Sexual Vice and Christian Apologia

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

Get Instant Access

During the second century, there arose a defensive sort of Christian writing designed to address new, pointed criticisms of the movement. Christian authors composed defenses of the faith that reassured their non-Christian audiences by registering a commitment to a number of the central values of the larger culture and by claiming that, of all people, they were the most friendly toward the emperor and "his" empire. Though they did "not completely identify themselves with the broader society," these authors were also not "advocates of confrontation or revolution"; rather, they hoped to persuade educated elites familiar with Greek philosophy to adopt a more sympathetic view towards the Christians, explaining their movement in terms that outsiders could both understand and appreciate.1 A few of these treatises were addressed specifically to the emperors, perhaps reflecting a sincere hope that the emperor could be converted the to their cause. After all, the emperors they addressed were more reasonable than most: Antoninus Pius was "broad-minded," and his son Marcus Aurelius had adopted Stoic philosophy, ending the persecutions suffered by Stoic philosophers under previous emperors.2 In this way, second-century Christian authors took it upon themselves to argue that Christianity "was the embodiment of the noblest conceptions of Greek philosophy,"3 defending their religion as decent, law abiding, and loyal to Rome.

This is a summary of one standard line of interpretation applied to a set of second-century Greek Christian writers identified as "apologists." This chapter presents a different reading of this same material by offering a reconsideration of the "apologies" of Justin Martyr. Justin addressed writings to the emperor, the emperor's heirs, and the Roman Senate. In an address he identified as a "npoofrovhoi^," a term employed to label speeches of praise addressed to rulers,4 and a "evT£uXl~," or petition, he claims that the Christians obey the emperor "joyfully" (Justin i Apol. 17). But the critical edge of Justin's prose is apparent even here: in the same sentence, he notes that though Christians acknowledge "you [the emperor and the Senate] as kings and rulers of men," they do so "praying you may be found to have, besides royal power, sound judgment" (i Apol. 17). He goes on to argue that those who abuse the Christians are enslaved by demonic, profligate, bloodthirsty gods (i Apol. 4; 2 Apol. 5); that, by persecuting the Christians, they behave like public executioners rather than rulers (i Apol. 12); and, furthermore, that they fail to obey—let alone promote—their own laws (i Apol. 24-25, 27; 2 Apol. 2). In other words, Justin consistently maintains that the emperor and the Senate utterly failed at sound judgment; their religious and moral practices prove it. Justin did not compose an accommodationist defense of Christian loyalty, his petition reads much more like a speech of blame.

Later "apologists" presented equally paradoxical arguments. According to Theophilus of Antioch, Christians happily pay their taxes and acknowledge "you" as the kings and rulers; they also love their enemies and bless those who persecute them (Theophilus Ad Auto. 3.14, citing Rom 13:7-8). Their God instructs them to be subordinate to the rulers and powers (archais and exousiais) and to "pay all things to all, honor to whom honor is due, fear to whom fear is due, tax to whom taxes are due; to owe no one anything but to love all" (Ad Auto. 3.14). Nevertheless, Theophilus accused Autolychus—the (hypothetical?) Greek critic to whom he addressed his three-volume book—of being an adulterer, a fornicator, and a thief by virtue of his disgusting devotion to the gods (Ad Auto. 1.2). Autolychus, and others like him, worship gods like Zeus, a demon guilty of incest, adultery, and uncontrolled lust (Ad Auto. 1.9; 3.8), building temples and crafting idols in their honor (Ad Auto. 1.10; 2.2). Therefore, Theophilus insisted, they will be punished (Ad Auto. 1.14).

Athenagoras wrote an "embassy" (a formal petition) to the "philosopher" emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus pleading the Christian cause (Athenagoras Leg. 1.1).5 Athenagoras insists that the Christians confirmed their goodness with good deeds and the affection that they hold toward their neighbors (Leg. 11.3). Therefore, those who truly condemn bad behavior ought not to hate them; rather, they should hate Zeus, who begot children by his mother and daughter (Leg. 20).6 The gods of the Greeks and Romans—gods "you" worship—were guilty of the worst sorts of offenses (Leg. 18-22). By contrast, Christians are not even permitted to look at a woman with lust (epithymia), Athenagoras asserts, let alone contemplate incest or adultery (Leg. 32). Christian men seek intercourse only with their wives and then engage in it solely for the sake of procreation, not to indulge their desire (epithymid); in fact, many Christians grow old without marrying at all (Leg. 33). "You," however, have intercourse with prostitutes, male and female: "Men work their frightful deeds with men; they violate in every way those whose bodies are especially noble or comely" (Leg. 34).7 The opponents of the Christians are all adulterers (moichoi) and pederasts (paiderastai) though they perversely abuse those who married only once or abstained from intercourse altogether (i.e., the Christians, Leg. 34). Athe-nagoras portrays the Romans as hypocrites—as well as sexual and religious deviants—of the worst kind.

Tatian, a student of Justin's, composed a speech against the Greeks as a people, setting out to prove that what they considered honorable was never actually practiced by them.8 Honorable behavior, Tatian claims, is the property of Christians alone. Christians preserve their chastity (sophro-syne), but the behavior of the Greeks "borders on madness" (Tatian Or. 33).9 Sappho the courtesan (i.e., the famous Attic poet) "sang her own lewdness" (Or. 33). By contrast, chaste Christian women spin at their distaffs while they discuss godly things (Or. 33). Tatian expressed particular disdain for actors and those who would watch them, offering the following description of one (supposedly) depraved thespian:

[He appeared] very affected and putting on all sorts of delicate airs, now with flashing eyes, now wringing his hands and expressing madness with clay make up ... being in one man an accuser of all the gods, epitome of superstition, slanderer of heroism, actor of murders, interpreter of adultery, repository of madness, teacher of kinaidoi,10 instigator of condemned criminals—and such a one is applauded by them all! (Or. 22). 11

From Tatian's perspective, then, the utter depravity of the Greeks can be summed up by the effeminate, licentious, and false behavior of this actor whom they boldly revere.

Recent interpreters, noting the oppositional tone of the rhetoric these authors employed, have come to regard the opening address to the emperor or other rulers—when it occurs—as a literary fiction. "In practice," Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price observe, "the Apologies seem not be have been much read by non-Christians, their importance lying in their internal consumption within the church."12 Frances Young agrees, arguing that these writings were probably in-group documents designed to justify the decision by Christian elites to reject the literature and customs of their ancestral community in favor of a religion that was "regarded by most people ... as a suspiciously alien culture."13 The "apologies," then, were not directed at the emperor or even at interested outsiders but at fellow Christians who had already converted but were having second thoughts. According to this reading, Justin's and Athenagoras's ironic appeals to "philosopher-kings" were designed, at least in part, to allay the concerns of educated Christians like themselves, not to persuade the emperor. To do so, they had to address non-Christian philosophy in some way, and so they argued that true philosophers recognize truth, Christianity is true, and "any really committed philosopher would see this."14

The apologists did engage philosophy in their writings, comparing Christianity to philosophy and noting that philosophers were occasionally persecuted. Justin declared himself to be a philosopher and a Christian, or, more accurately, a Christian philosopher (Justin Dial. 2, 8).15 Tatian celebrated the "true, barbarian philosophy" of the Christians, comparing his superior philosophy to the corrupt, degraded philosophies of the Greeks (Or. 1-3).16 Theophilus observed that Plato, like the Christians, also believed in an uncreated God, though, Theophi-lus argued, this important insight was lost once Plato and his followers posited that uncreated matter is also God (Theophilus Ad Auto. 2.4).17 Athenagoras noted several points of convergence between Christian theology and the theology of Plato's Timaeus, though he went on to assert that Plato did not fully comprehend the truth of his arguments (Leg. 6, 16, 19, 23).18 Justin granted that a few philosophers spoke some measure of truth (Socrates, Heraclitus, Musonius Rufus), but he further claimed that whatever truths they obtained had been given to them by the Logos (i.e., by Christ, 1 Apol. 5, 2 Apol. 10). Indeed, many of the truths Plato mentioned were drawn from Moses (1 Apol. 10),19 and the Logos in its fullness is available to Christians alone (2 Apol. 10).20

Perhaps Christians trained to value a philosophical upbringing were (re)convinced by these descriptions of philosophy as an incomplete, deformed precursor to the fullness of Christian truth. Certainly, fellow Christian philosophers would have been powerfully reminded of the allegedly great chasm between them—reasonable, pure, chaste, obedient, fully in possession of truth—and the imperfect philosophies they had left behind. But the need to justify Christian abandonment of traditional pi ety to wavering Greek or Roman Christians cannot fully account for the vehemence of this rhetoric. Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman has pointed out, engagement with philosophers and philosophical argument did not imply that these writers were working to reconcile Christian and Greek ideals. Indeed, such an approach presupposes a false distinction between "Christian" and "Greek"; these were not distinct categories that needed to be, or could be, reconciled but identity positions in constant flux and negotiation.21 Therefore, a defense of Christian philosophy as uniquely "safe and profitable" on the part of Justin and other Christian authors included both a "resistance to and negotiation of existing [philosophical] authorities."22 Justin reconfigured the philosophical "truths" current among his contemporaries in order to argue that all truth, since it must come from (his) God, was in fact Christian truth.23

As Justin understood it, the problem was not that there is no truth outside of Christianity but that truth had been constantly distorted by evil demons and evil desire prior to the advent of Christ (i Apol. 10).24 A limited appreciation of philosophy, such as is found in Justin's writings, did not reconcile Christianity with broader cultural ideals—Christian authors could not and did not stand outside the larger culture in which they operated—but described Christianity as the fulfillment of all truth, wherever it might be found. In other words, even when these writers discussed philosophy, they did so to lend further credence to beliefs they identified as "Christian," not to recommend central (non-Christian) values. Indeed, they made the opposite argument, repeatedly insisting that, without Christ, outsiders were doomed to resemble their depraved gods. They were arguing that Christians were different, and better. Moreover, Justin's principal argument regarding the philosophers—those who managed to reach some semblance of truth were often persecuted—served to emphasize the tremendous and unjustified wrong Christians were suffering at the hands of their rulers, an attempt to vindicate his own cause rather than a defense of the heroic philosophers of old.25 The apologists did not seek to harmonize Christianity and Platonism or Christianity and Stoicism; they employed the heroes of Platonism and Stoicism to demonstrate the cruelty and foolishness of their neighbors.

Paul had defined the boundaries demarcating the brothers and sisters in Christ from others in sexual terms. Justin adopted a similar strategy and with similar results: the empire and "her" emperor are repeatedly associated with sexual licentiousness and thereby accused of failure at mastery.26

In this case, however, the charges are explicit. Justin addresses his appeals to emperors and the Senate, not to local churches. Did he imagine that the emperor would read them? Did he want him to? Earlier scholars believed that he did, though more recent scholars are unconvinced. By the second century, Christians were facing direct challenges to their movement in the form of verbal abuse and, in some (probably rare) cases, public execution. Under these circumstances, a defense of some sort was needed. Yet, as we shall see, this defense did not placate the emperor or "reconcile" Christianity with philosophy; rather, Justin launched a forceful attack upon the manhood and mastery of his rulers, adopting terms and rhetorical strategies that he shared with the authors of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, The Letter of the Churches ofLyons and Vienne, and other writings that celebrated the heroic, "manly" suffering of Christian martyrs. Before discussing Justin's arguments, however, we need to further explore second-generation Christian proposals regarding the nature of the sexual self-mastery required of those "in Christ." Justin's description of Christian "chastity" (sophrosyne) included both married Christians and those who had renounced sexual intercourse (i Apol. 15). In the last chapter, we observed that Paul had recommended that the brothers and sisters in Christ marry because of the danger of porneia or remain continent if they could control desire. This ambiguous position left plenty of room for disagreement, even among those who claimed Paul's own authority to validate their moral norms.


Second-generation Christians, writing in Paul's name or claiming his authority in other ways, continued to argue that nopveia characterized outsiders but never insiders.27 For example, the "Paul" who wrote Colossians reminded his audience that they had put to death porneia, impurity, the passion of lust, wickedness and greed: that is, the "earthly parts" within them. Formerly, their lives were characterized by vice, but now they have become something new (Col 3:5-11). According to the "Paul" of Ephesians, gentiles without Christ are estranged from God and have been abandoned to licentiousness (aaelgeia; Eph 4:18-19). By contrast, the brothers-in-Christ overcome their former way of life, put aside their old humanity (palaios anthropos), and reject deceptive desire (epithymia thes apathes; Eph 4:22). The author of Titus, taking on the guise of Paul writing to a trusted disciple,28 argues that although "we" were once "foolish, disobedient, de ceived, slaves to various desires and pleasures, leading our lives in wickedness and envy, hateful, and hating one another" (Titus 3:3),29 now God has trained (paideuo) us to renounce godlessness (asebeia) and worldly desires (hai kosmikai epithymiai); we ("Paul," "Titus," and their followers) live moderately (sophronos), justly (dikaios), and piously (eusebos) while waiting patiently for Christ to appear again in glory (Titus 2:12).

According to these Pauline authors, an orderly household was the appropriate venue for displaying (supposedly unique) Christian sexual virtue. In Colossians and Ephesians, harmonious household hierarchy was said to be grounded in "love"(agape) and sanctified by Christ. Wives were instructed to remain subject to their husbands "as is fitting in the Lord" or "as to the Lord" (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22). Husbands were encouraged to love their wives "as Christ loved the church" (Col 3:19; Eph 5:25). Children were reminded to obey their parents (Col 3:20; Eph 6:1), fathers to discipline and instruct their children (Eph 6:4), slaves to obey their masters "in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord," and masters to treat their slaves fairly, remembering that they too have a master—in heaven (Col 3:22; Eph 6:5-9).30 In this way, hierarchical household arrangements were represented as God-given requirements, characteristic of all those who truly dwell "in Christ."31 The author of the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Tiimothy, Titus) adopted a similar position. Young women, this author claims, must be trained in sophrosyne at home, learning to love their husbands and children (Titus 2:4-5). Women are saved by childbearing, so long as they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with sophrosyne (1 Tim 2:15). Community leaders were to be selected on the basis of their well-ordered households. After all, "if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?" (1 Tim 3:5; compare Poly. Phil. 11.2). Believers were expected to marry, unless they happened to be widowers and older widows. A widow older than sixty could be "enrolled"—presumably, supported by the church—so long as her good deeds were well known, she married only once, and she had brought up her children (1 Tim 5:9—10).32 Younger widows, however, must remarry, or they will run amok and embarrass the church (1 Tim 5:11—14). From this author's perspective, marriage and household enable believers to master "the potentially unruly passions of the soul" so that they might command themselves, their households, and the church appropriately.33

Similar celebrations of the well-ordered, harmonious household, governed by a master who masters himself, may be found in all sorts of Greco-Roman moralizing literature.34 When "Paul" asks the rhetorical question,

"If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?" he knows what the answer should be: he cannot. His contemporaries agreed. Plutarch offers strikingly similar advice: "A man therefore ought to have his household well harmonized who is going to harmonize city, agora, and friends."35 In other words, a man must command obedience among his "subjects" at home if he hopes to obtain subjects in the marketplace or polis.36 To Plutarch, Christ was irrelevant to the project of keeping women, children, and slaves in line. For those writing as Paul, however, Christ alone made this idealized harmony possible. Christ blesses and demands the submission of woman, child, and slave—they are "saved" by their subjugation. Masterful command of self and subordinate ought to characterize those Christian free men designated to lead household and church; judgment awaits those who fail to adopt their proper position in this rigidly hierarchical, divinely authorized scheme (Col 2:23, 3:10; Eph 4:23-24; 1 Tim 2:8-15, 3:6-7, 3:11, 5:5, 5:11-14; 2 Tim 3:1-9; Titus 1:5-16).

The orderliness of the harmonious Christian household is contrasted in these letters with the alleged decadence and disorderliness of outsiders. Outsiders—the "sons of disobedience"—hide their shameful deeds in secret (Eph 5:6-14). Without Christ, these people are enslaved to various desires and delights (douleuontes epithymiais kai hedonaispoikilais, Tit 3:3). Thus, these authors reiterate Paul's own argument regarding the followers of Christ—only they are capable of virtue—yet shift the argument in such a way that a familiar sex-gender-status system was further maintained: a masterful free man rules the house, the most virtuous free man rules the community, and all are ruled by a (the) beneficent god(s). Still, good household management was represented as something that only Christians could do well. As Paul argued earlier and as these authors reaffirm, gentiles without Christ are slaves of desire, victims of every sort of vice, and utterly incapable of enkrateia or sophrosyne.

The anonymous second-century author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla offered an alternative reading of Pauline sexual values. According to this author, Paul instructed Christians to avoid marriage and sexual intercourse if at all possible; perpetual virginity was the preferred option.37 "Blessed are the continent, for God shall speak with them... . blessed are those who have wives as if not having them, for they shall experience God. . Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God and shall not lose the reward for their chastity," or so this author taught (5-6).38 The Acts of Paul and Thecla present a heroine who, upon hearing the gospel of Paul, betrays her household and family in favor of a life of continence and virginity. She rejects her earthly "masters" (her mother and her fiancé) in favor of her heavenly "master," Christ, and, in the process, she achieves full mastery over her desires, avoiding human marriage altogether.39 This story, and others like it, seem to have been intended as Christian inversions of popular Greek romance narratives. In the romance, the goal was a proper match between a beautiful virgin and a brave elite young man in marriage.40 In the Christian version, earthly marriage is rejected in favor of valiant sexual renunciation. Kate Cooper suggests that this alternative Christian "romance" was designed to offer a direct challenge to received social conventions:

In the Apocryphal Acts we find continuity and subversion: continuity, in that the heroine established in the ancient romance appears again in relatively unchanged form; subversion in that the traditional hero's position is insecure, and he eventually loses the heroine to a man who is clearly superior but whose goals are not those of the social order. Thus we move from a celebration of sexuality in the service of social continuity to a denigration of sexuality in service of a challenge to the establishment.41

Cooper understands the Acts of Paul and Thecla and other Christian stories regarding the heroic sexual renunciation of apostles and virgins as discursive weapons in a battle waged between elite Christian men and their non-Christian rivals.42 The Acts broadcasts the immunity of the apostles to the temptations of desire and the unexpected self-mastery that women gain under their tutelage, a direct claim of moral superiority in an ancient context and also a pointed challenge to the status quo.43 This moral superiority is gained at the expense of traditional marriage, even as the chastity of women—in this case, the sexual renunciation of women—is once again used to broadcast the moral fitness of the men (apostle, Christ) to whom they submitted. The call to sexual renunciation in the Acts of Paul and Thecla extends and intensifies Paul's own us/them language by narrating a dramatic clash between the ascetic apostle and his non-Christian competitors, Greek nobles determined to marry off their daughters.

Perhaps those Pauline Christians who preferred sexual abstinence to marriage did offer a sharper critique of the surrounding culture—even while upholding a rhetoric of self-mastery that they shared with that culture. Still, the Pauline Christians who preferred that Christian virtue be worked out in a "proper" Christian household were also critical of the larger society, as already observed. Pauline Christians, whatever position they took on sexual renunciation, continued to represent difference in terms of sexual virtue and vice. Whether marriage or abstinence was favored, these authors agreed: sexual self-control belongs to the Christians alone. Checking the indulgence of the flesh, avoiding porneia, maintaining proper order, these authors represented their movement as entirely unique, even as they adopted aspects of a moral code they shared with their neighbors. As Lewis Donelson has commented in his analysis of the Pastorals, "the author is co-opting for his own system the highest ethical ideals of his culture. In so doing he pronounces an apology for his community, since he is asserting that the ideal ethical life to which the majority of his culture aspires is available only within the doors of the Christian church."44

Donelson has argued that the Pastorals embraced and enforced a traditional order of the household within the churches, in part, to offer an "apology" to the surrounding community. By living up to a strict version of the hierarchical household, Christians sought to appear honorable to outsiders, to make their movement more attractive to others, and to deflect criticism against them. What is missing in this analysis, however, is anticipated by Donelson's comment "the ideal ethical life" is "available only within the doors of the Christian church." Christians may have quarreled about the content of the "ideal ethical life"—for some it meant sexual abstinence, for others, marriage45—yet the literature surveyed thus far is universal in the conviction that true believers are alone capable of achieving virtue, however virtue is defined. As Cooper has argued, there was a sharp edge to the Christian rhetoric of sexual self-control: if Christians were better at self-mastery than everyone else, surely they also deserved to be accorded the most prestige, the most honor, the highest status. Could the elites of the city, elites who dared contest the superior moral fitness of their far more masterful Christian rivals, possibly deserve the honor they demanded? The thesis Donelson recommends, while persuasive, cannot easily account for the force of the emerging Christian rhetoric of sexual virtue and vice, even among the Pastorals. Christians did not simply insist upon sexual self-mastery for their ranks, they denied the possibility of true mastery for outsiders. This strategy is not "apologetic" in an obvious sense, even in cases where household hierarchy was embraced as "Christian." Christian authors may have sought to defend their movement, but they also clearly, and pointedly, characterized outsiders as immoral lovers of vice.


Addressing the Emperor Antoninus Pius, his adopted sons Marcus Aure-lius and Lucius Verus, and the Roman Senate, Justin Martyr urges his rulers to judge Christians not by passion (pathos) but in accordance with piety (.eusebeia) and philosophy (philosophia, Justin i Apol. 1). He then proceeds to describe the beliefs and practices of these rulers in opposite terms: The Romans bestow rewards and honors on those who worship Zeus and follow his incestuous example (i Apol. 4). The Greeks and the Romans are led by unreasonable passion (alogos pathos) and wicked demons to persecute those who speak the truth (i Apol. 5). The artisans who build temples and form statuary to honor the gods are as licentious as the gods they seek to commend (i Apol. 9). Unlike the Christians, "you"—the rulers, Romans, and Greeks more generally—expose infants, producing a steady supply of children to be reared for the purposes of prostitution. Hence, the father of an exposed child may unknowingly visit his own scion to sate his promiscuous lusts, thereby committing incest and porneia at once (i Apol. 27; compare Tatian Or. 28).46 "Indeed," Justin laments, "the things openly done and honored by you [i.e., emperor, sons, and Senate], as if the light of God were overturned and not present, you charge against us. This, in truth, does no harm to us who depart from such things, but rather [it does do harm] to those who do them and then falsely accuse us" (i Apol. 27).47 Justin further contrasts "you" and "your" gods with the exceedingly chaste (owfpwv) Christians. True Christians would never commit adultery, marry only once, and never look at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her (i Apol. 15). Indeed, Justin boasted, some Christians remain pure (aphthoros, in this case, sexually abstinent) even to the age of sixty or seventy (i Apol. 15). In fact, people who once reveled in fornications (porneiai) have finally adopted chastity (sophrosyne) under the influence of Christ (i Apol. 14). Justin makes a similar point in a supplementary appeal written, ostensibly, to the Roman Senate. There he recounts the story of a Christian woman in Rome who, prior to her conversion, had engaged in every sort of licentious, adulterous pleasure with the full approval of her lascivious husband. After conversion, she adopted a temperate lifestyle and tried to convince her husband to do the same. When, after several attempts at persuasion, her efforts failed, she was forced to divorce him. Her dissolute husband, instead of rejoicing that she had given up sex acts with household slaves—an outrageous and illegal practice from the perspec tive of Justin and his contemporaries48—sought to have her punished by accusing her of being a Christian. When she managed to escape punishment, her husband directed his ire against one of her Christian brethren, arranging to have him arrested and punished (2 Apol. 2). At the end of the episode, Justin sums up the injustice by presenting a spontaneous protest, allegedly offered by a Christian named Lucius to Urbicus, the prefect of the city of Rome: "What is the accusation? Why do you punish this man, not as an adulterer (moichos), nor as a pornos (prostitute/fornicator), nor murderer, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted of any crime whatsoever, but as one who has only professed that he is called by the name Christian?" (2 Apol 2.16).49 In theory, the husband of the woman ought to have divorced her for committing adultery with slaves, yet he not only tolerated her behavior, he encouraged it.50 Could Justin be suggesting that the husband was the true criminal since he had behaved as his wife's procurer? His criminality was further attested by the "unnatural" pleasures he pursued. According to Justin, the man sought pleasures "contrary to the law of nature" (para ton tes physeos nomon) in addition to chasing after various female paramours.51 Like the infamous Emperor Gaius, the husband's sexual excess included a preference for anal penetration, a shocking violation of gender and status conventions.52 As anyone aware of Roman law would have realized, the husband should have been punished for tolerating adultery, for prostituting his wife, and for prostituting himself; he certainly should have never been granted a favorable hearing from the prefect of Rome. Justin's argument suggests that the Christians—the only moral people in this tale—should have been set free.


Justin's assertions regarding Christian obedience and his alleged openness to both philosophy and empire are further contradicted by the apocalyptic undercurrent that runs throughout his address. Justin proclaims Christian innocence and notes the perfection of philosophical truth in Christian teaching. He also threatens the emperor and the Senate with hellfire and eternal punishment. He describes the purity and propriety required by the Christian God. He also suggests that the gods of the emperor and the Senate are profligate and bloodthirsty. In enslaving themselves to these gods, the imperial court was in danger of following their example, or so Justin suggests. Over the course of his appeal, Justin offers a series of contrasts between "you" (emperor, imperial heirs, and Senate)

and the Christians, contrasts that left no doubt regarding who will ultimately be punished for wrongdoing:

You surrender to irrational passions and are led by a scourge of worthless demons to punish us; we reject these wicked and impious demons as unworthy of all people who pursue virtue [arete]. ( A I )

You condemn us on the basis of precedent alone, without investigating our conduct; we are eager for you to investigate us. If you discover those among us who are evildoers, we ask that you would punish them.

You appoint people as guardians of temples of idols made by debauched craftsmen, "not recognizing that it is unlawful even to think or to say that people are the guardians of gods;" we do not honor these lifeless idols or visit these temples to evil demons.

You hear that we look for a kingdom and assume that we mean a human one; we do not want a human kingdom, a fact that is demonstrated by our willingness to be executed.

You seem to be anxious that everyone will become righteous and you will no longer have anyone to punish, behaving like public executioners, not good rulers [archonton agathon]; by contrast the Logos is a kingly and just ruler [basilikotaton kai dikaiotaton arhcontd].

You are forewarned: the demons strive to have you as their slaves and assistants, luring you into porneia and greed; we renounce these gods, follow the Logos, maintain chastity, share our wealth, and pray for our enemies.

We are unjustly hated above all others though you honor philosophers who make some of the same points.

The sole accusation you bring against us is that we do not worship the same gods as you, yet your gods are monstrous, profligate demons.

You levy taxes on prostitution, raising boys to become kinaidoi and tolerating those who should be executed for their sexual perversions; we never even expose children.

You yourselves do openly the terrible things of which you accuse us.

The wicked demons [i.e., your gods] persuade "those who live contrary to reason, and are subject to passions and wicked customs and are deluded" to kill and hate us.

We forewarn you that you will not escape the coming judgment of God if you continue to abuse us; our cause is just.

Thus, Justin's appeal to his rulers asserts that "you"—rulers unwilling to listen to reason—are in fact enslaved by the passions and by demons; promote despicable, immoral behavior; behave like violent tyrants; and, therefore, are the very opposite of the good rulers "you" purport to be. Justin repeatedly warned "you" that punishment from the true king and heir—God and his son Jesus—would soon follow.

The radical nature of this argument is actually quite striking. The emperors and the Senate proclaimed that Roman privilege and ascendancy were upheld by the gods. By contrast, Justin argues that the divinities sustaining imperial rule were part of a demonic, not a divine, pantheon. Elaine Pagels explains that "Christians share in common with pagans the conviction that invisible networks of superhuman beings energize human activity, and above all, empower the emperor and his subordinates to dominate the world. But there agreement ends. What pagans revere as assuring divine protection, Christians abhor as demonic tyranny."53 Despite his protests of Christian fidelity, Justin's appeal to the emperor may be interpreted as a forceful attack designed to call into question Roman imperial hegemony. Could Justin possibly have believed that the emperor was capable of sound judgment? After persistently and vehemently arguing that those who persecute the Christians are demonically inspired and perverse, earlier protestations of Christian loyalty and friendliness are rendered hollow. The edge to Justin's attack is obvious, especially in light of imperial propaganda regarding the virtue and the piety promoted by the emperor.54 The emperors and the rulers are not virtuous, Justin argued. They do not exhibit the reason, moderation, justice, or piety that is supposed to characterize good rulers. Instead, they enslave themselves to demons and desire, tolerating—indeed, promoting—sexual promiscuity, homoerotic sex, and prostitution even in the city of Rome.55

Justin's appeal to the emperor, therefore, resembles a speech of blame much more closely than it does a conventional appeal to the emperor's reason, despite his decision to identify his work as a prosphonesis and a enteuxis. Initially, Justin followed convention; he began his treatise with an appeal to the reason, justice, and piety of the emperor, his sons, and the Senate: "Reason [logos] dictates that those who are truly pious and philosophers should honor and love only the truth... . Since you are called pious and philosophers and guardians of justice and lovers of culture [paideia], listen in every way; and it will be shown if you are" (i Apol. 2).56 This initial appeal to the reason of the emperor and his associates was soon abandoned, however, in favor of a series of proofs of their tyrannical behavior. As promised, Justin showed what the emperor is not. From Justin's perspective, so long as the emperor, his heirs, and the Senate refused to listen to his petition on behalf of the Christians, they would continue to expose themselves as governed by passion rather than reason; they were represented as mere pawns in the wicked machinations of deceptive, promiscuous demons. Such men cannot be called pious, philosophers, guardians of justice, or lovers of paideia (culture, learning, or good breeding).

Justin's characterization of the imperial court built upon traditions of vituperation he shared with his predecessors. As in the Wisdom of Solomon, Justin proposes a direct connection between idolatry and porneia.57 Like Paul, he suggests that gentiles—in this case, the Roman emperors and Senate—will soon be judged by the truly kingly rulers, God and Christ. As in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Justin offers Christian virgins as a proof of Christian moral superiority. His denunciation of anthropomorphic representations of the gods resonates with critiques offered by Greek philosophers. 58 Yet, where Paul is general—outsiders and idolaters are enslaved to lust but gentiles-in-Christ are masters at self-mastery—Justin is specific. Antoninus Pius, his heirs, the Roman Senate, and Urbicus, prefect of Rome, are enslaved by demons and overcome by passion. They honor promiscuity. They listen to the false accusations of demon-inspired madmen. They prefer perversion to justice. Hadrian, Antoninus Pius' illustrious predecessor, remembered by others for his munificence, his wonderful public building projects, including his magnificent temple of Venus and Rome, and his pious devotion to the gods59 is ridiculed by Justin for his devotion to his youthful male lover Antinous (i Apol. 29).60 Antoninus Pius, divinized after his death, honored with a temple in the Roman forum, and known for his strict defense of traditional piety,61 is chastised by Justin for approving of prostitution and raising boys for the purpose of sodomy (i Apol. 29). Marcus Aurelius, commemorated by Cassius Dio as the father of a Golden Age and known for his professed Stoic principles,62 is labeled a "philosopher" by Justin at the start of his address but then shown to be as depraved as his father.63 "You" may promote yourselves as virtuous, just, and wise philosophers, Justin implies, but you practice violence and tyranny.

In the end, Justin did not compose an address honoring the wisdom of the emperor or celebrating the truth of philosophy; over the course of his appeal, he sets out to demonstrate imperial folly and uses philosophy to make that argument. His representation of gentile folly involves repeated references to sexual immorality and failed self-mastery. His decision to expand and elaborate what was by then a Christian critique of non-Christian morality and his audacity in naming names—purportedly, he was writing to Antoninus, Lucius, Marcus, and the Roman Senate—requires further explanation.


By the early second century, accusations of Christian sexual misbehavior had begun to circulate in some quarters. Orgies, incest, and adultery were said to characterize clandestine Christian meetings, the very same behavior that Justin had associated with his non-Christian neighbors. For example, the second-century philosopher Celsus describes Christianity as an illegal, immoral, and secret society: Their founder Jesus was a magician, as are his followers (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.6). Mary was no virgin, she was convicted of adultery with a Roman soldier (1.28). Jesus gathered wicked men and tax collectors around him, and together they sought their livelihood "in a disgraceful and importunate way" (1.62). Christian teachers attracted and targeted only ignorant, illiterate people, especially women, children, and slaves (2.50; 3.44). Christians are in constant disagreement, both among themselves and with the Jews (2.27; 3.1). The Christian story of Jesus' resurrection is based on the ranting of a hysterical female (2.55), and their rituals are "more iniquitous and impure than ... the revelers of Antinous in Egypt" (3.63).64

Many of Celsus' arguments, or something like them, were probably standard fare at the time.65 Accusations similar to those put forward by Celsus were repeated for the purpose of refutation in a variety of works composed by second-century Christians. Justin tried to deflect the charges onto his Christian rivals: "And whether they [the false Christians] commit the shameful deeds about which stories are told—the upsetting of the lamp, promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh—we do not know; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you [the emperor], at least for their opinions" (iApol. 26). Athenagoras declared that the opponents of the Christians "bring three charges against us: atheism, Thyestean banquets, and Oedipean unions" (Leg. 3.1).66 The Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne offered an identical list: "[they] falsely accused us of Thyestan banquets and Oedipal intercourse and things about which we should neither speak nor think"(Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 5.1.14). According to Minucius Felix, the Roman aristocrat M. Cornelius Fronto denounced Christians, in part, for their orgiastic, incestuous feasts, their ritualized cannibalism, and their veneration of male genitalia (9.1-7).67 The stereotypical nature of these accusations is readily apparent. Celsus' critique is a very model of ancient vituperation: the Christians and their founder are of disreputable origin; the disciples had to work for a living and, to make it worse, they chose disgraceful occupations; their beliefs are attractive only to ignorant people and to women; they cannot agree; they engage in reprehensible sexual behavior; and so on. Nevertheless, the commonplace nature of the charges does not suggest that they were not seriously intended. Indeed, as Rives and McGowan have demonstrated, the stereotypical charge of human sacrifice in particular—believable or not—served to indicate an (allegedly) immense difference between "good" citizens and the misanthropic, depraved Christians.68 These charges, attacking as they did the sexual self-mastery of the Christians and implying that Christian men could not or would not control "their" women or themselves, can be read as an assault on the "manliness" and the status of the brothers and sisters in Christ.

In a letter to the Emperor Trajan regarding his investigation into Christian misbehavior, Pliny the Younger reports that, though Christianity certainly was a "depraved and excessive superstition [superstitionempravam et immodicam]," the food served at community meals probably was "innocent [innoxius]" Still, Christians deserve to be punished for their crimes.69 Tacitus, a contemporary of Pliny, offers a similar critique: Christians are engaged in a "deadly superstition." The presence of the followers of an executed Jew in Rome, Tacitus argues, offers further evidence that "all degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital."70 The Roman historian Suetonius agreed: Christianity was a superstition, and Christians deserved what they got.71 Lucian of Samosata—a Syrian Greek satirist—was more tolerant. He merely depicts the Christians as silly religious enthusiasts, easily duped by any charlatan who comes along.72 The extent of anti-Christian polemic, therefore, should not be overestimated. The charges against the Christians preserved in these non-Christian sources—Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Lucian—are decidedly less inflammatory than those found in writings by Christians themselves. Indeed, Christian authors may have amplified the critique in order to emphasize the gravity of the injustices they faced. Justin and Athenagoras leave the impression that Christians were relentlessly charged with crimes so outrageous that only the most impious, immoral non-Christian could dream them up. In response, Keith Hopkins observes, "As I see it, the image of persistent persecution which Christians manufactured for themselves was more a mode of self-representation, or a tactic of self-unification than an objective description of reality."73

Still, there can be no doubt that Christians were occasionally verbally abused, arrested, and, in some cases, executed. Pliny the Younger referred to his particular investigatory technique: he tortured some Christian slaves to determine the truth of the matter, and, after asking those charged to curse Christ, he put to death any who would not offer a small sacrifice to the gods.74 From the Christian perspective, the torture of Christian slaves and the death of even one "martyr" may have been enough to convince them that they were under constant threat. Elizabeth Castelli offers the following helpful reminder:

Indeed, one might argue that the capriciousness of state violence—the mere presence of the imperial judicial apparatus with its omnipresent threat of violence, whether or not it was actually carried out—performed a critical kind of psychological work for all manner of subjected peoples, Christians included. It may be precisely because of the unpredictability of persecution as a practice that it came to loom even more largely in the Christian imagination.75

From the point of view of those entrusted with ruling provinces or maintaining order in the city, therefore, the Christians may have been no more than a minor annoyance, an irritating fly in the ointment of Roman imperial hegemony. Perhaps these superstitious haters of humanity simply pro vided a useful supply of prisoners whose executions could be offered up as public entertainment—Justin suggested as much in his address to the emperor (1 Apol. 12).76 Christians may have been perceived as no more or less threatening than other rebellious slaves or provincials. Nevertheless, the public degradation of even a few Christians presented an important problem for Justin and his Christian contemporaries, no matter how sporadic the persecution and irrespective of the intentions of the persecutors. Accused of superstition, sexual depravity, and hatred of humanity, associated with orgiastic ritual and anthropophagy, occasionally tortured and even executed, Christian "manliness" was under attack. Justin and the authors of the second-century martyrologies sought to provide a solution.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment