THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: Justinus and Christian heresy

Justinus and Christian heresy

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

In order to confirm this “hunch” I would have to prove that “Justus son of Pistis” was the true historical identity of the otherwise unknown figure of “Justin son of Priscus” outside the writings of the Church Fathers. Justus was a very real person. Not only does Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men) reports that wrote a Commentary on Scripture, the pagan philosopher Diogenes Laertius (ii. 5, § 41) confirms that his knowledge of Greek philosophy was equally well recognized in the age. I believe that “Justin” was only one of “Justus” identities preserved in the religious literature of Palestine. I suspect that he is also the figure called “Justus son of the Master,” rabbi Zadok, Zadok the head of a contemporary sect of Zadokites found in the chroniclers of the Catholic, rabbinic and Samaritan traditions.

I think the place to begin our investigation is where we just left of – viz. a discussion of Justus’ relationship to the Gospel of the Hebrews. The only way to carry this out properly is to take the investigation over to his Catholic namesake “Flavius” Justin. While this “Justin” is an acknowledged early Christian figure a superficial reading of his works makes it seems as if this fellow lived in the Antonine age. His chief surviving work, the Apology testifies from its opening lines that it addressed to the Emperor Antoninus. So why should any one doubt this ascription? His other important text, Dialogue, cannot possibly be dated from this period (as we shall see a little later in this investigation).

So if we leave the question of when “Justin” was active open for a moment we can move on to Justin’s relationship with the Diatessaron for a moment. It was well known in Christian antiquity that Justin’s student Tatian (in Syriac Titian viz. “of” or “belonging to Titus”) held that his master did not use any of our four canonical texts but rather a “super gospel” later identified as “the Diatessaron” by Catholic sources (though Tatian never likely used this term). For some reason which is never complete explained, scholars almost never take Tatian’s claims seriously even though existing citations in Justin’s writings prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that his gospel differed greatly from any of our canonical texts.

One academic who has taken Tatian’s claims seriously in recent years in Boisimard who as we said earlier thinks that a Latin gospel harmony surviving in early English is one and the same with Justin’s Diatessaron. This text called the seems to represent a very ancient tradition, the tradition that is also well attested in other parts of western Europe, as well as in Syria. And this tradition clearly has significant connections with Jewish-Christianity, because this so-called Pepys Gospel does contain numerous Judaizing passages.

So it is that we find that if we trace back “Justin” to a text identified alternatively as the Gospel of the Hebrews or the Diatessaron we necessarily see him brought outside of the canonical quaternion we have grown accustomed to thinking represents the limit of orthodox belief in Christianity. With this understanding we necessarily have to think that it is increasingly likely that this “Justin” held the very heretical ideas and community associated with his pupil Tatian. Tatian is almost always described as an “Encratite” - literally, an "abstainer" or a "person who practised continency" because he refrained from the use of wine, animal food, and marriage. A large body of such “abstainers” existing in the late first and second centuries is mentioned both in the rabbinic and early Patristic writers.

We should see that in the reports of the rabbinic tradition the reason why these abstainers abstain is explicitly connected with the destruction of the Temple. In the Church Fathers they appear as Marcionites who somehow reject Marcion (cf. Irenaeus Haer. I, xxviii; 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Clement of Alexandria Pæd., II, ii, 33; Strom., I, xv; VII, xvii Hippolytus Philos., VIII, xiii but especially Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV, xxix). While Catholic figures take for granted that "after Justin's martyrdom Tatian broke with the Roman church, returned to Syria in 172, and founded the sect of the Encratites, I am not so sure. First of all, there wasn’t much of a Church to break away from. Indeed if there were so many recognized Church Fathers in this age, who were they? Tatian is cited in this period no less than Irenaeus, Polycarp’s devoted student, but beyond that there really isn’t any Catholic Church to speak of.

One could argue from Tatian’s perspective: the main body of the Church were developing away from the original “true tradition” of Justus. Similarly, I have a hard time when the Church Fathers tell us that there were all sorts of idiosyncratic “heresies” who got “obsessed by their own ideas” and founded their own communities. I have to ask: why then do all these individual religious “innovators” look and sound so much like other supposedly unrelated crackpots all across the world? It is not as if all these lunatics were getting just any old idea in their heads. There is an incredible consistency between the community of Marcus and Justus which extends through their later followers which can only be accounted for if the two traditions did not “break away” from our Church but developed from a much earlier relationship between them alone, which we did not know to figure in.

There is no convincing proof for the relative "orthodoxy" of Tatian's teacher "Justin/Justus" other than the assumption of the Church that he "must have been so.” Not only were the practices of the communities of Marcus and Justus the same, but their uni-gospels are similar in general to one another in what they exclude as well as in what they include. Each lacked the kinds of books the other had never heard of, and this means they again agree with each other against our later tradition. Tatian's understanding of a New Testament canon had as its centerpiece one gospel and the same canonical epistles of the apostle but with none of our so-called Pastoral Epistles, no Acts of the Apostles, no other gospels. These, after all, were written by the founder of the new Catholic tradition.

Can we not make a straight line from the earliest orthodoxy of Christianity (Marcionitism) through Justus to Tatian? This is by far the more reasonable solution: to assume that Justus/Justin was of the now-"heretical fold" of Marcion and his student Tatian. To be sure, the communities of Justin and Marcion may have had historical disputes with one another in the same way that arguments exist in any greater family. But no one can seriously argue that Justin was a stalwart of the four separate, orthodox gospels: his countless citations of gospel passages are either conflations of passages from our "four different gospel texts," or quotes from the pior source from which the four were abstracted. Later Church Fathers could transform his words to make him sound Catholic but the truth remains the same nevertheless – he simply wasn’t a member of that orthodoxy!

Tatian's "super-gospel" must have been passed on to him by his master Justin/Justus, just like their shared emphasis on the mysteries of Christ which are like, but superior to, those of the pagan religions. So early a witness as Irenaeus (c. 180 CE.) identifies Tatian's doctrine as springing forth from Marcion. Hippolytus, living in the same Roman community where both Justin (i.e., Flavius Justinius) and Tatian were said to have resided for long periods of time, refers to a heretic who shares his interest in Christianity as a pagan mystery religion.

Hippolytus writes that this “Justin” actually “endeavours to lead on his hearers into an acknowledgment of prodigies detailed by the Gentiles, and of doctrines inculcated by them. And he narrates, word for word, legendary accounts prevalent among the Greeks, and does not previously teach or deliver his perfect mystery, unless he has bound his dupe by an oath. Then he brings forward (these) fables for the purpose of persuasion ... [and] he binds his followers with horrible oaths, neither to publish nor abjure these doctrines, and forces upon them an acknowledgment (of their truth).” This whole report depends on the religious sensibilities of the person writing it. If the person writing it didn’t believe in the “mysteries” he would see the whole effort as little more than a conspiracy to bring Judaism in line with paganism. That is the bias of Hippolytus’ source. That author continues by writing that it is “in this manner he delivers the mysteries impiously discovered by himself, partly, according to the statements previously made, availing himself of the Hellenic legends, and partly of those pretended books which, to some extent, bear a resemblance to the foresaid heresies. For all, forced together by one spirit, are drawn into one profound abyss of pollution, inculcating the same tenets, and detailing the same legends, each after a different method. All those, however, style themselves Gnostics in this peculiar sense, that they alone themselves have imbibed the marvellous knowledge of the Perfect and Good (One).” For those who know anything about Marcion they should immediately recognize that he, too, identifies Jesus as "Chrestos" i.e. the "Perfect or Good" One.

It is not at all crazy to recognize as the true father of Tatian a figure named Justus/Justin who represented the syncretic Hellenistic tendencies in Judaism before the neo-conservative reforms of Antoninius. Tatian repeatedly makes the case to Justin, for instance, in his Exhortation to the Greeks, for his own path. He says he has been convinced that his messianic religion represents a "better" or "more perfect" mystery. He claims that, “having been admitted to the mysteries, and having everywhere examined the religious rites performed by the effeminate and the pathetic,” he finally discovered the “true mysteries” when he encountered Justin and the gospel. Then he writes he “was led to put faith in these by the unpretending ease of the language, the ingenuous character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts.”

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