Talking at Trypho: Christian Apologetic as Anti-Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew

It is not easy to define a work which evokes at its opening the honeyed charm of the first pages of Plato’s Republic, on which it is loosely modelled, or perhaps of a Ciceronian dialogue; but which, by its sixteenth chapter, is hurling a fully-formed charge of deicide at Trypho, the author’s partner in the dialogue, and at his people, the Jews. Justin opens thus:

As I was walking about one morning in the porticoes of the covered colonnade, a certain man, who was together with some others, met me, and said ‘hail philosopher’. And, saying this, he turned round, and came with me.

The very first word of the whole dialogue, peripatounti, describes more than the physical action—it is walking and discussing, the way philosophers do (and not just peripatetics). The setting is again appropriate—the covered colonnades of axystos, a context for philosophical discussion chosen, this time, not so much by Greek authors, as by Cicero. This xystos is located at Ephesus by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 4. 18. 6), who is usually followed; but from the text we might infer the setting to have been Greece, where Trypho is said to have been spending a lot of time (3).

A version of this paper was read and discussed in the Parkes Centre at the University of Southampton. I am grateful to Sarah Pearce for some very helpful comments and bibliographical suggestions.

In the second paragraph, Justin goes on to insist upon the respect due to those who parade themselves in the philosopher’s cloak: the form of dress symbolizes the interaction of such people, typified by a teacher—pupil relationship in which both are part of a civilized exchange and from which both sides can learn.

Yet the largest part of the dialogue is better characterized by the very different spirit of a passage which appears not much later, whose outright offensiveness is such that courtesy or lack of it is scarcely at issue:

These things have happened to you properly and with justice, for you killed the just one, and before him his prophets; and now you reject and dishonour as far as you can those who hope in him and in Him who sent him, God the creator and maker of all things.

It is fair to say that the spirit of the main section of the dialogue is determined by the second extract, not the first. At this very early stage in the history of anti-Jewish polemic, the battleground has been laid out. It is also fair to say that readers have been remarkably unwilling to acknowledge the sheer vituperative dimension of the dialogue.

Justin’s writings mark a major step forward in the history of Christian apologetic literature, even if there are various precedents. Justin was a convert to Christianity, from the city of Flavia Neapolis (formerly Shechem; First Apology, I. I), who was martyred at Rome in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He speaks of himself as a Gentile (29), but of the Samaritans as his people (genos: 120). It is interesting that the corpus which goes under the name of Justin contains works which run the gamut of the various types of apologetic: apart from the subject of this essay, there are the two books which were actually composed (certainly by the author) under the name of Apologies, in which Christianity’s merits are ostensibly defended in front of emperors and the senate; and also the possibly spurious Exhortation to the Greeks, in which worship of the pagan gods is unfavourably compared to belief in the one God. All of these explore new literary frameworks for justifying and promoting Christianity. But the Trypho, which refers back to the First Apology, and is possibly Justin’s last work, is the only one devoted to defence (by attack) against Judaism. For such an approach there may have been a precedent in the lost anonymous dialogue between Jason and Papiscus, which probably preceded Justin and was apparently between a Jew and a converted Jew; while arguments about the abolition of the divine covenant with the Jews and the validation of Old Testament prophecies in Jesus are anticipated in the Epistle of Barnabas. To muster the arguments from the Bible, Justin, like Barnabas, probably drew upon collections of proof texts. None the less, the Dialogue with Trypho remains a path-breaking work.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the polemical element— what we might in crude terms call ‘doing down the other side’—is intrinsic to defending one’s own side in apologetic literature. This is already very clear in the prototype Jewish apology, Josephus’ Against Apion, cast as it is as a vehement refutation of the slanderers and critics of Judaism. Establishing a polarity, drawing attention to an enemy, and making the most of a conflict are valuable techniques of advocacy. The effect is more memorable, and therefore more persuasive, than merely stating a case. The other side may be a real opponent or a paper tiger; it may emerge as an immediately threatening competitor or as an ideological challenge. And the process may acquire permanence: the enemy may become an intrinsic part of a group’s self-definition: one understands oneself in terms of the ‘other’, by insisting upon what one is not. But polemic figures in differing proportions and degrees in various instances of our somewhat nebulous genre. In the Trypho, the polemic is both sustained and intense, even if punctuated by moments of genuine interaction.

The intensity is hardly surprising. When the protagonists are Christianity and Judaism, we have adversaries whose very roots are deeply and disturbingly intertwined. There is a strong emotional charge. The Trypho goes to the heart of the problem: its core, as we shall see, is the vindication of what today we would call supersessionism, the Christian claim to have inherited Israel’s legacy and supplanted its original recipient. This is a struggle on both the intellectual and the emotional plane; its practical consequences, in his own time or later, may not have concerned Justin in the least.

The justification of Christianity rested in the promises of the Old Testament, correctly interpreted; but these interpretations were always open to Jewish challenge, striking at the essence of Christian identity. It is not surprising that such a challenge was productive of a defensive—aggressive response as extreme as that which is visible in Justin. What for us must remain shrouded in obscurity are the routes by which that threat was channelled. Thus, the shortage of external evidence makes it hard to judge how much trust should be put in Justin’s accusations of organized Jewish opposition to Christianity. It is no easier to assess the strength of the synagogue’s attraction over developing Christian communities in the world of the second-century Greek East. Most obscure of all is the possible influence on the situation of the various forms of Jewish Christianity which we know by name alone. The Dialogue with Trypho is ostensibly concerned with friendly discourse between the two sides. Yet its militant super-sessionism undoubtedly contributed to the construction of the fence between Judaism and Christianity. We cannot say what it was that Justin saw over that fence.

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