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The Relevance of St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho: How to Discuss Religion Today
Literary Issue: Essay by Jacqueline Wilson
The internet technology of today has the marvelous power of connecting us to anyone in the world. For instance, there are platforms like Quora, YouTube, and Facebook where commenters can have discussions with people from a variety of cultures and languages. Some platforms even have a “translate” button, so a person can have a discussion with someone who speaks a different language. For the apologist, catechist, or evangelist, this can be very exciting. We now have the ability to spread and defend the joy of Jesus Christ with the whole world. While this is a good thing, we must be cautious about how we spread the Gospel and defend the faith. Anyone who has used the internet and scrolled through the comment section of any platform can see that quarrels among strangers are commonplace. If one does not take the time to know and learn about the culture and person with whom they are speaking, misunderstandings and clashing cultures can have an unintentionally hurtful effect. How do we avoid spreading hate while trying to share a message of love? Surprisingly, St. Justin Martyr’s two thousand year old work, Dialogue with Trypho offers a prime example of how to do this by using his knowledge of Trypho and Jewish culture as a scaffold for evangelization and defense of the faith. This method of apologetics results a successful Christ-like dialogue.
St. Justin was born a Gentile who converted to Christianity after studying a range of pagan philosophies including Stoicism and Platonism. St. Justin used his knowledge of philosophy to build a persuasive case for the truth of Christianity. He is known for being the first apologist, and to this day, is considered one of the most influential followers of Christ. In his article “Justin Martyr in Recent Study” L.W. Barnard states the reason for his historical and religious influence, “He made an outstanding contribution to the intellectual tradition of Christian thought by his interpretation of the logos and was also the first thinker after St. Paul to grasp the universalistic element in Christianity and to sum up the history of civilisation as finding its consummation in Christ.” Oskar Skarsaune puts it another way: “Justin abandoned philosophy to become a Christian, but at the same time brought philosophy with him, making Christianity another philosophy.” In other words, St. Justin’s apologetic methods helped make the philosophy of Christianity accessible to a wide variety of cultures. We can see evidence of this in the most famous of his remaining works, his Apologies and Dialogue with Trypho.
Dialogue with Trypho, which will be the main focus of this paper, highlights an idealized dialogue between Justin and a Jew named Trypho. In the Dialogue St. Justin shares how he became a Christian, why he is a Christian, and why Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant with God. What is notable about St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho is not just St. Justin’s explanations of scripture, use of rhetoric, or philosophical knowledge, but the way he and Trypho interact. Although they are arguing about Christianity—the very topic for which Justin was martyred—Dialogue with Trypho illustrates an idealized conversation. St. Justin and Trypho greet each other in a friendly manner, agree to dialogue, ground their conversation in search for truth, listen compassionately, allow hard questions, and give thoughtful compassionate answers based on their knowledge of the other person and their culture. This layout for dialogue leads to a successful one. (It is important to note here that the meaning of success in this essay does not necessarily mean the dialogue led to someone’s conversion to Christianity. Instead, it means that those who were discussing the controversies of religion ended their discussion thankful for what they have learned and will continue to give meaningful thought to the knowledge they have gained.)
At the beginning of their idealized conversation, we see that the most significant aspect of Trypho and St. Justin’s greeting in the Dialogue, is Trypho’s willingness to approach St. Justin first. While this is not always necessary for an apologetic conversation to go well, it does imply that Trypho had a willingness and openness to learn about the Christian faith. This is an indispensable component for successful apologetic dialogue. The other essential element for successful apologetic dialogue illustrated here is that St. Justin, the apologist, is willing to share his thoughts. The foundation of a successful conversation must be set on all participants wanting to take part, despite the risk of conflict which may arise in any controversial topic. We can see in the Dialogue what happens when not all parties are willing and open to learning another’s viewpoint: “Two of his friends, when they had ridiculed and made game of our zeal, went off.” These friends of Trypho never sought to engage in the religious debate between Justin and Trypho. They were simply in the presence of the conversation—much like someone who is reading the comment section of an internet platform and ends up “trolling.” Because they were not open minded, or “ready” to participate, the conversation is useless for them.
As we read further into the Dialogue, we learn that agreeing to converse about controversial issues is not the only foundational matter for a successful conversation. St. Justin’s Dialogue also teaches us that one must know one’s audience. Both parties of the conversation ask for the other’s background. St. Justin asks Trypho, “But who are you, most excellent man?” Trypho responds by giving St. Justin his background, “Trypho… I am called; and I am a Hebrew of the circumcision, and having escaped from the war lately carried on there I am spending my days in Greece and chiefly at Corinth.” This information will prove important. Later, it will affect St. Justin’s apologetic approach. For instance, because St. Justin now knows that Trypho is a Jew, he will argue and defend the truth of Christianity by explaining to Trypho how Christianity fulfills God’s covenant with the Jews. He will also use what he may have learned from the Hellenistic Jew, Philo. In his book, Justin Martyr and the Jews, David Rokeah remarks that “…not only did Justin use the methods and principles characteristic of Hellenistic Jewish literature, but his explanations of certain specific verses of the Hebrew Bible also contain details from Philo’s commentary.” Knowing that Trypho is a Jew will play a huge role in how St. Justin will approach the conversation. Similarly, Trypho asks St. Justin his background, “Tell us your opinion of these matters, and what idea you entertain respecting God, and what your philosophy is.” From there Trypho listens to St. Justin’s conversion story. This is important too, because understanding St. Justin’s background will help Trypho better comprehend St. Justin’s meaning.
St. Justin and Trypho’s eagerness to understand each other before engaging in challenging dialogue is a key component to a successful conversation. Benno van den Toren, a theology teacher, describes his experience teaching apologetics to a culture he did not take the time to understand in his article, “Challenges and Possibilities of Inter-Religious and Cross-Cultural Apologetic Persuasion,” he recalls that as someone who had studied apologetics in the Netherlands, he was totally unprepared to defend the faith in Africa, “They asked questions that were never addressed… ‘how come God can take so long to answer our prayers for healing, while the traditional healers seems to be so much more effective. [sic]” Because he did not understand their culture, he was unable to prepare or properly explain answers to their questions. If he had followed the model of St. Justin, however, and had studied both apologetics and the African culture, he may have had more success in defending the faith.
But besides greeting one another well, agreeing to dialogue, and learning about the person to whom one is speaking, St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho reminds us that successful dialogue allows for the inclusion of hard questions and compassionate listening. For instance, Trypho challenges St. Justin by asking, “But this is what we are most at loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them…”
Trypho continues to challenge St. Justin with further questions, and St. Justin allows this willingly. Likewise, Trypho allows St. Justin to respond to his questions at length before interjecting. In fact, likely due to the idealized version of this conversation St. Justin’s response to Trypho goes on for several pages before Trypho speaks again, stressing the importance of listening. The element of listening by both St. Justin and Trypho implies that both had immense humility, a key factor in successful communication. Richard Hughes and Gibson and James Edward Beitler III confirm humility as a crucial aspect of communication in their book, Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue through Our Words, noting, “Humility is the virtue that allows us to see not only our finitude and fallenness but also the goods of our communities. It allows us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. It helps us to see the enormous contributions of others.” By allowing each other to question and answer without interruption, St. Justin and Trypho demonstrate humility and are thus “teachable.” When one is teachable, one’s heart and mind can be transformed to accept and acknowledge truth.
Even if one conversation does not end in the conversion of another, if these rules of dialogue demonstrated by St. Justin and Trypho are followed, it will be successful conversation. In other words, each member of the conversation will not only feel heard, respected, and considered, they will have also heard, respected, and considered the other themselves. This results in a deeper understanding of truth.