Justin Martyr, First Apology: Part 2

In the first post about Justin’s First Apology, I wrote some about the text overall and also about some of the themes that are prominent in the text.  Here, in this second and last post (before turning to the Dialogue with Trypho), I want to think about what Justin said that he was intending to do in the work.  In chapter 23, after his introduction, he says that he wants to make three arguments: 1) that Christian teachings are true of their own accord, not just because of similarities with those of Greco-Roman philosophers (chs. 24-29); 2) that Jesus alone is God’s Son, is the “Logos” (or “Word”), became incarnate as human, and as a human was the great teacher of the Christians (chs. 30-53); and 3) whenever there are parallels to Christian teaching in Greco-Roman poets or philosophers, it is because the “demons” learned of God’s plans and implanted them in the minds of pagans to stand as a later witness against the Christians (chs. 54-68).

Christian Teaching as True

This section is short and relatively straightforward.  He began the text by noting the prevalence of Christians receiving punishment, not because they were criminals but apparently just because they were Christians.  Here he extends that idea, noting that Christians are punished for things like not worshiping the Roman gods — even when others do the same thing and don’t receive the same consequences.  As Justin says it, we Christians believe in the true God and don’t do bad things.  Nonetheless, we receive punishment.  He closes this section by talking some about the phenomenon of exposing infants, and how Christians don’t do it, not only so as to avoid the obvious sin of murder, but also to avoid more indirect kinds of sexual immorality (since so many exposed infants were taken and sold into prostitution or slavery).  Even though Christians avoid something that is obviously bad for Roman society, still they are punished.

Jesus’s Divinity and Incarnation

This section is quite interesting to me because it contains LOTS of prophetic anticipations of Jesus.  Some are the ones were are familiar with from the New Testament, but some aren’t.  If you’ve ever wondered what texts early Christians used to understand Jesus (think of the Emmaus story, where Jesus explains “what was said in all the Scriptures” concerning him), then you should check this part out.  Other noteworthy sections:

  • In section 36, he has some very interesting thoughts about the inspiration of Scripture.  Where elsewhere he talks about the “Prophetic Spirit” inspiring the prophets, here it is “the Word of God who prompts them.”  His emphasis on the Word speaking in different divine characters reminds me of Matthew W. Bates’s new book, in which he argues that the divine characters’ speaking “in character” helped lead to early Christian ideas about three distinct persons in the Trinity.
  • Section 37 (and sec. 63, incidentally) contains a reading of Isaiah 1:3-4 which he uses to argue that the Jewish people didn’t understand God’s work in Christ.  However, this passage in Isaiah also talks about an ox and a donkey who know their “master,” which is actually the source of the common Christmas iconography of the “ox and ass” who attend Jesus’ birth.
  • The editor of my translation says that Justin often indulges in various digressions.  That’s true!  Some are really important, though, as in section 43, where he takes up a (possible) complaint: if God really foreordained everything about Jesus, does that mean that everything is predetermined?  Justin gives an emphatic “No!”  God made us with free will, and he calls us all to repent and turn to him.  As he says in section 52: because we believe in the past fulfillment of some prophecies, we should believe in the future fulfillment of others!  So repent!
  • Finally, in section 46, Justin says that many ancient people, including non-Jewish philosophers, could be considered “Christians” because they lived “by reason.”  In Greek, this phrase is meta logou, which could potentially be translated “with the Word.”  (See also sections 59-60, where Justin argues that Plato got some of his material from Moses.)  This idea was not unique to early Christian writers, as can be seen best in Clement of Alexandria from just a few decades later.

Demons, Poets, and Philosophers

In this last section, Justin notes a common objection to Christianity: that the stories of Jesus are not unique because other ancient gods or heroic figures seem to have done the same things: Bacchus was considered a “son of God,” Bellerophon was seen seated on a foal (Gen. 49:10-11), that Hercules was considered super-strong, and that Persephone (a child of Zeus) was resurrected from Hades.  But, as Justin notes, no god was ever crucified, which does suggest that Jesus’s story is unique.  While there are certainly reasons to question Justin’s logic here — really? the demons were behind Greek and Roman mythology? — it is interesting that he also says that the demons are causing hatred of Christians (sec. 57) and that they incited the Jews of Jesus’s day against Jesus and his followers (sec. 63).  Since he’s writing to the emperor, I wonder if there is a subtle implication here: while your forebears and the Jews may have been controlled by the demons, YOU don’t have to be.  Treat us in accord with our actions — not just according to the inciting of demons!  You’re the emperor — you get to set the rules!

Early Christian Worship

One last interesting point in this text: before he closes, Justin gives some explanation of early Christian worship practices.  In section 61, he says that he’s doing this to avoid being “unfair”; I assume he means that he won’t just bash other religions, but rather he’ll give insight into his own, even the semi-secret rituals.  So, in section 61 he talks about baptism, in 65-66 he discusses communion, and in 67 he gives a run-down of a “typical” Christian Sunday in the mid-second century.  He suggests that these activities are typical of Christians — that he’s not describing an unusual service.  But we are so grateful for his inclusion of this material; it’s some of the only stuff we have from this early about Christian worship at this time.

That’s it for Justin’s First Apology.  Come back for his Dialogue with Trypho!

Image credits: https://www.emaze.com/@AOLQOIIZ/Infant-Mortality-Rate (dead infant),  http://www.journeywithjesus.net (Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Nativity), and https://commons.wikimedia.org/ (Frederic Leighton’s The Return of Persephone)

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