Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho is a fascinating patristic text. In it, Justin engages a Jewish man named Trypho and his friends in a lengthy conversation about the nature of Christianity and its relationship with Judaism. It is an early example of a Christian apologetic specifically regarding Judaism.
There are many interesting elements to the text, not the least of which is Justin’s account of his conversion. He shares how he was schooled in the schools of philosophy but was challenged by an elderly man on the sea shore to consider the claims of Christ. While the encounter is not couched in the decision language that modern Protestants might like to see, it is nonetheless a powerful example of early evangelism as the elderly man calls upon the very bright younger man to consider the limitations of earthly philosophy and to consider instead the claims of Christianity.
The bulk of the work consists of Justin’s actual words to Trypho and his companions. Essentially, Justin’s approach is to show through Old Testament texts that (a) the Law is limited in what it can accomplish and (b) Christ is the rightful object and fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures. Justin’s hermeneutic is uneven. He helpful leans heavily on the Messianic passages of Isaiah to demonstrate that Christ is the Messiah. However, he occasionally lapses into an allegorical reading of the Old Testament that, at times, seems quite strained.
Some of Justin’s words to Trypho will strike the modern reader as possibly anti-semitic. For instance, Justin more than once informs Trypho that the reason the Jews are experiencing so much heartache in human history is because they crucified Christ and rejected God’s truth. On this side of the Holocaust, we are likely going to be sensitive to how this kind of reasoning can be easily perverted in the hands of men with nefarious intentions concerning the Jews as a people. Furthermore, Justin, at times, speaks with sweeping generalities of the wickedness of the Jews as a people. Notwithstanding, he holds out the hope of salvation to the Jews, calling Trypho and his companions to embrace Christ.
The book is impressive in its serious engagement with the Old Testament, even though we might disagree with Justin’s handling at this or that point. There is an interesting if somewhat complicated discussion of the nature of Christ’s deity in the text demonstrating Justin’s high Christology. It is also intriguing to see Justin offer a moderate response to Trypho’s question about whether or not Christians who seek to observe the external rites of Judaism can be saved. Justin says that, in his opinion, they can be so long as they do not attempt to put other Christians under the yoke of such observances. He goes on to say that others in the Church disagree with him, but that he thinks they are wrong. This was an insightful glimpse into the attitude of those within the Church toward Jewish converts.
The Dialogue With Trypho is certainly worthy of consideration. Flawed though it is, it is an impressive work and a helpful look at the ways in which the early Christians worked out their defenses of the faith.