An Allusion to Purgatory in the Apology of Aristides?

The Apology of Aristides the philosopher is a fascinating text, though any notion of Purgatory in it is rather curious (or spurious), as we’ll see. Aristides, probably writing to Emperor Hadrian between 125 and 140 AD, offers a wonderful glimpse into early Christian apologetics, especially as the faith spread into a Gentile world dominated by pagan religion and philosophy. Notably, Aristides may have influenced Justin [the] Martyr, a better known philosopher/apologist who wrote later in the second century. Aristides’ text is early, short, concise, and truly a joy to read.

To keep this concise and not veer too far from my main topic, I won’t expound any further on the text or history of the Apology. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Early Christian Writings is a good place to start. You can dig a little further for information on the history of the text, translation, etc. at Roger Pearse’s tertullian.org.

Two different translations of a line from the Apology of Aristides

On an apologetics website, I found the following statement and quote regarding an early allusion to Purgatory:

One example “from the beginning” comes to us from Aristides, one of the first Christian apologists. He wrote: “If one of the faithful dies, obtain salvation for him by celebrating the Eucharist and by praying next to his remains” (Apology [A.D. 138]). Note the early date? This was written about 100 years after the death of Christ.

Over a century into the church is early but it’s not “from the beginning.” Also, when I saw this after reading the Apology of Aristides, I couldn’t recall having seen anything like that. The only English translation of the text that I know of is that of D.M. Kay in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection. Below is a portion of that text. Earlier I provided a link to it on Early Christian Writings. You can also read the text on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I’m including a few surrounding sentences for context and discussion. The sentence in question is in bold:

“And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And further if they see that any one of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom.”

Aristides the Philosopher, c. 125-140 AD[1]Aristides of Athens, “The Apology of Aristides,” in The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the … Continue reading

Wow, now them are some different translations, eh? Let’s have a closer look…

Examining the difference in the translations

As I stated earlier, the only English translation of the Apology of Aristides that I know of is that of D.M. Kay in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection. I’ll refer to this as the “ANF translation.” I have searched for the source of the mysterious second translation from the apologetics site that claims this is an example of a belief in Purgatory “from the beginning” with limited success. I’ll refer to it as the “Purgatorial translation” and will discuss the results of my search after examining the differences between the two translations.

ANF translation: “And if any righteous man among them passes from the world…
Purgatorial translation: “If one of the faithful dies…

  • There is little difference here. The Purgatorial translation doesn’t seem to have a phrase equivalent to “among them” but it doesn’t really alter the meaning much.

ANF translation: “…they rejoice and offer thanks to God…
Purgatorial translation: “…obtain salvation for him by celebrating the Eucharist…

  • The first difference to note here is that the ANF translation is descriptive, whereas the Purgatorial translation is directive. This is not a trivial difference. It clearly indicates bias, distortion, or mistranslation of the text. Why? Because the entire Apology of Aristides is descriptive. Nothing in it whatsoever is written as instructions for believers to follow. It is a descriptive apology discussing what Christianity is and what Christians are like. It is a defense of the faith, not one of the early church orders. To think it would, in the middle of the text, have a phrase instructing believers on how to “obtain salvation” for their departed brethren is absurd.
  • The term “celebrating the Eucharist” (referring to the practice with a proper noun) is anachronistic and out of context. It is helpful to look at the six-sentence snippet that I included from the ANF translation. Aristides was an Athenian philosopher. Greek was certainly his native language. No native Greek speaker in the second century would have understood “eucharist” as anything other than how modern English speakers understand the word “thanksgiving” (not the holiday) or “to give thanks.” The term is used four times in the six sentences I provided. Aristides is clearly describing the exceptional joy and gratitude Christians have, even with the loss of a brother, because we don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Just as the ANF translation says: “they rejoice and offer thanks to God” that doesn’t mean they are liturgically “celebrating the Eucharist.”

    Would it be appropriate to substitute “celebrate the Eucharist” for the other three occurrences in the passage? Of course not. It would mean that the liturgical practice that would later come to be transliterated and that would undergo extraordinary development in the Latin world, would have accompanied every meal AND taken place at every hour of the day. There is no doubt, in reading this wonderful text, that early Christians “gave thanks” and expressed extraordinary gratitude for God’s provision. They certainly didn’t commission a priest to perform an invisible miracle on an altar every time they ate or at every hour of the day.

ANF translation: “…they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near.
Purgatorial translation: “…by praying next to his remains.

  • Here we see continuance of the description/direction error. An accurate rendering shows the authorial intent that those who depart this world with hope in eternal life, look forward to their journey (see: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). For the Christian, death of the body is more of a beginning than an end. The ANF translation captures (accurately, I’m sure) the idea of a continuing journey in the phrase: “from one place to another near.” In expressing the “nearness” of the destination perceived by the believer, Aristides touches on the unity believers have as part of the body of Christ, temporal and eternal (see: 1 Corinthians 12:12–27 and Romans 12:4–13). Where the Purgatorial translation comes up with “praying next to his remains” is beyond me. It’s really difficult to imagine the translator of the ANF text got this wrong. Escorting a body and praying next to it’s remains are quite different.

A couple more observations in the text

Since the Purgatorial translation invokes “the Eucharist”, it’s perhaps fitting to mention the term “sacrifice” which is commonly associated with the event. Today, “celebrating the Eucharist” is considered by some to be a priestly ministry, in which a “truly propitiatory,” un-bloody offering, makes Christ Himself present (i.e. Christ’s actual sacrifice on the cross is brought forth in a new manner – see: CCC 1367). Often, this sacrifice is made for specific reasons including to benefit those in Purgatory. Of course, there’s usually a “donation” to the church involved (more like a tax in former times). Clearly, the Purgatorial translation from the Apology of Aristides calls such an objective to mind. The ANF translation of the same line, especially viewed in it’s surrounding context, paints a very different picture. The first sentence from the ANF excerpt above offers insight regarding early sacrificial practices of Christians. It says:

“And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”

The practice of fasting necessitates the passage of time and the term would not generally be associated with regular time between meals, despite the etymological origin of our English word “breakfast” (break + fast). We know from other early Christian texts, some potentially contemporaneous with the Apology of Aristides, that fasting in preparation for the two original ordinances of the faith: Baptism and the Communal thanksgiving meal of baptized believers (i.e. the Eucharist), was very common in the early church. This is very likely what we see in the Apology of Aristides. That is, believers who had much, would sacrifice for those who had little. The latter would enjoy their fill, probably in an “agape feast,” then in Christian unity, they would, in humility, share in the meager elements of the “Eucharist” – the bread and wine.

As Christianity spread across ethnic groups, the term “Eucharist” became a common transliteration and yes, it involved sacrifice. However, it was about sacrifices like fasting for the sake of others, gifts for the poor and needy[2]For an interesting view of how some scholars react when they find such gifts in early liturgies, where they expect to find consecration of a “host” see the following link. Perhaps taking … Continue reading, and other offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God. A notable example of similar ideas is in the Didache, which is typically dated to between 90 and 120 AD:

“Before the baptism, let the baptizer and the candidate for baptism fast, as well as any others that are able. Require the candidate to fast one or two days previously”[3]Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias and The Epistle to Diognetus, trans. James … Continue reading

“On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled.”[4]Ibid. Page 23.[5]It’s important to note that auricular confession to a priest finds no witness whatsoever in the early church. That practice, which is common today, doesn’t start until around the 11th … Continue reading

The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” – c. 90 – 120 AD

“Your sacrifice” was something you brought or made. It was your offering, joyfully given, with a pure heart not at odds with your brothers, considering others in the body better than yourself (see: Philippians 2:3). Over the centuries, a belief emerges regarding the “eucharistic sacrifice” that is eventually dogmatized in the late medieval period. It looks nothing like that which we see in the Didache and potentially alluded to in the Apology of Aristides (fasting often preceded baptism, which culminated with one’s first communion). The discussion in the latter concerning fasting for the poor may very well have been in advance of their communal gathering and “eucharistic” meal, the culmination of which was the Lord’s Supper, a meager ration of humble elements recalling and commemorating Christ’s greater sacrifice.

It’s too far into another topic to discuss early eucharistic practice any further. Blogger Timothy Kauffman, who I’ve mentioned before, has done an excellent job examining this topic in his post THE APOSTOLIC “AMEN”. He also published a great follow-up series series called THE COLLAPSE OF THE EUCHARIST. Suffice it to say here that Purgatory is nowhere in view in the Apology of Aristides. Much less is the idea of “obtain[ing] salvation for [someone in Purgatory] by celebrating the Eucharist.” The Purgatorial translation is clearly off and imposes ideas that are both anachronistic and foreign to the context of the Apology. So, where does the translation come from?

Locating the Purgatorial translation

I’ve had limited success trying to find where this translation comes from. Usually, when you’re dealing with a single sentence, a search for the text in quotes is the first step. In most search engines, this gives you exact matches from the sites in that search engine’s index. Here are the results of searches using Google and Bing:

Google returns three search results. Curiously, none of these are the site where I found the quote. All three, though they are different sites, are essentially the same result. It’s the November-December issue of FAITH MAGAZINE, which you can access directly, here. When such a search only yields a single result, it’s often the case that you’ve located, or come very close to the source. Interestingly, a Bing search only yields a single result too, but it’s not the magazine article, it’s the site I pulled the quote from. Bing says there are 4 billion results and displays a paginated screen with only one site on page 1. As soon as you click on page 2, Bing tells you there are no other results. There is only a single page Bing has indexed with this quote.

From this, we can surmise that the site I pulled the quote from used the magazine article returned by Google. Indeed, I looked through the Wayback Machine (archive.org) at it’s captures of staycatholic.com. I found that the quote was added to their essay on Purgatory sometime between July 17, 2014 and March 5, 2016. This strongly suggests it comes from the magazine article. Interestingly, the magazine dates the quote from Artistides to “as early as AD 140”. The site staycatholic.com dates the text to “A.D. 138”. Perhaps their motivation may be trimming two years to inch closer to “the beginning” of the church. Who knows? I sent an email to the operator of the site asking if they could provide a source for the quote. As of the time I am writing this, I have not received a response.

While identifying the likely source for staycatholic.com is helpful, the origin of the translation still isn’t clear. A quick trip over to Google Books takes us one step closer:

Here we have another single-result search but it’s useful. The exact quote appears in a book by Bruce Goldberg. The book was published in 1997 and is entitled: Peaceful Transition: The Art of Conscious Dying & the Liberation of the Soul. I’ve never heard of Mr. Goldberg. According to the description on Amazon, he is “a renowned past-life regression therapist” and hypnotist that has “been interviewed on Donahue, Oprah, Joan Rivers, CNN, CBS News and many other television and radio programs.”

In Goldberg’s book, you can learn “historical approaches to conscious dying, from sources including The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Greek Mystery Schools, Christian Masses, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Theosophy” that will “Bring peace to your heart now, and honor and strength when you need it later.” Sounds like another Gospel to me. I wonder if this “translated quote” from Aristides isn’t a translation at all. Maybe Mr. Goldberg simply re-wrote it to make his pagan craft more appealing to people who believe in Purgatory.

At this point, I’ve exhausted my search-fu. If anyone can trace this quote any further, please let me know. I strongly suspect it is a spurious quote and hope anyone who uses it will see fit to stop. There is no hint of Purgatory in the Apology of Aristides. In fact, there is no hint of Purgatory in the first couple centuries of the church. That’s a topic for another day…

References

References
1Aristides of Athens, “The Apology of Aristides,” in The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement (Complete Text), Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I-X, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, II, and X-XIV, ed. Allan Menzies, trans. D. M. Kay, vol. 9, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1897), 277.
2For an interesting view of how some scholars react when they find such gifts in early liturgies, where they expect to find consecration of a “host” see the following link. Perhaps taking a black marker to historical records that don’t agree with your preferred narrative isn’t the most honest approach to historical inquiry: https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2015/02/12/the-so-called-apostolic-tradition-of-st-hippolytus-of-rome/. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus is another genuinely insightful early Christian text to read. Well worth the time.
3Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias and The Epistle to Diognetus, trans. James A. Kleist, 6th ed., Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 1948), 19.
4Ibid. Page 23.
5It’s important to note that auricular confession to a priest finds no witness whatsoever in the early church. That practice, which is common today, doesn’t start until around the 11th century. A careful read of the Didache, especially in consideration of it’s audience: those newly admitted into the church or catechumens in preparation for baptism, shows that the “confession” in view here is very brotherly or peer to peer.

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