our scriptures are new and modern’. Theophilus expresses his intention to show ‘the antiquity of our writings’. This he does in the second half of the letter, discussing first the chronology of the Flood—known of course in Greek mythology as well as from the Bible; then the dating of Moses and the Exodus in relation to Manetho’s chronology of Egyptian kings—Manetho got a lot wrong, but enough right to show that Moses antedated the Trojan War by 900 if not 1,000 years; then the dating of Solomon’s Temple according to Phoenician records. He then offers the true chronology, basing his account of world history on Moses and the biblical histories. He suggests that ‘it is obvious how our sacred writings are proved to be more ancient and more true than the writings of Greeks and Egyptians or any other historiographers’ (3. 26).
After further calculation he reckons up the whole time from the creation of the world:
from creation to deluge 2242
from the deluge to Abraham 1036
from Isaac to Moses 660
from Joshua to David 498
from Solomon to the Exile 518 + 6 months + 10 days
from Cyrus to Marcus Aurelius (d.) 741
So, Theophilus concludes:
the antiquity of the prophetic writings and the divine nature of our message are obvious. This message is not recent in origin, nor are our writings, as some suppose, mythical and false. They are actually more ancient and trustworthy. 3.29
Theophilus is interested in more than the argument from prophecy: the Scriptures are about morality and truth. After a critique of philosophers and poets (in other words, Greek literature), he presents the teaching enshrined in the Ten Commandments, indicating that Moses was the one who delivered this divine law to all the world, and especially the Hebrews. He uses the prophets to demonstrate the consistency of Christian teaching on repentance, justice, chastity, and love. In the previous books, he had exploited Genesis and other Scriptures to present an account of God and creation, including an account of the development of human culture. To the significance of that we will return.
Meanwhile, however, we must consider properly the negative side of the argument: the attack on Greek literature which has hovered in the background. Again, it is Theophilus who clarifies what is at stake, but his predecessors begin the argument: Justin attacks idolatry and false worship, accusing the daemons of deceiving people; the author of the Epistle to Diognetus reduces the gods to blocks of wood and stone, as had the Book of Isaiah long before; Tatian ridicules Greek myths about the gods. Athenagoras goes somewhat further, exploiting literature to show the absurdity of the impious nonsense found in the works of the poets.
Athenagoras admits that some of the poets and philosophers anticipated the truth (Embassy, 5-6; cf. 23)—indeed, in making his critique both of the gods and of the myths recounted about them by the poets, he is in fact indebted to the pre-Socratics, Plato, and others. But the point of his admission is that philosophers were not on the whole condemned for their atheism, and they only reached their views reluctantly and by guesswork (Embassy, 7); it is the prophets who confirm the truth about the One Immaterial God (Embassy, 7 and 9). Following Plato, he treats the poets as deceitful. Explicitly, the content of his argument is directed to the absurdity of the theology they set out: gods are generated, depicted in images, confused with matter, treated as passionate, full of anger and lust, simply deified kings or heroes, absurdly characterized in myths, and so on (Embassy, 14, 17-21). The classical literature is quoted to be dismissed, and the rationalizing defence of Empedocles and the Stoics is discounted (Embassy, 22). So the conclusion is reached:
either the popular myths about the gods recounted by poets are untrustworthy and the piety shown the gods useless (for they do not exist if the stories about them are false), or if these births, loves, murders, thefts, castrations, and thunderbolts are true, then they no longer exist. . . What reason is there to believe some stories and not to believe others? (Embassy, 30)
Attack on the gods is moving to attack on the literature that fosters belief in them.
That attack is clear in Theophilus’ third book To Autolycus, as we have seen. In book I, there is a brief standard attack on idolatry and polytheism. In book 2, the absurdities of idolatry and mythology open an argument with philosophers and poets, who are shown to be inconsistent, and to have failed to understand providence, or how God was the creator of all. The rest of the book provides an exegesis of Genesis as the truth about origins. This prepares us for the explicit substitution of the Bible for Greek literature in book 3: Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus led many astray, while Euripides and Sophocles, Menander and Aristophanes, Herodotus and Thucydides, Pythagoras and Diogenes, fail to speak the truth. Even Plato is coupled with those who teach useless and godless notions (3. 2). Poets and philosophers are charged with inconsistency, and in particular with atheism, promiscuity, and cannibalism. The tables are turned by quoting words taken from their own texts (3. 3-8).
But it is not just the explicit statements of book 3 that are of interest. The way in which Theophilus uses Genesis is even more instructive. Droge has convincingly shown that in book 2, especially chapters 29-32, Theophilus ‘managed to construct a general outline of the history of culture based on selected passages of Genesis’, and that this ‘is informed by a general knowledge of contemporary Greek theories’. His argument begins (pp. 2-8) by showing the extent to which archaiologia, or scholarship concerning antiquities and origins, was well established. Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities belongs alongside the ‘archaeology of Rome’ by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Varro’s Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum, and the Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus. Other easterners presented claims to greater antiquity than the Greeks: Berossus for the Babylonians, Manetho for the Egyptians, Philo of Byblos for the Phoenicians; and the Greeks from Herodotus on had acknowledged some of the facts. We have already seen Tatian adopting the argument that the Greeks were plagiarists, and the core of Droge’s argument concerns these rival claims with their associated chronologies. In the case of Theophilus’ account of Genesis, he develops other aspects of the history of culture.
Droge takes Hesiod to be the classical account of origins, and therefore Theophilus’ principal target, though not the only one. Prior to the section of Theophilus’ work which mainly concerns us, he finds differentiation from Hesiod in giving an account of creation (2. 5-6, 12-13), and, conversely, Hesiod’s unacknowledged influence in the depiction of Adam and Eve (2. 18 ff.). Contemporary discussions about the origins of language, Droge argues, have been reflected in Theophilus’ retelling of Adam’s naming and his etymologizing. Theophilus shares current views to the effect that tame animals were to produce food or provide labour, while wild animals were to be hunted, but explains that this was the result of the Fall; he believes, as others did, that primitive humanity had been vegetarian. Now, in 2. 29, more items appear which were standard in accounts of cultural history.
First, the story of Cain and Abel becomes an account of the invention of shepherding and the discovery of agriculture. Then Genesis 4: 17 is taken to be the foundation of the first city, and Theophilus inserts a comment (2. 30), for which there is no warrant in the Genesis text but plenty in Greek discussions, about the beginnings of polygamy and of music. The domestication of animals and the invention of metallurgy, along with the discovery of music and musical instruments, are related to Lamech’s three sons. After the Flood he introduces ‘a new beginning of cities and kings’ (2. 31), in which three more cultural history topics feature: the origin of different languages, the beginning of warfare, and the institution of priesthood. The climax is the settlement of the world (2. 32).
Droge’s argument is that Theophilus has deliberately selected from Genesis, and phrased his narration and exegesis in the way he did, to provide an alternative account of origins. It is not insignificant that the next paragraph (2. 33) makes explicit the fact that Greek writers lived long after these events, introduced a multitude of gods, got events before the Flood wrong, were not inspired, and that only the Christians have the truth. They have the truth because they are instructed by the Holy Spirit, who spoke in the holy prophets. They possess the right literature. The standard classical literature is rubbish, even though there are occasions when the Sibyl and the poets agree with the prophets (2. 36-8).
The educated person, raised on the Greek or Latin classics in the schools of rhetoric and perhaps philosophy, might be prepared to acknowledge the contribution of other cultures to the GraecoRoman synthesis—many of them would in any case have been of non-Greek ethnic origin, though Hellenized in culture, as perhaps Justin and certainly Tatian was; but to such a person the declared preference for a body of crude barbarian literature would have been incomprehensible, as the second-century critic of Christianity, Celsus, demonstrates. The argument may not have been all one-sided, for Plato had already attacked the poets; the trouble was that more than a substitute literature was at stake. Social nonconformity exposed more than the educated converts to hostility. It was because rival literatures were embedded in rival ethnic and religious cultures that the debate about literary authority mattered.