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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Justin Martyr and the 'Man of Men' Christology (Part 2)

We now turn our attention to the second question posed in the previous post:  did Justin Martyr accept those who held the 'man of men' Christology as Christians? More broadly, how did Justin view them? The answer to this question is not obvious. As we shall see, there are radically different viewpoints among scholars. In Dave's talk, he states that Justin "acknowledges these other Christians, and he still accepts them as Christians." There is some evidence to support this statement. However, it should not have been stated as an unqualified fact, since there is also evidence suggesting Justin held a very negative view of this doctrine.

I was able to find a a comment Dave posted on the web (relating to his debate on the Trinity with Evangelical theologian Rob Bowman) which provides the reasoning behind the above-mentioned assertion.

Martyr therefore acknowledges the existence of Christians who do not believe that Christ pre-existed; who believe that he was a “man of men.” Yet he refers to them as “of our race” and “my friends.” So although he disagrees with their Christology, he does not consider them heretics.1

Of the two pieces of evidence Dave adduces here to show that Justin did not regard the man of men Christology as heretical, one is plainly wrong, and the other is doubtful.

a.      ‘My Friends’

Firstly, Dave says that Justin refers to these people as ‘my friends.’ In fact, he does not. ‘My friends’ is a term of direct address for the Jews with whom he is engaging in dialogue: “‘For there are some, my friends,’ I said…” This term of address occurs more than a dozen times throughout the dialogue. In the Greek it is unmistakably a term of direct address: ὦ φίλοι, which would literally translate, 'O friends'.

This expression thus has nothing to do with Justin's view of the man of men Christology.

b.      ‘Of our race’ or ‘of your race’?

The Roberts-Donaldson translation renders the beginning of Dialogue 48.4, "For there are some, my friends," I said, "of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men". Dave infers from the expression "of our race" that Justin regards these people as Christians. However, there is a text-critical issue here. In fact, there are only two extant manuscripts of the Dialogue: the Parisinus (1364 AD), and another written in 1541 AD which is a copy of the Parisinus.3 There is thus only one manuscript which is of value for textual criticism. And the Parisinus does not read ἀπὸ τοῦ ἡμετέρου γένους (‘of our race’), but rather, ἀπὸ τοῦ ὑμετέρου γένους (‘of your race’).4

Machen explains that the ‘of our race’ reading found its way into the early critical texts due to a copying error by the first publisher.5 The error remained uncorrected until discovered by Harnack in the early 20th century, though even before that scholars such as Bull argued on contextual grounds for emending the text to read ‘of your race.’6

The error seems to have died a slow death; as late as 1948, Falls still prefers the reading ‘of our race’ on the basis that “most critics” hold this view.7 At least one critic cited by Bobichon favours emending the text to read ‘of our race.’ However, Bobichon’s recent critical text holds ‘of your race’ to be the original.8

There is no external evidence for the reading ‘of our race,’ and there are no good internal reasons for overturning the manuscript reading. ‘Of your race’ would mean that those who hold the ‘man of men’ Christology are Jewish. Later patristic writers do refer to a Jewish Christian sect called the Ebionites who denied the virgin birth (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.1-2), so they are the probable referent.9

If, then, Justin was referring to Ebionites, it would not be surprising for him to describe them as “of your race,” that is, Jewish. Indeed, Justin had just previously (Dialogue 47.3) used the expression ‘of your race’ to refer to other Jewish Christians of whom he disapproved because they compelled Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses.

In fact, if the manuscript reading 'of your race' is original, this may actually be evidence that Justin viewed the Ebionites negatively. For there indications elsewhere in the Dialogue that Justin understands non-Christian Jews and Christians to be two separate races. Of the Jews, Justin writes (again, just prior to our passage), “of your race, who are ever unwilling to understand or to perform the [requirements] of God” (Dialogue 48.2). He later states, “God has withheld from you [i.e. the Jewish race] the ability to discern the wisdom of His Scriptures; yet [there are] some exceptions” (Dialogue 55.3).

That Justin views the Christians as a race distinct from natural Jews is evident from Dialogue 116.3: “we, who through the name of Jesus have believed as one man in God the Maker of all…are the true high priestly race of God.” Again,
“As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race…it is necessary for us here to observe that there are two seeds of Judah, and two races, as there are two houses of Jacob: the one begotten by blood and flesh, the other by faith and the Spirit” (Dialogue 135.3-6; see also 119.4-5; 138.2.)
By describing these ‘Ebionites’ as “of your race,” Justin may simply be stating that they are ethnically Jewish. However, he may also be implying that he regards them as belonging to the race of Israel according to the flesh as opposed to the race of Israel by faith and the Spirit (i.e. the Christians).

Hence, the second piece of evidence that Dave cited in support of his view may actually support an opposite conclusion. There is, however, other evidence that may suggest that Justin held a tolerant view of the Ebionites.

c.       The argument for a ‘tolerant’ interpretation

On the same website on which Dave commented, philosophy professor Dale Tuggy added some additional comments on this text:

There are a couple of interesting things here. First, Justin concedes that Jesus can be the Messiah without his being divine or pre-existent – those points are independent of each other, and nothing about being Messiah logically implies being divine or pre-existing. So he insists that his arguments that Jesus is the Jewish messiah will work even if he can’t show Jesus to have pre-existed, or to be anything but a “man of men”, i.e. not Virgin-born, but with two human parents.  Second, Justin seems willing to concede that people who deny his logos theory may yet be Christians – catholic Christians, we assume.2

Dale does not give any reasons for his claim that Justin seems willing to regard the Ebionites as catholic Christians. However, this view has attracted scholarly support for several reasons.

In the first place, Justin does not denounce the proponents of the ‘man of men’ Christology with the same vitriol that is found in his references to heretics elsewhere in the Dialogue. In chapter 35.2-6, Justin refers to schisms and heresies and cites Jesus’ teachings about wolves in sheep’s clothing and false Christs. He describes these false teachers as teaching “both to speak and to act impious and blasphemous things”. He states further that these heretics call themselves Christians, but that they are called by us (the disciples of the true and pure doctrine of Jesus Christ) by the name of the men from whom each doctrine and opinion had its origin. Later, he refers to “godless, impious heretics” who “teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish” (Dialogue 80.3). He goes on to say that of those who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven, “Do not imagine that they are Christians” (80.4).

Justin’s tone in chapter 48 is nowhere near as rancorous. Rather, it is closer to the tone he uses for the Law-observing Christians mentioned in chapter 47 (also referred to as ‘of your race’). There, Trypho asks Justin, “But if someone, knowing that this is so, after he recognises that this man is Christ, and has believed in and obeys Him, wishes, however, to observe these [Mosaic rites], will he be saved?” (Dialogue 47.1) Justin responds,

"In my opinion, Trypho, such an one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men – I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so." (Dialogue 47.1)

Trypho then asks whether there are those who hold such a position. Justin responds that there are, “but I do not agree with them” (47.2). He groups them into three classes.

i.             There are those ‘weak-minded’ Jews who wish to observe Mosaic institutions along with their hope in Christ; however they do not compel other Christians to do the same. Justin states, “I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren” (47.2).
ii.                   There are some Jews who “say they believe in Christ” but “compel those Gentiles who believe in this Christ to live in all respects according to the law given by Moses.” Justin does "not approve of them" (47.3).
iii.                 Those Gentiles who are persuaded by the second group above “to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved”, provided they maintain their confession that Jesus is the Christ (47.4).

It can probably be inferred from the above that Justin thinks the first and third groups above will be saved, but not the second group – those who compel Gentile Christians to observe the Law. In simply stating that he “does not agree” with these Jewish Christians Justin’s tone is close to that of 48.4. It may be, then, that his view of the 'man of men' Christology issue was similar to his view of the law observance issue.

Secondly, it is possible (as will be discussed in the final post in this series) to understand ‘those who have the same opinions as myself’ in 48.4 to refer to all those who believe Jesus is the Christ, inclusive of Ebionites. This would then implicitly classify them as Christians, albeit not necessarily catholic Christians. Hence Bobichon notes,

“Il ne s’agit pas seulement des chrétiens orthodoxes, mais de tous ceux qui reconnaissent le Christ en Jésus et portent le nom de Chrétiens (MARAN)”10

That is, ‘It refers not only to orthodox Christians, but to all those who recognize Jesus as Christ and bear the name of Christians.’ (my translation)

Thirdly, Tuggy observes that Justin concedes Jesus can be the Messiah without his being pre-existent or divine, which he takes to imply that Jesus' pre-existence and divinity are for Justin non-essential points of doctrine.

In spite of the above, an argument can also be made that Justin does not accept the proponents of the ‘man of men’ Christology as catholic Christians.

d.      The argument for a ‘heretical’ interpretation

Firstly, while (as noted above) his criticism of this group is not as vitriolic as his denunciation of heretics in chapters 35 and 80, his description of the source of their doctrine is similar:

Section
Source of wrong belief
Source of correct belief
Dialogue 35 (heretical Christians)
The spirits of error; doctrines which originated from men
The doctrines of Jesus; the words he taught; the prophecies announced concerning him
Dialogue 27 (unbelieving Jews)
Teaching doctrines that are your own
Doctrines that are His (God’s)
Dialogue 38 (unbelieving Jews)
The traditions of [Jewish] teachers who teach their own doctrines
Truths taught by God
Dialogue 78 (unbelieving Jews)
Strive in every way to maintain their own doctrines; teach the doctrines of men
The doctrines of God
Dialogue 80 (heretical Christians)
Men’s doctrines
God and the doctrines delivered by Him; the prophets declare it
Dialogue 48 (‘man of men’ Christology)
Human doctrines
The prophets; the teachings of Jesus himself

Like the heretics of chapters 35 and 80 and the unbelieving Jews of chapters 27, 38 and 78, the proponents of the ‘man of men’ Christology in 48.4 stand accused of putting their faith in human doctrines rather than “those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by [Jesus] Himself.”11 The accusation of following human doctrines instead of the teachings of the prophets and Jesus is a very serious one, probably drawn from Isaiah 29:13 via Matthew 15:9. Every other viewpoint described in these terms in the Dialogue is clearly regarded as a threat to salvation.

Secondly, in the only other place in Justin’s writings where he refers to a denial of Christ’s pre-existence (First Apology 46), he states that if someone were to maintain “that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago”, this would be “a perversion of what we teach.”12

Thirdly, Justin’s ‘concession’ about Jesus’ Messiahship being provable apart from the virgin birth and pre-existence should probably be understood as a rhetorical technique rather than an concession of uncertainty. Inducing Trypho to admit that Jesus is the merely human Christ is a rhetorical stepping-stone to his argument for this Christ's pre-existence and incarnation. Far from ‘nothing about being Messiah logically implies being divine or pre-existing’ (as Tuggy claims), Justin's argument may well presuppose the opposite. If he can only persuade Trypho that Jesus is the Messiah, he will then be able to persuade him that this Messiah is pre-existent and virgin-born. Hence, Justin’s ‘concession’ here does not imply that he regarded a ‘man of men’ Christology as sufficient.

In support of this, we note that later in the Dialogue, Trypho concedes the existence of a second being called God (Dialogue 60.3).13 He is also willing to concede that Jesus as a ‘man of men’ might have become the Christ by election (Dialogue 67.1). However, he continues to challenge the virgin birth and incarnation (Dialogue 63.1; 67.1), as well as the crucifixion and ascension. Justin shows no hint of being satisfied with Trypho's concessions but instead redoubles his efforts to prove the virgin birth and pre-existent deity of Christ from the Scriptures.

Fourthly, later Christian writers regarded the Ebionites (who seem to have held the Christology described in Dialogue 48.4) as heretics. These include Irenaeus, who wrote within a generation of Justin, and probably used Justin’s lost work on heresies, Syntagma, as a source.14

e.      Scholarly views

What do scholars say? There is a range of views. Segal states that Justin “strongly disagrees with Christians who held this adoptionist christology.”15

Pritz comments on Dialogue 48.4 that

“This strongly worded statement should be contrasted with the tolerance of the previous ones” (of chapter 47). In his view, Justin “recognizes two kinds of Christians of the Jewish race whom he differentiates on christological grounds. One group, whom Justin condemns [chapter 48], holds doctrines which line up well with what is known to us of Ebionite teaching. The other group [chapter 47] differs from Justin’s orthodoxy only in its continued adherence to the Mosaic Law.”16

On the other hand, Hakkinen argues that

“Justin did not consider Jewish Christians to be heretics, even though they obeyed the Torah and practiced circumcision (46-47), and confessed Jesus to be the Messiah without believing in his divine origins (48)…For Justin, they were an acceptable part of Christianity as long as they did not demand that Gentile Christians become Jews.”17

Paget states that

“Justin does not seem to regard Ebionite-like people as heretical, a conclusion based upon Dialogue 47-48 where Jewish Christians are mentioned together with christological opinions akin to those of the Ebionites but are not held to be outside the church.”18

On the other hand, Paget suggests that Justin’s lost work Syntagma might well have held Ebionite-like people to be heretical due to their “errant christological views.”

In light of the evidence and the scholarly debate, perhaps a balanced conclusion would be that Justin views those who hold the ‘man of men’ Christology with considerable suspicion, but has not made up his mind as to whether or not it is heretical. He refrains from calling them Christians or brethren, and describes their doctrines in language he uses elsewhere only for heretics and non-Christian Jews. On the other hand, he also refrains from calling them heretics or blasphemers and does not deny that they are Christians. Since his tone of ‘not agreeing with them’ is similar to that in chapter 47, it may be that, like the law-observing Jewish Christians of chapter 47, he thought that they might be saved under certain conditions.

In our third and final post in this series we will look at what Justin says about the age and popularity of the man of men Christology.


1 See http://trinities.org/blog/archives/1704/comment-page-1
2 See http://trinities.org/blog/archives/1981
3 Koester, H. (2002). Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 2. Walter de Gruyter, p. 344.
4 Lincoln, A.T. (2013). Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. Eerdmans. p. 170 n. 3.
5 Machen, J.G. (1932). The Virgin Birth of Christ. James Clarke & Co., p. 16 n. 50.
6 Bull, G. (1855). The Judgment of the Catholic Church on the Necessity of Believing that Our Lord Jesus Christ is Very God. J.H. Parker, p. 172.
7 Falls, T.B. (1948). The First Apology; the Second Apology; Dialogue with Trypho; Exhortation to the Greeks. Christian Heritage Incorporated, p. 220 n. 2.
8 Bobichon, P. (2003). Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Texte Grec, Traduction, Vol. 1. Universite de Fribourg, pp. 304-305; Bobichon, P. (2003). Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Texte Grec, Traduction, Vol. 2. Universite de Fribourg, pp. 717-718 n. 9.
9 So Pritz, R. (1988). Nazarene Jewish Christianity. BRILL, p. 19ff; Paget, J.C. (2010). Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Antiquity. Mohr Siebeck, p. 327; Freyne, S. 2014. The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission. Eerdmans, p. 339. Hengel would also include Cerinthus as a possible referent along with the Ebionites (Hengel, M. (1992). The Septuagint as a Collection of Writings Claimed by Christians: Justin and the Church Fathers before Origen. In J.D.G. Dunn (Ed.), Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135 (39-84). Eerdmans, p. 52 n. 55).
10 Bobichon, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 717 n. 10.
11 Inasmuch as Justin in Dialogue 18 refers to Trypho having “read” the doctrines taught by Jesus, we probably have here a reference to the Old Testament and at least some of the Gospels.
12 In context, he is not here discussing different Christologies among professing Christians, but rather is responding to the charge that Christianity is a recent development and that those born before Christ would thus in effect have been atheists. (Of course, Justin means ‘born’ here in the sense of coming into existence, since he does go on to affirm that Christ was born of a virgin as a man). This language shows that Justin viewed the pre-existence of Christ as an important aspect of his worldview.
13 Choi, M.J. (2010). What is Christian orthodoxy according to Justin’s Dialogue? Scottish Journal of Theology 63(4): 398-413. p. 406.
14 Myllykoski, M. 2008. Cerinthus. In A. Marjanen & P. Luomanen (Eds.), A Companion to Second-Century Christian ‘Heretics’ (213-246). BRILL, p. 227.
15 Segal, A.F. 1992. Jewish Christianity, In H.W. Attridge and G. Hata (Eds.), Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism. Wayne State University Press, pp. 340-341.
16 Pritz, op. cit., p. 21.
17 Hakkinen, S. (2008). Ebionites. In A. Marjanen & P. Luomanen (Eds.), A Companion to Second-Century Christian ‘Heretics’ (247-278). BRILL, p. 249. Hakkinen suggests that Justin’s work on heresies, Syntagma, did not originally include the Ebionites, but had been updated by Irenaeus’ time to include them (op. cit., pp. 250-251).
18 Paget, op. cit., p. 327.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Justin Martyr and the 'Man of Men' Christology (Part 1)

In my previous post, I offered some comments on a talk given by Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke on the subject of second century Gentile Christianity. On the positive side, it is encouraging that Dave implicitly recognizes the importance of second century Christian writings for correctly understanding the beliefs and practices of the early church. On the negative side, Dave tends to view the second century church through Christadelphian lenses which sometimes clouds his reading of the sources. Justin Martyr’s reference to those who held a ‘man of men’ Christology is a case in point.

Dave notes that (wrongly, in his view) Justin himself believed in the pre-existence and ontological divinity of Christ. He then describes Justin's views on others who do not share these doctrines with him:

"He says that he knows other Christians who do not believe that Jesus pre-existed as a divine being who believed that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being, and that he only became immortal when he was resurrected, and he acknowledges these other Christians, and he still accepts them as Christians, and crucially, he admits that theirs is the older belief, which is very interesting."1

Dave is obviously taking his cues here from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 48.4. However, his description of Justin’s views is unfortunately a combination of misrepresentation and partial disclosure. Over the next three posts my aim is to provide some commentary that will hopefully enable the reader to better understand this passage.

The relevant text reads as follows in the 19th century Roberts-Donaldson translation:

"Now assuredly, Trypho," I continued," [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. 3 But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father's will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. 4 For there are some, my friends," I said, "of our2 race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself." (Dialogue 48.2-4)

This text, together with Dave’s description of it, raises three important questions which I plan to address below and in two subsequent posts.

1)      What was the ‘man of men’ Christology Justin referred to in Dialogue 48.4?
2)      Did Justin accept those who held the ‘man of men’ Christology as Christians?
3)      How did Justin view the age and popularity of the ‘man of men’ Christology relative to his own Christology?

Let us begin with the first question, which is the easiest to answer. What was the Christology to which Justin referred and with which he disagreed? Justin says that there were some who admitted that Jesus was the Christ, while holding him to be a “man of men.” This stands in contrast to Justin’s own view, that Christ pre-existed and was born a man by the virgin. As the term ‘man of men’ implies, those who held this view denied the virgin birth, as well as the pre-existence. Now Dave neglects to mention that ‘man of men’ refers to a man born of human parentage, i.e. without a virgin birth. Instead, he takes ‘man of men’ to mean “that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being.”

This interpretation cannot be sustained. In the first place, Justin himself affirmed that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being. This can be seen within the immediate context, in which Justin refers to Jesus as “a man of like passions with us, having a body.” Trypho too had just acknowledged that Justin believed that Christ “submitted to be born and become man, yet that He is not man of man” (Dialogue 48.1). In several other places in the Dialogue Justin affirms Jesus’ humanity in robust terms (Dialogue 57.3; 67.6; 70.4; 98.1; 99.2; 100.2-3; 103.8; 110.2). In another of his writings, Justin explicitly repudiates a Docetic view of Christ:

“And there are some who maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise.” (On the Resurrection 2)

Obviously ‘man of men’ cannot refer to a Christology with which Justin himself agrees; thus Dave’s interpretation of this term is clearly incorrect. In Dialogue 54.2 Justin makes it clear what he means by the term ‘man of men’: “But this prophecy, sirs, which I repeated, proves that Christ is not man of men, begotten in the ordinary course of humanity.” Again, in Dialogue 67.2 and 76.1-2, the phrase ‘man of men’ is contrasted specifically with the idea of virgin birth or supernatural origin.

We can thus state conclusively that the doctrine that Christ was a ‘man of men’ does not refer to his literal, flesh and blood, mortal humanity (something Justin himself affirmed). Instead, it refers specifically to the view that Jesus was conceived in the usual way by the sexual union of two human parents, in contrast to Justin’s belief in the virgin birth. Denial of Christ’s pre-existence is an obvious corollary, but the immediate sense of ‘man of men’ is a repudiation of the doctrine of the virgin birth.

The way Dave described this text in his talk, the listener gets the impression that Justin is drawing a contrast between his own Docetic pre-existence Christology and a Christology which would be acceptable to Christadelphians. In fact, the listener would be mistaken on both counts. Justin was not a Docetist, and the ‘man of men’ Christology is not compatible with that of Christadelphians. Article 3 of the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith states that Jesus was “begotten of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, without the intervention of man”3 while Article 28 of the Doctrines to be Rejected declares, “We reject the doctrine – that Joseph was the actual father of Jesus.”4

Hence, Dialogue 48.4 can only be construed as a contrast between two Christologies which are both regarded by Christadelphians as heretical.

There is no hint anywhere in the Dialogue of a Christology which (like Christadelphians) affirms the virgin birth but denies the pre-existence and incarnation. Indeed, throughout the Dialogue, it is virtually assumed that the pre-existence and virgin birth are inextricably linked. Trypho does not seem to find the virgin birth any easier to accept than the pre-existence. He regards the virgin birth as a “monstrous phenomenon” comparable to the foolish talk of the Greeks (Dialogue 67.2). He also appears to concede that the idea of pre-existent divinity links logically into the idea of virgin birth (Dialogue 50.1; 57.3; 63.1). For Justin's part, he repeatedly refers to the two ideas together in a way that shows they are inseparable in his mind (Dialogue 45.4; 48.2; 75.4; 84.1-2; 85.2; 87.2; 100.2-4; 105.1; 113.4; 127.4).

To summarize, Dave has unfortunately left his audience with an exaggerated sense of the significance of this text for Christadelphian apologetics. Justin’s extant writings do not in fact contain any evidence that a Christology compatible with that of Christadelphians existed in his day.

In the next post we will look at a trickier question: how Justin viewed those who held the 'man of men' Christology.


1 Burke, D. (Producer). (2014). Servants of the Lord NSW 2014, Session 8 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.milktomeat.org.
2 Or, ‘your race’ (see discussion in following post).
3 The Christadelphian Statement of Faith. Retrieved from http://christadelphia.org/basf.htm.
4 Doctrines to be Rejected. Retrieved from http://christadelphia.org/reject.htm.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Greek philosophy and early Gentile Christianity

I have been listening to some teaching material delivered recently by Christadelphian teacher Dave Burke, apparently at a series of youth weekends in Australia and subsequently posted to his blog. One of my reasons for listening was that Dave and I have interacted for years over the internet on discussion forums and more recently on Facebook, but have never met face to face. Unfortunately we have disagreed more often than we have agreed. One of my personal goals is to behave more nobly in religious dialogue, even when there is disagreement, and particularly when the dialogue takes place on the Internet. It helps when one is able to perceive his dialogue partner as a real human being as opposed to a cyber-theologian. Listening to Dave's disarming Aussie accent and dry sense of humour certainly helped in this regard.

From what I've heard so far, the series of talks Dave delivered entitled, The Servants of the Lord was very impressive. In what amounted to an introduction to biblical scholarship, the sheer volume of material that Dave has able to cover is staggering. I doubt there are many attendees of Christian youth camps who walk away so well equipped with background and tools for biblical exegesis.

Taken in the context of that overall assessment, I hope Dave won't mind if I offer some criticism. When it comes to his comments on early Gentile Christianity, and Justin Martyr in particular, his tendency to view church history through a Christadelphian lens clouds the facts.

Gentile Christianity

In a subsection of his series entitled 'Gentile Christianity', Dave gives following account:
We're going to move into the second century now. The second century takes us into the realm of Gentile Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, the Jews dispersed far and wide and so did the Christians. And Christianity had already spread into Gentile lands by the 50s and 60s, but now Christians who originally had been quite happy to remain in places like Jerusalem were forced out and had to go much further afield. Some of them went to Antioch, a lot of them went even further. And this actually had the effect of spreading the Christian message to places which had not heard it before. But unfortunately it also had a side effect and this was that increasingly now there were more Gentile converts than Jewish converts. Jerusalem was no longer the headquarters, the nexus, of the Christian community. The Spirit-guided leadership which they had once relied on had passed away for the most part. And now Christians were finding that as Gentiles were converted, they brought their own worldview, some of their own preconceptions and assumptions and philosophies and theologies with them. And they didn't always leave those ideas behind. Some of them sought to amalgamate Christianity with their pre-existing ideas.1
Now, it may be that Dave just made a poor choice of words here. However, as it stands, he has described the fact that Gentile converts came to outnumber Jewish converts in the early second century as an unfortunate side effect of the dispersion of Christians throughout the Empire!

When Jesus commanded his disciples, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19; cf. Acts 13:47), did he envisage Jewish disciples remaining in the majority? Given that Gentiles outnumbered Jews by about 9 to 1 in the first century Roman Empire,2 would it not be a natural and desirable consequence of the Great Commission for Gentile converts to outnumber Jewish converts?

When Jerusalem ceased to be the headquarters of the church, and Christians were dispersed throughout the Empire following the destruction of the temple, was this 'unfortunate' from a divine point of view? How could it be, when this dispersion of Christians had the effect of advancing the gospel to a great number of Gentiles (as in Acts 11:19-21)? Note also that the Lord Jesus himself had foretold the destruction of the temple as an act of divine judgment (Matthew 23:34-24:2). Yes, in one sense it was unfortunate inasmuch as judgment brings sorrow to God (Ezekiel 33:11), but was it not also part of God's plan for the growth of the church which was itself God's temple (2 Corinthians 6:16)?

Dave paints a very bleak picture of the early second century church. We won't contend in detail here with his assumption that the leadership of the church was no longer Spirit-guided; but if true, this cessation of Spirit activity must have been God's will. Thus, the set of circumstances in which the church found itself in the early second century (no more temple; dispersion leading to many Gentile conversions; [allegedly] no Spirit guidance) can all be linked back to the will of God. Bear in mind as well that Jesus himself had promised to be personally present in the church's growth until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). In what sense then can these developments be deemed 'unfortunate' for the church? And what does Dave think ought to have happened?

Dave highlights that Gentile converts brought their own ideas with them when they came to Christianity, which replaced the Jewish worldview that had previously dominated the church:
as we go through the second century A.D., we will see Gentiles misinterpreting Scripture because of the preconceptions they bring to it, and their failure to understand the cultural and historical context of these writings.3
Now Dave is able to produce some excellent second-century examples in which the confluence of Greek ideas and a low view of the Old Testament (and, in particular, its God) did result in apostasy, such as Marcion and Valentinus. However, he doesn't seem to see much of a qualitative difference between these writings and others such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the works of Justin Martyr. These latter writings are critical of Judaism but show great valuation and esteem for the Old Testament and familiarity with Jewish methods of exegesis.

The Epistle of Barnabas

There is no disputing that the Epistle of Barnabas contains some strange ideas, particularly concerning the Law of Moses and the covenant with the Jews. However, these are not necessarily the result of Gentile failure to interpret Jewish texts. In fact, Paget, arguably the pre-eminent scholarly authority on this document in our generation, emphasizes the "Jewish character" of the work and describes it as a "Jewish-Christian epistle."4 Paget regards it as unclear whether the author was a Jew or a Gentile (leaning guardedly toward the Gentile view), but emphasizes the author's "knowledge and use of Jewish exegetical methods."5

Dave takes issue with the Epistle of Barnabas' Christological interpretation of Genesis 1:26 (Barnabas 5:5), pointing out that such an interpretation has no precedent in Judaism and is also not regarded as plausible by modern scholars. However, this is again not simply a case of Gentiles misunderstanding a Jewish text, but of the early church reading Scripture Christologically; a hermeneutic also found in the New Testament. There are numerous Old Testament texts which the New Testament writers interpreted Christologically in a way unprecedented in ancient Judaism and which modern critical scholarship does not regard as the original meaning of the text (e.g. Isaiah 7:14, Hosea 11:1 or Psalm 102:25-27). Arguably in Barnabas 5:5 a similar Jewish hermeneutic is at work. While Paul does not go as far as the Epistle of Barnabas and suggest that God's words in Genesis were originally spoken to Christ, he does use "christocentric language reminiscent of Genesis 1:26-27" in Romans 8:29.6 7 It is thus not as non-Jewish as Dave might think for the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas to see a Christological sensus plenior in Genesis 1:26-27.

With regard to the issue of authorship of this work, Dave rightly notes that no scholars today attribute the Epistle of Barnabas to Paul's companion of that name. Dave cynically states that it got its name because that is what people did in those days when they wanted to gain credibility for something they had written five minutes earlier. However, the body of the Epistle of Barnabas nowhere mentions Barnabas by name. Some scholars have suggested that the ascription to Barnabas was secondary, i.e. not something the author himself claimed.8 Thus, this is not necessarily a pseudonymous work.9

It should be added that an unfortunate feature of Dave's dialogue at this point is his disregard of the later church consensus regarding which writings from this period were good and which were bad. He moves through Marcion, the Epistle of Barnabas, Valentinus and Justin Martyr. Further along, Dave refers to the Shepherd of Hermas and 2 Clement in a list of no particular order which also includes the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of Basilides. While Dave does emphasize that Marcion was rejected by the church, he does not for the most part distinguish between those writings which were rejected as Gnostic heresy (e.g. Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Basilides) and those which ultimately gained acceptance among the 'Apostolic Fathers' (Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Clement). Dave appears to paint most of these writings with the same brush (i.e. as reflecting the corruption of the church by Gentile thought), without exploring the reasons why some came to be accepted by the church and others came to be rejected.

Justin Martyr the Philosopher

Commenting on Justin's background in Greek philosophy, Dave comments:
Justin Martyr, however, brought his pagan Greek preconceptions and philosophical preconceptions to the gospel message, and when he read the New Testament he interpreted it through a pagan Hellenic filter.10
He goes on to criticize Justin for retaining his philosopher's robe after converting to Christianity:
Justin continued to wear his philosopher's robe even after converting Christianity. This is a huge contrast to the men of Ephesus, who when they were converted, scooped up all their magical and philosophical scrolls and burned them, and put that behind them. But Justin Martyr retained many of his former ideas, and he still considered himself a philosopher, and he considered Christianity the highest form of philosophy.11
In the first place, the passage about the men of Ephesus to which Dave is referring (Acts 19:18-19) makes no mention of philosophical writings but only of magical writings. Indeed, the whole pericope has nothing at all to do with philosophy. And when Paul does interact with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:16-34), he engages them on their own terms, even quoting from their writings. As Sterling explains, the author of Acts
sets the scene for Paul’s Aereopagetica by presenting him in debate with certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who charge the Christian missionary with the crime for which Socrates was executed (Acts 17:18, 20; Xenophon, Mem. 1:1:1; cf. also Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 5:3; 2 Apol. 10:5). This is not the first time in Acts that a disciple or group of disciples appears in a role reminiscent of Socrates (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29; and Plato, Apol. 29d). The speech which follows is an argument that Greek philosophy is a forerunner to Christianity. The author even cites a line from Aratus of Soli who learned his Stoicism from Zeno, the founder of the Stoa (Acts 17:28; Aratus, Phaen. 5).12
The use of Hellenistic philosophy was not an innovation of second century Gentile Christianity. To the contrary, it can be found in pre-Christian Jewish writings, and there are also elements of it in the New Testament (as we saw in Acts 17). So Sterling tells us, "Jewish authors such as Aristobulus, the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo used Hellenistic philosophy to restate their own understandings of the divine"13 and, "For those who attempt to bring the human experience of God to articulation through critical reflection, philosophy is a natural resource; at least a number of New Testament writers thought so."14 There appear to have been different views in the early church concerning Greek philosophy. For instance, Tertullian in the Latin West did not regard Greek philosophy as being of any use to the church (De praescriptione haereticorum, ch. 7).

As to Justin Martyr himself, while he obviously knew and used Hellenistic philosophy, the way he used it was not as simple as combining Hellenistic philosophical preconceptions with Christianity:
While it is true that he grants a certain legitimacy to some of the opinions of the philosophers, it would be wrong to assume that Justin’s main intention is to reconcile Christianity to Greek philosophy...On the contrary, the similarities Justin enumerates clearly are intended to prove the superiority of Christianity.15
Justin's appeal to philosophical sources can be explained as a rhetorical device, like Paul's in Athens.
Both Apologies and Dialogue operate on a common strategy, of justifying Christianity by appealing to texts, Jewish or Gentile, which the intended reader will grant to carry authority.16
The idea that Justin interpreted the New Testament through a pagan Hellenic filter is even less credible. Dave here fails to recognize the very low esteem Justin had for pagan religion:
Notoriously, Justin’s thrust is directed towards splitting apart religion and philosophy. Towards pagan cult and myth he is vehemently negative: They are crude, superstitious, and immoral both in content and in practical influence.17
We should also be wary of exaggerating the influence that philosophy had on Justin's theology. For instance, in Edwards' study of the background to Justin's Logos concept, he argues that Justin's notion of the Logos is rooted in the biblical tradition and not in Stoic or Platonic philosophy as earlier scholars had generally supposed.18 In a similar vein, Price writes,
The easy and frequent use of "Logos" as a title of the Son came to Justin not from Greek philosophy but from the constant mention of the "word of God" in the Old Testament, as transmitted to him in the Greek of the Septuagint and developed by such Jewish biblical commentators as Philo.19
Furthermore, before censuring Justin for trying to develop a synthesis between Christian and Greek philosophy, Dave needs to ask himself whether he does not, in effect, do the same. A recent article in a publication edited by Dave, commenting on the difficulties that the fossil record presents for a traditional interpretation of early Genesis, expresses the need for "a resolution to this problem that respects both the scientific and Biblical evidence."20 In other words, the writer advocates seeking a synthesis between Scripture and modern science. Indeed, physical sciences aside, the exegetical methods which are used by scholars today in their study of Scripture are fundamentally scientific. Now, "the English word 'science' refers to a practice that to a large extent can be traced back to the early Greek philosophers."21 It was by "revitalizing Greek thought" that medieval philosophers were able to set in motion forces that would ultimately overturn the medieval worldview and create modern Western thought.22

Similarly, Christadelphian apologists like Dave are well known for use of logical arguments in the form of syllogisms in theological deliberations. Whom do they have to thank for this? "The first explicit theory of propositional connectives was developed by a collection of thinkers known as the Stoics" and "The Stoic definition of argument is strikingly modern."23

So Dave faults Justin for practicing Greek philosophy while he himself is quite content to appeal to modern science and logic, both of which have Greek philosophy as their ancestor. The major difference between Justin and ourselves is that human knowledge is far more advanced today than it was in the second century. But to fault Justin on this basis amounts to mere chronocentrism. In fact, those of us who value the role of science and logic in the church today should probably be grateful that Justin and other early Christian intellectuals didn't burn their philosophy books as Dave implies they should have done.

In summary, Dave's criticism of Justin Martyr for using Hellenistic philosophy is unfair on three counts: (1) this was not an innovation of second-century Gentile Christianity; instead he was following precedents set by pre-Christian Hellenistic Jews and, at least to some extent, the New Testament writers. (2) The idea that Justin interpreted the New Testament through a pagan Hellenic filter not only exaggerates the influence of Greek philosophy on his theology, but also ignores Justin's very negative view of paganism. (3) Justin Martyr's attempt at a synthesis of Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy is not fundamentally different from contemporary attempts at a synthesis of Christian beliefs with modern science and logic - methodologies which themselves developed from Greek philosophy and which Dave endorses and uses.

In a follow-up post we will look more specifically at Dave's claims regarding Justin Martyr's theological positions.


1 Burke, D. (Producer). (2014). Servants of the Lord NSW 2014, Session 8 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.milktomeat.org. Emphasis added.
2 Pasachoff, N.E. and Littman, R.J. (2005). A Concise History of the Jewish People. Rowman & Littlefield, p. 120.
3 Burke, op. cit.
4 Paget, J.C. (1996). Paul and the Epistle of Barnabas. Novum Testamentum 38(4): 359-381. pp. 378-379.
5 Paget, J.C. (2006). The Epistle of Barnabas. Expository Times 117(11): 441-446. p. 442.
6 Grenz, S.J. (2006). The Social God and the Relational Self: Toward a Theology of the Imago Dei in the Postmodern Context. In R. Lints et al (Eds.), Personal Identity in Theological Perspective (70-94). Eerdmans, p. 82.
7 See also Beale, G.K. (2007). Colossians. In G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson (Eds.), Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (841-919). Baker Academic, p. 852)
8 Paget, J.C. (1994). The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background. Mohr Siebeck, p. 7.
9 The same is true of 2 Clement. This work does not claim to have been written by Clement (in fact, neither does 1 Clement). Far from being a pseudepigraph, Tuckett suggests that the anonymity of 2 Clement's author is "a reflection perhaps of his somewhat self-effacing modesty" (Tuckett, C. (2012). 2 Clement: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Oxford University Press, p. 17.)
10 Burke, op. cit.
11 Burke, op. cit.
12 Sterling, G.E. (1997). Hellenistic Philosophy and the New Testament. In S.E. Porter (Ed.), A Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament. BRILL, p. 313, emphasis added.
13 Sterling, op. cit., p. 314.
14 Sterling, op. cit., p. 342.
15 Droge, A.J. (1987). Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy. Church History 56(3): 303-319. pp. 306-307.
16 Chadwick, H. (1993). The Gospel a Republication of Natural Religion in Justin Martyr. Illinois Classical Studies 18: 237-247. p. 247.
17 Chadwick, op. cit., p. 238.
18 Edwards, M.J. (1995). Justin's Logos and the Word of God. Journal of Early Christian Studies 3(3): 261-280. p. 261.
19 Price, R.M. (1988). 'Hellenization' and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr. Vigiliae Christianae 42(1): 18-23. p. 20.
20 Gilmore, K. (2014). The Bible is not a science textbook. Defence and Confirmation, Vol. 1. Retrieved from https://app.box.com/s/9ym4rw6c2le092pco7u0. p. 16.
21 Preus, A. (2007). Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Philosophy. Scarecrow Press, p. 233.
22 Perry, M. et al. (2012). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, Volume I: To 1789. Cengage Learning, p. 260.
23 Bonevac, D. and Dever, J. (2012). A Short History of the Connectives. In D.M. Gabbay, F.J. Pelletier and J. Woods (Eds)., Logic: A History of its Central Concepts (175-234). Newnes, p. 177.