views updated May 18 2018


    Against Hellenism
    In the Talmud and Midrash
    In Relation to Christianity
    Medieval Apologetics
        sefer ha-kuzari
        spain and southern france
        northern france
        14th- and 15th-century spain
        the rest of europe
    In the 18th Century
    In the 19th and 20th Centuries

The entry is arranged according to the following outline:


Apologetics in Judaism is that literature which endeavors to defend Jews, their religion, and their culture in reply to adverse criticism. The demarcation between apologetics and *disputation is often difficult to draw. The history of Jewish apologetic literature reflects the complicated pattern of relationships between Jews and Gentiles through the generations, and originated in response to the challenges of pagans and subsequently of Christianity. In the Middle Ages Jewish apologetics, termed by Jewish scholars hitnaẓẓelut, were intended to defend the spheres of both Jewish religion and Jewish social and national life, past and present, against direct attack and internal doubts arising from comparisons of respective cultures and ways of life. They were also written in the hope of proving to the Gentiles the virtues of the Jewish religion and thereby influencing their outlook on, and attitudes toward, Judaism. In the modern age a new type of Jewish secular apologetics aim at justification of Jewish social and economic conditions in the gentile world. The nonconformist stand adopted by Jewish monotheism against the surrounding polytheism in the ancient world gave rise to aggressive apologetics by the prophets when asserting the supremacy of their faith over "the vanities of the nations" (e.g., Isa. 40:17–21; 42:5–8; 44:6–20; 45:5–7, etc.; Jer. 10:2–5; 14:22; Zech. 8:20–23; 14:9, 16–21).

Against Hellenism

The authors of the Jewish-Hellenistic literature in Greek in the first half and the middle of the third century b.c.e. regarded as their major task the defense of the ideas of Judaism and its historical role. Jewish-Hellenistic historiographers set out to establish argumentation along these lines. *Demetrius, *Eupolemus, and *Artapanus place the Jewish people and Ereẓ Israel at the core of human history. Several Jewish poets expressed these ideas, as attested by extant fragments from compositions of the epic poets Philo the Elder and the Samaritan *Theodotus, while the drama Exodus by *Ezekiel the Poet (second century b.c.e.) hints that the dream of Moses beside Mount Sinai and Jethro's interpretation of it relate to the dominion of Israel over the world. The vision of the burning bush, according to this author, symbolizes the historical-universal value of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Jewish-Hellenistic philosophers interpreted Judaism allegorically as containing all the best in the systems of the great Greek philosophers. The intellectual and material basis of universal civilization was also pioneered by Jews, according to Jewish-Hellenistic writers. Abraham discovered astronomy and astrology and taught these sciences to the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Joseph introduced a well-ordered society in Egypt. Moses invented writing. Jews were the founders of philosophy. According to the philosopher *Aristobulus of Paneas (2nd century b.c.e.), not only Plato but even Homer and Hesiod were influenced by Judaism because parts of the Torah had been translated into Greek before their time. Many of these postulates were later utilized by Christian apologists in their argumentation against the pagans. In the Middle Ages they became Christian axioms and were accepted by Christians as historical truth.

Concomitantly with the general apologetic trend in Jewish-Hellenistic literature, specific apologetic works were also written. Two works of this type are known: *Philo's "Apology on behalf of the Jews" (ʾΑπολογία ὑπὲρ ʾΙουδαίων, first century c.e.), of which fragments are preserved in the works of *Eusebius, and *Josephus' Against Apion (first century c.e.), which summarizes the argumentation used by Jewish-Hellenistic apologetics. The major theme in Against Apion is a defense of the refusal of the Jews to participate in the local cults (λειτουργία) in the cities and provinces in which they were living and enjoying rights as citizens. This abstention was considered by their gentile neighbors to constitute either disrespect for religion in general or atheism (ἁθεότής), i.e., denial of the existence of gods. The accusation was repeated by anti-Jewish polemicists from the days of *Apollonius Molon (in the first century b.c.e.) to *Pliny and *Tacitus some two centuries later. Jewish apologists countered by explaining the Jewish belief in one God and the preferability of monotheism, citing Greek philosophers in support (Jos., Apion, 2:22). The apologists continued to denounce idolatry in the prophetic tradition, stressing the baseness of animal and image worship (cf. Arist., 134–9; Wisd., 13–16; Oracula Sibyllina, 3:29–34; Jos., Apion, 2:33–34). The refusal of the Jews to take part in the cult of the Roman emperor was viewed as lèse majesté by those antagonistic toward the Jews. In defense, Jewish apologists pointed out that sacrifices were regularly offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for the health of the emperor and that the emperors, satisfied with this arrangement, had granted the Jews special privileges (Philo, De Legatione ad Caium, 45; Jos., Apion, 2:6).

Jewish apologists emphasized the humane character of the precepts in the Torah regarding proselytes and Gentiles to counter the widespread accusations that these injunctions demonstrate pride, contempt, and hatred of mankind (Jos., Apion, 2:28–29). They explained reasons for the ceremonial mitzvot by way of allegory (see, e.g., Philo's statements on circumcision, Mig., 16); they also pointed out the cruel attitude to strangers and children common in pagan societies (e.g., Philo, Spec., 3:20). Jewish apologetics, although composed in the language of anti-Jewish publicists and adopting their style and mode of thought, contributed little to the understanding of Judaism among the groups who attacked Jews and Jewish law. However, this activity helped to undermine the religious principles of the pagan world, preparing the ground for conversion to Judaism and later on a large scale to Christianity.

In the Talmud and Midrash

The apologetic argumentation found in Hebrew and Aramaic sources is mainly intended to combat Hellenistic influences within the Jewish camp or that of Jewish "Hellenizers" or to oppose heretical sectarians. The Midrash reveals knowledge of the allegation made by ancient authors that the Jews were expelled from Egypt because they were lepers, and in reply demonstrates that leprosy was prevalent among all nations (Gen. R. 88:1). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash are familiar with the charge that Jews had not contributed to the creation of human cultures, that they were misanthropes, and disregarded the authority of the state (Beit ha-Midrash, ed. by A. Jellinek, 1 (19382), 9). Consequently, the sages stress the concept that the world was created for Israel's sake and exists thanks to its merit (Shab. 88a; Gen. R. 66:2). On the other hand, they put the blame for Jewish separation on idol worship, to which the Gentiles were addicted, while Jews were enjoined to keep at a distance the customs and cult associated with it.

Apologetics in the Talmud and Midrash take the form of tales, discussions, or exchanges of questions and answers between Jewish sages and Gentiles – philosophers, heretics, matrons, and Roman officials. The opponents of the Jews draw attention to contradictions in Scripture and take issue with anthropomorphic expressions found in the Bible; they censure several principles in the Jewish concept of God and express hostility to the mitzvot and laws which appear strange to them. The sages considered it their duty to "know how to answer an *Apikoros" (a heretic; Avot 2:14). Prominent sages are reported to have participated in these apologetic endeavors, e.g., *Johanan b. Zakkai (tj, Sanh. 1:4, 19d), *Joshua b. Hananiah (Ḥul. 59b; Nid. 70b), *Gamalielii, c. 95 c.e. (Sanh. 39a; Av. Zar. 54b), and *Yose b. Ḥalafta (Gen. R. 17:7; Tanḥ. B., Gen. 2). They employ the homiletical method of reasoning (derush). Sometimes, however, they did not take the exchanges seriously, and disciples are found asking, "Rabbi, you put him [your opponent] off with a straw, but what will you answer us?" (e.g., tj, Shab. 3:5, 6a; Ḥul. 27b; Tanḥ. Ḥukkat 8).

In Relation to Christianity

The appearance of a new adversary – the church, which developed and spread its influence through advocating progressive separation from the Jewish fold, inevitably introduced new problems in apologetic argumentation. The pagan polemicist Celsus quotes Jewish opinions in his critique of Christianity, according to *Origen in 231–33 (Contra Celsum, 1:28). His statements are repeated by Eusebius and Epiphanius. The Jews were certain of their ground in understanding Scripture, and asserted that "in all the passages which the minim [i.e., Christians] have taken [as grounds] for their [Christian] heresy, their refutation is to be found near at hand" (Sanh. 38b). Therefore, where a verse from Scripture was given a Christological interpretation by exponents of the nascent church, the Talmud supplies an opposing, distinctly anti-Christological exegesis of the continuation of the text. Thus, Simeon bar Yoḥai interprets "sons of God" (Gen. 6:2) as "sons of nobles," as in the old Aramaic versions, and execrated "all who called them the sons of God" (Gen. R. 26:5). Until the beginning of the fourth century the concept of the Trinity was not yet fully accepted in the church. Many statements in Jewish literature recorded from the preceding period, therefore, which appear to some scholars as being directed against the opinions of the Gnostics, or even of the Persian concept of dualism, were in reality formulated against the Christian belief in the Father and Son. Abbahu, unmistakably in reference to Christian beliefs about Jesus, said: "If someone will tell you, 'I am God,' he is a liar; 'I am the son of man,' his end is that he will regret it; that 'I am going to Heaven,' he says this but will not fulfill it" (tj, Ta'an. 2:1, 65f; see also Ex. R. 29:5). The following homily may be directed against the Christian concept of the divinity of Jesus: "R. Aḥa said: 'God was angry with Solomon when he uttered the verse ["meddle not with them that are given to change" (Prov. 24:21)] which by a play on the Hebrew words was interpreted as meaning "with them that have two gods." God said to Solomon, "Why do you express a thing that concerns the sanctification of My Name by an obscure reference [notarikon], in the words 'And meddle not with them that are given to change?' " Thereupon immediately Solomon expressed it more clearly [in the words], "There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother" (Eccles. 4:8); "He hath neither son nor brother," but "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" ' " (Deut. R. 2:33).

The election of Israel by God also became a topic for apologetics against insistent claims by the church to be the true heir to the election. The sufferings of the Jews, the destruction of the Temple (70 c.e.), and the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 c.e.), in contrast to the growth and spread of Christianity, added the elements of visible rejection and punishment of the Jewish nation, while the church was prospering. The same message was repeated by the Church Fathers (second to third centuries) in different forms (Justin, Dialogus, 16; Origen, Contra Celsum, 4:22; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 2:26). In their attack on the Jews the Christians did not refrain from utilizing arguments used by pagans such as Apion (Jos., Apion, 2:11) and *Cicero (Pro Flacco, 28). The "abandonment" of the Jews by God was presented to the Jews with proofs from the Bible. "A certain min [Christian] once said to R. Gamaliel: 'You are a people with whom its God has performed ḥaliẓah [severed his connections from his sister-in-law], for it is said in Scripture, "with their flocks and with their herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they shall not find Him; He hath withdrawn from them" ' (Hos. 5:6). The other replied: 'Fool, is it written "He hath drawn off for them"? It is written "He hath drawn off from them"; now in the case of a sister-in-law from whom the brother drew off the shoe could there be any validity in the act?'" since the act of ḥaliẓah was not valid unless the sister-in-law had removed the shoe of her brother-in-law. Here the image is of God drawing off the shoe, i.e., such a ḥaliẓah would be invalid (Yev. 102b; see also Ber. 10a; Sanh. 39a; Av. Zar. 10b). In response to Christian claims that the Old Testament has passed to the church and that Jews have no right to it (Justin, Apologia, 1:53; Origen, Contra Celsum, 7:26), there is an allusion by the rabbis that the Oral Law alone affirms the truth of the claims of those who uphold the Written Law: "Judah bar Solomon stated that when God said to Moses, 'Write!' Moses also requested that the Mishnah (i.e., the Oral Law) should be given in writing. But God anticipated that the Gentiles would translate the Torah, read it in Greek, and say: We are Israel, and we are the children of God, and henceforth, the scales are balanced. God said to the Gentiles: 'You say that you are My children. I only know that who possess My secret writings are My children. And what are these writings? – the Mishnah'" (Tanḥ. Va-Yera 5; ibid. Ki-Tissa 34). In explaining the actions of Jonah who had been sent to gentile Nineveh, it is stressed that he refused to go there (unlike the Christian apostles); this refusal is seen by the aggadah as a sign of His love for Israel; Jonah saw that the Gentiles were more inclined to repent "and he did not want to lay his own people open to condemnation. Thus he behaved like the rest of the patriarchs and prophets who offered themselves on behalf of Israel" (Mekh. of Rabbi Ishmael, Pasḥa, 1). The repentance of the Nineveh Gentiles was in reality "a feigned repentance" (tj., Ta'an. 2:1, 65b). The interpretation served as an answer to the statements of the Church Fathers who stressed that the Gentiles in the time of Jonah obeyed the prophet sent to them, just as the Gentiles in their own time answered the call of the apostles. In contrast, the Jews had refused to obey then, and refuse to do so now, and as a result they are punished (Luke 11:29–30, 32; Justin, Dialogus, 107).

Medieval Apologetics

With the predominance of the church and humiliation of the Jews in the Middle Ages, Jewish apologetics had to assume a new character. The religious disputations held between Christians and Jews became acrimonious. The lack of any kind of recognized Jewish statehood or sovereignty had to be explained. The Jews claimed, inter alia, that there still existed a sovereign Jewish state in the East, a claim put forward as early as 633 (Isidore of Seville, De fide catholica contra Judaeos, 1:8, para. 2, in: pl, 83 (1862), 464). Medieval Hebrew apologists in the Mediterranean countries also took issue with Jewish sects, such as the *Karaites. Recognizing that Jewish sectarian movements in part drew their inspiration from Christianity and Islam (several Karaite scholars, for instance, accepted the view that Jesus and Mohammed were prophets), Jewish authors felt the necessity of protecting Judaism from within by pointing out the weaknesses of these religions. Apologetics of this type were often combined with presentation of a general philosophical system of Jewish thought. Fragments from the Cairo *Genizah attest to the polemics directed in this period against the Samaritans, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Jewish schismatic sects, apparently from the beginning of the tenth century (Mann, in huca, 12 (1938), 427 ff.).

David *Al-Mukammiṣ (ninth to tenth centuries), who became converted to Christianity and lived briefly at Nisibis as a Christian, wrote two tractates against Christianity after his return to Judaism, which served as sources for the Karaite scholar al-*Kirkisānī and apparently for *Saadiah Gaon (fragments in jqr, 15 (1903), 684 ff.). The latter also directed polemics against Christian philosophers in his Emunot ve-De'ot. Concerning the Trinity, Saadiah states, "When I present this refutation I do not have in mind the uneducated among them [the Christians] who profess only a crass corporeal Trinity. For I would not have my book occupy itself with answering such people, since that answer must be quite clear and the task simple. It is rather my intention to reply to the learned who maintain that they adopted their belief in the Trinity as a result of rational speculation and subtle understanding" (Emunot ve-De'ot, trans. by S. Rosenblatt (1948), 103). Regarding proofs adduced by Christians in support of the concept of the Trinity from the Bible, Saadiah states: "The misinterpretation of these terms on the part of these individuals who cite them as proof of their theory, is, then, due to unfamiliarity with the Hebrew language" (ibid., 105). In the third section of the work, Saadiah rejects all the arguments adduced by Christians to show that the mitzvot and Torah had been abolished with the advent of the New Covenant.

sefer ha-kuzari

Sefer ha-Kuzari of *Judah Halevi is structured as a work of apologetics, with the subtitle A Composition in Argumentation and Proof in the Defense of the Despised Faith. In this work Judah Halevi sets his theory in an historical framework; the conversion of the king of Khazaria and many of his subjects to Judaism, the religion despised by the Gentiles. The Khazars adopted Judaism despite the strictness of its requirements regarding new converts. Judah Halevi elevates the values of human faith in the revealed religion and of Jewish law above those of philosophy, ultimately also opposing the latter. At the basis of his defense of Judaism, he places the history of the Jewish nation and its election by God. The present debased condition of the Jewish people constitutes no reflection on the value of its faith "because the light of God falls only upon humble souls"; humiliation and martyrdom are considered valid signs of proximity to God by all monotheistic religions, even Christianity and Islam, at present powerful in this world. Ultimately, all nations will accept the Torah adhered to by the suffering Jewish people. The religions in which the Gentiles believe at present are merely "a suggestion and an introduction to the anticipated Messiah" (4:22–23).


Comparatively little Jewish apologetic literature is directed specifically against Islam. As *Maimonides states, the claim of Muslim scholars that the Jews have corrupted the text of the Torah, abolishes the common ground on which any effort to explain the Jewish interpretation of the text to Muslims may be based. Muslims taunted Jews less than Christians about the situation implicit in exile. The Islamic conception that Judaism had simply been superseded by Mohammed's message and the law prescribed by him, lacking the element of internal contradiction, also diminished the requirement for apologetics in this sphere. Polemical allusions to Islam appear in the piyyutim, late Midrashim (e.g., Pirkei de-R. Eliezer), and exegetical and philosophical works, such as those of Saadiah Gaon, the Emunah Ramah of Abraham ibn Daud, and Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed (2:32, 39). Identification of the Arabs with various biblical peoples such as *Kedar, Hagarites, or Nebaioth (Gen. 25:13; 28:9; 36:3; Isa. 60:7; Jer. 49:28; i Chron. 1:29) helped Jewish commentators to relate tales disparaging to the Muslims. Derogatory allusions are made to the personality of Muhammad and his actions: he is frequently described as "the madman." A work directed specifically against Islam was the "Treatise on Ishmael" (Ma'amar al Ishma'el, 1863) by Solomon b. Abraham *Adret, which rejects the arguments of a Muslim who disparaged inclusion of the stories of Reuben and of Tamar and Judah in the Bible and attacked the Jews for observing mitzvot which merited abolition. A detailed critique of Islam is also included in the Keshet u-Magen of Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ *Duran. The writer discourses on the attitude in the Koran to Judaism and criticizes the legends related there and its principles of faith and commandments; he points out contradictions found in the Koran, its ignorance of the principles of natural science and philosophical doctrine of the soul, and complains about its obscure style.

spain and southern france

One of the first works to show the influence of the philosophical method of apologetics employed in Spain and southern France is the Sefer Milḥamot Adonai ("Book of the Wars of the Lord," 1170) of *Jacob b. Reuben, where reference is made to Saadiah Gaon, *Abraham b. Ḥiyya, and Abraham *Ibn Ezra. It was written to counter the arguments of an erudite Catholic priest whom the author held in high esteem, and its 12 sections include an imaginary debate between a "monotheist" and a "dissenter." The Sefer ha-Berit ("Book of the Covenant") by Joseph *Kimḥi, in similar dialogue form, not only defends the Jewish faith, but also demonstrates the morality and excellence of the Jewish way of life as regulated by the law. The case put by the Jew is as follows:

I shall now enumerate their good works and you [i.e., the Christian] cannot deny them. To begin with the Ten Commandments… The Jews do not make idols…, there is no people in the world to compare with them in refraining from perjury; none keeps the Sabbath apart from the Jews. "Thou shalt honor thy [father and mother]"; likewise, "Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not commit adultery"; likewise, neither murders nor adulterers are found among them [the Jews]. It is known that you will not find robbery and banditry among the Jews as it is among Christians who rob people on the highways, and hang them, and sometimes put out their eyes; these things cannot be said of the Jews. The pious Jews and Jewesses… educate their children… in the study of the Torah; when they hear them utter an indecent word they punish them… Their daughters grow up in chastity, you will not see them on the streets, like the daughters of the Christians… Moreover, I tell you that when a Jew stays with a fellow Jew, whether for a day or two or for a year, his host will take no money from him for his board… Thus in every way the Jews in every land behave compassionately toward their brethren. If a Jew sees that his brother is taken captive, he will ransom him; naked – he will clothe him (Milḥemet Ḥovah, Constantinople, 1710).

*Meir b. Simeon of Narbonne in the 13th century defended Jewish faith, life, legal status, and economic activity. Thus he justified Jewish moneylending (trans. in jjs, 10 (1959), 51–57). In the draft of a memorandum to the king of France, Meir argues for better treatment of Jews, quoting the Bible on the brotherhood and equality of all men: "Hear me, my Lord King, and all his counselors, sages, and wise men, and all the heads of the Roman faith and its leaders, and follow in the footsteps of the patriarchs, who walked in the ways of the Almighty, for it is His way to hearken to the complaint and outcry of the poor… that all men shall understand that one Creator has created them, of one and same nature and one way of life" (Milḥemet Mitzvah, Ms. Parma, 155; Dinur, Golah, 2, pt. 1 (1965), 285–6).

northern france

The biblical exegetes in northern France introduced into their commentaries defenses of Jewish law and refutations of the claims of Christians in the homiletical spirit of midrashic apologetics. The commentaries of *Rashi are sometimes intended to refute Christological interpretations of biblical passages (e.g., Isa. 53; Jer. 31, 39; Ps. 2, etc.). In particular, the commentaries of *Samuel b. Meir, Joseph b. Isaac *Bekhor Shor, and *Eliezer of Beaugency contain apologetic explanations for almost all the verses to which Christians gave Christological or figurative interpretations. These explanations in part were prompted by the points raised at the religious disputations. The methods of hermeneutics employed range from literal exegesis of the text (*peshat) to casuistic interpretation, including the hermeneutical methods of numerology (*gematria) and abbreviation (notarikon), which all the schoolmen used in debate. While some of the disputants on behalf of Christianity were apostates from Judaism, those who replied to the Christian arguments included converts to Judaism or their descendants. Abraham the Proselyte from Hungary studied under Jacob b. Meir *Tam and was familiar with the New Testament and Christian liturgy. The French apologist Joseph ben Nathan Official, a descendant of a family of apologists composed c. 1260 the polemical book Yosif ha-Mekanneh (or Teshuvot ha-Minim) in the form of a commentary on the Bible. Its main purpose was to refute all Christological interpretations of the church. The book is a collection of such refutations of the French scholars until its own days. The book contains also a detailed criticism of the New Testament. This book, as well as other books patterned after it such as the Niẓẓaḥon Vetus (published by *Wagenseil in his Tela ignea Satanae), reflect the increased missionary activity of the church as well as the courageous response of Jewish religious leadership.

14th- and 15th-century spain

Jewish apologists in 14th-century Spain attempted to protect Judaism from apostates with mystic leanings. Isaac Policar (*Pollegar) came out against *Abner of Burgos in his Iggeret ha-Ḥarafot ("Epistle of Blasphemies"), which circulated throughout the Spanish communities. It contains a brief survey of the principles of the "true faith," which are also the principles of rationalism, and an explanation of the Jewish belief in the Messiah who would redeem Israel in the future. At greater length, he discusses these topics in the five dialogues in his Ezer ha-Dat. Another apologetic work to counter the influence of apostates was written by Moses (ha-Kohen) of Tordesillas, Ezer ha-Emunah (1375). Shem Tov b. Isaac ibn Shaprut's Even Boḥan (1385) may be considered a summation of Jewish apologetics in 14th-century Spain. In addition to 14 chapters which include answers to all the arguments raised by Christians, he adds a further chapter specifically directed against the doctrines propounded by Abner of Burgos. One result of the mass conversions of Jews to Catholicism in Spain, which began during the persecutions of 1391 and continued for a considerable time afterward, was the appearance of sharp literary polemics between converts to Christianity and the leaders of Spanish Jewry. Jewish apologetics then revealed outstanding literary talent and expressed new and daring ideas. The leader of Spanish Jewry during this period, the philosopher Ḥasdai *Crescas, wrote an apology in Spanish (translated into Hebrew in 1451 as Bittul Ikkarei ha-Noẓerim, "Negation of the Principles of the Christians," and published in Salonika in 1860), in which he turned to gentile intellectuals and demonstrated the grounds for negating the claims made by the Jewish converts to Christianity. A defense of Judaism is also included in his major work Or Adonai. Crescas tried to invalidate the view spread by converts, and held by rationalist Jewish apologists, that Judaism is almost identical with philosophical rationalism. He also fought against those who followed the doctrines of *Averroism denying individual providence and free will, the value of fulfilling the mitzvot, and the testimony of Jewish history. Ḥasdai set out to prove that Judaism in its original pure form had the power to redeem man through belief and observance of the mitzvot.

A colleague and disciple of Ḥasdai Crescas, Profiat *Duran, dedicated himself to the defense of Judaism (see *Disputations). His celebrated satire Al Tehi ke-Avotekha ("Be Not Like Your Fathers") is composed in the form of a letter to a friend, Bonet Bonjorn, who became converted to Christianity under the influence of *Pablo de Santa Maria (Solomon ha-Levi of Burgos). Profiat Duran's refined sarcasm, his profound learning, and polished style, were so successful that some Christian apologists took the work seriously as a defense of Christianity. Duran formulates the tenets of Christianity in this epistle with biting irony, using a critical historical method. The disputation of *Tortosa (1413–14) and the difficult circumstances surrounding and following it brought further Jewish apologetics in its wake. Both Joseph *Albo, one of the participants in the disputation, and Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran, wrote works which were to a large degree influenced by the Tortosa disputation. Albo's Sefer ha-Ikkarim (1485) includes in its dogmatic formulations much apologetic argumentation on a rationalist basis. Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran's Keshet u-Magen (1423) is explicitly an anti-Christian polemical work.


The defense of Judaism by the Jewish scholars in Spain influenced the apologetic literature in other countries. In Italy, where there was constant social contact between Christians and Jews, debates on religious matters were held even in the early Middle Ages. The traditions of Jewish apologetic literature in Spain were continued by Jews in Italy in the 16th century after the expulsion from Spain, and included many of the exiles among its proponents. The Renaissance, humanism, and the religious ferment in the Christian world also gave a new impetus to Jewish apologetic literature. In the 16th century Jewish apologists tended to write in languages other than Hebrew to enable their arguments to reach Christian intellectuals. In his Apologia Hebraeorum (Strasbourg, 1559), David d'Ascoli challenged the restrictive legislation of Pope Paul iv and was imprisoned for his views. When in 1581 Pope *Gregoryxiii renewed the order prohibiting Jewish physicians from treating Christian patients, David de Petals defended the integrity of Jewish doctors in his De medico Hebraeo enarratio apologetica (Venice, 1588), at the same time defending the Jewish laws regarding the taking of interest. Leone *Modena, who had frequent discussions with Christians, also engaged in apologetics. He wrote in 1644 the polemical book Magen va-Ḥerev ("Shield and Sword"). Modena was probably the first Jew to attempt a historical approach to the personality of Jesus, who was according to him close to the Pharisees. Jesus did not consider himself to be the Son of God. The main tenets of Christianity were crystallized in later centuries as a result of contacts with the pagan world and its beliefs and customs. Simḥah (Simone) *Luzzatto, in his Discorso circa il stato degli Ebrei (1638), discusses the character and conduct of the Jews, adverting not only to their positive virtues but also to their weaknesses. Luzzatto's main theme is the role filled by Jews in the economy of the Venetian Republic. He tries to demonstrate that the Jews formed a desirable element of efficient and loyal merchants without other loyalties to distract them from allegiance to a principality that treated them well. Luzzatto also attempts to invest Judaism with certain Catholic attributes.

the rest of europe

A new aspect of Jewish apologetics was opened with the beginning of the settlement in Western Europe of Marranos who had left Spain and Portugal because of the pressure of the Inquisition, and their own unsettled religious views, but had not yet found their way to normative Judaism. Jewish scholars of Marrano origin now began propaganda among them to convince them of the truth of Judaism and the moral excellence of the Jews. Among these were, for example, the physician Elijah Montalto in a series of letters addressed to an acquaintance (published in rej, 87 (1927), 137–65). Similarly, Immanuel *Aboab addressed an appeal couched along these lines to a kinsman in the south of France, replete with historical demonstrations which he used in his Nomologia (162. jqr, 23 (1932), 121–62), and were taken over subsequently by *Manasseh Ben Israel in his writings to be described below. Isaac *Cardozo in his Las excelencias y calunias de los Hebreos (Amsterdam, 1678) explains the election of the Jews and their mission as the bearers of a universal religion.

In the manner of the Jewish apologetic literature in Italy, there was also literature of this genre among the ex-Marrano Sephardi community in Holland. The most important Dutch-Jewish apologetic work was produced during his mission to England by Manasseh Ben Israel, whose Vindiciae Judaeorum was published in London in 1656. In this, Manasseh brings historical evidence in refutation of anti-Jewish libels, primarily of the *blood libel. Also emphasized are the material advantages likely to accrue by accepting the Jews into a state: "Hence it may be seen that God has not abandoned us; for if one persecutes us, another receives us civilly and courteously; and if this prince treats us ill, another treats us well; if one banishes us out of his country, another invites us by a thousand privileges, as various princes of Italy have done, and the mighty duke of Savoy in Nice. And do we not see that those republics which admit the Israelites flourish and much increase in trade?" (Vindiciae, sect. 33). His Esperança de Israel (1650) discusses the prerequisites for the advent of the Messiah and the return of the Jews to their land. Common to all apologetic compositions of this type are their efforts to achieve the amelioration of the present Jewish status by clarifying the essentials of the Jewish faith and explaining the way of life and character of the Jewish people. Many elements in the Weltanschauung of the later Enlightenment (see *Haskalah) movement in the period of Emancipation derive from this apologetic literature.

In Poland and Germany Jewish apologetics developed along different lines. In 1394 a German Jewish convert to Christianity, Pesaḥ-Peter, charged that the content of the prayer *Aleinu (in its original form) – "They bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god that does not bring salvation" – was aimed at Christians. Among the Jews consequently imprisoned was Yom Tov Lipmann *Muelhausen. His Sefer ha-Niẓẓaḥon, written on this occasion, is a defense of Jewish ethics, and of the Bible and Talmud. The work made a profound impact and brought forth responsa by the bishop of Brandenburg, Stephan Bodecker, in 1459. The anti-trinitarian movement which arose in Poland in the 16th century also affected the Jews. Some sectarian leaders were interested in proving to their Catholic opponents who taunted them as being semi-iudei the difference between them and the Jews. The Jews in general avoided contacts with the sectarians; but some accepted the challenge. There was a disputation between the Polish Unitarian leader, Marcin Czechowic and the Jew, Jacob of Belzyce. The arguments of Jacob are preserved in the book of answers by Marcin. Of greater importance is the book Ḥizzuk Emunah by the Karaite scholar Isaac of *Troki, which was translated into European languages (also into Latin by Wagenseil in his Tela ignea Satanae) and exerted an influence on the French encyclopedists in the 18th century. It is a well-organized and clearly written book. Isaac shows a profound knowledge of Christianity and its sources. He was also familiar with contemporary Catholic and sectarian literature. The book contains a thorough and systematic criticism of the New Testament. The main purpose of the book was to prove why Jews refuse to believe in the divinity of Jesus and accept Christianity. In 1759 Jewish representatives in Poland were compelled to defend the Talmud in a public disputation with the *Frankists. Dov Ber *Birkenthal of Bolechov wrote an apology entitled Divrei Binah (published by A. Brawer in Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 33 (1917), 146 ff.). Jacob *Emden countered the charges of the Frankists in Sefer Shimmush, which includes a positive evaluation of Jesus and his activity. Emden also acknowledges that Christianity drove out paganism and obliged its adherents to observe the seven *Noachide laws. He emphasizes that Christians are of good character. They are not bound to observe the mitzvot and will not be punished for their belief in the Trinity, but will be rewarded for spreading belief in God among Gentiles who had no knowledge of the God of Israel.

In the 18th Century

Evaluation of Judaism became a factor in the struggle between the old and new in the philosophy of Enlightenment. Despite the anti-Judaic stand taken by many rationalist and deist thinkers (e.g., *Voltaire), there were others who defended Judaism and Jews, such as Roger Williams and John *Toland. The German Christian Wilhelm *Dohm, while insisting in 1781 that Jewish mores and culture must be improved, praised the basic traits in the Jewish character. Gradually Jewish apologetic literature furnished the arsenal and became the battlefield in the struggle to attain Jewish emancipation. Non-Jews increasingly joined Jews in their efforts. Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing and Moses *Mendelssohn frequently turned to apologetics to state the Jewish case. In 1782 Mendelssohn wrote an introduction to Manasseh Ben Israel's Vindiciae Judaeorum (in the German translation by Marcus Hertz) in which he advocated Jewish rights. In his Jerusalem, oder ueber die religioese Macht und Judentum (1783), he explains Jewish law according to his views, his exposition having an apologetic edge: Mendelssohn here denies the Church the right to use coercion by the arm of the state and argues that no state is justified in withholding civil rights from a group of people because of their religious views.

With the weakening of the influence of religion in the West, the religious grounds for antisemitism were replaced by national, social, and economic arguments. Pro-Jewish apologists therefore had to prove that the Jews constituted an advantageous element from an economic standpoint; that any faults with adverse social consequences, such as the practice of usury, were the result of the economic position into which they had been forced by medieval laws; and that they were loyal to the countries whose national culture they wished to adopt. Preeminent in power and feeling among the defenders of the Jews is the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. In his speech in parliament of April 17, 1833, on Jewish disabilities, he dealt with arguments against granting full rights to the Jews, summing up in what may be termed a crescendo of Liberal-Protestant Christian apologetics on behalf of the Jews and their past.

Such, Sir, has in every age been the reasoning of bigots. They never fail to plead in justification of persecution the vices which persecution has engendered. England has been to the Jews less than half a country and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than half patriotism. We treat them as slaves, and wonder why they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations, and then reproach them for not embracing honorable professions. We long forbade them to possess land and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out of all the paths of ambition, and then we despise them for taking refuge in avarice. But were they always a mere money-changing, money-getting, money-hoarding race?… In the infancy of civilizations, when our island was as savage as New Guinea, when letters and arts were still unknown to Athens, when scarcely a thatched hut stood on what was afterwards the site of Rome, this condemned people had their fenced cities, their splendid Temple.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries

Jewish apologists in emphasizing the contribution made by Jews to civilization, transformed the conception of am segullah ("election") to the concept of te'udah ("mission"). They progressively emphasized the universal character of Judaism. Abraham *Geiger defended Judaism in this spirit; he also made a scholarly investigation of apologetics, and published selections from the medieval Jewish apologists in Proben juedischer Verteidigung des Mittelalters. An apologist in a similar vein was the historian Isaac Marcus *Jost (1793–1860). Gabriel *Riesser (1806–1863), while advocating Jewish emancipation, compared the subjugation of Jews by Christians to that of the Third Estate by the nobility and of the blacks by whites. When the Protestant theologian E.G. Paulus argued that Jews would have to become converted to Christianity in order to become good citizens, Riesser defended the Jews and Judaism in his Verteidigung der buergerlichen Gleichstellung der Juden (1831). Riesser's periodical, Der Jude, was of great importance in the arena of apologetics. Leopold *Zunz stated in his introduction to his Die gottesdienstlichen Vortraege der Juden that "the Jews in Europe, and especially those in Germany, should be given freedom instead of being granted rights." The Jewish situation in the 19th century continued to stimulate apologetics preoccupied with questions relating to emancipation.

Although the concern of Western Jewry with apologetics considerably diminished with the attainment of emancipation, the recrudescence of antisemitism in Europe during the second half of the 19th century again evoked a renewal of apologetic literature, especially in response to the recurrent blood libels. Joseph Samuel *Bloch (1850–1923) contributed signally to the defense of Jews and Judaism before meetings of workingmen in Vienna and in his activities to combat the accusations made by the Catholic theologian and antisemite, August *Rohling, at the time of the *Tisza-Eszlár blood libel case. In 1884 Bloch founded a periodical Oesterreichische Wochenschrift, dedicated to the struggle against antisemitism. His apology Israel und die Voelker was published post-humously in 1923.

Adolf *Jellinek (1820–1892), the chief rabbi of Vienna, was active in Jewish defense. His successor Moritz *Guedemann not only combated the bias shown by many scholars on Jewish problems but also prompted a widespread information campaign to defend Judaism in the Viennese press and in public gatherings. Guedemann also wrote a basic study of Jewish apologetics, Juedische Apologetik (1906). Among scientists who felt compelled to defend the Jews in the face of contemporary antisemitism was the alienist and criminologist Cesare *Lombroso, an Italian Jew, whose L'anti-Semitismo e le scienze moderne (1894) was intended for this purpose.

In Eastern Europe also, Jewish apologetics entered the lists in the struggle for civil rights. Notable among the Jewish apologists active in Poland during the first half of the 19th century were Samuel Baum and Jacob *Tugendhold. The latter followed the model of German Jewish apologetic literature. His Obrona Izraelitów ("Defense of the Jews") is a refutation of the blood libel, while he also attacked the manner in which antisemites presented the political and social aspects of the Jewish problem. Among apologists in Russia, Isaac Ber *Levinsohn was prominent. In his Aḥiyyah ha-Shiloni (1864) he even renewed apologetics as a form of Christian-Jewish dialogue. Ta'ar ha-Sofer (1892), a defense of the Talmud, is directed against the Karaites, and Efes Damim, a confutation of the blood libel, was written during the Zaslavl case. In Russia, Jewish apologetics were directed, inter alia, to abolition of the restrictions on Jewish residence outside the Pale of Settlement. They thus emphasized the role of the Jewish merchant in the economy as well as cultural factors. In the 1880s, when individual Jews were accused of taking part in the revolutionary movements, Jewish apologists argued that the overwhelming majority of Jews were conservative in character.

An important turning point in Jewish apologetics was the rise of Jewish nationalism. A conflict developed between Zionists and apologists of the conventional type who still used the arguments employed by the advocates of emancipation, and in countering the humiliating propaganda of the antisemites stressed the merits of the Jews. In contrast, the general tendency of Zionists was to present the Jews as a people like any other nation. Zionism, however, developed its own arguments, including the historic right of the Jews to Ereẓ Israel, which had already been a controversial subject between Jews and Gentiles during the Second Temple period.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the growth of a specific internal apologetics with the object of bringing Jews back to Judaism. Jewish apologists of this type included spokesmen of neo-Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael *Hirsch (e.g., in Iggeret Ẓafon) and Isaac *Breuer (Der Neue Kusari, and other works). Of this intention, although in another spirit, were non-Orthodox writers, such as Max *Brod (Heidentum, Christentum, Judentum, 1921), Franz *Rosenzweig (Apologetisches Denken), Hermann *Cohen, Edmond *Fleg, Leo *Baeck, and others, who advocated a return to Jewish values out of the conviction that these include an original and complete Weltanschauung by which a man can live a noble life. Jews in Germany stressed the honorable part they had taken in the German armed forces in World War i. Jewish bodies, such as the Anti-Defamation League (see *B'nai *B'rith), the *Alliance Israélite Universelle, and the *Central-Verein Deutscher Staatsbuerger juedischen Glaubens, devoted themselves to issuing publicity of an apologetic nature. During the Nazi assault on Jewish existence, there developed an anti-racist scientific literature which furnished Jewish apologists with arguments against racism as well as works stressing the prominent role played by Jews in world culture. After the *Holocaust, Jews such as Jules *Isaac went over to the attack and stressed the Christian historic guilt in the annihilation. One of the central problems confronting Jewish apologists, mainly in the modern age, is of a psychological nature. The anti-Jewish calumniator is able to rouse his public by alleging that Jews and Jewish influence are a cause of social evils. Jewish defense, on the other hand, has stressed that Jews are not responsible. By the very negativeness of its argumentation, therefore, modern Jewish apologetics has often failed to demonstrate positive Jewish values to the public.


Baer, Spain, index, s.v.disputations; Urbach, in: Tarbiz, 17 (1946), 1–11; 20 (1949), 118–22; Ettinger, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 7 (1961), 193–219; idem, in: Zion, 29 (1964), 182–207; Klausner, Sifrut, 3 (1953), 89–105; G.B. De Rossi, Bibliotheca judaica anti-Christiana (1800), 66–67; M. Friedlaender, Geschichte der juedischen Apologetik (1903); J. Bergmann, Juedische Apologetik im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (1908); R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903); A.B. Hulen, in: jbl, 51 (1932), 58–70; Urbach, in: rej, 100 (1935), 49–77; Bergman, ibid., 40 (1900), 188–205; M. Steinschneider, Polemische und apologetische Literatur in arabischer Sprache (1877); M. Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition (1950); O.S. Rankin, Jewish Religious Polemic (1956); P. Browe, Die Judenmission im Mittelalter und die Paepste (1942); G. Lindeskog, Die Jesusfrage im neuzeitlichen Judentum (1938); J. Rosenthal, in: Aresheth, 2 (1960), 130–79; 3 (1961), 433–9; idem, in: jba, 21 (1963), 15–21; idem, in: paajr, 34 (1966), 77–93; J. Fleishman, Be'ayat ha-Naẓrut ba-Maḥashavah ha-Yehudit mi-Mendelssohn ad Rosenzweig (1964).

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]


views updated May 08 2018


APOLOGETICS . [This entry, which is restricted to consideration of monotheistic religions, places religious apologetics in comparative perspective and examines the difference between apologetics and polemics.]

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.

Defense 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 (117138), 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 Muammad'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-Naām (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 Muammad, 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 abovenamely, that it emerged historically as a defense of monotheismbespeaks 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 Muammad, 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-Naām 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 ideologicalwill remain part of the chorus of religious apologetics as long as apologetics remains a lively element of religious ideas.

See Also

Agnostos Theos; Dialogue of Religions; Enlightenment, The; Falsafah; Heresy; Kalām; Martyrdom; Philosophy; Polemics; World's Parliament of Religions.


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 437442. 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, 115.

Clausen, Matthias. "Proclamation and Communication: Apologetics after Barth." International Journal of Systematic Theology 1 (July 1999): 204221.

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, 18.

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)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 08 2018


From the Greek roots apo and leg (apologia ), the term apologetics can be translated as "speech with cause." In the Christian context, apologetics is important in science and religion discourse because it aims to provide religious faith with credibility. Particularly since the seventeenth century, a shared understanding of divine action in the world has progressively diminished due to new, scientific explanations for natural events that were previously accounted for in terms of supernatural agency. Apologetics increasingly incorporates scientific material in recognition of the universal scope of scientific knowledge in contrast to theology's alleged lack of empirical basis. It is a hybrid form of theology that aims to provide credibility for divine revelation under the light of human reason. In theological terms, apologetical literature aims to account for foundational elements in doctrine under the perspective of a religious conversion, while providing a systematic way for that doctrine to be understood. It "is the theoretical and methodical exposition of the reasons for believing in Christianity." (Bouillard, p. 11)

Early Christian apologetics

In historic Christian theology, apologetics has been characterized by skilled, often impassioned rhetoric. In the New Testament, the word apologia is translated as a defense of the hope that inspires the believer to remain upright (1 Peter 3:15), and for Paul and Luke, apologia is employed in situations of mission or conflict. This usage expands on the Old Testament usage, where it possesses sapiential qualities (Wis. 6:10). In neither case does it connote a legal or even a rigorous philosophical justification of religious faith.

In early Christianity, apologetics arose as a theological response to political crisis and as the theoretical expression for ecclesial community. Early Christian apologetics focused primarily on the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ in arguments with Jews (as in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho ) and later with pagan culture through varying critical incorporations of Platonist and gnostic ideas (as in Origen's Contra Celsum or Tertullian's On Prescription Against Heretics ). Theological arguments turned toward civil authorities regarding the toleration of Christianity until the time of fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine. Early Christian apologetics reached a high point with Augustine of Hippo's City of God, and especially The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which is often cited in modern attempts to cohere a reading of the biblical text with science.

In the medieval period, apologetics was diverted by the encounter with early Islam, evident through Thomas Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles. As a result, a theological distinction in religious knowledge between revelation and reason was forged and intensified in a full development of theology as a scientific discipline. Through tensions resonant in early Protestant appeals to natural theology, Calvinist apologetics emerged as a formidable stream of thought that is still manifest in several modern theological schools. Against traditional Aristotelian metaphysics and natural theology, John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) stressed the complete sovereignty of God's Word over the instrumental causes of natural powers.

Science and technology

The rise of science and technology in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought about a stricter, empirical notion of objectivity, which had a pivotal impact on theological apologetics. Combined with a new reluctance on the part of theologians to refer to Christian revelation, the rise of the natural sciences led to diminished religious grounds for natural philosophy. In this new situation, the religious engagement with Enlightenment reason led to a diversity of theological responses to the new sciences. Since the seventeenth century, apologetic writing has stressed a harmony between science and religion, by selecting or neglecting different aspects of scientific and religious knowledge. Only in the late twentieth century has attention turned to uncovering a method of selection that might fruitfully anticipate ongoing discoveries, updates, and new evaluations for expressing theological knowledge.

Five historical questions are particularly important in illustrating this pattern: Copernicanism, the rise of physico-theology, Darwinism, biblical criticism, and scientism. In each case, the initial theological reaction to new scientific learning was confusion and disagreement, followed by concord and agreement.

First, echoing Augustine's hermeneutic that the biblical text is revealed in a way accessible to the uneducated, Galileo Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) was a classic attempt to render Copernican astronomy and Catholicism compatible. No recourse to a natural proof for the existence of God was offered in the Galilean controversy.

Second, adopting contrary positions, in the spirit of William Derham's 1713 work Physico-theology, thinkers like Samuel Clarke, John Ray, Nicolas Malebranche, and René Descartes speculated on which fundamental natural principles (mechanics or mathematics) ground a proof for God's existence. Isaac Newton's position was the pivotal argument from design and is found in writings such as the Opticks (1704), rather than the crucial Principia (1687).

Third, after the mid-nineteenth century, Darwinism took this range of opinion and expanded it further into two discernible currents in the English-language world. Initially, there were those who incorporated the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and adaptation into theological reflection (Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley, Aubrey Moore). Then, there were those who sought to confront and to critique evolution altogether (Charles Hodge, Samuel Wilberforce).

Fourth, advancing beyond the various attempts by philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Ernst Schleiermacher, Georg Wilhlem Hegel, and theologian John Henry Newman to reestablish a synthesis in knowledge, was scientific historical biblical criticism (David Strauss, Hermann Reimarus, Albert Schweitzer) and its impact upon biblical hermeneutics. This research and that which followed it quickly eclipsed nineteenth and early twentieth century defense of a historically precise text (Pope Pius IX, Karl Barth).

Fifth, from the middle of the twentieth century, a growing chorus of critique against scientific reductionism or scientism has developed within the natural sciences, as positivist assumptions of earlier scientific investigation have been shown to be limited.

Twentieth-century apologetics

Still common in the thought of evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and orthodox Judaism, theological apologetics resembles much historical literature in its continuing reference to Christian doctrines such as incarnation, resurrection, creation, and immortality of the soul. However, in other quarters, apologetics has evolved beyond the focus on doctrine and has transformed itself to accommodate the specialization of knowledge and the secularization of university life. This is reflected in the natural theology offered in the prestigious Gifford Lectures offered at Scottish universities since 1889. In Roman Catholicism since 1950, apologetics has been designated as "fundamental theology." Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue have also shaped the importance and impact of theological apologetics.

Late twentieth-century apologetic literature with a scientific accent and doctrinal focus is represented in the writings of the scientist-theologians Stanley Jaki, Alister McGrath, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert John Russell, and Thomas Torrance. A less precise theological reconstruction of apologetics exists. It transposes Christian doctrine philosophically through a capacious theoretical commitment. This method is present in the writings of scientists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, contemporary philosophers Nancey Murphy, Joseph Bracken, and Holmes Rolston III, as well as the theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Haught.

See also Natural Theology


bouillard, henri. the logic of faith. new york: sheed and ward, 1967.

buckley, michael. at the origins of modern atheism. london and new haven, ct: yale university press, 1987.

dulles, avery. a history of apologetics. new york: corpus, 1971

lindberg, david c., and numbers, ronald l., eds. god and nature: historical essays on the encounter between christianity and science. berkeley and los angeles: university of california press, 1986

lonergan, bernard. method in theology. minneapolis, mn: seabury press, 1979.

paul allen


views updated May 29 2018

Apologetics (Lat., apologia, ‘defence’). The defence, or commendation, of a religion.

Among Christians, the name ‘Apologists’ is given to the earliest group of Christian writers who (c.120–220) composed defences of Christianity addressed to educated outsiders. They include Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Minucius Felix, Tatian, and Tertullian. A notable later example is Augustine's City of God. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is addressed to Francis I (the French King) to persuade him of his error in pursuing a policy of persecution.