Justin and the Ring of Secrets

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

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been watching Justin Martyr run rough-shod over various Jewish prophecies, taking them out of context, editing them, and assigning them interpretations so arbitrary as to border on the downright random. Buckle your seatbelts, though, because he has a word or two of advice for us about the Jews and their scriptures.

But when you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired themselves, but by the Divine Word who moves them. For … sometimes He speaks as from the person of God the Lord and Father of all; sometimes as from the person of Christ; sometimes as from the person of the people answering the Lord or His Father… And this the Jews … did not understand, and therefore did not recognise Christ even when He came, but even hate us who say that He has come…

Yep, the reason you don’t actually find Messianic prophecies when you go back and read those Jewish scriptures is because the Jews don’t know how to interpret literature properly. And it’s Justin Martyr who says so.

Justin has two reasons for his little aside here. One is to try and explain exactly how Christianity could be both the fulfilment of the Jewish faith, and the rejection of it. The obvious answer is that it can’t—as the Jews quite rightly protest, Christianity is guilty of wholesale religious revisionism here. But that’s not Justin’s answer—he’s trying to sell us the notion that, while the Jewish and Christian interpretations are indeed very different, it’s because the Jews are wrong and the Christians are right.

That little slap against the Jews is just an aside, however. The main reason for bringing this up is to lead into the next major section of his Apology, in which he proposes to reveal to us exactly what “the Divine Word” declared in the character of God, what He declared in the character of the Christ, and what He declared in the character of the people answering God.

Before we get into Justin’s exposition, though, let’s focus for a moment on what Justin is saying here. What he’s claiming is not just that he understands the Jewish scriptures better than the Jews do. He’s claiming that there’s a specific reason he understands it better: it contains a secret, hidden message, and he, Justin, has the special Ring of Secrets that will let him decode it.

This Ring of Secrets turns out to be simply the assumption that some of the verses are being spoken from Messiah’s point of view. Which ones? That’s the catch, isn’t it. It’s called confirmation bias. The reason Justin is finding Messianic passages is because he assumes they’ve got to be there, and from that point it’s just a question of picking a few verses that can be made to fit. The Jews who don’t make the same assumptions naturally don’t find Messianic prophecies “hidden” in the ordinary texts, and hence their rejection of the arbitrary, free-association-style Christian interpretations. The real source of Messianic implications is the Messianic assumption, rather than the text itself.

Let’s let Justin demonstrate for us exactly how this all works.

And that this too may be clear to you, there were spoken from the person of the Father through Isaiah the prophet, the following words: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, and My people hath not understood. Woe, sinful nation, a people full of sins, a wicked seed, children that are transgressors, ye have forsaken the Lord.”

This is a reference to the LXX translation of Isaiah 1:3. If we go back and read this passage in context, we can see that it has nothing to do with any future Messiah. Verse 1 even comes right out and explicitly tells us the vision is about the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem before the Babylonian Captivity (after which Judah no longer existed as a nation). Justin, however, is looking for a passage he can use as a prophecy that the Jews would reject their Messiah, and this one is as good as any.

There’s no shortage of passages to choose from, of course—prophetic denunciations of Israel are as old as Israel itself, and pretty much occupy the whole history of the nation. But this one happens to use the word “know,” and Justin’s out shopping for a verse he can re-use as a prediction of Jews not recognizing their Messiah, so eh, close enough.

And again elsewhere, when the same prophet speaks in like manner from the person of the Father, “What is the house that ye will build for Me? saith the Lord. The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool.”

This is from Isaiah 66, where the prophet envisions a future in which God Himself creates a new heaven and earth, in which His saints will worship Him and then, oddly enough, go out to look at the corpses of His enemies burning forever in Hell. Again, not really apropos to the first century AD, but Justin is shopping for verses he can use to claim that God has always intended to turn away from Jewish Temple worship in favor of Christianity.

And again, in another place, “Your new moons and your sabbaths My soul hateth; and the great day of the fast and of ceasing from labour I cannot away with; nor, if ye come to be seen of Me, will I hear you: your hands are full of blood; and if ye bring fine flour, incense, it is abomination unto Me: the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls I do not desire. For who hath required this at your hands? But loose every bond of wickedness, tear asunder the tight knots of violent contracts, cover the houseless and naked, deal thy bread to the hungry.”

Justin is bouncing back to Isaiah 1 again, where God condemns those who fastidiously cling to the outward trappings of religion instead of pursuing a liberal program of social justice. Again, it’s not a passage that says anything at all about Jews failing to recognize their own Messiah, it’s merely one of many Old Testament passages that condemns pre-Exilic Jews for resembling Republicans more than Democrats. For Justin, though, it’s enough that Jews were criticized, and therefore some kind of messianic prophecy is “fulfilled.”

That’s supposed to be what the Old Testament scriptures tell us when “the Divine Word” is speaking in the character of God. Now let’s look at what Justin claims as the parts written in the character of Christ.

And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks from the person of Christ, the utterances are of this sort: “I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, to those who walk in a way that is not good.” And again: “I gave My back to the scourges, and My cheeks to the buffetings; I turned not away My face from the shame of spittings; and the Lord was My helper: therefore was I not confounded: but I set My face as a firm rock; and I knew that I should not be ashamed, for He is near that justifieth Me.”

The first verse is from Isaiah 65, where God is complaining about the prevalence of polytheism in the nation of Israel, and the nation’s willingness to call on almost any other god besides Yahweh. Justin is really stretching things to make that into a Messianic prophecy, considering that Jewish polytheistic practices pretty much died out during the Babylonian Captivity. The Sadducees may have believed that other gods existed, but they did not worship them, which clearly ties this particular passage to a period in Israel’s history several centuries before Jesus was born.

The second quote is less clear—it’s so generic, it could apply to anybody, if they were feeling a bit martyrish, with a bit of self-pity and self-righteousness, and just a touch of vindictiveness. It’s not really about anything specific at all, but it does mention physical abuse, and hey presto, Jesus was physically abused before his crucifixion. Into the shopping cart with this verse too.

Of course, the way confirmation bias works, you could also take this as a prediction of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, or, more metaphorically, as a prediction of public hostility towards Barak Obama. Or anyone. That’s the beauty of confirmation bias: you can’t beat it for flexibility. Sometimes, though, even confirmation bias is not enough. You have to create a prophecy by re-arranging the Bible a bit.

And again, when He says, “They cast lots upon My vesture, and pierced My hands and My feet. And I lay down and slept, and rose again, because the Lord sustained Me.”

Isn’t it amazing the way the OT prophets predicted, through the character of Christ, that after his clothes were gambled away, he would “sleep” the sleep of death and then rise again? Only they didn’t originally say that. Justin made up that particular prophecy by taking one line from Psalm 22:18 and slapping on a completely unrelated line from Psalm 3:5. Granted, Justin’s confirmation bias probably led him to see Psalm 3 as a prediction of the resurrection, based on free association with the word “sleep,” (i.e. death). But notice he’s actually re-arranging the texts in order to create prophecies that satisfy the bias of his Christian assumptions. This isn’t prophetic fulfilment at all, this is simply revisionism.

And again, when He says, “They spake with their lips, they wagged the head, saying, Let Him deliver Himself.” And that all these things happened to Christ at the hands of the Jews, you can ascertain. For when He was crucified, they did shoot out the lip, and wagged their heads, saying, “Let Him who raised the dead save Himself.”

This time Justin is quoting Psalm 22 again, only not quite: the original Psalm says, “They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying,’Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him’” (emph. added). Justin changed the taunts from “let God deliver him” to “let him deliver himself,” in order to change the prophecy into one that fit his bias better. Justin’s Ring of Secrets doesn’t just decode the hidden message in the Old Testament, it changes the message, as needed, in order to produce the desired result.

How far is Justin willing to push the matter in order to make his revisionist version of history the authoritative account? Try this one on for size.

And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you.

Many historians have noticed that Jerusalem has been the capital of the world for almost 2,000 years now, and that all our laws are written by God, thus eliminating all war. It’s only natural that Justin would appeal to this fulfilled prophecy as evidence that Jesus really is the promised Messiah.

Only, not quite. Justin is quoting from Isaiah 2 which, like Isaiah 1, explicitly identifies itself as being about the southern kingdom of Judah before the Babylonian Captivity. Now, granted, Isaiah’s prophecy failed to come true, though you can get around that by claiming that the phrase “the last days” in verse 2 is a reference to the last days of the earth rather than the last days of Judah. But either way, the passage is about a theocratic utopia in which Jerusalem is the capital of the world and all the Gentile nations are subject to God’s Law.

Justin “Free Association” Martyr is claiming that this passage is fulfilled by the fact that Christians are running around preaching the Gospel.

For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

Right, because God wouldn’t like it if they lied. Except where prophecies are concerned, I guess.

Ironically, this Ring of Secrets is still popular among believers to this day, which is why there are so many different varieties of Christianity. Once you give yourself over to confirmation bias as the key to Bible interpretation, you can find scriptural support for whatever you think ought to be there. And that fact ought to give atheists more hope than anything else, because nothing destroys the faith like corruption from within.

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