Paul and Justin on the Identity of Israel

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

As noted previously, in Paul’s day the conflagration centered on whether or not the Gentiles could be brought into the people of God.[1] For Paul, belonging to Christ did not negate the importance of proper genealogy; on the contrary, genealogical descent continued to be of the utmost importance.[2] Gentiles were brought into the Abrahamic People of God—although not into Israel proper—through Christ. The Gentiles, therefore, do not replace Israel as the People of the Covenant, but instead stand alongside Israel as Peoples of the Covenants. Perhaps no writing of Paul makes this clearer than Romans, where on multiple occasions Paul espouses the continued importance of the Jewish people.[3] Paul demonstrates great concern for Israel (Rom. 9:1-5, 10.1, 11:1-2a, 11:13-16), lamenting over their stumbling and seeking to explain why they have not immediately accepted the Messiah (Rom. 11:11-16). For the Apostle, Israel still possesses the adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promises of God, patriarchs and ancestry of the Messiah (Rom. 9:4-5). Even circumcision retains its value for Jews when properly practiced and understood (Rom. 3:1-2). Although “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true seed” (Rom. 9:6b-7a), Paul looks forward to the day when all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). In sum, for Paul the identity of true Israel included actual Israel, although the nations were being inaugurated through the power of Christ.

In contrast, for Justin Martyr true Israel no longer included ethnic Israel, only those who belong to Christ. Dialogue 11.5 reads, “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham…are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ,” a turn of phrase that is widely recognized as dependent upon Galatians 3:6-7.[4] By faith Christians have become children of Abraham (Dial. 119.5) and as a result of Christian faith the faithless Jews have been removed from the “righteous nation” of God (Dial. 119.6, 123.9).[5] In a word, Christians have become true spiritual Israel. Contrary to Paul’s expressed concern and hope for Israel, Justin offers little lament for the ethnic children of Abraham. While Jewish Christ-believers who did not advocate Torah observance for Gentiles were acceptable, in Justin the destruction of the temple and defeat of bar Kokhba illustrate the truth: Judaism as a whole was coming to an end.[6] According to Justin Martyr the “true spiritual Israel” consisted of spiritual genealogy in Christ, not the Jewish race.[7]

But why was this happening, why was ethnic Israel replaced by the Church as true Israel? Justin suggests three reasons. First, proper interpretation of Old Testament prophecy reveals the superiority of a supercessionist Christian hermeneutic (Dial. 29.2, 32.2).[8] Second, the end of Judaism serves as punishment for the rejection and killing of Christ and his followers (Dial. 16.1-4, 25.5, 108.3).[9] Third, the Jews have misunderstood circumcision. Whereas “Abraham received circumcision for a sign” the Jews have interpreted it as “justification itself” (Dial. 23.4).[10] Because of this, circumcision became “not a sign of a covenant with God, but rather ‘a medium for punishment.’”[11] For their inaccurate interpretation of the scriptures, rejection of Christ, and misunderstanding of circumcision, Justin argues that God disinherited the Jews and made the Church true Israel. In similar manner to how Justin began with Pauline thinking on Abraham and developed it, so also on the topic of true Israel Justin began with Paul’s thought and recast its meaning. True Israel still descends from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but now genealogy depends on faithfulness rather than ethnicity. As a result, ethnic Israel now stands on the outside of the people of God looking in, in no small part due to the fact that they do not possess the pneuma of Christ that enables them to interpret properly or belong to Christ. Once more, then, Justin’s development of the Pauline notion of true Israel represents a transformation of Pauline thought, here based on differing concepts of who belongs to the truly spiritual Israel.

[1] Thiessen, 107.

[2] Ibid., 115

[3] Livesey, “Theological,” 74.

[4] On this passage, Adair remarks, “Dialogue 119.5 alludes to Gal 3:7, a companion to the allusion of Gal 3:6 in Dialogue 119.6. This is not a direct quote, substituting ‘children’ for the ‘sons’ of the Galatians passage. Also, the grammatical construction is different, but there is congruence in the meaning—faith has made the Christians children of Abraham. The combination of the references from Galatians in such close proximity makes it likely that Justin is dependent on a Pauline idea here. Also, as noted above, this faith is connected to the confession that has been heard through the voice of the apostles and prophets, the Christological confession.” See Adair, 227. See also Werline, 8.

[5] Daniel Boyarin, “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism,” Church History 70.3 (2001): 435-6. Livesay, “Theological,” 74. Boyarin suggests that “The threat of Gentile Christianity to the borders of Jewish peoplehood represented by the claim to be Verus Israel, first attested in Justin but surely not originated by him, was the catalyst that gave rise to non-liturgically formalized, or even popular, curses on Gentile Christians and reviling of Christ in the synagogues.”

[6] Willitts, 159. Chilton, 83-4. Wendel, 95.

[7] Goodenough, 100. Yontan Binyam, “Depends on Whom You Ask: The ‘Parting of the Ways’ in the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Dialogue with Trypho the Jew” (M.A. Thesis, Wheaton, I.L.: Wheaton College Graduate School, 2012), 80-1.

[8] Chilton, 82.

[9] 1 Apol. 47-49. Wendel, 95.

[10] Lieu, Image and Reality, 119. Binyam, 71-2. See also Dial. 16.3, 19.2.

[11] Binyam, 71.


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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