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)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Justin Martyr, First Apology: Part 1

Now that we’ve learned a little more about Justin himself, let’s dig into the first text that we’re reading for 2016: his First Apology.  A couple of notes on the name:

  • The fact that’s it called “First” means that there is indeed a “Second” apology; scholars debate which was actually written first (because of the manuscripts and because of the witness of Eusebius), but the text of the second apology itself actually suggests that it did come second.
  • “Apology” does not refer to the modern way we use the word — as saying “I’m sorry” for something.  It’s the English version of the Greek word apologia, which means “defense against an accusation.”  If that sounds like a legal term, then you are right — it could be used in a legal or rhetorical setting.

As the text itself indicates at the beginning, the purpose of the text is to address the Roman emperor and people, in an effort to give an accounting for the growing Christian movement in the Empire.  He suggests in chapter 2 that “philosophers” are honored in the Empire — this is important because some of the emperor’s household are considered philosophers — and that criminals are rightly rejected.  However, the opening of the book (chapters 1-20) contains Justin’s thesis: that Christians are far more like philosophers (people who live with integrity according to a coherent belief system and ethics) than like criminals.  As such, they should not be punished simply for being Christians — only if they actually do commit criminal acts.

OK: now that we have a little sense of the author, the text, and its purpose, let’s turn to some important themes in the text.  First, Justin provides an early Christian witness for some of the accusations that were made against Christians in the early centuries.  We read about these in books but may not have in primary sources.  These accusations include:

  • Atheism (for not worshiping the Roman gods) (ch. 6)
  • Being crazy (for worshiping a crucified person as second only to God) (ch. 13)
  • Cannibalism (for eating the “flesh” and drinking the “blood” of a person) (ch. 26)
  • Sexual immorality (presumably rumors begun by the language of the “love feast”) (ch. 26)

Second, and perhaps interestingly for those of you who think about intersection of Christianity and culture, Justin notes that Christian teaching actually agrees in a number of points with Plato and other honored Greek philosophers.  For example, he says in ch. 8 that Christians seek to live a moral life, but that we shouldn’t be excoriated for that belief, since Plato taught the same. Also, ch. 18 contains a number of respected teachers (some philosophers, some religious oracles) who agree with Christian doctrine that there is some kind of life after death.  Late in the text, Justin even contends that Plato plagiarized from Moses when he talked about a god creating the world from “shapeless matter,” and that he “borrowed” from Moses when he talked in Timaeus about the “soul of the universe” existing in a type of cross-shape (see also Peter Leithart’s recent blog post on this topic).  There are other places in the text like this; these are just a few.

Raphael-Plato-and-Aristotle

Finally — and with this I’ll close this post — Justin bears witness to an interesting “intermediate stage” of thinking about the members of the Trinity: more developed than the New Testament, but not yet the full doctrine of the fourth-century councils that we are familiar with.  He seems to take the NT words literally (in some way) — that Jesus is the “Son of the living God himself” (ch. 13), although he does not explain this. And he clearly thinks of Jesus as a Teacher and Lord, since he is constantly talking about the things Jesus spoke.  He even seems to admit in ch. 22 that Jesus might have been “just a man,” but that he would still be worthy to be called God’s son because of his wisdom.  In fact, ch. 23 contains the most condensed statement of Justin’s belief: that Jesus was foretold by the prophets (and thus has divine affirmation), that he is the Word, Son, and Power of God, and that he became incarnate and dwelt among us.  Nothing controversial here, but also not yet using language like “person” and “essence.”  (This link has some good supplemental material, if you’d like to read more on the topic.)

The material on the Holy Spirit is similarly interesting.  Justin most often talks about the Spirit as the “prophetic Spirit” — the one through whom God spoke about Jesus by means of the prophets.  One finds references like this throughout the text (e.g., chs. 13, 33, 35, 38-42, 44, 47, 51, 53, 59, 63, etc.).  He does talk about the Spirit as a “third” object of worship, after the “living God himself” and after Jesus as God’s son (ch. 13), but the primary function of the Spirit seems to be to point people to Jesus, and that’s certainly something we’d affirm — and that John’s Gospel would agree with.

Feel free to leave your comments below.  Next time I’ll talk about three main points that Justin himself seems to want to make in the text — not just things that we notice from a modern perspective.

Image credits: https://vhoagland.files.wordpress.com/ and http://wildernessfound.com

Suggested next click: First Apology, Part 2

Justin Martyr: Introduction

Our first group read for 2016 consists of Justin Martyr’s First Apology and his Dialogue with Trypho.  Justin was likely born around the year 100 CE/AD, and according to the First Apology, he was from the Roman town of Flavia Neapolis (now called “Nablus“) in the part of the Holy Land now known as the “West Bank,” between Jerusalem and Nazareth.  According to his own words, he was reasonably well-educated as a child, and as an adult, he began to pursue various forms of philosophy.  (Note: I’ll have more to say about Justin’s philosophical wanderings when we come to the Dialogue with Trypho.)  His writings show that he was well-versed in the Scriptures and also aware of at least some of the “pop-culture” works of his day.  Tradition from shortly after his life tells us that he was “turned in” to the civil authorities by a philosopher with whom he had disputed, and that he was tried and beheaded with other Christians in the mid-160s, thus winning the “martyr’s crown” depicted in the icon above.  In other words, the “Martyr” in his name is a title he is given, not an unfortunate last name.

It is probably not surprising to you that not many Christian writings survive from the second century of our history.  This sparseness is due partly, of course, to its distance in time, but also because there simply weren’t that many Christians yet.  Christianity was growing, to be sure, but it wasn’t big yet, and it certainly wasn’t dominant.  (By the way, if you want to know more about Christianity’s growth, especially from a sociological point of view, check out Rodney Stark’s 1997 book The Rise of Christianity.)  However, we do have a few writings, and Justin’s are among the most prominent.  In them we see things like the following:

  • descriptions of early Christian worship
  • a Christian explicitly attempting to talk to the cultural elites of his day
  • a narrative of philosophical exploration that culminates with Christianity
  • some ways that early Christians read Scripture, especially the “Old Testament”

In other words, if you’re interested in early Christianity, Justin’s writings have a lot to show you!

My plan for Justin is as follows: I’ll have one or two posts dedicated to the First Apology, and then two or three on the longer Dialogue with Trypho.  I’m going to be reading the translation by Thomas B. Falls, published originally in New York by Christian Heritage, Inc., as part of the series called The Fathers of the Church.  If you want an online text, you can find older translations by Marcus Dods and George Reith of the First Apology at this link and the Dialogue with Trypho at this link.

One last note: in the introductory post I’ll create each month, I’ll list a few recent books on the author, just in case you find yourself intrigued and wanting to read more.  I haven’t read these myself, and so I can’t vouch for them in any way.  But they are the most recent books on the topic in question, and so you might find them useful.  Here are some on Justin:

Image credits: communio.stblogs.org and www.azquotes.com

Suggested next click: Justin’s First Apology