THE TRUE ISRAEL

We see how the engagement with Judaism is fundamental to Christian self-definition (in a different way from any engagement with heresy) as early as chapters 11—12 of the Trypho, where the Christian claim to share the God of Israel is coupled with the assertion that the old law for Israel has been abrogated. This is expressed in terms as resounding and unequivocal as any in which it has ever been uttered:

For the law given on Horeb is already old, and is yours alone, but this law is for all universally . . . and as an eternal and final law, Christ was given, and the covenant is sure, after which there is no law, no ordinance, no commandment. (II. 2)

The supersessionist claim is made explicitly: ‘we are the true Israel of the spirit and the race of Judah’ (II. 4). And in the discussion which follows, about Abraham in his uncircumcised state, we are also forewarned that circumcision, the principal and controversial mark distinguishing Jews and Christians, will be an important theme for Justin. This passage anticipates the extended discussion of the patriarch’s circumcision at chapters 19 and 46, as well as further comment elsewhere (chs. 92 and 113, on Joshua). That Adam, Abel, Enoch, and Abraham himself could please God while still uncircumcised is an argument which Justin relishes: ‘to you therefore alone was this circumcision necessary’ (19. 3).

The doctrine of supersession makes further appearances in the earlier part of the work, figuring also as passing remark and even as taunt: ‘Do you know these things, Trypho? They are contained in your scriptures; or rather, not yours but ours’ (29). These claims to the Scriptures prepare the way for a more elaborate and even more assertive demonstration that, since the prophecies of the later prophets apply to Jesus, it is only the Christians who could possibly be identified with ‘Israel, his inheritance’. This climactic point, when it is reached, is evolved out of an elaborate mesh of citations punctuated by exegetical comment and intermingled with dreadful warnings. We might compare the strong language deployed in that distinctive form of contemporizing interpretation known as pesher, which is characteristic of Qumran literature:

‘Therefore, behold, I will again remove this people, saith the Lord’ (Isaiah 29: 14) . . . Deservedly, too, for you are neither wise nor understanding, but crafty and unscrupulous; wise only to do evil, but utterly unable to know the hidden plan of God, or the faithful covenant of the Lord, or to find out the everlasting paths. (123)

Trypho, it should be noted, has only once been angered—showing the displeasure on his face, as Justin tells us (79). But now Trypho’s response is merely a plea for clarification. Justin reminds Trypho, de haut en bas, that he has already assented to all the proofs, but since Trypho’s friends may need help, he offers a ringing declaration from the lips of third Isaiah, a declaration which carries all the solemnity of the great promissory passages of the Hebrew Bible: ‘Jacob is my servant, I will help him; Israel is my chosen, I will set my spirit upon him, and he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive nor cry; neither shall any hear his voice in the broad places’ (123; Isa. 42: I). Those magnificent assurances were indeed worth fighting over.

Towards the end of the dialogue, it emerges that not one of Trypho’s group of friends, directly addressed by Justin, is able, or at any rate willing, to answer his question as to what the name ‘Israel’ signifies (125). There could be no more graphic demonstration that they lack any claim to the title.

Sadly, there is no quarter for the defeated. This is a contest for the very essence of the opponent’s being, its object to strip him of his identity and his future:

Some of the children of your race will be found to be children of Abraham, and found in the portion of Christ; but . . . there are others who are indeed children of Abraham, but who are like the sand on the seashore, which is barren and fruitless, copious and without number, bearing no fruit whatsoever, and only drinking the water of the sea. And a large number within your race are convicted of being of this kind, imbibing doctrines of bitterness and atheism, and spurning the word of God. (120)

The contest, as depicted, is almost entirely one-sided. It is true that Trypho excludes the Christians from salvation, and dismisses Jesus’ status, when he first meets Justin and learns of his conversion from Platonism, but with an impact wholly different from Justin’s. There, we are still within reach of the civilized, Platonizing reaches of the dialogue, and Trypho’s utterance is cast in terms which are matter of fact and moderate in tone; there are no slights on character or conduct. The case in his view is one of plain error:

For while you remained in that mode of philosophy and lived a blameless life, a hope was left to you of a better fate. But having forsaken God, and placed your hope on a man, what kind of salvation remains for you? . . . You people, by accepting a worthless rumour, shape a kind of Messiah for yourselves, and for his sake are obliviously perishing. (8)

Within the overarching demonstration that Israel is the church and the Jewish prophecies are of Christ, specific battle areas are staked out and revisited. These are areas of head-on collision, and two of them are particularly important. The first is the claim to possession of the correct (Greek) biblical text (137), and to the correct understanding of it (e.g. 131). Occasional points of agreement in interpretation are acknowledged. A striking case is that of the millennium, where both parties agree about the expectation of a future rebuilding of Jerusalem (80): but in this case, one is tempted to suggest that agreement with the Jew is facilitated by this matter being a point of controversy with Christian heretics, whom Justin forthwith turns to attack.

Secondly, the Jews are charged with twisting (84) the text, tampering with it, and cutting out passages. Thus Justin claims that from the words in Psalm 93 (96), ‘the Lord reigned from the tree’, the ‘leaders of the people’ had cut out ‘from the tree’ (73); the words are not in the Septuagint Greek. This is no light offence:

It seems incredible. For it is more awful than the making of the golden calf, which they made in the wilderness when they were filled with manna on the earth, or than sacrificing children to demons, or than slaying the prophets themselves.

All this is rather far from a disagreement between scholars as to the correct reading of a text. It is interesting that Justin’s versions, which diverge for the most part from known Septuagint readings, have been taken by some scholars as representing a consistent pattern of serious textual variants. The reality is that even the use on any scale of divergent authoritative translations by the two groups cannot be safely inferred from the disparities noted in this dialogue, which seem, rather, to reveal a startling freedom with the words on the part of ad hoc interpreters of selected key passages.

Another battleground is the repeated allegation that Jews are dedicated to persecuting Christians and their faith: that they have long been sending out delegations to vilify them (17), that they spread shameful stories about them (108), that they abuse them and curse them in the synagogue (16, 47; cf. 38, on noncommunication with Christians). In fact, consistent Jewish attacks on Christians are alluded to, and Justin ascribes great importance to them. What Horbury has called ‘the corporate Jewish rejection of Christianity’ is a central support of Justin’s denunciation of Judaism. The supposed cursing and exclusion from the synagogue of minim, heretics, ‘after the prayer’, has already figured at chapter 38. These allegations are particularly hard to assess, since some of them are unspecific, while for the appearance of a curse in the Amidah prayer at this period Justin constitutes our only direct evidence. Again, many scholars simply take the statements at face value.

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