1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aristides, Apology of

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ARISTIDES, APOLOGY OF. Until 1878 our knowledge of the early Christian writer Aristides was confined to the statement of Eusebius that he was an Athenian philosopher, who presented an apology “concerning the faith” to the emperor Hadrian. In that year, however, the Mechitharists of S. Lazzaro at Venice published a fragment in Armenian[1] from the beginning of the apology; and in 1889 Dr Rendel Harris found the whole of it in a Syriac version on Mount Sinai. While his edition was passing through the press, it was observed by the present writer that all the while the work had been in our hands in Greek, though in a slightly abbreviated form, as it had been imbedded as a speech in a religious novel written about the 6th century, and entitled “The Life of Barlaam and Josaphat.” The discovery of the Syriac version reopened the question of the date of the work. For although its title there corresponds to that given by the Armenian fragment and by Eusebius, it begins with a formal inscription to “the emperor Titus Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius”; and Dr R. Harris is followed by Harnack and others in supposing that it was only through a careless reading of this inscription that the work was supposed to have been addressed to Hadrian. If this be the case, it must be placed somewhere in the long reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161). There are, however, no internal grounds for rejecting the thrice-attested dedication to Hadrian his predecessor, and the picture of primitive Christian life which is here found points to the earlier rather than to the later date. It is possible that the Apology was read to Hadrian in person when he visited Athens, and that the Syriac inscription was prefixed by a scribe on the analogy of Justin’s Apology, a mistake being made in the amplification of Hadrian’s name.

The Apology opens thus: “I, O king, by the providence of God came into the world; and having beheld the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, the sun and moon, and all besides, I marvelled at their orderly disposition; and seeing the world and all things in it, that it is moved by compulsion, I understood that He that moveth and governeth it is God. For whatsoever moveth is stronger than that which is moved, and whatsoever governeth is stronger than that which is governed.” Having briefly spoken of the divine nature in the terms of Greek philosophy, Aristides proceeds to ask which of all the races of men have at all partaken of the truth about God. Here we have the first attempt at a systematic comparison of ancient religions. For the purpose of his inquiry he adopts an obvious threefold division into idolaters, Jews and Christians. Idolaters, or, as he more gently terms them in addressing the emperor, “those who worship what among you are said to be gods,” he subdivides into the three great world-civilizations—Chaldeans, Greeks and Egyptians. He chooses this order so as to work up to a climax of error and absurdity in heathen worship. The direct nature-worship of the Chaldeans is shown to be false because its objects are works of the Creator, fashioned for the use of men. They obey fixed laws and have no power over themselves. “The Greeks have erred worse than the Chaldeans ... calling those gods who are no gods, according to their evil lusts, in order that having these as advocates of their wickedness they may commit adultery, and plunder and kill, and do the worst of deeds.” The gods of Olympus are challenged one by one, and shown to be either vile or helpless, or both at once. A heaven of quarrelling divinities cannot inspire a reasonable worship. These gods are not even respectable; how can they be adorable? “The Egyptians have erred worse than all the nations; for they were not content with the worships of the Chaldeans and Greeks, but introduced, moreover, as gods even brute beasts of the dry land and of the waters, and plants and herbs.... Though they see their gods eaten by others and by men, and burned, and slain, and rotting, they do not understand concerning them that they are no gods.”

Throughout the whole of the argument there is strong common-sense and a stern severity unrelieved by conscious humour. Aristides is engaged in a real contest; he strikes hard blows, and gives no quarter. He cannot see, as Justin and Clement see, a striving after truth, a feeling after God, in the older religions, or even in the philosophies of Greece. He has no patience with attempts to find a deeper meaning in the stories of the gods. “Do they say that one nature underlies these diverse forms? Then why does god hate god, or god kill god? Do they say that the histories are mythical? Then the gods themselves are myths, and nothing more.”

The Jews are briefly treated. After a reference to their descent from Abraham and their sojourn in Egypt, Aristides praises them for their worship of the one God, the Almighty Creator; but blames them as worshipping angels, and observing “sabbaths and new moons, and the unleavened bread, and the great fast, and circumcision, and cleanness of meats.” He then proceeds to the description of the Christians. He begins with a statement which, when purged of glosses by a comparison of the three forms in which it survives, reads thus: “Now the Christians reckon their race from the Lord Jesus Christ; and He is confessed to be the Son of God Most High. Having by the Holy Spirit come down from heaven, and having been born of a Hebrew virgin, He took flesh and appeared unto men, to call them back from their error of many gods; and having completed His wonderful dispensation, He was pierced by the Jews, and after three days He revived and went up to heaven. And the glory of His coming thou canst learn, O king, from that which is called among them the evangelic scripture, if thou wilt read it. He had twelve disciples, who after His ascent into heaven went forth into the provinces of the world and taught His greatness; whence they who at this day believe their preaching are called Christians.” This passage contains striking correspondences with the second section of the Apostles’ Creed. The attribution of the Crucifixion to the Jews appears in several 2nd-century documents; Justin actually uses the words “He was pierced by you” in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew.

“These are they,” he proceeds, “who beyond all the nations of the earth have found the truth: for they know God as Creator and Maker of all things, and they worship no other god beside Him; for they have His commandments graven on their hearts, and these they keep in expectation of the world to come.... Whatsoever they would not should be done unto them, they do not to another.... He that hath supplieth him that hath not without grudging: if they see a stranger they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as over a brother indeed, for they call not one another brethren after the flesh, but after the spirit. They are ready for Christ’s sake to give up their own lives; for His commandments they securely keep, living holily and righteously, according as the Lord their God hath commanded them, giving thanks to Him at all hours, over all their food and drink, and the rest of their good things.” This simple description is fuller in the Syriac, but the additional details must be accepted with caution: for while it is likely that the monk who appropriated the Greek may have cut it down to meet the exigencies of his romance, it is the habit of certain Syriac translators to elaborate their originals. After asserting that “this is the way of truth,” and again referring for further information to “the writings of the Christians,” he says: “And truly this is a new race, and there is something divine mingled with it.” At the close we have a passage which is found only in the Syriac, but which is shown by internal evidence to contain original elements: “The Greeks, because they practise foul things ... turn the ridicule of their foulness upon the Christians.” This is an allusion to the charges of Thyestean banquets and other immoralities, which the early apologists constantly rebut. “But the Christians offer up prayers for them, that they may turn from their error; and when one of them turns, he is ashamed before the Christians of the deeds that were done by him, and he confesses to God saying: ‘In ignorance I did these things’; and he cleanses his heart, and his sins are forgiven him, because he did them in ignorance in former time, when he was blaspheming the true knowledge of the Christians.”

These last words point to the use in the composition of this Apology of a lost apocryphal work of very early date, The Preaching of Peter. This book is known to us chiefly by quotations in Clement of Alexandria: it was widely circulated, and at one time claimed a place within the Canon. It was used by the Gnostic Heracleon and probably by the unknown writer of the epistle to Diognetus. From the fragments which survive we see that it contained: (1) a description of the nature of God, which closely corresponds with Arist. i., followed by (2) a warning not to worship according to the Greeks, with an exposure of various forms of idolatry; (3) a warning not to worship according to the Jews—although they alone think they know the true God—;for they worship angels and are superstitious about moons and sabbaths, and feasts, comp. Arist. xiv.; (4) a description of the Christians as being “a third race,” and worshipping God in “a new way” through Christ; (5) a proof of Christianity from Jewish prophecy; (6) a promise of forgiveness to Jews and Gentiles who should turn to Christ, because they had sinned “in ignorance” in the former time. Now all these points, except the proof from Jewish prophecy, are taken up and worked out by Aristides with a frequent use of the actual language of The Preaching of Peter. A criterion is thus given us for the reconstruction of the Apology, where the Greek which we have has been abbreviated, and we are enabled to claim with certainty some passages of the Syriac which might otherwise be suspected as interpolations.

The style of the Apology is exceedingly simple. It is curiously misdescribed by Jerome, who never can have seen it, as “Apologeticum pro Christianis contextum philosophorum sententiis.” Its merits are its recognition of the helplessness of the old heathenism to satisfy human aspiration after the divine, and the impressive simplicity with which it presents the unfailing argument of the lives of Christians.

The student may consult The Apology of Aristides, Syriac text and translation (J. R. Harris), with an appendix containing the Greek text, Texts and Studies, i. 1 (1891), and a critical discussion by R. Seeberg in Zahn’s Forschungen, v. 2 (1893); also, brief discussions by A. Harnack, Altchristl. Litteratur, i. 96 ff., Chronologie, i. 271 ff., where references to other writers may be found. The Epistola ad omnes philosophos and the Homily on the Penitent Thief, ascribed by Armenian tradition to Aristides, are really of 5th-century origin. Trans. of Apology by W. S. Walford (1909).  (J. A. R.) 

  1. Codex Venet. ann., 981, and Codex Etchmiaz. of the 11th century.