Apologetics: Speaking Truth to Power in the Second Century
by Timothy Paul Jones
Imagine yourself as a follower of Jesus in the opening decades of the second century. Nearly a century has passed since the first followers of Jesus claimed they saw their leader alive three days after they watched him die. Now, the Christian faith has reached nearly every urban center in the Roman Empire. And yet, this faith—your faith—remains marginalized and despised. There is an ever-present risk that someone will accuse you of bearing the hated title “Christian.” Despite this specter that shadows every segment of your daily life, you know that your social position has improved since the days of Nero and Domitian. In many regions, allegiance to Jesus as your only God results in a death sentence only if you are guilty of another crime as well. In Athens, there are even philosophers who openly pursue their love of wisdom from the foundation of their faith in Jesus. One of these philosophers is a man named Aristides of Athens. In the winter of the year that we know as 125, Aristides turned his philosophical capacities toward the goal of converting a king. The king was none other than Emperor Hadrian, lover of Greek culture and builder of the wall across Britain that is known by his name still today.
Aristides, Speaker of Divine Truth to Imperial Power
Seven years into Hadrian’s reign, it seems clear that this new emperor will pursue a path similar to his immediate predecessor Trajan when it comes to the prosecution of Christians. “If an accuser comes forward,” Hadrian instructed the proconsul of Asia Minor,
with proof that the Christians are acting contrary to the laws, hand down a sentence that is commensurate with the offense. But—by Hercules!—if anyone turns this into a pretext for slander, pay attention to this misdeed and punish the accuser severely.
In other words, if Christians are found to be breaking the laws of the Roman Empire, they are to be punished for these offenses as well as for their refusal as Christians to honor the gods of state and empire. No one, however, is to face criminal charges based on the mere claim that he or she might be a Christian.
A year after sending this letter to his proconsul in Asia Minor, Hadrian decides to spend a winter in Athens. During this Aegean reprieve from the city of Rome, Hadrian is presented with a defense—an apologia—penned by the Christian philosopher Aristides. Given the precarious position of Christians at this moment, one might expect Aristides either to flatter the emperor—saying nothing that might offend—or at the very least to focus his defense solely on gaining legal protections for Christians.
Aristides does neither…
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