Does Trypho deny the existence of a historical Jesus?

Justin Martyr

Sixteenth Century engraving of Saint Justin Martyr

Certain perpetrators [1] of the Christ Myth Theory claim that a particular passage in Justin Martyr’s mid-second century apologetic work ‘the Dialogue with Trypho’ suggests that early critics of Christianity made the claim that Jesus was not a historical figure.  If Christianity was based on a mythical figure one might reasonably expect its earliest critics to be aware of this fact, so if it can be demonstrated that the earliest critics of Christianity did contend that Jesus did not exist it would indeed lend the Christ Myth Theory more credibility.   Let us turn to the passage in question:

“But Christ – if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere – is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias [Elijah [2]] come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.” [3]  Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 8.

The mythicist places particular emphasis upon the phrase “invent a Christ for yourselves”, arguing that Trypho is accusing Christians of inventing the man Jesus of Nazareth.  However, there are several problems with this interpretation.  It is incorrect to simply equate the word ‘Christ’ with ‘Jesus’.  Although today these words have become intertwined to the extent that many understand Christ to be just the surname of Jesus, the word “Christ” ought to be understood in its proper context as the Koine Greek word for “Messiah”.  Trypho is accusing Christians of inventing a Christ, not inventing a Jesus.  Indeed, Trypho elsewhere repeatedly takes the existence of Jesus as a given:

  • In chapter 32, “These and such like Scriptures, sir, compel us to wait for Him who, as Son of man, receives from the Ancient of days the everlasting kingdom. But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.”
  • In chapter 36, “Let these things be so as you say–namely, that it was foretold Christ would suffer, and be called a stone; and after His first appearance, in which it had been announced He would suffer, would come in glory, and be Judge finally of all, and eternal King and Priest. Now show if this man be He of whom these prophecies were made.”
  • In chapter 74, “We know that you quoted these because we asked you. But it does not appear to me that this Psalm which you quoted last from the words of David refers to any other than the Father and Maker of the heavens and earth. You, however, asserted that it referred to Him who suffered, whom you also are eagerly endeavouring to prove to be Christ.”

It is my contention that rather than claiming that Christians invented the man Jesus, Trypho is criticising the Christian’s identification of the man Jesus as the Christ.  He believes that it is wrong to identify Jesus as the Messiah because the expectation that Elijah would return to anoint the Messiah had not been fulfilled.  This expectation was rooted in an Old Testament prophecy contained in Malachi 4:5 – ”See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”  Thus, Trypho believes that Christians have invented for themselves a Christ in the sense that they have twisted or ignored scriptural prophetic expectation in order to redefine Christ in their own terms.  He does not deny the existence of a historical Jesus.  This interpretation of the passage is supported by a repetition of the argument in Chapter 49 – “For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appears to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He [the Christ].”

Of course, in one sense this is actually a valid criticism of Christianity.  Elijah did not personally return to anoint Jesus as Messiah.  I have written about how early Christians dealt with this problem by identifying John the Baptist with Elijah here.

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2 responses to “Does Trypho deny the existence of a historical Jesus?

  1. Coincidentally,I have just had a go-round with the folks at a website called Club Schandenfreude, in which I argue that Jesus was an historical person. Trypho, a hundred years after the fact, would have been in no real position, IMO, to adjudge whether Jesus was real or mythical at that point.

    But the point is that the passage in Josephus’ Antiquities is the only non-biblical reference we have for Jesus as an historical person. And there are enormous problems with this passage; it has been heavily doctored, IMO, by Christian copyists. In some ways, my instinct is to dismiss it as a complete fabrication; against that is: if you’re going to fabricate evidence for Jesus, this is the best you can do? Even as it is, Josephus’ treatment of John the Baptist is longer than his passage on Jesus.

    Just a quibble: “christos” and “messiah” are the Greek and Hebrew words for “anointed”. So, yes, ‘christos’ does mean ‘messiah’, but that’s only because they both mean the same thing. It’s like saying that ‘hand’ is the English word for ‘le main’. True, but a bit misleading b/c ultimately they both refer back to something else. However, with loaded words like ‘christos’ and ‘messiah’, it’s really important to keep this in mind. At root, neither was, strictly speaking, a title; they were adjectives.

    And love the site Early Christian Writings. There’s a Jewish version, too, and one with the Corpus Hermeticum. This latter provides an interesting insight into texts like the Shepherd of Hermas, which was considered canonical by Christians for a time.

    • Thank you for your comments. I’ve previously looked at the Testimonium Flavianum in quite a bit of detail and I share your concerns about doctoring. That said, I do believe the original text probably did mention Jesus. There are some very interesting parallels between the TF and the Luke’s Emmaus narrative (particularly Luke 24:19-21, 25-27) which could be taken to suggest that Josephus and Luke shared a common source in writing their passages. If you’re interested in that idea I’d recommend reading this article: http://www.josephus.org/GoldbergJosephusLuke1995.pdf

      Of course, even if Jospehus did mention Jesus it wouldn’t prove historicity to a mythicist! I think the best evidence for the historicity of Jesus is probably the witness of Paul to James the Just.

      And yes, Early Christian Writings is a very useful website – I’d be truly lost without it!

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