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Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

“And It Is Said That God Came Down from Heaven”

I’d like to return again to Aristides of Athens.

In the second section of his Apology, Aristides claims that there are four races of men in the world: Barbarians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians.

I’m going to leave aside the cogency of this particular claim in and of itself to comment upon something significant in the way in which he differentiates them from one another.

First, the Barbarians: “The Barbarians, indeed, trace the origin of their kind of religion from Kronos and Rhea and their other gods.”

Next, the Greeks: “[T]he Greeks, however, from Helenos, who is said to be sprung from Zeus” (more genealogy follows).

Next, the Jews: “The Jews, again, trace the origin of their race from Abraham” (again, more genealogy follows).

What does he say when he comes to the Christians? “The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High.” Aristides, then, mixes together race and religion, at least in the first three cases. But there is an important distinction to be drawn between Christians and the other groups. Whereas in the case of the Greeks and Jews Aristides traces lineal descent from an originary patriarch, he does no such thing in the case of Christians. He narrates Christ’s own descent, it is true (“And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man”).

But one does not enter this group by being born into it. For Aristides, one enters this group, in contradistinction to all the others, by faith: by believing the apostolic preaching. Thus he says: “And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians, and they are become famous.”

Tertullian says that Christians are not born, but made. And, for Aristides, how are they made? They are made by faith. This means that Christians are not a “race” in the same ways in which the other groups he has listed are: they are not so by descent, by geography, by language, by culture (cf. the Epistle to Diognetus). They are so by believing the message about a crucified savior.

And if one wants confirmation that his account of Christ is true–that what Aristides recounts is the apostolic preaching–, where should he turn? As we have already seen, they should turn to Holy Scripture, of course. “This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power that belongs to it.” The oral preaching of the apostles lasted only a brief moment, as it were; but it is now preserved in the gospel in written form, available to anyone who should wish to read it.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.