Justin Martyr: Laws Concerning Food

I believe that I finally picked a topic, or rather interpreter, for my upcoming term paper in “Pre-Reformation Interpretation of the Old Testament.” Justin Martyr. As many of you know, Justin was an apologist of the Early Church writing around the second century. Justin’s work Dialogue with Trypho is a fictional conversation that takes place between Trypho, a Jew, and Justin. I have only made it into the 20th chapter so far and have observed many things concerning his interpretive practice. For one, he sets the stage for all interpreters after him in defending the Messianic character of Jesus Christ from the Old Testament. Though there are other facets to his interpretive practice, I want to draw from a particular example I found in Chapter 20 of Dialogue with Trypho.

The Greek text reads:

Τῷ γὰρ Νῶε ὅτι συγκεχώρητο ὑπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ, δικαίῳ ὄντι, πᾶν ἔμψυχον ἐσθίειν, πλὴν κρέας ἐν αἵματι, ὅπερ ἐστὶ νεκριμαῖον, διὰ Μωῦσέως ἀνιστορήθη ὑμῖν ἐν τῇ Βίβλῳ τῆς Γενέσεως.

My Translation:

For through Moses it was recorded for you in the book of Genesis that God permitted to Noah, who was a righteous man,  to eat any animated thing, except meat in its blood, which is dead.

LXX of Genesis 9:3-4 reads:

και πᾶν ἐρπετόν, ὅ ἐστιν ζῶν. ὑμῖν ἔσται εἰς βρῶσιν ὡς λάχανα χόρτου δέδωκα ὑμῖν τὰ πάντα. πλὴν κρέας ἐν αἴματι ψυχῆς οὐ φάγεσθε

My Translation:

And every creeping thing, which is alive, it will be for you as food just like the vegetation, I have given to you all things. Except the meat in its blood of life, do not eat.

This particular passage stuck me as interesting because Justin regularly quotes at length from the Torah and Prophets. Why has he chosen only a phrase (four words) from Genesis? Also, notice that the LXX (also the MT) reads ἐρπετόν “creeping thing” instead of Justin’s συγκεχώρητο “animated thing.” This seems to be a strategic move on Justin’s part not to be attributed to simple paraphrasing. Finally, notice the fact that ψυχῆς “of life” has been dropped from the LXX. Why does the reference to Genesis 9:3-4 take this form?

Justin is in the middle of demonstrating that the laws of the Old Testament have been added as a means to punish the Jews. The Patriarchal history is treated as a pristine era in Justin’s mind. Abraham was justified before there was a mention of circumcision. The law was not given from Adam until Moses. Why was the law necessary all of a sudden? Justin notes that the law is delivered to Israel on the heels of her idolatry. Because they ate, drank, and rose up to play during the Golden Calf incident in Exodus, God has given the law as a means to keep Israel away from idolatry. This is not the way it was supposed to be. This is not how the Christian is to live.

After moving through the matters of circumcision and law, Justin now turns to Jewish dietary restrictions. He utilizes the Noah account as ammunition against his interlocutor, Trypho. If Justin can demonstrate that the faithful of God lived without the dietary restrictions before the law is added, then he has added to his overall argument that the law, in toto, is abrogated.

Yet, it would appear that Genesis 9:3-4 could backfire on Justin if he doesn’t tweak it a bit.

First, “Every creeping thing/reptile,” after all, is not the equivalent of “every animate thing.” Trypho could simply object on the grounds that this divine decree does not make all foods permissible.

The law denying consumption of meat with blood in it poses a second problem for Justin. Apparently as early as the 2nd century, the early church no longer abstained from a medium rare steak. Justin interprets this prohibition in light of the Leviticus 22:8, “He shall not eat what dies of itself or is torn by beasts, and so make himself unclean by it: I am the LORD.’” Coupled with this is the omission of the word ψυχῆς “of life.” If Justin’s interpretation that “meat with blood in it” refers to an animal that has died naturally, then he must remove the grounding for the prohibition in Genesis 9:4. Noah was not to eat of meat with its blood because the blood is the life of every creature. Genesis 9:5 says, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.”

Even with Justin’s rather fanciful manipulation of Genesis 9:3-4, it does not seem as if Justin has made his case. If he indeed references Leviticus 22:8 as a more appropriate interpretation of “except the meat in its blood,” then hasn’t he utilized what he seeks to prove obsolete, the Jewish law?

Though it is disheartening to see Justin play fast and loose with the text, it should serve as a warning to all of us who interpret Scripture. Let us not take the easy way out when trying to prove our points. Let us search the Scriptures and handle them rightly.

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5 Responses to Justin Martyr: Laws Concerning Food

  1. Nicholas says:

    “Though it is disheartening to see Justin play fast and loose with the text…”

    Disheartening?! Playing fast and loose with the text is Judeo-Christian tradition!

    • jacobcerone says:

      I understand the sentiment. All too often we hold the bible in high regard, such high regard that we can’t bother to attend to its actual meaning.

      Nevertheless, Justin made it his attempt to offer a distinctly Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. Though he played fast and loose here, that is not characteristic of his approach.

      Adapting a distinct methodological approach, as we all do, works well most of the time. But we do come to passages that confront our approaches. We have the option to scrap the whole approach, or skit the issue. Sadly, we all have our blind spots, some of us have more than others. We need to open ourselves up to criticism in order to eliminate them!

      • Nicholas says:

        I was rather referring to the fact that the New Testament writers themselves, especially St. Paul, often played fast and loose with the Old Testament in order to push a particular angle. Suffering servant/messianic king stuff, mostly.

      • jacobcerone says:

        I’m interested in seeing exactly what you mean by that. I sympathize with the sentiment that N.T. writers, at times, appear to play fast and loose. I am thinking specifically of Paul’s statement about “seed” versus “seeds,” though even this I would argue is a close reading of the Pentateuch even if it seems artificial.

        It seems to me that the connection between Jesus and Suffering Servant is fundamental to the Christian faith. Justin Martyr observes this, as does Paul, and the Gospel writers. They conceived of two comings of Christ: Suffering Servant and Conquering King. Without the Suffering Servant connection with Isaiah, then Jesus is render not much more than a failed eschatological prophet, the modern day equivalent of Harold Camping. But even Jesus recognizes his role as suffering servant.

  2. Nicholas says:

    “It seems to me that the connection between Jesus and Suffering Servant is fundamental to the Christian faith.”

    I agree.

    It would seem that what we see today as taking things wildly out of original context, translation/manuscript picking to find the most agreeable one, and even manipulation of the text itself, was, perhaps, really just the healthy ANE pre-modern relationship to written traditions.

    In other words, dour, unimaginative people are the real vandals to ancient texts, and those who played fast and loose are those who pay the texts proper honor.

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