Last rites

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

Justin, at long last, is finally reaching the end of his letter to Caesar, and he closes with a description of various rites practiced by the Christians of his day—rites that were strangely familiar to anyone accustomed to pagan worship services. Justin is sticking to his story, though: the reason that Christian worship is so similar to pagan worship is because the pagans are imitating the practices God revealed through the Jewish prophets.

The first rite Justin discusses is baptism. If you happen to have been brought up in a Protestant church, as I was, you were probably taught that baptism was a symbol, or remembrance, of the forgiveness of sins God grants you when you put your faith in Jesus. Justin, however, was clearly no Protestant.

And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

The quote is from Isaiah 1, starting from verse 16. In context, God is referring to washing the blood from their hands, using “blood” and “scarlet” and “crimson” as metaphors for evil deeds. He even explains what He means by “washing”: bringing justice to the orphan and the widow, punishing the guilty and rewarding the virtuous. In the original chapter it’s quite plain that the last thing God would have meant by “washing” is the addition of yet one more religious ritual to the worship of the faithful. The whole thrust of the chapter is that God rejects all the religious rituals when not matched by a virtuous lifestyle.

It does use the word “wash,” though, and that’s enough for Justin to not only turn the passage on its head but also to insist that the demons themselves understood this passage to be a prediction that a new religious ritual would be added to the Christian faith some day.

Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, … and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we … may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone…

And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt-offerings, also to sprinkle themselves; and they cause them also to wash themselves entirely, as they depart [from the sacrifice], before they enter into the shrines in which their images are set.

So baptism washes away your sins, and the devils knew this, and made sure that pagan temple practices would also include this kind of ceremonial washing, and that’s why Christian baptism looks so much like they just stole a popular pagan practice and put a Christian name on it. So far, it’s vintage Justin Martyr, but then suddenly his discussion takes an interesting—not to say bizarre—twist.

For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness.

It’s strange, because God gives His name all the way back in Exodus 3: I AM WHO I AM. Even more strange, Justin cites this very passage, both to prove that no one knows the name of God, and to argue that the Jews do not know who God really is.

[Moses], when he had put off his shoes and drawn near, heard that he was to go down into Egypt and lead out the people of the Israelites there; and he received mighty power from Christ, who spoke to him in the appearance of fire, and went down and led out the people, having done great and marvellous things…

And all the Jews even now teach that the nameless God spake to Moses; whence the Spirit of prophecy, accusing them by Isaiah the prophet mentioned above, said “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know Me, and My people do not understand.” … Now the Word of God is His Son, as we have before said. And He is called Angel and Apostle; for He declares whatever we ought to know, and is sent forth to declare whatever is revealed; as our Lord Himself says, “He that heareth Me, heareth Him that sent Me.” From the writings of Moses also this will be manifest; for thus it is written in them, “And the Angel of God spake to Moses, in a flame of fire out of the bush, and said, I am that I am, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of thy fathers; go down into Egypt, and bring forth My people.”

So Justin’s reasoning is that when Moses saw the burning bush, the person who spoke to him was not God, but rather Christ. The Jews, however, believe that God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, but Justin takes the verse “He that hears me, hears Him who sent me,” and uses that to re-interpret the passage to mean that the burning bush was Christ speaking on behalf of God. Thus, the Jews mistook Christ for God, and thus they do not know who was really speaking from the burning bush.

There are a number of fascinating observations we can make here. First, we can tell conclusively that Justin was not a Trinitarian, because his whole argument here is that the person in the burning bush was not God. It was Christ, who (in Justin’s theology) is not God. Justin is insisting that “the ineffable God” has a name that no one knows, because the person who gave his name in Exodus 3 was not God, but rather was Christ. Take the Trinitarian position that Christ IS God, and the whole argument falls apart.

This may sound like belaboring the obvious, since the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t even invented until another century or so after Justin. But it’s worth pointing out nonetheless, because Trinitarians like to deny that they invented anything new at the Council of Nicaea. In the Trinitarian version of church history, the Council was not inventing anything at all, but was merely spelling out what the Church had believed all along. If that were the case, however, we would be speaking of “Justin the Heretic,” not “Saint Justin the Martyr.” Justin was a fully orthodox Christian, at least relative to what Christian theology was at its roots. And at its roots, Christian theology was a confused and self-contradictory mess, but not quite yet the confused and self-contradictory mess that Trinitarianism eventually emerged as.

Adding to the confusion, Justin tries to explain why Christ, if he was not God, would have said “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” when he was in the burning bush. It’s because in a way, he kinda was God.

The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spake to Moses, though He who spake to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.

The trouble you get into, even with pre-Trinitarian theology, is that it’s impossible to draw non-contradictory conclusions from a self-contradictory premise. If Jesus was God, and there is only one God he could have been, and we know the name of that God, then you can’t argue both that we know the name of the Son God and that we do not know the name of the Father God. It’s a self contradiction. You have to have at least two distinct Gods in order to have both a God whose name you do know and a God whose name you don’t.

The most self-consistent interpretation of Justin’s argument would be to assume that he regarded Jesus as being “a” God but not “The” God. If we take this view, then the “God” whose name we know is a different God than the One whose name we don’t know. Taken literally, that’s polytheistic interpretation that violates Trinitarianism, but might in fact be consistent with the muddled and problematic pre-Nicene theology that the Council itself was called to try and fix.

Or perhaps Justin meant only that Christ was metaphorically God, and that in the burning bush he called himself God because he was speaking as God’s spokesman (i.e. “first-begotten Word”). Jesus himself made a similar argument in John 10, to defend the legitimacy of calling someone “god” when they really weren’t. Taken in this sense, we could say that Justin is calling Jesus “God” symbolically, in order to account for the phrase “I am the God of Abraham” while still insisting that the figure in the burning bush was not God.

Moving on, Justin makes a passing argument that the pagan practice of putting shrines to Proserpine at spring-heads was a demonic attempt to imitate the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of Creation, as given in Genesis 1. He seems to be trying to tie this in somehow with the notion that pagan religious rituals are an imitation of Christian practices even when the pagan practices came first, though that one seems pretty strained even by Justin’s low standards. He also makes an argument against Minerva that comes across as pretty funny these days.

And in like manner also they craftily feigned that Minerva was the daughter of Jupiter, not by sexual union, but, knowing that God conceived and made the world by the Word, they say that Minerva is the first conception [ἔννοια]; which we consider to be very absurd, bringing forward the form of the conception in a female shape.

The Greek word there is referring to conception in the sense of “concept,” as in a rational thought, so the absurdity, to Justin, lies in the notion that rational thought could every possibly give birth to a female shape, hur-hur.

Justin then goes back to his main topic, describing how the newly-baptized convert is allowed to participate in the liturgical rites of weekly Christian worship, and how the bread and wine are consecrated and consumed, being, as it were, the body and blood of Jesus (though the way Justin describes it, it’s hard to say whether he means the literal sense or just figuratively).

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

That last remark came as a bit of a surprise to me. I had heard that historians found parallels between Christian communion and some of the rites of Mithras, but I hadn’t realized that the parallels were obvious enough and well-know enough that a Christian like Justin would feel the need to invoke prophecy-savvy demons in order to explain away the connection between the two. Apparently the road from pagan practice to Christian practices was a bit less subtle than I had previously thought.

After describing the weekly liturgy, Justin closes his letter with these words.

And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies.

There’s a bit more after that: a warning that God will judge Caesar whether he believes or not, plus a short letter from Emperor Adrian, declaring that Christians should only be convicted of crimes they actually commit, if any. But the statement above seems like a good place for us to bring this book to a close. Whatever else we might say, we can agree that, in the absence of a reasonable and truthful basis for Christian teachings, the best response is despise them as nonsense, without criminal penalties for those gullible enough to believe them.

6 Responses to “Last rites”

  1. Robert Jase Says:

    “For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness.”

    Who knew Justin was a prophet for Lovecraft?

    Seriously, no wonder the church makes a point of NOT teaching its history.

  2. Alex SL Says:

    You really have to wonder how he could possibly believe that all this would be convincing to a non-Christian.

  3. Alex SL Says:

    Oh, and also: Thanks for doing this, it was very interesting to follow.

  4. Loren Petrich Says:

    Thanx for going into all that detail. It would be interesting to do a then-and-now look. I think that the prophecy-mongering may be similar, though the treatment of pagan-Xian similarities won’t be. I don’t recall seeing him discuss pagan philosophy very much.

    However, in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, he does mention his adventures with pagan philosophers. One of them charged money, another of them de-emphasized God, and yet another of them demanded that he learn the sciences, …

  5. Adam Says:

    Thanks for this extremely enjoyable analysis.

  6. Afzal Says:

    When I read the passage – i thought Justin was trying to prove that it was the son of God, Christ i.e. God the Son the word made flesh speaking to moses- ‘and the prophets’, whom Justin believes is God made man but remaining God. (Jesus in John says you’ve neither heard his voice nor seen him (the Father)). Justin’s thrust all along is to get his Christ God accepted. (in modern terms xtians ofn tell me that it was Christ who went looking for adam n eve after they et the fruit.)

    It’s funny how pop xtians ar virtually markionite ‘God of the OT’ no ta!
    but in the very next breth they’ll say Jesus is God….would that be Yahuwah then..uhmmmm

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