Christianity Becomes Philosophical: The Apologists

Few of the earliest Christians were highly educated people. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-7). Although most scholars have rejected the claim that earliest Christianity was constituted exclusively by the lowest classes of society, it remains true that most of the first Christians would not have had much in the way of formal education. The book of Acts had even specifically depicted philosophers, those most reputed for their wisdom and learning in Greco-Roman society, rejecting Paul’s preaching of the Christian message. But just a few decades after Acts was written, something remarkable happened: Philosophers began to become Christians. Not in huge numbers, but in numbers large enough to significantly influence the trajectory of Christian thought. Using their training in the Greek classics and rhetoric to buttress the claims of their new religion, the Christian philosophers of the second century had a significant role in introducing new ideas to Christian intellectual discourse, along with new literary genres to express those ideas. 

One of the genres that the early Christian philosophers introduced was the apology. The apology (from the Greek apologia, not meaning “seeking forgiveness,” but rather “defense”) was a philosophical genre in which one defended, in speech, a particular set of beliefs against its detractors. The first of the Christian Apologists were Aristides of Athens (d. circa 135 C.E.) and Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.). Both wrote apologies that were defenses of the beliefs of Christianity against their pagan critics and demonstrations of the illogical nature of pagan belief. 

Aristides began his Apology by describing the nature of his belief in God: Aristides’ God was “not born, not made,” and “immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible.” (Aristides, Apology, 1). This God, Aristides went on to say, had no body or gender, had no enemies, could not feel anger, and would not need anything from humans or anyone else. Thus far, some pagan philosophers would probably have agreed with Aristides’ description of God. In a phenomenon termed pagan monotheism, some ancient philosophers, as scholar Bart Ehrman says, “had come to think that behind all the diversity of the world…there must be one ultimate reality that makes sense of it all. This principle of unity could be understood to be the ultimate divinity.”[i] While continuing to believe in gods such as Athena and Apollo, pagan monotheists also believed in one highest divine being, which they called simply “the God,” and believed that it was ultimately responsible for ordering the universe. But while they might have partially agreed with his arguments about the nature of God, they would certainly not have agreed with the way in which Aristides weaponized these observations to launch a full-blown attack on pagan belief.

After defining the nature of God, Aristides compared this God to the religious beliefs of his imagined pagan readers. How did the Greek religious system measure up to Aristides’ monotheism? Aristides admitted that the Greeks “surpass all other peoples in their manner of life and reasoning” (Apology, 13). But this wisdom did not translate into the correct understanding of God. In fact, he claimed that the Greeks had “introduced many fictitious gods” (Apology, 8). In contrast to his earlier philosophizing about God, which largely aligned with the claims of pagan monotheism, Aristides’ claim that the Gods of the Greeks were fictions was truly radical, and demanded explanation. Aristides had a variety of options for how to prove his claim. He could have simply said, as his opening implied, that since reason requires the existence of only one God, any theological system which posits the existence of multiple Gods must be false. But for Aristides, that was almost too easy. He had something bigger in mind. He wanted to prove paganism wrong on its own terms. Aristides would make his case against paganism by using the texts most highly regarded by pagans themselves: the Greek myths.

A logical point of attack was an unsavory feature of Greek myths that pagan philosophers and theologians had already been grappling with for centuries: the behavior of the gods, as depicted in the myths. As anyone who has read Homer and other Greek authors knows, the gods described in their works are often petty and spiteful at best, and vindictive and bloodthirsty at worst. But the Greek myths were not simply false but entertaining stories—they were actually the cause of great harm. The attribution of such wicked deeds to the gods caused people to commit such wickedness themselves, reasoning that if the gods did it, it was permissible for them as well. From the popularity of the myths, “Mankind have received incitements to commit adultery and fornication, and to steal and to practice all that is offensive and hated and abhorred. For if they who are called their gods practiced all these things…how much more should men practice them” (Apology, 8).

According to Aristides, the Greeks’ own myths proved that their gods were not divine, since the behaviors they described were not possible for an actual God to adopt. If real, the beings that the Greeks called gods would not be divinities, but rather destructive demons. But why ascribe to them any real existence at all? Uniquely, among early Christian writers, Aristides entirely denied the existence of the pagan deities in any form, claiming, as quoted earlier, that the Greeks had “introduced many fictitious gods” (Apology, 8). Even Paul granted demons existence in First Corinthians–a concession that Aristides was unwilling to make. The behaviors ascribed to them in the myths proved that they were simply non-existent. 

The next apologist, Justin Martyr, returned to the position that the pagan gods had real existence as demons, but it was only to condemn them far more vociferously than any Christian author before him. 

As political tracts, Justin Martyr’s First Apology and Second Apology might be the most self-defeating documents ever written. The First Apology was written as an open letter addressed to the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, his sons, and the Roman Senate. It began innocently enough, with Justin arguing that “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless” (First Apology, 2). On these grounds, Justin asked the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, to reconsider the persecution of Christians (which, having begun more than a century earlier, could justifiably be considered a “traditional opinion”). In order that Antoninus Pius might do this, Justin proposed to give him an “unexceptional” account of Christian doctrines and beliefs, which would, Justin claimed, lead to him realizing that the persecution of Christians was without reason. So far, so good.

All seemed to be going well until Justin began to speak about demons. It turned out, Justin informed his readers, that the true responsibility for the persecution of Christians lay not with the Emperor, or the Roman Senate, or any of the other political actors of the Roman Empire. The ultimate instigators of this unjust policy were evil demons, terrified that Christianity would break the hold that they had for so long enjoyed over humankind. To explain this shockingly radical claim, Justin gave an account of the origin and subsequent history of these evil demons. In the Second Apology, written also as an open letter, this time to the Roman Senate, Justin claimed that the demons were the children of angels and human women. Justin wrote that that certain angels “were captivated by love of women, and begot children who are those that are called demons” (Second Apology, 5). 

When Justin wrote that demons were the offspring of human women and angels, he was paraphrasing an idea that was at least three centuries old, and judging by the popularity of 1 Enoch, common knowledge. With this origin story for demons in place, Justin expanded on Paul’s big idea from 1 Corinthians: that the pagan gods were demons. In his letter, Paul had made the crucial identification between the two, but hadn’t provided any explanation of how these demons came to be worshipped as gods. Justin had one. He wrote: “For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves…showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself” (First Apology, 5). According to Justin, Paul had been right to equate pagan religion with demon worship. But what he didn’t say, and what Justin was now telling his readers, was that this system had been instituted by the demons themselves. Because of human ignorance and fearfulness, the demons had been able to convince unsuspecting humans that they were in fact gods.

This argument provided an answer to one of the critiques lodged against Christianity in Justin’s time: if polytheism was wrong, how had it come to be practiced by every people in the known world, with the exception of the numerically small and relatively unimportant Jews? While both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament railed against polytheism in many places, neither provided an explicit answer to this question. But Justin, drawing on the book of Enoch, had one: polytheism was conceived as a demonic plot to draw humans from worship of the true God and satisfy the demons’ whims. After sufficiently cowing humans by showing them “fearful sights,” the demons created polytheism by “teaching them [humans] to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions” (Second Apology, 5). 

Since the demons began their trickery, almost all of humanity had fallen under their spell. Justin was aware of only two instances of someone trying to break the demons’ grip. The first to see through the rites of pagan religion to their demonic foundations, according to Justin, was none other than Socrates, who “endeavored, by true reason and examination, to…deliver men from the demons” (First Apology, 5). The second assault on the power of the demons was of course that of Jesus and his followers, as had been so vividly depicted in the Gospels. And just as the demons had opposed Socrates and caused him to be persecuted and put to death, Justin claimed that “In our case [the Christians] they display a similar activity” (First Apology, 5). Even the nature of the accusation was the same. “If you continue persecuting Christians,” Justin was telling the Emperors, “you are no better than the Athenian jury that put Socrates to death.” 

These early apologies track an important developing relationship between Christianity and philosophy. Justin’s apologies left Christian intellectual culture an invaluable argumentative tool, which would form the basis of Christian polemic for as long as paganism was a live rival to the Church. But he also linked Christian thinkers with their philosophical precursors in Greece and their primary philosophical goal: using “true reason and examination, to… deliver men from the demons” (First Apology, 5). Given the dearth of early Christian philosophical work, it makes sense that these few philosophers would have had a disproportionate impact— one that would begin to mold a relationship between Christianity and philosophy in traditions to come.  

Leave a Reply