The Free Association Game

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

We’re in chapter 32 of Justin’s First Apology, and amazingly, we’ve only scratched the surface of everything Justin is getting wrong in his attempts to manufacture some kind of Messianic fulfilment for various Old Testament passages. Last week we looked at how he took Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah, from Genesis 49, and rebuilt it as a prediction that Jesus would preach the gospel just before the Romans took control of the Jewish territories in Palestine, using the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the uncertain word “Shiloh” in verse 10.

I’ve done some more reading, and it turns out the actual meaning of this passage may be simpler than I thought. Most modern Christian translations of Gen. 49:10 render it as “The scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet until He whose right it is comes,” or words to that effect. But the actual Hebrew also allows a decidedly less Messianic reading, as indicated in the footnote of the Holman Christian Standard translation: “…until He comes to Shiloh.” And that’s a much more straightforward reading.

If you read in Joshua 18 and elsewhere, you’ll discover that in the legend of the Exodus, after the Israelites conquered Canaan and established their own nation there, the city of Shiloh was the de facto religious and political capital (Jerusalem did not become the capital until the reign of King David). A passing reference in Jeremiah 7 refers to Shiloh as “the place where I [the LORD] made My name dwell first.” Thus, it’s entirely possible that Jacob’s blessing of Judah was originally intended only to designate him, personally, as the commander-in-chief for the upcoming invasion, until he comes to Shiloh.

The reference to Shiloh might seem a touch anachronistic, but when you remember that the whole story was invented after the fact, to legitimize David’s ascension to the throne, it’s not too terribly surprising. It’s certainly more plausible than the idea that an omniscient and omnipotent God would choose to make the true meaning of a Messianic prophecy hinge on an obscure word whose meaning is so uncertain that people basically just assign it whatever meaning they like!

Moving on, Justin attempt to find still more secret messages hidden in Jacob’s boringly political endorsement of Judah as leader over his brothers.

And the prophecy, “He shall be the expectation of the nations,” signified that there would be some of all nations who should look for Him to come again. And this indeed you can see for yourselves, and be convinced of by fact. For of all races of men there are some who look for Him who was crucified in Judæa, and after whose crucifixion the land was straightway surrendered to you as spoil of war.

Justin changes the word “obedience” into the word “expectation,” and thus changes the meaning of the whole passage. In the original text, Jacob is simply saying that Judah will lead the tribes of Israel to victory over the nations of Canaan on his way to establishing a new national capital in Shiloh. Justin claims, though, that what Jacob really meant was that Shiloh was a secret code name for “Messiah,” and that there would be people in every (Gentile) nation who would be expecting His coming. And wow, hey, Christians! They’re everywhere, in every nation! That’s a fulfilment that can’t be explained without supernatural intervention. Not even Jacob could have predicted that fulfilment, especially considering that Justin had to change the prediction after the fact in order to get everything the way he wanted it.

And the prophecy, “binding His foal to the vine, and washing His robe in the blood of the grape,” was a significant symbol of the things that were to happen to Christ, and of what He was to do. For the foal of an ass stood bound to a vine at the entrance of a village, and He ordered His acquaintances to bring it to Him then; and when it was brought, He mounted and sat upon it, and entered Jerusalem, where was the vast temple of the Jews which was afterwards destroyed by you. And after this He was crucified, that the rest of the prophecy might be fulfilled. For this “washing His robe in the blood of the grape” was predictive of the passion He was to endure, cleansing by His blood those who believe on Him.

Once again, Justin whips out his pen and edits the Bible in order to create the details he needs in order to turn the blessing of Judah into some kind of Messianic prophecy. If you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, you’ll find a few variations in the story (Matthew, amusingly, has Jesus riding into town on the back of both the colt and its mother, somehow), but one thing you won’t find is that the colt was tied to any vine. Justin is just adding that detail in order to link it to Judah’s blessing somehow. Only it’s a bad fit. The imagery of tying a colt to a vine (and notice, he’s tying up the colt, not untying it and leading it away) is an image of a warrior and a wanderer who has settled down and is living in peace: his mount is unwarlike, and he’s been at home long enough for a vine to grow big enough and thick enough that you can reasonably hitch a strong animal to it without fear of uprooting it.

In Justin’s mind, though, all it takes to “fulfil” a prophecy is a little free association. There’s a colt and a vine in Judah’s blessing, and a colt and a vine in Jesus’ story (assuming you imagine that there was a vine), and so poof, fulfilment. Same with the “washing His robe in the blood of the grapes”—in the original, the imagery is of a peaceful and prosperous agriculturalist whose crops are so abundant that he can afford to use the grapes not just for food and wine, but as a rich, royal, purple dye for his robes. This positive, milk-and-honey anticipation could hardly be farther from the literally bloody and violent application that Justin ascribes to it. But once again, it’s free association time—try using the word “blood” anywhere near a die-hard believer like Justin and see how far you get!

Can Justin stretch any farther to find a “fulfilment” in Judah’s blessing? Just watch.

For what is called by the Divine Spirit through the prophet “His robe,” are those men who believe in Him in whom abideth the seed of God, the Word. And what is spoken of as “the blood of the grape,” signifies that He who should appear would have blood, though not of the seed of man, but of the power of God. And the first power after God the Father and Lord of all is the Word, who is also the Son; and of Him we will, in what follows, relate how He took flesh and became man. For as man did not make the blood of the vine, but God, so it was hereby intimated that the blood should not be of human seed, but of divine power, as we have said above.

Medical science was not as advanced back then as it is now, but the above text might suggest that they had a lot more powerful pharmaceuticals than we give them credit for.

Check it out. Here is the text: “He washes his garments in wine” (NASB). And here, according to Justin, is what is being “predicted” by these 6 words:

  • Messiah, aka The Word will come.
  • The seed (Greek “sperma“) of God will abide in this Messiah
  • The blood in Messiah’s veins will not derive from the seed (“sperma“) of men (i.e. he will be born of a virgin).

And how does he know all this? By the fact that man did not put grape juice (the blood of the vine) in grapes.

It’s worth remembering at this point that Justin considers this to be among the very best of the evidences that Jesus is the Son of God. Apparently, he honestly thinks that by presenting this kind of “fulfilment’ as evidence, he’s either going to persuade Caesar that Jesus is the Messiah, or else leave him without excuse for his failure to believe. And I partially agree with him: I don’t think Christians have much to offer that’s any better than what Justin is handing us here. But it’s all bunk. Free association, unaccountable adjustments to the texts, interpretations so far-fetched as to border on the hallucinatory—that’s what believers like Justin base their faith on. And not just verbal faith, but faith that some, like Justin, would literally die for.

I wish I could say that Justin was an aberration, a far-out kook notable for his uniquely shaky grasp of reality, but unfortunately the evidence would be against me. People still think that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and they base their belief on reasoning that’s pretty much the same as Justin’s. But I digress, and we’ve still got one more prophecy left in Chapter 32, this one from Isaiah 11, at least according to the CCEL footnote. Here’s Justin’s presentation.

And Isaiah, another prophet, foretelling the same things in other words, spoke thus: “A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a flower shall spring from the root of Jesse; and His arm shall the nations trust.” And a star of light has arisen, and a flower has sprung from the root of Jesse—this Christ. For by the power of God He was conceived by a virgin of the seed of Jacob, who was the father of Judah, who, as we have shown, was the father of the Jews; and Jesse was His forefather according to the oracle, and He was the son of Jacob and Judah according to lineal descent.

If you click the link and read Isaiah 11, you’ll notice that Justin’s text doesn’t really have much to do with what’s actually there, apart from the imagery of a shoot arising from the stem of Jesse. That, once again, is an anachronistic interpretation: the original prophecy is a bit of political propaganda promising that King David, the son of Jesse, would be the best king ever. Hyperbole, to be sure, and complete bunk, but still, if you approach the text without any pseudo-Messianic agenda, it’s pretty clear that flowers arising from the original root are all first-generation by definition, and not the fruit of the seed of the seed of the seed of the seed… [etc] of the seed of the original root.

Besides, even if we assumed that the same root could somehow directly produce its own great-great-great…-great grand-descendants, Justin’s still not claiming anything significant here, except possibly for the claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin (and that’s something Isaiah’s garbled prophecy says nothing about anyway). If Justin wants to convince Caesar that Jesus must be the Messiah just because he’s one of untold thousands of people with some kind of genealogical link to some ancient tribal leader, then he’s expecting a bit much.

And yet, for Justin, even this constitutes valid and convincing proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. It’s not a question of the evidence justifying the conclusion that Jesus really is the Son of God. For Justin it’s more the other way around: the conclusion justifies the evidence. He claims he’s got this fantastic evidence, this convincing evidence, this overwhelming evidence, but when it comes right down to it, the only thing this “evidence” has going for it is that it satisfies the conclusion Justin wants to reach. There’s nothing of historical context or reasonable interpretation or even accurate reportage of the original texts. It’s simply cherry picking: given the conclusion you want to reach, what verses can you find that, by some kind of free association, can be linked to the desired result?

That’s the whole basis of Christianity, ancient and modern. Given the conclusion you want to reach, what verses can you find that support your position? The advantage of a Bible-based faith is that you can get away with doing that. There’s no overarching authority to tell you that you’re using the wrong verses, or that you’re interpreting them wrong, or that you’re leaving out important context. Every man is free to believe whatever conclusions seem right in their own minds. All you have to do is freely associate your doctrines with passages from the Bible so that you can claim you’re only submitting yourself in obedience to what God has revealed. The results may be utter bullshit, but you can still believe them.

I called that an “advantage,” but of course, merely deceiving yourself is actually a pretty terrible thing. Fortunately, there is a way out. You can adopt the principle that truth is consistent with itself, and thereby commit yourself to measuring your interpretation of the Bible, and even the Bible itself, against the infallible standard of objective reality. If you can commit yourself to it, you can discover the real truth about the Bible.

The only catch, of course, is that this kind of commitment to factual truth is a road that leads straight to atheism. But then again, isn’t genuine truth worth giving up a mythical god or three?

4 Responses to “The Free Association Game”

  1. Alex SL Says:

    Thanks for the update on Shiloh. I remember that there used to be a public barbecue place colloquially called “Shiloh Ranch” where I grew up. Wonder where that came from.

    Same with the “washing His robe in the blood of the grapes”—in the original, the imagery is of a peaceful and prosperous agriculturalist whose crops are so abundant that he can afford to use the grapes not just for food and wine, but as a rich, royal, purple dye for his robes.

    Does that colour last? I had interpreted it to mean merely that his clothes would be red from fruit juice now due to pressing grapes instead of red from blood due to being a warrior.

    Say, is it known if the Roman emperor ever actually received this text? If yes, I would like to see his reaction…

    • Len Says:

      Shiloh was the name of the ranch in the TV show “The Virginian”

      • Alex SL Says:

        Now that is interesting, thanks. I have never even heard of that show. The weird thing is, said barbecue place was not even in the US but in Germany…

  2. M.W. Says:

    Re the two asses: arguably what happened here is that Matthew was not familiar with the OT poetic convention of restating a fact in different words to make a couplet (not much of a hebrew scholar, was Matthew) So he took Zach 9:9 “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – the hebrew “and” which the NIV translate committee have politely omitted (although the KJV leaves it in) to mean two animals, and amended Mark’s gospel to retrofit.


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