Scripture among the Apologists: Justin’s Christian Sources

JesusFor Justin, the most important source of authority resided in the words and actions of the Incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ.[i] Christ’s teaching revealed most fully what his action as the Logos had set in motion before time, and his authority reigned supreme over any claim made by Greek philosophy or the Jewish Scriptures.[ii] Among scholars, the question of Justin’s use of Christian sources concerns not so much which writings had authority but how the authority of Jesus was mediated. There are effectively two possible options, either catechetical sources or Gospel accounts.[iii] The two major realms of debate on this issue are the contents of Apology 15-17 and Justin’s description of the “memoirs of the apostles” (απομνημονεθματα ) in Apology 66.3 and 67.3.

Arthur Bellinzoni, the major promulgator of Justin’s reliance upon catechetical sources, argues that the composite nature of Justin’s citations in Apology 15.1-17.4 points to their location in a catechetical harmony of sayings, possibly gleaned from Matthew and Luke.[iv] For Bellinzoni, the imprecise nature by which Justin references materials now included in the Synoptics demonstrates his reliance upon a single, “post-synoptic” source.[v] Oskar Skarsaune affirms this general thesis, finding especially Justin’s use of materials from Luke-Acts to denote a catechetical background.[vi] Addtitionally, some indicate that Justin’s hesitancy to apply the title “Gospel” (ευαγγελιον) to the “memoirs of the apostles” demonstrates his unwillingness to identify these narrative accounts of Christ with the message of Christ.[vii]

The Four Evangelists (Book of Kells)
The Four Evangelists (Book of Kells)

However, the perspective that Justin knew and employed the written “memoirs” of Matthew and Luke remains more widely accepted than Bellizoni’s argument.[viii] Massaux lists numerous references to Matthew in the Apology, as does Shotwell.[ix] Justin’s relationship to Luke comes across so clearly that he has often been called “heir of the Lukan tradition.”[x] In this view, Justin calls these works “memoirs” not because of his concerns with their truthfulness or utility, but because his audience would have been familiar with the genre of memoir.[xi] In a sense, both of these perspectives touch on the truth. Justin almost certainly knew and employed the written gospels in the creation of this Apology, as evidenced by the ten passages in which he cites verbatim materials from Matthew and Luke.[xii] Yet the composite nature of the citations in Apology 15-17 may very well point toward Justin’s use of post-Synoptic catechetical materials.[xiii] However, both catechetical materials and written Gospels were subjected to the authority of the Logos.[xiv] As Skarsaune writes, the Gospels “contain the teaching of Jesus, and their reliability in this case is guaranteed by the faithful remembering of Jesus’ words by his disciplines. The exact wording of their different renderings of his words is not the issue… What matters is the content of Jesus’ words….”[xv]

[i] Apology 14.5. Hagner, 233. Minns, 67. Hurtado helpfully notes that Justin’s apologetic purposes more than adequately explain the lack of explicit discussion concerning Jesus’ divinity. See Hurtado, “Jesus”, 135-6. [ii] Frend, 139. Cosgrove, 225-6. [iii] The high levels of verbal similarity between Justin’s 65 or so logoi of the Logos and the current form of the Gospels leads most scholars to avoid hypotheses of oral tradition. Hagner, 247. D. M. Davey, “Justin Martyr and the Fourth Gospel”, Scripture 17 (1965): 118. [iv] Arthur J. Bellinzoni, The Sayings of Jesus in the Writings of Justin Martyr (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 140-1. Minns, 68. Paul Parvis, 55. [v] Bellinzoni, 139-42. Justin’s relationship with Tatian, author of the four-gospel harmony titled the Diatessaron, looms large here. For Bellinzoni, what was innovative about Tatian’s work was not the combination of gospel materials, but the inclusion of John’s Gospel in that harmony. [vi] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible”, 64-5. Skarsaune, Proof, 130-1, 431. [vii] Cosgrove, 221. Piper, 155. [viii] E. Osborn, Justin Martyr (BHT 47; Tubingen: Mohr, 1973), 123. Allert, 15, n56. Few have found any sort of use of Mark’s Gospel in the First Apology, though Justin may have known of the Gospel and used it in his other writings. See Claus-Jurgen Thornton, “Justin und das Marusevangelium”, ZNW 84 (1993): 93-110. [ix] Cf. Apology 16 and Matt. 7.21. Edouard Massaux, The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature Before Saint Irenaeus: Book Three: The Apologists and Didache, trans. Norman J. Belvel and Suzanne Hecht, ed. Arthur Bellinzoni (New Gospel Studies 5/3. Mercer, G.A.: Peeters, 1990), 10-45, 101. Shotwell, 24. Even Skarsaune notes Justin’s likely knowledge of Matthew (Proof, 130). [x] Cf. Apology 17.4 and Luke 12.48; Apology 19.6 and Luke 18.27; Apology 33.4 and annunciation narrative in Luke 1.31, 34-5. Massaux, 45-6. Shotwell, 24. F. Overbeck, “Uber das Verhaltness Justins des Martyrers zur Apostelgeschichte”, ZWTh 15 (1878): 305-49. J. C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts in its historical setting (London: S. P. C. K., 1961), 10-53. [xi] J. W. Pryor, “Justin Martyr and the Fourth Gospel”,  SC 9, 3 (1992): 155. Piper, 159-60, argues that Justin used written memoirs because they offered psychologically and historically trustworthy sources. [xii] Hagner, 255. McDonald, 288. W. Sanday, The Gospels in the Second Century (London: Macmillan, 1876), 116. [xiii] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible”, 64-5. Shotwell, 24. [xiv] McDonald, 286. Piper, 162. [xv]  Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible”, 73.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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