The Church Histories, hitherto in dealing with early Christian literature, have given Aristides along with Quadratus the first place in the list of lost apologists. It was known that there had been such early defenders of the faith, and that Quadratus had seen persons who had been miraculously healed by Christ; but beyond this little more could be said. To Justin Martyr, who flourished about a.d.150, belonged the honour of heading the series of apologists whose works are extant, viz., Tatian, Melito, Athenagoras, Theophilus, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, who all belonged to the second century and wrote in Greek; and Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Arnobius, and Lactantius, who wrote in Latin, and Clement and Origen who wrote in Greek, during the third century. While Christianity was winning its way to recognition in the Roman empire, these writers tried to disprove the gross calumnies current about Christians, to enlighten rulers and magistrates as to the real character and conduct of the adherents of the new religion, and to remove the prejudice which led to the violent persecutions of the populace. They also endeavoured to commend Christianity to |the cultured among its despisers,| by showing that it is philosophy as well as revelation, that it can supply the answers sought by philosophy, and is unlike human wisdom in being certain because divinely revealed. At the same time they demonstrated the folly of polytheism and pointed out its disastrous effects on morality. This faithful company of the defenders of the faith has now regained Aristides as their leader in place of Justin Martyr. It will be well to recount briefly what was previously known about Aristides, and to tell how the lost Apology has been found.
Eusebius, in his History of the Church, written during the reign of Constantine, a.d.306-337, has a chapter (bk. iv., c.3) headed |The authors that wrote in defence of the faith in the reign of Hadrian, a.d.117-138.| After describing and quoting the Apology of Quadratus, he adds:
|Aristides also, a man faithfully devoted to the religion we profess, like Quadratus, has left to posterity a defence of the faith, addressed to Hadrian. This work is also preserved by a great number, even to the present day.|
The same Eusebius in his Chronicon states that the Emperor Hadrian visited Athens in the eighth year of his reign (i.e., a.d.125 ) and took part in the Eleusinian mysteries. In the same connection the historian mentions the presentation of Apologies to the Emperor by Quadratus and Aristides, |an Athenian philosopher;| and implies that Hadrian was induced by these appeals, coupled with a letter from Serenius Granianus, proconsul of Asia, to issue an Imperial rescript forbidding the punishment of Christians without careful investigation and trial.
About a century later Jerome (died a.d.420) tells us that Aristides was a philosopher of Athens, that he retained his philosopher's garb after his conversion to Christianity, and that he presented a defence of the faith to Hadrian at the same time as Quadratus. This Apology, he says, was extant in his day, and was largely composed of the opinions of philosophers (|contextum philosophorum sententiis|), and was afterwards imitated by Justin Martyr.
After this date Aristides passes out of view. In the mediæval martyrologies there is a faint reflection of the earlier testimony, as, e.g., the 31st of August is given as the saint's day |of the blessed Aristides, most renowned for faith and wisdom, who presented books on the Christian religion to the prince Hadrian, and most brilliantly proclaimed in the presence of the Emperor himself how that Christ Jesus is the only God.|
In the seventeenth century there were rumours that the missing Apology of Aristides was to be found in various monastic libraries in Greece; and Spon, a French traveller, made a fruitless search for it. The book had apparently disappeared for ever.
But in recent times Aristides has again |swum into our ken.| Armenian literature, which has done service to Christendom by preserving so many of its early documents, supplied also the first news of the recovery of Aristides. In the Mechitarite convent of S. Lazarus at Venice there is a body of Armenian monks who study Armenian and other literature. In 1878 these Armenians surprised the learned world by publishing a Latin translation of an Armenian fragment (the first two chapters) of the lost Apology of Aristides. Renan at once set it down as spurious because it contained theological terms of a later age, e.g., |bearer of God| applied to the Virgin Mary. These terms were afterwards seen to be due to the translator. At what time the translation from Greek into Armenian was made is not apparent; but it may reasonably be connected with the work begun by the famous Armenian patriarch Mesrobes. This noble Christian invented an alphabet for his country, established schools, and sent a band of young Armenians to Edessa, Athens, and elsewhere with instructions to translate into Armenian the best sacred and classical books. And in spite of Mohammedans and Turks Armenia has remained Christian, and now restores to the world the treasures committed to its keeping in the early centuries.
Opinions as to the Armenian fragment of Aristides remained undecided till 1889. In the spring of that year Professor J. Rendel Harris, of Cambridge, had the honour of discovering a Syriac version of the whole Apology in the library of the Convent of St. Catharine, on Mount Sinai. He found the Apology of Aristides among a collection of Syriac treatises of an ethical character; and he refers the ms. to the seventh century. Professor Harris has translated the Syriac into English, and has carefully edited the Syriac text with minute discussions of every point of interest.
The recovery of the Syriac version by Professor Harris placed the genuineness of the Armenian fragment beyond question. It also led to the strange reappearance of the greater part of the original Greek. Professor J. A. Robinson, the general editor of the Cambridge Texts and Studies, having read the translation of the Syriac version, discovered that the Apology of Aristides is incorporated in the early Christian Romance entitled, The Life of Barlaam and Josaphat.
Some account must be given of this remarkable book in order to show its connection with the Apology of Aristides. Its author is said to be John of Damascus, who died about a.d.760. Whoever wrote it, the book soon became very popular. In the East it was translated into Arabic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Hebrew; in the West there are versions of it in nearly a dozen languages, including an English metrical rendering. As early as 1204 a king of Norway had it translated into Icelandic. It is now known to be the story of Buddha in a Christian setting, furnished with fables and parables which have migrated from the far East and can be traced back to an extreme antiquity.
The outline of the story is as follows: A king in India, Abenner by name, who is an enemy of the Christians, has an only son Josaphat (or Joasaph). At his birth the astrologers predict that he will become great, but will embrace the new doctrine. To prevent this, his father surrounds the prince with young and beautiful attendants, and takes care that Josaphat shall see nothing of illness, old age, or death. At length Josaphat desires his freedom, and then follow the excursions as in the case of Buddha. Josaphat seeing so much misery possible in life is sunk in despair. In this state he is visited by a Christian hermit -- Barlaam by name. Josaphat is converted to Christianity, and Barlaam withdraws again to the desert.
To undo his son's conversion the king arranges that a public disputation shall be held; one of the king's sages, Nachor by name, is to personate Barlaam and to make a very weak statement of the Christian case, and so be easily refuted by the court orators. When the day comes, the prince Josaphat charges Nachor, the fictitious monk, to do his best on pain of torture. Thus stimulated, Nachor begins, and |like Balaam's ass he spake that which he had not purposed to speak; and he said, I, O king, in the providence of God,' etc.| He then recites the Apology of Aristides to such purpose that he converts himself, the king, and all his people. Josaphat finally relinquishes his kingdom, and retires into the desert with the genuine Barlaam for prayer and meditation. Not only so, but the churches of the Middle Ages, forgetting the fabulous character of the story, raised Barlaam and Josaphat to the rank of saints, with a holy day in the Christian calendar. Thus the author of Barlaam and Josaphat caused Christianity unwittingly to do honour to the founder of Buddhism under the name of St. Josaphat; and also to read the Apology of Aristides in nearly twenty languages without suspecting what it was.
The speech of Nachor in Greek, that is to say, the greater part of the original Greek of the Apology of Aristides, has been extracted from this source by Professor Robinson and is published in Texts and Studies, Vol. I., so that there is now abundant material for making an estimate of Aristides.
It may be asked whether we have in any of our three sources the actual words of Aristides. The circumstances under which the Apology was incorporated in The Life of Barlaam and Josaphat are such as to render it unlikely that the author of the Romance should copy with the faithfulness of a scribe; but examination proves that very few modifications hare been made. The Greek divides men into three races (the Syriac and Armenian into four); the introductory accounts of these races are in the Greek blended with the general discussion; and at the close the description of early Christian customs is shortened. These few differences from the Syriac are all explained by the fact that the Apology had to be adapted to the circumstances of an Indian court in a later age. On the other hand, when the Syriac is compared. with the Greek and Armenian in passages where these two agree, it is found that explanatory clauses are added; and there is throughout a cumbrous redundancy of pronouns in the Syriac. In short, the actual words of Aristides may be restored with tolerable certainty -- a task which has been already accomplished by a German scholar, Lic. Edgar Hennecke. In any case we have the substance of the Apology of Aristides with almost verbal precision.
In regard to the date of Aristides, Eusebius says expressly that the Apology was presented to Hadrian while he was in Athens about the year a.d.125. The only ground for questioning this statement is the second superscription given in the Syriac version, which implies that the Apology was presented to Antoninus Pius, a.d.138-161. This heading is accepted by Professor Harris as the true one; and he assigns the Apology to |the early years of the reign of Antoninus Pius; and it is at least conceivable,| he adds, |that it may have been presented to the Emperor along with other Christian writings during an unrecorded visit of his to his ancient seat of government at Smyrna.| But this requires us to suppose that Eusebius was wrong; that Jerome copied his error; that the Armenian version curiously fell into the same mistake; and that the Syriac translator is at this point exceptionally faithful. So perhaps it is better with Billius, |not to trust more in one's own suspicions, than in Christian charity which believeth all things,| and to rest in the comfortable hypothesis that Eusebius spoke the truth.
Writing in a.d.125, or even twenty years later, Aristides becomes an important witness as to the nature of early Christianity. His Apology contains no express quotation from Scripture; but the Emperor is referred for information to a gospel which is written. Various echoes of New Testament expressions will at once be recognized; and |the language moulding power of Christianity| is discernible in the new meaning given to various classical words. Some topics are conspicuous by their absence. Aristides has no trace of ill-feeling to the Jews; no reference to the Logos doctrine, nor to the distinctive ideas of the Apostle Paul; he has no gnosticism or heresy to denounce, and he makes no appeal to miracle and prophecy. Christianity, in his view, is worthy of a philosophic emperor because it is eminently reasonable, and gives an impulse and power to live a good life. On the whole, Aristides represents that type of Christian practice which is found in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; and to this he adds a simple Christian philosophy which may be compared with that of St. Paul at Athens. Although the details about the elements and the heathen gods are discussed with tedious minuteness, still his closing section describing the lives of the early Christians should always be good reading.
The translation of the Syriac given here is independently made from the Syriac text, edited by Professor Harris . Full advantage has been taken of his notes and apparatus criticus, but no use has been made of his translation. In obscure passages the German translation of Dr. Richard Raabe has been compared; and the Text-Rekonstruktion of Hennecke has been consulted on textual points in both translations. The Greek translation is made from the text edited by Professor Robinson. The translations from the Greek and from the Syriac are arranged side by side, so that their relation to one another is apparent at a glance. No attempt has been made to force the same English words from passages which are evidently meant to be identical in the two languages; but the literal tenour of each has been allowed to assert itself.