Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Part 1

Introduction

I was a little slow getting started in our reading club for the first month of the year, but before January is over, I’ve got a couple of more posts about Justin Martyr, this time with his Dialogue with Trypho (I’m using Thomas Falls’s translation).  This second text from Justin is longer, but it’s also different.  While the First Apology is written to the Roman authorities and refers to Christians’ contact with their surrounding culture, the Dialogue presents a scenario where a Christian is talking to a Jew about Jesus and Scripture.  So, first a few particulars about the text overall:

  • Tradition (following Eusebius) tells us that Justin lived in Ephesus for a time, and that city is supposedly the setting of the Dialogue.  In fact, he opens by describing an encounter with some people on a “broad avenue,” and Ephesus certainly had those (see the picture on the right).
  • The “Trypho” of the title describes himself as a “Hebrew of the circumcision” who is a “refugee from the recent war.”  He is probably talking about Bar Kochba’s revolt, which was finally crushed by the Romans in ca. 135 CE.  Presumably after fleeing Palestine, Trypho has now settled in Corinth (where there was a synagogue, at least in the first century).
  • The Dialogue consists of three major types of arguments, as the editors of my translation suggest in their introduction to the text: 1) explanations as to why Christians don’t obey the law of Moses; 2) arguments that Jesus really was the true Messiah; and 3) the conclusion that Christians are the “true heirs of the divine promises.”  In other words, you will find here both a great deal of discussion about Scripture and also some of the standard questions and responses that have existed between Jews and Christians for 2,000 years (for example, in chapter 43, whether Isaiah 7 was talking about a “virgin” bearing a child, or just a “young woman”)!

Commentary

Several parts of the first part of the text are interesting and reward some reflection:

  • In the introduction to the Dialogue (chs. 1-8), Trypho politely asks Justin to tell him something of himself and his philosophy.  Justin responds in a way that is perhaps surprising: he does not immediately tell him about Christianity, but rather about his journey to Christianity.  In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions, he describes a winding path on the search for truth: through Stoicism, then briefly to a Peripatetic teacher, and then to a (Middle) Platonist.  Like Augustine, Justin finds relief in the Platonist teaching about the possibility of incorporeal things that lie beyond the material realities of this world — he says it “added wings” to his mind, presumably allowing to imagine things beyond this troubled planet.  But then, one day on the beach, he met an old man who turned out to be a Christian.  The man did not directly convert Justin, but he planted seeds in his mind about the limits of the truth that the philosophers had access to.  Then, he told Justin about Jesus, specifically emphasizing his fulfilling of centuries-old prophecies (which is an important theme in his First Apology).
  • The second part of the Dialogue takes up that first major theme: why Christians don’t obey the law of Moses.  Besides his SUPER long quotations of the Old Testament, here are some things I found thought-provoking in this part of the work:
    • Trypho doesn’t understand how Christians’ lifestyle and beliefs fit together.  He seems to accept the possibility that they claim to follow the God of Israel, but he argues that if they do so, they should “observe a manner of life different from that of the Gentiles.”  Or, as he says more pointedly in ch. 10, “You place your hope in a crucified man, and still expect to receive favors from God when you disregard his commandments!”  At least here, he doesn’t question the Christians’ theological claims as much as he does their commitment to holiness.  Of course, this makes sense in light of God’s command to Israel to be a people who are holy and set apart.
    • Justin reads the “Old Testament” in more than one way.  On the one hand, he can read the Old Testament in a particularly “literal” way, namely, that Jesus is the literal fulfillment of many prophecies of the Old Testament (see especially chs. 31-39).  But then he can also see the Old Testament as something that is more symbolic or typological, as in his description of spiritual baptism (ch. 14), spiritual circumcision (ch. 16), and Christ as the anti-type of the Passover lamb (ch. 40).  In other words, there’s not just one attitude toward Scripture at work here
    • Justin comes across as pretty “anti-Jewish” rather often.  Despite the cordial nature of the conversation, Justin on occasion says things either implicitly or explicitly that are not terribly “sensitive” to our modern ears.  Examples include his suggestion that Christ’s new covenant means that God’s “old” covenant with Israel is no longer in force (ch. 11), that the Jews’ refusal to accept that Jesus is the fulfillment of some prophecies may mean that they’re just flat dumb (ch. 36), or that they don’t want to accept Christians’ claims because they’re afraid of death (ch. 44).  These aren’t the kinds of arguments that one might want to bring up when talking religion with one’s Jewish friends over coffee.
    • There’s an intriguing passage suggesting a rather “modern” perspective on gender relations.  In an explanation of why literal circumcision can’t be an act of righteousness (ch. 23), Justin says, “…the fact that females cannot receive circumcision of the flesh shows that circumcision was given as a sign, not as an act of justification.  For God also bestowed upon women the capability of performing every good and virtuous act.  We see that the physical formation of male and female is different, but it is equally evident that the bodily form is not what makes either of them good or evil.  Their righteousness is determined by their acts of piety and justice.”  Hear, hear!
    • And there’s a passage that suggests a rather “modern” perspective on inter-faith relations.  In section 46, Trypho asks whether trying to be a good Jew and also believing in Jesus will result in salvation.  Justin says yes, in his opinion, but Trypho asks if other Christians disagree.  Justin says that they do, but he also says he thinks that Christians shouldn’t shut out Jews who want to believe in Jesus, and that Jews shouldn’t tell Christians they have to obey the Mosaic law in order to be saved.  He wants a certain amount of tolerance on both sides.

So, given Justin’s description of his own story, the questions to end with are these: who have been important guides and conversation partners for you in your journey to and in Christianity?  Have you had mentors or companions on the journey?  If so, how have they helped you?

Image credits: www.guidedephesustour.com (Ephesus street), and http://ianvanheusen.com/ (Rembrandt’s Two Philosophers in Conversation), and https://garycottrell.wordpress.com/ (Aleppo Codex)

Suggested next click: Dialogue with Trypho, Part 2

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