A poignant difference between humans and other animals is our capacity to learn, moreover, our species evolves through collective education; when one human makes a discovery or invents something new, all humans are propelled into new territory. For example, somewhere in the distant past, a single person observed that seeds made plants grow and from that learning, conceived the idea of collecting seeds so as to control the growth of plants. Thus, agriculture gradually developed as more learning occurred through trial and error. The nomadic lifestyle of human beings decreased simultaneously with humans increased learning about the land, weather patterns, and other agriculture issues (like which Gods or Goddesses one should pray to in order to have successful crops). From the development of agriculture came cities, then, political organisation, and so forth. Nomadic clans in which everyone knew each other and survival was based upon harmonious cooperation, became communities in which social interactions became complicated by issues pertaining to authority. With this diversification, education that was once done within a family, clan, or small community, could be outsourced. To put it crudely, education began as a cult activity then moved on to become a commercial commodity.
In regards to the contemporary western world, Pythagoras’ cult is a significant starting point (it operated in southern Italy, which was then a Greek Provence). Pythagoras lived from about 570-490BCE and, as just about any 14-15 year old who knows how to measure the perimeter of triangles could tell you, he was really good at mathematics. What they probably are not aware of, is that Pythagoras also believed knowledge of numbers could help a person connect with the divine. (Apparently, Pythagoras also believed that eating beans were bad for you because they make you fart, and farting took away the “breath of life”, but that aspect of his teachings have not been maintained in mathematical curriculums.) It is widely recognised that Pythagoras received training in Egyptian cults prior to establishing his own cult and he potentially learnt mathematics off them, however, Egyptian beliefs and practices are still largely an enigma so it is not clear how much was borrowed and how much Pythagoras came up with on his own.
About a hundred or so years later, Plato opened a school called The Academy. The fact that educational institutions are still referred to as academies says volumes about how much Ancient Greek traditions still influence western education.
Plato was somewhat of a perfectionist, which is suiting considering he belongs to the Classical Period (c.510-323) of Greece which is known for striving for Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Wisdom in all realms of life. Like Pythagoras, Plato loved mathematics, although while Pythagoras is renowned for working with two dimensional shapes, Plato is better known for his interest in three dimensional geometry. If some accounts of history are correct (which they may not be) then you could even say he was even a little obsessed with geometry to a point in which a sign over the entrance to The Academy read: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”. What is known for certain is that Plato was fascinated by geometric forms in which all the faces were equal; we call these Platonic solids (see below). Plato also assigned a classic element to each one.
Five Platonic solids: top left to bottom right – tetrahedron (or pyramid; fire), cube (earth), octahedron (water), dodecahedron (unnamed; or Aristotle’s aether), and icosahedron (air).
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Plato’s love of forms extended from the intellectual/mathematical to into the realms of spirit. To Plato, certain types of thinking were a spiritual experience which, with practice, one could connect their individual mind to a universal mind, in Greek this was called the nous (nous in Ancient Greek more-a-less means the same as what it does in contemporary English; see below).
college slang for "intelligence, wit, cleverness, common sense," 1706, from Greek nous, Attic form of noos "mind, intelligence, perception, intellect," which was taken in English in philosophy 1670s as "the perceptive and intelligent faculty."
Source: Etymology online
Plato believed in a spiritual realm of perfect ideas; we now refer to these as the theory of Platonic forms. In theory, Platonic solids are the building building blocks of the spiritual realm and Platonic forms are the building blocks of all the universe. Such ideas have fascinated many philosophers both now and then. After 2500 years of contemplation, Plato’s hypothesis remains a theory that has not been proven, but nor has it been falsified. (Arguably, Jung’s “collective consciousness” is an attempt to prove Plato’s theory of forms correct.)
"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:
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:
Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.
Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:
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:
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.
“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:
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:
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.
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.
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.