Is the Old Testament for Jews or for Christians? Reading Scripture with Justin Martyr

Is the Old Testament for Jews or for Christians? Reading Scripture with Justin Martyr
Justin the Martyr (c. AD 100 - c. AD 165)

You may have heard the classic wedding phrase: “Something old, something new; something borrowed, something blue.” This quaint little proverb brings to mind the life behind and its relationship with the life ahead. The saying is quite relevant when one thinks back to the early Church (setting aside “something blue”), given how the first Christians came to understand and embrace the Hebrew Scriptures as Christian Scripture (thus eventually labelling it ‘Old Testament’ to indicate the significance of its role in relation to the New Testament). Following the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Messiah—the great marriage event between God and humanity—there were now “new” things to consider in relation to “old(er)” established things. Apostles of the Lord such as Matthew, Peter, and Paul, were busy preaching the gospel and teaching, compiling what would soon come to be called the “New” Testament Scriptures. But what about the Scriptures they already had; the Scriptures that would soon come to be known as ‘Old Testament’? Were the Jewish Scriptures—the very texts which prefigured and prophesied the Jewish Messiah—now something to be consigned to the past, i.e., something “old”? Or, if they were kept, would they only be something “borrowed”?

This question was among the first and most fundamental questions the early Church had to answer as Christianity began to blossom: What is the relationship between Jesus, the Church, and “the oracles of God entrusted to the Jews” (St. Paul’s language in Rom 3:2)? The Church in the apostolic era saw the Old Testament’s claims and descriptions fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus. So, the writers of the New Testament frequently refer to the elder testament to preach Christ (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:26-27, 44-45; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 1 Pet 1:10-12 to name a few). This was all the more the case since the Christians of the late first and early second centuries did not have a stabilized New Testament to which they could refer when considering these things. There was no set ‘New Testament theology’ to clarify how one should regard the first sacred Testament. The canon of the New Testament—and in fact the very shape of Christianity itself—was still early in its development. Guided by the promise of the Spirit, the ‘rule of faith’ was still being theologized and “credalized” in the life of the nascent Church.

And so it is to them we turn for help; to the earliest Christians following the age of the Apostles, to learn how the Church would come to embrace the revelation of God in the Old Testament. When we do, we will find one particular man; a layman—perhaps like you and me—but no less a pioneer of Christian thought and a hero to Christian Scripture: Justin the Martyr.

St. Justin Martyr: Philosopher and Theologian

St. Justin was born around the year 100 A.D. near Shechem, Samaria in Palestine. We learn, in his famous Dialogue with Trypho, that Justin—not yet a Christian—attended a series of Greek philosophical schools in his youth. On a pivotal day in his educational journey, he encountered an old man while walking along the seashore. This old man, never identified, proved to Justin how it was impossible for mankind to be satisfied in his pursuit of the divine by his own capabilities. Understandably, this threw Justin into a crisis of soul, as this was the whole purpose of his philosophical studies. The old man proceeded to show Justin how to find the way to God and “true philosophy” by way of the prophets and the fulfillment of their words in Christ.

This propelled Justin toward his conversion and the pursuit of that “true knowledge.” He would go on to found a school in Rome where he initiated students into the noble quest for true philosophy as it is discovered in Christ and a life of virtue. During these years, Justin, still a layman, would write his most famous pieces: his Dialogue and his two Apologies. In them, he explicates the divine project of creation and salvation, which is fulfilled in Jesus, the Logos, i.e., the Word/Reason of God.

Due to his religious pursuits and his growing fame, Justin was martyred in c. 165 A.D. under the reign of Marcus Aurelius.1 Justin was truly a martyr (a Greek term meaning “witness”), both in his life and death. That witness would become a legacy to Christianity, as it is largely thanks to Justin and his writings that the Church has developed her understanding of faith and reason, as well as the fundamental bond between Jesus and the Old Testament.

Justin Martyr and the Christian Claim on the Old Testament

Once while I was working in college ministry, I was on my way to the campus union to meet with a student. While I was walking there, an elderly man approached me with a little green book. He was obviously part of some group as I noticed others doing the same in other areas of the campus. It wasn’t the first time I had seen one of these tiny green books—a pocket sized Bible, containing only the New Testament writings and the Psalms. I must have been feeling extremely cheeky that day, as with a bit of inflated confidence I never broke my stride and, with a bit of a grin, I answered him, “No thanks, I have the full thing.” Obviously, this well-intended man did not know I was a college missionary and that I did in fact have a full Bible in my backpack. Additionally, I don’t believe he was part of any heretical movement to detach the entire Old Testament from its biblical home. But I believe a subtle tragedy is found when we peer deeper into the matter: some Christians today are becoming dangerously more comfortable in leaving the Old Testament behind in favor of the New. According to Justin, however, this is a grave mistake, for as we soon shall see, the Old Testament has just as much to do with Jesus as the New.

Unhealthy skepticism toward the Old Testament is not new to our day and age. It is a problem as old as the Church herself. Some early Christians disregarded the Old Testament entirely, while others fought to adhere strictly to its every letter, including its legal demands. Even among those who agreed that it did belong in the canon of Christian Scripture, there existed vastly different approaches to how it should be read and interpreted. It is well to remember that a vast number of early Christians were Jews themselves, and their becoming Christian was hardly a departure from their Jewish faith. So the fight for ownership of the Old Testament was a muddled battleground between the Jews who accepted Jesus, the Jews who rejected Jesus, and the non-Jews (i.e., the Gentiles) who came to faith in Jesus. Was Jesus in fact the one whom the Old Testament speaks of and anticipates? What are Jewish Christians to do now concerning the Law of Moses? Are they to keep that Law or does that Law mean something else now? What is the relationship between Gentiles and the Old Testament once they have been baptized into the faith community since they were not Jews in the first place? These are all questions that Justin and his contemporaries had to answer, and quickly.

Many, including Justin, attempted to reconcile these issues. Another attempt came from a piece of writing known as The Epistle of Barnabas. The Epistle was written in the early second century, about the same time that Justin was writing his soon-to-be-famous works, and had its own fame in the early Church; even being regarded by some early figures as inspired. It is traditionally held as being written by the same Barnabas who accompanied Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, but that theory is not corroborated by other historical data.

For “Barnabas” (whoever he is), the Old Testament depicts a people (Israel) who were given a covenant which they immediately lost by worshipping the golden calf (cf. Ex 32). Ever since, according to “Barnabas,” they have been cut off from the covenant which now belongs only to Christians. He writes, for example:

[L]et us inquire if the Lord has really given that testament which He swore to the fathers that He would give to the people. He did give it; but they were not worthy to receive it, on account of their sins.2

In this light, Old Testament religious realities such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and the Temple only refer to their fulfillment in Christ and the Church. The literal historical sense, one might say, is completely absorbed by the spiritual sense. In the theology of this epistle, Israelite religious observances are thought to have had no value in themselves and are even to be regarded with some contempt.

Justin, on the other hand, did not seem to reject the value of Old Testament religious practices but instead approached the Old Testament as a multileveled text, preserving its literal integrity yet drawing out new and other meaning(s)—what we now would recognize as the harmony of the literal and spiritual senses of a text. For example, see how Justin reads the account of Noah and the flood in light of Christ:

For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, for ever the first in power. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household.3

Or how Joshua of the Old Testament is now understood as a figure of Jesus:

What I mean is this. Jesus (Joshua), as I have now frequently remarked, who was called Oshea, when he was sent to spy out the land of Canaan, was named by Moses Jesus (Joshua). Why he did this you neither ask, nor are at a loss about it, nor make strict inquiries. Therefore Christ has escaped your notice; and though you read, you understand not; and even now, though you hear that Jesus is our Christ, you consider not that the name was bestowed on Him not purposelessly nor by chance. But you make a theological discussion as to why one ‘α’ was added to Abraham’s first name; and as to why one ‘ρ’ was added to Sarah’s name, you use similar high-sounding disputations. But why do you not similarly investigate the reason why the name of Oshea the son of Nave (Nun), which his father gave him, was changed to Jesus (Joshua)? But since not only was his name altered, but he was also appointed successor to Moses, being the only one of his contemporaries who came out from Egypt, he led the surviving people into the Holy Land; and as he, not Moses, led the people into the Holy Land, and as he distributed it by lot to those who entered along with him, so also Jesus the Christ will turn again the dispersion of the people, and will distribute the good land to each one, though not in the same manner. For the former gave them a temporary inheritance, seeing he was neither Christ who is God, nor the Son of God; but the latter, after the holy resurrection, shall give us the eternal possession. The former, after he had been named Jesus (Joshua), and after he had received strength from His Spirit, caused the sun to stand still. For I have proved that it was Jesus who appeared to and conversed with Moses, and Abraham, and all the other patriarchs without exception, ministering to the will of the Father; who also, I say, came to be born man by the Virgin Mary, and lives forever. For the latter is He after whom and by whom the Father will renew both the heaven and the earth; this is He who shall shine an eternal light in Jerusalem; this is he who is the king of Salem after the order of Melchizedek, and the eternal Priest of the Most High. The former is said to have circumcised the people a second time with knives of stone (which was a sign of this circumcision with which Jesus Christ Himself has circumcised us from the idols made of stone and of other materials), and to have collected together those who were circumcised from the uncircumcision, i.e., from the error of the world, in every place by the knives of stone, to wit, the words of our Lord Jesus. For I have shown that Christ was proclaimed by the prophets in parables a Stone and a Rock. Accordingly the knives of stone we shall take to mean His words, by means of which so many who were in error have been circumcised from uncircumcision with the circumcision of the heart, with which God by Jesus commanded those from that time to be circumcised who derived their circumcision from Abraham, saying that Jesus (Joshua) would circumcise a second time with knives of stone those who entered into that holy land.4

Contrasting the hermeneutics of Barnabas and Justin, Rod Bennet summarizes:

According to Barnabas, the Second Legislation [i.e., the Deuteronomic law] was not only transitory in nature but had never really been intended to be taken literally in the first place. The entire body of Law existed, in his view, not just primarily but almost exclusively as a storehouse of symbols for the Christ to come. Yes, Justin, too, found many types and allegories in the codes and rituals of Israel—yet without denying their primary or literal meaning. To Justin, these things were types as well as laws. Yet for Barnabas, it would appear, the whole history of Hebrew law-keeping amounted to nothing but a gigantic (but nevertheless culpable) misunderstanding.5

Ultimately, Justin’s understanding would prevail and become the orientation for Christian readings of the Old Testament. The Epistle of Barnabas would soon be recognized as not inspired and therefore rejected in the Christian canon. It was Justin’s hermeneutic that the Church would embrace in her life and liturgy. What was seminal in Justin is what the Church would now recognize as a typological reading of the Old Testament, where, in the persons, places, events, and institutions of the Old Testament, Christ is made manifest. This can be seen in the living tradition of the Church today as it is expounded in The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

128 The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly in her Tradition, has illuminated the unity of the divine plan in the two Testaments through typology, which discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son.

129 Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself. Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament. As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.

130 Typology indicates the dynamic movement toward the fulfillment of the divine plan when “God [will] be everything to everyone.” Nor do the calling of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt, for example, lose their own value in God’s plan, from the mere fact that they were intermediate stages.

Justin and Marcion: The Revelation of the One True God in Two Testaments

Another example of Justin’s legacy can be found in comparing his work to that of another early figure, Marcion. Marcion of Pontus (c. 85–c. 164) was a Catholic bishop’s son who by 144 A.D. was excommunicated from the Church. Why? Marcion saw only discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, “Law” and “Gospel” being fiercely opposed to one another. Marcion concluded that the God of the Old Testament was not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that he thought the Old Testament was a work of fiction but that it gave the account of the creator god—a god that was just but was not good. The good news (a.k.a., the gospel), according to Marcion, was that another God, a God of goodness and love, unrelated to this world or its creator (i.e., the God of the OT), sent his son, Jesus, to save us. Therefore, according to Marcion, Jesus saved us from a tainted creation and its god, ushering forth a contempt for the created order and a pursuit of only spiritual goods.

With this understanding, Marcion could not accept the developing New Testament for face value either. Marcion thought that the texts of the New Testament had been “corrupted” by certain Jewish-Christians to make them seem connected to the Old Testament and Israel’s God. His solution was to pare down the canon of Scripture: the Old Testament was completely forsaken and the New Testament was reduced to only the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s thirteen letters. Additionally, both Luke and Paul’s letters were heavily “corrected” by Marcion in order to remove their “corruptions” that had been introduced by the Jewish-Christians.

Before we write off Marcion as a lunatic and look to Justin’s response, a collective self-examination might be worth while. In Marcion’s view, God is good and the world is bad. Plus, it relieves Christians of the difficulties that we sometimes have in making sense of the Old Testament. Would it be too farfetched to say that some, if not many Christians today have at least a little bit of Marcion in us? How often do we still hear about the jealous, angry, legalistic God of the Old Testament “versus” the merciful, loving, forgiving God of the New? This is where we need the heroic and breathtaking input of Justin Martyr.

For Justin, the God of the Old Testament was no different than the God of the New Testament. In both testaments, the same loving and saving God was revealing Himself to mankind and making known His plan of salvation to renew the whole of His creation. In fact, Justin even goes as far to say that it was not merely God the Father revealing Himself in the Old Testament, and God the Son and Spirit in the New—but that the whole biblical revelation of God was in fact Jesus the whole time! Let’s repeat that to be crystal clear, because it’s that important. The God that moves, acts, and speaks in the Old Testament, is not, according to Justin, God the Father, but was in fact always Jesus, the pre-incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. Take, then, for example, how Justin would read the account of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus:

Even now the Jews all teach that the unnamed God himself spoke to Moses. Wherefore the prophetic Spirit said in condemnation of them through Isaiah the above-mentioned prophet, as was quoted before: “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel does not know me and my people does not understand.” Likewise Jesus the Christ, because the Jews did not know what the Father is and what the Son, himself said in condemnation of them: “No one knows the Father except the Son, nor the Son except the Father and those to whom the Son will reveal it.” Now the Word of God is his Son, as I said before. He is also called “Angel” and “Apostle,” for [as Angel] he announces what it is necessary to know, and [as Apostle] is sent forth to testify to what is announced, as our Lord himself said, “He that hears me hears him that sent me.” This can be made clear from the writings of Moses, in which this is to be found: “And the Angel of God spoke to Moses in a flame of fire out of the bush and said, I am he who is, God of Abraham, God is Isaac, God of Jacob, the God of your fathers; go down to Egypt and bring out my people” [Ex 3:14, 15]. Those who wish to can learn what followed from this; for it is not possible to put down everything in these [pages]. But these words were uttered to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Apostle, who was first the Word, and appeared, now in the form of fire, now in the image of the bodiless creatures. Now, however, having become man by the will of God for the sake of the human race, he has endured whatever sufferings the demons managed to have brought upon him by the senseless Jews. For they have clearly said in the writings of Moses, “And the Angel of God spoke to Moses in a flame of fire in the bush and said, I am he who is, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” yet they say that he who said these things was the Father and Fashioner of the universe. Jesus again, as we cited, when he was with them said, “No one knows the Father except the Son, nor the Son except the Father and those to whom the Son may reveal it.” So the Jews, continuing to think that the Father of the universe had spoken to Moses, when it was the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, who spoke to him, were rightly censured both by the prophetic Spirit and by Christ himself, since they knew neither the Father nor the Son….Formerly he appeared in the form of fire and the image of a bodiless being to Moses and the other prophets. But now in the time of your dominion he was, as I have said, made man of a virgin according to the will of the Father for the salvation of those who believe in him, and endured contempt and suffering so that by dying and rising again he might conquer death. What was said out of the bush to Moses, “I am he who is, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob and the God of your fathers,” was an indication that they though dead still existed and were Christ’s own men. For they were the first of all men to devote themselves to seeking after God, Abraham being the father of Isaac, and Isaac of Jacob, as Moses also recorded.6

According to Justin, the New Testament writings and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are intrinsically connected to the writings and revelation of the Old Testament, namely in that they concern the same subject: Jesus. In other words, Justin saw the whole Bible as Christocentric. As Bennet writes concerning Justin’s theology, “The underlying link between the Testaments wasn’t just essential; it was the very thing that made him a Christian to begin with.”7

Reading Scripture Like the Church Fathers

Perhaps reading the Church fathers seems like a daunting task, and rightfully so in some respects. They lived in a world completely different from ours, removed by time and space. Their writings are not as accessible, written in archaic styles and foreign languages. But, if this writing has proven anything, I hope it has shown that in visiting the writings of the fathers, though we may have to dig in the sand a bit, what we find is a pearl of great price. The wisdom of the Church fathers continues to stand as a witness and legacy even today to how the Church lives, shares, and understands Herself. The famous saint and convert, St. John Henry Newman, once wrote:

History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of color rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestant. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this….To be deep in history is to cease to become a Protestant.8

Since the dawn of Christianity, the Church fathers have served as lights along the path for all seekers of truth. They continue to stand as witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Church He established. I consider myself blessed to have seen close friends convert upon discovering the writings of the fathers, Justin included. I know that my life has been and continues to be shaped by the wisdom of the Church fathers. For instance, if it were not for the conversion of Curtis Martin, who was deeply impacted by the fathers,9 he may never have gone on to found the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where I would come to work for a number of formative years during my young adult life. And were it not for the path charted during those years, I would not be sitting where I am today teaching Scripture and writing about heroes like Justin Martyr. I am indebted to him and many others for how they continue to shape my life and the life of the Church.

The contributions of Justin to the way the Church reads the Old Testament are indispensable. Even more, they are in desperate need of revival. Justin found himself in a Roman world; a pagan culture with pagan practices which had little to no knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who would come to manifest Himself in human form and save us from our sinful condition. It was the task of Justin and his Christian companions to preach Christ into a Godless culture and invite a sinful world into repentance and conversion. How did they do this? By preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The early Church didn’t grow by handing out pocket-sized parchments of their theological musings, but rather, like Peter at the first Pentecost, they preached Christ as He was revealed and foretold in the Scriptures of Israel. Perhaps if we, like Peter or Justin, were to embrace this same practice, perhaps we would witness the gospel spread like wildfire. By preaching Christ from the Old Testament, a pagan world once became overtaken by Christianity. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?


  1. Much of this short biography is indebted to and adapted from Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers of the Church: From Clement of Rome to Augustine of Hippo, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 10-13.

  2. Epistle of Barnabas §13, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

  3. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ANF 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 268, cited in Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 138-9.

  4. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho §113,

  5. Rod Bennet, Scripture Wars: How Justin Martyr Rescued the Old Testament for Christians (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2019), 203.

  6. Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin, the Martyr,” in Early Christian Fathers, translated and edited by Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 283-5, emphasis added.

  7. Bennet, Scripture Wars: How Justin Martyr Rescued the Old Testament for Christians, 58.

  8. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 6th edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 7-8.

  9. For his testimony on how the Church fathers influenced his conversion, see Curtis Martin, Made for More (Denver, CO: EPIC Publishing, 2008), 106-109.