The God Who Wasn't There: an Analysis

Section 2: Justin Martyr    

 

By: GakuseiDon

Last Updated: Mar 2007


In June 2005, Brian Flemming released a documentary DVD on the Jesus Myth, which is the idea that there is no historical person at the core of Christianity. Flemming proposes that Christ was in fact a being that died and resurrected on a mythical plane, sharing similarities with other saviour godmen of the day, like Mithras, Dionysus and Osiris. 

 

This is Section 2 of my analysis of the information Flemming provides in his documentary. I examine his use of quotes from Justin Martyr, and find that the views attributed to Justin Martyr do not quite have the significance that some Jesus Mythers have assigned to them. I strongly urge anyone interested in this topic to follow up on some of these points for themselves, rather than take my word or Flemming's word for anything. 


 

Section 1: Misinformation: Errors in the movie

 

Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?

2.1 Justin Martyr and the Demons

2.2 Justin's views according to the movie

2.3 'The devil has imitated the prophecy'

2.4 'We propound nothing new or different'

2.5 Conclusion

Section 3: Paul and early Christianity

 

Section 4: Jesus Myth overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 


References

 

When I refer to information in the documentary, I will give a time reference for when that information is presented on the screen in square brackets, e.g. "[10:10]" means "10 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie". All times are approximations. 

 


Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?

 

2.1 Justin Martyr and the Demons

 

Justin Martyr is one of the earliest extant Christian apologists. He wrote around 150-160 CE. He was probably converted to Christianity around 130 CE, and appears to have spent some time studying pagan philosophy before converting. Philosophically trained pagans were converting to Christianity in increasing numbers in the Second Century, bringing philosophical concepts like the Logos into Christianity. Justin was martyred around 165 CE. A good summary of his life can be found here.

 

While Justin was a prolific writer of letters, he is best known for three: the First Apology (addressed to the Emperor of the day); the Second Apology (addressed to the Roman Senate); and a Dialogue with Trypho (a debate between Justin and a Jewish philosopher). 

 

At the time that Justin wrote, Christianity was regarded as a 'pernicious superstition', and it was possible to be arrested for just declaring oneself a Christian. Pagans thought that Christians ate human flesh during secret rites and held orgies with family members. (I cover a few of the charges made against Christianity in the Second Century in an article on the Jesus Myth here.) Justin, like other apologists of that century, wrote letters to the Emperor and the general public to argue against persecution. He argued that Christians were blameless, and that the accusations against them were baseless rumors. In fact, these rumors had a sinister source... demons!

 

In Justin's days, pagans and Christians believed that the world contained thousands of spirits floating in the air around them. 

 

For pagans, these spirits were "daemons", some evil and some good. Daemons were intermediaries between humans on earth and the gods in heaven, and were responsible for many things: blessings and curses, messages from the gods, good weather, bad weather, fertility and so on. Evil spirits encouraged men to evil actions, and good spirits were guardians who protected against misfortunate. 

 

For Christians, these spirits were generally considered to be evil, i.e. "demons". Demons loved to spread malicious gossip and untruths. In his "First Apology" (written to the Emperor of the day), Justin tries to link the persecution of Christians to the persecution suffered by the highly respected philosopher Socrates:

"[the Greeks] called them [i.e. demons] "gods", and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself. And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that "he was introducing new divinities;" and in our case they display a similar activity." 

Justin went on to point out that some of the more horrific myths surrounding Jupiter were also inspired by demons (my emphasis):

"Jupiter himself, the governor and creator of all things, was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions. But, as we said above, wicked devils perpetrated these things." (First Apology)

Imagine someone writing to the Roman Emperor to tell him that the myths he followed were inspired by evil demons! Little wonder that Justin earned his title of "Martyr". Justin "Deathwish" may have been a more appropriate title!

 

However, Justin may not have been as suicidal as it appears. In Flemming's documentary, Robert Price states that the Romans "didn't believe in [the gods] anymore [22:40]", but that isn't quite accurate. Many Romans had a euhemeristic view of their gods. They believed that many gods like Jupiter and Hercules were in fact historical figures around whom legends had developed, though some may have died and become (good) daemons or even ascended to heaven. Christians attacked this view as being unsound, since nothing mortal could become a god. (Christians felt that Christ didn't fall into the category of 'mortal turned god' since Christ was the pre-existent Logos and so had never been a mortal. For more on this topic, see here.). So many Romans may have been sympathetic to the notion that evil daemons had inspired some of the more lurid and vulgar tales about the gods, tales that even the Romans felt embarrassed about. 

 

So: not only were demons responsible for the false charges against Christianity, they were also responsible for spreading untruths about good pagans (like Socrates) and pagan gods (like Jupiter). 

 

Two other charges against Christianity were its "newness" and its "barbarous" nature.

 

New sects were regarded suspiciously by the Romans, so early apologists like Justin tried to stress Christianity's 'antiquity' via its Jewish roots, over a more recent origin. As Karen Armstrong points out in her book "The History of God", the Roman ethos was strictly conservative, and Christians were regarded with contempt as a sect of fanatics who had committed the cardinal sin of breaking with the parent faith [Mandarin Paperback, 1993, p. 108]. Thus we see Justin referring to ancient Hebrew prophets often, even when writing to the Roman Senate and the Roman Emperor. Hebrew writings' long historical roots was known by the Romans, and as Armstrong notes, would have impressed the Romans of that time. (The Emperor Augustus actually prescribed penalties for anyone destroying Hebrew holy books). Thus, in the face of pagan accusations that Christianity was just some weird new sect, Justin made this argument: Christianity (via the writings of the Hebrew prophets) predated Greek philosophy. Thus for Justin, the Greeks actually copied from the Hebrews!

 

Finally, pagans regarded Christians as holding to a barbarous belief not based on any sound philosophy. Justin, trained in pagan philosophy, attempted to counter this criticism by producing apologies that would appeal to philosophically trained pagans. Indeed, he addressed his "First Apology" to the Emperor Titus and "to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher". As Justin points out to his worthy audience: "[r]eason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless".

 

So, some themes that appeared in Justin's apologies:

  1. Christians were blameless and shouldn't be persecuted. They were being defamed by evil men encouraged by demons. These demons were also responsible for untruths about good pagans and pagan gods. 

  2. Christianity was older than Greek religions via its Jewish roots. In fact, the Greeks stole from the Hebrews (Today we have Jesus Mythers - but back then, Justin was a Pagan Myther!)

  3. Christianity was not a mere superstitious belief, but was backed by a sound philosophy. Justin appealed to the Emperor and members of his family as fellow philosophers, using quotes from the Old Testament.

 


 

2.2 Justin's views according to the movie

 

Many people have heard of 'diabolical mimicry', a term often associated with Justin Martyr, though he never used it himself. But, the curious thing is, though many people know that Justin used such an excuse to 'explain away' similarities between Christianity and pagan myths, you rarely see many of the actual parallels specified by Justin in any Jesus Myther books or websites. I'll explain why in the next section. This section looks at how Justin Martyr is used in the documentary.

 

In the documentary, noted scholar Robert Price says, 

"The early Church fathers understood this [parallels] was a problem because they were already getting the same objections from pagans. They said, “What you say that Jesus we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time.” What's the big deal? I mean they didn't believe in them either anymore. And so the Christian apologists the defenders of the faith would say, “Well, yea, but this one is true. And you see Satan counterfeited it in advance because he knew this day would come.” Boy, I'll tell you that tells you two things right there that even they didn't even deny that these other Jesus-like characters were before Jesus or they never would have resorted to something like that: Satan knew it would happen and counterfeit it in advance?" [22:40]

While Price talks, two of Justin's more famous quotes are displayed on the screen (my own emphasis):

When we say that Jesus Christ was produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter."
- Justin Martyr, church father [21:30]

And also:

For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evidence the devil has imitated the prophecy?"
- Justin Martyr, church father. [22:55]

We also see a time-line showing a cute little red devil tripping backwards in time, highlighting Satan's ability to foresee Christ's activities in advance. Flemming himself solemnly announces at the end of Price's "Satan knew it would happen in advance" point:

"In case you wondering, yes, this remains the explanation to this day. Fortunately for Christian leaders, they almost never have to offer it." [23:30]

So, the argument being made in the movie is:

  1. Pagans saw the similarities between Christianity and pagan myths and objected that Christians were copying from the pagans. As Price put it, they were saying something like "What you say that Jesus we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time".

  2. Justin tried to explain away similarities between pagan myths and Christianity by claiming that the devil foresaw Christ and counterfeited them in advance.

  3. Christians nowadays offer the same defense. 

 

The same arguments can be found on a number of Jesus Myth websites (though I'm not aware of anyone stating that Justin's claims remain "the explanation to this day" - I have to wonder where Flemming got that from.) But what does Justin really say, and why does he say it?

 


 

2.3 'The devil has imitated the prophecy'

 

Let's look at one of the quotes that Flemming provides (my emphasis):

For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evidence the devil has imitated the prophecy?"
- Justin Martyr, church father. [22:55]

Notice that Justin says that the devil has "imitated the prophecy". We will look at the actual prophecy in the next section, but for now we can see that Justin doesn't really have the devil looking into the future to copy Christ at all. According to Justin, Greek myths were inspired by the devil from the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets. Justin was playing up two themes here: (1) the Hebrews actually had beliefs that were older than the Romans (via Greek poets); and (2) the devil inspired some of the Greek myths. At the top of this article I mentioned how the Romans would have been impressed by the antiquity of Hebrew writings - Justin was trying to play on that in order to emphasis Christianity's own 'antiquity'.

 

There is more there, though. Flemming has editted the quote to remove the parallels given by Justin. In fact, the full quote shows how Justin Martyr is stretching the parallels in order to convince pagans that parallels existed. This is clearer when we look at the actual quote in full from Justin in Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter LXIX:

For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?

Those who view Flemming's movie come away believing that Justin Martyr is trying to explain away parallels between Christ and the pagan gods. But Justin Martyr is doing the opposite: he is trying to convince the pagans that the parallels existed in the first place. The parallels were so weak that the pagans didn't recognise them. That's why Justin had to plead that "we propound nothing new or different" to the pagans (see 2.4 below)... strange words if he was trying to de-emphasize the parallels.

 

So, Justin had to explain away why the pagans didn't see the parallels. His answer: the devil was using prophecies from the Old Testament, but he got them wrong. As Justin writes: 

And these things were said both among the Greeks and among all nations where they [the demons] heard the prophets foretelling that Christ would specially be believed in; but that in hearing what was said by the prophets they did not accurately understand it, but imitated what was said of our Christ, like men who are in error, we will make plain. [First Apology]

So, Justin was NOT trying to explain away the parallels at all. At a time when Christianity was regarded as a barbarous new religion, Justin was trying to convince the pagans that parallels existed, and that pagan myths were misunderstood copies of stories in Hebrew writings. It was those pesky demons who misunderstood, of course - the same ones who had framed Socrates and created lurid tales about Jupiter.

 

Flemming's tailoring of the quote seems most "fortunate". Where did he get that quote from? As I note in the first Section, the problem is simply that Flemming refuses to provide his sources, and this leads him open to charges of deliberate deception. I urge his supporters to ask Flemming for his sources.

 


 

2.4 'We propound nothing new or different'

 

The other quote from Justin appearing in the movie is this one (my emphasis):

When we say that Jesus Christ was produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter."
- Justin Martyr, church father [21:30]

Here Justin is trying to convince a skeptical pagan audience that there were parallels between pagan myths and the Christ story. It was the pagans who didn't see this, as explained above. However, the parallels that Justin gives aren't between Christianity and pagan ideas, they are between Hebrew writings and pagan myths. But what actual examples did he use? 

 

Let's look at some of the parallels listed in Justin's "First Apology", and see how convincing they sound. These are all taken from Chapters 32 and 33. Notice how Justin is tying back to Hebrew prophecies (my emphasis below):

The prophet Moses, then, Was, as we have already said, older than all writers; and by him, as we have also said before, it was thus predicted: "There shall not fail a prince from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until He come for whom it is reserved; and He shall be the desire of the Gentiles, binding His foal to the vine, washing His robe in the blood of the grape." The devils, accordingly, when they heard these prophetic words, said that Bacchus was the son of Jupiter, and gave out that he was the discoverer of the vine, and they number wine [or, the ass] among his mysteries; and they taught that, having been torn in pieces, he ascended into heaven.

Remember Price's comment about what the pagans were saying: "What you say about Jesus we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time". Well, ironically, Justin is actually saying, "What you say about Bacchus/Dionysus the Hebrews were saying about Jesus all this time". Would a pagan have accepted that similarity as valid, do you think? 

 

Jesus Mythers who use Justin rarely show that Justin is showing the similarities between pagan myths and Hebrew ones. But if there is a similarity between Christianity on the one hand, and the Bacchus myth and Moses passage on the other hand, then the most obvious candidate for copying would have been from the Hebrew writings (Though I suspect that some Jesus Mythers may even claim that Christians copied from both the Moses passage in the Old Testament AND the Bacchus myth).

 

Justin gets into a bit of a tangle with this next parallel, believing the pagans have confused the story of Jesus riding a foal and ascending into heaven to produce the tale of Bellerophon ascending to heaven on a flying horse:

And because in the prophecy of Moses it had not been expressly intimated whether He who was to come was the Son of God, and whether He would, riding on the foal, remain on earth or ascend into heaven, and because the name of "foal" could mean either the foal of an ass or the foal of a horse, they, not knowing whether He who was foretold would bring the foal of an ass or of a horse as the sign of His coming, nor whether He was the Son of God, as we said above, or of man, gave out that Bellerophon, a man born of man, himself ascended to heaven on his horse Pegasus.

Here you can see that Justin is stretching to find the parallel between Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek myth. Another example:

And when they heard it said by the other prophet Isaiah, that He should be born of a virgin, and by His own means ascend into heaven, they pretended that Perseus was spoken of.

This is a closer parallel. There are only one or two gods "born of a virgin" outside of Christ (despite the numerous claims otherwise around the internet). Perseus is one of those. His mother had been locked away since she was a young girl, and Jupiter had come down in a golden shower to impregnate her.

 

Probably Justin's weakest example:

And when they [the demons] knew what was said, as has been cited above, in the prophecies [of the Hebrew prophets] written aforetime, "Strong as a giant to run his course," they said that Hercules was strong, and had journeyed over the whole earth

Again, Justin is stretching to create the parallel. And again, it isn't between Christianity and pagan religion, but between Hebrew writings and pagan religions. 

 

A final example from that chapter:

And when, again, [the demons] learned that it had been foretold that [Christ] should heal every sickness, and raise the dead, they produced Aesculapius.

This at least sounds a closer parallel. Aesculapius was a physician who was killed by a lightening bolt, but was able to ascend to heaven due to his good works.

 

There are other examples that Justin gives, both weak and strong. (The strongest one in my opinion is Justin's comment on Mithras worshippers' rites, see Note 1). Could pagan myths like the stories of Aesculapius and Perseus have influenced Christianity? It is certainly possible. A closer examination of the myths and how they were viewed by the people of the day would be required, which is outside the scope of this article. But if appealing to Justin for support of this idea, two things need to be noted:

  1. Most of Justin's parallels were between pagan myths and Hebrew writings, not pagan myths and Christianity. 

  2. Justin was not trying to explain away the similarities, but to try to convince a disbelieving pagan public that the similarities existed.

 


 

2.5 Conclusion

 

Justin wrote at a time when Christians were being persecuted and Christianity was regarded as a barbarous new sect. Justin attempted to defend Christianity by presenting it as neither 'new' nor barbarous. It is clear that: 

  1. Justin was trying to show parallels between pagan religions and Hebrew writings in order to stress Christian's long historical roots via Judaism.

  2. It was the pagans who didn't see the similarities. Justin wasn't trying to explain away parallels, he was trying to convince pagans that the parallels existed.

  3. Satan didn't anticipate Christianity by looking into the future. He tried to copy from the ancient Hebrew prophets... and misunderstood them.

  4. Although Justin is often quoted to the affect that he saw parallels, the actual parallels themselves are rarely quoted as evidence on Jesus Myth websites. 

 

Finding parallels between two marginal sets of data is not an arduous task. Analyzing the significance of these parallels is a lot more difficult. Close parallels need not be significant; conversely, parallels that aren't so close can be very significant. Using Justin as evidence for copying needs to be done with caution.    

 


 

Note 1:

 

One example that Justin Martyr gives that may be actual evidence for copying regards his comments about Mithras worshippers' rites: [First Apology, Chap 66]:

"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."

Western Mithraism was contemporary to Christianity. While there are many urban myths copied uncritically from website to website regarding Mithras, it is reasonable to suppose some influence from Mithraism in the first few hundred years. However, communal meals and celebratory meals were common themes of the day. "The blood and body" referred to were probably that of a sacrificial bull. Given Justin's habit of exaggerating parallels for apologetic purposes, this parallel should also perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. 

 


 

End of Section 2. 

 

Go to: Section 3: Paul: Paul's Christ and early Christianity

 


 

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