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Paper #4: The Afterlife of Egypt in Early Christian Apologetics

Eleni Manolaraki

University of South Florida

Egypt in Classical literature uncannily resembles and yet shockingly diverges from the Greco-Roman world. From the Hellenist perspective, and most recently, Moyer (2013) and Vasunia (2001) have addressed questions of culture, identity, and agency in the interactions of Greeks and Egyptians. Likewise, critics have illustrated Greek and Latin authors’ adaptation of Egypt to the expanding self-identity of Rome (Versluys 2015; Leemreize 2014; Manolaraki 2013), and highlighted the Isiac gods as catalysts to this process (Nagel 2017; Rolle 2017). After surveying these recent developments in the scholarship, the present paper extends the conversation chronologically by discussing the use of Egypt by three Christian thinkers of the second and third centuries: Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix, and Tertullian. These apologists utilize Classical conceits of Egyptian religion to establish their own belief system as distinct from, and superior to, the pagan rivals of the new faith.

The Christian appropriation of Egypt takes its inspiration from the Second Sophistic. Urged by the increasing visibility of Isiac gods in the multiethnic Empire, authors such as Lucian, Pausanias, Philostratus, and Plutarch seek to ascertain the priority of Greek over Egyptian spirituality in the hierarchy of cultures under Rome. For them, since Greek philosophy resembles but surpasses Egyptian wisdom, the proper Roman attainment of things Egyptian should pass through paideia. Clement, Minucius, and Tertullian emulate their contemporaries’ Hellenization of Egypt, but they subsume and subvert it under the Christian paradigm. 

To establish Christian theology as superior to Greco-Roman paganism, these writers emphasize the putatively reprehensible similarities of the latter to Egyptian religion. In his Exhortation to the Greeks (4.2), Clement scolds his addressees for hypocritically mocking Egyptian zoolatry while themselves worshiping animal tokens of the Olympians; elsewhere, he criticizes Hadrian’s cult of Antinous for combining Egyptian superstition with Greek veneration of beauty. Minucius Felix in his Octavius (28.1-9) assimilates the cults of Isis and Demeter as equally nonsensical. Minucius also responds to the slur of onolatry by objecting that those slanderers project on Christians their own worship of Apis and Epona, the Gallo-Roman patroness of horses, donkeys and mules (Hofeneder 2005). Tertullian chastises Romans for rescinding their earlier prohibition of the Isiac gods (Apologeticus 6.7) and for reintroducing them into (Imperial) Rome in place of (Republican) ancestor worship.

In assimilating Egyptian theriomorphism and Greco-Roman anthropomorphism, all three authors imitate the approaches to Hellenization of Egyptian religion found in the writings of the Second Sophistic, but they manipulate these for their polemic goals. Illustrating this function of Egypt in early Christian apologetics provides a logical end point to the discussion of its ideological malleability in Greco-Roman literature, and one that has not been sufficiently explored.

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New Directions in Isiac Studies

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