The Use of the Figure and the Myth of Asclepius in the Greek anti-pagan Controversy

Gaetano Spampinato


In this article we analyse how the figure and the myth of Asclepius were used in the controversy against the “pagans” and their divinities by Christian apologetics – specifically, the First Apology of Justin, the Legatio of Athenagoras, the Exhortation to the Greeks of Clement of Alexandria and the Contra Celsum of Origen. Asclepius, in fact, as well as other (semi)divine figures – Heracles, the Dioscuri, Dionysus –, presents some characteristics that, in the eyes of pagan polemicists like Celsus, make him similar to Christ: the fact of being the son of a god, the resurrection or divinization after death, the saving and healing activity. The will of the apologists is therefore to “unmask” the lying nature of Asclepius, and to show, by contrast, what are the true powers and the nature of Christ. To do so, these authors adopts two perspectives, that are not mutually exclusive: Asclepius as a demon who tried to imitate the life and actions of Christ; Asclepius as a man, divinised after death for his healing activities (euhemerism). Moreover, the apologists, in their polemical work, use, in addition to the Scriptures, the same “instruments” of the adversaries to show how their own works presented Asclepius as a negative, evil, and sometimes ridiculous figure: poets, like Pindar and Euripides, but also historians, such as Herodotus. The use of these works – naturally, an instrumental use – appears to be, in the eyes of the apologists, particularly efficacious for their polemical purposes, because it allows to attack the divine figure remaining “on the same level” of the adversaries, revealing all the immoralities and the ambiguities of Asclepius.


Asclepius, Justin martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Contra Celsum, euhemerism

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