Refuting Mythicist Appeals to Justin Martyr
It is frequently claimed by modern mythicists that denial of the historicity of Jesus is not a product of modern skepticism but was present even as early as the 2nd century. One example frequently appealed to is the Jew named Trypho, whose debate with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr is recorded in the ‘Dialogue with Trypho. (See for example Dorothy Murdock, Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha, and Christ Revealed, (Kempton: Adventures Limited Press, 2004), 204)
Chapter 8 of the Dialogue consists of Trypho’s rebuttal to Justin as follows:
“If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God. But Christ - if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere - is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."
It is claimed that this passage represents early mythicism, in that Trypho denies the existence of Jesus. But it should be clear from the get-go that this is far from conclusive evidence. First, even if we were to concede to this claim, it does nothing more than show that one Jewish mythicist existed in the mid-2nd century. This has no bearing on whether or not Jesus actually existed. Just because someone believed it does not invalidate the historical Jesus nor does it add to the plausibility of the mythicist position.
Second, it is evident that Trypho is discussing the “Christ” in this passage as a concept. Trypho, as implied by what he goes on to say, does not believe that the Christ has been born yet, and if he has, the individual who is the Christ does not know that he is the Christ until he is anointed by Elijah. Trypho is most likely simply saying that Christ has not made himself known to the Jews yet, and is not necessarily talking about the historical figure of Jesus.
And third, most significantly, the identity of Trypho throws a major wrench in this argument. Scholars such as Amos Hulen have affirmed that Trypho was nothing more than a literary invention of Justin created in order for the apologist to lay out his arguments (‘The ‘Dialogues with the Jews’ as Sources for the Early Jewish Argument Against Christianity’ Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 51, (1932), 63). This view has been affirmed more recently by Larry Heyler, who says that “Most scholars accept that Trypho is a fictional character created to suit Justin’s literary purpose” (Larry Heyler, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Studies, (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 493).
So even if it can be gleaned that Trypho was a mythicist, Trypho was himself probably an invented character. Instead of investigating Trypho as a real person, then, scholars rather investigate whether Justin transmits accurate allegations made by Jews against Christians. But they are very divided on this matter: L. W. Barnard (‘The Old Testament and Judaism in the Writings of Justin Martyr’, Vetus Testamentum Vol. 14 (1964), 406) and P. Sigal (‘An Inquiry into Aspects of Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho’, Abr-Nahrain Vol. 18 (1978-79), 75) affirm that Justin fairly accurately represents Jewish anti-Christian polemics in the second century. However, Graham Stanton (‘Aspects of Early Christian-Jewish Polemic and Apologetic’, New Testament Studies Vol. 31, Issue 3 (1985), 377-92) argues that Justin only knew some genuine allegations made by Jews against Christianity, and Robert Wilde affirms that Justin only knew about Jews and Judaism from the Septuagint (Robert Wilde, The Treatment of the Jews in the Greek Christian Writers, (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1949), 104). So we cannot say with any certainty that the words of Trypho in the Dialogue reflect actual Jewish polemics from the 2nd century or were nothing more than rhetorical punching bags set up by Justin for him to levy his arguments against.
But assuming that Trypho is a real person and that he does represent the polemics of 2nd century Judaism against Christianity, what does he actually believe about the historicity of Jesus? The above quote is just one statement made by Trypho in a book that is 142 chapters long. Mythicists fail to take into account everything else that Trypho says concerning Jesus. Here are just a few statements where Trypho unequivocally affirms the historicity of Jesus:
Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 10:
“…you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God.”
“These and such like Scriptures, sir, compel us to wait for Him who, as Son of man, receives from the Ancient of days the everlasting kingdom. But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.”
“Sir, it were good for us if we obeyed our teachers, who laid down a law that we should have no intercourse with any of you, and that we should not have even any communication with you on these questions. For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.”
“But if some, even now, wish to live in the observance of the institutions given by Moses, and yet believe in this Jesus who was crucified, recognizing Him to be the Christ of God, and that it is given to Him to be absolute Judge of all, and that His is the everlasting kingdom, can they also be saved?”
The first quotation we gave from Chapter 8 would appear to make Trypho seem like some kind of mythicist. But in these chapters, he unmistakably affirms the earthly, physical nature of Jesus. His statements concerning Jesus largely deal with the notion of God becoming man, getting crucified, and the defying the messianic expectations. He does not deny the crucifixion as an event, rather the theological idea that God could become a man and then be crucified by his own creation.
Trypho also appears to contradict himself frequently during his dialogue, thus lending credence to the idea that Justin invented him for rhetorical purposes. In Chapter 72 he states:
“The Scripture has not, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,' and so on, as you quoted. But the whole prophecy refers to Hezekiah, and it is proved that it was fulfilled in him, according to the terms of this prophecy. Moreover, in the fables of those who are called Greeks, it is written that Perseus was begotten of Danae, who was a virgin; he who was called among them Zeus having descended on her in the form of a golden shower…”
This passage could be construed as reading like Trypho believed the Christians stole from pagan myths, but reading the rest of the passage shows this to not be the case:
“And you ought to feel ashamed when you make assertions similar to theirs, and rather [should] say that this Jesus was born man of men. And if you prove from the Scriptures that He is the Christ, and that on account of having led a life conformed to the law, and perfect, He deserved the honour of being elected to be Christ, [it is well]; but do not venture to tell monstrous phenomena, lest you be convicted of talking foolishly like the Greeks.”
Trypho merely finds it distasteful that the narrative of Jesus, in his mind, was somewhat similar to the stories of pagan gods. He instead suggests that Justin and the Christians should rather say that Jesus was “born man of men.”
Trypho therefore affirms that:
- Jesus was born
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- His crucifixion was a result of him supposedly violating the “law of God”
- The Christians believed in a bodily resurrection, ascension, and eventual return of Jesus to the earth which he had walked
Again, even if after all of this we were to grant that Trypho both existed and was a mythicist, this is only the attitude of one individual. There is no evidence from any other early anti-Christian polemicists (e.g., Porphyry or Celsus) that there was any doubt concerning the historicity of Jesus during this time. There were attacks on the writings about Jesus, for sure, but the existence of the man himself was evidently not questioned.
Unfortunately, the appeals to Justin Martyr for mythicist evidence do not stop at Trypho. Other mythicists have frequently cited Justin’s First Apology Chapter 21 where Justin says “…we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
The mythicists once again fail to understand Justin Martyr himself. He was raised in a pagan home and was taught pagan philosophy before his conversion to Christianity. Do you really think that he would have converted if he thought that Christianity was just another mystery religion? Would he go out of his way in Chapter 23 of his Apology to affirm the exclusive truthfulness of his new religion if he believed it was influenced by other myths? This is highly unlikely. Rather, his writings reveal an attempt to set up a positive dichotomy between the ideas of the pagans and the Christians.
As Richard Plantinga says, “Justin was forced by his conversion to Christianity to seek connection between his pagan, philosophical past and his Christian, theological present. This biographical quest would come to expression as he sought to mediate between the worlds of Greek and Christian thought” (Richard Plantinga, ‘God So Loved the World: Theological Reflections on Religious Plurality in the History of Christianity’, in David Baker (ed.), Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment, (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2004), 108).
The context of the passage in the Apology reveals the reason why Justin appeals to narratives about other gods to defend the gospel narratives. In chapter 21, Justin gives the parallels that he sees between Christianity and the mystery religions. What is avoided by the mythicists is what follows. At the end of chapter 21, he points out the differences between the Christian God and the gods of the mystery religions, saying that Jupiter:
“…was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions.” Justin draws an explicit distinction between his God and their gods.
He goes on to say in chapter 24:
“…though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners; other men in other places worshipping trees and rivers, and mice and cats and crocodiles, and many irrational animals. Nor are the same animals esteemed by all; but in one place one is worshipped, and another in another, so that all are profane in the judgment of one another, on account of their not worshipping the same objects. And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do…”
And also in chapter 26:
“…because after Christ's ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honours.”
It is very clear was Justin is doing here. The Christians were under persecution and Justin wished to show the hypocrisy of the Romans in their selectiveness on who they dispensed punishments. The Christians were persecuted for their perceived “strange” religious practices, but other pagans and magicians, who worshipped gods that were licentious, lustful, and murderous, were lauded and celebrated.
Even if after this clarification we were to admit that Justin was simply asserting that his religion was the same as pagan religions, as mythicists claim, why should we believe him? It is quite interesting that mythicists appeal to Justin for their evidence, but will no doubt discard his statements that are of value to modern Christian apologetics, such as his testimonies that the Gospels were written by the apostles. The selective usage of Justin’s writings to further the mythicist position, whilst simultaneously ignoring others that would invalidate their positions elsewhere, shows the inconsistency and dishonesty of this argument.
J. Gresham Machen’s observation puts it well: "We should never forget that the appeal of Justin Martyr and Origen... to the pagan stories of divine begetting is an argumentum ad hominem. ‘You hold,’ Justin and Origen say to their pagan opponents, ‘that the virgin birth of Christ is unbelievable; well, is it any more unbelievable than the stories you yourselves believe?’" (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 330)
The appeals to Justin for mythicist evidence are gross misrepresentations of his work. Thus we have no reason to believe that mythicism was an early idea nor that early Christians consciously believed that their religion was stealing aspects of pagan religions.
Justin Martyr Works: https://www.amazon.com/Writings-Justin-Martyr/dp/1933993464