Monday, June 20, 2011


Jörg Ulrich, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, Maijastina Kahlos (ed.), Continuity and Discontinuity in Early Christian Apologetics. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity 5. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. Pp. 130. ISBN 9783631579763. $33.95.

Reviewed by E. J. Hutchinson, Hillsdale College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Continuity and Discontinuity in Early Christian Apologetics is a collection of seven essays presented in a workshop organized by German, Finnish, and Danish scholars at the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies at Oxford in 2007. The goal of the editors in publishing the papers is "to reach a larger audience and…to further the discussion" (3) of early Christian apologetics. The papers cover the second to the fifth centuries and include analysis of both Latin and Greek apologists (a category which is defined—rightly, in my view—rather broadly).

In the first essay, "Apologetics and Apologies--Some Definitions," Anders-Christian Jacobsen surveys, from three perspectives, recent scholarship on strategies for discussing the group of texts from the second century onwards that are usually grouped together under the heading "apologetic." The first is the motive of defense. Defense is explicitly directed against outside antagonists but has the corollary of contributing to the construction of identity (here he follows generally in the path of Judith Lieu1). Not surprisingly, defense emerges as the common core of the texts under consideration, but with varying levels of intensity; only those works with "high intensity" (12) should be classified as apologetics, Jacobsen holds, though he does not delineate here a metric for making that determination. The second perspective involves addressees and raises the question of whether the implied addressees of these texts are the same as the express addressees. The question does not admit of an easy answer and has been widely debated; Jacobsen does not find it helpful for defining what "apologetic" is. The third, and perhaps most important, consideration is that of literary genre. Jacobsen expresses basic agreement with Frances Young2 and Averil Cameron3 that the texts we call "apologetics" do not share a common literary form. To include all of the texts that have defensive motives under a single "genre" would be to broaden the genre "apology" to such an extent that it would have no practical use (20). He concludes: "[T]he relationship between texts called apologies is not determined by literary style or form, neither by the addressees of the texts, but rather by the content and aims of the texts" (21). The "common content" takes on a variety of forms. What is needed is not a genre but a typology of texts with apologetic motives classified according to the "intensity of defensive content and aims in given texts" (ibid.).

The next two essays treat features of individual works. In the first, on the Assyrian Tatian's Oratio ad Graecos, John Eugene Fojtik argues that a major aim of the text is to barbarize the Greeks and to valorize the barbarians. Tatian, who refers to himself not as a Christian but as an adherent of "barbarian philosophy" (24), attacks elite Greeks of the Second Sophistic from three angles. First, he turns Greek charges of barbarian sexual immorality and violence against the Greeks, focusing especially on athletics and gladiatorial shows. (There seems to be a slippage here between Greek and Roman identity, and Fojtik does not address whether the amphitheater should be seen as a symbol of Hellenic culture.) Second, Tatian attacks the pretentiousness and artificiality of privileging Attic Greek over other dialects. By drawing attention to the differences among the various dialects of Greek (Orat. 1.4), Tatian denies the Greeks the unity of a common language. Finally, and most significantly, Tatian refuses to credit the Greeks with their paideia: anything good in Hellenic culture was borrowed from the chronologically prior and philosophically superior Scriptures. The barbarians created Hellenism; thus the Greeks should become pepaideuomenoi of the barbarians, and not the other way around (33). Fojtik concludes that Tatian is not only arguing for the superiority of Christianity, but is attempting to redeem barbarian identity from the tyranny of elite Hellenism. In the second essay, Tobias Georges investigates the motif of the progression from "secret" to "revealed" in the Apologeticum of Tertullian. Georges notes that the treatise often has been analyzed in forensic terms and that chapters 7-45 constitute the argumentatio, but he argues that forensic analysis alone cannot account for the lack of balance between 7-9 (the secret crimes of the Christians) and 10-45 (their open crimes). There is a theological motivation as well for Tertullian's organization, Georges claims, as the movement from occultum to manifestum is shown as "inherent in Christian truth" (41). The truth is hidden from the text's addressees, Tertullian's argument goes, because of their own blindness, but it desires to be made manifest (39; cf. Apol. 1.2). The accusations against Christians are possible only because of the willful ignorance of the accusers, which the Apologeticum will dispel if they will let it. Indeed, the revelation of truth is part and parcel of the Christian faith itself.

The fourth essay, by Jakob Engberg, is the longest of the collection and investigates the purpose of conversion accounts in apologetic works by Tatian, Minucius Felix,4 Justin Martyr, Cyprian, and Arnobius. Drawing on research into conversion in modern religious movements, Engberg asserts that conversion accounts are usually of a stereotypical character (55) and that they cannot tell us about a convert's "real motives" at the time of conversion (76).5 But Engberg is less interested in assessing the reliability of the apologists' conversion accounts (he admits that emphasis on a variety of motives in a variety of contexts need not be signs of unreliability) than in examining the rhetorical function of the accounts in the argumentative context of individual works, and this is a fruitful approach. As one example, he elucidates how treatment of the Jewish scriptures in Justin's conversion account in the Dialogue was aimed not only at persuading Jews but also at defending against the errors of Marcion with respect to the canon, an issue very much in play at the time of the Dialogue. The argumentative purpose and potential audiences of the Dialogue that Engberg points to help to explain the differences between this account of Justin's conversion and that found in the second Apology, where the courage of the martyrs is given as inspiration for conversion to Christianity.

Maijastina Kahlos' paper examines the shifting concepts of religious forbearance (patientia) and compulsion in the period following the "Constantinian shift" (79), specifically in Book 5 of Lactantius' Institutiones and in the De errore profanarum religionum of Firmicus Maternus. As she sees it, in this period "apologetics" develops into "categorics,"6 as an aggression that was mostly latent in earlier apologies becomes more forthright. Lactantius advocates religious liberty, because true religion cannot be compelled, but attacks polytheistic beliefs and practices on the level of ideas; that is, he clearly distinguishes between political and intellectual forbearance. The patientia of men echoes God's forbearance, but God will eventually avenge error on the Last Day. Firmicus Maternus, on the other hand, urges Constantius II and Constans to use the power of coercive legislation (or "echoes and shows support for" already existing imperial legislation, 93) to stamp out practices inconsistent with Christianity. She concludes by asserting that the seeds of both forbearance and compulsion (that is, of the positions of both Lactantius and Firmicus) are present in Christianity from the beginning as a "double tradition" (94-5), but, unfortunately, she does not elaborate on that claim. In addition, she uses the term "paganism" in inverted commas throughout to describe the way in which Lactantius and Firmicus saw their opponents (e.g., 89, 92). Her use of the term seems to be a corollary of her view of the line of development from "apologetics" to "categorics," but she does not define the term, and neither Lactantius nor Firmicus, as far as I know, classifies his adversaries as pagani.7 This is not to say that Lactnatius and Firmicus did not see non-Christians as belonging to one broad category of people, but the specific sense in which Kahlos means the term "paganism" would be useful to know. This is especially so given the legislative context of her essay, since the term was not used in religious legislation in the mid-fourth century.

Markus Mertaniemi's chapter on the image of Porphyry in Christian apologetics examines depictions of Porphyry in, for example, Eusebius and Jerome, from the rhetorical point of view of ἦθος (character description) and according to modern research into the "enemy image" (98). He notes that while Porphyry could be shown in a positive or neutral light when being used as an ally against some traditional religious practices (e.g., animal sacrifice), he is much more frequently described as stupid, ignorant, wicked, bestial–and dangerous. The Porphyry created in apologetic texts is thus paradoxical, by turns ridiculous and frightening (111).

In the final essay, Jörg Ulrich deals with the question of reception and originality in the Graecarum affectionum curatio of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Ulrich notes that Theodoret in many respect reprises Eusebius' Praeparatio evangelica, taking many of his quotations of Greek sources from Eusebius (as well as from the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria and Aëtius' De placitis), often even preserving the order of the quotations. This is intriguing in a work written 110 years after the Praeparatio, and Ulrich believes that it shows that many of the objections to Christianity raised by intellectuals were the same in the fifth century as in the fourth. However, Theodoret is apparently sensitive to new objections that arose in the interim as well, as can be seen in his arguments against criticism of the cult of the martyrs. The other feature of Theodoret's work that Ulrich sees as new is the ordering of material according to a "self-contained map of systematic theology" (127), in which the "positive systematic arrangement of Christian theology [rather than refutation of objections] clearly is the major task and effort" (ibid.). The Curatio thus becomes "one of the first examples of arranging theology in well-ordered theological topics" (ibid.).

In conclusion, Continuity and Discontinuity in Early Christian Apologetics holds interest as a collection of works in progress from some major scholars in the field. Their origin in a workshop often comes through, as the contributors raise questions about several apologists from the second to the fifth centuries and map out a general course as to how the questions could be answered; one suspects that the papers are laying the foundation for more-detailed work to come. In terms of presentation, an index is wanting and the volume is badly in need of closer attention to English editing. Errors of spelling and syntax are legion.


1.   Cf. J. Lieu, "The Forging of Christian Identity," Mediterranean Archaeology 11 (1998) 71-82.
2.   F. Young, "Greek Apologists of the Second Century" in Edwards, M., M. Goodman, and S. Price (edd.), Apologetics in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 1999), 81-104.
3.   A. Cameron, "Apologetics in the Roman Empire--A Genre of Intolerance?" in Cracco Ruggini, L., J.-M. Carrié, and R. Lizzi Testa (edd.), Humana sapit: études d'Antiquité tardive offertes à Lellia Cracco Ruggini (Brepols, 2002), 219-27.
4.   The inclusion of Minucius Felix with the others at least warrants some explanation. Although the conversion account to which Engberg refers is a collective one, it is nevertheless not spoken by Minucius Felix but rather by the character Octavius within the dramatic frame of the dialogue. Though its rhetorical function could be similar to that of other first-person accounts, it is narrative at one remove from the dialogue's author, and is thus fundamentally different from the self-presentation of the other accounts considered.
5.   The assertion is not substantiated. Why assume that retrospective views of reality are necessarily wrong?
6.   Ibid.; she does not define the term, but glosses it as marking the change from defense pro Christianis to attack contra gentes.
7.   The term has of course been much discussed. See, most recently, Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press, 2011), 14-25. Cameron argues that the origin of the descriptor paganus was in fact non-pejorative and was a Latin equivalent for "hellene" ( = non-Christian).
8.   See the discussion of Haer. 64.70 in C. Mohrmann, "Encore une fois: Paganus." VChr 6 (1952) 119; for "pagan" as an equivalent of "hellene," see n. 7.

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