The Letters of Paul in Justin Martyr (Part 1)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

An astounding variety exists among the receptions of Pauline literature and thought in early Christian writings.[1] Though certainly not the first interpreter of Paul, Justin Martyr remains one of the most influential. Before turning to Justin’s specific receptions and transformations of Paul in the Dialogue, we must first address the ongoing debate regarding Justin’s general knowledge and use of Pauline literature. Nowhere in the Dialogue or other extant writings does Justin mention Paul or formally quote any of his sayings.[2] Yet this does not mean that Justin did not know of Paul. Scholars have proposed four options regarding Justin’s general relationship to Pauline literature: 1) Justin did not know Paul; 2) Justin knew Paul and chose not to use him; 3) Justin knew Paul and disagreed with him; and 4) Justin knew Paul and used him, though without formally citing him.

Of these options, the claim that Justin did not know Paul[3] is the least likely for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that Justin lived and wrote from Rome, where a plethora of evidence indicates that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans enjoyed consistent use. The position that Justin knew Paul but did not use him also seems unlikely, given that scholars holding this position tend to be older work and have rigid criteria for ascertaining uses of one ancient text in another.[4] Similarly unpopular—often for confessional reasons—is the view that Justin knew of Paul but disagreed with him.[5] The most compelling explanation of this viewpoint involves Paul’s co-option by Marcion of Pontus and Justin’s rejection of Paul along with Marcion.[6] This perspective, however, has been sufficiently problematized by recent studies on the influence of Marcion on the early Church.[7]

The vast majority of scholars concur that Justin was aware of Paul, had access to at least some of his letters, and employed his thought without formally citing him.[8] While some disagreement exists as to whether Justin simply developed Pauline themes[9] or employed specific language from his letters, many scholars argue Justin employed Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians in writing the Dialogue.[10] As for why Justin did not formally cite Paul, there are two likely explanations. First is the purpose of Justin’s argument, namely, to convince Trypho that Jesus is God’s Messiah. If Trypho does not buy this argument, he is certainly not going to accept Paul’s theology. Second, the authority in question for Justin and Trypho is not Paul but the Jewish scriptures. Justin must demonstrate the case for Jesus through appeal to a source that Trypho finds authoritative, making citation of Paul unnecessary.[11] Given Justin’s dialogue partner and purpose in writing, it is not surprising to see Paul alluded to but not explicitly cited.

This knowledge and transformation of Paul is further evidenced in Justin’s utilization of Jewish scripture.[12] Of particular interest to scholars are a number of Old Testament citations which Justin either cites in the form of Paul or interprets similar to how Paul uses them.[13] For example, both Paul (Gal. 3:6) and Justin (Dial. 119.5) cite Genesis 15:6 in order to declare that Gentile Christians are justified like Abraham.[14] Not only does Justin cite many of the same passages as Paul, but he also employs a highly Christocentric reading of those passages, locating in the Old Testament numerous attestations to Christ and the truth of prophecy.[15] Craig Allert concludes that for Justin, “The [Old Testament] scriptures must be interpreted through an understanding of the events of his pre-existence, incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father.”[16] In these ways, Justin interprets the Jewish scriptures very similarly to Paul.

[1] Michael F. Bird and Joseph R. Dodson, Paul and the Second Century (LNTS 412; London: Bloomsbury, 2011). Dodson, 4-10. Jennifer R. Strawbridge, The Pauline Effect: The Use of the Pauline Epistles by Early Christian Writers (SBIR 5; Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2015).

[2] Paul Foster, “Justin and Paul” in Paul and the Second Century (ed. M.F. Bird and J.R. Dodson, LNTS 412, London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 108.

[3] Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (trans. R. Kraft and G. Krodel, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 215-16. Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 98-9. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, “Paulus in der griechischen Kirche des zweiten Jahrhunderts,” Zeitschriftfur Kirchengeschichte 75 (1964): 7-9.

[4] Foster, 113. F. C. Baur, Das Christenthum und die christliche Kirche der drei ersten Jahrhunderte (Tubingen: Fues, 1860. Reprint, ed. Klaus Scholder, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann, 1966), 3.135-40. David Rensberger, “As the Apostle Teaches: The Development of the Use of Paul’s Letters in Second-Century Christianity” (Ph.D. diss., New Haven: Yale University, 1981), 162-92.

[5] Foster, 124.

[6] Judith M. Lieu, “The Battle for Paul in the Second Century,” Irish Theological Quarterly 75 (2010): 12.

[7] Jacob J. Prahlow, “Discerning Witnesses: First and Second Century Textual Studies in Christian Authority” (M.A. Thesis, Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University, 2014), 27-34. (Unless you publish this, I would omit it!) Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon” in Transmissions and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies (eds. J.W. Childers and D.C. Parker, Texts and Studies, Third Series, 4. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgian Press, 2006), 5. W. Schmithals, “On the Composition and Earliest Collection of the Major Epistles of Paul” in Paul and the Gnostics (trans. J. Steely, Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 41.

[8] Andreas Lindemann, Paulus im dltesten Christentum: Das Bild des Apostels und die Rezeption der paulinischen Theologie in derfriihchristlichen Literatur bis Marcion (Beitrage zur historischen Theologie 58, Tubingen: Mohr, 1979), 353-67. Edouard Massaux, The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature Before Saint Irenaeus (trans. Norman J. Belval and Suzanne Hecht, Macon, G.A.: Mercer University Press, 1993), 5/3 47-49, 96-101.

[9] Foster, 110. Massaux, The Influence on the Gospel of Matthew, 5/3, 96.

[10] Likely uses include Rom. 2.28-29 in Dial. 41.21-22, 92.21-22, and 113.7; Rom. 9.7 in Dial. 25.2, 44.5, and 140.12-14; Rom. 10.16-18 in Dial. 42.1-3; Gal. 3.6-7 in Dial. 119.5-6. See also the possible use of 1 Cor. 15.24 in Dial. 111.12-13; Col. 1.15 in Dial. 85.2; and Col. 1.17 in Dial. 100.2. Skarsune, “Justin and His Bible,” 74. Lindemann, 366. Foster, 111, 119-120. John A. Adair, Paul and Orthodoxy in Justin Martyr (Ph.D. diss. Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 2008), 225-6. Rodney Werline, “The Transformation of Pauline Arguments in Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho,’” HTR 92 (1999): 80.

[11] Werline, 80-1.

[12] A.J.B. Higgins, “Jewish messianic belief in Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho,’” Novum Testamentum 9 (1967): 298-305. B.Z. Bokser, “Justin Martyr and the Jews,” Jewish Quarterly Review 64 (1973): 97-122. Oskar Skarsaune, “Judaism and Hellenism in Justin Martyr, elucidated from his portrait of Socrates,” in: H. Lichtenberger (ed.), Geschichte—Tradition—Reflexion: Festschrift für Martin Hengel zum 70. Geburtstag Vol III (Tübingen: Mohr and Siebeck 1996) 585–611.

[13] Skarsaune, Proof from Prophecy, 92-100. Adair, 216-7.

[14] Allert, 174.

[15] Bruce Chilton, “Justin and Israelite Prophecy” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 79. Adair, 192. Skarsaune, “Judaism and Hellenism,” 608. Chilton notes that the for Justin, the Prophets of Israel “(1) attested Christ, (2) inspired the best of Greek philosophy, (3) forecast the transfer of the prophetic Spirit from Israel to Christians, and (4) agreed that the divine Logos lies at the core of human cognition of God.”

[16] Allert, 251.


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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