I have previously written many, many words on the subject of Justin Martyr’s diabolical mimicry argument. In recognition that my two previous articles on the topic[i] were very, very long (and hence likely to end up in the “Too long – didn’t read” basket for many people), I thought perhaps it would be helpful for me to put up a short, condensed, point-form article on the topic, minus all the polemic back-and-forth that I did with Albert McIlhenny.
I spent quite some time researching for those articles and I believe I can do a good job of summarizing all the information that anyone should need to know on the topic. Hopefully this article will be more useful (and far more readable than the other two). I will concede that it is a common amateur mistake to make articles (and even books) way too long, and hence unreadable. I have certainly been guilty of this through the learning process.
So, let’s get into it:
– In all three of his (undisputed) surviving works, Justin makes use of an argument in which he claims that the devil attempted to imitate Christ in advance, by reading into prophecies of the coming of Christ as (Christians believe) are found in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).
– Critics of Christianity (particularly mythicists) have cited Justin as showing that early Christians were well aware of the similarities between Jesus and pagan gods, that they were being accused (by pagans and Jews) of copying from pagan gods, and that they had to resort to a ridiculous argument in attempting to respond. Some have gone as far as to quote Justin as saying that Christianity and paganism were in fact the same.
– Some Christian apologists have accused mythicists of misquoting Justin on this issue. Such claims are true in some cases, but not in others. That is, critics of Christianity have at times misquoted or misunderstood Justin. However, there are legitimate ways for mythicists to quote Justin in ways that are certainly embarrassing for orthodox Christianity.
– Justin Martyr did not say that Christianity was the same as paganism. In fact he explicitly argued that Christianity was completely different from paganism. He argued that Christianity was the one true religion, and that paganism was simply the worship of demons, and was hence completely opposite to Christianity.
– Justin Martyr did however concede that Christians and pagans believed many of the same things about their gods.
Now this is the important bit, which shows where Christian apologists have been trying to twist the data to support their contentions:
– In his two Apologies to the Greeks, Justin used the diabolical mimicry argument to attempt to persuade the Romans to cease persecuting Christians. Justin was seeking to justify Christian refusals to worship the pagan gods (and the Emperor) and to explain to the Romans that Christians didn’t merely worship a mere mortal man, a criminal that was crucified. Rather, Justin was attempting to explain to the Romans that Christians believed that Jesus was God Himself, incarnate in the flesh.
– Christian apologists hence argue that Justin was not responding to accusations against Christians that they had copied from pagan gods. Rather, apologists argue that Justin was actually the one trying to convince the Romans of similarities between Jesus and Greek and Roman gods (in order to persuade them to stop persecuting Christians), and that the Romans did not (or had not) seen such similarities themselves.
– Furthermore, Christian apologists point out that many of the parallels that Justin drew were actually quite strained, as if he was trying to make a point that wasn’t actually there. Hence, some apologists may concede that it wasn’t a very good argument by Justin, but not for the same reasons as mythicists claim.
– Hence, Christian apologists argue that mythicists have been misquoting Justin in trying to present his use of the diabolical mimicry argument to support the mythicist case for parallels between Jesus and pagan gods.
Now, the above is the standard, textbook Christian response to this issue, and if you were to rely only on Christian sources this is likely to be all you would hear about it. The problem for orthodox Christianity is that this isn’t a complete and accurate portrayal of the relevant facts.
– In fact Justin Martyr also made use of his diabolical mimicry argument in his Dialogue with Trypho. In this case Justin uses the argument to attempt to counter the accusation that Christians had copied the virgin birth motif from the Greek god Perseus.
Now, as far as I am aware, most scholars believe that Justin wrote his Dialogue with Trypho after writing his apologies to the Greeks. Some apologists might therefore attempt to save the situation by arguing that Justin was therefore adapting an argument that he had originally composed in his Apologies to the purpose of countering the accusations of Trypho. The problem with this is that Justin himself (at the beginning of the Dialogue with Trypho) claims that the conversation between himself and Trypho actually took place shortly after his conversion to Christianity (and thus, before he wrote his Apologies).
Now, it is indeed true that many scholars believe that the Dialogue is merely a literary device for his apologetic work against Judaism (that is, either the conversation between himself and Trypho never took place, or it was largely embellished for the sake of the apologetic work). Nevertheless, we have Justin’s word that he first used the diabolical mimicry argument against Trypho, in attempting to counter the accusation that Christians had plagiarised a pagan god.
It is perhaps then up for debate as to whether mythicists should only quote from the Dialogue in seeking to cite Justin’s diabolical mimicry argument for their case, or whether it is justified to also quote from the Apologies, as Justin’s use of the argument there is put into context by its use in the Dialogue? I personally would argue that the actual content of the relevant passages in his Apologies shows that Justin was there also seeking to counter accusations of plagiarism, as Justin states that the aim of Satan’s mimicry was to attempt to convince people that the things said about Christ “were mere marvellous tales, like those told by the poets”[ii]. Either way, the point is made. Mythicists can indeed cite Justin as showing that Christians were indeed accused of plagiarism by Jews (and later by pagans, as we will see shortly), and Justin did indeed resort to a ridiculous argument in his attempt to counter the accusation.
So, this in itself should settle the score, once and for all. There are however a few more minor details to be aware of.
– Now, we don’t really know what pagans (Romans, Greeks etc.) thought of Christians or their stories about Jesus back in the time of Justin and earlier. That is, not much at all (if anything) really survives. There are of course the brief (and somewhat controversial) references as found in Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, but these are just really references to Christians, with only brief mention of a Jesus who was said to have been crucified in Judea under Pilate. There are no surviving records of pagan responses to Christian claims about the virgin birth, miracles or resurrection and ascension of Christ from the time of Justin or earlier.
There is however the case of the pagan philosopher Celsus and his work “The True Word” (or “True Doctrine”), written approx. 180CE. No copies of this work survive, however we do have access to significant portions of it thanks to the response of Origen approx. 250CE. From what we read in Origen, it seems that Celsus did indeed accuse Christians of plagiarising from pagan gods.
It is here disputable as to whether or not this is valid evidence in supporting the case for pagan parallels, as a very plausible case has been made that Celsus was himself familiar with the work of Justin. Hence, Celsus may have encountered the argument via Justin, in which case he would not be an independent source, but would rather simply be dependent upon what we have already encountered. Nevertheless, this is not concrete, we do not know for certain whether or not Celsus was familiar with Justin’s works and arguments. Likewise, whether or not Celsus had encountered the idea of pagan parallels from Justin, he still clearly found it agreeable, as he considered the evidence to be there.
Hence, I am of the opinion that Celsus is worth quoting on this subject, but that we should not attempt to draw any concrete conclusions from his work. However, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho very clearly makes the case for mythicists to both point out that Christians were indeed accused of plagiarism by Jews, and that Justin did indeed resort to a ridiculous argument in his attempt to respond.
– Regarding the actual parallels claimed by Trypho and the parallels presented by Justin in his Apologies, there are distinct differences in the stronger and weaker examples. It is indeed true that amongst the parallels that Justin drew, some of them were really quite a stretch. However the fact remains that some of the parallels were quite clear, such as in the case of Dionysus. Likewise, the example of Perseus (as given by Trypho) is likewise quite clear.
I would argue that the strained parallels are all generally found when Justin is trying to connect prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures to pagan gods. Hence, this doesn’t weaken the case for parallels between Jesus and pagan gods, but rather simply shows the strained lengths that Justin went to in order to try and counter the fact that the pagan parallels were older than the story of Jesus.
– Regarding the actual diabolical mimicry argument itself, by its very nature it concedes that the pagan examples in the parallels are older. Likewise, it naturally recognises that the obvious conclusion one would draw from this is that it was Christians who had copied pagans, and not the other way around. Hence, it attempts to reverse the natural implication by arguing that Satan had attempted to imitate Christ in advance, by copying from prophetic passages in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Justin’s very words recognise that the natural implications of parallels between Christ and pagan gods would be that people would naturally think that the things said about Christ weren’t literarily true. Hence, Justin’s convoluted argument about the pagan gods being precognitive imitations was a desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion that Christians had indeed plagiarised from pagan gods, and that at least some of the things (if not all) said about Christ were made up.
– Whilst Christian apologists will not go out of their way to tell you about Justin’s use of the diabolical mimicry argument in his Dialogue (and the text which states that this was prior to his Apologies), they still will not accept that this shows that Justin originally conceived the argument in self-defence. I have attempted to engage two Christian apologists in discussion about this previously (J.P. Holding and Albert McIlhenny), and both have attempted to dismiss the passages from Justin’s Dialogue and only make use of the Apologies. Holding responded by stating that I don’t understand Jewish exegesis, whilst McIlhenny argued that Jews naturally created a dichotomy between Jewish and pagan religion (and mythology), and hence as they didn’t consider Christianity to be Jewish, they naturally argued that it was pagan.
Obviously McIlhenny’s point about Jews creating a dichotomy between Jewish and pagan religion is true, and other exclusive faiths (such as orthodox Christianity or Islam) do it too. McIlhenny was however trying to argue that without this exclusive dichotomy, Jews would not have accused Christians of plagiarising pagans. McIlhenny was therefore arguing that the parallels weren’t actually there, but that Trypho (or the Jews being represented by Trypho) had strained in making this argument to match their bias. On this matter McIlhenny was himself straining, in trying to get vital evidence that rebuts his case thrown out on a technicality. Christian apologists are quite fond of the courtroom analogy, and I think it is quite fitting in this case. Christian apologists have attempted here to get damning evidence against their client thrown out of court, after the judge and jury have already seen the evidence. The fact is that we can’t un-see it.
We can speculate about whether or not the Jewish critics in Justin’s time were driven by some particular motivation to argue that Christians had plagiarised from pagans, but the fact remains that Justin attests that they did make the argument, one way or another. Hence, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho absolutely refutes the Christian apologetic case and absolutely makes the critical, mythicist case on this matter. Case closed!
Obviously Christian apologists have lots of other arguments about pagan parallels, that there are no actual sources for the claims of pagan gods being resurrected (false), that there is no evidence that Jews/Christians in Judea had heard of any pagan dying and rising gods (false), that pagans actually copied Christians (false – and everything in this article adds towards that), that the differences outweigh the similarities and hence any apparent similarities are merely superficial (false) etc., all of which I have dealt with before[iii], as have many others.
And that my friends should be all you need to know specifically on this topic. The evidence is clear; the question is simply whether you are open to accepting it.
[i] See the following for my original piece on the topic: https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/the-whole-truth-on-justin-martyrs-diabolical-mimicry-argument/ , and the following for my response to Albert McIlhenny (who had responded to the above piece with a series of short articles): https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/diabolical-mimicry-part-2-response-to-alberts-mcllhenny-back-in-the-ring/.
[ii] Justin Martyr, 1st Apology to the Greeks, Chapter 54.