Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho: Part 2

Well, it’s already my last post on Justin Martyr, and today I’m going to share some more thoughts about the second part of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.  In my first post about this work, I noted how there are three main sections to the text.  Here I’ll talk about the second, which starts at chapter 48 and focuses on arguments that Jesus really is the Messiah, and the third, which starts at chapter 109 and emphasizes how Christians are therefore the true recipients of God’s promises.

You won’t be surprised to learn that these parts contain a LOT of quotations  — and a lot of really long ones! — of the Old Testament.  And of course, it’s not surprising because of both the audience (it’s a dialogue with Jews, and the Old Testament is our common ground of Scripture) and Justin’s writing habits (we saw in the First Apology that he is quite capable of building his arguments off of the Old Testament prophets).  Also, as was the case in the First Apology, Justin quotes a lots of texts that are quite familiar to us (for example, multiple chapters on Psalm 22 [the one that starts “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]) as well as some that are much less familiar in discussions about Jesus (like an extended discussion of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah).

But what else do we see in these two sections?

The Bible and the Holy Spirit

Because I think a lot about Christian attitudes regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in the production and interpretation of the Bible, I forget that some Jews also believe that God’s spirit was working in the prophets.  Justin assumes as much in chapter 55, when Trypho challenges him to prove “that the prophetic Spirit ever admits the existence of another god” (i.e., in the Scriptures).  It’s a point of common ground that I don’t always remember.  (See also ch. 114 for another discussion of the Spirit’s activity in Scripture.)

Also, many modern readers will appreciate Justin’s attitude about the “perfection” of Scripture.  At one point (ch. 65) he absolutely rejects the idea that any one part of Scripture could contradict another part, presumably because God was speaking it through God’s spirit!  Rather, he says there are confusing parts, then we need to rethink our interpretation.  Incidentally, you may know that Christians in the ancient world did not all agree on the former point; famously, Origen argued that confusing parts of Scripture were actually put there on purpose by the Holy Spirit — to make us think and dig more deeply into the spiritual riches that surely lay beneath the surface.

Finally — and happily, for those of us who think that we aren’t that good at discerning the meaning of Scripture — Justin also believes that God gives us special gifts in interpreting the Bible (ch. 119).  This belief is not as developed at the later idea that it is actually the Holy Spirit (i.e., God in God’s own essence) who empowers our interpretation, but the seeds of that later idea may be here.

The Bible and the Jews

I was not aware that apparently some ancient Jews and Christians argued about the reliability of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In ch. 68 (and elsewhere), Justin alludes to a practice of denying that a particular passage was in the Hebrew whenever Christians made a point from the Septuagint.  I don’t know how much to trust Justin’s characterization, but it suggests that at least some of the Jewish-Christian arguments over Scripture were arguments over translation and textual criticism.   (Note: there are parallels here to Muslim-Christian debates over whether Christians falsified the Bible to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, as many Muslims argue.)

By now we are used to Justin using the Bible to make some harsh claims against the Jews.  Multiple examples appear in this last part of the text, for example, his ch. 123, where he says that the Jews fulfill a hard word from Isaiah — that they are not only not wise or understanding, but even sly and treacherous!  One wonders how Justin’s dialogue partners reacted here.  Probably not well.  But later in that section, Justin does still betray the belief that the Jews can actually come to a belief in Jesus — they aren’t wholly lost.  And in fact, that is where the Dialogue ends — with Justin wishing his interlocutors well, expressly hoping that they will come to the Way of Jesus through their continuing search for wisdom.

Surprising Arguments

Every once in a while, Justin just makes an argument that is surprising.  One example of “surprising” meaning “lame” can be found in ch. 87, where Trypho asks about Christians’ applying Isaiah 11:1-3 (“There shall come forth a branch out of the root of Jesse”) to Jesus.  Specifically, Trypho asks about the part that says that the “spirit of God shall rest on him,” thus resulting in various spiritual gifts.  Trypho asks how Jesus could acquire these if, as Christians say, he had the Spirit from his conception and thus already possessed them.  As part of his response, Justin says that the Spirit’s “resting” on Jesus referred to his “ceasing” or “stopping” to be among the Jews, only to re-emerge among the Christians.  I find this wholly implausible — I think he’s just getting a shot in at the Jews!

But there are also parts where “surprising” equals “thought-provoking.”  Earlier we saw Justin refer to Jesus as God’s “angel” and a “lord” of human beings (e.g., ch. 61), and we might have wondered what that meant in terms of Jesus’s divinity.  In ch. 127, then, Justin gives us a bit of a clue.  He refers there to passages in the Pentateuch where “the Lord spoke to Moses” or “God went up from Abraham.”  In doing so, he says that we “should not imagine that the Unbegotten God Himself” (sic) descended or ascended from any place.”  He seems to think that God “the Father” lives in heaven and only there, and that for God to come to earth, God would require some kind of mediator.  This belief, of course, gives credence to the idea that Jesus is divine, in that he is God-come-to-earth, but Justin starts from who and what God is in God’s essence to help us understand the “theophanies” of the Old Testament.

Don’t forget that next month we’ll be reading two works by Athanasius.  I’m going to start with his Life of Antony, which you can try to buy online or get at your library.

Image credits: http://elibtronic.ca/http://www.theworkofgodschildren.org, and www.amazon.com

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.


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

Noll, Ch. 3: The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)

Chapter 3 continues on from chapter 2, in discussing the Council of Chalcedon of 451. In fact, the meeting in Chalcedon was the fourth of the so-called “ecumenical councils” of the early church, after Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The two in the 300s were really devoted to the question of how to talk rightly about the relationship between the Son and the Father (or, in common parlance, “Jesus and God”). The two councils of the 400s dealt with the question of how to understand the relationship of Jesus’s humanity and his divinity – the “human-ness” and the “god-ness” of Jesus.

You may already have had some questions about these matters, but I found the chart on p. 63 to be very helpful. I’d use it as a resource if I were teaching this book. A couple of other notes on the chapter:

  • Noll is right to emphasize on page 65 the growing importance of Mary for Christianity. People have different theories about why people at this time might have been looking for other intercessors between themselves and God. My own theory has to do with the growth in the size of the church buildings and the ceremony of the Christian liturgy (worship rituals). Both of these, as they grow, can conspire to make Christians feel very small and insignificant; as Jesus is exalted and is physically far away (for example, as the bread and wine on the altar at the front of a very big church), then it makes sense that people would feel distanced from him. And as a result, they might feel the need for a new mediator.
  • He is also right that there were political conflicts between the various patriarchates (p. 70). Constantinople and Alexandria seem to have had a particular rivalry. If you want to see another manifestation of this, Google “John Chrysostom Synod of the Oak,” and you’ll get to read about an event decades before, when Cyril of Alexandria’s uncle was the Patriarch in Egypt, and that rivalry again reared its ugly head.
  • On p. 71, in the section about the council’s “Theological Significance,” Noll says that the “Definition” of Chalcedon sought to find a balance between various extremes in expressing the identity of Jesus. As a teacher and now colleague of mine once said, this balance-seeking is an important task in Christian theology; in fact, most “heresies” arise from well-intentioned overemphasis on one side of an argument that needs balance.
  • I had not thought about the terminology that was settled upon at Chalcedon as an example of cultural “translation” from Christianity’s originally Jewish world into its Greco-Roman surroundings. There are all kinds of ways we still do this in Christian circles (see the discussion on chapter 12), but this example was a new one to me. You might want to talk about it in your group.

A link that might be helpful is Leo’s Tome, referred to on p. 69: https://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/incac1.htm

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. Look at the chart on page 63. Based on your understanding of the chapter, does the community of your religious background have a Christology more like Alexandria or more like Antioch? Are such questions even asked in your religious community? If not, how does this affect the way you have read about this debate?
  2. It may be surprising to Protestants to realize how important language about Mary was to this debate. Do you think such an emphasis in the debate was appropriate? What role do you believe Mary should play in the life of Christians?
  3. The Chalcedonian debates tied into matters of church politics (Alexandria versus Antioch). Are “political” struggles inevitable in the church? Do they help reveal true Christianity or do they serve to distort it?
  4. The Christological debates highlighted the importance of the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. The conclusion was that whatever aspects of humanity that Christ did not take on, his death could not redeem. What aspects of being human is it hard for you to imagine Christ “taking on?” Is it comforting or disconcerting to believe that He did so?
  5. One result of Chalcedon was divisions in Christianity which persist until the present day. Were the issues discussed at Chalcedon worth dividing over? Why or why not? Are there issues today that could cause schism that will not be resolved 1500 years from now?

Image credit for Vasily Surikov’s “Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Chalcedon

Suggested next click: Chapter 4