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Style, Posture and Deportment in the Frame Narrative of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew

Allan Georgia

Maud Gleason has called attention to the role that the subtleties of manner and other seemingly mundane aspects of personal comportment played in the embodied masculinity of the imperial world. She insists that “deportment matters. It is a shorthand that encodes, and replicates, the complex realities of social structure, in a magnificent economy of voice and gesture” (xxiv). Among elite Roman subjects who contributed to sophistic culture and comprised the intellectual landscape of the imperial world, deportment and style became important indicators of one’s cultural legitimacy. But what of those who did not receive instruction in the well-cultivated manners of a sophist? What of those who operated at the margins of sophistic discourse, but who nonetheless vied for the legitimacy that cultured sophistry offered (Cf. Lyman, 36-38)?

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho depicts just such an intersection between sophistic self-styling and the kind of marginal voice that struggled for the legitimacy that sophistic culture granted. In the Dialogue, Justin styles himself in terms of sophistic culture while at the same time endeavoring to distinguish his new faith from those religious groups with which it was most closely linked (Boyarin, 39). I argue that these two aspects of Justin’s text are not at odds with one another. Rather, they are entangled in a composite strategy on the part of Justin to situate his new faith as a legitimate player in sophistic culture that was distinct from and superior to Trypho’s philosophically-tinged Judaism (Horner, 12; Rajak, 61-62).

I substantiate this claim by means of a close reading of the frame narrative that surrounds Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (Chs. 1-9; Cf. Hyldahl and Van Winden), where Justin describes his meeting with Trypho alongside the ocean in an anonymous, Greek port city (Nasrallah, 75-76). Justin subtly indicates his attempt to describe himself as a legitimate intellectual heir to Greek philosophical heritage by specifying the stylized way he (and Trypho, less successfully) comports himself as a confident and self-possessed philosopher. Justin details even the gestures and expressions that accompany the loaded back-and-forth between he and Trypho. For example, on first meeting one another, Justin and Trypho both smirk at one another when they inquire into one another’s philosophical backgrounds. Justin begins by greeting Trypho with a Homeric salutation, but then adds, “I asked with a smile” (οὕτως προσπαίζων αὐτῷ ἔλεγον. [1.3]) Trypho, in turn, when he interrogates Justin about his philosophical education does so “with a subdued smile” (ὃς ἀστεῖον ὑπομειδιάσας. [1.6]) Through a close, intertextual study of what is behind the words προσπαίζω, ὑπομειδιάω, and ἀστεῖος (in both classical and Jewish sources), a sharp-edged subtext to this ostensibly polite narrative comes into focus. 

Attending to these dimensions of Justin’s Dialogue rephrases the way that we may conceptualize Christian and Jewish engagement with Roman intellectual culture in the religious and philosophical marketplace of Eastern cities in the 2nd century CE (Lieu, 136). The competitive synthesis that characterized Roman sophistic culture compelled Christians like Justin to mimic not only macrocosmic elements of Greek culture like the Platonic thinking and vocabulary that was then beginning to come into fashion (Edwards, 18-19; Cf. Van Winden, 45), but also to present himself in the guise of a self-possessed and sophistically-stylized cultural player. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho represents a remarkable case study for the ways in which those who did not occupy the epicenter of Roman intellectual culture could pattern themselves after sophistic culture in order to lay claim to cultural territory that had previously been out of reach (Cf. Nasrallah, 74-75). Moreover, the Dialogue illustrates how this kind of adaptation could serve to legitimate religious programs like Justin’s and entice curious listeners to entertain their claims.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Culture of the Second to Fourth Centuries CE: Christians, Jews, Philosophers, and Sophists

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