BMCR 2018.12.16

Between Jews and Heretics: Refiguring Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

, Between Jews and Heretics: Refiguring Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. 174. ISBN 9780815373452. $140.00.


In this, apparently substantially reworked, version of a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Chicago in 2015,1 Matthijs den Dulk argues that Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew should be read as in large part shaped by its author’s desire to demonstrate the superiority of his form of Christianity over other competing forms that characterised the diversity of the second century. Den Dulk identifies these alternatives as ‘Christian demiurgists’ or ‘demiurgical Christians’, that is those who distinguished between the creator (identified with the Jewish God) and the highest God, who sent Jesus Christ; chief but not alone among these was Marcion, who is mentioned twice in Justin’s earlier work, the First Apology, and was undoubtedly included in the ‘all heresies’ against which Justin claimed to have at hand (or to have written) a ‘Syntagma’ ( 1 Apol. 26.8). The argument proceeds in a systematic, constructive manner by presenting a reading of Justin’s works that uses a descriptive account of the texts to substantiate the case being made. Citations from the Greek text, engagement with other primary or scholarly literature, and other expansions are restricted to the endnotes to each chapter, which are almost as long as the main text itself. The effect is that the basic argument can be read by those with no real background in the period or the issues, while those seeking to understand the scaffolding supporting it must turn to the endnotes.

Chapter 1 introduces Justin through the First Apology, focussing on how Justin’s argument against the reasonableness of persecution of the Christians at the same time differentiates those whom he is defending from others whose claim to the same name was spurious, and who, indeed, were worthy of imperial punishment, not only on the ground of their wicked acts but also because rejection of the creator was effectively ‘atheism’. In the following chapter the well-worn debate of the audience of the Dialogue is revisited and decided in favour of an internal audience. On this basis the third chapter seeks to demonstrate that not only in those places where there is widespread agreement that Justin appears to address internal concerns but every argument would be effective against these ‘demiurgical Christians’. Fundamental here is the assumption that they did not only differentiate between the supreme God and the creator, but actively identified the latter with the Jewish Scriptures, demonstrating his malignancy and inconsistency from them, and adopted ‘literal’ readings of them that failed to identify their fulfilment in Christ. Den Dulk then turns to the most obvious objection, why does the Dialogue take the form that it does? He finds the solution in Tertullian’s alignment of Marcion with the Jews as evidence that Jewish unbelief was used by demiurgists to buttress their own case. Justin’s repeated denunciation of Jewish hard-heartedness, already foretold in Scripture, of their fear of persecution, and of the hostility towards Christians by their teachers, together with the few occasions when Trypho appears to concede a point, would all undermine the case made by the demiurgists. Likewise, the defeat of the Jewish revolt(s) was to be attributed to God’s pre-warned punishment of the people and not to the demiurge’s incapacity, while the philosophical introduction ( Dial. 1-8) would undermine the intellectual aspirations of his opponents.

The final chapter, which is probably the most innovatory, turns to the description of Justin as ‘the inventor of heresy’ as most influentially argued by Alain Le Boulluec, 2 and taken up by others since (including den Dulk’s teacher, Daniel Boyarin), which is in part founded on his use, primarily in the Dialogue, of the Greek terms, hairesis, hairesiōtēs, with a negative valency, ‘heresy’, ‘heretic’, foreign to its non-Christian usage. Before addressing these issues, den Dulk sets Justin’s ‘heresiological strategy’ in a wider framework, including a brief survey of the apologetic discourse of unity and dissent in contemporary sources (including Acts and Josephus). First, Justin concedes a degree of acceptable diversity among Christians, particularly over millenarianism or when Jewish believers maintain observance of the Law for themselves only; on the other hand, he firmly excludes certain forms of dissent even from those who claimed to be Christians, appealing for justification both to Jesus’s own prophecy of schismatics and to dissent among the Greek claimants to philosophy. More important was his demonstration that there were already haireseis among the Jews, anticipating those among the Christians. Crucial here is the much discussed list of seven ‘heresies’ among the Jews ( Dial. 80.4), which den Dulk argues cannot go back to Jewish lists, as many (including Boyarin) have concluded, but is Justin’s construction, probably based on his reading of Acts (a disputed possibility defended in an Appendix); similarly, den Dulk argues that although other uses of hairesis in the Dialogue are in Jewish contexts, they are all constructed by Justin in order to create a picture of Jewish discord. In so doing, Justin normalised the existence of discord among Christians and defended the validity of drawing boundaries against those whose rejection of the Jewish God was reprehensible to both his narrative audience and to his intended one.

It is to his credit that den Dulk recognises that not even his solution can totally explain the challenges of the length and extended but often disrupted argument of the Dialogue; thus, he argues that the question of Jesus’ ability to suffer ( Dial. 98-105) must be directed at internal debates without directly attributing these to the demiurgists, and also concedes that Justin did still want to demonstrate to his readers that an appeal to Jews to convert was not necessarily a lost cause, not least because if successful it would further undercut the demiurgists’ arguments.

Although he does not engage seriously with his predecessors or their opponents, den Dulk is by no means the first to argue that the Dialogue either contains a significant amount of material originally targeted at Marcion (or those like him) — perhaps from the ‘Syntagma’ — or indeed had him as its real enemy. Indeed, another such argument was published almost simultaneously with this volume. 3 The problem with such arguments is that we have no knowledge of Marcion prior to Justin’s two fairly formulaic references to him; too often, scholars draw on textbook accounts of Marcion, some already partly deduced from Justin, but more often heavily drawn from Tertullian’s polemic some fifty years after. Thus, there is a tendency to argue ‘this must be against those who argued the opposite’, while, den Dulk himself suggests that Tertullian’s use of similar arguments confirms his own reading of Justin, but does not interrogate the origins of Tertullian’s account and its complex relationship with his Against the Jews, simply accepting Tertullian’s rhetorically-driven conjunction of Marcion and the Jews. To some extent he ameliorates the problem by the more generic appeal to ‘demiurgic Christians’, but this does not address the problem of whether such a uniform group can be identified in the second century with sufficient commonality for the targeting to be effective; for example, in order to establish that all Justin’s opponents were ‘demiurgical Christians’ den Dulk has to argue that Simon (Magus)’ claim to be ‘first God’ ( 1 Apol. 26) implies that he rejected the supremacy of the creator, although according to Irenaeus Simon spoke of angels as governing the world ( Adv. Haer. 23). Similarly, despite the numerous, and conflicting, appeals that have been made to Justin’s lost ‘Syntagma’, all arguments about its contents must be hypothetical; because he needs Justin to have been engaged generally against demiurgists for some time before writing the Dialogue, den Dulk claims that it was the source of the catalogue of heresies in Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.23-27, with the exception of those that are not traced to Simon, and that coincidentally do not hold demiurgical views (Encratites, Ebionites, and Nicolaitans).

As already noted, the structure of the book means that it will be accessible and perhaps most attractive to those beginning study of the field, although it will not alert such readers to where in fact this is a minefield. Yet that may not be too much a bad thing; there has been an explosion of research and publications on Marcion in recent years, some of it highly detailed or devoted to specific technical topics. Moreover, this is more about Justin, and any effort to prompt more attention to the Dialogue is to be welcomed. Perhaps most useful is its contribution to the efforts to map the emergence and distinctive character of heresiological discourse in early Christianity, and to balance the scholarly rhetoric of diversity with the textual one of the imperative to unity.


1. The bibliography and argument suggest that only cursory attention has been paid to works published after 2015.

2. Alain Le Boulluec, La notion d’hérésie dans la littérature grecque, IIe-IIIe siècles. Paris: Etudes augustiniennes, 1985.

3. Andrew Hayes, Justin against Marcion: Defining the Christian Philosophy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017.