(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)
As I mentioned last week, Justin Martyr apparently never got the memo about how the story of Jesus was supposed to be unique and unlike any of the pagan myths that preceded it. In fact, he’s been using parallels between pagan myths and the Gospel as an argument in favor of the historical authenticity of the latter (!). He continues in the same vein in this week’s installment, and proceeds from there to make a threefold argument for why, despite his own reasoning, Caesar ought to conclude that only the Gospel is true, and that all of the pagan stories it so closely resembles are false.
Last week Justin cited Mercury, Bacchus, Æsculapius, and Hercules as prominent pagan precedents for the idea of a son of a god suffering and dying and ascending into heaven. In chapter 22, he expands that list, citing Mercury as a pagan precedent for being an angelic Word of God, Perseus as a precedent for virgin birth, and Æsculapius as a precedent for a son of a god healing people. And while he has no specific precedent for crucifixion, he has no shortage of sons of gods dying a variety of violent deaths, so really, Jesus’ violent death isn’t unprecedented either. (I’ll skip quoting that here, you can click the link if you’d like to read the details.)
In chapter 23, Justin indulges in his speciality of having your cake and eating it too. Despite having used the pagan sons of god and their alleged adventures as precedents for similar Christian stories, he is now going to deny that these precedents are actually legitimate.
[Whatever] we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed … [We] claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things … Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race … [Before] He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated…
I actually had someone share this argument with me, when I was a teenager. The Gospel isn’t derived from the pagan myths, but rather the pagan myths are derived from the Gospel: evil demons, seeing what God was about to do, invented all these pagan myths ahead of time and spread them as legends about pagan demigods, as part of a plot to pre-emptively discredit the Gospel. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Notice here that Justin is now stating a little more plainly the idea that Jesus pre-existed his incarnation—that he was already the Only Begotten Son of God before he ever took human form. Trinitarians read this as a clear reference to their own assumption that Jesus has always been God the Son (as well as the Son of God), but Justin is not quite saying that here. It’s possible that he’s thinking of Jesus as some kind of superior spirit just a little lower than God, begotten by God but not himself a god, just like Hercules was begotten by Jupiter but wasn’t ever quite fully a god (even after he ascended into heaven). We’ll have to see how this idea develops in the rest of Justin’s writings.
Justin proposes three proofs by which Caesar ought to know that the Gospel is true and that (or despite the fact that) all similar pagan stories are false. The first is one that will be very familiar to skeptics: the observation that theists cannot come to any clear consensus regarding the gods.
[We] only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners; other men in other places worshipping trees and rivers, and mice and cats and crocodiles, and many irrational animals. Nor are the same animals esteemed by all; but in one place one is worshipped, and another in another, so that all are profane in the judgment of one another, on account of their not worshipping the same objects. And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do, nor offer to the dead libations and the savour of fat, and crowns for their statues,and sacrifices. For you very well know that the same animals are with some esteemed gods, with others wild beasts, and with others sacrificial victims.
Good point, Justin. Here’s Caesar having Christians put to death for not worshipping the same gods as the pagans, and yet even the pagans themselves do not worship the same gods as one another. That’s a problem theists have to this day, not excluding the Christians (including Trinitarians, non-filioque Orthodox, Nestorians, etc.). Human beliefs are the sole source of information regarding the things humans believe in, and therefore it is not possible for theists to converge on a common, objective set of beliefs regarding the god or gods one ought to accept. It is irrational and unjust, therefore, to define public policy in terms of beliefs about gods (except possibly to forbid persecuting people for their beliefs). On this point, Justin and the skeptics can all agree. Indeed the only skeptical criticism here is that Justin fails to apply the same standard consistently to all gods, because he pointed excludes his own.
Justin’s second “proof” seems a bit over-sold. The reason Caesar ought to know that pagan precedents are all false and only the Gospel is true is because Christians used to believe the pagan stories, and now they don’t. “Yeah, we bought all those stories too—fell for them hook, line and sinker. Now we’ve got a different set of stories, though, and you need to believe our new set, because we’ve got such an outstanding track record in judging how reliable stories about gods are.” Like I said, perhaps just a bit of exaggeration to call this argument a proof. And—speaking to an emperor who officially believes the old stories still—Justin adds this little snap at the end: “Those who believe these things we pity, and those who invented them we know to be devils.”
As his third proof, Justin claims that various men and women claimed to be gods after Jesus died, and that the Romans not only tolerated these new deities, but had openly supported them.
[After] Christ’s ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honours. There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome:—“Simoni Deo Sancto,”“To Simon the holy God.” And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him. And a man, Menander, also a Samaritan, of the town Capparetæa, a disciple of Simon, and inspired by devils, we know to have deceived many while he was in Antioch by his magical art. He persuaded those who adhered to him that they should never die, and even now there are some living who hold this opinion of his.
There’s more than a little bit suspicious about this argument. First of all, we’ve got the appeal to devils—evidently Justin believed that these magicians were doing real magic, and that their powers must therefore be the work of demons. Secondly, the CCEL footnotes inform us that a statue has been found with a similar inscription that is actually a reference to the Sabine deity Semo Sancus, and not to Simon at all. The footnotes pooh-pooh the idea, but as far as I know there’s no record of any state-sanctioned cult of a god-man named Simon in the Roman empire, so it’s at least as likely that Justin was mistaken as it is that he is the sole surviving reference to an unknown cult.
You have to love gullible Justin’s snide jab at the gullible followers of Menander, though—they’d been promised that they would never die, and those of his followers who were still alive still believed it. In other words, a lot of them had already died, despite Menander’s promise, and yet somehow the survivors were able to convince themselves that the promise was true anyway. Kind of like the Christians convincing themselves that Jesus really was the son of God, and was somehow “alive” again even after he died, not that Justin would admit to the parallel.
Justin also includes Marcion, one of the early Christian heretics, in his third proof.
And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians; just as also those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, have yet in common with them the name of philosophers given to them. And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds—the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh—we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions. But I have a treatise against all the heresies that have existed already composed, which, if you wish to read it, I will give you.
Poor persecuted Christians! Nobody ever picks on the heretics, or the gays, or the devil worshippers. Only the Christians are being persecuted. (Now where have I heard that argument before?) And notice, he doesn’t actually accuse the Marcionites of wholesale fornication and baby-eating. He’s just asking the question, you know, just bringing up the point that “they say” that Christians are guilty of doing such horrible things, and you know those Marcionites are called Christians (even though they’re really working with the devils to blaspheme God and do other evil things). So if you’re looking for “Christians” to persecute, Mr. Caesar…
And by the way, have you read my treatise against their heresies?
Oddly, that’s it for Justin’s three “proofs” that the Gospel is true and that its pagan precedents are all false: an inconsistent observation of the weakness of theism, an assurance that “sure, we were wrong before, but now we’re right, I just know it,” and a complaint that “Hey, you’re not persecuting those other guys as much as you’ve persecuted us.”
Back in chapter 20, Justin wrote, “If, therefore, on some points we teach the same things as the poets and philosophers whom you honour, and on other points are fuller and more divine in our teaching, and if we alone afford proof of what we assert, why are we unjustly hated more than all others?” The answer is fairly obvious: Justin is more than a little biased in what he’s willing to regard as proof, and might even be putting a bit of spin on what he considers hatred and persecution. Christians weren’t the only group that was persecuted on occasion back then, and even when it was, it’s unlikely that the persecutors cared enough about the fine points of Christian doctrine to single out the Real True Christians for abuse.
Some things have changed a lot since the second century, and some hasn’t. These three lame “proofs” have survived more or less intact to modern times. Next week we’ll look at some things that have changed since then (and it’s a darn good thing they have). Stay tuned.