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Justin and the Gospels, Encore (in Dialogue with Brent Nongbri)

April 19, 2018

Brent Nongbri issued a response (here) to my posting (here) about Justin Martyr and the Gospels, but his response seems to me more assertion than based in evidence.  I have to say, thus, that I don’t find that Larsen’s claims are supported, in particular that Justin didn’t connect the Gospels with named figures.

The first thing to note is (as I noted in my posting) that Justin does refer to what he calls “memoirs” as “those which are said to be [ἄ φημι] written by the apostles and those who followed them” (Dialogue 103.8).  That Justin does not name the figures in question is likely because this text purports to show him in dialogue/debate with Jewish figures over the validity of Christian faith.  His interlocutors wouldn’t be impressed were Justin to name-drop!  So, instead, Justin simply indicates the nature and status of those individuals to whom he (and the tradition on which he depends, alluded to in the ἄ φημι phrasing) ascribed these “memoirs.” So, that Justin doesn’t name who these figures were is hardly evidence that he didn’t have names to hand for them.  This is rather a key text in Justin that I think works against the notion of Nongri and Larsen that the identities of the authors of these memoirs weren’t important for Justin.

Now, second, I suspect that part of the confusion in the present discussion is over the use of the term “gospel” for these works.  We all agree, I think, that in Justin’s day the term “gospel” (Greek:  εὐαγγέλιον) still carried its originating sense in Christian circles:  the message about Jesus, and traditions about him.  But, as I noted in my earlier posting, Justin also refers to the “memoirs of the apostles” as “gospels” (ἅ καλεῖται εὐαγγέλια, 1 Apology 66.3).  So, it appears that, already by Justin’s time, the term “gospel” had acquired an additional usage as a label for those writings that conveyed Jesus-tradition.  That is, “gospel” had acquired the sense of a particular kind of literary text.

And in Dialogue 100.1 Justin refers to wording as “written in the gospel,” quoting then a saying for which we have parallels in Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22.  Whether by “in the gospel” he refers to a text of Matthew or Luke is difficult to judge, for the form of the saying doesn’t conform exactly to the preferred text of either passage, e.g., in the Nestle-Aland edition.  But the point here is that Justin cites a text, a written gospel.

In Dialogue 10.2, Justin has his Jewish dialogue partner, Trypho, refer to “wonderful and great precepts” in “the so-called Gospel,” which Trypho says that he has carefully read.  Again, we have here indication that the word “Gospel” can refer to a text, and one that Justin portrays as available for readers such as Trypho to study.

So, granted, we shouldn’t presume more than the evidence warrants.  But neither should we ignore what evidence we have in favor of the romantic notion that in Justin’s time what we know as the Gospels ascribed to Matthew, etc. were a collection of anonymous writings, or that all was in a state of somewhat amorphous fluidity.  Justin doesn’t simply refer to “memoirs of the apostles” collectively, he refers specifically to “gospels” and ascribes them to “apostles and those who followed them,” which suggests to me that Justin had particular figures in mind.

Larsen’s claim (which Nongbri subscribes to), that “early readers and users of gospel texts regarded the gospel not as a book, but as a fluid constellation of texts,” seems to me to over-simplify and pose as false alternatives the ways in which the term “gospel” was used, and the way in which the gospel texts were viewed in relationship to the gospel message and tradition.  I judge that early readers (e.g., Justin) regarded “the gospel” as a message/tradition that took written form in “gospels,” texts which both had individual identities and also formed a collective witness to “the gospel”.



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  1. Larry, so you admit that the NT was being developed. When did that process begin?

    • Geoff: It’s not a matter of “admitting” that the NT canon developed over time. No scholar has ever said anything other than this. If you’re seriously interested, there are histories of the NT canon published. But the earliest indication of Christian texts being treated as scripture is 2 Peter 3:15-16 (written ca. 70-120 CE), which refers to a collection of Paul’s letters along with “the other scriptures”. And it’s interesting that both the author and those he criticizes accept Paul’s letters as scripture; they just disagree about how to interpret them.

  2. Larry, the references you give to the Dialogue indicate that the NT was not in its final stage.

    • Uh, yeah, Geoff. COngratulations on discovering something that we’ve all known for quite a long while! The New Testament as a completed collection/canon wasn’t “in its final stage” till sometime in the third century or later. But already by Justin’s day there was a body of early Christian texts being treated as scripture (NB: “scripture” is a way of treating texts as sacred; “canon” is a closed list of such texts). These included our NT Gospels.

  3. Dr. H.,
    Thanks for your continued interaction with Nongbri and Larsen. I had read Nongbri’s second response and was wondering if you would respond? I appreciate your continued reliance on the evidence, not that this is surprising!


  4. Robert G permalink

    “… in Justin’s day the term “gospel” (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον) still carried its originating sense in Christian circles: the message about Jesus, and traditions about him. …”

    I tend to think of the original sense of ‘gospel’, for example, in the letters of Paul, was more about the preaching about specifically the death and resurrection of Jesus as bringing salvation and less about any other ‘traditions about Jesus’. Do you agree? Or do you have in mind other, earlier traditions about Jesus, eg, traditions about his life and ministry prior to his salvific death and resurrection?

    • Robert: The earliest Christian usage of the term “evangelion” is in Paul’s letters, yes. And even there it already has a certain flexibility of usage. It can refer, e.g., to Paul’s specific ministry/message of gentile inclusion (as in Gal 2:2), as well as a wider sense of dissemination of faith in Jesus (e.g., 2 Cor 8:18). In our earliest “Jesus book” (my term), Mark, the opening statement (which serves as the original title of the book) portrays what follows, i.e., the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, as “the beginning/foundation [Greek: arche] of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” i.e., the arche of the message and activity that continues on in the day of the author and intended readers. And later in Mark, we have further references to this subsequent activity as “the gospel” (13:10; 14:9). In Justin’s references, “the gospel” seems to be often a body of material (written and oral) about Jesus. But he also uses the term in the plural to refer to certain, specific written texts about Jesus.

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