Julius Africanus: One Interesting Fellow!
In working on my current book project (working title: “What Made Early Christianity Distinctive in the Roman World?”), I again came across references to Julius Africanus, a figure I’d seen referenced before but to whom I confess I’d not previously given much attention. In part, this is probably because his major works are now extant only in fragments and quotations in other writers. But in the last several years, a two-volume publication on him provides us with a thorough introduction to the man and his two major works, together with a critical text and English translation of what we can reconstruct of them:
Martin Wallraff, et al. (eds.), Iulius Africanus Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, translated by William Adler (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007); Martin Wallfraf, et alia (eds.), Iulius Africanus Cesti: The Extant Fragments, translated by William Adler (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2012).
Julius Africanus (born ca. 160-170 CE, apparently in Roman Palestine) is a particularly curious figure. Evidently a Christian, he appears initially in the court of King Abgar of Edessa, then visits various places (including Alexandria), winding up (as did so many) in Rome. There he seems to have been admitted to the imperial court of Alexander Severus, and even claims that he was commissioned to oversee the construction of the library of the Pantheon. The editors of the volume on the Cesti describe this as a time of temporary “thaw in relations” between Rome and Christians (xii).
The two works for which he is remembered are each noteworthy, and as a combination most curious. His Chronographiae was a universal history, framed by the biblical narrative of creation and redemption. He fitted the great civilizations (such as Greece, Rome, Egypt, etc.) into this framework, thereby implicitly relativizing those civilizations under the grand-narrative that he derived from the Bible. Possible motives were apologetical, e.g., the desire “to attest the truth of Christianity against accusations about its newness” (Wallraff, Chronographiae, xxi). Working on a view shared by others of the time, a world chronology of 6,000 years (corresponding to the six days of creation), Africanus pegged Jesus’ incarnation at 5,500 (which meant that the world-as-we-know-it was scheduled for eschatological overhaul/replacement in roughly 500 CE!).
His other work, however, is so different in contents and tone that in the past people wondered if it was written by some other figure. The Cesti (from the Greek term, κεστοι) is a sprawling work (24 books, ca. 32,000 characters), an eclectic mixture of advice and tidbits of information on medicine, agriculture, weights & measures, literary problems, botany, zoology, cosmetics, dyes, love-magic, et alia. It has no obvious Christian or any kind of religious element, and received a much cooler reception among Christians than his other work.
I should also mention that Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 1.7) gives what he takes as the text of a letter from Africanus to an Aristides focused on explaining the differences between the two genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke. He also refers to desposynoi (δεσποσυνοι: “those belonging/related to the master”), individuals who claimed a family relationship with Jesus.
There is an earlier translation of then-available extracts of Aricanus’ extant writings in the old (but still valuable) series: Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers (original publication 1886 and reprinted subsequently often), vol. 6,123-40.
Africanus is likely an exceptional figure among Christians of his time, especially in his access to places of political power. But he also likely reflects at least a couple of things about Christians/Christianity of the time: He illustrates how Christianity had begun to attract the interests of some people of very cosmopolitan and cultured tastes and status, and at the same time he illustrates the varied nature of Christians/Christianity of that time.