Scripture among the Apologists: Theophilus’ Greco-Roman Sources

Socrates and Plato
Socrates and Plato

At face value, Theophilus appears to have had extensive training in Greek philosophy and rhetoric, as he draws upon a host of classical sources including Homer, Plato, Euripides, Orpheus, and the Sibyl.[i] Though he presents a plethora of quotes from a variety of philosophical schools of thought, most of his sources and quotations appear reliant upon existing anthologies and handbooks.[ii]

Grant suggests that Theophilus directly knew only Homer, Hesiod, Plato, and the Sibyl, and these seem likely given the number and quality of quotations from these sources.[iii] Theophilus’ attitude toward Plato serves as a good indicator of his impression of Greek philosophy: though Plato said many good things (especially about the rule of God and the immortality of the soul), he is nonetheless insufficient for true philosophy because of his teachings on the eternity of matter, transmigration of souls, and poor sexual morals.[iv] One of Theophilus’ major apologetic projects involved his demonstration of the superiority of the Judeo-Christian creation narrative over again the various pagan myths of generation, especially that of Hesiod.[v] In his cosmogenic reflections on Genesis 1-3 he appears to have been especially influenced by Stoic thought.[vi]

library-cave-scrolls_webFor Theophilus, as with Justin, there is one God who created the world through his Logos and (here differing from Justin) Sophia.[vii] Another of Theophilus’ projects involved the re-telling of the chronology of the cosmos, wherein he names his reliance on the histories of Thallus and Chryseros the Nomenclator, a freedman of Marcus Aurelius.[viii] Theophilus’ use of Greek philosophical sources was not all oppositional, however, for in the Sibylline Oracles he found at least three true prophecies.[ix] After citing short passages from the Oracles in Ad Autolycum 2.3 and 2.31, Theophilus offers an extremely lengthy quotation in 2.36, demonstrating not only his access to the Sibyl, but also the value he placed on it.[x] Theophilus was certainly an apologist—he sought to defend the faith against Greco-Roman philosophies—and he was certainly acquainted with certain aspects of those philosophies. Yet he demonstrated neither the philosophical engagement nor mastery of the craft displayed by Justin Martyr. As an apologist, he built bridges between pagan philosophy and the true philosophy and found certain sources in the Greek tradition—namely the Sibyl—valuable for proper reflection. Theophilus, like Justin before him, employed Greco-Roman sources and subjected them to the authority of the Christian God.

[i] Rick Rogers, Theophilus of Antioch: The Life and Thought of a Second-Century Bishop (New York: Lexington Books, 2000), 17-18. Rankin, 86-7. [ii] Grant, “Introduction”, xi. Rankin, 87. For a list of the non-Biblical sources and parallels, see Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum, trans. Robert Grant (Oxford, Clarendon Press), 151-3. [iii] Grant, “Introduction”, xi-xii. Apart from the Sibylline Oracles, the most common pagan parallels are with Hesiod (Theogony), Homer (Iliad and Odyssey), Plato, and Orpheus. [iv] Autolycum 3.6-7; 2.4. Skarsaune, “Apologists”, 130. [v] Rogers, Life, 17-18. Schoedel, “Theophilus”, 280-8. See especially Autolycum 2.13. [vi] Kathleen E. McVey, “The Use of Stoic Cosmogeny in Theophilus of Antioch’s Heaemeron”, ed. M. S. Burrows and Paul Rorem, Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfield Froehlich on his Sixtieth Birthday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 54-5. Rankin, 87-8. Grant, “Theophilus”, 230, submits that Autolycum 1.4 may actual demonstrate reliance on Hellenistic Judaism instead of Stoicism. [vii] Autolycum 2.2-7; 2.9-10. Skarsaune, “Apologists”, 130. [viii] Autolycum 3.9, 26. Grant, “Bible of Theophilus”, 191. [ix] Autolycum 2.3, 31, 36. Grant, “Introduction”, xiii. Grant, “Theophilus”, 241. [x] Cf. Autolycum 2.31 and Sibylline Oracles 3.97-103, 105; Autolycum 2.31 and SO 8.5; Autolycum 2.36 and SO fragment 1; Autolycum 2.3 and SO fragment 2; Autolycum 2.36 and SO fragment 3. See Theophilus of Antioch, 152.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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