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Sunday, 24 September 2023

Early Jewish-Christian Christology in the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus

The Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus (DJP) is a little-known early Christian text that describes a theological dialogue between Jason (a Jewish Christian) and Papiscus (a non-Christian Jew). It does not survive except for a few fragments and summaries preserved by later authors, but is believed by scholars to have been used as a source by later Christian-Jewish dialogue texts, starting with Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160 C.E.).1 The earliest mention of DJP is in Origen's Against Celsus 4.52-53 (written 249 C.E.). The exact title Origen gives to the work is "A Controversy between Jason and Papiscus about Christ".2 Origen reports that Celsus had attacked this work in his ante-Christian polemic, which scholars date to c. 176-180 C.E.3

John of Scythopolis (6th century) ascribes the work to Aristo(n) of Pella (an attribution widely accepted by modern scholars), while noting that Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd century) had attributed the work to St. Luke the Evangelist.4 Eusebius of Caesarea names Aristo of Pella as a source for his knowledge of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 C.E.),5 for which reason scholars typically date DJP to c. 140 C.E. (later than the Bar Kochba Revolt, but early enough to have influenced Justin Martyr and Celsus).6

Scholarly knowledge of DJP has grown significantly since the discovery and publication in the early 21st century of a fragment of the text preserved in its original language, Greek.7 Known as the Sinaiticus Fragment (due to its discovery at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert), it is contained in a sermon delivered by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, on 1 January 635, who names the "Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus" before quoting from it at length. Sophronius' sermon asserts that St. Luke the Evangelist wrote DJP. Celsus Africanus (not Origen's opponent) referred to the author of DJP as a Hebrew Christian,8 which modern scholars such as Lawrence Lahey accept.9 

That the Jewish Christian author of DJP held a high Christology (i.e., affirmed Christ's preexistence and divinity) is evident from the Sinaiticus Fragment and other surviving fragments. The Sinaiticus Fragment includes the following passage:
Papiscus said, “I would like to learn for what cause you honor the first day after the Sabbath.” Jason answered, “In this way, God commanded this through Moses, saying: ‘Behold! I am making the last things just as the first!’ The last [day of the week] is the Sabbath, but day one after the Sabbath is first, for on it, by the word of God, the beginning of the entire universe took place, as also the scripture of Moses declares, just as God spoke, ‘let there be light and there was light.’ The Logos which came forth from God and made the light was Christ, the son of God through whom all things came to be.10
Thus, DJP evidently held a Logos Christology similar to that found in the prologue of the Gospel of John. Writing at the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome, in his Hebrew Questions on Genesis , reports that DJP offered a reading of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 that begins with "In the Son" rather than "In the beginning":
'In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.' The majority believe, as it is written in The Dispute Between Jason and Papiscus, and as Tertullian in his book Against Praxeas contends, and as Hilary also asserts in the exposition of a certain psalm, that in the Hebrew it is '[i]n the son, God made heaven and earth.' The fact of the matter proves that this is a mistake.11
Although St. Jerome is rightly dismissive of this rendition of the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1, the point is that it shows that DJP held a pre-existence Christology in which the Son was present at creation. 

Finally, Lawrence Lahey observes that multiple Christian-Jewish dialogues from the fifth and sixth centuries (the Acts of Sylvester and the Dialogue of Timothy the Christian and Aquila the Jew) contain a similar passage in which a Jew offers objections to Christ's divinity on the grounds that the frailties of corporeal existence are unbefitting of God. Lahey notes the resemblance of this passage to material in Anastasius the Sinaite's Hodegos 14 (c. 685 C.E.), who attributes the objections to Philo of Alexandria in a disputation with "Mnason", a disciple of the apostles. Noting that "Mnason" and "Jason" are variant forms of the same name in Greek NT manuscripts of Acts 21:16, that Papiscus is called an Alexandrian Jew (like Philo) by Celsus Africanus, and that Anastasius was probably working from memory in the Sinai desert without access to books, Lahey argues that Anastasius "likely quotes a Jewish reply from [DJP]".12 The parallel passage in the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila 5.12-17 reads thus:13
(Aquila said:) For concerning this Jesus, just as his memoirs contain, in those you call Gospels, we find from where he is, and his parents with him, and how is this one God? But is God suckled or does he grow and become strong? And I will say that which Luke says concerning him. For the point now is  concerning this one who also fled when John was beheaded by Herod, and then was handed over by his own disciple, and bound, and mocked, and scourged, and spat upon, and was crucified, and was buried, but even first also hungered, and thirsted, and was tempted by Satan. Does God submit to these things done by men? But who can see God? Let me not say that he was also handled, and suffered so many things which indeed it is impossible for God to suffer these things; but also sour wine was drunk, and he was fed gall, and was struck on his head with a rod, and was crowned with thorns, and finally was sentenced to death, and was crucified with thieves. I am astonished. How are you not ashamed saying that God himself entered a womb of a woman and was born? For if he was born, he did not then exist before eternity, but also presently where is he?"14
If Lahey is correct that the above paraphrases an objection from Papiscus originally found in DJP, the substance of the objection implies that the Hebrew Christian apologist Jason was defending a Christology of divine incarnation.

To conclude, then, the surviving fragments of and references to the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus provide evidence that a Jewish Christian apologist, writing within living memory of the time of the apostles, defended a divine preexistence Christology. It adds an additional nail in the coffin of the idea, popular among unitarian apologists today, that incarnational Christology was a product of Gentile imaginations such as that of Justin Martyr.

  • 1 Oskar Skarsaune argues at length for Justin's dependence on DJP (The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition [Leiden: Brill, 1987], 234-42).
  • 2 Henry Chadwick, trans. Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 227.
  • 3 Fran├žois Bovon and John M. Duffy, "A New Greek Fragment from Ariston of Pella's Dialogue of Justin and Papiscus", Harvard Theological Review 105 (2012): 457-65.
  • 4 See discussion in Harry Tolley, "The Jewish–Christian Dialogue Jason and Papiscus in Light of the Sinaiticus Fragment", Harvard Theological Review 114 (2021): 1-26.
  • 5 Church History 4.6.3.
  • 6 Lawrence Lahey, "Evidence for Jewish Believers in Christian-Jewish Dialogues through the Sixth Century (excluding Justin", in Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (eds.), Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 581-639.
  • 7 See Bovon and Duffy, "New Greek Fragment"; Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue".
  • 8 "That noble, memorable, and glorious Dispute occurred between Jason, a Hebrew Christian and Papiscus an Alexandrian Jew; the obstinate heart of the Jew was softened by the admonition and gentle chiding of the Hebrew, and the teaching of Jason on the giving of the Holy Spirit was victorious in the heart of Papiscus." (Celsus Africanus, Ad Vigilium Episcopum de Iudaica Incredulitate, trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 23.)
  • 9 "It was written by a Jewish believer, for in contrast to all known dialogues through the sixth century, the Christian participant (Jason), is said to be a Hebrew Christian... If JP had survived, it would be an important source of Jewish Christian theology and of its view of and arguments towards other non-believing Jews" ("Evidence for Jewish Believers", 585-86).
  • 10 trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 25.
  • 11 trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 22.
  • 12 "Evidence for Jewish Believers, 589-91, 601-603. Lahey makes the argument at greater length in another work to which I do not have access ("Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Genuine Jewish-Christian Debate in The Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila", Journal of Jewish Studies 51 (2000): 281-96.
  • 13 I could not find an English translation of the relevant portion of Anastasius' Hodegos 14, and don't trust myself to try and translate 7th-century Greek. The Greek text and a Latin translation can be viewed at Patrologia Graecae 89.244-48. The substance of the passage is basically the same, consisting of objections to the notion that God became incarnate and thus subjected himself to human weaknesses such as hunger, thirst, bleeding, and death.
  • 14 trans. Lahey, "Evidence for Jewish Believers", 602 n. 100.