Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Chaldeans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Judeans: Aristides of Athens (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 14, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6583.
Authors: Aristides’ Apology as preserved in the narrative of Barlaam and Josaphat (link to Greek text of Barlaam and Josaphat; link to full translation of both the Greek and Syriac versions)
Comments: Before the discovery of the Syriac translation in 1889, Aristides of Athens’ Apology addressed to Hadrian was known only from a passing reference in Eusebius’ Church History (4.3.3). Subsequently it was noticed that the same discourse in slightly different form was preserved in Greek in the story of Barlaam and Josaphat (with the main character, Nachor / Barlaam, as the speaker addressing an Indian king), but without reference to Aristides. The translation of the Apology below is from that Greek text.
Aristides’ Apology is particularly notable for its incorporation of ethnographic descriptions of the customs (with respect to the gods) of various peoples, particularly Chaldeans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Judeans (Jews), with Christians placed alongside these other ethnic groups as a superior group.
Source of the translation: D.M. Kay, “The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IX, Allan Menzies, ed. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896), public domain, extensively adapted and retranslated by Harland.
[Alternative opening from the Syriac translation of the Apology of Aristides]
The following is the defence which Aristides the philosopher made before Hadrian the king for the sake of revering God. . . All-powerful Caesar Titus Hadrianus Antoninus, venerable and merciful, from Marcianus Aristides, an Athenian philosopher. . .
[Introduction from the Greek narrative of Barlaam and Josaphat, with Nachor / Barlaam addressing the Indian king]
(1) In the providence of God, O King, I came into the world. When I had considered the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, and the rest, I was amazed at their orderly arrangement. And when I noticed that the universe and everything in it is moved by necessity, I realized that the mover and controller is God. For everything which causes motion is stronger than what is moved, and what controls is stronger than what is controlled. The exact same being, then, who first established and now controls the universe I affirm to be God who is without beginning and without end, immortal and self-sufficient, above all passions and defects, and above anger, forgetfulness, ignorance, and the rest. Through him too all things consist. he does not require sacrifice and libation nor anything that appears to the senses. However. all people need him.
(2) Since I have spoken in this way about God, so far as it was possible for me to speak of him, let us turn to humankind, so that we may see which of them participate in the truth and which of them are wrong. For it is clear to us, O King, that there are three descent groups (genē) in this world: these are the worshippers of the gods acknowledged among you, the Judeans, and the Christians. Further those who honour many gods are themselves divided into three descent groups: namely, Chaldeans, Greeks, and Egyptians. For these peoples have been guides and teachers to the rest of the peoples (ethnē) in the service and worship of these many-named deities.
(3) So let us see which of them participate in truth and which of them wrong. Because they did not know God, the Chaldeans went astray after the elements (stoicheia) and began to worship the creation more than their creator. From the elements they formed certain shapes and styled them to represent heaven, earth and sea and also the sun, as well as the moon and the other primal bodies or luminaries. They shut them up together in shrines and worship them, calling them gods, even though they have to guard them securely for fear they should be stolen by bandits. They did not perceive that anything which acts as guard is greater than what is guarded, and that he who makes is greater than what is made. For, if their gods cannot ensure their own safety, how will they protect others? Great then is the error into which the Chaldeans wandered in adoring lifeless and good-for-nothing images. It seems surprising to me, O King, how it is that their so-called “philosophers” have quite failed to observe that the elements themselves are perishable. If the elements are perishable and subject to necessity, how are they gods? And if the elements are not gods, how do the images made in their honour come to be gods?
(4) Let us move on, O King, to the elements themselves in order to show that they are not gods, but perishable and changeable. They were produced out of what did not exist at the command of the true God, who is indestructible, unchangeable and invisible. Yet he sees all things and, as he wills, modifies and changes things. What then shall I say about the elements. Those who believed that the sky is a god are wrong. For we see that it revolves and moves by necessity and is compacted of many parts, being therefore called the “ordered universe” (Kosmos). Now the universe is the construction of some designer, and what has been constructed has a beginning and an end.
The sky with its luminaries moves by necessity. For the stars are carried along in array at fixed intervals from sign to sign and, some setting and others rising, they traverse their courses in due season so as to mark off summers and winters, as it has been appointed for them by God. Obeying the inevitable necessity of their nature they do not transgress their proper limits, keeping company with the heavenly order. So it is clear that the sky is not a god but rather a work of God.
Those who believe the earth to be a goddess are wrong. For we see that the earth is abused and tyrannized by men, and it is dominated and defiled and becomes useless. For, if it is burned with fire, it becomes devoid of life, for nothing will grow from the ashes. Besides if too much rain falls, it dissolves away, both the earth and its fruits. Moreover it is stomped on by men and other creatures; it is dyed with the blood of the murdered; and, it is dug open and filled with dead bodies and becomes a tomb for corpses. In face of all this, it is inadmissible that the earth is a goddess but rather it is a work of God for the use of men.
(5) Those who believe the water was a god are also wrong. For it, too, has been made for the use of men, and is controlled by them. Water is defiled, destroyed and suffers change on being boiled and dyed with colours. It is also congealed by the frost, polluted with blood, and used to wash dirty things. So it is impossible that water is a god. Rather, it is a work of God.
Those who believe that fire is a god are also wrong. For fire was made for the use of men, and it is controlled by men, being carried around from place to place for boiling and roasting all kinds of meat, and even for cremating dead bodies. Moreover, it is extinguished in many ways, being quenched through man’s agency. So it cannot be that fire is a god. Rather it is a work of God.
Those who think the blowing of the winds is a goddess are wrong. For it is clear that it is under the dominion of another. For the sake of man it has been designed by God for the transport of ships and the transportation of grain and for man’s other needs. It rises and falls at the bidding of God. So we conclude that the blowing of the winds is not a goddess but only a work of God.
(6) Those who believe the sun is a god are also wrong. For we see that it moves by necessity, revolving and passing from sign to sign and rising and setting in order to give warmth to plants and tender shoots for use by people. Besides it has its part in common with the rest of the stars, and is much smaller than the sky. It experiences an eclipse of its light and is not the subject of its own laws. So we conclude that the sun is not a god, but only a work of God.
Those who believe that the moon is a goddess are also wrong. For we see that it moves by necessity and revolves and passes from sign to sign, setting and rising for the benefit of men. It is lesser than the sun and it waxes and wanes and has eclipses. So we conclude that the moon is not a goddess but a work of God.
(7) Those who believe that man is a god are wrong. For we see that man is moved by necessity, growing up and becoming old even though he does not want to. Sometimes he is joyous, at other times he is sad when he lacks food, drink, and clothing. We see that he is subject to anger, jealousy, desire and change of purpose, and that he has many defects. Man is destroyed too in many ways by means of the elements and animals, and by the imposition of death. It cannot be admitted, then, that man is a god, but only a work of God.
So the error of which the Chaldeans wandered is great, following after their own desires. For they revere the perishable elements and lifeless images, and do not perceive that they themselves make these things to be gods.
(8) So let us move on to the Greeks, so that we can see whether they have any discernment concerning god. Even though they call themselves wise, the Greeks proved more deluded than the Chaldeans in alleging that many gods have come into being, some male and some female. These gods are masters in every passion and every kind of stupidity. The Greeks themselves represented their gods as adulterers and murderers, wrathful and envious and passionate, slayers of fathers and brothers, thieves and robbers, crippled and limping, workers in magic, and victims of frenzy. Some of them died (as their account goes), and some were struck by thunderbolts. Some became slaves to men and were fugitives, and they mourned and lamented, and changed themselves into animals for wicked and shameful purposes. So, O King, they are ridiculous, absurd, and impious tales that the Greeks have introduced, giving the name of gods to those who are not gods, to suit their unholy desires, in order that, having them as patrons of vice, they might commit adultery and robbery and do murder and other shocking actions. For if their gods did such actions why should not they also do them? The consequences of these misguided practices is that humankind has frequent wars, slaughters and bitter captivities.
(9) Furthermore, if we want to discuss their gods individually, you will see just how absurd they are. For instance, Kronos is brought forward by them as the highest god, and they sacrifice their own children to him. Kronos had many sons by Rhea, and in his madness devoured his own children. They say that Zeus cut off his genitals and threw them into the sea, and this is where, in fable, Aphrodite is said to be born. Zeus, then, having bound his own father, cast him into Tartaros. You see the error and brutality which they advance against their god? Is it possible, then, that a god should be bound and mutilated? What absurdity! Who with any sense would ever say such a thing. Next Zeus is introduced, and they say that he was king of their gods, and that he changed himself into animals in order to defile mortal women. For they allege that he transformed himself into a bull for Europe, and into gold for Danai, and into a swan for Leda, and into a satyr for Antiope, and into a thunderbolt for Semele. As a result of these actions, there were many children: Dionysos, Zethos, Amphion, Herakles, Apollo, Artemis, Perseus, Kastor, Helenes, Polydeukes, Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon, as well as the nine daughters they called the Muses. Then also they make claims about the matter of Ganymedes.
As a result, O King, humankind imitated all these things, becoming adulterous men and lascivious women and engaging in other terrible things in imitation of their god. Now how is it possible that a god could be an adulterer or an obscene person or a father-killer? (10) Along with Zeus, they also bring forward one Hephaistos as a god, and they say that he is lame and wields a hammer and tongs, working as a smith for his living. Is he then badly off? But it cannot be admitted that a god should be a cripple, and besides be dependent on humankind. Then they bring forward Hermes as a god, representing him as lustful, a thief, covetous, a deformed Magian (magos), and an interpreter of language. But it cannot be accepted that such a figure is a god.
They also bring forward Asklepios as a god who is a doctor preparing drugs, compounds, and bandages for a living. For he was badly off. And afterwards he was struck, they say, with a thunderbolt by Zeus due to Tyndareos, son of Lakedaimon, and so was killed. Now if Asklepios in spite of his divinity could not help himself when struck by lightning, how will he come to the rescue of others. Again Ares is represented as a god, fond of strife and given to jealousy, and a lover of animals and other such things. Finally, while corrupting Aphrodite, Ares was bound by the youthful Eros and by Hephaistos. How then was he a god if he was subject to desire, a warrior, a prisoner, and an adulterer. They claim that Dionysos also is a god, holding nightly revels, teaching drunkenness, and carrying off the neighbours’ wives, who go mad and take to flight. Finally he was put to death by the Titans. If then Dionysos could not save himself when he was being killed – as well as being mad, drunk with wine, and a fugitive – how can he be a god. They allege also that Herakles got drunk, went mad and cut the throats of his own children, and then he was consumed by fire and so died. Now how could a drunk, a slayer of children and someone who was burned to death be a god? Or how will he come to the help of others, when he was unable to help himself.
(11) They represent Apollo also as a jealous god who is master of the bow and quiver and sometimes of the lyre and flute, and they represent him as divining for pay? Can he then be very badly off? But it cannot be admitted that a god would be in want, jealous, and a harping minstrel. They represent Artemis also as his sister, who is a huntress and has a bow with a quiver. She roams alone upon the hills with the dogs to hunt the stag or the wild boar. How then should such a woman, who hunts and roams with her dogs, be a divine being. Even Aphrodite herself they affirm to be a goddess, and she is adulterous. For at one time she had Ares as a lover, at another time Anchises, and again Adonis, whose death she also laments, feeling the desire for her lover. They say that she even went down to Hades to purchase back Adonis from Persephone. Did you ever see greater folly than this, O King, to bring forward as a goddess one who is adulterous and given to weeping and wailing? They also represent Adonis as a hunter god, who came to a violent end, being wounded by a wild boar and having no power to help himself in his distress. How then will one who is adulterous and a hunter and mortal give himself any concern for humankind? The Greeks have narrated all this and much more of a similar nature, and even far more disgraceful and offensive details about their gods, O King. It is not proper either to state or for a moment to remember these detail. So humankind, under the influence of their gods, practised all lawlessness, brutality, and impiety, polluting both earth and air by their awful deeds.
(12) Furthermore, the Egyptians, who are more stupid and senseless, have gone further astray than all the peoples. For they were not content with the objects of worship of the Chaldeans and the Greeks, but in addition to these also brought forward irrational animals as gods, both land and water animals, as well as plants and herbs. They were also defiled with all madness and brutality more deeply than all the peoples on the earth. For originally they worshipped Isis, who had Osiris as brother and husband. Osiris was slain by his own brother Typhon. Therefore, Isis with Horos, her son, escaped to Byblos in Syria, mourning for Osiris with bitter lamentation, until Horos grew up and slew Typhon. So that neither had Isis power to help her own brother and husband; nor could Osiris defend himself when he was being slain by Typhon; and, nor did Typhon, the slayer of his brother, when he was perishing at the hands of Horos and Isis, find a way to rescue himself from death. Though their true character was revealed by such mishaps, they were believed to be gods by the simple Egyptians, who were not satisfied even with these or the other deities of the peoples, but brought forward also animals as gods. For some of them worshipped the sheep and some the goat. Another tribe worshipped the bull and the pig. Still others worshipped the raven and the hawk, and the vulture and the eagle. Others the crocodile, and some the cat and the dog, the wolf and the ape, and the dragon and the asp. Others worshipped the onion, the garlic and the thorns and other created things. The poor creatures do not perceive about all these that they are utterly helpless. For though they see their gods eaten by men of other tribes, and burned as offerings and slain as victims and mouldering in decay, they have not perceived that they (i.e. the animals) are not gods.
(13) So the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Greeks made a large mistake in bringing forward such beings as gods, in making images of them, and in deifying dumb and senseless idols. I also wonder how they saw their gods sawn out, hacked and docked by the workmen, and besides aging with time and falling to pieces. Or how they saw their gods being cast from metal, and yet did not discern concerning them that they were not gods. For when they have no power to keep themselves safe, how will they take forethought for men. Furthermore, the poets and philosophers among Chaldeans, Greeks, and Egyptians alike desired to honour each of their gods through their poems and writings but instead revealed their shame and laid it bare for everyone to see.
For if the human body consists of many parts but does not throw away any of its own members, preserves an unbroken unity in all its members, and is harmonious with itself, how will variety and discord be so great in the nature of God. For if there had been a unity of nature among the gods, then one god should not have pursued, murdered, or injured another. If the gods were pursued by gods, and murdered, kidnapped and struck with lightning by them, then there is no longer any unity of nature, but divided counsels, all mischievous. So not one of them is a god. It is clear then, O King, that all their discussions on the nature of the gods are an error.
But how did the wise and rational men among the Greeks not observe that in so far as they make laws for themselves they are judged by their own laws? For if the laws are righteous, their gods are altogether unrighteous, as they have committed transgressions of laws, in slaying one another, practising sorceries, adultery, thefts, and intercourse with males. If they were right in doing these things, then the laws are unrighteous, being framed contrary to the gods. However, the laws are in fact good and just, commending what is good and forbidding what is bad. But the deeds of their gods are contrary to law. Their gods, therefore, are lawbreakers, and all liable to the punishment of death. It is impious men who introduce such gods. For if the stories about them are mythical, the gods are nothing more than mere names; if the stories are founded on nature, the ones who did and experienced these things are still no longer gods; and, if the stories are allegorical, they are myths and nothing more. It has been shown then, O King, that all these polytheistic objects of worship are the works of error and destruction. For it is not right to give the name of gods to beings which may be seen but cannot see; but one ought to reverence the invisible and all-seeing and all-creating God.
14. Let us move on to the Judeans, O King, so that we may see what truth there is in their view of God. For they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they migrated to Egypt. From there, God brought them out with a mighty hand and an uplifted arm through Moses, their lawgiver. By many wonders and signs he made known his power to them. But even they proved stubborn and ungrateful, and often served the idols of the peoples, and put to death the prophets and just men who were sent to them. Then when the son of God was willing to come to the earth, they subjected him to drunken violence and betrayed him into the hands of Pilate the Roman governor. Paying no respect to his benefactions and the countless miracles he did among them, they demanded a sentence of death by the cross. They perished due to their own lawlessness. For to this day they worship the one God Almighty, but not according to knowledge. For they deny that Christ is the son of God. They are also very much like the peoples (ethnē), even though they may seem to make some approach to the truth from which they have removed themselves. So much for the Judeans.
(15) Now the Christians trace their origin to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is acknowledged by the Holy Spirit to be the son of the most high God, who came down from heaven for the salvation of humanity. Being born of a pure virgin, unbegotten and immaculate, he assumed flesh and revealed himself among men that he might recall them to himself from their wandering after many gods. After he accomplished his wonderful arrangement, by a voluntary choice he tasted death on the cross, fulfilling a great arrangement. After three days he came to life again and ascended into heaven. If you would read, O King, you may judge the glory of his presence from the holy gospel writing, as it is called among themselves. He had twelve disciples who, after his ascension to heaven, went out into the provinces of the whole world and declared his greatness. So, for instance, one of them travelled through the lands around us, proclaiming the doctrine of the truth. For this reason, those who still observe the righteousness enjoined by their preaching are called “Christians.” More than all the peoples on earth, they have found the truth. For they know God, the creator and fashioner of all things through the only-begotten son and the holy spirit. Beside him they worship no other God. They have the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ himself written on their hearts, and they observe them, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.
[Customs of the Christians]
They do not engage in adultery or sexual perversion, nor bear false witness, nor covet the things of others. They honour father and mother, and love their neighbours. They judge justly, and they never do to others what they would not wish to happen to themselve. They appeal to those who injure them, trying to win them as friends. They are eager to do good to their enemies. They are gentle and easy to ask for help. They abstain from all unlawful conversation and from all impurity. They do not despise the widow or oppress the orphan. The one who has things gives without hesitation to help the one who does not have things. If they see a stranger, they take him under their roof and rejoice over him as if he were a brother. For they call themselves “brothers” not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. They are also ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Christ; for they observe his commands without swerving, and live holy and just lives, as the Lord God instructed them. They give thanks to him every hour, for all meat, drink, and other blessings.
(16) Truly, then, this is the way of the truth which leads those who travel in the way to the everlasting kingdom promised through Christ in the life to come. So that you may know, O King, that in saying these things I do not speak for myself only, if you consider looking into the writings of the Christians, you will find that I state nothing beyond the truth.
Rightly, then, did your son apprehend, and justly was he taught to serve the living God and to be saved for the age that is destined to come upon us. For great and wonderful are the sayings and deeds of the Christians. For they speak not the words of humans but those of God. But the rest of the peoples go astray and deceive themselves. For they walk in darkness and bruise themselves like drunks. (17) That is the extent of my speech to you, O King, a speech which has been dictated in my mind by the truth. Therefore, let your foolish sages cease their idle talk against the Lord. For it is profitable for you to worship God the creator, and to listen to his incorruptible words, so that you may escape from condemnation and punishment and be found to be among the heirs of eternal life.