Written by: Christopher Bellitto
The first task any new group needs to accomplish is to establish its identity, especially its self-identity; to do so, early Christians drew on an important Jewish notion of themselves as the people of God. The word laos first designated the new people of God in the line of Abraham, a nation, or Israel, all of which denote monotheists standing apart from the dominant polytheism of the ancient near east. Although we see the word laity emerging from laos, in its origins the word does not distinguish between leaders or ministers and the general body of believers. It was not a long stretch for Jesus' followers, particularly Jews, to adopt the word to describe a new people of Christ. At the same time, early preachers often taught that Christianity went beyond or completed Judaism even while stressing that the God of Abraham was also Jesus' Father.
As Christianity spread, especially among Greek-speakers in the eastern Mediterranean, leaders had to explain belief in Jesus in terms that their potential and new converts could understand. The word apologist connotes an apology in English, but apologists were not making excuses for being Christian. The word comes from the Greek apologia, meaning a defense or impassioned explanation, frequently in sophisticated language. The most notable apologists were well-educated, influential Greco-Romans whose goal was to demonstrate that Christianity was not a passing fad, was not Judaism, and was not a threat to Rome.
Greco-Roman philosophy greatly influenced apologists. Justin, a pagan convert to Christianity born in Palestine around 100, enjoyed the benefits of wealth and a fine Greek education, but discovered that Greek philosophy did not satisfy his heart. He took his local experiences to Rome, where he started a school for apologists and wrote several apologetic works that tried, quite coolly and calmly, to explain Christian beliefs, particularly concerning the central role of the Holy Spirit in bringing a soul to union with God. Although he took a decidedly heady approach, he did not shy away from proclaiming his own faith at a dangerous moment, which led to his beheading in 165, thus earning the title of Justin Martyr.
Another important apologetic work that demonstrates Greco-Roman influence is an anonymous, mid 2nd-century document called the Letter to Diognetus. The author identified Christianity as monotheistic but not Jewish, while at the same time going out of his way to emphasize how Christian moral values would help the Roman Empire. About the same time, another apologist named Athenagoras wrote a letter to the Roman emperor where he more specifically refuted claims that Christians were cannibals (because they ate Jesus' body and drank his blood), incestuous, or subversive. His goal was not to distinguish Christianity from Greco-Roman ideas, but to show how they were compatible. We should note that other writings, probably based on preaching and therefore more pastoral, were aimed not at elite, educated pagans but at converting and catechizing the masses who were uneducated and literate only in small numbers.