In Defence of Christianity

Early Christian Apologists

by Jakob Engberg (Volume editor) Anders-Christian Jacobsen (Volume editor) Jörg Ulrich (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection XIV, 266 Pages


In Defence of Christianity examines the early Christian apologists in their context in thirteen articles divided in four parts. Part I provides an introduction to apology and apologetics in antiquity, an overview of the early Christian apologists, and an outline of their argumentation. The nine articles of Part II each cover one of the early apologists: Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Minucius Felix. Part III contextualises the apologists by providing an English translation of contemporary pagan criticism of Christianity and by discussing this critique. Part IV consists of a single article discussing how Eusebius depicted and used the apologists in his Ecclesiastical History.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Apology in Context
  • Part I: Introduction
  • Part II: The early Christian apologists
  • Part III: Contemporary Greco-Roman authors regarding Christians and Christianity
  • Part IV: Eusebius‘ use of the early apologists in the Ecclesiastical History
  • Part I: Introduction
  • Apologists and apologetics in the second century
  • 1. The most important factors giving rise to early Christian apologetics
  • 1.1. Christianity‘s claim of absoluteness
  • 1.2. Perceptions of early Christians within Roman society
  • 1.3. The legal status of Christians in the pre-Constantine Roman empire
  • 2. The beginnings and conditions of early Christian apologetics
  • 2.1. The concepts of apologetics and apology
  • 2.2. The pagan and Jewish roots of early Christian apologetics
  • 2.3. The first traces of early Christian apologetics
  • 3. Apologists and apologetics in the second century
  • 4. The themes and forms of argument of early Christian apologetics
  • 4.1. The specific charges and the attempt to repudiate them
  • 4.2. The positive proofs for the truth of Christianity in the confrontation with pagans
  • 4.3. The positive proofs for the truth of Christianity in the confrontation with Jews
  • 4.4. Polemic trends in early Christian apologetics
  • 4.4.1. Anti-pagan polemic
  • 4.4.2. Anti-Jewish polemic
  • 4.5. Early Christian apologetics and contemporary pagan philosophy and religion
  • 5. Early Christian apologetics in history and in the present
  • Part II: The early Christian apologists
  • Aristides
  • 1. Introduction. Eusebius’ information
  • 2. The transmission of the text
  • 3. Content of the work
  • 4. Aim and genre of the text
  • 5. Prescript and dating
  • 6. Later use of Aristides’ apology
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Justin Martyr
  • 1. Introduction to Justin Martyr
  • 1.1. Justin‘s life
  • 1.2. Justin’s works
  • 2. Teachings
  • 2.1. Prerequisite for awareness of the divine
  • 2.2. God’s nature and Christology
  • 2.3. Christ’s ethical reformation of humanity
  • 2.4. The Christians’ opponent(s)
  • 2.5. Eschatology
  • 2.6. Martyrdom
  • 2.7. Justin’s teachings and contemporary context.
  • 2.8. Justin’s background
  • 2.9. Justin’s contemporary influence
  • 3. Justin’s influence on posterity
  • Tatian
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Tatian as a philosophical apologist
  • 3. Tatian as a heretic?
  • 4. Conclusions
  • Athenagoras
  • 1. Who was Athenagoras?
  • 2. Athenagoras’ authorship
  • 3. Legatio – form and intended audience
  • 4. Dating
  • 5. Themes of the work
  • 6. Athenagoras’ apologetic strategies and instruments
  • 7. Athenagoras’ defence of Christians
  • 7.1. Atheism
  • 7.2. The practical consequences of monotheism
  • 7.3. Christian refusal to sacrifice
  • 7.4. Christian refusal to worship the civic and imperial gods
  • 7.5. Immoral living
  • 8. The outcome
  • Theophilus
  • 1. Aim of the article and previous scholarship
  • 1.1. Previous scholarship – is the silence of the hound the key?
  • 1.2. Aim of this article
  • 2. Theophilus’ life and works
  • 2.1. Early references to Theophilus and his works
  • 2.2. The books addressed to Autolycus, their date and geographical placement
  • 2.3. Theophilus’ conversion.
  • 3. Addressee and aim of the books
  • 3.1. Ad Autolycum – an apology for a pagan friend.
  • 3.2. Theophilus‘ works as a follow-up to conversations between the author and Autolycus
  • 3.3. Wider target group/audience for Theophilus‘ three books
  • 4. Overview of contents
  • 4.1. Contents – book one
  • 4.2. Contents – book two
  • 4.3. Overview of contents – book three
  • 5. Theophilus’ apologetic argument
  • 5.1. Theophilus’ own conversion as an example for the reader.
  • 5.2. The function of Theophilus’ conversion account in his apologetic work: Theophilus as a witness
  • 5.3. Prophecy as a motive for Theophilus’ conversion and as a “proof” to convince the reader
  • 5.4. Proof from morality
  • 5.5. Proof from antiquity
  • 6. Conversion as a process or event?
  • 7. Conclusion – and the modern debate regarding the “lack” of explicit reference to Jesus
  • 7.1. Conclusion
  • 7.2. Theophilus’ silence
  • 7.3. Must the hound always howl?
  • Heaven-borne in the World: A Study of the Letter to Diognetus
  • 1. From Fish to Pearl – the Whims of Fate
  • 2. The Letter to Diognetus as a Historical Work: Author and Date of Authorship
  • 3. The Letter to Diognetus as an Apologetic Work: Determining the Genre, Structure and Content
  • 4. The Letter to Diognetus as an Apologetic Work: Cluster of Apologetic Themes
  • Clement of Alexandria Paganism and its positive significance for Christianity
  • 1. Clement of Alexandria and apology
  • 1.1. Clement of Alexandria as an apologist
  • 1.2. The life and work of Clement of Alexandria
  • 2. Defence of Christianity and criticism of Greek culture
  • 2.1. The charges of non-independent ethics and reprehensible morality
  • 2.2. The charges of atheism
  • 2.3. The charge of novelty and the proof of age
  • 2.4. The charge of unoriginality
  • 2.5. Criticism of the gospel’s simple style
  • 2.6. The charge that faith is irrational
  • 3. Defence of Greek culture.
  • 3.1. Criticism of the rejection of Greek culture by some Christians
  • 3.2. Criticism of the way other Christians embraced Greek culture – False Gnosis
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Tertullian
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1. Historical background
  • 1.2. Occasion of the work
  • 1.3. Tertullian and his perception of Christianity
  • 1.4. Tertullian‘s Christology.
  • 1.5. Tertullian‘s ethics and view of God‘s punishment and reward
  • 1.6. Tertullian‘s view of history and politics
  • 2. Structure and contents of the work
  • 2.1. Structure and context
  • 2.2. Content
  • 2.3. Framework of the work
  • 3. Apologetic characteristics in the work
  • 3.1. Refutation of the accusations against Christians
  • 3.2. Reason as an apologetic argument
  • 3.3. Ethics as an apologetic argument
  • 3.4. History as an apologetic argument
  • 3.5. True Christianity and philosophy
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Minucius Felix, Octavius
  • 1. Introduction to the apologetic dialogue “Octavius”
  • 1.1. What is known about Minucius Felix and the preservation of the “Octavius”
  • 1.2. Time and location of the author and work
  • 2. Structure and content of the work
  • 2.1. Introduction by Minucius Felix
  • 2.2. The speech by pagan Caecilius
  • 2.3. Middle section – Minucius Felix’ comments
  • 2.4. The speech by the Christian Octavius
  • 2.5. Close. Minucius Felix’ verdict, Octavius’ victory and Caecilius’ conversion
  • 3. Position of the work in relation to ancient literature and early Christian apologetics
  • 3.1. Inspiration and literary precursors
  • 3.2. Characteristics of the dialogue
  • 4. Purpose of “Octavius”
  • Part III: Contemporary Greco-Roman authors regarding Christians and Christianity
  • Condemnation, criticism and consternation Contemporary pagan authors‘ assessment of Christians and Christianity
  • 1. Aim of the article and source material
  • 1.1. Assessment by pagan authors of Christians – correlation with Christian apologetics?
  • 1.2. Pagan material on Christians and Christianity – general introduction
  • 2. Imperial rescripts about Christians
  • 2.1. Correspondence between Pliny and Trajan about the Christians
  • 2.2. Hadrian‘s rescript
  • 2.3. Motives for persecuting Christians according to the correspondence of Roman officials
  • 3. References to Christians in historical and biographical works
  • 3.1. Tacitus and Suetonius
  • 3.2. Phlegon
  • 4. Christian immorality – Cornelius Fronto and Marcus Aurelius
  • 4.1. Cornelius Fronto
  • 4.2. Marcus Aurelius
  • 5. Christianity as a naive philosophy – Epictetus, Galen and Lucian
  • 5.1. Epictetus (Arrian)
  • 5.2. Galen
  • 5.3. Lucian
  • 6. Summary comparison of pagan criticism of Christians with the apologists’ defence
  • The other Side of the Debate 2 Translation of Second Century pagan Authors on Christians and Christianity
  • Introduction
  • Plin., Ep. 10.96 to the Emperor Trajan
  • Trajan’s answer 10.97
  • The Emperor Hadrian to Minucius Fundanus ( Euseb , Ecclesiastical History 4.9,1–3)
  • Tacitus, Annales 15.44,2–5 (writing about events in 64 AD, when Rome was subjected to a major disaster in the form of a fire)
  • Suetonius, Nero 16.2
  • Epictetus, Discourses 4.7 (writing about fearlessness in regard to loss of life, fortune, wife, children and bodily health)
  • Cornelius Fronto, Speech against the Christians (quoted in Minucius Felix, Octavius 9.6 )
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.16
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.3
  • Lucian (writing about a charlatan Proteus Peregrinus), On the Death of Peregrinus 11–16
  • Lucian (writing about another charlatan, Alexander), Alexander 25
  • Lucian, Alexander 38
  • Galen, De Pulsum 2.4
  • Galen, De Pulsum 3.3
  • Galen, a quotation in Arabic from an unknown work preserved in Arabic translation
  • Galen, from On Plato’s Republic, in Arabic translation
  • Part IV: Eusebius‘ use of the early apologists in the Ecclesiastical History
  • The defenders of Christianity in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Eusebius of Caesarea
  • 3. The early apologists in Eusebius‘ Ecclesiastical History
  • 4. Second century Christianity in the Ecclesiastical History
  • Bibliography

| VII →

Apology in Context

The current volume is a translation of an anthology published in Danish and presents some of the fruits of the collective research project at Aarhus University, Jews, Christians and pagans in antiquity – Critique and apologetics.1 The editors wish to thank Gavin Weakley for the translation from Danish into English. They also express their gratitude to Beate Gienke and Nicholas Alexander Marshall who took care of all the matters of the volume´s completion, including the layout. The project Jews, Christians and pagans in antiquity – Critique and apologetics investigated the debate between various religious and cultural groups in antiquity. This exchange involved harsh criticism and heated defence as well as the conscious or unconscious adoption of those positions and arguments taken and used by other groups. The apologetic works from the second and early third century which are presented and analysed in this anthology were central in the interaction between Christians and pagans and, to a lesser extent, Jews. The volume contains, apart from this preface, thirteen articles in four parts.

Part I: Introduction

In part I, consisting of one long article, Jörg Ulrich provide an introduction to the concepts of apology and apologetics in antiquity, an overview of the early Christian apologists and their works, and a presentation of their primary lines of thought and argument. Ulrich highlights the insecure legal position of Christians, the contemporary religious diversity, and the contemporary philosophical debate and polemic as some of the key reasons for the rise of Christian apologetic literature. Ulrich shows that later ages (particularly in Protestant Europe) have often judged the apologists quite negatively. Their writings have been viewed as ideologically uninteresting because they only touch minorly on key theological issues, and their aim of defending Christianity in the language of the world of their day has been seen as illegitimate. Ulrich argues that the renewed research interest in the apologists, represented by the research project Jews, Christians and pagans in antiquity – Critique and apologetics, should result in the realisation that some of the problems addressed by the apologists have theological and social relevance today as the church in Europe again finds itself in a religious and culturally pluralistic society.

Part II: The early Christian apologists

Part II is the main section of the volume and comprises nine articles – each covering one of the early Christian apologetic works. The articles are presented in roughly chronological order. ← VII | VIII →

In the first article, Nils Arne Pedersen analyses the oldest surviving Christian apology by Aristides. Through his analysis of this small apology addressed to the Emperor, Pedersen shows that from the beginning, Christian apologetics sought to promote Christianity and not just defend it. Aristides compares, the Christian way of life and divine worship with that of the Greeks, barbarians and Jews. The depiction of the Jewish way of life and divine worship is relatively positive, but Christians are presented as being superior on all points. The apology has a complicated reception history, as it has had both indirect and direct influence on later ancient and medieval literature in regions as far apart as India and Scandinavia. Pedersen clearly identifies these fascinating traces from the past to the present.

In the second article, Jörg Ulrich analyses the preserved parts of Justin Martyr‘s apologetic works, comprising two apologies and a philosophical dialogue. Justin also wrote other apologetic works, including Address to the Greeks, which have not been preserved. Justin is described as the most important early Greek apologist, and Ulrich manages to skilfully explain and focus on the points of originality in his thinking, theology, Christology, and ethics, while also placing him in a contemporary philosophical and theological context. Justin Martyr‘s writings reveal that he had received a philosophical education prior to his conversion – an education which Ulrich shows he uses actively in his works.

Tatian was a student of Justin Martyr, and like his tutor he also wrote an Address to the Greeks – an evangelistic apologetic work addressed to a pagan public. Tatian‘s work is therefore the earliest preserved example of this type of apologetic work. In the third article, René Falkenberg analyses this work and concludes that Tatian clearly had great religious and philosophical experience, and was therefore able to present Christianity using arguments and concepts familiar to educated outsiders. Falkenberg also discusses Tatian‘s person and personality, which he characterises as unyielding. Falkenberg suggests that this intransigence may have been one of the reasons that Tatian was regarded and judged by his Western contemporaries and successors, such as Ireneus, as a heretic.

In the fourth article by Anders-Christian Jacobsen we return to an apology addressed to an emperor. Despite the superficial literary similarity with the apologies of Aristides and Justin, Jacobsen shows that Athenagoras chose a more ambitious literary form than his predecessors in his apology – a form which may reflect increasing Christian self-awareness. Jacobsen raises two questions which are much debated by scholars studying Athenagoras. The first is whether Athenagoras had a deep or only superficial knowledge of philosophy. The second is whether the work really was submitted to the Emperor, or whether the address was purely a literary convention. Jacobsen concludes that Athenagoras was deeply familiar with parts of Plato‘s philosophy and aware of the contemporary middle Platonism of his day. In terms of the address, Jacobsen argues that the work was directed to the Emperor, but that Athenagoras also had other readers in mind whom he wished to influence.

Theophilus’ three books To Autolycus are the first examples of apologetic works addressed to a pagan acquaintance. Luke‘s writings dedicated to a person ← VIII | IX → by the same name were clearly known to Theophilus the apologist, who therefore viewed himself as part of a tradition. Jakob Engberg argues that the books were evangelistic in relation to the reader, the addressee, Autolycus, and other non-Christians, but also suggests that Christians would have been able to find arguments within the works to use in conversation with outsiders. Others have argued that the books drew on existing catechetical material. Drawing on this theory, Engberg claims that recently converted Christians may have used the books. Theophilus actively refers to his own conversion in his communication with the addressee and other intended or actual readers. Engberg argues that Theophilus uses these references to make his apologetic arguments credible, as well as to promote identification between himself, as an author and convert, and the reader. Theophilus‘ example is intended to motivate the non-Christian reader to be converted, and to confirm the recently converted reader in the significance of their own conversion.

The sixth article covers a small apologetic work addressed to a pagan colleague, Diognetus, by an author unknown to us today. In this article, Anders Klostergaard Petersen recounts the unique survival of this work, from the time it was purchased at a fish market in Constantinople in 1436, after centuries of neglect, until it was burnt during the German bombardment of Strasbourg in 1870. Anders Klostergaard Petersen takes us closer to the anonymous author via the work by demonstrating his rhetorical schooling and the position he and Diognetus enjoyed in the educated upper social echelon of the Greco-Roman world. Petersen shows that the author defends Christians against a number of accusations ranging from promiscuity to political subversiveness and ungodliness. The article classifies the genre of the Letter to Diognetus as a protreptic speech with evangelistic aims. Petersen introduces a model for apologetic literature ranging from apologetics as a form of consciousness to more formal apologies, and classifies the Letter to Diognetus as an apologetic work.

Jesper Hyldahl has written the seventh article, which analyses one of the major early Christian authors, Clement of Alexandria. Hyldahl notes that Clement is rarely analysed in the context of the apologists, and therefore discusses whether Clement can be seen as an apologist. Hyldahl concludes, pointing among other things to Clement’s primary intention, that his works cannot be classified as belonging to an apologetic genre in a narrow sense, but notes that they contain a number of traditional apologetic themes. Rather than defending Christianity from the accusations of the outside world, Clement strived to demonstrate that Greek education and philosophy had value, as it could lead a person to Christ. Despite this difference of intent, Hyldahl offers two reasons which demonstrate convincingly that it is fruitful to analyse Clement‘s works as apologetic writings, comparable to other apologetic writings. Firstly, Clement expounds a positive view of philosophy, as was already evident in the classic apologist, Justin Martyr. Secondly, Clement has an evangelising and edifying purpose in his writings – a purpose which corresponds to many of the other apologists. ← IX | X →

In the eighth article by Niels Willert we meet an apologist writing in Latin for the first time. Tertullian wrote two classic apologies – Apologeticum, addressed to Roman procurators, and, Ad Scapulam, to a procurator in Tertullian‘s own province, Africa. Tertullian also authored other apologetic works such as Ad nationes. Niels Willert focuses his analysis on Apologeticum, which he places firmly in its historical context in North Africa in around 200 AD. Niels Willert shows how Tertullian uses apologetic arguments drawing on common sense, Christian ethics and history to repudiate the by now well known accusations against Christians – that they are ungodly and superstitious; that they live immorally, rebel against traditions and authority, and undermine society. Tertullian differs from Justin Martyr and Clement by his radical rejection of philosophy. Niels Willert shows that this radicalism was typical of Tertullian and contributed to his sympathy towards the equally radical Christian Montanist movement.

The ninth and final article in part II is by Svend Erik Mathiassen and focuses on the philosophical and apologetic dialogue, Octavius, written by Minucius Felix. The work is centred on a dialogue between a pagan opponent, Caecilius, and the Christian Octavius. The author himself, Minucius Felix, also a Christian, is a friend of the two dialogue characters and takes on the role of arbiter. In the introduction to the dialogue, Minucius Felix explains that he and Octavius converted to Christianity at the same time, while the dialogue concludes with Caecilius‘ conversion. In the intervening space, Caecilius attacks Christianity using a number of the classic accusations against Christians, after which Octavius presents equally classic apologetic responses and counter attacks against pagan idol worship and immorality. Mathias-sen concludes that Minucius Felix in his work has attempted to present Christianity as the true and rational religion, inspired by God and consistent with philosophy, and that his target group was potential converts and Christians who could use the arguments in his work in their own evangelistic conversations with non-Christian acquaintances.

Together, the nine articles in part II provide a picture of early Christian apologetics as a richly diverse phenomenon. We find works addressed to emperors, Roman officials, named pagan acquaintances of the apologist, and the general pagan public, as well as philosophical dialogues between Christian, Jewish and pagan characters. The nine articles also show that despite the development of Christianity and Roman society over a century, there was significant continuity in the defensive and evangelising intent of the apologists and the content of their arguments. It is striking to note that at least eight of the nine apologists were converts, as were the majority of Christians at that time. Upon reading the nine articles one notes that the Christology of the majority of the apologists was less developed. This factor may have contributed to making their works less inspiring to later theological debate, where the question of the relationship between the Father and the Son received the most attention. For each of the nine modern authors, working with the nine apologists has led to discussion of the relationship between the various formal addressees of the ← X | XI → apologetic works (emperors, officials, pagan acquaintances, or the pagan public) and the intended and actual readers of the same works. The editors note in this regard that the relatively undeveloped Christology among several apologists suggests that they were addressing non-Christian readers as potential converts, and therefore withheld more difficult questions for later.

Part III: Contemporary Greco-Roman authors regarding Christians and Christianity

Part III comprises an article and an appendix. In the article, Jakob Engberg analyses the surviving statements about Christians and Christianity by second century Greco Roman authors. The intent of the article is to investigate whether the defence apologists give for Christianity corresponds to the actual contemporary attack presented by pagan authors. Bearing in mind that the surviving judgements do not provide a complete picture because much of the ancient literature has been lost, including dozens of imperial rescripts about the Christians, it is concluded that there is a strong correlation between the criticism of Greco-Roman authors and the defence of the apologists. In other words, the attacks the apologists defended Christianity against were genuine and not simply literary constructions intended to give the apologist a ‘reason’ for providing a positive presentation of their own religion.

The appendix in part three contains translations of the passages analysed in the article.

Part IV: Eusebius‘ use of the early apologists in the Ecclesiastical History

In part IV, Marie Gregers Verdoner analyses how Eusebius understood and used the apologists and their works in his Ecclesiastical History. She argues that as the first church historian, Eusebius has not only informed us about the history of early Christianity, he has also influenced the way in which the period, the church and various early church phenomena have been perceived by later periods. As Jörg Ulrich pointed out in part I, Eusebius has also helped to provide later periods with a depiction of Christian apologists and their writings as a group of authors and works which stand apart from other early church authors and works.

Verdoner shows that Eusebius cites Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Clement, Theophilus and Tertullian as defenders of Christianity in their generation, along with authors such as Quadratus, Meliton and Miltiades, whose works are lost to us. In terms of the works and authors analysed in this anthology, Eusebius makes no mention of the Letter to Diognetus, Athenagoras, or Minucius Felix. According to Verdoner this was probably due to the fact that Eusebius was unaware of these works.

Jakob Engberg / Anders-Christian Jacobsen / Jörg Ulrich

1 J. Engberg / A.-C. Jacobsen / J. Ulrich (eds.), Til forsvar for kristendommen – tidlige kristne apologeter, Copenhagen 2006.

| XIII →

Part I: Introduction

| 1 →

Apologists and apologetics in the second century


XIV, 266
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
religiöse Verfolgung Konversion Persecution Heiliges Römisches Reich
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. XIV, 266 pp., 3 graphs

Biographical notes

Jakob Engberg (Volume editor) Anders-Christian Jacobsen (Volume editor) Jörg Ulrich (Volume editor)

Jakob Engberg is Associate Professor of Church History at the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University (Denmark). Anders-Christian Jacobsen is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University (Denmark). Jörg Ulrich is Professor of Church History at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Halle-Wittenberg (Germany).


Title: In Defence of Christianity
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