Imagine yourself as a follower of Jesus in the opening decades of the second century. Nearly a century has passed since the first followers of Jesus claimed they saw their leader alive three days after they watched him die. Now, the Christian faith has reached nearly every urban center in the Roman Empire. And yet, this faith—your faith—remains marginalized and despised. There is an ever-present risk that someone will accuse you of bearing the hated title “Christian.” Despite this specter that shadows every segment of your daily life, you know that your social position has improved since the days of Nero and Domitian. In many regions, allegiance to Jesus as your only God results in a death sentence only if you are guilty of another crime as well. In Athens, there are even philosophers who openly pursue their love of wisdom from the foundation of their faith in Jesus. One of these philosophers is a man named Aristides of Athens. In the winter of the year that we know as 125, Aristides turned his philosophical capacities toward the goal of converting a king. The king was none other than Emperor Hadrian, lover of Greek culture and builder of the wall across Britain that is known by his name still today.
Aristides, Speaker of Divine Truth to Imperial Power
Seven years into Hadrian’s reign, it seems clear that this new emperor will pursue a path similar to his immediate predecessor Trajan when it comes to the prosecution of Christians. “If an accuser comes forward,” Hadrian instructed the proconsul of Asia Minor,
with proof that the Christians are acting contrary to the laws, hand down a sentence that is commensurate with the offense. But—by Hercules!—if anyone turns this into a pretext for slander, pay attention to this misdeed and punish the accuser severely.
In other words, if Christians are found to be breaking the laws of the Roman Empire, they are to be punished for these offenses as well as for their refusal as Christians to honor the gods of state and empire. No one, however, is to face criminal charges based on the mere claim that he or she might be a Christian.
A year after sending this letter to his proconsul in Asia Minor, Hadrian decides to spend a winter in Athens. During this Aegean reprieve from the city of Rome, Hadrian is presented with a defense—an apologia—penned by the Christian philosopher Aristides. Given the precarious position of Christians at this moment, one might expect Aristides either to flatter the emperor—saying nothing that might offend—or at the very least to focus his defense solely on gaining legal protections for Christians.
Aristides does neither.
The philosopher speaks divine truth to imperial power, even when these truths will almost certainly offend.
Hadrian prizes Greek culture—and yet, Aristides does not hesitate to mention how “the Greeks, because they are more refined than the barbarians, have strayed further from the truth than the barbarians.”
Hadrian’s homosexual relationship with young man named Antinous is well-known—and yet, Aristides is willing to speak against any male who persists in “base practices through intercourse with males.”
It is conceivable that Hadrian might return to the harsh policies practiced by Domitian—and yet, Aristides never seeks to soften God’s truth. He urges the emperor to read the Christian Scriptures and to turn to the true God. Near the end of his defense, Aristides reminds the emperor that anyone who does not turn to the true God will fall “before the awful judgment that Jesus the Messiah has determined to bring upon the whole human race.”
Aristides doesn’t fit neatly into any modern category of apologist. His arguments are simultaneously classical and presuppositional. He is a philosopher who is seeking imperial toleration for Christians. Yet he is also an evangelist, and his defense reveals a man who is more passionate about pointing Hadrian to the true God than about sidestepping persecution.
It is unlikely (though not inconceivable) that Aristides, as a Greek philosopher, was allowed to deliver his defense to Hadrian. The emperor did, after all, engage with the philosophers of Athens and was fond of listening to new ideas. It is more likely, however, that a secretary to the emperor received the defense and never passed it on to the emperor. Whether Aristides presented his defense in person or only in a document, he was clearly a man who was willing to risk his own well-being to speak divine truth to his king.
Christianity as a New Race of Humanity
Aristides launches his Apologia by pointing out what the cosmos itself reveals about the nature of God. His approach seems to assume a rational common ground between what he sees when he looks at the world and what the emperor is able to observe, and there are both teleological and cosmological components woven into his opening arguments. According to Aristides,
When I had considered the sky and earth and seas, when I had surveyed the sun and the remainder of creation, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the cosmos. And that is when I recognized that the cosmos and everything in it are moved by the power of another, and I understood that the one who moves them is God who is both hidden within them and veiled by them. Now, it is clear that whatever causes movement must be more powerful than what is being moved. … Concerning this mover, I declare that he is God of all, who created all things for the sake of humanity. And so, it seems to me that this is reasonable: that one should fear this God and oppress no human being. … This God is neither born nor created; he is an ever-abiding nature without beginning or end, immortal, complete, and incomprehensible. Now, when I say that he is “complete,” this means that there is no deficiency in him. He needs nothing, but all things need him.
After declaring the nature of the divine, the question that Aristides sets out to explore is which class of humanity most clearly follows this God that the cosmos reveals. According to the Greek version of the Apologia, there are three classes of humanity:
- worshipers of the gods,
- Jews, and
Those who worship a multiplicity of deities include Chaldeans, Egyptians, and Greeks. The Syriac version of the Apologia—which may be closer to Aristides’ original than the Greek text that survives to us—makes the same points but delineates four classes of humanity: barbarians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians.
Here, we glimpse an example of how—in the minds of many ancient Christians, including Aristides—Christians constituted a new race of humanity. To become a believer in Jesus Christ was to be adopted into a new family and to receive a new identity that fulfilled God’s work with the Jewish people. This new identity simultaneously distinguished Christians from the Jewish people and provided them with an esteemed historical pedigree that could be traced through the Jews to Abraham. “Truly,” Aristides writes regarding the church,
this is a new people, and there is something divine mingled among them.
The Failure of Other Worship and Other Gods
One by one, Aristides works through the deities of each race and reveals why none of them can possibly be the God that the cosmos reveals. He skewers the pagan deities in terms that echo the mockeries that Old Testament prophets and psalmists aimed at the gods of the nations around Israel (see, for examples, Psalm 115:4-8; Jeremiah 10:1-16). According to Aristides, the barbarians
formed certain shapes and styled them as representations of sky and earth, sea and son and moon and other primal shapes and lights. They close them up in shrines and worship them…even though they have to guard them securely to keep them from being stolen! Don’t they understand that anything that acts as guard must be greater than that which is guarded?
Moving from the barbarians to the Greeks, Aristides declares that “the Greeks have strayed further from the truth than the barbarians.” Hephaestus cannot be a spiritual deity because he suffers from a physical malady; Asclepius could not save himself when Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt so he cannot be divine either; the adulteries of Ares and Adonis violated even the laws of the Greeks and Romans so these characters cannot constitute divine realities, and so on. In the end, none of the supposed deities of the barbarians or the Greeks or the Egyptians can be divine—according to Aristides—because, if they were deities, they would have been “unified in nature.” If these characters had been unified in nature, they would not have “slain or kidnapped one another” or hurled lightning bolts at each other. What’s more, they certainly would not have broken laws that even humans seek to keep and expect one another to keep. “The gods are,” Aristides concludes, “nothing more than mere names,” their stories are “myths and nothing more.”
The Jews do, in the words of Aristides, “appear to approach truth more than all the nations” because they worship one Almighty God and because “they have compassion on the poor, they release the captives, and they bury the dead.” Nevertheless—according to Aristides—the rituals described in the Old Testament render worship not to the true God but to his angels.
Finally, Aristides turns his attention to the Christians.
It’s at this point in his apologetic for a king that Aristides heads in a direction that makes me squirm.
The Lives of Christians as Proof of the Truth in the Writings of Aristides
Aristides doesn’t appeal to Scripture or Christian theology as the best explanation for the world, like a presuppositionalist might choose to do.
Neither does he begin to unpack evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as an evidentialist or classical apologist might.
Instead, Aristides presents the moral lives of Christians as proof of the truth of their faith.
Christians…have the commands of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah himself, etched into their hearts. They keep these commands, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They do not engage in adultery or sexual immorality, and they do not bear false witness. Neither do they covet that which belongs to others; they honor father and mother, love their neighbors, judge according to justice, and do not do to others anything that they do not wish to be done to them. They comfort those who injure them, even trying to win them over as their friends. They are eager to do good to their enemies. They are gentle and easy to approach with an appeal. They abstain from unlawful lifestyles and all impurity. They neither neglect the widow nor oppress the orphan. What each one has, he is willing to give freely to care for the one who has nothing. If they see one of their number outcast, they take him under their roof and rejoice over him as they would over a brother. For they call themselves brothers, not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. They are even prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Messiah.
This is an apologetic worth recovering, but—to recover this apologetic—we must make certain it is true. The reason that this apologetic argument makes me uncomfortable if because I fear that, in many churches today, it is not true. Ultimately, this argument causes me to squirm because too often the lifestyle that Aristides describes does not describe me. The words of Aristides are convicting, and they should be.
The Christians…surpass all others because they worship the one true God in uprightness, as is attested by the purity and modesty of their lives. In conformity with their faith, Christians tell the truth, show mutual love, and have compassion even for their enemies.
“Take the Writings and Read Them”
After appealing to the moral lives of Christians, Aristides urges Hadrian to read the writings of the Christians:
Take their writings and read them. … Ever since I read their writings I was fully assured of these things and also of things yet to come. That is why I was compelled to declare this truth to anyone who wishes to hear it and to seek the world to come. For me, there is no doubt that the earth itself persists because of the prayers of the Christians. … There are also things found in their writings that are hard to explain and difficult to describe—things that are not only spoken in words but also worked out in deeds.
The Apologia of Aristides draws to a close with a denial of the charge that Christians engage in incestuous orgies and with a final declaration that Christians alone worship the true God. This true God must be worshiped by all humanity; those who refuse to turn to this God will—in the words of Aristides—face “horrible judgment which through Jesus the Messiah is destined to fall on the whole human race.” To the very end of his Apologia, Aristides is an evangelist who speaks not only with brilliance and wit but also with boldness.
The Wall in Hadrian’s Will that Never Fell
Part of the goal of Aristides’ Apologia seems to have been the fall of Hadrian’s wall—not the physical structure that today runs across northern England but the barrier of unbelief in Hadrian’s heart. In this, Aristides failed. Hadrian may have been more tolerant of Christians than many of his successors and predecessors, but he never turned to the Christian God.
Despite this failure, what the Apologia of Aristides does provide us is an invaluable glimpse into one approach to apologetics among early second-century Christians. What we see in this apologetic is an approach that
- assumes some rational commonality between the believer and the unbeliever by which both can recognize the true God through what they observe in nature;
- moves from the evidence of the cosmos and of the lives of Christians to Scripture as the necessary foundation for faith; and,
- is unapologetic about calling even a king to repent.
Regardless of any differences I may have when it comes to his methodology, the Apologia of Aristides is an apologetic that was simultaneously meant for a king and crafted to point this king to the King of kings. His unique blend of boldness and brilliance models a pattern that can strengthen our apologetics still today. “Notwithstanding its brevity,” Avery Dulles has pointed out,
Aristides’ Apology deserves high respect for its clarity and firmness of argument. By placing primary emphasis on the good moral lives of Christians, including their purity and charity, rather than the biblical miracles, this work lays the basis for some of the most successful apologetics of the next few centuries.
To learn about other theologians and apologists throughout church history, take a look at my book and video series Christian History Made Easy.