Marcianus Aristides of Athens: The Earliest Extant Christian Apologist

In AD 125, Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138) traveled to Athens for the Eleusinian mysteries. According to Eusebius (ca. AD 265–339), a Christian philosopher named Aristides produced apologetic books for the Emperor. His apologetics compelled Hadrian to counter the arbitrary prosecution of Christians (Chron. 2141–42; Hist. eccl. 4.3.3). Though not the first apologist, Aristides produced the earliest extant apology in church history (cf. the fragment from Quadratus, Hist. eccl. 4.3.2), which helped to make Christian apologetics a distinct genre.[1] Unfortunately, no document references Aristides prior to Eusebius (Chron. 2141), who described him as a faithful Athenian earnestly devoted to Christianity (Hist. eccl. 4.3.3). Jerome (ca. 347–419) later implied that Aristides was a philosopher before his conversion and that the apology testifies to his brilliant eloquence (Vir. ill. 20; Epist. 70.4). Similar to Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Tertullian, Aristides retained his philosophical background while discussing Christianity.[2] Regrettably, much of these traditions are unreliable because of the tendency for Christian historians to present editorial expansions and elaborations.[3] Only the titles to the Syriac and Armenian manuscripts attribute the extant text to Aristides. Without any direct evidence countering these claims, however, it is best to retain the text’s description of Aristides, which portrays him as a philosopher who indirectly advocated for Christianity (Arist. 16.4) after having researched Christian beliefs (15‒17) in pursuit of divine knowledge (1).[4]

Aristides’s Situational Context

Most believe that Aristides wrote under Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius around AD 140.[5] The Roman Empire in the second-century had a practice of receiving formal petitions from the public on a variety of important and mundane issues. Being an Athenian philosopher, Aristides could present a libellus or a legatio to the Emperor, though the text neglects to identify the exact circumstances that would require petitioning the government.[6] Instead, imitation of an imperial petition was a common literary tactic designed to capture the attention of a wider readership.[7] Aristides’s apology was likely an imagined speech fictitiously directed to the imperial court.[8] His stress on Christianity as an identifiable citizenship suggests that he believed his people group lacked social, political, and legal recognition.[9] Because the apology’s overarching argument was to demonstrate that Christians were superior citizens, it is possible that Aristides felt compelled to address accusations of sedition against the Empire.[10] Likewise, Aristides’s emphasis on Christian chastity may indicate that he was also responding to accusations of “shameful [sexual] acts” (flagitia). Surprisingly, the second-century was semi-tolerant toward Christianity, though Aristides hinted at local provinces unjustly jailing Christians (Arist. 15.7; cf. Ign. Smyrn. 6.2; Justin 1 Apol. 1.67.6; Tertullian 39.5‒6). However, the Roman Empire did not conduct an extensive pogrom to destroy Christianity in the second-century. During this time, Roman policy was to enforce denunciation laws against Christians where persons could identify someone as adhering to the illegal faith. Some provinces were particularly harsh in their suppression of Christianity while others were more tolerant.[11]

Aristides’s Apology

Addressed to a Roman Emperor, the text begins with Aristides’s philosophical reflections, indicating that he utilized natural theology to conclude certain apophatic beliefs about God. These beliefs included acknowledging a perfectly moral but incomprehensible deity (Arist. 1). The apology then divides the world into four separate races: Barbarians (Chaldeans), Greeks, Jews, and Christians (cf. Diogn. 2). The Barbarians worshiped the physical world, including elements such as earth, water, fire, wind, sun, and moon (Arist. 3‒7). The Greeks worshiped elevated versions of humanity, ascribing superhuman traits to depraved and flawed gods (8‒11). Finally, the text describes the worst of the races, Egyptians, by condemning their worship of the incestuous Isis and Osiris, as well as animals incapable of reason and logic (12). According to the apologist, these objects were unworthy of worship and reflected polytheism’s absurd tendencies toward imaginative and superstitious beliefs (13).

The apology then celebrates the Jews for their public morality but reproaches their compromise of monotheism with the worship of angels (Arist. 14). It ends by praising the Christians for their extraordinary ethics while remarking that Christianity is superior because of its philosophy and devotion to Christ’s commands. Christians exemplify the ideal members of society (15). The text then entreats the Emperor to read Christian literature for himself and implores that he convert to avoid Christ’s judgement (16‒17).[12] In summary, the apology is a polemic against paganism and a defense of Christian monotheistic morality.

Aristides’s appeal to philosophy was to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of Christianity over other systems. Evangelistically, this helped to edify other Christians while persuading nonbelievers of Christianity’s social merits. The apology argues that a people’s knowledge of God was the most important criterion for evaluating their beliefs. For the author, the polytheists lacked a substantial amount of erudition, failing to perceive God through natural theology and fallaciously concluding multiple deities. The Jews, on the other hand, rightly perceived an ordered structure to the universe and concluded a single God. This allowed them to behave according to divine moral dictates, though they failed to worship God properly. The Christians were the paradigmatic class of citizens because they not only recognized the one true God but they also followed the supreme moral code given by Christ.[13] Aristides’s willingness to engage Roman society exhibits a strong concern for generosity and compassion toward other citizens, solidifying its goal of portraying Christians as ideal residents in the Roman Empire.

[1] Cf. Frances Young, “Greek Apologists of the Second Century,” in Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians, ed. Mark Edwards et al. (1999; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 91 and Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “Apology.” [2] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100–325 (1910; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 714‒15. [3] Cf. G. C. O’Ceallaigh, “ ‘Marcianus’ Aristides, on the Worship of God,” The Harvard Theological Review 51, no. 4 (October 1958): 228 and J. Rendel Harris, “The Apology of Aristides on Behalf of the Christians: From a Syriac MS. Preserved on Mount Sinai,” in Texts and Studies: Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, 2nd ed., ed. J. Armitage Robinson (1893; repr., Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint Limited, 1967), 1:1. [4] William C. Rutherford, “Citizenship Among Jews and Christians: Civic Discourse in the Apology of Aristides,” Studia Patristica 65 (2013): 21‒24; Bernard Pouderon et al., eds., Apologie: Introduction, textes critiques, traductions et commentaire, Sources chrétiennes 470 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2003), 85–93. [5] Paul L. Maier, “Chronology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 192; Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1988), 38–39, 45; Paul Foster, “The Apology of Quadratus,” Expository Times 117, no. 9 (2006): 353; Harris, “The Apology of Aristides,” 8‒10; Pouderon et al., Apologie, 32‒37. [6] Anders-Christian Jacobsen, “Athenagoras,” in In Defence of Christianity: Early Christian Apologists, ed. Jakob Engberg, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, and Jörg Ulrich, trans. Gavin Weakley Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (New York: Peter Lang Edition, 2014), 15:83‒84; Foster, “The Apology of Quadratus,” 357; P. Lorraine Buck, “Second-Century Greek Christian Apologies Addressed to Emperors: Their Form and Function” (PhD diss., University of Ottawa, September 1997), 13‒25. [7] Cf. Athenagoras’s supposed petition to the Roman Emperor, which evidences significant differences between his apology and actual petitions to the government (P. Lorraine Buck, “Athenagoras’s Embassy: A Literary Fiction,” The Harvard Theological Review 89, no. 3 [July 1996]: 209‒26). [8] See the entire discussion in Nils Arne Pedersen, “Aristides,” in In Defence of Christianity: Early Christian Apologists, ed. Jakob Engberg, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, and Jörg Ulrich, trans. Gavin Weakley Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (New York: Peter Lang Edition, 2014), 15:42‒43; Buck, “Second-Century Greek Christian Apologies,” 151‒70; and Pouderon et al., Apologie, 47‒49. [9] Cf. Young, “Greek Apologists,” 92. [10] See Buck, “Second-Century Greek Christian Apologies,” 27‒31. [11] Jörg Ulrich, “Apologists and Apologetics in the Second Century,” in In Defence of Christianity: Early Christian Apologists, ed. Jakob Engberg, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, and Jörg Ulrich, trans. Gavin Weakley Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (New York: Peter Lang Edition, 2014), 15:5‒6; Foster, “The Apology of Quadratus,” 355‒56; Buck, “Second-Century Greek Christian Apologies,” 2‒3; Pedersen, “Aristides,” 15:42. [12] For a more detailed summary and commentary on Aristides’s apology, see Pouderon et al., Apologie, 317‒98 and Pedersen, “Aristides,” 15:39‒42. For a general outline of the apology, see O’Ceallaigh, “ ‘Marcianus’ Aristides,” 232‒33 and Grant, Greek Apologists, 36‒39. [13] Rutherford, “Citizenship Among Jews and Christians,” 6‒9; Pedersen, “Aristides,” 15:42‒43.

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