dianoigo blog

Monday 1 September 2014

Justin Martyr and the 'Man of Men' Christology (Part 3)

This is the final installment of a three-part series on the 'man of men' Christology mentioned by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho 48.4. In the first post we looked at the content of this Christology and that it regarded Jesus as the Christ but denied his virgin birth and pre-existent divinity. In the second post we looked at Justin's view toward the proponents of this doctrine. This was more difficult to determine. He has nothing positive to say about them, and describes it as a human doctrine as opposed to the teachings of the prophets and Christ himself. On the other hand he does not use the kind of strong language with which he denounces heresies elsewhere in the Dialogue. This leaves open the possibility that he regarded the proponents of the doctrine as fellow Christians in spite of their error.

We now turn to the third question we posed at the beginning of the series: how did Justin view the age and popularity of the ‘man of men’ Christology relative to his own Christology?

a.      Which does Justin regard as the older belief?

In Dave Burke's talk about second century Christianity (which was the impetus for this series), he tells his audience that "crucially, [Justin] admits that [the man of men Christology] is the older belief, which is very interesting." However, there is simply no evidence to support this claim. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence against it. Right in Dialogue 48.4 we see that Justin regards his own Christology (which affirms pre-existent divinity and the virgin birth) as something which had been taught by the prophets and Christ himself.

Justin Martyr elsewhere refers to the pre-existence of Christ as something "we have been taught" (First Apology 46).1 References to what "we" have been taught are used frequently by Justin to earlier Christian tradition, including even the words of Jesus (First Apology 4; 6; 10; 12; 13; 14; 15; 17; 19; 23; 27; 32; 33; 44; 46; 67; Second Apology 4; Dialogue 18.1; 96.2-3; 118.3; 133.6). It is likely then that Justin has here preserved an earlier tradition (probably dependent on Colossians 1:15 or Hebrews 1:6) which takes πρωτότοκος (first-born) as an indication of Christ's pre-existence.

As to the virgin birth, Justin refers in First Apology 33 to traditional material which is probably dependent on both the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives.

We can also note here that within a generation of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus could assert that the doctrine that the Son of God "became incarnate for our salvation" was part of the faith "received from the apostles and their disciples" (Against Heresies 1.10.1). So the Christians at this time regarded the doctrine of incarnation as a tradition they had received.

There is no indication that Justin regarded himself as an innovator of Christian doctrine. Dave’s statement that Justin admitted the ‘man of men’ Christology is older than his own is without any basis.

b.      Which does Justin regard as the more popular belief?

Dave does not comment on the relative popularity of Justin's Christology versus the 'man of men' Christology. There is, however, an intriguing (albeit difficult) statement which may be an acknowledgment of the popularity of the latter view in Justin's day. The Greek clause in 48.4 following Justin's expression of disagreement with the 'man of men' doctrine (οἷς οὐ συντίθεμαι, οὐδ' ἂν πλεῖστοι ταὐτά μοι δοξάσαντες εἴποιεν) is ambiguous and could be translated in two different ways, expressed by Bobichon as follows:

1) Avis que je ne partage pas avec eux, et ne partagerais pas davantage, quand bien même le plus grand nombre, qui pense comme moi, affirmerait la même chose2
2) Je ne suis pas de leur avis, et un très grand nombre qui pense comme moi ne consentirait pas à le dire.3

Here is an English translation of the above (with thanks to my friend Bernard Kengni for his assistance with the translation):

1) An opinion that I do not share with them, and would never share either, even though the largest number of people who think like me should affirm the same thing.
2) I do not agree with them, and a very large number of people who think like me would not agree to say so.

The matter largely hinges on whether we take οὐδε to mean 'nor' or 'even if', both of which are syntactically possible. Importantly, the syntax ἂν...εἴποιεν can be recognized as a potential optative. This means we have here a fourth class condition, which "indicates a possible condition in the future, usually a remote possibility."4 This suggests that, under either translation, ‘affirm the same thing’ or ‘agree to say so’ is viewed as a future possibility (perhaps an unlikely future possibility) rather than a present reality.

Hence, under the first translation, Justin would seem to be saying that in the event that the majority of Christians adopted this doctrine, he himself would not. Under the second translation, Justin would seem to be saying that the majority of Christians, if presented with this doctrine, would not agree with it. In neither case is Justin making an explicit statement about the present popularity of the ‘man of men’ Christology.

Having said that, if the first translation is correct, one might ask why Justin would concern himself even with the possibility of the ‘man of men’ Christology being the majority view unless it was already very popular. Bobichon comments that the second translation suggests that Justin’s view was more popular. Of the first translation, however, which he prefers, he writes:

“Elle laisse entendre au contraire que cette certitude [que le Christ était Dieu, et préexistant] n'était pas partagée par la majorité des chrétiens” (It suggests instead that this view [that Christ was God, and pre-existent] was not shared by the majority of Christians)5 (my translation)

In support of this reading, Bobichon observes that Justin proceeds to offer a justification for his admittedly ‘paradoxical’ view of Christ’s origin. Paget, on the other hand, suggests that since Justin does not devote much space in the Dialogue to these Jewish Christians (whom he equates with the law-following Christians of chapter 47) they were “very much a minority within the church.”6 He does allow that Justin’s attitude of compromise, “particularly in relation to law-observing gentile Christians, might imply a greater presence.”

Freyne likewise argues that “In Justin’s day, the Gentile Christian movement initiated by Paul had become the dominant force” and the Jewish Christian wing of the movement was in the process of being marginalized.7

I do not find Bobichon’s conclusion persuasive for several reasons. Firstly, as noted above a fourth class condition denotes a future possibility (often a remote one) and not a current reality. Secondly, Bobichon’s interpretation requires us to believe that Justin regarded not only the divinity and pre-existence of Christ but also the virgin birth as minority views in the second century church. However, Justin was very familiar with Matthew's Gospel8 and probably Luke's,9 both of which plainly declare the virgin birth. Justin's quotation concerning the virgin birth from the Gospel traditions in First Apology 33 is probably dependent on both Matthew and Luke. How likely is it that he could imagine the majority of Christians to be in ignorance or rejection of these traditions?

Thirdly, while Justin does offer a justification for his own view (an appeal to Scripture and the teachings of Jesus), he does the same when upholding his own position against opposing views elsewhere (Dialogue 35; 80). This cannot be regarded as evidence for the popularity of the position he opposes.

Fourthly, Justin's assertion that "There are some of your race..." (following the Parisinus manuscript reading as discussed in the previous post) suggests that this belief was limited to some of the Jewish Christians, who were a minority in the church by this time.10

Fifthly, Bobichon’s interpretation is only plausible if his translation of the clause is correct, which is uncertain. He himself acknowledges that both translations are possible. He cites three other scholars who fully agree with him, and another two who agree less completely, on the first translation. He also cites five scholars who favour the second translation.11

In summary, it is possible to interpret Justin as holding the 'man of men' Christology to be the majority view, and there is some scholarly support for such a reading. However, there are also reasons to doubt it and it must be judged at most uncertain, given the ambiguity of the Greek and the hypothetical nature of the fourth class condition.


To conclude, we can set Dave’s interpretation of Dialogue 48.4 in contrast to a balanced view of the matter as follows.

·      Whereas Dave depicts the ‘man of men’ Christology simply as an affirmation of Jesus’ literal flesh-and-blood humanity over against his pre-existent divinity, it in fact entailed rejection or ignorance of the virgin birth, which he does not mention. Moreover, Dave implies that Justin himself denied Jesus’ literal flesh-and-blood mortal humanity, which he did not.
·       Whereas Dave states without qualification that Justin accepted those who held the ‘man of men’ Christology as Christians, Justin in fact expressed sharp disagreement with them and accused them of teaching doctrines of men rather than those of the prophets and of Christ himself. It is difficult to determine whether Justin regarded them as heretical or not.
·       Whereas Dave states without qualification that Justin acknowledges the ‘man of men’ Christology as older than his own, there is in fact no evidence in Justin’s writings to support this. While it is possible that Justin acknowledges the ‘man of men’ Christology as more popular than his own, this is again disputed.

I commend Dave on his efforts to educate young Christadelphians about the history of the patristic church. However, I hope that he will exercise greater objectivity in future lectures than he has shown in his treatment of this particular subject.

1 The specific statement is "We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God", but this is clearly made in contrast to the idea "that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago" and thus indicates pre-existence.
2 Bobichon, P. (2003). Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Texte Grec, Traduction, Vol. 1. Universite de Fribourg, p. 305.
3 Bobichon, P. (2003). Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Texte Grec, Traduction, Vol. 2. Universite de Fribourg, p. 718 n. 11.
4 Wallace, D.B. (1996). Greek Grammar beyond the basics: an exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, p. 699; cf. pp. 483-484. For lack of a grammar covering the second century specifically, I assume the function of the optative had not changed in the preceding century.
5 Bobichon, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 718 n. 11.
6 Paget, J.C. (1999). Jewish Christianity. In W.D. Davies et al (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. 3 (731-775). Cambridge University Press, p. 750.
7 Freyne, S. (2014). The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission. Eerdmans, p. 339.
8 Skarsaune, O. (1987). The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr's Proof-text Tradition: Text-type, Provenance, Theological Profile. BRILL, p. 100.
9 Skarsaune, O. op. cit., p. 386; Barnard, L.W. (1967). Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought. Cambridge University Press, p. 63.
10 Bobichon, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 718 n. 11.
11 "By the turn of the [first] century the majority of Roman Christians were probably of Gentile background." (Kesich, V. (2007). Formation and Struggles: The Church, A.D. 33-450, Part 1. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, p. 120. "By the time the deutero-Pauline Ephesians was written, the Jewish community was in the minority and was at risk of being marginalized by a powerful Gentile majority." (Roetzel, C.J. (2003). Paul, a Jew on the Margins. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 87).