Reading: The Age of the Apologists A.D. 117-180 (The Early Church, Chapter 5)


The Early Church by James Orr



The period of the Apologists is covered by the three remaining names in our list of the "Good Emperors." They are Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180). The period is marked externally by intermittent, but severe persecution of the Christians, and by the commencement of written attacks on Christianity. Inside the Church, this time is noted for the rise of apology or apologetics (the defense of the Faith to those outside the Church), and the development of Gnosticism and Montanism. Despite persecution, the remarkable progress of the Church is continued. 

              Hadrian and Antoninus Pius 

 The attitude of the versatile emperor Hadrian, in whose reign written apology began, was, on the whole, neutral to Christianity.  However, there is evidence that both in his reign and that of his successor, the Christians were continually exposed to harassment and outbreaks of violence. An official edict of the emperor to the proconsul of Asia, whose predecessor had written, much as Pliny did, to ask direction, forbids him to receive unjustified accusations, or to yield to popular outcry. If Christians are proved to break the laws, they are to be punished. But those who simply accused the Christians for no reason are to be punished still more severely. 

Hadrian nominated Antoninus to succeed him. This emperor is better known (from his dutifulness in insisting on the deification of Hadrian) as Antoninus Pius. During his reign of 23 years, Marcus Aurelius, his nephew was closely associated with Antonius. Antoninus was, however, the acting and responsible emperor. His moderation, uprightness, and approachable disposition are the praise of all historians. His reign has commonly been regarded as free from the stain of persecution of the Church. This is a mistake, though it appears the emperor himself was not to blame.

The two Apologies of Justin Martyr, and his Dialogue with Trypho -- all written during this reign -- are positive evidence that Christians were everywhere objects of hatred and persecution, and had to endure losses, tortures, and death for their faith. 

Melito of Sardis, another apologist, speaks of numerous edicts issued by Antoninus forbidding various cities to take new measures against the Christians. This shows that the emperor both knew of these persecutions, and, in accordance with his humane character, took steps to check their violence. 

            The Martyrdom of Polycarp 

We have one undoubted instance of martyrdom in this reign. The details, preserved in a contemporary narrative, illuminate the whole story. Polycarp of Smyrna has already been mentioned in connection with Ignatius.  We know little of his earlier life. Since he was eighty-six years old at the time of his martyrdom in A.D. 155; he may have been born A.D. 69 or 70. He was a disciple of St. John, in Asia Minor, and often repeated to the youthful Irenaeus who, in turn, was his disciple the things he had heard from the apostle. 

The account of his martyrdom is given in a beautiful letter of the Church of which he was bishop. The great festival of Asia was being held at Smyrna. Some cause had aroused the fury of the populace against the Christians. The Jews are specially mentioned as active in the persecution. 

Several Christians had already perished as they had dreadful torments inflicted, when the cry went up, "Let search be made for Polycarp." Polycarp at first concealed himself, then, on his retreat being discovered, surrendered himself to the will of God. On the way to the city he was taken up into the chariot of the captain of police, who, along with his father, urged Polycarp to recant. Failing in their object, they thrust him out of the chariot with violence. When Polycarp arrived at the stadium, he was ordered by the proconsul, "Swear by the genius of Caesar; say. Away with the Atheists!" Polycarp, looking to heaven, said, "Away with the Atheists!" "Revile Christ," urged the proconsul. "Fourscore and six years have I served Him," was the memorable reply, "and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" The herald proclaimed, "Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian," and the cry rose to have a lion let loose on him. But the games were ended. The shout then was that he should be burned alive. Polycarp, at his own request, was only bound, not nailed to the stake. It seemed for a time to the wondering by-standers as though the fire refused to touch him. To end the scene, an executioner was ordered to stab him. The malice of the Jews frustrated even the desire of the brethren for possession of his body, which was consumed. The bishop's death stopped the persecution, and probably sent many home to think, with the consequence that they became Christians too. Such, at least, we know to have been a frequent outcome of these martyrdoms. 

                   The Age of the Antonines 

Marcus Aurelius is the classic representative of his age. Vespasian, in the previous century, had instituted a salaried hierarchy of teachers -- rhetoricians, grammarians, philosophers -- who were to give public lectures for the Roman populace to lead them into wisdom and virtue.  The result was a kind of ethical, philosophical, and even religious revival in the empire. Paganism had its itinerant preachers whose orations or rants were the counterparts of the Christian sermons. These tendencies came to a head in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. For once in the world's history, Plato's dream of a state which had a philosopher for its ruler, and was governed by philosophical sayings, seemed about to be realized. 

Personally, Marcus is justly thought of as one of the noblest characters of heathenism. His Meditations embody the highest ideal of stoical morality, in union with a firm confidence in a rational ordering of the world, which is a characteristic of the later Stoicism. Yet it is the Stoic, not the Christian ideal. It lacks the tenderness, humility, dependence, kindliness, and hopefulness of the Christian spirit. There was inevitably antagonism between Christianity, with its confession of sin and moral weakness, and Aurelius, with his philosophy of self-sufficiency, passive resignation, the suppression of passion, and cheerless fatalism. There is one allusion to Christianity in the Meditations (11. 3), and it drips with icy contempt. Marcus, too, was a devoted Roman, fixed in his determination to maintain the established institutions. His character had its strain of superstition, and it is noted of him that in his later years his gloomy disposition grew. He became peculiarly zealous in heathen worship practices. It is not surprising, therefore, that, even under this exemplary emperor, "Christian blood flowed more freely than it had flowed any time during the previous half century." 

It is to Marcus Aurelius that we attribute what is known as 


             Persecutions under Marcus  

      The Martyrs of Vienna and Lyons 

There is one story told of Marcus which, if it could be believed, would clear his memory in part of the stain of persecution. It is the story of the Thundering Legion. Tertullian and others relate that in one of his campaigns the army was in extreme distress from thirst. The Christian soldiers of the twelfth legion prayed, and, in answer to their prayers, abundant showers of rain fell, and a violent storm drove away the enemy. At the end of Justin's first Apology is an epistle alleged to be from the emperor to the senate. In it he credits his deliverance to the prayers of the Christians, and commanding that they be no more molested. Over the last century the epistle  has come to be considered not genuine. It seems certain that the deliverance took place, only the heathen attributed it, not to the prayers of the Christians, but to the work of their own gods. In the pagan account, Marcus is represented as stretching his hands to heaven, and invoking Jupiter. 

There are several items of evidence of persecution and of the emperor's implication in it in this period.  At Rome itself there is the case of Justin Martyr and his six companions who suffered under the prefect Rusticus about A.D. 163-66.  The emperor was likely aware of this case. There is the testimony of Melito of Sardis (c. A.D. 170) to a very severe persecution in Asia Minor. He speaks of God's servants being persecuted as they never were before by "new edicts" which gave the property of Christians to their accusers. Melito himself doubts whether these edicts were issued by the emperor. A proconsul, however, would not issue such "edicts" over his own signature. Even the heathen Celsus, who wrote during the reign of Marcus, speaks of Christ as banished from every land and sea, and of His servants as bound and led to punishment, and put upon the stake. 

But the chief persecution we know of is that of the Churches of Vienna and Lyons in Gaul.  These stand out in the blending of the horrible and the sublime.  It was a case in which Marcus Aurelius was expressly consulted, and gave his approval to what was done. The account of it is contained in an epistle addressed by the Churches to their brothers in Asia and Phrygia. This circular epistle (a letter intended to be read by several recipients) has been called "the pearl of the Christian literature of the second century."  

Lyons and Vienna were two cities of Gaul where the Rhone and the Saone join. Lyons was a great seat of Caesar worship, and the place of the annual meeting of the Gallic deputies in council. The persecution was in A.D. 177, during the closing troubles of Marcus's reign. It began with acts of mob-violence; then the prominent persons of the two Churches were arrested. They were dragged with clamor and insult before the tribunals. Torture beyond description was used against the Christians to make them confess to secret crimes, but to no avail. 

Four names stand out as conspicuous for heroism and constancy -- Sanctus, a deacon from Vienna; Maturus, a recent convert; Attains, from Pergamus; and, above all, Blandina, a slave girl, whose mistress was also one of the martyrs. Blandina was torn and mangled almost beyond recognition without getting from her more than the words, "I am a Christian; there is nothing vile done among us." The 90 year old bishop Pothinus was dragged before the judgment seat, and there so cruelly maltreated that, when cast into prison, he lingered only two days.  A new round of torments was devised for the others -- mangling by wild beasts, roasting in an iron chair, etc. Blandina was suspended on a stake and exposed to the attacks of wild animals. But they refused to touch her. Attains, a Roman citizen, was reserved till Caesar's pleasure should be known. 

The final scene of the martyrdom was on the day of the great festival. The emperor's reply had come, ordering that such as confessed themselves Christians should be put to death. All who proved steadfast were brought forth to punishment. The Romans were beheaded; the rest were taken to the amphitheater. Again the round of frightful torture was applied to them. Attains, as a specially notable Christian, was, despite his Roman citizenship, roasted in the chair. Blandina herself, after renewed manglings and burnings, was enclosed in a net and given to be tossed by a bull. Thus, last of all her company, she perished. 

 The rage of the people wreaked itself even on the lifeless remains of the victims. To prevent resurrection they burned them, and scattered the ashes in the Rhone. What strikes one in the pathetic narrative of these sufferings is its tone of calm sobriety -- its utter absence of boasting, or spiritual pride, or over-eager desire for martyrdom. 

             The Rise of Apology 

The rise of a written apology (a carefully reasoned defense) for Christianity in this age is a fact of great significance. It shows that Christianity had entered literary circles. It also shows the growing boldness of the Christians, and their confidence in their ability to refute slander and conquer prejudice by an openly-reasoned statement of their case. They had the world against them; but their invincible reliance was on the power of truth. They were ready to lay down their lives as before; but they would not allow the world to remain in blindness as to the nature of the faith it was attacking. The apologists set themselves to vindicate Christianity, and to expose the folly and immorality of the idolatry which opposed it. 

The apologetic literature of the second century, therefore, is both extensive and rich. It covers a wide area in space. Its authors are men of culture and learning who were skilled at reasoning.  Many of them were philosophers by profession, who, at the cost of their future prospects, put their talent and eloquence at the service of the faith they had espoused. The literature breathes a tone of dignity and conviction. It must have been a powerful factor in aiding the progress of the Christianity it describes so strikingly. 

Such an apology was demanded, if by nothing else, by the slanders in circulation about the Christians. It was almost universally believed that Christians were cannibals who were sexually promiscuous, and who worshiped a donkey's head. The Apologists carefully refuted these charges. They made an effective reply to the charges of impiety and lack of loyalty. Meanwhile the demonstration of the truth and reasonableness of Christian doctrine, and of the purity and simplicity of Christian worship and morality, is starkly shown by contrast with the dark background of heathen irreligion and vice. 

The apologists may be grouped as those belonging to the reign of Hadrian -Quadratus and Aristides.  Those who lived and wrote during the reign of Antoninus--Justin and Tatian.   And those from the time of Marcus Aurelius --Athenagoras, Theophilus, Melito, Minucius, and Felix. Tertullian and Origen belong to the next period. 

          The Earlier Apologists -- Justin Martyr 

The oldest apologist, Quadratus, is little more than a name to us.  He addressed an apology to the Emperor Hadrian possibly from Athens, A.D. 125-26(?).  Only a single extract is preserved. He lays stress upon the Savior's miracles. The other apologist of this reign, Aristides, was even more completely unknown. It was only known that he was a philosopher of Athens, and had also presented an apology to Hadrian (A.D. 125-26). However, in the late 1800's a complete Syriac version of this apology was discovered. Then the remarkable discovery was made that scholars had this apology all the while, and were not aware of the fact. In a famous mediaeval romance, Barlaam and Josaphat, an apology for Christianity is put into the mouth of one of the characters. This turns out to be substantially the apology of Aristides, by this means the Greek text has been obtained. The apology is mainly a defense of theism against the errors of paganism, and a powerful vindication of Christian morality. It testifies to the existence of a written Gospel. 

Greatest of all the apologists of this period whose works have come down to us is Justin the Martyr. From him we have two Apologies addressed to Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate (c. A.D. 150), and a Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, a little later in date.

Justin was a native of Flavia Neapolis in Samaria. In the introduction to his Dialogue he narrates the manner of his conversion. He had gone from one philosophical school to another in search of truth. A conversation with an old man whom he met on the seashore directed him to the Scriptures and to Christ. He became persuaded that here was the only sure and worthy philosophy.  Justin then set himself to impart to others the light he had obtained. We find him at Ephesus and Rome teaching and disputing in his double capacity of philosopher and Christian. His disputes brought him into collision with one Crescens, a cynic, who plotted to kill Justin along with his followers. Through the scheming of this man, he and six companions were apprehended. Brought before the prefect Rusticus, they were condemned to death by beheading. (A.D. 163-66). 

Justin's First Apology is primarily a nobly conceived and admirably sustained piece of argument. It consists of three parts -- the first refutes the charges against the Christians, the second proves the truth of the Christian faith by appealing to prophecy, the third explains the nature of the Christian worship. 

The second apology was evoked by an especially shameful instance of persecution. 

The Dialogue with Trypho is the account of a long disputation at Ephesus with a liberal-minded Jew, and meets his objections to Christianity. 

Incidentally, Justin's writings throw valuable light on many matters of importance. For example, he mentions the existence and use of the canonical Gospels, called by him the "Memoirs of the Apostles,” speaks of the victorious spread of Christianity, and comments on the details of the Christian weekly worship service.

The picture of a worship service is singularly life-like and minute. The day of worship, as in Pliny, is Sunday, the service is under the direction of a "president."

The reading of the Prophets and the Gospels is an established part of the service. Then the president delivers a "homily" or discourse, the congregation rise at prayer, and respond to the prayer of the president with an "Amen." The Lord's Supper is celebrated at the close of the prayer after sermon. The distribution of the elements is done by the deacons, who take portions to those who are absent, after the Supper offerings are made for the poor, the sick, prisoners, etc. 

The other apologist of the reign of Antoninus is Tatian, an Assyrian by birth, and disciple of Justin's. He afterwards fell into gnostic heresy.  Tatian's apologetic work is an Address to the Greeks (A.D. 150), learned, but bitter, biting, and contemptuous in spirit. He is better known through his famous Diatessaron, or "Harmony of the Four Gospels," the discovery of which in its complete form in an Arabic translation is one of the sensations of the late 1800's. This finally establishes the character of the "Gospels" described by Justin as in use in the Churches. 

       Later Apologists

The apologists of the reign of Marcus Aurelius can be more rapidly enumerated.

The first, Athanagoras, was, like Aristides, a philosopher of Athens. He is the most polished and classical in style of all the apologists. His apology, entitled an Intercession for the Christians (A.D. 177), is chiefly devoted to the refutation of the charges against the Christians (atheism, eating human flesh, immorality), and is a piece of calm, reasonable, effective pleading. He also wrote a work on the Resurrection. 

Theophilos, Bishop of Antioch, belongs to the severe school of apologists. He wrote an apology in three books addressed to his friend Autolychus (c. A.D. 180). He can see no good in the philosophers and poets, whose errors and contradictions he shows in detail. The few grains of truth he finds in them were stolen, he thinks, from the Hebrew prophets. He has some forcible chapters on the purity and beauty of Christian morality. Theophilos is the first to mention the Gospel of St. John by name. The Gospel itself was in use long before. It was included, e.g., in the Diatessaron of Tatian. 

Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c. A.D. 170), has been quoted on the edicts of emperors. His apology to Marcus Aurelius is known only from extracts. It is characteristic of the age that, in addressing the emperor, he speaks of the new religion as "our philosophy." Melito wrote numerous other works. To him we owe also the first Christian list of the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e., of the Old Testament canon. 

                  Other Writers

A passing allusion should be made to two other writers of note in this age--

Hegesippus, who wrote five books of Memoirs some time between A.D. 175 and A.D. 189 ; and Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth (c. 170), whose fame rests chiefly on his pastoral epistles, of which he wrote a great many.

The works of both are lost, but Eusebius has preserved valuable extracts. The Memoirs of Hegesippus were not history in the strict sense, but appear to have been a collection of reminiscences of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages, drawn partly from written, partly from oral sources, in part also from the writer's own observation. The author was extensively traveled, and the information he had to convey would, if we possessed it, be extremely useful. 

               The Literary Attack on Christianity

No sketch of the literature of this period would be complete which, besides a survey of the apologists, did not include some reference to the literary opposition to Christianity. It is another testimony to the growing importance of Christianity that the age which saw the rise of a formal Christian apology saw also the beginnings of a formal literary attack on Christianity of exceptional skill and keenness. The earliest of the literary assailants we know of was Fronto, tutor of Marcus Aurelius, who published an oration in which he reiterated the scandalous charges brought against the Christians. His argument is thought to be embodied in the discourse of Caecilius in the Octavius of Minucius Felix. 

A more formidable assailant was Celsus, whose True Discourse (c, A.D. 180) was the subject of Origen's later classical refutation in his Eight Books against Celsus (A.D. 249). Celsus is probably to be identified with a man thought to be an Epicurean of that name, an able literary man, and friend of Lucian. Of wide reading and undeniable perceptiveness, he goes to great pains to damage and discredit the Christians, while acquitting them of the deeper slanders that were current. He first introduces a Jew to gather up the slanders of the synagogue; then in his own name subjects the Gospel history and beliefs of the Christians to criticism and ridicule from the standpoint of his own philosophy. Everything in Christianity -- particularly its doctrine of redemption --is an offense to him. It is fair to say of his work that it was as sharp an assault as any that has since come from the artillery of unbelief. Yet, as far as can be seen, it had no influence in stopping the triumphant march of Christianity. Its obvious unfairness and utter insensibility to the holy love and power of the Christian religion, deprived it of all effect on those that knew from experience what Christianity was. 

Another typical opponent of Christianity in this age was the skeptical and witty Lucian of Samosata. In his Peregrinus Proteus he describes how a cynic charlatan succeeded in imposing on the Christians, and was made the object of their lavish kindness when in prison for his faith. Yet the picture he draws of the attentions of Christians to their unfortunate brethren, intended to cover them with ridicule, in reality redounds to their highest honor. Only Lucian was not the man to see this! 

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