Frances Young’s chapter, “Greek Apologists of the Second Century,” found in “Apologetics in the Roman Empire,” is a study of many of the earliest Christian apologists.
Justin Martyr (100-165) is the first to be treated, and his First and Second Aoplogy are among the earliest Christian apologetic treatises in existence. Writing from Rome, Justin addresses a number of charges made against Christians as though they were on trial (82-83). His first goal is to demand a fair hearing for Christianity, calling on those Romans who were pious to look upon Christian piety and those who were philosophers to love the truth and hear it from Justin. Then, he offers a challenge to the practice of condemning Christians for their beliefs while also trying to show the superiority of Christian ethics and beliefs (83).
Tatian (120-180) was a pupil of Justin Martyr and was from the East, though thoroughly Hellenized (85). Tatian follows his tutor in offering a plea in his Oration to the Greeks for fairness to Christians, but he includes in his own apology an attack on idolatry. He is among the first who argued that the good found in Greek philosophy, mythology, and the like were, in fact, derived from Moses, whom Tatian argued came before Moses. While Justin offered a kind of supersessionist view of Judaism, Young argues that Tatian did the same with regards to Hellenism.
The Epistle to Diognetus is difficult to place regarding time and authorship, having been spuriously assigned to Justin Martyr. After a survey of the possible origins of the work, Young notes that it is worth reviewing because it offers reasons for inquirers to understand “why Christians reject ‘the deities revered by the Greeks'” while also going so far as to “make light of death itself” (88). It is less a defense of these beliefs than it is a call to join in joyful acceptance of these beliefs as truths.
A major aspect of the defenses these early works offered was to argue that Christianity had robust ties with the ancient past, rather than being an entirely new faith. Thus, many Greek apologists argued the Hebrew Scriptures were more ancient and correct than the writings of Homer and other classics, even while dismissing Judaism as superstition or as something completely replaced by Christianity. This reflects the importance of tailoring the message of Christianity to one’s audience. At the time, any new belief was seen as deeply suspicious, while ancient beliefs were better established and more likely to be true. Regardless of whether or not these apologists were correct, they knew their context and offered an apologetic that suited it.
In our own time, it is easy to see some of these apologetics works as simplistic or useless–what has Rome to do with us? But it is worth seeing the major theme of exhortation tied into these early works. Justin Martyr called on philosophers of his time to truly act as though they were lovers of truth, which would mean they had to at least give a hearing to beliefs they might otherwise have rejected outright. In our own time, Christianity is sometimes dismissed for scientific or ethical reasons, but could we not take insight from Justin Martyr and others by offering a similar exhortation? We might say, “If you are lovers of knowledge, how can you reject even the chance of finding some new truth?”
- What insights might these early apologists have for us today?
- In what ways can the Christian apologist tailor their defense of Christianity to the needs of their time and place? How might we do so now, where we are at?
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Apologetics Read-Through: Historical Apologetics Read-Along– Here are links for the collected posts in this series and other read-throughs of apologetics books (forthcoming).
Dead Apologists Society– A page for Christians interested in the works of historical apologetics. There is also a Facebook group for it.
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