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May 22, 2014

Aristides’ Apology

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Synopsis

This Apology was a letter written by Aristides the Athenian and presented to Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, as a defence of the Christian people. The author attempts to prove through reason that the Christians have come the closest of all the nations to finding true knowledge of God.

Authorship

Marcianus Aristides was a philosopher who lived in Athens and a convert to Christianity. The date of authorship is generally accepted as approximately A.D. 126, though it could have been as late as the 160s depending on which Emperor one identifies as the recipient (see Observations below for details).

Summary

I chose to summarize this text by rewriting it in condensed and simplified language. The bracketed numbers indicate the transition between chapters as defined in the English Translation found at New Advent.

To Hadrian the King,

[1] By the sheer beauty of this world, I am convinced that all things have been placed into motion by a higher power, which is God. It is not possible to truly understand his nature, but that he is a faithful ruler who has made all things for man’s sake. Thus, we should fear him and not oppress one another. He was not made and has no end, is perfect (is in need of nothing), and is incomprehensible. He is set apart from things created, and as such, he has no name, form, gender, defect, limits, ignorance, or any adversary.

[2] There are four kinds of men: barbarians (who worship the ancient gods), Greeks, Jews (Hebrews; descendants of Abraham), and Christians (followers of Jesus who is called the Son of God). Let us examine how each of these either participate in the truth or stray from it.

[3] The barbarians worship, in error, things that are created. They make lifeless images to honor of the elements, which can themselves be destroyed. [4] Some worship the earth, [which springs forth life, but] which can at times be barren and is always collecting the waste of man and beast, including corpses. [5] Likewise, they reckon water, fire, and wind as gods, but all of these things were made for man’s use. [6] The sun, too, that gives light for the growth of food, and the moon and stars, are all worshiped by the barbarians. [7] Still others believe that the gods were the men of old, but men are made of parts, and they live and die, which (as we have already discussed) are not attributes fitting for God.

[8] The Greeks worship, in even greater error, fictitious gods that have the attributes, defects, and behaviours of men, and whose character promote foulness and absurdity. The stories of their gods justify in their minds all sorts of immoral acts for which they are now suffering dire consequences. [13] But for all their wisdom and reason, the Greeks have also turned to idolatry, unable to see that the things created by their artisans are not above their creators. Their writers and philosophers contradict themselves, stating that the nature of the gods is one, yet composing stories about how they oppose one another. Even their laws, which are based in righteousness, condemn the gods.

[12] The Egyptians have erred more than any of the other nations. Not satisfied with the gods of the barbarians and the Greeks, they have added as minor deities certain animals, plants, and creeping things. It is amazing that they believe the animals to be greater than themselves, for they often die in ignoble ways (e.g. killed for food). Like the gods of the Greeks, even their most powerful gods suffer from the weaknesses of men: fear, sadness, helplessness, mortality, and the like.

[14] The Jews recognize that God is one, the creator of all things, all-powerful, and alone worthy of praise. They worship him and not his works, and they imitate him in their love for one another. Thus, they are close to the truth, but err in that their service is not to God but to angels.

[15] It is the Christians who have found the truth about God. They trust in God, their creator, and do his will in the hope of living eternally. Therefore, they do not harm others by their actions, but live upright lives. They do not worship idols and refuse the meat that has been sacrificed to them. They love their enemies, treat their slaves as brethren, and care for the widows, orphans, and strangers. They fast in order to feed the poor. They always see to the proper burial of the dead. They rejoice when a righteous man dies (as though he were simply embarking on a short journey), but they grieve bitterly for a man who dies in sin (as they would for a man going to his doom). If a child dies, they give thanks that he knew not sin. [16] They make fitting petitions to God and they do not seek glory for their good deeds. All of these things regarding their way of life can be found in their writings.

[17] The Greeks falsely accuse the Christians of committing the very acts of great impurity that they themselves commit. The Christians are a good people who persevere in their persecution and even show compassion towards their accusers, praying to God that they may repent of the errors they have committed out of ignorance. May the tongues of the accusers be silent, but that they should begin to speak the truth as the Christians do. They who do not know God should listen to their eternal and incorruptible words, for they shall also sit before Jesus in the judgment of mankind.

Observations

  • The letter appears to be addressed to Cæsar Titus Hadrianus Antoninus, which I first thought was Antoninus Pius, the fifteenth Roman Emperor; however, later tradition identifies Pius’ adoptive father and fourteenth Roman Emperor Hadrian as the recipient.
  • Chapter 1 is a brief treatise on the nature of God.
  • Chapter 2 enumerates four kinds of men.
  • Chapter 2 end with an interesting line, “Moreover the wind is obedient to God, and fire to the angels; the waters also to the demons and the earth to the sons of men.” Indeed, man was given dominion of the earth by God. [Gn 1:26-30]
  • Chapters 3-7 show the errors of the barbarians in worshipping elements and idols.
  • Chapters 8-13 show the errors of the Greeks, except for chapter 12, which covers the Egyptians (which are not listed as on of the four types of men).
  • Chapters 9-11 have been omitted. They recount the myths of the Greek gods, the details of which provide little value for my purpose in writing this summary.
  • Chapter 12 includes a statement that animals so not have souls.
  • Chapter 13 has been moved to follow chapter 8 for continuity.
  • Chapter 14 is a relatively short treatise on the Jews.
  • The claim that the Jews serve angels and not God is strikingly similar to what Athenagoras of Athens says in his Apology (chapter 26) in that demons move men toward idolatry.
  • Chapters 15-16 is the defense of the Christian people and their beliefs.
  • The negative form of the Golden Rule can be found in chapter 15.
  • Proper burial of the dead, a corporal work of mercy, is an action characteristic of the Christians. Chapter 15 clearly illustrates that one’s state at the time of death is perceived by the Christians as having an impact on that person’s eternal future. Also, children are not culpable for their sins. What is not stated is that these Christians have been, by necessity, cleansed of original sin through baptism. Baptism is the rite by which they would have been initiated into the community, including children.
  • Chapter 17 reveals that the Greeks were persecuting the Christians falsely and in hypocrisy.

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