Jewish Apologetics

Jewish Apologetics

Apologetics is other-directed communication of religious belief that makes assertions about knowing and serving God. It represents the content of a particular faith in an essentially intellectualist fashion and, like a national boundary, acts as a membrane for the exchange of ideas. The content of apologetics is based in the revelation of God, but its format is based in culture. Apologetics often is other-directed insofar as it presupposes, at least apparently, an audience external to the faith it represents. Furthermore, it communicates by virtue of patterns of thought and language common to speaker and hearer, which leads the apologist to employ terminology, styles of thought, and ideas familiar to the hearer.

Despite the fact that the audience addressed in religious apologies is often presumed to be outside the faith, apologetic literature often has been most popular within the confines of the religious community for which it speaks rather than among the critics to whom it is nominally addressed. The adoption of an addressant serves as a powerful rhetorical device that helps promote the clarification of ideas. This inclination toward refinement of thought makes apologetics as much a strategy in the forging of an orthodox system of belief as a genre of testimony to nonbelievers. Any religion, monotheistic or otherwise, might adopt an apologetic posture under circumstances in which it perceives the need to defend itself against misunderstanding, criticism, discrimination, or oppression, but the pattern of religious apology that will be examined here emerged from the engagement of unitary conceptions of God with the culture of Greco-Roman polytheism during the first several centuries of the common era.

Defence of Monotheism

In Greco-Roman culture, whose intellectual foundations were buttressed by polytheistic beliefs and practices, monotheism was judged to be both blasphemous and incredible. Jewish thinkers as early as the third century BCE, followed by Christian and Muslim thinkers in early periods of the development of doctrines of Christian and Islamic beliefs, made use of the intellectual apparatus provided by Hellenistic philosophy to explain and defend systematically the foundations of belief in one God. A well-known model for the reasoned defense of belief and practice was Socrates' address before the Athenian court in 399 BCE, which is preserved in Plato's Apology. The Greek word apologia, meaning "speech in defense," refers to an oral and literary genre known throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. When Socrates was accused of demonstrating impiety toward the ancestral gods of his state and of corrupting the morals of Athenian youth through adherence to unusual beliefs, he argued his case against ignorance and unenlightened authority by means of reason. Although he failed to convince a majority of jurors that his pursuit of wisdom, which had made him a critic of prevailing religious belief, was based in truth, his effort became a model for future apologists. Biblical monotheists subsequently employed established patterns of philosophical argumentation that owed much to Greek philosophy and the example of Socrates to account for the superiority of their positions on faith. They, too, sought to expose what to their way of thinking were the inconsistencies, errors, and even absurdities of polytheism. Furthermore, the Hebrew legacy of truth they represented bore a rational coherence attractive to the Hellenistic way of thinking.

The tradition of justice, divine providence, and the sharp rejection of idolatry emphasized by the Hebrew prophets resounds in Josephus Flavius's treatise known as Against Apion. Composed in Greek in the first century CE, Josephus's response to Apion's criticisms of the Jews asserts the antiquity of the Jewish faith according to patterns of Greek historiography, celebrates the biblical God as lawgiver, and denounces polytheistic religions as immoral and irrational. "I would therefore boldly maintain that we have introduced to the rest of the world a very large number of very beautiful ideas. What greater beauty than inviolable piety? What higher justice than obedience?" (2.293). Striving to assure the right of Jews living under Roman domination to refuse participation in local cults, Josephus indicts the polytheists for ignoring the true nature of God and for appealing licentiously to the public taste. On the other hand, he praises the virtue and purity of the law of Moses and recalls the sensible wisdom of Plato. As the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (d. 50 CE) had done before him, Josephus affirmed a compatibility between biblical faith and the higher morality of Greek philosophy, claiming with bold historicity that the Greek philosophers were among the first imitators of Mosaic law.

The Talmud records disputations between learned rabbis and Roman authorities over the veracity of Jewish ideas and freedom of worship. Beginning in the second century CE, Christians also exercised a strenuous apologetic effort to explain the foundations of their emerging beliefs and to defend themselves against oppression and popular slander. Because Christians would not serve the gods legitimated by Roman authority, they were held to be atheistic and seditious elements of the population. Moreover, the emerging forms of Christian worship and the way of living Christianity promoted among disenfranchised elements of society were viewed suspiciously by the state, eliciting charges of cannibalism and incest. Christian response was defensive, but also, on the model of Josephus, not without an offensive thrust. The defenders of Christianity claimed that the Roman state religion was absurd idolatry, and they offered in its place a simple moral appeal bearing resemblance to Stoic ideals.

Beginning with Quadratus, who wrote in Athens during the reign of Hadrian (117–138), and Aristides, and followed by, among others, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, the anonymous author of To Diognetus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine of Hippo (the last of early Christianity's great apologists), written defenses of the young and growing religion proliferated, often in the form of open letters addressed to critics of Christianity or to the emperor in Rome. Much of what must have been a large body of literature has been lost. The arguments in defense of Christian faith and its forms of worship followed methods of reasoning borrowed selectively from Platonism and its influential variations, from Stoicism, and from Skepticism.

Generally, early Christian apologetics had more influence among other Christian thinkers than among non-Christians. The legacy of this prodigious literary output can be located, therefore, in the development of the philosophical foundations of subsequent doctrines of God and of teachings concerning the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although these apologies reveal compatibilities with current philosophical thought, their practical importance for Christianity lay in their role of helping to define an emerging orthodoxy that found itself in growing competition with gnosticism and Marcionism for the religious allegiance of gentiles. The New Testament itself includes appeals to non-Christians that are apologetic in tone, although no full-fledged apologetic writings are identified before those of the second-century apologists.

The engagement of biblical faith with sophisticated Greek philosophy is evidenced clearly in early Christian apologetic literature. But although the function of apologetics as intellectual discourse was primary, it should not be overlooked that the apologetic spirit displayed in these writings cooperated intimately with other than solely intellectual religious motives; before the official sanction of Christianity by the Roman emperor in the fourth century, Christian apologists also display a commitment to mission and conversion. The effectiveness of the Christian appeal to conversion was indebted to the formulation of an intellectual foundation of belief, but it also owed its success to the conviction won by martyrdom. Justin Martyr (d. 163/5), in the opening sections of his first apology, evokes the memory of Socrates and embarks upon an argument "required" by reason that proves the case for Christianity as the storehouse of divine providence. The success of his reasoning may be disputed, but the proof of religious conviction gained by martyrdom, which he discusses in the twelfth chapter of his second apology, invokes a form of assertion beyond the realm of dispute: "I myself, too," he says, "when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure." Like many others before and after him, Justin, through his death as through his writings, was to bear proof of the claims made by his newly adopted faith.

In the sixth century of the common era, the prophet Muḥammad's recitation of God's word radicalized monotheism in ways unfamiliar to Jewish and Christian monotheists. The Qurʾān, like the New Testament before it, reflects the emergent competitive relation into which the family members of biblical religion were to come: "The Jews say, 'The Christians stand not on anything'; the Christians say, 'The Jews stand not on anything'; yet they recite the Book. So too the ignorant [i.e., the Gentiles] say the like of them" (2:107).

As had postbiblical Christian faith five centuries earlier, post-Qurʾanic Islamic faith eventually also underwent a period of formulation and defense of beliefs under the powerful influence of Hellenistic philosophy, which, along with the rich legacy of Indian medicine and mathematics and of Persian literature, provided new dimensions of thought to an expanding Arab world. In the second century of Islam, theological doctrines began to emerge alongside the current traditions of the Prophet. Confronted from within with degradations of the faith and from without by non-Muslim critics armed with the tools of reasoning developed in Greek and Persian philosophy, some Muslim scholars embraced a speculative theology (ʿilm al-kalām) for assistance in proclaiming the Prophet's revelation. Adherents to this practice of speculative theology were originally called mutakallimūn, and although their school was condemned in 848 CE by the caliph al-Mutawakkil, the philosophical traditions introduced into the expression of Islamic faith by thinkers such as Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. 849) and al-Naẓẓām (d. 846) left an ongoing mark that survived in the moderate Ashʿarī school of subsequent decades.

Originally endorsed by the court, the Muʿtazilah defended Islamic beliefs by demonstrating that there was nothing in Qurʾanic faith that contradicted reason. In addition to making claims for the unity of God, the prophethood of Muḥammad, and the validity of the Qurʾān, apologists for Islam began to formulate a cosmology that elaborated an Islamic picture of the universe. The earliest speculative Islamic theology of the Muʿtazilah, however, while it was basically Qurʾanic and sought to defend the Prophet's revelation, inclined in such a degree toward intellectualism and the presumption that truth could be demonstrated by reason that even its moderate mutations continued to give offense to the orthodox. What began as an effort to preserve the philosophical wisdom of the past, a prodigious effort that eventuated in an extensive program of translation into Arabic of the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, placed Greek thought so determinatively at the center of Islamic thought that the Islamic philosophical tradition was rejected by Islamic theology.

The conflict between reason and revelation, witnessed early in the foundation of Islamic beliefs, has its counterparts throughout the histories of biblical religions. This conflict reflects a characteristic element of apologetics derived from its employment of reason as a tool of religious expression, namely the potential of apologists to give offense to the community of believers for whom they speak, or mean to. Because apologetics customarily turns outward and borrows its modes of expression from a prevailing culture, it opens itself to criticism from within. Philo Judaeus and Josephus (d. around 100 CE) were viewed with suspicion by other Jews of their day and later centuries, as were Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), Barukh Spinoza (d. 1677), and Moses Mendelssohn (d. 1786). The Latin church father Tertullian, even as he benefited from his knowledge of ancient philosophy, was to become famous for his view that the church has as much to do with the philosophical academy as a Christian with a heretic. Familiarity with philosophy has been viewed by many of the orthodox as a pollution of biblical faith and has weighed heavily against many thinkers in the church's struggle to define its parameters of acceptable belief. Modern advocates of Christianity's reasonableness such as Vladimir Solov'ev (d. 1900), Maurice Blondel (d. 1949), and Paul Tillich (d. 1965), who chose to employ patterns of philosophical discourse appropriate to their intelligence of God's word, suffered the mistrust of their coreligionists, as have modern Jewish thinkers such as Franz Rosenzweig (d. 1929) and Martin Buber (d. 1965).

Apologetics rankles, despite its dedication to God's revelation, because it occupies a place on the boundaries of belief. It employs forms of expression that depend in part upon intellectual and cultural transformations occurring outside the confines of particular traditions of belief, and it uses language that is not wholly natural to the sacred language it interprets. The culture, however, is not merely a challenge but also a promise to the apologetic motive of religious thinkers, because it presents the possibility of a new form of a normative content, a renewed account of God's being and will.

Fundamental Theology

The view of religious apologetics given above—namely, that it emerged historically as a defense of monotheism—bespeaks the empirical circumstances of one age and (more or less) one culture: the Hellenistic. In the longer religious histories of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and elsewhere the confrontation of monotheism with nonmonotheistic systems of belief was eclipsed by confrontations between various interpretations of monotheism, both in the struggle for orthodoxy within each of the dominant monotheisms and in the broader encounter of these monotheistic faiths with one another. Under these competitive circumstances, the effort to clarify the fundamentals of belief no longer referred to the basic propositions of monotheism alone but also to the elements of each particular tradition. This gave rise to a distinction in function between apologetics and polemics, which, although it exists in theory, does not always occur in practice.

The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) in his analysis of the discipline of theology, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, distinguishes between the apologetic and the polemical sides of philosophical theology. Although they are closely related, he finds that apologetics aims to make truth recognizable; polemics, on the other hand, aims to expose deviations from truth (secs. 39 and 40). Determination of where the exposure of error ends, however, and where the proclamation of truth begins (and vice versa) depends upon the breadth of one's religious understanding. Is it apologetic or polemical for Christian scripture to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of Jewish expectation? Is it apologetic or polemical for Muḥammad, reflecting Christian controversies about the doctrine of the Trinity, to implicate polytheism in that Christian doctrine about God by declaring, "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate / Say: 'He is God, One, / God, the Everlasting Refuge, / who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, / and equal to Him is not any one'" (sūrah 112)? Is it revelation or offense for Paul of Tarsus, as apostle of Christ, to proclaim to the people of Athens that his God is the God they worship at their altar dedicated "To the Unknown God" (Acts 17:23)? Truth informs each of these claims, and in each claim a defense of truth is made; but in the act of defending belief an offensive position is taken that is polemical as well as apologetic, because it exposes purported deviation from the truth at the same time as it recognizes truth. The outward-looking proclamation and the inward-looking critique are bound together.

Religious apologetics can be defined usefully in modern terms as the laying out of the fundamentals of religious belief. It is an orienting rather than refining branch of religious expression. The language it employs, though aptly described as "reasoning," will differ according to context. Patterns of reasoned discourse are themselves the subject of much philosophical debate, and, therefore, it is not possible to say with assurance what forms apologetics as a religious phenomenon will take.

In the intellectual history of the West, the dominance of Christian religion made the fundamentals of Christian belief as self-evident as those of polytheism and the state cult had been in the ancient Roman world. Roman Catholic apologetic writings against Muslims in the Middle Ages (e.g., Thomas Aquinas's Summa contra gentiles) and against non-Catholic Christians during and after the Protestant Reformation concentrated on particulars of Christian belief. After the European Enlightenment, however, a shift occurred with respect to the issues at stake in founding religious belief. No longer a matter of belief in many gods rather than one, or of one monotheism as distinct from another, the very reasonableness of belief itself was called into question in the intellectual discourse of Western culture, and countless defenses of Christianity were penned that argued for the very validity of religion and the reality of the supernatural.

By striving to make religion comprehensible in the intellectual and cultural environment it inhabits, apologetics, according to J.-B. Metz, recognizes that part of its essence is "to share the questioning and problems of the world in which it lives." But what constitutes "the world" for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, however unified advancing technologies of communication may make it seem, differs radically depending upon historical contingencies. For many Christians, for example, the virtues and validities of Judaism and Islam remain quite alien. The situation described by Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928), the Indian modernist, in the preface to his The Spirit of Islam (1890) is not at all inappropriate a century later, nor is Ali's message at all unlike that of Josephus in addressing the Romans about Jewish religion: Islam's "great work in the uplifting of humanity," says Ali, "is either ignored or not appreciated; nor are its rationale, its ideals and its aspirations properly understood."

It would be unnecessarily limiting to presume that the preeminent form of apologetics, the treatise, remains the only medium for enhancing the comprehensibility of religious belief and for laying out its fundamentals. The censors of post-Reformation Europe were not unaware of the power of visual images in the competition between Catholicism and Protestantism. What the introduction of electronic media into parts of the world largely untouched by literacy will mean to efforts to give reasonable foundations to religious belief can only be surmised and not explored at all in this context. It can be said, however, that the sensitivities with which apologists for religion respond to their world will determine the vitality of their expressions of belief.

Philo sought the compatibility of biblical religion with ancient wisdom; al-Naẓẓām strove to preserve his faith from misconception through reliance on reason; Maimonides aimed to guide the perplexed with the help of Aristotle; Tillich diagnosed the human predicament in search of God's cure; for a significant number of theologians, the responsibility of the rich for the poor has become not merely a topic of contemporary theology but its point of departure, its foundation. As the concerns that provoke fundamental expressions of belief change, so too do religious responses to them. Leitmotifs of "too Greek," "too philosophical," "too intellectual," "too psychological," "too Marxist"—and their many variations, both theological and ideological—will remain part of the chorus of religious apologetics as long as apologetics remains a lively element of religious ideas.


A broad comparative history of religious apologetics does not exist, but useful introductory surveys of the apologetics of particular traditions can be found in specialized encyclopedias. For Jewish apologetics, see "Apologetics," in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 3 (Jerusalem, 1971). Josephus's Against Apion is available in Greek and in English translation by Henry St. John Thackeray in Josephus, vol. 1, "Loeb Classical Library" (Cambridge, Mass., 1956). For Christian apologetics, see "Apologetik," Theologische Realenzyklopädie (Berlin, 1978), an extensive three-part survey from the early church to the twentieth century, with excellent bibliographies. Johannes-Baptist Metz's "Apologetics," in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, vol. 1 (London, 1968), provides a good analysis of the role of apologetics in Roman Catholicism. The texts of Justin Martyr's apologies have been translated by A. Cleveland Coxe in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C., 1948). Friedrich Schleiermacher's Brief Outline on the Study of Theology has been translated by Terrence N. Tice (Richmond, Va., 1970). For Islamic apologetics, see H. S. Nyberg's "al-Mu'tazila," in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1974), and Marshall G. S. Hodgson's The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, vol. 1, The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago, 1974), especially pages 437–442. Syed Ameer Ali's The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam with a Life of the Prophet (1890; London, 1974) is an excellent example of an apologetic spirit at work. Robert M. Grant examines Greco-Roman religious thought relative to monotheism in Gods and the One God (Philadelphia, 1986).

New Sources

Bloom, John. "Is Fulfilled Prophecy of Value for Scholarly Apologetics?" Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Conference Papers, 1997, 1–15.

Clausen, Matthias. "Proclamation and Communication: Apologetics after Barth." International Journal of Systematic Theology 1 (July 1999): 204–221.

Edwards, Mark, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds. Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews and Christians. New York, 1999.

Gruen, Erich. Heritage and Hellenism: The Resurrection of Jewish Tradition. Berkeley, 1998.

McDermott, Gerald. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faith. New York, 2000.

Nichols, Stephen. "Contemporary Apologetics and the Nature of Truth." Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Conference Papers, 1999, 1–8.

Shank, Michael. "Unless You Believe, You Shall Not Understand": Logic, University and Society in Late Medieval Vienna. Princeton, 1999.

Van Inwagen, Peter. The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics. Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Paul Bernabeo (1987)

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