[New lecture--May 2011.  Dulles orders things differently than I do, but you will find all these figures discussed in Chapter 2 of his History of Apologetics.]

Athens and Jerusalem
Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, and Tertullian
Martyrs and martyrs 

Justin Martyr’s Apology, impressive as it was, may not have been his most effective contribution to the spread of Christianity.  He backed up his ideas with his actions: giving up his life rather than giving up his faith.  Justin was scourged and beheaded. This made him a martyr in a double sense.  The Greek word “martyr” simply means witness.  And what stronger witness could there be than sacrificing one’s life for one’s faith?  As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Some save with ridicule: Tatian’s Address to the Greeks

Among those deeply influenced by both Justin’s ideas and his example, a man named Tatian. Tatian was born in Assyria, but travelled and studied widely.  He was at first deeply involved in pagan religious traditions: apparently an initiate into some of the mystery religions.  Like Justin, his studies took him to the Hebrew Scriptures, and led to his conversion.  His further travels and studies took him to Rome where he became a “hearer” of Justin.

Sometime after Justin’s death, Tatian wrote an apologetic address of his own the Address to the Greeks.  While one can see the influence of Justin, the tone is very different.  Also, this is not a courtroom defense, so Tatian isn’t under any obligation to observe any kind of polite formalities—and he doesn’t!  Excuse me, please, for the long, long excerpt, but I find this material so amusing I just don’t know where to cut:


What noble thing have you produced by your pursuit of philosophy? Who of your most eminent men has been free from vain boasting? Diogenes, who made such a parade of his independence with his tub, was seized with a bowel complaint through eating a raw polypus, and so lost his life by gluttony. Aristippus, walking about in a purple robe, led a profligate life, in accordance with his professed opinions. Plato, a philosopher, was sold by Dionysius for his gormandizing propensities. And Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends. I could laugh at those also who in the present day adhere to his tenets,--people who say that sublunary things are not under the care of Providence; and so, being nearer the earth than the moon, and below its orbit, they themselves look after what is thus left uncared for; and as for those who have neither beauty, nor wealth, nor bodily strength, nor high birth, they have no happiness, according to Aristotle. Let such men philosophize, for me!


I cannot approve of Heraclitus, who, being self-taught and arrogant, said, "I have explored myself." Nor can I praise him for hiding his poem in the temple of Artemis, in order that it might be published afterwards as a mystery; and those who take an interest in such things say that Euripides the tragic poet came there and read it, and, gradually learning it by heart, carefully handed down to posterity this darkness of Heraclitus. Death, however, demonstrated the stupidity of this man; for, being attacked by dropsy, as he had studied the art of medicine as well as philosophy, he plastered himself with cow-dung, which, as it hardened, contracted the flesh of his whole body, so that he was pulled in pieces, and thus died. Then, one cannot listen to Zeno, who declares that at the conflagration the same man will rise again to perform the same actions as before; for instance, Anytus and Miletus to accuse, Busiris to murder his guests, and Hercules to repeat his labours; and in this doctrine of the conflagration he introduces more wicked than just persons--one Socrates and a Hercules, and a few more of the same class, but not many, for the bad will be found far more numerous than the good. And according to him the Deity will manifestly be the author of evil, dwelling in sewers and worms, and in the perpetrators of impiety. The eruptions of fire in Sicily, moreover, confute the empty boasting of Empedocles, in that, though he was no god, he falsely almost gave himself out for one. I laugh, too, at the old wife's talk of Pherecydes, and the doctrine inherited from him by Pythagoras, and that of Plato, an imitation of his, though some think otherwise. And who would give his approval to the cynogamy of Crates, and not rather, repudiating the wild and tumid speech of those who resemble him, turn to the investigation of what truly deserves attention?

Wherefore be not led away by the solemn assemblies of philosophers who are no philosophers, who dogmatize one against the other, though each one vents but the crude fancies of the moment. They have, moreover, many collisions among themselves; each one hates the other; they indulge in conflicting opinions, and their arrogance makes them eager for the highest places. It would better become them, moreover, not to pay court to kings unbidden, nor to flatter men at the head of affairs, but to wait till the great ones come to them.

As I say, I find this enormously amusing.  Similarly amusing, Tatian’s ridicule of  Greek entertainment, Greek religion and just about every other aspect of life in the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman world and in Rome itself.

Now notice a couple of things here.  Tatian is extraordinarily well-educated.  He is thoroughly familiar with the poets, playwrights, and philosophers that he criticizes and everything he says here comes straight from widely-respected Greek thinkers and writers.  And, perhaps, Tatian owes a debt to his training in Greek literature that he doesn’t quite acknowledge.  Would he be able to write as effectively as he does without his prior training? 

So why such harsh language against all things Greek?  One could guess that the execution of Justin might be a factor.  Hard to respect philosophy when a philosopher/emperor orders your favorite teacher executed!

When Tatian leaves off his diatribe against all things Greek and finally gets around to defending Christianity, much of his case is like Justin’s.  There is one particularly important addition, however.  Tatian cites the conduct of Christian women as important evidence for the superiority of Christianity over other philosophies.

My object in referring to these women is, that you may not regard as something strange what you find among us, and that, comparing the statues which are before your eyes, you may not treat the women with scorn who among us pursue philosophy. This Sappho is a lewd, love-sick female, and sings her own wantonness; but all our women are chaste, and the maidens at their distaffs sing of divine things more nobly than that damsel of yours.

Yeah—we Christians have all the good songs—not to mention wives, sisters, and daughters we can be proud of. 

There are lots of fascinating things in Tatian, and it is a pity that, because later Christians regarded him as a heretic, so little of his work has survived.

Try a little kindness: Theophilus’ To Autolycus. 

Similar to Tatian in his thinking about apologetic issues but vastly different in his approach was one of Tatian’s contemporaries, Theophilus of Antioch.  Theophilus discusses the circumstances that led to the writing to this work in his introduction to Book II:

WHEN we had formerly some conversation, my very good friend Autolycus, and when you inquired who was my God, and for a little paid attention to my discourse, I made some explanations to you concerning my religion; and then having bid one another adieu, we went with much mutual friendliness each to his own house although at first you had home somewhat hard upon me. For you know and remember that you supposed our doctrine was foolishness. As you then afterwards urged me to do, I am desirous, though not educated to the art of speaking, of more accurately demonstrating, by means of this tractate, the vain labour and empty worship in which you are held; and I wish also, from a few of your own histories which you read, and perhaps do not yet quite understand, to make the truth plain to you.

  Notice that, while Theophilus and Autolycus differ sharply on religion, they are good friends—and so we get a different type of apology.  There are specific issues that Autolucus has raised, and Theophilus does his best to answer.

Autolycus had given Theophilus a challenge: show me your God.  This was a perfect opportunity for Theophilus to get to the heart of Christian faith.  God is seen, not through man-made images, but through his works, through creation itself.  And yet, even though God is invisible,  we can see him should we accept the Gospel and purify our lives.  Book I ends with a call to conversion:

For He who gave the mouth for speech, and formed the ear to hear, and made the eye to see, will examine all things, and will judge righteous judgment, rendering merited awards to each. To those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek immortality, He will give life everlasting, joy, peace, rest, and abundance of good things, which neither hath eye seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive. But to the unbelieving and despisers, who obey not the truth, but are obedient to unrighteousness, when they shall have been filled with adulteries and fornications, and filthiness, and covetousness, and unlawful idolatries, there shall be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish, and at the last everlasting fire shall possess such men. Since you said, "Show me thy God," this is my God, and I counsel you to fear Him and to trust Him.

  Theophilus has much criticism of Greek learning, but he often cites Greek writers in support of fundamental Christian ideas, particularly the idea of coming judgment:

And that God sees all, and that nothing escapes His notice, but that, being long-suffering, He refrains until the time when He is to judge-concerning this, too, Dionysius said:- "The eye of Justice seeing all, Yet seemeth not to see."

And that God's judgment is to be, and that evils will suddenly overtake the wicked,--this, too, Aeschylus declared, saying:-

"Swift-looted is the approach of fate, And none can justice violate, But feels its stern hand soon or late. Tis with you, though unheard, unseen; You draw night's curtain in between, But even sleep affords no screen. Tis with you if you sleep or wake; And if abroad your way you take; Its still, stern watch you cannot break. Twill follow you, or cross your path; And even night no virtue hath To hide you from th' Avenger's wrath.To show the ill the darkness flees; Then, if sin offers joy or ease, Oh stop, and think that some one sees!"

And may we not cite Simonides also? "To men no evil comes unheralded; But God with sudden hand transforms all things."

Euripides again:-"The wicked and proud man's prosperity Is based on sand: his race abideth not; And time proclaims the wickedness of men."

Once more Euripides: "Not without judgment is the Deity, But sees when oaths are struck unrighteously, And when from men unwilling they are wrung."

Theophilus closes Book II with an invitation to keep the discussion going.  “Who is desirous of learning, should learn much. Endeavour therefore to meet [with me] more frequently, that, by hearing the living voice, you may accurately ascertain the truth.”

Hey, let’s get together for coffee. 

Athenagoras: what seems to be the difficulty?

At roughly the same time Tatian was launching his general diatribe against pagan philosophy and Theophilus was trying to win his friend Autolycus to the gospel, an apologist named Athenagoras was advancing the case for Christianity in the twin hearts of the pagan philosophical world:  Athens and Alxandria.  Before his conversion, Athenagoras was a recognized expert in Plato ("On the Difficult Saying in Plato"), and when a man like this converts--well, naturally enough his testimony to the philosophical rigor of Christianity carries a lot of weight.   

Athenagoras’ “Plea for the Christians” is addressed to Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus--“and to all philosophers.”  He addresses three of the standard slanders against the Christians, the accusations that they practice cannibalism and incest and that they are atheists.

Athenagoras refutes the charge of atheism by showing that, if the Christian view of God is to be called atheism, then Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are likewise atheists. 

Athenagoras asks how Christians could possibly be guilty of the kind of moral crimes they are accused of when they hold to a standard of morality that forbids all cruelty and emphasizes sexual continence.  The Christians don’t even divorce, following consistently the one man/one woman principle.  Certainly people who regard divorce as adultery aren’t going to be sexually licentious!  And people who regard abortion as murder (as Athenagoras insists the Christians do) would hardly be eating babies!

Athenagoras most important apologetic argument, however, is addressed to a charge he doesn’t mention specifically, the idea that the Christians are politically disloyal and are undermining the security and stability of Rome (i.e., they are undermining religion).  There are subtle answers to this throughout the address, and, at the end, a plainer affirmation of Christian loyalty:

And now do you, who are entirely in everything, by nature and by education, upright, and moderate, and benevolent, and worthy of your rule, now that I have disposed of the several accusations, and proved that we are pious, and gentle, and temperate in spirit, bend your royal head in approval. For who are more deserving to obtain the things they ask, than those who, like us, pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, all men becoming subject to your sway? And this is also for our advantage, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, and may ourselves readily perform all that is commanded us.

Tertullian: the apologetic of the absurd

Tertullian (the first of the great apologists writing in Latin)  is famous for saying something he didn’t quite say, “I believe because it is absurd.” What he actually said (referring to Christ’s resurrection) was, “It is certain because it is impossible.”  Well, no.  What he actually said was “Certum est quia impossible est.”  But close enough. 

In any case, the absurdity of belief is a favorite theme for Tertullian—not the absurdity of Christian belief, but the absurdity of pagan belief, particularly the things they believe about Christians.  No one has ever produced evidence that Christians kill and eat infants or that they commit incest for the simple reason that they have never indulged in such practices.  Furthermore, it is absurd to imagine that even the hope of eternal life could persuade men to commit acts as abominable as those the Christians are accused of having performed:

See now, we set before you the reward of these enormities. They give promise of eternal life. Hold it meanwhile as your own belief. I ask you, then, whether, so believing, you think it worth attaining with a conscience such as you will have. Come, plunge your knife into the babe, enemy of none, accused of none, child of all; or if that is another's work, simply take your place beside a human being dying before he has really lived, await the departure of the lately given soul, receive the fresh young blood, saturate your bread with it, freely partake. The while as you recline at table, take note of the places which your mother and your sister occupy; mark them well, so that when the dog-made darkness has fallen on you, you may make no mistake, for you will be guilty of a crime--unless you perpetrate a deed of incest. Initiated and sealed into things like these, you have life everlasting. Tell me, I pray you, is eternity worth it? If it is not, then these things are not to be credited.     

Adding to the absurdity of pagan accusations, the general immorality of the pagans themselves.  Tertullian laments the gluttony, debauchery, and licentiousness of his society, characteristics that seem especially blameworthy when compared to the relatively high standards of earlier ages.  Tertullian claims that there had once been a period of 600 years in which Rome had not seen a single divorce, but that in his own age women seemed to desire divorce “as if it were a natural consequence of marriage.”

It’s absurd also to think of Christians as politically disloyal.  Christians believe, he says, that when Rome falls, dreadful woes will overtake the world, harbingers of the end. Christians have “no desire to be overtaken by these dire events” and therefore pray fervently that the empire will be preserved, “We pray, too for emperors, for their ministers, and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the delay of the final consummation.”

I came, I saw, I was conquered: Minucius Felix’  Octavius

Well, the consummation at least of this lecture can’t be delayed much longer, but there’s one more apologetic work I should mention briefly. The apologetic writers of this time (and much later) borrowed freely from one another, and it’s not always easy to tell which came first.  There’s a fascinating little apologetic work called Octavius which overlaps a great deal with Tertullian’s apology.  We don’t know whether Tertullian borrowed from Octavius or if Minucius Felix borrowed ideas from Tertullian.  What makes this work different, though, is the format.  Minucius sets his apology within the framework of a personal story.  His friend Octavius, a fellow Christian, has come up to Rome for a visit.  They are joined by another friend of Minucius, Caecilius, who is a pagan.  As they are walking along,  Caecilius blows a kiss to an image of Serapis—and Octavius rebukes Minucius for allowing a friend to observe such a superstitious ritual.  This leads to a long conversation/discourse in which Octavius basically “witnesses” Caecilius.  The result?  A happy one for all as Caecilius converts:

I yield to God; and I agree concerning the sincerity of the way of life which is now mine. Yet even still some things remain in my mind, not as resisting the truth, but as necessary to a perfect training of which on the morrow, as the sun is already sloping to his setting, we shall inquire at length in a more fitting and ready manner.

Now, of course, one might dismiss such a story as wishful thinking on the part of Christians.  People don’t really convert so easily, do they?  Well, in some eras, people do convert: and just that easily.