Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Second Century Greek Apologists and How They Used Pagan Mythology

The Greek apologists of the second century led very interesting lives and came to their belief in Christianity from a logical and for the most part, learned background.  This essay will look at the lives of the apologists Justin Martyr, Tatian, Tertullian, Athenagoras, Theophilius of Antioch, and Minucius Felix, and at how they used pagan mythology in their apologies. 

Justin Martyr

Justin was a student of many different philosophies in his life.  He studied both Stoicism and Platonism for many years.  After having studied Platonism, Justin became converted to Christianity when he was walking along the shore with an old man one day.  This man talked with Justin and pointed out to him the flaws in his philosophies, and then directed him to the Old Testament for prophets that were better teachers than his philosophy instructors[1].  Justin then went on to be a very vocal Christian, and spoke out about Christianity and tried to show the Greeks that Christianity was the only truth. 

Justin was the first writer to think of annuls of humanity as a twofold story of sacred and profane history, with a nodal point in the coming of Christ.  The principle, basic to Justin’s attitude, that the creator has implanted seeds of truth in many places, not only in the inspired prophetic writings, was taken further by later Christian writers[2].  Grant proposes that the two Apologies that Justin wrote are in fact one long document, or syntaxis, and that the ending of the second half is almost completely philosophical due to Justin understanding that Marcus Aurelius would soon take power in Rome[3]. 

Justin uses a lot of his education in philosophy to make his points in showing that paganism is wrong.  In his apology, Justin makes a point in explaining that Plato used the creation narrative from Genesis for the doctrine that God created the world out of pre-existent matter[4].  He also uses the philosophical   language in identifying God as the Father of justice and temperance.  Justice and temperance are two of the four cardinal virtues esteemed by Platonists and Stoics[5].

Justin compares and contrasts Jesus with the sons of Zeus, Hermes, and other Greek gods, in the aspects of being virgin-born, being the Son of God, being crucified, and rising from the dead.  After he uses the Greek myths to compare Jesus, he then uses the Jewish Old Testament to show that Christ was predicted to be born, and that the prophets of the Old Testament were actually Christian as well[6].  Interestingly, Justin talks in what is referred to as his Second Apology about demons and uses the Old Testament to say that the pagan gods are actually the demon offspring of angles and human women that is mentioned in Genesis 6[7]. 

Another facet that Justin used, as did many of the apologists after him, is that of finding prophecies of Christ in pagan oracles.   As Chadwick states, “It was enough for the purposes of argument to find in these oracles a valuable testimony to the divine truth.  Soon similar witnesses to the majesty of Christ were found in writings claiming to be revelations of ‘Thrice-greatest Hermes’, or in oracles of Apollo himself.  The manufacture of such oracular testimonies went on among both opponents and defenders of Christianity”[8].  

Justin uses his philosophical knowledge and language to his advantage in discussing and explaining his newfound faith and belief in Christianity.  He also uses it to extrapolate from the pagan mythology facets which show that the mythology is wrong and lend themselves to showing the Greeks that Christianity is good and should be followed.


Tatian was from Assyria and received a Greek education in history, philosophy, rhetoric and eventually became a sophist[9].  Tatian went through a period of studying different religions and inductions into mystery cults.  Tatian eventually became converted to Christianity and a disciple of Justin.  Unlike his mentor, Justin Martyr, Tatian did not stay with the church, albeit he did remain Christian[10].  It is believed that Tatian left Rome and returned to his homeland to live out the remainder of his life. 

Due to the literary styling of Tatian, which is consistent with that of a trained Sophist, his apology can sometimes be strenuous and difficult to read and interpret properly.  The work referred to as the Discorse to the Greeks is divided into three different sections; the introduction which contains Tatian urging the Greeks to stop the persecution of the Christians (which he refers to as barbarians), a section on the Christian belief structure as pertaining to Christ, His resurrection, and the supernatural world in comparison to paganism, and the last section deals with chronology proving that Christians predated the Greek pagans as Moses lived 400 years prior to the Trojan War[11]. 

Tatian attacked mythology as inconsistent and the planets and constellations as demonic in his apology.   He said that the demons, who were the Greek gods, under the direction of Zeus arranged to honour the animals in the sky so that the animals would think that they were heavenly and thus be able to be controlled through the movements of the stars[12]. 

For the most part, Tatian is very much more critical of the Greek way of life than his mentor Justin was.  Throughout his entire literary work, Tatian appears to be mocking and deriding the Greek paganism as ridiculous, absurd, and evil in general.  Tatian also uses examples similar to the one given above in mythology to prove that the polytheism the Greeks observed was wrong and that Christianity was the one correct view.  Similarities in the coarseness of Tatian’s words can be seen in those of Tertullian. 


Tertullian was born in Carthage in North Africa to a Roman centurion.  He was legally trained and was a jurist in Rome for a time before he began his writing on matters concerning Christianity[13].  Tertullian was the first of the Christian authors to use Latin for his works.  His legal background is evident in his writings as they are very direct and attacking in nature, as any lawyer would be.  Chadwick used a quote describing Tertullian as “…brilliant, exasperating, sarcastic, and intolerant, yet intensely vigorous and incisive in argument, delighting in logical tricks and with an advocate’s love of a clever sophistry if it will make the adversary look foolish, but a powerful writer of splendid, torrential prose.”[14]

Further evidence of Tertullian’s legal background can be seen in his Apology by the way that he defends Christianity as a legal association[15].  This was in response to many people trying to get Christianity outlawed through legal means.  Further into the Apology, Tertullian denounces paganism and puts forward the superiority of the Christian faith. 


Athenagoras was a philosopher from Athens.  According to Philip of Side in 430, Athenagoras was a heathen that converted to Christianity after reading the scriptures[16].  Like Justin, Athenagoras uses logic to argue for Christianity.  His Apology was addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and was for the express purpose of addressing the three major accusations of his time against the Christians, namely atheism, immorality, and cannibalism. 

The first of these accusations are dealt with by the declaration that Christians do worship God, but only one God, and that He does not require blood sacrifices as the pagan gods do.  Further, Athenagoras uses Platonic doctrine to disprove polytheism by demonstrating through logic that God can only be God by Himself, as since He is God and the Maker of the world, there cannot be any other god that shares that power with Him, as that would make Him cease being God.  Also, if there were more than one god, they would not matter as they could not act independently and if they were to go to another world, they also would not matter as then they would not be our god(s) any longer[17].

The next accusation of immorality is addressed by stating that the Christians believe in a hell and torment for sinners, and that they are opposed to evil acts.  The last accusation of cannibalism is addressed by pointing out that Christians are opposed to murder, do not attend the gladiatorial fights, and do not have abortions or leave infants out in the elements to die when unwanted[18]. 

Athenagoras also used many of the Pathagorean numerological treatises to show that evil has always stood diametrically opposed to good, using the example of Pythagoras being burned to death, and Heraclitus being banished and Socrates being executed by the Athenians[19]. Further, Athenagoras uses theosophical literature contemporary to him for the pagan ideas about gods and the beginning of the world[20].  These facts made him very good at arguing for the benefit of his fellow Christians and in showing that polytheism would not work.

Theophilus of Antioch

Theophilus came from the border of Mesopatamia and Syria.  He became the bishop of Antioch in the year 169 succeeding Cornelius[21].  He wrote his Apology to Autolycus, who had asked Theophilus to show him his god, praising the pagan gods in the process. 

Theophilus often derides and mocks Greek literature and its authors, such as asking what good it did Homer to write the Iliad and the Odyssey, or what point there was to Orpheus writing about the gods when he just denounced them all when he wrote Testaments before he died proclaiming that there is just one God[22].  Theophilius is not as good as Justin or Athenagoras in his accuracy or his writing style, but he is vehement in his defence of Christianity, and his stance on paganism. 

His Apology is mainly concerned on the nature of God in a comparison to that of the pagan mythology.  While Theophilus outlines the basic ideas of God being known but unseen, he also points out flaws in the belief of the pagan gods.  Theophilus took the stories of Zeus literally, and used them to demonstrate that Zeus could not be a god as he was born, and obviously died as he has a tomb on Crete.  Also, he cites Zeus as being immoral with his sister Hera whom he took as a wife and was very illicit in their relationship together[23].  These examples are used to also demonstrate that Christians are more moral than the pagans and their gods both. 

Theophilus also refutes the claims that Christianity must be wrong as it is newer than paganism.  Using an argument of chronology, he points out to Autolycus that Moses live centuries before the reported Trojan War[24].  So while Theophilus might not have been as well educated or as literarily gifted, he did make an effective argument for the Christians, using the pagans own mythology against them. 

Minucius Felix

Minucius Felix followed Tertullian and shared a lot of his conciliatory aspects of opinion.  He drew upon Plato, Virgil, Seneca, Cicero, Fronto, and Tertullian freely[25].  Minucius was also a high member of Roman society and cited a detailed account of the Christian banquet from Cornelius Fronto, who was consul and teacher to Marcus Aurelius[26]. 

Minucius Felix wrote one of the oldest pieces of Latin Christian literature called the Octavius.  Rather than being a dissertation styled apology as most of the others have been, this is more of a literary story that depicts the characters of Marcus, Octavius, and Caecilius in a Christianity conversion story.  Marcus is the ‘author’ of the tale, and Octavius is his friend.  The story tells of how the pagan Caecilius is won over to Christianity through a discussing concerning religious practices[27].

The second part of the Octavius is a speech made by Caecilius which discusses the problems with religion in general.  He states that the gods are unconcerned with men, and that men truly know nothing about the gods, so it is better to just follow the laws of the country than to try to please the gods.  He continues by saying that Christians are forming secret sects and are immoral people that worship a dead man.  He then concludes that the best course of action would be to get rid of all religion and just let things stay as they are.

The next part of the story is Octavius’ response, wherein he states that it is possible to know God, and that polytheism is a suggestion of the demons, that the Christians are pure in all their ways, and that things cannot be allowed to remain the way that they are.  In the last act, Caecilius proclaims defeat and becomes a Christian.  Minucius’ argument for Christianity was made in this literary form so that it was appealing to the educated pagans.  Minucius seems to have used his knowledge of the literary styling of the day to convey his meaning and argument successfully.


Chadwick, H.  (1993), The Early Church, Vol. I, Penguin Books, London.

Early Church History 101.  (2010),

Grant, R.  (1988), Greek Apologists of the Second Century, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Penn.

Wilken, R.  (2003), The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Kirby, P.  (2001), Early Christian Writings.  Handbook of Patrology: First Period Section II:  Apologists of the Second Century 

[1] Chadwick The Early Church p. 75
[2] Ibid p. 78
[3] Grant Greek Apologists p. 55
[4] Ibid p. 59
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid p. 61-62
[7] Ibid p. 64
[8] Chadwick The Early Church p. 79
[10] Grant Greek Apologists ch. 14
[12] Grant Greek Apologists p. 121
[14] Chadwick The Early Church p. 91
[15] Wilken Christians as the Romans Saw Them p. 45-47
[17] Grant Greek Apologists p. 107
[18] Ibid p. 106
[19] Ibid p. 105
[20] Ibid p. 104
[22] Grant Greek Apologists p. 148
[23] Ibid p 149-150
[25] Chadwick The Early Church p. 93
[26] Grant Greek Apologists p. 31

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