BMCR 2000.07.07

Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews and Christians

, , , , Apologetics in the Roman Empire : pagans, Jews, and Christians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. x, 315 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198269862 $82.00.

“The only modern scholars … to whom the apologists mean anything are those who take a sympathetic interest in the culture and the interplay of religious tradition in the Roman empire”, offer the editors as an invitation to this volume. They also make the declaration that genre is more usefully treated as “a way of talking about the strategies of writers (and readers) in different cultural traditions and particular contemporary situations” than as a consistent form of composition. These considerations set these essays, written by notable specialists, in a promising context. The results range from interesting to provocative, though it is less clear that the collection works as a unified volume, notwithstanding the extent of mutual reference between the chapters.

The editors open with a survey of the key features of the ‘genre’: we encounter the specific effects of cultural variation within the Empire (notably the East/West distinctions), the establishment of boundaries between Christian and Jewish traditions, issues of audience and the relative lack of interest since antiquity in apologetic material. Thus the editors, rightly but also effectively, do much of the work that might otherwise have fallen to the individual contributors. The only criticism that can be made of this useful and insightful essay is one that applies to almost the whole volume: where is the paganism so prominent in the title and implicit in the choice of arena?

Loveday Alexander begins with ‘ The Acts of the Apostles as an Apologetic Text’. To open, she schematises various options for classifying Acts and the various claims thereby made before adducing drama as a key to understanding the fictive / narrative nature of the text. She then proceeds to tackle the problems that arise from the different audiences assumed by different scholars. A. demonstates clearly that simple and all-embracing schemes leave us in aporia. A. suggests that “[to understand] the rhetorical strategies of this text, we must begin by paying more serious attention to the details of structure and surface texture.” She points out that Acts is, in a sense, a series of apologetic scenarios and the majority of the proposed classifications are found to apply to (only) one or other such scenes. A. also highlights that one issue in particular is specifically not addressed; namely, that Christians cause civil unrest. A. argues, if my reading is correct, that this issue is dealt with, not directly, but by a shift of emphasis to a theological argument which implies (and I infer, rather than paraphrase) that the difficulties caused by conversion to Christianity are worth the trouble. A.’s recasting of Acts as essentially narrative-based leads her to address the apparent absence of closure in the narrative, whereby Paul’s appeal to Caesar is left unanswered: there, appeal to Jewish and Old Testament precedents demonstrates that the key concern of the text is to “provide a biblical explanation for Judaism’s failure to respond to the Gospel, and a prophetic model for the theological puzzle of a divinely inspired message which fails to convince its target audience… Acts is a dramatized narrative of an intra-communal debate, a plea for a fair hearing at the bar of the wider Jewish community in the Diaspora, perhaps especially in Rome.”

This is A.’s attempt to pin down a specific audience and seems perfectly workable: what distracts is that she has already explored several other cogent possibilities (e.g. “Luke’s narrative…inscribes his God into the Mediterranean landscape of street and harbour, city and sea, just as Chariton’s novel inscribed the power of Aphrodite into the same landscape”: her essay as a whole therefore resists the expected closure just like its subject. Just as Acts seems to admit of multiple audiences for different scenarios, so too may A. find herself quoted for a variety of different, even contradictory, purposes.

In ‘Josephus’ Treatise Against Apion‘, Martin Goodman picks out the circular logic of assigning Against Apion to a tradition of Alexandrian Jewish apologetics (itself inferred in an unblemished circular argument from the existence of this text) and argues convincingly that there are better reasons for a Roman context in the 90s CE; as for intentions, the wave of anti-Jewish propaganda that followed the destruction of the Temple seems the likeliest prompt. Nor is Goodman unaware of the courage that was required to take up such a stance and gives Josephus appropriate credit. Against Apion is more convincing as “a response by one author to particular pressures at a specific time” than as the sole survivor of a whole tradition.

Tessa Rajak further explores the Jewish angle in her ‘Talking at Trypho: Christian Apologetic as Anti-Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew’. After a strong attack on those who have found the text ‘friendly’ (“it is fair to say that readers have been remarkably unwilling to acknowledge the sheer vituperative dimension of the dialogue”) she deftly illustrates the complex interaction first with philosophy, and then with Judaism, and especially Jewish millenarianism. The various options for audience and purpose are listed methodically and the likelihood of a Christian audience with one eye on the Jews found the easiest to sustain. The essay ends with insights about the social and cultural role of such texts: Justin’s Dialogue was as much about reinforcing a sense of exclusive community as serious religious debate.

Frances Young’s ‘Greek Apologists of the Second Century’ moves to a collection of writers, including Justin, where she finds that social identity and a sense of exclusion are telling factors: “literary genre is not the best way of characterizing what the second-century Greek apologists have in common. They write in various genres, and their object was not simply defending themselves against charges. Their common intent is justification of an anomalous social position, whether in the eyes of others or themselves, whether in real live courtroom situations or more informally.” There is discussion of Justin (including the Dialogue discussed so extensively by Rajak, but apparently without Y. being entirely convinced by her arguments), Tatian, Athenagoras, the writer of the The Epistle to Diognetus and Theophilus. The rival claims made for Moses and Homer in these authors are dealt with and then, interestingly, the ongoing relevance of the philosophical and theological Cicero in these later times. With this broad scope, Y. can chart the process of moving from religion as traditional ethnic customs to a belief system requiring adherence.

Simon Price expands the discussion of the genre in ‘Latin Christian Apologetics: Minucius Felix, Tertullian and Cyprian’. He stresses that to count as apologetic, a text must be directed at outsiders: “apologies are necessarily a response of some sort to criticism.” His subjects are five of Tertullian’s treatises, Minucius Felix and Cyprian. In dealing with Tertullian, P. distinguishes between To The Nations and the Apology, often somewhat conflated, largely by reference to their addressees and arguments. His initial general conclusions are measured: he speaks of “generic similarities in the positions of Christians during this period” (with significant variations), “overlapping responses” and “varied forms of communication”. In other words these works “did not constitute a formal genre of apologetic”. He moves on to consider the predecessors of these texts. Tertullian, not least by his choice of terminology, is alluding to Greek predecessors: philosophy in these authors is also examined, and the relative lack of Christian doctrine noted. In conclusion, P. finds that there is a greater interest in Rome, even the possibility of some reconciliation with Rome, especially if we read Tertullian, for whom Christianity offered the possibility of an emperor chosen by God (whereas Cyprian saw a weary world in decline).

Michael Frede continues the focus on Christianity in dealing with “Origen’s Treatise Against Celsus“. Interestingly, Celsus’ supposedly important text is found to be a rather incoherent and obsure treatise, answered only after several decades at the request of Ambrosius by an Origen who found the original almost impossible to answer in an orderly manner. To add insult to injury, by the time Origen replied, Celsus’ was a text that had become rather irrelevant or at least inadequate. Even the intended audience (according to Frede, well-off and educated Christians) might not have gained the edification originally intended by an increasingly frustrated polemicist.

Simon Swain is the token pagan in dealing with “Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, In Honour of Apollonius.” S. argues that only at this point did it become necessary for Hellenism to consider its position as anything but obvious and eternal. He then gives a useful overview of prominent philosophers who facilitated the (re)introduction of Pythagoreanism into Platonism, before discussing Philostratus’ work. Two key areas of interest are identified: firstly the defence of philosophy as a way of life and then the more ambitious and diffuse project of establishing the cultural superiority of Greek philosophy over all opponents. S. is right to identify this text as a watershed in the nascent self-articulation of paganism and makes quite a number of useful points along the way, emphasising (to pick one example) the fact that the marriage of religion and philosophy was a construct rather than a ‘natural given’. He ends by highlighting what was surely one of the key difficulties in effecting this process: Hellenism, in the form of Apollonius, had nothing to learn.

Mark Edwards follows up Price’s consideration of pre-Constantinian Latin apologists with “The Flowering of Latin Apologetic: Lactantius and Arnobius.” His wide-ranging discussion demonstrates the erudition of these writers and underlines their insistence that Christianity was the natural heir and fulfilment of the mos maiorum, with the empire as the work of God on earth rather than the twisted creation of devils and corruption. Paganism suffers the inevitable all-out attacks but the redefinitions go further: Lactantius and Arnobius do not write as members of a city state but rather identify themselves with a philosophical faith and contrast themselves with both their pagan neighbours and Jewish critics. Thus, the cultural focus pays dividends here, as elsewhere in the volume, although it can become a little confusing as E. rapidly alternates back and forth in his focus on his chosen authors.

Penultimately, Michael Frede returns on the topic of “Eusebius’ Apologetic Writings”. Here there is perhaps the fullest and most far-reaching discussion of apologetics within the works of one author, with characteristic insight into the specifics of the problem. Not least among these is the fact that an apology in the conventional (i.e. forensic) sense is meaningless for a Christian accused of what was a capital offense, as legally they were guilty. As previously, definitions are scrutinised: like most of the scholars here, Frede intelligently refuses to throw any babies out with bathwater even though Eusebius’ use of the term apologia is more specific than many other authors covered here: “Eusebius himself stresses that apologiai… comprise writings of quite different literary genres”. The able bishop’s subtle endeavours to supercede and integrate Platonism are then listed, with some skillful response to Porphyry adduced as part of a demonstration that Eusebius is addressing an audience that both cherished Greek culture and was also well-disposed to Platonism as an ‘also-ran’ in the attempt to espouse the truth that was only fully revealed in Scripture. Thus Eusebius chose a rather narrow and less than numerous audience for the Preparation and the Demonstration.

Finally Mark Edwards returns to discuss “The Constantine Circle and the Oration to the Saints“. His specific focus is Constantine’s celebrated authorship of the Oration which he reaffirms by reference to a summary of the contents, Latin (rather than Greek) composition, Latin theology, the ‘Roman Venue’, the ‘Political Occasion’ and ‘The Constantinian Circle’. Internal references collude to point towards the recently victorious Augustus of 314 as the author, Rome as the setting, and Lactantius as an influence. What hints at radical revision is E.’s conclusion that “The Oration to the Saints reveals an emperor who was able to give more substance to his faith than many clerics, and an apologist whose breadth of view and fertile innovations make it possible to rank him with the more eminent theologians of his age.” Some history books, at least, will need to be rewritten.

Taken individually the standard of these essays is high: with varying controversy, they are focussed on the avowed intentions of the editors and manage both to act as introductions and advanced discussions of the selected texts. One question is left unanswered though: what happened to the pagans? It is symptomatic that the index omits “the pagan works which are referred to incidentally in the course of the book”, even though Young had argued cogently to consider the lasting influence of Cicero. Did it not occur to anyone except Philostratus that some kind of reiteration of their values was necessary? Pagan apologetic should have come later, after the victory of Constantine, so some chronological adjustment would have to be made: but what makes the issue more complex is precisely that question that gave birth to this volume, namely that of genre. If pagans did not apparently take up the mantle of apologetic, what did they do? This might have been explored with the same open-mindedness that was brought to the texts included here. Over a decade ago, Rike1 argued of Ammianus Marcellinus that “I believe that in Rome, ultimately, we find a militant pagan who was striving to rescue the pieces of her heroic religion out of the shattering crash of Julian”: the revision of genre along lines of intention and strategy in preference over form was surely a good opportunity to adjust to the pagan preference for religious practices integrated with other aspects of a full and cultured life, as was seen in the case of Philostratus.

If historiography seemed too far from the traditional form of apologetic for this volume (notwithstanding the fact that the editors intended to explode the classification of the genre by form in favour of intention and strategy), then surely Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews and Christians should have addressed the relative absence of pagan apologetic. Did they really go down with so little fight as the scope of this volume suggests?


1. Rike, R. L. (1987) Apex Omnium: Religion in the Res Gestae of Ammianus (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London), 7.