« Prev Introduction Next »


Early Christian Apologies

The danger of persecution on the one hand, and increasing opportunities for the propagation of the gospel on the other, produced the ancient Christian writings that are known generally, from the title of some of them, as Apologies. Eusebius tells us that they began in the time of Hadrian with the Apology of Quadratus, from which he preserves only a brief fragment.634634Hist, eccl., IV, ch. 3, See the Epistle to Diognetus. Early in the principate of Antoninus comes Aristides of Athens, whose Apology has been recovered from various fragments in our own time—a straightforward claim that the Christians hold the true faith and live as God commands, put forward with considerable charm. Justin comes logically next in the series; his distinguishing feature among the Apologists is the scope of what he tries to include—a reply to the legal and moral attacks and an exhibition of the Old Testament basis of the gospel.

By the middle of the second century attacks on Christianity as well as defenses of it were in circulation. A work by Marcus Aurelius’ teacher, Fronto, seems to have put the legal and moral charges in a form calculated to gain the attention of Apologists connected with Rome. Somewhat later came Celsus’ True Word, which was to wait two generations for Origin's massive reply. Under Marcus Aurelius, Athenagoras of Athens produced his Plea Concerning Christians, the most polished of the Apologies as a literary work. Athenagoras draws largely on Justin (though not on his Old Testament quotations), and anticipates Clement in his skillful use of Greek literary quotations, It seems fair to say that the Athenian Apologists are more interested in the religious claims of Christianity, the Roman in its civic 226status, though without neglecting its claim to present the true faith in God. Christian literature in the language of the Romans begins with the Latin Apologists of the end of the century, Tertullian and Minucius Felix. About the same time Clement of Alexandria, in his Address to the Greeks, presents Christianity as the true mystery, by which we reach the spiritual light that Eleusis fallaciously promised. The Apologists whom we may call Oriental are more concerned to maintain the claims of Christianity against rival religions. Tatian the Assyrian, after being Justin's pupil at Rome, returned to his native land and ultimately became the founder of a puritanical and dualistic sect; earlier he had shown his tendencies by attacking Greek thought and pagan practice in his Discourse to the Greeks. Theophilus of Antioch in his work To Autolycus defends prophets against philosophers with a rather narrow vigor. The most original work of Syrian Christianity deserves inclusion in the list; astrology and the slavery of fate, touched on by other Apologists, was the main topic of On Fate by Bardesanes of Edessa. Like some other Apologists in various ages, he may concede too much—the stars may control external events, he says, but not the spiritual character and moral actions of man.

Though apologetics is a permanent part of Christian writing, these writers complete the roll of the classical Apologists of the Greco-Roman world. Still close to them are Origen's Against Celsus and Cyprian's brief practical appeal To Donatus (or Epistle I) in the middle of the third century. Finally ancient apologetic was revived by the return of somewhat similar conditions during the reign of Diocletian and the early years of Constantine. The works of Arnobius and Lactantius in the West belong to this period, and at Alexandria Athanasius' work Against the Nations ends the period of ancient apologetic while the companion piece On the Incarnation opens the classical age of conciliar Christology.

Understanding of the Apologists can be assisted by some attention to the literary forms that they employed. The first Christian writers, indeed, clearly had classical literary forms in mind, since they wrote in some hope of reaching a general audience. An Apology is by definition a speech for the defense. The use of the form for philosophic propaganda goes back to the illustrious example of Plato's Apology of Socrates. It is this surely that brings Socrates so naturally to Justin's mind in the First Apology,635635Ch. 5 (references to Justin by chapter alone will be to the First Apology). or makes him say in the Second, "Would that 227even now someone would mount on a lofty rostrum and cry out" the message of the Apologist.636636Ch. 12, fin. ; this phrase has an interesting history in pagan and Christian rhetoric, always it seems with Socrates more or less in mind (see Michele Pellegrino, Studi su l’antica Apologetica, pp. 23–27, Rome, 1947). The word and form already occur in Paul's two Apologies in Acts, chs. 22 and 26—where, like the later Apologists, Luke realizes that the best defense in these matters is attack, and that a plea for the toleration of Christianity might as well include an argument for its truth. There were also pagan parallels to both the Apology and the related form of the Acts of Martyrs, especially in the so-called "pagan Acts of the Martyrs," which represent the claims of the city of Alexandria. Since the preparation of possible or purely imaginary speeches was an important part of high education in Roman times, the use of the form in literary composition is natural. In a speech a brief exordium, aiming to please the audience or at least grasp its attention, is likely to lead to a detailed exhibition of the main point, and then subordinate points and a conclusion will follow rapidly. If a speaker (or preacher) announces three points, he knows that the second and third should be shorter than the first, or the audience will be murmuring "ten minutes more of this." Hence the difficulty of finding a balanced outline in the rhetorical Apologies—Justin, Athenagoras, and Tertullian. In each case the main point is in the center of the work—Tertullian and Athenagoras argue for belief in God, Justin for recognition of Jesus as the predicted Messiah—and there are relatively briefer introductions and conclusions.

Though in form a plea for toleration, the Apology was certainly written even more as an appeal for conversion. Here also there was a pagan parallel in the protreptic discourse or exhortation, written to commend some philosophical or ethical position. Such discourses were the stock in trade of the wandering philosophers who were the popular preachers of paganism. Literary references were specially in place in such writing; Clement's Address to the Greeks is the fullest example among the Apologists, though all exhibit some features of the form. A brief protreptic discourse could be written in the form of an epistle, such as those that make up the three books of Seneca's Epistolae Morales—among Christian Apologists there is the Epistle to Diognetus and Cyprian's Ad Donatum. Perhaps Justin's Second Apology can best be read as an Epistle to the Romans. Since the Apologists were conducting an argument, 228the dialogue form would naturally suggest itself, if they wanted to give their opponents that much space. Justin uses it with some skill in the Dialogue with Trypho, including such minor features, familiar in the Platonic dialogue, as that the whole conversation is allegedly recounted afterward by one of the participants, and that it includes a dialogue within a dialogue. The Octavius of Minucius Felix is a more formal dialogue, or rather debate. Like some of the dialogues of Cicero, it opens with a genre picture of Roman life, which Minucius handles with considerable charm. Least of all among Apologies do we find the formal treatise, arguing and expounding various aspects of a subject, though this was also not unknown and is represented by Theophilus of Antioch. This form was especially appropriate to a work that replied point by point to the arguments of an attacker, as Josephus had done in his two books Against Apion and as Origen did in his eight Against Celsus.

Justin's Life and Work

In spite of a certain lack of polish, perhaps because of it, Justin Martyr is one of the greatest of the Apologists. His writings have the additional interest of being the most specifically Christian of the ancient Apologies. All of them deal in their various ways with the permanent and ever-changing problem of Christian apologetics—how to make contact between the claims of the gospel and the needs and interests of the age, while clearing away misunderstandings and prejudices. Most of the other Apologists lead their reader to the door of the church—Minucius Felix, indeed, does little more than point in its general direction—while Justin opens it and tells a good deal about what goes on inside. Much of the First Apology reads more like a manual for inquirers than a defense for the general public, and this feature gives it its great interest as a record of the faith and practice of the middle of the second century. Since his work was rediscovered in the sixteenth century, Justin has received more attention than at any time since his own generation. Both for the value of his own contribution to Christian thought and for the significance of his evidence as to what was believed and taught by the Christians of his time, he undoubtedly deserves it.

Justin tells us that he was the son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius. He was a native of Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem and modern Nablus) in Palestine: The family were 229evidently Gentile citizens of a Roman colony in Samaria, a connection reflected in Justin's occasional marked interest in Samaritan affairs.637637Chs. 1; 26; 53; 56; Justin counts himself among the uncircumcised, Dial., ch. 92. Though not Jewish, Justin brought from his Palestinian home a consciousness of the Jewish background of the faith that he ultimately adopted, later to be reflected in the Old Testament discussions that take up so much of the First Apology and are the subject of the Dialogue with Trypho. But his own cultural and intellectual formation was certainly Greek, and it was in philosophy that he looked for spiritual satisfaction. The "I" of the Dialogue is not strictly autobiographical, but the experience it reflects is certainly Justin's. After some contact with other schools, he was deeply attracted by Platonism, which seemed to show the way to the true knowledge of man and vision of God. But before he had gone very far on that path, his attention was directed to the deeper wisdom of the prophets of Israel as expounded by the Church, and in that teaching he recognized the true philosophy which he had been looking for. The example of the martyrs moved him to give in his name to the persecuted sect of Christians.638638Apol. II, ch. 12. Thereafter he continued, or perhaps began, to wear the philosopher's cloak, but as a professor of the divine philosophy, not of any human school.

Justin certainly ended his career as a Christian teacher at Rome, but the stages of his journey there are obscure. Our knowledge of them depends mainly on the evaluation of slight references in the Dialogue with Trypho. Eusebius tells us that the dialogue took place at Ephesus, although the only specific indication in the present text suggests Corinth. Could there be in Eusebius’ MS. or ours a slip of one Pauline city for another?639639Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 18:6; Dial., ch. I. Well-frequented lines of travel connected the Christian centers of the province of Asia with Greece and Rome, so that Justin may have lived in all three. If the evidence of the Acts is to be trusted, he had left Rome and then returned for a second stay at the time of his death.

In our own time the identification of the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus has provided a welcome complement to Justin's evidence about the customs of the Roman Church. Hippolytus wrote about A.D. 200, some forty or fifty years later than Justin. But since he aimed to describe customs that were already old, the difference in time is not so important as it might seem. 230The liturgical evidence of the two writers interlocks remarkably, and a passing reference in Hippolytus to the teachers who prepared candidates for baptism doubtless gives the clue to Justin's position in the Church. Christian teaching at Rome was carried on by individuals who conducted, as it were, schools of Christianity. They were only indirectly subject to the discipline of the Church, in case they developed heresies so clear as to call for condemnation by the not very theologically minded leaders of Roman Christendom. Since services were private, and held from house to house, the residences of these teachers might be the only publicly known Christian centers—as Justin says in the Acts: "I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I have been unaware of any other meeting than this. And if anyone wished to come to me, I communicated to him the doctrines of truth."

Though freely instructing prospective converts and interested Christians, these teachers did not as such occupy any official position in the Church. Considered from another point of view, they belonged to the class of popular teachers or preachers who presented the religious claims of philosophy to the common man. So the animosity of Crescens the Cynic for Justin, which he expected would be the cause of his martyrdom,640640Apol. II, ch. 3. had certain aspects of professional rivalry. The philosopher's cloak, one must remember, in this period was rather the habit of a begging friar than the gown of a university professor.

The chronology of Justin's life depends mainly on the references in his works. The First Apology speaks of a recent episode at Alexandria in the prefecture of Felix, who held office between A.D. 151 and 154;641641Ch. 29. it is addressed to Antoninus Pius and his adopted sons and colleagues, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, whose formal association in the imperial dignity dates from 147. We may date it safely about 155. The Dialogue with Trypho is placed dramatically at the time of the Jewish War of 132–135,642642Ch. 1. which may well be the approximate period of Justin's conversion. It is clearly, however, subsequent to the Apology, to which it refers;643643Ch. 120, fin. its main theme is an enlargement of the central argument of the Apology, by more detailed exposition of Old Testament texts, to show that Christians are the true heirs of the promises made to Israel. The Second Apology also refers to the First. It was evidently written at a moment of crisis for the Christians of Rome, when martyrdoms had 231occurred and Justin expected his own to follow shortly. Eusebius dates Justin's Second Apology and martyrdom early in the years of Marcus Aurelius, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of that information. The Acts of Justin and other martyrs are, as they stand, considerably later, but certainly go back to a simple and authentic eyewitness account. As they describe the events, Justin and six others were arrested, probably at the house of Martinus, and brought before the prefect Rusticus. Justin's fellow martyrs were simple folk with Greek names, the most distinguished the imperial slave Euelpistus, who had first learned the faith from his parents in far-off Cappadocia. Justin had the chance to make such confession as he longed for. But as soon as he had spoken of Father, Son, and Spirit, the prefect, "who seems to have been bored at the prospect of a sermon,"644644E. R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr, p. 75. tried in vain to get more information about Christian meeting places. Then came the fatal demand for sacrifice, after which condemnation and execution followed as a matter of course.

Justin's Thought and Interests

The detailed study of Justin's ideas belongs elsewhere, but some suggestions regarding his thought are in place in this introduction.

Modern readers tend to concentrate on what seems to be unique, or what is of particular interest to us—for instance, Justin's use of the Logos concept, his attitude to philosophy, and his evidence for worship and the sacraments. But his own approach is primarily pastoral, Biblical, and traditionalist. He writes everything with a pastoral or evangelistic purpose like that of the Fourth Evangelist, "that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, ye might have life through his name."645645John 20:31. His recognition of the value of philosophy is secondary to his desire to testify and demonstrate that God has spoken through the prophets and redeemed us through his Son. He is much less interested in expounding his own ideas than in appealing for acceptance of the faith as, he believed, the Church of his day had learned it from the apostles. Phrases such as, "We have learned," "We have received," "It has been handed down," occur with surprising frequency in the First Apology. It is not too hard to distinguish 232between what Justin presents as the Christian tradition and his own efforts to interpret or explain. Thus the Sacred Name that Christians venerated was clearly that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, into which they were baptized. Justin, doubtless not uniquely, is making an effort to interpret this when he says that Christians venerated, after God the Father and Lord of all, his Son, and thirdly the holy prophetic Spirit.646646Ch. 6; etc. Similarly in the Dialogue he tries to develop a formal doctrine of the Word as a "second divine entity" (deuteros theos). To him the heart of Christianity is the Biblical message of God's care and love for man, as he found it both in the Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) and in Jesus Christ. Behind the literary form of a speech to the emperor, we are listening in the First Apology to the kind of conversation that went on between Justin and his visitors in the house of Martinus. Now he presents arguments about this or that (and the Apology could easily be thrown into dialogue form), now he brings forward quotations from the sacred text or refers to the increasingly venerated writings of the apostles. But again and again the thread of continuous argument is broken by the proclamation of the basic kerygma of the Early Church, the message of the incarnate, dying, risen, ascended Saviour and Lord.647647Cf. chs. 31; 42; 46; 50; 53.

The First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho together would serve as a convert's shorter Bible, and such was doubtless one of the purposes of Justin's writing. His prospective readers were, I suspect, not the noble or learned, but intelligent members of what we may call the lower middle class. They were people who were prepared to be impressed by mysterious words of Oriental sages and who, if Justin had not taught them orthodox Christianity, would perhaps have been Marcionites or Mithraists. His references to these sects suggest that these were immediate rivals. Much of Justin's history and exegesis no longer appeals. But Christians can never renounce his central aim—to assert their claim to be legitimate heirs of "the hope of Israel."648648Acts 28:20. In detail, Justin sometimes seems to quote from memory, sometimes to be using a collection of Biblical testimonies, one cause or the other producing the startling combinations and centos found in some of his quotations. A good example of his method is in chs. 50; 51, where he first quotes Isa. 53:12 quite loosely, doubtless from memory, and then looks up the whole passage and copies it out. The authority of the New Testament books for Justin was that of the truths they contained. They 233were records of the words and acts of Jesus; and so his references are to the gospel story rather than to specific Gospels. For the teachings of Christ he perhaps used a manual of instruction (such as we find in the Didache) rather than the separate Synoptic texts. Though the question has been disputed, he certainly knew the Fourth Gospel, to which his references become more frequent as he comes closer to the inner life of the Church in the later chapters of the First Apology. He was acquainted with the principal Pauline Epistles (probably lesser ones too, which he does not happen to refer to); and the Dialogue contains a specific reference to Revelation.649649Dial., ch. 81. His references to the birth and Passion of Christ contain legendary touches such as appear in apocryphal Gospels, but whether he derived them from written sources is uncertain.

Justin wore the philosopher's cloak, and later tradition speaks of him as "philosopher and martyr," yet his speculative interests were really secondary. All the more significant, therefore, are his striking contributions to the intellectual tradition of Christian thought. The idea of God's Logos could be found in a variety of sources. It was floating in the air of popular Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, and had become naturalized in Christian circles by the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel. (The chief thing to remember about the word "logos" is that it means everything except a single word—speech, design, argument, reason—therefore God's thought, plan, utterance, and so on.) Justin's use of it is partly Biblical and partly apologetic. The Logos being divine, and yet not the Father himself, accounts both for the divinity which Christians have found in Jesus, and by retrospect for the divine appearances in the Old Testament. The Reason incarnate in Christ is also the diffused reason that speaks in every man (Justin is not deeply interested in the cosmic action of the Logos). Hence everything good and true really is ours by right; in the Second Apology this thought is developed more explicitly, adopting the term, familiar to Stoics, of the "spermatic word," the divine force which, as it were, impregnated the universe.650650Apol. II, chs. 10; 13; certainly with some hint from John 1:9. Pregnant as Justin's ideas were, they remained inchoate, and somewhat crude and confused. Perhaps they are all the more suggestive for that. It would be easy to make a long list of the points that Justin does not clearly define because he did not have to. An example is what kind of being the prophetic Spirit is, in view 234of the fact that the Logos is also a Spirit,651651See ch. 33 and notes. and the Spirit speaks through the prophets the Word of God. Nor again does Justin bother to state precisely how the Spirit and the Logos are distinguished from the lesser angelic powers, who follow the Son (pre-eminently God's Angel), and who in one passage are named between him and the prophetic Spirit.652652Ch. 6. Certainly Justin knows that God is the only Fashioner of the universe, who made it out of formless matter. But he seems to have no interest in where that came from. Perhaps he could conceive of nothing more nonexistent.653653Cf. ch. 59: I have translated dēmiourgos "Fashioner," although "Creator" would be justifiable.

A topic in which he was more interested than his modern readers was the nature and activity of demons. In Later Platonism and popular Greek thought the daimōnes were intermediate beings. They were more than man but far beneath the supreme deity, and were often thought of as occupying the changeable heavens between the earth and the moon. The word "demon" itself was morally neutral; Justin regularly adds a qualifying adjective when he uses it in a bad sense. He shared the Jewish position that any such beings could only be fallen angels. In the Second Apology he amplifies the references in the First654654Ch. 5. by recounting the legend that angels who had been placed in charge of mankind had sinned with women and begotten demons.655655As recounted in Gen. 6:2—an interpretation later repudiated by both Jews and Christians. That pagan worship was in fact offered to demons is an idea as old as Saint Paul.656656I Cor.10:20. But Justin develops it more in detail when he declares that demons actually appeared to men, performed some of the actions recounted in the myths, and demanded worship as gods. Part of the atmosphere of early Christianity was the sense that paganism represented invisible as well as visible foes, and that hostile forces infested even the air.657657Cf. Eph. 6:12 Justin shows much more practical interest in demons than in the good angelic powers, who, after all, were but ministering spirits of the Lord. As in the traditional baptismal service to this day, on entering the Church one renounced the devil and all his works, and in that fellowship the great serpent and the other demons were no longer to be feared.

Justin the philosopher was also, and more deeply, Justin the churchman. His description of baptism and the Eucharist is the best-known section of his work, though it is introduced 235rather incidentally, to assure readers that no nameless horrors are perpetrated at Christian gatherings. What strikes the reader who comes to this section from the rest of the Apology is that here he meets the Church's technical terminology, which Justin partly uses, partly explains, partly paraphrases. Hence his threefold repetition of "rebirth" in one sentence to explain that Baptism is a sacrament of regeneration. Then there are phrases like: "Those whom we call deacons," "This food we call Eucharist," and "The president of the brethren." In the last instance Justin might just as well have said "bishop."658658Certainly a permanent officer, whose functions include the administration of church finances, which by this time was episcopal; the phrase is similarly used for a bishop of Athens in Eusebius, Hist. eccl, IV, ch. 23; its vagueness would also cover the case of a presbyter in a loyal congregation at Rome, although Justin describes Christian worship in terms of a general gathering of the church of a city and its surrounding countryside. The sacred language of rebirth in baptism659659Certainly for children of believers as well as converts. Justin distinguishes the two classes in ch. 15, and the Acts states that three of his six companions in martyrdom had been Christians from childhood. and spiritual nourishment by the body and blood of Christ was evidently already well established. Even the rather complex devotional and theological comments that Justin offers are presented as part of the received tradition. The Eucharistic teaching of the Apology is completed by that of the Dialogue. It speaks of the Christian sacrifice of the bread and cup of the Eucharist, fulfilling Malachi's prophecy of the pure ofIering of the Gentiles. It also gives the most complete of Justin's several summaries of the contents of the Eucharistic prayer:

"We give thanks to God for having created the world with all that is in it for the sake of man, and for having freed us from the vice in which we lived, and for having completely brought to naught the principalities and powers, through Him who became subject to suffering according to his will."660660Dial., chs. 41; 70.

Justin's religion was certainly deeper and richer than some of his formal arguments for it. The Apologist is always in danger of conceding too much for the sake of argument. Justin at times seems to say that Christ was merely on the same level as the sons of Zeus, an impression that he corrects elsewhere.661661Chs. 21; 54. Nor does he really mean, I am sure, that he believed in Christ only because the prophecies fitted. Though he does not precisely describe either the need or the means of redemption, surely his faith is shown in such a simple phrase as, "For the 236salvation of those who believe in him . . . (he) endured . . . suffering so that by dying and rising again he might conquer death."662662Chs. 53; 63, fin. Formally Justin presents a simple doctrine of free will which would suggest that the only salvation man would need is information, and the removal of the obstacles interposed by the demons. But as incidental references show, he is well enough aware that it is only by the gift of God that men are able to understand his truth. Equally does he recognize that the Christian life is a life of thanksgiving for the gifts of God.663663Dial., ch, 7; fin. ; Apol. I, chs. 13; 65.

Style and Outline

Justin's technique is, like his theology, practical. He could pay attention to literary form, but was much more interested in what he had to say than in just how he said it. He knew how to write an oration, a dialogue, or an epistle, but did not let attention to those details stand in the way of the exposition of his message. His Greek is good, though not purist; he seems to apologize for an occasional colloquialism, even slightly for the straightforward Greek of the Gospels.664664Ch. 55, "What is called the nose," ch. 14, fin. His sentences sometimes get out of control, either because he crowds in more ideas than he intended to or because a central point in the argument is so clearly implied that he does not pause to state it.665665See examples noted in chs. 29; 51. The effort to find a clear outline in the First Apology has baffled commentators, especially since the scheme apparently announced in ch. 23 is hard to follow through in detail. But the central point in any analysis is the demonstration from the Old Testament that Jesus is the promised Messiah. This theme occupies chs. 30 to 53. It is possible to see a rhetorical scheme of approach to this theme and then return from it to the point of departure, somewhat as follows:

A Plea for a Fair Hearing, chs. 1 to 8

B The Faith and Life of Christians, chs. 9 to 20

C Superiority of Christianity to Paganism, chs 21 to 29

D The Argument from Prophecy, chs. 30 to 53.

E Paganism an Imitation of Christianity, chs. 54 to 60.

F Christian Worship, chs. 61 to 67.

G Conclusion, ch. 68


There are hints of the general scheme in chs. 12 and 23; the first announces that there will be not only defense, as in the opening (and closing) sections, but attack, and the three points announced in ch. 23 are approximately those of C, D, and E. The closing sections interlock with the previous ones, with a number of cross references. Several of the transitions are prepared with some care. Chapter 20, for instance, looks forward to the topic taken up in ch. 21. Chapter 53 similarly looks forward to ch. 54. As is suitable for a work in the form of. a forensic speech, the Conclusion is a brief summary and plea, followed by citation of a supporting document.

The careful reader of Justin cannot call him a genius, but comes to enjoy the company of the man who appears through his writings, and to welcome his occasional moments of brilliant insight. To the history of Christian thought he made a great contribution. To him as much as to any other we may owe it that the gospel has remained rooted in the religion of the Old Testament, and on one basis or another has not been unfriendly to human thought. His influence is clear in Athenagoras and Irenaeus, as well as in his rather unworthy disciple Tatian.

« Prev Introduction Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection