APOLOGETIC AS DRAMATIC FICTION

It is evident at the outset that these various readings are operating with widely different understandings of the meaning of ‘apologetic’. One thing which they have in common, however, is an underlying assumption that the term presupposes some kind of dramatic situation. Reading a text as apologetic seems to mean, for most people, reading it as some form of self-defence against a charge or charges perceived as coming from a particular quarter. This minimal definition conforms, of course, to the original usage of the Greek word-group from which the modern term is derived: an apologia is a speech in one’s own defence (following the ancient Greek forensic practice whereby defendants had to present their own defence in court). The word thus evokes the essentially dramatic situation of the lawcourts: an apologia presents a first-person defence of a particular character (the defendant), against a specific charge, and before a specific tribunal—which could vary from the large 300—citizen jury panels of classical Athens to the single examining magistrate more typical of Roman practice. This tribunal, whether a group or an individual, constitutes the primary audience of a defence speech, and is by convention frequently apostrophized. But the forensic scenario also allows for the presence of a wider ‘public gallery’ of supporters and spectators, to whom the defendant may covertly appeal, and these too may legitimately be considered as part of the dramatic audience presupposed by the apologetic scenario.

Within the conventions of classical Greek rhetoric, this dramatic situation already contains an accepted element of necessary fiction, in that the speech itself might well have been written by a professional logographos on the defendant’s behalf. Nevertheless, it was delivered by the defendant, and was therefore written in the first person, in the character of the defendant (as opposed to the Roman legal convention in which the advocate speaks in his own person on behalf of the accused). It is not a great step from this forensic fiction to the creation of a literary apologia: that is, a written composition which presents arguments in defence of an individual or group against certain charges (the most famous, in antiquity as today, being the Socratic Apologies of Plato and Xenophon). Whether or not the underlying apologetic situation is a real one (as it was in the case of Socrates), it becomes a dramatic fiction for the purposes of the written apologia, which creates a gap not only between the author and the inscribed speaker (the ‘I’ of the speech), but also between the actual audience of the written text (the ‘readers’) and the inscribed audience (tribunal and/or public gallery) to whom the speech is nominally addressed. This kind of dramatic fiction was of course bread and butter to an educated Greek or Roman readership brought up on the multilayered fictions of rhetoric: it provides a useful reminder that the distinctions we draw between implied audience and actual audience were always a de facto possibility present to the ancient reader.

The dramatic situation remains a crucial defining factor in the composition of literary apologetic, even though there may be a shift from the defence of an individual to the defence of a group, and from a defence against specific legal charges to a more generalized defence of a religious or philosophical way of life (a shift which is already perceptible in the Socratic Apologies). First-person discourse is still the most obvious and appropriate speech mode for apologetic, though it may change from singular to plural; and the necessary dramatic interlocutor can be created in a variety of ways, whether by direct apostrophe or by casting the discourse in the form of a dialogue (as in Minucius Felix). Josephus’ Against Apion evokes this dramatic fiction quite clearly in the preface, which makes copious use of the language of charge and countercharge. Apion is inscribed into the text as the fictional kategoros against whom Josephus musters his arguments; its inscribed audience, behind the representative figure of Epaphroditus, is an educated, sympathetic jury of non-Jews. It is in this sense that we may sensibly conceive of apologetic as addressed to ‘outsiders’: whatever the real audience of the text, it is essential that its dramatic audience, the judges before whom the case is presented, are not members of the community under attack. The texts which most clearly merit the label ‘apologetic’, in other words, rely on a transparent fiction: they presuppose a dramatic situation whose elements can be readily reconstructed from the text, even though the readers, then and now, will be perfectly well aware that the text’s real situation may be quite different.

‘Apologetic’ readings of Acts almost all conform to this pattern. In positing that Acts is addressed to the Jewish community, to the Romans, or to the ‘Greek’ world of educated paganism, they configure the text as a defence (of the Pauline Gospel, or of the church), against certain charges (for example, disturbing the peace of the Empire), before an identifiable dramatic audience who fill the role of tribunal and/or spectators. Those who suggest that the real audience of Acts is actually different from the audience implied by the dramatic situation are simply showing a proper awareness of the essentially fictive nature of the apologetic situation, or (more simply) of the potential in literary apologetic for a gap to open up between the text’s inscribed audience and its real readers, a gap well described by Sterling in relation to Artapanus:

The fragments presume an imaginary audience which consists of outsiders. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Greeks read works written by nationals except for collectors like Polyhistor. The real-world audience of the work is therefore Jews. The Jews who read this would have to deal with the fragments’ imaginary audience in the real world.

In this sense we can dispense with the fifth category proposed in our tentative typology. Any kind of literary apologetic may also function as legitimation or self-definition for the group which it sets out to defend: to recognize that some apologetic functions as self-definition is not to identify a distinct ‘type’ of apologetic, but simply to recognize the always latent disparity between the dramatic audience of apologetic and its real readers.

Most of the apologetic scenarios proposed for Acts configure the dramatic audience as an external one: Greeks or Romans or Jews. This brings the definition into line with the standard modern usage, in which the term ‘Apologetics’ means ‘that branch of theology devoted to the defense of a religious faith and addressed primarily to criticism originating from outside the religious faith; esp. such defense of the Christian faith’. It also allows for a degree of continuity with the standard understanding of the second-century Christian apologists as ‘the Christian writers who (c.120—220) first addressed themselves to the task of making a reasoned defence and recommendation of their faith to outsiders’. It is of course another question how far it makes sense in the first century to describe the Jewish community as an ‘external’ audience: nevertheless, there is an undeniable continuity of interest here between the intra-communal tensions explored in Acts and the concerns of much second-century Christian apologetic.

This definition, however, would exclude readings of Acts which see the book primarily as a defence of Paul (and/or his Gospel) before the wider tribunal of catholic Christianity. Here neither the dramatic audience nor the actual audience can be construed as ‘outsiders’, and it might be simplest to dispense with Type I on the grounds that this is not apologetic but theological polemic. On the other hand, such readings do presuppose an ‘apologetic’ scenario in the wider, more classical sense of the term, in that they create opportunities for self-defence. The New Testament contains many such opportunities within a context of inner-church polemic: Paul is happy to use the Greek word apologia and its cognates in this context—for example, in connection with his ‘defence’ of his own apostolic status (i Cor. 9: 3; 2 Cor. 12: 19). The classic locus for this apostolic apologia is of course the Epistle to the Galatians (though the term is not used there). Whether or not we choose to call this material ‘apologetic’ may in the end simply be a matter of personal choice.

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