For all its charming introduction, to ascribe good humour, friendliness, even kindness, to the dialogue as a whole is to read highly selectively. One is tempted to think that portions of this highly inflated work escape attention. One interpreter goes so far as to call it the last ‘nice’ dialogue between Christians and Jews. That the later adversus Judaeos literature is more intemperate should not lead us to exaggerate the moderation of the Trypho. Moreover, a modern reader’s preference for Trypho’s quietness over Justin’s assertiveness is hardly likely to have been shared by the ancient audience, with all the fondness of the period for vigorous—and long-winded—rhetoric. And it is undoubtedly illegitimate to take the mere fact of Trypho’s centrality in the dialogue as a compliment to the Jews or to conclude any more from it than that Judaism was still central to the forging of Christian thought.
In chapter 7, the old man’s discourse introduces us to the prophets, men beloved of God who are deemed more ancient than the philosophers: they alone can help us move on to understanding. This is an important moment. These are henceforward to be our company, and, although we are still in the conversational section, a new atmosphere reigns. The prophets are not going to be at all like philosophers, so much is clear, though their subject-matter is said to be the same. We are now in the realm of revealed truth, and of proof by miracle, a realm shared by Jews and Christians. We have visited the sphere of philosophy only to show how we might leave it. The prayer at the end of the chapter, ‘that the gates of light may be opened to you’, exposes the new mode. Only God and Christ offer the understanding required for true vision. Justin’s conversion to Christianity will not be long delayed.
Trypho dismisses the old man’s Messianic fervour, and this induces Justin to elicit from Trypho further criticisms of Christianity which were supposedly current among Jews. These are structurally important exchanges, for through them it emerges that Justin has to deal not with the charges of cannibalism and promiscuity familiar from the Greek and Roman side, but with more serious matters. Furthermore, Trypho is presented as an interested party who has actually read the Christian Gospel (10), and who seems, in spite of some noisy behaviour from his friends, potentially sympathetic. And so the stage is set for the dialogue with the Jew. Our sense of the subject’s growing gravity, and of the significance of the relationship between the two parties, is accentuated by the use of the authorial first person: there is complete coincidence between author and Christian protagonist. At the same time, by this means the illusion is produced of the author having no responsibility for the personality he has created. It is therefore unnecessary here to adopt any device for distinguishing Justin the author from ‘Justin’ the protagonist. But we might ask whether this explains the insistence of generations of readers on finding verisimilitude in so artificial and erratic a construct.
After chapter 8, the tables are rapidly turned. One indication of how far we have moved formally away from philosophical dialogue is the fact that the second section, running to chapter 35, contains virtually no conversation between the two parties. Trypho will return; but we are introduced first to a completely different mode of thought, by way of long biblical citations. These include some of the angriest of prophetic utterances in the Bible, equipped with exegesis designed to spell out the sins of the Jews, the justice of their suffering, and their rejection by God. The prophecies from Isaiah declare the new order. Powerful influences are brought to bear on the reader.
At chapter 38, Trypho asserts that his Jewish teachers may well have been right in forbidding discussion with Christians, on account of their blasphemous doctrines. For the next ten chapters, where Judaism is at the centre of the discussion, the Jew asks a number of questions; these are designed by the author to expose his loss of ground and his increasing anxiety about the possibility of Justin being right. At one moment, Trypho tells Justin that he must be out of his mind (39. 3); but this confidence that his territory is the territory of reason does not survive.
At chapter 45, Trypho makes an urgent enquiry concerning the expectations at the resurrection of those who lived according to the law of Moses. This leads quite rapidly to an exposition of Christian eschatology, and thence into Christology. The dense discussion of Christ’s divinity and attendant issues, conducted largely, again, from biblical proof texts, occupies the central portion of the dialogue. It is punctuated by quiet objections from Trypho, which merely unleash, each time, a new stream of exposition.
There is a certain variation, indeed an inconsistency, in the spirit of Trypho’s questions. But the general picture is that, by the time the second day of debate has been reached (85), the courtesies are wearing thin. Before long, even the debating style of the Jew comes under fire, in terms which extend the applicability of the slander far beyond this one individual:
For like flies you swarm and alight on wounds, and if someone speaks ten thousand words well, but some tiny thing were to displease you . . . you latch onto the small utterance and rush to construe it as an impious offence. (115)
There is, in the end, only one way out. Trypho and his companions should reject their teachers (137, 142), so that they can take advantage of the possibility of repentance (141). Matters remain in the air; but, as the sun sets on the second day of the meeting (an echo of the atmosphere at the opening, we may fancy), Trypho, astonishingly, expresses his party’s gratitude and appreciation. Future meetings are impossible because Justin is about to sail, but the Jews will continue to search the Scriptures. One can scarcely imagine a more implausible conclusion than his final declaration of friendship: ‘remember us as friends’. In Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, Socrates’ worsted opponents, it is true, are also passive in defeat; but in no Platonic instance have they been the recipients of such invective.
We have here, then, a hybrid work, which at least pays its respects to several intellectual traditions. But the difficult question is how we interpret the form and content of the bulk of the work, now that we have detached the introduction. In general terms, we might sum up the Trypho as a defence of the Christian religion organized around an extended engagement with Judaism, an engagement which takes the dual and inevitable forms of appropriation and assault.