Christianity Contra Judaism in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

I am always fascinated by written accounts of people’s conversion to one particular faith or another. What causes a person to decide to pursue a pious life? At what point does the faith overcome reason? Conversion moments are difficult to decipher because the moment of divine revelation is not necessarily a reasonable account. Sometimes it is ordinary and largely uninteresting (as in the case of St. Augustine of Hippo which he recounts in his Confessions) and other times it is explosive and magisterial (as in the case of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus).

Since Justin Martyr was a devotee of Plato and his Socratic dialogues, it seems only fitting that he would attempt to write a dialogue that contains at least a portion of the story of his conversion, and his defense of Christianity not to a Roman audience, but rather to a Jewish crowd.

The dialogue begins with Justin walking along the colonnade (presumably in Ephesus) when a Jewish Rabbi named Trypho studied in the “school of Socrates” approaches him for discussion. Trypho has just returned from the wars in Judea They discuss the merits of philosophy. Justin describes how he first studied under the tutelage of a Stoic, then a Peripatetic, then a Pythagorean, and finally a Platonist. However, in each case, Justin hopes to gain a better image of God. Justin’s conversion moment happens over a period of time and as a result of his philosophic inquiry into the nature of the divine. Still, it remains largely a mystery.

Justin claims that his path to faith comes through philosophy, which is the road to human happiness for all people, as Plato says God may only be grasped with the mind (Justin frequently cites the Timaeus for reference). The two discuss the question of the immortality of the soul – either the soul is life, or the soul has life. Allusions to Aristotle abound. Trypho and his companions laugh at Justin (in an uncouth fashion) for his claims about Christianity, and Justin very nearly leaves the conversation but he is prevented by Trypho.

Justin claims that Christians are the true inheritors of God’s promise in the Torah through Jesus. He then distinguishes between the old law – the outward circumcision of the flesh – versus the new law of Jesus -an inward circumcision of the spirit. Christianity is the full expression of God’s divine revelation that began in the Old Testament, according to Justin. History comes to light as a vitally important concept in the Christian mind, as the entirety of the faith depends upon one unique moment divine activity on earth (i.e. one moment in time, when Jesus came to life, died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven). Without this moment in human history, the faith falls apart (Note: this is contra greek gods who did not rely on human historical timelines, such as Apollo, Athena, Asclepius, Hephaestus and so on). Christianity is not the stuff of legend. It relies upon eyewitness testimony, and unfolds within a timeline with an awareness of human history, and requires justifications (as the tradition of ‘Christian Apologetics’ demonstrates).

At any rate, Justin’s dialogue continues with both Justin and Trypho citing various passages of Old Testament scripture until Trypho and his companions are left in near silence and Justin must depart. They depart as friends and Justin implores them to find Christian salvation in their own way.

Since this dialogue references Justin’s so-called “First Apology,” the dialogue was written later in Justin’s lifetime.

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