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Justin Martyr and the Gospels

April 10, 2018

In a response to my blog-post about early textual transmission of the Gospels, Brent Nongbri points to Justin Martyr in support of the idea that in the early 2nd century we can’t really think of the texts of the Gospels as we know them (or perhaps can’t be sure that these texts were in circulation at the time).  Nongbri’s posting is here.

So, indeed, let’s have a look at Justin, whose major writings to consider are his Apology (addressed the Emperor Antoninus Pius) and his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (presented as a debate/discussion between Justin and three Jewish interlocutors about the validity of the Christian faith, particularly claims about Jesus).[1]  I judge that the evidence from Justin works against the line that Nongbri takes.

Justin’s frequent use of the term apomnēmoneumata (15x, often translated “memoirs”) comes in for attention.  Nongbri seems to doubt that we can view the term as referring to the familiar NT Gospels.  Well, it’s surely important to note that Justin actually identifies the writings in question as the writings also called “gospels” (ἅ καλεῖται εὐαγγέλια, 1 Apology 66.3).  So, clearly, Justin knows this term as a label for certain specific texts.  For him the term “gospel” is the Christian message and the tradition about Jesus, to be sure, but the term has also come to designate a certain set of texts.

Moreover, in Dialogue 103.8, Justin refers to these “memoirs” as “composed by his [Jesus’] apostles and those who accompanied them.”  This implies that Justin not only knew certain texts as “gospels,” but also thought of them as composed/authored by specific individuals.  Indeed, his reference to their authors as “apostles and those who accompanied them” suggests to many scholars that Justin has in mind here our familiar NT Gospels, two of which were (at a very early point) ascribed to apostles (Matthew and John), and two of which were ascribed to figures linked with apostles (Mark, linked to Peter; and Luke, linked to Paul).[2]

One might ask why Justin refers to these texts as “apomnēmoneumata,” and the obvious answer is that both of the writings in which he uses the term are posed as addressing non-Christians, for whom the term had an established and respected meaning for a genre of literature (whereas, “gospel” did not).  As Oskar Skarsaune observed, apomnēmoneumata had an association with Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates.[3]  The term didn’t designate loose notes or sub-literary texts, but, instead, connoted texts that conveyed the authentic remembrances of a great teacher, whether Socrates or (for Justin) Jesus.

Moreover, detailed studies of Justin’s use of his scriptures (which became the “Old Testament”) and early Christian material shows that he sometimes quotes the Gospels directly, and at other points uses writings that appear to have been composed by drawing upon the NT Gospels (and perhaps also other texts such as Gospel of Peter).[4]  This is a somewhat similar to Justin’s use of “Old Testament” scriptures, which involved both direct (sometimes extended) citation and also the use of “testimony sources” (Christian compilations of “proof texts” and accompanying interpretations).[5]

In sum, Justin (writing mid-second century CE) gives us what I take to be evidence that (1) certain texts had come to be known in Christian circles as “gospels,” (2) these texts were regarded as composed by known figures of apostolic standing or linkage, (3) these texts were among those read in the worship gatherings of Christians (1 Apology 67.3), which made them what we may call the corporate property of these circles, and (4) these texts enjoyed a particular value and authority.[6]

Now, in light of these things, it seems entirely appropriate to practice textual criticism of these texts.  Whatever the process(es) by which they were composed, by Justin’s time at the latest, they seem to have acquired an identity, even a certain textual stability, and so were not protean entities that could be shaped however one wished.[7]  To be sure, people continued to draw upon these texts in composing others, such as Tatian’s Diatessaron or (as I see it) texts such as the so-called “Egerton Gospel.”  But this should not be confused with the copying of the Gospels, or indication that, at least by the mid-second century, the Gospels had no textual integrity of their own.[8]  So, I maintain that textual criticism has not been rendered invalid or passé by our knowledge of ancient compositional and editing practices.


[1] For those who can handle Greek, Edgar J. Goodspeed (ed.), Die ältesten Apologeten:  Texte mit kurzen Einleitungen (Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1914; reprint 1984) is a handy resource; but especially for Justin’s Apology see now Denis Minns and Paul Parvis (eds.), Justin, Philosopher and Martyr:  Apologies (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009).  Older English translations of Justin’s works are in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (orig. 1885; reprint, Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1994).

[2] E. g., Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds, eds. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2007), 72 (53-76).  This essay is essential reading for any view of Justin’s use of the Gospels and other texts.

[3] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 71-72.  “Justin evidently sees considerable argumentative value in the fact that these Memoirs were put into writing at an early stage, by Jesus’ closest disciples, the apostles, or by their immediate followers” (73, emphasis his).

[4] See the full discussion in Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 64-74.  In the same volume, see Paul Foster, “The Relationship between the Writings of Justin Martyr and the So-Called Gospel of Peter,” 104-12.  And also see C. E. Hill, “Was John’s Gospel among Justin’s Apostolic Memoirs?” 88-94, arguing cogently “yes.”

[5] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 55-61.

[6] See now Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

[7] The Gospels weren’t the only texts that were acquiring a special status at an early date.  It’s also worth noting that the author of 2 Peter accuses “the ignorant and unstable” of twisting the meaning of Paul’s letters, not re-writing their text (3:15-16).  This author (sometime 70-130 CE?) has what he regards as a complete collection of Paul’s letters.

[8] Of course, “textual integrity” doesn’t mean that there weren’t textual variants, which makes textual criticism necessary.

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  1. Justin also provides a model for the Christology of Jesus. It is well known that the NT writers considered Jesus as an alternative to the Caesars. Along this line, Justin wrote:

    “What about your dead emperors, whom you always esteem as being rescued from death and set forth someone who swears to have seen the cremated Caesar [Augustus] ascending from the pyre into the sky?” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21.3).”

    This kind of apotheosis is the New Testament understanding of the divinity of Jesus. Jesus became part of the pantheon.

    • No, John, you misconstrue Justin and early Christology badly, and don’t take account of the context. Justin’s statement is an argument ad hoc, that the Romans (foolishly in Justin’s eyes) made such claims and yet treated Christian claims about the risen Jesus with disdain. Neither for Justin nor other Christians was Jesus “part of the pantheon”! They rejected the pantheon and were labelled “atheists” for doing so. Do read more widely and carefully, John.

  2. If I am reading this correctly, this also makes the notion of a Johannine community as the producer of the Gospel of John to be a misnomer. Am I reading that correctly?

    • Benjamin: My posting didn’t speak to the process by which the Gospels were composed, but to the evidence that by Justin’s time they seem to have been known texts ascribed to known authors. So, e.g., it does seem to me that the GJohn went through a couple of stages of composition/editing, and also that it reflects a particular strand of early Christianity, although in its final form it may well have been intended for a wide readership.

  3. Dr. H.,
    Thanks for this, as always, your knowledge of this period and of TC is obvious. I appreciate the well sourced responses you have given.


  4. Claude Pavur permalink

    Most interesting also is Charles Hill’s “Ignatius, ‘the Gospel,’ and the Gospels,” which puts the gospel textuality earlier than Justin Martyr. See .

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