Justin Martyr on Israel, Jews, Christians….


….and the Old and New Covenants


Justin Martyr

The second-century saw a young Christianity getting her legs, and forming a more catholic, firm identity as the new covenant people. I recently researched early second-century father Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish philosopher. The debate is representative of the friction between Jews of Judaism and the Christian Church. Fascinating in its depth, the dispute between them is revealing for Christians today who are seeking to learn more of their roots… in other words, the early fathers have a value that we must mine out and share with one another if we are to survive the vapid, materialistic Western culture pervading the American version of Christianity.

The following is my recent seminary paper reviewing the Dialogue. I encourage you to read it all, and to look up the references. If you’re like me, you need some depth and history behind your Christian life. Grace to all of you who love the Lord Jesus, our new Lawgiver.


Introduction: The Relationship between Israel and the Early Church

The early Church believed itself to have inherited the Old Testament promises given throughout the Old Testament narrative to ethnic Israel. Extant apologetic works from the first few centuries prominently feature Christians arguing that the new covenant was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, both for Jew and Gentile. The Church after the ascension “regarded itself as a continuation and development of Judaism,” and so the second-century Apologists like Justin Martyr examined the relationship between the old and new covenants.[1] In Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, his contention was that Christianity was the natural continuation of Judaism as branch is to root (c.f. Rom. 11:17-18).[2]

The early Church fathers were reflecting this doctrine as revealed in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul speaks of Israel’s “adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” and how to the Jews “belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom. 9:4-5 ESV). Yet as he continues, the failing of many Jews to embrace the Christ is “not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (Rom. 9:6-7a NASB).[3] Here as in his other New Testament letters, the relationship between the old covenants (Abrahamic and Mosaic), and Christianity is explored in depth.[4] This Jewish ethos was passed to Christianity from the days of Jesus, the perfect covenant-keeping Jew.

New Testament and First Century Tensions between Jew and Gentile

At one point in his ministry, Jesus journeyed far north to Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area. As he went along, Jesus was accosted by a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was “cruelly demon-possessed” (Matt.15:22c). Her request was for healing, yet Jesus was not characteristically quick to respond with a granting of the plea. Instead, he gave what seemed to be a cold response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24b). Although he then drew out from her a profession of faith by which he healed her daughter, (and affirmed the mother), he made clear that he had no obligation to heal the non-Jewish girl. As stated elsewhere, his mission was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) among the house of Israel.

Yet it stands that Jesus committed himself to this faith-filled Gentile. He extended the mercy of God to someone outside the covenant boundaries of Israel, and it would not be the only time he would do so during his time on earth. Jesus’ disciples were surprised when he spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4, and later they volunteered to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume” (Luke 9:54b) a Samaritan village, for which he rebuked them. Here and in other instances, Jesus’ posture toward the covenant outsiders was gracious and merciful. The signal was unmistakable, and later made explicit—“God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18b). This revelation was jarring, and required reassessment among the (primarily Jewish) Church as to the relationship between old covenant and new.

In Acts, Luke records tense, often hostile interactions between Christians and non-Christian Jews, as well as frenzied debate among Jewish Christians in how to receive Gentile Christians.[5] As the first century waned, political developments throughout Judea and the greater Roman world led to increased tension within the Church between Jewish and Gentile Christians.[6] Although Christianity was at first known as merely another Jewish sect, as decades passed, the Gentile character of the Church gained a strong foothold.[7] In A.D. 70 when the Jews lost their homeland in the war with the Romans, the resultant scattering spelled the end of their cohesion as a political entity. In the ensuing century, they would strengthen their tradition in order to maintain their ancient ethnic-religious identity, whereas Christianity was finding a corresponding identity distinct from Judaism. Perhaps nothing was as unsavory and even threatening to the Jews as the suggestion that the burgeoning Church represented the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, and that the Mosaic Law had been superseded in Jesus.[8]

The Second Century Apologists

In the second century, Christianity developed a survival mechanism, so to speak, in a cadre of educated Apologists.[9] These men were concerned primarily with defending Christianity as the culmination of all true philosophy and as the legitimate inheritor of the Old Testament promises.[10] The second century witnessed a young Christianity “in conflict with the State over its very right to exist,” and thus seeking to establish itself as a valid religion.[11] In this atmosphere of varying persecutions against Jews and Christians, and with rancor between them, Justin Martyr had his disputation with the Jew Trypho around the year 135.[12]

The Tenor of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Although the discourse was necessarily confrontational, the tone remained gracious. At one point Justin indicted the Jews for their rejection of Christ Jesus, and interjects “yet we do not hate you . . . but we pray that even now all of you may repent and obtain mercy from God, the compassionate and long-suffering Father of all.”[13] This sentiment revealed Christian pity for the Jews in light of their bold denunciations of (their own) Christ and his Church.[14] Regarding this, Justin cited the Rabbis as sometimes instructing the people to curse the name of Jesus, showing the bitterness between synagogue and church.[15] He also noted the physical danger Christians faced from Jewish proselytes in that “twofold more than yourselves” they “blaspheme His name, and wish to torture and put to death us who believe in Him; for in all points they strive to be like you.”[16]

These and other examples serve to highlight the usefulness of the dialogue between these men. In light of physical intimidation between Jews and Christians, this honest, open discussion indicates an attempt at sincere understanding in a time of mutual distrust.[17] In spite of the gracious example set by Justin and Trypho, some of Trypho’s companions ridiculed Justin, almost derailing the discourse before it had properly begun.[18] By the insistence of Trypho, the conversation moved to a more private location, and continued accordingly.[19] This detail in Justin’s account illustrates that Trypho, perhaps representing many Jews of the early second-century, was more than willing to engage in difficult dialogue with Christians.

The Occasion of the Dialogue

Justin begins his account with his morning walk on “the Xystus,” a familiar avenue in Ephesus of the early second century.[20] According to Justin, Trypho approached with a group and hailed him, recognizing his philosopher’s garb. The discussion began generically upon philosophy, and so quickly turned on questions of God. Once Trypho had revealed his Hebrew identity and religion, Justin then answered as a Christian apologist.[21]

 As Justin rounded out his introductory remarks on philosophy in regard to Christianity, he pointedly called on Trypho and his companions to “become acquainted with the Christ of God,” referring to Jesus of Nazareth.[22] This was the sore spot between Jews and Christians, and so Justin had cut to the heart of the matter. Trypho, answering with patience and magnanimity, returned with an invitation of his own:

“If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God.”[23]

Trypho’s response was the mirror of Justin’s invitation, as both men had challenged the other to effectively abandon his religion. And so Trypho went on to condemn Justin for believing in Jesus as Messiah, saying “But Christ —if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”[24]

In light of this bold challenge to the legitimacy of Jesus as Messiah and thus the existence of the Church, Justin made his defense of Christianity as the reasonable and true continuation of the Old Testament religion.

The New Covenant in Jesus Supersedes the Old in Moses

Trypho initially challenged Justin to explain the perceived antinomianism of Christianity.[25] He characterized Christians as relying “on a man that was crucified . . . while you do not obey [God’s] commandments.”[26] Trypho could not have perceived the true religion of Yahweh as not being forever predicated on the ethnic and ceremonial identity of the Hebrew people. As an eyewitness to the failed Bar Cochba rebellion in Judea, Trypho knew the temple was not going to be rebuilt anytime soon.[27] The threat to the Jews was immediate: conserve the traditions of the fathers or go extinct in diaspora. Implicit in his challenge to Justin was the recognition that Christianity by definition claimed to be the continuation and fulfillment of the Jewish religion, and was therefore a growing threat to the Jewish identity.[28]

Justin saw the crux of the argument, and answered Trypho in no uncertain terms. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures, the covenant-making Lord of Israel, was the one whom the Christians were worshiping.[29] Yet the critical distinction between Jew and Christian was the man Jesus—through whom Jew and Gentile were now to approach God—the one crucified to inaugurate “an eternal and final law” that has “put an end to the previous” covenant.[30]

According to the magisterial Apologist, Christianity was not to be regarded as a lawless sect, but rather as the people of the new covenant under Jesus the new Lawgiver.[31] Justin was defending nothing more remarkable than the confession of the catholic faith of the second century, including Jewish history, identity, and Scripture as the inheritance of the Church. He made his argument explicit: “the true spiritual Israel . . . are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”[32]

From this point early in the dialogue and through to the end, Justin based his argument more so on Old Testament prophecy and its fulfillment in Christ and his Church, rather than on philosophy (as he often did in disputations with Greek pagans).[33] His goal was to prove Christ as the new law and his people the family of the new covenant.[34] There was no ambiguity on the part of the Apologist: Christianity had superseded the Jewish religion of the Old Testament.[35]

With his thesis set in place, Justin cited Isaiah 55:3 as a prophecy concerning the Church being called from every nation.[36] Here was a promise from God made “according to the faithful mercies shown to David.”  The implication is that in the Messiah, a called-out people from every nation would be counted in the promises of God. Going into more detail later in the dialogue, Justin cited Micah 4:1-7 to draw on the rich imagery of all nations basking in the shalom of Yahweh.[37] From this he made argument concerning the two advents of Christ: the first “inglorious,” and the Church suffering all manner of evils thereafter, and then the great second advent where all the vision of goodness and peace will be fulfilled.[38]

Although he was repeating himself as Trypho noted, Justin was unyielding in his proofs for the new covenant in Christ Jesus.[39] He warned his Jewish opponents to “not suppose that Isaiah or the other prophets speak of sacrifices of blood or libations being presented at the altar on His second advent, but of true and spiritual praises and giving of thanks.”[40] The signs of the Old Testament were being revealed in true objects in the new covenant, and as such Justin gloried in asserting “this has come to pass through the wonderful foreknowledge of God, in order that we,” says Justin regarding the Gentiles, would become part of the covenant family “through the calling of the new and eternal covenant, that is, of Christ.”[41]

Justin was reaching deep into the types, shadows, and foresight from the Old Testament.[42] Isaiah had predicted the blood of Christ as the means of the forgiveness of sins.[43] The rites and ceremonies of old covenant Judaism were instituted as signs pointing forward to fulfillment in the first advent of Christ.[44] Countering Trypho’s insistence on physical circumcision, Justin noted that before the rite of circumcision was given to Abraham, Adam was created uncircumcised as well as Abel, Enoch, Lot, Noah, and others who pleased God without the ceremonial laws.[45] He further indicates that the Jews had forfeited the true rest of God by polluting the Sabbath.[46]

In all of his arguments against the continuation of the Jewish family as the distinctive covenant people, Justin was claiming that in Christ through baptism, the Christian family was counted as keeping the law the Jews had broken.[47] Justin went as far as to claim the Old Testament Scriptures no longer even belonged to the Jews; the inheritance in Christ was complete and the Church was the descendant of the prophetic word.[48]

Trypho objected often to Justin’s driving argument.

He believed Justin was picking and choosing the Scriptures so to prove that the Church was released from the Jewish rites, again charging antinomianism to Christianity.[49] His counterpoint was that Christians needed to convert, and not vice versa, as the circumcision and ceremonies were and are eternal. Justin answered that the law was given in types and shadows performed in ceremonies due to the hardness of the Jewish people’s hearts, in preparation for the first advent.[50] In effect, Justin argued these regulations were instituted to deal with the transgression of Israel, and once again, that it was they who needed to convert to become the true Israel.[51]

Trypho had been sufficiently challenged, and so brought forth his deepest objection to Jesus as Messiah. His protest centered on Jesus’ ignoble first advent, wherein “this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.”[52] Justin’s response carries the weight of the entire middle section of the dialogue between them.[53] There was no conflict, for Jesus’ first and second advents were purposed by God to be distinct. Justin mined the Scriptures to illustrate this to Trypho.[54]

The nature of Christ and whether he could have been divine (and as such a new Lawgiver), was the constant refrain of the dialogue.[55] The discourse also turned on the question of the nature of the Messiah and his ability not only to give, but to fulfill the law.[56] Trypho, having considered Justin’s persuasion, allowed Jesus as the Messiah for Christians only.[57] Yet to questions of Jesus’ unbegotten nature as the Son of God, the Jew was unable to agree in any manner, even drawing the scorn of Justin for his obstinacy.[58] Trypho was up against a wall of outrageous Christian claims, but of them all the most offensive, unacceptable suggestion to his ears was that the Jewish Messiah, as God in flesh, would die accursed under the law.[59]

Justin continued to draw from Scripture, at times leaning on allegorical interpretations, unrelenting in proving Jesus as Messiah.[60] The nature and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was the culmination of all of Scripture, and in Justin’s mind receiving him was the only hope for Israel.

The negative aspect to his argument included sharp rebuke of Trypho and all of Judaism for their fumbling of the metanarrative of Scripture, failing to see the Christ while fixating on measurements and other minutiae.[61] At one point after having given much proof for the Christ, Justin did not allow Trypho to speak and contradict him again, saying “[even] though one should speak ten thousand words well, if there happen to be one little word displeasing to you, because not sufficiently intelligible or accurate, you make no account of the many good words, but lay hold of the little word, and are very zealous in setting it up as something impious and guilty.”[62]

In all of their disputation, Justin showed a limit to his patience in hearing the objections of the Jews. Although he entertained many questions from them, ultimately he directly confronted their skewed argumentation, even calling them out for going back on points previously ceded.[63] It is no wonder the dialogue was punctuated with moments of tension, for again the very survival of the Jewish identity was threatened by the rise of Christianity; to the Jew it was a newcomer religious sect looking to overthrow the most precious tenets of the Scriptures, and to the Christian the continuation and fulfillment of Judaism.

Second Century Before and After Justin

The Epistle of Barnabas, probably written in Alexandria some decades before Justin’sDialogue, represents a more severe form of polemic against the Jews.[64] While in Justin’s work there is something of a conciliatory, evangelistic tone, Barnabas undermines the divine purpose behind the Old Testament ceremonies in his fervor to extinguish Jewish doctrine.[65] This work, despite its tone, may have informed Justin and those like him. The use of allegory in interpreting old covenant narrative is typical for the early second century Alexandrians, and the author’s work in Genesis appears similar to the method of application employed by Justin throughout Dialogue.[66]

Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies at a slightly later time than Justin’s dispute with Trypho, although they were contemporaries.[67] Irenaeus’ principal focus was battling Greek Gnosticism, but in the course of his works, he also expressed the Christian doctrine of old and new covenants.[68] He was a Bishop of the far western Lyons, and as such his relative agreement with Justin is remarkable, as he states “And how is Christ the end of the law, if He be not also the final cause of it? For He who has brought in the end has Himself also wrought the beginning.”[69]

Here Irenaeus duplicates Justin’s doctrine of Christ as Lawgiver while geographically distant—albeit Irenaeus may have had access to Justin’s works. The catholicity of this doctrine, (that in Christ the Church inherits all that was promised to the Hebrew patriarchs), is evident throughout the major Christian voices of the second century.

Conclusion: Early Consensus

From the time of Jesus’ ministry up through the latter half of the second century, Christian theology was framed by the old covenants continued and made new in and through Christ for his Jewish and Gentile people. As the third century broke open, Christian theologians continued to work through the implications of the Church’s relationship to the old covenant and Judaism.[70] While the bulk of these works came during times of ethnic and religious conflict between Jews and Christians, the veracity of the doctrines is independent of the people who defined them. If true, Justin’s arguments in his Dialogue with Trypho are foundational doctrines in defining what it means to be a Christian. If they were correct in their reading of the Scripture, Justin and the other early fathers are to be heard in each generation of the Church, for they are “like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt. 13:52). Indeed if they were correct in their assessment of old and new covenants, then every Jew needs to hear and receive this truth with thanksgiving.

~ Justin

Comment on this article at Justin’s blog.
Used with permission.


[1]. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 18.

[2]. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 11, in ANF, vol. 1, http://www.ccel.org. Here Justin portrays Christ as the law of the new covenant, and the Church as the “true spiritual Israel.”

[3]. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the NASB.

[4]. C.f. 1 Cor. 10:1-11 where Paul refers to the Israelites of the Exodus as “our fathers,” though he addresses a Greek Christian audience; Galatians; Eph. 2:11-3:12; Phil. 3:4-8, et al.

[5]. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:9-8:3; 9:1-2, 22-29; 10:1-11:18; 12:1-5; 13:16-51; 14:1-7, 19-27; 15:1-35; 16:3; 17:5-9; 18:1-6, 12-20, 24-28; 19:13-16; 20:18-21; 21:11, 19-22:22; 23:1-15, et al.

[6]. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2010), 1:22.

[7]. Ibid., 1:27; 1:31-33.

[8]. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians, chap. 6, in ANF, vol. 1, http://www.ccel.org. Circa A.D. 107: The aged bishop sternly warns the church to not even listen to the preaching of the Jewish law. Presumably there would have been acceptable times to hear the Old Testament read to the Christian Church, but as Ignatius alluded to here, if the telos of such was not Jesus Christ, the speaker was no better than a sealed grave.

[9]. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Apologists.”

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ibid., s.v. “St. Justin Martyr.”

[13]. Justin Martyr, chap. 108, c.f. chap. 133.

[14]. Justin Martyr, chap. 47.

[15]. Ibid.; Justin Martyr, chap. 137.

[16]. Justin Martyr, chap. 122.

[17]. Justin Martyr, chap. 96, wherein Justin says “in addition to all this we pray for you, that Christ may have mercy upon you,” in the context of the Christian perspective on the intense opposition suffered from the Jews. Also, the closing chapter (142) is a surprisingly amiable farewell from both men, indicating the tenor of the conversation as being respectful even though sharply pointed at times.

[18]. Justin Martyr, chap. 9.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Justin Martyr, chap. 1.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Justin Martyr, chap. 8.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. Justin Martyr, chap. 10.

[26]. Ibid. Trypho here characterizes God’s commandments in purely ceremonial terms, i.e. circumcision, festivals, and sabbaths. He is likely employing synecdoche for the whole keeping of Torah.

[27]. Justin Martyr, chap. 1.

[28]. Justin Martyr, chap. 64. (First paragraph): Trypho saw the implications of confessing Jesus as Christ, and continued to draw back with this objection.

[29]. Justin Martyr, chap. 11.

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 18, 118-124.

[32]. Justin Martyr, chap. 11.

[33]. ODCC, s.v. “St. Justin Martyr.”

[34]. Justin Martyr, chap. 11.

[35]. Ibid.; Justin Martyr, chap. 135.

[36]. Justin Martyr, chap. 12.

[37]. Justin Martyr, chap. 109.

[38]. Justin Martyr, chap. 110.

[39]. Justin Martyr, chap. 118.

[40]. Ibid.

[41]. Ibid. His interpretation in this sense might be said to be influenced by Middle-Platonic thought.

[42]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 20-22, 32-34, 74-77, 81-86, 115-119. Each of these sections (among others), represents the work of the Apologist in arguing his point from different sections of the Old Testament.

[43]. Justin Martyr, chap. 13.

[44]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 14, 122.

[45]. Justin Martyr, chap. 19.

[46]. Justin Martyr, chap. 21.

[47]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 11, 14, 114, 123.

[48]. Justin Martyr, chap. 29.

[49]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 27, 32, 55.

[50]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 14, 27, 122.

[51]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 19, 30, 125. Also, in chapter 123, Trypho indicated that he well understood Justin’s argument, interjecting “What then . . . are you Israel?” Justin responds by showing Christ to be called Jacob and Israel, and thus his people inherit the same name and identity.

[52]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 32, 89.

[53]. Justin Martyr, chap. 94, as the standard of Justin’s response to this objection of Trypho.

[54]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 32-34, 48-53, 110-111.

[55]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 55-63, 85, 126-129.

[56]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 64-68, 135, 140.

[57]. Justin Martyr, chap. 64.

[58]. Ibid.; Justin Martyr, chap. 68.

[59]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 89, 126.

[60]. Justin Martyr, chaps. 112, 134-135.

[61]. Ibid., Justin Martyr, chap. 113.

[62]. Justin Martyr, chap. 115.

[63]. Justin Martyr, chap. 68.

[64]. ODCC, s.v. “Epistle of Barnabas.”

[65]. Ibid.

[66]. Epistle of Barnabas, chap. 13, in ANF, vol. 1, http://www.ccel.org.

[67]. ODCC, s.v. “St. Irenaeus.”

[68]. Ibid., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. 4, chap. 12, sec. 4, in ANF, vol. 1, http://www.ccel.org; chap. 25, sec. 1; chap. 34, secs. 1-5.

[69]. Irenaeus, bk. 4, chap. 12, sec. 4; ODCC, s.v. “St. Irenaeus.”

[70]. Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, chaps. 1-14, in ANF, vol. 3, http://www.ccel.org. Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, chap. 13, in ANF, vol. 3, http://www.ccel.org. Hippolytus, Appendix to the Works of Hippolytus, sec. 3, in ANF, vol. 5, http://www.ccel.org.


Justin Esposito

Justin is a Bible teacher at Grace Life Church of Avon, NY, and is currently a student at Northeastern Seminary in the Master of Theology program. His goal is to attain a PhD in Biblical Theology so he can teach for his career at the seminary level, and ultimately hopes to work in the international mission field equipping pastors for their local ministries. Justin is happily married to Danielle since July 2011, and they love to travel, hike, and experience as much of the outdoors as possible. He lives in the Buffalo New York area and has traveled to almost all of the United States (currently 46 out of 50). At the present time he publishes at least two blogs. Both are worthy of your attention. Interpreting the Cosmos and Citizen of New Jerusalem.