The Apologetic literature of the second century




I.                   Historical context


If in the beginning, Christians were assimilated to Jews by Romans, in the second century, the Roman State knew of existence of Christianity as distinct from Judaism. This resulted in the Roman persecutions and in opposition from men of letters. One of them, Celsus, a philosopher of distinction and culture, studied the old and the new Testament in order to attack Christians more effectively [1].


In the Church itself, Judaeo-Christianity wanted to combine faith and Christianity with Mosaic Law, mainly among converts from Judaism. Some others wanted a kind of syncretism with various philosophies or religions. 


For these reasons, Christian literature is mostly apologetic and controversial. So, we have many writings to defend the true Faith against attacks and calumnies, to prove the falsity of paganism, the abolition of Judaism and that Christian religion is the true one. The used proofs of the truth of Christian religion are :

-          From moral consequences of Christianity, especially the love of the neighbour

-          From prophecies of Christ and Prophets

-          From the antiquity of Christian religion which is the completion of the Old Testament

-          The proof from miracles of Christ is rarely used because, according to Tertullian, Origen and Lactantus, pseudo-Christs and magus had also power to work wonders.



II.                Some important names of the opponents of the Church :


-          Fronto of Cirta (+ 166 ?), preceptor and friend of Emperor Antoninus

-          Lucian of Samosata (+ 190 ?), wrote De Morte Peregrini (Of the death of the Pilgrim), a satire on Christians against their fraternal charity and their contempt of death.

-          Celsus (see above)


After them, hostility toward Christians became a tradition among neo-platonician philosophers as Porphyrus, Hierocles or Emperor Julian the Apostate.



III.             Main ecclesiastical writers of the second century :


St Justin Martyr and St Theophilus of Antioch.


But also :          Quadratus,                    Aristides of Athens,

Aristo of Pella,              Tatian the Assyrian,

Miltiades,                      Apollinaris of Hierapolis, 

Melito of Sardes,           Athenagoras of Athens,

Minucius Felix               Hermias.



A)    Quadratus

A disciple of the Apostles from Asia Minor. He wrote an apologia to Emperor Hadrian (117-138) on the occasion of a persecution in 124. He was identified by St Jerome as Quadratus, Bishop of Athens, but probably by mistake.


B)    Aristides of Athens

Philosopher, he wrote also an apology for Christians to the Emperor [ Hadrian or Antoninus Pius (138-161) ? ]. He shows Christians alone have the true knowledge of God : Philosophy teaches us God is eternal, impassive and perfect. But Barbarians adore earth, water, fire, winds, sun etc … ; Greeks ( and Egyptians and Chaldees ) attribute human frailties and passions to gods ; Jews believe in God but serve his angels rather. Only Christians have the full truth and live it. Christian life is described with great enthusiasm.


C)    Aristo of Pella

He seems to have been the first apologist against Jews in Palestine. He wrote a Disputation between Jason and Papiscus concerning Christ between 135 and 175. Jason, a Jewish Christian, proves so conclusively that the Messianic prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus that the Jew, Papiscus, begs to be baptised. This work is lost but quoted by St Jerome, Origen and Celsus.


D)    Tatian the Assyrian

Philosopher, he was converted by St Justin (see below) but founded a Gnostic sect, the Encratites, when he came back in Assyria. He denied the marriage, the use of meat and of wine even in the Holy Eucharist : he replaced wine by water.

He wrote a Discourse to Greeks as an apology for Christianity which is also a bitter criticism of Greek civilisation. His two proofs for Christianity are its sublime doctrine and its very great antiquity.

He wrote also the Diatessaron , a Gospel-harmony : a story of the life of Christ compiled from the four Gospels. Few apocryphal additions were made. This text was the only one in used in certain communities in Syria during the third century. The four Gospels prevailed there in the middle of the fourth century. In the beginning of the fifth century, Theodoret of Cyrus removed from the churches of his diocese two hundred copies of this work, in the place of which he put the four canonical Gospels.


E)     Miltiades

He defended Christian truth against heathens, heretics and Jews. All his works were lost.


F)     Melito of Sardis (  + ~ 190 )

Bishop of Sardis in Lydia (Asia Minor), “one of the great luminaries of Asia” according to Pope St Victor (189-199). Most of his works are lost. In his Apology (172) to Emperor Marcus-Aurelus, he affirms for the first time that peaceful Church-State relations would be the normal rule and cause of goods for both parties.


G)    Athenagoras of Athens

“The Christian philosopher of Athens”. Bossuet terms him “the author of one of the finest and earliest apologies of the Christians religion”. His rational proof of the unity of God is the first scientific Christian attempt in this matter and gives a testimony to the Blessed Trinity in terms of great clearness and precision.

He wrote ( ~ 177 ? ) a Supplication for the Christians to the Emperor to show the falsity and absurdity of the current calumnies against Christians : atheism, immorality… He refutes atheism by an exposition of the Christian doctrine concerning God., and in a second part of his book he exposes the principles of Christian morality.

A second work, On the resurrection of the dead, refutes the objections and proves this reality : - from the eternal destiny of man, - from necessary retribution for body and soul, - from this fact that the last end of man is unattainable in this life.


H)    Minucius Felix

He wrote a dialogue Octavius. This is a dialogue between a Christian Octavius, and a Heathen Caecilius, who both have chosen Minucius as arbiter. Caecilius advocates the teaching of the Skeptics, defends the faith of his fathers as the one source of Roman greatness ; Christianity is an unreasonable and immoral illusion (cc. 5-13). Octavius follows closely the arguments of Caecilius, makes a drastic exposé of the follies of polytheism, and refutes the usual anti­Christian calumnies (adoration of the head of an ass, immoralities, atheism) and closes with a touching portrait of the faith and life of the Christians (cc. 16-38). No arbiter's judgment is needed, as Caecilius admits his defeat. His work is an ex­position of the genuine Christian truth, but executed in a manner suitable to impress the philosophical circles of heathenism.


I)       Hermias

He wrote a “Mockery of Heathen Philosophers by the Philosopher Hermias” showing the contradictions in pagan philosophers about God, the world and the human soul.

J)      Theophilus of Antioch


The seventh bishop of Antioch (169-180). He was born near to the Euphrates and received a Greek education. He was a man of letters of extensive culture. He wrote on many subjects.

His Discourses to Autolycus, the only work which survives, treats of the Christian Faith in an invisible God, of the name of ‘Christian’, discusses the folly of the heathen idolatry, repudiates anti-Christian calumnies and exposes the greater antiquity of Sacred Scriptures over Greek history and literature. 

He wrote also a discourse on the origins of mankind, various controversial treatises, pastoral writings and commentaries on the Bible



IV.               St Justin Martyr


Tertullian called him the “Philosopher and Martyr”. He was born in Palestine in a pagan Greek family. Philosopher, he was converted about 130 ( in Ephesus ? ) and devoted his life to defend Catholic Faith “the only one sure and profitable to philosophy”.

He wrote about 132-135 his Dialogue with Tryphon a dispute with the Jew Tryphon in Ephesus. He went twice in Rome and opened there a school to teach his philosophy : Christianity. He wrote a first apology for Christians about 152 : Plea in favour of the Christians and, few years later, a second one to protest against abuses and calumnies towards Christians. In this second apology, he denounces especially Crecens, a Cynic philosopher of immorality and ignorance. Probably this Crecens denounced and caused Him to be martyred. St Justin had his head cut in Rome, in 165, with six others martyrs.


A)    Dialogue with Tryphon

In his introduction, Justin describes the development of his own religious opinion.

The first Part of this book proves from the old Testament that the ritual Law of Moses has been abrogated in favour of the new Law of Christ.

The second Part proves that the adoration of Christ does not conflict with Jewish Monotheism.

The third Part shows that the true Israel is to be found in all those who have accepted Christianity.


B)    Plea in favour of the Christians

The first Part refutes the anti-Christian calumnies of impiety and civil enmity

The second one is a positive exposition and justification of the contents of Christianity. It maintains that Christ, founder of Christianity, is the Son of God as he is the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecies

The conclusion is an appeal to the imperial sense of justice for justice to the Christians.


C)    The second Apology

It has been written on the occasion of the denouncing of Ptolemy : the catechist of a Christian women who separated herself from her profligate husband. It calls on the emperor to publish the first apology and to command that justice be observed in dealings with Christians.


D)    Theology of St Justin

It has been said that Saint Justin's taste for philosophy has led him, in some ways, to lessen Christian teaching. It is rather the contrary that should be feared. He considers that rational activity, far from taking the place of faith, cannot even lead to it unaided. Faith is chiefly a gift of God to be acquired by prayer ; it is also by prayer that a perfect understanding of the Scriptures is acquired. These remarks should suffice to show that Saint Justin did not sacrifice or diminish revealed truth for the sake of reason..

He has been accused of denying creation ex nihilo, exaggerate ­the transcendence of God and subordinating the Word to Father.

Creation “ex nihilo” is nowhere denied by Saint Justin, and indeed is supposed not only by Holy Scripture, the first document from which he derives his doctrine and of which he quotes the first verse “in principio Deus creavit coelum et terram” but also by his theological doctrine of the Logos.

The exaggerated transcendence of God of Alexandrian philosophy did not penetrate St Justin's doctrine. This transcendence consisted essentially in the negation of God’s substance, or in the absence of all relations with the world. Saint Justin avoided this double exaggeration. If he erred with regard to Plato, it was rather “in reading the philosopher with a mind so preoccupied with Christian truth that he thought he saw them in his text”.

The Subordinationism which has been cast up at Saint Justin must also be attenuated, although some traces of it must remain. It is unjust to make too close an examination of certain expressions written at a time when the Jewish formulas, so strictly monotheist, were well known to all, and when Catholic terminology had not yet been fixed. Moreover, in writing Logos Saint Justin often means the Incarnate Word, who, as such, is inferior to the Father.


E)     Importance

St Justin’s importance appears in many points in his doctrine :

-          By his perception of the unity of all Christians in the profession of a common faith.

-          By his veneration for the Scriptures.

-          By his outspoken profession of Christianity.

-          By his clear affirmation of the Divinity of Christ and His mission of Redeemer : The Word was made flesh : a) first to teach the truth to men b) to deliver them from the slavery of the devil.

His information on Catholic liturgy in the second century is also very precious :

-          Baptism is described in Chapter 61 of the first Apology. Justin calls it illumination because, as he says, those who receive Christian doctrine have their minds illuminated. ­It takes place in a bath in which we are washed in the name of the Three Persons, and of which the effect is regeneration.

-          The Christian assemblies consist of two parts :

Sacred readings, followed by the bishop's exhortation and prayers in common

The oblation of the bread and wine, followed by the Eucharist and finishing with communion.

-          Saint Justin does not only describe the Eucharistic Liturgy, he also gives a simple doctrinal exposition. It is in no way different from the present Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Sacrifice of the Mass.


All this is explained by Saint Justin with the unruffled sincerity of a believer, proud of his faith, who above all has confidence in the power of truth to draw men to itself.


[1]   He wrote his book True Word in four parts : a Jew shows how Christians have deformed the messianic ideal ; a pagan shows the falsity of Jewish messianism ; Celsus directly attacks Christian faith and morals ; he defends paganism. This book was refuted by Origen.