Who Were the Early Church Fathers?

Christianity began as a cult in the Mediterranean region in c.30CE. Dr Richard Carrier (author of On the Historicity of Jesus) describes the movement as beginning as a breakaway Jewish sect that incorporated elements from the other cultures, namely, the Greeks. To most Christians, the founder of their religion was Jesus, a man from Nazareth, who preached to crowds and individuals. The evolution of Christian faith then continued via many others who shared Christianity with others. There were many people involved in this process, however, some key personalities who stand out. The following is a snapshot of some of the patriarchs who help mould the characteristics of the Christian Church.

Image by Karyna Mykytiuk, Licence – Creative Commons

Valentinus (c.100 – 160) was an Egyptian born philosopher who studied at Alexandria and is known for his gnostic approach to Christianity. He spent several years in Rome where he spread his ideas about Jesus and Mary being symbolic of spiritual forms, not literal people; his ideas were largely based upon Platonic thought. Valentinus was labeled a heretic, however, his gnostic teachings endured through his disciples who formed Christian groups.

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) was born in Rome and raised by pagan parents; prior to converting to Christianity he received training in Stoicism, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies. He rejected most Greek philosophy claiming them to be partial truths, whereas Christianity was the complete truth, which most closely aligned with some of Plato’s ideas. Dialogue with Trypho is Justin’s most renown work, in which he relies heavily upon Jewish scripture in an attempt to demonstrate Christianity is the truest philosophy. (More about Martyr’s explanations of Christianity can be found in: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?)

Irenaeus (c.120/140 – 200/203) was born in Lyon, France. He went on to become the bishop of Lyon and his theological work focused on refuting gnosticism (i.e., that the story of Jesus was purely symbolic), notably in his work titled Adversus Haereses (Against heresies). His work went on to be highly influential at Nicene council discussions that rejected gnosticism.

Origen (c.184 – 253CE) was born into Christian family in Alexandria and his father was prosecuted for his faith which meant Origen was left to support his mother and younger siblings. He followed a Platonic view in which he perceived scripture to be founded upon a threefold nature of humans as body, soul, and spirit. In early Christianity Origen was a leading figure, however, his following the Platonic view of the pre-existence of souls later become a contributing factor to being labelled a heretic. Origen’s devotion to Christ was great, so much so he is believed to have self-castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. 

Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296/7/8 – 373CE) was an Egyptian priest who lived by ascetic values. He objected to Arianism, the belief that God existed before Jesus, which caused great tensions amongst other Christians. He attended the council of Niceane and played a prominent role in establishing what would become an orthodox attitude towards the trinity, the belief that God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus were one and always had been. Isaac Newton was highly of Athanasius and suspected he was responsible for forging scriptures to suit his personal beliefs (see: Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?))

Priscillian (c.335-385CE) was a Roman Christian with strong ascetic values. He became bishop of Ávila (Spain) in 380, however was accused of sorcery in 385 and was executed. Priscillian views were influenced by Gnosticism and Manicheans, and his support of Arianism was looked down upon. Jerome was a harsh critic of his followers, the Priscillianists.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430CE) was born in the Roman province of Thagaste, Africa. Prior to fully embracing Christianity, Augustine spent nine years in a cult known as the Manichees which was established by a (charismatic) leader called Mani who preached doctrines that were an amalgamation of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Manichees beliefs included the notion that if a fig-tree was plucked it would cry tears, but if a Manichee ate the fig then the true God’s essence that was bound within it would be free. Augustine mocks himself for believing such foolish things and his writings express a zealous devotion to Christianity once he converted, however, it is worthy to note that Manichaeism theology has strong views about the world being made up of good and evil; themes that were incorporated into mainstream Christianity.

Augustine was particularly influential in refining Christian theology, which is sometimes perceived as being due to adapting Greek thought to Christian teachings. Ironically, in Augustine’s writings titled The Confessions he reports not enjoying learning Greek writing, reading, arithmetic, and the stories of Homer, but he thoroughly embraced learning Latin. Hence, it may be a case that he harmonised Greek thought through the Latin version thereof.

Augustine is classified as Neoplatonic, being more impartial to Platonic thought, as reflected in his theological belief that men and women were created equal in the eyes of god, inclusive of rational soul qualities. Although, Augustine did not completely dismiss Aristotle, and his alliance with Aristotle on some matters was followed by medieval theologians like Aquinas.

Jerome (347 – 419/420) was born in a Roman province, which is now modern day Croatia. He is best known as the translator of the Bible into Latin. Additionally he translated 14 of Origen’s homilies, made pilgrimages through Palestine and Egypt, and he is credited, like Augustine, with transmuting Greek thought to the west.

Pelagius (c.354 – 418CE) was born in the Roman British Isles and died in Palestine. He was educated in Greek and Latin. He was a theologian who advocated free will and asceticism. Pelagius is also reported to have challenged the idea that a man was to be held responsible for Adam’s sin. His beliefs were at odds with his contemporaries, Augustine and Jerome, both of whom criticised Pelagis. Pelagis gained a substantial following, especially in Carthage, however, he was also accused of heresy.

Conclusion

Looking at the above mentioned individuals, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no “pure” or “true” Christian tradition. The cultures, lived experiences, and educational backgrounds of the Church founders were often at odds with each other. Hence, it was through debates and accusations of heresy that characteristics of the Christian faith emerged. Further, Christianity spread via the assimilation of beliefs, rituals, customs, and symbols from various cultures, existing religions, and philosophies.

References

Alberto Ferreiro. Simon Magus and Priscillian in the ‘Commonitorium’ of Vincent of Lérins. Vigiliae Christianae 1995; 49: 180–188.

Arianism. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Arianism (accessed 10 January 2021).

Augustine (354—430 C.E.). Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/augustin/#:~:text=St.,agnostic%20contributions%20to%20Western%20philosophy.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), https://earlychurch.org.uk/augustine.php (accessed 16 December 2020).

AUGNET : 3113 Augustine and Benedict, http://www.augnet.org/en/order-of-st-augustine/community/3113-augustine-and-benedict/ (accessed 16 December 2020).

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/10/origen-christianity-philosophy (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the Interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Catholic Online. St. Athanasius, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=336 (accessed 10 January 2021).

Dunderberg I. Valentinus/Valentinians. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15256a.htm (2013).

Ferreiro A. Jerome’s polemic against Priscillian in his Letter to Ctesiphon (133, 4). Revue d’Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques 1993; 39: 309–332.

Justin Martyr. Christian History, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/justin-martyr.html (2008, accessed 16 December 2020).

Major literary works. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Jerome (accessed 16 December 2020).

Media F. Saint Irenaeus, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/saint-irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Pelagius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pelagius-Christian-theologian (accessed 16 December 2020).

Ryan JK, Others. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Image, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm (1960).

Saint Irenaeus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

St. Athanasius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius (accessed 10 January 2021).

St. Justin Martyr. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr (accessed 16 December 2020).

Tornau C. Saint Augustine. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/augustine/ (2020).

Valentinus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Valentinus, https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-biographies/valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Werline R. The Transformation of Pauline Arguments in Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’. Harv Theol Rev 1999; 92: 79–93.

Walusinski O, Poirier J, Déchy H. Augustine. Eur Neurol 2013; 69: 226–228.

Call No Man Father: Figurative Speech in Early Christianity

A common objective of destructive cults is to get complete control over devotees by convincing them to break all ties with family and friends. The indoctrination process is often subtle, with victims not realising they’ve been manipulated till it’s too late. From the perspective of a twisted mind, establishing absolute control over others by eliminating opposing opinions is a logical requirement of initiation. Goodbye logic, hello darkness.

In the case of Christian cults, leaders often achieve isolation by quoting scriptures like Matthew 23:9. The phrasing as expressed in the New International Version is a typical translation of the original Hebrew:

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

On face value, it appears cult leaders may have grounds for encouraging the breaking family ties, at least those between children and fathers. However, if the passage is read in the context of the previous verse, it’s not so simple: But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.

Matthew 23:9-10
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
But you are But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Contextually, the two sentences are indicating that no one person should be considered spiritually superior to another, that is, there should be no “Father Rabbis” because everyone is a “brother”. Matthew’s application of figurative speech is relatively easy to recognise; it does not literally mean you cannot call your male parent “father”. I imagine ancient political correctness was the last thing on the scribes’ mind. (There is a trend being explored in contemporary midwifery which stipulates it is more politically correct to refer to a “mother” as “the lactating parent”.)

In ancient Jewish and Roman cultures it was normal to call Rabbis, or any older man, in particular one with a higher status, “Father”. It was both a title and a means of showing respect.

In 2 BCE Emperor Augustus was dubbed “Pater Patriae”, which means the “father of his country” (Pater = Father in Latin). Rome was not without adversaries, hence, it’s probable not everyone felt warm fuzzies towards Augustus as a father figure. For example, the Jews, in accordance with the prophecies outlined in the Torah, wanted and expected ruling rights over much of the land that their Roman father had won claim to. In turn, it seems plausible that some Jewish citizens (Early Christians were Jews) could relate to the sentiment no man should be called father. To take that figurative expression and apply it literally to biological parents defies logic, hence, I suspect that is the reason why the caveat is not mentioned in Matthew’s text. (Perhaps Augustus should have been called the “non-lactating parent of Rome”?)

Imagine if every time someone used figurative speech there was an expectation that they explained their symbolic referencing!? For example, a novel that describes a character as being a night owl (not a real night owl, just someone who stays up late at night, like an owl), or a newspaper article that reports of items falling off the back of the truck (the items didn’t literally fall of the back of a truck, they were stolen like they could have fallen off the back of a truck), or historical accounts of Euclid as the father of geometry (there was no mother geometry that Euclid impregnated, he just fathered ideas that were like babies, not real babies but things that grew into bigger things, like babies grow into bigger people). If all writers had to explain their similes, metaphors, or colloquial expressions there would be no point using expressive language in the first place; furthermore, communication would be pretty boring.

Humans have a flair for being creative with words and our cognitive abilities have developed in a manner that enables us to quickly and efficiently identify homophones and their meanings within given contexts. At least that is the case when interpreting contemporary language in cultural contexts that we are familiar with. But perhaps understanding figurative speech from 2000 years ago is different? Afterall, as an Australian I would never imagine calling our prime minister, Scott Morrison, the father of our country! I can’t envision Americans calling Joe Biden their Father either. Hence, perhaps it is due to the differing cultural standards of how and when the term “father” is used impacts Biblical interpretations? 

To add a bit of a different spin to the issue, when looking up Matthew’s verses, I was intrigued by the Aramaic Bible in Plain English version to Matthew’s sentences which hat reads:

But you shall not be called “Rabbi”, for One is your Rabbi, but you are all brothers.

And you should not call yourselves “Father”, in the earth, for one is your Father who is in Heaven.

The semantics of this phrasing changes the interpretation previously explored that was based on the New International Version (Bible semantics is thing and a half, as I discovered while researching the bow” of the white horseman). Instead of the directive being not to call others “father” (presumably with the caveat of there being an exception if you’re referring to your biological father), the instructions are now not to call oneself a “father” as opposed to calling anyone on earth a “father”. In other words, there are to be no Christian “Rabbis” which can be transferred to meaning Christianity initially condemned all leadership positions within the church. I think I could dig (figurative expression, I don’t literally mean I’d dig a hole in the earth) a Christian theology that genuinely supported no leaders and was based upon every individual having spiritual autonomy and a direct relationship with God, aka, the heavenly Father, the One who is the ultimate Rabbi. Alas, whilst that may have been the impulse of Early Christian communities (and there is evidence to suggest in some instances this was the case), Christianity on the whole did not develop in that direction. Ever since at least the second century there are reports of Christian deacons, priests, and bishops, or in other words, “Fathers” and “Rabbis”. Perhaps cult leaders who want to high-jack religions have always been around?

With Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity came orders to impose structure upon the religion. The structure that was imposed just happened to be consistent with the standards of Roman culture. From the patriarchal hierarchy of bishops through to labelling priests as “father”, Christianity took on a very Roman military-like structure; i.e., it was normal for Roman soldiers to call the leader of their legion “father”.

The Aramaic version emphases the figurative concept of everyone being “brothers”. (I’m deliberately not entering into the whole patriarchal structure of the language and for the sake of simply I’m going with the flow of “brothers” in this context being a gender neutral term; according to Jewish symbology it is acceptable to do so.) The significance of unifying everyone as a brotherhood is as nuanced as the term “father”. 

When using figurative speech, a thing is not identical to the original thing in all contexts. For example, the “father” in Augustus’ Pater Patriae infers control and responsibility, whereas Euclid’s title of “father” implies he metaphorically birthed geometric offsprings, and priestly “fathers” can suggest a nurturing role. Not all associations of the term “father” can aptly be applied to all situations. Likewise, not all associations of “brothers” can be applied to all situations, e.g., loyalty, strong bond, sense of duty, kinsmanship, support, equality, etc., may not all be applicable to Matthew’s usage. (Some could argue that “brothers” implies rivalry, fighting for attention, and other negative traits; hence, the assumption that Matthew meant only positive associations is a cultural bias in itself.) The interpretation of a thing when used in figurative speech is dependent upon both the speakers/writers intentions and the audience’s comprehension; in turn, both are dependent upon cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of the thing. (Humans are a symbolic species, for a background discussion see: The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics).

What then did Matthew mean when he said “you are all brothers”? In the context of the statement being prefaced by “you shall not be called Rabbi”, I suggest the emphasis of “brothers” relates to status, in particular not having a hierarchy in which individuals are judged to be closer or further away from the “One”. (The number One as a reference to God has a long standing tradition within Greek philosophy).

Many Christians over the years have claimed that orthodox and Catholic traditions are flawed interpretations of Jesus’ readings, and the examples of the establishment of priesthood and fathers figures can legitimately be used as proof of this. Ironically, however, cult leaders who skew this scripture to isolate and control others, have a tendency to make themselves father figures, albeit they don’t call themselves by that title. Which is worse, to disobey a literal interpretation of the Bible and have church leaders called father, or to dispense with the title and fulfil the essence of the meaning of the terms. While cult leaders, claim to be “brothers” with their followers, their actions speak louder than words; they call themselves “Rabbi” in the sense that they are self proclaimed leaders, like father figures, to individuals whom they manipulate to break ties with their true families. 

Judaism has an abundance of figurative speech that relates to family terms that, in addition to the ones mentioned here, include husband, wife, daughter, son, etc. Likewise, Christianity, as an Abrahamic religion, continued to use many of these Jewish symbols, plus some were harmonised with Greek symbols (Jesus was for the Jews and Gentiles!), and slowly but surely, uniquely Christian symbols were developed.

Identifying authentic meanings of much of the symbolism used in the Bible is not difficult if one knows where to look for it. The problem is that too many well-intended and open hearted people fall for wolves in sheep’s clothing (figure of speech, not a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a person with wolf-like qualities who, on the inside wants to devour others, but on the outside appears like a sheep who is placid and willing to follow the crowd) who leads them to dangerous pastures due to their self serving interpretations of Bible verses. On that note, it is also worthwhile to consider that perhaps Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be a document that could be used to establish a cult that deconstructed families … 

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub