For Justin’s Apologies, a pagan audience was indicated in the body of the text, even if a Christian one is also to be envisaged. In the case of the Trypho, nothing is said. A variety of possibilities has been entertained, but nearly all carry with them serious difficulties.
I. Certain commentators have held that Justin was writing to win over pagan Gentiles. Various arguments support this view, but there are also strong counter-arguments.
(a) Since Justin’s Apologies are ostensibly directed at pagan recipients, and their author appears concerned to set out various Christian principles and to explain them, we might expect Justin’s other writings to follow suit. However, even in the case of the Apologies, the imperial and senatorial audience is not to be taken wholly seriously.
(b) Here some of the content is quite beyond the grasp of those with no knowledge of Judaism or Christianity. It is hard to believe that the discussions of proof texts which make up the bulk of the book could be other than profoundly bewildering, if not wholly unintelligible, to those with an exclusively Greek, or Graeco-Roman education. We should take into consideration too the patchy and harsh quality of the Greek style in which the arguments are couched.
(c) Greeks, in any sense, are by no means at the centre of the stage in the Trypho, even if the introduction, with the detailed account of Justin’s conversion from paganism, is rendered of interest to them.
(d) The repentance and conversion of the Gentiles is envisaged and welcomed (28, 131). By contrast, Justin asserts that, for the hard-hearted Jews, persistent traducers of Christ, only prayer is possible. None the less, there is no immediate message for pagan readers, since even Gentile conversion is a long-term prospect: we are told that it is something foreordained, and the prophecy in Micah 4, ‘And many nations shall go and say, come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob’, is also taken to refer to this event (I 19).
(e) Greek religion is criticized in chapters 69 and 70. But even here there is no direct address to pagans, since the criticism is embedded in a specific context, that of distinguishing absurd pagan stories in which human beings such as Bacchus and Hercules can become gods from the Christian story, and, again, the so-called mysteries of Mithras in their cave from the prophecies of Daniel about cutting a stone without hands out of a great mountain. There is not enough here to rattle, let alone disillusion, pagans.
(f) A dedicatee, Marcus Pompeius, is once named (141. 5) and once addressed without name (8. 3), if the manuscripts are to be relied upon. The assumption that, whoever he was, he is unlikely to have been a Jew, is a reasonable one. It is not clear, however, why the possibility of his being a Christian has been excluded.
(g) There seems little advantage to envisaging an audience of pagans who were Jewish sympathizers, or god-fearers, and there is nothing in the dialogue to support this position. The proposal of god-fearers involves questionable presuppositions about the religious and cultural distinctiveness implied by the term, as well as about the centrality of god-fearers in the spread of Christianity. However we choose to understand the label, it is hard to justify making it the name of a definable constituency, its membership defined by its integration of Graeco-Roman cultural values with monotheistic religious instincts.
2. A more common idea is that the dialogue was directed at Jews. Here there is a somewhat stronger case. Some aspects of the book do indeed point in this direction. But there are still some difficulties.
(a) Jews, or some of them, would know the biblical texts, and might relish quotation and discussion of them. To outsiders, these texts were barbarous.
(b) The methodology of the discourse may be regarded as deriving from Jewish exegetical tradition, of which Justin seems to have some knowledge. Its procedure of progressing by extracting significance from a loosely related series of texts has been described as essentially midrashic.
(c) The Jewish view of Israel’s history is incorporated. Notably, in chapter 131, Justin evokes at length the redemption from Egypt, a saga which Jews will have recalled at each and every Passover, one of the corner-stones of their continuation as a people.
(d) No New Testament citations are deployed as proof texts by Justin, even though he speaks of a Gospel. He seems to have known Matthew, Luke, and Corinthians, though not Acts, and it has been argued that he incorporated sayings of Jesus from extra-canonical texts into his own prose. The focus on the Old Testament would satisfy Jews. But it is hard to make much of this, for such a focus in any case arises naturally out of the subject-matter.
(e) Justin is engaged at times in a violent counter-offensive, as we have seen, against Jewish attacks on Christians. We might wish to see this as having a practical purpose, to hit back. On the other hand, such allegations can be adequately explained as serving a useful internal function in sharpening Christian hostility to Judaism.
(f) The work may have been designed as an instrument for the conversion of the Jews, even if, as we have seen, Justin goes out of his way to declare Gentiles better potential Christians. There are explicit references to such a possibility, and the call is at moments quite urgent: ‘so short a time is left to you in which to become proselytes’ (28). It also figures in a more muffled form (30, 137). One can, however, scarcely speak of tempting invitations; in the last occurrence, the call is entangled with the repetition of the hostile allegations about institutionalized synagogal execration of Christ, which we are now given to understand as a practice dictated by the synagogue chiefs, described as archisynagogoi. When, finally, the sun is setting on the second day, and the discussion has to end, nothing firm has been accomplished. There is still, we learn, a long way to go. Thus the whole thrust has been to expose the obstinacy and hard-heartedness, sklerokardia, less of Trypho and his little band than of the Jewish people as a whole, whose presence lurks behind the individuals. We witness how the prospect of shifting them depends on being able and willing tirelessly to go over the texts again and again, repeatedly to extract their message. In the course of the dialogue, the Jews are given a chance, they are shown the right way. But the point is that they listen, and they do not learn. Conversion, then, can be spoken of as the ultimate aim only on the most abstract theological level. Justin’s accomplishment is supposedly to have left the door open, to have persuaded Trypho and his friends to search the Scriptures. But these are the very same Jews whose reading of the Bible he had earlier compared to the swarming of flies. If any serious expectation of a conversion of the Jews could survive this, then, it could only be a millennial one—even more millennial, if that be possible, than the anticipated conversion of the Gentiles.
(g) Whatever the case, for some readers, all the positive arguments above fall away in the face of one simple question. Is it conceivable that Jews would choose to read this repeatedly offensive tract? Subtle as is the appeal to a philosophically minded Greek at the opening, the treatment of the Jews is no less lacking in subtlety. Nothing is changed by the device whereby, at the end of it all, the puppets of the dialogue declare themselves keen to be Justin’s friends, and readily pray for his welfare, as he does for their eventual conversion. The author might, it is true, be viewed as insensitive, unaware, and ineffectual. But such an attempt to save the hypothesis of a Jewish readership accords ill with the understanding of Judaism generally ascribed to the author by the exponents of the hypothesis.
3. That a work of this kind would arouse interest among the faithful and the converted is to be expected, and scarcely needs discussion. But there are considerations which justify our going further, to suppose that a Christian readership of this kind was Justin’s principal conscious target.
(a) A Christian, or at least a Jewish-Christian audience, must be expected for the attacks on false Christians and various heresies which crop up, for example in chapter 35, on Marcionites, Valentinians, Basilidians, Saturnilians, as a response to an interjection of Trypho’s, that many so-called Christians are said to eat meat offered to idols, without harm coming to them.
(b) It is evident that the struggle to define Christianity through the opposition with Judaism is of benefit primarily to Christians themselves. They were, as we know, asking urgent questions about their relationship to the Old Testament and especially about the application of its promises.
(c) It has been considered appropriate to invoke in this context such outside evidence as exists to show that it was felt necessary to wean new Christians from Judaism and to inoculate them against its continuing attractions. However, it should be noted that the most explicit evidence comes from considerably later, principally the sermons of John Chrysostom, which belong to the second half of the fourth century.
Although conclusive demonstration is impossible, it emerges that the case for a principally Christian readership is the most acceptable, or at any rate the least difficult to sustain. The arguments in support of the other possibilities come up against serious objections. In general, the Dialogue with Trypho, though looking outwards in two directions, is aptly described as a contribution to Christian thought, as apologetic often is. Considerable theological exertion has gone into this text. It is not just the adaptation of an extant collection of proof texts. It is a work written from within a religious system, in spite of the apparent openness of its early chapters. It engages immensely seriously, on its own terms, with the prophetic texts. In its homiletic endeavours there was probably substantial innovation. It represents a conscious contribution to a new Christian literature, serving to educate, to offer intellectual fodder, to consolidate, for both new and old members, the experience of belonging—as in some sense all literature does, and apologetic literature in an even stronger sense. That is why the old literary frameworks were inadequate. It is perhaps not wholly far-fetched to suggest that the Dialogue with Trypho, though presented as an apologetic dialogue, is less a discussion than a Christian pesher on Isaiah and the other prophets.
As with the Qumran sectaries, the group solidarity of the Christians depended upon establishing that there was only one true way, and thus on the evocation of a host of adversaries and besetting dangers. Sharing the heritage of the Jews with its owners was not an option which fitted the bill for the majority in the evolving church. John’s Gospel took one route, boldly identifying Judaism with the works of the Devil. Justin’s apologetic technique was equally exclusionary, and equally damning. He brought a relentless sense of the presence of the enemy into the heart of an ostensibly friendly dialogue and into the exegetical process itself. Dialogue, in such hands, acquired a new meaning. Apologetic became a battle of the books, and also a battle for souls.