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, 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

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