BMCR 2011.05.32

Critique and Apologetics: Jews, Christians, and Pagans in Antiquity. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity 4

, , , Critique and Apologetics: Jews, Christians, and Pagans in Antiquity. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity 4. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. 327. ISBN 9783631580110. $64.95.

The volume under review presents the results of a conference, held in 2007, which marked the final stages of a larger research project at the University of Aarhus in Denmark that had started in 2000, called ‘Jews, Christians and Pagans in Antiquity – Critique and Apologetics’. This project examined the dialogues and conflicts between religious groups in the period between circa 100 B.C. and A.D. 500 in order to acquire a deeper understanding of apologetic literature (whereby they also included those texts that traditionally might not have been regarded as apologetic). The project has taken three phases into account: the pre-Constantine epoch, the Constantinian revolution, and the post-Constantinian era. The thirteen contributions in the volume focus for the most part on issues that deal with the concept and genre of the apologetics, as well as the writings that can be connected to these three phases.

For the past decades there has been much discussion about the question whether apologetic writings should be considered as constituting a genre of their own. Even though there seems to be a communis opinio, that argues that we should not speak of an apologetic genre proper (represented by scholars such as Averil Cameron, Frances Young, or Michael Fiedrowicz), Petersen opens the volume with a contribution that offers an attempt to develop a typology (based on Alastair Fowler’s theories on genre) that allows apologetic writings to be analyzed within a tripartite typology of genre that consists of kind or historical genre, subgenre and mode. Genre classifications remain scholarly constructs (Barclay on p. 270), and scholars might disagree with Petersen’s examination of apologetics as a genre. Pollmann, for example, argues that apologetics ‘cannot just be linked to specific literary genre but is also a technique or mode of thought to be encountered in all sorts of literary genres’ (p. 324). Nevertheless, many would agree that these writings display certain strong elements of similarity as they ‘always imply an aspect of self-introduction, self-definition, and self-representation’ (Ulrich on p. 211).

Leaving the discussion about genre behind, it is important to choose an approach to the apologetic writings from which one can develop one’s ideas about these writings. Although most often the notion of conflict has been chosen for these analyses of the texts, in her contribution Lieu offers concepts of multiple identities and of ‘mobilisers’ (theory of Michael Banton) which have come from the field of cultural anthropology and sociology as possible tools for the exploration of the inter-relationship between Jews, Christians and pagans. Furthermore, one could also opt for an examination of the apologetic writings based on comparisons with other types of works to come to an understanding of apologetics. Several contributions in the volume under review present such comparisons. Engberg’s analysis of martyr texts, for example, demonstrates how, apart from containing similar charges against Christians, these texts show striking similarities with the apologetic writings, even though perhaps in the martyr texts presented in a much more condensed fashion, which has led other scholars to believe that martyr texts came from a lower milieu in society (a point that Engberg disagrees with). Similarly, Ulrich’s examination of the links between apologetics and orthodoxy, Aland’s evaluation of the works of Gnostics and Apologists, and Perrone’s analysis of prayer and cult in various religious traditions further demonstrate how comparisons with different genres or religious phenomena offer fruitful avenues into a multi-layered assessment of apologetic writings. Such an assessment needs to pay attention to the issue of audience as well, since there can be a complex set of different types of audiences for whom the purpose of the apologetic writings must have varied. The audience could come from within and be part of the religious movement that felt it was attacked by outsiders, but it could also be part of the outside that had launched the attack. In either case, the apologetics offered could be regarded as a defense against the unjust charges, or as an attempt to show why Christianity for instance was the only true religion to which one should convert (Jacobsen).

Although the volume centers strongly on the Christian apologetics, two contributions specifically concentrate on the Jewish traditions of apologetics, which fits well into the larger focus of the Aarhus project. Wischmeyer´s examination of criticism of Judaism in Greco-Roman literary sources between the late fourth century B.C. and the early second century A.D. demonstrates that, because this criticism never advanced beyond the level of observing that the Jews and their religion were ‘different’ ( nos versus ( vos), ancient authors consequently never took up a serious literary debate about the reasons behind these differences. Furthermore, even though rabbinic literature has by its nature been considered to be non-apologetic, the closer analysis by Avermarie shows that within the rabbinic literary tradition one can trace what he would call ‘apologetic awareness’. Here, the view from the outside, i.e. from a non-apologetic genre such as the rabbinic literature, can nevertheless offer more insights into the apologetic works by presenting a type of mirror image.

Whereas many of the contributions focused on general lines of investigation, four papers took up specific works or passages from the ancient authors. These more philological investigations complete the variety of the level of analyses in the volume. For instance, the more in-depth examination of Barclay of Josephus’ Contra Apionem shows that Josephus explicitly placed his work in the context of polemics in the ancient world in an attempt to prove the supremacy of Judean traditions. Becker’s analysis of the polemical and satirical elements in Revelations 2-3 that contain the Seven Letters to the communities in Asia Minor leads to deeper insights into apologetic literature. Furthermore a closer reading of Lactantius’ Institutiones divinae and in particular of passage 5.19.29 by Khalos demonstrates how Lactantius carefully crafted a dichotomy between the Christian and the Roman religion, whereby the importance of this dichotomy should be seen in the images he presented, whetehr or not such images were true. Finally, Pollmann closes the volume with her contribution on Augustine’s City of God, which might be considered a type of super-apology and which shows how Augustine applauded the fact that views of his opponents on the one hand dictated his answers, but on the other hand also offered opportunities to present his own religion both by way of content and by way of method (although method should be considered a more lasting contribution of the early apologists than content).

Although collections of papers from a conference are often criticized for their lack of uniformity (as organizers of conferences can never easily control the contents of the papers given at these events, this lack of consistency seems to be inherent to these volumes for which editors should therefore never feel the need to apologize), this volume should be praised for a clear level of consistency, as a common thread throughout the diverse contributions is the interpretation of apologetic writings from various perspectives. Therefore, anyone interested in the apologetic writings should take note of this volume, as the range of issues and topics dealt with leads to meaningful insights in these types of writings that are part of the literary Jewish, Christian and pagan traditions.