Christians were accused of atheism, child sacrifice, orgies, and a host of other crimes by Roman writers. Leaders in the church such as Tertullian fought back. As Christians are falsely accused of more and more, we can look back to translate Christian apology to the modern day.
By Mark D. Harris
Contrary to the modern Western usage of the word, apology as first defined by Webster is “a formal spoken or written defense of some idea, religion, philosophy, etc.” By end of the second century AD, Christianity had grown dramatically in the Roman Empire and was clearly differentiated from Judaism, which had lost its place in the Empire as a result of the Great Revolt (66-70 AD), the Kitos War (115-117 AD), and the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 AD). No longer identified with Judaism which shielded Christianity from close Roman scrutiny in the earliest days (Acts 18:12-17), Christianity in the second century was a focus of great attention by non-Christians.
How Christians lived
Christians lived differently than their pagan neighbors. They kept to themselves in entertainment, worship, and even some commercial transactions such as purchasing meat sacrificed to idols. They avoided politics. Believers in Christ observed neither the traditional religious practices of the Greek and Roman gods nor the worship of the Emperor. The former made them different, but the later made them potentially treasonous in the eyes of others.
Paul said that the teaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18) and experience proved his words. Roman pagans simply could not understand God allowing Himself to be killed by mortals so that by His sacrifice and resurrection they could be saved. Even the Eucharist seemed like a strange form of cannibalism. The love that Christian “brothers and sisters” professed for one another and the “Love Feasts” that they enjoyed were misinterpreted as incest. How could it have been otherwise in such a licentious society with prostitution as part of feasting and worship?
The weak and powerless often embraced Christianity while the mighty rejected it (1 Corinthians 1:26). Christianity was therefore seen as a religion for losers and weaklings. Roman antagonists such as Celsus thought that Christians emphasized faith over reason. Given their Greek dualism, they disliked the Christian’s emphasis on bodily resurrection (as opposed to the immortal spirit) and thought that a true religion should not come so late in history.
The Christian apologists
Christian apologists such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Minucius Felix and Justin Martyr used reason, history, philosophy, and every other means they could to disprove false accusations, communicate the excellence of the Christian faith, and encourage others to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Justin, a Gentile from Samaria (Neapolis) who studied the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, and Stoicism was ideally prepared, once claimed by Christ, to speak for Him. He dealt with four groups of antagonists to the faith, pagans, Jews, the State, and heretics.
For Justin, light was great disinfectant. He shined light on the Christian rites of love feasts, baptism, the Eucharist, and the Christian lifestyle, demonstrating that far from being subversive, perverse and dangerous, the Christian life was noble and pure. Confronting the lies and innuendos of Christ’s enemies caused these rumors to whither under the light of truth.
In another travesty, Christians were being punished simply for bearing the name “Christian”. Justin argued that each man should be judged on his own deeds and not the name of the group to which he belonged. Further, Rome had no fear of political subversion by Christians because they did not look for a worldly kingdom
The questions about Christ and the newness of Christianity were framed in the Jewish roots of the faith. Christianity wasn’t less than two centuries old, but was as old as the faith of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of everything that these forefathers had done and the new era of Christianity made following the specifics of the Law (such as animal sacrifice) unnecessary. Using a concept that would resonate in Greek culture, Christ was explained as the Logos of God. As Logos, He was not merely a crucified man but a resurrected Lord.
Sadly, the visible church in America is not noticeably different from the non-Christian world. Dedicated Christians are, of course, very different in terms of divorce, alcohol abuse, pornography, and many other areas, but carnal Christians dilute this impact and the world can see very little difference. Nor does it want to. The most important apologetic in modern America is a life dedicated to the Lord and different from the world.
Still, some principles from the second century apply today. Modern apologists should be intensely logical, well trained in the Christian faith and understanding the objections of opponents. They should be familiar with current culture and able to interpret the Gospel in terms that pagan intellectuals can understand, as Justin did with the idea of Christ as Logos. With advances in technology we have come to believe that the newest, not the oldest is best. Christianity, a religion now seen as very old, must demonstrate that it is both eternal and ever new.