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Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 12





Leuven – Walpole, MA

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

1. ‘Pagan Monotheism’? Towards a Historical Typology . . . 15


2. One God and Divine Unity. Late Antique Theologies between

Exclusivism and Inclusiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

3. Eadem spectamus astra. Astral Immortality as Common

Ground between Pagan and Christian monotheism . . . 57

4. Orphic God(s): Theogonies and Hymns as Vehicles of

Monotheism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77

5. Pagan Conceptions of Monotheism in the Fourth Century:

The Example of Libanius and Themistius . . . . . . . 101

6. From Philosophic Monotheism to Imperial Henotheism:

Esoteric and Popular Religion in Late Antique Platonism . 127

7. Monotheism, Henotheism, and Polytheism in Porphyry’s

Philosophy from Oracles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 149

8. Refuting and Reclaiming Monotheism: Monotheism in the

Debate between “Pagans” and Christians in 380-430 . . . 167

9. Augustine’s Varro and Pagan Monotheism . . . . . . . 181


BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203

INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 223

Giulia Sfameni GASPARRO

The contemporaries Lucian of Samosata, rhetor and satirist, and Justin

of Flavia Neapolis, “philosopher” and Christian martyr, can be con-
sidered as representatives of two distinct, if not opposed, spiritual
and ideological worlds. Nevertheless, they illustrate a common way
of perceiving and confronting the fundamental existential problem
for those who in the second century A.D., coming from various ethnic
and religious backgrounds, participated in Greek paideia and lived
within the socio-political structures of the “globalised” Roman
Empire.1 Both offer us, indeed, an account of a personal search for
the “truth,” which, according to the Greek philosophical model,
related the issue of the first principles inextricably to that of the
nature of the divine. Lucian and Justin testify to the existence of a
common ground, which however does not preclude the possibility of
different intellectual journeys. These are shaped by a specific ideo-
logical nature or by practical religious concerns. Moreover, they are
also dependent on the context in which they take shape. In other
words, it is necessary to determine whether such a search for and
experience of truth is orientated towards, on the one hand, a shared
cultural heritage of philosophical ideas that are based on reason, or,
on the other hand, towards the adhesion to a religious position. Such
a religious position presupposes cultic practice and a community
dimension, which are projected in turn onto one or more superhuman
Lucian and Justin exemplify, in fact, both possibilities and their
testimonies can be taken as useful points of departure for a discus-
sion of the theme I have set out. Such a discussion, necessarily limited

For the notion of “globalisation” applied to the ancient world, see Sfameni
Gasparro 2004, and the other papers in that volume. On “religious pluralism” in
the Ancient world see North 1992.

to a series of soundings, will contribute to the problem of defining

the various theologies that one encounters in Late Antiquity, relating
to all three major cultural traditions of the Mediterranean, namely
polytheism, in its many various forms, Judaism and Christianity. In
particular, I would like to focus on Christian Greek apologists of the
second century. Their works are at once defensive and polemical
and, moreover, not deprived of protreptic aims. At the same time,
they function in a social and cultural context that is largely hostile
but to which they belong through education and social contacts.2
The apologists obviously borrowed their intellectual framework, lan-
guage and in general their mode of thinking from this context, while
attempting to distance themselves from it in the name of a new reli-
gious identity which in many ways undermined that cultural frame-
work. Their confrontation with some representatives of contemporary
society will allow us to measure the extent of the effort of Christian
apologists to construe their own ideological and religious physiog-
nomy. In doing so, they use categories drawn from traditional Greek
philosophy in order to express theological views that are actually
rooted in the Jewish tradition of exclusive monotheism.3 As I have
made clear in previous articles related to the problem of the category
of “monotheism,” the term can be used usefully to define traditional
monotheisms, without any value judgment, such as Second Temple
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are, indeed, based on the idea
of a single god with strong personal characteristics, creator and lord
of reality, including the correlated exclusivism that makes it impos-
sible for its worshippers to recognise the existence of or worship
other divinities. At the same time, I maintain the legitimacy of the
category “polytheism” in the study of the history of religion, which
goes back to the ancient use of the terms polytheia/polytheotes.4 It
denotes religious traditions which, for all the differences generated
by the individual societies they function in, accept a multitude of
superhuman beings, which oversee with equal efficiency and authority,
the various parts of the cosmos and human activities. These divinities,

Cf. Fredouille 1992 and 1995; Pouderon and Doré 1998.
The formation of Jewish monotheism has often been debated. See, e.g., Meek
1942; Cohon 1955; and most recently Gnuse 1997; Gnuse 1999; Hurtado 1988;
Smith 2000; MacDonald 2003.
As is well known, Philo of Alexandria was the first to use these terms (e.g. migr.
Abr. 69).

or at least the most prominent, are usually linked by genealogies or

relationships. They are part of a structure that is often hierarchical,
with a god at its head as primus inter pares. The Greek pantheon is
the best example of this. I have also expressed strong reservations
about the indiscriminate use of “monotheism” to designate speculative
and ideological systems that emphasise the unity of the divine (in
its various forms) while not restricting it to religious concepts of a
traditional, community-based type.5


The experience narrated by Lucian in the Icaromenippus, although

not of an autobiographical nature, does not seem entirely incompat-
ible with the personal situation of the author. Some writings indicate
indeed that he reflected on the problem of what was the right way of
life in line with ethical or ideological principles. This is, for example,
clear in the Dream, in which Lucian describes with considerable dex-
terity his own passage from sculpture to philosophical paideia — the
latter way, being closely related to oratory, opened up to him a bril-
liant career of travelling orator (as it is evoked in Bis accusatus 27).6
In the Icaromenippus Lucian narrates in a burlesque and satiric way
how a person called Menippus, whom the author suggests is the
cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara (third century B.C.),7
describes his own voyage to heaven, in imitation of the mythical
hero Icarus, in order to come close to Zeus’ throne. There he hopes
to find answers to the existential questions which the various philo-
sophical schools were incapable of answering. Menippus found him-
self indeed in a situation of profound moral disquiet. Having exam-
ined human reality, he concluded “that all objects of human
endeavour are ridiculous and trivial and insecure,” such as wealth
and power which distract humanity from things of true importance.

Sfameni Gasparro 2003a, Forthcoming a, b, and c. For critical responses to
Athanassiadi and Frede 1999, see Lugaresi 2002; Edwards 2004. Illuminating
remain Versnel’s remarks on henotheism: Versnel 1998. See Cerutti 2003b, and her
chapter in this volume for useful remarks on the problem of categorization.
See also the meeting with the Platonist philosopher Nigrinus in Rome in 159
A.D. On Nigrinus and other philosophical lives by Lucian, see Clay 1992.
On cynicism and religion, see Goulet-Cazé 1993.

He then turns his attention to the universe, defined as cosmos by

the wise, of which he could not discover, however, “how it came
into being or who made it, or its source or purpose.” Referring to
the demiurge, the arche and the telos of the cosmos, these questions
go to the heart of ancient physics and involve the problem of divin-
ity and providence, as will soon become clear. Indeed, Menippus
makes clear that he inquired among philosophers to find answers
to his doubts and in a passage brimming with stereotypes of the
false sage (greed, charlatans, confused and contradictory opinions),
he summarises the various solutions proposed by the Greek philo-
sophical schools:
First of all, there is their difference of opinion about the universe.
Some think it is without beginning and without end (e÷ ge to⁄v mèn
âgénnjtóv te kaì ânÉleqrov e¤nai doke⁄) but others have even ventured
to tell who made it and how it was constructed (oï dè kaì tòn djmi-
ourgòn aûtoÕ kaì t±v kataskeu±v tòn trópon eîpe⁄n êtólmjsan); and
these latter surprised me most, for they made some god or other the
creator of the universe, but did not tell where he came from or where
he stood when he created it all; and yet it is impossible to conceive of
time and space before the genesis of the universe.
After a brief intervention by his interlocutor, Menippus continues:
But my dear man, what if I should tell you all they said about “ideas”
and incorporeal entities or their theories about the finite and the infi-
nite? (perí te îde¬n kaì âswmátwn ° diezérxontai Æ toùv perì toÕ péra-
tov te kaì âpeírou lógouv). On the latter point also they had a childish
dispute, some of them setting a limit to the universe and others con-
sidering it to be unlimited; nay more, they asserted that there are many
worlds and censured those who talked as if there were but one. Another,
not a man of peace, opined that war was the father of the universe. As
for the gods, why speak of them at all, seeing that to some a number
was god, while others swore by geese and dogs and plane-trees? More-
over, some banished all the rest of the gods and assigned the govern-
ance of the universe to one only, so that it made me a little disgusted
to hear that gods were so scarse. Others, however, lavishly declared
them to be many and drew a distinction between them, calling one a
first god and ascribing to others second and third rank in divinity.
Furthermore, some thought that the godhead was without form and
substance, while others defined it a body. Then too they did not all
think that the gods exercise providence in our affairs; there were some
who relieved them of every bit of responsibility (…) A few went beyond

all this and did not even believe that there were any god at all, but left
the world to wag on unruled and ungoverned (9).8
Notwithstanding the disrespectful rhetoric, it is easy to spot the clear
reference to the principal positions of the Greek tradition. From the
Pre-Socratics to Pythagoras, Plato to Aristotle, and Epicurus to the
Stoa and the Cynics, the fundamental philosophical postulates
regarding the problem of the divine and its involvement in the world
are evoked. Particularly interesting in the light of the contemporary
situation is the ironic reference to the reduction of the divine operated
by certain philosophers, defined as those who “assign the governance
of the universe to one only.” At once analogous and in partial contrast
to this idea of unity, stands the “gradual” perspective, in which tra-
ditional multiplicity is incorporated in a scale and in which a “first god”
is accompanied by a second and third manifestation of the divine.
It is not difficult to perceive in this formula an allusion to the
various positions found among second-century Platonists,9 but it is
more problematic to see what Lucian means by “a single god” to
which some philosophers would have attributed the arche of every-
thing, especially in the light of the variety of positions on the ulti-
mate principle of reality which characterises Greek philosophy from
the Presocratics onwards. In any case, the importance of these
Lucianic pages lies foremost, on the one hand, in the awareness of
the close links between philosophy and theology, and on the other,
in the quest for secure answers about the first principles (theological,
cosmological and anthropological), so as to define what way of life
somebody will choose. Because of its critical tendency, the Lucianic
dialogue excludes a solution to this problem. He condemns at once
traditional anthropomorphic polytheism and the contradictory truths
of philosophic ideas.


Lucian’s work is no less important as an expression of the intellectual

and spiritual climate of the second century, in which Christianity
had acquired increasing visibility. In a period of over a century, it

Tr. Harmond 1915: 274-283.
Cf. Dillon 1977; Donini 1982; Lilla 1992.

had extended its position in society, especially by establishing inter-

nal structures and by confronting public power during episodes of
persecution. Now it intended to establish a dialogue ad extra, via its
culturally best-equipped members, to refute the accusations brought
against it and to offer an image of itself that would be able to correct
the opinions held about Christianity among the Roman elite and at
the centre of power.
Two aspects of this specific and complex situation are highly
important for historical-religious research, especially in relation to
the wider issue of the definition of the various late-antique theologies
and the use of the category of “monotheism.” The first is the personal
position of the various Greek apologists, who all, from Aristides to
Justin over Tatian, Theophilus and Athenagoras, make clear that
they have made the passage from traditional beliefs to Christianity.10
The only exception is the author of the Letter to Diognetus, who does
not make an explicit reference to such a conversion.11 It is therefore
possible to study which motivations and which instances impacted
on their conversion and, as a consequence, to see how important
such an experience had for a “pagan” intellectual and what reasons
he put forward for his change of religion.
A second aspect, of no less importance, will help us to grasp the
nature of such phenomena: the intellectual instruments used by each
author to describe to his audience (including those to whom he
belonged previously) his new identity, which is put forward not any-
more as a personal event but as part of a shared inheritance that is
the result of a well-established tradition. A correct analysis of the
ideological categories used by the apologists to interpret the doctrine
of the religion they converted to is thus highly relevant to under-
stand the specific nature of Christianity in its historical surround-
ings. From an historical-religious point of view, we need to assess the
new message in terms of its continuity with, and distance from, its
Jewish origins and to evaluate the tools used to stress this continuity

On conversion, see Bardy 1949; Nock 1961; MacMullen 1983a, 1983b;
Babcock 1985-86; Jordan 1985-86.
A possible allusion could be found in the following sentence: “Having been
a disciple of the Apostles, I am become a teacher of the Gentiles. I minister the
things delivered to me to those that are disciples worthy of the truth” (Diogn. 11.1).
But this need not imply more than a statement of missionary activity.

and at the same time define Christianity’s own identity. A reflection

on this issue may help define the category of “monotheism.” Such a
category should not be understood as a normative a priori model,
incompatible with historical analysis, but as a heuristic tool that
allows us to classify religious phenomena that bear certain similarities.
The latter, often based on precise historical links such as exist between
Judaism and Christianity, do not exclude more or less profound dif-
ferences that comparative analysis has to identify and explain.


The experience that can serve best as a paradigm for the passage of
one religious identity to another is that of Justin as he describes it in
his Dialogue with Tryphon. I agree with M. Edwards, who suggests
that Justin shapes his personal experience as a model for the adop-
tion of a Christian identity by a second-century intellectual.12 Nor is
it without significance that Justin recounts this experience not to a
pagan interlocutor but to the Hebrew Tryphon, against whom he
argues, in an intense debate based on the Scriptures, that the prophecies
of the Old Testament have realised themselves in the person and acts
of Jesus of Nazareth. In that way Justin introduces the Jewish tradi-
tion, with its peculiar monotheistic identity, as an essential element
for the understanding of Christianity. It is not superfluous to insist
here on the fact that the definition of the Christian religious identity
is the result of the confrontation with two phenomena. On the one
hand, Christianity tries to situate itself in continuity with the Jewish
tradition. It maintains the postulate of a single personal God, creator
and preserver of all that is, while adding the salvation offered by
Jesus Christ.13 On the other hand, the culture, conceptual categories
and language of the contemporary world, summed up under the
term Hellenism but with large Roman and Latin influences, could
not be shunned — to the point that Christianity used these not only
for the transmission ad extra but also for the elaboration of its own
theology. Of all second-century authors Justin best succeeds in con-
necting these three constitutive elements and making them interact

Edwards 1991, with earlier literature.
See in general Hurtado 1988 and 2003.

with the aim of bringing out the special nature of his religion: the
grafting onto the Jewish monotheistic root of a “Christology,” i.e. a
theological reflection on the meaning of the life and death of an
historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, interpreted in the light of Jewish
messianism and a theory of the Logos, a universal rational principle,
which brings together traditional Jewish elements and Greek philo-
sophical concepts.14
The encounter between the narrator and Tryphon, who defines
himself as a “Hebrew by circumcision” and who had fled to Corinth
during the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 A.D.), takes place in a Greek
city15 and immediately takes the form of a philosophical discussion.
The Hebrew indeed addresses Justin because he wears the typical
pallium of the philosopher and Justin immediately replies to him:
“And in what would you be profited by philosophy so much as by
your own lawgiver and the prophets?” Here Justin points to the two
central elements, Greek philosophy and Jewish religion with its scrip-
tural revelation. In his reply, Tryphon suggests that they converge
rather than contradict each other: “Why not? Do not the philoso-
phers turn every discourse on God? And do not questions continu-
ally arise to them about his unity (monarchia) and providence? Is not
this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the deity?” (Dial. 3.1).
Thus, the privileged subject of the philosophical zetesis is God
and, even more revealing for the interests of the age, the issue of
divine monarchia (i.e. a divine single power that assumes different
meanings in various contexts) and that of divine providence (which
defines the relation between god, man, and the world). Justin’s reply
accepts this as the topic of the discussion and he criticises other phi-
losophers for not being able to explore these issues in a correct way.
Tryphon’s invitation addressed to Justin, asking him to state clearly
“what idea you entertain respecting God, and what your philosophy
is,” explicitly links opinion about god (gnÉmjn perì qeoÕ) to philoso-
phy. As such both levels are closely related.
It would take too long to analyse in detail Justin’s consecutive
argument, in which he sketches his series of contacts with the various
philosophical schools (Stoa, Peripatos, Pythagoreanism, Platonism).
In the end he prefers Platonism, because it seems to offer the possibility

See Holte 1958; Edwards 1995.
Eusebius (hist. eccl. 4.18.6) states it was Ephesus.

of having a direct vision of God (Dial. 2.6). It suffices to note that

he opens his discourse with an impassioned praise of philosophy:
“For philosophy is, in fact, the greatest possession, and most honour-
able before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us,” so that
“these are truly holy men who have bestowed attention on philosophy”
(Dial. 2.1). The apologist then relates how a decisive change in his
beliefs was caused by an elderly sage. The latter, shedding doubt on all
of Justin’s certainties, led him to recognise the true philosophy, imply-
ing a correct understanding of the soul and god and based solely on
prophetic revelation. This revelation is identified with the Jewish tradi-
tion as found in the Scriptures but in its new Christian interpretation,
implying that the prophetic promises of the God of the Jews are ful-
filled in the person of Christ, of which the entire dialogue attempts to
demonstrate that he is identical with the man Jesus of Nazareth. “There
existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those
who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God,
who spoke by the divine spirit, and foretold events which would take
place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets.”
These men have laid down the revelation in writings for all to consult,
the truth of which is proven both by the miracles that accompany the
actions of the prophets and by its actual fulfilment: “since they both
glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed
his Son, the Christ [sent] by him” (Dial. 7.1-3).
Although Justin continues to call himself a “philosopher,” he rad-
ically transforms his position, shifting it from an intellectual search
based on reason to a religious stance. This shift is well summed up
in the phrase that he has to observe “the words of the Saviour.” Justin’s
journey has ended with the adhesion not to a doctrine but to a his-
torical person, who is perceived as at once divine and the unique
source of soteria to which man aspires, identified as Son of God and
Messiah in the line of Jewish monotheism (Dial. 8.1-2). Faced with
Tryphon’s question whether it is possible to demonstrate “that there
is another God besides the Maker of all things” (which then leads to
the proof that this other god “submitted to be born of the Virgin”
(Dial. 50.1)),16 Justin operates with two ideological categories that

The thesis of Skarsaune 1997 that “monotheism” did not play a role in
debates between Jews and Christians in the second century seems incorrect, given
this passage of Justin.

according to him succeed in reconciling the Biblical fact of the sin-

gleness of god and the Christian novelty of the divine nature of Jesus.
The first presupposition, shared with all his contemporaries, is the
absolute transcendence of God “maker and father of all things” and
thus the impossibility that he intervenes directly in the world. The
second one is the necessity of mediation between that God and
human and cosmic reality.
Both postulates are shared by all “theologies” of that period, espe-
cially among Platonists. It suffices to refer to the summary of Plato’s
thought in Alcinous’ Didaskalikos. Discussing “the principles and
theological doctrines,” he first talks primarily about hyle, before adding
that “Plato admits also other principles: the first is the model, that is
the model of the Forms, and the second is god, the father and cause
of all things” (Didask. 8-9). This definition, which obviously refers
to the Timaeus, will be modified in an important sense by a new
formulation that distinguishes between a “first god,” who transcends
cosmic reality, and a god who will turn out to be the universal demiurge.
Alcinous affirms, indeed, the existence of a third principle which is
ineffable and called “the first god,” cause of the eternal activity of the
cosmic intellect. He is immobile, eternal, ineffable, perfect, incorporeal,
good and cause of the good, beauty and truth. He is also “the father,
because he is the cause of all and orders the cosmic intellect and
the world soul in accordance with himself and his own thoughts”
(Didask. 10).17 The cosmic perspective and its hierarchical structure
are underlined by Alcinous’ affirmation that “the cosmos is a living
and intelligent being.” Consequently, the stars that populate it “are
living beings endowed with intelligence; they are gods and have
spherical form.” On a lower level other “demons exist, which could
be called created gods,” “to whom all sublunar and terrestrial reality
is subjugated.” This level is necessary to guarantee communication
between man and the divine, through oracles and dreams (Didask.
14-15). Similar ideas can be found among many contemporaries, e.g.
in Oration 11 by Maximus of Tyre, where he describes Who god is
according to Plato, or in Numenius (Frg. 11-13 des Places).
The specific nature of Justin’s discourse is, however, guaranteed
by the fact that it has its roots in Biblical monotheism, not only
because the argument is developed on the basis of the exegesis of

Cf. Donini 1988.

sacred texts, but also because he is determined to put in the mono-

theistic frame the origin, nature and activity of the “other god,” in
his capacity as Logos, Son of God and envoy, with demiurgic, pro-
phetic and saving functions. The originality of this process is based
on Justin’s Christian identity, expressed in terms of belonging to a
religious community in which the correct perception of the close
relationship between the man Jesus and the God of Israel had
matured over time, starting in the apostolic age. This idea is incom-
patible, for various reasons, at once with Judaism and with Greek
philosophy, as it implies the identification of the “other god” and a
man crucified under Pontius Pilate. Basing himself on passages from
the Bible, with the aim of anchoring his discourse in Biblical revela-
tion, Justin formulates his own “theology:” the episode in Genesis
19, 27-28 shows, according to him, that “he who appeared to Abraham
under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in his
company to judge Sodom by another who remains ever in the
supracelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal inter-
course with none, whom we believe to be maker and father of all
things” (Dial. 56.1). He explains that this and analogous episodes
illustrate that the Scriptures want mankind to understand “that there
is said to be another God and Lord subject to the maker of all things;
who is also called an angel, because he announces to men whatsoever
the maker of all things — above whom there is no other God —
wishes to announce to them” (Dial. 56.4). The distinction between
both is defined by Justin “numerically, not in will,”18 because the
“other god” “from him who made all things,” “has never at any time
done anything which he who made the world — above whom there
is no other God — has not wished him both to do and to engage
himself with” (Dial. 56.11). It is not necessary to point out the
numerous Platonic allusions in Justin’s language when he describes
“the maker and father of everything, uncreated and ineffable” (ö
poijt®v t¬n ºlwn kaì patßr, âgénnjtov kaì ãrrjtov), who is “not
confined to a spot in the whole world” (ö tópwç te âxÉrjtov). This
proclamation of absolute transcendence does not imply a radical sep-
aration between God and the creation and man. On the contrary,
the constant use of the term “demiurge,” drawn from the Timaeus,
to describe this transcendent God aims at contradicting the idea of a

Cf. Dial. 128.4, 129.1-4.

total detachment of the highest divine principle on a cosmic level, as

it was contemplated by many contemporary “theologians,” and at
affirming with force the Biblical notion of a single God who creates
the entire reality. Moreover, an organic link between the divine, cosmic
and human levels is provided in Justin’s theology by his identifica-
tion of the man Jesus with Christ “who was according to his will his
Son, being God, and the angel because he ministered to his will”
(Dial. 127.4), “begotten by the Father before all things created”
(Dial. 129.4) while explaining the strong link between the ineffable
god and his “mediator” ad extra, his “rational power” (Dial. 61.1), or
(to use the usual term), his Logos.
The religious dimension, essential to the author, becomes even
clearer in the two Apologies, in which, while the reference to Biblical
Judaism is maintained, the specific nature of the Christian facies is
elaborated in an argument with pagan interlocutors. This happens
on two levels. On the one hand, Justin continues to use the instru-
ments of philosophical discussion (i.e. language and categories of
contemporary philosophical schools). On the other, the different
religious outlooks are confronted with each other. The new Christian
religion, with its cultic and liturgical apparatus and with its ethical
norms and community rules is presented as the antithesis of tradi-
tional polytheisms, with their mythical and cultic traditions. A few
essential elements must be highlighted from a discussion which
shows a full awareness of the religious landscape of the Mediterra-
nean.19 In reply to the accusation of atheism levelled against the
Christians, Justin explains the Christian doctrine of a single God
which structurally incorporates the historical figure of Jesus Christ in
a monotheistic framework.20 As such, Justin presents himself as the
speaker for a community of believers who take their name from
Christ, and characterised by cultic practices, such as prayer, hymns,
liturgical celebrations (in particular baptism and eucharist).21
A first presentation of Christian religious identity is signalled by a
radical opposition between “false gods” (the gods of the traditional
religious communities of the Empire, identified with the evil demons
of the Jewish-Christian tradition) and “the most true God, the Father

Cf. 1 Apol. 25.1 (Adonis), 27.4 (Mother of the Gods), 66.4 (Mithras).
Cf. Chadwick 1964-65; Guerra 1992.
Cf. 1 Apol. 12.9, 13.1-2, 61.1-13, 65.1-66.3.

of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free

from all impurity” (1 Apol. 6.1). The clear ethical connotation of this
definition reveals that Justin is using Biblical categories here. He justi-
fies the consequent explanation of this formula, because the God
about whom he talks is not only the object of rational adhesion but also
of worship: “But both him, and the Son (who came forth from him
and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels
who follow and are made like to him), and the prophetic spirit, we
worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring
without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been
taught” (1 Apol. 6.2). The insertion of the angels and the “prophetic
spirit” (pneÕma profjtikón) underscores the typical Biblical content of
the statement, which privileges the figure of the single God, subordi-
nating to him the Son didaskalos, who in turn shows solidarity with
the host of angels and the prophetic spirit. Other philosophical defi-
nitions of the Father, however, tend to stress a privileged relationship
with the Son-Logos, whose historical, fully human identity Justin insists
upon. If God is “the father and creator of all” (1 Apol. 8.2), the second
place after him is occupied by “Jesus Christ, who also was born for
this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of
Judaea, in the times of Tiberius Caesar” (in which “the Son of the
true God Himself” is to be recognised). The prophetic spirit occu-
pies the third grade (1 Apol. 13.3).
Justin is fully aware of the fact that the “madness” of which the
Christians are accused is that of giving “to a crucified man a place second
to the unchangeable and eternal God, the creator of all” (1 Apol. 13.4).
This is the mysterion that defines Christianity and that Justin wants
to explain to his audience. The key to this mystery, a man who occu-
pies the second position after the eternal God, is his identification with
the Logos “firstborn of God” (prwtótokov toÕ qeoÕ, 1 Apol. 46.2).
There is in fact a “genetic” bond between him and God himself,
which on the one hand distinguishes him, but on the other puts him
in a very close relationship. At the same time, the Logos assures the
rapport of the creator with all mankind, even if the acceptance by
the Christians of the message of Jesus Christ, his incarnation, confers
on them a privileged link with the divine word.
Among the numerous occurrences of the formula related to the
triangular link God the Father — logos — man, one is particularly
extended and articulated in the second Apology. It intends to confront

the problem, already discussed among Alexandrian Jews,22 of the

concordance and difference between the Biblical revelation and the
wisdom of the philosophers and poets of ancient culture (in particu-
lar Greek). First of all, Justin affirms his particular Christian iden-
tity, while admitting that Plato’s doctrine is not entirely foreign to
that of Christ — although it cannot be identified with the latter, just
as those of other philosophers and sages (2 Apol. 13.3). Then he
For each, from part of the divine spermatic logos seeing that which was
akin [or, partially seeing that which was akin to the divine spermatic
logos], spoke well. But, those who contradicted themselves in their car-
dinal doctrines are seen not to have possessed the infallible understanding
and incontrovertible knowledge. What was said well by all was thus the
property of us, the Christians, for we worship and love, after God, the
Word from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since for our sakes he
became a man so that, becoming a partaker of our sins, he might also
perform the healing. For all the writers, through the sowing within
them of the implanted word, were able to see dimly what was the case
[or what existed]. For the seed of something and the image given
according to capacity are one thing, but that of which there is partici-
pation and imitation is another, [and these are possible] by reason of
his grace (2 Apol. 13.3-6).
Without analyzing this passage in great detail,23 it suffices to note
that this discourse, although clearly full of Stoic and Platonist ideas,24
shows up a typically religious sentiment. From the level of the teachings
where a proximity between Plato and Christ can be seen, Justin moves
immediately to the sphere of the personal experience of the Christian
community, which “worships and loves” the incarnated Logos for the
salvation of man, who realises “by reason of his grace” “participation
and imitation” of him. Here one senses the gap that separates, on the
one hand, a theology of an ideological and speculative nature (such
as that of the Stoics and Platonists of the second century A.D. to which
Justin shows his cultural allegiance), and, on the other, a theology
rooted in a religious experience and a community with all its ethical
and cultic implications. Such an experience is seen as having the
See Alexandre 1998.
See Edwards 1991.
See Edwards 1991 and 1995; Nahm 1992. The translation is by Barnard

form of a direct contact with a personal creator God, who commu-

nicates himself through a revelation found in writings and through
the person of his incarnated Logos.25


The dense religious nature of the apologetic discourse of Justin,

highly christological, is attenuated in the way other Greek authors of
the same period present their Christian identity to a pagan audience.
They never mention the name of Jesus Christ, with the exception of
Aristides whose text has come to us via various and not always reliable
testimonies,26 even though they set out the doctrine of the Logos and
illustrate with more or less detail the life of the Christians. Even the
Letter to Diognetes does not mention Jesus’ name, when he describes
at length the Christian facies in its ecclesiastical dimension and insists
on the theme of the Son as sent by God for mankind’s salvation. He
is rather exclusively presented as the demiurgic Logos that guarantees
salvation (7.2, 11.2).
In his long accusation of the Hellenes, who are supposed to have
concealed that their culture is basically stolen from the “barbarians,”27
Tatian only alludes in passing to the human dimension of the God
proclaimed by the Christians. They are, in fact, accused of pride
because they affirm “that God has been born in the form of man”
(Or. 21). Rather, by criticizing his audience for having preferred “the
rule of many rather than of one” (t®n polukoiraníjn m¢llon ≠per t®n
monarxían), Tatian wants to demonstrate that the Christian credo
entails the monarchia of an ineffable and invisible God, superior to
matter and the spirits that pervade the latter (Or. 14.1). The definition
of the divine being uses the specific categories of contemporary philo-
sophical language, but wrought with expressions and notions of
Biblical origin:
Our God has no origin in time, since he alone is without beginning
and himself is the beginning of all things. “God is a spirit” (John 4, 24),

For a brief discussion of analogies between the Christian God and the Platonic
One, see Osborn 1989 and also Moreschini 1983.
Pouderon and Pierre 2003.
Cf. Hawthorne 1964; McGehee 1993; Hunt 2003.

not pervading matter, but the constructor of material spirits and the
shapes that are in matter; he is both invisible and impalpable and has
himself become the father of things perceptible and visible. We know
him though his creation and “what is invisible in his power we com-
prehend though what he has made” (Rom. 1, 20) (Or. 4.2.).28
Taking a clear stance against the worship of natural elements and
gods made of “sticks and stones,” Tatian concludes: “Nor is the inef-
fable God (tòn ânwnómaston qeón) to be bribed, for he is entirely free
of needs and must not be misrepresented by us as in need of any-
thing.” Therefore, with reference to the revelation of the Old and
New Testament, he proposes a structural relationship between the
monos theos, who is defined by all transcendent categories, and the
cosmic and human creation, through the mediation of the Logos.
Tatian proposes a complex definition of the latter:
God “was in the beginning” (John 1.1; cf. Gen 1.1) and we have
received the tradition that the beginning was the power of the Word.
The Lord of all things who was himself the foundation of the whole
was alone in relation to the creation which had not yet come in to
being. In so far as all power over things visible and invisible was with
him, he with himself and the Word which was in him established all
things through the power of the Word. By his mere will the Word
sprang forth and did not come in vain, but became the “firstborn”
(cf. Col 1.15) work of the Father. Him we know as the beginning of
the universe. He came into being by partition not by section for what is
severed is separated from its origin, but what has been partitioned takes
on a distinctive function and not diminished the source from which it
has been taken (Or. 5.1-2).
Thus, the distinction does not imply separation, because the demiurgic
action of the Logos, due to its structural relation with the “ruler of
all,” is also an action of this highest God. Tatian can conclude that
“the ruler of all” is the creator of matter, because he is the creator of
all (Or. 5.3).
Just as Justin and the other apologists, Tatian accepts the tradition
of Jewish origin that identifies a group of fallen angels as the instigators
of human corruption.29 This is used by the apologists to explain the
existence and functioning of contemporary polytheism, with its

Translation drawn from Whittaker 1982.
Daniélou 1958: 146-151. See also Hanson 1977; Nickelsburg 1977.

innumerable gods. Their power and efficiency are thus accepted but
denounced as demonic. Tatian attributes the mutation of these created
angels into demons to the rebellion of their leader (Or. 7.1-3). What
is peculiar about his interpretation is that he sees a link of cause and
effect between the “apostasy” of these angels and the origin of astral
fate (heimarmene) that has subjected humanity (Or. 8.1-11). Moreover,
demonic powers are “compacted from matter and possess a spirit
derived from it” (Or. 12.3), making the cosmos, possessing a material
substratum and regulated by the stars, heavily influenced by a neg-
ative power. This will, however, come to an end at the end of time:
“The lord of the universe gave license to their frolics until the world
comes to an end and is dissolved, and the judge arrives; then all
mankind, who though the demons’ revolt long for knowledge of the
perfect God, win though their struggles a more perfect commenda-
tion on the day of judgment” (Or. 12.4).
Athenagoras’ Embassy for the Christians, addressed to Marcus Aurelius
in ca. 177 A.D. is profoundly marked by contemporary philosophy
and shows a wide knowledge of the cultic and mythical traditions of
contemporary polytheism and the Greek literary tradition.30 As such,
it represents one of the most programmatic attempts to demonstrate
the congruence of the Christian tradition and part of traditional
Greek culture, especially regarding the affirmation of divine unity.31
To this end, Athenagoras alternates philosophical definitions with
formulae of scriptural origin. These are held together by his theory
of the Logos, which, identified with the Son, constitutes the Christian
mark of his theology. Yet he never mentions the name of Jesus
Christ, even though he refers to the Gospels, including quotations,
and describes at length the way of life of the Christians to refute
accusations of ethical misbehaviour (Leg. 3.1). Only in a rhetorical
question put in the mouth of his interlocutors and in a polemic
against the gods of Greek myth who feel passions, does an allusion
crop up to the specifically Christian idea of an incarnated god. “Even
though a god assumes flesh in pursuance of a divine purpose, is he
therefore the slave of desire?” (Leg. 21.6).
After a general introduction, the apologist proposes a first theo-
logical definition according to the most common philosophical cate-

Cf. Pouderon 1989 and 1997; Buck 1996.
Cf. Ridings 1995.

gories of his time, which brings elements from Platonism and Stoicism.
The language of transcendence is drawn from the former, whereas
the latter supplies the “cosmosophical” idea of contemplation of the
world as a way of divine knowledge. Athenagoras thus exclaims: “But
to us, who distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is
one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide
interval (for that the deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by
the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and per-
ishable), is it not absurd to apply the name of atheism?” (Leg. 4.1).
Athenagoras then affirms various reasons for Christian theosebeia,
such as “the established order, the universal harmony, the magnitude,
the colour, the form, the arrangement of the world,” after which the
discourse takes on a clear Biblical tone and affirms the creative power
of the “single God,” through mediation of his Logos (Leg. 4.2). Once
more divine transcendence, expressed in a “negative theology,”32 is
combined with the idea of creation of Biblical origin and of the close
relationship between God and his Logos. Drawing widely on doxo-
graphic collections, Athenagoras wants to demonstrate that the
Christians “are not alone in confining the notion of God to unity”
(m® mónoi eîv monáda tòn qeòn katakleíomen): poets and ancient wise
men, such as Euripides, Sophocles and Philolaus, and philosophers
such as the Pythagoreans, Plato, Aristotle, and their disciples all have
taught that “where God must be, and that he must be one” (Leg. 5.3.).
Nevertheless, as in Justin, this convergence of opinions does not
undermine but rather reinforces the superiority of Christian theology.
It is indeed founded on divine revelation, which, mediated through
prophets, contains the entire truth in contrast to the conjectures of
individual philosophers (cf. Leg. 7.1-3).
After a rational argument for the existence of a single God, Athena-
goras returns to the theme of the prophets as the base of Christian
knowledge, listing the Biblical statements that, put in God’s own
mouth, proclaim his identity as a person, his universal power and his
exclusiveness (Leg. 9.2, cf. Bar 3.36, Isa 44.6, 43.10-11, 46.1). He
adds a theological formula, which once again combines philosophical
and Biblical language, and in which divine transcendence, expressed
in terms of a “negative theology,” is linked to a universal demiurgic
activity and to a “unifying” relationship with the Logos-Son who is

See Calabi 2002.

active on a cosmic level. The aim always remains the refutation of

the accusation of atheism:
That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God,
uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable,
who is apprehended by understanding only and reason, who is encom-
passed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the
universe has been created through his Logos, and set in order, and is kept
in being, I have sufficiently demonstrated (Leg. 10.1).33
The Logos-Son is defined as being “in the form and energy” and,
with a clear reference to the Gospel of John (1.1-3, 10.30, 38, 17.21-33),
Athenagoras writes that “after the pattern of him and by him were all
things made, the Father and the Son being one.” The unifying rela-
tionship is further deepened by the statement that “the Son being in
the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit,
the understanding and reason of the Father is the Son of God”
(Leg. 10.2). Athenagoras’ theology is further articulated with the def-
inition of the prophetic spirit as an “emanation” (aporroia) of God and
then with the statement that the Christians believe in “God the
Father, and God the Son, and the Holy Spirit” and teach “both their
power in union and their distinction in order” (Leg. 10.4-5).
A remarkable extension of Christian theology is proposed by Athena-
goras when he adds a “multitude of angels and ministers” (pl±qov
âggélwn kaì leitourg¬n) to his list of supernatural beings. “God the
Maker and Framer of the world” has given them the task of keeping
a watch over the cosmic elements. In this idea one can recognise a
Hellenistic Jewish tradition that attributes a direct control of the
various parts of the cosmos to angelic powers.34 But one cannot
exclude that Athenagoras wanted to find another point of contact
with the conceptions of his interlocutors by adding cosmic interme-
diaries to his theology. I am referring here to the widespread idea
that there existed inferior beings that were in charge of how parts of
the cosmos functioned, such as the daimones of many hierarchical
theologies of this period. In a philosophical context, such an idea
even allowed to recuperate traditional divinities in a “pyramid”
scheme that aimed at reconciling the separation of the highest prin-
ciple with cosmic order.
Translation by Coxe 1979.
Daniélou 1958: 139-145.

The tradition reported by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History

states that Theophilus, the author of “three books of Institutiones to
Autolycus” and of a work against the heresy of Hermogenes was “the
sixth bishop of the Church of Antioch after the Apostles” (4.24).
Given his institutional function, the absence of any reference or even
allusion to the historical person of Jesus in his works is even more
remarkable. Indeed, Theophilus seems intent on obliterating the
specific Christological dimension in the wider monotheistic horizon
which he sets out to his interlocutor. He proposes for example an
exegesis of the name “Christians” as those who “are anointed with
the oil of God” (Autol. 1.12). Distinctive characteristics of Theophilus’
work are the Biblical perspective, with references to especially the
Old Testament but also to the New Testament, and a strong polemic
against polytheism, for which euhemerism and demonology are
adduced as explanations (cf. Autol. 1.9, 2.34). The theme of “agree-
ment” with the Hellenic tradition, in particular with Platonist phi-
losophy, receives limited treatment (cf. Autol. 2.4), with the excep-
tion of the Sibylline prophecies, which the author situates in their
pagan context so as to show that even there belief in the single God
was found. In fact, however, Theophilus is drawing on the Jewish
adaptations of the Sibylline oracles.35 Therefore, these prophecies
reflect biblical monotheism to which Theophilus is profoundly
indebted. At the same time, the theological language of the apologist
is framed by contemporary philosophical categories, with ample
space devoted to “negative” theology, and includes long discussions
of the Logos, the only significant sign that we are in a Christian context.
Theophilus’ first theological statement is entirely based on the
absolute transcendence and ineffability of God, in a context where
the Logos merely surfaces as one of the numerous possible names
given to God (Autol. 1.3). Theophilus appropriates the ancient
etymology of theos (god) from to theein (to run: Plato, Crat. 397d).
While repeating the traditional essential qualities of God (without
beginning, uncreated, immutable, immortal ( ‰Anarxov dé êstin, ºti
âgénjtóv êstin· ânalloíwtov dé, kaqóti âqánatóv êstin), he adds
the theme of cosmic order and its contemplation as an instrument
of knowledge of the divine. This is typical for the “cosmic religion”

Cf. Collins 1987; Sfameni Gasparro 2002.

shared by Platonists, Stoics and many other authors,36 but Theophilus

redirects it towards a creationist belief of Biblical origin, with the
mention of the creation of man in the image of God and the affirmation
that “all things God has made out of things that were not into things
that are, in order that through his works his greatness may be known
and understood” (Autol. 1.4).
The creation of all things ek ouk onton is the point of departure
for the successive illustration of the relationship between God and
the Logos. This theme is developed on a double register: on the one
hand, the Stoic formula that distinguishes and connects logos endiathetos
and logos prophorikos, and, on the other, the Biblical description
found in Gen 1.1-3, which aims at showing that only prophetic
revelation allows to know the nature of creation. The term trias, used
to denote the close connection between God, the Logos immanent
to him (logos endiathetos) and then manifested externally (logos
prophorikos), and Sophia on the demiurgic level, is the first attesta-
tion of what later will be called the trinity in the Nicene and post-
Nicene formulae (Autol. 2.10-17).37


The positions of the authors examined above show the existence of

a complex web of variously accentuated analogies and differences
between second-century Christian theology and contemporary
philosophical doctrines. However, the incompatibility between
“paganism” and Christianity was caused by the irreducible christo-
logical novelty of the incarnation. The proof, if it were needed, is
found in Celsus’ accusations in his lucid and well-informed attack
on the new enemies of the traditional “true doctrine” (alethes logos).
In the words of Origen, the philosopher, of a clear Platonist iden-
tity, had indeed stated that “although we (i.e. the Christians) pro-
claim the Son of God to be Logos we do not bring forward as
evidence a pure and holy Logos, but a man who was arrested most
disgracefully and crucified.” It is clear that Celsus himself rather

This theme has been widely discussed. See e.g. Cumont 1909 and 1935;
Festugière 1949; Boyancé 1962; Nilsson 1940; Pépin 1964; Thom 2005.
For further background, see Simonetti 1986; Grant 1986; Hamman 1991.

adheres to the first alternative of a purely spiritual Logos (Origen,

Cels. 2.31).38
As is well known, the major objective of Celsus is to destroy the
Christian identity entirely, underscoring in the first place its novelty,
in the sense of not belonging to any established tradition, having
even rescinded the links with Judaism. Moreover, the clearest proof
of the falseness of the new message is that it follows a crook and
magician of the worst kind (goes), whose thaumaturgic qualities were
in fact tricks and deceits and who was rightly punished by the state
with the ignominious death on the cross.39 Both points also attack
implicitly the Christian idea of proclaiming a single God, which
excludes belief in the complex and multiform traditional superhuman
beings of the polytheisms of the Mediterranean. According to Celsus,
this is derived from the Hebrews, described as an uncivilised people
of shepherds lead by the magician Moses. In line with his Platonist
convictions, Celsus also believes that there exists a highest divinity
above these intermediate beings. Its transcendence cannot be com-
promised through contacts with material reality: “I would prefer to
teach about the order of nature and say that God made nothing
mortal. Whatever beings are immortal are works of God, and mortal
beings are made by them. And the soul is God’s work, but the nature
of the body is different” (Origen, Cels. 4.52).
One detects easily in these ideas the Platonic view found in Timaeus
69cd, where the demiurge entrusts the care of creating all mortal species,
including man, to inferior deities. Both levels, on the one hand the
divine, spiritual and immortal, and, on the other, the cosmic and
material, are clearly separated and direct contact between them is con-
sidered to be a contagion: “Would it not be absurd for the first and the
greatest God to command: “Let this come into existence,” or some-
thing else, or that, so that he made so much on one day and again so
much more on the second, and so on with the third, fourth, fifth, and
sixth?” (Origen, Cels. 6.60). But mediation is provided through various
entities, whose ontology could be defined as “weak divinity,” because
they are progressively at a greater distance of the first principle in terms
of function as well as of essential status. In any case, according to Celsus,

Cf. Chadwick 1965 — all translations are taken from this work; Borret 1976;
Pichler 1980; Perrone 1998.
Cf. Sfameni Gasparro 2003b.

these inferior beings, identified with the traditional gods and demons,
merit the recognition and worship of mankind. In this way, his philo-
sophy recovers a religious component that is basically that of the tradi-
tions of the city-state. But Celsus denounces Christian monotheism as
impiety (asebeia), because, while stating “that only one being has been
called Lord, speaking of God, it impiously divides the kingdom of God
and makes two opposing forces, as if there was one party on one side
and another one at variance with it” (Origen, Cels. 8.11). On the
contrary, “therefore anyone who honours and worships all those who
belong to him does non hurt God at all, since they are all his” (Origen,
Cels. 8.10). The argument in favour of the worship of the numerous
cosmic powers is rehearsed by Celsus in a series of rhetorical questions:
“And whatever there may be in the universe, whether the work of God,
or of angels, or of other demons or heroes, do not all these things keep
a law given by the Greatest God? (..) Would not a man, therefore, who
worships God rightly worship the being who has obtained authority
from him?” (Origen, Cels. 7.70).
The rejection of the Christian position finally expresses itself in the
critique of what is perceived as a contradiction between their self-
proclaimed monotheism, which excludes the recognition and worship
of other divine beings, and the cult vowed to the man Jesus: “If these
men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have had
a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an
extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it is
not inconsistent with what they believe about God if they also worship
his servant” (Origen, Cels. 8.12).40 Origen replies to this critique by
appealing to the idea of a unity between Father and Son, affirming that
“we worship but one God, the Father and the Son,” and defending the
pre-existence of the Son, which refutes Celsus’ claim that a cult is being
vowed to “a man who appeared recently” (Origen, Cels. 8.12).


Celsus’ objections touch on the central issue in Christian theology. Its

monotheism is characterised by an irreducible specificity in comparison
to that of the Jews, because of its peculiar “bi-unitary” articulation,

Tr. Chadwick, slightly modified.

which will lead to the later, well-known trinitarian developments. Such

an articulation implies a double movement of inclusion ad intra and of
exclusion ad extra. By this I mean the co-existence of at once a strong
internal solidarity within the godhead, understood as single, and a
refusal to recognise the existence of other divine entities outside this
system. In this phase of the development of Christian doctrine, two or
three beings make up the divine reality. They are distinct by “number”
or “rank,” but understood as closely related and understood as being
one. In that way it is impossible to attribute divinity to other beings.
Moreover, the notion of creation creates a profound ontological ine-
quality between the single God and the beings that derive from him
and that depend on him for their salvation.
The various pagan theologies are characterised by a delicate balance
between transcendence and immanence. The “highest god” exercises
a monarchic power over a multiplicity of beings which have a
divine nature, albeit in a subordinate position, and which form a
theo-cosmological structure of pyramidal shape. Such a theology
could develop into two directions. By stressing more or less radically
the separation of the first principle from material reality and its intel-
ligible, ineffable and unknowable nature, transcendence becomes
more prominent. The highest god can also be conceived along Stoic
lines as a rational divine principle that pervades the entire reality. In
this case stress is rather on the immanent, cosmic aspect of the deity.
But these pagan theologies are in the first place of a philosophical
nature and as such they do not represent specific religious communities
and traditions. Their Sitz im Leben is rather the philosophical school.
Nevertheless, they do attempt to adapt themselves to the existing reli-
gious traditions of a polytheistic nature and try to incorporate these
into their philosophical framework, without any exclusivism.41

For the ways in which philosophical views and polytheistic traditions can be
reconciled, see especially the works by N. Belayche: 2005a; 2005c; 2006a; 2006b.