How Many Races of Humanity? Contrasting Social Identities in Second-Century Christian Apologists

In the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea described a second-century apology that was widely circulated and well-known in his day: “Aristides, a believer earnestly devoted to our religion, left… an apology for the faith addressed to Hadrian.” For centuries, the Apologia of Aristides was thought to have been lost. In 1878, Lazarist monks discovered and published a partial Armenian version; J. Rendel Harris found a complete Syriac version eleven years later. Following the publication of the Syriac text, J. Armitage Robinson recognized the Syriac apology was substantively similar to a speech that survives in Greek in the novel Barlaam and Ioasaph. Three additional Greek fragments have surfaced as well.

It is unclear, however, whether the Syriac translation or the Greek text in Barlaam and Ioasaph preserves the earlier form of the text, particularly regarding the groups to which Christianity is set in contrast.

The Syriac and Armenian versions both contrast four genuses of humanity: (1) barbarians, (2) Greeks, (3) Jews, and (4) Christians. The Greek version includes only three genuses: (1) Jews, (2) Christians, and (3) worshipers of false gods, with the worshipers of false gods divided into (a) Greeks, (b) Chaldeans, and (c) Egyptians.

Previous research has attempted to reconstruct the original wording through a combination of textual criticism and rhetorical conjecture. However, as Michael Lattke has noted, text-critical solutions are at an impasse until further fragments or manuscripts are discovered. Edgar Goodspeed refers to the riddle of the textual history of the Apologia as “almost insoluble.”

In light of this apparent impasse, I propose a careful examination of other texts from the same era as the Apologia of Aristides to determine which set of groupings is most congruent with writings produced near the same time as this Apologia. Such a comparison reveals that triads similar to Greeks, Chaldeans, and Egyptians in the Greek Apologia appear in other sources from the second and early third centuries (e.g., Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos, 36; Refutatio Omnium Haeresium, 10:26–27; cf. Origen, De Principiis, 3:3:2; Clement, Stromata, 1:15). Working from these similarities as well as affinities with the function of “Chaldean” in other texts from the second and early third centuries, I raise the possibility that the Greek text may preserve the reading most congruent with the era when the Apologia of Aristides was originally written. The paper concludes with a response to arguments against the originality of the Greek reading, as well as a reflection on what this suggests regarding second-century Christian perceptions of social identity.