Icon of Justin Martyr

My week-in-review about Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, a couple of days late.

I think it is worth pausing here, our first text in Read the Fathers that deals with Christians and Jews in the ancient world. This text will not be the last.  As we read ancient Christian texts, regardless of our own religious commitment, we want to be able to understand them properly and on their terms. However, encounters between Christians and Jews get tricky because of the centuries of Christian power and the racialised oppression, persecution, and attempted genocide that arose in western Christendom and European nation-states — hatred of Jewish people that persists to this day.

The quick background to all early Christian texts to do with Jews and Judaism in two points:

  1. Both groups are weak before Constantine. There is very little power imbalance. The more traditional Christian narrative some of us have heard makes the Jews out to be more powerful than the Christians, seen in the expulsion of Christians from synagogues, ca. 70. A more recent, revisionist narrative makes the Jews weaker after 70 — their lower status in Roman terms is a reason Christians in the later first century sought to distance themselves from Jewish identity. Both are pretty much true. These are two groups who, in relation to the wider population who is not of their own ethnos or religion, are weak.
  2. Christianity arose from Judaism. I do not know how widely this way of putting things is accepted by my colleagues in Biblical Studies and Christian Origins, but Thomas Cahill, in The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, says that there were many varieties of Judaism before the destruction of the Temple. Only two survived: Christianity and rabbinic Judaism (itself the descendant, as I understand it, of the Pharisees). Jesus, according to Christianity, is the Jewish Messiah.

These two points bring us to some thoughts on how to interpret texts like the Dialogue with Trypho.

Whose Scriptures are these?

One of the fundamental facts of Christianity is that, being born out of Judaism, it uses the Jewish Scriptures. I use that term carefully, because most pre-modern Christians used either the Greek Septuagint or a translation thereof, and not the Hebrew Bible. Since Hebrew refers to both a people and a language, trying to replace ‘Old Testament’ with ‘Hebrew Bible’ makes for confusion.

Anyway, Christians have always used Jewish Scriptures; the ancient canon of Scripture as found in the Greek Septuagint is not exactly the same as the Hebrew version of the Masoretic text, the ancestor of today’s Protestant Old Testament. One of the main purposes for a text like the Dialogue, it has been argued, is not to convert Jews but to encourage Christians. From the beginning, Gentile Christians have often been acutely aware of being the wild olive grafted into the people of God. While this may be a salutary reminder of grace, a text like this can also help take it away as a cause for angst.

In doing this, Justin uses many of the same techniques and passages of Scripture many Christians use today amongst themselves, in conversation with secular friends, and in dialogue with Jewish people. Some of us might think Justin’s use of certain passages is not just regarding the original context. Maybe, maybe not — what matters is that Justin’s way of reading prophecies from the Jewish Scriptures is the standard Christian practice for centuries, and it is used beyond apologetic as part of a wider theology of Scripture.

Is Justin anti-Semitic?

This charge arose last round of Read the Fathers, particularly when Justin accuses Jewish people of tampering with the Scriptures so that the prophecies in the Hebrew version do not fit Jesus as well. The answer: No, Justin is not ‘anti-Semitic’, even if he is wrong.

First, the charge of anti-Semitism: With our own feelings of guilt and horror in the years since the Holocaust, every time we see a Christian accuse a Jew of some wrong, we automatically cry, ‘Anti-Semitism!’ However, anti-Semitism is a modern term referring to racist hatred. Ancient people understand people as belonging to an ethnos or natio or something like that, and this is not the same thing as race. Moreover, whether ancient Christians were behaving well or badly in their treatment of Jewish people, it was religiously motivated. That is: We are far from Wagner, who hated Mendelssohn’s music for being by a Jew, regardless of Mendelssohn’s own Christianity. For ancient Christians, the Jew who converts is a Christian, and none of their anti-Jewish polemic applies.

Moreover, as someone pointed out back in 2013, Justin is not anti-Semitic on the grounds that he was presenting an argument for the discrepancy between the two texts, not an argument about Jewish mendaciousness or deceitfulness — those sorts of anti-Jewish, hate tropes do not exist yet. If you consider what ancient Christians believed about the Septuagint, they would inevitably point to discrepancies between it and the Hebrew Masoretic text as being the result of tampering with the Hebrew, since God had approved the Greek translation. The anti-Semitism argument operates in the other direction: Jews do bad things; therefore they tampered with Scripture.

All of this is to say: Justin is sincere in his belief that the Masoretic text varies from the Septuagint due to tampering. He does not do so because he buys into the as-yet nonexistent trope of the duplicitous Jew. This is not The Merchant of Venice. I also want to say that this has nothing to do with exonerating the vile behaviour of real anti-Semites in history, nor the rhetoric used by Christians in Late Antiquity when there was a real power imbalance. We’ll have to consider that in its place, however.

Second: Justin is wrong. He is sincere, but sincerely wrong. The variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text are not the result of tampering. Most moderns claim that they are the result of mistranslation. This is sometimes right, but also sometimes wrong. Places where we assumed the Septuagint was simply a mistranslation of the Hebrew have found Hebrew attestation in papyrus finds. This means that sometimes at least, the two texts differ because there was, in antiquity, more than one Hebrew text, one of which largely survives only in Greek translation.

Hopefully these thoughts have not opened a can of worms but, rather, will help us read Justin better.